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  • Writing in the Air: Heterogeneity and the Persistence of Oral Tradition in Andean Literatures by Antonio Cornejo Polar
  • John Holmes McDowell
Writing in the Air: Heterogeneity and the Persistence of Oral Tradition in Andean Literatures. Antonio Cornejo Polar . Translated by Lynda J. Jentsch . Durham : Duke University Press , 2013 . Pp. x + 212 . $79.95 (cloth), $22.95 (paper).

Writing in the Air is a translation of the original Spanish work, Escribir en el aire: Ensayo sobre la heterogeneidad socio-cultural en las literaturas andinas, first published in 1994 in Lima, Peru, near the end of the life of its distinguished author, Antonio Cornejo Polar (1936–1997), an influential literary critic who developed a successful academic career in his native Peru and taught as a visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh, University of California, Berkeley, and elsewhere. Duke University Press has now published this outstanding translation by Lynda J. Jentsch, with a foreword by Jean Franco, professor emerita at Columbia University. It is worth stressing at the outset that the translator, working with her team of consultants and assistants, has produced a translated edition that, in spite of the daring complexity of the original prose, reads smoothly and engagingly from beginning to end.

We might think of Cornejo Polar as the heterogeneity sleuth, for this culmination of his life’s work reads as nothing less than a thorough and definitive anatomy of heterogeneity in Latin American, and especially Andean, discourse and worldview. Cornejo Polar traces “the dense heterogeneity of literature” (p. 3) and its “destabilizing hybridity” (p. 4) across an impressive range of communicative forms in the Andes. His geographical focus is on the three Andean nations, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, that have witnessed the encounter, intermingling, and persistence of two cultural systems, the indigenous and the European—the African element, a third root in this region, does not figure in his analysis. Cornejo Polar argues that this core Andean region is remarkable for a copresence of “dissonant, and sometimes incompatible cultural systems” (p. 5), though, at the same time, he claims a wider relevance for his work on the premise that the heterogeneity so prevalent in the Andes is symptomatic of comparable tendencies and trends in many other world regions, both historically and in the present moment.

Writing in the Air is a valuable contribution on a number of counts. For one, it introduces the reader to a rich vein of Latin American theorizing on the topic of national literatures and national identities. Cornejo Polar is a connoisseur of commentaries on these topics produced by Latin American critics during the middle decades of the twentieth century, and the Jentsch team delivers ready access to cited passages in sparkling English translations. It is a treat, in this vein, to be reminded of thinking like that of the Peruvian writer José Carlos Mariátegui (1894–1930), who saw in communal aspects of the Inca Empire a model for an authentic Peruvian socialism. But the real substance of this book’s contribution lies in its elaboration of two essential dimensions of the project—a creative unbounding of the category “literature,” and an expansive treatment of heterogeneity’s discursive dynamics. By extending the reach of the literary to a broad swath of verbal communication, and by fashioning a vocabulary to track the interpenetrating voices in this “literary” output, Cornejo Polar enables us to think carefully about verbal textures, subject positioning, and social identities, in the process asking us to ponder the power of artful language to render, obscure, and at last, imbue with vitality these representations of lived experience.

The three main chapters of this book explore three facets of Andean heterogeneity. Chapter 1, titled “Voice and the Written Word in the Cajamarca ‘Dialogue,’” takes us back to the primordial encounter of the Andes’ parallel cultural systems, the meeting of the Inca Atahuallpa and the Franciscan Father Vicente Valverde in Cajamarca on 16 November 1532. This is the encounter where, allegedly and famously, the friar handed [End Page 401] the Inca a copy of the Bible, and the Inca, failing to hear it speak to him, cast it upon the ground. This event, recorded by eyewitnesses and running as a narrative thread...


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