- Mexico’s Ruins: Juan García Ponce and the Writing of Modernity
The Mexican writer Juan García Ponce’s (1932–2003) output was prodigious and covered many areas, including fiction, poetry, art and literary criticism. He introduced to several generations of Latin American readers figures from European Modernism like Robert Musil, the painter Balthus, and his brother the novelist Pierre Klossowski, through critical appreciations, translations, and [End Page 433] by incorporating them into his own fiction. He elevated in Latin America the status of erotic literature, a genre before him rarely practiced, or at least practiced well. This distinguished career prompted the right-of-center Mexican critic Christopher Domínguez Michael to write in his obituary that García Ponce commands an almost unique devotion among Mexican writers. “Tyrians and Trojans, intellectuals and painters of different artistic and political stripes, the holders of sharply opposed personalities: we all tend to call a truce of admiration before García Ponce” (Letras Libres, Feb 2004: 74, my translation). This fairly sums up the esteem in which García Ponce is held in most circles: in hushed reverence, and above most conflicts. Yet despite the almost universal fondness for García Ponce, he is not often anthologized, or taught, in the United States; when he is recognized he is often cast as a period piece, worthy of note because of his context more than his work. Perhaps this oversight is due to his association with the “mid-century” generation which featured showier figures than himself—Carlos Fuentes, Elena Poniatowska, Vicente Leñero; or perhaps it is due to his later association with the Europhile “Escritura” camp which was often contrasted with the more fashionable pop- and youth-culture “Onda” generation of the 1960s. Whatever the reasons, any critical attention paid to this writer is welcome, and fills an unfortunate vacuum.
Raúl Rodríguez-Hernández’s Mexico’s Ruins offers an ambitious, and unprecedented, approach to García Ponce’s novels. It is heavily reliant on Benjaminian terminology and imagery (for instance drawing a parallel between the famous statue of the “Angel de la Reforma” located in downtown Mexico DF and the Benjaminian Angelus novus); it takes pains to locate within its subject matter Benjamin’s notions of history, his fascination with public spaces and monuments, and his dismay at modernity’s effect on collective psyches and on esthetics.
In its introductory chapter, the book posits broad questions about the place of modernity in the post-revolutionary Mexican condition. Its recurring trope, as its title suggests, is ruination: as a spatial and architectural element, as a paradoxical process associated with the (non) modernity of a third world-country, but also as a deliberate gesture. Departing from a García Ponce essay on “lo nuevo y lo viejo,” Rodríguez-Hernández speculates about the presence of ruins in Mexico city, noting that “the gratuitous appearance of old and new pretending to be innovative, whether on the façade of a building or on the feet of an adolescent, does more than create an avant-garde; it points out incongruities but it also calls the attention of all spectators to the consumption of this image” (23). Modernity, in this estimation, is at once a “pathology” and a “celebration” (24).
The second chapter, “The Storyteller’s Ruins,” concerns the structure of narratives as necessarily fragmented, including the official narratives of national identity which change every six years with new presidents, but maintain a constant appearance. Chapters 3–6 offer a reading of a “tryptich” of García Ponce’s erotic novels, Crónica de una intervención (1982), De anima (1984) and [End Page 434] Inmaculada o los placeres de la inocencia (1989), respectively. The text grouping plays on the notion of the trypich itself, appropriately likening the three novels to a visual art form, the retablo or altarpiece genre of Hispanic art.
Relying on the Benjaminian scaffolding, Rodríguez-Hernández notes that in several of these novels there...