- Jungle Fever: Exploring Madness and Medicine in Twentieth Century Tropical Narratives by Charlotte Rogers
ecocriticism, madness, medicine, jungle novel, regionalism, Charlotte Rogers, George Handley, Joseph Conrad, Alejo Carpentier, Jose Eustasio Rivera, Andre Malraux
Environmental determinism arose in Latin America particularly during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when positivism was in vogue and when Latin American nations thirsted for their own exceptional claims to rooted identities in native soils. Regionalism's deep ties to place, to geographical and climatic specificity, became the paradoxically modern claim to identity and nationhood. The tropical regions inspired particular fascination because of their radical departure from the environmental norms of European and imperial points of reference. They were the spaces where extravagant and violent nature broke the will of colonialism and where the regionalist novelist could offer diagnosis and, perhaps by implication, a cure for national ills.
Charlotte Rogers's excellent study of tropical narratives is not exclusively focused on Latin America, but its essential import remains within the sphere of Latin American Studies, and more specifically within this particular modern turn toward the land. Its originality lies in its comparativism, drawing on readings of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and André Malraux's The Way of the Kings that are offered as context for understanding the rise and function of discourses about medicine and madness in Latin American novelas de la selva. In addition to individual chapters devoted to these two novels, she also devotes chapters to Jose [End Page 119] Eustasio Rivera's The Vortex, Rómulo Gallegos's Canaima, and Alejo Carpentier's The Lost Steps. In these chapters and in her introduction and conclusion, however, she remains widely comparative, including brief but often insightful readings of such works as Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out, the stories of Horacio Quiroga and Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa's The Storyteller, and W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions. This is a rich and fruitful comparative context, and her readings are consistently well grounded bibliographically and linguistically, offering at times new and insightful understandings of this subgenre of literature that is so important to the history of Latin American literature.
Her argument is that the determinism with which the regional turn began begins to break down particularly as a result of an increased interest in and awareness of mental illness. In other words, where it may have once been believed that the jungle was a geographical space of madness where peoples and cultures could not thrive as they had proved to in the more temperate climates of Europe, for example, this tropically induced mental breakdown begins to be diagnosed as an interior and more transverse form of madness. She explains, "The descent into madness experienced by these characters indicates their twentieth-century creators' disenchantment with narratives of imperial expansion and their ostensible rationality. A deep undercurrent of pessimism runs beneath the surface of these adventure novels. They go far beyond a critique of colonialism: the fates of their protagonists undermine the Cartesian tenets of modern society and question the notion of progress upon which it is founded" (1). In other words, the madness lies within.
I think Rogers's book is important for several reasons. First, it exemplifies the benefits of more broadly comparative studies of Latin American literature. Rather than eroding the claims to Latin American specificity which some erroneously believe is the inevitable outcome of comparative work, the book manages to highlight the specific contributions these novels make to the discourse on Latin America, while also emphasizing their broader literary genealogy and their ambitions to underscore facets of the universal human condition—in this case, a condition of fundamental weakness and instability that should be a cause for more cross-cultural collaboration and solidarity. Specifically, Rogers argues that the difference between the European jungle novels and those of Latin America is that the Latin American protagonists "novelize the struggle between rational and irrational modes of thought rather than containing it within the narration . . . The literary fruit of the protagonists' madness [is that] the earth...