Una vida de novela:

Martha Mercader and the Contemporary Argentine Historical Novel


Beatriz Urraca

                            Widener University

para María Gabriela Mizraje

The Argentine writer and politician Martha Mercader (1) is well known for novels that explore the relationship between literature and history. In Juanamanuela, mucha mujer (1980) and Belisario en son de guerra (1984), the fictional rewriting of historical facts and characters provides a platform for reconsidering the role of women in writing national history and forming national identity. This is achieved through the six techniques that, according to Seymour Menton, characterize the New Historical Novel: the application of three philosophical ideas popularized by Borges (the impossibility of ascertaining the true nature of reality or history, the cyclical nature of history, and the unpredictability of history), the conscious distortion of history, the utilization of famous historical characters as protagonists, metafiction, intertextuality, and heteroglossia (Menton 1993:22-25).

Mercader's latest novel, entitled Vos sabrás (2001), conforms to Menton’s paradigm, perhaps too closely, as if she were familiar with the book and had decided to create the "perfect new historical novel." Published after Menton’s treatise, which already includes one of Mercader’s earlier novels in its list of "new historical" titles, Vos sabrás is an example of a post-modern historical novel whose techniques reflect preexisting theories of the novel, instead of the usual cycle in which literary practice precedes literary theory.(2) Here we will focus on her use of one of the characteristics listed by Menton—intertextuality—to create a bond between Spain and Latin America, between present and past, and between history and literature. In this novel, the narrator, an aging writer, reflects upon her great-great-grandfather’s role in Latin America’s nation-building period, while also having a solid grasp on the present time through her daily relationship with her grandchildren. Instead of focusing on historical icons, those represented by equestrian statues or street names, this novel brings ordinary people to life, extending back from present-day Argentina, the locus of the narrative voice, to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Spain, Brazil, and Uruguay. Through a plot that tells the story of several generations of an invented family’s history, Vos sabrás portrays national identity as part of a broad chronological and geographical continuum that spans two centuries and two continents, united on the surface by an ongoing fight for freedom but also, more deeply, by a shared literary tradition which in turn ties them to the rest of Western culture. Chronologically, the novel begins with the events that led to the signing of the Spanish Constitution of 1812 in Cádiz, with the narrator providing some necessary historical knowledge otherwise deprived from the reader by the scant information available from her great-great-grandfather, whose life in the Americas begins on a clean slate after he becomes shipwrecked off the coast of Brazil with nothing but fragmented memories to his name. The close political and cultural links with Spain re-emerge through the narrator’s detailed knowledge of her father’s resistance to the dictatorship in Argentina during the 1930s, which she compares to Franco’s regime, and through her own activities opposing the Videla dictatorship during the 1970s.

The use of intertextuality in Vos sabrás reminds us of Julia Kristeva’s assertion that "any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations."(3) It is indeed impossible to detach the plot of Mercader’s novel from the complex web of literary allusions and historical references it contains, as we witness the growth of a narrator delving into her own personal and collective past to reflect on what it means to be an aging woman who confronts a rapidly changing world convinced that history will inevitably repeat itself. Through literary references, most of which are rewritten, transformed, and appropriated—but seldom acknowledged—, she devises a means to connect herself to a past that transcends national borders and historical periods. At the end of the novel, this connection extends into the future, embodied in her young grandson’s rock band. On the last page, Rafael decides to rename the band after something his grandmother proposes: "Suena bien, ¿no? Se lo voy a proponer a los chicos: ‘Los vosabrás’" (Mercader 2001:295).

Mercader has often described the thorough ten-year research process that resulted in the publication of Juanamanuela, mucha mujer. She waded through published and unpublished documents and traveled to Bolivia and to Salta in Northern Argentina in search of information regarding a real person that her words would ultimately bring to life as a fictional character. (4) No such research or reliance on conventional historical epistemology informs Vos sabrás, a deliberate decision on Mercader’s part (Moreno 2001). Presented with the option of visiting Brazil, where most of the novel takes place, Mercader opted instead for the description of a place unknown to her: "Esto lo va a contar un personaje que no conoce lo que es el Brasil y de esa manera valorizo la historia oral" (Moreno 2001). So says the author, but the narrator expresses a different reason for basing her novel on invention: despite the advances in communications and technology, she laments the dearth of historical sources, and oral history offers no additional advantage: "Las bibliotecas públicas me están resultando relativamente útiles. Mis visitas a parientes aportan poco y nada; mis propios recuerdos no son de fiar" (Mercader 2001:44).

Therefore, what takes the place of written history is not oral history—that part of the novel, Mercader cautions, is entirely invented—, but written literary tradition itself. In his discussion of orality and literacy, Walter Ong addresses the issue of intertextuality with regard to the "finality" or "closure" of the printed text:

Intertextuality refers to a literary and psychological commonplace: a text cannot be created simply out of lived experience. A novelist writes a novel because he or she is familiar with this kind of textual organization of experience… Print culture…tends to feel a work as ‘closed’, set off from other works, a unit in itself. (Ong 1982:133)

This argument arises, as Ong himself acknowledges, from Harold Bloom’s notion that modern writers suffer from anguish at the thought that they may be producing nothing new. But in the post-modern world in which Mercader writes, this dialogic relationship with one’s literary forebears is used deliberately as a device to deconstruct the finality of the printed text. Her narrator engages in a constant dialogue with her readers, with herself, her predecessors, descendants, computers, and earlier writers as a way to defend her text against that finality, that definitiveness which characterizes conventional history.(5) For her, literature consists of dialogue and exchange, and her words appeal, in their self-reflexivity, for an answer that will transform the written page into the site of a true communicative encounter. She seems to wish, in other words, that her text itself were an oral production, unconstrained by print culture. To solve this conundrum, she transforms the texts of others, and the invented oral words of her invented family, beginning with her own. Intertextuality dominates the discourse of this novel, demanding much from a reader who must at least partly share the collective literary memory that Mercader evokes in order to fully comprehend the world she creates.

Mercader repeatedly references her own previous literary efforts in Juanamanuela. Like Gorriti returning to Buenos Aires late in life to attend a public celebration of her father’s achievements, Carolina Pérez, the narrator of Vos sabrás, begins this new novel by attending a public ceremony honoring her father, replete with speeches, monuments, and other paraphernalia of History. But the textual homage occurs within the pages of the book, as she embarks, like Gorriti, on a search for her own identity prefaced by two questions: "¿Qué heredé de él? ¿Qué me transmitió mi madre, la gran olvidada?" (Mercader 2001:21). Thus, the object of Mercader’s quest becomes the definition of her inheritance. While these questions may refer, on the surface, to genes and familial traits, the novel delves much deeper into its author’s literary forebears. The poets of the past surface repeatedly in Vos sabrás, but instead of creating an overt "anxiety of influence," Mercader employs their words to praise and honor her predecessors, her "family" of writers.

Juanamanuela reappears, like a palimpsest, as Mercader modifies her own metaphors to suit her new literary purposes. For example, in that novel she had repeatedly compared Gorriti’s journal-writing habits to Constable’s custom of making two copies of every painting, one for himself and a second for public display. In Vos sabrás, where the majority of the historical, literary, and artistic references originate in Hispanic traditions, the narrator justifies her lack of interest in accurate historical detail by comparing herself to Goya, "que no se tomaba el trabajo de contar los botones de la chaqueta de Carlos IV ni las horquillas que sostenían el peinado de la condesa de Alba" (Mercader 2001:45). When a friend asks her to contribute ten original recipes to a publication for housewives that ends up launching her literary career and economic self-sufficiency, Carolina further likens herself to Gorriti, "una señora de la clase patricia que se las había arreglado para vender recetarios de cocina [aunque] no sabía ni freír un huevo" (Mercader 2001:50). Her friend’s words echo the genesis of Gorriti’s own cookbook, entitled Cocina ecléctica, compiled from recipes sent to her by female friends from all over Latin America: "Copialas, y si no, las inventás" (Mercader 2001:50). Like Gorriti’s work, Carolina’s previous fictional publications are addressed to a reading public that consists mostly of women interested in articles on fashion and beauty, a type of writing that both women published "con un seudónimo, claro" (Mercader 2001:50). In addition, both writers produce a contrasting set of writings, the fictional journal in Gorriti’s case and the novel we are reading in Carolina’s, which demand an educated reader capable of appreciating the literary and historical significance of their references.

In Juanamanuela, Mercader has the fictional Gorriti spend her last year in Buenos Aires writing an intimate memoir about her failed marriage to the Bolivian President Isidoro Belzú and the various uprisings and revolutions that took place throughout her life. All this occurs in the novel against the backdrop of yet another political revolution in Buenos Aires, and the aging writer becomes, at times, incapable of recalling the current year as she witnesses the demonstrations on the street. Clara Suárez Cruz’s critical work on that novel has focused on how the protagonist seems to split into two separate selves, and seems to live more vividly in the past that her words have constructed than in the present that unfolds outside her window (Suárez Cruz 2002:1-3). In Vos sabrás, another aging writer simultaneously navigates two or more places and times with more ease and humor: "esto de estar al mismo tiempo en un cuarto de Buenos Aires y en una fragata inglesa cabeceando en alta mar y sin brújula me marea y me desorienta" (Mercader 2001:91).

There is, however, one major difference between Juana Manuela Gorriti and Carolina Pérez. Gorriti had close family connections to the history of two nations; her father and uncle had participated directly in the post-independence turmoil of mid-nineteenth-century Argentina, and her ex-husband had become Bolivia’s president. In Vos Sabrás, however, Mercader creates a narrator who must forge those connections out of unreliable testimonies, memories, invention, and the adaptation of fragments of fictional narratives. She ultimately makes her mark through literary connections.

The narrator’s first step is to change her name from Carolina Pérez to Carolina Pimienta. Pérez is the surname she inherits from her great-great-grandfather, Juan Pérez, the Hispanic equivalent of "John Doe." Her new name comes from his wife, who had taken history courses with none other than Hipólito Yrigoyen, Argentina’s first popularly-elected president. Much stronger than this tenuous historical link is the way in which this novel is rooted in the literary history of Spain, Europe, and the Americas. And here is where Mercader makes her reader work, for we must share her store of literary knowledge. Reading Vos sabrás is akin to a game between author and reader, in which the latter is always at a disadvantage, for we can never be sure of having identified every reference unless we engage in the kind of painstaking research that she herself disavows.

In addition to her own work on Gorriti, Mercader draws from a broad spectrum of artists, writers, and literary genres:

1. The oral tradition of the folktale

Carolina’s project of valorizing oral history begins by sorting through her memories of family stories collected by her great-great-grandmother, Carolina da Pimenta, and her sister Catona, who constantly contradict each other. These were later retold to Carolina as a child by her own grandfather. The grandmother figure is contrasted with that in "Little Red Riding Hood": "A la abuela de este cuento, que no es cuento, no se la comió ningún lobo. Ella era capaz de comerse al lobo" (36). Oral tradition is also present in a scene where sailors sit around telling stories, and where Juan José, her great-great-grandfather, claims to have learned more than his twin brother had at the university.

2. Spanish literature.

Carolina’s less-than-humble claims to greatness are followed by a comparison of her narrative with Don Quixote: "Le pasó, no digo lo que a don Quijote con Aldonza Lorenzo, pero casi" (66). Besides the Spanish masterpiece, there is a brief reference to Juan Valera’s novel Genio y figura (261). Many examples are taken from Golden Age drama; the story of Juan José and his brother Germán, identical twins in love with the same woman unaware that she has a relationship with two different men, could have come straight out of the plays of Tirso de Molina. Carolina admits that she would have preferred to write literature and drama like Lope de Vega’s, and laments the fact that modern DNA technology has made comedies that depend on mistaken identity impossible (Mercader 2001:227). A veiled reference to Unamuno’s Sentimiento trágico de la vida (Mercader 2001:124) represents the essay genre. As for poetry, Carolina is a great fan of Antonio Machado, whose verse she recites from memory (Mercader 2001:219); the image of Juan José sailing to the Americas "medio desnudo, quiero decir sin equipaje" (Mercader 2001:92) paraphrases the last stanza of Machado’s poem "Retrato":

...Y cuando llegue el día del último viaje,
y esté al partir la nave que nunca ha de tornar,
me encontraréis a bordo, ligero de equipaje,
casi desnudo, como los hijos de la mar. (Machado 1962)

Another poetic image from the novel originates in an anecdote allegedly transmitted through generations, in which a dead man is placed upon a horse by his brother:

Lo vistió con elegancia, y con ayuda de sus hijos lo montó en su mejor flete, ató bien sus piernas debajo de la panza del caballo, le colocó bajo la barbilla una estaca con una horqueta en la punta que también sujetó al recado para que la cabeza se mantuviera firme, más firme y altiva que cuando el jinete no era un muerto sino un triste enfermo, y así lo vieron pasar los gauchos del lugar… (Mercader 2001:203-204)

This image gives life to many literary horsemen,(6) among them El Cid and the one in García Lorca’s "Canción de jinete":

Caballito negro.
¿Dónde llevas tu jinete muerto? (García Lorca 1964)

3. Latin American literature

The father of the Latin American family saga, Gabriel García Márquez, could not be absent from a story involving a family’s multiple generations. It is impossible not to recall his trademark naming technique in Cien años de soledad as we try to determine the identities of the multiple Rafaeles, Juan José’s—there is even a Juan José Segundo—, Germanes, and Carolinas. The narrator exploits the potential for humor from this confusion as she apologizes to us by switching from one Rafael to another without warning: "Perdón, cambié de sujeto sin avisar. Hablo de Rafael el gaditano" (Mercader 2001:226). Mercader also owes a great debt to gaucho literature, with recurring references to Martín Fierro, from which she draws for her portrayal of Brazilian gaúchos:

Los gauchos, no es que no puedan reír sino que han decidido que la vida es algo serio, y la sonrisa está de más, por lo menos en público. Suelen ser socarrones, pero por lo general no descienden a la sonrisa, creyendo que rebaja su hombría. Se han esculpido a sí mismos con gesto hierático. Martín Fierro, que yo sepa no se rió nunca. (Mercader 2001:176)

The reference to Martín Fierro is crucial for understanding Mercader’s concept of pan-American identity, for that quintessential Argentine figure is evoked here in a Brazilian context, uniting the two nations in their common colonial past and its cultural equivalents. The voice of Martín Fierro bursts into a scene in which the narrator is trying to describe a gaucho’s death:

¡No, no y no!
Quise oír a un gaúcho brasileiro y se interpuso la voz de Martín Fierro. Mea culpa: describir como real una escena ilusoria es deshonesto. Es insalubre. No tengo la menor idea de cómo lo mataron a Juan José. Lo único que se transmitió de generación en generación, sin detalles, fue esto. (Mercader 2001:209

Thus, she upholds literature as a more solid link to the past than oral history, because oral transmission lacks the consistent detail and emotional impact of literary icons.

4. World literature

Vos sabrás also includes Shakespearean scenes, whales attacking ships reminiscent of Melville (274), a comparison of weaving and knitting with history that reminds us of Homer’s Penelope (Mercader 2001:235),(7) a reference to Carroll’s Cheshire Cat (Mercader 2001:176) and another to Byron’s Don Juan (Mercader 2001:72), as well as a character who had been a barber in Cádiz and thus evokes Rosini’s opera The Barber of Seville (Mercader 2001:95). There is a three-page-long discussion of the errors Dumas’s biography of Garibaldi, a work whose fate Carolina tries very emphatically to avoid:

Dispongo expresamente que, en caso de morirme antes de llegar a la última página de este libro, bajo ningún concepto se le entregue el material a un sosías de Alejandro Dumas padre (del hijo tampoco). Me hago responsable de mis propios pecados históricos y literarios, ¡pero por Dios, que no me adjudiquen más datos erróneos, más énfasis gratuitos, más incoherencias de las que yo sola soy capaz de cometer! (Mercader 2001:184-86)

Finally, there is also an allusion to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper": "agua, nubes y horizonte, huellas que sólo conocen los delfines y las ballenas pero si levanto la vista lo único que veo es el marchito, inmemorial empapelado de mi cuarto" (Mercader 2001:91). In Gilman’s story, a woman afflicted with depression becomes confined in a room with a faded yellow wallpaper. As her mental state deteriorates, her obsession leads her to see her own double imprisoned behind the paper’s intricate pattern. In contrast, Carolina’s ability to put her own doubling into words while also making light of it, dissipates any concerns about madness and turns our attention, instead, to the rich store of her literary consciousness.

Ultimately, the novel belies its author’s statement about valorizing oral history. Despite the large number of pages devoted to Juan José, the narrator’s great-great-grandfather whose story has supposedly been transmitted orally, the protagonist is actually the narrator, Carolina. The multiple identities created by this pseudo-autobiography are constructed by means of a web of literary allusions to many other forebears whose writings enliven the various episodes in the adventures of Juan José and his descendants. They help create an emotional bond with the reader, solve the problem of fading memory as it becomes linked to preexisting texts and future music, and even attempt to answer to the question of how to achieve immortality. Carolina revives other texts, including her own, demonstrating that literary discourse, rather than history, provides access to permanence, transformation, and renewal. As a narrator, Carolina is constantly present in her story, always reminding the reader of the process of writing, her feelings about what she writes, her techniques to fictionalize history and, above all, about who her true ancestors were.


(1). Born in La Plata, Argentina, in 1927, Martha Mercader is the author of short stories, historical novels, children’s literature, journalistic pieces, and drama as well as cinema, radio, and television scripts. She was Undersecretary of Culture for the Province of Buenos Aires from 1963 to 1966, and from 1993 to 1997 she was a national Congresswoman.

(2). Here Mercader follows in the footsteps of other novels from the Río de la Plata, such as Cristina Peri Rossi’s La nave de los locos or Ricardo Piglia’s Respiración artificial, which seem to be deliberately written for theory or as a form of theory.

(3). Quoted in Menton 1993:23.

(4). In connection with his detailed study of Yo el supremo and El siglo de las luces, Peter Elmore argues that the "espectro de alusiones" and the "manejo erudito de fuentes" becomes "un rasgo expresivo,…una marca de estilo" in the contemporary historical novel (Elmore 1997:35-36). He refers to the documentary work added to many of these works by their authors, which sometimes includes bibliographies and acknowledgments, all of which are notoriously absent from Juanamanuela, mucha mujer, to the annoyance of some readers. I am indebted to Mary Berg for this observation.

(5). This concept is also consistent with Peter Elmore’s notion of discourse, of "works" as "la única inmortalidad disponible en el mundo moderno" (Elmore 1997:16).

(6). This image, which originates in the Fouth Horseman of the Apocalypse (Death), also inspired Washington Irving’s "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," among other works and figures.

(7). This is a common theme in Latin American literature as well. See, for example, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.

Works Cited

Elmore, Peter. La fábrica de la memoria: La crisis de la representación en la novela histórica. Lima: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997.

García Lorca, Federico. Obras completas. Madrid: Aguilar, 1964.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Machado, Antonio. Obras completas. Madrid: Plenitud, 1962.

Menton, Seymour. Latin America’s New Historical Novel. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.

Mercader, Martha. Vos sabrás. Buenos Aires: Norma, 2001.

Moreno, María. "Adiós al invierno." Página 12 (December 14, 2001) http://www.pagina12.com.ar/2001/suple/Las12/01-12/01-12-14/NOTA1.HTM (accessed May 9, 2005).

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World. London: Methuen, 1982.

Suárez Cruz, Clara Agustina. "El espacio femenino en la nueva novela histórica hispanoamericana – una lectura de Juanamanuela mucha mujer de Martha Mercader." Congresso Brasileiro de Hispanistas (Oct 2002).