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Ecological Imaginations in Latin American Fiction by Laura Barbas-Rhoden (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 70, Number 3, January 2014
pp. 566-568 | 10.1353/tam.2014.0015

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Among several recent collections of essays and single-author books with ecocritical analyses of Spanish- and Portuguese-language texts, Laura Barbas-Rhoden’s study of several recent works of fiction by Latin American authors who employ the “ecological imagination” represents an important entry in the catalogue of regionally focused eco-criticism. Barbas-Rhoden identifies several unique elements of ecocritical approaches to Latin American literature, but the most effective contribution is her extensive attention to historical contexts and her intended goal of providing a “broad sweep of environmental history as apprehended through fiction” (p. 2). The analysis achieves this aim through the consideration of novels set in three distinct regions of Latin America: extreme southern Argentina (Tierra del Fuego by Sylvia Iparraguirre, Un piano en Bahía desolación by Libertad Demitrópulos, and Fuegia by Eduardo Belgrano Rawson); the Amazon (Mad María by Márcio Souza, Fordilandia by Eduardo Sguiglia, and Un viejo que leía novelas de amor by Luis Sepúlveda); and Central America (Murámonos Federico by Joaquín Gutiérrez, Calypso by Tatiana Lobo, La loca de Gandoca by Anacristina Rossi, ¿En quién piensas cuando haces el amor? by Homero Aridjis, and Waslala by Gioconda Belli).

For each chapter, Barbas-Rhoden provides an excellent contextualization of the novels with respect to historical, social, and economic factors, for example, British neocolonialism, land-use politics, the development of export-led economies in the region, and subsequent environmental alterations within the landscapes where the novels are set. For example, the section on Rossi’s novel exhaustively documents the roles played by various interested parties that either contested or welcomed the construction of an eco-tourist resort in the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Reserve in Costa Rica. These include a Canadian investor (Maurice Strong), national and local politicians, and the Kèköldi people and other residents of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. Barbas-Rhoden also manages geographical and economic concepts effectively to construct a multilayered environmental history for the three regions represented in the literary texts she has selected for analysis.

But the attention that Barbas-Rhoden devotes to historical contexts also represents something of a minor problem for the book. The title makes reference to “ecological imaginations,” but I found the ecocriticism somewhat lacking. The explicit environmentalism in Aridjis, Belli, and Rossi must force an ecocritical reading and Barbas-Rhoden indeed employs that approach (especially, eco-feminism) in the sections dedicated to those novels. Yet, she writes that the most important element in Mad María “is the criticism of modernization born of collaborations between American investors and Latin American politicians” (p. 68). Sometimes a critic may allow readers to infer the connection between his or her analysis and whatever the principal approach may be within a monograph, especially if that approach is named in the title. But in this case, the idea of an “ecological imagination” does not make an appearance in the analysis of Souza’s novel. On the contrary, Barbas-Rhoden claims that the Brazilian author does not employ “ecocentric depictions” and that “contemporary environmental rhetoric does not color his portrayal of the Amazon” (p. 70). Later, she mentions that in both Mad Maria and Sguiglia’s Fordilandia the “best practices for the future of human and non-human nature are not clear, and neither is the ecocritical message” (pp. 97–98). Throughout most of her book the focus is on various social and political concerns, but connections specific to ecological issues are not fully pursued. On one occasion in the analysis of the novel by Demitrópulos, there is reference to “a pressing question about the nature of civilization and barbarism” but the answer is not forthcoming, only the observation that it “bears further analysis from an ecocritical perspective” (p. 47). My concern is that in a book whose title centers on “ecological imaginations” such analysis should be the central focus, not something that bears further consideration elsewhere.

Even so, Barbas-Rhoden’s work on the whole is really very good and I think its only fault is more a matter of the misleading title than of poor quality. If the book had come with a different name—perhaps “Critical Imaginations in...

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