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Reviewed by:
  • Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris and Edouard Glissant
  • Marc Zimmerman
Barbara J. Webb. Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris and Edouard Glissant. Amherst: The U of Massachussetts P, 1992. 185 pp. No price given.

This study is an excellent example of new Caribbean criticism in which historical questions of oppression and liberation are reconceptualized in function of an emphasis on mythological and aesthetic concerns.

For Webb, all Caribbean writers "must come to terms with the . . . cultural dislocation and fragmentation brought about by . . . European conquest" and subsequent developments. For most of the writers, this has meant an effort to recapture a lost history; and for some of the most creative of them, paradoxically, this has involved resisting the limiting demands of positivist and Eurocentric historicism and realism, through a turn to African and Amerindian, as well as European, mythologizing. Webb takes three major novelists representing the three major language blocs of the Caribbean to show how they draw on myths, legends, folk traditions and patterns to point toward creative possibilities stemming from the past and reaching toward the future.

Webb does not homogenize the three writers in question; she is quite capable of placing eacn of them and their creative projects in relation to their particular cultural, linguistic and political contexts; however, she does find within their works variants of a Vico-style "poetics" of history, in which myth functions as a kind of "historical knowledge" involving inquiry, invention and creative imagination.

Drawing on myth and archetype theories as found in Jung, Eliade, Lévi-Strauss (for example, the notion of bricolage) and the elaborations of thinkers like G. S. Kirk, Daniel-Henri Pageaux and Harry Slochower, Webb surveys the individual routes taken by her three significantly symptomatic novelists in their narrative strategies and above all their use of "folk traditions" as a means of "exploring problems of cultural identity, historical presence and writing," in the overall context of Caribbean postcolonial, modernist and postmodernist concerns, arguing, finally that [End Page 168] "in their representation of Caribbean history, these writers attempt to bridge the gap between experience and meaning by a creative transformation of consciousness" (9).

After a brief introduction, Webb divides her book in three major parts and a conclusion. In Part I, "Myth as a Historical Mode: Lo real maravilloso americano," she explores the use of the term as defined by Stephan Alexis and Carpentier, and as interpreted by Michael Dash and others, showing how the concept involved may figure as on overall Caribbean/ Latin American aesthetic or literary approach able to account for a wide range of cultural and aesthetic practices, including ones as varied and complex as those of Harris and Glissant. Part II, "The Problematic Quest for Origins," explores the El Dorado journey in Los pasos perdidos and The Palace of Pleasure, as a core highlighting the great differences between these polar figures of Caribbean high modernism. Part III. "Myth and History: The Dialectics of Culture," provides a look at carnival and other motifs important to viable narrative syntheses of Caribbean cultural projection. Webb's straightforward conclusion points to how the writers' work on history and myth point toward pan-Caribbean vision and dialogue in recent and future developments.

Webb has a knack for drawing on the major critics of the writers she studies (González Echevarria, Gilkes, Dash) and yet contesting and contradicting their findings in relation to her own orientation. Her treatment of Carpentier's evolving novelistic forms and world views is especially remarkable; her Wilson Harris does at least minimal justice to his great complexity; her Glissant seems worthy of a booklength study of this important, understudied novelist. A more careful exploration of difference instead of similarity between C. L. R. James's French-centered and Carpentier's Afro-Caribbean perspectives of the Haitian Revolution might have been useful, especially in terms of Webb's emphasis on myth. And a more careful exploration of postmodernist and postcolonial dimensions of her subject seemed to have been called for. Where, for example, is Antonio Benítez-Rojas? And where is a stronger feminist dimension? These are limitations which cause the bok to fall short of...


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pp. 168-169
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