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The Americas 61.2 (2004) 325-327

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The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City: Latin America in the Cold War. By Jean Franco. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. Pp. viii, 341. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $55.00 cloth; $22.95 paper.

This most eloquent and meticulously researched work by Jean Franco charts the war on values in Latin America during the Cold War and reveals how this clash anticipated cultural and political transformations of globalization. The political and cultural maps of the "lettered city"—a term coined by critic Angel Rama and which Franco uses here to refer to the influential role of the Latin American intellectual during the Cold War—were deeply intertwined. Franco begins her book with the "Competing Universals" that set the stage for a cultural clash between those who advocated artistic freedom (and U.S. cultural interventions often presented a defense of freedom against censorship) and those who defended a Soviet-style "pragmatic realism" based on class struggle. As the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in a covert battle to influence cultural values, literature reflected these competing political agendas, presenting alternative realities that challenged limits, posited utopias and plotted their demise.

Franco's first chapter exposes the cultural politics of the "Good Neighbor Policy" coordinated by Nelson Rockefeller and the Office of Hemispheric Affairs, which sponsored the production and distribution of cultural materials, from newsreels to journalistic essays, to promote the Allied cause. Franco also traces the covert CIA sponsorship of culture, as in the case of the journal Cuadernos por la libertad de la cultura, which provided Latin American authors with an international reading public, at times censoring the very figures it had recruited to the cause of freedom. Following the Cuban revolution, an anti-imperialist mode set the terms for cultural production. Chapter 2 studies those Latin American intellectuals who were [End Page 325] recruited by the communist party and at times censored or punished by its officials. Significant generational tensions mounted as a result. In Mexico, young artists challenged the legacy of "monumentalism" in mural art, challenging the privileged pedagogical role of the artist. The aura of the poet came to an end with Pablo Neruda, whose Canto general evoked the emotions of the masses in their struggle for a communist utopia. Turning to the nostalgic visions of "Liberated Territories" in Chapter 3, Franco reflects on the dynamics of cultural struggles against imperialism following the Cuban revolution, which seemed "dominated by recycled male intellectuals" (p. 89) who prioritized warfare over literature and barred women and homosexuals from participation in the cultural field.

The second section, "Peripheral Fantasies," establishes new contexts for the Latin American writing of the 1960s and early 1970s. In Chapter 4, Franco discusses the power of the cadaver and its link to the "rapidly disappearing past" (p. 129) of the anti-state. In Chapter 5, Franco demonstrates how, in the fiction of this period, progress itself seems "spectral, an unsustainable illusion that cannot even inspire belief" (p. 9). Because the Cold War ultimately excluded Latin America from the realm of the universal, authors would turn to magical realism to call into question European cultural hegemony, the subject of Chapter 6. While the popular roots of magical realism may have posited communitarian utopias, subsequent appropriations marketed by the publishing industry and New Age spirituality merely conveyed "the individualistic ideology of advanced capitalism" (p. 173).

The third section, "A Cultural Revolution," argues that "free" markets and not armed struggle ultimately transformed the face of Latin American culture. Mourning the abandoned lettered city, Franco reflects painfully on the rapid growth, destruction and renovation, utopias and shattered dreams revealed in the urban landscape. The horrors of the dirty wars against communism also left deep scars on intellectual life. In Chapter 7, Franco ironically characterizes neoliberalism as the "cultural revolution" that forever altered the intellectual's role in society. Evaluating Diamela Eltit's experimental writing and Carlos Monsiváis's urban chronicles, Franco finds the contemporary intellectual grappling with the "uncertainty of memory" (p. 190) and the dynamics...


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