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Reviewed by:
  • Víctor Pueyo
Farmer, Julia L. Imperial Tapestries: Narrative Form and the Question of Spanish Habsburg Power, 1530–1647. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2016. 189 pp.

Translatio imperii seems to be back in fashion again. Parallels between the decline of the United States and the decline (and fall) of the Roman Empire have become a common place after the presidential election shocker. Following a period of total indifference towards this matter, liberal America has suddenly come to the realization that the United States is an empire; now, for many, an irreversibly decadent one. It is maybe pointless to note that translation imperii is per se an imperial discursive practice that springs out a variety of more or less stable narratives. Imperial Tapestries is a book about those narratives, or to be more precise, about the narrative form of empire. As Farmer's work both exemplifies and proves, tracing a genealogy of empire (that is, performing a modern translatio imperii) is, paradoxically, the best way to become aware of our own inconspicuous imperial practices. [End Page 714]

To this end, the author focuses on the Spanish Empire of the Habsburgs in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. Farmer takes us on a journey through some of the most important literary texts of both the Spanish and the Italian canons (Ariosto's Orlando Furioso in chapter one, Garcilaso de la Vega's eclogues in chapter two, Jorge de Montemayor's Diana in chapter three, Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote in chapter four, and María de Zayas's novellas in chapter five) to explain not just how imperial narratives work, but also, in a very much Foucauldian twist, how they can subvert themselves. Farmer identifies three different types of narrative devices—interlace, framing, and labyrinth—that tend to represent an imperial political formation within the work itself.

Interlace, the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate narratives, is explored in chapters one and three, first through a reading of Ariosto's Furioso and then as it concerns Cervantes's oeuvre. Its playful behavior is very familiar to every reader of, say, Don Quixote. A story is broken off temporarily to jump to another that may or may not be happening at the same time. The process can replicate itself. Sooner or later, these various strands converge, weaving the tapestry that constitutes the illusion of the early modern textual whole. The same paradox appears here again. If interlace usually works as an instrument for dissociation (the plot may advance mixing up different social tonalities without threatening to violate the laws of decorum inasmuch as these stories are not already interwoven in a single storyline), here it is presented as a tool that allows for the association of two politically irreconcilable realities, which are abruptly and unexpectedly connected. Ariosto associating Charles with Caligorante, the monstrous giant that stands for the Saracen menace in the Furioso, is Farmer's well-argued example for this particular phenomenon.

Framing, or the embedding of one narrative within another, involves on its part a different kind of relation, analyzed in chapters two (with Garcilaso) and five (with María de Zayas). This rhetorical strategy can be said to be the ultimate method of symbolic enclosure, but it also opens up the possibility of posing a productively conflictive, dialectical relationship between the framing narrative and the narrative framed. As Farmer shows, Garcilaso's second eclogue serves perfectly as an example. Albanio's unfair rejection by Camila in the pastoral text negatively mirrors Charles V's contempt towards Garcilaso in its epic counterpart. As the war scenes progress, the good rapport between the Emperor and Garcilaso's companion in their trip to Regensburg, the Duke of Alba, is constantly emphasizing the sort of loving camaraderie that Garcilaso qua Albanio has lost. Thus framing, whose mediating existence is intended to facilitate the praising of the powerful during the Cinquecento, becomes the very condition of possibility of an imperial critique, exactly as the negative of a photograph compares to its print.

Finally, the labyrinth is presented by Farmer as a hybrid form containing elements both of interlace and framing, although most of the times the term is employed to simply designate the inescapable center...


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