- Autobiographical Writing in Latin America: Folds of the Self by Sergio R. Franco
Sergio R. Franco, translated by Andrew Ascherl
Cambria Press, 2017, xx + 286 pp. ISBN 978-1604979794, $114.99 hardcover.
Sergio R. Franco's erudite monograph on autobiographical writing in Latin America represents a significant contribution to the field of lifewriting studies. To date, most critical works in the region have been of limited scope, analyzing the autobiographies of one or two authors at a time. Silvia Molloy's At Face Value: Autobiographical Writing in Spanish America (1991) is the exception, but her study focuses on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers, only. Franco's comprehensive volume complements and extends this work, situating Latin American autobiographical texts written after 1950 within long-standing Western and regional traditions on writings of the self. Composed at different points in time, and adeptly and seamlessly translated by Andrew Ascherl, the introduction and four essays that make up Franco's book examine influential autobiographical works by José Donoso, Reinaldo Arenas, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Monsiváis, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro, among others.
In the critical introduction to the book, Franco defines the autobiographical as a zone of expression that includes a whole gamut of modalities: "not only autobiography in the strict sense but also causeries, diaries, memoirs and reminiscences of various kinds" (xi). Following George Gusdorf's work on autobiography, Franco situates the emergence of this tradition in the Copernican revolution, when human beings first become aware of their singularity and individuality. In outlining the main characteristics of autobiography, the author posits that this type of expression does not restore a preexisting historical subject or reality; it configures, rather, what he terms a "subject of autobiography" (xiii). He compellingly argues that what emerges out of recollections, memories, and reinterpretations of the past is thus an [End Page 400] ambiguous, unstable textual subject, a doubling of the "I," whose connection to referential truth is, at the very least, problematic. In the remaining part of this introduction, Franco sets out to compare the characteristics of the different modes of autobiographical expression. He writes that while autobiography typically recounts the life experiences of an individual in a sequential manner, memoirs are more essayistic in nature, normally focusing in "an era or a section of a life rather than in its totality" (xvi). Lastly, Franco notes that in the diary the time elapsed between experience and inscription is much shorter, so that imperfect, distorted, or resignified recollections of the past are less likely to occur than in strict autobiography.
In chapter 1, "The Emergence of Autobiographical Discourse in Latin America," Franco traces the development of autobiographical writing in the region, citing as early examples colonial texts like Comentarios Reales (1609) and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz's Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz (1691). The author reminds us that this nascent tradition had continuity during the nation-building and modernist periods, with Recuerdos de Provincia (1850) and La vida de Rubén Darío escrita por él mismo (1913), the autobiographies of Sarmiento and Darío, respectively. Franco highlights that autobiographical writing in Latin America intensified during the first half of the twentieth century, as notable works by Ciro Alegría, Margo Glantz, Pablo Neruda, Victoria Ocampo, José Vasconcelos, and others, were published. Despite this increase, Franco rightly observes that the number of works remained quite meager, at least when compared to more mature Anglophone or Francophone literary traditions. This would start changing at the end of the twentieth century, when autobiographical writing and memoirs became a substantial part of Latin American literary production, especially after the publication of Reinaldo Arenas's influential Antes que anochezca in 1992.
After discussing the prolific autobiographical production of the nineties and beyond (citing the likes of Vargas Llosa, Allende, Monterroso, and Donoso), Franco strives to identify and explain the reasons behind this new trend. He first suggests that "the reemergence of bourgeois individualism" may have played a role, adding that capitalism and a variety of forms of oppression have resulted in alienated subjects who often seek to negotiate meaning...