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Julio Ortega's latest contribution to the study of the new Spanish-American narrative is, above all, not new. Poetics of Change should be regarded more as a translation and amplification of an old book than as a new one. It incorporates as five of its chapters nearly all of La contemplación y la fiesta (1968). One chapter of the older book, the one on Vargas Llosa's Los cachorros, is the only section besides the Introduction not present in the reincarnation. New material on Borges (especially "The Aleph"), Cortázar (Hopscotch), Lezama Lima (Paradiso), García Márquez (The Autumn of the Patriarch), Carpentier (Explosion in a Cathedral), Sarduy (From Cuba with a Song), and short notes on José Emilio Pacheco (Morirás lejos) and José María Arguedas (El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo), as well as two short introductory essays, round out the new volume.
The main idea of Poetics of Change is essentially the same as that of La contemplación y la fiesta: that the "newness" of contemporary Spanish-American narrative consists in its critical, self-conscious language, involving a retreat from representation. Ortega's essay on Borges' "The Aleph" defines this new stance toward literature most clearly by analyzing the contrasting views of the narrator and of the character Carlos Argentino Daneri. According to Ortega, Carlos Argentino represents "old" views of literature, "a literary opinion, a style of writing we can call duplicative of reality in literature, in other words, reality enters the text with no modification other than its tedious and grotesque repetition in language." The narrator, on the other hand, represents the aesthetics of the "new narrative," involving "the search for another language, the metalanguage of literature, which begins in its criticism and culminates in its myth."
At their best, Ortega's analyses are both learned and intelligent. "Rereading Paradiso" exemplifies this. Here Ortega demonstrates that Lezama Lima's "entire [End Page 775] novel becomes the debate and discovery of a means leading to the finding and formulation of a conception of reality based on poetry." He skillfully unfolds metaphorically isomorphic layers in the novel, including sickness and death, family relationships, traditional Christian symbols, games, sexuality, and poetry. He says that ultimately poetry is "the configurating order that harmonizes reality" in the work and that "language is essentially the central character of the novel."
In spite of the undeniable acuity of several of Ortega's essays, there is a tendency toward diffusion and excessive abstraction. The book could have been helped by a larger dose of supporting evidence from the texts analyzed. Ortega occasionally becomes so abstruse as to be practically unintelligible. The book is irregular, presenting essays of diverse lengths and levels of sophistication. Some pieces are "research papers," with ample documentation, while others seem almost entirely impressionistic. Unfortunately, the book will have its appeal more because of Ortega's reputation than because of content. La contemplación y la fiesta was an important pioneering work. The resurgence of an amplified version of the same, fifteen years later, raises the question of how long discourse about the new Spanish-American narrative can avoid being old hat.
Because it has a well-defined scope, The Craft of an Absolute Winner is the best conceived of the three books. Maria Luisa Nunes proposes to analyze the craft of characterization in the master Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis. She does this through "narratology," which in her practice is mainly conventional critical acumen and common sense.
Except for the first chapter, the book discusses characterization in the later works. Two principal "lenses" that allow Nunes...