The End of the World as They Knew It: Writing Experience of the Argentine South (review)
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Reviewed by
Eva-Lynn Alicia Jagoe. The End of the World as They Knew It: Writing Experience of the Argentine South. Bucknell University Press. 2008. 233. US$53.50

Professor Jagoe begins her book the way I wanted to begin this review: with a series of quotations drawn from writers of various generations and nationalities that signal how the 'South' has been a peculiarly Argentine obsession for at least two centuries. She also points out that no one agrees on exactly what the South comprises. Victoria Ocampo's famous journal Sur suggested it included all of Latin America. Borges's story 'El Sur' claims that the South begins on the other side of Avenida Rivadavia, which splits Buenos Aires's northern and southern sections. Jagoe cites a tourist brochure that even includes Mendoza in the South, although the Andean city lies west and somewhat north of Buenos Aires. The South, then, rather than a literal place, is more a state of mind, a topic in the Argentine imaginary, an idea of uncertain boundaries that changes over time. Jagoe's goal, then, is to explicate how key writers, scientists, and thinkers describe the South and in so doing create an image of themselves and the generational concerns they represent. [End Page 368]

Jagoe's selection of writers offers few surprises. For her first chapter she chooses Francis Bond Head's Rough Notes Taken during Some Rapid Journeys across the Pampas and among the Andes and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's enduring Facundo. Subsequent chapters examine Lucio V. Mansilla's Una excursión a los indios ranqueles along with writings by Francisco P. Moreno, Charles Darwin, William Henry Hudson, Jorge Luis Borges, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, Ricardo Piglia, and César Aira. With the possible exceptions of Moreno and Aira, these are much-studied writers - which gives Jagoe the difficult task of saying something new.

She attains this goal through reading the connections between writers as much as the writers themselves. She shows impressive awareness of previous scholarship relevant to her subject but takes pains to show how her readings diverge from those of scholars like Mary Louise Pratt, Jean Franco, Francine Massiello, and Julio Ramos - to name only a few. Still, her primary achievement lies in her comparisons, in showing, for example, how Sarmiento read Bond, and how Sarmiento himself is an inescapable presence in virtually everything later writers have said about the South.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with revisiting much-studied writers like Sarmiento, Mansilla and Martínez Estrada, Jagoe's strongest sections are those devoted to Francisco P. Moreno and César Aira. A scientist of note, Moreno founded the Museo de La Plata, an imposing natural science museum that houses many of the dinosaur skeletons and other prehistoric objects Moreno himself discovered and assembled. While Charles Darwin is never far from Moreno's considerations of the South, Jagoe emphasizes his ethnographic concerns regarding indigenous populations of his own time and shows relatively little interest in his work as a paleontologist. This choice underlies her preferred definition of the South, which has more to do with subaltern peoples than with geographical spaces and material science. While not discounting Moreno's scientific concerns, she emphasizes his desire to offer a servicio a la patria by contributing to a national narrative to undergird a new and modern Argentina.

César Aira offers a more difficult challenge, since this astonishingly prolific author of some seventy novels (with still more on the way) defies neat connections like those linking Sarmiento to Bond. Jagoe nonetheless finds in Aira, as well as in Piglia, images of the South that borrow obliquely but significantly from writers studied earlier in the book, Borges in particular.

In sum, this is an important book on an important subject. While Jagoe occasionally strays into comments on contemporary politics - for example, the pingüino presidencies of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, both from Argentina's far southern province of Santa Cruz - her concerns are primarily literary. Throughout she proves herself to be an insightful and thorough scholar. [End Page 369]

Nicholas Shumway

Nicolas Shumway, Rice University

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