- Pragmatic Passions: Melodrama and Latin American Social Narrative by Matthew Bush
In Pragmatic Passions, Melodrama and Latin American Social Narrative, Matthew Bush seeks to vindicate melodrama as the object of serious scholarly inquiry in the context of Latin Americanist criticism. Bush does not situate his study of the melodramatic mode in Latin American narrative where one might expect—telenovelas and other such instances of low mass-media popular cultural production—but rather anchors it firmly within the domain of high literature that indisputably forms part of the Latin American literary canon, corresponding, moreover, not to the nineteenth-century sentimentality, but to the masculinist modernism of the first half of the twentieth century. Indeed, Bush presents five engaging case studies of melodrama that treat, respectively, the regional novel, indigenismo, the Argentine Vanguard, Brazilian modernism, and the Boom, thus giving a sweeping and representative reconstruction of the established topography of early-to-mid-twentieth-century Latin American novelistic narrative, but surveying it through the uncommon interpretive optic of melodramatic analysis. [End Page 738]
In framing his study, Bush draws productive parallels within Hispanist criticism between his work and that of Doris Sommer (nineteenth-century Latin American romance), Annabel Martín (melodrama under Franco), and Aníbal González (thematic resurgence of love in post-Boom/post-revolutionary Latin American narrative). Bush also gives a theoretical overview of affective performativity (Austin, Derrida, Iser) and of emotional figures and amorous speech (Barthes, Williams, Berlant), all of which serve to advance Bush’s understanding of how melodrama communicates social message, for Bush most centrally argues throughout that “melodrama is the dominant narrative mode when Latin American literature speaks about politics and development” (22).
To the end of asserting this fundamental position in regard to the status of melodrama as a “basic paradigm of the Latin American literary and social imagination” (198), the most conceptually powerful connection that Bush presents in his intellectual genealogy is to Peter Brooks, whose influential thought conceives of melodrama as a narrative modality central to modernity itself, and coeval with the French Revolution. On the strength of Brooks’s ideas, Bush boldly claims that melodrama should be recognized as the “first narrative mode through which the tales of the new Latin American nations are told,” and, therefore, viewed “not as the exception, but as the rule of Latin American literature” (22) that has “bolstered more than two centuries’ worth of Latin America’s literary production” (23). Moving decisively away from any stereotypical or pigeon-holing association of melodrama with the low-brow or the feminine, Bush recommends a far broader big-picture view, positing that “[i]n the Latin American context, […] melodrama may be understood as a brand of ‘hyper-realism,’ an intense, emotionally charged focus on the quotidian ‘real’ event, which invariably dialogues with […] deep philosophical and ideological concerns” across the full range of the political spectrum: “the tales of Latin American melodrama draw attention to the very postcolonial conundrums that beset Latin American societies: innovation versus tradition, the local versus the global, revolution versus conservatism” (34, 30).
Bush is careful to acknowledge that, for all its continental significance, melodrama does not come “from an autochthonous wellspring, but from a foreign context” (18). Yet in Bush’s estimation, Latin American melodrama is markedly distinct from its seminal French counterpart and other regional expressions in that it is internally conflictive in both form and content:
[T]he recurring feature uncovered in Latin American social melodrama is its refusal to neatly tie up the loose ends of its narratives and present an entirely happy ending, or to present a cohesive representation of glorified suffering. Latin American social melodrama seems to be in a constant battle with its very narrative mode, causing structural fissures that often diverge from standard definitions of melodrama in the United States and Europe. Twentieth century Latin American melodrama […] is much more complex in that our heroes are flawed, society is flawed, and the resounding dénouement so necessary to melodrama in the Latin American case frequently serves as much to reveal problems and unresolved conflicts...