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Urban Chronicles in Modern Latin America by Viviane Mahieux (review)

From: Revista de Estudios Hispánicos
Tomo XLVII, Número 2, Junio 2013
pp. 360-362 | 10.1353/rvs.2013.0034

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Mahieux’s book is an excellent example of a fruitful match between literary and cultural studies while approaching a subject predisposed to this type of interdisciplinary framework: the urban chronicle. Other scholars have analyzed this genre within the Latin American literary tradition at the turn of the twentieth century (Ramos, Rotker, González), but none had specifically focused on the avant-garde chronicle of the 1920s with the depth and the breadth of this study. Moreover, one of the appealing features of this book is its comparative scope that includes urban chroniclers from Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico.

The first chapter introduces the main ideas that support Mahieux’s reading of the chronicle which in this study is considered beyond its specificities as a literary genre and as a narrative discourse. Instead, for Mahieux, the urban chronicle is understood as a cultural practice “whose double function encompasses both the writing and the reading of texts” (24). This premise becomes particularly relevant in the discussion of Salvador Novo’s performance as an urban intellectual whose chronicles were defined in part by their reception among local audiences. But what comes to the fore throughout this book is the consideration of the writer of urban chronicles as an accessible intellectual. This concept alludes to chroniclers as a certain type of public persona whose proximity to the urban audiences is built upon a written style characterized by a direct and uncomplicated prose, but also by his/her condition as a ubiquitous figure within the city’s streets and events. In order words, the chronicler represents a sort of organic intellectual in tune with many aspects of the popular culture within urban contexts, and interested in interacting with readers and common occurrences. The avant-garde chronicler of the 1920s is willing to submerge into the rhythm of the modernizing city, depicting and commenting on urban characters and situations representative of the everyday life and mores.

The second chapter, dedicated to Roberto Arlt and his Aguafuertes porteñas, is perhaps the one that demonstrates more effectively the function of the chronicler as an accessible intellectual. I found the reading of Arlt’s texts and attitudes particularly engaging given the many convincing arguments developed in the pages dedicated to discussing sociocultural dynamics in a Buenos Aires most frequently linked to the avant-garde Florida-Boedo’s scenario than to urban popular expressions. Through the discussion of Arlt’s Aguafuertes, Mahieux scours the city following the suggestive itinerary of a common citizen who experiments the streets as spaces for intellectual and aesthetic pursuit.

In contrast to Arlt’s popular disposition, in Salvador Novo’s wanderings through postrevolutionary Mexico City the literary trace is evident, and the act of writing becomes an undeniable performance. Although Novo cultivated his literary persona as a central feature in his self-representations, Mahieux defends how his chronicles were—at the same time—pioneers in their celebration of the urban masses and their consumer culture as the emerging language of the modern city. In addition, the chapter about Cube Bonifant and the “Afterword” dedicated to the death of Carlos Monsiváis reaffirm Mahieux’s interest in the Mexican urban chronicle. Her previous work on Cube Bonifant (Una pequeña Marquesa de Sade: crónicas selectas, 1921–1948), had certainly demonstrated her knowledge of the avant-garde journalism and its intersections with other cultural practices of that period. The chapter dedicated to Alfonsina Storni and Cube Bonifant is placed at the end of the book, although in their journalistic works Mahieux recognizes a “precocious manifestation of the rhetoric of accessibility” (129). The “Appendices” collect sample chronicles by the authors studied in this book. These materials, along with the illustrations of the original pages where some of the texts were published, complement the chapters in an effective way since the genre of the urban chronicle finds much of its personality and impact in its particular textual location. At the same time, this study goes beyond the textual considerations to refer to the specific contexts where these authors produced their works. These urban contexts— represented in this study by Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Mexico City, were experiencing rapid changes due to modernization forces in the 1920s...



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