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CR: The New Centennial Review 5.3 (2005) 233-254

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Tones of Catastrophe

Modern Nation-Building and Latin America

Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant
The Catastrophe of Modernity: Tragedy and the Nation in Latin American Literature. Patrick Dove. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2004
The disaster, unexperienced. It is what escapes the very possibility of experience—it is the limit of writing.
Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of Disaster

Perhaps the dilemma that many Latin Americans now face in the era of transition can be best summed up by Martín Hopenhayn's question in No Apocalypse, No Integration: Modernism and Postmodernism in Latin America: "What is, or should be, the narrative of a generation that lived the experience of the military coup in Chile or Argentina during adolescence, or that lived through unrest in the university, and now, with democracy restored, doesn't identity itself with the party system of political practice?" [End Page 233] (Hopenhayn 2001, 53).1 In his essay about the years stretching from the optimistic moment of May 1968 in Paris to the end of the dictatorship in Chile in 1988, Hopenhayn questions what possibilities are left for those who have grown up through multiple transitions and who have seen their utopian space turned into dystopian dust that has been sprinkled across their country like so many moments in history. Although some argue that we are already in the moment of the transition after transition in some parts of Latin America, there is a certain unsettled atmosphere in nations that continue to grapple with understanding their own past. For these reasons we must ask, along with Hopenhayn, what do Latin Americans do who don't identify with any politics or history? How might they integrate into their own society? More important, how might they reconcile with this turbulent history and write narratives that convey feelings of anxiety and dislocation?

I begin with Hopenhayn to open a dialogue regarding the possibilities for writing about the relation between disaster and nation-building in Latin America. Whether the object of study is Chile, Argentina, or elsewhere in the region, Latin Americans continue to struggle with how to create narratives that account for a particular experience. Yet if, as Blanchot remarks, disaster is the limit of writing, then there must be new approaches to conceptualize the task of writing and literature in relation to the on-going struggle to construct postmodern conceptions of nation and society.

This crisis of the nation-state and nation-building in Latin America, and how to narrate this crisis, are addressed in Patrick Dove's first book, The Catastrophe of Modernity: Tragedy and the Nation in Latin American Literature (2004). Through an unconventional approach, a mixture of philosophic and theoretical readings of the concept of tragedy in concert with twentieth-century literature, Dove, a professor of Latin American literature at Indiana University, closely examines four diverse Latin American authors—Jorge Luis Borges, Ricardo Piglia, Juan Rulfo, and César Vallejo—in their respective national traditions (Argentina, Mexico, and Peru) as they struggle to represent nation-building in Latin America.

An ambitious undertaking that combines philosophy, literature, trauma theory, and cultural studies, one of the challenges for Dove is to better recognize the events that led to the development of modernity and the [End Page 234] nation-state in Latin America and the crisis of catastrophe as a site of mourning produced by the subsequent struggle to break from modernity. Perhaps in part to justify another text about catastrophe and the limits of language in Latin American literature, Dove remarks that although recent Latin American cultural studies "[have] contributed significantly to our understanding of how literature participates in the consolidation of the modern nation-state by acting as a pedagogical device, helping to secure consensus for the economic, political and military projects associated with nation-building," the inquiry has not ended (Dove 2004, 11).

His book, Dove argues, takes a slightly different approach than most because it begins with the premise that nation and modernity are "marked in advance" by an idea...


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