Writing Across Cultures: Narrative Transculturation in Latin America

By | 31 July, 2012

Ángel Rama’s Writing Across Cultures: Narrative Transculturation in Latin America is a superb piece of work. The Uruguayan Rama is, along with Peru’s Antonio Cornejo Polar and Brazil’s Antonio Candido, one of the leading lights in Latin American literary criticism. Conceived as part of a series entitled Latin America Otherwise: Languages, Empires, Nations, it runs from romanticism through to modernism and provides a forensic analysis of the prevailing philosophical, socio-economic, sociological and anthropological underpinnings. There can be few better studies.

Cultural dynamics

The analysis overlays the literary trends on an anthropological framework which covers: regionalism (self-contained with a given cultural area); transculturation (the toing and froing of cultural ideas); acculturation (the displacement of cultural elements by a dominant culture); deculturation (the subsuming of one culture by another) and neoculturation (the synthesis of ideas to form new cultural expressions).

Rama draws on a multitude of sources (sociological, ethnological, anthropological, historical, linguistic etc.) from luminaries that include: Fernando Ortiz (Cuba), Pedro Henriquez Urena (Dominican Rep.), José Mario Arguedas (Peru) and José Carlos Mariátegui (Peru), plus Vittorio Lanternari, Miguel de Unamuno, Américo Castro, Levi-Strauss, Spencer, Comte and Taine.

Literally ours

Latin America contains four distinct cultural influences, the indigenous, the immigrant (European, Asian and African), the criollo and the mestizo but within them are all manner of complexities and dynamics. The literature of the continent can be traced from criollismo – the self-contained derivative romanticism of the post-independence era (tied to a particular class, character, voice and landscape) – to the variety we see today.

One voice

For much of the 19th century romanticism was the only literature. Indeed, the culture as a whole was free from any input from anywhere else. Indeed, some cultures were so successfully deculturised they were like hats without heads. In those areas with significant indigenous populations, cultural traditions were zealously protected but they existed in a kind of suppressed limbo. Most immigrants, mestizos and blacks were similar culturally devalued and disenfranchised.

Augusto Roa Bastos, the Parguayan novelist, said that finding a voice was like “weaving in the vast historical sweatshop of American society.” The ingredients were all there for a vibrant literature, they just needed the opportunity to be. Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, the Spanish literary critic and historian remarked: “The abundant fertility of nature would give Latin America literature its form.”

The extraordinary thing about this region – packed with languages (e.g. Aymara, Chibcha, Quechua, Nahuatl, Taironas, Tupi, Uto-Aztecan etc.) and cultures prior to colonisation – is that it should have a criollo monoculture for so long. It is all the more surprising given the heterogeneity of the original Iberian colonists (Basques, Gallegos, Andaluces, Portuguese, Catalans, Jews…)

Between 1920-1930, three events changed Latin American culture and literature irreparably: the Mexican revolution; mass European immigration to the cities of the Southern Cone and the exodus from feudalism in the countryside to the rapidly developing cities of the littoral. The US anthropologist, Theodore Caplow, has noted that Latin American cities have more cultural variations than most of their US or European counterparts.

Capital depreciation

Sometimes the provincial tail got to wag the capital dog. Rama notes that the articles written by Marquez in El Heraldo, Barranquilla, in the 1950s showed a dynamism and modernist bent sadly lacking elsewhere. Speaking from his provincial locale in Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Marquez said: “Literary provincialism in Colombia begins at 2,500 metres above sea level [i.e. Bogota].”

From romanticism to post-modernism

Rama himself did much to promote the literary culture of Latin America. Not only was he a prolific editor (Marcha) polemicist, critic, essayist and author (e.g. Lettered City (1984), among others), he was also instrumental in setting up the Biblioteca Ayacucho in 1974, which contains 500 books seminal in the evolution of Latin American literature. He actively promoted the works of Fuentes, Vargas, Marquez and Pacheco to a wider audience.

Rama was something of an evangelist: “Our cultural integration is a revolutionary effort, which, as such, intends to create a future, building the utopian vision of a continent and an ideal society.” To this end he identified independence, originality, representation (local, national, ethnic, cultural, communal) and what the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario referred to as “the personal treasure house” as integral to literature and a necessary defence against homogenisation.

Latin America in its own words

The Brazilian Gilberto Freyre’s Regionalism Manifesto of 1926 noted that the thing about dialogue was you can’t just talk or listen, you have to do both. Freyre noted it was pointless moaning about Santa Claus snowbound tableaux in the shops of Rio and São Paulo if you ignored imported cultural elements elsewhere. There was a bogus notion afoot that regional culture should be inviolate. A process of transculturation gives as well as receives.

Experiments in dialogue and voice gave a different structure to the novel. For the first time some writers started to use dialect. The hidalgo wasn’t the only presence in the drama and he was no longer its sole master in the first or third person. Realism started to come into literature – largely through external influences.

Mañuel González Prada (1844-1918), the Peruvian essayist, anarchist and poet, summed up the prevailing culture in much of the Andes when he said: “We have never initiated reform, never announced a scientific truth, nor produced an immortal book. We do not have men but mere echoes of men; we do not express ideas but repetitions of decrepit and moth-eaten phrases.” There was a pining for colonial past and for literature wrapped in archaic, ornamental language.

Criollo got your tongue?

In this volume Rama focuses on some of the leading works of José Maria Arguedas, notably Yaway Fiesta (1941), Los Rios Profundos (1958) and Todas Las Sangres (1964). A mestizo brought up largely by Quechua-speaking servants, Arguedas, for the first time, gave Quechua a voice with and without Spanish syntax.

He would later go on to win Peru’s Inca Garcilaso de la Vega literary prize in 1968. Until Arguedas, Rama notes that the Indian, the indigeno, was “Exhibit A” in a historical indictment: “What culture existed under the tattered clothes and oppressive injustice was not known to those writing about it.”

¡Che, Vos!

Similarly, other writers, among them Rómulo Gallegos (Venezuela) in his novel Doña Bárbara (1974) and Esteban Echeverria (Argentina) in El Matadero (1871), introduced non-Spanish words or more precisely vernacular idioms and dialect into their works. During Echeverria’s era a hybrid of the romantic tradition with affixed realism often required that dialect be accompanied by inverted commas. By the time Julio Cortázar used vos [you] and che [hey] in his novel Rayuela in 1962; they’d only been part of the Argentine Spanish for 200 years.

Trend setting

Rama singles out certain works such as Grande Sertão: Veredas (1956), Cara de Bronze (1956) and Sagarana (a collection of short stories published in 1962)) by João Guimarães Rosa, plus some of the works of Arguedas and Rulfo, to illustrate the way in which the structure of literature has evolved in terms of influences, form, style, content, character and narration.

The character of Riobaldo in Grande Sertão is a jagunço – an armed hand/bodyguard – but at the same time an educated man in a novel which is at one and the time embraces regionalistic, folkloric and journalistic elements in an appropriation of two worlds – one internal and regional, the other, universal. For Vaqueiro Mariano in A Estoria do Homen do Pinguelo, Guimarães Rosa makes the narrator, who isn’t heard, speak in a colloquial mix of quasca and mineiro.

What João Guimarães Rosa did for the backland people of Brazil’s North East and Juan Rulfo (in Pedro Párimo – 1955) did for the charros (horsemen) of Jalisco (Mexico), López Albujar (Peru) and Jorge Icaza (Ecuador) did for the exploited indigenous peoples of the Andes. Indigenismo and regionalism acted as counterpoints to homogenisation. Similarly, negritude, through the auspices of Fernando Ortiz (Cuba), Nicolás Guillén (Cuba) and Luis Palés Matos (Puerto Rico), found a voice for blacks in the Caribbean.

Travels is indigeno-reality

Perhaps, the last to be published, were the indigenos of the Amazon. In Antes O Mundo Não Existia (1995) – written by Umusĩ Pãrõkumu and Tõrãmũ Kẽhíri (members of the Desana-Kẽhíripõrã tribe) – what’s striking is not just what it tells you about their concept of reality and their mythology, but the fact it’s the first time they’ve narrated their own story as literature.

Although writers like Colombia’s José Eustasio Rivera, [La Vorágine (1924)] and Marcio Souza [Galvez, Imperador do Acre (1976)], in their different ways commented on the Amazon, they did so as interpreters of the actions and thoughts of others. Márcio Souza is acutely aware of this when he says: “Amazonian history is the most official, the most deformed, embedded in the most backward, the most superficial, the most bureaucratic tradition in all of Brazilian historiography.” Souza went on to describe Nunes Pereira’s Morongueta, as an Indian Decameron, Dionysian and Apollonian in a single creative force which had no separation between the manual and the intellectual; the poet and the philosopher or living and being.

The literary hypermarket

Other influences crept in during the first three decades of the 20th century, including social realism, nativism, humanism, surrealism and socialism, among them. El Tungsteno (1931) by César Vallejo and Mamita Yunai (1941) by Costa Rican Carlos Luis Fallas, were infused with a social purpose. These in turn would give way to avant-gardism and a certain experimentalism found in the works of Argentine writers like Jorge Luis Borges’ Tlon, Uqbar, Tertius Orbis (1940) and Julio Cortázar, Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes and Cuba’s Alejo Carpentier, who all in their own ways railed against the stagnation between 1930-1950 in literary techniques.

This book is likely to take up residence on the reading list of a humanities course. This is a great pity because it is worth reading it is own right and for its copious notes and references.

Writing Across Cultures: Narrative Transculturation in Latin America is written by Ángel Rama, edited and translated by David Frye and published by Duke University Press. The book is available from Amazon among other book retailers.


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