restricted access Ambiguity and Gender in the New Novel of Brazil and Spanish America: A Comparative Assessment (review)
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Reviewed by
Judith A. Payne and Earl E. Fitz. Ambiguity and Gender in the New Novel of Brazil and Spanish America: A Comparative Assessment. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1993. 255 pp. $29.95.

In this comparative analysis, Payne and Fitz prove to be authentic Latin Americanists. Such integrated studies of Brazilian and Spanish American literature are far too scarce in the profession. Their book is exemplary in its conception, which treats gender as a measure for assessing the development of contemporary fiction in the two literatures. The authors find in Jung's theory of individuation a useful model for identifying stages of artistic evolution. Just as individuals achieve psychic fulfillment by coming to terms with the sexual otherness in their own personalities, the literary expression of an entire culture progresses by developing an authentic appreciation for gender difference. Since gender may have formal implications in writing, sexual liberation carries with it new freedoms in domains such as literary structure and style. The term "ambiguity," as used by the authors, refers to various means of weakening time honored categories, stereotypes and definitions (in gender as well as other areas) and assumes a positive value.

Having established this ambiguity as a yardstick of literary sophistication, the authors unabashedly declare that Brazilian fiction is the more advanced of the two traditions: "one can say that three features distinguish the Brazilian new novel from its better-known Spanish American cousin: several of its leading practitioners are women; it features a distinctly poststructuralist sense of language and being; and it breaks new ground in its handling of gender, narrative voice, and characterization" (186).

The authors identify three main stages in the process of fictional evolution, dedicating a chapter to each: the (traditional gender) border maintained, the border challenged, and the border crossed. In the first case, the authors discuss two monuments of the Spanish American boom, Vargas Llosa's La ciudad y los perros and Carlos Fuentes' La muerte de Artemio Cruz to show how works may open new vistas in literary technique, but maintain "strict boundaries between the masculine and the feminine" (34). Guimarães Rosa's Grande sertão: veredas and Garcia Mãrquez's Cien años de soledad are seen as examples for the second phase, where characters are allowed a degree of ambivalence about gender, but do not successfully break away from traditional roles. Fitz and Payne discuss Clarice Lispector's Perto do coração selvagem and Agua viva and Osman Lins's Avalovara as texts were the border is crossed, where characters not only perceive ambiguities regarding gender but are allowed to free themselves from restrictive patterns of behavior. They relate this ideological liberation to the stylistic and structural openness of the texts.

The authors deserve praise for the polemical boldness their assertions. While such general statements may always be faulted for not considering certain texts, the book's main point seems valid and well supported. One relevant methodological question involves the corpus of evidence used. [End Page 388] Surely both cultures have many female writers, and explore sexual roles to some degree. Payne and Fitz make no claim to have conducted an exhaustive study of Brazilian or Spanish American fiction. Their decision to confine their attention to canonical texts is justifiable, for as they point out, the canon reveals the literary personality of a culture just as an individual's preferred readings reveals his or her ideological bent. A degree of responsibility, then, is given to the readers as well as the writers.

It is here that I feel the authors might have gone a bit further. Their model of gender-sensitivity is insistently tied to the attitudes and behavior of characters. According to them, works are "open" to the extent that they portray the questioning of characters about sexual roles, and their ability to transfer that ambiguity into action. This openness on the part of characters, however, may put the reader in a relatively passive and confined position, where practical codes are merely received instead of imaginatively elaborated. Could it not be argued that the closed-mindedness of an Artemio Cruz, a Pedro Páramo or a Paulo Honório combined with...