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Reviewed by:
  • Cuba and the New Origenismo
  • Esther Whitfield
Buckwalter-Arias, James. Cuba and the New Origenismo. Woodbridge, Eng.: Tamesis, 2010. viii + 206 pp.

James Buckwalter-Arias's Cuba and the New Origenismo is a lucid, finely argued book that brings new depth and perspective to scholarship on post-1989 Cuban [End Page 518] literature. For a period whose cultural production, broadly defined, has been abundantly celebrated in popular and academic venues, this book invokes the distinction of the literary as a category and an aspiration. It reads the reemergence of "Orígenes"—the literary movement that flourished in Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s—in post-1989 writing as a repudiation of the socialist imperatives that in the first decades of the Revolution, as the now standard history tells us, privileged politically committed works. But the "new origenismo" of narrative by Senel Paz, Jesús Díaz, Eliseo Alberto, Leonardo Padura, and Antonio José Ponte is rich with contradictions and unanswered questions, which Buckwalter-Arias elucidates with remarkable rhetorical eloquence and conceptual confidence. Indeed, like the article on "Reinscribing the Aesthetic: Cuban Narrative and Post-Soviet Cultural Politics" that the author published in PMLA in 2005, Cuba and the New Origenismo is notable for the unusual elegance of its writing.

Buckwalter-Arias's critique of 1990s origenismo finds the prerevolutionary movement and its individual writers rehabilitated for what they represent politically—as emblems, that is, for a literature independent of the State—rather than as models of style or form. Novels of the 1990s have far less in common with Lezama's Paradiso, for example, than they do with the more prosaic and historically situated works of socialist realism ostensibly favored by the Revolution. At the same time, the Revolution as a negative force has an importance in 1990s writing that it lacked in the "Orígenes" movement, which was neither clear nor organized in its relationship to Castro's regime and cultural policies, while the object of the origenistas' more cohesive and sustained derision, namely US neocolonialism and "the consumer-driven culture industry" (8), is conspicuously spared censure in their recent revival. This silence connects to a more general failure on the part of Cuban writers post-1989 to acknowledge the material conditions that govern the publication of their work: namely, those of the transatlantic publishing market in which, Buckwalter-Arias proposes with careful nuance, works read as dissident, while "not just commodities" (160), carry a historically determined and economically advantageous appeal. This final argument is both the crux of the book and the basis for its own vision of a "new origenista" literature that would transcend the simple aesthetics versus ideology—or Lezama versus Guevara—binary and enter "the realm of oppositional praxis" (195).

In some ways the first and last chapters, on Paz's "El lobo, el bosque y el hombre uevo" and Ponte's El libro perdido de los origenistas, are the most interesting: the first because it demonstrates where the book's compelling narrative of rediscovery begins, and the last where the new origenismo may lead. In a skillful dialogue with some of the more strident criticisms of Paz's sexual politics, Buckwalter-Arias suggests that his story stands as a final but doomed attempt to reconcile Revolutionary teleology with the notion of transcendence that the origenistas had drawn from the modernists and, in its more redemptive strain, from Catholicism. [End Page 519] Ponte's essay enters the narrative as an exception—inevitably, perhaps, Ponte being so deft a critic that he often seems to anticipate analyses of his work. Buck-walter-Arias, however, draws El libro perdido into a larger interrogation of the origenistas' legacy precisely through the loss that, for Ponte, is at the core of their project: finding in his work a "poetics of history, [a] means for mapping a historico-literary landscape" that "contributes at the very least to the task of conceptualizing the current impasse" (162).

The second, third, and fourth chapters share a driving argument: that "in the years of neoliberal euphoria and socialist disorientation, we encounter … a three-fold phenomenon: the denunciation of the revolutionary political and cultural paradigm; the reassertion of the aesthetic priority or 'literariness...


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