- Tongue Ties: Logo-Eroticism in Anglo-Hispanic Literature
In The New York Times Book Review (May 9, 2004), Laura Miller espoused "divorcing" books that didn't hold one's interest. Citing the reading habits [End Page 316] of renowned authors and critics, Miller noted that many only give a book a few pages at most before they decide if they are willing to invest their time in completing it. Life is short. People have extra-literary demands (e.g., laundry, cooking, work, etc.) pressing them, not to mention a plethora of books to choose from. She argues that we needn't feel bad about divorcing a book if it means getting to one that will have a greater impact on our lives. From the opening sentence to the closing line, Gustavo Pérez Firmat's Tongue Ties is a book that never had me second-guessing my nuptial agreements. I was wedded to the book and wanted to devote myself to it. Pérez Firmat's writing style is felicitous, and his close readings sparkle with sensitivity and insight.
In books such as Life on the Hyphen, Bilingual Blues, and Next Year in Cuba, Pérez Firmat has examined the political, social, and personal aspects of Latin American immigrants and Latina/os in the United States. Building on this foundation, he carefully scrutinizes not the cognitive, but the affective, relations one develops to language, what he aptly calls "tongue ties." More specifically, he examines this relationship among a group of bilingual, though not biscriptive, Spanish/English writers to better understand these affective bonds. He considers a rather diverse group that includes George Santayana, Pedro Salinas, Luis Cernuda, Calvert Casey, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, María Luisa Bombal, Sandra Cisneros, Richard Rodriguez, and Judith Ortiz Cofer. While his selections exhibit a geographic and disciplinary heterogeneity, what holds the collection together is that the writers' "careers are shaped, in whole or in part, by a linguistic family romance that pits against each other the competing claims and attractions of Spanish and English. Although for everyone of these writers Spanish is the 'mother' tongue, at some point the intrusion of English reshaped the mother-child dyad into a tense triangle" (5). This triangle entails three responses to bilinigualism—"abandonment or supercession of the mother tongue"; "reinforcement"; or "an anguished alternation between languages" (5).
One might worry that seven chapters analyzing this triangulated response would bog down in tireless repetition, but Pérez Firmat's biographical and literary analyses detail the nuances of the authors' affective responses in so acute a manner that one profits from the cumulative effect of his comparisons and contrasts. Pérez Firmat's keen historical, literary, and linguistic sensibilities consistently reveal fresh approaches to the works of even some of the most well known and carefully studied writers in his project—Santayana and Cabrera Infante. [End Page 317]
A poet and a philosopher, Santanyana, who came to the United States from Spain at the age of eight and wrestled with a linguistic dualism into his early twenties, abandoned Spanish while still embracing Spain. He considered Spanish his "lengua maternal" and English his "idioma" (30), but he believed it impossible for him to master two languages (27), so though it lacked the affective ties he felt to Spanish, English became his instrument of communication. As Pérez Firmat explains, Santayana "never even conquered his hybrid name: 'Santayana' didn't approve of 'George', and 'George' refused to answer to 'Santayana'" (43).
Pedro Salinas and Luis Cernuda, two Spaniards who were driven away from Spain during its Civil War (1936-1939), elected to reinforce their linguistic ties to Spanish. Whereas Santayana sought to escape Spanish in the United States, Salinas "stack[ed] the bookshelves in his [Johns Hopkins] office with Spanish grammars and dictionaries" (53). While his three-year exile in Puerto Rico in the 1940s proved highly productive, Puerto Rican indifference to the Anglicisms creeping into their language dismayed Salinas (49). To him commercialization corrupted both English and Spanish, and Pérez Firmat nicely reads Salinas' loathing of billboards and telegrams as...