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MLN 116.2 (2001) 455-457
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The Untimely Present:
Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction and the Task of Mourning
Idelber Avelar. The Untimely Present: Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction and the Task of Mourning. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999. 293 pp.
In The Untimely Present: Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction and the Task of Mourning, Idelber Avelar conjugates an impeccably researched and wide-ranging historical sensibility with a philosophically engaged approach to literary texts produced in the aftermath of the recent dictatorships in the Southern Cone of Latin America. Drawing on a range of thinkers including Nietzsche, Freud, Plato, Benjamin and Derrida, Avelar analyzes the fictions of such challenging novelists as Argentines Ricardo Piglia and Tununa Mercado, Brazilians Silviano Santiago and João Gilberto Noll, and Chilean Diamela Eltit. The result is a stimulating, subtly argued study that not only assesses the task of mourning undertaken in the literary texts by these authors, but that also interrogates assumptions about Latin American literary history and provides an original account of the cultural history of dictatorship.
To manage these multiple tasks, the book is divided into an introduction, two chapters on the cultural and historical framework, and six additional chapters focused on the individual authors from the postdictatorial period. Rather than limit his focus to the period of the dictatorships themselves, Avelar examines a wide scope of cultural and historical developments in the region, stretching back to before the military regimes came to power. His contention is that the dictatorships should be viewed not as aberrations or traumatic interludes in an otherwise "democratic" tradition, but rather "as ushers of an epochal transition form State to Market, [that] represented the crisis of a specific form of cultural politics proper to the boom of Latin American literature in the 1960s" (11). The imposed forgetfulness, the erasure of the past widely associated with these regimes, was thus not only a result of a desire to cover over the crimes of the violent dictatorship, but also a result of the commodification of the marketplace, where everything is ultimately doomed to obsolescence. Concerned with mourning and searching for some form of restitution for the obliterated past, the literary texts Avelar selects, in his view, "insistently confront the ruins left by the dictatorships and extract from them a strongly allegorical meaning" (2). The thrust of Avelar's book ultimately becomes an attempt, on the one hand, to determine the function of the literary at a historical juncture where literature's role is in decline and, on the other, to decipher how postdictatorial literature engages and inscribes the past.
One of Avelar's prime concerns is with the allegorical element operant in these fictions. While his claim that in the Southern Cone cultural context "the whole complex that links allegory to memory, experience, and writing qua inscription is still virtually unthought" (9) is perhaps debatable, his own contribution to an understanding of allegory in postdictatorship is nonetheless decisive. Drawing on Benjamin's theory of allegory, Avelar convincingly [End Page 455] argues that allegory in the narratives from this period is directly related to the task of mourning such texts are compelled to undertake. For Avelar, the necessary remembering of the horrific and obliterated past causes these fictions to read their surroundings as allegorical ruin, and in turn to erect a memorializing, "allegorical crypt" in their effort to mourn the catastrophe at hand. This essential link between mourning and allegory is what allows Avelar to understand the special role of allegory in the aftermath of the dictatorships as something other than merely an "indirect" or "metaphoric" way of telling an otherwise representable story. In his view, allegory does not surge in times of political turmoil as a method of eluding censorship; rather "allegory is the aesthetic face of political defeat . . . because the petrified images of ruins, in their immanence, bear the only possibility of narrating the defeat" (69).
Perhaps the most stimulating and widely applicable chapter is the first, where Avelar provides an original rereading of the boom, going against the grain of celebratory or...