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MLN 119.2 (2004) 401-405
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Paul R. Olson. The Great Chiasmus: Word and Flesh in the Novels of Unamuno. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2003. vii + 264 pages.
Paul R. Olson's new book, The Great Chiasmus: Word and Flesh in the Novels of Unamuno, revisits the chiastic structure underlying Miguel de Unamuno's novels and explores its connection to Unamuno's views on the relationship between language and corporeality. Synthezising his earlier articles on the chiastic structure in Unamuno's novels, Olson provides a chronological overview of the development of Unamuno's narrative work, revealing that Unamuno's oeuvre itself unfolds along a chiastic trajectory. As Olson explains in the first lines of his introduction, the chiasmus is a figure in which the order of words in two parallel clauses form an inverted reflection of one another [End Page 401] (1). Although used to describe a grammatical pattern, the term can be applied on a variety of levels to describe the structure of a sentence, a narrative, or, as Olson argues in his book, the lifework of a particular writer. Through his analysis of the chiasmus as it reverberates on varying levels throughout Unamuno's work, Olson elucidates not only Unamuno's use of the chiasmus in narrative, but his work as a whole.
Olson emphasizes the formal symmetry of the chiastic structure and its ability to transform the linearity of language into an "object" or even a "body" (1). Within a narrative, such a form invokes a pattern within the mind of the reader "and suggests a logic and inevitability to the plot" (1); thus, the chiastic structure Olson describes, much like Joseph Frank's idea of "spatial form," creates an effect of temporal dimension.1 The chiasmus, Olson writes, "overcome[es] the pure temporal linearity of language by making it refer back to previous moments in its onward flow" (2). Thus, the temporality of this figure reflects Unamuno's concepts of intrahistoria and contrahistoria as well as his struggle to overcome the duality between linearity and circularity, mind and body. As Olson explains in his introduction, many critics have noted Unamuno's predilection for contradiction, which emerges in the pervasive tension between opposites throughout his writing, whether narrative, poetic, or philosophical. Olson takes these observations further by noting that beneath Unamuno's implementation of the chiasmus one finds the "dichotomy between language and the material reality of flesh and blood" (17); Unamuno appeals to the chiasmus as a means of embodying through form the tensions between language and corporeality that so preoccupy him.
After an introduction in which he provides a useful overview of the critical treatment of the chiastic structure in Unamuno's work, Olson turns to Unamuno's first novel, Paz en la Guerra and the concept of intrahistoria that informs it. In his novel, Unamuno attempts to examine what he sees as the conflict between two different historical forces at work: one external, one internal. Through the term intrahistoria Unamuno means to convey the sense of the inner life of a people, dominated by the cultural continuity of everyday life despite the historical events and upheavals they suffer. In providing the background necessary to understand the novel, Olson explains the context of the Carlist Wars, describing how Unamuno creates a "poetics of intrahistory" (28) by organizing events around a chiastic structure "in which [...] the end reflects the beginning, and beginning and end together serve to frame the middle" (28) so that the entire narrative takes the shape of a chiasmus. As Olson demonstrates, this effect emerges as the narrative shifts focus from perspective to perspective, beginning with Pedro Antonio, then moving onto Ignacio, then to Bilbao as a whole, and then retracing its steps, returning to Ignacio and concluding with Pedro Antonio (29). In this case, Olson argues, the chiastic structure "is particularly effective in implying a conversion of the unidimensional, unidirectional time into a timeless, synoptically viewed [End Page 402] space, turning back of the entire novel upon itself" (29); thus, Olson explains, in shaping his narrative Unamuno conforms temporality...