A Crooked House: A Review of Unhomely Rooms:
Foreign Tongues and Spanish-American Literature by Roberto Ignacio Díaz
Juan E de Castro
Eugene Lang College
As in many countries and regions, the construction of Spanish American regional identity and of its constitutive national identities has frequently been linguistically based. The fact that in the foundational anti-imperialist poem "To Roosevelt" (1905) Rubén Darío would express concern over the disappearance of an "America . . . that still speaks Spanish" betrays the imbrication of language, identity, and, in this case, politics (38). (1). Therefore, Roberto Ignacio Díaz’s attempt in Unhomely Rooms: Foreign Tongues and Spanish American Literature to "reconfigure Spanish American literature as an entity with no fixed linguistic midpoint" explicitly questions this supposedly necessary association between language and regional and national identities (26). In the attempt to subvert this linkage between language and identity, Unhomely Rooms isolates what it calls, in an elegant and useful neologism, "heterolingual" literary works and authors. These writings, like loose strands in a tapestry, lead outside the apparently monolingual textual web of Spanish American literatures to other literary traditions, as well as helping to uncover the existence of heterolingual knots within the region’s literary weave.
While Díaz mentions several heterolingual authors, such as the Peruvians Ventura García Calderón and César Moro, or the Argentines Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Victoria Ocampo, Unhomely Rooms focuses its critical gaze on the Franco-Cuban María de las Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, also known as the Comtesse Merlin, the Anglo-Argentine William Henry Hudson, and the Chilean expatriate in the United States María Luisa Bombal. Surprisingly, Díaz also writes about José Martí, the foundational figure of Cuban nationality and literature, and the celebrated "Boom" writers Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Carlos Fuentes. This inclusion of Martí and Cabrera Infante is a clear example of the manner in which Unhomely Rooms attempts to bring what is generally marginalized--Martí’s and Cabrera’s writings in English--to the Spanish American canonical center. In fact, by focusing on Martí’s little studied English language writings, Unhomely Rooms not only reminds us that the Cuban poet was a heterolingual writer, but, following Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s ground-breaking analyses of Cuban American culture, it also makes the point that his was "a life on the hyphen" (53). By studying Cabrera Infante’s English language history of tobacco, Holy Smoke, and noting the importance of its references to Merlin, Díaz makes us aware not only of the presence of isolated French or English texts within Spanish American literature, but, even more significatly, that these also constitute a heterolingual tradition within the larger Spanish-language one. A similar undermining of boundaries is present in the study of Carlos Fuentes’s novel Distant Relations, originally written in Spanish. In this story of haunted houses and households, and of the entangled relationships between two parallel Mexican and French pairs of fathers and sons surnamed Heredia, Díaz maps the many roads that in Fuentes’s story and in the region’s literary and political history lead into French literature.
However, in Unhomely Rooms, Díaz does not limit himself to identifying the existence of a heterolingual tradition in Spanish American literature. In fact, for him, "heterolingualism" is intrinsically linked with Spanish American literature from its beginnings: "In virtually every period of Spanish America’s history, one can find writers biographically linked with the continent (a term that I employ not only as a geographical, but as a cultural concept) who compose works in languages other than Spanish, or in a mixture of languages" (14). The sporadic references throughout Unhomely Rooms to the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the 16th century mestizo historian who has frequently been seen as the foundational Spanish American writer, best exemplifies the heterolingual vein already present at the "origin" of Spanish American literature. In fact, the Inca, whose literary and cultural innovations were rooted in his native knowledge of Quechua language and culture, can according to Díaz not only be seen as "a classic site of Spanish American writing," but also as "an example" for "Spanish American literary studies in this new age of multiculturalism" (89).
But Díaz’s references to the Inca are also indicative of the limits he sets to his attempt at reconfiguring the study Spanish American literature. After all, the Inca claimed that his work was nothing but "a commentary and gloss" on the Spanish chroniclers of the conquest (qtd. in Díaz 88). While one can claim the Inca’s work as a precocious deconstruction of Spanish historiography, the fact is that he presented it as correcting in detail, but not in substance, earlier official Spanish historiography. (2) In a similar vein, Unhomely Rooms does not deny the centrality of Spanish language literature. As Díaz writes: "if at first it may seem that the acknowledgment of heterolingual practices unhinges Spanish from its customary central position in literary studies, it will become apparent that the practices of writing in Spanish are still a major signifying element even in those works that shun the language" (26). In fact, following Claudio Guillén, Unhomely Rooms argues that Spanish American literature constitutes a system, where "no single element can be comprehended or evaluated correctly in isolation from the historical whole" (qtd. in Díaz 24). Heterolingual Spanish American works must, therefore, be seen as part of the regional system insofar as their comprehension requires taking the latter into account.
However, as should be obvious, the relationship between heterolingual Spanish American writings and the region’s literary mainstream is problematic. At the same time that these texts imply the Spanish American literary system and cannot be fully understood out side it, they deny the traditional linguistic basis on which this system is built. In order to deal with this paradox--Spanish American texts that are not written in Spanish--Díaz resorts to the Freudian concept of the uncanny as reworked by Julia Kristeva. If Freud’s notion of the uncanny, as that which is both strange and familiar, leads to viewing heterolingual texts as "haunting," that is, as problematizing, even threatening, the Spanish American literary tradition; Kristeva’s reworking of the concept as leading to the acceptance of "foreigness in ourselves," is seen by Díaz as permitting "a less lugubrious characterization of the nation, one that houses the foreign through a calm admittance of everything, the familiar as well as the strange" (35). Both Spanish American identity and literature are thus reconfigured to incorporate and acknowledge "paradoxical communities . . . where a plurality of races and tongues are longstanding facts in the lives of nations" (88). Thus, rather than proposing the dismantling of the building of Spanish American literature, Díaz, limits himself to describing it as a crooked house in which "unhomely rooms," long occupied by heterolinguals, exist. In fact, Guillen’s and Kristeva’s theorizations are, according to Díaz, perfectly compatible in that if the latter recognizes the "foreign, that is, the "uncanny," as part of the self, for the former a system is "relatively open, loose, disjointed" and, therefore, capable of incorporating these "foreign" elements (qtd in Díaz 24).
By means of elegant readings of the texts above mentioned--as well as others, such as Lucio Mansilla’s Una excursion a los indios ranqueles--Díaz presents a renewed vision of Spanish American literature, one which includes heterolingual texts and authors as constituting one of its permanent veins. Moreover, as we have seen, Unhomely Rooms, while clearly a book about literature is not shy about extending its conclusions to society as a whole. In fact, it clearly makes the point that if Spanish American literature is multilingual, this is a consequence of the multilingual and multicultural nature of the region’s populations. For Díaz, Kristeva’s call for "paradoxical communities are nothing new in Spanish America, where a plurality of races and tongues are longstanding facts in the lives of nations" (88). Unhomely Rooms’s stress on the central role played by Spanish within the region’s literary system can be traced to its insistence in imagining Spanish America as a community, no matter how heterogeneous its actual populations and societies may be. As befits a study of heterolingual authors, Unhomely Room’s emphasis on the centrality of Spanish is grounded on the region’s history and social reality rather than on an essentialist vision of identity: one could very easily imagine a future Spanish American literary system where Spanglish or even English has replaced Spanish.
However, one cannot help but question whether Unhomely Rooms vision of linguistic interactions in Spanish America is too upbeat. After all, the incorporation of indigenous languages and texts, not to mention populations, has throughout Spanish America been done in conditions far from harmonious, and with uneven success, even leading one to question the existence of any regional community, no matter how "paradoxical." Díaz’s reliance on Kristeva, whose notion of otherness as being a reflection of one’s hidden inner "foreignness," can be seen as domesticating, even rendering the actual contact with the real-life "foreigner" unnecessary, is arguably one of the causes for this theoretical lacuna in his arguments. If Kristeva’s Strangers to Ourselves consistently elides the actual economic realities that help explain postcolonial immigration, Díaz’s lucid analysis of the cultural implications of heterolingualism does not deal in depth with the historical, political, and economic factors that underlie Spanish American heterogeneity. (3)
Furthermore, while Díaz’s study successfully achieves its explicit goal of dismantling the myth of an exclusively monolingual Spanish American literature, Unhomely Rooms raises questions that are not fully answered regarding what determines whether a text belongs to the region’s literature or not. Should one, for instance, consider as Spanish American Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, with it’s Cuban setting and characters, or John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, with it’s Mexican story and after-life as a film directed, photographed, and acted by the ur-Mexicans Emilio Fernández, Gabriel Figueroa, Pedro Armendáriz, and Dolores del Río? Is Richard Rodriguez’s Days of Obligation with its references and even theoretical dependence on canonical Mexican authors such as Octavio Paz and José Vasconcelos part of the Mexican and Spanish American literary system? And what about Faulkner’s work, which despite being clearly set in the (U.S.) American South, has been extremely influential among the "Boom" authors and which was received by Jorge Luis Borges as criollo. (4)
While Unhomely Rooms correctly dispatches Hemingway’s tragic adventure into the North American literary system (23), the criteria used to judge whether a work is Spanish American or not is somewhat vague. Writing about Merlin, Díaz writes:
I will argue, that in the case of Merlin or others, the facts of biography, especially when underscored by a textual engagement with the native land should at least be seen as a call for a suspension of disbelief, a delayed judgment, until a critical act of reading has taken place that may reveal, or not, the text’s possible meanings in the context of Spanish American literature. (23)
As should be obvious, if Spanish American literature is a system, biography and "critical acts of reading" are part of an impersonal writing and reading "machine"--even if it is made up of flesh and blood people--that ultimately determines what belongs to it. For instance, while Rodriguez’s Days of Obligation is, among other things, an unexpected Californian rewriting of Vasconcelos’s The Cosmic Race, it has, until now, been excluded from the Mexican or Spanish American literary "systems" to the chagrin of its author. (5)
These omissions are, however, marginal to Unhomely Room’s main purpose of bringing to the fore the region’s heterolingual literary strains. And, as indicated above, Díaz’s study not only convincingly shows the importance of the heterolingual past and present in Spanish American literature, but the manner in which even the core of the region’s canon, as exemplified by the works of Martí, Fuentes, and Cabrera Infante, cannot be understood without reference to other linguistic and literary traditions.
Moreover, Díaz’s study possesses the greatest of all critical virtues: timeliness. Unhomely Room’s publication seemingly coincides with a transformation of attitudes towards Spanish America’s heterolinguals. This change is fueled by the breakdown of national boundaries due to the rise in legal and illegal immigration to the United States, and the creation of permanent diasporic communities which refuse to sever ties with their original homelands. A consequence of this development of "split nations," to use Román de la Campa’s term, is the current desire to incorporate heterolingual authors into the regional and national canons, as manifested by the recent proliferation of studies, books, and conferences dedicated to their study. (6) For instance, Ricardo Silva- Santiesteban, writing about the Francophone César Moro, argues that "surely for us he is not a French poet, but rather a Peruvian poet whose work we wish to rescue and inscribe into our tradition" (par. 1). (7) Roberto Ignacio Díaz’s careful readings and sophisticated theoretical framework in Unhomely Rooms help provide many of the critical tools for this process of "inscription" of heterolinguals taking place throughout Spanish America.
(1) In Unhomely Rooms, Díaz deals at some length with Darío’s poem, coming to the conclusion that it "conjures Spanish America as a multiracial society predicated on the homogenizing voice of monolingualism" (74). See Díaz 61, 71-77.
(2) One must keep in mind, however, that the Inca wrote during a moment when ideological and ethnic purity were the dominant values in Spanish culture. (The Inca himself will participate in the repression of the Moriscos--the descendant of the moors--from Spain). Thus his extreme care in not directly criticizing earlier Spanish historians can be explained as responding to the actual dangers posed in being seen as non-Hispanic.
(3) Slavoj Zizek has described this transformation of the social into the psychological as one of the central problems of contemporary theory: "at the end of the day, we learn the root of postcolonial exploitation is our intolerance toward the Other, and, furthermore, that this intolerance toward the ‘Stranger in Ourselves,’ in our inability to confront what we repressed in and of ourselves. The politico-economic struggle is thus imperceptibly transformed into a pseudo-psychoanalytic drama of the subject unable to confront its inner traumas" (par. 12).
(4) Writing about Faulkner’s The Unvanquished in 1938, Borges argues that "the strange world of the The Unvanquished is a blood relation of this America, here, and its history; it, too, is criollo" (186).
(5) Despite being occasionally presented in the (US) American media as "an intellectual and spiritual heir of Vasconcelos’s" ("Author Savors the Melting Pot" 14), Rodriguez has "given up expecting Latin America to translate my work" ("Brown is the Color of Philosophy" 281). On Rodriguez’s links with Vasconcelos, see my Mestizo Nations 101-118.
(6) For instance, Moro’s centennial has given rise to two conferences in Lima, Peru, the "Coloquio: César Moro y la Vanguardia," on September 15 and 16 of 2003, and the "Coloquio Internacional César Moro y el Surrealismo en América Latina," on December 2003 in Lima. But Moro is not the only heterolingual currently being honored. The conference "Narrando los Márgenes: Hudson y The Purple Land" is scheduled for June 2004 in Montevideo. On the concept of split states, see de la Campa 376-80.
(7) The complete quotation is as follows: "Moro raises the problem of his bilingualism. The greater part of his work was written in French and, although he’s been included in some anthologies of French surrealism, surely for us he is not a French poet, but rather a Peruvian poet whose work we wish to rescue and inscribe into our tradition" (par 1; my translation).
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---. "Brown is the Color of Philosophy: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez." Interview with Claudia M. Milán Arias. Nepantla: Views from the South 4.2 (2003): 269-82.
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