José Luis Venegas' Decolonizing Modernism - James Joyce and the Development of Spanish American Fiction is a concise but eloquent demonstration of the potential of truly non-Eurocentric comparative studies between Latin American and European literatures. Emphasizing the underlying connections between aesthetics, modernity and imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, Venegas avoids the trope of seeing Latin American "New Narrative" as a continuation or reiteration of Anglo-American modernism. For Venegas, irreverence towards Western cultural traditions is the crucial link between Joyce and Borges, Cortázar and other Spanish American writers. Derived from a commentary on Western culture from its periphery rather than its center, this irreverence is a defining trace of what Venegas terms the decolonization of modernism. Decolonizing modernism goes beyond celebrating the advantages of marginality; it involves a historiographical revision of that relationship between Joyce and Spanish American writers in order to build "an ex-centric web of literary relations, a system of communicating vessels that crisscross as they circumnavigate privileged centres" (6). This web of literary relations displays Borges as the writer who epitomizes Latin American irreverence as he "revises, reshapes, and reconceives canonical texts, but ultimately undermines their universal merit and permanence" (54). Likewise, Cortázar occupies a central place as he searches for a literature of exception that is not "circumscribed [End Page 174] within the mainstream of Western tradition" (77) and echoes Joyce's staunch opposition to imperial and nationalistic essentialisms.
The novelty is not the claim that Joyce influenced Spanish American authors, but the frame for this connection, which relies on a clever double maneuver. First, Venegas dislocates Joyce from the center of Anglo-American High-Modernism by criticizing the reception of Joyce's work mostly by Pound and Eliot. Venegas' Joyce is not a modernist; he writes from a postcolonial, explicitly Irish perspective, with a creative aversion to the authority of Western tradition that parallels the struggle for emancipation from England without the nationalist cultural essentialism. This Joyce, who suggests "a conception of literary cosmopolitanism that engages critically with prevailing models of national and global culture" (21), sets the example to Spanish American writers and critics involved in what Venegas defines as de-colonizing projects. Venegas draws a sharp distinction between these writers and critics and other Latin Americans, such as Emir Rodriguez Monegal and Carlos Fuentes, who somehow emulate Eliot and Pound and "ignore Joyce's Irish background to situate him within a purely linguistic realm" (38). Joyce's fruitful impact depends on those Spanish American writers willing to promote an "encounter on the margins" rather than those who see in Joyce's influence the diffusion or repetition of Anglo-American modernism throughout backward peripheries aspiring to modernity.
At the center of Decolonizing Modernism lies the belief in an intimate relationship between literary form and structure and specific history and geography, a relationship that asks for a critical approach that combines the analysis of formal as well as historical aspects. The reasons for avoiding modernism as the common ground of comparison in this book have to do with Venegas' Modernism, characterized by linguistic and structural innovations decidedly confined within Western tradition and self-reflexive "dematerialized abstractions" that "crystallize into stable images" (100). This modernism is, however, contained within specific postulates from Pound and Eliot, and one should bear in mind that Modernist aesthetics range from the Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and various other avant-gardes to Mallarmé, Malevich, Lorca, Svevo, and their political propositions vary widely, from Pound's fascism and Eliot's conservatism to Breton's and Brecht's socialisms and Jarry's iconoclasm. It is not hard, however, to accept the urgent need to decolonize Anglo-American criticism of Anglo-American Modernism, and José Luis Venegas has made an important contribution in this direction with this book. [End Page 175]