- Captives on the FrontierPerla Suez and the Cultural Genealogies of the Argentinian Western
I wanted to build a Western based in our Patagonia. I love the movies of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. There's a similar geography, it's the same continent, but our culture is different.Perla Suez1
Must a non-US Western always be a pastiche of a US Western to be classified as a Western? Can a non-US Western be set outside of North America and still be called a Western? These are the challenging questions that come to mind when thinking about Argentina's well-developed frontier mythology. Perla Suez's acclaimed novel El país del diablo (The Devil's Country, 2015), which won the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz prize for best novel at the Feria Internacional del Libro in Guadalajara, Mexico, illustrates how Argentinian frontier fictions can echo both a national tradition as well as a US mythology. Suez, one of the most respected Argentinian novelists, has insisted on this duality in print and television interviews, citing her country's frontier history as an inspiration alongside US Westerns (Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man) and Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Indeed, in several headlines and pull quotes Suez and journalists have referred to The Devil's Country as a "Patagonian Western," making the word "Western" the preferred shorthand to sum up the novel.2 But is it really a Western?
Gustavo Pérez Firmat wrote a brief introduction to Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? (1990) that provides us with a framework for answering this question. Pérez Firmat argues that inter-American studies can knit separate national literatures in four [End Page 123] different ways: generic, genetic, appositional, and mediative (3–4). The generic refers to a concept of broad historical applicability, such as indigeneity, slavery, or mestizaje. Genetic approaches relate to demonstrable, causal links between different literatures or authors from different nations, as in the case of Latin American poetry and criticism about Walt Whitman or García Márquez's indebtedness to William Faulkner. Appositional links are not causal or explicitly generic. Pérez Firmat describes them as focusing on "formal or thematic continuities" or a "confluence" of perspective (4). Conventional comparativist approaches would fall under this rubric. The last category, mediative, relates to topics and cultural artifacts that carry embedded within them an explicitly inter-American theme or reality, as illustrated in the work of authors such as José Martí or María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, whose life experiences and cultural production straddles national or hemispheric borders. Perla Suez's The Devil's Country invites us to relate its plot and themes to US culture through genetic and generic lines. Suez's repeated mention of Quentin Tarantino and the Western as influences indicates the relevance of these frames for understanding her novel. On a deeper level, however, The Devil's Country demonstrates a generic link to the mythologies of the Wild West through various motifs that link her nation's cultural history to that of the United States.
If Pérez Firmat provides us with a structuralist and genealogical framework for exploring Suez's relationship to US popular culture and literature, Neil Campbell's enlightening explorations of how to define the Western beyond the classical, exceptionalist myths of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis and the general parameters of Hollywood formula Westerns provides us with more flexible and inclusive ways of thinking about genre. In The Rhizomatic West (2008), Campbell takes a poststructuralist approach to genre classification, arguing for a dynamic, decentered, and heterogeneous vision of the West as transnational, "a traveling concept whose meanings move between cultures, crossing, bridging, and intruding simultaneously" (4). Drawing from various poststructuralist and postcolonial works, such as Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic (1993), Joseph Roach's Cities of the Dead (1996), and most importantly the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, Campbell [End Page 124] casts the West and the Western away from binaristic reductionism and essentialist rootedness. Instead, he moves toward the "rhizome," a metaphor for decenteredness, motion, and instability. To exclusively frame the Western within...