The Metaphoricity of Shipwrecks; or, Exile (not)
Considered as One of the Fine Arts


Gisle Selnes
University of Bergen

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage…

                                                                                                T.S. Eliot        


I hope that what I am about to do is not an example of the much warned against tendency to speak of exile in terms of aesthetic or metaphysical categories, that is, to consider it an “interesting” or even “profound” issue without paying regard to the political and personal tragedies involved in exile as a lived experience. When I say that I hope that these reflextions will not turn out to reduce pain to poetry, this inevitably means that I’m not quite sure. Personally, I’ve had only marginal experience with the condition of exile and cannot speak on behalf of any subcategory of the large groups of exiled or expatriates. Accordingly, what I have to say about the phenomenon originates from texts, and most of them are literary. I must also admit that I do have a certain penchant for the metaphoricity of homelessness, which I take to be a distinctive trait of modern philosophy and literature. Yet I believe that this is an inclination which I share with quite a few writers, even among those who have in fact lived through periods of forced or voluntary exile; in any case does it amount to rejecting the urgency of dealing with the human and humanitarian tragedies of refugees and involuntary exiles.

A similar objection might be held against the inclusion of “shipwrecks” in the title of this article. Isn’t the juxtaposition of exile and shipwreck a reminder of the all-too-contemporary and tragic destiny of pateros and balseros who have lost their lives in an attempt to escape from a situation experienced as unliveable? This reality, one might argue, is too serious to be treated in a literary context, as a pretext for theoretico-metaphorical exercises.

Still, shipwrecks, just like exile, have been the stuff of literature, and proto-literary writings, from the very beginning of writing. Even the conjunction between the two phenomena can be traced back at least to Homer, whose repeatedly shipwrecked Ulysses has become a figure not only of exile and homesickness, but also of the narrative or “epic” drive imbued in this existential modus. In a different register, Ovid’s Tristia, which remains perhaps the emblematic poetical representation of the distresses of expatriation, opens with a sea journey in which the imminence of shipwreck is treated as a reflection of the hopeless condition of exile (“dumque loquor, vultus obruit unda meos”). In general terms, it is not difficult to grasp the figural relation between the situations of the shipwrecked and the exiled suggested by these and other examples. However, exile is only one among a large number of possible metaphorical avatars of shipwreck. Shipwreck, I would claim, as soon as it becomes the subject of linguistic or figurative representation, appears as so profoundly metaphorical that it might be taken as the vehicle of virtually any human experience which involves radical change or loss.

Cristina Peri Rossi is probably the contemporary Latin-American writer who has appropriated both exile and shipwreck in the most conspicuous manner as emblems of her literary project. The parallel elaboration of these themes is carried out most thoroughly in the collection of poems entitled Descripción de un naufragio, from 1974. I shall return to this book towards the end of my article, after a detour through other approaches to the same constellation of motives, by Peri Rossi herself and two other writers from the Río de la Plata zone: Jorge Luis Borges and Fernando Ainsa.


First, let us consider a poem with the very appropriate title “El naufragio como metáfora,” published by Peri Rossi in the Spanish magazine Nueva estafeta in 1981. The poem reads as follows:


crónica de invierno

a lo largo de canales

como lechos de muertos.

¿Quién vive allí?

¿Qué sobreviviente de edades ignotas?

(El Nuevo Mundo surgió de estos naufragios,

brillante e inconcebible)

Remo, con oscura fuerza,


en las borrascosas aguas de viejos mitos

 En la crónica, pueden reconocerse tres estaciones:

partida, encuentro, integración, retorno:


 Y suenan –como ecos que vienen de lo antiguo–

músicas extranjeras

la mañana en que la tormenta cesó

y en la playa recién abordada

los sobrevivientes –alucinados–

desplegaron, como banderas,

los viejos mitos.


There is a great deal of ambiguity at work in Peri Rossi’s poem. The only time the word “naufragio” appears in the body of the text, between parentheses, its determination (“estos”) suggests an explicit relation to the preceeding lines, even though there is no explicit mention of shipwrecks in the initial verses. Yet the references to “crónica” and “canales,” as well as the repeated invocation (“¿Quién vive allí? / ¿Qué sobrevivientes de edades ignotas?”), conjure up a context which could be grasped, retrospectively at least, as one that prepares for a scenario of figural shipwrecks. The origin of the New World must be sought in shipwrecks which are somehow related to the reading of texts, and even of myths… How can we make sense of such a parallelism?

There is, I believe, a spectrum of possible readings of this relation, moving from the utterly literal (historical) towards the figural (metaphorical). As to the former alternative, it could be argued that the New World, in a quite simple and direct sense, is the product of a series of shipwrecks. I am of course thinking of such episodes as the legend of the anonymous pilot, who was said to have discovered the unknown continent by accident after having been caught in a storm and stranded on a Caribbean island; subsequently the secret was transmitted to Columbus, who took advantage of it on his first transatlantic voyage. Another obvious reference is that of the wrecking of Santa María on Christmas Day, 1492, an incident which actually gave rise to the first Hispanic settlement in the New World. Likewise, the role of shipwrecked Spaniards (such as, for instance, Jerónimo de Aguilar; or, even more conspicuously, Cabeza de Vaca) in the conquest of the Tierra Firme is well known.

Still, a reading which merely seeks to translate the poem into a series of more or less furtive allusions to historical motives would no doubt be far off the mark. The metaphoricity of shipwreck also embraces complex question of the relationship between textuality and historical consciousness. Peri Rossi seems to stage an interplay, if not a conflict, between different “attitudes towards history” and its discourses. First we are confronted with what appears as the poetic subject’s attempt to read her way back through history, that is, to scrutinize the chronicles for traces of living human figures. This search for survivors whirls out the textual figurality of shipwreck: Any retrievable character in the historical narratives of the “crónica” is perceived as a shipwrecked existence which  finally manages to get its head over the waves (of writing, the channels like deathbeds) and thus face the reader across an ocean of time and distance. There is, however, no safe distance between the reading subject and the subject of history. This impression is enhanced when, after the “shipwreck parenthesis,” the speaking subject refers to her engrossed rowing through the stormy waters of old myths. Thus there actually seems to be a reciprocity between the attentive reading of history and the perilous sea voyages represented in the crónicas, supposedly those very same that relate the adventures of the first encounters with the New World.

From this subjective, almost confessional report on reading, the poem switches to a different register. The second stanza provides a more distanced, analytical perspective on the textual emergence of the New World, as though it were imitating a certain academic discourse. Finally, the last two stanzas abandon both the personal and the analytical mode in order to retrace the “original scene” of the encounter as a singular, historical event. This final scene is strongly reminiscent of an epiphany, a revelation or a new beginning, yet one that is irrevocably entrapped in the structures of its own horizon of “old myths.”

In this way “El naufragio como metáfora” could be said to represent the existential mode of America both through the metaphoricity of shipwreck and in terms of exile. Such a reading does not simply confirm the traditional view according to which the New World is the exile of the old, even though Peri Rossi’s poem somehow embraces this thematical dimension. It should be noticed, however, that the poetic voice also speaks about “transferencias” and “músicas extranjeras,” as if to suggest a reciprocal dynamics of exiliation: America originates as a double exile. Spanish survivors become engaged in “transferencias” with the New World and project their old myths onto new landcapes and cultures: exiled identites. Yet, by the very same event, the world which appears as new—as well as the music becoming strange—to the ears and eyes of the shipwrecked voyagers are subjected to what might be called a process of “auto-exiliation.” Thus one could claim that the shipwreck is redoubled as well: The New World represents the shipwreck of the old, both literally and in the sense that it inaugurates the “Age of Discovery” in which the traditional values of the Western World become radically revised. Simultaneously, and paradoxically, discovery also implies the shipwreck of the New World, in the sense that it represents the tragical collapse of indigenous civilizations. This, at least, is what the poem suggests, both through its statements and its images.



There is a certain Borgesian vein in Peri Rossi’s poem, notable in the themes of historical transcendence (brief moments of real or frustrated communcation across the centuries; the precise, singular moment when a future scenario is conceived or created) and, perhaps more indirectly, in the metaphysical figurality involved in the continuity between history and fiction (myths). Borges has elaborated on these themes in numerous texts, both poems and prose—fiction and essays; moreover, his concern with the questions of figural language, especially the poetics and epistemology of metaphor, makes him a possibly rewarding source for any investigation of the metaphoricity of shipwrecks.

Even though Borges is definitely not a maritime poet, let alone one who has made a central issue of the problems of exile, there are at least a couple of texts in which both themes appear in a suggestive conjunction. El otro, el mismo (1964) contains two poems which, according to the prologue, are essentially the same poem: “Alexander Selkirk” and “Odisea, libro vigésimo tercero.” The former conjures up the interior monologue of Selkirk, “The Real Robinson Crusoe,” in an unspecified moment after the return from his marooned existence on the Juan Fernández Island:


Sueño que el mar, el mar aquél, me encierra

Y del sueño me salvan las campanas

De Dios, que santifican las mañanas

De estos íntimos campos de Inglaterra.

Cinco años padecí mirando eternas

Cosas de soledad y de infinito,

Que ahora son esa historia que repito,

Ya como una obsesión, en las tabernas.

Dios me ha devuelto al mundo de los hombres,

A espejos, puertas, números y nombres,

Y ya no soy aquél que eternamente

Miraba el mar y su profunda estepa

¿Y cómo haré para que ese otro sepa

Que estoy aquí, salvado, entre mi gente?


Not surprisingly, Borges’ sonnet circles around the paradoxes of dreams, temporality and personal identity. The surviving castaway experiences a radical scission between his past and present existence, of being torn between self and other (“ese otro”), without being able to communicate with his former self. 

Perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised, either, by the fact that Borges’ sonnet actually seems to be saying, in its own idiosyncratic language, the same things about the structure of shipwreck narratives as do some of the most recent—and most lucid—critics of the genre. According to such critics as Beatriz Pastor, José Rabasa, and Joshia Blackmoore, it is impossible to return from a shipwrecked voayage; the one who returns is always a different person. It is as though the radical change implied by the etymology of shipwreck—both in the English and the Spanish versions (“naufragio” being the “fracturing” of the “nave”)—demands a corresponding transformation in the subject. The traumatic passage from the supposedly safe and ordered structure on board the ship to the dark, inhumane realm of water, echoes in the split identity of the shipwrecked subject. More than referring to a psychological reality, this transformation should be located to the functional level of narrative. In Borges’ poem, to represent oneself as the subject of shipwreck (“esa historia que repito, / Ya como una obsesión”) is to subject one’s selfhood to the essential metaphoricity of shipwreck. This implies a passage from one state to another which is so radical that it can only be surmounted by a second transgression; thus the “existence-as-shipwrecked” (or “sinking being,” to borrow Calvo-Stevenson’s felicitious phrase) is displaced, or bracketed, from the self-similar order which confers an imaginary—narrative—identity to the subject.

With “Odisea, libro vigésimo tercero,” this duplicitous pattern is transferred unto the story of Ulysses’ adventurous maritime meanderings; again, the perspective is one of retrospection:


Ya la espada de hierro ha ejecutado

La debida labor de la venganza;

Ya los ásperos dardos y la lanza

La sangre del perverso han prodigado.

A despecho de un dios y de sus mares

A su reino y su reina ha vuelto Ulises,

A despecho de un dios y de los grises

Vientos y del estrépito de Ares.

Ya en el amor del compartido lecho

Duerme la clara reina sobre el pecho

De su rey pero ¿dónde está aquel hombre

Que en los días y noches del destierro

Erraba por el mundo como un perro

Y decía que Nadie era su nombre?


Supposedly in a thoughtful moment after the famous anagnoresis scene, Ulysses is depicted as reflecting on the irrecuperable nature of his former, exiled self. (Although the speaking subject seems to be another, the poem is perhaps most cogently construed as reporting the thoughts of the repatiated exile: the queen has fallen asleep, Ulysses is awake.) The distance which separates the two versions of Ulysses is intimated by the decending metonymical chain of quasi-synonyms which ends the poem: from king (“rey”), through man (“hombre”) and dog (“perro”), in order to end up with the annihilating epithet Nobody (“Nadie”).

Allow me to emphasize once again that I do not suggest that Borges’ sonnets reveal the “truth” about exiled identities. Rather than reading the poems as pessimistic accounts of the inevitable debasement and self-alienation involved in the condition of exile, I prefer to place them in conjunction with Borges’ reflextions on the productive potential of marginality. Both poems are set in an implicitly bookish atmosphere, Selkirk and Ulysses being, more than anything else, literary figures; thus concieved, the poems present a poetics of narrative which highlights the enabling effects of distance—or artistic estrangement—in the creative process. Accordingly, it would make sense to place them alongside Borges’ influential thoughts on the matter in “El escritor argentino y la tradición,” an essay in which the basic qualities of exile are seen as the very advantage—the distinctive trait—of Latin-American literature insofar as they prevent a total identification with the potentially paralyzing burden of the Western Canon.



Fernando Ainsa’s “Los naufragios de Malinow”—published in several anthologies of exile literature prior to its inclusion in Los naufragios de Malinow y otros relatos (1988)—takes us a further step towards a full investment of the metaphoricity of shipwreck in terms of exile. Like the poems of Peri Rossi and Borges, Ainsa’s short story is characterized by a metafigural strain through which the text thematizes the workings of its own discourse. But now it is primarily the performative aspect of the shipwreck topos, rather than its metaphorical and structural implications, which is addressed. Malinow is a descedant of Russian exiles whose existence is profoundly marked by the experience of shipwreck; yet only as a witness and storyteller. His grandfather, Boris, had shipwrecked off the coast of a (supposedly South American) seaport town, and decided to settle there. Boris is the bald hero of one of his grandson’s recurring shipwreck narratives, told to an incredulous and at times downright inimical audience at the local pub.

Although this is Malinow’s “naufragio favorito,” by no means does it exhaust his repertoir; he appears, rather, to be an undrenchable source of ever new shipwreck tales. For some reason or other, Malinow is extremely receptive of wrecking ships; he perceives them with a regularity that defies any rational explanation, often as the only witness, and without there being any visible traces of the ships to corroborate his stories.

One of the most singular achievements of “Los naufragios de Malinow” is the choice of narrative perspective. The story is told by a member of Malinow’s indifferent audience who seems to be speaking in the name of the whole “rueda de pescadores y contrabandistas” at the pub. He repeatedly exposes their semi-racist distrust in his words: “había algo en su aire de extranjero rubio, descendiente de rusos blancos, que no nos inspiraba confianza” (11); “su aire de rubio solitario y mentiroso” (15); “la piel exageradamente blanca que siempre lo separó de todos nosotros” (19). At the present of its narration, Malinow has abandoned the village on the seashore.

Despite its plainness, the story’s title (“Malinow’s Shipwrecks”) is highly suggestive of the tangled interplay between narration, history and subject. First, the possessive relation indicated by the genitive is far from simple. On one hand, Malinow is the “subject” of this relation, as the one who possesses a certain repertoir of shipwreck tales; but, on the other, he is also possessed by the strucure and contents of his own narratives. (Quite understandably, there is an elaborated allusion to Coleridge’s ancient mariner in the text.) Secondly, the plural (“naufragios”) must not be read merely as a “literal” reference to the number of maritime accidents witnessed by the protagonist. There are several different facets or levels of Malinow’s relation to his favorite theme, which suggest a more complex figurality. Thus, in a not uncommon metonymical sense, “shipwreck” refers no longer to the subject matter of the storyteller’s narratives, but to the very words through which it is represented: Malinow’s shipwrecks are the tales of disaster by which he seeks to get in touch with the hostile inhabitants of the village. His repeated failures, however, amount to as many figural wrecks of narrative discourse.

On the next level, Malinow’s (and the narrator’s) obsessive repetitions mobilize the metaphoricity of shipwreck. A gradual transformation turns the contiguity which underlies Malinow’s obsession into a metaphor of his essential exile. For Malinow, since the origin of his presence among the fishermen and smugglers was his grandfather’s mythical shipwreck, history and identity appear sub specie naufragii. Captain Boris’ was a utopian shipwreck, if ever there was one; according to Malinow, all the passagers were saved thanks to his forebear’s epic feats. After this episode, he had never sailed again; instead, his grandson assures the audience, “había caminado por esta costa hasta el fin de sus días, sus ojos fijos en un horizonte tras el cual habían quedado los suyos, en la lejana Rusia” (13). The narrator comments on Malinow’s narrative performance as follows: “Cuando nos contaba esta historia, su piel dorada por el sol se le perlaba de gotas de sudor casi imperceptibles. Era una emoción que parecía venirle de muy adentro, pero en la que ninguno de nosostros quería creer” (ib.).

Two things can be inferred from these passages: Firstly, Malinow’s obsession with shipwrecks is a trait that identifies him with his ancestors’ remote homeland; he repeats not only the story of Captain Boris’ dramatic deeds but also the latter’s ulterior destiny, that is, his solitary strolls along the seashore, gazing towards the horizon. Secondly, it seems to be precisely this association between shipwreck and foreignness that so irk the patrons at the local pub, reminding them ever anew of the exiled identity of the storyteller.

Malinow disappears from “este pueblo a orillas del mar” as a direct consquence of an episode in which he is confronted in a particularly rude manner with his unfelicitous performance. The scene is all the more exasperating since on this occasion Malinow had actually been able to seduce, for a brief moment, his audience with a story. It is a significant detail which has aroused their interest: a sealed envelope containing millions of dollars, which Malinow claims to have found in the pocket of a drowned man. “[P]or fin había comprado nuestra incredulidad” (18), the narrator says—only to proceed with the relation of how Malinow’s incapacity to produce one single note in order to authenticate his story—and treat his listeners to a drink—(“Lo siento, no tengo ninguno aquí; estaban mojados y los estoy secando en casa, junto a la estufa”) turns them against him, allegedly in an attempt to put a definitive end to his stories of storms and shipwrecks. Malinow’s reaction seems desperate. Instead of giving in to the exhortations to silence, he accelerates his narration as if he were trying to surpass his former exercises in the art of inverisimilitude:

Me he encontrado una mujer hermosa desvanecida unos metros más allá del ahogado, enganchado su cuerpo entre dos rocas, un vestido de noche negro pegado a su piel como si fuera una auténtica sirena. La creía muerta, pero estaba viva, la tomo en mis brazos y ella abre sus ojos inmensos verde claro y me mira profundamente, como nunca nadie me ha mirado en mi vida. (18)

When the narrator, in a retrospective and apparently unironical comment, credits Malinow for his talent, he emphasizes his vivid use of the historical present. This device is highly idiosyncratic for Malinow’s narrative poetics. It should probably be taken as a reflection of the degree of his obsession with the storm scenes and his desire to make them reappear before his listeners, untarnished by time and distance. Malinow’s final, desperate performance culminates with a series of historical presents which ends up in what is presumably a real present tense: “La llevo a casa donde está durmiendo. La abrigo, enciendo la estufa, me está esperando” (18). Most likely the readers’ immediate response will be in accordance with that of Malinow’s listeners: to suspect that the improbable turn in his story has been improvised to prepare for a sequel in which the shipwrecked lady will be said to have disappeared with the money. In a sense, this is what happens, but not in the way one might expect. The mysterious woman actually disappears; but so does Malinow as well. There is a narrative sequel; yet in the form of rumors coming from afar. According to these rumors, a blond couple of slavic origin has settled as bar owners in another seaport town further up the coastline. The man is said to be renowned for the shipwreck narratives with which he entertains his patrons; their effect is all the more powerful because of the assertive remarks inserted by the blond woman.

As though in a ruse of mimetic response, the narrator and his friends not only identify the “blond couple” as Malinow and the mysterious “siren.” They also begin to realize the possibility that the shipwreck stories might somehow have had a share in truth, regardless of their referential accuracy. “Ahora que Malinow se ha ido” (the phrase is insistently reiterated in the text) they feel that their lives have lost an important dimension—the wider horizon breached by the possibly fictitious shipwreck tales—and that it should not, after all, have been that difficult to believe him. Thus the story ends more or less as it began, with a utopic version of shipwreck narratives. But now it is Malinow, the storyteller, who repeats on the level of narration the epic miracle-workings of his grandfather. The former’s “metonymic” shipwreck-as-discourse takes on the same mythic dimension as did Captain Boris’ “literal,” foundational shipwreck. On a metaphorical plane, Malinow’s exilic state of loss has been transformed into a perfect present by the seductive force of narrative (which does not amount to saying that any of the embedded stories, not even the final rumors, are actually true, a question which remains unresolved—and which is probably beside the story’s narrative point). This is perhaps the final shipwreck of the story, from which Malinow has emerged on what resembles a utopic island, while his former audience is left in an imaginary waste land, on the shores of “an ocean not littered with wastage.”



Cristina Peri Rossi’s Descripción de un naufragio (1974) is probably the most meticulous exploration into the shipwreck topos to be found in contemporary poetry. In this collection of poems, the metaphoricity of shipwreck expands in various directions, almost as though the poems themselves were ships adrift on a stormy sea. Taken together, they create a highly complex totality. This is not only due to the diversity of their figural reading of shipwreck; often it is not easy to tell where one poem ends and another begins, especially in the first half of the book, where the textual units are not provided with titles. There is also a general ambiguity as regards the status of each individual text, since the poems both appear as autonomous pieces and as elements of a larger structure—which possibly implies a narrative structure of sorts, stitching together the fragments on different levels. 

One significant course taken by the quasi-narrative expansion of motives is that which associates shipwreck with (erotic) love. The connection can be traced back to the opening pages where the poetic subject conjures up scenes from a remote past in which water appears in conjunction with the figure of an eroticized young girl. A sense of irrecoverable loss, and perhaps of betrayal and death, saturates these scenes. The separation between the speaking (or writing) subject and the girl seems to be definitive; “pertenezco a un mar en fugitiva” (24). Still, the poems are haunted throughout by feminine figures that somehow recall the untouchable and seemingly lifeless girl of the past memories. They appear in forms which seem to cover the whole spectrum of masculine phantasms of the feminine—and all of them are placed in associative relations to water and navigation.

At the bottom of this rhythm of association, there seems to be a metonymical chain which provides a passage from “mujer” to “mar,” “mal,” “amar,” “navegar,” and “naufragar.” The subject which sees woman in these terms is the mariner, that is, the traditional masculine figure who abandons himself to the archetypal, abysmal feminine element—the “mother” ocean—and who, moreover, entertains a respectful relation to the feminized body of the ship. This doubleness is reflected in the conventional image of femininity as both an irrational, annihiliating power and as the source of irresistible attraction and bliss—often in different ratios of admixture. In the series of poems grouped together in a “Manual del marinero”—thus named since it has been composed “para que todos supieran cómo amarte, en caso de naufragio” (59)—these basic identifications give rise both to a Nerudian rhetoric of eroticism (anticipated by one of the epigraphs: “Todo en ti fue naufragio”) and to a violent pedagogy of sexual repression: “Una vez arriada, / aferrarla al suelo / con palos y con cuerdas / para que no se escape” (68). There appears to be no dialectical or psychologically motivated relation between the different attitudes and emotions; rather, they seem to surface from a continuum of passion or desire which exists independently of the subject’s consciousness and control. Perhaps the closest we get to a synthesis of this diversity is the allegorical appearance, towards the end of the book, of History in the figure of an elegant whore (“una envidiable puta rica”)—desired by everybody, including the poetic subject, yet dreadfully indifferent to human suffering: “la historia dejaba colgar de sus brazaletes / cinco negros perseguidos por la K.K.K., / y de sus aretes, tres universitarios desangrándose” (92).  

Other sections of Peri Rossi’s book draw on different discourses in their poetical approach to figures of woman—always in a more or less explicit relation to maritime voyages and shipwreck. One of the most perceptible examples is the recurring parodical inclusion of a colonial rhetoric of discovery and otherness. The first unmistakeable appearance of this discourse is in the title of the poem called—and I reproduce the original’s upper case since its use may be significant—“DE CÓMO LLEGAMOS A LA ISLA DE LOS PÁJAROS / DE LOS MUCHOS PÁJAROS QUE HAY EN ELLA / POR LO CUAL / DECIDIMOS BAUTIZARLA CON EL NOMBRE / DE ISLA DE LOS PÁJAROS”; a title which, as may be seen, is itself actually set in the form of a poem. Here the humoristic intent is as obvious as is its Columbian target. On later occasions, the parody takes on a much more somber character. Thus, in “Carta del navegante” the problematics of discovery and subjection is addressed in a way which affects women in a particularly cruel way. The humor now turns so black that it is hardly perceivable:


Siguiendo vuestro consejo,

a las mujeres las tomé a todas,

haciendo posesión de ellas por Vuestra Excelencia y por mí mismo

con lo cual comprenderá, Señora, que hube de poseerlas dos veces

a cada una de ellas:

una por Vos,

una por mí (54)

Almost uncannily, the person in whose name this repulsively “humorous” double violation is carried out is the queen—the great source of pleasure (“goce”)—whose innermost desires the conqueror presumeably satisfies through his possessions. Rather than seeing in the absent figure of the queen a reminder of woman’s castrated condition, as Christine Arkinstall suggests in her article “New World, Old Politics,” it is perhaps more relevant to consider her implicit presence on the scene as evidence of the transgressive impact of desire. In this sense, the queen is essentially identical to the history-as-whore in the poem previously referred to; both represent the inhuman aspect of desire which our culture has come to identify as one version of femininity. Mother ocean reappears in these figures of sublime and cruel sexuality as a menace to masculine identity—a menace which is revenged or repressed in the rape of indigenous women. This, however, is a futile strategy; towards the end of “Carta del navegante” the dead return to haunt the conquerors, driving them mad.  

In her book Cristina Peri Rossi: escritora del exilio, Parizad Tamara Dejbord argues that the problematics of exile lies at very heart of Peri Rossi’s literary project. Thus it is important not to limit its relevance to those works in which an exilic thematics appears on the surface of the text. One of its possible manifestations is on an ontological level, that is, related to the very constitution of the “time and being” of the fictional characters. Accordingly, in Descripción de un naufragio—a book which, curiously enough, is not mentioned by Tamara Dejbord in her study—separation appears as a central existential modus. This appears to be an “orignal” separation which exists even prior to the abandonment of the childhood landscapes evoked at the beginning of the book; loss is inscribed as “equiprimordial” with the innocence associated with these scenes. Throughout the pages of the book exile seems to be the existential condition of the poetic subject, the sea journey with its repeated shipwreck scenes being an age-old figure for man as dis-placed from his rightful dwelling: earth.

Yet one does not have to read Descripción as an allegory of ontological motives in order to come up with a poetic parallelism between exile and shipwreck. The book is in fact framed by rather unequivocal approaches to shipwreck-as-exilic-destiny in a way which evokes the concrete historical circumstances in which it appeared. On a paratextual level, the dedication situates Peri Rossi’s book in an exilic context which inevitably recalls the situation in Uruguay in the 1970s and its consequences for the author herself and many of her compatriots: “A todos aquellos navegantes // argonautas en un país en ruínas / desaparecidos en diversas travesías, / varias, / que un día emprendieron navegaciones / de inciertos desenlaces.” Such an initial positing of the book in a contemporary political reality which simultaneously relates it to the most remote mythical past—the argonauts being the mariners of the first ship ever built—indicates the range of the metaphor of exilic shipwreck in Peri Rossi’s poetic writing.

Towards the middle of the book one poem stands forth as emblematic of Peri Rossi’s explicit involvement whith exile. The text I have in mind belongs to the long sequence of poems without titles in the first half of the book, but it appears as a perfectly autonomous poem thanks to its calligrammatic typography, imitating the form of a ship. This formal trait makes it almost impossible to quote from the poem in a meaningful way. If such a gesture had not been considered a transgression of academic style, it would have been tempting to ask the reader to look up on page 46 of Peri Rossi’s book and observe how the front sail is made up by winding phrases that tell of the endless peregrinations of nameless fugitives, persecuted by all kinds of representatitives of the “law,” a flight which ends up by the seaside and with only one possibility of escape: lanzarse al mar, que es el morir; next, to observe how the much smaller back sail contains verses—quoted from earlier poems—in which there is a reference precisely to the fugitive’s back, protected from the sea and from evil (“del mal, del mar”) by his/her friends; and, finally, to observe how the ship’s hull takes us down to the most dismal depths of exilic existence, with its reference to the death and suffering of prisoners, women, and children, as the final motive for embarking on an infinite journey “en ruta sin derrota, perecedorea, / hasta el fondo del mar, donde / yace la sombra de los justos” (46). As a calligram, the poem exploits the space of writing to the highest degree—not only through the skillful manner in which the different parts of the ships are related, diagramatically, to significant ideas of direction, but also through the paradoxical notion of a ship sailing towards its own shipwreck, on a route towards the bottom of the sea, as if the shipwreck were actually the essential destiny of the maritime voyage.

Finally, the historically specific involvement of shipwreck and exile reappears in the last poem of Peri Rossi’s book, “Relación de tripulantes que participaron en el naufragio”. Here a masculine subject adrift on the open sea (“solo / en altamar / a la deriva”) evokes the names and destinies of all those companions who died or disappeared and who still suffer the unbearable torture of being subjected to the cruelty of shipwreck (“sometidos a la crueldad del naufragio”). An enumeration of names follows, accompanied by epigrammatic sketches of their fate, all of which seem to imply some kind of death by water; for instance:


Alonso, el cocinero,

no sabía nadar, no sabía tirar,

tenía lástima de los peces,

pena de las aves,

“Por lo menos me alisto, para cocinar”

fallecido el 27 de junio,

devorado por un enorme tiburón (98)


The list—and the book—close with a laconic line which also entails a very explicit gesture towards the reader and the historical context which motivates the poem: “Todos los otros nombres aparecen en los diarios” (99). In this way the text of Descripción de un naufragio appears as framed by a poetic discourse which serves as a reminder of the political circumstances of deaths and disappearances from which the shipwrecks derive an important part of their meaning.



I do not believe that there is any specific penchant towards shipwreck metaphoricity in the literature of Río de la Plata, a region whose nautical history is perhaps less salient than that of other zones of Latin America. Neither does this geographical area have a particular claim to the thematics of exile. Rather, both conditions might be conceived as essentially interrelated with the destiny of Latin American history and literature from their textual origins in the Columbian rhetoric of discovery and appropriation. This does not amount to saying that Americans are irreversibly doomed to an existential separation from its origins to any higher degree than the people from other parts of the globe, a stance that would impose an absurd or at least anachronic determinism on a perfectly negotiable historical and political reality. What it might imply, however, is that Latin America provides a rewarding position from which the “universal” condition of being uprooted and adrift can be thought. This must not be mistaken, either, for an ideological banalization of the real suffering of persecuted and expatriated people. It would be far more rewarding to regard such a condition as one that recognizes the authority of Latin American perspectives on the predicaments of the subject of post modern culture. As Julio Cortázar suggested, somewhat hesitantly perhaps, in his reflections on the problems of “Exilio y literatura,” the issue might well be how to avoid insisting on the impossibilities of exile in a way which overshadows the horizon of possibilities opened up by the perspectives of cultural distance. Although the texts I have considered in this article, belonging to the immensely rich literary tradition of the Río de la Plata nations, cannot compensate for the sufferings caused by the predicaments of political oppression and expatriation, they should nevertheless be considered as an intergral part of the complex nature of exile. The circumstance that an exilic literature can produce works that are capable of confronting its own predicaments in a manner which is mindful of the traumatic reality it may represent, as well as of its intellectual and artistic potential, is perhaps the most rewarding lesson to be learnt from these reflections on exile and the metaphoricity of shipwrecks.




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