- Mourning El Dorado: Literature and Extractivism in the Contemporary American Tropics by Charlotte Rogers
El Dorado, Novela De La Selva, Latin American Novel, Extractivism, Ecocriticism, Environmental Humanities, Ecofeminism, Alejo Carpentier, Mario Vargas Llosa, Wilson Harris, Alvaro Mutis, Milton Hatoum, Charlotte Rogers, Mark Anderson
Taking a rigorously contextualized, comparative approach to novels written in Portuguese, Spanish, and English, this book carries out a wide-ranging study of the intertextuality of the El Dorado myth in literature about the South American tropics. Rogers traces the transformations this colonial wilderness quest myth—which she labels a "quintessential myth of the Anthropocene" (22)—underwent during successive natural resource boom and bust cycles in Amazonia. She contends that the radical social and environmental transformations that occurred during these expansions and contractions of the hollow frontiers of capital and the gradual exhaustion of the "promise of El Dorado" led to a reinscription of the myth as a critical, postcolonial literary trope intimately bound up with loss and mourning.
Engaging Val Plumwood's theorization of the gendering of extractive practices, Rogers argues that the El Dorado myth is fundamentally entangled with notions of patriarchal masculinity that equate nature and women's bodies alike with passive, virginal sites of penetration and extraction. When these ostensibly inviolate bodies become unavailable to the masculine gaze due to the widespread environmental degradation and sexual violence that are associated with natural resource extraction in Amazonia, they are displaced to the symbolic realm of literature as tropes of loss and nostalgia. Nevertheless, this nostalgia is necessarily a critical one due to its imbrication within the literary form; it is a nostalgia for gendered fictions rather than historical or material realities. In this way, travel fiction about the South American tropics written by male authors becomes intimately bound up with a sense of emasculation that surfaces in the novels as formal or discursive irony.
Somewhat in the vein of genetic criticism, Rogers's chapters return to manuscripts, travel diaries, magazine articles, and even notations in the margins of books and leaflets in the authors' libraries to elucidate the roles the writers' experiences researching, witnessing, and participating in extractive projects in Amazonia play in their works. Likewise, she draws heavily on histories of gold, lumber, oil, rubber, and hydrological extraction to contextualize the novels' plot lines. Structured roughly along the historical timeline of natural resource extraction in Amazonia, each of the book's chapters centers on a novel that represents and problematizes the entanglements between specific modes of extraction at a particular historical juncture and the conflicted regimes of subjectivity that emerge through the "promise of El Dorado" and contact with the material and affective realities of Amazonia.
The introductory chapter provides historical background and a theoretical framework relating to the syncretic indigenous and European origins and uses of [End Page 362] the myth of El Dorado as a masculine wilderness quest that promises riches, happiness, and sexual gratification. Rogers notes that the legend of El Dorado often served within the colonial imaginary as the economic counterpart to the religious trope of the New World as earthly paradise, evoking "paradisiacal notions of nature's bounty" but locating them within nascent global economic circuits (7). This conceptualization of the tropics is what she calls "the promise of El Dorado," a paradoxical nexus of primitive paradise and capital expansion that was viewed as the cure for modern life's moral and political corruption as well as the lack of social mobility (7). However, she argues, as the capital frontiers expanded deeper into the tropical forest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fundamentally and permanently altering the ostensibly pristine environment and uncontacted indigenous cultures, the myth began to fall apart, placing "literature about the South American tropics into a productive state of crisis" (23).
Chapter one traces the transition from myth to fictional motif as the region became rapidly, if unequally, integrated into capitalistic circuits of extraction and consumption. Recounted in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts by Carvajal, Fernández de Oviedo, Gumilla, Jiménez de Quesada, and Walter Raleigh, the...