- Transatlantic Topographies: Islands, Highlands, Jungles
The book's subtitle refers to the Caribbean islands, the Guatemalan highlands, and the Amazon jungle, which form the topographies studied in this latest volume in the University of Minnesota's Cultural Studies of the Americas series. In each case two chapters look respectively at early narratives and a later (nineteenth- or twentieth-century) period. The Caribbean has a very brief third chapter which adds little of substance. The topographical focus and comparative methodology are both welcome, and the book takes its place alongside Mimi Sheller's Consuming the Caribbean (2003) and Lúcia Sá's Rain Forest Literatures (2004) which cover similar ground as, respectively, Parts 1 and 3 here.
The guiding themes of Transatlantic Topographies are the way in which European writers have represented these American spaces, and the way in which the resulting discourses—geographical, commercial, aesthetic—have foundered on the presence of subaltern populations, indigenous and African. While not comprehensive, the three topographies certainly offer a wide range of materials, and Rodríguez moves comfortably across work written in Spanish, Portuguese, and English. Part 1 is organised around a contrast between "Paradise," the guiding trope in Columbus's writing about the Caribbean, and "Inferno," the dominant view of the West Indies at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century due to the extent of soil deterioration. The contrast is perhaps rather overdrawn and ignores the variety of discourses active in the Caribbean at that period across a number of topographies. Rodríguez chooses to focus on two British writers, R. R. Madden and Matthew Lewis, who were writing about the British islands, principally Jamaica. Nonetheless, the readings are lively and original, well sustained by the thesis that irony is the rhetorical weapon used against local cultures by these metropolitan critics.
In Part 2 the colonial readings of the Guatemalan highlands are interestingly set against the indigenous topographic tradition which they both draw on and contest. Pedro de Alvarado and Francisco Antonio Fuentes y Guzmán are the key writers here, working to construct ideal landscapes—in terms of aesthetics, governance, and commerce—which always work with the simultaneous agenda of demeaning the contemporary Amerindian populations. Ephraim Squier's 1858 The States of Central America then provides the nineteenth-century positivist counterpart, very much written with a view to the development of U.S. interests throughout the area. The key term for the final chapters, on Amazonia, is jungle, which Rodríguez suggests has been explicitly thematized as what is beyond discursive grasp. She has interesting things to say about the different linguistic ranges of the English terms jungle, forest, and wilderness as opposed to the Spanish manigua and selva, although the argument might have been strengthened by recognition that "jungle" is itself an imperial borrowing from India, which does not appear to have been applied to American environments until well into the nineteenth century. The final chapter [End Page 676] analyzes novels set in the Amazon by Mario Vargas Llosa, Alejo Carpentier, and Wilson Harris.
Unfortunately, the author has been badly served by her publisher. There are too many minor mistakes which should have been corrected by a copy-editor: Bryan Edwards is incorrectly given as joint author of a History of Jamaica; a ghost anthropologist called David Tedlock appears in the Introduction, although all other references in the book are to Dennis; Alfred Crosby's Ecological Imperialism is twice wrongly described as "his book on the Canary Islands"; Wilson Harris's Guyana Quartet is weirdly described as "a group of three novels." In addition, the book's index is deeply incompetent: every single town name referred to in the book is referenced, with variant spellings getting their own entry, but no countries; Hudson, W.H., has a different entry from Hudson tout court, as does Lewis, Matthew Gregory, from Lewis, Monk, presumably because the indexer could not be bothered to check whether the same person was being referred to.