- Unraveling the Real. The Fantastic in Spanish American Ficciones
In the field of literary criticism, some books show the results of highly original research and usually posit an innovative way of looking at literary texts while others survey a particular field and, even though they seldom offer new insights on the topic, nevertheless make a contribution by engaging or re-engaging texts and issues. Cynthia Duncan’s Unraveling the Real. The Fantastic in Spanish American Ficciones falls into the second category. The volume casts a wide net, with an introductory chapter that tries to tackle the nature of the fantastic, and sections on Modernismo, metafiction, history, psychoanalysis, the Gothic romance, women writers and cinema, all in relation to the fantastic.
Duncan recognizes that the fantastic is difficult to “pin down” (2), and her first chapter, while taking great care into making no definite claims, illustrates her entire approach: She discusses the proximity of the fantastic to magical realism and lo real maravilloso; declares that at times she will refer to the fantastic as a genre and at other times as a narrative mode; surveys both European and American theorists of the fantastic (Caillois, Sartre, Todorov, Jackson, Ostrowski?) and some contributions of Hispanic writers and critics. She especially values Barrenechea’s response to the Todorovian model, in which the Argentine critic emphasizes the fantastic as a socially relevant discourse, a position shared by Duncan. But, besides some important omissions (e.g. the book Teorías de lo fantástico, Campra’s work, Alazraki’s ideas on the neo-fantastic in Latin American literature), at issue here is the inconclusiveness of method; moreover, at times the arguments tend towards a positivist, “evolutionary” reading tendency without a unifying model for analysis. Duncan is more at home when performing close readings of the corpus selected.
In the first chapter, Duncan rightly points to the fantastic within the Modernismo movement as a force that deconstructs positivistic faith in science and progress. Darío, Lugones and Quiroga (a dubious choice as a Modernista) serve as examples of one of Duncan’s claims: the importance of the way the tale is told for the fantastic effect on the reader. Therefore, “the modernist fantastic short story is one of the first narrative forms that calls attention to the gaps in the text and to the ambiguity of the relationships between words and the objects and experiences they represent” (74). For chapter two, she focuses on the auto-referential quality of some fantastic texts, a trait identified by Borges himself on his essays on the topic. Stories from the author of “The Aleph,” together with texts from Cortázar and Pacheco, are examined here, given their inclination to privilege the deconstruction of the act of reading and writing. Based on the sine qua non presence of hesitation and the supernatural which for Duncan epitomizes the fantastic, her arguing for “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote” as belonging to this mode is unconvincing, but her analyses of “Continuity of the Parks” and “La fiesta brava” fare better. In chapter three, Duncan explores the fantastic linked to historical discourse in tales by [End Page 135] Cortázar, Garro, Fuentes and Borges (three of the four texts reflect upon Mexican history). Duncan sees the fantastic as an adept vehicle for exploring national and personal identity and, even though some of her conclusions offer platitudes such as “[h]istory is not a fixed entity; it’s multilayered and polysemic” (130), she does provide detailed readings of the stories connected through the concept of eternity.
The following three chapters chart a more original map of the Latin American fantastic. Duncan adopts a psychoanalytic frame to interpret stories by Silvina Ocampo, Bioy Casares and, once again, Cortázar. According to her, these texts stage the appearance of the Other via a male narrator and, in the process, question the sense of identity of the subject and propose an equivalence between fantastic discourse and unconscious Desire. The next chapter examines the influence of the Gothic in two novellas by Bombal and Fuentes, linked to female...