Mapping the Non-places of Memory:
A Reading of Space in Alberto Fuguet’s Las películas de mi vida
University of Kentucky
Nearly eighty years after the avant-guard movement, the so-called McOndo Generation of Latin American authors continues to identify and redefine its own brand -isms—namely, the urbanism, individualism, and consumerism that characterize globalism in its many forms. Not unlike previous artistic and literary movements, Alberto Fuguet and Sergio Gómez’s prologue-turned-manifesto of the 1996 anthology McOndo represented—if not a watershed moment—a sizeable ripple in contemporary Hispanic letters. The essay calls for the quick and decisive evacuation of Macondo (as synonymous with the Boom Generation as all things vaguely folkloric and magically real) and the relocation to its updated version—McOndo—a globalized world of megacities and pop icons, ubiquitous fast-food chains and mass media. At least superficially, Fuguet and Gómez tiptoe around the pitfall of fashioning another, equally fantastic realm out of globalized society (and thus avoid making any substantive value judgments) by positioning all of its features on the same plane. They write: “Nuestro país McOndo es más grande, sobrepoblado y lleno de contaminación, con autopistas, metro, tv-cable y barriadas. En McOndo hay McDonald’s, computadores Mac y condominios, amén de hoteles cinco estrellas construidos con dinero lavado y malls gigantescos” (“McOndo” 4). It would appear that the gritty urbanism that defines Latin American cities is just as much a product of globalization as CNN en español, for example, an observation which grants these authors’ perspective a kind of ultra-realistic (although not entirely documentary) quality, and confirms that the days of a rural, untouched, and miraculous reality, which once seemed so timeless, represents little more than a relic of the continent’s literary and imaginary past.
This renewed dedication to realism permits Alberto Fuguet, in particular, to scrutinize overlooked aspects of everyday life, since the focus shifts from creating new worlds to realistically portraying the one society inhabits and to which it actively gives meaning. In particular, his semi-autobiographical novel Las películas de mi vida, published simultaneously in English and Spanish in 2003, offers a literary and highly visual mapping of what Marc Augé has called non-places (1995), or the quotidian spaces that are both the product and emblem of the global era. They are the shopping malls, highways, airports, metro stations, and high-speed Internet connections that dot and define McOndo. Reminiscent of Certeau’s work on the practices of everyday life—which maintains the “city” is really nothing more than, in his words, “the pullulation of passers-by, a network of residences temporarily appropriated by pedestrian traffic”—, movement among these spaces is integral to the novel and its written illustrations of urban terrain (103). As the narrator navigates Los Angeles, California and Santiago, Chile, and in the process traverses international borders, hotel rooms, and suburbia, the novel gives form to a spatial reality in which these cities appear in their totality only by first passing through their vast and interconnected web of discrete non-places.
Although they highlight a solitary, acutely individual experience, the non-places outlined in Las películas de mi vida are neither as dehumanized nor as placeless as they may appear initially.(1) If nothing else, as Fuguet confirmed in a recent interview, these spaces represent the crossroads of the modern era: “se ve la humanidad allí” (Interview with author). Despite the potentially homogenizing effect of these spaces on the city and the individual—one can feel just at home in a Starbucks in Lima, Peru, as in Chicago, IL, for example (2)—there’s something distinctly human about the way the narrator incorporates them into his search for meaning, as he literally and figuratively retraces his family’s trajectory between the United States and Chile. In this way, the novel appears to confirm Andreas Huyssen’s observation that memory serves, according to him, to “anchor ourselves in a world characterized by an increasing instability of time and the fracturing of lived space” (qtd. in Hidalgo 3). The narrator connects his memory with space as he moves from non-place to non-place, in an attempt to give meaning to the present and impose a sense of order on a rapidly changing world. Therefore, in addition to recreating the globalized cities of Los Angeles and Santiago—honed by a finely-tuned attention to realism—the protagonist also reterritorializes the non-places of these urban centers as much by moving through them as the threads of memory he uses to bind them together. Along this route—which finds him between continents, the past and present tense—he recounts the story of his life, constructs cities of transit, and allows memory to gain new ground in the form of non-places.
Before delving into
novel, this analysis will benefit from first exploring in greater
Augé’s theory of supermodernity and the spaces of non-places. In
contrast to postmodernism, which heralded the end of modernity and its
narratives, supermodernity represents an excess of this period and its
principles. Among these surpluses, Augé dedicates a considerable
of his study to what he considers an abundance of history and the
(and somewhat ironic) need to give meaning to the present. With help
mass media, events become historical the moment they occur, or more
the instant they are documented and distributed writ large. Be this as
Augé is quick to set himself apart from postmodern thinkers by
explaining that—despite this apparent leveling of historical
events—the world still has meaning:
What is new is not that the world lacks meaning… it is that we seem to feel an explicit and intense daily need to give it meaning… This need to give a meaning to the present, if not the past, is the price we pay for the overabundance of events corresponding to a situation we call ‘supermodern’ to express its essential quality: excess (“Introduction” 29).
Giving significance to the present occurs collectively and individually. The French anthropologist draws on historian Pierre Nora’s work to suggest that societies often complete this process by cordoning off urban space as sites of memory, or lieux de mémoire.(3)Thus, the city itself—with its monuments, placards, and museums—becomes a site where society practices and spatializes memory. The individual (which represents another of supermodernity’s excesses) may choose to maneuver or completely avoid these spaces, always aware that her rapidly unfolding past is shaping history.
Since it appears that space and memory are intimately connected, it should not come as a surprise that Augé identifies a surplus of the former as another significant characteristic of supermodernity. Although paradoxical, this excess of space—whether designated as historical or man-made—coincides with a general shrinking of the planet. Satellite technology, for example, makes it possible to view Earth in its entirety, and images can be transmitted from one country to another in real time (31). Likewise, non-places of transit, consumption, and communication make moving through real and virtual space and diffusing the excesses of supermodernity even more efficient.(4) In fact, they differ from anthropological place in precisely that way. If the latter are rooted in a specific terrain and tradition—they are the lived, social spaces of shared history, identity, and language—an apparent lack of meaning defines non-places (52). They are functional and facilitate movement and consumption with the least amount of resistance possible. Non-places exist only in the present inasmuch as they foster individualism instead of long-lasting relationships—transience as opposed to permanence. For this reason, they are what Augé perceives as the real measure of time—and, indeed, of supermodern times—to the extent that they dominate the air and motorways, and, in his words, “mobilize extraterrestrial space for the purposes of a communication so peculiar that it often puts the individual in contact only with another image of himself” (79).
narrator of Las películas de mi
vida, Beltrán Soler, also manipulates these spaces in order
connect with another image of himself: his past as an adolescent coming
Several narrative styles complement the protagonist’s wanderings. Occasional phone conversations with his sister, for example, punctuate the development of the plot, which itself oscillates between Soler’s journey in real time to and from international airports, and his metaphorical trip through the past. They also serve to advance the narration in as few words possible—Beltrán succinctly reports revisions to his itinerary as they occur—and confirm the emotional and physical distance between him and his family. With the exception of these dialogues, use of the first person throughout the rest of the novel confirms its commitment to realism and represents what McOndo authors and Marc Augé (among others) have already identified as a recurring theme in contemporary society: the preeminence of the individual and subsequent transition from “who are we?” to “who am I?”(5) If the telephone conversations corroborate the narrator’s sense of individualism and itinerancy, the first person allows him to impose his sole perspective on the world, bringing into focus the details which give that reality meaning.
Although his movement
present is vital to plot progression, the majority of the novel
the Soler’s recollection of the past, which he recounts in the form of
e-mail. Thus, similar to its narrative structure, the novel also
layering effect of time and space. Following Augé’s logic which
maintains the Internet is as representative of a non-place as, say, an
international airport, the act of converting the story of his life to
electronic file transforms the act of writing into a kind of non-place.
Likewise, the e-mail will presumably travel through virtual space to
recipient, Lindsay, the woman Soler met on the plane and who inspired
chronicle the major events of his life. Beyond just the screen in front
however, the protagonist also finds himself physically sheltered within
non-places. The opening pages establish a context for the rest of the
which he poses a series of rhetorical questions about where he is and
“¿Por qué sigo aún en esta ciudad? ¿Por qué, en vez de hallarme en
Tokio, como era el plan, como estaba estipulado, estoy ahora encerrado
escribiendo como un demente, en una habitación de un Holiday Inn
vista panorámica a la autopista 405?” (“Películas”
4). Soler capitalizes on the economy of language characteristic of
establish—with as little description possible—a completely
unexceptional but recognizable setting. Although he first identifies
Upon establishing that
eventually end up in a hotel room in
Soler’s trip through
capital ends with his arrival to the international airport. Spatial
Be that as it may,
not only remains relevant, but also becomes increasingly important
international airports like the one Soler navigates. In fact, although
Augé dedicates only a small portion of his study to the topic,
important to remember that non-places (and airports in particular) are
secure areas, where one has to prove his citizenship, where he has
why. Soler’s situation presents no exception. Upon
arriving to the airport, he must first pass
through a security checkpoint: “Estoy en la fila de Policía
Internacional, esperando que tecleen el número de mi pasaporte y
gobierno se entere de todas mis entradas y salidas” (24). To a
certain extent, at that moment the protagonist leaves
A parallel also exists
Beltrán’s experience and the boy’s. In the present, each is
traveling to undertake life in another part of the world, but not
certain degree of apprehension. Although at this point it represents
more than a necessary layover for the narrator, both he and the boy are
for a life-transforming stay in
After a flight that
the coast of South and Central America and inspire him to delve into
the narrator offers his second observation of the city of
El avión estaba ya bajo, a punto de aterrizar en medio de la ciudad. Entonces afiné aún más el foco: dos Seven Eleven, una estación Shell, el Forum de Inglewood, la autopista 405 y, de pronto, sin esperarlo, como si lo hubiera visto ayer, el inmenso donut de Randy’s brillando en la noche, a pasos de la calle Ash (55).
Use of this rhetorical devise allows the narrator an even more acute observation of the everyday, which hones his already realistic perspective and descriptions of space. In fact, according to Certeau, “Synecdoche makes more dense: it amplifies the detail and miniaturizes the whole… A space treated in this way and shaped by practices is transformed into enlarged singularities and separate islands” (101). Thus, even before entering his hotel room—itself an island cordoned off by the 405 thoroughfare—it is impossible to perceive the city in its entirety without first observing its singular, quotidian spaces.
Although this may be
the case, the
narrator continues to maintain a personal connection with the city. The
he evokes of
A paradox of non-place: a foreigner lost in a country he does not know (a ‘passing stranger’) can feel at home there only in the anonymity of motorways, service stations, big stores or hotel chains. For him, an oil company logo is a reassuring landmark; among the supermarket shelves he falls with relief on sanitary, household or food products validated by multinational brands (105).
Soler not only observes
non-places, but also credits them with defining the city. For him, it
appear even that
This fact confirms that
in Las Películas de mi vida is
neither as deterritorialized nor as placeless as it may at first
narrator may indeed eventually find himself in a nondescript hotel
room—writing from the edge of a city that appears more like a hologram
than a real place—, but beyond its non-places, the city teems with
lived spaces. In a phone conversation with his sister, Manuela, the
distinguishes between the airport he is traveling through and the city
The narrator continues
this line of
thinking by pointing out that the
La mayoría de la gente que llega a Los Ángeles lo hace por un aeropuerto que no tiene nombre: Aeropuerto Internacional de Los Ángeles, o LAX, que es su código. Siempre me llamó la atención que no tuviera un nombre, que fueran tan provincianos que sintieran que con ‘internacional’ bastaba. El aeropuerto se alza a un costado de la ciudad, en medio del barrio de Inglewood, entre un trozo del Pacífico sin gusto a nada y la feroz autopista 405 (61).
This observation is
especially in light of Augé’s observations about space and
movement in supermodernity. The airport’s name may indeed connect it to
In a similar way, it is
fitting that earthquakes should represent an extended metaphor in this
novel, demonstrating to what extent Earth’s movement continues to
fracture and subsequently reunite cities and entire societies. In light
emphasis placed on the individual, earthquakes remain collective, and
of standardized, man-made places, the earth’s tremors continue to
buildings, fragment space. “Los
terremotos son hitos, puntos aparte, un momento de inflexión, un
megaevento colectivo que nadie pierde, ni siquiera aquellos que no
asistir a nada. En los países donde la tierra se mueve,
generación tiene su propio terremoto,” the narrator observes,
lending credence to the idea that seismic pressure remains a natural
capable of altering the flow of events and movement from one place to
(153). Similar to the way memory appears in and attaches itself to
space—especially that which appears only superficially to be
deterritorialized—references to earthquakes in Las
películas de mi vida literally create fissures in the
earth where they occur, and metaphorically fuse the individual with the
and society she inhabits. It would appear, then, that only an
ground Soler in
On the other hand, although the metaphorical significance of the earthquake holds weight in Las películas de mi vida, it could be that the non-places of supermodernity serve as natural conduits for memory. A tremor connecting the two continents may have served as the catalyst, but the non-places he encounters along his journey allow the protagonist the solitude he needs to recall the past. He is not distracted by endless references to local culture, and therefore may recede into his own memory. Thus, the universal non-places that define globalized cities and transit through them do more to excite memory than deny it. As Soler moves among these places he establishes the textual coordinates of two cities, and in the process, tells a story in which space and memory are inseparable, and the individual is reacquainted with the ground beneath his feet—wherever that may be.
(1). Although transit is what gives shape to urban spaces, Certeau defines movement as inherently placeless: “To walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper” (103). Since non-places commonly facilitate movement in one fashion or another, it is reasonable to assume that they undermine a sense of place. This is, of course, in addition to a universal aesthetic thought to unite these spaces.
(2). Augé contends they even mimic one another, creating a sense of fluidity as the transient body moves from non-place to non-place: “Estos no-lugares se yuxtaponen, se encajan y por eso tienden a parecerse: los aeropuertos se parecen a los supermercados; vemos la televisión en los aviones” (“Sobremodernidad” 129).
(3). In his work Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, Nora credits the acceleration of history with the separation of social memory from history (the way in which modern societies structure the past) and the rapidly expanding designation of sites of memory: “Lieux de mémoire arise out of a sense that there is no such thing as spontaneous memory, hence that we must create archives, mark anniversaries, organize celebrations, pronounce eulogies, and authenticate documents because such things no longer happen as a matter of course. When certain minorities create protected enclaves as preserves of memory to be jealously safeguarded, they reveal what is true of all Lieux de mémoire: that without commemorative vigilance, history would soon sweep them away” (7).
(4). After the publication of his celebrated Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, in which he introduces his theory of non-places, Augé identifies at least three different classifications: the non-places of circulation and transit (airports, gas stations, highways), consumption (supermarkets and hotel chains), and communication (in the form of screens, cables, virtual space) (“Sobremodernidad” 129).
(5). In the prologue to McOndo, Fuguet and Gómez identify this trait in Latin American literature: “El gran tema de la identidad latinoamericana (¿quiénes somos?) pareció dejar paso al tema de la identidad personal (¿quién soy?)” (3).
(6). The narrator describes Paris in much the same way, making the two cities almost completely indistinguishable: “Lo que más recuerdo de esos años parisinos es mi pieza y mi colchón; el McDonald’s de Saint Germain; el restaurante vietnamita del Viejo Lu Man; la FNAC subterráneo de Beaubourg… los afiches de las películas viejas hollywoodenses en los cines—arte que repletaban mi angosta calle y a los que nunca fui a pesar de que, de niño, y luego de adolescente, no hacía otra cosa que devorar la mayor cantidad de películas posibles” (32).
Auge, Marc. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London and New York: Verso Books, 1995.
---. “Sobremodernidad: del mundo tecnológico de hoy al desafío esencial de mañana” In Sociedad mediatizada. Ed. Denis Moraes. Gedisa: Barcelona, 2007: 119-137.
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of
Fuguet, Alterto. Personal interview. 8 August 2008.
Fuguet, Alberto and Sergio Gómez, eds. McOndo: antología de nueva literatura hispanoamiericana. Prologue. Barcelona: Grijalbo-Mondadori, 1996.
Emilse Beatriz. “National/transnational negotiations: the
of the cultural languages in