- In Search of the Sacred Book. Religion and the Contemporary Latin American Novel by Aníbal González
The personal or collective search for revelation or transcendence seeks answers in many ways. This book reveals how the desire for transcendence has shaped and informed the Latin American novel of the twentieth century. González lucidly incorporates productive erudition and imagination to trace the arc of this desire, bringing forth a wide range of genres and critical discourses in his arguments. Every chapter reveals how much religious legacies, especially Judeo-Christian beliefs—providentialism, the threat and promise of prophecy, the existence of sin, creation stories, the search for the sacred book, the interior turn—have shaped so many Western discourses, both sacred and profane. Even abjection (Santa, Rayuela) can be seen as an inverted theology of purification through the degradation and annihilation of the body.
The introduction, “A Literary Trinity: the Novel, the Sacred, and the Nation,” speaks of how this search might connect with sociopolitical issues. The first chapter explores the nineteenth century novelistic foundations of a spiritual approach and finds the utopian or messianic thread in many of its “scientific” formulations. Naturalism, with its prophecy and preaching, frames [End Page 504] Gamboa’s Santa and Zeno Gandía’s Los redentores. Naturalist novels today are often dismissed as didactic, but here they recover their power by showing how they teach, as they denounce injustice and prophesy doom.
Flaubert and his appropriation of religious symbols, “narrative theology,” and negative inversion of the sublime, is an important presence. The realist novel for Flaubert was not only a vehicle for understanding the world, but an opportunity for astonishment. The central presence is Borges, subject of Chapter 2, who studies how literature is made, how it works. An epigraph quotes Borges on religion, “I am interested and I don’t believe,” in contrast to believers who are not interested. Borges’s interests in religion, especially in the Kabballah and the Gnostics, relate to fictions of ideas and the primacy of the plot. Borges dismissed Croce’s theory of expressiveness and also the “psychological” novel, preferring the “magical causality” that makes the novel a precise game. González’s multilayered exploration of “The Aleph” includes the quest, the cosmic perspective, the fantastic object, an inquiry into the origins of poetry, parody, and questions of time and eternity (introduced by the postscript). Reactions of astonishment, dissolving of the self, simultaneous time, and the sublime, are the same reactions attributed to the religious experience.
Chapter 3, “Tales from Eternity,” focuses on Bombal, Carpentier, and Rulfo, and explores how they incorporate religious elements in a secular fashion. Bombal’s La amortajada is a story of life after death, exploring temporal superposition and cosmic imagery. Interestingly, here quotes from the novel highlight the body’s physical materiality as she is “crucified to the earth.” In a following discussion, González calls Carpentier’s El reino de este mundo “a founding document—halfway between a manifesto and a gospel—of the Boom’s totalizing novels”(98). Metamorphosis, death and the sacred are woven into the plot, as it explores Haiti’s Revolution, powered by religious faith and the slaves’ desperation. In addition to physical metamorphosis, Carpentier also transforms the readerly contract through the creation of “otherness” and fascination, and returns to symbols of religious transcendence. Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, partly inspired by La amortajada, has acquired almost “sacred book” status. González proposes to find out how religion affects the novel’s formal structure, not what social role it plays. He notes that narrating from the standpoint of eternity produces an effect of totality, a key link between PP and the Boom novels. While the novel in no sense sacralizes Mexican history, its emptying out “marks the text’s both sacred and foundational character”(117), as it spills out secrets and monsters. The Rulfo section returns to and expands the discussion of works of philosophy, anthropology, and history of religion from around 1900. The later avant-garde movements, evaluating positively...