- Nature, Neo-Colonialism, and the Spanish American Regional Writers
Jennifer L. French boldly destabilizes the coordinates of standing historiographical assumptions regarding post-Independence Latin America in her literary analysis of Horacio Quiroga (his Misiones stories), Benito Lynch (El inglés de los güesos), and José Eustacio Rivera (La vorágine). These three case studies unfold on the foundation of a provocative claim: that Britain—and not the U.S.—constituted the more pervasive neo-colonialist presence in Latin America from the latter part of Spanish colonialism through the aftermath of the First World War. French argues that British economic incursions into Latin America during this time coalesced into an "Invisible Empire" whose informal nature has almost completely obscured from view the analogies of experience between Latin America and the formal British colonies of India and Africa. French maintains that British neo-colonialism effectively raised a creole phoenix from the Spanish colonial infrastructure, turning the post-Independence Latin American elite into middle-men who exercised an "internal colonialism" over local resources of nature and labor in capitulation to the extractive demands for beef, wool, timber, coffee, and rubber of the British market.
Although the matter of neo-colonialism is almost completely elided in post-Independence Latin American cultural discourse, French finds its symbolic discussion in the literary treatment of nature. Taking an early cue from Mary Louise Pratt's reading of the canonical agrarian idyll as an oppositional and implicitly critical portrait of metropolitan capitalism in nineteenth-century Latin America, French proceeds by means of a methodological "fusion of Marxism and environmental approaches" (p. 159) to interpret the early-twentieth-century regional novel's obsession with land as a reflection of the profoundly land-based, neo-colonial material reality. In rich and sustained comparison with British colonial literature (Kipling, Conrad, scientific travel writing), French makes her focal point of interrogation the manner in which each of her authors—from the creole elite, to be sure—situates himself with respect to the double fact of a first-order external British neo-colonialism and a second-order internal creole complicity.
In her analyses, however, French gives only cursory consideration to their internal colonialist tendencies, finally resolving relevant and significant textual ambiguities in the opposite direction: Quiroga is "fully antihegemonic" (p. 69), Lynch "transcends the old colonial class system by reconciling laborers and landowners in [End Page 462] opposition to the neo-colonial invasion" (p. 107), and Rivera makes it possible to "reimagine a radically new, non-exploitative relationship among land, labor, and the Colombian state" (p. 153). For French, these authors are "environmentalists avant la letter" whose critique of the double neo-colonial bind yields the literary representation of "anticolonial and very often anticapitalist politics" (p. 158). French would have these regional novelists be ecological activists in the contemporary spirit of "green" anti-globalization ideals, when the texts she reads also conceivably afford the more conservative interpretation of an elitist paternalism desirous of shaking off the British yoke—and rhetorically condemning any complicit internal colonialism in the process—in order to foster a "good" and autonomous creole dominion over the contested land.
If the post-Independence Spanish American literary preoccupation with nature is understood as a two-pronged rhetorical trope accomplishing the critique of British neo-colonialism (as French suggests) and the simultaneous legitimation of a "good" internal colonialism that protects both the class privilege and the moral authority of the creole elite (a possibility that French briefly considers but ultimately eschews) then such persistent—and stubbornly enigmatic—disciplinary topoi as the post-Independence creole elite's ambivalence toward modernization and its nostalgia for the Spanish colonial order are greatly illuminated. But even this question of the extent to which the post-Independence creole elite is reactionary or revolutionary does not compromise the fundamental importance of French's study: her neo-colonial diagnosis of the regionally fractured landscape helps to explain the chronic elusiveness of the Pan-American political dream, just as it makes a powerful...