Cervantes and the Modern Latin American Narrative

Roberto González Echevarría
Yale University

    Todo está ya en Cervantes. De niño yo jugaba al pie de una estatua de Cervantes que hay en La Habana donde nací.
Alejo Carpentier (1)

In his already classic Books of the Brave, the recently deceased Irving Leonard records how, by the spring of 1605, as the annual fleets made their way to the New World, numerous copies of the just published El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha crossed the Atlantic. In fact, by his sedulous calculations, Leonard estimates that a good portion of the book's first printing made the voyage, and that not a few of the volumes met a fate common to travelers at the time by sinking to the depths of the ocean. But many did make it to the ports of Spain's American empire, and a mere two years after the publication of Cervantes' book (in 1607) the figures of the knight and his squire made their appearance in a Lima carnival.(2) There is much significance in this journey of the books, not the least of which is that their excursion was strictly speaking illegal, given that the shipment of novels to the colonies had been forbidden by the zealous Spanish Crown. We know, however, again thanks to Leonard, that because of the imperial bureaucracy's lax discharge of its duties, this prohibition was mostly observed in the breach, as were other government decrees, which were greeted with the cagey formula "se acata, pero no se cumple" ("complied with, but not implemented"). The Quijote's early and furtive journey to what would become Latin America, prefigures the book's perplexing legacy in the literary history of the region.

I would like to examine how the Quijote has been re-written in Latin America in contrast to Spain, being that these constitute disparate strands in the literary tradition of one single language. In Spain, Don Quijote underwent a process of canonization that began in the eighteenth century, just as the Spanish American colonies were starting on the political and ideological road that led to independence. The canonization of Cervantes' book in Spain eventually involved the association of Spanishness with the novel's hero, and its conception a sort of telluric birth from the volksgeist. Cervantes had presumably expressed the very essence of the nation --or allowed it to express itself through him-- and this is what made the Quijote a classic of the language. The identification of the book with Spain climaxed in the Generation of '98, when the question of national identity reached a crisis, provoked by the motherland's crushing defeat in the Spanish American War. As the last of the Spanish colonies in America were becoming independent, the beatings suffered by proud Don Quijote became a national myth to suffer the motherland's valiant, but unsuccessful battle with the new Knight of the White Moon: the modern, powerful, fully armed United States of America. Nothing typifies better the incorporation of Don Quijote into the national mythology than the disastrous naval battle of Santiago de Cuba, when Rear Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete lost the entire Spanish fleet in an insanely heroic gesture ordered by the Spanish government.

(During the early summer of 1898, Cervera sailed with the Spanish fleet into Santiago Bay, in eastern Cuba, following the orders of his government. He was trapped there by the American fleet three times the size of his, which simply deployed itself outside the harbor's narrow entrance. Cervera and the Spanish government debated what to do in a series of frantic telegrams, with the Real Admiral warning Madrid that the fleet would meet certain doom if it ventured out. The Spanish ships were obsolete and the range of their guns much shorter than the Americans'. In a Quixotic gesture, if there was ever one, Madrid ordered Cervera to try to break the blockade: "la Escuadra saldrá resueltamente lo mejor que pueda, confiando su destino a su valor y pericia de V.E. y de los distinguidos jefes que la mandan, que, indudablemente confirmarán con sus hechos la reputación de que gozan" (Havana, 28 June, 1898). Cervera's ships headed out one by one and the Americans had a turkey shoot, sinking all of them. The Rear Admiral was fished out of the water by the victors and accorded military honors, for which he was duly impressed and satisfied, as he wired back home).(3)

Compelling essays and books by Ramiro de Maeztu, Azorín, and above all Miguel de Unamuno, casting Don Quijote in the role of national symbol, constitute an important chapter in Spain's literary and intellectual history. (4) I am thinking chiefly of Don Quijote, Don Juan y la Celestina, La ruta de don Quijote and Vida de don Quijote y Sancho. These books are also among the best critical commentary on the Quijote, whose impact can be felt throughout the twentieth century in the work of influential scholars such as Américo Castro, and in novelists like Juan Goytisolo. Defining the essence of Spain in the modern period has nearly always led back to Don Quijote, who has gone from literary to national myth, and merited the unusual honor, for a fictional character, of having a statue of it erected in the capital. (The issue of Cervantes and Quijote statues has been shrewdly studied by James Fernández in an essay from which I have learned a great deal).(5) This is the bountiful legacy of what some scholars have called the "romantic approach" to the Quijote, particularly Anthony Close in his well-informed but bleak book, which is a plea for what would amount to a critical lobotomy.(6)

But the preceding does not apply to Latin America, where the Quijote was not part of any national myth-making. It was around 1898, as a matter of fact, that Modernismo, the first literary movement begun in Latin America, was peaking and exerting influence back in the motherland. Modernismo and Noveintaiocho constitute a parting of the waters in Spanish-language literary history, although they share some common traits. How has Cervantes been read and re-written by Latin Americans who cannot identify with Spanish obsessions about a Spanish essence while writing in Spanish? How can one read a classic in one's own language without being involved in a process of monumentalization, cultural self-probing and even nationalistic narcissism?

It is true that on occasion, through the twentieth century, movements of ethnic or cultural pride in Latin America, a panhispanismo, have made of the mad knight a figure of some political importance. Cervantes has also been incorporated, needless to say, in educational programs and pageants of linguistic and literary celebration, a process that Fernández appropriately defines as "late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth century attempts to heal the wounds between Spain and Spanish America, to close 'Latin' ranks, in the face of the emergence of that formidable 'enemy' to the north the United States" (p. 969). The high point of this process may very well have been the following event on the same island that Cervera defended with noble futility. When the Cuban Revolution shut down and confiscated independent newspapers, the lead, type and paper were recycled to print a huge edition of the Quijote that was distributed free among the people. The agent behind all this, from his position as head of the national publishing house, was none other than Alejo Carpentier.(7) This was the return of a Spanish Don Quijote, lowering his lance anew against the very same Knight of the White Moon as in 1898. But the recovery of the Quijote by literature took different paths in Spain and Latin America, as did that of the baroque poets.(8) The process began with Mexican José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi's Don Catrín de la Fachenda (1825), written in avowed imitation of Cervantes, and reached a high point in Ecuatorian Juan Montalvo's pastiche Capítulos que se le olvidaron a Cervantes (1895). There were others in the early part of the twentieth century, but I am interested here in how the contemporary narrative tradition has rewritten Cervantes' classic, focusing on its founding writers: Jorge Luis Borges and Alejo Carpentier.

Borges taught Latin American writers (including Carpentier) how to assimilate the innovations of European modernism, and also that they were a part of that movement, in spite of their geographical or even cultural marginality.(9) He also taught them how they were and at the same time were not part of the Spanish literary tradition, with the test case being the Quijote. In fact, Borges wrote with some irritation about how the Spanish were misreading the Quijote, sometimes alluding precisely to the Generation of 98 writers I mentioned before. In a 1947 special issue of Sur to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of Cervantes' birth, Borges wrote: "Paradójica la gloria del Quijote. Los ministros de la letra lo exaltan; en su discurso negligente ven (han resuelto ver) un dechado del estilo español y un confuso museo de arcaísmos, de idiotismos y de refranes. Nada los regocija como simular que este libro (cuya universalidad no se cansan de publicar) es una especie de secreto español, negado a las naciones de la tierra pero accesible a un grupo selecto de aldeanos." And in "Magias parciales del Quijote" Borges says: "A las vastas y vagas geografías del Amadís opone los polvorientos caminos y los sórdidos mesones de Castilla; imaginemos a un novelista de nuestro tiempo que destacara con sentido paródico las estaciones de aprovisionamiento de nafta. Cervantes ha creado para nosotros la poesía de la España del siglo XVII, pero ni aquel siglo ni aquella España eran poéticas para él; hombres como Unamuno o Azorín o Antonio Machado, enternecidos ante la evocación de la Mancha, le hubieran sido incomprensibles." (10) While Carpentier, for his part, taught Latin American writers how to turn Latin American history into narrative fiction; or, better yet, how early American historiography and the novel were linked at birth, with the linchpin being Cervantes.

Broadly speaking, I am interested in how a literary tradition coheres within a language without the ideological and emotional grounding of a sense of nationality, how a literature can continue to exhibit continuities over historical divides --how an origin endures. For example, how Celestina can be the sub-text of Aura and Cobra. But with the Quijote, anointed as the vessel of the very essence of the language and spirit of the nation, and owing to the baffling self-reflexiveness of the text, the choice to rewrite it has to be more deliberate and self-questioning on the part of the contemporary author. Herein lies the specificity of this conundrum in the case of Cervantes and the Latin American narrative. How can a Latin American writer presume to rewrite that which is essentially tied to the nation that his own nation struggled not to be? One could also ask if this is not a fundamental American condition, the search for origins that are non-determining and stand precariously on a break with the past? And wouldn't the very quest constitute a profoundly contradictory operation, the search for a non-essential kind of essentialism? Perhaps this is the fate of all American literary efforts and the first lesson to be learned from Borges' and Carpentier's complicated rewritings of the Quijote.(11) 

In modern Spain, then, the Quijote is read because it is associated with the essence of language and nationhood, therefore with a motivated conception of the origins of language and literary tradition; with a genealogically determined birth of the text. In Latin America the Quijote is read for its suggestion of its unmotivated conception in language, hence by delving into origins that are contingent because they are historical (Carpentier) or that pitilessly question themselves by denying their own legitimacy (Borges). Borges' and Carpentier's relative foreignness to Spanish surely influenced their skepticism, their refusal to easily recognize an enabling connection between language and the imagination, and between language and the shape, cohesiveness or meaning of the literary text. But it may also reflect Cervantes' own deepest disbelief, as reflected in the air of improvisation and serendipity attendant to the plot structure and details of Part I --the notorious olvidos cervantinos (Cervantean oversights) that may constitute the farthest questioning in the Quijote about the coherence of the work and even that of the author's own self, truly perilous cracks of nihilistic madness. The lack of motivation is what provokes the turn to Cervantes' play of authorship. Another slightly foreign Latin American author (let's just say Argentine), Julio Cortázar obviously focused on chance and improvisation as crucial factors in literary creation in his Rayuela, elements that he may have also derived from the Quijote. Morelli (notice the non-Hispanic name), the internal author in Cortázar's novel, is a modern version of the narrator in Cervantes' book. Melquíades' manuscript in Cien años de soledad and the various textual plays with the status of writing in Yo el Supremo and the character of Patiño are all turns to the second most important character created by Cervantes in the Quijote; not Sancho, but the author, or authors in the fiction. By insisting on these elements a Latin American reading of Cervantes' masterpiece uncouples creation from any essence that gives the text an ontologically determined or revealing order.

The second lesson to be learned from Latin American rewritings of the Quijote is that Cervantes as a figure of the author is more important than Don Quijote the character, whereas in the Spanish readings Don Quijote is more important. Cervantes in Latin America; Don Quijote in Spain. Remember the Generation of 98 titles: Don Quijote, Don Juan y la Celestina, La ruta de don Quijote and Vida de don Quijote y Sancho. This distinction is at the base of my plotting of this story of Spanish-language literary history.


Borges first read Cervantes in English and Carpentier's forays into his father's library were mostly in French.(12) The point of departure of "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" is that Menard was not even a Spanish speaker by birth or upbringing. This fact is crucial in Borges' reading of Cervantes' book, as suggested by that story and other texts. Columbus, whose writings Carpentier places at the beginning of Latin American fiction in El arpa y la sombra was not a native Spanish speaker either. A non-national origin of writing is crucial in Borges' and Carpentier's conceptions of the foundation of narrative fiction, hence deliberately distinct from the Spanish readings of Cervantes. In this regard "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" is a kind of muffled, yet wildly subversive manifesto.

"Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" is an experiment in authorship without the presumed determinations of the role in the post-romantic era. Menard, as author of the Quijote lacks the essential qualities of an author within the doctrines originating in Romanticism: 1) he is not of the nationality defined by the language of the work; 2) and (this does not necessarily follow) he is not a native speaker of the language in which the work is written; 3) he is not a contemporary of the work, from which follows that he has experienced more history (in his case three centuries) than the original author, having therefore knowledge of subsequent developments of the text's nation of origin and language. We know from Menard's "visible" work that he was interested in abstract systems, ahistorical and disconnected from emotion or experience; for instance, chess, or the elaboration of a poetic language so pure that it in no way resembled everyday speech. Menard wants to write a Quijote without the "españoladas" (Hispanicizing boutades) that Maurice Barrès or Dr. Rodríguez Larreta would have recommended (p. 53).(13) This would be a Quijote without a Spain self-consciously Spanish that turned the book into "una ocasión de brindis patrióticos, de soberbia gramatical, de obscenas ediciones de lujo" (p. 55). Menard faces the task of writing or re-writing the Quijote as a Latin American author would: in possession of the language, but not quite a part of its history and tradition, as these would be defined in the romantic or post-romantic era. To imagine a literature without the nation is Borges' daring experiment in "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" at the height of the nationalistic frenzies of the 1930's (some of which led to Fascism, as in the case of Maeztu and Barrès).

But why the Quijote? Why not "Pierre Menard, autor de la Divina comedia? Or, "Pierre Menard, autor de Los hermanos Karamazof"? For two reasons. The first is that, after all is said and done, the fact is that Spanish was Borges' language of choice for his writing. I say choice because he could have decided early in his career to become an English, German, or perhaps even French author. He could have been a Pessoa, an author who seems to have been invented by Borges; or an Apollinaire, or a Conrad. These were all options and examples that Borges may have had in mind when he wrote "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote." But because Spanish was the language in which he wrote, Borges was moved to speculate about how he belonged to it or it belonged to him, and how he was or was not a part of its legacy. The Quijote had to loom as the grandest literary creation in Spanish. This is why there is an agonistic tone in Borges' story, which styles itself as a kind of elegy to the recently deceased Menard, as if it had been the prodigious effort to complete his task of re-writing the Quijote that had killed him. Because Menard was unable to finish his work, though the narrator confesses that he likes to read, or think of the entire novel, as if it had been written by him. It is in the inconclusiveness of his task and in Menard's dying that we find in Borges a romantic substratum, a glorification of the author that, on the surface, the story appears to deny. It is the contradictory core of "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote."

It is significant that while the universality of Don Quijote as a figure would presumably make him easy to be authored and re-authored by anyone --Avellaneda was the first-- as he would be more part of the tradition than of any individual talent, Cervantes' character has not been rewritten nearly as many times as, say, Don Juan. Why? Because if seen from within literature the most universal figure Cervantes created was not so much Don Quijote as the narrator of Don Quijote, and he has been rewritten every time a novel is authored.

The second reason why Menard attempted to write the Quijote (and not some other work) is precisely that Cervantes had made available to Borges and even exhausted most possible experiments about authorship, from the very notion of authority to the connection of language to creation. This was not in any of the other masterpieces that Menard might have chosen, or if so only because they had derived it from Cervantes. Cervantes created himself as author surrounded by several doubles as the second most important character in the Quijote. The author of the Quijote is that manifold character that includes (at least) the narrator, Cide Hamete Benengeli and the translator. In him (in them) Cervantes gave us a prolix and profound dramatization of the modern mind in search of knowledge of self and of the inner workings of the literary imagination. In that quest the mind found itself and the complex operations by which it invents itself as it creates literature. It is a fragile construction --an unbearable lightness of being-- fraught with self-doubt and surrounded by mirages of its own making. To speak, to write, this emerging self must create yet another, like the friend who comes to its aid in the 1605 prologue, who will give him a temporary and precarious sense of being. There is no self-same projection outward and creation must take the guise of someone else's work: a found manuscript, written in a language not known by the narrator, who must seek help to have it translated. It is a creation that babbles "I invent myself, therefore I might be." Because invention, even of self, is too grand an illusion and agency is always compromised by uncertainty. This frail self is, ironically enough, Cervantes' most enduring character. The venue of expression is necessarily irony, the resignation to always be of at least two minds, particularly about oneself.

In the Quijote the modern mind finds that literature, as a human product, cannot escape the limitations of the human; hence the author can only feign to be outside of his work looking in, controlling his fictional world externally like Maese Pedro his puppet show. This modern agent who thinks and writes and invents and therefore is, has no nationality. In this Cervantes is anticipating Vico and pointing to the universalism of the Enlightenment. Need we evoke here again the Quijote's games of authorship, where the origin of the text is, as best as it can be ascertained, a Moorish historian with a penchant for lying? Or the process by which the text is generated involving a translation by someone whose competence seems only to be that he knows the languages in question, and allows himself the impudence of laughing at a marginal note that he says he finds in the original to the effect that "Esta Dulcinea del Toboso, tantas veces en este historia referida, dicen que tuvo la mejor mano para salar puercos que otra mujer de toda la Mancha" (I, 9). This intrusive translator also intervenes to question the authority of the author, as if wanting the reader to believe that he has re-created and annotated the work as he performed his modest task. Borges latches on to this elusive quality of the Quijote's author. Is Menard like Cide Hamete or like the translator? If the Moor was indeed a liar, Menard had a penchant for writing the opposite of what he believed in, as the narrator of Borges' story claims. Cervantes made Menard possible by being a Spanish author without "españoladas" in large measure because he lived before the history of Spain made exceptionalism a mode of inquiry, a self-reflection and a self-display before a Europe from which it felt increasingly distant. Menard is the Cervantes Cervantes would have been in the twentieth century had he been able to skip the Spanish eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; a Cervantes, that is, who could have been an Argentine educated in Geneva and working in a Buenos Aires library. Borges' implicit identification with Menard belies the rejection of the romantic in his story.

In the final analysis "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" proves that it is impossible to leap out of history and uncontrollable contingency; that both encourage the tendency to err. The narrator of Borges's story gives 1602 as the date for the Quijote and clearly misreads the fragment about history that he quotes by not taking into account that it is parodic. Cervantes did not write seriously "...la verdad, cuya madre es la historia," so Menard's alleged difference is not that at all. Who is the narrator of "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote," and what other misreadings does he add to this dizzying collection? Why does he focus on that passage on history? And why does he refer to the readers of the magazine where the partial list of Menard's publications appear as "deplorables" /wretched/ adding that "son pocos y calvinistas, cuando no masones y circuncisos" (p. 444). Was he, in spite of his criticism of Maurice Barrès, an ultra-Catholic, anti-Semitic fascist?

As in Borges, in Carpentier the important figure is Cervantes, not so much Don Quijote.(14) El arpa y la sombra, written when Carpentier knew that he was dying of cancer, is the most sustained treatment of Cervantes. He sets up a series of intertextual associations between his novel and Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, Cervantes' last book, because like him, Carpentier is summing up his life and works. It seems to me too that he is drawn to the fantastic, imaginative quality of the Persiles as an affirmation of the power of fiction, and establishes a connection between the misty and mysterious world of Iceland with which Cervantes opens his romance and the supposed trip to those regions undertaken by Columbus early in his career. Carpentier clearly wants to link Columbus to Cervantes, and Cervantes to himself as authors to speculate about the nature of literature and specifically the Latin American narrative tradition.(15) In El arpa y la sombra Columbus is summing up his life on his death bed as he awaits the priest who will administer the last rites. Carpentier was to die two years after the publication of El arpa y la sombra, Cervantes died four days after signing the "Dedicatoria" to the Persiles, and Pierre Menard is dead. The author's death is a prominent element in all these fictions because they hold in the balance the all or nothing of beginnings and ends, and the pressing need for the truth in such portentous moments. Like the Persiles, El arpa y la sombra closes in Rome, as if to mark the finality and transcendence of their endings.

Another association between Columbus and Cervantes is through Maese Pedro's "Retablo de las Maravillas." When the Admiral returns in triumph and goes on a promotion tour of his Discovery, he sets up a show for the King and Queen in Barcelona, in which he dresses up the Taínos that he brought over, and displays them at court. He calls this company his "gran compañía de Retablo de las Maravillas de Indias" (p. 132). Carpentier's association of Columbus with one of Cervantes' self-portraits, the picaresque author and master puppeteer Ginés de Pasamonte, is revealing of his own probe into his vocation and practice as a writer. This is largely contained in Columbus' musings as he remembers his life on the brink of death, where he again alludes to Maese Pedro: "...cuando me asomo al laberinto de mi pasado en esta hora última, me asombro ante mi natural vocación de farsante, de animador de antruejos, de armador de ilusiones, a manera de los saltabancos que en Italia, de feria en feria --y venían a menudo a Savona-- llevan sus comedias, pantomimas y mascaradas. Fui trujamán de retablo, al pasear de trono en trono mi Retablo de Maravillas" (p. 160). Cervantes' projections as author in the Quijote provide Carpentier with a characters to play, as he assumes the role of Columbus on his death bed meditating on his record as writer. Carpentier shrouds this meditation in a vast historical and speculative mantle.

Carpentier was obsessed with the Discovery of the New World and its impact on the writing of history and fiction. Here the association of Columbus with Cervantes is most significant. Simplified, the road from the Admiral to the author of the Quijote would go like this. By demonstrating concretely the roundness of the earth, leading to the Copernican revolution and a new conception of the universe as infinite, Columbus made possible Montaigne's detached ironic perspective, such as he displays in his famous essay "On Cannibals," to which there are direct allusions in El arpa y la sombra. The inversion of values implicit in Montaigne's text is dramatized in the speech by one of the Taínos that Columbus has brought back to the Old World, a hilarious passage in which the Europeans are mercilessly assessed. It is Montaigne's irony that makes Cervantes' and Carpentier's possible. (Knowing Carpentier, I know that he would not have disdained the cryptogram CCC, Columbus-Cervantes-Carpentier). The consequences of the tear on historical and literary discourse caused by the Discovery is El arpa y la sombra's central theme. Carpentier dramatizes it by focusing on the ambiguities surrounding Columbus and his writings.

In Columbus we have another author who is not a native of the language in which his text is written. This was a grave irreverence in Borges' part because he was dealing with the greatest monument of the Spanish language. But the matter is very serious in Carpentier's novel too. In El arpa y la sombra the foreign author is none other than the inaugural one of the Latin American literary canon --in traditional histories and anthologies of Latin American literature the first text is a fragment from Columbus' Diary. To make the matter even more complicated, that Diary, as we know, does not exist as such. It was lost. All we have are the quotations inserted by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in his compendious Historia de las Indias, some of which are reconstructions. Like the Quijote, the founding text of the Latin American literary tradition is a quilt of languages, citations, translations and re-writings. But it is the origin. This is why El arpa y la sombra is like an "Aleph" of Latin American literature, with textual allusions to classics, like Esteban Echevarría's "El matadero," Sarmiento's Facundo, Neruda's Canto general, Lezama Lima's "Rapsodia para el mulo," and so forth. It is as if Columbus' modest letters contained, like kabbalistic vessels, all the future texts of the Latin American literary tradition. There is a parallel sub-plot to this in the tangential story about Columbus' body, parts of which would have had to be kept in the Vatican's archive of relics had he been sainted. This is a macabre prank on Carpentier's part to underscore the elusiveness of the textual origins and always debated legitimacy of the Admiral's texts. As some of you may know, the authenticity of Columbus' remains is a matter of dispute, with Havana, Seville and Santo Domingo claiming to have the real ones. Let me underline this: the inaugural text of Latin American literature is not, like the Poema de Mío Cid, the kernel of Castilian letters according to the traditional ideology, but the diaries of a Genoese of uncertain linguistic and cultural lineage. The foundation of Latin American literature is a hybrid text written in faulty Spanish, and rewritten by Carpentier, a Menard whose Spanish was not native either. The link between natural language and literature is broken in Carpentier because for him, a baroque, creation is always artful, never natural. But there is an even more personal connection in all this.

The narrator in the Quijote says that Benenjeli, being an Arab, was something of a liar, as we saw. We have already also seen that Menard was wont to write exactly the opposite of what he felt or believed. Carpentier's Columbus, as he prepares for his final journey, tells himself about the many lies that he has told, not only to his men in that fateful first voyage, but also in his manuscripts.

fui haciéndome de una mitología destinada a hacer olvidar la taberna de Savona --¡honrarás padre y madre!--, con dueño lanero y quesero arrimado a las canillas de sus barriles, diariamente trabado en trifulcas con borrachos impecuniosos. De repente, me saqué de las mangas un tío almirante; me hice estudiante graduado de la Universidad de Pavía, cuyos claustros jamás pisé en mi jodida existencia...(p. 85)

Por ello me resolví a recurrir a la mentira, al embuste, al perenne embuste en que habría de vivir (y esto sí lo diré al franciscano confesor a quien ahora espero)...(p. 97)

Y la constancia de tales trampas está aquí, en estos borradores de mis relaciones de viajes, que tengo bajo la almohada, y que ahora saco con mano temblorosa --asustada de sí misma-- para releer lo que, en estos postreros momentos, tengo por un vasto Repertorio de Embustes-- y así lo diré a mi confesor que tanto tarda en aparecer. (p. 112)

De los siete indios que habíamos capturado en la isla primera, dos se nos habían fugado. Y a los que nos quedaban tenía engañados (seguían los embustes) negando que tuviese intenciones de llevarlos a España...(p. 120)

All these references to lies, we are now allowed to suspect, are oblique allusions to Carpentier's own lies and obfuscations about his life. The biggest of these fibs has turned out to be precisely about his birthplace. In that speech quoted at the beginning, delivered in the presence of King Juan Carlos --no less-- Carpentier mentions Havana as "the city where I was born." But now we know that this was a lie that he had sustained through all of his life, and that he had been born instead in Geneva, making the issue of his birthplace a polemical one, as Columbus' has been. This revelation may also finally account for Carpentier's notorious and stubborn French r, which dogged him all of his life and made some, like Juan Marinello, write that in the Havana of the twenties he was sometimes taken for a foreigner.(16) I think that Carpentier must have figured that he would eventually be found out, and in these words spoken through Columbus is offering a veiled apology. Why and when did Carpentier begin to tell this lie? I don't know, but it is something that deserves closer scrutiny, such as the one devoted by Sergio Chaple to some of his earliest journalistic stories, for which Carpentier used his mother's name as a pseudonym, and the still-to-be-analyzed articles on women's fashion that he wrote for Social under the name "Jacqueline".(17)

The subject of lies in Carpentier is to not to be taken lightly, in other words, or as mere titilation and gossip. To lie is a serious activity that brings up in El arpa y la sombra rather important issues. In lying Columbus, and Carpentier, is creating or constructing a self, but is that not the way we all build our self-image in this post-Freudian era. There is in lying a radical disconnection from the truth of the self as possibility and as actual performance, as enunciation. Being cut off from that quested truth is like creating literature without a nation. Lying to oneself, of course, is an more complicated act, that raises the issue of irony and has at its basis a doses of self-hatred that is evident in Columbus' musings and even point at their source in Augustine. Finally, for now, the question is how different is it to lie from to write literature? Is literature not a socially sanctioned form of lying? Beyond each work, if lying is the foundation of the canon in Columbus, how can literature be edifying, almost in the literal sense of apt to build monuments or become a monument itself?

The disturbing point here is that Borges and Carpentier, following Cervantes' lead, find literature and language fraught with lies, inconsistencies and discontinuities, all of which taken together may constitute a deeper kind of truth about humankind. Carpentier was obviously conscious of this and confronts the issue of truthfulness with yet another prank. The other narrator of El arpa y la sombra is Pope Pius IX, Mastai Ferreti, who is pondering the issue of whether or not to put forth the beatification of the Admiral. Of all the narrators mentioned here, Pope Pius IX is the only one endowed with infallibility. But he also fails. Like Borges, Carpentier, Columbus and Menard, Ferreti, a man of two worlds, as a result of his having learned Spanish and spent time in Chile on a mission. He culls what he thinks is the truth about the Admiral from the record and forwards the petition to have him beatified, only to have it denied at the trial. It is no trivial joke that Carpentier assumes here the voice of a pope. It was to several popes that Pietro Martyre d'Anghiera, perhaps more than Columbus the original Latin American narrator, addressed his elegant history of the New World in the last decades of the fifteenth and early sixteenth century (Pietro Martyre was yet another non-native narrator of Latin American history, but he solved the issue by writing in a language that no longer had native speakers: Latin). Ferreti's failure to canonize Columbus is the final meaning of Carpentier's searing meditation on literature and authorship, not to mention self-knowledge and self-projection. The canon, not even the inaugural founding text, can be anointed with infallibility, particularly an American canon.

But could there not be a truth in the combination and amalgam, in the totality of the major literary myths in a tradition, as is suggested by the Latin American classics that seem to emanate from the text of El arpa y la sombra? This is what Carlos Fuentes attempted in his massive Terra Nostra, in which Cervantes appears as the chronicler. But I think that Fuentes got his lesson wrong from his masters Carpentier and Borges. Has anyone noticed that Terra Nostra is a dramatization of Maeztu's Don Quijote, Don Juan y la Celestina? There are also characters from Latin American novels in the mix, but the founding fables are those figures, who live in a future ideal world where they commingle as in a sort of new Mount Olympus. Fuentes' shuffling of Hispanic narratives in a blend that would presumably produce a grand synthesis of Spanish and Latin American literary myths, a global metafiction, could also be, like Maeztu's, a project of unwitting political consequences, an ultimate denial of history in favor of an inbred and unchanging cultural purity, no matter how plural that culture may have been in the beginning. Can there be an enduring mythic-literary ground? Is not a the American condition a search for origins that are non-determining and always rest on a gap of history inaugurated by the Discovery? Is the search for a non-essential kind of essentialism the basic American story that Cervantes enables Latin American writers to author? Can something this negative and abstract be a founding story? How long does an origin, even a negative one, endure?. Could we follow Carpentier's lead and say that everything, including this, is forever in Cervantes? Is the American fate, like Don Quijote's, to move on even after the library has been walled off?

But is everything really still in Cervantes? Is the post-modern also already in Cervantes? Is there a Quijote beyond the most recent death of literature? By positing a fiction that dispenses with tradition and language, except as a foil, is not the Latin American Quijote already post-modern? Borges anticipated this question in his "Nota sobre el Quijote" when he muses about the afterlife of Cervantes' characters in a world without books:

Es común alabar la difusión de Quijote y Sancho. Se dice que son tipos universales y que si un nuevo Shih Huang Ti dispusiera el incendio de todas las bibliotecas y no quedara un solo ejemplar del Quijote, el escudero y el hidalgo, impertérritos, continuarían su camino y su diálogo en la memoria general de los hombres. Ello puede ser cierto, pero también es cierto que irían acompañados por Sherlock Holmes, por Chaplin, por Mickey Mouse y tal vez por Tarzán. (p. 176)

A Quijote that joins the ranks of modern popular myths is not that unlikely, given that Cervantes' book, in dealing with chivalric romances was already concerned with such figures and stories at their birth at the dawn of the post-Gutenberg era. Perhaps, who knows, Don Quijote, who first paraded himself in a Lima carnival almost four-hundred years ago, already strolls the streets of Euro-Disney, and the next statue of him will stand, not in Havana or Madrid, but in Orlando, Florida.


  1. Cervantes en el alba de hoy. Discurso pronunciado en el Paraninfo de la Universidad Complutense (Alcalá de Henares) en acto de recepción del Premio de Literatura en lengua castellana Miguel de Cervantes 1977. Paris, 1977. Privately printed pamphlet (100 copies) with unnumbered pages.
  2. Irving A. Leonard, Books of the Brave. Being an Account of Books and Men in the Spanish Conquest and Settlement of the Sixteenth-Century New World, with a new introduction by Rolena Adorno (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 307.
  3. Guerra hispano-americana. Colección de documentos referentes a la Escuadra de operaciones de las Antillas, ordenados por el Contraalmirante Pascual Cervera y Topete (El Ferrol: Imprenta del Correo Gallego, 1899) 147.
  4. In writing Vida de don Quijote y Sancho Unamuno was also a Pierre Menard, but being a Spaniard his task was presumably not as difficult.
  5. James D. Fernández, "The bonds of patrimony: Cervantes and the New World," PMLA.
  6. Anthony Close, The Romantic Approach to ‘Don Quixote": A Critical History of the Romantic Tradition in ‘Quixote’ Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
  7. Alejo Carpentier, "Un nuevo Retablo de Maese Pedro,"El Nacional (Caracas), "Letra y Solfa" 1 September, 1960. There was also a performance of Manuel de Falla's El retablo de Maese Pedro.
  8. Of course I am only refering to Spanish speaking Latin-America, a more comprehensive treatment would have to include Machado de Asis’Memorias póstumas de Bras Cubas, whose playful narrator is perhaps the most direct descendant of Don Quijote's. I have studied the link between the Spanish and Latin American baroque in Celestina's Brood: Continuities of the Baroque in Spain and Latin America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995). For the Quijote see the very useful collections Don Quijote: Meditaciones hispanoamericanas, vol. I (Lanham: University Press of America, 1998).
  9. See my "Carpentier, crítico de la literatura hispanoamericana: Asturias y Borges," Isla a su vuelo fugitiva: ensayos críticos sobre literatura hispanoamericana (Madrid: Ediciones José Porrúa Turanzas, 1983) 179-203.
  10. I am quoting from "Nota sobre el Quijote," Páginas de Jorge Luis Borges, seleccionadas por el autor, estudio preliminar de Alicia Jurado (Buenos Aires: Editorial Celta, 1982) 175; "Magias parciales del Quijote,"Obras completas (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1974) 667.
  11. But beyond this, as an approach, perhaps even as a method, I prefer to derive my readings of texts and plot literary history from what I conceive as the readings of an earllier text performed by a later one: Cobra of Celestina for instance. I do not see such critical rewritings as anxious misreadings in a struggle for an ever-elusive and undefinable originality, as does my truly dear friend and colleague Harold Bloom. I view them, instead, as homages to the tradition, celebrations of the still living and currently relevant (vigentes) elements of a classical text. I understand these rather as instances of sheltering and legitimation that re-activate the classic, under whose aegis and guise the new text emerges. I much prefer the readings embedded in the new literary text than the work by writers turned critics about the classics (I like Terra Nostra infinitely more than Cervantes o la crítica de la lectura). I would not deny that my preference may be due for my critical intervention to draw out the reading that one literary text performs on another. But it also stems from my deep-seated belief that there is an unspoken core in each text, unchartable in all its extension whose prime mover (whose combinatorial search engine, one would say today) is the recycling of earlier texts motivated by new circumstances. The inicial anxiety comes not from the facticity of tradition, but from a need to fend off the new with the shield of the old, true and tried; to defuse the threatening now by subsuming it into some old myth whose efficacy has stood the trial of the ages, which is the role mythology and religion play in traditional societies. The new text finds the relevant, the current, the surviving aspects of the old and allows them to live again in itself, as itself. This is a critical act, act having here for me the meaning of performance, séance, función, show. In some privileged text like the Quijote, or "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" the process that I have been describing is thematized, becoming the story itself.
  12. "When I later read Don Quijote in the original, it sounded like a bad translation to me" writes Borges in the "Autobiographical Essay."Quoted in Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography (New York: Dutton, 1978) 77.
  13. I take this Rodríguez Larreta to be an allusion to Enrique Larreta, the Argentine novelist who in La gloria de don Ramiro attempted to write in the spanish of Phiplip II's Spain. Borges’Menard is not interested in that kind of pastiche. Maurice Barrès was an anti-Semitic novelist who developed a theory of the collective unconscious of clearly fascistic connotations.
  14. The narrator-protagonist of The lost Steps tries to remember the opening sentence of the Quijote as he struggles to evoke his childhood, and later says that they are playing at being conquistadors. The important part is the one he forgets. There is also an allusion to the Venta de la Sangre de Toledo in the chapter at the Canadian's home that is a reference to "La ilustre fregona." In Concierto barroco Carpentier inserts a line form Maese Pedro's episode, in part to underline his debt to the Cervantean model and also the pair Indiano-Criado is like Don Quijote and Sancho. Concierto barroco México: Siglo XXI Editores, 1974. Filomeno le está haciendo el cuento de su antepasado al Indiano, y éste le dice, con palabras tomadas directamente del episodio de Maese Pedro en la segunda parte de Don Quijote: "prosigue tu historia en línea recta, muchacho –interrumpe el viajero-y no te metas en curvas ni transversales; que para sacar una verdad en limpio menester son muchas pruebas y repruebas"(21). Carnival scenes, etc. The allusion to Maese Pedro's puppet show is to one of Cervantes'self-portraits as writer, hence to the problem of autorship and narrative.
  15. The association between Columbus and Cervantes had been made before. The two were seen as fortuitous discoveres who stumbled upon things they did not intend to find and were not really prepared to find. This association of the two is part of the ingenio lego label attached to Cervantes, the notion that he was a sort of untutored wit. Americo Castro did much to dispel this notion in his 1925 El pensamiento de Cervantes, and later scholars have abandoned the old saw of Cervantes as the natural talent devoid of learning. But the issue is really not closed, given tha Cervantes himself, it seems to me, goes to great pains to show the gap between intention and result in his work. Ultimately no creator can be fully conscious of the ramifications or portent of his discovery. The same is true of Columbus. It would be too much to expect for one man to be responsible for the repercussions of a discovery as radical as his.
  16. "Una novela cubana", in his Literatura hispanoamericana: hombres-meditaciones (Mexico City: Ediciones de la Universidad de México, 1937) 171
  17. La primera publicación de Alejo Carpentier. Consideraciones en torno a la génesis de su narrativa y labor periodística (Havana: UNEAC, 1993).