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Cervantes, the Novel, and the New World
Cervantes, the Novel, and the New World, by Diana de Armas Wilson; 254 pp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, $74.00.
In Cervantes, the Novel, and the New World, Diana de Armas Wilson describes and analyzes the link between the birth of the New World in European consciousness and the expression of that consciousness in the novels of Cervantes. Those of us whose teaching includes works from both Peninsular and Spanish American literature have long felt the need for a study that goes beyond a cataloging of Cervantes's references to the world beyond Europe, and those Cervantine scholars among us have variously hinted at and side-stepped the fullness of this issue. As it was with those exemplary figures of the age of exploration she examines, it is to Professor de Armas Wilson's great credit that she has risen to the challenge. Her analysis is well-organized, reasoned, thoughtful, and readable.
De Armas Wilson's knowledge of previous and current research in Cervantine studies as well as genre, colonial and postcolonial, and gender studies is impressive. She also admits to participating "in the kinds of critique currently associated with cultural studies, although not without reservations regarding the alleged presentism of that discipline or its tendency to turn primary texts into commodities." I would respond that de Armas Wilson's concerns and techniques in this study are precisely the tools we need to help us define "cultural studies" to our students and to ourselves as scholars of various literatures and cultures.
To begin her study, de Armas Wilson mentions many of Cervantes's literary and personal references to geographies, customs, and other contacts with the [End Page 376] world outside Spain. The first chapter, "The Americanist Cervantes," focuses on that material and includes a brief review of recent research--the latest "grande escrutinario" (Don Quijote, Part I, Chapter VI)--regarding what works might have been in Cervantes's library and/or the texts potentially available to him. Professor de Armas Wilson looks at Cervantes's references and the texts available to him through three lenses: imitation, influence, and intertextuality. She sees these methodologies as interdependent and argues that: "the intertextual practices in this book--based on a revised concept of intertextuality that includes the notion of agency and participates in a historical project--are as American as its central topic." (Finding myself in the process of completing this review on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I can only wonder what texts will not be influenced by the "historical project" of this day.)
In the second chapter, "The Novel about the Novel," de Armas Wilson surveys Cervantes's status in Continental and Anglo-American criticism, reminding her readers of the polemic between scholars of the ancient novel and those who, bent on refusing to accept the Greco-Roman works as novels, designate them "romances." De Armas Wilson's contention that the Persiles is a "long exemplary novel," is convincingly depicted. Her arguments are based on the fact of the fictional time of the Persiles being within fifty years of the time when Cervantes wrote it, "its self-conscious theorizing, its rationalizing of 'miracles,' and its avowed imitation of Heliodorus' Aethiopica." She is not alone in arguing that Heliodorus' novel is the antithesis of a romance of chivalry. On these bases de Armas Wilson speaks not only to those who may not have recognized the importance of the Persiles because it has been called a romance (an often "despised or despicable" genre), but also to those of us who view consideration of the Persiles essential to an understanding of Don Quijote, if not a key to comprehending the major goals of all of Cervantes's works and his expression of the consciousness of his day.
De Armas Wilson continues by arguing for "coevolutionary histories of the novel as alternatives to evolutionary ones." She bases her argument on echoes of widely disseminated accounts of happenings in the New World, (most significantly those of...