Oswaldo Zavala
The Dissertation Committee for Oswaldo Zavala certifies that this is the approved
version of the following dissertation:
César Salgado, Supervisor
Jean Bessière, Co-Supervisor
Enrique Fierro
Alain Suberchicot
Nicolas Shumway
Oswaldo Zavala, B.A.; M.A.
Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of
the University of Texas at Austin
in Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements
for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
The University of Texas at Austin
August 2006
The writing of these pages would not have been possible without the boundless
help of Professor Jean Bessière, whose guidance enriched my understanding of literature
and inspired the theoretical approach of this investigation. I am equally grateful to
Professor César Salgado, who accommodated the academic peculiarities of this joint
degree and whose commitment to the research and teaching of Latin American literature
is exemplary. My heartfelt thanks are also offered to Professor Enrique H. Fierro for his
extraordinary generosity, intellectual stimulation, illuminating company, friendship and
mentorship. I appreciate, as well, the support of Rebecca Pollack, whose comments and
editing substantially improved the final version of this text. I thank the support of my
parents, María del Rosario Espinoza and Rosendo Zavala, whose passion for teaching and
dedication to their students are my model in this career.
I dedicate this work to Sarah Pollack, whose detailed revision and profound
analysis brought this investigation closer to her intellectual height.
Publication No.___________________
Oswaldo Zavala, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Austin, 2006
Supervisor: César Salgado
Co-Supervisor: Jean Bessière
These pages propose a literary genealogy that emerges in Latin America with the
Modernismo movement at the end of the 19th century, a current in which literary language
becomes an epistemological phenomenon that manifests along with the crisis of
modernity, analyzed by French philosopher Michel Foucault. This possibility of literature
challenges the stability of the modern subject, shatters our notion of teleological
continuity and opens up a realm of a pure experience of language.
To produce a genealogy, this investigation undertakes the study of four post-boom
novels written about Mexico: Los detectives salvajes (1998) by Roberto Bolaño (Santiago
de Chile 1953 — Blanes 2003), Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe (1998)
by Daniel Sada (Mexicali 1953), La cresta de Ilión (2002) by Cristina Rivera Garza
(Matamoros 1964) and A pesar del oscuro silencio (1992) by Jorge Volpi (Mexico 1968).
Literary history, from this perspective, does not obey the chronological appearance of
works as literature and tradition become fragmentary and discontinuous, without an
origin or stable identity.
The present study will consider the notion of infinity through four textual
strategies traced in the works of Borges and reencountered in the four novels mentioned
above: 1) The radical exhaustion of language: A proliferation of words —their
duplication, modification and destruction— denotes the unstable condition of a fiction
that pursues its own limits. 2) The expanding void of the absence of the œuvre: Deriving
the concept from Maurice Blanchot’s theories, this dissertation argues that the
impossibility of writing about what Foucault calls the “unthought” is one of modernity’s
ultimate crises. 3) The destabilizing presence of the other threatening the unity of the
same: Heterogeneity splinters our notions of individuality and identity, reflecting
identity’s changing nature. 4) Transgression and madness: A disruptive approach to
language that challenges both the coherence of the subject and the logical flow of the
literary text. The (re)definition of infinity that Borges inscribed in his literature will let its
presence be felt in each line of this investigation, hoping to produce new avenues for the
study of contemporary Latin American narrative.
I.1 Infinity in 20th Century Hispanic American Narrative .......................................9
I.1.1 Case Study One: Words and the Boom...................................................9
I.1.2 Case Study Two: The Post-Boom and Mexico.....................................14
I.1.3 Literature, Foucault and Genealogy .....................................................17
I.1.4 Methodological Refinements................................................................25
I.2 The Genealogy of Genealogy: From Nietzsche to Foucault.............................31
I.2.1 Genealogy and Its Precursors ...............................................................31
I.2.2 Nietzsche and The Genealogy of Morals .............................................33
I.2.3 Foucault’s Archeology .........................................................................36
I.2.4 The Death of Man.................................................................................41
I.2.5 Archeology and Postmodernism...........................................................47
I.2.6 The Birth of Literature and the Death of the Author............................52
I.3 Constructing a Literary Genealogy of Infinity .................................................62
I.3.1 Time Lost, Time Overcome..................................................................62
I.3.2 The Genealogical Design......................................................................64
I.3.3 “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”..........................................................68
I.3.4 Literature to Infinity .............................................................................72
I.3.5 The Genealogy of Literary Infinity in Mexican Narrative ...................81
II.1 Mr. Hyde .........................................................................................................87
II.1.1 Two Genealogies, Two Borges ...........................................................87
II.1.2 The Anti-humanist...............................................................................98
II.1.3 Borges and His Successors................................................................107
II.2 Borges and Infinity: The French Decoding...................................................113
II.2.1 Waiting for the Epistemic Change ....................................................113
II.2.2 Writing and the Supplement: Derridean Dissemination ...................117
II.2.3 The Reading Continuum of Genette and Caillois .............................125
II.2.4 Blanchot and the Discovery of Literary Infinity ...............................130
II.2.5 A Founder of Discursivity: The Foucauldian Rupture......................134
II.3 The Exit Door of the Library of Babel..........................................................141
II.3.1 The Reader and the Library: “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote”.....141
II.3.2 The Radical Exhaustion of Language: “La biblioteca de Babel”......147
II.3.3 The Absence of Œuvre: “El milagro secreto”...................................152
II.3.4 The Same, The Other: “El sur” .........................................................156
II.3.5 Transgression: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” ....................................159
II.3.6 Literary Infinity: A Garden of Forked Paths.....................................164
III.1 Daniel Sada and Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe: The
Radical Exhaustion of Language ................................................................169
III.1.1 Staring Directly at the Sun...............................................................169
III.1.2 From Mexico to Mágico ..................................................................176
III.1.3 The Sadean Discourse......................................................................180
III.1.4 The Narrating Multiplicity...............................................................185
III.1.5 Comala Abandoned..........................................................................191
III.1.6 The Solitude of Literary Language ..................................................195
III.2 Roberto Bolaño and Los detectives salvajes: The Absence of the Œuvre...203
III.2.1 The Lesson in Seville.......................................................................203
III.2.2 The Artifice and the Precipice .........................................................208
III.2.3 The Author Function........................................................................217
III.2.4 Behind the Window .........................................................................225
III.2.5 Corollary ..........................................................................................232
IV.1 Cristina Rivera Garza and La cresta de Ilión: The Same, the Other ...........237
IV.1.1 On the Crest of the Border...............................................................237
IV.1.2 The Twilight of Identity...................................................................242
IV.1.3 Withdrawal ......................................................................................249
IV.1.4 The Other of Language....................................................................255
IV.1.5 A Dynamic and Fluid Forum...........................................................262
IV.2 Jorge Volpi and A pesar del oscuro silencio: Transgression.......................268
IV.2.1 Cosmopolitanism and Mexican Modernity .....................................268
IV.2.2 A History of Silences.......................................................................274
IV.2.3 The Anxiety of Genealogy...............................................................279
IV.2.4 Jorge and Cuesta ..............................................................................284
IV.2.5 The Freedom of Modern Narrative..................................................291
PRÉFACE : La quête de la modernité .................................................................306
CHAPITRE I: La généalogie, l’infini et l’histoire littéraire ................................312
CHAPITRE II : Le facteur Borges : revisiter le Canon .......................................330
CHAPITRE III : L’infini regagné........................................................................340
CHAPITRE IV : L’infini continue ......................................................................360
ÉPILOGUE : Modernité, encore et toujours........................................................377
The world has rather once again become for us ‘infinite’: insofar as we cannot reject the
possibility that it contains in itself infinite interpretations.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Pour l’instant je voudrais me borner à indiquer que, dans ce qu’on appelle globalement
un commentaire, le décalage entre texte premier et texte second joue deux rôles qui sont
solidaires. D’une part, il permet de construire (et indéfiniment) des discours nouveaux : le
surplomb du texte premier, sa permanence, son statut de discours toujours réactualisable,
le sens multiple ou caché dont il passe pour être détenteur, la réticence et la richesse
essentielles qu’on lui prête, tout cela fonde une possibilité ouverte de parler. Mais,
d’autre part, le commentaire n’a pour rôle, quelles que soient les techniques mises en
œuvre, que de dire enfin ce qui était articulé silencieusement là-bas. Il doit, selon un
paradoxe qu’il déplace toujours mais auquel il n’échappe jamais, dire pour la première
fois ce qui cependant avait été déjà dit et répéter inlassablement ce qui pourtant n’avait
jamais été dit. Le moutonnement indéfini des commentaires est travaillé de l’intérieur par
le rêve d’une répétition masquée : à son horizon, il n’y a peut-être rien d’autre que ce qui
était à son point de départ, la simple récitation. Le commentaire conjure le hasard du
discours en lui faisant la part : il permet bien de dire autre chose que le texte même, mais
à condition que ce soit ce texte même qui soit dit et en quelque sorte accompli. La
multiplicité ouverte, l’aléa sont transférés, par le principe du commentaire, de ce qui
risquerait d’être dit, sur le nombre, la forme, le masque, la circonstance de la répétition.
Le nouveau n’est pas dans ce qui est dit, mais dans l’événement de son retour.
Michel Foucault, L’ordre du discours
En este mundo cotidiano,
que se parece tanto
al libro de las Mil y Una Noches,
no hay un solo acto que no corra el albur
de ser una operación de la magia,
no hay un solo hecho que no pueda ser el primero
de una serie infinita.
Me pregunto qué sombras no arrojarán
estas ociosas líneas.
Jorge Luis Borges, “El tercer hombre”
This is a study of modern narrative, of the latest manifestations of a tradition
initiated at the end of the 19th century with the irruption of the modernistas in Latin
America. Two ideas inspire the approach pursued in my analysis of four Mexican novels
written in the last decade of the 20th century: one by Jorge Luis Borges and another by
Octavio Paz, pronounced during separate conferences as part of the prestigious Norton
lectures series at Harvard University. In his visit to that institution in the fall of 1967,
Borges recalled his ideas about literature as a young man. Among other problems, one
that occupied his first writings was that of being a modern writer:
Entonces incurrí en un error muy común: hice cuanto pude por ser —entre todas
las cosas— moderno. Hay un personaje en los Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre de
Goethe que dice: “Sí, puedes decir de mí lo que te parezca, pero nadie negará que
soy un contemporáneo”. No veo diferencia entre ese personaje absurdo de la
novela de Goethe y el deseo de ser moderno. Porque somos modernos; no
tenemos que afanarnos en ser modernos. No es un caso de contenidos ni de estilo
(Arte poética 134).
As he came to terms with being modern, Borges abandoned the avant-garde
experimentation of his “ultraist” years. And although he resolved this issue with certain
facility, for Paz the answer would not come so easily. In his visit to Harvard in the spring
of 1972, Paz formulated one of his most celebrated statements about modernity, calling it
the “tradition of rupture.” As the unfolding of a series of avatars, modernity is considered
to be the constant transformation of a literary discourse that, in order to prevail, must
once and again produce its self-negation throughout different generations, literary
movements and tendencies. Paz makes an important distinction between modernity as the
historical process of Western culture and the phenomenon of modern literature. The
latter, he writes, is always opposed to modern times, if by these we understand the
Enlightenment, the critique of pure reason, liberalism, positivism and Marxism:
La modernidad nunca es ella misma: siempre es otra. Lo moderno no se
caracteriza únicamente por su novedad, sino por su heterogeneidad. Tradición
heterogénea o de lo heterogéneo, la modernidad está condenada a la pluralidad: la
antigua tradición era siempre la misma, la moderna es siempre distinta. La
primera postula la unidad entre el pasado y el hoy; la segunda, no contenta con
subrayar las diferencias entre ambos, afirma que ese pasado no es uno sino plural.
Tradición de lo moderno: heterogeneidad, pluralidad de pasados, extrañeza
radical. Ni lo moderno es la continuidad del pasado en el presente ni el hoy es hijo
del ayer: son su ruptura, su negación. Lo moderno es autosuficiente: cada vez que
aparece, funda su propia tradición ("Los hijos del limo" 333-34).
The present study hopes to synthesize both ideas of modernity. With Borges, I wish to
defend the idea that all contemporary literature is modern because it cannot be anything
else: if Rimbaud sought to be absolutely modern, it was his search itself that granted him
that status. Modernity is the possibility of reinventing oneself, the constant desire to be
something other, as Baudelaire also concluded. With Paz, these pages attempt to analyze
some of the main characteristics of modernity in contemporary Hispanic American
narrative. How can we describe the different expressions of modern narrative across the
20th century? How can we conceive our literary tradition in its unity and in its series of
It is precisely the irruption of modernismo in our tradition that marked the
beginning of “cosmopolitanism” in Hispanic literature, and for critic Pedro Henríquez
Ureña, it established a literary current of “purely artistic ends” (185). The present
investigation contends that this trend continues in the avant-garde movements of the
1920’s and 30’s, peaks in the works of Borges, and maintains a strong presence in the
writing of various contemporary authors across the continent. A genealogy of literature
emerges from this current, in which literary language becomes an epistemological
phenomenon that is made manifest along with the crisis of modernity, as analyzed by
French philosopher Michel Foucault. This possibility of literature challenges the stability
of the modern subject, shatters our notion of teleological continuity and opens a pure
experience of language.
To achieve a genealogical analysis, this investigation undertakes the study of four
post-boom Mexican novels: Los detectives salvajes (1998) by Roberto Bolaño1 (Santiago
de Chile 1953 — Blanes 2003), Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe (1998)
by Daniel Sada (Mexicali 1953), La cresta de ilión (2002) by Cristina Rivera Garza
(Matamoros 1964) and A pesar del oscuro silencio (1992) by Jorge Volpi (Mexico 1968).
The construction of a genealogy will show how literary movements, which in the surface
seem antagonistic, in fact originate from within the same epistemological possibility.
Literary history, from this perspective, does not obey the chronological appearance of
works. The ordered succession of generations and movements, as seen by the traditional
pedagogical critic, holds little or no interest for a genealogy because literature and
tradition become fragmentary and discontinuous, without an origin or stable identity.
To account for the most recent works of this genealogy, the present study will
consider the notion of infinity, traced as a literary strategy in the works of Borges, and
1 Although born in Chile, Bolaño lived for various years in exile in México after the 1973 military coup
d’état that overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. The fact that Bolaño
based Los detectives salvajes on his personal biography and his years spent in Mexico, have led many
critics to consider it a “Mexican” novel, as I will discuss in the third chapter of this investigation.
reencountered in the four novels mentioned above. “Infinity” is described here using four
textual categories: 1) The radical exhaustion of language: A proliferation of words —
their duplication, modification and even their destruction— denotes the unstable
condition of a fiction that pursues its own limits. 2) The expanding void of the absence
of the œuvre: Deriving this concept from Maurice Blanchot’s theories, I argue the
impossibility of affirming the unity of the book and propose, instead, the notion of the
text that is always about to be completed and always about to begin. 3) A destabilizing
presence of the other threatens the unity of the same: Heterogeneity splinters our notions
of individuality and identity, reflecting identity’s changing nature. 4) Transgression and
madness: A disruptive approach to language that challenges both the coherence of the
subject and the logical flow of the literary text.
With these four textual strategies —all present in Borges’ fictions, to which an
entire chapter is devoted— this study approaches contemporary narrative written in
Mexico in the 1990’s as an exercise that links the various dimensions of a genealogy of
literary infinity. The definition of infinity that Borges explores in his literature will let its
presence be felt in each line of this investigation, with the hope of producing new
avenues for the study of contemporary Hispanic American narrative. I want to emphasize
that this study is structured as two projects in one: the first is a focalized study of
contemporary Mexican narrative that seeks to establish the principle features of the
evolving trends of post-boom literature. For this goal I have chosen four of the most
representative novels of the latest post-boom generations, mentioned above. The second
project of this dissertation targets a larger theme of Hispanic American literature: a
discussion of literary modernity. My ultimate goal is to provide the reader with a clear
picture of the new trends in post-boom narrative in Mexico (the first project), while
concomitantly reviewing the chief aspects of Hispanic America’s modern literary
tradition that prevails in contemporary narrative today (the second project).
I begin by separating 20th century Hispanic American literature into two main
currents. The first is dedicated to Latin America’s history, identity and culture, and its
political, economic and social implications. Here we find regional, indigenous and neoindigenous novels, and most recently, the majority of the boom narrative works. The
second current commences with the irruption of Latin American modernismo at the end
of the 19th century. In it, language becomes the main source and object for artistic
experimentation. I believe that the modern subject is diluted in this literature, ceding its
central place to language. Naturally, this narrative explores human realities, but these are
reconfigured into effects and images of language.
Nietzsche’s genealogy is appropriated as the methodological design of this
dissertation, but also as an implicit presence of skepticism of Western metaphysics:
instead of the metaphysical search for history’s resolution, the “true” human condition, or
a long-lost ontology, literary language “to infinity” reveals the superficiality of our
discourse and its absence of any depth. If the surface of language seems impenetrable, it
is not because, beneath it, lies the most important secret of the human experience, but
because there is no beyond language. If we could dismantle its surface, we would only
discover a never-ending void of silence. We dwell on the surface precisely because that
silence would be intolerable. And so we face, instead, a language in continuous
reformulation, challenging its own limits, reflecting itself in a space created by and for its
own shifting structure. A language searching unceasingly for its other is a language that
ultimately desires its own exhaustion, transgressing its own being and never allowing a
final version of itself to exist as a univocal œuvre. Such a language is present nowhere
else in our culture: it only exists in the radical dynamism of a literature, always about to
be completed and always about to begin, to infinity.
I.1 Infinity in 20th Century Hispanic American Narrative
I.1.1 Case Study One: Words and the Boom
“Nada más difícil que establecer un canon aceptable de los nuevos novelistas,”2
wrote Emir Rodríguez Monegal in his now classic essay on the Hispanic American boom
novelists (El boom de la novela latinoamericana 87), in which he sketched a brief history
of the various novels that put the Latin American continent on the map of world literature
in the second half of the 20th century. With the risk of turning the opening line of these
pages into a case study of Pierre Menardism (I am sure I am not the first one to
experiment these déjà vu symptoms), I reproduce this sentence hoping to read it in an
alternative way, than the manner in which readers originally understood it in the context
of the 1972 book by the Uruguayan professor. Nothing is more difficult, indeed, than
establishing an acceptable canon or history of new novelists. Many have been the
attempts, with unequal success, since our literary tradition became conscious and mindful
of the existence of that which Pedro Henríquez Ureña called, sometime ago, the “literary
currents in Hispanic America.”
Let us take, as an example, the very difficulty Rodríguez Monegal faced in
writing the essay in question. His objective, as he states it in the first pages, was to
discuss the emergence of the so-called boom within the general context of contemporary
Hispanic American literature. He begins by analyzing the evolution of the continent’s
2 “Nothing more difficult than establishing an acceptable canon of the new novelists.” (The translation is
readers, in the raising of the industrialized urban centers from Buenos Aires to Mexico
City. He recalls the importance of the cohesion generated by the Cuban revolution of
1959, linking the intellectual circles of the Latin American left. He then goes on to
explain the importance of Spanish editorial houses, the effect of literary magazines, the
publicity of literary awards such as the “Rómulo Gallegos” (named after the Venezuelan
writer) and the impact of multiple translations. A complex web of ideas, assumptions and
personal opinions become entangled in the essay and thus Rodríguez Monegal, like the
ascending soul that cannot bear the light of God at the end of Sor Juana’s Primero sueño,
pulls back. In his following chapters, he decides to attempt to discern the place of boom
novels by analyzing, in an Aristotelian fashion, the very origins of Hispanic American
literature from colonial times to modernity.
The next two chapters focus on the evolution of narrative and poetic trends. Aside
from the enormity of the project, new problems appear. The first one, he notes, is the
important connection between avant-garde poetry and narrative. The second one,
however, is given even more profound attention: the influence of Jorge Luis Borges
(Buenos Aires 1899 — Geneva 1986). It is impossible, Rodríguez Monegal argues, to
understand what he calls “the process” (62) of this new narrative without considering at
least the three collections of short stories that Borges had published up to that moment:
Historia universal de la infamia (1935), Ficciones (1944) —which includes the stories of
a previous book titled El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941)— and El Aleph
(1949). In only fifteen years, writes Rodríguez Monegal, Borges changed the course of
Hispanic American narrative. Opposing the fictitious nature of literature to the mimetic
aim of realist novels, the critic claims that Borges returns to the “origins” of storytelling,
from the mythic A Thousand and One Nights to what many consider the first modern
novel, Don Quixote. At the end of the chapter, Rodríguez Monegal’s discussion about
Borges extends as a shadow across Hispanic American and Brazilian narrative, touching
the names of João Guimarães Rosa, Juan Rulfo, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Manuel Puig,
Severo Sarduy and Reinaldo Arenas.
It may not be unexpected to the reader that the next chapter opens up with the line
quoted at the beginning of this introduction. How can a canon be traced, when many
novels await a first reading by the leading critics, marginalized from the large editorial
houses? How can we begin to discuss those texts that do receive attention but still lack
serious studies beyond the journalistic review? And how can the weight, importance and
influence of an author like Borges be established, so disproportionately different from his
entire generation? These questions posed by Rodríguez Monegal, still unanswered today,
are enough to disarticulate any attempt to produce a comprehensive canon of any country
or region with a literary tradition. Like Sor Juana, facing the impossibility of truly
understanding the nature of a rose, Rodríguez Monegal fails to grasp the complexity of
one single author, let alone a literary group, a generation, a century.
Perhaps, Rodríguez Monegal ponders, his method chosen was all together erratic,
lacking information and enough historical distance to produce a definitive analysis.
Aware of these limitations, the critic decides to advance his study of the boom novels,
turning the focus to the texts themselves, rather than insisting on the elaboration of a
canon of authors and their works. This change, understandable in the context of the
structuralist and poststructuralist movements in vogue in France, gives a new direction to
Rodríguez Monegal’s work. The approach culminates in the last fifteen pages of his
book, in which he proposes to discuss so-called “novel of language,” searching for the
“main current” of new Hispanic American novels (88) that do not fall under the boom
heading. Among his conclusions, he signals the essential influence of Joyce’s Ulysses
(1922) in that language becomes the most important aspect defining the “system” of each
of these new novels in Latin America. There is no depth, but surface; no stable meaning,
but significations and interpretations; and no compromise or political engagement
assumed other than the act of writing itself (89).
In this last section, Rodríguez Monegal proposes a partition between what seem to
be two major currents of contemporary Hispanic American narrative: on one side, he
selects the names of authors such as Alejo Carpentier, Ernesto Sábato, José María
Arguedas and Gabriel García Márquez, whose literary projects have little in common
with this “novel of language”; on the other side, José Lezama Lima, Julio Cortázar and
Guillermo Cabrera Infante serve as paradigmatic examples of authors who privilege the
linguistic model. Other critics and novelists have perceived this same division, never
fully elaborated by Rodríguez Monegal. I find it summarized in Henríquez Ureña’s
Literary Currents of Hispanic America (1945), in the chapter he devotes to works that
appeared between 1920 and 1940: “Our literature, since then, has run in two channels —
one in which purely artistic ends are in view; another in which the ends in view are social
(185).” Octavio Paz describes the same intuition in the essay that he wrote following
Borges’ death:
Tal vez la literatura tiene sólo dos temas: uno, el hombre con los hombres, sus
semejantes y sus adversarios; otro, el hombre solo frente al universo y frente a sí
mismo. El primer tema es el del poeta épico, el dramaturgo y el novelista; el
segundo el del poeta lírico y metafísico ("El arquero, la flecha y el blanco: Jorge
Luis Borges" 211).
Understanding this distinction, attempting a methodology to explain it based on
philosophical principals, is the first objective of the present investigation. The second
aims at analyzing one of these two “channels” or “themes” — to employ the vocabulary
of Henríquez Ureña and Paz — of contemporary narrative in Mexico. This form of
literature takes the reader not into the progressive timeline of our human existence, but
rather questions the very possibility of time, of progress and of human existence. This
study is not a history of contemporary narrative in the traditional sense, but an argument
for a possibility of understanding contemporary narrative by means of a philosophical
Let us recall the evolution of the problems and respective answers that Rodríguez
Monegal discusses in his essay on the emergence of the Hispanic American boom. He
first declared impossible the task of explaining the boom either by attempting a general
cultural reading of the 20th century in Latin America or by tracing a canon of specific
authors and works. As a result of this methodological failure, he moved on to a semipoststructuralist approach through which he concluded by arguing for the existence of a
“novel of language.” This “main current” distinguishes a novel such as Tres tristes tigres
(1967) from the type of literary experiment of which Carlos Fuentes’ La muerte de
Artemio Cruz (1962) is emblematic. The latter, writes the critic, explores a national
reality (that of Mexico) while the former presents that reality (in this case, Cuba’s) by
means of a sophisticated language game. This division is extended to other writers,
separating Mario Vargas Llosa and García Márquez from Manuel Puig and Severo
Sarduy. The idea, however, is not further explored and Rodríguez Monegal’s essay falls
short of formalizing his findings. The rise of the “novel of language” is never explained
in its relation to the boom, and so the reader is left wondering if this trend is a successor
of the boom (what some call the post-boom3: the narrative produced predominantly after
the 1970’s) or if it was born with some of the boom writers (between the 1950’s and early
I.1.2 Case Study Two: The Post-Boom and Mexico
A discussion of analog circumstances —but of minor proportions— has taken
place in Mexico since the late 1990s. It has to do with the small group of young writers,
born in the 1960s, which began a notorious career after reading a public manifesto in
which they called themselves the group of the “crack4.” With the onomatopoeic sound of
a rupture, they claimed to be stirring the literary currents in Mexico to liberate the young
novelists from the label the successful formula of “magical realism” had left on most
Latin American authors. Taking García Márquez’s works as models, various epigones
pushed the best-seller technique in the US and European editorial markets, setting a trend
3 Among others, the critic Roberto González Echevarría has understood the emergence of a “post-boom”
wave of writers under the critical light of postmodernism, arguing that a defining trend of this literature is
the “recovery of conventional [narrating] forms and themes”. [See: Roberto González Echevarría, "Severo
Sarduy, the Boom and the Post Boom," Latin American Literary Review XV.29 (1987): 59.] I will discuss
this thesis, and that of postmodernism in relation to literary studies (in particular the work of Linda
Hutcheon), in the second part of this chapter.
4 The manifesto was read in Mexico City on August 7, 1996.
that is persistent today: novels that tell amusing stories of our “exceptional” Latin
American reality, where the supernatural, the occult and myth coexist with daily life in
the continent. To “magical realism,” the “crack” writers opposed novels that take place
outside of Latin America and that deal with international topics such as European history,
science, or the hyper-capitalist culture of global communities, including the modern
urban centers of Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Santiago de Chile. The group proposed
to free itself from all telluric formulas in order to write about any possible subject
utilizing any literary technique, a call similar to Paz’s wish for Mexicans to become
contemporaries of all men.
The national media in Mexico and Spain, with little or no tools for analysis,
welcomed the literary outburst, and soon these authors, in particular Jorge Volpi, Ignacio
Padilla and Pedro Ángel Palou, became a best-selling phenomena of Spanish editorial
houses, producing a second boom on a minor scale. Like Vargas Llosa, Cabrera Infante
and Vicente Leñero, Volpi won the “Biblioteca Breve,” a prize that the Barcelona
editorial house Seix-Barral reinstated after being awarded for the last time in 1972. His
winning novel, En busca de Klingsor (1999), was praised by Cabrera Infante as a
“science-fusion,” mixing science and narrative. It is the story of a US scientist
commissioned to investigate the Nazi atomic project at the end of World War II. The
absence of any Mexican motifs led Cabrera Infante to classify it as a “German novel
written in Spanish.”
Despite their rebellious tone, the crack writers literally pay their respects in the
manifesto to various canonical figures such as Borges, Cortázar, Onetti, Rulfo and
Fuentes. The latter has publicly acknowledged his sympathy for the group, praised their
work in several occasions and recognized them as his successors. But as the group’s
popularity increases, so do their statements stressing their neo-cosmopolitanism.
Important intellectual figures in Mexico and elsewhere have criticized this attitude,
arguing that some of the “crack” writers tend to conveniently omit or minimize the
contributions of even the most canonical Hispanic American writers. Christopher
Domínguez Michael has denounced how the “crack” writers —and in particular Ignacio
Padilla— insist on crediting themselves with the introduction of cosmopolitanism to
Hispanic American narrative. In an article, the critic elaborates a brief history of this vein
of Mexican literature:
Al público que Padilla necesita le será muy arduo entender que la tradición central
de la literatura mexicana es una tradición cosmopolita, cuya variedad y cuyos
poderes se expresan a través de Alfonso Reyes, Jorge Cuesta, José Revueltas,
Octavio Paz, Salvador Elizondo, Sergio Pitol y Alejandro Rossi, por citar sólo a
los más grandes. Y me es difícil creer que Padilla pase por alto el caudal que, en
ese sentido, significaron las revistas Plural y Vuelta durante treinta años. Pero,
con tal de posicionarse en el mercado, hay quienes se rebajan a un nivel de
pobretería intelectual que resulta tan indigno como bochornoso ("La patología de
la recepción" 49).
A similar criticism can be found, ironically, in the very words that Padilla wrote for his
share of the “Crack Manifesto”: “The literature that denies its tradition cannot and should
not grow with it5” (Chávez Castañeda, Padilla, Palou, Urroz et al.).
Aside from the polemic, I believe another problem becomes visible in Domínguez
Michael’s article. It is obvious that his argument against the crack’s claims is more than
justified. But the answer should not rest on the mere fact of recognizing a tradition of
5 The original Spanish text was translated here by Celia Bortolin and Scott Miller.
cosmopolitan literature. Similarly, retracing my steps, the essay by Rodríguez Monegal
ends without a more in-depth analysis of his thesis of the “novel of language.” We can
ask ourselves, in the case of Domínguez Michael: What makes a novel or a short story
“cosmopolitan”? How can we define cosmopolitanism? And in the case of Rodríguez
Monegal: What makes a novel or a short story “of language”? How can we define this
category? It is clear in our reading of both critics, as well as of Paz and Henríquez Ureña,
that ever since the revolutionary Hispanic American movement of modernismo a new
wave of literature, influenced by European tendencies, transformed and continues to
transform our literary history, provoking endless debates as to the nature of
cosmopolitanism and a literature that places a particular emphasis on language. Why
have both of these tendencies recurred in Western literature since the early 20th century?
As we begin to answer these questions, a new and necessary question emerges: Are the
terms “cosmopolitan” or “narrative of language” adequate to describe Hispanic American
literature in the 20th century?
I.1.3 Literature, Foucault and Genealogy
Ever since literature has been undertaken as an object of study in Latin America,
we have lacked tools of our own to produce original and comprehensive criticism. Paz
understood this dearth as the reason why we constitute an “eccentric” part of Western
culture, for we have yet to presence an intellectual movement generated in our part of the
continent ("Literatura y crítica" 62). We borrow from European analytical models, but as
Paz recognized, this is not necessarily a disadvantage, since the absence of a local
philosophical tradition has led us to conceive a very unique literature. We have then,
paradoxically, a Hispanic American literature that influences the most sophisticated
European critical projects, the same ones to which we later subscribe. The relevance of
Borgesian literature in Michel Foucault’s philosophy is exemplary.
It should not come as a surprise then, that for the purposes of the present study, I
will resort to European philosophy and criticism to account for the partition of
contemporary narrative as has been signaled above, and for an analysis of this
phenomenon in recent works of narrative written in Mexico. It is my initial assumption
that both “cosmopolitanism” and “narratives of language” are aspects of the same literary
“current” —if I may use Henríquez Ureña’s term temporarily— in Hispanic America.
With the irruption of modernismo at the end of the 19th century, the works of Rubén
Darío, José Martí, Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera and José Enrique Rodó, among others,
introduced these two aspects to Hispanic American literature. In Latin America, as it had
been happening for decades in Europe, literary discourse operated a full separation from
all other discourses (among those science, history, sociology). Michel Foucault believes
that language lost its power of representation, shifting its focus not on the world, but on
the central figure of Man. The human being, Foucault argues, became the object of
knowledge in Western culture at the end of the 19th century. Paradoxically, Man —seen
here by Foucault as a philosophical figure or concept— was already (beginning perhaps
with Descartes and continuing later with Kant) the subject of that same knowledge. As
this epistemological break was formalized in stratified knowledge, Man made possible
the emergence of the human sciences, such as Biology, History and Philology. A certain
type of literature, however, has become since Mallarmé an epistemological exception. In
Hispanic America the literary “current” articulated by the French avant-garde movements
became fully operant with the appearance of Azul… (1888). Thereafter, every new throw
of dice reopens an alternative experience of the episteme, one where the enthronization of
Man as a subject and object of knowledge —and of History, Progress, Teleology— is no
longer possible. Foucault formulated his thesis in a nutshell: “On peut dire que la
littérature est le lieu où l’homme ne cesse de disparaître au profit du langage. Où « ça
parle » l’homme n’existe plus ("L’homme est-il mort ?" 572).”
In the latest epistemological arrangement, the apparition of Man is ambiguous.
As he becomes the object of knowledge and that which makes knowledge possible, Man
becomes aware of its limits, incapable of maintaining a stable identity. Unable to
construct a unitary image of the Same, the figure of Man is faced with the radical autri:
the Other. It will be precisely in the space of exception designated by literature that Man
encounters the fading reality of its identity. Man is alive in the human sciences, but it
continuously dies in the vision of certain works of literature. These pages will undertake
a careful study of such a death and of such literary projects in Hispanic American
narrative. Literature emerges from a fragmented language that no longer represents
reality. Language ceases to be the vehicle for understanding the world to become the
means of making prevail the will of the subject, of Man as the central cognitive figure of
the episteme. After Mallarmé —and in Hispanic American tradition, as I will discuss in
what follows, after Borges— it becomes clear that Man is an illusion easily demonstrated
in the vastness of language and tradition.
Foucault pronounced the controversial death of Man during what some define as
his “archeological” period —focused on the analysis of autonomous discourse— which
begins with Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (1961) and concludes with
L’archéologie du savoir (1969). One year later, Foucault gave a new direction to his
research, presenting his preliminary objectives in the inaugural conference6 he dictated to
begin his lectures series at the Collège de France. The method of “genealogy” first
appears as complementary to his analysis of discourse, only to become the predominant
approach of Foucault’s last works: Surveiller et punir (1975) and the three volumes of his
Histoire de la sexualité (1976, 1983, 1984). “Genealogy” has its foundation in
Nietzsche’s thought, in particular in his Genealogy of Morals (1887). This method
proposes the articulation of an “effective history7,” which in essence proposes a shift of
perspective, in which the “genealogist” detaches himself from beliefs in truth, meaning
and progress assumed to be fixed and certain. Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow,
professors at the University of California at Berkeley and colleagues of Foucault during
his residence in the United States in the late 70’s and early 80’s, affirm that the
genealogical method prevailed in the last stages of Foucault’s research. “Archeology”
became subordinate to the complex “genealogical” analysis that integrates knowledge,
6 The conference “The Order of Discurse” was published a year later, in 1971. See: Michel Foucault,
L'ordre du discours (Paris: Gallimard, 2003).
7 As we will see in the second part of this chapter, Foucault established the term “effective history”
(“histoire effective” in French) by introducing the notion of discontinuity, eliminating the constancy of key
historical concepts and challenging the sense of sequential, progressive order in the works of “traditional
historians. See: Michel Foucault, "Nietzsche, la généalogie, l'histoire," Foucault: Dits et écrits, eds. Daniel
Defert and François Ewald, vol. I (Paris: Gallimard, 2001).
power and subjectivity simultaneously. We may understand “genealogy” under the
following premises:
Genealogy opposes itself to traditional historical method; […] For the genealogist
there are no fixed essences, no underlying laws, no metaphysical finalities.
Genealogy seeks out discontinuities where others found continuous development.
It finds recurrences and play where others found progress and seriousness. It
records the past of mankind to unmask the solemn hymns of progress. Genealogy
avoids the search for depth. Instead, it seeks surfaces of events, small details,
minor shifts, and subtle contours. It shuns the profundity of the great thinkers our
tradition has produced and revered; its archenemy is Plato (Dreyfus and Rabinow
For the theoretical framework proposed for the present study, Foucault’s
“archeology” and its description of how knowledge in general evolved from the medieval
times to modernity, serves the purposes of redefining the field of literature as the place
where epistemology may be under constant destabilization. In Hispanic America, as
mentioned earlier, in a literary “current” that begins with the works of the modernistas,
Man faces its dissolution. This may not prove true for the entirety of our literary tradition
in the 20th century, and this is why I will resort to the construction of a “genealogy.” My
aim is to disarticulate the evolving unity of our tradition, as assumed by most critics and
literary historians, distinguishing what I believe are its two general “currents” —or if I
may begin using the concept, “genealogies”— anticipated by some of the critics cited
above (Paz, Henríquez Ureña, Rodríguez Monegal and Domínguez Michael) but yet to be
accounted for in full. We have, on one hand, the current that operates within the
epistemological arrangement that emerged at the end of the 19th century, the same one
that maintains the figure of Man as that which makes knowledge possible. We may read
in this light, the regionalist novels or “novelas de la tierra” that focus on the urgent
disjunction between the rising cities and the decaying country life. A few decades later,
new novels delve into the mythical foundations of our culture and the urban tales of
contemporary industrial societies, their authors armed with the innovative techniques
imported and “translated” from high modernist English-language authors such as Joyce
and Faulkner. This first genealogy of narrators flows from Rómulo Gallegos, José
Eustacio Rivera and Ricardo Güiraldes to Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and
Gabriel García Márquez. A substantial number of critical works on this current has been
produced up to the present day, advancing theses on postcolonial and cultural studies.
This is, in part, a reaction to the focus on language that literary criticism privileged from
the late 1960’s to the late 1970’s. I believe that the approaches of postcolonial and
cultural studies penetrate the sociological, historical and cultural aspects of these works
of literature due to their own epistemological construction, which draws on history, the
foundation of national cultures and the sociological ramifications of their conglomerates.
On the other hand, we have a literary genealogy which irrupts in full at the end of
the 19th century with Darío’s Azul…, continuing in most of the modernismo, expanding in
the poetic avant-gardes of Huidobro, Vallejo, and Neruda, the novels of Macedonio
Fernández, the short stories of Lugones, and the important milestones of Juan Rulfo’s
Pedro Páramo (1955) and Cortázar’s Rayuela (1963), to mention a few names. A very
important peak of this genealogy is reached with the works of Borges, to whom an entire
chapter is devoted in the present study. I will contend that Borges synthesizes this
genealogy and elevates it to a new height, beyond the field of Hispanic American
literature and even literature itself, becoming a ground-breaking epistemological event,
altering genealogy itself. It is my aim, diverging from the current trends of postcolonial
and cultural studies, to specify what differentiates this literature in order to facilitate
future studies on their linguistic structures, treating them, as Foucault did and as I will
argue for later on, as discourse practices.
Until now, I have done no more than trace a general sketch of a genealogy defined
through negation, advancing the claim that it does not align itself with the latest
epistemological arrangement, and as such, becomes the literature where Man dissolves
into language. The reader may ask, naturally, if the mere outline of this genealogy and its
one defining factor, as that which is not, is sufficient explanation. New questions arise:
how can this genealogy link authors, such as Borges and Rulfo, irreconcilable in
appearance? How can we define this genealogy by means beyond a negative claim? One
objective of the present study is to prove that writers that appear unrelated in most
traditional literary criticism are connected in the genealogical perspective. The
construction of a genealogy will also show how literary movements that in the surface
seem antagonistic depart, at the genealogical level, from the same epistemological
possibility. Literary history, from the genealogical perspective, does not obey the
chronological appearance of works. The ordered succession of generations and
movements, as seen by the traditional critic, holds little or no interest. Literature and
tradition become fragmentary and discontinuous, without origin or stable identity. This
study will seek to provide a philosophical understanding of literature as that which
surpasses the constructed figures of author and reader. Thorough a reflection on
modenirty, tradition and history, this approach accepts the limits of our present time and
corroborates the insignificance and naiveté of Man as the self-declared center of
knowledge. Roland Barthes’ declaration of the death of author8 is thus expanded in this
thesis to include the death of the reader. But the death of Man (and thus of the author and
the reader) is only the first defining aspect of the present genealogy. The second
component will not embrace a death, but a birth: that of infinity. As the essential “truths”
that history, progress and teleology hope to produce are reduced to “illusions of
knowledge”, literature opens up the possibility of a narrative without finality, indifferent
to the assumed evolving progress of our culture and history. In this genealogy that dives
into infinity, time relapses once and again, retelling what has been said before, reliving
the past, remembering the future, forgetting the present. Thus distanced from prevailing
analyses based on notions of post-modernism and cultural studies, this study hopes, as
Foucault wrote in L’Ordre du discours, to find this paradoxical temporal multiplicity not
in what is said “for the first time” (the novelty of a text), but in the eventuality of its
return (the rewriting of the text).
Attempting the comprehensive analysis of this genealogy of literary infinity may
be an impossible task. I will limit myself to argue its implications, in the second chapter,
in the most emblematic case study: the works of Borges. The last two chapters will be
devoted to a moment of this genealogy, specifically examples of recent narrative written
in Mexico that demonstrate the recurrence of this genealogy’s main features and that
were produced under the same epistemological conditions. I will discuss in one chapter,
8 See: Roland Barthes, "La mort de l’auteur," Œuvres complètes, ed. Éric Marty, vol. III (Paris: Seuil,
two major novels: Los detectives salvajes (1998) by Roberto Bolaño (Santiago de Chile
1953 — Blanes 2003) and Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe (1998) by
Daniel Sada (Mexicali 1953). In the last chapter, I will analyze two nouvelles from a
more recent promotion: Cristina Rivera Garza’s (Matamoros 1964) La cresta de Ilión
(2002) and Jorge Volpi’s (México 1968) A pesar del oscuro silencio (1992). The four
texts, along with the previous discussion on Borges, will attempt to provide the reader
with an exercise of genealogical analysis that may be extended to various authors and
works that participate in the same genealogy of literary infinity.
I.1.4 Methodological Refinements
Understanding the nature and extent of genealogical analysis is the initial stage of
this investigation. It is now convenient to determine further methodological refinements.
Consequently, I wish to establish two basic notions, amalgamating certain works of
Borges and Foucault. In particular, I will resort to Foucault’s concept of the text as a
discourse practice (an idea close to Derrida’s analytical approach, grammatology9) and
that of a discursive strategy to derive these two fundamental assumptions:
1) That the literary text is a self-sufficient discourse practice that may relate to an
extra-textual reality but that operates with its unique structural rules common to other
literary texts. A discourse is composed, in turn, of a system of statements (“énoncés”)
that relate to each other under a stating function (“fonction énonciative”) to establish
original discursive knowledge. Foucault defines these ideas in L’archéologie du savoir
9 See: Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967).
(1969), in an effort to formalize his methodology to approach discourse analysis as the
En fin ce qu’on appelle « pratique discursive »… c’est un ensemble de règles
anonymes, historiques, toujours déterminées dans le temps et l’espace qui ont
défini à une époque donnée, et pour une aire sociale, économique, géographique
ou linguistique donnée, les conditions d’exercice de la fonction énonciative
(L'archéologie du savoir 153-54).
A literary discursive practice may share common ground with other practices, forming
together what Foucault calls the “episteme.” To describe this notion, it is worth referring
in length to Foucault’s definition:
L’épistémè n’est pas une sorte de grande théorie sous-jacente, c’est un espace de
dispersion, c’est un champ ouvert et sans doute indéfiniment descriptible de
relations. […] l’épistémè n’est pas une tranche d’histoire commune à toutes les
sciences ; c’est un jeu simultané de rémanences spécifiques. […] L’épistémè n’est
pas un stade général de la raison ; c’est un rapport complexe de décalages
successifs. […] J’ai étudié tour à tour des ensembles de discours ; je les ai
caractérisés ; j’ai défini des jeux des règles, de transformations, de seuils, de
rémanences ; je les ai composés entre eux, j’ai décrit des faisceaux de relations
("Réponse à une question" 704-05).
This very autonomous discursive practice relates —through language— to a dynamic
literary tradition, here considered under the approach of Foucault’s genealogical method,
structured after his reading of Nietzsche.
2) That infinity, as the central theme of this investigation, is the common literary
strategy in the texts chosen for analysis. Foucault defines “discursive strategies” in the
following manner:
Des discours… donnent lieu à certaines organisations de concepts, à certains
regroupements d’objets, à certains types d’énonciation, qui forment selon leur
degré de cohérence, de rigueur et de stabilité, des thèmes ou des théories. […]
Quel que soit leur niveau formel, on appellera, conventionnellement,
« stratégies » ces thèmes et ces théories (L'archéologie du savoir 85).
As a textual strategy, I will attempt to demonstrate that infinity can clearly and
methodologically be isolated as an object of study, with a precise linguistic and thematic
structure —built on a certain organization of literary motifs and types of enunciation—
which in turn becomes a defining feature of the genealogy in question.
It is true that in the last years, literary analysis has put a substantial focus on a
literary genealogy that serves the goals of cultural and postcolonial studies. I am aware
that the use of poststructuralist theories may seem for some critics outdated at best. But a
brief contextualization of the current trends in academic research in the United States will
illustrate that both postcolonial and cultural criticism owe much of their theoretical base
to the works of the French poststructuralist wave10. Let it suffice to mention that Spivak’s
grounding of “postcolonial critique” is derived in great part from Derrida’s destabilizing
force of “deconstruction” that challenges power. The various focuses of cultural studies,
with their in-depth approaches to subjectivity, gender and identity have much to thank
Foucault and his revolutionary ideas about the formation of the modern subject, the
definition of power and the history of sexuality, even if their usage of Foucault’s work is
often reduced — as some critics11 have pointed out— to a simplistic and misguided
10 Critics such as Ángel Rama, Roberto González Echevarría, Román de la Campa, Doris Sommer and
Sylvia Molloy have applied Foucault’s theories to contemporary Hispanic American literature. An
encompassing view of Foucault’s influence may be appreciated by referring to an anthology by Benigno
Trigo that reminds us of the debt that groundbreaking works such as Rama’s La ciudad letrada (1984) and
González Echevarría’s Myth and Archive (1998) owe Foucault. See: Benigno Trigo, ed., Foucault and Latin
America (New York: Routledge, 2002).
11 For Nathalie Piégay-Gros, most recent critics who make reference to Foucault’s theories operate with
only “migrant vocabulary” from his works without ever proposing a new method based on those theories.
See: Nathalie Piégay-Gros, "La critique littéraire et la pensée de Michel Foucault," Michel Foucault, la
littérature et les arts, ed. Philippe Artières (Paris: Kimé, 2004).
borrowing of vocabulary. In France, Foucault’s scope of influence remains powerful and
dynamically under reformulation12, with an academia that insists on textual analysis as
the basis for all literary studies. Thus, it is evident to me that Foucault and Derrida, as
well as contemporaries such as Deleuze, Barthes and Blanchot, still provide a very
effective theoretical framework for the present-day investigator in both the U.S. and in
France. Under this light, I wish to note that the structure of my study will aim at
fragmenting (étoiler) commentary —the French classical method for analysis that Barthes
proposes to redefine13— in which literary analysis is carried out by shattering the unity of
the text and of the author. Critic Nathalie Piégay-Gros clarifies that under this view, close
commentary, far from being discarded, is given greater relevance as a methodological
tool, being elevated thus from a secondary reading to a primary writing: “sauver le
commentaire par l’écriture” (101).
A last refinement for this investigation relates to the choice of texts: for reasons of
space and breadth of analysis, this study is restricted to a geographical location —
Mexico— and to the four authors mentioned above. In the construction of a genealogy,
however, national tradition, the notion of the author, and the concept of individual
12 Foucault’s works are an obligatory topic of discussion in France’s intellectual circles. The academia has
witnessed the publication of various anthologies in recent years that reproduce the acts of colloquia
dedicated to Foucault’s thought. Of particular relevance, with essays by Roger Chartier, Jacques Le Goff
and François Ewald, see: Dominique Franche, Sabine Prokhoris and Yves Roussel, eds., Au risque de
Foucault (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 1997). See also: Philippe Artières, ed., Michel Foucault, la littérature et
les arts (Paris: Kimé, 2004). During the month of October 2004, several events took place in Paris
celebrating Foucault’s intellectual legacy. The Centre Pompidou presented an exhibit on his work, various
artists offered original works inspired on Foucault’s writings and several university conferences discussed
the latest perspectives and applications of his theories. Currently, the prestigious publishing houses
Gallimard and Seuil continue to release Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France on various topics. The
English translation of L’herméneutique du sujet appeared in 2005, compiling Foucault’s courses dictated
from 1981 to 1982.
13 See: Roland Barthes, S/Z, Œuvres complètes, ed. Éric Marty, vol. III (Paris: Seuil, 2002).
influence are of scarce importance. The genealogy of literary infinity in the modern
epistemological arrangement may have become visible first in the works of Mallarmé,
further developed in various of the French avant-garde poets, reformulated in Hispanic
American modernismo, peaked in the work of Borges, and later recurred in the most
recent narrative in Mexico, as in other countries of the continent. I choose to study the
works of recent Mexican authors, hoping to provide an innovative model that explores a
type of literature that manifests a decisive return to language and epistemology. Cultural
and postcolonial studies provide an adequate theoretical base for the study of a narrative
in which history, culture and society in general have structural and thematic relevance.
But for literature with linguistic and epistemological aims, a more language-oriented
approach is most pertinent; hence the importance of Foucault and genealogical
methodology. I want to stress, nevertheless, that the present essay is neither a literary
“history” in the traditional sense (that is, a descriptive listing of authors, works and
tendencies), nor a study of artistic influence (exemplified by critics like Harold Bloom).
Rather, literature is understood here, following T.S. Eliot14, as the artistic practice in
which the author voluntarily sacrifices his personality in order to produce a new work,
reordering, as in a game, old metaphors in new combinations. Literature, as this
genealogy will attempt to prove, reinvents itself not through radical innovation, but in the
recurrence of old motifs in a new order. “And so on, ad infinitum,” if I may repeat
Foucault’s words ("What Is an Author?" 103-04).
14 See: T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Points of View (London: Faber and Faber, 1941).
At the end of his essay on boom writers, critic Emir Rodríguez Monegal calls for
a revision of Hispanic American literary history with the intention of ameliorating the
comprehension of developing trends and movements: “Encerrarse a leer y releer, volver a
mirar lo visto, tomar distancia, hacer balance. Es decir: ocuparse de lo que importa15” (El
boom de la novela latinoamericana 104). The present study hopes to carry on this journey
in the same spirit.
15 “To get dedicate oneself to reading and rereading, to see again what has been seen, to take distance, to
balance things out. In other words: to take charge of what matters.” (The translation is mine).
I.2 The Genealogy of Genealogy: From Nietzsche to Foucault
I.2.1 Genealogy and Its Precursors
As a tool to historicize ideas and concepts, genealogy may be employed to
produce its own genealogy. The title of this section indicates the proposition of writing a
brief history of this method, recalling its first articulation in the works of Nietzsche at the
end of the 19th century and the detailed theorization undertaken by Foucault in the 60’s
and 70’s. But delaying the examination of Nietzsche and Foucault, I first want to refer to
what may be read as an antecedent to the genealogical device, thus echoing the Borgesian
idea of authors and their “precursors.”16 Borges, in his concentrated discussion about the
transition from a literature in which allegories predominated to our modern concept of the
novel17, elaborates on the origins and development of Platonic realism and Aristotelian
nominalism by referring, in turn, to a short essay by Coleridge18. The notion of the
individual, Borges claims, emerges from the nominalist tradition; the general category of
humanity, from realism. Both visions, however, have made alternate and simultaneous
manifestations, appearing and fading, reappearing and disappearing again. This
Borgesian mapping of both philosophical concepts highlights not their differences and
coexistence, but their curious recurrence in various cultures under changing names:
A través de las latitudes y de las épocas, los dos antagonistas inmortales cambian
de dialecto y de nombre: uno es Parménides, Platón, Spinoza, Kant, Francis
16 See: Jorge Luis Borges, "Kafka y sus precursores," Otras inquisiciones, Obras completas II (Buenos
Aires: Emecé, 2002).
17 See: Jorge Luis Borges, "De las alegorías a las novelas," Otras inquisiciones, Obras completas II
(Buenos Aires: Emecé, 2002).
18 See: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Platonists and Aristotelians," Coleridge's Poetry and Prose, eds.
Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson and Ramonda Modiano (New York: Norton, 2004).
Bradley; el otro, Heráclito, Aristóteles, Locke, Hume, William James ("De las
alegorías a las novelas" 123).
In time, writes Borges, both traditions served as foundations for Western literature: from
the abstract categories of realism arises allegorical literature; the modern novel emerges
from the unity of the isolated individual. But the characters in the novel tend to
universalize a particular theme, such as human wisdom, or to embody in a character a
country’s identity, like a fading culture (Borges gives as example the Gaucho in Don
Segundo Sombra). Thus, the allegorical mechanism is also present in the novel.
Aristotle’s Poetics is exemplary: tragedy tells of the individual’s actions that together
constitute the plot. In tragedy, the fame of the characters turns into iconic allegory with
its ulterior effect on the public: catharsis. If nominalism generates realism, the novel
produces its allegories.
Since in the present study all or almost all roads lead to Borges, the next piece of
this genealogy also involves Borges as it is, in fact, the precursor of his famous essay
alluded to above, “Kafka y sus precursores.” As Rodríguez Monegal noted,19 the direct
influence of T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is evident. Explaining his
“impersonal theory of poetry,” Eliot maintains that an author —and this very term may
consequently be deemed inappropriate— voluntarily sacrifices his personality as he
matures as an artist, for he understands that writing is not about creating something, but
about being able to propose new combinations of old motifs. Instead of projecting his
19 See: Emir Rodríguez Monegal, "Borges y la nouvelle critique," Borges, hacia una lectura poética
(Madrid: Guadarrama, 1976).
personality in his work, the writer becomes the vehicle for rearranging known techniques
and themes in an unheard of fashion. And so:
What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to
something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual selfsacrifice, a continual extinction of personality (28-29).
The possibility of a universal book is an old metaphor. It travels through time from the
millenarian Eastern philosophies (Borges himself was fascinated by the mystic notion of
metempsychosis20) to Mallarmé, who cherished the possibility that the world existed only
to compose a book, or rather, Le Livre, from which literature unfolds “à souhait” (379).
I.2.2 Nietzsche and The Genealogy of Morals
It appears to me, aside from the evident theoretical and literary value of the texts
mentioned above, that they are all similar in reasoning in that they resort to an approach
not too distant from what Nietzsche coined genealogy. It is possible, according to
Nietzsche, to describe the recurrence of themes throughout epochs, disguised under new
concepts and reformulations, artificially deepening the same notions that have always
been visible on the surface. In The Genealogy of Morals (1887), Nietzsche articulates
many of the questions that would provoke at the end of the 19th century one of the
greatest upheavals in Western philosophy: “Under what conditions did Man invent for
himself those judgments of values, ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’? And what intrinsic value do they
possess in themselves?21” (3). Nietzsche’s aim is not only to engage in a rhetorical
20 See: Jorge Luis Borges, "El acercamiento a Almotásim," Historia de la eternidad, Obras completas I
(Buenos Aires: Emecé, 2004).
21 In italics in the original.
discussion on morality and ethics. He creates a new possibility of investigation by
constructing a sort of history of the very concepts of “good” and “evil.” The question is
no longer “what is the nature of ‘good’ and ‘evil’?” but “how is it that we came to hold
‘good’ and ‘evil’ as valid moral units?” Nietzsche shifts his focus from the essence of
things to the analysis of when such things emerged and why have they recurred in our
The recurrence in Western philosophy of Platonists and Aristotelians (Coleridge
and Borges), the creation of a collective world-wide Livre (Mallarmé), the sacrifice of
individuality to achieve a new combination of words (Eliot), are all exercises that extend
themselves as branches of a genealogical tree. The problem may be that they fall short of
offering a formalized methodology. Aside from coinciding in essence with Nietzsche’s
genealogy, these ideas do not offer the reader a tool for further analysis. Perhaps the
recurrence of certain philosophical ideas is worth investigating, but we need to return to
Nietzsche in order to begin treating Western thought not simply as the discussion
between transcendental realism versus empirical nominalism, but rather as the historical
recurrence of certain themes and concepts readapted in different epochs. As an effect of
what we could term his “will to history,” Nietzsche is able to demolish all categories of
Western metaphysics, including the founding notion of the Kantian knowing subject:
But let us, forsooth, my philosophic colleagues, henceforward guard ourselves
more carefully against this mythology of dangerous ancient ideas, which has set
up a “pure, willless, painless, timeless subject of knowledge”; let us guard
ourselves from the tentacles of such contradictory ideas as “pure reason,”
“absolute spirituality,” “knowledge-in-itself”… (85-86)
The disarticulation of essential truths (by means of contextualizing them), the dismantling
of the modern subject, the negation of a mythical origin: these are some of Nietzsche’s
crucial contributions to 20th century European philosophy. But Nietzsche’s philosophical
revolution modified contemporary thought with an essential tool for analysis:
interpretation as an “infinite” task. As other turn-of-the-century revolutionaries did in
their fields (Freud, Marx), Nietzsche turned philosophy —according to Foucault— into a
never-ending practice, a type of philology perpetually in suspense, impossible to ground.
This infinite practice, moreover, reveals a final fact:
…si l’interprétation ne peut jamais s’achever, c’est tout simplement qu’il n’y a
rien à interpréter. Il n’y a rien d’absolument premier à interpréter, car au fond,
tout est déjà interprétation, chaque signe est en lui-même non pas la chose qui
s’offre à l’interprétation, mais interprétation d’autres signes ("Nietzsche, Freud,
Marx" 599).
The critique of Western metaphysics, however, soon reached a new stage after the
horrors of the first half of the century: the rise of fascism and the brutal consequences of
imperialism. It is Theodor Adorno’s desperate search for an alternative form of cultural
criticism that perhaps best summarizes the disillusionment with Western civilization. If
“to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,22” what should philosophers think of
Western systems of thought that facilitated the enthronization of a modern Man that
believed himself to exert his will and power as the only way to continue some kind of
progress of reason? Indeed the Enlightenment and its promotion of fundamental human
reason becomes, after Heidegger in particular, a central topic for discussion. “And as a
22 See: Theodor Adorno, "Cultural Criticism and Society," Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams
(Orlando: Harcourt, 1992).
result,” ask the authors of an essay on French philosophy of the 1960’s, “how can one not
be resolutely antihumanist?” (Ferry and Renaut xxvi).
I.2.3 Foucault’s Archeology
From Nietzsche and Heidegger, we arrive to the France of the post-structuralist
wave, in the final turbulent years of the 1960’s. The discussion of the Enlightenment and
Western metaphysics was pivotal in the works of the French intelligentsia. In Foucault’s
case, in fact, both themes became one under his controversial formulation of the “death of
…the notion of the “death of man” as it was introduced in The Order of Things is
given in terms of a critique of humanism as the metaphysics of subjectivity, in
terms elaborated by Nietzsche and Heidegger, in a break with the indissolubly
humanist and dialectical philosophy of Hegel and even Marx (Ferry and Renaut
Foucault reacts both to metaphysical subjectivity and to Hegelian dialectics, extending
his objections to dialectics, to humanism as well, following Heidegger. It could be said,
that Foucault’s reaction to the 20th century horrors is the antithesis of that of Adorno.
World wars and Western imperialism make evident for Foucault the overcoming of the
modern episteme that maintains Man as its pillar. For Foucault, however, it is precisely a
certain type of literature —the works of writers such as Cervantes, Sade, Mallarmé,
Bataille and Blanchot— that defies the epistemological conditions of modern knowledge.
But this does not imply that Foucault finds redemption in the advent of this kind of
Paradoxically, as we will see in these pages and as critic Simon During indicates,
literature for Foucault “belongs to the modern episteme that it also escapes” (115). This
occurs because the transgressive literature considered by Foucault is also an
epistemological product of the very conditions it puts under erasure. But if this is true, as
During believes, it implies that literature cannot be the object of commentary (here,
understood in the traditional sense), interpretation or explanation, since it would remain
an elusive object. Thus, under the Foucauldian lens, literary studies should “commit
suicide” or “undergo a profound transformation — that they too write about writing in the
spirit of transgression, the post-Nietzschean spirit” (116). It is worth citing in length just
how this radical transformation of literary studies can begin to occur, according to
During, if one is to carry out a Foucauldian study of literature:
First, it would have to locate the point at which “literature” becomes a specific
cultural form as do Foucault’s literary essays —the point at which language
chases the “sensational” in the Gothic novelists and when it turns inward with
Hölderlin and, later, with Flaubert and Mallarmé, that is, when texts are produced
within “literature” as an institution that has radically separated itself from
discursive formations like history of philosophy. Then the history of discourse
about literature would have to be written in the light of modern knowledge’s rift
between the positive and the eschatological. This is not especially difficult: for
literary studies have long been divided between those old rivals and fraternal
enemies, literary history and literary criticism. […] The limits to literary history
are encountered when its object retreats, when it becomes possible to say that
“literature” escapes history. In this “retreat of the origin23,” no conditions for
literature’s emergence, no account of its context or ideological work, none of its
structural features (even “defamiliarization” or “dialogicity”) are able to grasp and
fix it. Literary criticism makes of literature an unlocalizable (in Foucault’s terms,
“eschatological”) object which any formula or method can only reduce and
destroy (116-17).
23 During’s thesis groups literary studies as participating in the same phenomenon that, according to
Foucault, modern Man experiences as part of its conditions of existence. See: Michel Foucault, Les mots et
les choses (Paris: Gallimard, 2002) 339-46.
Indeed, as During explains, any literary studies enterprise would have to
acknowledge its own place in the modern episteme, in the unresolved crisis between the
search for the origin (literary history) and the radical reduction of the text by ignoring this
very origin (literary criticism). The primary seeds of the search for this alternate model
may be found in one the most radical of Foucault’s early theories, perhaps —
involuntarily, according to Dreyfus and Rabinow— under the influence of structuralism:
archeology. Through this approach, Foucault proposes the study of knowledge as it is
found in the archive of the particular discursive practice in question. The term archeology
is defined as follows:
Il désigne le thème général d’une description qui interroge le déjà-dit au niveau de
son existence : de la fonction énonciative qui s’exerce en lui, de la formation
discursive à laquelle il appartient, du système général d’archive dont il relève.
L’archéologie décrit les discours comme des pratiques spécifiées dans l’élément
de l’archive (L'archéologie du savoir 173).
Archeology does not intend to destabilize systems of thought, as Derrida wants,
but to provide us with a profound reading of how knowledge is particularly structured.
Foucault’s description of the modern episteme in Les mots et les choses (1966) is his
attempt to produce a theory of how knowledge is structured through the formation of
discourse practices. Following the transformation of three epistemes, (the Renaissance,
the classical age, and modernity), Foucault traces the discontinuous understandings of
life, language and work in these epochs. After Kant, a new order provokes a significant
discontinuity from the archeological perspective. This latest arrangement was configured
in modernity under certain conditions that characterize the mode of existence of what
Foucault presents as the modern Man. With the transformation of natural history into
biology, of the analysis of wealth into economy, and of general grammar into philology,
modern Man emerges as the central subject that needs to objectify himself. Man rises as
the subject that will pursue himself as its most important object:
Dans le mouvement profond d’une telle mutation archéologique, l’homme
apparaît avec sa position ambiguë d’objet pour un savoir et de sujet qui connaît :
souverain soumis, spectateur regardé, il surgit là, en cette place du Roi, que lui
assignaient par avance les Ménines, mais d’où pendant longtemps sa présence
réelle fut exclue (Les mots et les choses 323).
Foucault’s commentary on Velázquez’s Las meninas illuminates the emergence
of the Modern subject. While the act of representation (from the Classical episteme)
seems to be the theme of the painting, the gaze of the knowing subject is, according to
Foucault, reserved to a figure that would not emerge until the 19th century. Man takes
over the place of the “king,” stepping outside the realm of representation to become a
privileged observer of the world, and more importantly, of himself. This mirroring gaze is
the cause of a set of conditions that unfurls modernity and its peculiar circumstances.
To approach his study of the conditions of possibility of modern Man, Foucault
explicates that Man’s finitude, his limits as a living and knowing being, provides him
with the very foundation of his position in modernity. This idea, which Foucault calls the
“analytic of finitude,” (Les mots et les choses 328) ensues as a reaction to the previous
episteme in which finite knowledge functioned through a “metaphysics of infinity”: an
infinite source of order and representation for finite knowledge. Limited knowledge about
labor, life and work was taken to the interior of infinity, where representation allowed a
continuous accumulation of knowledge. In the 19th century, an archeological shift
occured (the causes of which Foucault never fully accounts for), causing finitude to no
longer be experienced in the interior of thought aimed at infinity, but at “cœur même”
(Les mots et les choses 327) of that knowledge, becoming the foundation of the positivity
of life (biology), work (economics) and language (philology). A thought immersed in
infinity facilitated the on-going extension of the orderly representation of things: finite
knowledge produced through a form of never-ending metaphysics. From the 19th century
on, that finitude is transferred to the fields of knowledge, revealing that the metaphysics
of infinity was nothing but “an veil of illusion.” As such, life is rendered an obscure
mystery, labor an alienated and ideological practice, and language a cultural episode
among others in history.
Man gains a new consciousness by exercising an “analytic of finitude” to reflect
on the very conditions his knowledge. Historian Roger Chartier has noticed the
importance of Foucault ’s reading of the Enlightenment24 as the first epoch that “names”
itself (234). In the 19th century this self-reflection is channeled in the articulation of
history as a full discipline. Before the 19th century, Foucault argues, history was a
general, cosmic, chronicle of all things, the unfolding of a total story linking all aspects of
human cultures with the human being as just another integral part of this historical
network. After the 19th century, finitude grants the study of language, labor and life
proper and independent histories that alienate Man and inhibit his ability to recognize his
place in the course of all things. A sort of historical “density” liberates knowledge from
24 See: Michel Foucault, "What Is Enlightenment?," The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York:
Phanteon, 1984).
sharing the same chronology as Man, leaving him, according to Foucault,
“dehistoricized” (déshistoricisé) (Les mots et les choses 380). Olivier Dekens
understands this passage as the transition from a paradigm where representation was
articulated in infinite “space,” to a Modernity that introduces time into that vastness of
L’apparition de la durée et de l’historicité dans l’ordre de la représentation
constitue un changement de paradigme, qu’une philosophie comme celle de
Hegel, « vouée au Temps, à son flux », a su exprimer. Le temps, qui n’était qu’un
élément perturbateur de l’ordre, devient principe. […] Le personnage nouveau qui
va constituer l’unité de la vie, du travail et du langage ne sera donc pas seulement
fini, mais d’abord historique, ou fini parce qu’historique (16-17).
I.2.4 The Death of Man
Man becomes then the central element attempting to grasp these “histories” that
no longer correspond to his own. This is how biology is justified by the figure of Man,
with him at the summit of the chain of evolution; this is why class struggle triggers the
motors of society and why the temporal, speaking subject is at the core of philological
investigations. Foucault tells us that historicism and the analytic of finitude face each
other in contradictory tension ever since the apparition of Man in the 19th century.
Historicism seeks the “possibility” and “justification” of the relation between knowledge
and its own history and the subject who tries to master it. The analytic of finitude reveals
the ultimate secret: modernity exists after the discovery of Man’s finitude, a mode of
existence that produces at the same time the foundation and the limits of Man’s
knowledge (Les mots et les choses 384-85).
This is the crisis of a modernity in perpetual search of itself. Modern Man enters a
dynamic that affirms his finitude at the same time that it denies it. Foucault considers
these conditions under the division of three pairs of epistemological phenomena. Dreyfus
and Rabinow view them as a “humanistic system of thought” with three “doubles” in
which each contains two opposing epistemological possibilities. The first of the doubles,
“transcendental/empirical,” contends that Man is an object to be studied empirically and
the transcendental subject that conditions all knowledge. The second double,
“cogito/unthought”, explains how Man maintains a knowing cogito that, nevertheless,
fails to grasp certain areas of knowledge impenetrable by that same cogito. The third
double, “retreat/return of origin,” illustrates how Man is the source of a history whose
origin he can never fully attain. The analytic of finitude shows the impossibility of Man
who, paradoxically, exists. Man bears an identity in constant movement, a capacity for
reasoning limited by insurmountable barriers, and an origin that ever eludes him,
precisely at the moment when he believes to have reached it. Man is the Same (a
homogenous identity) and the Other (heterogeneous). He is near the origin at exactly
when he is farthest from it. Man is at once his impossibility and his possibility. Foucault
has thus diagnosed the mode of functioning of modernity via this analytic of finitude:
…en montrant que l’homme est déterminé, il s’agit pour elle [l’analytique de la
finitude] de manifester que le fondement de ces déterminations, c’est l’être même
de l’homme en ses limites radicales ; elle doit manifester aussi que les contenus
de l’expérience sont déjà leurs propres conditions, que la pensée hante par avance
l’impensé qui leur échappe et qu’elle est toujours en tâche de ressaisir ; elle
montre comment cette origine dont l’homme n’est jamais le contemporain, lui est
à la fois retirée et donnée sur le mode de l’imminence : bref, il s’agit toujours
pour elle de montrer comment l’Autre, le Lointain est aussi bien le plus Proche et
le Même (Les mots et les choses 350).
Reading Les mots et les choses Michel de Certeau concludes that each system finds its
doom in the illusion of overcoming its own alterity. Let’s not forget, however, that
Foucault’s analysis is conducted through an exhaustive revision of the archive
corresponding to each episteme. This archive is formed, not by reflections about the
epoch, but by the documents that allow the “archeologist” to detect the network of
relations between different fields, revealing the order in which knowledge is stratified. It
is by studying these linguistic connections that Foucault is able to describe the rules of
formation of these discursive practices. It is, therefore, a problem found in discursive
knowledge, in which each document helps make visible the mode of ordering that
Western civilization employs to capture our ideas and reflections on the world. Georges
Canguilhem, along with De Certeau, was among the first to understand the importance of
utterance as the site of knowledge: “À la question traditionnelle : Qu’est-ce que penser,
Michel Foucault substitue —ou du moins estime que s’est substituée— la question
Qu’est-ce que parler (602).” It is only logical to learn, with De Certeau, that the question
of modernity now posed in Man’s alienation from language, is “le problème toujours
rémanent de la mort” (358).
Indeed, Man appears and at the same times inaugurates his own death. Foucault’s
pronunciation of this fact allows us to free ourselves from what he rightly terms “the
anthropological sleep” in which we lay. Seen in this light, we can gain an outside view of
Man’s curious irruption and sudden death in the epistemological constellation. Man’s
face will dissolve (or perhaps has been constantly dissolving) “comme à la limite de la
mer un visage de sable,” reads the final line of Les mots et les choses (398). But this
dissolution operates as the grains of language disperse themselves. For historian Hayden
White, Foucault’s major contribution is precisely his focus on language, the space where
one must begin to undertake the study of precisely how and under what conditions
Western knowledge is possible. In other words, Foucault inaugurates a new method for
epistemology, perhaps a new epistemology:
What Foucault has done is to rediscover the importance of the projective or
generational aspect of language, the extent to which it not only “represents” the
world of things but also constitutes the modality of the relationships among things
by the very act of assuming a posture before them (254).
Foucault’s epistemological shift is to signal discursive practices as the foundation
and condition of Western knowledge. Stripping Man of his self-appointed place as King
implies the possibility of a new avenue for philosophical speculation. Displacing Man,
awaking him form his “anthropological sleep,” reverts the direction that Western
metaphysics had taken from Plato to Hegel. Foucault’s project calls for a revision of
Nietzsche in order to reconsider all objects of philosophical inquiry, challenge every
assumption and locate each item in a network of discursive relations that reveal them as
products of a discontinuous practice. The death of Man is the recuperation of a
philosophy that defies metaphysics and dialectics and discovers under what precise
conditions it was possible for us to think in metaphysical and dialectical terms:
Avec et après Nietzsche, la fin de l’homme sera le retour du commencement de la
philosophie. Là encore, Foucault oscille entre constat et souhait. Notre époque
n’est pas seulement pour lui le moment d’un nouveau commencement pour la
philosophie, qu’il désire reprendre autrement ; il est aussi celui d’une fin
programmée de l’homme. L’archéologie n’aura qu’accentué la pente naturelle de
l’histoire du concept d’homme vers sa dissolution, elle n’aura que souligné de son
rire silencieux la mort prévisible et heureuse de l’homme (Dekens 21).
Foucault calls, indeed, for a “non-dialectic” (dédialectisé) language. In such a language,
the philosopher discovers that he no longer plays the center role of articulator, that he no
longer “inhabits” language (in the Heideggerean sense) as an omnipresent god, providing
the source and the foundation of a language that serves him as the vehicle of his
expression. Language “speaks” says Foucault, and perhaps it is with this thought that he
aligns himself most decisively with the Nietzschean notion of language, where meaning
becomes interpretation and where interpretation is always in movement. Language, thus,
no longer serves the philosopher, much less modern Man, who cannot but disappear. The
space of dominion has acquired an ontological possibility of its own, a “being” (être) of
L’effondrement de la subjectivité philosophique, sa dispersion à l’intérieur d’un
langage qui la dépossède, mais la multiplie dans l’espace de sa lacune, est
probablement une des structures fondamentales de la pensée contemporaine. […]
Et c’est au cœur de cette disparition du sujet philosophant que le langage
philosophique s’avance comme en un labyrinthe, non pour le retrouver, mais pour
en éprouver (et par le langage même) la perte jusqu’à la limite, c’est-à-dire
jusqu’à cette ouverture où son être surgit ("Préface à la transgression" 270-71).
Precisely how can we explain or, better, formalize a description of this “being” of
language? How is it that language “speaks”? Foucault made sophisticated references as
to how language becomes the place of the dissolution of subjectivity. He explores the
issue in the last chapters of Les mots et les choses, but it is not until L’archéologie du
savoir (1969) that he attempts to provide a theory for archeological analysis. By focusing
on discursive practices and their interrelations that form each episteme, Foucault declares
language an autonomous practice that provides culture with its ultimate foundation. Some
of Foucault’s critics associate his thought, up until L’archéologie du savoir, with
structuralism, a label that Foucault resisted and openly rejected. For example, Even
though he maintained that Les mots et les choses accounted only for the description of the
human sciences, some insisted on reading it as a totalizing theory for the formation of
knowledge in Western culture. Such is the case of Hayden White, who asserted that
Foucault’s aim was to produce “a system capable of explaining almost everything25
(255).” Dreyfus and Rabinow, on the other hand, consider archeology to be a theoretical
approach that promotes an “illusion of autonomous discourse” and fails to escape the
modern conditions of the epistemological crisis described above (the three sets of
doubles: transcendental/empirical; cogito/unthought; retreat/return of origin). They
demonstrate rather effectively that archeological analysis falls under the same limits of
modernity, without ever reaching the level of detachment needed to overcome the very
possibility its epistemology. Therefore, the two critics claim, Foucault’s archeology is a
“child of its times” and thus its discourse must be “accounted for and relativized (99).”
Foucault himself acknowledged the need to subject his theory to an exercise of discursive
analysis, and a substantial revision of his research appears in his following books, in
particular with the introduction of “genealogical” analysis. Dreyfus and Rabinow specify
that by undertaking a new direction, Foucault follows the route of thinkers such as
Wittgenstein and Heidegger, who by “pushing one way of thinking to its limits they both
recognized and overcame those limitations (100).” Aside from this critique of
25 With emphasis in the original text.
archeological analysis, it is of capital importance to understand Foucault’s contribution to
history and its writing. On one hand, as Roger Chartier contends, after Foucault, all the
objects of historical investigations will no longer be viewed as before. They have lost
their “natural” (235) essences, for they can no longer be considered as implicit categories.
On the other hand, as Hayden White acknowledged, Foucault’s demonstration that
discursive practice can reveal the conditions of knowledge, or put more simply, that
language is “a problem” (251) for epistemology, signals a new opportunity for further
research in virtually all fields of study, particularly in the humanities. For some literary
critics, however, post-structuralism is a dated theoretical enterprise due to its particular
focus on language. For these critics, a new phenomenon, namely postmodernism, has
taken its place with a return to more conventional narrative forms and themes. It seems
pertinent to comment on this perspective in what follows.
I.2.5 Archeology and Postmodernism
It is not a surprise to find current literary critics resorting to the ideas of Foucault
and other poststructuralists to ponder the current conditions of literature. Frequently,
however, a partial or reductive use of Foucault is chosen, despite of the presence of
elements in his thought that could indeed further the study of literary texts. I believe that
such is the case of various proponents of theories on postmodernism in academic circles,
Countless studies and journal entries credit a wide arrange of phenomena to this
multifaceted term. As two representative examples, I would first like to briefly address
some of the theoretical analysis offered by Linda Hutcheon in her book A Poetics of
Postmodernism (1988), and then a representative sample of critic Roberto González
Echevarría’s ideas on Hispanic American narrative after the second half of the 20th
century. Under the banner of postmodernism, they both provide useful insights in the
study of contemporary literature, but they fail, in my view, to formalize their
methodology, resulting in limited accounts and a descriptive exercise of some of the
recent trends.
On the first page of the first chapter of her book, Hutcheon begins by renouncing
the attempt to explain some of the causes of the “contradictory phenomenon” (3) of
postmodernism. While she criticizes the work of Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton for
not defining what postmodernism is, she herself cites from a mix of theories and opinions
and offers as her solution a rather random collection of features that are later exemplified
in artistic works of her choice. This exercise of citations and descriptions, that Hutcheon
calls “theorizing,” concludes with the claim that postmodernism cannot be considered a
paradigm shift and that its main operation is to produce from “within” a disruptive
challenge to hegemonic practices. This challenge’s main characteristics are a critical and
ironic revisiting of the past, the defying and termination of master narrative, and a
subversive force to facilitate this change, again, from “within” (7). Hutcheon selectively
emphasizes aspects of Lyotard’s theory of the postmodern, such as the disarticulation of
“master or meta-narratives,” while she omits any reference to Lyotard’s complex
conclusion that “a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern” (79). With the
same superficiality, Hutcheon dismisses Foucault’s archeology attributing to his project
“obvious weakness” that she never specifies.
Hutcheon’s criticism then operates a rhetorical turn: she congregates poststructuralism under the general label of a “challenge to humanism,” which in her opinion
reveals an “illusion of consensus” in contemporary society. This same society, she tells
us, as if Foucault and others had not pioneered this field, is “structured by discourses,”
and this claim, she then highlights, is what “postmodernism endeavors to teach” (7). In
other words, in two pages of her “theorizing,” she goes from accusing Foucault of
postmodernism, giving the impression that the latter is a kind of unified institution. In my
opinion, this is just another example of an effort to create that very “illusion of
consensus” that Hutcheon argues as the bête noir of postmodernism; very swiftly, she
replaces post-structuralism with postmodernism, leaving the former behind as a dated and
overcome philosophical trend.
Referring to literature, the ambitious scope implied by Hutcheon’s title is reduced
when she clarifies that her analysis will be limited to what she calls “historiographic
metafiction (5),” an ad-hoc novelistic genre whose innovation, according to her, is that it
rethinks and reworks the past by combining history and fiction. Her immediate example
of this type of novel is Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad, despite the fact
that this work does not refer explicitly to any identifiable historical episode in the history
of Latin America.
I believe that Roberto González Echevarría’s approach to postmodernism follows
analogous reasoning. In his essay on the transition from the boom to what many are
calling the post-boom, he argues that the narrative of Cuban Severo Sarduy demonstrates
that theory has been exhausted, specifically referring to the theoretical projects of the Tel
Quel group which disbanded after the death of Lacan, Foucault and Barthes. To this
withdrawal of theory, González Echevarría opposes a “recovery” of traditional narrative
forms and themes. Paralleling Hutcheon’s rhetorical twist, González Echevarría groups
Foucault’s, Lacan’s and Barthes’ theories under the same label (the Tel Quel magazine)
and then, as a unit, juxtaposes this label with literary experimentation. Once poststructuralist theories are posited as the equivalent of formal experimentation, González
Echevarría claims that the post-structuralist model has been overcome by the changes in
narration found in Sarduy’s books. These changes, nevertheless, are traceable to poststructuralism: the mechanism of simulation and the deconstruction of notions of the
“natural” and the “normal” that Sarduy employs in his novels were originally theorized
by Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard and the post-structuralist trend that González
Echevarría claims has already been eclipsed. At the same time, he finds the direct
influences apparent in Sarduy’s works as stemming from Heidegger’s ontology and the
highly experimental works of Georges Bataille, two central authors discussed by Foucault
in his theories about literature. From here, González Echevarría performs the same
argumentative leap articulated by Hutcheon: he states that post-boom narrative belongs to
the “movement” of postmodern literature ("Severo Sarduy, the Boom and the Post
Boom" 66). His sources for theories of postmodernism are again Lyotard and novelist
John Barth (whose own list of postmodern writers includes, rather arbitrarily, Borges,
García Márquez and Cortázar). Parallel to Hutcheon’s reasoning, González Echevarría
concludes by offering a similar set of “categories” that define the postmodern in
literature, namely: an apotheosis of narrative, an absence of metadiscourse, an
elimination of ironic reflexivity and superficiality (70-71).
González Echevarría and Hutcheon exercise the same rhetorical spin: by reducing
post-structuralist theories to a consolidated label, they transform their complexities into a
flawed challenge to humanism (Hutcheon) or into a merely formal experimentation
(González Echevarría). Both critics embrace the irruption of postmodernism as the new
era in which contemporary novelists overcome the radical impulses of post-structuralism.
I contend, however, that the manifest changes in some contemporary Hispanic American
writers can best be understood by first discussing the epistemological necessities of the
20th century, an operation that I believe to be vastly more profound than the establishment
of postmodernism’s “categories.” Such an analysis, undertaken precisely by those
philosophers that both Hutcheon and González Echevarría dismiss in their essays, reveals
that postmodernism may be understood as part of the same epistemological conditions
inaugurated by modernity, an idea also present in the work of Lyotard but rarely
accounted for by those who study recent literature as a postmodernist phenomenon. I
believe that Foucault’s archeology provides a solid theoretical foundation for literary
studies, as I will discuss in what follows, that avoids reducing literary analysis to a
superficial description of narrating techniques and themes. For this, I would like to echo
Robert Scholes’ call to reconsider the study of literature as an effect of language, so that
we may recover the original object of theoretical inquiry: “which is how language and
other modes of representation function in the world (732).” As philosophers and
historians like White, Chartier, Canguilhem and De Certeau have noticed, one of
Foucault’s major contributions is precisely the relocation of language, the possibility of
studying its “Being” as a major epistemological problem, or, as De Certeau wrote
echoing Foucault, the space of the speaker’s dissolution. Before attempting to describe
the common techniques and themes of contemporary literature —as the articulators of
postmodernism do— it seems necessary to acknowledge the question of language and its
being. We will then understand, like De Certeau, that before the speakers of the play,
language itself is waiting for Godot (359). Or, more directly, as Foucault concluded in
L’archéologie du savoir:
Le discours n’est pas la vie : son temps n’est pas le vôtre ; en lui, vous ne vous
réconcilierez pas avec la mort : il se peut bien que vous avez tué Dieu sous le
poids de tout ce que vous avez dit ; mais ne pensez pas que vous ferez, de tout ce
que vous dites, un homme que vivra plus que lui (L'archéologie du savoir 275).
I.2.6 The Birth of Literature and the Death of the Author
The dispersion of Man has occurred and continues occurring most notably in
literature, Foucault claims. It seems pertinent to first begin by addressing Foucault’s
conception of literature, and second, how this dispersion occurs and what its main
implications are, among those being death of the author.
In his description of the modern episteme in Les mots et les choses, Foucault
comments on the irruption of literature in the 19th century as the discursive practice that
we know today. Literature existed, indeed, since Homer, but the categorization we give it
in modernity as an independent discipline that differs from other discourses is of recent
date. Its apparition, in fact, is a crucial episode in the formation of the modern episteme,
since it is because of the fragmentation of language’s representative function that
literature emerges. A sense of “being” in language, says Foucault, is undertaken with
literature, opening an exceptional space of self-reference in which literature exists
because it names for itself its own being:
Mais le mot [littérature] est de fraîche date, comme est récent aussi dans notre
culture l’isolement d’un langage singulier dont la modalité propre est d’être
« littéraire ». C’est qu’au début du XIXe siècle, à l’époque où le langage
s’enfonçait dans son épaisseur d’objet et se laissait, de part en part, traverser par
un savoir, il se reconstituait ailleurs, sous une forme indépendante, difficile
d’accès, repliée sur l’énigme de sa naissance et tout entière référée à l’acte pur
d’écrire. La littérature, c’est la contestation de la philologie (dont elle est pourtant
la figure jumelle) : elle ramène le langage de la grammaire au pouvoir dénudé de
parler, et là elle rencontre l’être sauvage et impérieux des mots. De la révolte
romantique contre un discours immobilisé dans sa cérémonie, jusqu’à la
découverte mallarméenne du mot en son pouvoir impuissant, on voit bien quelle
fut, au XIXe siècle, la fonction de la littérature par rapport au mode d’être
moderne du langage (Les mots et les choses 313).
The condition that perhaps describes this modern “being” of language, Foucault explains,
is a type of “analytic reason” that overcomes dialectics. Dialectical reason, Foucault
claims, functions as a philosophy of history that follows the movement from alienation to
reconciliation, promising the human being the advent of his authentic and true self. “Elle
promet l’homme à l’homme ("L’homme est-il mort ?" 569),” Foucault concludes, and it
is in that sense that contemporary humanism first appeared in the thought of Hegel and
later again in Marx.
Analytic reason, as a challenge to dialectics, has its philosophical origin in the
works of Nietzsche, as I mentioned pages above. In literature, Foucault locates its
beginning with the writing of Mallarmé’s Igitur (1925). The French poet, Nietzsche’s
contemporary, inaugurates in literature the space where the autonomy of language fills
the vacuum left by the disappearance of Man:
Depuis, on peut dire que la littérature est le lieu où l’homme ne cesse de
disparaître au profit du langage. Où « ça parle », l’homme n’existe plus
("L’homme est-il mort ?" 572).
To challenge the authority of the speaking subject became an important goal of
post-structuralism. It is true that Derrida, Barthes and Foucault shared common ground in
this respect, but it is difficult to demonstrate that their conclusions are as similar. The
“death” of the author, as proclaimed by Barthes, embodies in many ways the
philosophical attitude of Foucault and Derrida, if we are to consider the author’s
disappearance and the irruption of the modern being of language. Like Foucault, Barthes
deconstructs the notion of the “author” to privilege the autonomy of language, as we can
read in the following:
…le scripteur moderne naît en même temps que son texte ; il n’est d’aucune façon
pourvu d’un être qui précéderait ou excéderait son écriture, il n’est en rien le sujet
dont son livre serait le prédicat ; il n’y a d’autre temps que celui de l’énonciation,
et tout texte est écrit éternellement ici et maintenant ("La mort de l’auteur" 43).
Barthes reduces the notion of “author” to a lesser concept of writer (scripteur) and
announces at the same time the birth of the “reader,” advancing a type of reception theory
or even hermeneutics. Resisting a similar declaration, Foucault offers a historical account
of the concept of author in his essay “What Is an Author?26” In it, Foucault calls for the
substitution of the concept of the author as originator for that of the author as subject,
understood as a “variable and complex function of discourse” ("What Is an Author?"
118). Foucault’s author represents the death of the traditional figure of the writer as a
26 I will refer to the English translation included in Paul Rabinow’s anthology The Foucault Reader. This
version, revised by Foucault, seems, for the purpose of this investigation, more carefully structured than the
French original. For the same reason, I will refer to the English translation of “What is Enlightment?”
included in the same collection. As I have done so far, I will refer to the original texts in French for all
other citations of Foucault’s work.
composer of new ideas. But as Maurice Blanchot has noted, Foucault’s concepts, rather
than eliminating the author, modifies this figure by describing its functions as an element
of discourse:
Le sujet ne disparaît pas : c’est son unité, trop déterminée, qui fait question,
puisque que ce qui suscite l’intérêt et la recherche, c’est sa disparition (c’est-àdire cette nouvelle manière d’être qu’est la disparition) ou encore sa dispersion
qui ne l’anéantit pas, mais ne nous offre de lui qu’une pluralité de positions et une
discontinuité de fonctions (Michel Foucault tel que je l'imagine 28-29).
While Barthes proclaims the author’s death, Foucault historicizes him. This procedure
contextualizes with more depth the criticism directed at some of the proponents of
postmodernism in literature. While some find it enough to enumerate categories of a
phenomenon that are later presented as “theory,” Foucault attempts to trace the evolution
of concepts throughout history, as he did with his archeological method:
It is not enough, however, to repeat the empty affirmation that the author has
disappeared. For the same reason, it is not enough to keep repeating (after
Nietzsche) that God and man have died a common death. Instead, we must locate
the space left empty by the author’s disappearance, follow the distribution of gaps
and breaches, and watch for the openings that this disappearance uncovers ("What
Is an Author?" 105).
The subject’s dispersion as Blanchot notes —the dispersion that Foucault traces in his
study of the function of the author— is the conceptual modification necessary for one to
undertake the study of contemporary literature. Man emerges as the subject and object of
all possible knowledge, Foucault told us in Les mots et les choses. But who is this new
subject that appears as Man dies? Perhaps the answer begins with the same poetry that
produced the subject’s dispersion. With Baudelaire, Foucault concludes that this new
subject “is the man who tries to invent himself” ("What Is Enlightenment?" 42).
The subject is dispersed as he becomes an element of discourse, but in literature,
it is discourse itself that manifests that dispersion. Foucault refers not to all literature in
Western culture, but to a particular kind that Mallarmé initiated and that evolved into a
defiant phenomenon characterizing modernity, continuing in the works of Artaud,
Bataille, Blanchot and, most visibly in the Hispanic American tradition, in Borges. If
modern Man and the parallel conception of the author disappear, it is precisely because a
new form of subjectivity appears in this type of literature. Man takes his place inside of
literary discourse to explore a sort of outside that only literature reaches. In this outside,
the subject disappears because it travels outside of itself with a literature that no is longer
auto-reflexive. This literature pushes its very limits of being to challenge itself over and
over again, word after word revisited.
La littérature, ce n’est pas le langage se rapprochant de soi jusqu’au point de sa
brûlante manifestation, c’est le langage se mettant au plus loin de lui-même ; et si,
en cette mise « hors de soi », il dévoile son être propre, cette clarté soudaine
révèle un écart plutôt qu’un repli, une dispersion plutôt qu’un retour des dignes
sur eux-mêmes. Le « sujet » de la littérature (ce qui parle en elle et ce dont elle
parle), ce ne serait pas tellement le langage en sa positivité que le vide où il
trouve son espace quand il s’énonce dans la nudité du « je parle » ("La pensée du
dehors" 548).
Literature, as inscribed in this “outside,” is that non-dialectic language that
Foucault hoped to articulate for the archeologist. This language surpasses all positivities,
as the epistemological “outside” is unattainable for those who resist abandoning
dialectics, trapped in the flow of history, fighting (in the illusion of teleology) one
positivity with another. This language of the “outside” has reached a void in which there
is nothing left to oppose other than itself, and thus words unravel infinitely. In that void,
there is no reflection of language, but rather a dispersion; no contestation, but a mode of
being under erasure; no unity or final truth, but a language that is pure origin and “has
always already begun” (toujours déjà commencé) (551). Blanchot corresponds fully to
Foucault’s ideas, not only in practice as an author, but also as a theorist. The central
argument of his essay on contemporary literature, Le livre à venir (1959), defines the
dispersive movement of literature in words that could have been written by Foucault:
Mouvement de diaspora qui ne doit jamais être réprimé, mais préservé et accueilli
comme tel dans l’espace qui se projette à partir de lui et auquel ce mouvement ne
fait que répondre, réponse à un vide indéfiniment multiplié où la dispersion prend
forme et apparence d’unité. Un tel livre, toujours en mouvement, toujours à la
limite de l’épars, sera aussi toujours rassemblé dans toutes les direction, de par la
dispersion même et selon la division qui lui est essentielle, qu’il ne fait pas
disparaître, mais apparaître en la maintenant pour s’y accomplir (Le livre à venir
If the literature where Man fades is perpetually in movement towards a void that
allows literature to challenge itself, that literature is under constant erasure: it exists only
to efface itself so that it may begin this process, once again, ad infinitum. It may be
understood from this, that literature takes language back to that infinity that was lost in
the 19th century, according to Foucault, when language ceased its representative function
to acquire a thickness of finitude. This finitude is a historical consciousness that oriented
language according to a telos whose final stage would be truth, with the expectation of its
full realization. The infinity of literature’s non-dialectic language, however, does not
return to the old function of representation, seeking to order words in harmony according
to their corresponding things. This infinity emerges from a space that exists only for
literature and where only literature is possible. This literature, that Foucault calls
“fiction,” is thus explained:
Le fictif n’est jamais dans les choses ni dans les hommes, mais dans l’impossible
vraisemblance de ce qui est entre eux : rencontres, proximité du plus lointain,
absolue dissimulation là où nous sommes. La fiction consiste donc non pas à faire
voir l’invisible, mais à faire voir combien est invisible l’invisibilité du visible
("La pensée du dehors" 552).
This definition of a type of contemporary literature is at the center idea of this
investigation. I emphasize the word “type” because Foucault specifically addresses what I
have called a “genealogy” of literature. He recognizes, in his essay on “La pensée du
dehors” that a dialectical language stays within the realm of time. From this idea, I
derive the partition of Western literature that I believe manifests clearly in Hispanic
America. The noun “fiction” that Foucault employs will not be arbitrarily associated with
Borges in the second chapter. Foucault made clear that Borges’ fictions were as
emblematic of this literature as that of the European authors mentioned above. And so it
does not come as a surprise that it was a short story by Borges that triggered the seminal
idea of Les mots et les choses, as Foucault acknowledges in the opening line of the book.
And if we recall our discussion on González Echevarría’s notes on the transition from the
boom to post-boom narrative, we may now begin to deduce that to attempt a history of
literature based on a description of its forms and themes, is to fail to analyze the
epistemological implications that produced and defined its conditions of possibility.
Foucault’s archeology and his reflection on this type of literature from the “outside” have
allowed us to trace a brief but illuminating history of modernity and of that strange
phenomenon of language that literature has become.
In his book Foucault (1986), Gilles Deleuze concludes that the death of Man does
not entail the disappearance of humankind, but the radical change of a philosophical
concept. He hopes that what follows in modern times is not worse than the figures of God
and Man that reigned in Western history with more horror than glory. As a possible
response, he finds in contemporary thought the opening of a finite space with unending
possibilities, as game played in a limited space but with infinite combinations. If Man has
entered the “being” of language, this language that in literature expands to infinity, we
are about to discover that the end of all times is always also the beginning:
Cette littérature moderne qui creuse une « langue étrangère dans la langue» et qui, à
travers un nombre illimité de constructions grammaticales superposées, tend vers
une expression atypique, agrammaticale, comme vers la fin du langage (on y
marquerait, entre autres et par exemple, le livre de Mallarmé, les répétitions de
Péguy, les souffles de Artaud, les agrammaticalités de Cummings, les pliures de
Burroughs, cut-up et fold-in, mais aussi les proliférations de Roussel, les
dérivations de Brisset, les collages de Dada…) Et le fini-illimité ou le surpli, n’estce pas ce que Nietzsche traçait déjà, sous le nom d’éternel retour ? (140).
I have chosen to discuss until now the Foucault of Les mots et les choses and
L’archéologie du savoir, for whom “penser autrement” implied a theorizing somehow
“outside” of the episteme. We will see in the third part of this chapter how archeological
description is now complemented by the new method that he adopts under the name of
“genealogy.” Genealogy is introduced as a more perfected research tool that allows the
investigator to link various discursive and non-discursive practices across different
epistemes, despite the radical discontinuity that exists between them. As a sort of interepistemological method, genealogy separates discourses to focus on their strategies and
their relations to non-discursive practices, that in turn, produce not only knowledge but
human subjects of that knowledge.
As some critics allege, it may be true that Foucault’s use of Nietzsche can also be
explained by understanding his generation in the context of the philosophical
establishment of the late 1960’s and the early 70’s, in particular as an “emancipatory”
(Schrift 5) reaction to structuralism, that allowed Foucault to free himself from the need
to attempt a general theory that could account for the formation of stratified (hegemonic)
knowledge. This may be true if one traces the developments of Foucault’s thought,
specifically after the first apparition of genealogy as a method in L’ordre du discours, his
inaugural conference at the Collège de France. This opinion implies that Foucault used
Nietzsche’s writings to position himself against his immediate philosophical
predecessors, without accounting for his choice in philosophical terms. But Foucault
never asserted to have written a faithful exegesis. Quite the contrary, Foucault, as I will
discuss later, reserves for himself the right to assimilate only certain philosophical
possibilities in Nietzsche’s works, and to even correct those elements that do not
contribute to his project. It is a very Nietzschean posture, after all, to admit that instead of
truth, only interpretations are available to us.
In the present investigation, archeology’s purpose is to attempt a history of the
modern individual and of the emergence of a type of literature that challenges the concept
of Man. Foucault realized this study through an exercise of discursive analysis that he
named “archeology” and that, as we have seen, was to be complemented by the
genealogical method. As Foucault announced for his own research, my theoretical
approach will be archeological in method and genealogical in design ("What Is
Enlightenment?" 46). I will contend that it is genealogical analysis that provides the
essential tool to account for the recurrence of a particular discursive strategy, that of
infinity in various modalities and structural choices, that are present in contemporary
Mexican and Hispanic American literature. In what follows, I will attempt to describe
with specificity how this genealogy of infinity operates, what its conditions of possibility
are, and how we can ultimately undertake it as an object of study.
I.3 Constructing a Literary Genealogy of Infinity
I.3.1 Time Lost, Time Overcome
In his introduction to Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881), Raymond Queneau
divides Western literature into two categories derived from Homer: “Iliads” and
“Odysseys.” Every great work falls under either label, although he claims that the
Odysseys are far superior in number than the Iliads. The Satiricon, the Divine Comedy,
Gargantua and Pantagruel, Don Quixote and Ulysses are all “naturally” Odysseys which
he calls “des récits de temps pleins,” while the Iliads are those “recherches du temps
perdu” (47-48). If we are to explore this idea a little further, we may understand “temps
pleins” not as a temporal plenitude, but, precisely because time is fully regained, as time
overcome. As literary language enters the “outside” of subjectivity by surmounting
dialectics (Foucault’s pensée du dehors), we may add to this state a conquering of
temporality that renders all search for lost time unnecessary. The literature that derives
from the Iliad, however, remains the chronicle of sequential action in a particular time
and place, namely, historical fictions. It seems interesting to note how Queneau
reinterprets literary history as a manifestation of a type of paradigm, regardless of authors
and their epochs. In this he echoes the call by Borges to consider literature as a fact of
timeless beauty, disregarding all references to specific dates:
Creo que quizá nos despiste uno de los estudios que más valoro: el estudio de la
historia de la literatura. Me pregunto (espero que no sea una blasfemia) si no le
prestamos demasiada atención a la historia. Atender a la historia de la literatura
—o de cualquiera otra arte, si vamos a eso— es en realidad una forma de
incredulidad, de escepticismo (Arte poética 137).
The present study hopes to write a literary history proposing a perspective of literature as
a synchronic event of language, considering its various trends and movements in
Hispanic America in the 20th century. I will attempt to renounce the skepticism that
Borges criticized in the traditional literary historian, for whom literature is not a living
ontological dimension of language, but a subject to be classified and read under dated
categories. But what exactly are the features of such a study? The previous section of this
chapter closed by proposing a literary study that turns to Foucault’s archeological method
in order to describe the epistemological conditions that allowed literature to emerge as a
scission of language, after the latter lost its ordering powers of representation. But let us
remember that Foucault has a particular type of literature in mind that he identifies with
the works of Artaud, Bataille, Blanchot and, in Hispanic American tradition, Borges. This
literature, that functions “from outside,” prevails over subjectivity and inaugurates a
space in which it and only it can exist to challenge itself to infinity.
There is another literary tradition in modernity, however, that Foucault never
alludes to but is important to mention in order to contextualize what I will call a
“genealogy of literary infinity.” That alternative possibility of literature was perhaps
implied in Queneau’s poetic categorization of those works of “lost time.” Fully
participating in the crisis of modernity that Foucault describes in Les mots et les choses,
this literature operates within the three doubles: 1) it projects the phenomena of Man as
he functions simultaneously as an empirical and transcendental subject; 2) it activates the
full potential of Man’s cogito but without ever successfully conquering all knowledge,
never reaching the dimension of the unthought; 3) this literature strives to recover Man’s
historical origin when in fact it distances him from it. “Historiographic metafiction” —if
we are to follow Linda Hutcheon’s ad-hoc postmodern genre— fits this description
perfectly. In the Hispanic American literary tradition, these epistemological conditions
may have begun and with the debate between civilization and barbarism and with the
subsequent historical anxieties of José Martí’s essays. In the 20th century, archival
fictions reveal clearly these conditions, from the dreams of rewriting and refashioning the
archive of Augusto Roa Bastos’ Yo, el supremo (1974), to many of the major boom
novels by Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. Historical
fictions, the mythical foundation of Latin America’s cultures, the dialectics of time,
ideologies and their teleological implications, are all defining features of this other
genealogy. In a future study, it would be worthwhile to examine historical fictions with
this methodological approach, for which Foucault’s concept of the historical a priori of
the archive, for example, would be essential. The main concern of the present
investigation, however, is to describe what I call the genealogy of literary infinity.
Nevertheless, it is useful to remember that the alternate genealogy (that of historical
fictions) will be implicated each step of the way, even if this is done negatively. The
genealogy of literary infinity cannot help but assume the presence of the other possibility
of modern literature as its antithetical twin.
I.3.2 The Genealogical Design
As incoming investigators traditionally do in their inaugural conference at the
Collège de France, on December 2, 1970, Foucault presented the direction his research
was to take in the years to come. Dreyfus and Rabinow note that at the end of
L’archéologie du savoir, Foucault doubted about the stability and autonomy of the
methodological approach of archeology, stating that other methods used in a different
way may turn out to be more fruitful. His conference “L’ordre du discours” begins to
outline this improved method. It does not set aside discourse analysis and the conditions
of emergence that make knowledge possible, but it reformulates these questions under a
different, perhaps more effective, light. Aiming at contesting, once again, the procedure
of the traditional historian of ideas, Foucault introduces five principles for his new
methodology. The first one, a principle of “reversal,” calls for the reconsideration of our
understanding of discourse —to review what he calls a “will to truth” that produces
Man’s belief that discourse is continuous and stems from a source that he claims to
understand— and for the “sovereignty of the signifier.” By reversing these beliefs of
language’s unquestioned continuity, Foucault opens the possibility of a different
approach to language, through which he sets out to find the way discourse excludes
concepts and limits itself to predetermined rules of usage. Based on this principle, he
envisions a “critical” analysis, seeking to establish how discourse has consolidated and
Ainsi n’apparaît à nous yeux qu’une vérité qui serait richesse, fécondité, force
douce et insidieusement universelle. Et nous ignorons en revanche la volonté de
vérité, comme prodigieuse machinerie destinée à exclure. Tous ceux qui, de point
en point dans notre histoire, ont essayé de contourner cette volonté de vérité et de
la remettre en question contre la vérité, là justement où la vérité entreprend de
justifie l’interdit et de définir la folie, tous ceux-là, de Nietzsche, à Artaud et à
Bataille, doivent maintenant nous servir de signes, hautains sans doute, pour le
travail de tous les jours (L'ordre du discours 22-23).
The following three principles are grouped to construct a new methodology that
he then introduces and that will become a key element for all his future research:
genealogy. Without explaining his usage of this word (something he will explore in a
later essay and that I will discuss in the next section), he refers to genealogy as the tool to
approach “effective” formations of discourse and its power to constitute objects (71). The
second principle is that of “discontinuity,” for which discourse is not a continuous flow
that maintains essential truths, but rather is a series of interrupted events. The third
principle, “specificity,” rejects an a priori system for deciphering a text, as if it held a
predetermined and univocal meaning. Foucault proposes that discourse is something
foreign to the world, and does “violence” to things (55). The fourth principle, that of
“exteriority,” recaptures the notion of the superficial nature of discourse, in which no
hidden or transcendental meaning is found. Discourse is a practice that may be observed
in the superficiality of language, not because the “inside” of it is impenetrable, but
because it does not exist. For a discourse that exists as exteriority, only an approach from
the outside is feasible.
Recalling some of his findings in L’archéologie du savoir, Foucault mentions
then four notions that revert the assumptions held by traditional histories of ideas. To the
supposition of the “creation” of a text, Foucault opposes the notion of “event” that
defines language acts as articulated eventualities. To the assumed “signification” of a
text, he opposes the search for the text’s “conditions of possibility, ” shifting the focus
from the production of meanings to the rules that make discourses emerge. Finally,
disarticulating the notions of unity and originality, particularly in the figure of the author,
he opposes the description of a series of discourses and their regularities, which together
allow for the predominance of certain discursive concepts and their corresponding
It is true that at this stage, as Dreyfus and Rabinow suggest, Foucault has not yet
formalized what he means by “genealogy.” We will see in the next section how he
answers this need by undertaking the full description of the genealogical method in a
separate essay. We must keep in mind, nevertheless, that Foucault’s focus on genealogy
does not entail, by any means, a rejection of archeology. Gilles Deleuze links archeology
and genealogy as integral parts of a larger project in which Foucault attempts the
complex description of how discursive knowledge is formed (archeology), how the nondiscursive relations of power function, and how we constitute ourselves as individual
subjects (genealogy). Foucault never clearly states how the two methods interchange, but
he does offer various possibilities. One of the research leads that the present study is
interested in exploring was envisioned at the end of his essay on the Enlightenment. For
Foucault, the study of modernity must develop a detailed reading of the conditions of the
emergence of this episteme, while at the same time it must seek to analyze the distinct
features of discourse formation. Thus, archeology provides the descriptive method for
understanding modernity while genealogy provides the design to reveal the way it
In that sense, this criticism is not transcendental, and its goal is not that of making
a metaphysics possible: it is genealogical in its design and archeological in its
method. Archeological —and not transcendental— in the sense that it will not
seek to identify the universal structures of all knowledge or of all possible moral
action, but will seek to treat the instances of discourse that articulate what we
think, say, and do as so many historical events. And this critique will be
genealogical in the sense that it will not deduce from the form of what we are
what it is impossible for us to do and to know; but it will separate out, from the
contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being,
doing of thinking what we are, do, or think ("What Is Enlightenment?" 46).
The question remains: if archeology is the method, how exactly are we to
understand genealogy as the design?
I.3.3 “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”
We have seen how Foucault’s methodology displaces the most intricate aspects of
archeological analysis to privilege a more synthetic set of principles to undertake the
study of discourse. Genealogy has appeared as a tool to describe the “effective”
formation of discourses, aiming not only to understand their configuration in general, but
also the unfolding of specific “series” (the links that exist between commonly articulated
discourses) and “regularities” (the prevailing strategies that in fact rule the formation of
other emerging discourses from the same conditions of possibility) of discourse practice.
Foucault analyzed these conditions in L’archéologie du savoir, but after “L’ordre du
discours” Foucault turns his attention to genealogy, seeking to account for the actual
formation of discourse (tracing specific strategies and their objects) and not only its
general constitution.
In 1971, the same year as “L’ordre du discours,” Foucault published “Nieztsche,
la généalogie, l’histoire,” an essay that redefines his methodology to a larger extent. It
establishes, in the first lines, that genealogy is not an anti-historical project, but a
rejection of the search for origins that seeks to establish essential truths. While his
inaugural conference at the Collège de France had not specifically defined his
understanding of genealogy, this second essay offers an account of the term itself and of
its sources. Foucault turns to Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, in which the term
Herkunft is used to attack the will to fix things in some sort of primordial truth, in their
univocal identity.
Or, si le généalogiste prend soin d’écouter l’histoire plutôt que d’ajouter foi à la
métaphysique, qu’apprend-il ? Que derrière les choses il y a « tout autre chose » :
non point leur secret essentiel et sans date, mais le secret qu’elles sont sans
essence, ou que leur essence fut construite pièce à pièce à partir de figures qui lui
étaient étrangères ("Nietzsche, la généalogie, l'histoire" 1006).
Foucault emphasizes the need of seizing history as the object of genealogy. History here,
as understood by Foucault, is a “body” where events are recorded. The genealogist needs
history to “dispel” the illusion of origin, as the philosopher needs medicine to eliminate
the illusion of the soul. And so, as he works with history, the genealogist reshapes and
frees the discipline from its transcendental assumptions, for genealogy is, in a certain
way, the overcoming of history.
Next, Foucault discusses the traditional connotation of genealogy: as an analysis
of descent or of “provenance,” it requires the dissolution of the individual, the
heterogeneity that belies our false sense of continuity in history. The genealogist finds
fragmentation in a multiplicity of events, and the subtle and unique marks of a lineage
where difference prevails.
Rien qui ressemblerait à l’évolution d’une espèce, au destin d’un peuple. Suivre la
filière complexe de la provenance, c’est au contraire maintenir ce qui s’est passé
dans la dispersion qui lui est propre : c’est repérer les accidents, les infimes
déviations —ou au contraire les retournements complets—, les erreurs, les fautes
d’appréciation, les mauvais calculs qui ont donné naissance à ce qui existe et vaut
pour nous ; c’est découvrir qu’à la racine de ce que nous connaissons et de ce que
nous sommes il n’y a point la vérité et l’être, mais l’extériorité de l’accident
("Nietzsche, la généalogie, l'histoire" 1009).
The word Entstehung designates another object of genealogy: emergence. It is the
apparition of a singularity in discourse in the field of an interrelation of forces. It is the
place of confrontation between antagonistic wills with the resulting domination of one
over the other. The role of the genealogist, as Nietzsche prescribes, is to write a chronicle
of interpretations and their place in the log that records history. Morals, ideals and
metaphysical concepts are in this way seen as events in the long process of history. But
again the question arises: what is the relationship between genealogy and traditional
history? If history overcomes metaphysics and rejects all absolutes, if it manages to adopt
a certain perspective (regard) that shatters its own sense of unity and that of the human
being, then it may become, Foucault explains, the privileged instrument of genealogy.
Genealogy is, first and foremost, an exercise in writing history. In this history, however,
there is no rediscovery of knowledge, but rather the acceptance that there are no constants
and that there is nothing in our culture that allows men to recognize themselves in other
men throughout the ages. Any sense of continuity is an illusion. We live, Foucault says,
without original coordinates, in a heterogeneity of events lost in time.
“The world has become infinite for us once again in the sense that we cannot
refuse to lend it the possibility of an infinite number of interpretations,” wrote Nietzsche
in the regularly cited paragraph 374 of The Gay Science (1882). This perspective, that
transforms knowledge into interpretation, prevents history from grounding itself in any
metaphysical claims. And so, Foucault maintains, genealogy does not fear being itself, a
perspective of knowledge.
Plutôt que de feindre un discret effacement devant ce qu’il regard, plutôt que d’y
chercher sa loi et d’y soumettre chacun de ses mouvements, c’est un regard qui
sait d’où il regarde aussi bien que ce qu’il regarde. Le sens historique donne au
savoir la possibilité de faire, dans le mouvement même de sa connaissance, sa
généalogie ("Nietzsche, la généalogie, l'histoire" 1018).
One must revert traditional history in order to activate genealogy. To achieve this, the
genealogist must attempt to undo the metaphysical foundation that began with Plato.
History must not be founded in any philosophical system, as Hegel and Marx attempted
in the 19th century. Instead, the genealogist shatters its fundamental unity, and history
itself becomes a fragmented method that in turn fragments its objects.
At the end of his essay, Foucault calls for three main usages of genealogical
history: 1) A parodic use, where individuals no longer recognize themselves in the false
continuity of history, but rather take their place in history accepting their current mask, in
the great “carnival” of time; 2) the dissociative use, which works against identity’s unity
and the reassuring force of historical traditions, hoping to produce their dissipation; 3) the
sacrifice of the subject of knowledge, which may be understood as a rejection of all
limitations in the course of any investigation, implying the experimentation of other
possibilities of being because history is no longer the stable place where subjectivity
Foucault’s genealogy provides an opportunity to reshape literary history with the
introduction of a design that eludes the securing force of traditional history. The
genealogical design dissolves the historical continuum, eliminates its artificial origins and
detects the emergence of difference in discourse. But as it operates, it is conscious of its
own position in the very genealogy it traces. The genealogist knowingly enters his
genealogy with a mask that does not allow him to prevail over other subjects, but rather
adds him to the moving carnival of shifting identities. This is why literary history in the
present study will not obey the linearity of traditional accounts, since it recognizes that
most categorizations facilitate didactical goals but fail to discover that “otherness” where
traditional history only sees the “same.” Literary history becomes genealogy when we
accept to abandon the Platonic game of truth and essence, when we discover that
language may not reflect what we say, when it refuses to show our image in its mirror,
when the genealogist, gazing upon its reflecting surface, witnesses a literary language
that reflects itself in motion as it flees the controlling force of the subject, expanding its
limits to infinity.
I.3.4 Literature to Infinity
If the present study, a “genealogy of literary infinity” is archeological in method
and genealogical in design, it appears that we have only addressed half of its purported
ambitions. Some questions open ahead: how exactly can we describe literary infinity?
What are its discursive strategies? What discursive objects emerge in them?
The precise definition of infinity as a discursive strategy in contemporary
Hispanic American writing is the final objective of this investigation. I have now laid
down the necessary foundation to approach this figure that surpasses its condition as
theme, to become an ontological possibility of language. This is the conclusion that
Foucault reaches in his essay “Le langage à l’infini” (1963). Written before Les mots et
les choses and L’archéologie du savoir, this text prefigures various of Foucault’s ideas
that define the place of literature in modernity, as he devised it in these two books. I will
propose in what follows, what I consider to be key aspects of infinity as a textual strategy
that my subsequent analysis of four contemporary novels written in Mexico will put to
the test.
Before continuing, it is important to remember Foucault’s definition of the
“being” (être) of literary language. This independence of literature can be observed from
the beginning of poetic writing, that is, since Homer. More precisely, Foucault refers to
the episode in the Odyssey when Ulysses hears, in a stranger’s voice, the account of his
own life. In order to establish his identity and thus continue his travels, Ulysses must sing
again the story of his life to overcome the death foretold in the stranger’s song. Homer
writes that the gods send misfortunes to men so that they may tell their stories. Foucault
adds, that mortals tell their stories to postpone those future misfortunes in the endless
continuum of language that extends their time, word after word:
Le malheur innombrable, don bruyant des dieux, marque le point où commence le
langage ; mais la limite de la mort ouvre devant le langage, ou plutôt en lui, un
espace infini ; devant l’imminence de la mort, il se poursuit dans une hâte
extrême, mais aussi il recommence, se raconte lui-même, découvre le récit et cet
emboîtement qui pourrait bien ne s’achever jamais ("Le langage à l'infini" 279).
A language that reflects itself, that duplicates itself, encounters the means to cheat death.
Ulysses’ life is inserted in language before it is completed. Ulysses retakes the thread of
narration to bring his story and himself back to life, because for language there is no
difference. Ulysses may be dead already (in fact, for the reader of Homer, he is), but
through the song that sings his of life, he is always the hero that is remembered, and
always the remembering hero. Ulysses is dead, and is always on the verge of life. For
Foucault, literary language produces this paradoxical effect when death and life converge
in its space. This effect of language has ontological implications and Foucault envisions
the possibility of researching this phenomenon of language’s auto-representation. Even if
the effect itself is involuntary —and one may argue that the paradox in the Odyssey is—
it nevertheless manifests this ontological dimension.
Although methodological problems could arise from an ontological study of metafictitious language, I find it useful to consider Foucault’s contention that literary
language, up until the XVIII century, was a vehicle for an infinite flow of words that
maintained representation in movement. Foucault elaborates on this idea, as I mentioned
earlier (section 2.3 “Foucault’s Archeology”), when he localizes the emergence of an
independent sense of “finitude.” Historically, this occurs at the same time as the notion of
infinite knowledge, in which the power of representation was unceasingly extended, was
being abandoned. In literature before the 19th century, the possibility of infinity as a
literary strategy is kept outside of language, as a phenomenon produced by literature but
that once it sparks its light could continue, if anything, outside of the literary act. Ulysses
and Scherezade touch the void of infinity when they feel compelled to tell the story of
their lives. Through this (re)telling, narrative could takes us back to the beginning (only
later to return to the same point and begin again), but this is only a possibility never fully
attempted in the actual story. Infinity, until the XVIII century is a possibility of
representation that could —but does not— continue endlessly.
The modern episteme, in authors like Mallarmé and Blanchot, inaugurates a new
era for a certain kind of literature that reverts the direction of this movement. Instead of
the centripetal flow of a literature that names itself, a centrifugal impetus begins. Against
the murmur of a literature that is closed in its own circuit, writers like Sade, Bataille and
Borges bring us a literature that flees outside of itself, reaching that which is unthinkable,
ecstatic, unattainable, unspeakable. A language that seeks its own limits is a language that
first must exhaust all of its possibilities:
À travers tant de corps consommés en leur existence actuelle, ce sont tous les
mots éventuels, tous les mots encore à naître qui sont dévorés par ce langage
saturnien… [Un langage] répété, combiné, dissocié, renversé, puis renversé de
nouveau, non pas vers une récompense dialectique, mais vers une exhaustion
radicale ("Le langage à l'infini" 284-85).
The movement towards the “outside,” as was discussed earlier (section 2.6 “The
Birth of Literature and the Death of the Author”), is no longer the self-reflection of a
literature of representation. It is the exhaustion of all that we can potentially say, of all
that could be said by anyone at all times and in all circumstances. Because of this, a
literature potentially elevated to infinity is articulated by no one and addressed to no one.
In this sense, it is only the “being” (être) of language that enters the space created when
literature distances itself from the modern episteme. There, Foucault explains, literature
recreates itself and all of its possibilities, multiplying infinity to infinity. But precisely
because no subject can reach that space uniquely created by and for this language that
appears from the “outside,” literature to infinity is never made manifest to anyone. It is,
from a reader’s perspective, absent. Thus, infinity emerges in literary language, and this
expansion continues infinitively. “Elle pourrait et, au sens strict, devrait continuer sans
arrêt, dans un murmure qui n’a pas d’autre statut ontologique que celui d’une pareille
contestation ("Le langage à l'infini" 285).”
To illustrate infinity, Foucault refers to two short stories by Borges included in his
most celebrated book: Ficciones (1944). He begins with “El milagro secreto,” in which
God grants a wish to a man condemned to be executed by a firing squad: a second before
he is shot, God suspends time for a year in order for the man to conclude a play that he
had begun writing. The work is completed and “written,” but only in the man’s mind,
invisible for everybody else, including for God. The play, composed in the impossible
dilatation of one second, does not exist, nor is it addressed to anyone. Borges’ story is
contained in a few pages, but a void opens in its structure, a vertigo in which time
“La Biblioteca de Babel” offers Foucault more than an image of infinity. It
symbolizes, in fact, the epistemological change its kind of literature suffered in the 19th
century. Foucault makes careful note of the transition between one episteme to the other:
a literature in which the word (parole) extends its powers to infinity, is a literary practice
based on rhetoric. The center of such literature is an act of communication, be it the deeds
of the hero, as in the Odyssey, or the Iliad’s unending tales of an ever-lasting war. It may
be true, as Queneau discerns, that the structure of the Odyssey inaugurates in Western
literature the tradition of a “timeless” tale, but we now understand that only in modernity,
this time “regained” becomes infinite, this plenitude always mirroring and pushing itself
to a new limit. This new limit, Foucault writes, is the Library, and if we may imagine a
particular library, it must be Borges’ Babel.
Aujourd’hui l’espace du langage n’est pas défini par la Rhétorique, mais par la
Bibliothèque : par l’épaulement à l’infini des langages fragmentaires, substituant
à la chaîne double de la rhétorique la ligne simple, continue, monotone, d’un
langage livré à lui-même, d’un langage qui est voué à être infini parce qu’il ne
peut plus s’appuyer sur la parole de l’infini. Mais il trouve en soi la possibilité de
se dédoubler, de se répéter, de faire naître le système vertical des miroirs, des
images de soi-même, des analogies. Un langage qui ne répète nulle parole, nulle
Promesse, mais recule indéfiniment la mort en ouvrant sans cesse un espace où il
est toujours l’analogon de lui-même ("Le langage à l'infini" 288-89).
In Borges’ library of ever-continuing hexagonal chambers, the librarian (each of us,
writers and readers) walks the halls in search of the exit door, the Book that contains all
books, the Book of Infinity. God, Eternal Time, the Universe —whatever the name of
Infinity may be— becomes the impossible objective in our wandering in the never-ending
library. Rhetoric is no longer the vehicle of infinite representation, for rhetoric itself is
now an ever-changing combination of words, always anticipated and already present in
the shelves of the hexagons. As Blanchot writes27, it is Borges as the blind, old librarian
—just as Umberto Eco imagines him in The Name of the Rose— who perhaps held the
key to enter the infinite library. It is only after we have followed Borges inside, does he
realize that he cannot find the exit door.
We have been able to identify infinity in its conditions of emergence thanks to the
archeological method, through which we traced the apparition of literature in the 19th
century as the discursive act that we know today. I will argue that infinity appears in
narrative, however, by means of specific textual mechanisms that I will call, as Foucault
does, discursive “strategies.” How can we identify these strategies? How do they define
the design of this so-called “genealogy of literary infinity?”
27 I will discuss in full this and other perspectives on Borges in the next chapter.
I would like to begin by recapacitating a tool for literary analysis that will
function at the core of the genealogical design: commentary. One of Foucault’s main
arguments in “L’ordre du discours” calls for the dismantling of this traditional tool for
analysis. For Foucault, commentary is understood as a strange mechanism whose goal is
to discern the “deep” and “interior” meaning of a text. Commentary must discover
something new to say about a text with the condition that this discovery is already present
in the text being analyzed. Or as Foucault says, not without irony: “Le nouveau n’est pas
dans ce qui est dit, mais dans l’événement de son retour” (L'ordre du discours 28).
Foucault’s criticism of commentary may have involuntary produced a corrective effect.
As critic Nathalie Piégay-Gros observes in the case of Roland Barthes, Foucault’s attack
on commentary may reconstitute its structure, renewing its analytical powers in such a
way that a new space opens for its exercise.
Foucault’s main critique of commentary resides in its relation with the primary
text it subjects to study. Like religious exegesis and judicial interpretation, commentary
on literature functions as a secondary text that highlights what was said in the primary
one, but at the same time it recasts the primary text as if it had never been said before.
But despite Foucault, the fact that a commentary reshapes a literary text —as a discourse
that is always already said and always about to be said—becomes the very procedure to
incorporate it as an essential tool for genealogical analysis. This is why it appears logical
to me (again, despite Foucault) that some of the literary games played by Borges
symbolize for Foucault the paradoxical nature of commentary:
Jeu à la Borges d’un commentaire qui ne sera pas autre chose que la réapparition
mot à mot (mais cette fois solennelle et attendue) de ce qu’il commente ; jeu
encore d’une critique qui parlerait à l’infini d’une œuvre qui n’existe pas. Rêve
lyrique d’un discours qui renaît en chacun de ses points absolument nouveau et
innocent, et qui reparaît sans cesse, en toute fraîcheur, à partir des choses, des
sentiments ou des pensées (L'ordre du discours 25).
Foucault’s ironic criticism of commentary as a tool for literary analysis becomes
the key element to renovate it in full, even to raise it, as Barthes wanted, to the level of a
primary text. In an earlier essay, Foucault considers interpretation as a practice that
functions within circular time, opposed to the linear time of dialectics. The infinite game
of commentary writes and rewrites the primary text in the same way interpretation
becomes, with Nietzsche, an infinite task: “…on a un temps de l’interprétation qui est
circulaire. Ce temps est bien obligé de repasser là où il est déjà passé” ("Nietzsche,
Freud, Marx" 601).
Commentary presents itself as the logical vehicle for the exploration of literary
infinity. Foucault reminds us of how Borges granted it the status of a language game. In
the “discovery” of what has already been written, but presented to us as if it is always
about to be written, commentary enters the very space of the “outside” where language
pushes its own limits. There, commentary forces a mirror in front of itself that in turn
forces another mirror and this last mirror one more, ad infinitum. Language unfolds itself
into itself, likes the identical hexagonal chambers of the Biblioteca de Babel that never
cease to announce the next one, charged once again with all possible combinations of
language. The origins of literature began in the rhetoric of the classical use of language.
In modernity, the space of language is no longer defined by rhetoric, as Foucault told us,
but by the library. We may say that such is the intuition of Adso, William of
Baskerville’s apprentice in Eco’s novel. Inside the labyrinth of the abbey’s library, Adso
notices the murmur of books, or if we may, of modern literature. A literature talking to
itself, unfolding its limits to infinity until it catches on fire. Foucault wrote that rhetoric
might extinguish the library’s fire, but only to a certain extent. Rhetoric allows for the
articulation of a book whose infinite word may attempt to contain all other books. But if
such a book is just one book among others, shouldn’t it itself be part of the collection?
La littérature commence quand ce paradoxe se substitue à ce dilemme ; quand le
livre n’est plus l’espace où la parole prend figure (figures de style, figures de
rhétorique, figures de langage), mas le lieu où les livres, sont tous repris et
consumés : lieu sans lieu puisqu’il loge tous les livres passés en cet impossible
« volume » qui vient ranger son murmure parmi tant d’autres — après tous les
autres, avant tous les autres ("Le langage à l'infini" 289).
At the end of Il nome della rosa, the abbey’s library catches on fire, signaling the
end of an era and announcing the advent of a new paradigm. For critic Gerry O’Sullivan,
modern literature after Mallarmé, ignites “the vast conflagration of intertextuality” by
accelerating to infinity the duplication, concealment, fragmentation, displaying and
combination of literary language:
Language, at least as it is treated by both Borges and Foucault, will not and
cannot be forced into continua of unity, continuity, and identity. We are left
instead with the unsettling trope of the library with all of its attendant
characteristics —plenitude, serialization, the exteriority of language, the infinity
of words. Borges’s libraries are mazelike suggestions of infinity, housing finite
being forever reading by an incessant and insufficient light (120).
It may well be that the only possible way to exit the Biblioteca de Babel is by setting it on
fire. Burning the library, however, would entail the same danger that Borges foresaw
when he considered burning the book of sand: its fire and smoke would suffocate the
world forever. In any case, the tale of the library’s destruction is already contained in one
of its books, and the location and name of that book is of no importance, for the narration
has not yet concluded nor will it ever. The following pages will begin to address the latest
manifestations of literary infinity in Mexico.
I.3.5 The Genealogy of Literary Infinity in Mexican Narrative
If we are to follow Borges and to make the universe the equivalent of the library,
it is true that a sense of terror may emerge, for we are forever lost in it, condemned to
walk its corridors searching for the Book of all books. But Pascal’s terror may be
overcome if we read José Martí’s simple verse: “El universo habla mejor que el hombre.”
The present study will analyze the literature of those who have implicitly accepted this
statement as true. The universe, or if we may, the library, speaks better than Man, in fact,
it speaks Man. The 19th century brought us the emergence of the modern individual who,
at the same time, was aborted in a literature that resigned its duty of representation. This
literature has gone outside of itself, canceling any possibility of a speaking subject (the
author) and of the interlocutor (the reader). Other theorists of literature, particularly in
France, have sensed this movement toward infinity. Maurice Blanchot, in Le livre à venir
(1959) and L’entretien infini (1969) conceptualizes it as an “absence” of the work,
studying literature (also from Mallarmé on) as an act never fully completed, since in it,
literature is perpetually a completed act but always about to begin. In his study Temps et
récit (1983) Paul Ricœur, on the other hand, attributes to fiction the ability to overcome
—or as he argued, to set in motion— the aporia of philosophical speculation about the
nature of time. Where Derrida sees the production of chains of signs in De la
grammatologie (1967), Baudrillard calls this proliferation Simulacra et simulation
(1981), another name for cyclical infinity.
The present study will understand infinity, following Foucault, as a discursive
strategy. The genealogical design will show a discontinuity in our model of literary
history. The description of the entire Hispanic American genealogy of literary infinity is a
finite task, and a very achievable one. This may be the objective of a future research, but
the present study, hoping to concentrate the scope of its analysis, has chosen to focus on
contemporary narrative in Mexico, undertaking the study or four novels that show
various strategies of infinity in their discourse. The moment has come to define these
strategies, to isolate them in their specificity, in order to facilitate the description of the
latest manifestations of this genealogy.
I have chosen to enlist four major strategies, an arbitrary number that does not
pretend to cover all the aspects of this literary possibility. As Borges has proven to us,
infinity may be experienced within the margins of one single page: infinity inhabits a
finite literature, and not the other way around.
1) The first strategy that I would like to discuss is the radical exhaustion of
language. Although it seems easy to confuse this strategy with baroque techniques, this
proliferation of words —their duplication, modification and even their destruction—
denotes the unstable condition of a fiction that chases its own limits. This effect is found
in what Severo Sarduy denominates the “neo-baroque.” The prefix is absolutely
necessary because this literature has overcome the way infinity operated as representation
in literature until the 19th century. José Lezama Lima and João Guimarães Rosa have
revealed, in the 20th century, this radical exhaustion in their techniques and approaches to
fiction, which allow us to see in each page the unfolding of that “being” of language that
Foucault localized in its ontological implications. Under this light, the present study will
offer an incursion into the intricate narrative web of Daniel Sada’s Porque parece
mentira la verdad nunca se sabe (1998), an almost unbearable experiment of language’s
proliferating powers, where words and the images created by them are exponentially
2) The expanding void of the absence of the œuvre is the second strategy that I
want to explore. Deriving this concept from Blanchot’s theories, I contend that the
impossibility of writing about what Foucault calls the “unthought” is one of modernity’s
ultimate crises. The unattainable understanding of the infinite nature of time, reality and
fiction itself, takes writers such as Josefina Vicens, in her novel El libro vacío (1958), to
the “horrors” of a paradoxical impossibility of writing that somehow occurs before the
reader’s eyes. Roberto Bolaño’s characters in Los detectives salvajes (1998) are displaced
by time and space in search of the non-existent work by a missing avant-garde poet. The
three “detectives” themselves will find that literature, in its furthest limit, is an impossible
silence that is yet, somehow, always speaking.
3) A destabilizing presence of the other threatening the unity of the same,
introduces in contemporary narrative the third strategy to be studied in this investigation.
This heterogeneity shatters our notions of individuality and identity, placing it against its
opposite that, paradoxically, reflects identity’s changing nature. Baudrillard’s concept of
simulation may be put to use to further our knowledge of the mechanism of alterity in
contemporary narrative. Critic Roberto González Echevarría has already paved the road
for this approach in his essay on Severo Sarduy mentioned earlier in this chapter (section
2.5 “Archeology and Postmodernism”). I believe, however, that his analysis remains
insufficient because it resorts to a description of the phenomena —under the elusive label
of postmodernism— without accounting for the crisis of modernity that Foucault delimits
through the archeological method. Archeology will allow us to understand the nature of
modernity and its crisis in our reading of Cristina Rivera Garza’s La cresta de Ilión
(2002), a novel that will take us to an obscure story of shifting identities, a masquerade of
changing faces, none of them hiding a univocal self.
4) In the presence of madness, transgression becomes the next powerful strategy
of literary infinity. In many ways, it also works as a space of accumulation for the
previous notions. The main character of Jorge Volpi’s A pesar del oscuro silencio (1992)
dives into the increasing dimension of madness as he attempts to piece together the tragic
life of Mexican poet Jorge Cuesta. Before committing suicide, Cuesta wrote a cryptic and
perhaps unfinished poem that negates the possibility of establishing his œuvre, that
nevertheless has been written. The transgressive nature of his text leads the main
character to experience an inescapable attraction to that life he sought to understand, only
to discover that his own identity has been lost inside the poet’s name.
With these four discursive strategies, I undertake the study of contemporary
narrative written in Mexico in the 1990’s as an exercise that links the various dimensions
of the genealogy of literary infinity. As I stated earlier, this investigation does not seek to
write a traditional literary history. For these pages, the description of literary trends based
on the author’s biographical information, his/her affiliation to particular techniques and
literary trends, the compilation of his or her influences, holds scarce interest. The
genealogical design lifts the ban on discontinuity, allowing for the simultaneous study of
literary possibilities that emerge in the 19th century with the irruption of Mallarmé’s
poetry. By reviewing Foucault’s reading of modernity through the method of archeology,
we were able to locate the epistemological break that triggered infinity as an ontological
event in contemporary literature. Because this type of literature emerges as a discursive
event, it is necessary to remember that the present study does not argue for an
epistemological description of the totality of literature. I mentioned earlier (section 3.1
“Time Lost, Time Overcome”) that an opposite genealogy of literature may well be the
object of a separate study. This literature —the counterpart of the genealogy of literary
infinity— employs a language in which Man remains the central subject and object of
knowledge, as he emerged in modernity. Endowed with an infinite power of
representation, this literature stems from the tradition of 19th century historical novels
such as those by Sir Walter Scott, and in the 20th century it manifests a sophisticated
relation with the archive. From Georg Lukács’ classic study The Historical Novel (1937)
to González Echevarría’s Myth and Archive (1998), this genealogy has been the central
topic of various theoretical works. A natural implication for the present investigation is to
propose the revision of the historical novel under the light of Foucault’s concept of Man,
the foundation of history as a discipline, and the subsequent crisis of the notion of the
archive in modernity.
In what follows, however, I will remain within the limits established for the
description of this genealogy of literary infinity. As we have seen, the works of Borges
have a crucial effect in assimilating and even producing new strategies for literary
infinity. In fact, the four strategies that I mentioned above are all coined in Borges’
fictions. This is why I will dedicate the entirety of the next chapter to Borges, since I
contend that Borges elevated infinity to the highest level with many of his short stories.
The last two chapters will be an exercise of a parallel commentary on the four authors
mentioned above (Sada, Bolaño, Rivera Garza and Volpi). This tool for analysis,
commentary, will be applied to the detailed reading, in the third chapter, of Los detectives
salvajes and Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe under the guidance of the
two first discursive strategies. The exercise will continue with the discussion of La cresta
de Ilión and A pesar del oscuro silencio, in chapter four, with the strategies of alterity and
transgression explained as well. The powerful redefinition of infinity that Borges created
through his literature, will let its presence be felt in each line of this investigation. It is to
the giant figure of literature in the Spanish language to whom these pages pay homage, in
admiration, of his ever-expanding greatness.
II.1 Mr. Hyde
II.1.1 Two Genealogies, Two Borges
In his literary biography of Jorge Luis Borges, Emir Rodríguez Monegal asserts
that the life of the Argentinean writer was divided in what he calls “two linguistic codes”
provided by his mother (Spanish) and paternal grandmother (English). The differences
between the two lines are striking. The mother, who taught him Spanish, represented for
Borges the tradition of the epic heroes, since she was related to historical figures such as
Francisco Narciso de Laprida, who presided over the congress that declared Argentine
independence in 1816. His maternal family tradition of involvement in historical and
military events was related directly to the outside world of the Buenos Aires society,
filled with its share of hoodlums and those colorful characters of the arrabal, such as the
“compadrito.” Grounded in history and culture, the Spanish language represented to
Borges the reality outside the home. Inside the house, the English language offered to the
young Borges a world contained in his father’s library. This second “code,” the vehicle of
Borges’ initial education with his British governess and his influential British
grandmother, reduced the world to endless pages of English-language books. The
linguistic division was to provoke a “dualism” in the mind Borges, the effect of which we
can read in his Spanish writing affected by English syntax. Most importantly, Borges
would experience this dualism in the relevance assigned to one language on top of the
other and in the way daily business was conducted outside his home, where history and
culture occurred without him, as Rodríguez Monegal argues:
But away from the confines of his home he found that things happened in a
different way; people spoke a single language, and their values were different.
Inside, the restricted and bilingual world of English and Spanish (in that order of
cultural and even social importance) alternated smoothly. Outside the garden gate
began the exclusive domain of Spanish, a powerful but undeniably common
language. No wonder that for Georgie Spanish was associated with a more
primitive or elemental form of life, while English gave him access to a higher
level of life, to a dream and desire tantalizingly controlled by words and books.
Of the two linguistic codes that the boy learned in his childhood, his mother’s
would be the culturally inferior one (Jorge Luis Borges, A Literary Biography
The role played by his family background is crucial to understand the various
themes and obsessions of Borges’ writing. Echoing Don Quijote’s famous discussion on
the importance of a life devoted to the arms as opposed to the letters, Borges admired and
respected the life of the epic hero, in particular of those on his maternal side who inspired
several poems. But unlike Cervantes, Borges’ life would never step on a battlefield.
Instead, he would imagine tragic deaths amid bullets and sharp swords, as many of his
fictions do. In the first years of his literary production, Borges entertains as well various
discussions on the peculiarities of Argentinean Spanish, using its vocabulary and
exceptional syntax in his young prose. Both the epic war life and the oral features of
Argentinean culture, however, are nothing but themes once they enter the realm of
literature. Borges transforms his surrounding reality in pages of short stories, essays and
Argentinean writer Ricardo Piglia —as many narrators of generations succeeding
Borges in this country and the rest of Latin America— has written and commented on the
influence of the Borgesian heritage. As others have done, he divides Borges’ works into
two main “lines”: on one side, the “gauchesca” theme along with the oral and epic
tradition; on the other side, his exacerbated cosmopolitanism, with his saturated
references to Western and Eastern cultures, and his use of various literary traditions,
especially the English one, as we have seen above. Borges, according to Piglia, inserts
himself in the XIX century debate between civilization and barbarism, as proposed by
Sarmiento in his landmark Facundo (1845). These two poles of Argentinean (and for
that matter of Latin American) culture are also reflected in Borges’ own linguistic
upbringing, setting Spanish (the barbaric, inferior language) against English (the
language of education and books). Piglia argues that this binary opposition is resolved, or
at least synthesized, in Borges works from the beginning to the end, “secretly” putting an
end to the debate by joining sides at the same time with Sarmiento and José Hernández
and his Martín Fierro (1872), the most celebrated poem of the gauchesca tradition, just as
he blended the two linguistic codes by transferring the English syntax to his Spanish
Porque si Borges hubiera separado los tantos, si hubiera optado por cualquiera de
las dos alternativas no hubiera logrado la complejidad que le da forma a su obra.
Borges es al mismo tiempo un populista, como Hernández, que cree que la
experiencia es más importante que los libros, y a la vez es alguien que vive
encerrado en una biblioteca y cree que solamente la cultura y la lectura
constituyen el mundo. Lo notable, claro, está en que no resuelve la contradicción,
sino que mantiene los dos elementos vivos y presentes. Y para eso ha necesitado
inventar una forma, un tipo de ficción, que le permite mantener la tensión. La
forma es siempre forma de una relación y Borges inventa un tipo de escritura, un
estilo y una construcción que le permite mantener unidos los polos con sus redes
antagónicas y opuestas (Crítica y ficción 157-58).
Because of the balance Borges achieves by reconciling two opposing views of the
world, Piglia imagines Borges as some type of literary Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Echoing
Stevenson’s classic, Borges was able to apprehend the oral and epic tradition of
Argentinean culture, becoming a man inserted in his reality (Dr. Jekyll). At the same
time, he explores the world from the limited space of his library, facing not other men,
but books, rejecting his contact with his society and thus becoming somewhat inhuman
(Mr. Hyde), as some of his critics would argue. But Borges, Piglia writes, never allows
one side to dominate. The real (human) and the fictitious (inhuman) cohabit the works of
Borges, and in their impossible combination resides his genius. This argument is a
recapitulation of a commentary by Piglia’s character Renzi in his most emblematic novel,
Respiración Artificial (1980). Renzi states that Borges writes the conclusive line for the
two main traditions of 19th century Argentinean literature: the devotion to and subsequent
abuse of European culture introduced by Facundo; and the popular, oral current of the
gauchesca as initiated by Martín Fierro. Renzi claims that Borges first story “Hombre de
la esquina rosada” along with “El fin” are the last manifestations of that closure of the
gauchesca tradition while “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” does the same to the
“cosmopolitan erudition” of the Facundo literary lineage.
A partir de ahí su obra está partida en dos: por un lado los cuentos de cuchilleros,
con sus variantes; por otro lado los cuentos, digamos, eruditos, donde la
erudición, la exhibición cultural se exaspera, se lleva al límite, los cuentos donde
Borges parodia la superstición culturalista y trabaja sobre el apócrifo, el plagio, la
cadena de citas fraguadas, la enciclopedia falsa, etc, y donde la erudición define la
forma de los relatos (Respiración artificial 164).
Piglia’s character Renzi denies any modernism in Borges’ works. For him, it is
Roberto Arlt who inaugurates Argentinean modern literature, since it is he who makes the
conscious choice of altering, with violence and corruption, the Argentinean language and
style, by willingly writing “bad.” I contend, however, that Renzi’s argument has some
limitations, especially when he tries to explain how Borges incorporates the world of the
“gaucho” and the “malevo”:
Borges hace algo distinto, algo central, esto es, comprende que el fundamento
literario de la gauchesca es la transcripción de la voz, del habla popular. No hace
gauchesca en lengua culta, como Güiraldes. Lo que hace Borges, dice Renzi, es
escribir el primer texto de la literatura argentina posterior al Martín Fierro que
está escrito desde un narrador que usa las flexiones, los ritmos, el léxico de la
lengua oral: escribe Hombre de la esquina rosada (Respiración artificial 163-64).
It is true that at least in his usage of language, the first two books by Borges,
Inquisiciones (1925) El tamaño de mi esperanza (1926), choose as their primary target a
discussion of the essence of the Argentinean “criollo”, hoping to define its society (in
particular that of the “arrabal”), its music (milongas and tango) and its peculiar use of
language. In these two books, as well as in stories such as “Hombre de la esquina rosada”
—first published in Historia universal de la infamia (1935)— the argument can be made
that Borges is seeking to continue the gauchesca tradition. But as Borges himself
considers the issue, he reminds us of the fictitious nature of this genre, for it portrays
ideal “gauchos” that perhaps never existed. “Tan dilatado y tan incalculable es el arte, tan
secreto su juego” ("La poesía gauchesca" 179). As Borges delved into the world of
fiction, as he went “de las mitologías del arrabal a los juegos con el tiempo y con lo
infinito” ("Borges y yo" 186), he separated himself from this humanity, framing reality
with the margins of a book page. I believe a conscious decision was made to adopt a
literary life in all its meanings. This, however, does not entail a suppression of all themes
related to the epic and oral traditions, but their assimilation as written words forever
circulating inside the library. Like Mallarmé, Borges believed the world existed to
produce a book, the Book of all books, a literary continuum, and in this he was
“absolutely modern,” as Rimbaud desired. It seems to me that the problem prevails when
the critic considers the use of history, culture and popular life themes as the very
elements that define the nature of literature. But a writer does not become a realist just by
presenting the reader with historical events and characters based on real people. The goal
of realist literature must be to capture that reality with precision, minimizing the use of
fiction following the procedure of the historian. However, solely by including historical
elements into a narration, an author does not necessarily activate this operation.
Piglia’s argument, nevertheless, is built upon the premise of a deliberate
misreading, much in the sense that Harold Bloom coined this term to discuss the
mechanism of influence28. As Piglia himself acknowledges, the critic always elaborates
his criticism anticipating “una cierta estrategia de apropiación literaria (Crítica y ficción
160).” In his case, I believe Piglia is trying to come to terms with Borges’ influence by
placing him in the distant XIX century, as if Borges were an anachronic writer whom
modern narrators do not need to confront. Piglia’s take on Borges, however, has been
elaborated upon by other critics more naively and perhaps to the extreme. One of the
most recent cases is that of U.S. critic Daniel Balderston, whose Out of context (1993)
attempts a “reconstruction of lost or hidden context through the attention to historical
references and ‘circumstantial details’ (4)” in some of Borges’ stories. Balderston
acknowledges that he has taken the chosen stories “out of context” so as to obtain from
them readings on contemporary historical and theoretical discussions. This deliberate
28 See: Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford U.P., 1973).
violence to Borges’ work plays well with the ludic and challenging attitude of the critic’s
book. Balderston takes his own previous studies on Borges (written, according to him,
during the then fashionable era of “high structuralism”) as targets of his new reading,
emanating now from the cultural studies front.
While this exercise of maverick “creative misreading” (16) may entertain the
current theoretical moods, it leaves the reader without any formalized attempt to explain
why the majority of the studies (during the structuralist and post-structuralist era) on this
issue point out that works such as Ficciones and El Aleph hold a remarkable place in the
history of Latin American literature. In contrast, Borges’ contemporaries at the time were
still exploring regionalist narrative, and decades later, in spite of the influence of the
experimental English high modernism, many of the boom authors still chose their
materials from historical events to portray important episodes of Latin American history
in their major novels. A scene from one of Borges’ stories, “Juan Muraña”, may help to
explain this difference. Borges is asked about the sources he used for his biographical
book on Evaristo Carriego. The skeptical question soon arises: “…hablás todo el tiempo
de malevos; decime, Borges, vos ¿qué podés saber de malevos? ("Juan Muraña" 420).”
As the narrator himself, Borges has already anticipated the answer in the form of a
Durante años he repetido que me he criado en Palermo. Se trata, ahora lo sé, de un
mero alarde literario; el hecho es que me crié del otro lado de una larga verja de
lanzas, en una casa con jardín y con la biblioteca de mi padre y de mis abuelos.
Palermo del cuchillo y de la guitarra andaba (me aseguran) por las esquinas
("Juan Muraña" 420).
Borges originally elaborated on his distant relation to the world of experience during his
acceptance speech of an award by the Argentinean Society of Writers in 1945, for the
publication of Ficciones a year earlier. He began by celebrating the fact that the winning
work was one of fiction. For him, fiction was the most ancient of the literary genres.
Taking the idea to the extreme, he doubts the possibility of the existence of realism as a
literary genre, since “dreams and symbols” continually cross over our perception of
reality. He then tells us of his own literary nature using some of the phrases he would
retake for the story mentioned above:
Así, durante muchos años, yo creí haberme criado en un suburbio de Buenos
Aires, un suburbio de calles aventuradas y de ocasos visibles. Lo cierto es que me
crié en un jardín, detrás de un largo muro, y en una biblioteca de ilimitados libros
ingleses. Palermo del cuchillo y de la guitarra andaba (me aseguran) en las
esquinas, pero quienes poblaron mis mañanas y dieron agradable horror a mis
noches fueron el bucanero ciego de Stevenson, agonizando bajo las patas de los
caballos, y el traidor que abandonó al amigo en la luna y el viajero del tiempo,
que trajo del porvenir una flor marchita, y el genio encarcelado durante siglos en
el cántaro salomónico y el profeta velado del Jorasán, que detrás de las piedras y
de la seda ocultaba la lepra. Han transcurrido más de treinta años, ha sido
demolida la casa en que me fueron reveladas esas ficciones, he recorrido las
ciudades de Europa, he olvidado miles de páginas, miles de insustituibles caras
humanas, pero suelo pensar que, esencialmente, nunca he salido de esa biblioteca
y de ese jardín. ¿Qué he hecho después, qué haré, sino tejer y destejer
imaginaciones derivadas de aquéllas? ("Agradecimiento a la Sociedad Argentina
de Escritores" 301)
To the life of the middle class man in his neighborhood of Palermo, violent and
passionate, Borges opposes the tranquility of his father’s library that held a substantial
collection of English literature. Inside, the world is transformed into ordered lines of text
that the reader, in turn, recomposes in sequences of images during the act of reading. It is
true that many of Borges’ stories have strong foundations on historical sources, but as
these sources traverse the work of fiction they ultimately serve the purpose of a certain
literary possibility. In Borges’ case, this possibility finds its allegiance with a literary
genealogy that began with the works of the cosmopolitan writers (Darío, Martí, Gutiérrez
Nájera, Rodó) at the end of the 19th century, continued with the experimental wave of the
avant-garde poets (Huidobro, Vallejo, Neruda), and with the generation immediately
before Borges, which included some of the most influential Argentinean writers in its
fiction, namely Leopoldo Lugones and Macedonio Fernández. Regardless of the
theoretical approach —(post)structuralism or cultural studies—, the fact that Borges’
literature subscribes clearly to a tradition of modernity that renewed the Latin American
letters, cannot be ignored. Once the decontextualized readings of Borges are finished, the
questions remains: Why is he so different from his contemporaries, even from those who
experimented with cosmopolitanism and language? Why has his influence persisted in
the most recent generations of writers, producing by itself an expansive effect only
equaled by the collective works of the boom period?
It is possible that the reaction of critics such as Balderston is due in part to the
same necessity that moved the original critics of Borges oriented by left-wing ideologies.
One needs only to review the first critical opinions of figures such as Enrique Anderson
Imbert and Ernesto Sábato to appreciate the difficulty and the uneasiness that the stories
and essays by Borges left in the South American intelligentsia of the epoch29. In the same
29 I will discuss some of these opinions in the following section of this chapter. For a collection on the
main attacks on the works and figure of Borges see: Juan Fló, ed., Contra Borges (Buenos Aires: Galerna,
1978). For a more general anthology in the same direction see: Martín Lafforgue, ed., Antiborges (Buenos
Aires: Vergara, 1999). Also, as I will discuss in the next pages, Alan Pauls elaborates on the effects of the
way, trying to reconcile the new tendencies of the academic world, in particular the
vogue of cultural studies, with the works of Borges, Balderston hopes to insert him in the
cultural reevaluations of society as a whole, especially in its political, ethical and
historical aspects. Balderston is aware that this shift in his views positions him at the
other extreme of the theoretical spectrum from that which he once occupied with
analysis. He quotes from his first approach to Borges as an example of what he decided
not to follow anymore: “Fiction [for Borges] is abstract and artificial rather than
representational or mimetic” (3).
From Ana María Barrenechea’s La expresión de la irrealidad en la obra de
Borges (1957) to the most recent critical studies, the predominant readings of Borges
maintain the importance of his use of Western and Eastern literary and philosophical
traditions, combining form and content to produce a highly intellectualized writing. After
countless academic books, articles, doctoral dissertations and of course, commentaries
and analysis by other authors of fiction, some of the latest approaches to Borges still
struggle to place his works alongside Latin America’s rich historical and political
debates. It seems logical to feel this discomfort if one is to compare a book like Ficciones
with any of the major boom novels. Let us consider for a moment the most emblematic of
this last group: Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad. Although in principle
they both belong to the realm of fiction, García Marquez’s novel tells the story of the
mythical foundation of a Latin American town, with its political intrigues, historical
negative criticism of the works of Borges, arguing that it involuntarily contributes to validate the literary
value of Borges’ fictions. See: Alan Pauls, El factor Borges (Buenos Aires: FCE, 2000).
landmarks and its cultural peculiarities. Its references to various aspects of Latin
American countries leads critics like Linda Hutcheon to call it a “historiographic
metafiction”. If this novel can be place in such a category, why is it so difficult for any
critic (even for someone pursuing a project like Balderston’s) to consider a fiction by
Borges decisively historical?
I believe the answer lies in the fact that as in Borges’ family lineage, Latin
American literature is divided in two genealogies that together represent the main
possibilities for writing in modernity. As it was described in the previous chapter
following the thought of Michel Foucault, the unity of language was fragmented at the
end of the 19th century, affecting its powers of representation. The literature, which up to
that point existed as the vehicle for expressing the various aspects of culture and society,
was transformed by some authors into an act of artistic language for that language’s sake.
In the case of Borges, this attitude was not acquired through the influence of his readings
during his formative years. It was rather experienced from the very beginning of his life,
inhabiting his father’s library, filtering the reality of the world into the reality of
literature. Of the two genealogies, Borges could never choose either, for the choice was
implicitly made from the moment of his first reading. The Palermo of the violent and
passionate Argentinean man was just a few steps outside his house. But as he admitted in
several occasions, Borges never left his father’s library. This means that he never left the
realm of language and he himself became an image of his own literature. It is only natural
that Borges the writer becomes for Borges the man, that other, the maker of his literature:
Nada me cuesta confesar que ha logrado ciertas páginas válidas, pero esas páginas
no me pueden salvar, quizá porque lo bueno ya no es de nadie, ni siquiera del
otro, sino del lenguaje o la tradición ("Borges y yo" 186).
II.1.2 The Anti-humanist
“Borges y yo” was included in the 1960 collection titled “El hacedor.” Four years
later, Argentinean writer Ernesto Sábato published what is now considered one of the
classic attacks of Borges which functions in the exact opposite way of “Borges y yo.” He
proposed to recuperate the first Borges, the one that began writing about Buenos Aires
and its inhabitants with a colloquial language, the one that Sábato thought he had found
again in the ending of Otras inquisiciones (1952): “El mundo, desgraciadamente, es real;
yo, desgraciadamente, soy Borges ("Nueva refutación del tiempo" 149). Quoting these
lines, Sábato concluded his essay “Sobre los dos Borges30” with a call to “rescue” that
Borges lost long ago:
En esta confesión final está el Borges que queremos rescatar y que de verdad es
rescatable: el poeta que alguna vez cantó cosas humildes y fugaces, pero
simplemente humanas: un crepúsculo de Buenos Aires, un patio de infancia, una
calle de suburbio. Esto es (me atrevo a profetizar) el Borges que quedará. El
Borges que después de su frívolo periplo por filosofías y teologías en las que no
cree vuelve a este mundo menor brillante pero que cree; este mundo en que
nacemos, sufrimos, amamos y morimos (61-62).
To better appreciate the importance of Borges in the context of the 20th century
literary tradition in Latin America, it may be useful to briefly survey some of the
concerns and even direct attacks, like Sábato’s, in which various critics and authors made
explicit their differences with Borges throughout his literary career. I will try to show
30 The essay first appeared in the issue of L’herne dedicated to Borges in 1964. The citation is from the
later republication of the text in Spanish in 1968.
how they made evident the mutually exclusive nature of the two literary genealogies
discussed in the first chapter of this dissertation: on one hand, a genealogy that maintains
the central place of the modern subject (as described by Foucault), with Latin American
history and society as the main materials for narration; on the other hand, a genealogy
that I have chosen to call “literary infinity” (after a term coined by Blanchot referring to
Borges), in which the modern subject disappears in the realm of language, where culture
is elevated to the outmost abstraction and where ideas from both the Western and the
Eastern traditions are the main material for narration.
From the long list of critics of Borges, I will begin by recalling the commentaries
by Enrique Anderson Imbert31, which planted the seed for the original confusion and
misreading that followed Borges for a number of years. This critic condemns Borges for
lacking “sustancia humana”, for avoiding Argentinean reality in his essays and instead
playing with “gramatiquerías, recetas para el arte de escribir, divagancias frías sobre
cualquier cosa, prólogos por cumplimiento, bibliografismo, audacias metafísicas sin
sincero impulso metafísico, visiones fugaces de clásicos españoles y autores
contemporáneos… (28).” Critic Ramón Doll, for his part, criticized Discusión, as Alan
Pauls has noticed, exactly on the features that make Borges’ literature unique:
…digamos que estos artículos, pertenecen a ese género de literatura parasitaria
que consiste en repetir mal, cosas que otros han dicho bien; o dar por inédito a
Don Quijote de la Mancha y Martín Fierro, e imprimir de esas obras páginas
enteras; o en hacerse el que a él le interesa averiguar un punto cualquiera y con
aire cándido va agregando opiniones de otros, para que vean que no, que él no es
unilateral, que es respetuoso de todas las ideas (y es que así se va haciendo el
artículo)… (38)
31 The article appeared in 1933. The latest book by Borges then was Discusión (1932).
From the long list of critics, Pauls highlights two whose writings best express left-wing
intellectuals’ problems with Borgesian literature, especially after Historia universal de la
infamia: José Abelardo Ramos, who called for the “nationalization” of Borges, and
Abelardo Castillo, who claimed that he could not even imagine a “living” Borges, since
his literature was coldly inhuman. Away from national history (meriting the call for his
“nationalization,” as if he were a natural resource in the hands of foreign investors) and
from humanity (not conceivably alive), Borges became, instead of an Argentinean man, a
…la vida de Borges es una vida puramente “literaria”, una existencia cortada de la
acción, hecha apenas de palabras y signos, encerrada en sí misma: una vida
autista. […] Libros como Ficciones, El Aleph u Otras inquisiciones ponen el
acento en las cualidades más literarias, menos “vitales”, de la literatura: la
reflexión, la perfección del estilo, la erudición… Detectives, laberintos, paradojas
filosóficas, exotismos importados de Oriente: al parecer, nada más alejado del
“mundo” (la vida, el presente, el aquí y ahora) que el mundo del mejor Borges,
que pisa la década del sesenta como el prototipo del escritor “intelectual”,
atrincherado en su fortaleza verbal, menos interesado en ser “un hombre que una
vasta y compleja literatura”, como él mismo escribió de Joyce, de Goethe y de
Shakespeare (Pauls 32-33).
Rodríguez Monegal’s “literary biography” of Borges echoes Pauls’ position. But perhaps
the most revealing essay on Borges’ exceptional literature is that by Peruvian author
Mario Vargas Llosa. He concludes in Un demi-siècle avec Borges32 (2004), a collection
of essays and interviews, that Borges is perhaps the greatest writer in the Spanish
language after Cervantes and Quevedo. And with the same decisive tone, Vargas Llosa
32 This book, to my knowledge, has only been published in France, including an original preface by
Vargas Llosa. In order to respect the unity of the text, all my references from this book will be from this
French edition, even as some of the texts are available in their original Spanish versions. For the most
emblematic one, see: Mario Vargas Llosa, "Las ficciones de Borges," Contra viento y marea, III (19641988) (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1990).
opens the book by contrasting the radical difference between his novelistic prose, mainly
informed by history, and the short narrative style of Borges that never tolerated the “boue
humaine” (human clay) (Un demi-siècle avec Borges 52):
Peu d’écrivains sont plus éloignés que Borges de ce que mes démons personnels
m’ont poussé à être par l’écriture : un romancier intoxiqué par la réalité, fasciné
par l’histoire qui se fait autour de nous et ce passé qui pèse encore avec force sur
l’actualité. Je n’ai jamais été tenté par la littérature fantastique et peu d’auteurs de
ce courant figurent parmi mes favoris. […] …la beauté et l’intelligence du monde
qu’il a créé m’ont aidé à découvrir les limites du mien, et la perfection de sa prose
m’a fait prendre conscience des imperfections de la mienne. C’est sans doute pour
cela que j’ai toujours lu —et relu— Borges non seulement dans l’exaltation
procurée par un grand écrivain, mais aussi, avec une indéfinissable nostalgie et la
sensation que quelque chose de cet éblouissant univers surgi de son imagination et
de sa prose me sera toujours refusé, quels que soient mon admiration et le plaisir
que j’y aurais pris (Un demi-siècle avec Borges 7-8).
As a writer of historical fiction, Vargas Llosa sees clearly the absolute difference
between his works and those of Borges. The most evident, for him, is that Borges never
attempted to pursue a story strictly based on historical events, in spite of his usage of
some historical motifs. Vargas Llosa feels the need to state, however, that Borges’
literature exists in a tradition that shares its boundaries with his, thus showing the “limits”
to his historical novels. And finally, perhaps the most interesting idea from this statement
is the feeling of alienation that Vargas Llosa manifests towards the nature of Borges’
writing that will be forever “denied” to him. Why is it? It is not simply that Vargas Llosa
is not attracted to what he calls “fantastic33” literature. I believe that the profound
difference relies in the fact that Vargas Llosa belongs to a separate tradition, the other
genealogy of Latin American narrative which functions, as we have seen in our analysis
33 I will discuss this category in the following section, trying to demonstrate that Borges’ literature can be
best understood under a philosophical light, instead of a simple classificatory label such as the “fantastic.”
of Foucault, within the modern episteme. This literature prolongs the centrality of the
modern subject, the necessity of embracing his history and the foundation of his culture.
Borges’ genealogy, on the other hand, leads to the disappearance of the modern
subject and the rise of the autonomous literary language. Vargas Llosa understands this
essential difference, in particular when he comments on John Sturrock’s Paper Tigers,
The Ideal Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges34 (1977), a study on the transfiguration of reality
into Borges’ imaginary universe:
Au cours de cette alchimie, les choses, les hommes, l’histoire, la vie objective —
tout ce qui est contenu— se transforment en quelque chose qui n’est pas leur
reflet mais leur antithèse : l’« idée », c’est-à-dire des mots, autrement dit la forme,
c’est-à-dire la littérature (Un demi-siècle avec Borges 24).
Vargas Llosa reminds us of the personal contempt that Borges held for the novel
as a genre. The economy of the Borgesian narrative that rejects the length of the novel
along with its “divorce” from history as the human condition, are for Vargas Llosa the
main reasons for Borges’ resistance to the genre. Borges formulates the most devastating
conclusion against the novel in his essay “El arte narrativo y la magia”35: “el problema
central de la novelística es la causalidad”. As he intends to capture reality with mimetic
precision in a work of fiction, a narrator makes the mistake of ignoring the imaginative
potential —which Borges calls here “magic”— of the literary structure, a controlled and
limited linguistic system in the outset, but a “miracle” of a literature facing reality:
…creo, sin embargo, haber alegado bastantes [ejemplos] para demostrar que la
magia es la coronación o pesadilla de lo causal, no su contradicción. El milagro
no es menos forastero en ese universo que en el de los astrónomos. Todas las
34 See: John Sturrock, Paper Tigers: The Ideal Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1977).
35 The essay is included in Discusión (1932).
leyes naturales lo rigen, y otras imaginarias” ("El arte narrativo y la magia" 23031).
Literature, thus, should be reality plus the unreality of an artificial system of causalities,
self-sufficient and extracted from a present but surpassed reality. The linguistic structure
is finite and contained, but the textual strategies that can explore that “miracle” are only
possible in the pages of fiction36. The case against the novel is followed by Juan José
Saer, who takes it a step further by arguing (following a previous essay by Borges37) that
the genre began with Don Quijote in the 17th century and ended in the 19th with
Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, which he calls an “anti-epic”. For him, the epic is an
accumulation of adventures, and therefore, of causality. The two copy clerks who fail to
learn anything are for Saer the exact opposite of the novel as a genre because they mock
it by evading causal action. As Cervantes destroyed the classic knight tale to produce the
modern novel, Flaubert pushes the procedure to the limits of mockery, destroying the
genre all together.
La novela no es más que un periodo histórico de la narración, y la narración es
una especie de función del espíritu. La novela es un género literario. Después de
Bouvard y Pecuchet la narración ha dejado de ser novelesca. Si las novelas del
siglo XX no son novelescas, y si Borges no ha escrito novelas, es porque Borges
piensa, y toda su obra lo demuestra, que la única manera para un escritor en el
siglo XX de ser novelista, es no escribiendo novelas (Saer 411).
I believe that a correlation can be established between the influence of Mallarmé
in poetry and that of Flaubert in narrative. The 20th century was indeed transformed by
36 This definition of the nature of a work of fiction is explored by Maurice Blanchot’s Le livre à venir
(1959) and in the essays by Foucault that we studied in the previous chapter. I will discuss in depth the
relevance of the French criticism in section two of the present chapter.
37 Jorge Luis Borges, "Vindicación de Bouvard et Pécuchet," Discusión, Obras completas I (Buenos Aires:
Emecé, 2004).
their 19th century works, in particular Un coup de dés and Bouvard et Pécuchet. These
two works caused a ripple effect that is still very much expanding. It is not by random
chance that Saer chooses to talk about Borges when addressing the possibility that the
novel as genre is no longer possible. Borges represents in our tradition the peak
manifestation of this genealogy, in which language is pushed to its own limits, subjecting
history and culture to its loop of infinity.
It is interesting to note that Carlos Fuentes’ defense of the novelistic genre38 is
followed by a discussion on Borges. Contrary to Saer, however, he takes Borges as an
ally in his argument. For him, the novel holds the possibility of “adding” something to
the world, and even if the book itself is a finite object, reading —after Borges— is
La literatura nos obliga a darnos cuenta de nuestra inmersión en el tiempo. Ha
habido tiempos sin novelas, pero nunca ha habido novelas sin tiempo —una serie
infinita de tiempos, escribe Borges en su cuento sobre el tiempo, “El jardín de
senderos que se bifurcan”, “divergentes, convergentes, paralelos”— (Fuentes
Geografía de la novela 30).
The novel questions the world, Fuentes writes, but it also questions itself. Blending
imagination and the need to reflect the world, the most optimal balance for Fuentes is that
of ambiguity, a literary finding that he credits Rulfo for introducing into the Mexican
tradition39. But for Fuentes —as for Vargas Llosa— the source for this dramatic shift in
Latin American literature is Borges. By the time of the boom, most novelists understood
the radical importance of Borges in their tradition. Individual interpretations have
38 See: Carlos Fuentes, Geografía de la novela (México: FCE, 1993).
39 See: Carlos Fuentes, La nueva novela hispanoamericana (México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1969).
changed from simple misunderstanding, as in the case of Doll and Sábato, to the
sophisticated appreciation that still finds room to mark a distance. Vargas Llosa elegantly
argued Borges’ detachment from history and humanity, but still acknowledged him as the
most important writer after Cervantes. Saer took the opposing view and declared Borges
the most modern of the narrators. Fuentes, on the other hand, offered a conciliatory
opinion, introducing Borges’ lessons on the acts of reading and writing (derived from his
short-stories and essays) to define his own manual for writing novels. Fuentes concludes:
Borges fue el primer narrador en lengua española en las Américas (Machado de
Assis ya lo había logrado, milagrosamente, en la lengua portuguesa del Brasil)
que verdaderamente nos liberó del naturalismo y que redefinió lo real en términos
literarios, es decir, imaginativos. En literatura, nos confirmó Borges, la realidad es
lo imaginado (Geografía de la novela 46).
This investigation will show, as in the case of these opinions, how Borges serves
as the center reference for the definition of the two literary genealogies in Latin America.
While it is clear that Saer (at least in his criticism of the novel as a genre) falls in the
Borgesian genealogy, a writer like Vargas Llosa maintains his distance and demonstrates
in his novels an implicit affinity with the other half of the epistemological possibilities of
modernity: holding human culture and history at the core of his narrative structure. On
the other hand, a writer like Fuentes hesitates between the two aspects of modernity. In a
novel like La muerte de Artemio Cruz, the foundation of the modern, post-revolution
Mexico is the driving epistemological source of his novel. The massive literary
exploration of Terra nostra complicates his techniques, and some may argue that his
novel is about literature and not history. I believe however, that this work falls mainly
under the questions of who are we as Spanish-language speakers, what are our cultural
implications and what do our literary traditions mean. The fact that La muerte de Artemio
Cruz and Terra nostra may use techniques derived from the English high modernism
does not change the fact that at the epistemological level they exist to question Latin
America’s history and culture. Fuentes does not manifest the same anxiety as Vargas
Llosa, but unlike Saer, he does not radicalize his reading of Borges either. Fuentes may
well be the ambiguous writer he thought he had found in Rulfo, oscillating between one
aspect of modernity (the centrality of the modern subject’s history and culture) and the
other (the dissolution of the modern subject in favor of language, with the dissolution of
the novel as a genre being one of its symptoms). Referring again to Borges in a different
essay, Fuentes writes about what could be, for him, the ultimate goal for a narrator: the
author of all epistemological possibilities of literature:
A partir de Borges, la narrativa hispanoamericana asume la paradoja de la
relatividad para dar cuenta de la totalidad. Ésta, a veces, es invisible. Pero una
concepción inclusiva del tiempo, o más bien de los tiempos “divergentes,
convergentes y paralelos”, comprende, asimismo, los lenguajes capaces de
representar la variedad de los mismos. La épica, el drama, la poesía, la novela, el
mito, son géneros que le fan forma a diversos lenguajes que, a su vez, representan
una pluralidad de tiempos (Valiente mundo nuevo 42).
In any case, the figure of Borges is certainly the obligated reference that defines
for contemporary writers in Latin America their affiliation to either aspect of modernity
discussed here. As decades have passed, the discussion on Borges has not ended. The
most recent generations have not been timid in their positions on this debate. I will
consider in the next section some of the most visible opinions from various post-boom
authors, as well as some of the most influential comments on the role of Borges in
redefining the entirety of Western literary tradition.
II.1.3 Borges and His Successors
In 1996, ten years after the death of Borges, Antonio Tabucchi wrote an article
recalling that a French magazine once published a story stating that Borges never existed.
The author of the various books written in Borges’ name would have been, according to
this version, a selected group of Argentinean writers (led by Adolfo Bioy Casares) and
the old man that made public appearances would have been a mediocre actor under an
indefinite contract. Tabucchi derives from this joke (that he attributes to Borges himself)
a commentary about a fundamental position that Borges manifested throughout his
career: that of accepting that literature did not belong to writers, but to tradition:
La gran lección de ese Maestro que siempre rechazó irónicamente “ser” deriva
quizá esencialmente de esto: que también la literatura, como el género humano, es
una idea colectiva, una especie de alma de la cual participan todos lo que han
escrito. Utiliza a Borges, plagiarlo —aún paródica o irónicamente—, es un
derecho que él nos concede. Porque creo que Borges “es” justamente eso: una fe
soberana en la literatura y al mismo tiempo, paradójicamente, su radical negación:
una solmene lección de escepticismo (Tabucchi 389).
This position, conscious of the importance of tradition, emulates that of Eliot (mentioned
in the first chapter of this investigation) in the sense that it implies the negation of the
central role of the author. Borges’ radicalization contributes to reconsidering literature as
a collective enterprise, where affinities to some of its aspects are more important than any
personal contribution to its development. I am aware of the apparent contradiction that
resides in upholding this idea while devoting an entire chapter to the essential author that
I have demonstrated —through the opinions of critic and authors— Borges to be. The
contradiction may be resolved, however, by emphasizing the fact that for this
investigation Borges represents the redefinition of a literary tradition: that of Latin
America. It is in this respect that some of Borges’ successors have reviewed his works,
and so the discussion is in fact about a literary current that subjects the authors and not
the other way around. If in the previous section I discussed the problematic that the first
critics (Doll, Sábato, Anderson Imbert) and the peers of the boom generation (Vargas
Llosa and Fuentes) presented, I will now consider some of the views on Borges produced
with the healthy distance of time.
I believe that an understanding of Borges is far more effective when we consider
his works in the context of a discussion of Latin America’s literary modernity. Guillermo
Sucre is right on target when he proposes a full relocation of our critical approach to
literature from the paradigm shift that occurred at the end of the 19th century, when the
classical understanding of literature as the work of an author was profoundly altered with
the advent of the French –isms, in particular with the work of Mallarmé.
De ahí que todo se invierte en la literatura moderna: no son las ideas (fondo) las
que hacen a las palabras (forma), sino inversamente, porque todo es lenguaje. El
poeta propone y el lenguaje dispone. […] Ahora bien, la crítica se quedará al
margen de la verdadera creación estética si no toma en cuenta este sentido de la
literatura moderna. No se trata ya de hacer una crítica sobre autores sino sobre
obras y textos. Detrás de cada autor lo que hay es un lenguaje, no un yo.
Siguiendo a Valéry, Borges proponía una historia de la literatura en donde no
hubiese nombres sino obras. […] La obra no es sino palabras, y no hay ninguna
objetividad fuera de las palabras, sino entre ellas, en el texto mismo que
configuran. Y aún esta objetividad es cambiante: las palabras se comunican entre
sí para poder revelar su sentido, pero también se comunican con alguien que al
recibirlas de alguna manera las modifica. La sinceridad de la crítica es asumir este
riesgo del lenguaje (Sucre 265).
It is with Borges that modernity reaches its ultimate height, according to Sucre. But the
critic links his works to the entirety of the 20th century tradition which began with the
uprooted and cosmopolitan attitude that sought to renovate a tradition that perhaps did
not truly existed up until then. The contribution of the modernistas was not to renovate
the Latin American tradition more than it was to invent it.
No se trata tan sólo del paso de una literatura realista o testimonial a una literatura
de la verdadera imaginación y de la liberación del lenguaje. Hay tal vez un hecho
todavía más fundamental: el escritor latinoamericano ha cobrado conciencia de
que más que un mundo por expresar o inventariar, lo que tiene ante sí es un
mundo por fundar. […] De ahí que el modernismo haya sido inicialmente una
literatura de la evasión y el desarraigo; pero ello tuvo en el fondo un objetivo
superior: recobrar nuestra realidad de mundo a partir, esta vez, de nuestra propia
invención (Sucre 267).
It is not too difficult to associate Sucre’s reading of the modernismo with
Rodríguez Monegal’s interpretation of the boom narrative. They both pursue the
redefinition of literature as a product of language whose ultimate goal is to create a
fiction that incorporates some of reality’s elements, while it ultimately replaces that
reality. Language prevails at the core of most discussions on Latin American literature
from modernismo on. The genealogy is assumed by most of the critics cited in this
chapter, especially when seen from a historical distance, as in the case of Sucre and Paz.
For the critic to successfully recognize the genealogy, however, it must be acknowledged
that language becomes the source for literary art. Failure to do so leads the critic to be
uneasy with the coexistence of the two genealogies, for it becomes a confusing task to
relate a writer like Borges with one like Vargas Llosa. We could see a similar effect in
the Latin American authors whose works operate mainly in the genealogy of modernity
that maintains the centrality of the modern subject and his history. Here we may recall the
opinions of Vargas Llosa who could not help but to feel alienated from the works of
Borges; Fuentes, who preferred to reread Borges as the synthesis of all aspects of
modernity that the former felt the need to address in his narrating techniques and themes;
and from the most recent post-boom generations, Piglia, who felt compelled to
understand Borges only in the measure that the latter’s writings about a popular and
violent Buenos Aires are given as equal an importance as his highly intellectual stories.
These efforts —in particular those of the post-boom writers— to come to terms with
Borges have already been the subject of criticism:
They provide what could be called a rereading of Borges, an example of the use
and abuse of their literary predecessor; or, to borrow from Harold Bloom, they
carry out deliberate misreadings and deviant interpretations of their literary
forerunner. […] Borges is refashioned and his function redefined; his personal
diction, his metaphors, his language are borrowed but put to use with different
aims (Morello-Frosch 28).
If we review, on the other hand, the opinions of those who are closer (consciously
or not) to the Borgesian genealogy, their reading changes radically. The criticism of
Borges’ lack of humanity, the coldness of his referential games, his use and misuse of a
literary erudition, all become the very virtues of his works. Octavio Paz reverses the
negativity of this criticism and turns it in favor of Borges. As we can read from an
interview with María Embeita, Paz articulates the most comprehensive reading of Borges
from this perspective, highlighting his focus on language and Western metaphysics:
La crítica de Borges es creadora de una manera paradójica: su creación es la
disolución del hombre por el lenguaje. Su obra deshace, corroe nuestras
certidumbres lingüísticas y metafísicas. Ciertos escritores describen la relaciones
sociales entre los hombres. Borges no nos habla de las relaciones humanas sino de
las relaciones entre las palabras. Me dirá usted que un artista como Faulkner nos
describe el mundo del sur de los Estados Unidos, las relaciones espantosas entre
negros y blancos. Es cierto, pero su obra es ante todo una gran creación verbal. Lo
que pone a prueba Faulkner no son las relaciones humanas únicamente, sino el
lenguaje mismo (Embeita 26).
In saying that Man disappears on the surface of language, Paz is closely echoing
Foucault’s reading of the modern literature initiated by Mallarmé. This approach has
been further elaborated by Alan Pauls in his recent book El factor Borges. Like Saer,
Pauls looks at Bouvard et Pécuchet (Flaubert’s “unfinished” Borgesian novel, Pauls calls
it) as Borges’ source for modern narrative, as the impossibility of the novel as a feasible
genre. But the act itself of misreading and misappropriating knowledge of Flaubert’s two
main characters also represents for Pauls a key mechanism employed by Borges, his
“modern legacy” from Flaubert: the intertwined and labyrinth-like exploration of culture
as it exists in the books of his personal library. Borges and his fictions, Pauls concludes:
“han ido demasiado lejos, han llevado el pensar y el pensamiento hasta el límite, un
límite donde el pensamiento coincide con la imposibilidad de pensar” (147). And later:
“Borges lleva el borgismo al límite y se vuelve irreconocible”. This procedure, that
Borges himself described as having an “infinite application” in the strange literary project
of Pierre Menard —“la técnica del anacronismo deliberado y de las atribuciones
erróneas” ("Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" XX)— is regarded as one the most
important features of Borges innovations in modern Latin American narrative. It took
decades, however, to learn to read Borges under the right critical light. We have come a
long way from critics like Ramón Doll who in the 1933 denounced exactly what Pauls
applauds in 2000.
It seems to me, however, that the Borgesian genealogy is in need of constant
reaffirmation. It was clear for the boom generation that Borges represented the highest
possibility of modernity. But writers and critics rarely coincide in their concepts of
modernity. I believe that a picture of the two genealogies has become clear in observing
the positive and negative criticism surrounding Borges. Every time a critic or a writer
approaches his work, they reveal just as much of their own ideas about the nature of
fiction. The Borgesian literature becomes a crucial topic in a very explicit way, for
example, for Roberto Bolaño, who urged contemporary writers to place Borges at the
“center” of the Latin American canon. His vision is the least complicated: the Borges
legacy must be studied not as a rare exception, but as the highest artistic expression of the
continent in the 20th century. Borges, who for many became an antihumanist, more a
living literature than man, remained for decades a kind of Mr. Hyde, Stevenson’s ultimate
monstrous side of a human face: the obscure distortion of the traditional writer who,
instead of approaching our history and our culture, became an intellectual aberration. For
writers of the newest generations like Pauls and Bolaño, however, the solution is quite
simple: “Hay que releer a Borges otra vez” (Bolaño "Derivas de la pesada" 30). In the
following section, we will attempt a rereading of Borges’ fictions by revisiting the
influential analysis by the French intelligentsia of the second half of the 20th century:
Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roger Caillois and Gérard Genette.
I will then reconsider, in the last section of this chapter, some of Borges’ most
representative fictions and essays to discuss the vital importance of his works as the
definitive factor for the configuration of what I have termed the genealogy of literary
II.2 Borges and Infinity: The French Decoding
II.2.1 Waiting for the Epistemic Change
In the celebrated issue of the French magazine L’herne, dedicated in 1964 to
Borges, Nestor Ibarra engages in a rather interesting discussion on his friendship with
Borges and the readings of his works in a long interview, prepared for the occasion,
which begins as follows:
L’Herne. — Vous connaissez bien Borgès, je crois ?
Ibarra. — Pourquoi prononcez-vous Borgesse ?
L’H. — La conjonction de l’r roulé avec le g guttural me décourage de
prononcer à l’espagnole.
I. — Je ne vous demande pas de prononcer à l’espagnole. Soit dit en
passant, votre g n’aurait pas à être guttural. À moins que vous ne
cherchiez à le prononcer à l’arabe.
— Comment proposez-vous que l’on prononce ?
— Borges. Ses camarades à Genève l’appelaient comme ça. Vous gardez
l’accent tonique à sa place et vous avez une bonne rime à « forges », à
« gorges »…
— Je parlais de l’homme.
— C’est surtout sur l’homme que vous allez m’interroger ?
— Vous semblez réticent…
— Il ne peut pas me déplaire de parler d’un ami ! Et d’un homme
extraordinaire ! Seulement, ce sera une sorte de digression, de horsd’œuvre. Un texte, écrivait-il, est une diction suffisante. Si l’on veut
connaître Borges, qu’on lise Borges.
— En espagnol de préférence ?... Ce n’est pas donné à tous.
— Je le sais bien. Quelle idée d’écrire en espagnol ! Encore une de ses
bizarreries !... Ecoutez, tout ce qu’on aurait besoin de savoir sur lui,
c’est qu’il est directeur de la Bibliothèque Nationale de Buenos Aires
et qu’il a une très mauvaise vue. Cela aide à comprendre le Poème des
Dons (418).
It may have surprised the Latin American reader of 1964 to see this relaxed exchange
which implies the adoption of Borges as a French writer and later downplays his
biographical data. Ibarra proposes a reading of the œuvre, deliberately disregarding the
biographical implications of the author. In the vogue of the post-structuralism at that
time, it is not strange that the French critics approached the works of Borges, only
touching on his life as a secondary topic. Along with this sophisticated scope of criticism,
it is only natural to read the opening lines of the magazine’s preface:
Il serait vain de prétendre révéler au lecteur français l’écrivain argentin J.-L.
Borges, à qui ce quatrième Cahier critique de l’Herne est consacré. Dès 1925,
Valéry Larbaud saluait dans « Inquisiciones » le meilleur livre de critique que
nous ayons reçu, jusqu’à ce jour, d’Amérique latine (Maxence 1).
Borges was appreciated, as early as 1925, by the mainstream intellectual figures
in France. The case of the post-structuralist philosophers and literary critics between the
late 50’s and 60’s is exceptional. In 1959, Maurice Blanchot was already discussing the
notion of infinity in the works of Borges when, in the same year in Latin America, the
most prominent critics were still arguing whether his literature was “evasive” and
“uprooted40.” In 1966 Michel Foucault opens his important study, Les mots et les choses,
crediting a essay by Borges41 as its seminal idea. The same year, Gérard Genette writes
an important essay on Borges —which captures his contribution to the Borges issue of
L’herne— in the first volume of his series Figures. In 1968, Jacques Derrida quotes
Borges at the beginning of his influential article “La pharmacie de Platon.” It did not
come as a surprise, considering all these approaches, that the highly exclusive catalog of
Gallimard’s La Pléiade decided to add the complete works of Borges in 1999, the
centenary of his birth, as the only Latin American author in the collection.
40 See: Ángel Rama, Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Carlos Real de Azúa, "Evasión y arraigo de Borges y
Neruda," Antiborges, ed. Martín Lafforgue (Buenos Aires: Vergara, 1999).
41 Jorge Luis Borges, "El idioma analítico de John Wilkins," Otras inquisiciones, Obras completas II
(Buenos Aires: Emecé, 2002).
Critic Fernando de Toro argues that, before French post-structuralism,
understanding the works of Borges in their full dimension was not possible. It is not that
the critics in the 30’s and 40’s did not make any significant contributions but, according
to De Toro, previous readings of Borges took place before the epistemological change
operated by deconstruction and other post-structuralist projects of discourse analysis.
Whatever position one chooses to assume, the fact remains that Borges’ literary
practice could not be read until the reading codes changed, until the
epistemological field entered an unprecedent re-thinking and the very logos of the
West was confronted (F. De Toro 115).
De Toro claims that it is a “well known fact that Borges was a Post-Modernist and a
deconstructionist avant la lettre” (116). This statement, also accepted by some of the
proponents of postmodernism in Latin American literature, can be reconsidered if we are
to reread Borges under the pos-structuralist light. The principal argument of this section
will be that Borges represents the synthesis of the various experiences of modern
literature, from the French movements at the end of the 19th century to their introduction
to Latin America by the modernistas. As I discussed in the first chapter of this
investigation, I contend with Lyotard that the post-modern is a condition of modernity,
and, following Foucault, that modernity produced its own antithesis within the
epistemological rupture that opened up the space for the very concept of modernity. In
this respect, Lyotard’s perspective is clearer: in order to be modern, one has to be first
42 See: Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff
Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: Minnesota U.P., 1986).
Given that most of the post-structuralist vogue of the 60’s and 70’s has been
refashioned under the theoretical trends of cultural and postcolonial studies, a
contemporary reader of Borges may assume that the initial misunderstandings on the part
of the critics are no longer possible. It is interesting to note, however, that precisely
because of the wave of cultural and postcolonial approaches there has been a resurgence
of critics who seek to ground Borges to the accuracy of the historical data contained in
his stories or to the precision and validity of his philosophical and bibliographical
references. As if Borges himself had not emphasized ever since his touchstone story
“Pierre Menard, autor del ‘Quijote’” that anachronism and misreading are fundamental
procedures of his ars poetica, we have already mentioned how some undertake the task
of adding the adjective “historical” to a book like Ficciones43. To mention a recent
example regarding this phenomena, an article by Mexican poet and critic Gabriel Zaid
demonstrates with academic erudition how, in spite of Borges’ claims (in his celebrated
article “El escritor argentino y la tradición44”), camels do appear in the Koran45. Time, it
seems, does not necessarily imply the progress of some critical approaches. I am aware
that in revisiting the main lines of the French post-structuralists’ theoretical analysis of
Borges, I may incur a simple act of repetition. But after Pierre Menard, we have learned
that rereading —and by implication, rewriting— will never be a useless task.
43 Such is the case of Daniel Balderston’s Out of context, mentioned at the beginning of this chapter.
44 See: Jorge Luis Borges, "El escritor argentino y la tradición," Discusión, Obras completas I (Buenos
Aires: Emecé, 2004).
45 See: Gabriel Zaid, "Camellos del Corán," Letras Libres (España) V.51 (2005).
II.2.2 Writing and the Supplement: Derridean Dissemination
Critic Fernando de Toro believes Borges to be the artificer of a new literary
“technique” that he calls “reading as writing, a very Borgesian aesthetic practice and a
theme which travels through all his works: reading, re-writing, palimpsest, rhizome,
simulation, intertextuality” (117). This literary project, De Toro claims, represents the
conclusion and even the “death” of the modernist paradigm, and Borges thus becomes the
point of origin of the new literature. This radicalization of Borges as the initiator of a new
literary possibility, however, must be moderated. De Toro’s description of some of
Borges’ techniques is right on target, but placing Borges at the center of the postmodernity is perhaps an act of critical extremism. Borges’ importance in 20th century
literature has been highlighted in these pages. My goal, however, is to demonstrate that
Borges is perhaps the crest in the wave of modern literature. If Don Quijote explored
intertextuality and writing as reading without necessarily been aware of the deep
transformation that these two techniques implied for the entirety of Western tradition, we
had to wait for Borges to become fully conscious of this paradigm shift. But the break
had indeed already occurred. What I believe and hope to emphasize is that Borges
regroups all aspects of modernity in literature, concentrating them in his most important
stories, in particular those from Ficciones and El Aleph.
Reading Borges along with Derrida, however, offers us a chance to attempt a
formalization of how modern literature operates to its full potential in Borges’ fiction.
Derrida, as do Gennete, Caillois, Blanchot and Foucault, serves as the theoretician needed
to ground methodologically the textual strategies of Borges. Such is the case in an article
by Alfonso de Toro, in which he argues that Borges overcomes the common use of
intertextuality as a technique of inclusion of a text’s fragment into the main discourse of a
primary text. Borges produces an intertextuality that functions internally, inventing the
intertext itself, disguising invention as intertextuality. The need of established authorship
is clear for intertextuality to exist, but Borges inhibits it precisely by simulating the
origins of his references, and more importantly, of the entirety of his works. De Toro
thinks that through this exacerbation of intertextuality (that may in fact entail its
overcoming) the works of Borges enter a “beyond” literature that ultimately produces the
annihilation of any possibility of paternity in the work of art.
The simulation of intertextuality is Borges’ ritual-symbolic parricide against a
type of literature. On the one hand, it is against mimetic or realistic literature,
predicated on Aristotle, the father, the literary tradition initiated by the father; on
the other, it is against an absolutization of the orality of the father, Plato the
father, that is, against the innocence of the word, against the supposed
contamination of writing. Borges’ parricide resides in the abolition of the
speech/language, orality/writing, reading/writing dichotomies (A. De Toro 137).
We are here already in Derridean territory: deconstruction and dissemination. De Toro
argues that Borges targets mimesis as the tradition of realist literature by producing a
literature that invents its own tradition and allows for ever-expanding variations
(dissemination), while at the same time ending the reign of the “author function” as the
central factor of literary creation (deconstruction). It is also interesting to note how the
most important issues of post-structuralism are present in this type of analysis, namely
the dismantling of traditional notions of book, author and writing along with phenomena
such as simulation, intertextuality and parody that recurs as well in other theories by
Barthes, Kristeva, Baudrillard. De Toro concludes by comparing Borgesian techniques
with the blended Derridean theory of “disseminal deconstruction” crediting Borges with
the most impressive antecedent of post-structuralism. Of this reading, De Toro writes,
“all that remains is the writing of the vision, of the mimic without mimesis, of
verisimilitude without truth and without falsehood, the mask without a hidden reality” (A.
De Toro 150).
Roberto González Echevarría proposes a similar reading by analyzing the use of
two epigraphs from Borges appearing in Derrida’s article “La pharmacie de Platon.”
Playing with the concept of “supplement” as understood by Derrida, González Echevarría
suggests that the exteriority of the epigraphs establishes the same tension that writing
produces in relation to the authority of speech, following Derrida’s critique of Plato’s
Phaedrus. Writing, according to Derrida, is presented as the exterior supplement of
orality, and it was for Plato a danger to the original sense of ideas as spoken by the
master. Because it relies on a text that opens up the possibility of interpretation, the
authority of a single, controlled message is at risk. Derrida’s critique, however, inverts
the verticality of authority by a horizontal conceptualization of writing as a game of
differences. The authority of speech becomes then the simulacrum of the original
presence that is not in fact anywhere. All that remains is writing, unfolding signs that
copy and parody, which are disseminated in chains under constant movement.
The original centrality of Derrida’s text, argues González Echevarría, is
supplanted by the marginal epigraphs by Borges (taken from his essay “La esfera de
Pascal” and his story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius). The first epigraph mentions Thoth,
the God of writing who supplants his father, the sun-god Rê. The second reminds us that
Tlön is the artificial world that Borges predicts will take over the real one. In between the
two epigraphs, there is one from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the
fact that the epigraphs form a repetitive triad Borges-Joyce-Borges is also a matter of
extra theoretical opportunity for González Echevarría. He notes that the influence of
Joyce in Latin America’s literary tradition is of the same nature as that of English
literature and Joyce: the supplement that replaces the original, making evident that the
original was in fact a copy not from a more distant original, but from another copy.
Moreover, the fact that the third Borges epigraphs succeeds the one from Joyce, leaving
Borges with the last word, allows for the possible reading of designating Borges (a
marginal figure in relation to Joyce and Derrida) as the supplement that replaces not only
the body text of Derrida’s article, but the actual influence of Joyce and of the Englishlanguage’s high modernism.
It is also important to note that instead of accepting the thesis that places Borges
at the beginning of a new era, González Echevarría moderates his approach and considers
both Borges and Derrida as destabilizing agents in the history of Western thought. They
do not dissolve the authority of the logos: they deconstruct it in the play of writing.
Writing is the space of differance, as Derrida has famously declared, but this entails, in
the game of his alternative spelling of the word, the possibility of recognizing the unity of
the same and the trace of the other, allowing for the emergence of the dimension in
between, the locus where identities are never resolved in favor of either the same or its
I believe that González Echevarría, with his analysis, relocates the Borgesian and
the Derridean disruptive effects to the mainframe of modernity. Authority, authorship and
the unity of the book are still visible, but, if we want to insist on the Derridean
vocabulary, they exist under erasure. This means, using the case of the previous analysis
again as an example, that the centrality of Derrida’s body text is preserved, and that the
condition of the epigraphs is also retained as ancillary items that promote the main ideas
of the article. González Echevarría rejects, therefore, the radical belief that Borges
represents a paradigmatic rupture that produced the transition from Modernity to Postmodernity, as Alfonso de Toro suggested. It is not that we cannot accept that literature, as
it existed during the early 20th century, has not changed at all. I believe, nevertheless, that
just as genres are exhausted in time, followed by variations and even their complete
transformation46, the condition of modernity in literature, or if we will, the modern
episteme in which literature operates, is still valid even for a literature as innovating as
that of Borges. In this sense, argues González Echevarría, Borges and Derrida may be
working more in favor of the conception of modern literature than against it.
Are not Borges and Derrida in fact in themselves investing their efforts in favor of
a language with its own substantiality, the Romantic dream of words that do not
designate objects but are themselves objects? In Derrida this Romantic
countergesture is to be found in his dense, allusive, Joycean style, in Borges, in
the stories whose seductive (curing) quality remains in spite of the negativity they
46 We may consider here as an emblematic example, the transformations of the historical novel as a genre.
The formula that was first initiated by Sir Walter Scott has in Mexican literary tradition a clear heir in the
series of novels of the revolution by Mariano Azuela, Martín Luis Guzmán and Nellie Campobello, among
others. If we consider them with more contemporary novels, such as Fernando del Paso’s Noticias del
imperio (1987) and Ignacio Solares’ Madero, el otro (1989) we are faced with a narrative questioning
historical discourse and representation, proposing faux historical episodes along with documented events.
The new narrative’s highly experimental and self-referential techniques are evidence of the variations of
the genre and even of its exhaustion, but it does not signify by any theoretical account a paradigm shift.
imply. […] In spite of their hypercritical appearance, Borges and Derrida may
very well have labored not to deconstruct literature, but to reconstruct it ("Borges
and Derrida" 234).
Emir Rodríguez Monegal extends the relation between Borges and Derrida by
elaborating on the theme of parricide. He believes that in order to accept his identity as a
writer, Borges had to commit a symbolic parricide after the death of his father in 1938.
That year, Borges suffered an accident when he knocked his forehead into a window
frame. When he regained consciousness, he tested his literary capacities by attempting a
short story that would become one of his most important literary achievements: “Pierre
Menard, autor del Quijote” fully written, according to Rodríguez Monegal, in 1939. As
one of his archetypical works, this story establishes the act of reading as another form of
writing. Borges’ “boldest” fictions would follow with the main objective, says Rodríguez
Monegal, of deconstructing Western literature as it was taught to him by his father.
Denying the authorship of his literature, then, was the ultimate expression of that need of
deconstruction, in which the œuvre has an original that is never present and always
deferred (if I may use again Derrida’s vocabulary). The original, if existed, was lost in a
remote past that can only be supposed in the form of a myth. This may help to better
explain the rationale behind Plato’s Phaedrus: an orphan himself, he did not write a
single word, as Rodríguez Monegal reminds us, and he attributes all source of knowledge
to the lost presence of Socrates, whose speech set the beginning of Western metaphysics.
To found the tradition, however, Plato must somehow erase his authorship for the sake of
validity, for only his master can be credible. At the same time, however, by giving in to
the pharmakon, Plato has committed parricide and has supplanted the voice of the master.
Writing has supplanted the original speech and yet it denies its authorship. Borges
emulates the dynamic by securing his secondary place in the composition process to the
extreme of calling himself a “usurper”, as he did in the opening note of his first book,
Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923):
Si las páginas de este libro consienten algún verso feliz, perdóneme el lector la
descortesía de haberlo usurpado yo, previamente. Nuestras nadas poco difieren; es
trivial y fortuita la circunstancia de que seas tú el lector de estos ejercicios, y yo
su redactor ("A quien leyere").
Later, in a poem included in the same collection, he declares:
He paladeado numerosas palabras
Creo profundamente que eso es todo y que ni veré ni ejecutaré cosas nuevas ("Mi
vida entera").
The stability of the act of writing has been threatened ever since the beginning of
modernity in the Western tradition. Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés disarticulates the
possibility of writing by transforming the text into the open dimension of a reading in
constant reformulation. A writing that invites reading only to perpetually displace itself is
an act of reading, since in it literature becomes a text that reads itself to infinity. Whether
we agree or not with Rodríguez Mongeal’s account of Borges’ symbolic parricide to
overcome the authoritative figure of his father, his conclusion does seem plausible:
“Borges could write (be an author) only if he persuaded himself —falsely after all— that
he was not the author but the reader of his own texts” ("Borges and Derrida:
Apothecaries" 135).
Reading is writing after Plato but in modernity it is after Borges that we become
fully conscious of it. After Derrida and the rest of the post-structuralist wave, it almost
became an axiom of contemporary literature. I believe that one of the conditions of
modern literature is precisely to defer original authorship by discharging the writer of the
author function. Denying authorship, we have seen, leaves the orphan free to reinvent his
tradition, to associate with the lineage, the genealogy that best corresponds to his
interests. This is what Borges did when he undertook the task of finding, retroactively,
Kafka’s precursors. By choosing Kafka and other writers on his long list of his personal
canon (Stevenson, Flaubert, Conrad, Chesterton), Borges hinted to the reader the
invention of his precursors so that a critic like Rodríguez Monegal could piece them
together. The critic’s choice of subjects for his works reproduces again the same
movement initiated at the dawn of the Western tradition. This is how critic Suzanne Jill
Levine understands it when she writes how Rodriguez Monegal also “helped create a
writer” (Borges) and continued throughout his career “midwifing” other Latin American
writers’ births, such as Gabriel García Márquez, Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Manuel
Puig with the influence of his criticism in his important magazine Mundo Nuevo. “In
order to create oneself,” Levine writes, “one has to create one’s father” (126).
The deconstructive movement comes thus to a full circle: the father is supplanted
but new fathers are created. The tradition is contested, but a new tradition is born. The
author is denied, but precursors secure the author’s place. This movement continues up to
now, and this is perhaps why the figure of infinity is pivotal to this investigation: we are
still circulating its ever-ending, ever-beginning figure. Modernity in its full potential, we
have learned from Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé, is the ability to recognize oneself
in the totality of tradition, acknowledging an individual place in that tradition even if it
immediately initiates its refutation.
II.2.3 The Reading Continuum of Genette and Caillois
In his contribution to the 1964 issue of the magazine L’herne dedicated to Borges,
Roger Caillois proposes the concept of circular time as one of the fundamental themes of
Borgesian fiction. Documenting his study with philosophical sources, Caillois considers
among others the works of Aristotle to contextualize his reading. According to the Greek
philosopher, circular time was the result of the periodical movement of celestial bodies.
Their cyclical presence in outer space leads to a repetition that is maintained to infinity.
Caillois notes how the Greek intelligentsia debated the exactness of the eternal return of
the world in time. For some, like Empedocles, the return of time did not include identical
events and actors. But the temptation to radicalize the doctrine, writes Caillois, leads
Aristotle to conjecture that the eternal return brings to each time the exact same
individuals engaged in the exact same activities ad infinitum. When Borges assimilates
these discussions, he devises an innovative textual strategy in order to portray the infinite
movement of circular time and its eternal return. Caillois explains the findings of Borges’
poetics of infinity that organizes this philosophical doctrine:
S’il ne s’est pas enquis du détail de ces analyses et de ces controverses oubliées, il
reconstitua du moins les étranges conséquences de la doctrine à partir de son
principe. Il les diversifia, les modula et mit en évidence leur caractère dramatique.
Il lui appartint de pouvoir leur évidence abstraite de l’imagerie sensible, qui la
rendrait éloquente. À cette fin, il inventa, tardivement d’ailleurs, la sorte de conte,
inédite auparavant, qui assure le meilleur de sa gloire (214).
From the infinity of a universe that duplicates itself endlessly, Caillois finds the
figure of the labyrinth, so important for Borges’ fictions. The labyrinth is the space where
the subject is lost forever, searching for an exit that may exist, but that is not for him to
find. The supposed presence of the exit eluding the prisoner of the labyrinth can be a
nightmare but also the ultimate dream of the creator, for the possibilities of movement
and exploration are, again, infinite. Caillois’ reading of Borges advances this approach.
When he compares the poet to the figure of a small god who proposes new arrangements
of images, sounds and colors, he grants the poet, previously a man among others, the
status of the creator.
De la sorte, l’homme est tout ensemble créature et créateur. L’idée de Borgès est
ici que tout créateur est la créature d’un autre créateur et qu’aucune cause
prétendue première ne saurait échapper à cette loi de récurrence infinie (Caillois
Caillois follows the link of these essential topics by linking together their logical
implications. From cyclical time he derives the various conceptions of the eternal return.
Then, the appearance of the labyrinth in the overwhelming duplication of the universe
seems more than natural, a necessary image. In it, the subject wonders and experiences
this confusing space in two possible ways: with terror, like Pascal, or with amusement,
like St. Augustine. Borges’ dweller and narrator of the Library of Babel may be a
successful combination of the two reactions to the infinite labyrinth of the universe: he
talks of his curiosity and admiration for the proliferation of the hexagonal chambers
while at the same time he lets us feel his anxiety by acknowledging that the primal cause
of the Library, God, his secret name or the Book of all books, will never be accessible to
him or to any other man. The fictions of Borges become for Caillois the most complex
combination of the experience of modernity. The Argentine writer is for the French
reader the innovative imagination that proposes the exploration of an infinite universe
capable of fitting in the pages of a book of short stories. Understanding infinity as the
material of fiction is no humble merit and this is perhaps Caillois’ most significant
contribution when reading the works of Borges. He concludes:
Je n’hésite pas à compter Jorge Luis Borges au petit nombre de ces parfaits
encyclopédistes encore rares, pour qui l’inventaire des richesses disponibles est à
la double mesure de la planète et de l’histoire (217).
The infinite possibilities of writing and creating reduce the figure of the
writer/creator to the minimum. Borges often reminds his readers that the number of
metaphors available is very limited, and, thus, literature is such an overwhelming
phenomenon of duplication and recombination that it is no longer valid to demand any
credit of authorship for a composition. Gérard Genette traces in this two historical
positions: a “classical” one, that remained in vogue up until the 19th century, in which the
figure of the author had scare importance in the act of reading; and a “pantheistic”
position of modernity in which it is believed that a literary spirit is the sole source for an
impersonal and timeless universal work of art. Borges’ fiction, one of the highest
versions of modernity, synthesizes both visions and elevates his syncretic project to a
new height, writes Genette:
Le mythe borgésien contracte ce moderne tout est à écrire et le classique tout est
écrit dans une formule encore plus ambitieuse, qui serait à peut près : tout est
Écrit. La bibliothèque de Babel, qui existe ab aeterno et contient « tout ce qu’il
est possible d’exprimer dans toutes les langues », se confond évidemment avec
l’Univers […] bien avant d’être lecteur, bibliothécaire, copiste, compilateur,
« auteur », l’homme est un page d’écriture ("L’utopie littéraire" 126-27).
It is important to note the coincidence of Genette’s vocabulary with that of
Foucault. The focus on the figure of the library as the major symbol for the articulation of
a radical elevation of modernity cannot be over emphasized. The image of the universe as
a library allows for the disarticulation of the subject, or perhaps, paradoxically, for his
duplication. The subject can be at the same time a creature and a creator, a double status
that in literature translates as the doubling of the reader into a writer and vice-versa. The
writing of a work of art and its subsequent reading become entangled into a unity that
secures its continuum. The Mallarmean dream of a Book of books is now, at least in the
form of a literary practice, feasible. When the reader is also the writer, when reading
transforms into writing, literature functions as a two-way avenue. This is naturally
compared to a universe, as repetitive in its infinite combinations as the real universe that
supposedly exists outside the Library, but one which the reader/writer doublet can never
know if not through the Library’s texts, for he is surrounded by books and not by reality.
Successive time, the linearity of our history, the assumed evolution of our cultures,
argues Genette, are just some of the ways in which we insist on the hope of someday
mastering our incomprehensible universe.
Literature, Genette understands from his reading of Borges, is the vast field of
discursive experience whose stability depends on its constant movement. The chaos of
the universe is naturally reflected by a literature that supplants the original space. The
strange phenomenon of writing, however, is perhaps beyond the paradox: we live in the
real universe, but we can only begin to grasp it from our limited and artificial image of it.
This image is the surface composed of the puzzle of literature: the abundant production of
books that in modernity form the genealogies that we have discussed. The literary space,
of course, is also for Genette the articulation of infinity:
Les temps des œuvres n’est pas le temps fini de l’écriture, mais le temps infini de
la lecture ; l’espace littéraire, c’est la mémoire des hommes. Le sens des livres est
devant eux et non derrière : il est en nous. Pierre Ménard est l’auteur du Quichotte
pour cette raison suffisante que chaque lecteur l’est ("La littérature selon Borges"
For Genette, Borges’ literature is beyond the dimension of the fictitious narration. The
reader penetrates the realm of a universe that soon overcomes his departing reality. This
does not imply the intrusion of fiction into reality, but the suppression of reality and the
sole presence of fiction, the only reality now possible. What is the reader to do in the
infinite universe of literature? That is the reader’s task: he may choose the horror of the
lost subject in the labyrinth, or he may venture into the hexagons, if not in search for the
exit door, then in the hope of satisfying the secret joy: that reading is infinite in the
Library of Babel and that we will die barely learning the contents of one its bookshelves.
This is our place, as readers, in Literature, writes Genette, and perhaps it is not such an
unfortunate role to play:
La bibliothèque de Babel est parfaite ab aeterno ; c’est l’homme, dit Borges, qui
est un bibliothécaire imparfait ; parfois, faute de trouver le livre qu’il cherche, il
en écrit un autre : le même, ou presque. La littérature est cette tâche imperceptible
— et infinie. ("L’utopie littéraire" 132)
II.2.4 Blanchot and the Discovery of Literary Infinity
In his study on how the French “nouvelle critique” approached the works of
Borges, Emir Rodríguez Monegal47 reminds us that it was in 1953 when Maurice
Blanchot established several of the main lines of investigation that the mainstream
exegetes of Borges would follow from the late 1960’s and on. Blanchot’s essay, more
than a visionary piece, is the instrument of a discovery. His title announces this major
finding: “L’infini littéraire : l’Aleph.” He achieves in five pages what most Latin
American critics have failed to understand from Borges’ fictions:
Parlant de l’infini, Borges dit que cette idée corrompt les autres. Michaux évoque
l’infini, ennemi de l’homme, et dit de la mescaline qui « refuse le mouvement du
fini » : « Infinivertie, elle détranquillise. » Je soupçonne Borges d’avoir reçu
l’infini de la littérature. Ce n’est pas pour faire entendre qu’il n’en a qu’une calme
connaissance tirée d’œuvres littéraires, mais pour affirmer que l’expérience de la
littérature est peut-être fondamentalement proche des paradoxes et des sophismes
de ce que Hegel, pour l’écarter, appelait le mauvais infini. La vérité de la
littérature serait dans l’erreur de l’infini (Le livre à venir 130).
Borges, according to Blanchot, has somehow “received” literary infinity. The
premise is at first sight quite simple: if a traveler finds himself suddenly lost, the finite
journey becomes infinite. It is the possibility of loosing oneself in a contained space that
opens up the possibility of experiencing infinity. All it takes is a closed space where the
exit door is nowhere visible, even if it does exist. Borges’ vision of the universe is the
key for the configuration of this literary infinity. The world is seen by the Argentine
writer, notes Blanchot, in strict literary terms, or if we may, under literary rules. It
follows, from Blanchot’s reasoning, that in Borges’ fiction the world is a book and the
47 See: Rodríguez Monegal, "Borges y la nouvelle critique."
book is the world. The reflecting movement of this relationship inaugurates the dynamics
of literary infinity, making the celebrated metaphor of the shifting mirrors seem natural.
The infinite reflection of a work of fiction that contains the world and the world that in
turn must contain the work of fiction (and itself, already inscribed in those pages), honors
the very raison d’être of literature:
Fictions, Artifices risquent d’être les noms les plus honnêtes que la littérature
puisse recevoir ; et reprocher à Borges d’écrire des récits qui répondent trop bien
à ces titres, c’est lui reprocher cet excès de franchise sans lequel la mystification
se prend lourdement au mot (Le livre à venir 132).
In this ever-expanding reflection, it follows that literature must be seen —both by the
reader and the writer— as some type of “neutral and impersonal force”, since the
correspondence of reality and fiction includes all that there is as well as all that there
could be. It is literature that matters, states Blanchot, and not the individual actors. The
reason for this idea, shared by Genette and Caillois, has to do with the fact that reading
and writing are undifferentiated, blended in the continuum of literature. Blanchot must
add, nevertheless, that the univocal status of the book cannot remain untouched. A book
becomes the space of its own alterity, of its infinite duplicity. Analyzing the works of
Borges from this perspective, I believe that Blanchot is echoing the approach of the other
French critics mentioned above. He is in fact describing textual strategies in which
infinity is a perfectly visible phenomenon. Infinity is no longer a theme of literature: it is
what defines a certain literature that can be traced in the form of a genealogy. This
genealogy of literary infinity, implies Blanchot, finds its highest point in the works of
La littérature n’est pas une simple tromperie, elle est le dangereux pouvoir d’aller
vers ce qui est, par l’infinie multiplicité de l’imaginaire. La différence entre le réel
et l’irréel, l’inestimable privilège du réel, c’est qu’il y a moins de réalité dans la
réalité, n’étant que l’irréalité niée, écartée par l’énergique travail de la négation et
par cette négation qu’est aussi le travail (Le livre à venir 133).
I would like to be able to simply quote the entirety of Blanchot’s essay because it
is perhaps one of the most complete —and for that matter compact— studies on Borges. I
would anticipate toleration of this rather bold usage of his text, since it could be read as a
voluntary act of Pierre Menardism. To comply with the rules of academic investigation,
however, I will have to be content with a summary of Blanchot’s definition of literature.
His vision, as we will see, has several points of coincidence with Borges’, and it confirms
the nature of Borgesian fiction. Blanchot’s main contention is that literature operates
separately from the notion of culture. Literature is the articulation of a continuous
exploration of aesthetic discourse that functions only if it is under constant reformulation.
With Borges, Blanchot believes that the scope of literature is in fact finite. What is
infinite is our relation with literature as individuals who are able to participate in it as
writers/readers. In this sense, the sum of all literatures —Literature— is a task always
about to be completed. More specifically, Blanchot writes in L’entretien infini (1969),
literature becomes infinite because the relation between signifier and signified (notions
that Blanchot considers interchangeable with content and form) is itself infinite.
Cela veut dire essentiellement que ce rapport n’est pas un rapport d’unification :
forme et contenu sont en rapport de telle sorte que toute compréhension, tout
effort pour les identifier, les rapporter l’un à l’autre ou à une commune mesure
selon un ordre régulièrement valable ou selon une légalité naturelle les altère et
échoue nécessairement. […] D’où l’on peut concevoir pourquoi ce rapport
d’étrangeté semble précéder et décevoir toute signification et, en même temps,
semble signifier infiniment et se signifier comme infini et pourquoi toute œuvre
littéraire a toujours pour sens le plus intérieur la « littérature » qui se signifierait
elle-même (L'entretien infini 586-87).
The radical difference between literature and culture emerges clearly when
Blanchot contrasts the function of culture and that of literature. Culture, he writes, is the
network that orders and categorizes all signification. It is the horizon that combines the
“ensemble” of all given items in a society: politics, music, art, and of course, literature.
The way culture approaches literature, however, does violence to the latter’s nature,
according to Blanchot. When literature calls for a dynamic reformulation of meanings,
culture holds stabilized readings and univocal appreciations. In the view of culture,
Shakespeare’s plays have been read once and for all. For literature, they are always about
to be read. In this respect, Blanchot is proposing a literature that must be read in a form
analogous to the “deliberate anachronism” of Borges’ Pierre Menard. The act of reading,
we have seen with Derrida, is always an act of writing and in this literature finds its
infinite possibilities. Blanchot concludes Le livre à venir in this theoretical direction: a
book is always the beginning of writing. Modern literature learned this lesson very well
at the end of Proust’s À la rechecherche du temps perdu: we are just beginning to write
the Œuvre. On the other hand, culture resists this never-ending movement of a literature
that insist on (re)creating itself:
C’est que la littérature est peut-être faite essentiellement pour décevoir, étant
comme toujours en défaut par rapport à elle-même. […] C’est pourquoi, nous ne
pouvons la saisir que par le biais d’une suite de négations, car c’est toujours en
termes d’unité que la pensée, à un certain niveau, compose ses références
positives (L'entretien infini 594-95).
Blanchot’s dialectical definition of literature had to enter the strategy of infinity
that intended to analyze. The system of oppositions that permits us to grasp his theory
(form/content, signifier/signified, infinite/finite literature/culture) operates on both sides
of its spectrum. It is, on one side, the logical evaluation of a cultural phenomenon
(literature) in which something must be said and understood. As Blanchot distinguished
before, culture has the ultimate goal of ordering all its integral aspects. Blanchot’s essay
here functions with a comparable mechanism of order and understanding. Its goal is to
say something to understand what literature is. On the other hand, as a piece of literature,
the essay displaces its meaning by reflecting on what it is: a literature that thinks of itself
cannot help but continue in movement. The essay must articulate a discourse for thought,
Blanchot writes. The second voice of the book, one closer to the literature that it has
taken as a task to define, replies playfully, rejecting dialectics: “At least momentarily”.
II.2.5 A Founder of Discursivity: The Foucauldian Rupture
When Foucault opened what has become perhaps his most influential book, Les
mots et les choses, with a quotation from an essay48 included in Otras inquisiciones
(1952), he chose to grant Borges a status that goes beyond that of the fiction writer.
Borges leaves his reader feeling uneasy, in a fictional world that intrudes and distorts the
reader’s perception of his own reality. The principles that allow us to function in our
culture are somehow bracketed by a work of fiction. More eloquently, Foucault discusses
his own experience reading Borges in this way:
48 See: Borges, "El idioma analítico de John Wilkins."
Dans le rire qui secoue à sa lecture toutes les familiarités de la pensée —de la
nôtre : de celle qui a notre âge et notre géographie—, ébranlant toutes les
surfaces ordonnées et tous les plans qui assagissent pour nous le foisonnement des
être, faisant vaciller et inquiétant pour longtemps notre pratique millénaire du
Même et de l’Autre (Les mots et les choses 7).
Foucault refers here to the possibility of recognizing the unity of the thinking subject in
relation to what is in a determined e pisteme. It is not a simple matter of reverting or
distorting our epistemological limits. It comprises, instead, the capacity of experiencing
something similar to madness, if by this mental condition we understand it to mean the
dissolution of our way of ordering the objects that define our surroundings. Madness
becomes a dissident way of rejecting reality by reshaping —and not negating— its
mechanism for producing knowledge.
To elaborate, Foucault considers the mention of a “Chinese encyclopedia” in the
quoted essay by Borges in which animals are classified in a rather unusual way, including
“mermaids”, “innumerable” and “belonging to the present classification.” The opening
of a “mise en abîme” that Borges activates in this taxonomic game (resembling the
recurrent metaphor of the shifting mirrors facing each other) short circuits, according to
Foucault, the very space, the surface on which all objects can be ordered and classified. It
is not about introducing the monster or the fantastic animal, but of turning the task of
enunciating into an impossible one. This goes beyond the surrealist displacement of
objects that find themselves out of context, producing a sensation similar to Freud’s
uncanny. What Borges has successfully attempted is a dismantling of our most basic
logic, or, following Foucault, our cultural code through which we are able to understand
and further utilize any knowledge produced within each culture’s limits. Borges, writes
Foucault, overcomes the strangeness of a utopia by articulating a “heterotopia,” a
transgressive alternative that undermines language and order, knowledge and
understanding. Borges leads Foucault to suppose a region in which language establishes
its primordial order, from which the various stages of culture emerge. It is as if through
the power of fiction, the reader glances at the artificiality of language, the seams of
knowledge from which Foucault will later formulate an entire theory. Borges suggests
that it is our linguistic interpretation of the world that allows us to maintain a logical
approach to our universe. After all, he writes, we still do not know what exactly is this
I have avoided up until now any direct association of Borges with the tradition of
“fantastic” literature. I acknowledge that this category can be easily applied to his works.
Such an approach, however, can reveal to us the structural mechanisms of his narrations
but limit us in terms of a content-oriented analysis. Todorov’s study of fantastic literature
has very effectively described the genre’s textual strategies. My aim of tracing Borges’
strategies of infinity, nevertheless, is to relate them to a broader discussion on Latin
America’s modern letters with the ultimate goal of establishing the defining features
between what I have called earlier the two literary genealogies. As I tried to demonstrate
in the beginning of this chapter, the Borgesian literature altered its genealogy and
consequently accentuated the essential differences between the two currents.
A category described by Foucault in his essay “What Is an Author?” may well
help define the relevance of Borges in 20th century Latin American literature. Foucault
dissects the history of the figure of the author in various epochs and then terms an author
function that he conceptualizes for those who become “founders of discursivity”:
They are unique in that they are not just the authors of their own works. They
have produced something else: the possibilities and the rules for the formation of
other texts. In this sense, they are very different, for example, from a novelist,
who is, in fact, nothing more than the author of his own text. Freud is not just the
author of The Interpretations of Dreams and Their Relation to the Unconscious;
Marx is not just the author of the Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital: they both
have established an endless possibility of discourse ("What Is an Author?" 114).
I believe Borges can easily be considered such an author. Ficciones and El Aleph
marked the radicalization of the genealogy and established the rules of formation of
literary discourse. Borges credits Quevedo with being the first “artificer” of Hispanic
literature, always saving his work with the “dignity” of language: its stylized inventing
powers. Quevedo, writes Borges, was the manufacturer of such “verbal objects” that now
“es menos un hombre que una dilatada y compleja literatura” ("Quevedo" 44).
Similarly, Borges has elevated the literary artifice to new heights: he can be
credited with recapturing and raising to an ultimate altitude a rupture of epistemological
proportions that started with the advent of modernity in Western culture in the 19th
century. Foucault believes Borges synthesizes this rupture by concentrating it in his
fictions, offering us one of the most influential metaphors of the passage from a literature
produced by Rhetoric to a literature grounded in the hypertextuality of a universal library,
a literature emanating infinitively from literature49. The word hypertext has very current
connotations in the context of the Internet, but Umberto Eco50 does not hesitate to relate it
49 See: Chapter I, Section 3.4 “Literature to Infinity”.
50 See: Umberto Eco, "Between La Mancha and Babel," On Literature (Orlando: Harcourt, 2004).
to Borges, affirming that the Borgesian world may well be a precursor of a dimension
where a line of text can lead to an entire literary tradition. The Borgesian library becomes
for Blanchot, as we have seen, the beginning of literary infinity in its most complete
sense, while the Borgesian librarian, the inhabitant of all literary traditions, or of
Literature in general, the most radical of readers. That is if we consider reading as
another form of writing, and perhaps a more persistent one than the traditional inscription
on the blank page.
The Borgesian image of this epistemological rupture transformed the literary
genealogy by first introducing the disruptive element of a fiction that destabilizes our
very cultural foundations, dismantling the linguistic codes that allow us to order our
reality. In this new space created by literature, the traditional structure of Rhetoric was
replaced by the universe of the Library. Writing and reading in the Borgesian library (that
is, in its genealogy) are analog acts, and thus a reader of Don Quijote, like Pierre Menard,
is also its author. And in this movement, author and reader become interchangeable
identities refusing the univocal status of either function. In this, considering Borges
sometimes as a reader, other times as writer and always as a two-faced man of letters
(another variation of the Dr. Jeykill and Mr. Hyde metaphor) what we are describing is
no longer the peculiarities of Borges’ figure, but one of the essential conditions of
modern literature. Writing as reading and viceversa is the mechanism of the infinity of
shifting mirrors, facing each other, with the reader/writer subject reflected, reproduced,
distorted, dissolved and born again. In this space, the Library of Babel is constructed, and
if the reader/writer is not able to find the exit door it is not so much because it does not
exist, but because the reader/writer has now been multiplied in an infinite number of
variations of his shifting identity. And as we will explore in the last section of this
chapter, an individual subject could leave the Library of Babel, but a character of
literature cannot.
Subjectivity, nevertheless, remains as a central question of modernity. Foucault
reminds us of how, ever since Baudelaire, the modern man “is the man who tries to
invent himself ("What Is Enlightenment?" 42).” In the crisis of its role in modern
literature, the subject undertakes the task of reinventing himself along with the entirety of
Western culture. Modernity, perhaps in its most effective definition, is for Foucault the
coming of an age of culture, in which a generalized consciousness questions its past,
present and future. It is, before anything else, an attitude that begins with culture’s selfdiscovery and its will to refashion itself through the power of imagination.
For the attitude of modernity, the high value of the present is indissociable from a
desperate eagerness to imagine it, to imagine it otherwise than it is, and to
transform it not by destroying it but by grasping it in what it is ("What Is
Enlightenment?" 41).
This is the aspect of Borgesian fiction that I believe best defines its modernity:
imagination. I want to emphasize, however, the importance of considering imagination
under the initial premise of this investigation: imagination as a textual strategy. If
modernity is the possibility of reinventing culture and its subjects, this imagination
triggers endless combination, for it is a phenomenon that begins and perpetually
continues in language. Literary language transforms the universe into something similar
to an infinite library, and it is not a random coincidence that this is the first statement of
Borges “Biblioteca de Babel”. How exactly does literary infinity operate in the radical
transformation of Western culture and its modern subject that Borges represents? I will
elaborate on an answer in the last section of this chapter.
II.3 The Exit Door of the Library of Babel
II.3.1 The Reader and the Library: “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote”
“Hay un concepto que es el corruptor y el desatinador de los otros,” writes
Borges, “hablo del infinito” ("Avatares de la tortuga" 254). With this statement he
undertakes the task of discussing a fragment of what was supposed to be a book about the
various conceptions of infinity. Because of the fact that this never-accomplished book, A
Biography of Infinity, is potentially infinite as well, Borges gives up the project and
decides to limit his discussion solely to Xenon’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. He
concludes, with Schopenhauer, that the world is the product of the will, a dream that, in a
closer look, is far from perfection. Like a glitch in a computer program, there are those
rare infinity loops that threaten the stability of the system for whomever comes in contact
with them. Art emerges from those “visible unrealities,” argues Borges, for it somehow
becomes the exceptional imperfect complement to the reality that has been accepted as a
social convention.
I believe that a major literary event in the bibliography of Borges is the writing of
one of his most celebrated short stories: “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote.” Most critics
consider this piece as a groundbreaking step in Borges’ career, as I have mentioned
above. Aside from its importance in the change of direction of his literary production, I
contend that in it Borges concentrated in it most of the themes and techniques that he was
to explore in full throughout his later fictions. Of the multiple ideas that can be derived
from this story, I would like to begin with the most important premise that critic John
Sturrock highlights from his readings of Borges: “Borges holds the mirror up to art, not to
nature,” he writes. “The proper place to begin an analysis of Borges’s fictions is with the
special conditions which make fiction possible” (33). To these “special conditions” that
Sturrock finds in the actual writing act, I would like to add the structuring of textual
strategies. In particular, as it is the topic of the present investigation, I would like to focus
on the textual strategies of infinity. I will now consider “Pierre Menard, autor del
Quijote” as the archetype of the four aspects of literary infinity as they were discussed in
the first chapter and as they guide the analysis of the four novels chosen for the last two
chapters of this investigation. Let us remember that these four aspects were categorized
as it follows: 1) Radical exhaustion of language, 2) The absence of the œuvre, 3) The
same, the other, and 4) Transgression. I will now consider each of these notions in this
iconic Borges’ story.
1) Radical exhaustion of language: Borges argues in his essay “La supersticiosa
ética del lector51,” that literature reaches immortality as it is able to survive all possible
printing errors, misunderstandings and voluntary distortions. Against all types of readings
and interpretations, those that accidentally or mischievously benefit or damage the text,
only the “immortal” work (Don Quijote for example) unequivocally triumphs. Somewhat
as a negation and somewhat as a proof of this thesis, Pierre Menard decides to write
Cervantes’ novel. Attempting to relive the life of Cervantes in a reconstructed historical
background of the Spanish golden age, Menard plans to become the author of Don
Quijote. His final and inconclusive product, however —just two chapters and one
51 See: Jorge Luis Borges, "La supersticiosa ética del lector," Discusión, Obras completas I (Buenos Aires:
Emecé, 2004).
fragment of the novel— in spite of their exact coincidence with the original by Cervantes,
proves to be different in the reading judgment of Borges. Menard’s Quijote gains in
subtlety what Cervantes looses in his decisive “local color”; Cervantes’ avant-garde
language, nevertheless, defeats Menard’s usage of archaic style. Three hundred years of
distance between the two authors explain why Menard’s Quijote is, according to Borges,
“almost infinitively richer.” The conclusion of Menard’s commentator seems logical at
the end of the note:
Menard (acaso sin quererlo) ha enriquecido mediante una técnica nueva el arte
detenido y rudimentario de la lectura: la técnica del anacronismo deliberado y de
las atribuciones erróneas. Esa técnica de aplicación infinita nos insta a recorrer la
Odisea como si fuera posterior a la Envida y el libro Le jardin du Centaure de
Madame Henri Bachelier como si fuera de Madame Henri Bachelier ("Pierre
Menard, autor del Quijote" 450)
Menard is one of those misguided readers who attempt to do violence to an original text.
Don Quijote is one of those books that survive such violence. Strangely enough, Menard
succeeds in transforming Cervantes’ novel without altering one comma. The novel,
however, does survive this process, since it is still the very same text. This paradox, as I
argue above, confirms and denies Borges’ concept of the immortal classic: it establishes
the metamorphic power of the reader while it maintains the stability of the text. In the
application of this bizarre and innovating encounter between the reader and the text,
however, this “application” becomes “infinite.” Literary language not only provides for a
possibility of polisemia, it inaugurates an avenue that seeks to attain, in the company of
the reader, its radical exhaustion. Precisely because of the impossible nature of the
project, language is in constant attainment of its exhaustion.
2) The absence of the œuvre: It is a proof of literary infinity that the notion of the
accomplished œuvre is eliminated. If Menard’s goal is to write Don Quijote for the first
time, there is the implication that the task will never be finished. The reason for this is
that a first writing of Don Quijote, and for that matter of any work of literature, is not
only always possible, but necessary. Borges grants Menard’s Don Quijote two important
features: it is “interminably heroic” and “unmatched.” Interminable because the task goes
on ad infinitum, rendering therefore an novel always in the process of being written and
always in the process of beginning to be written; unmatched because no effort of writing
Don Quijote (always for the “first” time) is ever the same as the next one. Thus,
Menard’s “writing” is never fully present (interminable) and it cannot be imitated
Borges tells us that Menard decided not to publish his remarkable achievement.
Instead, he burned all of his manuscripts, leaving Borges with the impossible task of
“reconstructing” Menard’s legacy. He supposes that only a “second” Pierre Menard could
somehow “invert” the work of the first one and bring back Menard’s Quijote. From the
misreading of the first Menard to the faithful approach of the second Menard, Borges
does not waste the opportunity of opening another “visible unreality” on top of the
original one: the infinite effort of “writing” Don Quijote for the “first” time, once and
again and the subsequent enterprise of recovering that initial effort.
3) The same, the other: By separating the authorial custody of Cervantes on Don
Quijote, Borges operates the most effective excision of the modern subject: Cervantes,
the author, is replaced by its other, the reader. The authorial function, as it was
understood until the 19th century, is finalized by the empowering of the reader. The
reader, however, is not presented here as the potential interpreter or even the misguided
reader, as a naïve critique of Bouvard et Pécuchet could —and at some point did—
conclude. The reader has become the only possible author of the work. In other words,
the reader is the author and this figure is the only one that exists in relation to the work.
The mirroring between the first author and its reader begins a dynamic that nevertheless
does not end at that level. Borges enters the game by rereading (rewriting) Menard’s
surviving fragments to present the short essay to the reader. The reader of Borges,
obviously, follows the same route and Borges invites them to continue the chain. In this,
Borges is planting the seed avant la lettre of what will become reception theory and the
post-structuralist deconstruction of the figures of the author and of the reader. But the
astonishing factor that Borges introduces takes the discussion to yet a degree higher: he
proposes the inversion of Pierre Menard’s project. The explosion of the ever-continuing
act of reading (writing) is now imploding by Borges’ unexpected proposition: right after
Pierre Menard’s deconstruction of the author, Borges calls for the reconstruction of Pierre
Menard. The two-way theoretical avenue goes on unfolding and folding itself
4) Transgression: Pierre Menard is the symbol of all that has radically changed in
modern literature ever since Mallarmé articulated his coup de dés. Menard is the ultimate
throw of dice that defies the traditional concept of artistic writing that in the 19th century
claimed its independence as a discourse separated from all other operations of language.
Pierre Menard taught all individuals who have something to do with literature (readers,
writers alike) that in literature mimesis is an act where a text copies another text or even
itself, but never the reality outside the text. Sometimes, that reality seems to appear in
literary pages, but it is only its reflection. Literature is not at risk with the intrusion of
reality in its world: it is rather the other way around. “El mundo será Tlön” writes Borges
with the horror of a malignant omen but also with the promise of a fortunate prophecy.
Transgression in literature targets the very elements that have been mutually
exclusive ever since the 19th century, which we call modernity. What are these? The
notion of the author as the articulator of “original” writing. Menard is the anti-author
but his presence overcomes the negation: he is a modern breed of author, not because he
changes literature but because he accepts the changes that literature provokes in him. The
writer has been granted the same status of the reader, paralleling literary language itself,
blurring the difference between reading and writing. The notion of literary history is no
longer important. It remains useful for pedagogical purposes but the awareness of
literature and its tradition makes it mandatory to read/write searching for alliances, for
compatibilities in the personal affiliation of a genealogy, even if this leads to
anachronism. “Literature,” writes critic John Sturrock, “is a republic, a public affair, and
also an eternity, where the only time scale is the one we bring to it ourselves (208).”
Menard is the archetype of literary transgression. He is the incarnation of Rimbaud’s call
for absolute modernity. I do not know how or when his influence will be overcome, but it
seems clear to me that such transition will have to happen. Pierre Menard, by undertaking
the most difficult task of all —the reinvention of our tradition’s highest literary legacy—
has made it possible for us to anticipate the overcoming of the reinvented tradition.
I have tried to demonstrate how “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” can be read as
the archetypical model of the most important expression of (post)modernity in Spanishlanguage literary tradition. This is, nevertheless, only partially true. I believe many of
Borges’ fictions can be considered under the same premise. In what follows, I will apply
separately each one of the four categories of textual literary infinity that I have discussed
above to four of the most canonical short stories by Borges. I must admit that in my
choosing there is an evident degree of haphazardness, for I could have chosen to
associate each story under all of the four categories. I see in this, however, another
symptom of Borges’ use of infinity as a textual strategy. The shifting theoretical approach
of each of these stories could continue until all possibilities are exhausted. It is only
natural to suppose that, under the insistence of a reader, the revision of all Borges’ stories
could enrich the reading experience, with the recurrent possibility —a fortunate or a
frightening one— of literary infinity.
II.3.2 The Radical Exhaustion of Language: “La biblioteca de Babel”
In his essay “Vindicación de Bouvard et Pécuchet,” Borges corrects those who at
some time considered Flaubert’s novel an absurdity. Borges suggests that Flaubert may
be in fact responsible for both creating the genre of the realist novel and for overcoming
this model. Most importantly, Borges argues that the two copy clerks are in fact symbols
that represent all of humanity facing, in modernity, the apparent infinity of knowledge. I
emphasized apparent because in art, of course, everything is artifice. This is why I insist
on referring to Borges’ infinity as a textual strategy. Blanchot reminded us of how it is
only the sensation of being forever lost, of wondering without a direction, what makes it
possible to believe in infinity and to assume that Bouvard et Pécuchet is close to eternity
("Vindicación de Bouvard et Pécuchet" 262). Infinity here, of course, comes under the
image of the labyrinth: that limited space where our fear of remaining forever lost turns
into a horrifying infinity.
I am not the first to recall, in the context of this discussion, the importance of a
story such as “La casa de Asterión” as the metaphor of art: an isolated, limited space,
which has the appearance of infinity because of its multiple doors. While for Asterión,
the inhabitant, these doors can be counted to infinity, a footnote in the first page of the
story clarifies that the original source states that there were an exact total of fourteen
doors, “pero sobran motivos para inferir que, en boca de Asterión, ese adjetivo numeral
vale por infinito ("La casa de Asterión" 569).” “La biblioteca de Babel” produces the
same effect in its inhabitants. The possibility of finding a door is certainly available, and
in spite of the extremely low probabilities of ever reaching it, its mere presence
neutralizes the idea that the library is infinite. The overwhelming extension of the library,
however, explains the first lines of the story:
El universo (que otros llaman la Biblioteca) se compone de un número indefinido,
y tal vez infinito, de galerías hexagonales, con vastos pozos de ventilación en el
medio, cercados por barandas bajísimas. Desde cualquier hexágono, se ven los
pisos inferiores y superiores: interminablemente ("La biblioteca de Babel" 465).
Like Asterión, the narrator of the story shows the same degree of confusion: he
mistakes the Library with the universe, and because of his incapacity of ever exploring all
of its hexagons, he is inclined to grant it the status of infinity. If the library’s dweller
presumes, rather hesitantly, its infinity, it is because like Asterión again, he holds on to
the possibility of finding an exit door that is forever out of his reach. It is interesting to
note how in the case of Asterión, even as he has in fact explored the exterior world, he
decides to remain inside waiting for a redeemer to take him somewhere else. It could be
argued that, given the chance to exit the library, the narrator would have perhaps chosen
to stay in its hexagons as well. The reason for this is simple and it comes from Borges
too: we still do not know what the universe is52, and it may be better to explore the same
limited space to infinity rather than venturing to the unknown.
A reflection of repeated mirrors throughout the library, the narrator informs us,
has made some of the wondering librarians to believe that the library’s infinity is nothing
but an illusion. Our narrator counter argues by simply stating that he prefers to dream that
the hexagons “promise” infinity, even if the promise does not go beyond the visual effect.
The structure of the library is in fact a metaphor of the very textual strategy that I am
choosing to highlight from this story: the radical exhaustion of language. The very name
of this category promises a false infinity: if language can be exhausted it is because it is
precisely a limited material, with abundant but finite combinations. Such is in fact the
central thesis that the librarian gathers for us in order to describe the setting of the library:
the library exists ab aeterno, but the number of orthographic symbols allowed is very
limited, amounting to 25 (the 23 letters of the alphabet, the space, the period and the
comma. All other symbols have been omitted). These symbols are combined and their
permutations —all of them— exist distributed throughout the chambers. The fact that no
52 This is the conclusion that Borges reaches at the end of his essay “El idioma analítico de John Wilkins.”
two identical books have ever been found ensures that the shelves will not hold any
repeated texts, for this repetition could potentially occur to infinity. As in the turning
paths of a labyrinth, the books contain everything that has been said and everything that
could be said in all languages:
Todo: la historia minuciosa del porvenir, las autobiografías de los arcángeles, el
catálogo fiel de la Biblioteca, miles y miles de catálogos falsos, la demostración
de la falacia de esos catálogos, la demostración de la falacia del catálogo
verdadero, el evangelio gnóstico de Basílides, el comentario de ese evangelio, el
comentario del comentario de ese evangelio, la relación verídica de tu muerte, la
versión de cada libro a todas las lenguas, las interpolaciones de cada libro en
todos los libros, el tratado que Beda pudo escribir (y no escribió) sobre la
mitología de los sajones, los libros perdidos de Tácito ("La biblioteca de Babel"
The multiple reactions to the library are understandable: worshippers,
philosophers, mystics, and serious investigators populate the hexagons along with those
who have gone mad searching for the Book of all books, the one that could contain the
answers to the library’s history, its raison d’être, the secret name of its Creator, and a less
profound but more important item for the desperate ones: the exit door. The narrator, like
many others, accepts his fate and acknowledges the overwhelming probability of his
unavoidable death in one of the hexagons. He concludes the story by anticipating the
extinction of humanity and the final standing of the library, all by itself, infinite, lonely
and useless. John Sturrock argues that at the end of the illusion of infinity, Borges’
fictions always take the reader back to the continuum of linear time. “Borges is never to
be accused of taking his philosophy too seriously (30),” he writes. In this story, the
narrator’s life may help to corroborate this thesis, as he will die in the normal progression
of time. The contradiction comes with the narrator’s final conjecture on the nature and
limits of the library:
Yo me atrevo a insinuar esta solución del antiguo problema: La biblioteca es
ilimitada y periódica. Si un eterno viajero la atravesara en cualquier dirección,
comprobaría al cabo de los siglos que los mismos volúmenes se repiten en el
mismo desorden (que, repetido, sería un orden: el Orden). Mi soledad se alegra
con esa elegante esperanza ("La biblioteca de Babel" 471).
The narrator is hinting at the limits of the radical exhaustion of language: if
someone could live all the hundreds or perhaps thousands of years necessary to
continuously survey the library, that traveler would reach back to the same point of
departure, where language is radically exhausted. The circular return to the same place
implies the fact that the books were disposed in that circular sense, revealing the Order
that until then remained hidden in the appearance of infinite chaos. The narrator’s death
is the limitation of the subject but not of literary infinity. If Sturrock claims that the story
goes back to linear time it is because he is choosing to read it from the narrator’s point of
view. Literary infinity, as a textual strategy, allows for a radical exhaustion even if this
state is no more than a mere speculation, or, again, a textual strategy.
“Just as one cannot say, ‘Stop the world, I want to get off,’ likewise one cannot
escape from the library,” writes Umberto Eco in his essay “Between La Mancha and
Babel” (105). Likewise, Bouvard and Pécuchet go around the world as the inhabitants of
the Library of Babel: they are lost and incapable of understanding. This is the central
metaphor of story and Borges’ lesson from Flaubert’s novel: modernity is, if anything,
the recognition that all that there is for us to do is to wander around in our limited
linguistic reality, our own Labyrinth of knowledge, to isolate ourselves from the horrors
of infinity, and to infinitely entertain ourselves with the promise of an exit door that the
Creator (or the artificer of the story) never projected in the Library’s blueprint.
II.3.3 The Absence of Œuvre: “El milagro secreto”
Maurice Blanchot writes that with Mallarmé the concept of the œuvre (here
understood as the book that makes manifest his presence in the “chain” of literature) was
radically transformed. The œuvre gained consciousness, finding its exact coincidence
with a rather paradoxical concept: its absence. Literary writing in modernity is traversed
by Mallarmé’s vision. The œuvre is in fact another attempt (another throw of dice) in the
continuing effort of accomplishing the Book, or, if we may understand this abstract
notion in other words, the entirety of a literary tradition. The writer advances his work, in
the search of producing a book. This book, however, is transformed by the double effect
of adding to the continuum of the Book of Tradition (always in formation) and of the
negativity it implies (the Book of Tradition never to be finished, always absent and yet
always visible).
Écrire, c’est produire l’absence d’œuvre (le désœuvrement). Ou encore : écrire,
c’est l’absence d’œuvre telle qu’elle se produit à travers l’œuvre et la traversant.
Écrire comme désœuvrement (au sens actif de ce mot), c’est le jeu insensé, l’aléa
entre raison et déraison. Qu’en est-il du livre dans ce « jeu » où le désœuvrement
se libère dans l’opération d’écrire ? Le livre : passage d’un mouvement infini,
allant de l’écriture comme opération à l’écriture comme désœuvrement ; passage
qui aussitôt empêche. Par le livre passe l’écriture, mais le livre n’est pas ce à quoi
s’y accomplit tout en y disparaissant ; toutefois, on n’écrit pas pour le livre. Le
livre : ruse par laquelle l’écriture va vers l’absence de livre (L'entretien infini 62223).
Writing is the establishment of an œuvre that never ceases disappearing while
remaining visible for the author to continue playing what Mallarmé called the “senseless
game of writing” (ce jeu insensé d’écrire). The infinite movement is the cause of the
œuvre’s duality, visible for reading, but absent for the totality of the unfinished tradition
that drags it into a vacuum. “El milagro secreto” puts in narrative motion Blanchot’s
theory. As he awaits execution, Writer Jaromir Hladík has given up imagining all the
possibilities of the day in which he will face the firing squad. The scene, replayed in his
mind with all its variations, has not comforted his fears. Acknowledging this, he decides
to revise his own works in search of consolation, with little success. At this point, only
his unfinished drama in verse Los enemigos brings him some kind of hope. It is the
strange story of baron Roemerstadt, who faces the intrigue of Jaroslav Kubin. After a
twisted plot affected by a shattered logic and incoherence, the spectator learns that every
single action has in fact never happened: everything so far seen belongs in the turbulent
and psychotic mind of Kubin, who is trapped in a “circular” delirium.
Hladík believes that accomplishing the drama is the only justification of his life,
for it upholds his belief that art must be pure artifice, an achievement of intelligence. And
so he pleads for time and God grants him the wish during a mystical dream the night
before his execution. In one of the most celebrated scenes ever written by Borges, time
freezes at the moment of the fire. Everything is suspended, leaving only Hladík’s clear
consciousness awakened. He understands that God has conceded him the ultimate
miracle: a full year, as requested, to finish the hexameters of the drama’s three acts. The
manageable verse units allow him to polish the work by simple recitation, without the
need of paper. A year goes by, and at the end of the term, linear time unfreezes the bullets
to allow them to complete their fatal journey to Hladík’s chest.
No disponía de otro documento que la memoria; el aprendizaje de cada hexámetro
que agregaba le impuso un afortunado rigor que no sospechaban quienes
aventuran y olvidan párrafos interinos y vagos. No trabajó para la posteridad ni
aun para Dios, de cutas preferencias literarias poco sabía. Minucioso, inmóvil,
secreto, urdió en el tiempo su alto laberinto invisible ("El milagro secreto" 512).
The conditions of Hladík’s miracle enact with precision Blanchot’s formulation of
the absence of the œuvre. I believe that it is possible to read in Borges’ hero an allegory
of the writer in the highest point of modernity. The modern writer works for his voluntary
effacement, for a willing sacrifice of his identity. This is true, as we have discussed in
chapter I of the present investigation, from Mallarmé to Eliot. In exchange for his life,
Hladík obtains the possibility of finalizing a drama that justifies himself only because it
transforms his fate into a careful work of art. One of art’s conditions, Hladík claims, is its
unreality. He has his way as a creator and seizes the opportunity to exercise his craft to
the outmost detail. The final version of the drama, however, exists as a complete œuvre
for only a few seconds after the last word finds its place in the last hexameter. In this,
“Los enemigos” becomes the symbol of all works: they seemed to be finished œuvres
during the last moment of writing, only to become once again the promise of a œuvre that
could continue its revision process not seeking perfection but constant movement.
The alternate reading is only possible in appearance. If a reader would like to
argue that the drama has in fact been completed to perfection, two issues remain: 1) God
respected the timetable Hladík requested. Had he pleaded for two years instead of one,
would the work be the same? 2) The reader can also doubt Hladík’s mental capacity. Is
he the protagonist of a secret miracle or the isolated dreamer of a “circular” delirium? Is
he, by some cruel irony of the narrator, paralleling the sad fate of the character of his
play? Regardless of the ambiguity, “El milagro secreto” puts in motion once again the
Borgesian game of the shifting mirrors. Hladík, out of a divine miracle or a lonely
delirium, writes and rewrites a drama that cannot be finished because it does not exist. He
writes it for no one, not for God or even himself, for he has the opportunity to be the
author and not the reader, much less the spectator. The suspicion remains that if more
time were to be granted, an extra full year of corrections would have rendered a different
“perfected” version of the drama. The character of the play echoes the movement of the
œuvre toward its absence. Everything occurs in the individuality of a dream that can
never be transferred into an actual play. But even if it did, “Los enemigos” would become
a drama whose circularity forbids the unity of a complete work: its infinite movement,
even if it is circular, disarticulates the notion of the œuvre as a stable, univocal piece or
art. The œuvre is absent. In its shifting space, writes critic Lisa Block de Behar, only
modern literature is possible:
Borges crea el arquetipo de la literatura contemporánea: un texto que nadie podrá
leer, que no existe, hasta sus borradores desaparecieron, desconocidos; y sobre ese
vacío literario seguimos imaginando variaciones y especulando teorías.
As a symbol of modernity, Hladík’s drama cannot exist or rather, it exists as
absence: it occurs and it continuously changes, reinventing itself in the only possibility
for a work of art in modernity. The œuvre is visible by its absence, for it secures its
visibility in the fluidity of dynamic transformations, not in the obsolete death of
II.3.4 The Same, The Other: “El sur”
Commenting on the works of Borges, in particular “Borges y yo”, Paul de Man
concludes in his classic essay “A Modern Master”:
The creation of beauty thus begins as an act of duplicity. The writer engenders
another self that is his mirror-like reversal. In this anti-self, the virtues and the
vices of the original are curiously distorted and reversed. […] This act, by which a
man loses himself in the image he has created, is to Borges inseparable from
poetic greatness. Cervantes achieved it when he invented and became Don
Quixote (23-24).
This is essentially what occurs in “El sur”, one of the most famous stories by
Borges and the one he considered his best. The structure reminds us of the clever
techniques employed by Horacio Quiroga, who introduces in his stories a decisive
ambiguity to ensure a reading in two levels, often combining reality and dreams. In “El
sur” Juan Dahlmann, a librarian, suffers an accident while rushing home to read a rare
edition of A Thousand and One Nights he had just acquired. He hits his head and the
wound puts him in a deep coma during eight days of intensive nightmarish fever.
Following his recovery, hating his physical fragility, he decides to spend some time in his
country house, a project he had long envisioned. The train leaves him in a locality
unknown to Dahlmann, and as he explores it, he is challenged in a bar to a deadly fight as
an old gaucho throws him a knife to defend himself.
Salieron, y si en Dahlmann no había esperanza, tampoco había temor. Sintió, al
atravesar el umbral, que morir en una pelea a cuchillo, a cielo abierto y
acometiendo, hubiera sido una liberación para él, una felicidad y una fiesta, en la
primera noche del sanatorio, cuando le clavaron la aguja. Sintió que si él,
entonces, hubiera podido elegir o soñar su muerte, ésta es la muerte que hubiera
elegido o soñado ("El sur" 528-29).
In a quick reading, the possibility that he is only dreaming, his mind producing
the nightmare because of the comma, seems to confirm the expected ambiguity in the
story. This technique, however, would make the story a cliché if it were not to be taken to
its ultimate consequences. The transformation of Dahlmann in an other reflects the
identity’s reversal, as De Man proposes, but it also points out to a more important aspect
of the disarticulation of subjectivity: the possibility, in modernity, of reinventing oneself.
Overcoming the double but separated realms of Quiroga’s stories (dream and reality),
Borges suggests the voluntary metamorphosis of Dahlmann. He is perhaps in a dream,
but he is there by choice. He desires his alterity, and he embraces it happily precisely
because it takes him to a fatal destiny that he could never have experienced under the
identity of the librarian. As a writer of fiction, Dahlmann rewrites his own subjectivity,
submitting it to a plot of violence and pure action. The transformation is not necessarily
conclusive in the story. Instead, it is presented to the reader as a work in progress, an
evolving fate that still reminds us of the departing identity (Dahlmann, the same) moving
towards the inexperienced fighter (Dahlmann, the other) who will face his opponent. The
two remain visible, affirming and denying the duplicity every step of the way. De Man
interprets this movement as it follows:
This mirror-like proliferation constitutes, for Borges, an indication of poetic
success […] By carrying this process to its limits, the poet can achieve ultimate
success —an ordered picture of reality that contains the totality of all things,
subtly transformed and enriched by the imaginative process that engendered them
A second level of significance is evident if the story is read under this light.
Borges, a modern master, is also pursuing a reinvention of himself in the figure of
Dahlmann. Borges grants his character the initial features of his identity: he is a quiet
librarian fascinated by the powers of fiction. The initial identity (Borges, the same: the
author) is mirrored and thus altered by a fictive variation (Borges, the other: the
character). The game of shifting mirrors continues as we have already mentioned,
duplicating the first duplication. This movement, as Foucault has noted, does not rest on
either version of subjectivity. But it is not necessarily negative: it is just that, movement:
En cet écart imperceptible du Même, un mouvement infini trouve son lieu de
naissance. Ce mouvement est parfaitement étranger à la dialectique ; car il ne
s’agit pas de l’épreuve de la contradiction, ni du jeu de l’identité affirmée puis
niée ; l’égalité A = A s’anime d’un mouvement intérieur et sans fin qui écarte
chacun des deux termes de sa propre identité et les renvoie l’un à l’autre par le jeu
(la force et la perfidie) de cet écart lui-même. De sorte que nulle vérité ne peut
s’engendrer de cette affirmation ("La prose d'Actéon" 356).
Infinity emerges here in the instability of modern subjectivity. Borges displaces
the security of the same into the willing transformation of the other, an alterity
voluntarily chosen and created in the powers of fiction. This movement threatens the
natural oscillation of dialectics, a shift that may touch on both the same and the other but
that ultimately calls for the prevalence of either one. In Quiroga’s stories, ambiguity is
never chosen by the characters and often the stories culminate by showing to the reader
how reality’s cruel effect imposes fatality on top of the illusion of the dream (“El muerto”
is exemplary). In Borges fictions, however, both identities are possible and both are
continuously questioned. One has to adjust the reading to learn to experience both aspects
of the reinvented subjectivity simultaneously.
“El sur” is a metaphor that tests the powers of fiction and that structures its levels
around the actual testing. Very much like the apocryphal Chinese encyclopedia that
revealed to Foucault this innovating approach, something that he calls “heterotopia” in
Les mots et les choses, “El sur” is another vehicle to extend the profundity of simulacra.
Critic Frédéric Gros believes that this heterotopia goes beyond the surrealist model of
unexpected objects encountered on a very unusual surface. Borges’ fictions signal
something different, writes Gros:
…une expérience souveraine du langage comme effondrement du lieu commun
des mots et des choses. Ce que désigne aussi la littérature. L’hétérotopie est
moins un ordre autre, que l’Autre de l’ordre, et c’est depuis lui seulement qu’on
apprendra à distinguer des ordres différents de celui dont nous sommes
contemporains. Ce qui disparaît dans l’hétérotopie (c’est-à-dire dans
l’encyclopédie chinoise de Borges), « c’est la célèbre ‘table d’opération’ » (17)
The space allowed in modernity for the subject becomes in “El sur” the quicksand
of the same and the other. Always in the pursuit of the other of order, Borges has found
the strategy to preserve the liquidity of an order that he is not going to let rest. It seems
only logical, as we will discuss in what follows, that this strategy along with the previous
ones combine to produce the ultimate textual strategy of infinity: transgression.
II.3.5 Transgression: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”
As literary language continues its movement to what Foucault and Blanchot have
termed the “outside” (dehors), literary infinity emerges with the dismantling of dialectics.
The result is the driving force of transgression. This final aspect of infinity that I want to
discuss can be seen as the accumulated effect of the previous notions. The radical
exhaustion of language, the absence of the œuvre and the destabilizing of the same by the
other are the combined causes of the substantial transgression of reality operated by
fiction. This is how Foucault understood it:
Langage non dialectique de la limite qui ne se déploie que dans la transgression
de celui qui le parle. Le jeu de la transgression et de l’être est constitutif du
langage philosophique qui le reproduit et sans doute le produit ("Préface à la
transgression" 272).
Transgression is another name for modernity in the most comprehensive sense of
the word. It goes beyond an act of disruption: it is an act of reinvention. By transgressing
a determined order, literary language does not propose a new one: it continually displaces
any hope of stability, and this is why transgression is above all the negation of dialectics.
Let us visualize it in Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”. The narrator begins by
crediting a mirror and an encyclopedia with the “discovery” of Uqbar, since it is in the
apocryphal Anglo-American Cyclopedia where his friend Bioy Casares supposedly read
that a heresiarch from Uqbar condemned both mirrors and copula for multiplying —
without any restrains— the number of men.
The false volume of the encyclopedia where the article is found sets in motion a
transgressive effect that not only disturbs reality: it transforms it. The transformation,
however, does not imply a transfiguration of a functional order into something
dysfunctional. Neither does it relate to the insertion of a fantastic element into reality.
What Uqbar’s transgression signifies in reality is an act of addition. If we recall our
earlier discussion of Blanchot’s concept of infinity (section 1.4, “Blanchot and the
Discovery of Literary Infinity”), we will find a direct correspondence in the structure of
this story. The slow but fully calculated insertion of the fictitious region of Uqbar into our
world conveys the movement of a literature advancing its own infinity: the expanding
unreality that enriches reality by combining with it, by mixing their contrasting nature.
In the story, however, the fiction of Tlön augments in power and extension with
every turn of the page. We begin with the added article of Uqbar in the encyclopedia.
Borges then tells us the contents of one of the forty volumes of what is later to be known
as the First Encyclopedia of Tlön, this time not a region, but an artificial planet with its
particular history, language and philosophy. Objects from that planet start materializing
randomly. The documents and objects of Tlön, Borges predicts, will only be multiplied
until our perception of reality is interrupted. Borges is thus cautious in limiting Tlön’s
effect in spite of the famous omen “el mundo será Tlön”: only human knowledge, as it
derives from language, is modified by it. Tlön’s intrusion is only effective in the
linguistic realm of reality, where it could only be possible (Borges fears, for example, the
disappearance of Western languages). The addition of fiction to reality is inserted in the
language’s DNA, like a virus, affecting the way we articulate knowledge, multiplying its
presence to infinity.
There is, nevertheless, a final twist of complexity in this story, as in all by Borges.
By inventing a world based on linguistic signs, Borges provokes the instability of our
perception of reality, since both (perception and fiction) are based on the same language.
This transgression has a last shocking effect, concludes Jaime Alazraki: the reader is left
suspicious of just how “real” is the world (our own and Tlön) that we know only through
language. This is the moment, perhaps, when the modern subject realizes that he has
been, all this time, wandering inside the vast realm of the library constructed by
language, fictitious or not.
Tlön es al comienzo de la narración un planeta ficticio; hacia el final entendemos
que su irrealidad es nuestra realidad, e inversamente, que nuestra realidad, lo que
hemos definido como nuestra realidad, no es menos ficticia que Tlön. […] Y entre
estos dos mundos, entre estos dos sueños (uno soñado por Dios y otro por el
hombre), transcurre la historia humana como una inevitable desgarradura
(Alazraki 195).
We must therefore keep in mind in our analysis that Uqbar and Tlön are, before
anything else, invented environments founded by language. These fictions are not
fantasies that make possible what is impossible in reality. Uqbar and Tlön are artificial
realities with their own limits and rules which may differ from our chaotic reality, but
which are certainly lesser in number and complexity. We see in this story the
accomplishment of what Borges envisaged for the perfect novel in his essay “El arte
narrativo y la magia”: an artifice obeying “magic” conditions, the exceptional constraints
of fiction.
¿Cómo no someterse a Tlön, a la minuciosa y vasta evidencia de un planeta
ordenado? Inútil responder que la realidad también está ordenada. Quizá lo esté,
pero de acuerdo a leyes divinas —traduzco: a leyes inhumanas— que no
acabamos nunca de percibir. Tlön será un laberinto, pero es un laberinto urdido
por hombres, un laberinto destinado a que lo descifren los hombres. El contacto y
el hábito han desintegrado este mundo Encantada por su rigor, la humanidad
olvida y torna a olvidar que es un rigor de ajedrecistas, no de ángeles ("Tlön,
Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" 442-43).
We have come to a full circle here. I began by proposing the genealogical design
for literary history with the goal of neutralizing pedagogic literary history. Instead of firm
literary identities defining trends and movement, I discussed the possibility of defining
Borges’ literary genealogy as a manifestation of modernity, even if this carries with it the
very crisis of modernity (which some call post-modernity). I have chosen to explore in
this literature the aspect of infinity, approached in the four categories described.
Essentially, these categories maintained two premises: literary language defies our
rational, dialectical grounding of knowledge by constantly shifting every aspect of our
language-based reality. The words of fiction, writes Françoise Collin, do not “say” the
things nor do they constitute them. Words are in some sort of space “in between” that
rejects any fixed cultural order, replacing universal understanding of reality with “infinity
without margins” (86).
The essence of writing is that there is neither center nor periphery, neither right
nor left. There is no before of after, no past or future. All orientations are
reversible. What has been is to come. Nothing is definitively achieved.
Nevertheless everything has already been said, gone through. This is why there is
no history of literature, no more than there is virgin territory in literature (86).
In its condition of infinity, language moves constantly and in its movement it
allows for a recurrent reinvention of itself. As a textual strategy, infinity secures
literature’s shifting mirrors. Let us remember that Blanchot recognized Borges’ discovery
of literary infinity in the latter’s most important title: Ficciones. I would like to end this
section by recalling the intuitive analysis by one of Borges’ peers, José Bianco. In this
essay, Bianco summarizes the process of writing fiction. From the articulation of
language to the transgressive accomplishment of fiction into reality’s discourse, Bianco
reaffirms, like Borges, the artificiality of literature and its infinite possibilities:
La literatura se ocupa de un acontecer imaginario que está integrado por
elementos de la realidad, único material de que dispone para sus creaciones. Por
eso la imaginación, que descifra e interpreta el enigma de la realidad, deberá
mostrarse muy atenta a ella. El novelista, el cuentista, es un destinado, un
consagrado a la atención. Esta actitud paciente, receptiva, le permitirá moverse
con soltura en el acontecer imaginario, entablando con la realidad un diálogo
ameno y provechoso en el cual lleva la delantera. Como la conoce —o cree
conocerla— a fondo, no se dejará deslumbrar por los honores excesivos que la
realidad parece concederle; no lo guiarán sus evidentes y, en términos generales,
engañosas indicaciones. Y la realidad le prestará su apoyo, estará presente en su
obra, de una manera o de otra, hasta cuando el escritor prescinda de ella (Bianco
II.3.6 Literary Infinity: A Garden of Forked Paths
Commenting on Borges’ story “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”, Italo
Calvino analyzes the transgressive power of the work of fiction and considers it both
“origin” and “end” of any narrated event:
El poder de la palabra escrita se vincula pues con lo vivido como origen y como
fin. Como origen porque se convierte en el equivalente de un acontecimiento que
de otro modo sería como si no hubiese sucedido; como fin porque para Borges la
palabra escrita que cuenta es la que tiene un fuerte impacto sobre la imaginación,
como figura emblemática o conceptual hecha para ser recordada y reconocida
cada vez que aparezca en el pasado o en el futuro (Calvino 216).
The world of literature and the world of experience are obviously linked in Borges’
fictions, writes Calvino. In the case of the story “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”
the entirety of all possible combinations between the two characters is absent and yet
visible. The main character finds consolation in the fact that the sum of the multiplicity of
relations is far superior to the one version he is experiencing in the story, for in this one
version he has to commit murder.
Esta idea de infinitos universos contemporáneos en los que todas las posibilidades
se realizan en todas las combinaciones posibles no es una digresión del cuento
sino la condición misma de que el protagonista se sienta autorizado a ejecutar el
delito absurdo y abominable que su misión de espía le impone, seguro de que ello
sólo ocurre en uno de los universos, pero no en los otros, más aún, que
ejecutándolo aquí y ahora, él y su víctima podrán reconocerse amigos y hermanos
en otros universos (Calvino 217).
The genealogy of literary infinity is like this garden of shifting identities. Borges
felt great pride for one of his poems: “Spinoza53.” A sonnet drawing an image of the
philosopher, the poem uses the fact that Spinoza used to work in the crafting of
eyeglasses as a metaphor for the crafting of philosophical language. Spinoza believed
God to be infinite, and in Borges’ poem the reader may be in the presence of the laboring
of his philosophy (“un arduo cristal: el infinito”). W. H. Bossart, discussing Borges’ use
of philosophy in his literature, reads in this reference a corroboration that for Borges, as it
was for Spinoza, the eternal infinity of God is equal to His (and therefore Borges’)
independence from the sequential infinity of numbers as they are explored in logic and
mathematics54. This infinity is a substance “limited only by itself” (Bossart 8).
Let us go back to the beginning: Octavio Paz, reading the works of Borges,
believed that literature may be divided into two main currents: the current of literature in
which a man writes about humankind (epic, drama and the novel); and the other current
of literature, in which a man stands alone facing the universe and himself (lyric and
metaphysic poetry). In the case of Borges, Paz writes:
Sus obras pertenecen a la otra mitad de la literatura y todas ellas tienen un tema
único: el tiempo y nuestras renovadas y estériles tentativas por abolirlo. Las
eternidades son paraísos que se convierten en condenas, quimeras que son más
reales que la realidad. O quizá debería decir: quimeras que no son menos irreales
que la realidad ("El arquero, la flecha y el blanco: Jorge Luis Borges" 221).
53 See: Jorge Luis Borges, "Spinoza," El otro, el mismo, Obras completas II (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 2002).
54 I have only focused on infinity as a textual strategy, elaborating on literary and philosophical theories.
For a concise reading of other aspects of infinity in the works of Borges, such as mathematics and logic,
also see: Darío González, "Los dos infinitos de Borges," Borges y la filosofía, ed. Gregorio Kaminsky
(Buenos Aires: Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, UBA, 1994).
In the fictions of Borges, Paz concludes, the subject disappears as he contemplates
his face in the “mirror of eternity”, and in that mirror Borges himself was constantly
becoming the other Borges, the literary figure that in turn doubled up his reflection in the
next mirror of his characters “to infinity”. Infinity is one of the key words that Paz uses
when describing the works of Borges. Away from history and politics, writes Paz, Borges
transformed himself and Latin America’s literary history: “pensó que las eternidades y
los infinitos caben en una página” (Paz "El arquero, la flecha y el blanco: Jorge Luis
Borges" 219).
As he lists the main features of the boom and some of the early post-boom
narrative in Latin America, Emir Rodríguez Monegal includes the name of Borges along
with those of Miguel Ángel Asturias, Alejo Carpentier, Leopoldo Marechal and Agustín
Yáñez to address those who have brought the changes that have operated in the
contemporary novel. He insists on studying Borges because he claims that his works are
indispensable to attempt any “serious” discussion of Latin American narrative
("Tradición y renovación" 156). He then formulates his main thesis of how the new
novels produce a linguistic reality that is only possible in the works of fiction and how
this new reality is the defining nature of the novel itself. But Rodríguez Monegal cautions
his reader: he makes us aware of the analogous processes that take place in the dynamism
between tradition and rupture that constantly renovates literary history. Each
controversial rupture with tradition, he explains, seeks to find in the works of a past
predecessor the weapons to destroy a more recent artistic trend. And so just as Rubén
Darío went after the late romantics, Borges himself attacked Darío to establish the
validity of his avant-garde ultraísmo. The boom writers took their distance from the
regional novelists as, currently, if we may add the most recent chapter, the post-boom
novelists target the boom epigones, in particular the practitioners of magical realism.
Quiero decir que la ruptura existe pero también quiero decir que algo se continúa,
cambia y se amplía. De la misma manera, la ruptura busca establecer ciertas
genealogías […] El doble movimiento que apunta Paz, hacia el futuro y hacia el
pasado, permite integrar la ruptura dentro de la tradición. Ya Eliot había visto esto
bien claro al hablar (en uno de sus ensayos sobre Tradition and individual talent)
de la doble transformación que opera toda obra maestra: aprovecha una tradición
y al mismo tiempo la altera profundamente al incorporarse a ella (Rodríguez
Monegal "Tradición y renovación" 143).
In the long list of literary history, however, it is important to highlight the crucial
role of Borges in defining the two main genealogies that we have discussed so far in the
present investigation. Following Rodríguez Monegal and the other critics and narrators
mentioned above, I have tried to highlight the most important changes that the works of
Borges produced, transforming the genealogy. As Borges became a founder of
discursivity (Foucault) that introduced infinity as a decisive textual strategy (Blanchot) in
the four modalities studied above, I believe that a more effective approach to post-boom
narrative is now possible.
III.1 Daniel Sada and Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe: The Radical
Exhaustion of Language
III.1.1 Staring Directly at the Sun
When Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe appeared in 1999, even the
most sophisticated readers did not know exactly how to approach the abundant 600 pages
of this most experimental novel written, until now, by Daniel Sada (Mexicali 1953). The
writer from the Northern state of Baja California had already established himself in a
very original literary career as a narrator and poet. He had won the prestigious Xavier
Villaurrutia award in 1992 for his book of short stories Registro de Causantes. His works
had been translated into various languages and he had already been read in the most
important literary magazines in Mexico, including Octavio Paz’s Vuelta and its heir,
Letras Libres. Some legends have circulated ever since about his life and education: that
his education was oriented to Greek and Latin classics because of a limited collection
available in the library of his native Mexicali; that as he moved to Mexico City at age 22,
Sada believed Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha to be the most avant-garde work in
the Spanish-language letters; that Sada’s baroque style reflects his readings and is
structured in octosyllable (the meter utilized in the medieval romance songs of Spain as
well as in contemporary popular folk music of Mexico), hendecasyllable and alexandrine
Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe appeared and ever since two
things have been clear: that it is the synthesis of all his previous works and, in more than
one way, a breakthrough in Sada’s career. As in his other stories, this novel takes place in
a desert area similar to that of Northern Mexico. Sada claims that for four years he spent
the early hours of every morning to write it. He wrote four different versions, altering the
linearity of the story and elaborating on each of his ninety characters. He had previously
destroyed the manuscripts of ten different novels, confessing to some type of pleasure in
the burning of reams of pages. The flames spreading between endless lines in the
emptiness of the desert is an image that in many ways captures the essence of Sada’s
writing: the infinite possibilities of language running out to exhaustion, dispersing as
ashes blown away in the void of the desert. Critic Vicente Francisco Torres explains the
origins of Sada’s ars poetica from this spatial perspective:
Daniel Sada fue otro de los narradores que eligieron el desierto como ámbito
literario, y no sólo porque su experiencia vital así se lo dictaba, sino porque la
soledad y los infinitos espacios le dieron una inusual conciencia del sonido, del
valor de las palabras y de las formas de los objetos que, tarde o temprano remiten
al tropo y a la música de la frase (17-18).
But after four books of short stories and three novels situated in the desert and written
with his metered, formalistic prose, Sada now claims that the intensity of writing Porque
parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe has changed the course of his literary career. He
explains in an interview:
La certeza es que ya agoté el ciclo del norte. Ya no puedo seguir escribiendo en
métrica. Después de una novela tan densa como Porque parece mentira la verdad
nunca se sabe o me renuevo o me callo para siempre (Castañeda H. "O me
renuevo o me callo para siempre: entrevista con Daniel Sada").
What kind of novel could he have written such that it seems inevitable to declare
the end of an entire phase of his career? Critic Christopher Domínguez Michael has
perhaps written the best summary of the anxiety that the reader experiences from the very
first lines of the novel:
Daniel Sada no puede rehuir la responsabilidad de haber escrito la novela más
endiabladamente difícil de la literatura mexicana. Impone la feroz soberanía del
lenguaje al grado que, más que desear lectores, los invita al exilio. La
verosimilitud de ese infierno mexicano, acaso el único escrito este fin de siglo,
está más allá del fin y de los medios, de la política y de la ética, al manifestarse en
un concierto casi insoportable de palabras, palabras sometidas a todas las
acepciones y las declinaciones, donde sólo la apariencia es vernácula, pues
estamos ante la más “artística” de las prosas ("La lección del maestro" 90).
Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe is indeed one of the most challenging
novels written in the second half of the 20th century. It has radicalized the possibility of
storytelling by proposing a linguistic structure in constant fluctuation, as if the images
generated by the prose could never fully adopt the shape of the myth, much less the
materialization in the dialectics of a historical novel.
I will not be the first one to say that Sada’s novel marks not only the end of a
phase in his literary career but also of a cycle of modern Mexican narrative. Its
importance has a direct precedent in the breakthrough of Pedro Páramo (1955). Mexican
author Carlos Fuentes understood that Juan Rulfo’s contribution to Mexican narrative
was above all to initiate it into the possibilities of the myth in the novelistic genre,
searching for its new place within the whole of Western tradition, and so he concludes:
…todo este trasfondo mítico permite a Juan Rulfo proyectar la ambigüedad
humana de un cacique, sus mujeres, sus pistoleros y sus víctimas y, a través de
ellos, incorporar la temática del campo y la revolución mexicana al contexto
universal (La nueva novela hispanoamericana 16).
Domínguez Michael reminds us that Rulfo’s writing originated in the
chronological distance that separated him from the tradition of the revolution novels.
Rulfo achieved what the very important modernist attempt of Agustín Yáñez’s Al filo del
agua (1947) fell short of completing: the total transfiguration of reality into the
dimension of fiction. Domínguez Michael writes that Rulfo detached history from
realism, allowing the Mexican characters to renounce the expected dichotomy between
the indigenous and the European worlds. Instead of an identity, Rulfo gave to Mexican
literature a foundational new language, and with it, a long overdue status of modernity
that finally linked Mexican narrative with a genealogy that Darío, Martí, Rodó, Gutiérrez
Nájera and all the modernistas took from Europe and reappropriated on Latin American
soil. For Domínguez Michael, Rulfo represents the death of a realist tradition and the
beginning of a new era, something closer to what in the English language had been
receiving the name of modernism:
El llano en llamas y Pedro Páramo aparecen en el medio siglo como el silencioso
coletazo suicida de una tradición. Inoculación de veneno que destruyó el discurso
literario de la Revolución Mexicana. Primera novela mexicana de exactitud
universal y simultáneamente, cosmogonía y apocatástasis de una civilización
(Antología de la narrativa mexicana del siglo XX 1035).
Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe marks the culmination of this
process of modernization in the development of the Mexican modern narrative. With his
contained and precise prose, Rulfo transformed forever the literary panorama by freeing
Mexican narrative from its traditional grounding in history and identity. The next step,
after Pedro Páramo, was best seized by many of the best works of Carlos Fuentes, in
particular the literary cosmology that Terra Nostra (1975) constructed by combining all
periods in the history of Spanish-language literature into one vast, polyphonic literary
universe. With Sada’s novel, the mythical language of Rulfo that transformed
contemporary Mexican narrative, has reached what I have termed before as a radical
Precisely because of the similarities in the extension of the project and the
experimentation with language, Sada’s novel is also compared to monumental works
such as Fernando del Paso’s José Trigo (1966) and more frequently with the cornerstones
of Latin American narrative of João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas (1956)
and José Lezama Lima’s Paradiso (1966). As an expression of contemporary literature, it
seems accurate to associate Sada’s novel with the tradition established in Mexican
narrative after Yáñez and in the general Latin American context after Guimarães Rosa.
But with a closer look, now following the theoretical framework articulated by the
present investigation, we hope to demonstrate that the scope of the text and the use of
certain narrative themes are not all the factors that should be considered in order to
understand the place of each novel in the broader context of modernity. As I have argued
in the last two chapters, I believe that a more effective approach can be devised if a novel
is studied in its epistemological implications.
Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe is a novel set in an imaginary
town of Northern Mexico. Its main plot concerns an episode of electoral fraud and a
violent and obscure political intrigue. Some of the regions and towns, as well as many of
the characters, may resemble those from Mexico’s factual geography and history55. But
seen through Foucault’s reading of modernity, a novel like José Trigo, in spite of its
modernist techniques, assigns history and the modern Man to the center of its discourse.
Beyond the thematic and the narrating procedures, Sada’s novel places language at its
epicenter, while Mexican history and identity become integral elements subject to the
movements and adventures of literary language. Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca
se sabe operates within the tradition of Paradiso and Grande Sertão: Veredas, of Pedro
Páramo and Ficciones. It does not participate in the same epistemological nature,
however, of Al filo del agua or Noticias del imperio even if it seems logical to link them
together under the classification of the “totalizing” novel, as ambitious works seeking to
produce a total depiction of an epoch or a historical event.
Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe has elevated literary language in
Mexican tradition to its ultimate possibility. Language becomes an overwhelming magma
of dynamic images. As if all the Borgesian mirrors of the world were suddenly turned
against each other, this novel attempts to capture in a book the very movement towards
that “outside” that puzzled Maurice Blanchot. The insertion of classical and popular
verses, the blend of colloquial and cult vocabulary with neologisms, the transformation of
Mexico into a fictitious country named “Mágico,” honors Borges’ most important legacy:
the search for the perfect page of fiction. Such a project is not easily conceived, much
55 Some critics have read the novel inserting it in a sociopolitical context, arguing that it reflects a crisis of
representation of a community affected by state-sponsored murder. See: Ryan Long, "Tlatelolco’s
Persistent Legacy: A Comparative Analysis of Three Mexican Novels " Bulletin of Latin American
Research 24.4 (2005).
less read. Critic Domínguez Michael admits that he thought of abandoning the reading
more than once:
Ante cada uno de mis fastidios y de mis incomprensiones, la palpitación de la
obra maestra me sobornaba. Tenía que ver la trama de esa palabrería como quien
se empeña en mirar al sol con los ojos. Cuando quedé felizmente enceguecido, las
tinieblas, con otras formas y colores, ocuparon el vacío y apareció el sentido ("La
lección del maestro" 91).
Although it is an heir of Paradiso, Sada’s language does not hope to incarnate in
history, as Lezama envisioned. In what follows, we will see how Sada’s verb incarnates
in the isolated, self-established space of language moving away from human time, from
its history and culture. Sada takes language to infinity to explore the invention of a world
where the forms and colors of words give sense to the purest literary expression of
contemporary Mexican narrative. As with Borges’ stories in the previous chapter, I will
isolate all four strategies of literary infinity in Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se
sabe. I will focus in particular on the radical exhaustion of language, the first of the
textual strategies, by first studying the novel’s structure and its unique usage of language
and certain narrating techniques. I will then consider the novel in relation to Pedro
Páramo, its most important precursor in the genealogy of literary infinity. Read under
genealogical light and beyond the easy labels of postmodernism, I hope to demonstrate
that Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe is another form of Mallarme’s
mythical throw of the dice.
III.1.2 From Mexico to Mágico
Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe divides its 602 pages into fifteen
“periods”, a type of narrative units that touch at different levels on the subplots
concerning the novel’s ninety characters. The story begins in the fictitious desert town of
“Remadrín” in the also invented Northern Mexican state of “Capila.” At the epicenter of
the story is the electoral fraud perpetrated by the state and local authorities, the latter
headed by mayor Romeo Pomar, the archetypical Latin American dictator reduced to a
grotesque and pathetic caricature. In front of the citizens of the town, a group of armed
men attack the main voting station to steal the ballot boxes. Dozens of the town’s
residents organize to protest with a march to the state’s capital, but the governor decides
to respond by ordering a massacre that leads to the removal and later assassination of the
mayor. As the entire town is affected by the political shakeup, the governor plots to
regain control by blaming the mayor for the killings. The community is later isolated and
occupied by the military, which imposes a curfew and a blockade of food supplies. Soon,
one by one the townspeople start leaving Remadrín, followed at the end by the
protagonists, Trinidad and Cecilia, who flee without finding their sons, Salomón and
Papías, who had disappeared during the demonstration.
The story begins with an errant van, loaded with dead bodies, entering Remadrín
to deliver recognizable cadavers to their families. The van had been circulating the region
for several days after the brutal repression. During this time, the drivers ran into another
vehicle, this one with the stolen ballots, whose occupants were on their way to burn each
vote in the middle of the desert. Trinidad and Cecilia, who have been constantly
searching for their missing sons inside Remadrín and in the surrounding area, emulate the
movement. A circle seems to be the essential figure of the novel’s narrative structure. The
massacre serves as the epicenter, from where the ripple effect of the action spreads far out
into the desert, critic Alejandro Espinoza points out:
De un círculo inicial dibuja otro círculo más pequeño, el universo de la familia de
Trinidad, por ejemplo, pero también otros círculos que deambulan el centro: las
peripecias de los autores directos del fraude, los movimientos de cúpula de las
autoridades, los tipos ningunos que salivan con discursos de poder, desde el
chofer del camión hasta el tipo que carga con el botín de urnas desaparecidas. Una
estructura que se extiende de adentro hacia fuera, y de donde el autor comienza a
dirigir la lectura hacia las orillas, las curvas de ese círculo visitadas y revisitadas
en cada capítulo, a su vez formando parte de quince periodos en los que reparte
las minucias del evento central: sus reacciones, fenómenos posteriores,
consecuencias funestas, chuscas, absurdas (67).
It is important to note that Sada separates the sections of the novel into “periods”
and not chapters or episodes. For a “period” we may understand the elapsed time of
writing, like a creative session in which the writer activates language to produce the
narrative image. Each writing period has a degree of autonomy and difference in relation
to the others, as if in each session the writer encountered a variation in the composition,
assuming new risks and possibilities, searching for heretofore unheard of combinations.
The style and intensity of the narrator of the first period —the reader will find out during
the second one— seem to mutate, and in each subsequent period the disparity increases
until it becomes a radical metamorphosis that peaks and reconfigures the conditions of
the narrator at the end of the novel. Thus, the narrative voice follows its own circle, and
like the characters, the orbit will be finally broken with a centrifugal movement away
from the epicenter.
The structure of the novel explains the necessity of Sada’s baroque style. Literary
language never alludes directly to actions and its actors: it configures the actions and the
actors themselves by crafting their silhouette with the constant shaping of a peripheral
prose that word after word grants them definition and depth. The schematic process can
be read in the following passage from the first period, in which a complex sequence of
alexandrine verses overwhelms the subtlety of the action being formulated:
Figura aparecida contra la oscuridad. ¿Captada a grandes rasgos?, eso es lo que
quería. Primera sensación. Ambivalencia. Luego: figura que se adentra
gradualmente en silencio. Figura en desdibujo, a la deriva, en sombras, y una
visión austera como un simple asegún. De hinojos Trinidad, y su mano derecha
temblorosa, extendida al azar intentando así algo… (inútilmente), el grito contra
el eco: «¡Papíaaas!, ¡¿me…?!» Bulto al fin desplomado (Sada 24).
As with the most intricate baroque prose of the Spanish golden age, an effort of
prosification can reveal the action constructed in the passage: Trinidad enters a cave,
looking for his sons, and collapses inside while calling their names. The narrative voice
has encircled the action, proposing in each hemistich a separate piece of the puzzle that
together form the illusion of an action that, again, is never directly articulated. Sada’s
oversaturated narration does not produce the action: it rather suggests the appearance of
its completion by tracing an oblique exploration of qualities that insinuate what the reader
must then configure in the course of the reading. A narrative voice that produces a
“figure” contrasted in a system of chiaroscuros, where “shadows” and “ambivalence”
stand for the twilight of the afternoon of Trinidad’s uncertain arrival to the cave, is not
aiming at a perfect description. This technique, I believe, searches in words for an
unusual vision of the universe that cannot be founded in the experience of reality. Sada is
projecting, if I may, a type of phenomenology of language, however instead of the
subject’s gaze it is the very structure of language that executes a bracketing of our
perception of reality to codify it in terms of syntagmas.
When the narrative voice introduces characters and regions from its cosmology,
the experiment is not offering the reader a metaphor of Mexico and its people. Rather, the
novel’s literary language departs from the Mexican reality and the distance grows with
every line adding to the periphrastic movement of the story. The concentric circles may
reflect the path of the spiral, turning away from the original center with every turn. The
initial scenario seems familiar for the Mexican reader: the desert from the north, the small
towns and their dirt roads, the small political crooks of the rural life. The coordinates in
the reader’s mental map seem to coincide with those of Mexico, but the narrator
transforms the landscape and its geopolitical divisions by the enunciation of an alternate
toponymy: the sate of Coahulia is renamed “Capila” and Mexico becomes “Mágico”. By
“magic” I want to understand the crucial element that combines with aspects from reality
to produce the work of fiction as defined by Borges. Thus defined, Sada’s country
becomes the sovereign nation of language, detached from the grounding that must prevail
in the structure of the historical novel in order to facilitate the ramifications of historicity
in all aspects of the story. Against the earthly links to linear time and its continuous
progress, “Mágico” goes beyond the metaphor: it is a statement, an axiom of this novel’s
poetica: this is the realm of language and words combine to populate the land. Any
association with real figures and events is the product of a reading that cannot and will
not be substantiated in the story. For critics like Evodio Escalante, form and substance, in
Sada’s literary language, are undifferentiated:
Lo que Sada se propone es encontrar un tono, una respiración, un punto de vista,
un narrador, una serie de recursos formales, en suma, que coincidan —todo sería
inútil si no se logra esta coincidencia— con la sustancia de sus temas (10).
The circular structure of the novel envelops every movement of each element
appearing in this new linguistic space: Mágico is the habitat of a language that, removed
from the limitations of reality, enters the oblique route conceived by and for itself. But as
a spiral drifting away from its original center, we will now analyze how Sada’s language
functions in its peculiar way, with ad hoc mechanisms that reorganize previous
experiences of modernity into an exceptional literary discourse.
III.1.3 The Sadean Discourse
From the title, Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe reveals the evident
essence of its project: the search for the predominance of language where words refuse to
remain fixated in a univocal condition. Truth cannot be known because language imposes
on it the appearance of a lie. Always in the Borgesian sense of the word, I would argue
that Sada’s literary discourse transforms the cognitive implications of the novel —as a
genre that captures reality and gives it narrative order— into an artifice, the paradigmatic
structure of fiction. Literary language prevails over reality almost in the Heideggerean
sense, since in it an ontological experience emanates from its explosive verbal fireworks.
I emphasize the adverb almost because Sada’s ontology does not long, as Heidegger’s
philosophy implies, for the return of an original state where man recovers the integral
sense of its existence as an organic element of the universe. The Sadean discourse
remains on the surface of language, without any hidden truth in the depth of its structure.
This is perhaps the most powerful example of what Foucault termed the “exteriority” of
language: the Nietzschean belief that all philosophical constructions originating in
metaphysics can always be reduced to a history of its postulates, reducing their ontos as
the investigator moves back in the genealogy of their linking words, following
Nietzsche’s technique inaugurated by The Genealogy of Morals. In the most spectacular
showdown between a writer and language, Sada’s narrative technique annihilates any
possibility of a central subjectivity, any logos behind the text, not because the human
being has been extirpated from the novel. Instead, the human being has been reinserted
as a linguistic figure into a narrative structure, and every aspect of subjectivity belongs as
well to the linguistic realm. This may help to explain the difficulty that even the most
sophisticated critics experienced when reading the novel. Domínguez Michael
understands the radicalization of language as the most important achievement of the text:
…Sada aparece como un autor que nos vuelve a arrancar de toda comunidad, en
un fin de siglo donde reina, aun en las mentes rigurosas, la tentación de la novela
didáctica. Se nos recuerda, durante la proeza sadeana, que vivimos para escapar
infructuosamente de esas sordas parvadas de pajarracos que sobrevuelan
Remadrín, la palabras ("La lección del maestro" 91).
The Sadean discourse is differentiated by the morphology of its words and the
rhythm of their design that refers to certain sociopolitical contexts but that in no way
constitute them. If a colloquial expression appears in the same sentence as a cult term
they do not intersect two worlds in one: words are not the vehicles in which two social
status collide. They may emerge from the environment of antagonistic cultural practices,
but in the structure of Sada’s narrative they are differentiated by the intonation of their
sound, by the reach of their phonetic force, by the spasm of their declinations, the learned
skill of the variation. They coexist because they are incendiary elements of literary
language, not because they represent a certain social substratum. Words, in Sada’s novel,
do not engage in class struggle: their only limit is the length of the syntagma, the final
period in the blank page. In the following fragment, night falls on Remadrín, anticipating
a revelation. Latin concepts mingle with long forgotten popular sounds that are now
rarely found even in the most traditional towns in Northern Mexico:
Ergo: situando lo dicho: la noche se encanijó porque ningún resplandor ni de
estrellas ni de luna: si en haberes: ¿nada pues?... Por inferencia: otrosí: el haber de
nubes posmas encubría ya el sortilegio de alguna revelación (246).
In the exteriority of language, the narrative discourse experiments with itself and
the initial articulations may be closer to the region where the dialect is first enunciated.
Once it penetrates the surface of literature, however, those words enter the movement of a
game that gradually separates language from the grounding of the geographical dialect. In
this sense, this novel is in fact not about Northern Mexico. It departs from the linguistic
substratum but it does not represent it, much less contain it. This is the reason why
literary language can only refer to itself: it has ceased to be the vehicle of expression for a
culture. In modernity, this type of literature only represents itself, as we learned in the
theoretical discussion in the two previous chapters. The distance between the substratum
and the finished work of literature is noted as well by critic Alejandro Espinoza:
…el tiquismiquis, la swatez, los dizques y asegunes, el pingüe y el destanteo, el
chanceo y el otrosí, revelan a su vez una mezcla extraña a su paso. En este
sentido, la naturaleza juguetona del autor con el lenguaje puede dejar de
percibirse, ua que en este ejercicio participan tanto el luminoso conocimiento que
tiene de la lengua tradicional y clásica, como de los coloquialismos y expresiones
que fue recogiendo a su paso, una especie de arqueólogo de expresiones
pueblerinas, fusionándolas, independientemente de la región que las engendró
The linguistic distance between Sada’s novel and its substratum opposes
Lezama’s vision of the imago, the poetic work incarnating in history. Lezama’s project
sought to replace the logocentric “geist” at the core of Hegel dialectics with a poetic
logos that unites poiesis with the landscape (Lezama’s “paisaje”) of culture and history.
The incarnation of the imago would render, at the end of Lezama’s alternate dialectics,
Latin America’s rightful place in the modern tradition of Western culture56. Porque
parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe is written with a baroque style that resembles, at
least in form, that of Lezama’s. But Sada’s difference goes beyond the inclusion of
colloquial expressions: his version of literary modernity is a linguistic experiment outside
dialectics, coinciding with the analysis of the “outside” as proposed by Foucault (see
chapter I, section 2.6 “The Birth of Literature and the Death of the Author”). The
language of Sada’s novel does not evolve in the counterpoint of dialectics. There is no
ultimate poetic logos elevating the American continent to a culminating Western
syncretism. In Sada’s novel there is only the surface of a language fleeing itself to that
“outside” conceived by the presence of that very language. The “outside” refers to
nothing, because its space is only inhabitable by language. There is not incarnation, no
return to the landscape where language was first enunciated. There was indeed an
enunciator, but that form of subjectivity has been left behind and can still be experienced
56 See: José Lezama Lima, La expresión americana (México: F.C.E., 1993).
in other forms of literary language that do not seek to reach that “outside” that Porque
parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe is reaching for.
This section, titled “the sadean discourse,” is trying to explain in advance two
thesis: 1) That the discourse articulated in Sada’s novel no longer belongs to its author.
That the form of subjectivity attached to the literary experience is identifiable with a
name that derives from its writer but that no longer refers to the writer himself. The
author, following Foucault again, has been reduced to a function of discourse, a
discursive mark to signal some of its properties, but not to point at the logos behind the
discourse, much less to the presence of the enunciator. 2) The fact that this type of
discourse is “sadean” must carefully remind the reader that not every literary discourse
operates in the direction of the Foucauldian “outside.” It is precisely because there exists
a separate literary genealogy that fluctuates in the dialectics of the modern episteme that
this present investigation has engaged in a theoretical discussion to describe both currents
of modernity. By discussing the differences between Sada and Lezama’s literature,
nevertheless, I do not want to give the impression that their experiences are mutually
exclusive. My intention was to highlight that the search for a linguistic “outside” —
inaugurated with Mallarmé’s throw of dice— implies the construction of an autonomous
linguistic circuit that exists in itself and that constantly challenges its nature, so that
language activates a permanent state of movement that leads, as in the case of Sada’s
novel, to a narrating multiplicity that expands unceasingly. I will now pursue, in what
follows, a close reading of the novel’s textual strategies to isolate in its full capacity the
mechanism of infinity as it leads to a radical exhaustion of language.
III.1.4 The Narrating Multiplicity
Besides being the title, Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe is also the
novel’s second of two epigraphs. Sada attributes the quote to a phrase “heard” in the
central bus station of Culiacán, the capital of the Northern state of Sinaloa. The first
epigraph, “Dios creó el mundo porque ama las historias” was, according to Sada, also
randomly “heard,” this time in a coffee shop in Mexico City’s historical downtown
district. I propose two possible readings from these epigraphs: 1) The illusion of a
primordial logos that sustains the narrative structure, as if the story had to be first
enunciated orally in order to become narrative material. I believe that Sada is attempting
to convince the reader that there is an original source that somehow legitimizes his
discourse. 2) This original discourse emerges from the colloquial speech of the common
people of regions that overcome their differences because somehow they are closer to the
oral experience that preserves a tradition of storytelling throughout generations and
across the nation. Sada’s narrative moves from the center (Mexico City, in the first
epigraph) to the margin (Culiacán, in the second one). Displacing the center is one of the
main characteristics of the baroque style. Sada has defended in different interviews the
politics of his chosen linguistic zone, the advantages he sees in imagining his stories in
Northern Mexico as opposed to the mainstream contemporary narrative that has
privileged the nation’s capital as the preferred stage for storytelling:
Sólo en el norte de México —tres mil kilómetros de franja fronteriza, además de las
grandes extensiones desérticas— se hablan aproximadamente unas cincuenta jergas
derivadas del castellano del centro mexicano. También algunas jergas son de rara
procedencia, al grado de que algunas (en cuanto a giros verbales y construcción
gramatical) se parecen al español que se habla en el centro de España. En este
sentido, opino que entre más se contamine la lengua castellana, más vitalidad
tendrá, ya que si defendiéramos la pureza de la lengua, todos los hispanohablantes,
sin excepción, deberíamos hablar y escribir en latín. Y con respecto al español en
los Estados Unidos, sólo me resta decir que hay sesenta millones de
hispanohablantes, poco más de la mitad de los de México, y mucho más que los de
cualquier país de Latinoamérica; también más que en España (ClubCultura).
Sada is a skillful craftsman who is able to maintain a rhythm of metered prose
almost by instinct, according to various accounts of his writing process. In his previous
works, the baroque style had successfully honored the Spanish medieval songs as well as
the folk tradition of contemporary Mexico by producing pages and pages of
octosyllables. His work Albedrío (1990) was celebrated by Domínguez Michael for its
linguistic innovation, an effect that the critic calls “verbal imagination”: “La riqueza de
matices idiomáticos y la cadencia simétrica de la prosa son el cuerpo de una ensoñación”
(Antología de la narrativa mexicana del siglo XX (vol. II) 525). The implicit statement of
the use of the octosyllable is that this popular oral tradition is one of the richest sources
for stories.
But as the reader may suppose, Sada is far from intending a realist depiction of the
usage of Spanish from the Mexican North. In the case of Porque parece mentira la
verdad nunca se sabe, the novel is not structured at all with the goal of reproducing with
fidelity the peculiarities of the inhabitants of the small towns in the middle of the desert.
When asked about the writing process, Sada takes pride in commenting about the amount
of editing that his novel demanded in order to fully achieve his narrative techniques,
modeling and remodeling both colloquial and cult expressions:
Realmente es un trabajo de laboratorio. Aunque a mí me sale de una forma muy
natural. Leo mucha poesía, sobre todo poesía medida, por eso siempre estoy con los
diferentes metros, buscando también cómo se pueden romper con base en silabeo y
acentuación. En la novela hay muchos rompimientos de ritmos (Güemes "Cuando
escribí mi novela no pensé en el mercado: Daniel Sada").
The over saturation of words and metaphors, along with the recourse of the
hyperbaton, were the integral elements of golden age poetry. Critics have often
highlighted the artificiality of the language, blending various meters beyond the
octosyllable (including the challenging hendecasyllable), as well as including colloquial
expressions with a very cultivated choice of words, some of them from classical and
golden age poetry. As the project evolved, Sada realized that his narrating techniques
needed to change direction, sometimes very unexpectedly. He explains in an interview:
Así que avanzaba y regresaba constantemente. Luego, partí de una concepción
circular de la novela, no lineal. Entonces dije: si parto de un círculo, ¿dónde está el
comienzo? Creí que era el centro. Partí del centro y luego me desplazaba a
cualquiera de los lados, de una u otra forma. Entonces, las versiones iban
cambiando y también yo iba cambiando como narrador, como autor. Creo mucho
en las segundas versiones, en la reescritura (Güemes "Cuando escribí mi novela no
pensé en el mercado: Daniel Sada").
The gradual changes of the narrative voice reach a climax in which the stability of
the enunciation can no longer be sustained. It begins by inserting an explanatory note in
the tenth period. As the driver of the van loaded with the dead bodies is being questioned
by an angry mob, the narrator invites the reader to add his own answers to complement
those of the driver, in case they seem insufficient.
(NOTA: Si usted quisiera rayar estos papeles de libro, también póngale palabras.
No es una figuración el que las letras de molde añoren de vez en cuando alguna
caligrafía… Y si sí es figuración, de todos modos escriba lo que le venga a la
mente; y si lo borra, allá usted.) (405)
The narrative voice invites its other to intervene, to perpetrate violence to the
printed words. This violence is desired by the very typed text, the narrative voice claims.
The incursion of handwriting complements the narrative discourse and multiplies its
possibilities. In the same chapter section, the narrative voice criticizes and corrects the
answers of the van driver. It also adds to the explanations what was not said, what could
have been said in a better way, and worse, what should have never been said. A second
and a third note appear again to invite the reader to connect the questions with their right
answers, trying to make sense of the story. The dealing with multiplicity of the narration
is no easy task and the narrative voice admits the possibility of confusing the sense and
sequence of the plot, purposely written in disorder, as if the work remained inconclusive
or even more: as if the work were still not achieved, absent from the book. What remains
is perhaps a work in progress turned into a discursive game, in which reader and writer
interact facing a language in constant movement: “Recuerde usted que es un juego que
como tal se desecha o se toma muy en serio” (407) writes the narrative voice, warning the
As if the identity of the narrator were fragmented into a threefold multiplicity, the
narrative voice is ultimately divided in three conflicting voices that seem mutually
exclusive and that correct, challenge and even attack each other. The fragmentation
begins in the twelfth period, during the narration in a flashback of the wedding of
Trinidad and Cecilia (473). The first voice to appear is the one called “trunca”: a swift
and contained narrative style that accelerates the action in concise but rapid phrases. The
second voice, called “acumulativa,” functions with the opposite formula: it dilates the
phrases and delays the action, assuming at the same time a hesitant tone, as if the
composition were attempted for the first time as it its being read. The third voice, called
“lépera”, is a violent, offensive and disruptive force that does not tolerate the cold,
telegraph-style of the first voice, nor the insecurity of the second. The original voice
remains, however, as the organizing template and together they shatter the unity of the
starting narrative framework. To distinguish each style, the “trunca” voice is presented in
italics, the “acumulativa” is in brackets, and the violent “lépera” voice appears
underlined. As the three voices intervene, along with the initial one, the rhythm of the
story is in constant reformulation, and so the original voice decides to combine them all
so that four voices can be heard in one (475). By the fifteenth and last period, the
polyphony of the novel enters in crisis. As it recounts a symbolic dream that both
Trinidad and Cecilia had at the same time, the original voice asks in capital letters, as if it
were shouting: “¿DESDE DÓNDE ESTOY HABLANDO?” Let us read them as they
Quiero hacer, si me permiten, nomás un último intento (mejor duérmete y procura
soñar en lo que soñaban esos esposos pendejos, o sublimes, o no sé, como tú
quieras llamarlos) (si tú no estás muy seguro, yo puedo contar el caso… ¿me das
chanza?, o a ver di)… Bueno, está bien, cuenta tú (¡no!... ¿por qué? no seas
culero… no lo dejes que se meta) (es que ya me dio permiso… yo nomás quiero
contar algo breve y luego a ver…) (entonces también yo cuento, ¿qué chingaos?, si
a esas vamos). Cuenten los dos, pero ¡ojo?, uno empieza y otro sigue, y así se va
alternando (bueno, yo propongo algo: que uno diga unas dos frases y otro otras dos
y otro igual, y luego en el mismo orden…) (pero ¿tú vas a empezar?... ¡ah, qué
chingón si es así!). Empieza tú que eres lépero, para que no te molestes (mira, tú a
mí no me mandas… ¡yo soy más verga que tú!, ¡y que los dos de una vez!, así
que…) ¡Espera!, ¡entiende!, ¡no insultes!... Tú empiezas y ¡órale! ¡arráncate! (pues
ahí está que Cecilia y Trinidad venían tristes, y también apendejados; mudos los
pinches cabrones). El esposo: cabizbajo, y ella pajareando un poco: cual si buscara
asideros (a ver ¿cómo que «asideros», y eso de «cual»: ¡qué mamada!) (tú
concéntrate en lo tuyo… si interrumpes no avanzamos… ahora que si no respetas:
mejor miéntanos la madre, pero lárgate de aquí) (¿qué?, ¿me estás hablando al
chile?... conmigo vete despacio…) Es que en todo juego hay reglas y nuestro
primer deber es respetarlas o ¿no? (está bien, pinches ojetes… ustedes son buenas
gentes, los respeto aunque sean güeyes… y los quiero, por Dios santo… ¿y ahora a
quién le toca el turno?) (570)
The confrontation between the antagonist voices threatens the very act of
enunciation and the status of the novel as a finished work. Against the unity of the story,
the linguistic multiplicity deconstructs the identity of the book, transforming it into a
discourse in motion without the locus of enunciation previously guaranteed by the novel.
In an existentialist tone, the original narrative voice questions the ontological status of the
narrating act, associating it with the very motif of the episode: the dream.
¿DESDE DÓNDE ESTOY HABLANDO?, ¿desde otro sueño o qué diantres?,
¿desde una casa maldita donde sólo hay dos fantasmas? ¿hay tantas casas así ahora
que el pueblo está en ruinas?... Casas repletas de enseres, porque no se sabe de
alguien que haya hecho una mudanza camionera, pero, en fin… Yo soy quien debe
irse de este lugar asqueroso… ¡Adiós!, ¡peléense bonito!... Sin embargo ¿a dónde
iré?... (571)
The original narrative voice contemplates abandoning the story. It leaves the first
chapter of the last period only to reappear a page later, in the second chapter. It wonders,
then, if the “unconscious” would reappear again to disrupt the narration. Immediately
after, it asks: “(EL INCONSCIENTE ¿DE QUIÉN?)” (572). The unconscious of
language: the narrative voice has been divided into three other possibilities, somehow
integrated in the first voice but later liberated as the literary language found a single voice
insufficient. Like the characters in the novel, literary language considers deserting itself.
Echoing Blanchot, literary language distances from itself, searching for that space created
by and for language alone, that outside where words permanently challenge themselves in
solitude: the space where the infinity of language resembles the dream.
III.1.5 Comala Abandoned
Commenting on Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, Octavio Paz noted that Mexican
narrative rarely elaborates on the Mexican landscapes and natural scenarios. We have to
refer to novels by foreign authors, such as Malcolm Lowry and D.H. Lawrence, to search
for the poetic image sustained by the national landscapes. Lowry’s Under the volcano
(1947), is in fact the tragic story of a man expelled from paradise, the Mexican paradise.
Rulfo’s theme, Paz believes, is the return to that lost paradise, as the main character, Juan
Preciado, goes to the ghost town of Comala in search of his father. Soon into the novel,
the character realizes that everybody in Comala has died and that he has been talking to
lost souls. He follows their fate and dies, only to continue narrating the novel as another
ghostly inhabitant of Rulfo’s limbo:
Por eso el héroe es un muerto: sólo después de morir podemos volver al edén
nativo. Pero el personaje de Rulfo regresa a un jardín calcinado, a un paisaje
lunar, al verdadero infierno. El tema del regreso se convierte en el de la
condenación: el viaje a la casa patriarcal de Pedro Páramo es una nueva versión
de la peregrinación del alma en pena ("Paisaje y novela en México: Juan Rulfo"
Paz’s reading of Pedro Páramo as mystical allegory of the return to the lost
paradise can also be extrapolated to the act of writing itself. As an art that originates in
the enunciation of man, literary language should return to the realm of our culture, to the
linearity of our history. Such was the goal, according to critics like Georg Lukács, of the
historical novel57 as it emerged as a genre in the XIX century. But after Mallarmé, a
certain current of modern fiction does not reinsert itself in the realm of the human culture
and history. In the case of Pedro Páramo, Comala is the place for the peregrination of the
lost souls precisely because they inhabit language as the functional elements of stories.
Comala operates as the living tale of the dead, because in it history has already emptied
its contents. Comala is the place of the myth, an endless source of imagination. Whoever
reads in it the symbolisms of the modern Mexico, whoever wants to read in its pages a
roman à clef of the post-revolutionary Mexico refuses to accept the most evident truth of
the novel: Comala is an inexistent ghost town where every single character in it is dead.
Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe assimilates all the modern leads
of Pedro Páramo only to rework them to a new level. Rulfo’s novel separated literary
language by transforming its discourse into the story of the dead. The novel does not take
place in Mexico: it occurs in the echoes of language. It is not a surprise that Rulfo
originally planned to name his novel Los murmullos. Literature is the murmur of
language: the endless repetition of words that in time begin telling the story on their own,
as if it were told by ghosts. In the same tradition, Sada’s novel is told by a narrative voice
that no longer recognizes itself or its place of enunciation. The linguistic multiplicity
emulates the murmurs first articulated by Pedro Páramo. The story is told by a narrative
voice that is everywhere and nowhere, like ghost. And as it divides itself into its others,
the narrative voices talk among themselves, sharing with each other a story that nobody
hears. The original narrative voice in Sada’s novel has asked a crucial question: “from
57 See: Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel (Lincoln: Nebraska U. P., 1962).
where am I speaking?” Ever since Rulfo, the answer by a genealogy of Mexico’s modern
literature has been confirmed: literature speaks from its own self, and all of its characters
are mere resonances of the dead. Literature, after all, is the dialogue of the dead.
Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe opens with the arrival of a van
loaded with dead bodies. The sons of Trinidad and Cecilia may be among those brutally
killed by the government during a protest of electoral fraud. In Pedro Páramo we read
the story of Juan Preciado, the son of the local despot who controls the entire town of
Comala. Preciado goes to Comala to meet his father, only to learn that all the town’s
inhabitants are ghosts telling and retelling their same tragic stories. In Sada’s novel, there
is the initial presumption that both the sons of Trinidad and Cecilia have been killed.
Unlike Juan Preciado, Salomón and Papías never return to Remadrín and it is only close
to the end of the novel that the possibility that they are alive is suggested, when we learn
from a record sheet kept by the local telephone secretary that someone called in their
name trying to contact their parents (526).
The political plot unfolds and the mayor of Remadrín is removed and probably
assassinated, used by the state government as a scapegoat for the killing of the
demonstrators. As the community in Remadrín disintegrates, the military occupy the
town and block the shipment and distribution of food supplies. The people start leaving
and those who stay see and hear strange things: the town, slowly, is taken over by ghosts,
who go around knocking on people’s doors in the middle of the night. Trinidad and
Cecilia are among the last ones to leave the now shantytown, persecuted by frequent
spectral apparitions. Before they go, they post a message for their sons, indicating their
new address in a nearby town. The novel ends with the posted message, flying across the
desert in a wind current, landing in a river and finally stopping on the side of the water
Entonces quieto secóse a poco y otro arrebato de correntería lo llevó ya para
siempre triste trayecto hacia otra fijeza más solitaria, más al «quizás»; cruel
menudencia el cartón caduco —letras que ceden, que se destilan— porque el
ensarte fue casi tétrico, por ende: aleve, por ende: ¡¿lúcido?!, sin fuerza preso
entre siete espinas: ya no recado, mas sí cual orla de una chumbera… dizque
nopal… no obstante: anciano: seco, ¡más seco!, y así durante años: palideciendo:
tono tras tono
yerma substancia
savia invadida… savia interior (602)
Critic Domínguez Michael has noted the inversion of themes between Porque
parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe and Pedro Páramo. The two most important
themes of Rulfo’s novel are reversed in Sada’s work: the return to Comala becomes the
abandonment of Remadrín, while the collapse of the patriarch has been rewritten in the
perpetual disappearance of the son:
Si Pedro Páramo escenificó la fulminación del padre, medio siglo después Daniel
Sada certifica la fuga sin fin de los hijos, condenados a errar tan muertos como
esas palabras que les dieron vida y que vuelan por los desiertos en ese recado
destinado a palidecer, empresa del lenguaje al fin y en principio ("La lección del
maestro" 91).
The endless flight of the sons is also the absence of subjectivity. While Pedro
Páramo transformed the realist novel into a mythological novel, Porque parece mentira
la verdad nunca se sabe dissolves the myth by transforming all symbolism into a
language game. Nobody returns to Remadrín to join the world of the dead and their
mythological murmurs. Only dead bodies return to Remadrín and with them a legion of
ghosts. As the narrative voices contradict each other, the characters can no longer tolerate
the strange linguistic space constructed in the expanding vacuum of Remadrín and so
they must abandon it. Only language prevails, the very last utterances of Trinidad and
Cecilia written in the note for Salomón and Papías. The written words, however, are
swept away by the wind, taken to a river and finally left in the muddy banks of the
current. The message is eroded in time, and tone after tone, the letters disappear, washed
away, as if language had finally ran out of possibilities, reaching its own exhaustion.
There, in the Blanchotian “outside”, literary language stands by itself, in the solitude of
its constant reinvention, always different from itself, always becoming its other.
III.1.6 The Solitude of Literary Language
In the fifth period, the narrative voice opens chapter 10 with what could well be
an ars poetica of the novel: the relationship between language and the emptiness of the
Ay de aquél que no habla a solas ni siquiera a campo abierto. Ay de aquél que se
emborracha con sus principios morales y les da vueltas y vueltas y les sigue dando
vueltas y no se ríe de sus vueltas (245).
In the vastness of the open space, language speaks of and to itself, of its concepts always
in constant change. As language spins around its axis, different voices emanate,
distinguish themselves, contradict each other and together provoke their own exhaustion.
This process is characteristic of modernity, as we have argued from the beginning of the
present investigation. In our tradition, the first Borges conceptualized with precision what
for Daniel Sada would become a textual strategy. It is true that the compact and
depurated prose of Borges became the norm after Historia universal de la infamia, a style
that at least on the surface has little to do with the narrative techniques employed by
Sada. However, in a closer reading, focusing on the textual strategies themselves, we will
be able to trace the correspondence between the two literary projects as they emerge from
the same epistemological conditions: a literature speaking of itself, a linguistic dimension
where modern subjectivity is dissolved in the realm of words pursuing a permanent stage
of radical exhaustion.
Let us analyze first the textual strategy of radical exhaustion of language in
relation to “El idioma infinito,” an article written by Borges for the collection El tamaño
de mi esperanza (1926) one of his first books of essays. In it, Borges argues in favor of
the middle ground between those who propose the official adoption of colloquial
expression and those who uphold the purity of peninsular Spanish, free from the
destabilizing influence of other languages. Although Borges claims that he writes within
the margins of the accepted grammar, he also admits that he continuously imagines other
possible voices that have the ability of widening infinitely the Spanish language in its
daily practice. He goes as far as isolating four of those alternative voices in what he
considers a new language “system”:
a) La derivación de adjetivos, verbos y adverbios, de todo nombre sustantivo. Así
de lanza ya tenemos las derivaciones lanceolado, lanceado, alancear, lanzarse,
lanzar y otras que me callo. […]
b) La separabilidad de las llamadas preposiciones inseparables. Esta licencia de
añadirle prefijos a cualquier nombre sustantivo, verbo o epíteto, ya existe en
alemán, idioma siempre enriquecible y sin límites que atesora muchas
preposiciones de difícil igualación castellana. […] En nuestra lengua medra la
anarquía y se dan casos como el del adjetivo inhumano con el cual no hay
sustantivo que se acuerde. […]
c) La traslación de verbos neutros en transitivos y lo contrario. De esta artimaña
olvido algún ejemplo en Juan Keats y varios de Macedonio Fernández. Hay uno
mentadísimo (pienso que de Don Luis de Góngora y por cierto, algo cursilón) que
así reza: “Plumas vestido, ya las selvas mora”. […]
d) El emplear en su rigor etimológico las palabras. Un goce honesto y justiciero,
un poquito de asombro y un mucho de lucidez, hay en la recta instauración de
voces antiguas. […] Así yo he escrito perfección del sufrir, sin atenerme a la
connotación favorable que prestigia esa voz, y desalmar por quitar alma y otras
aventuras por el estilo. […] ("El idioma infinito" 41-42)
As literary projects, the first Borges and Sada utilize comparable techniques. They
are both in search of infinite possibilities of language, combining cult and popular usages
in a single experiment of literature that secures the constant transformation of language.
As the rigid grammar rules are bent, as new words enter contemporary prose along with
old ones whose etymological meaning has been reactivated, Borges is hardly producing a
political statement, even if this article was written during his avant-garde phase when
immersed in the defense of the peculiarities of the Argentinean use of Spanish. As we
mentioned above, Sada has reshaped the language by combining popular and cult
elements from the most important peninsular traditions (in particular the meter and
vocabulary of the golden age) with the multiple declinations and derivations of colloquial
expressions, many of them already out of use in their original regions, many of them of
recent invention by the author. While Sada has also pronounced himself in favor of the
particular use of Spanish as it is expressed in the north of Mexico, and more precisely, on
the U.S.-Mexico border, his literary project does not reflect the politics of the Mexican
north nor of the minority that articulates “Spanglish” along the border. Like Borges
imitating the linguistic phenomena of the Río de la Plata, Sada’s politics have to do with
a pure experience of language, as it was mentioned above, detached from the
geographical and cultural origin of the substratum. By incorporating the variations in
vocabulary, rhythm, narrating techniques and strategies, Sada has to be fully understood
in the modern experience of the Borges who would later imagine literary language in the
shape of an infinite library: the Library of Babel. By setting in narrative motion the
postulates of what Borges termed “the infinite language,” Sada has led his literary project
to a radical exhaustion, challenging with each variation, with each confrontation between
the narrative voice and its others, the stability of literary language. The novel is the story
of a language separating from the human substratum, spinning around its own axis in the
emptiness of its solitude, reaching out for that “outside” where only language can
continue its infinite movement toward exhaustion. As a vast and complex literary system,
Sada’s novel seems to execute every combination of which the writer could conceive. In
the process, language takes control of the operation, and the presence of the enunciator is
diminished to a point where the narrative voice is fragmented into three others. The
concentric circles of the narrative structure advance themselves in a movement that could
resemble that of the spiral: the linguistic experience is constantly challenged, modified
and ultimately transformed. The final exhaustion of language is reached at the very end
of the novel, when the message posted by Trinidad and Cecilia turns pale, and tone after
tone (tono tras tono), language becomes a barren substance (yerma substancia), an
interior sap (savia interior) that no longer reflects the exterior and which exists only for
itself. Language has turned to infinity.
If we were to follow the two lines of investigation of the present chapter, we
could face an apparent theoretical fallacy: Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se
sabe is at the same time exemplary of the textual strategies that seem mutually exclusive
and that I have termed as “radical exhaustion of language” and the “absence of the
œuvre.” In other words, the 602 pages of the novel would be a simultaneous
experimentation of language that leads both to its multiplicity but also its disappearance.
To clarify the application of the textual strategies, I will now refer to each one in relation
to Sada’s novel. As I proposed at the beginning of this investigation, the “radical
exhaustion of language” is the textual strategy of literary infinity that has been
emphasized over the other three, in order to make more evident its features and forms of
operation. As an experience of modernity, however, all four strategies can be traced in
the novel, as I will show in what follows:
1) Radical exhaustion of language: as the narrative voice eliminates the direct
relation to the linguistic substratum, language becomes its own space of existence, where
colloquial and cultural concepts combine in multiple variations and declinations,
reducing the sequence of the action to an act of discourse that is always shifting the
centrality of the enunciator. Modern subjectivity is dissolved as the narrative voice
suffers a fragmentation that allows for the presence of other possibilities of narration that
explore antagonizing literary projects, as if the novel could not recover the stability of
one single discourse. In a spiral movement away from the substratum, literary language
opposes its otherness in an impossible fixation, inserting language in that “outside”
termed by Maurice Blanchot.
2) The absence of the œuvre: It is important to remember that the radical
exhaustion of language never entails the completion of the work: on the contrary, the
narrative voice produces endless variations of verbs and nouns and the very
fragmentation of its unity. Literary language, in Sada’s novel, is always the other, never
allowing for the final period to end the story. The book contains a limited number of
pages but the text has not reached its end: it has come to exhaustion provoked by the
impossibility of ever reaching the status of the œuvre.
3) The Same, The Other: All subjectivity articulated in the novel is permanently
displaced, confronted with its other. The narrative voice shatters its identity and divides
into three conflicting voices that inhibit the narrating process. The stability of the locus of
enunciation (here in the figure of the book as a textual unity and the scenario of Remadrín
as the space of the action) is also threatened: the book becomes a non-book, an unfinished
text in constant reformulation; Remadrín can no longer be a residential town, as it
becomes the center for an spectral population, empty of life and activity.
4) Transgression: combining the textual force of the three strategies, the novel
becomes an act of transgression in the genealogy of literary infinity. It radicalizes the
techniques and themes inaugurated by Pedro Páramo: the mythical language of Rulfo
becomes a dehistoricized text with an increasing distance from its substratum. The novel
does not reflect the culture and language of the North of Mexico: it only reflects itself.
Rejecting history, culture and subjectivity, Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se
sabe transgresses the literary practice of Mexican narrative to transform language into a
pure act of narration that can no longer operate within the episteme that maintains the
centrality of modern Man. Sada’s characters do not inhabit Mexico: they live in a country
called Mágico, a linguistic dimension always about to become its other through the
radical exhaustion of the language that limits its shifting borders.
After this overwhelming linguistic experiment, Sada decided to alter his career by
choosing a more conventional language and by setting the action of his novels in the
more familiar urban environment of Mexico City, where he has been living during the
last thirty years. He explains in an interview:
Quedé absolutamente vaciado. En dos meses no pude escribir ya casi nada. Inicié
otra novela, que tengo en proceso, pero va muy lenta. Es urbana y ya no tiene
nada. Cierro un ciclo con esta novela: toda mi narrativa ya quiero ubicarla a partir
de la urbe. Tengo mucho tiempo de vivir aquí y muchas cosas que contar de esta
ciudad (Güemes "Cuando escribí mi novela no pensé en el mercado: Daniel
Sada has published two more novels: Luces artificiales (2002) and Ritmo Delta
(2005). Contrary to the enthusiasm received for Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca
se sabe, these two novels have been criticized for their lack of experimentation and even
for the shallowness of their plots. Critic Rafael Lemus believes that Sada’s originality has
reached a point of “exhaustion” and “fatigue” that is felt in the publication of two novels
that have little in common with the former explosive and adventurous prose of the author.
Lemus writes:
Su experimento es radical pero la costumbre lo ha hecho parecer modesto. Su
temperamento es excéntrico y, sin embargo, tiene ya algo de familiar. Mezcla
poco explosiva: crea una obra de lectura difícil, guarda pocas sorpresas. […]
Escribió su obra cumbre y desde entonces ha pretendido renovarse. Mudó sus
historias a la ciudad, creó una novela medianamente intelectual. Las variaciones
han sido explicables pero insuficientes. Hay que dinamitar el estilo, ir contra uno
mismo. Sada es una prosa y sólo volverá a asombrar batiéndose contra ella. Es
necesario, apremiante, el suicidio. ¿Se inmolará Daniel Sada? Ésa es una de las
pocas preguntas interesantes de la literatura en castellano (80).
To go against oneself. To immolate oneself. Lemus calls for one of the essential
conditions of modernity that has nurtured the most daring literary experimentations ever
since the French avant-garde poetry of the late 19th century. The first Borges understood
this lesson in the early years of his own avant-garde adventures:
Un puñadito de gramatiquerías claro está que no basta para engendrar vocablos
que alcancen vida de inmortalidad en las mentes. Lo que persigo es despertarle a
cada escritor la conciencia de que el idioma apenas si está bosquejado y de que es
gloria y deber suyo (nuestro y de todos) el multiplicarlo y variarlo. Toda
consciente generación literaria lo ha comprendido así ("El idioma infinito" 42-43).
The question remains: has Sada reached in Latin American tradition the limits of
modernity? Is there room for another turn of the screw, of another throw of dice? Is
Borges’ belief from the 1920’s still valid: is language barely sketched? Whatever the
answer, this investigation has attempted to signal the evolving movement of a genealogy
of literary infinity that has not ceased to explore the “outside” of language, where fiction
is in the permanent state of reinvention. Mexican narrative continues to add new stages in
the genealogy and in that sense Borges’ thoughts are still very much active: language has
reached its exhaustion and yet, it seems that we have just barely begun to sketch it. And
so on, to infinity.
III.2 Roberto Bolaño and Los detectives salvajes: The Absence of the Œuvre
III.2.1 The Lesson in Seville
In June 2003, as writers and critics throughout Latin America celebrated the 40th
anniversary of the first edition of Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela, the Barcelona editorial house
Seix Barral organized the “First Encounter of Latin American Writers.” The event
included some of the most recognized authors from the continent, most of them born in
the 1960’s58. The presence of Roberto Bolaño took many by surprise and was the cause
of a controversy between one of the leading organizers, Mexican novelist Jorge Volpi,
and one of Bolaño’s closest friends, Spanish critic Ignacio Echevarría, following the
publication of the conference’s acts59. Aside from the heated debate, the conference that
Bolaño was planning to read had a very incendiary attitude expressed in the title: “Sevilla
me mata.” He writes in it that the title should have read “De dónde viene la nueva
literatura latinoamericana,” for his argument was the description of the panorama of
contemporary narrative in the continent. Criticizing the profile of some of the youngest
authors, Bolaño made fun of the fact that the new generations want to be “respectable”,
never hesitating in selling “body and soul” to reach the highest circles of society to avoid
working real and low-paid jobs. Literature, according to Bolaño, has become the pyramid
for economic success. Naturally, those authors who do not sell are simply forgotten:
58 Present in the conference were, in alphabetic order: Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Franco, Rodrigo Fresán,
Santiago Gamboa, Gonzalo Garcés, Fernando Iwasaki, Mario Mendoza, Ignacio Padilla, Edmundo Paz
Soldán, Cristina Rivera Garza, Iván Thays and Jorge Volpi. See: Palabra de América (Barcelona: Seix
Barral, 2004).
59 Echevarría and Volpi exchanged personal attacks in the Chilean newspaper La Nación, between April
and June, 204, after the Spanish critic considered Bolaño’s participation as “ironic”, “riéndose —¿pero
cómo no se dan cuenta?— de todos ellos.” A comment that Volpi called a “vile” act that distorts Bolaño’s
attitude throughout the Seville congress.
¿Qué no vende? Ah, eso es importante tenerlo en cuenta. La ruptura no vende.
Una escritura que se sumerja con los ojos abiertos no vende. Por ejemplo:
Macedonio Fernández no vende. Si Macedonio es uno de los tres maestros que
tuvo Borges (y Borges es o debería ser el centro de nuestro canon) es lo de menos.
Todo parece indicarnos que deberíamos leerlo, pero Macedonio no vende, así que
ignorémoslo ("Sevilla me mata" 18-19).
As we discussed in the previous chapter, the figure of Borges has been at the
center of the unfolding of Hispanic American literature, especially since the second half
of the 20th century. In order to define their places in relation to the literary project that
Borges represents, some want to be associated with its genealogy, while others see it as
the radical opposite of their projects. In the case of Bolaño, as we will now discuss in this
chapter, Borges became the gravitational center of his personal conception of literature,
one that has constantly linked analogous projects across various generations and national
traditions in the 20th century. The Seville conference, although unfinished60, is very
significant in that sense. With his ludic style, Bolaño opens by calling Borges the
“center” of the canon and then proceeds to redefine the roster of writers who according to
him are essential to understand the direction of the “new” Hispanic American literature:
Es de justicia citarlos. Comenzaré por el más difícil, un autor radical donde los
haya: Daniel Sada. Y luego debo nombrar a César Aira, a Juan Villoro, a Alan
Pauls, a Rodrigo Rey Rosa, a Ibsen Martínez, a Carmen Boullosa, al jovencísimo
Antonio Ungar, a los chilenos Gonzalo Contreras, Pedro Lemebel, Jaime Collyer,
Alberto Fuguet, a María Moreno, a Mario Bellatín, que tiene la suerte o la
desgracia de ser considerado mexicano por los mexicanos y peruano por los
peruanos, y así podría seguir durante un minuto más. El panorama, sobre todo si
uno lo ve desde un puente, es prometedor. El río es ancho y caudaloso y por sus
aguas asoman las cabezas de por lo menos veinticinco escritores menores de
60 Bolaño could not finish the conference because his health worsened, as Echevarría explains in Entre
paréntesis (354). Instead, he read “Los mitos de Cthulhu,” a paper written for a previous event. Bolaño died
on June 15, 2003, in Barcelona.
cincuenta, menores de cuarenta, menores de treinta. ¿Cuántos se ahogarán? Yo
creo que todos ("Sevilla me mata" 20-21).
The list is revealing. Some of the names may be included due to friendships, but
several of these authors have very close empathies with Bolaño’s literature. We have
already studied the case of Daniel Sada and his textual strategies emanating from what
we have termed the genealogy of literary infinity. I believe analogous studies can be
undertaken on the works of the post-boom authors Rodrigo Rey Rosa (Guatemala 1958),
César Aira (Coronel Pringles 1949), Alan Pauls (Buenos Aires 1959) and others
constantly mentioned by Bolaño in other essays, such as Ricardo Piglia (Buenos Aires
1941) and Sergio Pitol (México 1933).
Bolaño’s argument is against the industrialized production of literature which
seeks to maintain best-sellers in the market, with disregard for the complex projects of
“difficult” writers as in the case of Macedonio Fernández and Borges, and others
chronologically closer to the boom period, such as Juan Carlos Onetti, Reinaldo Arenas
and Adolfo Bioy Casares. I believe that Bolaño’s criticism can be contextualized if we
consider it in its epistemological implications. He argues that writers like Arturo Pérez
Reverte or Isabel Allende are widely read because they are “legible.” As authors of books
that set in narrative form realistic or imaginary historical episodes, with stories centered
in celebrated figures and epochs of Latin America and Spain, both of these authors
function in the coherence of the episteme that upholds the central place of Man
simultaneously as its object and subject of knowledge. On the other hand, we have a type
of writing that, according to Bolaño, dives “with the eyes open” into the void of an
artistic creation that challenges the figure of Man against a literary language constantly
pushing its own limits, seeking to reach a stage of radical exhaustion as we concluded in
our reading of Sada’s novel. In a language that seeks to venture into a constant
reformulation of its own nature, there is a very limited space for modern subjectivity.
Therefore, following Foucault’s ideas, the traditional notion of authorship is diminished
to a mere function, attached to a work only to preserve certain discursive mechanisms but
not to indicate the creative presence behind each page. The traditional notion of the
œuvre has to be reconsidered as well, here, following Blanchot, because a language in
constant movement cannot allow for a univocal, completed and stable work, since the
very nature of language is an act never completed in itself, always voluntarily unstable
and open to multiple interpretations, a definition fitting Eco’s category of the “open
work.” In what follows, I will describe Bolaño’s ars poetica to identify its place in the
genealogy of literary infinity. As I have done with the work of Sada, I will focus on one
of the textual strategies formulated in the previous chapters. In my reading of Los
detectives salvajes (1998), I will attempt to demonstrate how a discourse turned to
infinity operates in the constant shifting of a univocal literary center. The textual strategy
constructed by Bolaño follows three different mechanisms: 1) It reduces the notion of the
author to a function, detaching all subjectivity from the artist to transform it into a mere
reference that can only be understood in the full context of the artist’s works in question.
An author can no longer stand by himself in the course of literary history: he can only be
appreciated as an element of his own narrative. Paradoxically, the author can only exist in
the narrating framework of his novels as a function of the very structure that he has
created. 2) The reader gradually realizes that the author function has been completely
separated from the work, both metaphorically and literally, transforming the work of art
into a pure act of discourse without the intermediation of any possible subjectivity. 3)
The stability of the work of art is shattered precisely because it has become an act of
discourse set in motion. As in the poems of Mallarmé, the novel is always saying a
language that cannot be fixated in the space of a blank page. The work calls for the act of
reading to decompose and to recompose the work of art as the reading progresses. Thus,
the work of art, as Foucault and Blanchot have demonstrated, is always about to be
completed and always about to begin.
Los detectives salvajes is a novel with strong biographical implications in the life
of its author. Bolaño wrote that it reflects “una derrota generacional y también la
felicidad de una generación” ("Acerca de Los detectives salvajes" 327). If a novel that
transgresses its limits to open itself into a void of a language in permanent reinvention, a
novel that dilutes any possible subjectivity and destroys the very limits of the novelistic
genre, if such a novel defies the place of Man, how is it possible that at the same time it
hopes to recapture the life of its author and certain episodes of his generation? I believe
that this apparent contradiction can be explained if we remind ourselves of the
supplemental nature of literature, recalling Derrida’s celebrated concept. Written
language is the supplement to the central presence of the logos. The master may have
well disappeared but the text, in all its possibilities, remains. Read under Derridian light,
Los detectives salvajes is the architecture of a literary image that fulfills the emptiness of
a profound loss. In the crisis of our modernity, amid the post-romantic waves that
deconstruct the foundations of individuality and its freedom, literary language offers at
least the consolation of a supplement, a double that does not reproduce the original but
that offers instead the dream of its identity forever gone. In this sense, Bolaño dreams the
stories of his generation and inserts them into a literary tradition that will make them
prevail as themes and textual strategies. Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas called Bolaño
a “calígrafo del sueño” ("Un plato fuerte de la China destruida") and this is perhaps
Bolaño’s most innovating and most sad finding, corroborating what Borges’ Funes
anticipated: that the memory of our life is only intelligible in the realm of our forgetful
dreamlike imagination.
III.2.2 The Artifice and the Precipice
With its appearance in 1963, Rayuela inaugurated a lineage of novels that aimed
at capturing the plurality of views and feelings of an entire generation and its epoch. The
years following harbored the emergence of equally ambitious projects of the boom:
Cuban José Lezama Lima’s Paradiso (1966), a bildungsroman portraying the
archetypical Latin American artist as both a young and mature man; Colombian Nobel
Prize-winner Gabriel García Marquez’s Cien años de soledad (1967) which chronicles
the mythical foundation and historical development of an allegoric Latin American town;
Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos rewrites his country’s history in Yo el supremo (1974)
whose dictator protagonist dangerously resembles other Latin American tyrants of the
past 100 years; Mexican Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra (1975) crowns the tradition with
perhaps the most all-encompassing literary project of all: a totalizing novel, which
incorporates historical figures from Spain and Latin America as characters, as well as
others taken from practically all periods in the history of Spanish-American literature,
from Cervantes’ Don Quijote to Cortazar’s Horacio Oliveira and García Marquez’s
Aureliano Buendía. In different capacities, each of this novels formulated an aspect of
what they believed was Latin American “identity.” By establishing a unique literary
discourse, they portrayed a Latin America of foundational myths, of magical reality, of a
chaotic political life and of a philosophical and artistic youth that constantly reflected its
place in the continent and the world.
The creation of this kind of works seemed to expire in the 70’s. Literary historians
believed that “postmodern” times would leave no room for another novel of this length
and complexity. This holds in part true: the most recent groups of narrators61 have been
actively engaged in liberating themselves from the burden of the Boom, dismantling the
foundations of their identity as “Latin American writers”. The canon, established by
projects such as García Márquez’s magical realism and which served as the cornerstone
for identifying narrative works as “Latin American,” had little in common with the
younger writers’ vision of literature. As the political left-wing utopian movements
agonized at the end of the 70’s, critics hypothesized that projects such as those of the
Boom —the founding of discourses to represent a “Latin American” or “continental”
literary identity— were no longer viable. In this, they were corresponding to the
theoretical formulations of the so-called “postmodernism” in literature (the end of the
61 Two of the clearest examples can be found in the short story anthologies of new Hispanic American
writers McOndo (1996), edited by Chileans Alberto Fuguet and Sergio Gómez, and Se habla español
(2000) edited by also Fuguet and Bolivian Edmundo Paz Soldán.
“master narrative”, the eruption of parody, the abandonment of the narrative techniques
configured during the era of the high modernism, the deconstruction of subjectivity into
an act of a carnavalesque performance) debated in the first chapter of the present
investigation (see chapter I, section 2.5 “Archeology and Postmodernism”).
Los detectives salvajes, nevertheless, does not entirely fit the postmodernist
profile. Blending an eclectic array of influences from both Latin American and Englishlanguage literature, Bolaño inserts his novel in the tradition of Borges, Cortázar, Jorge
Ibarguengoitia, and Lezama as well as in the territory of American narrators such as of
Philip Roth (1933), Don DeLillo (1936) and Thomas Pynchon (1937), and the detective
novels by Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) and Dashiell Hammet (1894-1961). Chilean
narrator Jorge Edwards immediately inscribed Bolaño’s novel in the tradition of the
continental novel:
Los detectives salvajes […] es un texto proliferante, entrecruzado, vasto,
polifónico. Es una novela de registro amplio, dotada de una estructura que podría
permitir la multiplicación infinita y que admitiría, por esto, la definición clásica
de obra abierta, pero es a la vez una composición perfectamente cerrada,
triangular y en cierta manera circular. […] Bolaño propuso escribir un libro de la
familia literaria de Paradiso, de Rayuela de Adán Buenosaires. Un texto no ajeno
a la escritura de James Joyce o de Francois Rabelais (Edwards).
Although somewhat similar in form, not all the novels listed up to now
correspond to the same genealogy. As they represent a displacement of modern
subjectivity and a questioning of literary language and its tradition, novels like Rayuela,
Paradiso and Terra Nostra correspond to the same epistemological possibility. Novels
like Cien años de soledad and Yo, el supremo, however, because of their focus on history
and the foundation of Latin American identity, can be subscribed to the other genealogy,
that which accepts the centrality of Foucault’s Man.
In its relation to Rayuela, there is more to say about Los detectives salvajes. VilaMatas reads it in this direction:
…es un conjunto de cuatrocientos golpes o cuatrocientas páginas con una casi
infinita participación de múltiples voces que comentan los trazos de las huellas de
los dos detectives salvajes y a la vez comentan cómo lo desastroso se instaló en el
centro de gravedad de la historia de una generación extravagante… una novela
que bien podría ser —ahí donde la ven— una fisura, una rotura muy importante
para lo que hasta ahora ha ido haciendo una generación de novelistas: un
carpetazo histórico y genial a Rayuela de Cortázar y de la que Los detectives
salvajes bien podría ser su revés, en el amplio sentido de la palabra revés. Los
detectives salvajes —vista así— sería una grieta que abre bechas por las que
habrán de circular nuevas corrientes literarias ("Bolaño en la distancia" 103).
Vila-Matas, like Edwards, refers to the obvious dialogue that Bolaño’s novel seems to
establish with Cortázar’s Rayuela, in particular with its comparative innovations in the
use of language. In his novel, Cortázar presents the problems and preoccupations of a
generation of writers, artists and intellectuals who lived through the revolutionary times
of the 60’s both in Paris and in Buenos Aires: Oliveira, Maga and their friends ponder the
enigmas of art, history, jazz music and, most importantly, literature. Following the
theories formulated by their “guru”, the mysterious writer Morelli, the group finds
language overused and worn out. Morelli, Cortazar’s alter ego, proposes the re-conquest
of language and narrative structure through the creation of a novel that would not follow
the traditional sequence of beginning, middle and end, that could be read in any direction,
and whose meaning could be multiplied to infinity. This theory, which some critics call
the “contranovela,” resembles the very structure of Rayuela and its “Tablero de
dirección,” as if Cortázar attempted to put Morelli’s ideas into practice in order to free the
novel from artificial and expiring traditional models. Morelli’s views on language expand
to a general existentialist philosophy criticizing Western materialism while embracing an
Eastern perception of reality, closer to the metaphor of the Buddhist mandala, whose
labyrinthine structure seems to be a more adequate model for the novel.
Los detectives salvajes, like Cortázar’s masterpiece, is a quest for an
unconventional vision of language and narrative, intending to find alternatives to the
traditional architectural plans of the novel. Bolaño divided its 609 pages into three parts.
The first one, “Mexicanos perdidos en México (1975),” presents journal entries of the
adolescent poet Juan García Madero. In it, García Madero tells the story of realismo
visceral, a rather marginal literary movement, and that of its founders, poets Arturo
Belano of Chile and Ulises Lima of Mexico. None of the group’s members seem to know
what the vicerrealistas (as they are also called) stand for. They have established,
nevertheless, two basic precepts: they hate Octavio Paz and are obsessed with the lost
works of the enigmatic Cesárea Tinajero, a poet who published rare pieces in literary
magazines during the vanguard movements in Mexico. García Madero’s account is
abruptly interrupted when he, Belano and Lima escape from Mexico City to save Lupe, a
young prostitute, from her pimp. The group heads north to the state of Sonora where
several leads indicate the last known residence of Cesárea Tinajero.
Thus begins the fragmentary second part, “Los detectives salvajes (1976-1996),”
which records through a patchwork of first-person testimonies the 20 years of erratic
journeys of some unnamed “detective” or “detectives” who seek to learn the fate of the
real visceralistas. The reader follows the traces of Belano and Lima through the
interviews that the “detective” conducts with a total of 38 people in 15 cities of eight
countries including the United States, Mexico, France, Italy, Spain, and Austria. With this
procedure, Bolaño secures the absence of his main characters from the narrating act,
since all that is left of Belano, Lima and García Madero are the pages of a diary and the
transcription or oral testimonies. Vila-Matas considers Bolaño’s linguistic multiplicity
one of its most important achievements:
Esas voces o testimonios emitidos por los más diversos personajes en fechas y
lugares muy alejados, de 1976 a 1996, pertenecen a lenguajes muy diversos:
coloquiales o intelectuales, españoles o mexicanos… Estamos ante un
efervescente magma lingüístico de una gran variedad. Sólo ya por la exhibición
de dominio de tantos registros lingüísticos, la novela de Bolaño merece ocupar un
lugar destacado en la narrativa contemporánea ("Bolaño en la distancia" 99).
The first of the interviews is with the forgotten avant-garde poet Amadeo
Salvatierra, who is best informed about the brief literary trajectory of Cesárea Tinajero as
he knew her during their vanguard years together. Bolaño intercalates fragments of this
interview dated January 1976 —a few days after the spectacular escape of García
Madero, Lupe, Belano and Lima — among the other interviews whose order jumps back
and forth in time. As we read the other interviews, we also piece together the
development of this first one, which is crucial to the plot. It is Salvatierra who reveals, at
the very end of the second part, Cesárea’s place of residency: a shantytown in the desert
of northern Sonora. With this information, the reader is prepared to understand the last
part of the book in which Belano and Lima vow to find the missing poet.
The last 50 pages of the novel, which compose the third part, are reserved for a
continuation of García Madero’s journal. Here, the missing keys to understanding the
reasons behind Belano and Lima’s endless journeys that began in 1976 are provided. We
learn that the protagonists leave Mexico City and finally find Cesárea Tinajero in a small
town of Sonora only to accidentally kill her, Lupe’s pimp and a corrupt police officer.
Belano and Lima leave the inedited works of Cesárea with García Madero and escape,
taking the dead bodies with them. Lupe and García Madero wander the Sonoran desert
taking with them the unedited, still unread, notebooks of Cesárea, while Belano and Lima
begin their 20 years of errantry.
Los detectives salvajes’ index presents the novel in three parts, even though some
critics signal that they are in fact only two, with the second (the journey of Belano and
Lima) intersecting the first (García Madero’s journal). This tripartite division may remind
readers of the famous structure of Cortázar’s Rayuela: (1) “Del lado de acá” (Paris), (2)
“Del lado de allá” (Buenos Aires) and (3) “De otros lados: Capítulos prescindibles”
(various places and supplementary sources). Bolaño equates his “lado de acá” to Mexico,
but his second part is closer to Rayuela’s third part, which contributes to the general story
with intersecting episodes taking place in a variety of settings and with information that
deepens and augments the reader’s understanding of the novel’s philosophical and
linguistic ideas.
In Los detectives salvajes, the second part provides the reader with the confusing
itinerary of a fragmentary journey. Taking a step further away from Cortázar’s
existentialist exiles in Paris, Bolaño’s characters seem to dilute their identity as they
move senselessly across different countries. The philosophical reflections on language,
music and literature of Rayuela are inverted in the non-directional journeys of Belano and
Lima. The questions are implied, but the impossibility of an answer is the only certainty.
The issues of the literary generation that followed Cortázar’s have drastically changed.
The categories of “acá” and “allá” have mutated into a more basic question: “where
exactly are we?” Chilean critic Javier Aspurúa notes that Bolaño’s novelistic structure
seems to progress in the opposite direction of Cortázar’s Rayuela:
Bolaño pone a los poetas real visceralistas en una desesperada búsqueda de los
orígenes de las vanguardias más marginales, olvidadas y no oficiales de la historia
de la literatura, proponiendo también, de manera más oblicua, una nueva actitud
para escritores y lectores, una nueva manera de entender el oficio del escritor y la
tarea del lector, tal como lo hizo, en su momento, Cortázar (Aspurúa).
While Morelli believed in the reconfiguration of literature, the real visceralista
poets can only plot the annihilation of the literary establishment and the recovery of a
non-existing literary promise based on the work of Cesárea Tinajero, a poet who
published only a few poems before vanishing. Morelli imagined a “contranovela” to defy
the occidental, bourgeois, decadent novelistic tradition, while the fragmentary structure
of the poets’ journeys in Los detectives salvajes construct what Jorge Edwards calls an
Además, como los personajes se presentan en primera persona del singular, lo que
se desarrolla en el texto es una multiplicidad de voces. Muchas de las voces,
desde luego, son agrias, destempladas, de sonidos cascados o quebrados, como si
provinieran de instrumentos que se han agrietado o enmohecido. Pero son voces
que no se confunden: notas diferenciadas y que producen un curioso conjunto,
algo así como una sinfonía desorbitada. Quizás una antisinfonía, una antinovela
Bolaño adapts the same fragmentary theory to his vision of literary language.
From García Madero’s diary to the anonymous “detective” listening to each of the
testimonies, the novel is entirely written in the first person. The absence of a third-person
narrator indicates Bolaño’s distrust of traditional narrating techniques. He opts, as he
does in most of his novels, for direct discourse with no mediation. We are presented with
first-hand testimonies perhaps to produce a closer experience of the story and to
demonstrate that there is no “one” truth or unified discourse capable of apprehending
reality: there are only infinite perspectives.
But the most important innovation concerning literary language is found inside
the novel, just as Cortázar’s ideas are presented through his character Morelli. Taking
avant-garde ideas to the extreme, the sole published poem by Cesárea Tinajero has no
text other than its title: “Sión” (374). The body of the poem is composed of three
drawings. The first shows a small rectangle over a flat line. In the second, the rectangle
appears over an undulated line, like a wave. In the last part, the rectangle is drawn
connected to a side of what looks like a reading of an electrocardiograph. Belano and
Lima interpret the poem as a symbolic, wordless game, which tells the difficult journey
of a boat (the rectangle) through a tranquil sea (the flat line) rough waters (the wavy line)
and a tempest (the sharp zigzagging line). The “humoristic” title, according to Belano and
Lima, is enclosed in the word “Navegación” (400). Read in this fashion, the poem is also
an attempt to eradicate conventional language, using drawings and mutilated words as the
only possible poetic tools.
In the genealogy of literary infinity, Bolaño and Sada are perhaps the most daring
of the most recent generations. Both of them are very much conscious of the risks taken
by their literary projects and of the distance they were assuming from the novelistic
models inherited from the boom period. Bolaño, as Borges did in his essay “El arte
narrativo y la magia,” considers literature as a closed and limited linguistic system that
utilizes elements of reality within the structuring of an artifice. A very Borgesian concept,
Bolaño opposes the artifice to the need of logical causality manifested more clearly in
historical novels. In an interview, Bolaño offers more details of this difference:
Digamos que la historia y la trama surgen del azar, pertenecen al reino del azar, es
decir al caos, al desorden, o a ese territorio permanentemente perturbado que
algunos llaman apocalíptico. La forma, por el contrario, es una elección regida
por la inteligencia, la astucia, la voluntad, el silencio, las armas de Ulises en su
lucha contra la muerte. La forma busca el artificio62, la historia el precipicio […]
a mí no me disgustan los precipicios, pero prefiero observarlos desde un puente
(Boullosa 111).
The artifice of language will prevail over modern subjectivity and over the
traditional concept of the œuvre. I will now consider Bolaño’s reconfiguration of the
figure of the author as a function of discourse to culminate with an analysis to isolate the
absence of the œuvre as the second textual strategy of literary infinity.
III.2.3 The Author Function
A few pages into his diary, García Madero writes about a conversation in which
Belano and Lima explain what is real visceralismo and what it intends to achieve:
En claro no saqué muchas cosas. El nombre del grupo de alguna manera es una
broma y de alguna manera es algo completamente en serio. Creo que hace muchos
62 Bolaño coincides here with the Borgesian notion of the artifice (the emphasis is mine).
años hubo un grupo vanguardista mexicano llamado los real visceralistas, pero no
sé si fueron escritores o pintores o periodistas o revolucionarios. Estuvieron
activos, tampoco lo tengo muy claro, en la década de los veinte o de los treinta.
[…] Según Arturo Belano, los real visceralistas se perdieron en el desierto de
Sonora. Después mencionaron a una tal Cesárea Tinajero o Tijana, no lo recuerdo
[…] y hablaron de las Poesías del Conde de Lautréamont, algo en las Poesías
relacionado con la tal Tinajero (Los detectives salvajes 17).
Belano and Lima, the new real visceralistas hope to rescue the enigmatic ideas of
a Mexican vanguard group with the same name, lost in the turbulent decades of the 20’s
and 30’s. Those years in Mexico, as in most of Latin America, were ones of intense
poetic experimentation. In the southern cone, Jorge Luis Borges briefly participated in the
Ultraísta movement, while Vicente Huidobro declared himself the father of
Creacionismo. Others paved their own ways into the avant-garde with more personal
projects such as César Vallejo’s Trilce (1922). At the same period, the Mexican poetic
group Estridentistas (1921-1927), led by Manuel Maples Arce, chose to interpret
literature as an energetic explosion of impulse, influenced by Dada, Cubism and
Futurism. In the second part of Bolaño’s novel, the poet Amadeo Salvatierra recalls a
conversation he held with Belano and Lima about vanguard poets and critics who
specifically mentioned the name of Cesárea Tinajero:
…nos extrañó, dijeron [Belano and Lima], parecía la única mujer, las referencias
eran abundantes, decía que era una buena poeta. ¿Una buen poetisa?, dije yo,
¿dónde han leído algo de ella? No hemos leído nada de ella, dijeron, en ninguna
parte, y eso nos atrajo. […] Todo el mundo hablaba muy bien de ella o muy mal
de ella, y sin embargo nadie la publicó. […] Al principio pensamos que era una
estridentista, una compañera de viaje […] pero Maples Arce nos dijo que nunca
perteneció a su movimiento (Los detectives salvajes 162).
This is how the reader —who also acts like a detective63 putting together the
missing pieces of the puzzling story of the real visceralistas— learns that in fact Belano
and Lima have never read any of Cesárea Tinajero’s poetry. The obsession with her is
due perhaps to the apparent uniqueness of a practically unpublished female poet who is,
despite her slim poetic production, extremely recognized by members of her generation.
Cesárea represents the myth of the revolutionary, unsung poet who romantically inspires
Belano and Lima’s real visceralismo. On top of all, Césarea is a name, an author function
that represents a literary ideal and not the physical presence of a person. In the novel, the
estridentista Maples Arce analyzes Belano and Lima’s version of real visceralismo from
a paternalistic perspective: “Todos los poetas, incluso los más vanguardistas, necesitan un
padre. Pero éstos eran huérfanos” (Los detectives salvajes 177). If Belano and Lima are
literary orphans, they nevertheless hope to find a surrogate mother in the figure of
Cesárea Tinajero, a poet who was never understood by her generation and, like them,
seems condemned to oblivion. Critic Ricardo Cuadros analyzes the implications of the
quest for the missing matriarch:
En Los detectives salvajes, la búsqueda de Cesárea Tinajero es ocasión para una
reflexión crítica sobre la literatura. Lo que persiguen Lima y Belano, a través de la
persona de Tinajero, es uno de los orígenes de la poesía moderna mexicana,
representado por el movimiento del real visceralismo, un invento de Roberto
Bolaño fundado en las poéticas vanguardistas mexicanas de comienzos del siglo
XX. Inventar un origen es un gesto literario por excelencia, y en este plano del
relato, la figura de Juan García Madero es fundamental (Cuadros).
63 It is perhaps essayist and literary critic María Antonieta Flores the first one to note the formalist game
that Bolaño seems to play with his reader, forcing him to join the investigation as a detective tracing of the
obscure lives of Belano and Lima. See: María Antonieta Flores, "Notas sobre Los detectives salvajes,"
Roberto Bolaño: la escritura como tauromaquia, ed. Celina Manzoni (Buenos Aires: Corregidor, 2002).
Belano and Lima’s invention of an origin for real visceralismo demonstrates their
desire to rewrite canonical literary history that, they believe, will never include them.
This may explain their irrational hatred of Octavio Paz, since he fathered a generation of
writers that would never open their doors to the alienated real visceralistas. In the novel,
Mexican writer and critic Carlos Monsiváis recalls the truly visceral positions of Belano
and Lima who were “obstinados en no reconocerle a Paz ningún mérito, con una
terquedad infantil, no me gusta porque no me gusta, capaces de negar lo evidente” (Los
detectives salvajes 160). If it is true that Belano and Lima deliberately try to rewrite
literary history and counterbalance Paz’s poetic “establishment” in order to uncover and
legitimize a new origin, meaning and direction for their doubtful movement, it is also true
that Bolaño himself was not entirely inventing this piece of Mexican literary history. The
novel’s real visceralismo is based on a real Mexican vanguard group of the 70’s named
infrarrealismo, of which Bolaño himself and Mexican poet and friend Mario Santiago
(1953-1998) were members. The infrarrealistas echoed the ideas the estridentistas, and
like its predecessors, Bolaño’s group did not survive long as a movement, but he
resuscitates infrarrealismo in his novel in what appears to be a desperate effort to revise
its condition as a footnote in the history of Hispanic American literature.
As we can anticipate, Belano and Lima fail as real visceralistas just like Bolaño
and Santiago did as infrarrealistas. After hundreds of kilometers of journey, Belano and
Lima find Cesárea Tinajero and her unpublished works. Tragically though, when they
confront Lupe’s pimp and his corrupt police friend, Cesárea is accidentally killed. The
mythical origin of the real visceralistas, which they saw in the matriarchal figure of
Cesárea, was entirely imagined and unfounded to begin with, because aside from the one
printed poem available (nothing but a ludic sketch, an anti-language joke) they have
never read Cesárea’s work. In other words, the author was a function for an inexistent
foundational œuvre. They wrote an alternative (and false) origin for their literary history
that they themselves destroyed.
In one of the novel’s most celebrated episodes, Clara Cabeza, the secretary of
Octavio Paz, tells the story of the strange encounter between Paz and Ulises Lima
strolling in Mexico City’s Parque Hundido, a sunken park constructed below ground
level. On a certain morning, Paz asks his secretary to take him there to take a walk. It is
worth citing the passage in length:
[Octavio Paz] caminaba en círculos cada vez más grandes y a veces se salía de la
senda y pisaba la hierba, una hierba enferma de tanto ser pisoteada y que los
jardineros ya ni debían de cuidar. Entonces fue cuando vi a ese hombre. También
caminaba en círculos y sus pasos seguían la misma senda, sólo que en sentido
contrario, así que por fuerza tenía que cruzarse con don Octavio […] cuando el
hombre se cruzó con don Octavio ni siquiera levantó la cabeza. Así que me quedé
inmóvil y vi lo siguiente: don Octavio, al cruzarse con el hombre, se detuvo y se
quedó como pensativo, luego hizo el ademán de seguir andando, pero esta vez ya
no iba tan al azar o tan despreocupado como hacía unos minutos sino que más
bien iba como calculando el momento en que ambas trayectorias, la suya y la del
desconocido, iban a volver a cruzarse. Y cuando una vez más el desconocido pasó
al lado de don Octavio, éste se giró y se lo quedó mirando con verdadera
curiosidad. El desconocido también miró a don Octavio y yo diría que lo
reconoció, algo que por lo demás no tiene nada de raro, todo el mundo y cuando
digo todo el mundo digo literalmente todo el mundo, lo conoce. Cuando volvimos
a casa el ánimo de don Octavio había variado notablemente. Estaba más
vivaracho, con más energía, como si el largo paseo matinal lo hubiera fortalecido
(Bolaño Los detectives salvajes 505).
Paz returns with his secretary to the park in the next two mornings to meet with the
unknown man. After the second encounter, Paz visits a professor to obtain some answers
(probably about the identity of the mysterious stroller) and then asks his secretary to
produce a list of all the Mexican poets born after 1950. Paz confides in Clara the story of
how some radical left-wing group had planned to kidnap him some years earlier. The
reader guesses that the real visceralistas are in some way similar to the radical group
because Paz has remembered the episode after meeting with this youngster in the park.
The young man turns out to be Ulises Lima and Clara introduces him to Paz at the latter’s
request. When they meet, Lima claims he is the next to last visceral realist poet and Paz
recalls the story of the original group and that of Cesárea Tinajero. The secretary lets
them talk alone and so the rest of the conversation is missing. Clara notes that Lima’s
voice was so sad that the entire event turned somewhat melancholic: “Los ojos de don
Octavio y la voz del desconocido y la mañana y el Parque Hundido, un lugar tan vulgar,
¿verdad?, tan deteriorado, me hirieron, no sé de qué manera, en lo más hondo” (Los
detectives salvajes 510). The reader may well be able to guess that Paz has decided to
correct the distance that he believes caused in the past the animosity against him from the
potential kidnapper group and that this is somehow reflected in the real visceralistas. As
the father reconciling with the rebellious child, the two poets talk and at the end Lima
gets up and shakes Paz’s hand.
Critic and poet Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas writes that Bolaño is in fact
retelling the story of his lost generation revisiting the youth that never found a future,
“buscando en el vacío” (68), in the way Paz finds Lima: searching for the void walking in
circles in the sunken park. The critic then links the park scene with the account of the last
conversation that Amadeo Salvatierra holds with Cesárea Tinajero, as he tries to persuade
her from leaving Mexico City.
Tú eres una estridentista de cuerpo y alma. Tú nos ayudarás a construir
Estridentópolis, Cesárea, le dije. Y entonces ella se sonrió, como si le estuviera
contando un chiste muy bueno pero que ya conocía y dijo que hacía una semana
había dejado el trabajo y que además ella nunca había sido estridentista sino real
visceralista. Y yo también, dije o grité, todos los mexicanos somos más real
visceralistas que estridentistas, pero qué importa, el estridentismo y el real
visceralismo son sólo dos máscaras para llegar a donde queremos llegar. ¿Y
adónde queremos llegar?, dijo ella. A la modernidad, Cesárea, le dije, a la pinche
modernidad (Bolaño Los detectives salvajes 460).
In this sense, the concentric circles of Octavio Paz and those of Ulises Lima find each
other in the space of the same search: that of modernity. As they recognize their
analogous searches, Paz and Lima are able to communicate the beauty and the sadness of
their enterprise. Father and son realize at the same time that they have always been equal,
that they belong to the same generation, the same genealogy. By novelizing the story of
the infrarrealistas in Los detectives salvajes, Bolaño corrects the literary history that
ignored his group through the imaginary meeting of two author functions: Paz and Lima,
the alter ego of Mario Santiago. Even if both the real visceralistas and the infrarrealistas
disappear in the novel and in reality, Bolaño succeeds in recovering their story, forcing,
at least metaphorically, its inclusion in modern Hispanic American literary history
through the symbolism of the two names acknowledging each other. Thus, Bolaño’s
novel both erupts into and continues traditional literary history in the full context of
modernity. Critic María Antonieta Flores reads in it echoes of John Dos Passos’
Manhattan Transfer (1925) and then elucidates:
Los detectives salvajes es una novela que dentro del contexto de la literatura
latinoamericana funciona como vínculo entre pasado y presente. Estética y
temáticamente tiende un puente entre modernidad y posmodernidad, entre lo real
maravilloso —que transita muy levemente en sus páginas al igual que cierto aire
rulfeano— y la narrativa del posboom. No rompe sino que vincula (94).
As a bridge between the early and the current experiences of modernity, Bolaño
takes his readers into a narrative circle that hopes to produce an ever-lasting image of its
protagonists. But as in Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, what the reader faces is no longer his
biography. All the characters in this novel —specially the leading ones— are gone, if not
already dead. They have become a function in the complex web of the story and it is
precisely this story, told a posteriori, which is their only locus of survival. By enlarging
their journey, by never allowing them to read the works of Cesárean Tinajero, by
forbidding the reader to ever learn the end of the story, Bolaño has created the space for a
literary infinity in which his story is continually rewritten. Like Borges’ protagonist of
“El milagro secreto,” Bolaño is dreaming a story that can secure the mention of his lost
generation. It is not by random chance, if we remember Foucault’s essay on infinity (see
chapter I, section 3.4 “Literature to Infinity”), that Mario Santiago has been renamed
Ulises: the story of his life must be sung once and again to maintain his distant presence,
even if it is only as a character, a function, of the narrative structure.
García Madero’s journal explains that Belano and Lima’s fear being arrested for
the deaths of Cesárea and Lupe’s two persecutors, and their shock at the unexpected and
tragic destiny of their mythical matriarch, propel them to initiate their 20-year journey.
We will discuss in what follows how the author function to which Bolaño has hinted up
to this point is in fact detached from the general structure of the story. The absence of
Belano, Lima and García Madero will be of great significance as we discuss the design of
the absence of the œuvre as a textual strategy.
III.2.4 Behind the Window
García Madero chronicles in his diary a conversation with Ulises Lima that
describes an eccentric practice of the real visceralistas that captures the essence of the
…y después Lima hizo una aseveración misteriosa. Según él, los actuales real
visceralistas caminaban hacia atrás. ¿Cómo hacia atrás?, pregunté.
—De espaldas, mirando un punto pero alejándonos de él, en línea recta hacia lo
Dije que me parecía perfecto caminar de esa manera, aunque en realidad no
entendí nada. Bien pensado, es la peor forma de caminar (17).
Belano and Lima seem to follow this precept closely after the death of Cesárea
Tinajero. Their journeys take them to Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Central
America. Bolaño draws the profiles of the two defeated poets who strive to find some
sense in their tragedy. Their identity has been reduced to a ghostly third person that is at
the center of all the references in the novel but neither of them is ever afforded the
opportunity to tell the story from their own voice. In a way, Bolaño is offering the reader
a mirror of the very structure of the story. The novel is the search for a lost poet that
concludes with the discovery of a literature. Belano and Lima try to piece together the
puzzle of a name attached to an imaginary work just as well as Bolaño leads the reader to
piece the story of three lost poets whose works are also imaginary, for we are never given
the opportunity to read them. The mirrors coincide to reflect biography and fiction in a
rather Borgesian fashion: Belano and Lima take the death body of Cesárea Tinajero while
García Madero takes her works. But the presence of all of them has been in any case a
mere illusion: the reader is circling the concentric shape of a story made of discourse and
not of characters. Los detectives salvajes is an act of pure narration, a novel composed of
two of the most basic narrating elements: the informality of a diary and the spontaneity of
individual interviews.
Belano and Lima separate and as their paths diverge, so do their futures as artists.
Ulises Lima’s life as a poet is another one of the many myths of the novel, since he never
publishes a line of poetry. His journey takes him to Israel, Germany and France where he
encounters Belano for the last time. Lima visits Nicaragua to attend a congress of poets
and temporarily disappears. According to a friend, Lima reappears in Mexico in 1985
(nearly ten years after the death of Cesárea Tinajero). Ulises Lima, again accepting the
Homeric implications of his name, returns home to Mexico only to become a marijuana
dealer. “A partir de entonces pocas personas lo vieron y quienes lo vieron casi siempre
fue por casualidad. Para la mayoría, había muerto como persona y como poeta”. (366)
Ulises does not journey home to reclaim his throne. He returns already defeated, with no
future and hardly a past. His is the most tragic of all destinies for the marginal artist
excluded from literary history: that of inescapable self-destruction.
Bolaño extrapolates two stories of artists with similar destinies, which could serve
as parables for this generation of artists born, like Bolaño, in the decade of the 50’s: a
Peruvian poet and a Cuban narrator. Both started their careers with relative success, but
soon were faced with failure due to political persecution and hostility by critics and other
writers. The case of the Cuban, a homosexual exile, clearly refers to the life of Reinaldo
Arenas (1943-1990), whose tragic life ended in suicide as he agonized from AIDS.
Bolaño writes:
…ocurrió lo que suele ocurrirles a los mejores escritores de Latinoamérica o a los
mejores escritores nacidos en la década de los cincuenta: se les reveló, como una
epifanía, la trinidad formada por la juventud, el amor y la muerte. (497)
Arturo Belano’s life is less tragic but no better in terms of finding a place in the
literary world. Always from second-hand accounts, we learn that he publishes his works
and receives some recognition. He also travels to Africa and nearly gets killed, a change
in his life’s itinerary that for critic Ricardo Cuadros is parallel to that of Rimbaud.
Belano, who has already assassinated two people, feels the need to penetrate death’s
realm beyond all poetic invention. Like Rimbaud, Belano seeks extreme life experiences
because there is nothing to lose. Like Rimbaud, poetry is no longer an option as a life
project because it has been emptied of its transcendental meaning. Only the journey
toward death seems stimulating and meaningful:
En tanto personaje, Belano es la representación de un estado último del genio
poético: después de matar a otro ser humano, de ver morir al origen de la poesía
(Tinajero), de escribir un par de novelas sin mayor repercusión, la única manera
de seguir siendo fiel al impulso creativo-destructivo de la poesía es buscar el
contacto directo con la muerte (Cuadros).
As for young García Madero, his future also rests unsure. He stays with Lupe in
Sonora after Belano and Lima flee Cesárea’s accidental murder. Unable to decide what to
do next, one thing is certain: García Madero and Lupe do not want to return home,
probably because real visceralismo has disintegrated without rendering them an identity
as Latin American writers:
Sé que ellos [Belano and Lima] pensaban seguir viajando en autobús hacia el DF,
sé que ellos esperaban reunirse allí con nosotros. Pero ni Lupe ni yo tenemos
ganas de volver. Nos veremos en el DF, dijeron. Nos veremos en el DF, dije yo
antes de que los coches se separaran en el desierto (Los detectives salvajes 606).
A fictitious university professor, who claims to be the most authorized historian of
visceral realism, says in one of the testimonies that he does not remember García
Madero’s name and that he probably never belonged to the group (Los detectives salvajes
551). The reader may be able to guess that García Madero will lose himself in the North
of Mexico, following the steps of Cesárea Tinajero: a missing and forgotten poet, whose
short work includes a handful of poems and his diary for a new reader to decipher.
If read as a roman à clef, Los detectives salvajes could interpreted as the narration
of the sad ending of Mexican poet Mario Santiago, Bolaño’s friend and co-founder of the
infrarrealistas, who died and fell into oblivion like Ulises Lima. Bolaño perhaps
imagined a similar destiny for García Madero: he hinted in some interviews that he sees
the young poet condemned to fade like the other real visceralistas. But Bolaño is not as
pessimistic about Arturo Belano, his alter ego. Belano reappears in several of Bolaño’s
other books, as if the author resisted erasing his image entirely, the portrait of the artist he
himself used to be as a young man. Like Belano, Bolaño never returned to Mexico, where
he spent most of his youth as a Chilean exile, and on July 15, 2003 he died at age 50,
waiting for a liver transplant in a hospital of Barcelona64, while the Spanish-language
literary world celebrated the 40th anniversary of Cortázar’s Rayuela.
64 Bolaño’s posthumous novel, 2666, a monumental work of over one thousand pages, has accompanied
the success of his previous works, including translations to several languages, making Bolaño, according to
Susan Sontag, the “the most influential and admired novelist of his generation in the Spanish-speaking
To say that Bolaño wrote Los detectives salvajes to undermine the extinction of
Mario Santiago and of the infrarrealistas may not be such a vague idea. Perhaps in the
border of language, the region where literature is born, death is not allowed. The reader
opens Bolaño’s work and in it the recent disappearance of its author is postponed, and
literature, once again, is reborn. Mexican writer Juan Villoro believes that Los detectives
salvajes is the vehicle through which Bolaño dares to return to Mexico. Bolaño, writes
Villoro, “atesoró una patria memoriosa hasta convertirla en atributo de su imaginación”
(78). And so the novel achieves two impossibilities: Bolaño’s return to Mexico and the
remembrance of Santiago, who died in 1998, the same year the novel was published.
Everything has ended and yet everything begins again: it should not surprise us
then that García Madero note in his diary that “Belano y Lima parecen dos fantasmas”,
unable to affirm or deny the existence of those two strange characters. He would later
ask, disconcerted: “Si simón significa sí y nel significa no, ¿qué significa simonel?” (Los
detectives salvajes 113). Yes and no, dead and alive, in exile and at home. Los detectives
salvajes opens up to infinity, a concept, writes Vila-Matas, that Bolaño understood well:
Pero está claro que un hallazgo le conduce a otro y que estamos ante aquella flaca
que pintaba a una gorda que a su vez pintaba a una flaca que pintaba una gorda
que pintaba una flaca, y así hasta el infinito, palabra que, por cierto, conoce muy
bien Bolaño, que sabe que el infinito es cierto ("Bolaño en la distancia" 100).
We may now understand better why Bolaño thought that Los detectives salvajes
was a novel about the defeat and simultaneous happiness of a generation. But as a novel
that questions more than what it answers, Los detectives salvajes never resolves Belano’s
return home or the future of his generation. It is García Madero who poses the final
question: in the last three entries of his diary, along with a series of ludic drawings that he
sketched during the journey, he draws three rectangular frames or “windows,” perhaps
following Cesárea’s poetic techniques. The first window contains a small triangle, and he
asks Lupe, and perhaps the reader, “¿Qué hay detrás de la ventana?” Recognizing the
difficulty of the image, he offers the answer: “Una estrella.” In the next journal entry, he
draws a second window, this one empty: “¿Qué hay detrás de la ventana? Una sábana
extendida.” In the last journal entry, a third window is enigmatically drawn with broken,
discontinuous lines. This time, the question remains unanswered: “¿Qué hay detrás de la
ventana?” (Los detectives salvajes 608-09).
Close to the end of the novel, Bolaño captures the different views of several
fictitious writers on literature, all congregated in Madrid to attend the national book fair.
The unnamed “detectives” seem to ask the writers to complete the pre-formulated
sentence: “Todo lo que empieza como comedia termina en…” The phrase provokes
different and contradictory responses, one of which could be understood as an ultimate
answer to the journey of Belano and Lima that began in comedy and, at least for the real
persons behind the characters, ended in tragedy. One of the writers’ answers may include
Roberto Bolaño himself, still wondering if he should return home and what literature, his
generation and his own work as an artist mean: “Todo lo que empieza como comedia
acaba como un responso en el vacío”. (496) Vacuum, nothingness and uncertainty: all
three could be interchangeable responses to the incomplete phrase and to García
Madero’s window. The discontinuous window frame, however, remains a disconcerting
fact, as if García Madero questioned the very essence of reality before trying to elucidate
its contents. This could be the most important finding of Los detectives salvajes: that
reality is nothing more than a discontinuous, fragmentary wave of time in perpetual
movement. And that we are nothing more than its confused inhabitants, peeking through
a vanishing widow, jumping back and forth in the years as the instable readers of another,
all-embracing avant-garde novel.
As an expression of modernity, Bolaño’s novel manifests the phenomena that the
modern subject experiences, according to Foucault. We have come to another of those
concentric circles. The structure of the novel ends in the constant shifting of its subjects
and objects: both the characters and their works are absent from the narrating act. They
are peripherally sketched, their profiles are imagined in the diary and in the testimonies,
but the reader is left with the responsibility of producing them in the time and space of
the reading. Following Blanchot’s ideas, Bolaño is affiliating himself with the very
essence of modernity ever since Mallarmé threw the first set of dice: literature is an
unfinished task always about to be completed, always about to begin. As in Proust’s À la
recherche du temps perdu, Bolaño’s novel is a memoir transformed into a narrating act
that is constantly promising the concretion of the story. The conclusion never truly
arrives and the last pages of the novel should not surprise anybody: we are back to the
diary at the precise moment in which the journey is about to begin, and yet García
Madero is already lost in the desert of Northern Mexico, and Belano and Lima are long
gone in their errantry. Everything has ended and yet everything begins again.
III.2.5 Corollary
In June 2003, as writers and critics throughout Latin America celebrated the 40th
anniversary of Cortázar’s Rayuela, a few weeks after the Barcelona editorial house Seix
Barral organized the “First Encounter of Latin American Writers”, several posthumous
profiles appeared in magazines and newspapers across Europe and America remembering
the life and works of Roberto Bolaño. Javier Cercas, a Spanish novelist that turned
Bolaño into a character of his most celebrated novel, Soldados de Salamina (2001),
En 1992 le diagnosticaron una grave enfermedad, y desde aquel momento supo
que no iba a vivir mucho, así que decidió vivir como si ya estuviera muerto; es
decir: decidió escribir como si ya estuviera muerto. Ese fue su gran hallazgo:
escribir como si la vida hubiera quedado atrás, como si no existieran ni el presente
ni el futuro, sino sólo el pasado, convertido en un pozo infinito del cual ir sacando
infinitamente a los jóvenes explosivos a los que había sobrevivido (Cercas).
Bolaño decided to write as if he were already dead, as if time had somehow
elapsed in a concentric circle of infinity. That was the lesson of Seville, if I may refer to
the beginning of this study. We began by attempting to deconstruct the various strategies
of that infinity, focusing on the absence of the œuvre. We then learned of the
simultaneous absence of both the characters and their works, an absence mirrored in the
structure of the novel, where everything resolves into a third-person, second-hand
account of a story that has already happened by the time in which the narrating act
unfolds. This technique of deliberate anachronism, that Gérard Genette calls “analepse”
when the story is constructed after the event has occurred, is also the assumed possibility
of “prolepse” or the story told in anticipation of the event65 (Figures III 82-83). Jaromir
Hladík was the archetypical character in the analysis of the absence of the œuvre as a
textual strategy in Borges’ “El milagro secreto”. Like him, Bolaño is granted a limited
timetable after he learned of his fatal disease in 1992. The (im)possibility of writing the
perfect work leads him to obsessive writing against time, in particular for the last of his
novels, 2666, an unfinished work that he did live not see published. Writing, for both
Bolaño and Hladík, was a matter of life and death, and when death finally overcomes the
author, the functionality of his name becomes an integral part of the narrative structure.
The work itself, nevertheless, remains absent at all times because it is the product of an
act of ongoing discourse from a finite writer. As the possibility of continuing to (re)write
the work prevails, infinity opens before the narrative structure, the artifice facing the
precipice, as Bolaño indicated. Thus, all four categories are traceable in Los detectives
salvajes, confirming the correspondence between the four works chosen here and their
place in the genealogy of literary infinity:
1) Los detectives salvajes creates the space where language pursues its radical
exhaustion, in particular with the usage of language and the visual poems of Tinajero and
Madero’s windows. This phenomenon also occurs in the confluence of the erudite
terminology of classical poetry recited by García Madero during the travel to the
Mexican desert, contrasted with the popular vocabulary coined in the streets of Mexico
city as articulated by Lupe, a recourse also explore to exhaustion by Sada in Porque
65 Both concepts, carefully studied in Genette’s Figures III, are the two opposing sides of literary
anachronism. See in particular chapter 1 of the book, titled “Order”.
parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe. As a culmination of this technique, García
Madero’s journal lists the various shantytowns where they have been in Sonora, right
before drawing the final windows. Their sonority reminds us of Sada’s play on nouns and
verbs (Remadrín, Capila, etc.), and as if he were operating unexpected declinations and
variations, Madero’s journal reads: “Cucurpe, Tuape, Meresichic, Opodepe, Carbó, El
oasis, Félix Gómez, El Cuatro, Trincheras, La Ciénega, Bamuri, Pitiquito, Caborca, San
Juan, Las Maravillas, Las Calenturas” (Los detectives salvajes 608).
2) As we have discussed in detail, the traditional notion of the completed œuvre is
disarticulated. Setting in narrative motion Foucault’s question of “What is an author?”,
Bolaño presents us with writers whose works remain unpublished. Belano, Lima and
García Madero search for the missing poet they have never read and whose conception of
literature they claim to understand somehow. As if literature were a current that drives
the very actions and attitudes of the writers, the works of all the characters are inscribed
in Bolaño’s novel, for it its in their story where the only visible work of art exists. This
work, Los detectives salvajes itself, is also a fragment always about to be completed and
always about to begin, since the reader is needed at all times to piece together the
puzzling, shattering linearity of the discourse. The anachronism of a simultaneous
analepse and prolepse (as a story told before and after the even, but never during the
event) obliges the reader to constantly postpone the promise of its completion.
3) As a movement of doubles in self-reflection, the novel is exemplary of the
textual strategy of the oscillating dynamism between the Same and the Other. Modern
subjectivity is continuously unfolding between itself and its other throughout the story.
And so the real visceralistas hope to emulate the original group with the same name, but
in their search they fail to fully reach a true understanding of the first avant-garde,
leaving themselves in the place of their other. The same phenomenon is observed by
Cesárea Tinajero herself, who considers her movement the other of the more recognized
Estridentismo. As they desperately search for their symbolic matriarch, the young poets
—and specially García Madero— accidentally follow a parallel trajectory, losing
themselves in the vastness of the desert, in the case of García Madero, or in the rest of the
world, in the case of Belano and Lima. Finally, the same movement is followed by
Bolaño and Santiago, who transform themselves into their fictive others, securing their
place in the structure of the story that allows for a new beginning of their journey each
time a reader embarks in another reading of the novel.
4) Literary language all together exerts an act of transgression in Los detectives
salvajes that separates it from a language that still maintains the logic of the modern
episteme. The novels that emerge within the epistemological coherence of modernity are
built around the narration of Man as the central object and subject of knowledge.
Therefore, their narrative structures adapt in the dialectics of history and usually cover
important historical episodes themselves, as in the archetypical case of Vargas Llosa
discussed in length in chapter II of the present investigation. As part of a genealogy that
emerges from the crisis of this modernity, Los detectives salvajes defies the traditional
structure of the novel and the themes that distinguished the most predominant novels of
the boom era precisely because they attempted to define the exceptional Latin American
culture and identity. Los detectives salvajes, like the other three novels studied in the
present investigation, is a work primarily of language in search of its own limits. This is
the reason why in its pages all the author figures are reduced to mere functions of
narrative, why the traditional notion of the œuvre is deconstructed and why all possibility
of subjectivity is threaten by the presence of its other. Bolaño characterized his ars
poetica in more eloquent but analogous terms during his acceptance speech of the
prestigious Rómulo Gallegos award:
¿Entonces qué es una escritura de calidad? Pues lo que siempre ha sido: saber
meter la cabeza en lo oscuro, saber saltar al vacío, saber que la literatura
básicamente es un oficio peligroso. Correr por el borde del precipicio: a un lado el
abismo sin fondo y al otro lado las caras que uno quiere, las sonrientes caras que
uno quiere, y los libros, y los amigos, y la comida. Y aceptar esa evidencia
aunque a veces nos pese más que la losa que cubre los restos de todos los
escritores muertos. La literatura, como diría una folklórica andaluza, es un peligro
("Discurso de Caracas" 36-37).
A literature that runs along the precipice, is perhaps the best metaphor to describe
the crisis of the modern subject facing the void of a language turned to infinity and away
from the writer’s reality. I believe Bolaño was hoping to emphasize the same message in
his unfinished conference to be read for the Latin American narrators meeting in Seville
the summer of his death. A more compact but similar lesson can be understood from
another essay written by Bolaño to clarify the panorama of contemporary narrative in
Latin America. He called it a “corollary” and I reproduce it here expecting the same
effect: “Hay que releer a Borges otra vez” ("Derivas de la pesada" 30). Everything has
ended and yet everything begins again.
IV.1 Cristina Rivera Garza and La cresta de Ilión: The Same, the Other
IV.1.1 On the Crest of the Border
In 2000, the publication of Nadie me verá llorar positioned Cristina Rivera Garza
(Matamoros 1964) as one of the leading female writers of her generation. The novel,
saluted as a “revelation” by Carlos Fuentes, is a love story that takes place in the mental
institution “La Castañeda” in the Mexico City of the early 20th century. The novel brings
together narrative the various themes, epochs and storytelling techniques that Rivera
Garza had explored in her previous works. Although Rivera Garza has considered this
novel to be “historical” in nature, she also has stated that her goal for this work was to
explore certain strategies in order to experiment with language, not reality. She explains
in an interview:
A pesar del regodeo en el detalle, de la accuracy o exactitud de los eventos
históricos, la novela no aspira a reflejar/reproducir la realidad, sino a poner en
juego ciertas estratagemas del realismo para crear una apariencia que es en
realidad una apariencia, con su equívoca transparencia y su calidad de estar ahí de
manera “natural”, es decir, “dada” (Hind 193).
By stating that the novel offers the “appearance” of reality, Rivera Garza defends,
very much in Borgesian terms, the artificial condition of literature. Literary language is
not a vehicle for the expression of reality, she claims, even if sometimes appears to have
that function. She clarifies in the same interview:
…prefiero la literatura para la cual el lenguaje no es simple representación de lo
real, sino herramienta para el análisis del mismo. Prefiero la literatura que me desfamiliariza el mundo, donde no me encuentro, lo que los Language Poets entre
otros llaman making strange (Hind 189).
Rivera Garza refers to the English-language avant-garde poets grouped around the
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Magazine who appropriated some of the most important
modernist techniques of the 20th century. By signaling this group, Rivera Garza argues in
favor of a literary language that steps away from reality, seeking distance from the world,
as if language could offer an alternative space. While she associates her writings with
Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories66 —in particular to the notion of heteroglossia— Rivera
Garza reverses some of these concepts by reconfiguring the time/space units of her novel
into a “chronotope” that occurs strictly language. Bakhtin believed in the
“representational importance” (250) of a narrative language that makes visible a concrete
event in its given time and space. Contrary to this concept, Rivera Garza’s literary project
has increasingly become an linguistic experiment that always pushes her narrative limits
to a new level of strangeness, closer to Freud’s notion of the “uncanny,” that we have
mentioned before.
Rivera Garza’s doctoral dissertation in history, The Masters of the Streets: Bodies,
Power and Modernity in Mexico, 1867-1930, written during her studies at the University
of Houston, became an important source for her own concept of poetry and fiction.
Following the leads of Foucault’s Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (1961), Rivera
Garza has been intrigued by the marginalized figure of the insane and their submission to
discipline and control in mental institutions. Her first book of poetry, La más mía (1998)
offered an initial exploration of madness, disease and death. Some of the poems included
can be read as vignettes that capture instants in the life of those interned in mental
66 See: Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogical Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).
institutions. In the last poem of the collection, the reader witnesses the transfiguration of
an object in the mind of a patient:
Sacó un pez del estanque
y dijo que había atrapado el sol.
El sol contorsionó su cuerpo
y saltó amarillo de sus manos.
Una moneda ahogada iluminó su sonrisa.
Dijo que era como nosotros:
siempre a punto de sucumbir y siempre
para nada.
Estaba atardeciendo
y el sol se ocultó entre las algas (La más mía 86).
The fish from the pond traverses through various stages of metamorphosis that are
also perceptible to the reader who shares the transgressive imagery. The fish thus is
transfigured into the sun in the hands of the mad to then jump back to the water; as it
reenters the pond, the “sun” transforms into a yellow coin that sinks by its own weight
and yet always “survives.” As it fades in the obscurity of the algae, however, it recovers a
cosmic identity and becomes, once again, the sun that sets in the depths of the pond. In
many ways, Rivera Garza’s literary project has also undergone various mutations. In their
gradual unfolding, these changes have been celebrated by her critics as an “increasing
hybridization” of her ars poetica that has refused to remain static. Her own
interdisciplinary career has taken this same path: Rivera Garza is a Mexican historian
born along the U.S.-Mexico border, interested in mental illnesses and pathology, whose
works have appeared in English and Spanish, in academic and literary publications. She
has authored an eclectic array of writings: medicine journal articles, poetry, novels, short
stories, literary theory, and most recently, her own web-based “blog67.” Critic Maricruz
Castro writes about the hybrid condition of Rivera Garza’s novel Nadie me verá llorar:
Nadie me verá llorar permite escuchar la voz de personajes extraños en relación
con lo que se considera "normalidad", y por eso cambia, capítulo a capítulo, tanto
la mirada del narrador como los recursos narrativos. Ese movimiento dota al texto
de un sentido subversivo, a contracorriente, como el título mismo de la novela, y
la convierte en una pieza rara, en un delicioso y extraño artefacto literario (116).
In Rivera Garza’s bibliography, La más mía and Nadie me verá llorar constitute
her initial attempts to craft a particular language that explores alterity as a figure of
language. Both books enriched the definition of her literary language, with very specific
advancements in the application of narrative techniques and the selection of textual
strategies. In Rivera Garza’s poetry, as we have seen, objects experience a constant
displacement of any fixed identity. The seeing subject is often the articulator of an
alternate set of images that the reader witnesses and learns to recognize as the poem
unravels. In the case of Nadie me verá llorar, the protagonist, Joaquín Buitrago, is a
photographer of the patients at La Castañeda mental institution in the Mexico City of the
1920’s. He is obsessed with learning the story of Matilda Burgos —the protagonist and a
patient— because he believes they met years before in “La Modernidad,” a famous
brothel in the capital. Like two opposing poles, Burgos and Buitrago balance and disrupt
the equilibrium of the story, raising and downgrading the narrative tension.
In a parallel fashion, Nadie me verá llorar and La más mía represent the two
extremes of the writer’s narrative project. The novel maintains a specific historicity that
serves as an identifiable timeframe for the story. For her later projects, however, Rivera
67 See:
Garza has said that she felt compelled to experiment with “new strategies” of literary
language. I believe that this new approach —which materialized in 2002 with the
publication of La cresta de ilión— is closer to that of the poetic prose and also represents
the novelistic version of her first book of poems. Given her affinity to interdisciplinary
studies and writings, it should not come as a surprise that in this last book, Rivera Garza
moves away from the type of novel that assimilates history (Nadie me verá llorar) to
come closer to a prose experience that cultivates a depurated literary language similar to
poetry (La más mía).
In these pages, I will discuss how Rivera Garza’s literary project perpetually
seeks its other. She says that her vision has been influenced by certain theories of the
“new cultural history” trends in U.S. academia68, in particular the concept of identity
which she understands as “un foro, dinámico y fluido” (Castañeda H. "Cristina Rivera
Garza: el hombre, la mujer, la identidad y La Cresta de Ilión"). As a novel that radically
experiments with these ideas, I will argue that La cresta de ilión is above all a linguistic
search for its narrative other, which constantly disarticulates any possibility of a univocal
identity. In order to produce this “borderline” narration, Rivera Garza threatens the very
unity of her identity as an author by establishing a direct dialogue with the works and the
68 The “new cultural history” refers, in fact, to separate philosophical and historical projects that are
studied together under common premises. Such is the case of the works of very different thinkers like
Michel Foucault and historians such as Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra. For a representative
anthology of this trend see: Lynn Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History (Berkeley: The University of
California Press, 1989). For a study of the application of new cultural history to Mexican historiography,
see: Alan Knight, "Subalterns, Signifiers, and Statistics: Perspectives on Mexican Historiography," Latin
American Research Review 37.2 (2002).
figure of Amparo Dávila (Pinos, Zacatecas 1928), a little-known Mexican writer from the
“medio siglo” (half a century) generation.
By affiliating her novel to a tradition that she traces from Macedonio Fernández
and Julio Cortázar to Dávila, Rivera Garza participates in the literary genealogy that
understands language as the unstable locus of shifting identities. As it occurs in Museo de
la novela de la eterna and Rayuela, La cresta de ilión makes a radical use of the textual
strategy that I have called The Same, The Other, which aims at a constant modification of
the structure of the novel and the identity of the characters as a means of reaching the
ultimate goal of the text: to question the very nature of identity. In this, La cresta de ilión
is a radical experiment of literary language that synthesizes its precedents in Latin
America’s modern narrative, reaching a new level. Like its main characters, the very
structure of the novel will reject and paradoxically embrace the disturbing presence of its
other, metaphorically and physically present in the intertextual appearance of Amparo
Dávila and her works. In the next sections, I will consider the textual strategies of the
novel, its radical use of language, and the destabilizing insertion of Dávila’s persona and
works. I will conclude with a review of the four textual strategies identified in relation to
literary infinity. The second half of the chapter is a similar analysis of Jorge Volpi’s A
pesar del oscuro silencio. I conclude with some final remarks in the form of an epilogue.
IV.1.2 The Twilight of Identity
La cresta de ilión is the story of a doctor who works in a municipal hospital
known as the “Granja del Buen Descanso,” in a remote area on the border between two
countries and two cities, named the City of the North and the City of the South. One rainy
night, a mysterious woman knocks on his door unannounced. He opens it, and she lets
herself in, immediately taking control of the situation. She claims to be Amparo Dávila, a
forgotten writer who is now suffering from “disappearance,” a strange disease that turns
each victim into persona non grata for the rest of society. That same night, a second
woman —a past lover— arrives to the man’s house. He identifies her as “la Traicionada”
(the betrayed one) for they had previously sustained a long and difficult relationship that
ended with his abandonment of her for “la Traidora” (the betrayer). Together, Dávila and
la Traicionada form an unexpected alliance that gradually marginalizes the man —never
identified by name throughout the novel— as they fight the disease.
The novel holds various issues in suspense, all of them dealing with individual
identities. Each character must come to terms with its other, in a dynamic structure that
constantly questions the stability and univocal condition of the very concept of identity.
The first one to manifest this phenomenon is the narrator, the man, who from the
beginning feels anxious by the disturbing presence of the two women. He explains:
Supongo que los hombres lo saben y no necesito añadir nada más. A las mujeres
les digo que esto pasa más frecuentemente de lo que se imaginan: miedo. Ustedes
provocan miedo. A veces uno confunde esa caída, esa inmovilidad, esa
desarticulación con el deseo. Pero abajo, entre las raíces por donde se trasmitan el
agua y el oxígeno, en los sustratos más fundamentales del ser, uno siempre está
listo para la aparición del miedo (La cresta de ilión 17).
The protagonist believes that all men suffer this extreme fear in the presence of
women. With an implicit poststructuralist approach, the man discovers his Derridean
trace in the antagonizing identity of women. The opposing sex threatens his self243
definition by uncovering his pure negativity; he is a man only because he is not a woman.
This very fragile difference is manifested in the overwhelming fear that the protagonist
experiences in the presence of the two women, who, unlike him, do have names that
identify them and affirm their existence. The tension is soon taken to a new level, when
the two women exclude him completely, interacting in his house as if he were no longer
present. They spend every moment together, from dawn until late at night. Intrigued by
their activities, the man decides to spy on them. He listens to their conversation and thus
has a new revelation: the women speak an entirely different language, with an unknown
vocabulary and grammar that they both seem to master, but that he had never heard
before and cannot recognize. In the following episode, he attempts to explain the
mechanism and sound of the new language:
El sonido de los vocablos era insoportablemente melodioso, casi dulce. Y había
una repetición intrigante de la que me di cuenta como al tercer día de mi
espionaje. Se trataba de un sonido parecido a la sílaba «glu». La repetían
incesantemente y, al hacerlo, parecían replicar el eco de la lluvia, el momento en
que una gota de agua cae pesada y definitiva sobre la corteza del mar. […] Cada
que las oía platicar me hundía en una rabia inconmensurable, paralizadora. No
podía hacer nada contra su lenguaje. No podía entrar en él (La cresta de ilión 40).
Unable to penetrate their means of communication, the man feels that he is indeed
before some unintelligible other, who unfolds before him a new language and an alternate
way of being entirely unknown to him. He attempts various explanations, but all he is
able to deduce never goes beyond the impressionistic opinion, charged with anger and
increasing anxiety. He decides to administer morphine to Amparo in order to learn their
secrets, and surreptitiously mixes the drug with anise liquor. Under the effects of the
morphine, Amparo reveals substantial information about her reasons to be in his house,
including the fact that she is searching for a stolen manuscript. This text, penned by her at
an earlier date, contains what she claims to be the key to her problems:
—Se trataba de un manuscrito muy especial —me contradijo en el acto—. Estoy
segura de que ahí se fueron los códigos de mi memoria, de mis palabras. De todas
mis palabras —le costaba trabajo hablar ahora—. No he vuelto a escribir desde
—Pero si yo te veo escribir a diario, Amparo —mencioné sin poder evitar una vez
más otra carcajada bien nutrida.
—Oh, no —dijo—. Eso no es escribir.
¿Entonces qué es?
—Eso sólo es recordar (La cresta de ilión 47).
Without the manuscript she has lost her identity and the memory of her words,
contained in the handwritten pages. The written text is the only means of defining who
she is, and without it, writing becomes merely an exercise that holds the hope of
recovering some of that lost information. To further complicate the firm establishment of
her identity, Amparo Dávila turns out to have adopted the name of a writer who
published her own works from the 1950’s to the 70’s. The male protagonist learns that
this “original” Amparo is still alive, and he manages to find her. She is an old and
confused woman who does not seem coherent during the protagonist’s first visit. She
explains, however, that the other Amparo Dávila —the one living in his house— is part
of a group of radical feminists who call themselves “las emisoras del pasado.” They were
organized to preserve the Dávila’s name and works, protecting them from the fatal
“disappearance” disease. The protagonist begins to call the older Amparo Dávila the
“Verdadera,” while referring to the woman at his home as “la Falsa.” When the latter is
confronted by the protagonist with the fact that her name belongs to another, she argues
that the other is not the “original” either. Amparo Dávila “la Verdadera” does not deny
this accusation. She tells the protagonist:
—Lo mismo le digo yo: no sé si soy o no Amparo Dávila —abundó—. Pero su
nombre me recuerda algo que me viene de más allá de la memoria.
Cerré los ojos para escucharla mejor.
—Viene del océano, ¿sabe? De un día de mucho sol. De una frase —bajó el
volumen de su voz entonces—. Se va a matar —susurró (La cresta de ilión 139).
Rivera Garza is inserting directly, as she does in the beginning of the novel,
excerpts from actual short stories written by the historic Amparo Dávila, a Mexican
writer who has, in reality, fallen into quasi oblivion and whose works are rarely
disseminated. The identity of the historic Amparo Dávila is presented to the reader as a
character who is already a copy that in turn produces other copies. In a Derridean game
of shifting identities, the “original” in the novel is already a trace. We find the same
strategy applied to all the other characters. The most evident one is Juan Escutia, the man
Amparo Dávila, “la Falsa,” alleges to have stolen her manuscript. Escutia had been
interned in the same hospital where the protagonist works. There, he organized protests
against the institution’s authorities, but failed to achieve his goals. In a final act of
dissent, he committed suicide by jumping from one of the windows of the hospital onto
the reefs below the building. This character, as in the case of Amparo Dávila, has a reallife precedent in the celebrated historical figure of a young Mexican soldier. Juan Escutia
was a cadet who is attributed with a glorified suicide: during the U.S.-Mexico war of
1846-1848, it is said that he threw himself off a tower, wrapped in the Mexican flag, in
order to prevent the enemy forces from taking it. Finally, the very protagonist himself
suffers perhaps the most disturbing effect of this textual strategy that constantly produces
alterity. After a subsequent drugging, Amparo Dávila, “la Falsa” reveals to the
protagonist that she already has discovered his secret: “Yo sé que tú eres mujer” (La
cresta de ilión 56). Amparo Dávila, “la Verdadera” later proffers the same accusation and
even addresses the protagonist using female pronouns and adjectives, assuring him that
all women know his secret.
Another remarkable transgression of identity occurs when the director of the
hospital visits the two women in the protagonist’s house. Instead of attempting to seduce
Amparo Dávila, “la Falsa” as the protagonist believes, the director starts speaking the
mysterious language of the two women, reconciling an argument that had been taking
place. Fluently, he intervenes in their conversation, and the three soon laugh and relax,
enjoying each other’s company. The director, who has the appearance of a virile Don
Juan, turns out to be capable of communicating with the women in their own terms. The
protagonist cannot understand how is this possible, and he resents the overwhelming
marginalization to which he is subjected. The three people in his home now ignore him
completely, and the protagonist wonders how the director penetrated the intimate circle
formed between the two women:
Me pregunté por qué él, muchas veces, por qué yo no. Su desdén por mi presencia
fue tan inmediato, tan firme, tan definitivo que, de un momento a otro, dejé de
existir. Entretenidos con su nueva y peculiar conversación, no tuvieron ni el
cuidado ni la decencia de disculparse o, siquiera, de ponerme al tanto de lo que
estaba pasando. La barrera que se erigió entre ellos y yo era obvia e invisible al
mismo tiempo (La cresta de ilión 119).
As the director continues to befriend the two women, “la Traicionada” begins an intimate
relationship with him, and soon Amparo Dávila, “la Falsa” resents her abandonment. In a
sudden inversion, the betrayed woman becomes the traitor.
The presence of the other facing the same is also visible in the very setting of the
novel. As we mentioned above, the story takes place in a hypothetical, nameless border
zone between two cities (the City of North and the City of the South) that seem to be
located in different countries: “el fin del mundo, hasta esta orilla donde se terminaba el
país y donde no alcanzaba a empezar el próximo” (La cresta de ilión 51). The region
where the protagonist lives is continually threatened by violence and is shrouded in the
mystery. The characters repeatedly mention the surrounding cities’ high crime index, and
it is during his visit to Amparo Dávila, “la Verdadera” that the protagonist’s jeep is
stolen. The liminal region of the “in between,” neither belonging to the north nor the
south and bordered by two countries and the sea, is a type of limbo, a twilight, where
identities are in an unstable flux and where the same is always becoming their other.
As a carnival of alterity, each character will see his or her identity confronted by
the disruptive force of the other that upsets the stability of the same. In the most
Foucauldian sense, subjectivity enters the very crisis that describes the modern episteme
in Les mots et les choses: identity becomes a space where two opposing elements
exchange places at both ends of the spectrum. Amparo Dávila, the old woman that
appears in the novel, is the other of a historical writer. This other produces, in turn, a
second other, the “emisaria,” Amparo Dávila, “la Falsa,” who will become, for all
purposes, the same. The historical figure of Juan Escutia is also reproduced with its other
who kills himself in a similar fashion, a suicide that relives the original one. Amparo
Dávila, “la Falsa” calls him a modern “Prometheus,” who suffers the same horrible death,
which is in turn another’s, over and over again. The protagonist emulates this movement
by displacing his own identity, as he first hesitates about his gender and then concedes
that his “secret” has been revealed. He conjectures that the women noticed the iliac bone
in his pelvic region. The very particular shape of this bone, he explains, is evidence of the
female sex, hinting that he may be in fact a woman. The same is constantly shifting
towards its other in La cresta de ilión. This textual strategy involves all characters, but it
extends to the very structure of the novel. By incorporating parts of Amparo Dávila’s
short stories in her novel, Rivera Garza goes beyond the intertextuality that has become
almost a common place in contemporary narrative. I contend, instead, that Rivera Garza
radicalizes the use of intertextual elements, raising this practice to what Eco calls
hypertextuality. This phenomenon, beyond the citation, allows a work to operate as a link
that transports the reader into another work. A literature that leads to its other.
IV.1.3 Withdrawal
In the disarticulation of its identity as a novel, La cresta de ilión incorporates the
direct presence of the works and profile of the historic Amparo Dávila, the writer whose
influence Rivera Garza considers crucial in her career. Along with other female authors
who have remained outside of the literary mainstream such as Josefina Vicens
(Villahermosa, Tabasco 1911 — Mexico 1988) and Guadalupe Dueñas (Guadalajara
1920 —2002), Rivera Garza affiliates her work with a relegated literary genealogy,
challenging the well-established canon formed by writers such as Elena Garro, Rosario
Castellanos and Elena Poniatowska. The short stories of Dávila, however, are the
intertext necessary for a more complete reading of La cresta de ilión. The novel opens
with two epigraphs. The second one comes from the first story of Amparo Dávila’s
collection, Árboles petrificados69 (1977). The story, titled “El patio cuadrado,” is a
surrealist play of images in which a female narrator traverses four hallucinating situations
that are interrupted at their climatic moment. The epigraph is taken from the last of these
nightmarish scenes, when the female voice enters an unusual bookstore. She tells a young
employee that she is looking for the Mayan drama Rabinal Achí. The employee refuses to
sell it because he claims that she must first achieve a higher state of “mental purity.”
When she insists, he takes her to a swimming pool: at its bottom lies the book. Rivera
Garza quotes this part of the story, adding a telling subtitle:
Invitación primera:
—¿Pero qué hacen los libros dentro de la piscina? —le pregunté sorprendida—.
¿No se mojan?
—Nada les pasa, el agua es su elemento y ahí estarán bastante tiempo hasta que
alguien los merezca o se atreva a rescatarlos.
—¿Y por qué no me saca uno?
—¿Por qué no va usted por él? —dijo mirándome de una manera tan burlona que
me fue imposible soportar.
—¿Por qué no? —contesté al tiempo en que me zambullía en la piscina. (La
cresta de ilión 11).
I venture that the subtitle added, “first invitation,” may be interpreted in two
ways: as an invitation to the mythic literary imagery of La cresta de ilión, where women
transgress identity and language in a similar fashion to many of Dávila’s characters; also,
69 See: Amparo Dávila, Árboles petrificados (México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1977).
the first invitation may refer to the actual works of Amparo Dávila, as if the novel
intended to introduce the reader to the other author’s literature. La cresta de ilión goes
beyond intertextual practice: it aims to become a bridge to the works of Amparo Dávila
which the readers will cross through La cresta de ilión. Rivera Garza takes this textual
strategy, however, to an extreme. As the novel unfolds, Dávila’s literature occupies an
increasingly important presence that runs parallel to the Rivera Garza’s text. A subtext is
the Derridean supplement of a main text: it begins in the margin but slowly moves to the
center, displacing the stability of a novel by inserting itself as its other, disrupting the
structure and opening another realm of literary possibilities for the reader.
As in the case of Daniel Sada studied in the third chapter of the present
investigation, Rivera Garza claims to have written and rewritten several manuscripts in
order to achieve the final version of La cresta de ilión. With each subsequent manuscript,
she says, a new textual strategy seemed to gain predominance, breaking away from her
previous narrative models. She explains in an interview:
Esta novela [La cresta de ilión] de hoy es una especie de reescritura de
manuscritos anteriores. Sin embargo, sentí que faltaba algo más en cuanto a las
estrategias narrativas70. Tenía y tengo preocupaciones literarias que se entrelazan
con mi novela anterior y otras que son nuevas. Quise moverme, no me gusta la
estabilidad. Esperé hasta reencontrarme con Amparo y con los tonos que me
parecieron más adecuados para el tipo de preocupaciones que desarrollé (Güemes
"Releer a Amparo Dávila permitió a Rivera Garza crear su nueva novela").
This shift in narrative strategies leads Rivera Garza to appropriate a technique
used by Amparo Dávila in the short story mentioned above, “El patio cuadrado.” Each
time the female narrator moves out of a hallucination, she distances herself from the
70 My emphasis.
vision by stepping back: retroceder. This verb, that I would like to translate as to
withdraw, also echoes the narrative strategy employed by Roberto Bolaño in Los
detectives salvajes (see chapter III, section 2.4 “Behind the Window”) and mentioned in
his novel by one of the protagonists: the movement of a character walking backwards
while gazing at a point from which he drifts away. When Amparo Dávila’s character in
her short story “retrocede” or withdraws, the hallucination is held in suspense, interrupted
and ultimately overcome. Withdrawing, however, does not liberate her from the dreamlike environment. Quite the contrary: she enters a new stage of hallucination. In La cresta
de ilión, the characters recur constantly to this movement, withdrawing from difficult or
disturbing situations in numerous occasions. The intertextual dialogue between Amparo
Dávila’s Árboles petrificados and Rivera Garza’s La cresta de ilión is evident in that both
works share the same textual strategy, making the two narrative discourses converge in
Rivera Garza’s novel. As if he were analyzing the act of withdrawal inaugurated in
Amparo Dávila’s textual strategies, the Rivera Garza’s protagonist ponders:
Algo sucede en el mundo cuando uno retrocede. Ese lento trance a través del cual
el sujeto se aleja del objeto y se aproxima, de espaldas, hacia el lugar que no se
puede ver, siempre tiene consecuencias. No se trata, como lo creí por años
enteros, de borrar al mundo y ni siquiera de apartarse de él. Se trata, apenas
comenzaba a darme cuenta, de un salto o, mejor, un guiño que parte de la
fascinación visible y visual, sólo para adentrarse en la fascinación de lo visual
pero invisible (La cresta de ilión 102).
When the characters withdraw in La cresta de ilión, they operate a change in the
development of the story, altering the lineal and logical flow of the story. They withdraw
in order to protect themselves, but also to challenge the stability of their own identity, and
with that, the expected course of their action. When the protagonist is challenged once
again with the possibility that he could be, in fact, a woman, he ultimately takes a step
back; he withdraws from the threatening situation but also from the self that defines his
limits and conditions. He thus opens up to his own alterity, embracing it and becoming
one with the other. He explains:
Todo podría seguir siendo igual. Todo era un burdo espejo de lo Mismo. […] El
silencio bañó mis palabras y, con ellas, las sensaciones que las ponían de piel; tras
ellas, las emociones que les daban valor. El silencio me dijo más de mi nueva
condición que cualquier discurso de mi Emisaria. Y entonces, sumido en la
materia viscosa de las cosas indecibles, retrocedí. Y retrocedí.
Retrocedí (La cresta de ilión 101).
In a textual withdrawal, Rivera Garza inserts lengthy excerpts from Dávila’s story
“El patio cuadrado” in her novel. When the protagonist meets Amparo Dávila, “la
Verdadera” for the last time, he begins to detect unintelligible phrases in her speech. As
he questions her once more about her identity, she replies that the name Amparo Dávila
comes from a place beyond memory, from the ocean and from the phrase: “Se va a
matar.” This sentence intrigues the protagonist. The reader familiar with Dávila’s work
will associate it with the words spoken when two men —one of them the boyfriend of the
protagonist of “El patio cuadrado”— face each other from opposing sides of the
quadrangle roof that encloses the central patio where the female narrator is standing. “Se
va a matar” may also refer to the fate of Amparo Dávila, “la Falsa” who, betrayed by “la
Traicionada,” will commit suicide. Rivera Garza’s novel then intersects with another
episode of the same story. The female narrator —nameless like the narrator of La cresta
de ilión— encounters another woman, Olivia, who uncovers her own face and shows it to
be empty, claming that she is dead. This passage of Dávila’s story is recited to the novel’s
protagonist. He is shocked by it and says:
Tuve la sensación de que no debí haberla oído; de que las palabras estaban
dirigidas a alguien que no era yo. De alguna manera, al caer dentro de mis oídos,
al guardarla luego dentro de cada órgano de mi cuerpo, me transformaba en un
ladrón a sueldo, un obstáculo (La cresta de ilión 141).
At this point, La cresta de ilión no longer holds Amparo Dávila’s stories as its subtext.
The same has reached and overcome its other: the two works interact and gradually
become one. The protagonist leaves the house of Amparo Dávila, “la Verdadera” and
starts off by foot back to the ocean coast where the hospital is located, in the middle of
the rain. After walking several days, he collapses on the beach. He wakes up thirsty and
in his bed. As he drinks water, he realizes that he can now understand the strange
language of the two women: “Glu hisertu frametu jutyilo, glu-glu —mencioné entonces.
Luego cerré los ojos y me dispuse a seguir bebiendo” (La cresta de ilión 143). The
protagonist has finally begun the movement toward his other and the language of the
novel mirrors this effect. Characters and direct references to various stories by Amparo
Dávila interact, inform and complement the last developments of the story, as if the novel
itself were in fact another short story of Árboles petrificados, perhaps the lost manuscript
by Amparo Dávila that “la Falsa” claimed to be missing.
When Amparo Dávila, “la Falsa” and the protagonist meet for the last time on the
beach, she takes leave of him, reciting phrases from the last short story of Dávila’s book
Árboles petrificados, of the same title. The broken citations appear in italics: “Somos dos
náufragos en la misma playa, con tanta prisa o ninguna como el que sabe que tiene la
eternidad para mirarse…” (La cresta de ilión 156). La cresta de ilión, Árboles
petrificados and their authors, are like castaways on the beach of language. They are two
writers overcome by a literature that dialogues within itself and that both unites them and
marginalizes them. The novel and the book of short stories reflect the other as the figure
of those shifting mirrors that has constantly reappeared in this investigation: a literary
language that narrates itself, its alterity, confusing characters and authorship in its moving
identity. Rivera Garza claims to be conscious of this effect and she compares this
phenomenon to a cracking wall, disrupting language and revealing its other:
Me interesa lo excéntrico. Vivir en la periferia y cruzar siempre entre dos idiomas
me ha vuelto reticente a todo lo central. Me daría gusto pensar que me inscribo en
un movimiento en continua diseminación, desde el cual se evade el mundo fijo y
en el que están otras preguntas, grietas que se abren en los muros del discurso
establecido (Güemes "Releer a Amparo Dávila permitió a Rivera Garza crear su
nueva novela").
Rivera Garza aims at exploring the outmost limit of literary language, always devising
innovative textual strategies. In what follows, I will discuss how she has radicalized her
project to a point where language naturally reaches its own alterity.
IV.1.4 The Other of Language
In an article about Julio Cortázar, Rivera Garza considers Gertrude Stein’s
definition of contemporary literature71. Echoing Borges’ concept of modernity, Stein
understands writing as an act of endless variations. An author cannot repeat nor create a
work of literature: he can only offer a variation. In this sense, every act of writing must
71 See: Gertrude Stein, How Writing Is Written, ed. Robert Bartlett Haas (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow,
aim at capturing the immediacy of an epoch instead of anticipating the poetics of the
future. A writer thus explores his epistemological time. Stein coincides with Borges in
this idea, for whom modernity is the only condition of a contemporary writer. Writing is
therefore an act that occurs in contemporaneity, in the immediate present. Rivera Garza
elaborates on this concept by arguing that literary language is by nature contemporaneous
with the epistemological time of a culture:
Indagar en ese sentido temporal, por otra parte, no es una labor abstracta sino
radicalmente material. Para el escritor, esta indagación no se lleva a cabo en la
mente o en las ideas de una época, sino que tiene que realizarse en el lenguaje, en
la sintaxis, en la oración. Las marcas del sentido temporal, sus distintas
encarnaciones, no son visibles en “lo que” se expresa, sino en la expresión misma,
en la irreductible materialidad de la escritura ("Corta-a(l)-azar: lecturas de Julio
Cortázar a inicios del siglo XXI" 297).
This literary present contains in its construction the very fiber of modernity. As a
language, it is above all a structure of syntagmas, a work of ordered syntax. Language is
not the vehicle of expression: it is pure expression, words representing themselves. Being
contemporaneous, in Rivera Garza’s sense, is also the possibility of extending her literary
project to the broader register of her literary predecessors. In this manner, Macedonio
Fernández, Borges, Cortázar and Amparo Dávila are all her contemporaries. By adopting
Stein’s vision of literature, Rivera Garza is certainly inserting her name in a literary
genealogy that understands modernity within the horizon of language artifice and certain
textual strategies, that in turn define the overall project of a book.
Modernity is the consciousness of tradition, and it emerges from a common
understanding of what literary language is. Rivera Garza’s literature, as well as that of the
four authors featured in the present investigation, always searches for the other of
language itself and the possibility of finding in words another aspect of its expression. La
cresta de ilión is a novel that seeks its other: the work of Amparo Dávila. In this search,
however, Amparo Dávila is introduced as the other of the historical person, and this other
produces its own alterity. Stein’s famous verse “a rose is a rose is a rose,”72 is interpreted
by Rivera Garza as the endless chains of variations that in modernity form the radical
pursuit of language’s other.
Rivera Garza’s interdisciplinary career makes manifest her interest in this
particular approach to language that elaborates on what Foucault envisioned as the
“outside” we have discussed throughout this investigation. In terms of her literary
genealogy, Rivera Garza links her narrative to the other female writers of Mexico’s
canon by appropriating textual strategies formalized by Amparo Dávila and by regularly
referring to the works of authors such as Josefina Vicens and Guadalupe Dueñas. At the
base of La cresta de ilión lies a theoretical structure made evident in her radical usage of
intertextually, a technique close to what Eco has called “hypertextuality.” The first
epigraph of the novel points the reader in this direction:
The textual intention presupposes readers who know the language conspiracy in
operation. The mark is not in-itself but in-relation-to-other-marks. The mark seeks
the seeker of the system behind the events. The mark inscribes the i which is the
her in the it which meaning moves through (La cresta de ilión 9).
This quote comes from Steve McCaffery’s Panopticon (1984). A Canadian poet
related to the avant-garde trend of “language” verse, McCaffery conceived poetry in its
“materiality,” seeking to approach the visual aspect of a text through a theoretical
72 See: Gertrude Stein, Geography and Plays (New York: Something Else, 1968).
framework influenced by semiotics and post-structuralism. A blend of modernist
experimentation and linguistic theories, the materiality of poetic language no longer
refers to meaning in the traditional communicative sense. Instead, McCaffery proposes
“to see the letter not as a phoneme but as ink, and to further insist on that materiality,
[that] inevitably contests the status of language as a bearer of uncontaminated
meaning(s)” (Perloff). In its materiality, language becomes a complex system of words
with particular syntax positions that demand what McCaffery calls a “language
conspiracy”: the constant reformulation of meaning in which a word is only significant in
relation to the other “marks” in the system. But a “mark” is a transgressive element that
defines the “i” that is also the “her” and the “it.” In that flux, meaning “moves through.”
McCafferey has called this movement “infinite” and this feature must be
understood here in the broader theoretical context of the present investigation: language
becomes infinite in its “materiality.” In Foucauldian terms, this is the assumption that
language is “exteriority” and does not allow for any metaphysical profundity. Playing as
well on Derridean terminology, McCaffery reflects on literature as the project that
“Grammatology” proposed some decades ago: the inscription of a text is only possible
through the condition of differance, in which any meaning gains its stability by deferring
its other. Aside from the various theoretical approaches possible, I believe that the
Foucauldian concept of the “outside” best captures the essence of this linguistic
enterprise. In its most basic sense, what Rivera Garza is undertaking in La cresta de ilión
originates in the avant-garde impulses of English-language high modernism. This project
is also present in the same innovative revolution of the Spanish-language modernistas,
the highly experimental Latin American avant-gardes of the 1920’s, the œuvre of Borges,
and more recently, in the four post-boom novels studies in these pages. Rivera Garza’s
linking of Steve McCaffery’s Panopticon and Amparo Dávila’s Árboles petrificados
through the selection of epigraphs for her novel is a genealogical statement that declares
both works to be modern experiences, beyond the different themes, generational
influences and languages in which they were written. Dávila, McCafferey, Stein and
Rivera Garza are —following the implicit theoretical propositions of La cresta de ilión—
contemporaries. The degree of linguistic experimentation that Rivera Garza asserts in her
literature is testimony of this phenomenon. She explains in an interview:
Creo esto: uno escribe para tantear los límites del lenguaje, para saber hasta dónde
te pueden llevar las palabras, nada más. Uno regresa de eso sin lección, sin
moraleja, sin principios. Uno nada más regresa. Si tiene suerte, regresa. Yo creo
que el lenguaje es artificio, una herramienta de uso social. El lenguaje no es un
mecanismo de auto-expresión o representación (Hind 195).
Writing in English has been another aspect of Rivera Garza’s search for the other
of literary language. As other Mexican writers73 who were born on or reside along the
U.S.-Mexico border, she has conceived a Spanish language always in the presence of its
geographically closest linguistic other, the English language. In several academic articles
and conferences, Rivera Garza has stated that she is already preparing a book of poems
written completely in English. She closes the same interview quoted above by reshaping
some of her theoretical concepts about literature in English. This excerpt, written in
narrative form, appears to be a vignette in which a group of students and their professor,
73 Elmer Mendoza (Culiacán 1949), Luis Humberto Crosthwaite (Tijuana 1962) and Daniel Sada (studied
in chapter III of the present investigation), are among the writers from the North of Mexico who have
pronounced themselves in favor of a literature of linguistic hybrids and whose narrative projects are
distinguished by their bilingual approach.
perhaps in a writers’ workshop, discuss the notion of literary language in terms close to
those formulated by “language” poets such as Steven McCaffery:
She said in the classroom: «The dream is over». Sighing. Eighteen students, four
of whom knew what she meant. «You do not write novels to express yourself»,
she had said. She said that there is no yourself to be expressed, feigning the italics.
«You experiment with language», she had said of the novel. «To see where it
takes you».
«You do not bring anything back», she added (Hind 195).
For Rivera Garza, transgressing linguistic borders is above all an opportunity to
test the “limits” of language, again, as if through fiction and poetry she wished to push
words further into that Foucauldian “outside.” Her radical experimentation in La cresta
de ilión, as we have discussed, involves the disarticulation of identity at all levels of the
text. This literary project did not end with the publication of the novel. The following
year, in 2003, Rivera Garza decided to write a novel in her web-based “blog,” an
electronic space where authors may “post” entries on various topics. In the rapidness of
the Internet, a writer may publish endless chains of entries that remain open to web users
who in turn, may post their own comments about the original text. Following the
radicalization of her narrative project, Rivera Garza decided to begin a novel that would
be published in fragments, as a work-in-progress that is offered to the reader from the
very moment of its composition, without revisions or editions. In what she calls a
“blogsívela” (a word game formed combining the words “blog” and “novela” in
Spanish), Rivera Garza appears to seek an even greater degree of linguistic
experimentation, as the Internet accentuates the disarticulation of personal identity in the
movement between the same and the other:
Lejos de lo que pudiera pensarse, la proximidad y la inmediatez de la blogsívela
no sólo provoca estos y otros efectos de alianza y ensimismamiento (el «otro»
como «yo»), sino también, y tal vez de manera por demás fundamental, hace
crecer la conciencia de que el acto de la escritura se realiza, para empezar, dentro
y para la escritura misma (dentro de la referencialidad interna del texto que es la
referencialidad externa del lenguaje) y, para volver a empezar, desde y hacia ese
extraño con el cual el único punto de contacto es, paradójicamente y una vez más,
la escritura: la producción de significados en un mundo compartido ("Blogsívela.
Escribir a inicios del siglo XXI desde la blogósfera" 175-76).
Open to any user of the Internet, the text of the “blogsívela” is a permanent
invitation to the other to insert himself in the act of writing. The author, by offering her
unfinished work and allowing the reader to comment on it publicly by posting additional
text in the same space as the work, is seeking a radical possibility of the other of literary
language. Whereas the traditional notion of the book demands the careful and definitive
revision of a text by its author and its publication that exscinds it from the writer, the
blogsívela counteracts this process by immediately releasing the first and only version of
an unfinished text whose continuation may also depend on the reader. In the genealogy of
literary infinity, is seems only logical that Rivera Garza supposes that, given the chance
to access this technology, Macedonio Fernández and Julio Cortázar (and, of course,
Borges) would not have hesitated to write their own blogsívelas. A new frontier of
narrative language, the blog remains nevertheless within modernity and in no way beyond
this epistemological condition:
No profetizo el final (una vez más), ni un nuevo principio (una vez más), de la
novela, ese (des)género infinito. […] De la manera más simple y llana posible,
fuera del revés y envés de todas las cosas, en el ángulo heteroglótico del quehacer
de la escritura de estos días, contemporánea hasta la médula, digo que éstas son
notas para el extraño, para esa energía que siente cuando sabe, con toda certeza,
que puede escribirlo todo, que puede escribir lo que quiera ("Blogsívela. Escribir
a inicios del siglo XXI desde la blogósfera" 179).
IV.1.5 A Dynamic and Fluid Forum
By analyzing La cresta de ilión, my goal has been to trace its relation with what I
have termed in this investigation a “genealogy of literary infinity.” Focusing on the
textual strategy that I have identified as “The Same, the Other,” I have tried to
demonstrate that Rivera Garza’s novel operates within the very epistemological
conditions that allow for experiences of modernity in the Spanish language, after the
irruption of the modernistas at the end of the 19th century. Rivera Garza’s references to
English-language literature affords me the opportunity to extend the scope of this
investigation to a larger discussion of modernity in Western literature. I have already
briefly made reference to some concepts about literary language as the articulation of
contemporaneity, as understood by Gertrud Stein, and these ideas can be applied to many
other expressions of modernist literature of her generation. Comprehending literary
language in very modern terms, Rivera Garza has said that identity cannot be assumed as
the stable and unequivocal profile of the subject, but as a “dynamic and fluid forum”
(Castañeda H. "Cristina Rivera Garza: el hombre, la mujer, la identidad y La Cresta de
Ilión"). This forum entails the presence of various elements in the genealogy that
constitute the textual strategies of La cresta de ilión. To better isolate those aspects of
modernity in the novel, I will discuss the four strategies enunciated in this investigation
as they were applied to the works of Sada and Bolaño in the previous chapter:
1) Radical exhaustion of language: Appropriating some of the modern ideas of
the “language” poets, La cresta de ilión is a literary “conspiracy” that inserts the
strategies, characters and even some of the themes of Amparo Dávila’s works. The novel
becomes the locus where literary language pushes its own limits and incorporates various
experiences of modernity both of Spanish and English-language literature provenance.
Taken to a new level, this literary project is reformulated into a secret code that is visible
in the strange language spoken by the two women in the novel, and also in the particular
functioning of the subtexts of Amparo Dávila. As if her literary discourse could not reach
this limit on its own, Rivera Garza seems to invoke several modern experiments that
together carry traditional literary language to its exhaustion. La cresta de ilión also
prefigures the route that Rivera Garza will follow in her next projects, writing in English
and attempting the immediate and unfinished public project of a blogsívela in the
Internet. La cresta de ilión is pivotal in the conception of a textual strategy that seeks to
destabilize literary discourse to a point of exhaustion by radicalizing intertextuality (the
insertion of Amparo Dávila’s works), hybridization (writing in English) and the
immediate and public transfiguration of a book into a perpetual text-in-progress (the
2) The absence of the œuvre: La cresta de ilión begins with the arrival of Amparo
Dávila, “la Falsa” who is in desperate search of a lost manuscript that allegedly contains
the key to a lost memory and its literary possibilities. The novel parallels this effect by
never allowing the story to advance on its own terms, since it is constantly supplemented
and almost hijacked by the interpolations of Amparo Dávila’s short stories. La cresta de
ilión never fully achieves its status as a completed œuvre, becoming instead a text whose
marginal references gain increasing importance in the plot formation, even threatening
the completion of the story. Rivera Garza’s novel can be read as an appendix to Amparo
Dávila’s stories that, in turn, no longer are contained in their initial framework after the
dialogue established with La cresta de ilión. The intertwined literary correspondence
between both works subjects the two to a tension that neutralizes their identity as
autonomous books. To the most evident Derridean effect, La cresta de ilión and Árboles
petrificados, as well as the other literary references both in English and Spanish, become
integral parts of the larger notion of text in modern literature. A language seeking its
other is never fully present; rather, it always is about to be completed and always about to
3) The Same, the Other: The displacement of the same by its other is one of the
most important effects of modern subjectivity, as analyzed by Foucault in Les mots et les
choses. Derrida had different names for this phenomenon in the terms he coined such as
“trace,” “differance” and even “supplement.” In modernity, the stability of signs
undergoes a disruption that becomes pure negativity and produces, in turn, the other. As
it was noted in chapter I of the present investigation, the permanent shifting of the same
toward its other does not grant the latter a privileged identity, composed of that very
negativity. What the movement inaugurates instead is the constant motion between the
two poles of every identity, thus overcoming the force of dialectics with an endless
Each character in La cresta de ilión remains unstable because the presence of the
other opposes a negativity that inhibits the consolidation of identity. The male
protagonist gradually accepts his other, and the displacement of his identity is complete
at the end of the novel. The possibility of being a woman, however, remains just that: a
possibility. Although this situation is never resolved, what is put in question is his very
masculinity, which similarly attains the status of possibility as well. The dynamic
oscillation between the two genders is activated as a textual strategy that intrigues the
reader, transforming any impression that the protagonist is growing in a clear direction
through the novel’s discourse. In other words, the reader experiences, because of this
textual strategy, a void in this language that refuses to define its main character, and in
this, narrative discourse enters literary infinity. The other characters in the novel traverse
the same process: Amparo Dávila, “la Falsa” is the other of Amparo Dávila “la
Verdadera,” who is in turn, the other of Amparo Dávila, the actual writer and author of
Árboles petrificados. The protagonist’s former lover appears under the name of “la
Traicionada” (the Betrayed), haunted by her other, “la Traidora” (the Traitor). In the
middle of the novel, however, she becomes her other by betraying her new companion,
Amparo Dávila, “la Falsa,” thus acquiring the contrary condition of “la Traidora.”
As we have argued at length, the novel is structured using the same premise as the
textual strategy we have found that creates its characters. La cresta de ilión is written
with a radical technique of intertextuality that reconfigures its narrative design by
incorporating the literary project of Amparo Dávila. In spite of the fact that the reader
may recognize the differences and the individuality of each work, La cresta de ilión
transforms its other into the same, while the novel itself transits in the opposing direction
to become the other of Dávila’s stories. The same and the other are present in a novel that
profits from what Derrida calls “undecidability,” as a source of impulse for its textual
strategies. The unceasing movement between the same and the other is at the core of the
novel’s structure.
4) Transgression: La cresta de ilión is itself an act of transgression in the
genealogy of literary infinity. The novel challenges the unity of the book and the stability
of its characters by transgressing all boundaries. This same textual strategy has been
analyzed in detail in the works of Borges. The incorporation of an intertext (the stories by
Amparo Dávila) evolves from being the supplement of the novel to ultimately occupying
the central space of the narrative discourse. In addition, each character is always on the
verge of becoming the other. Similarly, this strategy is applied to the entirety of the
novel’s setting, with the action occurring in a city that is always in between two opposing
worlds (the City of the North and the City of the South). Narrative techniques are also the
object of this transgression as in “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote”: La cresta de ilión
produces a new “first” writing of Amparo Dávila’s stories, but this effect can be reversed
by claiming that Árboles petrificados is in fact the first writing of which La cresta de
ilión is its variation. In a genealogy, textual strategies are defined epistemologically, and
in modernity we have chosen to focus on what could be four of the most emblematic
mechanisms that allow the reader to isolate these aspects of literary modernity.
By considering the four textual strategies in our analysis of each of the novels
chosen for the present investigation, we now have gained a clearer understanding of how
the essential questions that arose at the dawn of modernity in Western culture are very
much effective in contemporary narrative in Mexico. It is only logical to find that Sada’s
Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe, Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes and
Rivera Garza’s La cresta de ilión share a common approach to their literary projects.
Beyond the traditional studies organized by generations and the classifications accorded
to thematic or narrative styles, I believe we have been able to demonstrate that at the
epistemological level, the narrative discourses of these novels participate in a broader
experience of modernity that in Latin America; inaugurated by works like Darío’s
Azul…., and continuing in the experimental epoch of the avant-gardes, this vein reached
its maximum level of transgression with Borgesian literature, to be further explored in
novels by the most contemporary writers. As a conclusion for this study, I will now
approach a last novel in order to explore more in greater depth the fourth textual strategy
that I have chosen to call transgression. As a synthesis of the other three, this textual
strategy concentrates all dimensions of literary modernity, proposed as the object of study
in these pages. I will conclude with an overall discussion about modernity, suggesting
that the task of discerning all implications of modern literature, as Borges used to say, has
barely been sketched.
IV.2 Jorge Volpi and A pesar del oscuro silencio: Transgression
IV.2.1 Cosmopolitanism and Mexican Modernity
In 1996, a group of four young writers74, all born in the 1960’s, held a press
conference in Mexico City to read the “Manifesto Crack,” a literary project emulating the
revolutionary pronunciations of the poetic avant-gardes of the 1920’s and 30’s in Latin
America. In this document, they called for a revival of the cosmopolitan vein of Mexican
literature, and in particular for the novelistic genre, as the solution to neutralize what they
considered to be the stereotypical image of Latin American literature, propagated by the
“epigones75” of magical realism, as formulated by Gabriel García Márquez. The “Crack”
writers echoed the opinions of similar groups76 from South America who also manifested
their distance from the hegemony of García Márquez’s imitators, the marketing of their
novels in the main editorial houses of Spain, and their reception and propagation through
academic circles, particularly in the United States. The Crack manifesto is divided in four
parts, in which each author expounds the main ideas of the project, including the
presentation of his own novels. For his intervention, Ignacio Padilla summarizes the
group’s reading of the problematic condition of Latin American narrative:
Ahí hay más bien una mera reacción contra el agotamiento; cansancio de que la
gran literatura latinoamericana y el dudoso realismo mágico se hayan convertido,
74 Ricardo Chávez Castañeda, Ignacio Padilla, Pedro Ángel Palou, Eloy Urroz and Jorge Volpi.
75 The Crack writers attacked, in particular, the figure of writers such as Isabel Allende, who have turned
García Márquez’s use of magical elements into a best-seller formula.
76As was mentioned in the previous chapter, there are two short-story anthologies of new Latin American
writers who are aligned in their rejection of current practitioners of magical realism. The anthologies are:
McOndo (1996), edited by Chileans Alberto Fuguet and Sergio Gómez, and Se habla español (2000) edited
also by Fuguet and Bolivian Edmundo Paz Soldán.
para nuestras letras, en magiquismo trágico (Chávez Castañeda, Padilla, Palou
and Urroz).
Among the signers of the manifesto was Jorge Volpi (Mexico 1968), who had
already written three novels: A pesar del oscuro silencio (1992), Días de ira (1994) and
El temperamento melancólico (1996). This last novel, like the works presented by the
other writers in the group, situated foreign characters in foreign soil, emphasizing the
absence of Mexican themes and motifs in its pages. These novels refused not only to
narrate the assumed “magical” condition of Latin America: they rejected the “obligated”
formulation of stories about Latin America at all by Latin American writers. The group
gained overnight international celebrity when in 1999 Volpi’s novel, En busca de
Klingsor, won the resuscitated Seix Barral prize, previously awarded in Barcelona to
authors like Mario Vargas Llosa and Guillermo Cabrera Infante. En busca de Klingsor
tells the story of a U.S. military official who is commissioned to investigate the atomic
project of Nazi Germany, immediately after the end of World War II. Padilla later won
another important editorial prize for his novel Amphitryon (2000), with a story that also
involves Hitler’s Germany. Soon, the media announced the beginning of a new
“generation” of writers that had created a rupture in the history of Mexican narrative.
While several critics reminded readers of the long cosmopolitan tradition77 preceding the
“Crack,” the group itself was cautious of exaggerating their position in the manifesto.
77 This long list includes the most important names of Mexican literature, from Alfonso Reyes to Octavio
Paz, from Jorge Cuesta (to whom I will refer in length in this chapter) to Sergio Pitol. Let it suffice to
mention, as a paradigmatic example of the extensive lineage of cosmopolitan narrative, José Emilio
Pacheco’s Morirás lejos (1967), which dramatizes the Jewish Diaspora and persecution across centuries of
history, including the period of World War II.
Padilla highlighted the ludic aspect of the group’s proclamations, relativizing its position
in the development of contemporary narrative in Mexico:
No vale la pena agitar el frasco de las garrapatas. Esto es un juego, como todo lo
que vale en la literatura. La palabra es una y la misma; la novela, digan lo que
digan, viene de siempre y continúa. Rompiéndola, prevalece. En efecto, si no hay
nada nuevo bajo el sol, es porque lo viejo vale para la novedad (Chávez
Castañeda, Padilla, Palou and Urroz).
Beyond the manifesto, however, the group has made incendiary public remarks
that have reignited the old debate that since modernismo, and in particular after the works
of Rubén Darío, has raged between cosmopolitanism and nationalism. As we analyzed in
chapter II of the present investigation, it was this same discussion that led many of his
early critics to claim that Borges —as others had previously said about Darío— was not a
Latin American writer. In order to update this debate and to correct those who believed
that the “Crack” had invented cosmopolitanism, critics like Christopher Domínguez
Michael remind us that the most important tradition of modern Mexican narrative —and
for that matter, of the entire continent— has in fact been very cosmopolitan. In his
presentation of a “dossier” of contemporary Latin American narrative prepared for a
recent issue of La Nouvelle Revue Française, which included some of the “Crack”
authors, Domínguez Michael explains that the works of writers like those of the “Crack”
is merely a logical end product of this condition:
Cela ne fait que prouver, une fois encore, la vigueur du dialogue cosmopolite
entre les écrivains mexicains, écho d’une tradition presque centenaire, celle qui
marqua la rencontre entre Alfonso Reyes et Valery Larbaud, entre le surréalisme
et la poésie latino-américaine ou même, la découverte des textes sacrés des Mayas
par Miguel Ángel Asturias dans leur traduction française. Il n’existe pas et il n’a
jamais existé de littérature « post-coloniale » —sauf peut-être dans l’âme
corrompue de racisme de certains professeurs—, que ce soit au Mexique ou dans
le reste de l’Amérique latine ("La mort de la littérature mexicaine" 125-26)78.
Paralleling Domínguez Michael, Volpi clarified his position during the
“Encuentro de escritores latinoamericanos” sponsored by Seix Barral and held in Seville
in June of 200379. His article, like Domínguez Michael’s, discusses the metaphorical
“death” of Latin American literature produced by the expansion of a cosmopolitanism
that ultimately threatens and dilutes the nationality of a writer. He argues in favor of a
freedom to write about any subject beyond “Mexican” themes. Like the critic, Volpi finds
this freedom at work throughout the entirety of the 20th century, in the renovation of
modernismo, the experimentation of avant-garde movements and in particular, the boom
novelists. Volpi links the “Crack” with a group formed in South America after the
publication of the anthology McOndo, the same year the “Crack” manifesto was
presented. Reflecting on these writers that share a generational attitude, Volpi writes:
Tanto los miembros del crack como los de McOndo, así como numerosos
escritores sin filiación específica, se desmarcaron del dictado crítico que los
impulsaba a convertirse en auténticos escritores latinoamericanos. Su idea no
consistía en renunciar a lo latinoamericano para copiar modelos extranjeros, como
señalaron algunos críticos, sino en perseguir la misma libertad artística alcanzada
por el boom. En muchos casos, abandonaron los lugares comunes de sus
respectivos países: necesitaban escapar a toda costa de las clasificaciones
académicas ("El fin de la narrativa latinoamericana" 220).
The debate between cosmopolitanism and nationalism is far from resolved; the “Crack”
writers seized the opportunity to reactivate this discussion while simultaneously
78 This text was originally written in Spanish and translated for La Nouvelle Revue Française. It has not
been published elsewhere, to my knowledge.
79 We have mentioned this event earlier in this chapter and in the previous one, quoting from the
interventions by Cristina Rivera Garza and Roberto Bolaño, who where among the twelve Latin American
writers attending the conference.
positioning their group at the center of the conflict. In doing so, they have tried to affiliate
their creative impulse with a century-old discussion that has been played and replayed in
what Octavio Paz has famously named the modern “tradition of rupture80”: the
continuous renovation of literary language that since modernismo has been the objective
of each new group or generation.
I believe, however, that the debate between these predominant tendencies —
cosmopolitanism and nationalism— may be reinterpreted under epistemological light. In
this manner, nationalism can be understood as the literary current that maintains the
centrality of Man by holding literature to be a representation of Latin American history
and culture. In analyzing cosmopolitanism, nevertheless, I believe that new differences
appear within this approach to literature. A novel such as Volpi’s En busca de Klingsor is
certainly cosmopolitan, if what we are seek is the use and presence of themes and
characters that have no relation with Latin America. At the epistemological level,
however, Volpi’s novel and, for example, Carlos Fuentes’ La muerte de Artemio Cruz,
belong to the same genealogy: they both operate within the same epistemic conditions,
setting in narrative motion historical events, while questioning identity and culture in the
modern world. These books may refer to dissimilar countries and time periods, but this
difference is predominantly thematic. Although one is about Nazi Germany and the other
is about post-revolutionary Mexico, the fact is that both are constructed within historical
and cultural parameters that define the choices of language and plot structure.
80 See: Octavio Paz, "Los hijos del limo," La casa de la presencia: poesía e historia, vol. 1, Obras
completas (México: F.C.E., 1991).
A very different reading is made visible if we compare Volpi’s novel with
Borges’ story “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan81.” The story takes place during
World War I and its characters are European and Asian. The freedom sought by the
“Crack” is very much present in this story, if what one’s criteria is a thematic that is not
Latin American. In this respect, Volpi’s novel and Borges’ story are evidently
cosmopolitan. Why is it, then, that they still seem so different? At the epistemological
level they belong to two very different genealogies: Volpi’s novel functions within the
same epistemic border as Fuentes’ novel because it emanates from a literary language
that pursues the same dialectical movement of history. It aims at resolving the identity of
Man immersed in a complex culture in crisis, in which his central place must be
considered at all times. Borges’ story is above all the narration of a textual strategy in
which subjectivity constantly shifts between the same and the other: here, the
protagonists may exchange identities because they emulate the nature of a language in
constant reformulation, always challenging its own limits in its search of that “outside”
that ultimately leads to its radical exhaustion.
Cosmopolitanism and nationalism are, in fact, two very old European labels that
reflect the primary divisions between Western cultures, as we will discuss in these pages.
And perhaps because the two sides have not been definitively reconciled, the discussion
is still ongoing, after a century of being initiated. Interestingly enough, Volpi’s first
novel, A pesar del oscuro silencio, surpasses the basic elements of this debate. It is the
81 This story, included in Ficciones (1944), was discussed in chapter II of the present investigation.
story of Jorge82, a man obsessed with the life and death of Jorge Cuesta (1903-1942), a
Mexican poet and member of the avant-garde group that published the prestigious
magazine Contemporáneos (1928-1931), from which the group took its name. In the
novel, Jorge decides to uncover the secrets behind the tragic suicide of Cuesta, who
completed one of the most difficult and hermetic poems in Mexican contemporary
literature, just hours before being hospitalized in a mental institution. As the novel
progresses, Jorge finds himself repeating Cuesta’s life, and his narrative language
reproduces fragments of Cuesta’s writings. Like the characters of Rivera Garza’s La
cresta de ilión who echo the recurrent metaphor of the Borgesian mirrors that face each
other, Jorge and Cuesta writings are interchanged and their biographical data is confused
in a shifting alterity that ultimately transforms their identities into functions of language.
Literary language is, in turn, faced with its own alteriy: Volpi’s novel assimilates its
other, Cuesta’s actual poetry, but it rejects the authorship of both. In the end, A pesar del
oscuro silencio becomes a transgressive text by demonstrating that it learned the lesson
taught by earlier modern experiences: that literary language can always reinvent itself by
contemplating its figure in the mirror.
IV.2.2 A History of Silences
In his intervention in the “Crack” manifesto, Pedro Ángel Palou writes about the
disarticulation of subjectivity as the most effective way of achieving the “freedom” of
82 Due to the propensity for misunderstanding, in my discussion of A pesar del oscuro silencio I will refer
to Jorge Volpi, the author, as “Volpi; to the novel’s narrator as “Jorge;” and to the Mexican poet Jorge
Cuesta simply as “Cuesta.”
literary imagination. This disarticulation is seen here as a strategy that produces the other
of the narrator. He explains:
Si la posesión más preciada del novelista es la libertad de imaginar, estas novelas
exacerban el hecho buscando el continuo desdoblamiento de sus narradores. Nada
más fácil para un escritor que escribir sobre sí mismo; nada más aburrido que la
vida de un escritor. Tercer mandamiento: "Honrarás la esquizofrenia y escucharás
otras voces; déjalas hablar en tus páginas" (Chávez Castañeda, Padilla, Palou and
Volpi’s A pesar del oscuro silencio follows this vision closely. Above all, it is the
story of the obsession of a man with the life and works of another, of the schizophrenia of
listening to other voices, that open the door to alterity within the unity of the novel. The
choice of Volpi’s subject matter —the life and death of Jorge Cuesta— is perhaps, the
initial transgressive statement of this literary enterprise and with it, Volpi demonstrates
consistency with his earlier interests: the possibility of filling in the gaps of a history of
silences in Latin American literature. A pesar del oscuro silencio, in this sense, is the
novelization of his essay “El magisterio de Jorge Cuesta,” an award-winning argument
that proposed a controversial reading of Cuesta’s most important poem: the cryptic
“Canto a un dios mineral.” In this text, Volpi writes that Cuesta intended to operate in
poetry procedures similar to the chemical ones with which he experimented as part of his
scientific work. As a chemist, Cuesta paralleled the investigations of alchemists by
studying enzymes and the transmutation of matter. In his novel and essay, Volpi extends
his search for answers to Cuesta’s thesis, written for his bachelor’s degree, an
investigation titled: Procedimiento para la producción sintética de sustancias
enzimáticas con actitud específica y aplicaciones de las mismas. In his approach to the
poet, Cuesta’s scientific research and his poetic project become one in Volpi’s initial
Canto a un dios mineral representa, en efecto, el desesperado anhelo de su autor
por alcanzar la realidad “permanente”, el sustrato inmutable del cosmos. Para
lograrlo, se vale del magisterio alquímico, de todos los pasos que seguían los
alquimistas para obtener la piedra filosofal; el poema es, pues, una descripción
pormenorizada de los mecanismos, artificios, cambios y metamorfosis que se
llevan a cabo durante la Gran Obra y que probablemente Cuesta también realizó
en su laboratorio ("El magisterio de Jorge Cuesta" 29).
As in his essay, A pesar del oscuro silencio is a novel that strains to hear silences,
those ellipses in a work that await a reader to shed light on their hidden concepts and
mechanisms, and also to celebrate a language that voluntarily seeks its own
transformation into something else. This is the search, in terms of the present
investigation, of the other, understood here as one of the main phenomena of the
epistemological crisis of modernity, as discussed in the first chapter. I will argue in my
reading of A pesar del oscuro silencio, that the madness suffered by Cuesta and sought by
Jorge (Volpi’s protagonist), emanates from the same modern conditions that define a
literature where subjectivity is diluted, a radical exhaustion of language is desired and the
ultimate possibility of a univocal œuvre is lost in a narration that must end in absolute
silence. As an admiring reader of Foucault —in this case of his Histoire de la folie à
l’âge classique (1961)— Volpi also pursues the reconstruction of an archeology of
silence. By listening and decrypting such silence, Volpi attempts to emulate Cuesta and,
with him, to restore literary language to its force as an independent epistemological
vehicle with its own processes and limits. The silence of poetry extends to the obscure
aspects of Cuesta’s life that, if understood, could also help clarify his ars poetica and,
even perhaps, the reasons behind his tragic suicide. In the end, however, it is not Cuesta’s
life that is recuperated in the novel: it is his biography, transformed into a literary gesture,
which augments the infinite possibilities of his poetic language. As Jorge (the character)
and Cuesta, become interrelated in a narrative discourse that propels ambiguity as its
principal technique, neither identity prevails. Instead, as we analyzed in our reading of
Los detectives salvajes and La cresta de ilión, the author figure becomes a function of the
novel, structured beyond the limits of biography and into the expansive reformulation of
literature. For critic Danny Anderson, the subject (Jorge) and object (Cuesta) of the novel
are increasingly undifferentiated, and this effect triggers the multiplicity predominant in
the work:
In the end, readers are left with a series of repetitions that gesture toward both the
impossibility of transcending the division between subject and object and the
multiple ways in which the (con)fusion of Jorge Cuesta, Jorge the narrator, and
Jorge Volpi cannot be easily disentangled (Anderson 4).
The structuring of the novel reflects its tripartite subjectivity, extending from
Jorge Volpi (the author of the novel) to Jorge (the narrator) and Jorge Cuesta (the object
of the novel). Correspondingly, the novel is divided into three chapters or “obras” —each
subtitled with verses by Cuesta— a choice echoing the phases of the alchemic process,
according to critic and “Crack” manifesto co-signer, Eloy Urroz (87). The original
manuscript, Urroz recalls, initially contained some 250 pages. After editing, the final
version preserved only 112 pages that are written in a very concise language and whose
poetic prose that the reader will find similar to Cuesta’s, with regards to intonation and
imagery. As the novel progresses, actual verses by Cuesta are interpolated in Volpi’s text
without notice, so the work itself assumes the possibility of traversing the metamorphic
process of alchemy.
The first page opens with a line that will be constantly present and repeated in the
following chapters: “Se llamaba Jorge, como yo, y por eso su vida me duele dos veces”
(A pesar del oscuro silencio 11). When Jorge is told the story of the last days of Cuesta
life, he claims to see through the poet’s eyes when he requests a few minutes to finish his
“Canto a un dios mineral” —his most important work— before being taken to a mental
institution. Jorge, the narrator, wonders about the ultimate meaning of such an obscure
existence, which culminated in Cuesta’s self-emasculation and suicide in a hospital room:
La historia, prendida al vuelo en una conversación trivial, entonces me envolvió
de inmediato, me desquició con la violencia de sus figuras y la acidez de su
sentido. ¿Quién era el poeta? ¿Quién era, pues, Jorge Cuesta? Prófugo del humo
de los cigarrillos y del vaho del alcohol, amagado en una discusión imposible,
sólo me quedaba el desasosiego de quien parte sin saber hacia dónde. Pero se
llamaba Jorge, como yo, y por eso su vida empezaba a dolerme dos veces (A
pesar del oscuro silencio 14-15).
As a psychiatrist listens to a madman’s words to determine their hidden meaning,
Jorge is determined to understand the connection between Cuesta’s life and works. The
effort to describe those silences (his hermetic poetry, the reasons of his suicide) directs
Jorge’s investigation. The last line of the section is repeated with a slight variation: in the
second variation, Cuesta’s life began (empezaba) to hurt him twice, as if with the use of
the imperfect, Jorge sets the story in motion through the technique of analepse. In section
two of the third “obra,” the narrator tells the story in the present indicative, as if we have
finally reached the moment of enunciation that will ultimately lead the reader to witness
Jorge’s own suicide, imitating Cuesta’s death. Volpi’s choice of writing a novel whose
character, Jorge, emulates the life of Jorge Cuesta, may also be the subject of that
Foucauldian archeology of silence that Volpi seems to elaborate on in the course of his
investigation. I will contend that Volpi focuses on Cuesta because the latter’s life and
poetry are the symbol of a transgression that is embraced by the narrative project of A
pesar del oscuro silencio. This transgression is one of the essential elements of modern
literature. In the same way that a dialogue can be traced between Sada and Rulfo, Bolaño
and Cortázar, and Rivera-Garza and Dávila, Volpi will see in Cuesta the opportunity of
joining a literary genealogy that will lay out for him the path to a modernity that has not
ceased reinventing itself. I will now discuss how this transgression operates in some of
the works of Cuesta in relation to A pesar del oscuro silencio.
IV.2.3 The Anxiety of Genealogy
In 1928 a scarcely known young poet, Jorge Cuesta, published a controversial
anthology under his name that initiated a long debate between generations and poetic
movements. Its selection excluded important poets like Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera and
Juan de Dios Peza, while simultaneously devoting nearly half of its 204 pages to the
young poets that were behind its publication. The Antología de la poesía mexicana
moderna portended the reshaping of the Mexican literary canon by transgressing
established poetic hierarchies. In his introduction to the anthology, critic Guillermo
Sheridan argues in favor of the positive implications of selecting “predecessors” and
“contemporaries” in this collection, through which the group of the “Contemporáneos”
created their own “genealogy”:
Una buena antología debe desatar una buena polémica o ser consecuencia de una
anterior. […] Eliot decía que cada generación tenía que traducir a sus clásicos;
quizá habría que pensar en que también debería hacer su antología, al margen de
cualquier criterio histórico y formal (Cuesta Antología de la poesía mexicana
moderna 29).
The “transgression” of the poets responsible for the anthology would be
reaffirmed in the production of the magazine Contemporáneos between 1928 and 1931,
which stimulated the publication of several young poets, most notably Xavier
Villaurrutia, Gilberto Owen, José Gorostiza, Salvador Novo and, of course, Jorge Cuesta.
According to Sheridan, Cuesta wrote the introduction for the anthology and agreed to
publicly present himself as the one responsible for the selection, because none of his own
poetry appears in it. In signing his name as the sole editor of the selection, Cuesta
advanced his position as an independent critic and enjoyed what Sheridan calls the
strange liberty of co-existing with the group as a ghost (Cuesta Antología de la poesía
mexicana moderna 39). The spectral nature of Cuesta was also present in the way he
produced his own poetry: new versions succeeded previous ones, and editors face today
the impossibility of presenting the reader with the definitive edition of his works. Most
collections of his poetry, therefore, include several versions of the same poem, where
different structural alternatives and word choices are made. Let us consider, as an
example, the sonnet “Una palabra obscura,” which is often published with three different
alternatives. In the last tercet, one of the versions reads:
Y en el silencio en que zozobra, dura
como un sueño la voz, vaga y futura,
y perpetua y difunta como un eco (Cuesta et al. 519).
In a second version, the voice no longer capsizes in silence. Instead, it doubles up, and
contrary to its perpetual condition in the previous tercet, it is not exhausted as an echo:
Y en el silencio en que se dobla y dura
como un sueño la voz está futura,
y ya exhausta y difunta como un eco (Cuesta et al. 520).
In a third version, however, the voice abandons its dreamlike condition and becomes
language. From this new position, it finally opens up to a fiction:
Y en el silencio en que sin fin murmura,
es el lenguaje, por vivir futura,
que da vacante a una ficción un eco (Cuesta et al. 519).
A poetics of constant revisions is one of Cuesta’s trademarks. This may be one of
the most important reasons why Cuesta accepted to take full responsibility of the 1928
anthology. To exclude canonical names, he argues, does not impoverish the selection;
their presence would have produced redundancy. Beyond the controversy of omitting
some of the founding fathers of Mexico’s modern poetry, Cuesta and the
Contemporáneos were testing their own vision of literary history: a shifting genealogy.
Cuesta explains in the prologue:
¡Qué error pensar que el arte no es un ejercicio progresivo! Sólo dura la obra que
puede corregirse y prolongarse; pronto muere aquella que sólo puede repetirse.
Hay obras que no son sino pura influencia, una constante incitación a
contradecirlas, a corregirlas y prolongarlas. Otras cuya influencia es estéril y que
no producen fuera de ellas más que inútiles ecos (Cuesta Antología de la poesía
mexicana moderna 60).
I believe that Volpi chose to study and fictionalize the life and works of Cuesta
because of their transgressive impulse. Through his writings, Cuesta offers Volpi one of
the most radical expressions of modernity, a collection of poetry and essays that invites
the reader to interact with each consecutive version he revised and made available for
interpretation. Cuesta’s life, on the other hand, became for Volpi the archetype of
freedom that inspired and even legitimized the daring and controversial pronunciations of
the “Crack’s” revival of cosmopolitanism as a generational rupture83. Volpi tested this
approach in his study “El magisterio de Jorge Cuesta,” which despite its accolades in an
essay contest, received harsh criticism, in particular from specialists in Cuesta’s poetry.
With its appearance, A pesar del oscuro silencio ignited a similar reaction by critics.
Even the book cover seemed to be designed as a provocation. In the interior sleeve is a
photograph of Volpi, shown imitating the pose of a widely circulated picture of Cuesta.
The fact that the narrator’s name is Jorge, and that the middle of the novel reproduces
excerpts from Volpi’s essay, angered some critics who accused the author of positioning
his writing on an equal ground as that of Cuesta. We should keep in mind, nevertheless,
that Cuesta’s canonicity is of recent date: for many decades his life and works were seen
as those of an eccentric poet in the best case, and as a marginal and maudit in the worst.
83 Let it be sufficient to note that Cuesta’s famous refutation of those who argued against cosmopolitanism
and in favor of nationalism is an obvious precedent of the “Crack” manifesto. With a defying attitude that
would later be imitated by the “Crack” writers, Cuesta acidly wrote:
El nacionalismo es una idea europea que estamos empeñados en copiar. ¿Hasta qué punto
corresponde en México a una realidad? ¿Hasta qué punto es una pura fantasía, un puro producto
de la imitación de lo europeo? […] La idea más infecunda en el arte y la literatura mexicanos ha
sido la idea nacional. Las obras nacionalistas no han logrado otra cosa que imitar servilmente a los
nacionalismos de Europa. El nacionalismo mexicano se ha caracterizado por su falta de
originalidad, o, en otras palabras, lo más extranjero, lo más falsamente mexicano que se ha
producido en nuestro arte y nuestra literatura, son las obras nacionalistas. Como una ironía del
destino, encontramos que en el momento en que más “nacionales” hemos sido es cuando nos
hemos falsificado más. See: Jorge Cuesta, "La nacionalidad mexicana," Poesía y crítica, ed. Luis
Mario Schneider (México: Conaculta, 1991) 107, 09.
Considering the complete implications of Cuesta’s profile, Urroz writes that Volpi’s
choice is only logical:
Jorge Volpi entendía que escoger a Cuesta —y no a Gorostiza, a Pellicer, a Torres
Bodet o Villaurrutia— conllevaba serias consecuencias. Elegir la vida y la obra de
este poeta maldito perturbaba, incluso, molestaba. Escribir sobre Cuesta, desde
Cuesta, a partir de Cuesta… era una doble amenaza: para él como autor primerizo
y para la intelligentzia que a veces prefiere no inmiscuirse con autores
infrecuentes y decididamente inclasificables. Y Cuesta era, entre todos los
Contemporáneos, el inclasificable (73-74).
Volpi’s anxiety of genealogy informs the entire structure of his novel. At the core
of the textual strategies is a movement toward transgression. As the author whose opera
prima has the pretension of assuming the life and writings of a (now) highly regarded
poet in Mexican literary history, Volpi transgresses the territories of intertextuality and
attempts —in the eyes of the outraged critic— something similar to a literary hijack: by
assuming the identity of Cuesta, the novel itself aspires to achieve the poet’s quality. I
contend, however, that the transgressive game is radicalized to such degree that both the
main character and the entirety of the novel’s discourse operate a textual strategy that I
have termed here as the unstable oscillation between the same and the other. The
impossibility of resolving the status of the main character leads the reader to a constantly
question the narrator. Who is speaking? Cuesta, Jorge and Volpi: the ambiguity of the
narrative technique preserves its multiplicity and constitutes the most effective, disruptive
and modern aspect of the novel. The strategy is taken to its furthest consequences when
the reader learns, through an explanatory note at the end of the novel, that several of
Cuesta’s verses have been inserted in the narration blending —for the most part
unnoticed— with the voice of the main character. Critic Carlos Amaya sees in the search
of the other reminiscences of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, a circularity that preserves
the displacement of identity in the loop of infinity:
Se visualiza, así, una representación del sujeto que se extiende hacia el infinito
sobrepasando los límites espaciales y temporales. Esto hace posible que el
personaje principal, quien existe en el presente, pueda desdoblarse en un
personaje del pasado y comparta con éste no sólo su vida sino también su muerte.
A la vez, el personaje revive en el presente y asume su identidad suprimiendo la
identidad del personaje original. El “Yo” y el “Otro” se juntan para formar, otra
vez, una unidad total (18).
It is essential to highlight the textual strategy of infinity in A pesar del oscuro silencio,
following the dynamic tension between Jorge and Cuesta. Against the possibility of
forming a “total” unity, as proposed by Amaya, I will argue here that it is precisely in the
final disjunction that breaks the oscillation between Jorge and Cuesta that the ultimate
level of transgression is consolidated in the novel’s design.
IV.2.4 Jorge and Cuesta
During Jorge’s investigation about Cuesta’s demise, two key episodes accelerate
the transgressive process leading to the disarticulation of the protagonist’s identity. He
visits the cemetery where Cuesta was buried and on the tombstone, Jorge reads the verses
written by Villaurrutia in reference to Cuesta’s suicide: “Dicen que he muerto./ No
moriré jamás:/ ¡estoy despierto!” As Jorge stands near the tomb, he sees the shadow of a
person approaching his direction. The unknown figure pauses by Cuesta’s grave, and
Jorge believes that he is witnessing a sort of rendezvous beyond death. Days later, Jorge
visits Guadalupe Marín, Cuesta’s former wife and a controversial woman who had
previously been married to Diego Rivera. When they meet, Marín addresses Jorge with a
familiar tone, as if she mistakes him for Cuesta. The presence of an other that follows his
steps in the cemetery, and the possibility of actually being the other he is seeking, cause
Jorge a deep anxiety that affects his mental stability. In section 8 of the first chapter,
Jorge writes:
Lo siento muy cerca, agazapado, escondido en cada sombra, en los mismos
lugares que yo frecuento, en mis conversaciones, en mis libros. Ahí está, frío,
constante, impávido. Es un demonio que no ríe, que añora, que recuerda. Un
pecador nostálgico que me acecha: su misión es perderme, contagiarme de su
triste arrepentimiento. Está en el cementerio y reza junto a la tumba del poeta,
también lo encuentro en mi trabajo, en las esquinas, en las salas de concierto y en
los espejos. No me engaño: existe (A pesar del oscuro silencio 34).
In the etymological sense of the word “demonic,” Cuesta invades the life of Jorge
as the subversive element that opposes life with death, lucidity with madness. In all
aspects of his life, Cuesta becomes an increasing presence that injects his sadness in
Jorge, until Cuesta’s face occupies the mirror’s reflection, where Jorge no longer
recognizes himself. As Volpi’s imitates Cuesta’s pose, Jorge embraces Cuesta’s figure.
But the same movement occurs in the opposite direction. Cuesta’s writings and physical
presence search for Jorge’s body and handwriting, as if only through Jorge can Cuesta’s
life and works regain the transgressive position they used to enjoy before his suicide.
This phenomenon materializes as a textual strategy when Jorge produces three letters that
extensively appropriate Cuesta’s writings and even correct them, intensifying the
ambiguity implied of his double identity, as Urroz has noted (88). In his monographic
study of Cuesta, Louis Panabière84 transcribes a telegram sent by Cuesta to his sister
Natalia: “¿Estás presente, querida hermana, a pesar del oscuro silencio?” In the letters he
84 Quoted in Urroz (88). See: Louis Panabière, Itinerario de una disidencia (México: F.C.E., 1983).
has Jorge write, Volpi replaces the recipient of the telegram with a generic “Amada,” and
the question marks are omitted to emphasize the force of the statement. This line is
repeated in each of the three letters —much in the same way that Cuesta reworked his
poems, as we observed above— searching for new combinations, different word choices
and alternate rhythms.
The climax of the novel will come with Jorge’s interpretation of Cuesta’s poem,
“Canto a un dios mineral.” It begins with the insertion of excerpts from Volpi’s essay “El
magisterio de Jorge Cuesta,” but in Volpi’s novel, Jorge goes beyond this reading and
offers a controversial interpretation in which he argues that the poem was an aesthetic
response to Cuesta’s quest for immortality. Focusing on the union of the two sexes, Jorge
believes that Cuesta intended to reach a sexual duality that would position him in an
eternal instant of plenitude, ultimately suspending, for him only, the linear continuity of
time. Echoing the plot of Borges’ story “El milagro secreto,” Jorge assumes that in
writing the final verses of the “Canto a un dios mineral” just minutes before he is taken to
a mental institution, Cuesta hoped to discover that void in which time freezes, very much
like that instant in which the bullets remain suspended in the air while the protagonist of
Borges’ story completes his literary composition. The transformation is enunciated in the
poem, but Cuesta takes a step further by continuing the project on his own body, just as
he tested the experimental substances for his scientific investigations by injecting them in
his bloodstream. Similarly, Volpi’s Jorge conjectures that Cuesta emasculated himself,
hoping to elude time as an androgen that accumulates all aspects of human existence in
one single, impossible body. Jorge writes:
El Canto anuncia el triunfo del químico. Sin pensarlo mucho, el poeta toma un
mortero y muele los granos escarlatas que han resultado del experimento; les
agrega un excipiente y prepara la solución que luego introduce en el hueco de una
jeringa. ¿Enzimas? ¿Elíxir? ¿La piedra filosofal? Su propio cuerpo como campo
de prueba, conejillo de indias, autosacrificio. Afronta el riesgo: apostarlo todo en
un último acto que es poesía. Su conversión orgánica y fisiológica, su mutación
en andrógino, es la apariencia externa, banal, la máscara del secreto. Adentro, en
cambio, espera lo eterno. La inmortalidad es permanecer ahí contemplándose sin
poder hacer otra cosa que mirarse. La inmortalidad como un espejo (A pesar del
oscuro silencio 89).
Jorge’s interpretation of the transgressive nature of Cuesta’s poem leads him to
imitate Cuesta’s life because the literary project embraces both textual and physical
experimentation. Linguistically, the novel transgresses its own limits by radicalizing
intertextuality, as if the book were the body that receives the injection of a foreign
substance: Cuesta’s poetry. The obsession with immortality —continues Jorge’s
reading— is completed only when two separate entities join under the same surface;
likewise, Jorge and Cuesta will become the coexisting alterity reflected in the mirror in
order to neutralize temporal succession. The alternative interpretation of the “Canto a un
dios mineral” reaches its conclusion. With Cuesta, Jorge writes the poem (and Cuesta’s
death) to close the alchemic cycle, and together Jorge (the same) and Cuesta (the other)
overcome the stream of time.
Ése es el fruto que del tiempo es dueño;
en él la entraña su pavor, su sueño
y su labor termina.
El sabor que destila la tiniebla
es el propio sentido, que otros puebla
y el futuro domina ("Canto a un dios mineral" 59).
The poem is reproduced but not repeated, and to this effect, the novel is close to Borges’
concept of reading as another form of writing, since the reproduction of the poem must be
assumed as a final variation that completes Cuesta’s œuvre: the transmutation of matter
into an eternal entity: “Ése es el fruto que del tiempo es dueño.” Aside from the alchemic
reading offered by Jorge, the fact remains that in order to maintain the tension of the plot,
the novel operates a constant narrative transgression.
The same effect of transgression is present in the relation between Cuesta’s poetry
and the material objects in its verses. Mexican writer and critic Inés Arredondo analyzes
Cuesta’s discourse as the first and most important target of his own disruptive
transgression. His poetry, however, is not in search of the materialization of its various
images and discursive transmutations. Instead, it secures the opposite process: matter is
subjected to the irrationality of poetic discourse. In this, Arredondo writes, intelligence
prevails over reality. Literature, as we have concluded for the other novels studied in the
present investigation, once again departs from the substratum:
La inteligencia vuelta hacia sí misma, autosuficiente, ajena a la materia, es una
solución humana y heroica, y él como químico sabía la semejanza y la igualdad
de esos componentes en el hombre y en todo objeto, pero la razón, pasión de su
vida, no es una sustancia compartible: es lo que hace humano al hombre, lo que lo
separa. Pero Jorge Cuesta, apasionadamente frío, intelectual, crítico despiadado,
es un poeta y sabe que el arte necesita de la materia, quiere que ésta entre
también en el terreno del hombre aunque no sea por las puertas de la lógica
(Arredondo 347).
The novel ends with exacerbated ambiguity. Jorge is conscious of the parallel
course that his life has taken in relation to Cuesta’s. Assuming the simulation, Jorge
hopes to write the “perfect” circular novel; the final polishing of his reconstructed story
attempts to be the perfection of a cycle that could potentially continue to infinity. As the
expression of a basic modern impulse, Jorge is willing to be Cuesta in order to reinvent
his life by adopting the identity of the other; with some luck, like Cuesta imagined, Jorge
hopes to defeat the overwhelming flux of time. But something goes wrong in the formula.
The protagonist is incapable of completing his mutation into an androgen: Jorge cannot
emasculate himself, facing his cowardice as a simulator that does not dare to carry on the
radical search of the other in its utmost consequences. In the end, Jorge commits suicide,
incapable of reaching unity with his other that could potentially free him of time’s
oppression. In the impossibility of completing the “perfect” novel, however, Volpi
proposes the most essential manifestation of modernity: the same will never reconcile
with the other. Critics have found in this, the limits of a literary language that, facing its
crisis, chooses silence:
Volpi condensa la búsqueda vital del poeta veracruzano, manipula el lenguaje
llenándolo de símbolos para dejarlo, como en el “Canto a un dios mineral”, en un
punto sin retorno, al borde de su depuración ontológica, en el filo de la dialéctica
entre lo material del lenguaje y lo profundo de su poder denotativo. Allá, en fin,
donde sólo es posible el no-lenguaje, la concepción wittgensteniana del silencio
que da título a la novela. Todo esto es lo que Cuesta definió como “la palabra que
arde”, aquella depurada totalmente de su materialidad hasta ser sólo idea, sombra,
eco. Ruido, en fin, que permanece inmortal en el silencio (Regalado López 276).
The novel ends by reproducing the final verses of Cuesta’s “Canto a un dios mineral” as
Jorge hangs himself. In spite of sharing the same death, Jorge no longer relates to Cuesta:
they both have ceased to exist, but their parallel lives have parted each other. In place of
the dialectical presence of Jorge and Cuesta, there is nothingness: an unfolded bed sheet
similar to the emptiness of a blank page. Beyond the dialectics of Jorge or Cuesta, A
pesar del oscuro silencio becomes the locus where both identities disappear in exchange
for a language that is now only similar to itself.
A year after the presentation of the “Manifiesto Crack,” Volpi published an article
about Borges. In it, Volpi focuses on the discussion inaugurated by Borges’ famous
division of himself in the short essay, “Borges y yo85.” In his article, Volpi argues that
Borges manufactured the image of the old, melancholic and even unhappy writer that
most of his critics believed he was. Declaring Borges’ public figure to be a fabrication of
his fiction and comparing this transformation with Stevenson’s classic metamorphosis of
Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, Volpi writes:
Pero en el fondo todos sabemos que Jekyll es el único culpable de la fatal
aparición de Mr. Hyde. Borges es el único culpable de su supuesta condena, de su
arrinconamiento frente a la figura pública que, en apariencia, nunca quiso ser. Si
se trata de desenmascararlo, el procedimiento debiera ser el inverso del empleado
hasta ahora: el Borges real parece ser aquel que tuvo la fuerza y la entereza, a lo
largo de toda su vida, de convertirse en el Borges escritor ("Contra Borges" 252).
Volpi’s essay on Borges could be read as the final step in his obsession with
understanding the life of a writer in relation to his works and with filling in the silences
persistent in a text. The Nietzschean will of Borges, the person, to become Borges, the
writer, parallels the will of Jorge to become Cuesta. The idea derives from Borges’ own
analysis of Quevedo, cited in chapter II of the present investigation. Juxtaposing life and
works, Borges concludes that Quevedo achieved the total impregnation of literature in
every aspect of his life so that in the end, he no longer could call himself a living man,
but rather a vast and complex literature86. In Volpi’s novel, Jorge’s quest to transgress his
personal limits through Cuesta’s life and story is not ambitioned with the hope of
85 See chapter II of the present investigation. Also: Jorge Luis Borges, "Borges y yo," El hacedor, Obras
completas II (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 2002).
86 See: Jorge Luis Borges, "Quevedo," Otras inquisiciones, Obras completas II (Buenos Aires: Emecé,
reconstructing the poet’s experiences, but to elevate a biography to the condition of
literature. This is the ultimate Borgesian enterprise: the transmutation of man, beyond his
impoverished reality, into the labyrinth of literature. In writing these last lines, I have
come full circle. With Roberto Bolaño, the final lesson is renewed and offered to all
readers of contemporary Latin American narrative: “Hay que releer a Borges otra vez”
("Derivas de la pesada" 30).
IV.2.5 The Freedom of Modern Narrative
In his Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, a study analyzing madness since the
end of medieval times, Foucault traces the various epistemological changes that have
taken place across the centuries; these have manifested in society’s treatment of the mad
and the depiction of them in art and literature. According to Foucault’s study, during the
high medieval era, the mad were either trapped in between city walls or sent away in
permanent transit over the flow of the rivers, always going somewhere else. This constant
movement was reflected in art depicting the ship of fools that nourished the imagination
of Western culture, and also represented the impossibility of ever apprehending the sense
and direction of the mind of a madman. This impossibility mirrored with the very enigma
of the universe, a cosmologic question that confused medieval man who attempted to
interpret his reality, finding signs of an elusive truth always about to be revealed and
In classical times, the mad became the object of reason, or more precisely, the
other of reason. The madman no longer held a deeper understanding of the world: he
became an empty-minded entity, ruled by basic passions that revealed his likeness to
animals, free from the constraints of logic and the perfection of the intellect. This
madman had to be controlled, subjected to the order of a society that understood the
deviance of these others who did not follow the codes of the newly “enlightened” world.
Foucault ventures that between these two epistemes —the medieval and the classical—
the lonely figure of Don Quijote traverses Spain, seeking to interpret the cryptic signs of
the universe in each of its elements, but encountering a world that no longer believes in
their power to speak. Don Quijote is, above all, the last emissary of a system of
knowledge already eclipsed: the world no longer functions under the medieval structure
of knowledge but has, instead, embraced an arrangement in which each sign retains its
univocal identity, operating and interacting with other signs without altering its own
In modernity, the madman cannot be controlled by the simple objectification of
the classical episteme that transforms his profile into pure negativity. The madman no
longer occupies the place of the other, that space in which the human being had once
been considered as having succumbed to the ferocious freedom of animals. The modern
madman, perhaps best incarnated in the figure of Nietzsche, escapes the ordering forces
of reason and turns against the very grounds of man and his culture. The madman is not
the other to vanquish: he becomes but another face of Man himself, its strange and evil
twin that unmasks the identity of reason. Revealing their common face beneath all
exterior divisions, the man of reason equals the man of unreason. They are the same that
together give birth to the other. In this revelation, the crisis of subjectivity announces its
shattering presence in all aspects of modernity.
The literature that emanates from this crisis does not uphold the status of
representation through which it was constituted in the classical episteme. In this previous
arrangement, literary language —as we mentioned in the first chapter of this
investigation— functioned within the episteme to represent the world. To justify its
raison d’être, it spoke of the world and articulated some of its defining features, history
and culture. After Sade, however, literary language became identical to itself, in a
movement of eroticism and violence that could ultimately be matched only by its own
words. Literary language speaks of what it is and it becomes what it speaks; this
dynamism is pursued to a point when it reaches a radical exhaustion. At that level, only
language remains present, while all subjectivity is eradicated or transformed into a
function of speech. In this new condition, the work of art can no longer be revealed; the
work is not overshadowed by language, but is now also absent. Madness, in its linguistic
shift, leads to the absolute disruption of the unity of the œuvre. In a strict sense, writes
Foucault, this language unfolds and says nothing, emptiness, pure absence. The unstable
relationship between literature and madness, their fusion that redefines language as an
ever-expanding void, brings literature to infinity. Paradoxically, this infinity entails a
radical exhaustion and the absence of the œuvre because as it reaches for its furthest
limit, language acquires an equivalent vastness, and this effect is not readable: the œuvre
is no longer there and only ça parle.
There is however, one final and crucial effect of a literature turned to infinity:
transgression. We have already signaled some characteristics of this transgression: in
Sada’s Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe with the separation of language
from its substratum and its ultimate exhaustion; in Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes
through the shifting of the stability of both the author and the œuvre into an expanding
narrative structure whose center is the very absence of author and œuvre; and in Rivera
Garza’s La cresta de ilión with the exacerbation of an intertextuality that transforms her
literary language (the same) into Amparo Dávila’s discourse (the other), producing
hypertextuality as the bridge between two literary discourses that become each other’s
Volpi’s A pesar del oscuro silencio completes the analysis of these novels chosen
that share the four textual strategies of literary infinity. 1) Radical exhaustion of
language: In the constant search for Cuesta’s poetic discourse, Jorge operates an
obsessive reformulation of his narration, emulating the hermetic structure of Cuesta’s
Canto a un dios mineral. The hope of finding the language that enables the
reconfiguration of his own being, leads Jorge to experiment with a language that
ultimately runs out of possibilities and produces its own crisis. 2) The Same, the Other:
Jorge, the narrator, proposes that Cuesta intended to describe the alchemy of language
and the transformation of matter in Canto a un dios mineral. This interpretation is, above
all, mirrored in the very strategy of Jorge’s writing about his preferred subject: language
strives to capture the process of transmutation of the same into an other, a process
imitated by Jorge who desires to become Cuesta, and the novel itself that seeks to become
Cuesta’s writing. Unlike dialectical movements, however, this process remains
inconclusive and is constantly reformulated, never deciding on either identity. 3) The
absence of the œuvre: In the “exteriority” of a language —the space where narrative
seeks its transformation— the “perfect” novel that Jorge envisions is impossible because
of the very nature of its constitution: a language pushing its own limits cannot remain
fixed in the univocal frame of the œuvre, and it becomes, instead, a text of the
Foucauldian “outside.” 4) Transgression: Cuesta searches for the “liberty” of his desire,
dreaming of mastering time and matter. By imitating the life of Cuesta, Jorge decides to
reproduce the poet’s transgression in order to overcome the limitations of time and
matter. He insists on reliving Cuesta’s life, as if by reenacting its course, time and matter
could be granted their initial stage, the eternal recurrence with a corrected ending: Jorge’s
immaculate suicide, by hanging himself with his bed sheets, refuses to repeat Cuesta’s
emasculation. In this, Jorge’s death resembles a blank page with an answer inscribed that
cannot be articulated. Language has encountered its ultimate transgression: a message
that is present in its most profound absence.
We have argued from the beginning that transgression must be understood as an
accumulative effect of the three other textual strategies. Against the centrality of modern
Man, these four strategies oppose the freedom of a language that distances itself from the
enunciating subject. Such, I believe, is the most relevant achievement of modern
literature: the freedom of its language. In this, language perpetrates a profound irruption
of transgression that, despite its origin in the configuration of modernity, seems to
overcome all of the modern episteme’s conditions. I would like to explore this last notion
further by rereading the conclusion of Foucault’s Histoire de la folie, in which he
elaborates on the most important elements of transgression; these, I believe, confirm the
categorization of the four textual strategies introduced in the present investigation:
Cela ne veut pas dire que la folie soit le seul langage commun à l’œuvre et au
monde moderne (dangers du pathétique des malédictions, danger inverse et
symétrique des psychanalyses) ; mais cela veut dire que, par la folie, une œuvre
qui a l’air de s’engloutir dans le monde, d’y révéler son non-sens, et de s’y
transfigurer sous les seuls traits du pathologique, au fond engage en elle le temps
du monde, le maîtrise et le conduit ; par la folie qui l’interrompt, une œuvre ouvre
un vide, un temps de silence, une question sans réponse, elle provoque un
déchirement sans réconciliation où le monde est bien contraint de s’interroger. Ce
qu’il y a de nécessairement profanateur dans une œuvre s’y retourne, et, dans le
temps de cette œuvre effondrée dans la démence, le monde éprouve sa culpabilité.
Désormais et par la médiation de la folie, c’est le monde qui devient coupable
(pour la première fois dans le monde occidental) à l’égard de l’œuvre. […]
L’instant où, ensemble, naissent et s’accomplissent l’œuvre et la folie, c’est le
début du temps où le monde se trouve assigné par cette œuvre, et responsable de
ce qu’il est devant elle (Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique 663).
As the work and madness blend in literature, as they radicalize language to its
exhaustion, deconstructing the unity of modern subjectivity to the point that it its reduced
to a function of the narrative structure, the very notion of the œuvre dissolves and a wave
of transgression sweeps the whole of the epistemic grounding of knowledge. In the
articulation of the work and madness, language sets in narrative motion what I believe to
be an ultimate act of transgression: it reveals the faulty structure of modernity, the false
centrality of modern Man, the overwhelming mystery of its language and the possibility,
most importantly, of always becoming something else. The world feels responsible for
literary language’s crisis and its effects, which manifest as a void. The world imitates
language’s journey to infinity because it has peeked into the outside where language
manifests the pure exteriority of its foundation. If it is through language that knowledge
is structured, and this language turns out to be a surface with no depth, Man may
understand that all of his assumptions are in fact over-emphasized textual strategies. This
is what allows for the consolidation of an episteme after all: a series of enunciations that
form, in turn, regularities which are grouped in a discourse that establishes its hegemony
through repetition, the constant reactivations of its elements, and the continuous revival
of its network of concepts and meanings.
When Mallarmé recast discourse in its original condition of pure exteriority and
equated the structure of poetry to the very surface of the poem’s verse, literary language
abandoned its representational task and departed from the substratum. Initiating a journey
in pursuit of its own image, literary language —in its self-referential delirium—emptied
discourse from its epistemological constructions: subjectivity was dismembered into the
same and the other, rejecting the dialectical imposition of one above the other; the
literary œuvre was dismembered and extended in the movement of language, inhibiting
its completion and securing a bizarre condition as a work always on the verge of
conclusion and commencement; language produced its own exhaustion so that it no
longer operates in linearity, seeking its own other that perhaps cannot be articulated.
What exactly are we trying to discover in these works? The implied object of the present
investigation has been evaded since its beginning. We briefly touched on its perimeter in
the theoretical discussion of chapter I. The reason for this delay is due, perhaps, to the
fact that Foucault himself treaded uneasily in this territory. He confronts our same
question, curiously enough, at the same time that he discusses madness in literature:
Il est temps de s’apercevoir que le langage de la littérature ne se définit pas par ce
qu’il dit, ni non plus par les structures qui le rendent signifiant. Mais qu’il a un
être87 et que c’est sur cet être qu’il faut l’interroger. Cet être, quel est-il
actuellement ? Quelque chose sans doute qui a affaire à l’auto-implication, au
double et au vide qui se creuse en lui. En ce sens, l’être de la littérature, tel qu’il
se produit depuis Mallarmé et vient jusqu’à nous, gagne la région ou se fait depuis
Freud l’expérience de la folie ("La folie, l'absence d'œuvre" 447).
This region where literature meets madness, this void of self-implication, is in fact
the locus of the manifestation of a literary language turned to infinity. In the most
effective Foucauldian sense of the word, this investigation is merely a description of how
literature operates in the broader context of modernity. We have been able to isolate some
of the aspects of modern narrative by focusing on those textual strategies that together
form the building blocks of the novels analyzed in the last two chapters. In the writing of
these pages, we have mentioned some of the most evident limitations of this approach: by
tracing a genealogy of literary infinity, an entire dimension of modern narrative has been
excluded from our discussion. This other narrative participates in the centrality of
modern Man, aiming to capture the evolving flows of Man’s history and culture. Other
limitations are also evident in the attempt to articulate the focus of this investigation.
Resorting to a type of ellipsis, this study leaves the reader the task of filling in the gaps of
the genealogy of literary infinity, in order to obtain a more complete picture of its farreaching scope. This genealogy is broad enough to inform future research projects about
modern Mexican narrative as well as that of other Latin American countries. The
methodology applied in the analysis of the four novels studied here is an indication of the
direction that such research could take. The most significant limitation of my study,
87 The emphasis is mine.
however, has to do with language itself, or better, with the being of language. Just as
Foucault falls short of explaining why epistemic changes occur, he also feels incapable of
discussing the very nature of language. With Foucault, I can only dwell within the
borders of description in order to highlight how modern narrative is visible in is textual
strategies. But the most basic question remains: what is the being of language? If
language has departed from the substratum, if it heads to a region created by and for
itself, if it can dissolve subjectivity and reformulate itself to infinity, what is this
language? How can we define its mode of existence? How is it that language is? In the
face of this enigma, I withdraw my own words. Gazing at the vastness of language, I
remember Wittgenstein’s lesson: “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we
cannot talk about we must pass over in silence” (3).
These pages have, above all, attempted to remind the reader that the questions
formulated since the dawn of literary modernity in Europe and Latin America are far
from being satisfactorily answered. The quest for modernity, like a literature turned to
infinity, is always about to be completed and always about to begin. It is our will to be
modern, and in this pursuit —as Paz noted in his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize—
we are finally learning to experience modernity, although we are still unable to articulate
a definitive answer that explains what it is:
Perseguimos a la modernidad en sus incesantes metamorfosis y nunca logramos
asirla. Se escapa siempre: cada encuentro es una fuga. La abrazamos y al punto se
disipa: sólo era un poco de aire. Es el instante, ese pájaro que está en todas partes
y en ninguna. Queremos asirlo vivo pero abre las alas y se desvanece, vuelto un
puñado de sílabas. Nos quedamos con las manos vacías (Paz "La búsqueda del
presente: Conferencia Nobel" 41).
In the first chapter we reviewed some of the most important ideas about literary
modernity, in particular the vision of Michel Foucault. Along with his co-generational
peers including Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, we concluded
that a certain literary current in the 20th century made evident the crisis of modern
subjectivity. More precisely, we referred to what Foucault calls “Man”: the central
epistemological figure that in modernity became the subject and object of knowledge,
reorienting the human sciences in the study of Man’s culture and history. In the late 19th
century, the most consolidated experiences of literary modernity —the projects of
Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and others— proffered a new paradigm that defied the
centrality of modern “Man” through a language on whose surface the subject could not be
This literature no longer represented the world: it only offered itself. As this
radical literary experience was assimilated and reconfigured in Latin America, new
alternatives became visible in the works of Darío, Martí, Gutiérrez Nájera, Rodó and
other modernistas. But modernity is always something other, according to Paz. And so
the 1920’s saw the emergence of poetic avant-garde movements and similar phenomena
in the narrative of the time. When Borges’ Ficciones appeared in 1944, the genealogy of
modern literature radicalized its relationship to infinity, always defined here as a textual
strategy. As we analyzed in the second chapter of this investigation, Borges irrupted in
the Hispanic American literary tradition, exacerbating the differences between what I
identified as the two main genealogies of contemporary literature: one upheld the
centrality of modern “Man” in the representation of human culture and history; the other
rejected the epistemological arrangement of modernity and, in its crisis, could only
represent itself.
With the writings of Borges, modernity reaches its highest expression, and every
conceptualization of contemporary Hispanic American narrative must take into
consideration the long-lasting influence of the Argentinean writer. We may recall that
Borges’ presence is assessed “positively” in the opinion of some narrators such as Carlos
Fuentes and Roberto Bolaño. However, in the perceptions of modernity of writers like
Mario Vargas Llosa and Ernesto Sábato, Borges’ literature constitutes a “negativity” or
other. In our reading of several of Borges’s most canonical stories, we could derive and
test what I have termed four textual strategies of literary infinity. Through them, my goal
has been to isolate what I consider to be the most significant characteristics of literary
infinity in modernity.
In the last two chapters, I proposed a reading of four novels by Sada, Bolaño,
Rivera Garza and Volpi in order to analyze each strategy in greater depth in one work.
For each novel, I also demonstrated the presence of the other three textual strategies in
order to provide a solid demonstration of how, through analytical commentary, literary
modernity can be recognized and studied in its greater textual implications. In confirming
that literary modernity is, above all, a shifting phenomenon of language, I wish to clarify
that my readings involves a degree of arbitrariness, both in the selection of the novels
analyzed and in the definition of the textual strategies proposed. Despite these natural
limitations, I believe that this study contributes to the field by demonstrating that literary
history can aspire to a greater precision and philosophical reflection, beyond the easy
labels commonly accepted for pedagogical purposes in most classrooms today. By
approaching literary genealogy through discourse analysis, and the conceptualization of
modernity through Foucault’s philosophical description, I have attempted to
contextualize literature in its epistemological setting. This methodology seeks to account
for the differences between literary projects instead of dwelling on the traditional
divisions that group writers in terms of generations, movements or tendencies. I am
confident that similar readings of contemporary narrative, articulated by future
researchers, can further our understanding of the most current phenomena in Hispanic
American literature.
The French poet Armand Robin (1912-1961), now remembered by few, traced in
a poem what he called the “program in some centuries.” In a few stanzas, we may read
the outline of the epistemological ruptures that fascinated Foucault and that gave
direction to the present investigation, affecting the possibilities of modern literature:
On supprimera la Foi
Au nom de la Lumière,
Puis on supprimera la lumière
On supprimera l’Âme
Au nom de la Raison,
Puis on supprimera la raison.
On supprimera la Charité
Au nom de la Justice,
Puis on supprimera la justice.
On supprimera l’Amour
Au nom de la Fraternité,
Puis on supprimera la fraternité.
On supprimera l’Esprit de Vérité
Au nom de l’Esprit critique,
Puis on supprimera l’esprit critique.
On supprimera le Sens du Mot
Au nom du Sens des mots,
Puis on supprimera le sens du mots.
On supprimera le Sublime
Au nom de l’Art,
Puis on supprimera l’art.
On supprimera les Écrits
Au nom des Commentaires,
Puis on supprimera les commentaires.
On supprimera le Saint
Au nom du Génie,
Puis on supprimera le génie.
On supprimera le Prophète
Au nom du Poète,
Puis on supprimera le poète.
On supprimera l’Esprit
Au nom de la Matière,
Puis on supprimera la matière.
The name of Man has been diluted in the experiment of contemporary narrative. On the
surface of language, Man becomes a function of a literature that only exists to continue
challenging its linguistic structure. There are no longer human truths or essences to
discover in the ontological depth of language. In the constant pursuit of its own limits,
there is only language that seeks itself to infinity, like the classic figure of the snake that
bites its tail. While facing the impossibility of ever attaining a complete definition of its
modernity, contemporary narrative offers a single consolation: the infinite experience of
reading, that is in turn, a never-ending act of writing. After Pierre Menard successfully
wrote Don Quijote de la Mancha for the first time, I believe that this task offers us an
infinitely promising literary future.
APPENDIX : La littérature à l’infini : une généalogie du récit mexicain
contemporain (Abridged version in French)
Thèse dirigée par
Monsieur Jean Bessière (Université Paris III)
Monsieur César Salgado (University of Texas at Austin)
MAI 2006
PRÉFACE : La quête de la modernité
Cette thèse constitue une étude du récit moderne et des dernières manifestations
d’une tradition initiée à la fin du 19ème siècle avec l’émergence des modernistas en
Amérique Latine. L’approche que nous avons choisie dans notre analyse de quatre
romans mexicains écrits dans les années 1990 s’inspire de deux idées : l’une de Jorge
Luis Borges et l’autre d’Octavio Paz, toutes deux prononcées au cours de deux discours
distincts des célèbres conférences Norton de l’université d’Harvard. Au cours de la visite
qu’il rendit à cette institution à l’automne 1967, Borges rappela les idées qu’il avait de la
littérature lorsqu’il était jeune homme. Un des problèmes qu’il évoquait dans ses
premiers écrits était celui d’être un écrivain moderne:
Entonces incurrí en un error muy común: hice cuanto pude por ser —entre todas
las cosas— moderno. Hay un personaje en los Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre de
Goethe que dice: “Sí, puedes decir de mí lo que te parezca, pero nadie negará que
soy un contemporáneo”. No veo diferencia entre ese personaje absurdo de la
novela de Goethe y el deseo de ser moderno. Porque somos modernos; no
tenemos que afanarnos en ser modernos. No es un caso de contenidos ni de estilo
(Arte poética 134).
Bien que Borges ait résolu ce problème avec une certaine aisance, Paz ne trouva de
réponse aussi facilement. Quand il vint à Harvard au printemps 1972, Paz lança l’une de
ses formulations les plus célèbres à propos de la modernité, la qualifiant de « tradition de
la rupture ». En tant que développement d’une série d’avatars, la modernité est
considérée comme étant la transformation permanente d’un discours qui, pour prévaloir,
doit produire sa propre négation, encore et toujours, à travers différents mouvements et
diverses générations et tendances littéraires. Paz établit une distinction importante entre la
modernité, processus historique de la culture occidentale, et la modernité phénomène de
littérature moderne. Ce dernier, écrit-il, est toujours opposé aux temps modernes si on
comprend ceux-ci comme les lumières, la Critique de la raison pure, le libéralisme, le
positivisme et le Marxisme :
La modernidad nunca es ella misma: siempre es otra. Lo moderno no se
caracteriza únicamente por su novedad, sino por su heterogeneidad. Tradición
heterogénea o de lo heterogéneo, la modernidad está condenada a la pluralidad: la
antigua tradición era siempre la misma, la moderna es siempre distinta. La
primera postula la unidad entre el pasado y el hoy; la segunda, no contenta con
subrayar las diferencias entre ambos, afirma que ese pasado no es uno sino plural.
Tradición de lo moderno: heterogeneidad, pluralidad de pasados, extrañeza
radical. Ni lo moderno es la continuidad del pasado en el presente ni el hoy es hijo
del ayer: son su ruptura, su negación. Lo moderno es autosuficiente: cada vez que
aparece, funda su propia tradición ("Los hijos del limo" 333-34).
Cette étude souhaite synthétiser ces deux idées de modernité. Avec Borges, nous voulons
défendre l’idée que toute littérature contemporaine est forcément moderne car elle ne
peut être autre chose : si Rimbaud cherchait à être absolument moderne, ce statut lui fut
garantit par sa quête elle-même. La modernité est la possibilité de se réinventer, le désir
permanent d’être toujours autre, comme Baudelaire nous l’a également appris. Avec Paz,
ces pages analyseront quelques unes des caractéristiques principales de la modernité dans
le récit hispano-américain contemporain. Comment pouvons-nous décrire les différentes
expressions du récit moderne tout au long du 20ème siècle ? Comment pouvons-nous
concevoir notre tradition littéraire dans son unité et dans ses ruptures consécutives ?
C’est précisément l’irruption du modernismo dans notre tradition qui marque le
début du « cosmopolitisme » dans la littérature hispanique et qui, pour le critique Pedro
Henríquez Ureña, établit un courant littéraire « aux fins purement artistiques » (185).
Cette recherche soutient que cette tendance continue dans les mouvements avant307
gardistes des années 1920 et 1930, atteint son apogée avec les travaux de Borges, et
conserve une forte présence dans les écrits de nombreux auteurs contemporains
d’Amérique du Sud. Une généalogie de la littérature émerge de ce courant, dans lequel le
langage littéraire devient un phénomène épistémologique rendu visible avec la crise de la
modernité, tel que le philosophe français Michel Foucault l’a analysé. Cette possibilité
de littérature défie la stabilité du sujet moderne, détruit notre notion de continuité
téléologique et ouvre un domaine d’expérience pure du langage.
Pour effectuer une analyse généalogique, cette recherche entreprend l’étude de
quatre romans mexicains post-boom : Los detectives salvajes88 (1998) de Roberto
Bolaño89 (né à Santiago du Chili en 1953, décédé à Blanes en 2003), Porque parece
mentira la verdad nunca se sabe (1998) de Daniel Sada (né à Mexicali en 1953), La
cresta de ilión (2002) de Cristina Rivera Garza (né à Matamoros en 1964) et A pesar del
oscuro silencio (1992) de Jorge Volpi (né à Mexico en 1968). La construction d’une
généalogie montrera comment des mouvements littéraires, qui semblent antagonistes si
on les examine rapidement, trouvent leur origine dans la même possibilité
épistémologique. L’histoire littéraire, depuis ce point de vue, n’obéit pas à l’apparition
chronologique des écrits. La succession ordonnée de générations et de mouvements, vue
par le critique pédagogique traditionnel, n’a pas ou peu d’intérêt d’un point de vue
Les détectives sauvages, Christian Bourgois Éditeur, Paris, 2006. Traduction Robert Amutio.
89 Bien que né au Chili, Bolaño a longtemps vécu en exil au Mexique après le coup d’état militaire de 1973
qui renversa le gouvernement démocratique élu de Salvador Allende. Le fait que Bolaño se soit largement
inspiré de ses années passées au Mexique pour écrire Los detectives salvajes a amené les critiques à
considérer ce livre comme un roman « mexicain », comme nous le précisons dans le chapitre III de cette
généalogique car la littérature et la tradition deviennent fragmentaires et discontinues,
sans aucune origine ou identité stable.
Pour expliquer les travaux les plus récents de cette généalogie, cette thèse prendra
en compte la notion d’infini, retracée comme une stratégie littéraire dans les travaux de
Borges et retrouvée dans les quatre romans mentionnés ci-dessus. L’infini est décrit dans
quatre catégories textuelles : 1) L’exhaustion radicale du langage : une prolifération de
mots – leur duplication, modification et même leur destruction – dénote la condition
instable d’une fiction qui poursuit ses propres limites. 2) Le vide en expansion de
l’absence de l’œuvre : dérivant ce concept des théories de Maurice Blanchot, nous
défendons l’impossibilité d’affirmer l’unité d’un livre et nous proposons donc à la place
la notion de texte toujours sur le point d’être achevé et toujours sur le point de débuter. 3)
La présence déstabilisante de l’autre menaçant l’unité du même : l’hétérogénéité brise
nos notions d’individualité et d’identité, reflétant la nature changeante de l’identité. 4) La
transgression et la folie : une approche perturbatrice du langage qui défie à la fois la
cohérence du sujet et le déroulement naturel du texte littéraire.
Avec ces quatre stratégies textuelles, toutes présentes dans les fictions de Borges
auxquelles un chapitre est entièrement consacré, cette thèse approche le récit
contemporain écrit au Mexique dans les années 1990 comme un exercice reliant les
différentes dimensions d’une généalogie de l’infini littéraire. La définition de l’infini
explorée par Borges dans ses écrits sera en filigrane de chaque ligne de cette étude, dans
l’espoir de créer de nouvelles routes pour l’étude du récit latino-américain contemporain.
Nous souhaitons préciser que cette thèse est construite comme deux projets en un : le
premier projet consiste en une étude se concentrant sur le récit mexicain contemporain
tentant de tracer les principales caractéristiques des tendances en évolution dans la
littérature post-boom. À cette fin, nous avons choisi quatre des romans les plus
représentatifs des dernières générations post-boom (leurs titres sont mentionnés plus
haut). Le second projet concerne un thème plus général de la littérature latinoaméricaine : la discussion de la modernité. Notre objectif final est de donner au lecteur
une image claire des nouvelles tendances du récit post-boom au Mexique (qui est étudié
dans le premier projet de cette thèse), tout en faisant le point sur la tradition littéraire
moderne d’Amérique Latine qui prévaut aujourd’hui dans le récit contemporain (second
projet de cette thèse).
Pour commencer, nous allons séparer la littérature latino-américaine du 20ème
siècle en deux courants principaux. Le premier est consacré à l’histoire, l’identité et la
culture d’Amérique Latine et leurs implications politique, économique et sociale. Nous
trouvons dans cette catégorie des romans régionaux, indigènes ou néo-indigènes, et la
majorité des œuvres plus récentes, bien sûr, de la narration du boom. Le second courant
commence avec l’émergence du modernismo latino-américain à la fin du 19ème siècle.
Dans celui-ci, le langage devient la source et l’objet principaux de l’expérimentation
artistique. Nous croyons que le sujet moderne est laissé de côté dans cette littérature pour
laisser place au langage. Ce type de récit explore bien évidemment les réalités humaines,
mais elle transforme ces réalités en effets et en images de langue.
La généalogie de Nietzsche est appropriée à la conception méthodologique de la
dissertation, mais aussi au scepticisme implicite de la métaphysique occidentale : au lieu
de procéder à une recherche métaphysique de la résolution de l’histoire, la condition
humaine « véritable », ou une ontologie depuis longtemps perdue, le langage littéraire « à
l’infini » révèle la superficialité de notre discours, l’absence de toute profondeur. Si la
surface du langage semble impénétrable, ce n’est pas parce que le secret le plus important
de l’expérience humaine gît en-dessous mais parce qu’il n’y a pas de langage au-delà. Si
nous pouvions aller au-delà de la surface, nous ne trouverions que le vide sans fin du
silence. Plus précisément, nous restons à la surface car le silence serait intolérable. Nous
faisons donc face à un langage en reformulation constante qui défie ses propres limites, et
qui se reflète dans un espace créé par et pour sa propre structure changeante. Un langage
cherchant sans cesse son autre est un langage qui ne désire en fin de compte que sa
propre exhaustion, transgressant son existence même et ne permettant jamais à une
version finale de lui-même d’exister en tant qu’œuvre univoque. Un tel langage n’existe
nulle part ailleurs dans notre culture : il existe seulement dans le dynamisme radical
d’une littérature, toujours sur le point d’être achevée et toujours sur le point de débuter, à
CHAPITRE I: La généalogie, l’infini et l’histoire littéraire
Cette thèse vise à écrire une histoire littéraire proposant une perspective de la
littérature comme l’événement synchronique du langage en considérant toutes ses
tendances et tous ses mouvements dans l’Amérique Hispanique du 20ème siècle. Nous
essaierons de renoncer au scepticisme que Borges critiqua chez les historiens
traditionnels de la littérature, eux pour qui la littérature n’est pas la dimension
ontologique vivante du langage mais un objet devant être classifié et lu dans des
catégories désuètes. Mais quelles sont les caractéristiques de ce genre d’étude ? Nous
proposons une étude littéraire qui se tourne vers la méthode archéologique de Foucault
pour décrire les conditions épistémologiques permettant à la littérature d’émerger comme
une scission du langage, après que celui-ci a perdu ses pouvoirs d’ordonner la
représentation. Rappelons-nous que Foucault a un genre spécifique de littérature en tête
qu’il identifie aux travaux d’Artaud, de Bataille, de Blanchot et, dans la tradition hispanoaméricaine, aux travaux de Borges. Cette littérature, qui fonctionne « du dehors »,
prévaut sur la subjectivité et inaugure un espace dans lequel elle, et seulement elle peut
exister pour se défier à l’infini.
Il existe une autre tradition littéraire dans la modernité, que Foucault ne
mentionne cependant jamais, mais qu’il est important de citer afin de replacer dans son
contexte ce que nous appellerons une « généalogie de l’infini littéraire ». Cet autre choix
de littérature était peut-être sous-entendu dans la catégorisation poétique de Queneau de
ces travaux de « temps perdu ». Cette littérature participe pleinement à la crise de la
modernité que Foucault décrit dans Les mots et les choses, et elle fonctionne dans les
trois doubles : 1) elle projette le phénomène de l’Homme qui fonctionne simultanément
comme sujet empirique et transcendantal ; 2) elle active le plein potentiel du cogito de
l’Homme sans toutefois jamais réussir à conquérir toute la connaissance, sans jamais
atteindre la dimension de ce à quoi nous n’avons jamais pensé ; 3) cette littérature
s’efforce de retrouver l’origine historique de l’Homme alors qu’elle s’éloigne de lui. La
« métafiction historiographique », si nous suivons le genre postmoderne ad-hoc de Linda
Hutcheon, remplit parfaitement cette description. Dans la tradition littéraire hispanoaméricaine, ces conditions épistémologiques ont peut-être commencé avec le débat entre
la civilisation et le barbarisme, et avec les angoisses historiques conséquentes des essais
de José Martí. Au 20ème siècle, les fictions d’archive révèlent clairement ces conditions,
qui vont des rêves de réécrire les archives de Yo, el supremo (1974) d’Augusto Roa Basto
à la plupart des romans principaux du boom de Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes et
Gabriel García Márquez. Les fictions historiques, la fondation mythique des cultures
d’Amérique Latine, la dialectique du temps, les idéologies et leurs implications
téléologiques sont autant de caractéristiques définissant cette autre généalogie. Il serait
intéressant, dans une étude future, d’examiner les fictions historiques avec cette approche
méthodologique, pour laquelle le concept de Foucault d’a priori historique des archives,
par exemple, serait essentiel. L’objectif principal de cette thèse est cependant de décrire
ce que nous nommons la « généalogie de l’infini littéraire ». Il est néanmoins utile de se
souvenir que l’autre possibilité de généalogie (celle des fictions historiques) sera
impliquée à chaque étape, même si elle est utilisée d’un point de vue négatif. La
généalogie de l’infini littéraire ne peut s’empêcher de supposer la présence d’une autre
possibilité de littérature moderne en tant que jumeau antithétique.
La conception généalogique
Pour Foucault, l’étude de la modernité doit développer un examen détaillé des
conditions de l’émergence de cette épistémè, tout en cherchant à analyser les traits
caractéristiques de la formation du discours. L’archéologie procure donc la méthode
descriptive permettant de comprendre la modernité tandis que la généalogie fournit le
concept qui révèle la façon dont elle opère :
In that sense, this criticism is not transcendental, and its goal is not that of making
a metaphysics possible: it is genealogical in its design and archeological in its
method. Archeological —and not transcendental— in the sense that it will not
seek to identify the universal structures of all knowledge or of all possible moral
action, but will seek to treat the instances of discourse that articulate what we
think, say, and do as so many historical events. And this critique will be
genealogical in the sense that it will not deduce from the form of what we are
what it is impossible for us to do and to know; but it will separate out, from the
contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being,
doing of thinking what we are, do, or think90 ("What Is Enlightenment?" 46).
La généalogie est apparue comme un outil permettant d’analyser la formation
« efficace » des discours. Foucault a analysé ces conditions dans L’archéologie du savoir,
mais après L’ordre du discours il tourna son attention vers la généalogie. Il cherchait en
effet à expliquer la formation réelle du discours (en traçant les stratégies spécifiques et
leurs objets), pas seulement sa constitution générale. En 1971, la même année que
L’ordre du discours, Foucault publie Nietzsche, la généalogie, l’histoire, un essai qui
90 Nous utilisons la citation de l’article de Foucault en anglais car, dans certains cas, la traduction offre une
version plus définitive du texte, révisé par Foucault lui-même, qui ne sont pas à notre connaissance
disponibles en français. C’est le cas des essais Qu’est-ce qu’un Auteur ? et Qu’est-ce que les Lumières ?,
tous deux uniquement disponibles en français dans la version préliminaire aux conférences
redéfinit sa méthodologie en lui donnant une signification élargie. L’essai établit, dans les
premières lignes, que la généalogie n’est pas un projet anti-historique mais le rejet de la
quête des origines qui cherche à établir des vérités essentielles. Alors que la conférence
donnée au Collège de France n’avait pas particulièrement défini sa compréhension de la
généalogie, ce deuxième essai offre une définition du terme lui-même et de ses sources.
Foucault se réfère à la Généalogie de la Morale de Nietzsche, dans laquelle le terme
« Herkunft » est utilisé pour attaquer la volonté de fixer les choses dans une sorte de
vérité primordiale, dans leur identité univoque :
Or, si le généalogiste prend soin d’écouter l’histoire plutôt que d’ajouter foi à la
métaphysique, qu’apprend-il ? Que derrière les choses il y a « tout autre chose » :
non point leur secret essentiel et sans date, mais le secret qu’elles sont sans
essence, ou que leur essence fut construite pièce à pièce à partir de figures qui lui
étaient étrangères ("Nietzsche, la généalogie, l'histoire" 1006).
Foucault souligne le besoin de s’emparer de l’histoire comme objet de la généalogie. Le
généalogiste a besoin de l’histoire pour « dissiper » l’illusion de l’origine. Il transforme et
libère ainsi, lorsqu’il travaille avec l’histoire, la discipline de ses hypothèses
transcendantales, car la généalogie triomphe, d’une certaine façon, de l’histoire. Mais la
question se pose de nouveau : quelle est la relation entre la généalogie et l’histoire
traditionnelle ? Si l’histoire triomphe sur la métaphysique et rejette tous les absolus, si
elle parvient à adopter une certaine perspective (regard) qui brise son propre sentiment
d’unité et celui de l’être humain, alors elle peut devenir, explique Foucault, l’instrument
privilégié de la généalogie. La généalogie est, en tout premier lieu, un exercice d’écriture
de l’histoire. Dans cette histoire, cependant, il n’y a pas de redécouverte du savoir mais
plutôt l’acceptation qu’il n’existe pas de constantes, et qu’il n’y a rien dans notre culture
qui autorise les hommes à se reconnaitre dans d’autres hommes à travers les âges. Tout
sentiment de continuité est illusion. Nous vivons, dit Foucault, sans coordonnées
d’origine, dans une hétérogénéité d’événements perdus dans le temps.
« Le monde nous est redevenu infini puisque nous ne saurions ignorer la
possibilité qu'il renferme une infinité d'interprétations », écrit Nietzsche dans le célèbre
paragraphe 374 du Gai Savoir (1182). Cette perspective qui transforme le savoir en
interprétation empêche l’histoire de s’enfermer dans des revendications métaphysiques.
Foucault maintient donc que la généalogie n’a pas peur d’être elle-même une perspective
du savoir.
Plutôt que de feindre un discret effacement devant ce qu’il regard, plutôt que d’y
chercher sa loi et d’y soumettre chacun de ses mouvements, c’est un regard qui
sait d’où il regarde aussi bien que ce qu’il regarde. Le sens historique donne au
savoir la possibilité de faire, dans le mouvement même de sa connaissance, sa
généalogie ("Nietzsche, la généalogie, l'histoire" 1018).
Nous devons revenir à l’histoire traditionnelle afin d’activer la généalogie. Pour y
parvenir, le généalogiste doit essayer de défaire le fondement métaphysique qui
commença avec Pluton. L’histoire ne doit pas être basée sur un système philosophique,
contrairement à ce que Hegel et Marx essayèrent de faire au 19ème siècle. Le généalogiste
doit au contraire détruire son unité fondamentale, et l’histoire elle-même deviendra une
méthode fragmentée qui brisera à son tour ses objets.
La généalogie de Foucault donne une occasion de reformer l’histoire littéraire
avec l’introduction d’une conception qui se dérobe à la force sécurisante de l’histoire
traditionnelle. La conception généalogique dissout le continuum historique, élimine ses
origines artificielles et détecte l’émergence de différences dans le discours. Mais
lorsqu’elle opère, elle est consciente de sa propre position dans la généalogie même
qu’elle retrace. C’est pourquoi l’histoire littéraire n’obéira pas, dans cette thèse, à la
linéarité des récits traditionnels, puisqu’elle reconnait que la plupart des catégorisations,
tout en facilitant les buts didactiques, échouent à découvrir « l’autre » là où l’histoire
traditionnelle ne voit que « le même ». L’histoire littéraire devient la généalogie lorsque
nous acceptons d’abandonner le jeu platonicien de la vérité et de l’essence, lorsque nous
découvrons que le langage peut ne pas refléter ce que nous disons, lorsqu’il refuse de
montrer notre image dans le miroir, lorsque le généalogiste, se mirant dans sa surface
réfléchissante, se fait le témoin d’un langage littéraire qui se reflète dans un mouvement
tandis qu’il fuit la force contrôleuse du sujet, étendant ses limites à l’infini.
La littérature à l’infini
Si cette thèse, une « généalogie de l’infini littéraire » est archéologique dans sa
méthode et généalogique dans sa conception, il semble que nous n’abordons que la moitié
de ses ambitions supposées. Quelques questions demeurent : comment décrire au juste
l’infini littéraire ? Quels sont ses stratégies discursives ? Quels objets discursifs en
émergent ?
La définition exacte de l’infini comme stratégie discursive dans l’écriture
hispano-américaine contemporaine est l’objectif final de cette recherche. Nous avons
maintenant posé les bases nécessaires permettant d’approcher cette figue qui surpasse sa
condition de thème pour devenir une possibilité ontologique de langage. C’est la
conclusion à laquelle Foucault est parvenu dans son essai Le langage à l’infini (1963).
Écrit avant Les mots et les choses et L’archéologie du savoir, ce texte préfigure beaucoup
d’idées de Foucault qui définissent la place de la littérature dans la modernité telle qu’il
la conçut dans ces deux ouvrages. Dans ce qui suit, nous proposons ce que nous
considérons comme des aspects essentiels de l’infini en tant que stratégie textuelle, que
notre analyse conséquente de quatre romans contemporains écrits au Mexique mettra à
Avant de poursuivre, il est important de se souvenir de la définition de « l’être »
du langage littéraire que fit Foucault. Cette indépendance de la littérature peut être
observée depuis le début de l’écriture poétique, c'est-à-dire depuis Homère. Plus
précisément, Foucault se réfère à cet épisode de l’Odyssée où Ulysse entend, par la voix
d’un étranger, le récit de sa propre vie. Afin d’établir son identité et de poursuivre ensuite
ses voyages, Ulysse doit à nouveau chanter l’histoire de sa vie pour triompher de la mort
prédite dans la chanson de l’étranger. Homère a écrit que les dieux envoient des malheurs
aux hommes afin qu’ils puissent raconter leurs histoires. Foucault ajoute que les mortels
racontent leurs histoires pour retarder les malheurs à venir dans un continuum infini de
langage qui allonge leur durée de vie, mot après mot :
Le malheur innombrable, don bruyant des dieux, marque le point où commence le
langage ; mais la limite de la mort ouvre devant le langage, ou plutôt en lui, un
espace infini ; devant l’imminence de la mort, il se poursuit dans une hâte
extrême, mais aussi il recommence, se raconte lui-même, découvre le récit et cet
emboîtement qui pourrait bien ne s’achever jamais ("Le langage à l'infini" 279).
Un langage qui se reflète et se copie trouve le moyen de tromper la mort. La vie d’Ulysse
est transcrite dans un langage avant qu’elle ne soit finie. Ulysse reprend le fil de la
narration pour se faire revivre et faire revivre son histoire, car il n’y a pas de différence
pour le langage. Ulysse est peut-être déjà mort (il l’est d’ailleurs pour le lecteur
d’Homère), mais à travers la chanson qui chante sa vie, il est toujours le héro dont on se
souvient, et il est toujours le héro qui se souvient. Ulysse est mort, mais il est toujours au
seuil de la vie. Pour Foucault, le langage littéraire produit cet effet paradoxal lorsque la
mort et la vie convergent dans son espace. Cet effet de langage a des implications
d’autoreprésentation du langage. Même si l’effet lui-même est involontaire, et nous
pourrions argumenter que le paradoxe de l’Odyssée l’est, il manifeste néanmoins sa
dimension ontologique.
Bien que des problèmes méthodologiques puissent surgir d’une étude
ontologique du langage métafictionnel, nous trouvons utile de prendre en considération
l’affirmation de Foucault selon laquelle le langage littéraire, jusqu’au 18ème siècle, était
un véhicule pour un flux infini de mots qui maintenaient la représentation en mouvement.
Foucault s’inspire de cette idée lorsqu’il localise l’émergence d’un sens indépendant de
« finitude ». Historiquement, ceci se produisit à la même époque où la notion de savoir
infini, dans laquelle le pouvoir de la représentation fut sans cesse étendu, fut abandonnée.
Dans la littérature antérieure au 19ème siècle, la possibilité de l’infini en tant que stratégie
littéraire est conservée à l’extérieur du langage, comme un phénomène produit par la
littérature mais qui, une fois mis au monde, pourrait peut-être subsister en-dehors de
l’acte littéraire. Ulysse et Shéhérazade touchent le vide de l’infini lorsqu’ils se sentent
obligés de raconter l’histoire de leur vie. À travers ce (nouveau) récit, la narration
pourrait nous ramener au début (pour revenir plus tard au même point et recommencer),
mais il ne s’agit que d’une possibilité jamais complètement tentée dans la véritable
histoire. L’infini, jusqu’au 18ème siècle, est une possibilité de représentation qui pourrait
continuer indéfiniment mais ne le fait pas.
L’épistémè moderne, chez des auteurs comme Mallarmé et Blanchot, inaugure
une nouvelle ère pour un certain genre de littérature qui renverse la direction de ce
mouvement. Au lieu d’un flux centripète d’une littérature qui se nomme elle-même, une
impulsion centrifuge débute. Contre le murmure d’une littérature qui est enfermée dans
son propre circuit, des auteurs comme Sade, Bataille et Borges nous apportent une
littérature qui s’élance en-dehors d’elle-même, atteignant l’impensable, l’extatique,
l’inatteignable, l’innommable. Un langage qui cherche ses propres limites est un langage
qui doit d’abord épuiser toutes ses possibilités :
À travers tant de corps consommés en leur existence actuelle, ce sont tous les
mots éventuels, tous les mots encore à naître qui sont dévorés par ce langage
saturnien… [Un langage] répété, combiné, dissocié, renversé, puis renversé de
nouveau, non pas vers une récompense dialectique, mais vers une exhaustion
radicale ("Le langage à l'infini" 284-85).
Le mouvement vers le « dehors » n’est plus l’autoréflexion d’une littérature de
représentation. C’est l’exhaustion de tout ce que nous pourrions dire, de tout ce qui
pourrait être dit par quelqu’un de tous temps et en toutes circonstances. À cause de cela,
une littérature potentiellement élevée vers l’infini n’est articulée par personne et ne
s’adresse à personne. En ce sens, c’est uniquement « l’être » du langage qui pénètre
l’espace créé lorsque la littérature se distance de l’épistémè moderne. Ici, explique
Foucault, la littérature se recrée et recrée toutes ses possibilités, multipliant l’infini à
l’infini. Néanmoins, c’est précisément parce qu’aucun sujet ne peut atteindre cet espace
créé uniquement par et pour ce langage qui apparait du « dehors » que la littérature de
l’infini n’est jamais rendue visible pour quiconque. Elle est, du point de vue d’un lecteur,
absente. L’infini émerge donc dans le langage littéraire, et cette expansion se poursuit à
l’infini. « Elle pourrait et, au sens strict, devrait continuer sans arrêt, dans un murmure
qui n’a pas d’autre statut ontologique que celui d’une pareille contestation » ("Le langage
à l'infini" 285).
Pour illustrer l’infini, Foucault se réfère à deux nouvelles de Borges, dont son
célèbre livre Ficciones (1944). Il commence par El milagro secreto, dans lequel Dieu
accorde un souhait à un homme condamné à être fusillé par un peloton d’exécution : une
seconde avant qu’il ne soit tué, Dieu suspend le temps pour une année afin que l’homme
puisse finir d’écrire une pièce de théâtre qu’il avait commencé. La pièce est finie et
écrite, mais uniquement dans l’esprit de l’homme ; elle est invisible pour tous, y compris
aux yeux de Dieu. La pièce, composée dans l’impossible extension d’une seconde,
n’existe pas plus qu’elle ne s’adresse à quiconque. L’histoire de Borges tient en quelques
pages, mais un vide s’ouvre dans sa structure, un vertige dans lequel le temps se dilate.
« La bibliothèque de Babel » offre plus qu’une image d’infini pour Foucault. Elle
symbolise, en vérité, le changement épistémologique que ce genre de littérature souffrit
au 19ème siècle. Foucault prend soigneusement note de la transition entre une épistémè et
une autre : une littérature dans laquelle la parole étend ses pouvoirs à l’infini est une
pratique littéraire basée sur la rhétorique. Le centre d’une telle littérature est un acte de
communication, qu’il s’agisse des actes d’un héro, comme dans l’Odyssée, ou des récits
sans fin d’une guerre qui n’en finit pas dans l’Iliade. Comme le distingue Queneau, il est
peut-être vrai que la structure de l’Odyssée inaugure la tradition d’un conte
« intemporel » dans la littérature occidentale, mais nous comprenons maintenant que seul
le temps « retrouvé », dans la modernité, devient infini, cette plénitude miroitant toujours
et atteignant elle-même une nouvelle limite. Cette nouvelle limite, écrit Foucault, est la
Bibliothèque, et si nous pouvons imaginer une bibliothèque spécifique, il s’agit de celle
de Babel et de Borges :
Aujourd’hui l’espace du langage n’est pas défini par la Rhétorique, mais par la
Bibliothèque : par l’épaulement à l’infini des langages fragmentaires, substituant
à la chaîne double de la rhétorique la ligne simple, continue, monotone, d’un
langage livré à lui-même, d’un langage qui est voué à être infini parce qu’il ne
peut plus s’appuyer sur la parole de l’infini. Mais il trouve en soi la possibilité de
se dédoubler, de se répéter, de faire naître le système vertical des miroirs, des
images de soi-même, des analogies. Un langage qui ne répète nulle parole, nulle
Promesse, mais recule indéfiniment la mort en ouvrant sans cesse un espace où il
est toujours l’analogon de lui-même ("Le langage à l'infini" 288-89).
Dans les innombrables chambres hexagonales de la bibliothèque de Borges, le
bibliothécaire (qui est chacun d’entre nous, écrivain et auteur) parcourt les couloirs à la
recherche de la sortie, le Livre qui contient tous les autres livres, le Livre de l’Infini.
Dieu, Temps Éternel, l’Univers – quel que puisse être le nom de l’Infini – devient
l’objectif impossible de notre déambulation dans cette bibliothèque sans fin. La
rhétorique n’est plus le véhicule de la représentation infinie puisqu’elle est maintenant
une combinaison de mots en constante évolution, toujours anticipée et déjà présente sur
les étages des hexagones. Comme l’écrit Blanchot91, c’est Borges lui-même, le vieux
bibliothécaire aveugle – comme Umberto Eco l’imagine dans Le nom de la rose – qui
détenait peut-être la clef ouvrant la bibliothèque infinie. C’est seulement après avoir suivi
Borges à l’intérieur qu’il réalise qu’il ne peut pas trouver la sortie.
91 Nous traiterons entièrement ce sujet et d’autres perspectives sur Borges dans le chapitre suivant.
Nous avons donc pu identifier l’infini dans ses conditions d’émergence grâce à la
méthode archéologique, avec laquelle nous avons retracé l’apparition de la littérature au
19ème siècle comme l’acte discursif que nous connaissons aujourd’hui. Nous allons
maintenant défendre l’idée que l’infini apparait cependant dans la narration par le biais de
mécanismes textuels que nous qualifierons, comme le fait Foucault, de « stratégies »
discursives. Comment pouvons-nous identifier ces stratégies ? Comment définissent-elles
la conception de ce qui s’appelle « généalogie de l’infini littéraire » ?
Nous allons commencer par réhabiliter un outil d’analyse littéraire qui
fonctionnera au cœur de la conception généalogique : le commentaire. L’un des
principaux arguments de Foucault dans « l’Ordre du discours » appelle à la destruction de
cet outil traditionnel d’analyse. Pour Foucault, le commentaire est vu comme un
mécanisme étrange dont le but est de discerner le sens « profond » et « intérieur » d’un
texte. Le commentaire doit découvrir de nouvelles choses à dire à propos d’un texte à
condition que cette découverte soit déjà présente dans le texte que nous analysons. Or,
comme le dit Foucault non sans ironie : « Le nouveau n’est pas dans ce qui est dit, mais
dans l’événement de son retour » (L'ordre du discours 28).
Mais l’attaque de Foucault sur le commentaire peut reconstituer sa structure,
renouvelant ses pouvoirs analytiques de façon à ouvrir un nouvel espace pour l’exercice.
Sa critique principale du commentaire réside dans sa relation au texte primaire qu’il
souhaite étudier. Tout comme l’exégèse religieuse et l’interprétation judiciaire, le
commentaire littéraire fonctionne comme un texte secondaire qui souligne ce qui est dit
dans le texte primaire mais qui le remanie en même temps comme s’il n’avait jamais été
écrit. En dépit des arguments de Foucault, le fait qu’un commentaire remanie un texte
littéraire – tout comme un discours qui est toujours déjà prononcé et toujours sur le point
d’être prononcé – devient la procédure même à incorporer comme un outil fondamental
de l’analyse généalogique. C’est pourquoi il nous semble logique (à nouveau,
contrairement à ce qu’écrivit Foucault) que certains des jeux littéraires joués par Borges
symbolisent aux yeux de Foucault la nature paradoxale du commentaire :
Jeu à la Borges d’un commentaire qui ne sera pas autre chose que la réapparition
mot à mot (mais cette fois solennelle et attendue) de ce qu’il commente ; jeu
encore d’une critique qui parlerait à l’infini d’une œuvre qui n’existe pas. Rêve
lyrique d’un discours qui renaît en chacun de ses points absolument nouveau et
innocent, et qui reparaît sans cesse, en toute fraîcheur, à partir des choses, des
sentiments ou des pensées (L'ordre du discours 25).
La critique ironique du commentaire faite par Foucault en tant qu’outil d’analyse
littéraire devient l’élément clef permettant de le rénover entièrement, et même de l’élever,
comme Barthes le voulait, au rang de texte primaire. Dans un essai plus ancien, Foucault
considère l’interprétation comme une pratique qui fonctionne dans un temps circulaire,
contrairement au temps linéaire de la dialectique. Le jeu infini du commentaire écrit et
réécrit le texte primaire de la même façon que l’interprétation devient, avec Nietzsche,
une tâche infinie : « …on a un temps de l’interprétation qui est circulaire. Ce temps est
bien obligé de repasser là où il est déjà passé » ("Nietzsche, Freud, Marx" 601).
Le commentaire se présente comme le véhicule logique de l’exploration de
l’infini littéraire. Foucault nous rappelle comment Borges lui donna le statut de jeu
linguistique. Dans la « découverte » de ce qui a déjà été écrit, mais qui nous est présenté
comme si étant toujours sur le point d’être écrit, le commentaire pénètre l’espace même
du « dehors » où le langage repousse ses limites. Le commentaire place ici un miroir en
face de lui-même, qui à son tour place un miroir puis un autre, ad infinitum. Le langage
se développe à l’intérieur de lui-même, comme les chambres hexagonales identiques de
la Bibliothèque de Babel qui ne cessent d’annoncer les suivantes ; il est à nouveau chargé
de toutes les combinaisons possibles du langage. Les pages suivantes commenceront à
aborder les dernières manifestations de l’infini littéraire au Mexique.
La généalogie de l’infini littéraire dans le récit contemporain au Mexique
Si nous devons suivre Borges et transformer le monde en équivalent de la
bibliothèque, il est vrai qu’un sentiment d’horreur pourrait naître car nous serions
toujours perdus dans celle-ci, condamnés à parcourir ses couloirs à la recherche du Livre
de tous les livres. Mais la terreur de Pascal pourrait être surmontée en lisant ce simple
vers de José Martí : « L’univers s’exprime mieux que l’homme ». Cette thèse va analyser
la littérature de ceux qui ont implicitement accepté la vérité de cette déclaration.
L’univers, ou si nous osons la bibliothèque, s’exprime mieux que l’Homme ; en vérité, il
parle l’Homme. L’univers du 19ème siècle nous a apporté l’émergence d’un individu
moderne qui était en même temps avorté dans une littérature se résignant à son rôle de
représentation. Cette littérature est sortie d’elle-même, annulant toute possibilité de sujet
parlant (l’auteur) et d’interlocuteur (le lecteur). D’autres théoriciens de la littérature,
particulièrement en France, ont ressenti ce mouvement vers l’infini. Maurice Blanchot,
dans Le livre à venir (1959) et L’entretien infini (1969) conceptualise celui-ci comme une
« absence » du travail, examinant la littérature (tout comme Mallarmé) comme un acte
jamais complètement terminé puisque dans celui-ci, la littérature est perpétuellement un
acte fini toujours sur le point de commencer. Dans son étude Temps et récit (1983), Paul
Ricœur attribue cependant à la fiction la capacité de dépasser, ou comme il l’énonça, de
mettre en mouvement l’aporie de la spéculation philosophique à propos de la nature du
temps. Là où Derrida voit la production de chaînes de signes dans De la grammatologie
(1967), Baudrillard nomme cette prolifération Simulacre et simulation (1981), un autre
nom pour l’infini cyclique.
Cette thèse, en s’inspirant de Foucault, étudiera l’infini comme une stratégie
discursive. La conception généalogique montrera une discontinuité dans notre modèle
d’histoire littéraire. La description de la généalogie de l’infini littéraire hispano-américain
dans son entier est une tâche limitée, et une tâche aisément réalisable. Ceci pourrait faire
l’objet d’un travail ultérieur, mais cette thèse, souhaitant concentrer son sujet de
recherche, a choisi de se focaliser sur le récit contemporain au Mexique en abordant
l’étude de quatre romans montrant de nombreuses stratégies de l’infini dans leurs
discours. Il est maintenant temps de définir ces stratégies, de les isoler dans leurs
spécificités afin de faciliter la description des dernières manifestations de cette
Nous avons choisi de retenir quatre stratégies majeures, un nombre arbitraire qui
ne prétend pas couvrir tous les aspects de cette possibilité littéraire. Comme Borges nous
l’a démontré, l’infini peut être ressenti dans les limites d’une unique page : c’est l’infini
qui habite une littérature finie, pas le contraire.
1) La première stratégie que nous souhaitons discuter est l’exhaustion radicale du
langage. Bien qu’il semble être facile de confondre cette stratégie avec des techniques
baroques, cette prolifération de mots – leur duplication, modification, et même leur
destruction – dénote la condition instable de la fiction qui poursuit ses propres limites.
Cet effet se trouve dans ce que Severo Sarduy dénomme le « néo-baroque ». Le préfixe
est ici absolument nécessaire puisque cette littérature a surmonté la façon dont l’infini
opérait en tant que représentation dans la littérature jusqu’au 19ème siècle. José Lezama
Lima et João Rosa ont révélé, au 20ème siècle, cette exhaustion radicale dans leurs
techniques et leurs approches de la fiction, qui nous permettent de voir dans chaque page
le développement de cet « être » de langage que Foucault situait dans ces implications
ontologiques. C’est sous cet éclairage que cette thèse offrira une incursion dans le réseau
narratif complexe de Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe (1998) de Daniel
Sada, une expérience quasi-insupportable des pouvoirs de prolifération du langage dans
laquelle les mots et les images créés sont exponentiellement multipliés par ces pouvoirs.
2) Le vide en expansion de l’absence d’œuvre est la seconde stratégie que nous
souhaitons explorer. Dérivant ce concept des théories de Blanchot, nous prétendons que
l’impossibilité d’écrire sur ce que Foucault nomme l’ « impensé » est l’une des crises
ultimes de la modernité. La compréhension inatteignable de la nature infinie du temps, de
la réalité et de la fiction elle-même emporte des écrivains tels que Josefina Vicens, dans
son roman El libro vacio (1958) dans les « horreurs » d’une impossibilité paradoxale
d’écriture qui naît, d’une manière ou d’une autre, devant les yeux du lecteur. Les
personnages de Los detectives salvajes (1998) de Roberto Bolaño sont déplacés dans le
temps et dans l’espace à la recherche du travail non-existant d’un poète d’avant-garde
disparu. Les trois « détectives » découvriront eux-mêmes que la littérature, poussée à son
extrême limite, est un silence impossible qui est déjà, d’une façon ou d’une autre,
toujours prononcé.
3) Une présence déstabilisante de l’autre menaçant l’unité du même introduit dans
le récit contemporain la troisième stratégie à être étudiée dans cette recherche.
L’hétérogénéité brise nos notions d’individualité et d’identité, se plaçant en face de son
contraire qui, paradoxalement, reflète la nature changeante de l’identité. Le concept de
simulation de Baudrillard peut être utilisé pour étendre notre connaissance du mécanisme
d’altérité dans le récit contemporain. Le critique Roberto González Echevarría a déjà
pavé le chemin pour cette approche dans son essai sur Severo Sarduy, mentionné plus
haut dans ce chapitre (partie 2.5 « Archéologie et Postmodernisme »). Nous croyons
cependant que son analyse reste insuffisante car elle a recourt à une description du
phénomène – sous l’étiquette floue de postmodernisme – sans rendre compte de la crise
de la modernité que Foucault délimite grâce à la méthode archéologique. L’archéologie
nous permettra de comprendre la nature de la modernité ainsi que sa crise dans notre
lecture de La cresta de ilión (2002), un roman qui nous emmène dans une histoire
obscure d’identités changeantes, une mascarade de visages changeants dont aucun ne
cache un soi univoque.
4) En présence de la folie, la transgression devient la prochaine stratégie
puissante de l’infini littéraire. Elle fonctionne aussi, de plusieurs façons, comme un
espace d’accumulation pour les notions précédentes. Le personnage principal de A pesar
del oscuro silencio (1992) de Jorge Volpi plonge dans la dimension croissante de la folie
lorsqu’il tente de reconstituer la vie tragique du poète mexicain Jorge Cuesta. Avant de se
suicider, Cuesta écrivit un poème cryptique et sans doute inachevé qui niait la possibilité
d’établir son œuvre, qui avait pourtant été écrite. La nature transgressive de son texte
amène le personnage principal à ressentir l’attirance inéluctable de la vie qu’il cherchait à
comprendre, seulement pour découvrir que sa propre identité s’est perdue à l’intérieur du
nom du poète.
Avec ces quatre stratégies discursives, nous entreprendrons l’étude du récit
contemporain écrit au Mexique dans les années 1990 comme un exercice qui reliera les
nombreuses dimensions de la généalogie de l’infini littéraire. Les quatre stratégies sont
toutes présentes dans les fictions de Borges. C’est pourquoi nous consacrerons
l’intégralité du prochain chapitre à Borges, puisque nous considérons que cet auteur a
élevé l’infini à son plus haut niveau avec plusieurs de ses nouvelles. Les deux derniers
chapitres seront l’exercice d’un commentaire parallèle des quatre auteurs mentionnés plus
haut (Sada, Bolaño, Rivera Garza et Volpi). Enfin, le commentaire, cet outil d’analyse,
sera appliqué à la lecture détaillée de Los detectives salvajes et de Porque parece mentira
la verdad nunca se sabe en suivant les deux premières stratégies discursives. L’exercice
continuera avec la discussion de La cresta de ilión et d’A pesar del oscuro silencio, dans
le chapitre IV, mais aussi avec l’explication des stratégies de l’altérité et de la
transgression. La redéfinition de l’infini que Borges a créé à travers sa littérature se fera
sentir à chaque ligne de cette thèse. Ces pages rendent hommage cette figure majeure de
la littérature hispanophone, reconnaissant avec admiration la grandeur toujours en
CHAPITRE II : Le facteur Borges : revisiter le Canon
Le Lecteur et la Bibliothèque : Pierre Ménard, auteur du Quichotte
« Il est un concept qui corrompt et dérègle tous les autres », écrit Borges, « je
parle de l'infini » (« Avatares de la tortuga » 254). Avec cette affirmation, il entreprend la
tâche de discuter un fragment de ce qui était supposé être un livre traitant des différentes
conceptions de l’infini. Parce que ce livre qui n’est jamais achevé, A biography of
Infinity, est également potentiellement infini, Borges abandonne le projet et décide de
limiter sa discussion uniquement au paradoxe d’Achille et de la tortue de Xénon. Il
conclut, avec Schopenhauer, que le monde est un produit de la volonté, un rêve qui, vu de
plus près, est loin d’être parfait. Comme une erreur dans un programme informatique, des
rares boucles d’infini existent qui menacent la stabilité du système pour quiconque entre
en contact avec elles. L’art émerge de ces « irréalités visibles », se défend Borges, car il
devient pour une raison ou une autre le complément imparfait exceptionnel de la réalité
qui a été acceptée comme convention sociale.
Nous croyons qu’un événement littéraire majeur dans la bibliographie de Borges
est l’écriture de l’une de ses nouvelles les plus connues : Pierre Ménard, auteur du
Quichotte. La plupart des critiques considèrent cette œuvre comme un pas révolutionnaire
dans la carrière de Borges, comme nous l’avons mentionné plus haut. Mis à part son
importance dans le changement de direction de sa production littéraire, nous pensons que
Borges y a concentré la plupart des thèmes et des techniques qu’il allait pleinement
explorer à travers ses fictions ultérieures. Parmi les nombreuses idées qui peuvent être
dérivées de cette histoire, nous voudrions commencer avec la promesse la plus
importante que le critique John Sturrock souligne dans ses analyses de Borges « Borges
reflète l’art, non la nature » écrit-il. « L’endroit approprié pour analyser les fictions de
Borges commence avec les conditions particulières qui rendent la fiction possible » (33).
Nous voudrions ajouter, à ces « conditions particulières » que Sturrock trouve dans l’acte
d’écriture lui-même, la structuration des stratégies textuelles. Nous souhaitons tout
particulièrement, puisqu’il s’agit du sujet de cette thèse, nous concentrer sur les stratégies
textuelles de l’infini. Nous allons maintenant étudier Pierre Ménard, auteur du Quichotte
comme étant l’archétype des quatre aspects de l’infini littéraire tels que nous en avons
parlé dans le premier chapitre et tels qu’ils guideront l’analyse des quatre romans choisis
pour les deux derniers chapitres de cette thèse. Rappelons ici que ces quatre aspects ont
été classés comme suit : 1) l’exhaustion radicale du langage, 2) l’absence de l’œuvre, 3)
le même, l’autre, et 4) la transgression. Nous allons maintenant examiner chacune de ces
notions dans cette histoire iconique de Borges.
1) l’exhaustion radicale du langage : Borges défend dans son essai La
supersticiosa ética del lector92 que la littérature atteint l’immortalité puisqu’elle est
capable de survivre à toutes les erreurs d’impression possibles, à toutes les méprises et à
toutes les distorsions volontaires. Contre tous les types de lectures et d’interprétations
(celles qui améliorent ou abiment le texte, accidentellement ou malicieusement), seul le
travail « immortel » (Don Quichotte, par exemple) triomphe sans conteste. À la fois
négation et preuve de cette thèse, Pierre Ménard décide d’écrire le roman de Cervantes.
92 Voir « Borges, "La supersticiosa ética del lector."
Essayant de revivre la vie de Cervantes, dans le contexte historique reconstruit de l’âge
d’or espagnol, Ménard souhaite devenir l’auteur de Don Quichotte. Son produit fini et
peu concluant, cependant – seulement deux chapitres et un fragment du roman -, en dépit
de leur exacte coïncidence avec l’original de Cervantes, se révèle être différent dans le
jugement de lecture de Borges. Le Quichotte de Ménard y gagne en subtilité dans ce que
Cervantes perd dans sa « couleur locale » décisive. Le langage avant-gardiste de
Cervantes bat cependant l’utilisation par Ménard d’un style archaïque. Les trois cent ans
qui séparent les deux auteurs expliquent pourquoi le Quichotte de Ménard est, d’après
Borges, « presque infiniment plus riche ». La conclusion du commentateur de Ménard
semble logique à la fin de la note :
Menard (acaso sin quererlo) ha enriquecido mediante una técnica nueva el arte
detenido y rudimentario de la lectura: la técnica del anacronismo deliberado y de
las atribuciones erróneas. Esa técnica de aplicación infinita nos insta a recorrer la
Odisea como si fuera posterior a la Envida y el libro Le jardin du Centaure de
Madame Henri Bachelier como si fuera de Madame Henri Bachelier ("Pierre
Menard, autor del Quijote" 450)
Ménard est l’un de ces lecteurs mal guidés qui essaie de faire violence à un texte original,
et Don Quichotte est l’un de ces livres qui survivent à une telle violence. Ménard parvient
curieusement à transformer le roman de Cervantes sans en changer une seule virgule. Le
roman, cependant, doit survivre au procédé puisqu’il s’agit rigoureusement du même
texte. Le paradoxe, comme nous en avons discuté plus haut, confirme et nie en même
temps le concept de classique immortel de Borges : il établit le pouvoir métamorphique
du lecteur tout en maintenant la stabilité du texte. Dans l’application de cette rencontre
bizarre et innovante entre le lecteur et le texte, cependant, cette « application » devient
« infinie ». Le langage littéraire ne procure pas seulement la possibilité d’une polysémie,
il inaugure aussi une avenue qui cherche à atteindre, en compagnie du lecteur, son
exhaustion radicale. C’est précisément à cause de la nature impossible du projet que le
langage atteint constamment sa propre exhaustion.
2) L’absence de l’œuvre : l’élimination de la notion de l’œuvre achevée est une
preuve de l’infini littéraire. Si le but de Ménard est d’écrire Don Quichotte pour la
première fois, cela implique le fait que la tâche ne sera jamais terminée, la raison étant
qu’il existe déjà une première écriture de Don Quichotte, et donc que tout travail de
littérature est non seulement toujours possible mais aussi nécessaire. Borges accorde au
Don Quichotte de Ménard deux caractéristiques importantes : il est « interminablement
héroïque » et « inégalé ». Interminable car la tâche se poursuit ad infinitum, rendant ainsi
un roman toujours en train d’être écrit et toujours sur le point d’être écrit ; inégalé car
aucun effort d’écriture de Don Quichotte (toujours pour la « première » fois) n’est jamais
le même que le suivant. L’« écriture » de Ménard n’est donc jamais pleinement présente
(interminable) et elle ne peut pas être imitée (inégalé).
Borges nous dit que Ménard décida de ne pas publier cet accomplissement
remarquable. Bien au contraire, il brûla tous ses manuscrits, laissant à Borges la tâche
impossible de « reconstruire » l’héritage de Ménard. Borges suppose que seul un
« second » Pierre Ménard pourrait, d’une manière ou d’une autre, « invertir » le travail du
premier et ramener le Quichotte de Ménard. De la mauvaise interprétation du premier
Ménard à l’approche fidèle du second Ménard, Borges ne gâche pas la chance d’ouvrir
une autre « irréalité visible » au-dessus de la première : l’effort infini d’ « écrire » Don
Quichotte pour la « première » fois, encore et à nouveau, et l’entreprise subséquente de
retrouver cet effort initial.
3) Le même, l’autre : en séparant Cervantes et sa paternité d’auteur de Don
Quichotte, Borges opère l’excision la plus efficace du sujet moderne. Cervantes, l’auteur,
est remplacé par son autre, le lecteur. Cette fonction de l’auteur, telle qu’elle était
comprise jusqu’au 19ème siècle, est officialisée par le pouvoir donné au lecteur. Le lecteur
n’est cependant pas présenté ici comme l’interprète potentiel ou même le lecteur mal
dirigé, comme un critique naïf de Bouvard et Pécuchet pourrait le conclure – et l’a conclu
à une période. Le lecteur est devenu le seul auteur possible du travail. En d’autres termes,
le lecteur est l’auteur et cette figure est la seule qui existe en relation avec le travail. Le
reflet entre le premier auteur et son lecteur initie une dynamique qui ne finit néanmoins
pas à ce niveau. Borges intègre le jeu en relisant (réécrivant) les fragments restants de
Ménard et en présentant le court essai au lecteur. Les lecteurs de Borges suivent bien
évidemment le même chemin et Borges les invite à continuer la chaîne. Borges plante
donc avant la lettre la graine de ce qui deviendra la théorie de réception et la
déconstruction poststructuraliste des figures de l’auteur et du lecteur. Mais le facteur
surprenant que Borges introduit amène la discussion à un niveau encore plus élevé : il
propose l’inversion du projet de Pierre Ménard. L’explosion de l’acte perpétuel de lecture
(écriture) implose désormais avec la proposition inattendue de Borges : juste après la
déconstruction de l’auteur de Pierre Ménard, Borges appelle à la reconstruction de Pierre
Ménard. Cette avenue théorique à double sens se développe et se rétracte sans cesse.
4) La transgression : Pierre Ménard est le symbole de tout ce qui a radicalement
changé dans la littérature moderne depuis que Mallarmé a articulé son coup de dés.
Ménard est le lancer de dés ultime défiant le concept traditionnel d’écriture artistique qui
clama son indépendance au 19ème siècle en tant que discours distinct de toutes les autres
opérations de langage. Pierre Ménard a enseigné à tous les individus liés à la littérature
(lecteurs et écrivains confondus) que la mimésis, dans la littérature, est un acte dans
lequel un texte copie un autre texte ou se copie lui-même, mais où il ne copie jamais la
réalité existant en-dehors du texte. La réalité semble parfois apparaître dans des pages
littéraires, mais il ne s’agit que de son reflet. La littérature n’est pas en danger avec
l’intrusion de la réalité dans son monde, il s’agit plutôt du contraire. « El mundo será
Tlön93 » écrit Borges avec l’horreur d’un présage maléfique, mais aussi avec la promesse
d’une prophétie favorable.
La transgression dans la littérature vise les éléments mêmes qui ont été
mutuellement exclusifs depuis le 19ème siècle, ce qu’on appelle la modernité. Quels sontP
ils ? La notion de l’auteur comme articulateur de l’écriture « originale ». Ménard est
l’anti-auteur mais sa présence surpasse la négation : il est une race moderne d’auteur, pas
parce qu’il change la littérature mais parce qu’il accepte les changements que la
littérature provoque en lui. L’écrivain a reçu le même statut que le lecteur, dans une
métaphore du langage littéraire lui-même, troublant la différence entre la lecture et
l’écriture. La notion d’histoire littéraire n’est plus importante. Elle demeure utile à des
93 Voir: Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," Ficciones, Obras completas I (Buenos Aires:
Emecé, 2004).
fins pédagogiques, mais la conscience de la littérature et sa tradition rendent obligatoire
de lire ou d’écrire en recherchant des alliances, des compatibilités dans l’affiliation
personnelle d’une généalogie, même si cela provoque des anachronismes. « La
littérature », écrit le critique John Sturrock, « est une république, une affaire publique, et
une éternité, dans laquelle la seule mesure temporelle est celle que nous y apportons
nous-mêmes » (208). Ménard est l’archétype de la transgression littéraire. Il incarne
l’appel à la modernité absolue de Rimbaud. Nous ne savons comment ou quand son
influence sera surmontée, mais il nous semble évident qu’une transition pareille devra
arriver. Pierre Ménard, en se chargeant de la tâche la plus difficile au monde — la
réinvention du plus grand héritage littéraire de notre tradition — nous a rendus capables
d’anticiper le triomphe de la tradition réinventée.
Nous avons essayé de démontrer comment Pierre Ménard, auteur du Quichotte
peut être lu comme le modèle archétypal de l’expression de (post)modernité la plus
importante dans la tradition littéraire hispanophone. Ce n’est néanmoins que
partiellement vrai. Nous croyons que de nombreuses fictions de Borges pourraient être
considérées sous le même angle, même si nous y voyons cependant un autre symptôme
de l’usage de l’infini comme stratégie textuelle par Borges. L’approche théorique
changeante de chacune de ces histoires pourrait être poursuivie jusqu’à épuisement de
toutes les possibilités. Il est tout naturel de supposer que sur l’insistance d’un lecteur, la
révision de toutes les histoires de Borges pourrait enrichir l’expérience de lecture avec la
possibilité récurrente – rassurante ou effrayante – de l’infini littéraire.
L’infini littéraire : un jardin de sentiers qui bifurquent
Commentant la nouvelle El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan de Borges, Italo
Calvino analyse le pouvoir transgressif du travail de fiction et le considère à la fois
comme « origine » et « fin » de tout événement narré :
El poder de la palabra escrita se vincula pues con lo vivido como origen y como
fin. Como origen porque se convierte en el equivalente de un acontecimiento que
de otro modo sería como si no hubiese sucedido; como fin porque para Borges la
palabra escrita que cuenta es la que tiene un fuerte impacto sobre la imaginación,
como figura emblemática o conceptual hecha para ser recordada y reconocida
cada vez que aparezca en el pasado o en el futuro (Calvino 216).
Le monde de la littérature et le monde de l’expérience sont évidemment liés dans les
fictions de Borges, écrit Calvino. Dans le cas de la nouvelle El jardín de senderos que se
bifurcan, l’intégralité de toutes les combinaisons possibles entre les deux personnages est
absente, et en même temps visible. Le personnage principal trouve une consolation dans
le fait que la somme de la multiplicité des relations est de loin supérieure à la version
qu’il expérimente dans cette histoire, car il y a commis un meurtre. La généalogie de
l’infini littéraire est comme ce jardin d’identités changeantes. Borges était très fier d’un
de ses poèmes, Spinoza94. Le poème, un sonnet dessinant l’image du philosophe, utilise le
fait que Spinoza travaillait comme fabriquant de lunettes comme une métaphore de la
fabrication du langage philosophique. Spinoza croyait que Dieu était infini, et dans le
poème de Borges le lecteur pourrait être en présence du travail de sa philosophie (« un
cristal dur : l’infini »). W.H. Bossart, discutant de l’usage de la philosophie dans la
littérature de Borges, lit dans cette référence une corroboration du fait que pour Borges,
94 Voir Borges, "Spinoza."
tout comme pour Spinoza, l’infini éternel de Dieu est égal à Son indépendance (et donc
celle de Borges) vis-à-vis de l’infini séquentiel des nombres tels qu’ils sont explorés dans
la logique et les mathématiques95. Cet infini est une substance « uniquement limité par
elle-même » (Bossart 8).
Revenons maintenant au début : Octavio Paz, lisant les œuvres de Borges, croyait
que la littérature pouvait être divisée en deux courants principaux : le courant de
littérature dans lequel un homme écrit sur le genre humain (le style épique, le drame et le
roman) et l’autre courant littéraire, dans lequel un homme est seul et se fait face, ainsi
qu’à l’univers (lyrisme et poésie métaphysique). Dans le cas de Borges, Paz écrit :
Sus obras pertenecen a la otra mitad de la literatura y todas ellas tienen un tema
único: el tiempo y nuestras renovadas y estériles tentativas por abolirlo. Las
eternidades son paraísos que se convierten en condenas, quimeras que son más
reales que la realidad. O quizá debería decir: quimeras que no son menos irreales
que la realidad ("El arquero, la flecha y el blanco: Jorge Luis Borges" 221).
Dans les fictions de Borges, conclut Paz, le sujet disparait alors qu’il contemple
son visage dans le « miroir de l’éternité », et dans ce miroir Borges lui-même devenait
constamment l’autre Borges, la figure littéraire qui doublait à son tour son reflet dans le
miroir de ses personnages, « à l’infini ». L’infini est l’un des mots-clefs que Paz utilise
lorsqu’il décrit les travaux de Borges. Loin de l’histoire et de la politique, écrit Paz,
Borges s’est transformé lui-même et il a transformé l’histoire littéraire de l’Amérique
Latine : « Je pense que les éternités et les infinis tiennent sur une page » (Paz, « El
arquero, la flecha y el blanco: Jorge Luis Borges » 219).
95 Nous ne nous sommes concentrés sur l’infini que comme une stratégie textuelle, élaborant sur des
théories littéraires et philosophiques. Pour une analyse concise des autres aspects de l’infini dans les
travaux de Borges, tels que les mathématiques et la logique, voir également : González, "Los dos infinitos
de Borges."
Emir Rodríguez Monegal, faisant une liste des principales caractéristiques du récit
de l’époque du boom et d’une partie du récit post-boom en Amérique Latine, inclut le
nom de Borges aux côtés de ceux de Miguel Ángel Asturias, Alejo Carpentier, Leopoldo
Marechal et Agustín Yáñez pour aborder ceux qui ont apporté les changements ayant été
mis à l’œuvre dans le roman contemporain. Il insiste pour étudier Borges car il prétend
que ses écrits sont indispensables à toute discussion « sérieuse » sur le récit latinoaméricain (156). Dans la longue liste de l’histoire littéraire, il est important de souligner
le rôle crucial de Borges dans la définition des deux généalogies principales dont nous
avons déjà parlé dans cette thèse. En suivant l’exemple de Rodríguez Monegal et des
autres critiques et narrateurs mentionnés ci-dessus, nous avons essayé de noter les
changements les plus importants produits par les travaux de Borges qui ont transformé la
généalogie. Puisque Borges devint le fondateur de la discursivité (Foucault), et qu’il
présenta l’infini comme une stratégie textuelle décisive (Blanchot) dans les quatre
modalités mentionnées ci-dessus, nous croyons qu’une approche plus efficace du récit
post-boom est désormais possible.
CHAPITRE III : L’infini regagné
I. Daniel Sada et Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe :
l’exhaustion radicale du langage
Lorsque Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe parut en 1999, même le
plus sophistiqué des lecteurs ne savait comment aborder les 600 pages du roman de
Daniel Sada le plus expérimental écrit jusqu’alors. L’écrivain originaire de l’État de la
Basse-Californie (au nord du Mexique) s’était déjà établi avec une carrière littéraire très
originale en tant que narrateur et poète. Avec la publication de son roman, deux choses
devinrent claires : qu’il s‘agissait de la synthèse de tous ses travaux précédents et qu’il
s’agissait, de plus d’une manière, d’une véritable percée dans la carrière de Sada. Tout
comme ses autres histoires, ce roman prend place dans une région déserte similaire à
celles du nord du Mexique. Sada soutient qu’il a passé toutes les jeunes heures de chaque
matin pendant plus de quatre ans à l’écrire. Il a écrit quatre versions différentes,
modifiant la linéarité de l’histoire et développant chacun des 90 personnages. Il avait
auparavant détruit les manuscrits de dix romans différents, confessant ressentir un genre
de plaisir dans la destruction par le feu de rames entières de pages. Les flammes
s’étendant entre des lignes interminables dans le vide du désert est une image qui capture
de plusieurs façons l’essence de l’écriture de Sada : les infinies possibilités du langage
s’épuisant, se dispersant telles des cendres s’envolant dans le vide du désert. Après quatre
recueils de nouvelles et trois romans se déroulant dans le désert et écrit de sa prose
mesurée et formaliste, Sada soutient maintenant que l’intensité de l’écriture de Porque
parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe a modifié le cours de sa carrière littéraire. Il
explique ainsi dans une interview :
La certeza es que ya agoté el ciclo del norte. Ya no puedo seguir escribiendo en
métrica. Después de una novela tan densa como Porque parece mentira la verdad
nunca se sabe o me renuevo o me callo para siempre (Castañeda H. "O me
renuevo o me callo para siempre: entrevista con Daniel Sada").
Quel genre de roman pourrait-il avoir écrit pour qu’il lui semble inévitable de déclarer la
fin d’une phase entière de sa carrière ? Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe
est en effet l’un des romans les plus stimulants écrits dans la seconde moitié du 20ème
siècle, pour indiquer un cadre temporel. Son projet a radicalisé la possibilité du récit en
proposant une structure linguistique en fluctuation constante, comme si les images
générées par la prose ne pouvaient jamais entièrement adopter la forme du mythe, et
encore moins la matérialisation, dans la dialectique d’un roman historique. Nous ne
serons pas les premiers à dire que le roman de Sada marque non seulement la fin d’une
phase dans sa carrière littéraire, mais aussi la fin d’un cycle du récit mexicain moderne.
Son importance trouve un précédent direct dans le triomphe de Pedro Páramo (1955).
Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe a élevé le langage littéraire de la
tradition mexicaine à sa possibilité ultime. Le langage devient un magma écrasant
d’images dynamiques. Comme si tous les miroirs de Borges du monde étaient soudain
tournés les uns vers les autres, ce roman tente de capturer, dans un livre, le mouvement
vers ce « dehors » qui laissait Maurice Blanchot perplexe. L’insertion de vers classiques
et populaires, le mélange de vocabulaire profane et sacré avec des néologismes, et la
transformation du Mexique en un pays imaginaire nommé « Magique » rendent hommage
au plus important héritage de Borges : la quête pour une page parfaite de fiction. Un tel
projet ne se conçoit pas facilement, et se lit encore moins. Domínguez Michael reconnaît
qu’il a plusieurs fois failli abandonner la lecture:
Ante cada uno de mis fastidios y de mis incomprensiones, la palpitación de la
obra maestra me sobornaba. Tenía que ver la trama de esa palabrería como quien
se empeña en mirar al sol con los ojos. Cuando quedé felizmente enceguecido, las
tinieblas, con otras formas y colores, ocuparon el vacío y apareció el sentido ("La
lección del maestro" 91).
Sada emporte le langage à l’infini pour explorer l’invention d’un monde où les
formes et les couleurs des mots donnent un sens à l’expression littéraire la plus pure du
récit mexicain contemporain. Tout comme avec les histoires de Borges dans le chapitre
précédent, nous allons isoler les quatre stratégies de l’infini littéraire dans Porque parece
mentira la verdad nunca se sabe. Nous nous concentrerons tout particulièrement sur
l’exhaustion radicale du langage, la première des stratégies textuelles, en étudiant tout
d’abord la structure du roman et son usage unique du langage et de certaines techniques
narratives. Lu sous une lumière généalogique et au-delà de l’étiquette facile de postmodernisme, nous tenterons de démontrer que Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se
sabe est une autre forme du lancer de dés mythique de Mallarmé.
La solitude du langage littéraire
Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe divise ses 602 pages en quinze
« périodes », un genre d’unités narratives qui touchent, à des niveaux différents, les
différentes intrigues secondaires concernant les 90 personnages du roman. L’histoire
commence dans la ville imaginaire de désert de « Remadrín », située dans l’État tout
aussi imaginaire du « Capila » au nord du Mexique. La fraude électorale perpétuée par
l’État et les autorités locales est au centre du récit. Le maire, Romeo Pomar, est à la tête
des autorités locales, archétype du dictateur latino-américain réduit à une caricature
grotesque et pathétique. Devant les citoyens de la ville, un groupe d’hommes armés
attaquent le bureau de vote principal et volent les urnes électorales. Des dizaines de
résidents organisent alors une manifestation afin de défiler dans la capitale de l’État, mais
le gouverneur décide de répondre en donnant l’ordre d’un massacre qui entraînera la
démission forcée du maire, et finalement son assassinat. Alors que la ville entière est
secouée par ces bouleversements politiques, le gouverneur complote pour regagner le
contrôle en accusant le maire des tueries. Plus tard, la communauté est isolée et occupée
par l’armée, qui impose un couvre-feu et impose un rationnement des vivres. Chaque
habitant de la ville quitte bientôt Remadrín, suivis à la fin par les personnages de Trinidad
et Cecilia, qui s’enfuient sans retrouver leurs fils Salomón et Papías, qui ont disparu au
cours de la manifestation.
La structure du roman explique la nécessité du style baroque de Sada. Le langage
littéraire ne fait jamais directement allusion à des actions et à leurs acteurs : il configure
les actions et leurs acteurs eux-mêmes en dessinant leurs silhouettes avec la construction
constante d’une prose périphérique qui leur donne définition et profondeur, mot après
mot. Le processus schématique peut être lu dans le passage suivant de la première
période, dans laquelle une séquence complexe d’alexandrins submerge la subtilité de
l’action qui est exprimée :
Figura aparecida contra la oscuridad. ¿Captada a grandes rasgos?, eso es lo que
quería. Primera sensación. Ambivalencia. Luego: figura que se adentra
gradualmente en silencio. Figura en desdibujo, a la deriva, en sombras, y una
visión austera como un simple asegún. De hinojos Trinidad, y su mano derecha
temblorosa, extendida al azar intentando así algo… (inútilmente), el grito contra
el eco: «¡Papíaaas!, ¡¿me…?!» Bulto al fin desplomado (Sada 24).
Tout comme avec la prose baroque la plus élaborée de l’âge d’or espagnol, un
effort de mise en prose peut révéler l’action construite dans ce passage : Trinidad entre
dans une caverne, à la recherche de ses fils, et s’évanouit à l’intérieur tandis qu’il les
appelle. La voix narrative a encerclé l’action, proposant dans chaque hémistiche une
pièce distincte du puzzle, pièces qui ensemble formeront l’illusion d’une action qui, à
nouveau, n’est jamais directement articulée. La narration sursaturée de Sada ne produit
pas l’action ; elle suggère plutôt l’apparence de son achèvement en traçant une
exploration oblique de qualités qui insinuent ce que le lecteur devra alors configurer au
cours de sa lecture.
Analysons tout d’abord la stratégie textuelle de l’exhaustion radicale du langage
en relation avec El idioma infinito, un article écrit par Borges pour la collection El
tamaño de mi esperanza (1926), un de ses premiers recueils d’essais. Dans cet article,
Borges argue en faveur d’un terrain neutre entre ceux qui proposent l’adoption officielle
d’expressions familières et ceux qui soutiennent la pureté de la langue espagnole
péninsulaire, libre de toute influence déstabilisante d’autres langues. Bien que Borges
prétende qu’il écrit dans les marges de la grammaire acceptée, il admet aussi qu’il
imagine constamment d’autres voix possibles ayant la capacité d’augmenter indéfiniment
la langue espagnole dans sa pratique quotidienne. Il va jusqu’à isoler quatre de ces voix
alternatives dans ce qu’il considère comme un nouveau « système » de langage :
a) La derivación de adjetivos, verbos y adverbios, de todo nombre sustantivo. Así
de lanza ya tenemos las derivaciones lanceolado, lanceado, alancear, lanzarse,
lanzar y otras que me callo. […]
b) La separabilidad de las llamadas preposiciones inseparables. Esta licencia de
añadirle prefijos a cualquier nombre sustantivo, verbo o epíteto, ya existe en
alemán, idioma siempre enriquecible y sin límites que atesora muchas
preposiciones de difícil igualación castellana. […]
c) La traslación de verbos neutros en transitivos y lo contrario. De esta artimaña
olvido algún ejemplo en Juan Keats y varios de Macedonio Fernández. […]
d) El emplear en su rigor etimológico las palabras. Un goce honesto y justiciero,
un poquito de asombro y un mucho de lucidez, hay en la recta instauración de
voces antiguas. […] ("El idioma infinito" 41-42)
En tant que projets littéraires, les premiers Borges et Sada utilisent des techniques
comparables. Ils sont tous les deux en quête de possibilités infinies du langage,
combinant les usages sacrés et populaires dans une expérience unique de littérature qui
garantissent la transformation constante du langage. Tandis que les règles rigides de la
grammaire sont transgressées, tandis que de nouveaux mots entrent la prose
contemporaine et se placent à côté de vieux mots dont le sens étymologique a été
réactivé, Borges produit à peine une déclaration politique, même si cet article fut écrit
pendant sa période avant-gardiste consacrée à la défense des particularités de l’espagnol
utilisé en Argentine. Comme nous l’avons mentionné plus haut, Sada a reformé le
langage en combinant des éléments populaires et sacrés issus des traditions péninsulaires
les plus importantes (en particulier la métrique et le vocabulaire de l’âge d’or) aux
multiples déclinaisons et dérivations d’expressions familières, dont plusieurs étaient déjà
obsolètes dans leurs régions d’origine, et dont plusieurs avaient récemment été créées par
En incorporant les variations de vocabulaire, de rythme, de techniques narratives
et de stratégies, Sada devrait être pleinement compris dans l’expérience moderne de
Borges qui imaginera plus tard le langage littéraire sous la forme d’une bibliothèque
infinie : la Bibliothèque de Babel. En plaçant les postulats de ce que Borges nomma « le
langage infini » dans un mouvement narratif, Sada a mené son projet littéraire à une
exhaustion radicale, défiant avec chaque variation, avec chaque confrontation entre la
voix narrative et les autres voix, la stabilité du langage littéraire. Le roman est l’histoire
d’un langage se séparant du substrat humain, tournant autour de son propre axe dans le
vide de sa solitude, essayant d’atteindre ce « dehors » où seul le langage peut continuer
son mouvement infini vers l’exhaustion. En tant que système littéraire vaste et complexe,
le roman de Sada semble exécuter toutes les combinaisons que l’écrivain pourrait
concevoir. Dans ce processus, le langage prend le contrôle de l’opération, et la présence
de l’énonciateur est diminuée à un point où la voix narrative est fragmentée en trois
autres voix. Les cercles concentriques de la structure narrative s’avancent en un
mouvement qui ressemble à celui de la spirale : l’expérience linguistique est
constamment défiée, modifiée, et finalement modifiée. L’exhaustion finale du langage est
atteinte à la fin du roman, lorsque le message posté par Trinidad et Cecilia pâlit, et ton
après ton (tono tras tono), le langage devient une substance aride (yerma substancia), une
sève intérieure (savia interior) qui ne reflète plus l’extérieur et qui existe uniquement
pour elle-même. Le langage s’est tourné vers l’infini.
Comme nous l’avons proposé au début de cette thèse, l’exhaustion radicale du
langage est la stratégie textuelle de l’infini littéraire qui a été mise en valeur par rapport
aux trois autres afin de souligner ses caractéristiques et ses modes d’opération. En tant
qu’expérience de la modernité, cependant, les quatre stratégies peuvent être tracées dans
le roman, comme nous le montrerons dans ce qui suit :
1) L’exhaustion radicale du langage : tandis que la voix narrative élimine la
relation directe au substrat linguistique, le langage devient son propre espace d’existence,
là où les concepts populaires et culturels se combinent en de multiples variations et
déclinaisons et réduisent la séquence de l’action à un acte de discours modifiant sans
cesse le rôle central de l’énonciateur. La subjectivité moderne est dissoute quand la voix
narrative souffre une fragmentation permettant la présence d’autres possibilités de
narration qui explorent des projets littéraires à l’agonie, comme si le roman ne pouvait
retrouver la stabilité d’un seul discours. Dans un mouvement de spirale s’éloignant du
substrat, le langage littéraire oppose son altérité dans une fixation impossible, insérant le
langage dans ce « dehors » baptisé par Maurice Blanchot.
2) L’absence de l’œuvre : il est important de se souvenir que l’exhaustion radicale
du langage n’entraîne jamais l’achèvement du travail ; bien au contraire, la voix narrative
produit de nombreuses variations de verbes et de noms ainsi que la fragmentation même
de son unité. Le langage littéraire, dans le roman de Sada, est toujours l’autre, ne
permettant jamais à la dernière période de conclure l’histoire. Le livre contient un nombre
limité de pages, mais le texte n’atteint jamais sa fin : il parvient à une exhaustion
provoquée par l’impossibilité d’atteindre jamais le statut d’œuvre.
3) Le même, l’autre : toute subjectivité articulée dans le roman est déplacée en
permanence, confrontée à son autre. La voix narrative brise son identité et se divise en
trois voix conflictuelles qui inhibent le processus narratif. La stabilité du locus de
l’énonciation (ici dans la figure du livre en tant qu’unité textuelle et l’hypothèse de
Remadrín comme lieu de l’action) est également menacée : le livre devient un non-livre,
un texte inachevé en constante reformulation ; Remadrín ne peut plus être une ville
résidentielle car elle devient le centre d’une population fantomatique, exempte de toute
vie ou activité.
4) La transgression : combinant la force textuelle des trois stratégies, le roman
devient un acte de transgression dans la généalogie de l’infini littéraire. Il radicalise les
techniques et les thèmes inaugurés par Pedro Páramo : le langage mythique de Rulfo
devient un texte dé-historicisé s’éloignant de plus en plus de son substrat. Le roman ne
reflète pas la culture et le langage du nord du Mexique : il ne fait que se refléter luimême. En rejetant l’histoire, la culture et la subjectivité, Porque parece mentira la
verdad nunca se sabe transgresse la pratique littéraire du récit mexicain pour transformer
le langage en un acte pur de narration ne pouvant plus opérer à l’intérieur de l’épistémè
qui maintient la centralité de l’Homme moderne. Les personnages de Sada ne vivent pas
au Mexique : ils vivent dans un pays appelé Magique, une dimension linguistique
toujours sur le point de devenir son autre à travers l’exhaustion radicale du langage qui
limite ses frontières changeantes.
Après cette expérience linguistique écrasante, Sada a décidé de renouveler sa
carrière en choisissant un langage plus conventionnel et en situant l’action de ses romans
dans l’environnement urbain plus familier de la ville de México, où il a vécu ces trente
dernières années. Il a publié deux romans depuis : Luces artificiales (2002) et Ritmo
Delta (2005). Contrairement à l’enthousiasme que reçut Porque parece mentira la verdad
nunca se sabe, ces deux livres ont été critiqués pour leur manque d’expérimentation, et
même pour la vacuité de leurs intrigues. Le critique Rafael Lemus croit que l’originalité
de Sada a atteint un point d’ « exhaustion » et de « fatigue » qui s’est étendu à la
publication de ces deux romans qui ont peu en commun avec la prose explosive et
aventureuse de l’auteur. Lemus écrit :
Hay que dinamitar el estilo, ir contra uno mismo. Sada es una prosa y sólo volverá
a asombrar batiéndose contra ella. Es necesario, apremiante, el suicidio. ¿Se
inmolará Daniel Sada? Ésa es una de las pocas preguntas interesantes de la
literatura en castellano (80).
Aller à l’encontre de soi. S’immoler. Lemus en appelle à l’une des conditions
essentielles de la modernité qui ont nourri les expérimentations littéraires les plus osées
depuis la poésie avant-gardiste française de la fin du 19ème siècle. Les premières œuvres
de Borges avaient compris la leçon dans les premières années de ses propres aventures
Un puñadito de gramatiquerías claro está que no basta para engendrar vocablos
que alcancen vida de inmortalidad en las mentes. Lo que persigo es despertarle a
cada escritor la conciencia de que el idioma apenas si está bosquejado y de que es
gloria y deber suyo (nuestro y de todos) el multiplicarlo y variarlo. Toda
consciente generación literaria lo ha comprendido así ("El idioma infinito" 42-43).
La question demeure : Sada a-t-il atteint les limites de la modernité dans la
tradition latino-américaine ? Reste-t-il de la place pour un autre tour de vis, un autre
lancer de dés ? Ce en quoi Borges avait cru depuis les années 1920 est-il encore valable :
le langage n’en est-il qu’à ses balbutiements ? Quelles que soient les réponses, cette thèse
a essayé de souligner le mouvement évolutif d’une généalogie de l’infini littéraire qui n’a
pas cessé d’explorer ce « dehors » du langage, où la fiction est en permanence dans un
état de réinvention. Le récit mexicain continue à ajouter de nouveaux stades dans la
généalogie, et les réflexions de Borges sont en ce sens encore très actives : le langage a
atteint son exhaustion et pourtant, il semble que nous ne faisons que commencer à
l’esquisser. Et ainsi de suite, indéfiniment.
II. Roberto Bolaño et Les détectives sauvages : L’absence de l’œuvre
Avec sa publication en 1963, le roman Rayula de Julio Cortázar inaugure une
lignée de romans qui visent à capturer la pluralité des points de vue et des sentiments
d’une génération entière et de son époque. La création de ce type de travail semble s’être
éteinte dans les années 1970. Les historiens littéraires croyaient que les temps
« postmodernes » ne laisseraient aucune place à un autre roman de cette taille et de cette
complexité. Ceci est en partie vrai : les groupes de narrateurs les plus récents96 ont été
activement occupés à se libérer du fardeau du Boom, à démanteler les fondements de leur
identité d’ « écrivains latino-américains ». Ils correspondent en ceci aux formulations
théoriques du supposé « postmodernisme » dans la littérature (la fin du « récit maître »,
l’irruption de la parodie, l’abandon des techniques narratives formées à l’époque du haut
modernisme, la déconstruction de la subjectivité en un acte de représentation
carnavalesque), discutées dans le premier chapitre de cette thèse.
Los detectives salvajes (1998), cependant, ne correspond pas parfaitement au
profil postmoderniste. Mélangeant nombre d’influence éclectiques venues d’Amérique
Latine et de la littérature anglophone, Roberto Bolaño insère son roman dans la tradition
de Borges, Cortázar, Jorge Ibarguengoitia, et Lezama ainsi que dans le territoire
d’écrivains américains tels que Philip Roth (1933), Don DeLillo (1936) et Thomas
Pynchon (1937), et des romans policiers de Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) et Dashiell
96 Deux des exemples les plus clairs peuvent être trouvés dans les anthologies de nouvelles de nouveaux
auteurs latino-américains McOndo (1996), édité par les Chiliens Alberto Fuguet et Sergio Gómez, et Se
habla español (2000) édité également par Fuguet et le Bolivien Edmundo Paz Soldán.
Hammet (1894-1961). Il y a plus à dire sur Rayuela que sur Los detectives salvajes. VilaMatas le lit avec cette optique :
…es un conjunto de cuatrocientos golpes o cuatrocientas páginas con una casi
infinita participación de múltiples voces que comentan los trazos de las huellas de
los dos detectives salvajes y a la vez comentan cómo lo desastroso se instaló en el
centro de gravedad de la historia de una generación extravagante… una novela
que bien podría ser —ahí donde la ven— una fisura, una rotura muy importante
para lo que hasta ahora ha ido haciendo una generación de novelistas: un
carpetazo histórico y genial a Rayuela de Cortázar y de la que Los detectives
salvajes bien podría ser su revés, en el amplio sentido de la palabra revés. Los
detectives salvajes —vista así— sería una grieta que abre bechas por las que
habrán de circular nuevas corrientes literarias ("Bolaño en la distancia" 103).
Vila-Matas se réfère au dialogue évident que le roman de Bolaño semble établir
avec Rayuela de Cortázar, tout particulièrement avec ses innovations comparables dans
l’usage du langage et du genre romanesque. Los detectives salvajes, tout comme le chef
d’œuvre de Cortázar, est une quête d’une vision non-conventionnelle du langage et du
récit tentant de trouver des alternatives aux plans architecturaux traditionnels du roman.
Bolaño a divisé ses 690 pages en trois parties. La première, « Mexicanos perdidos en
México (1975) » présente des entrées du journal du poète adolescent Juan García
Madero. Dans celles-ci, Madero raconte l’histoire du réalisme viscéral, un mouvement
littéraire plutôt marginal, et la vie de ces fondateurs, le poète chilien Arturo Belano et le
poète mexicain Ulises Lima. Aucun membre du groupe ne semble savoir ce que les
vicerrealistas (comme ils sont aussi appelés) représentent. Ils ont cependant établi deux
principes de base : ils détestent Octavio Paz et ils sont obsédés par les travaux perdus de
l’énigmatique Cesárea Tinajero, une poétesse qui a publié quelques écrits dans des
magazines littéraires au cours des mouvements avant-gardistes au Mexique. Le récit de
García Madero est brutalement interrompu lorsque Belano, Lima et lui s’enfuient de
Mexico pour sauver Lupe, une jeune prostituée, des griffes de son proxénète. Le groupe
se dirige vers l’État du Sonora, au nord, où plusieurs indices pointent vers la dernière
résidence connue de Cesárea Tinajero.
La deuxième partie, plus fragmentaire, commence alors : « Los detectives salvajes
(1976-1996) », qui témoignent, à travers un patchwork de récits à la première personne,
les 20 ans de voyages erratiques de « détective(s) » anonyme(s) qui cherchent à connaître
le destin des real visceralistas. Le lecteur suit les traces de Belano et de Lima dans les
entretiens que le « détective » conduit avec un total de 38 personnes dans 15 villes de 8
pays, au nombre desquels les États-Unis, le Mexique, la France, l’Italie, l’Espagne et
l’Autriche. Grâce à ce procédé, Bolaño s’assure de l’absence de ses personnages
principaux, absence qui forme l’acte narratif puisque tout ce qui reste de Belano, Lima et
García Madero sont les pages d’un journal et les transcriptions de témoignages oraux. Les
50 dernières pages du roman, qui forment la troisième et dernière partie, sont consacrées
à une continuation du journal de García Madero. On y trouve les clefs manquantes
permettant de comprendre la raison des voyages incessants de Belano et Lima, qui
commencèrent en 1976. Nous apprenons que les personnages quittèrent Mexico et
finirent par retrouver Cesárea Tinajero dans la petite ville de Sonora pour la tuer
accidentellement ainsi que le proxénète de Lupe et un officier de police corrompu.
Belano et Lima laissent les travaux inédits de Cesárea Tinajero à García Madero et
s’enfuient, emportant les cadavres avec eux. Lupe et García Madero errent dans le désert
de Sonora en emportant les travaux inédits, encore vierges de toute lecture, de Cesárea,
tandis que Belano et Lima commencent leurs 20 ans d’errance.
Dans la généalogie de l’infini littéraire, Bolaño et Sada sont peut-être les auteurs
les plus audacieux des générations les plus récentes. Tous deux sont extrêmement
conscients des risques pris avec leurs projets littéraires et avec la distance qu’ils ont mise
avec les modèles romanesques hérités de la période du boom. Bolaño, comme le fit
Borges dans son essai El arte narrativo y la magia, considère la littérature comme un
système linguistique fermé et limité qui utilise des éléments de réalité au sein de la
structuration d’un artifice. Bolaño oppose ce concept de l’artifice typique de Borges au
besoin d’une causalité logique manifestée plus clairement dans les romans historiques.
Dans un entretien, Bolaño offre plus de détails de cette différence :
Digamos que la historia y la trama surgen del azar, pertenecen al reino del azar, es
decir al caos, al desorden, o a ese territorio permanentemente perturbado que
algunos llaman apocalíptico. La forma, por el contrario, es una elección regida
por la inteligencia, la astucia, la voluntad, el silencio, las armas de Ulises en su
lucha contra la muerte97. La forma busca el artificio98, la historia el precipicio
[…] a mí no me disgustan los precipicios, pero prefiero observarlos desde un
puente (Boullosa 111).
L’artifice du langage prévaudra sur la subjectivité moderne et sur le concept
traditionnel d’œuvre. Nous allons maintenant examiner le roman de Bolaño avec une
analyse permettant d’isoler les quatre stratégies textuelles de l’infini littéraire, soulignant
en particulier l’absence de l’œuvre dans notre lecture de Los detectives salvajes.
97 Ulises reste en vie, comme nous le verrons plus loin, ourdissant le récit complet de son voyage de retour
à Itaca. La même astuce opère dans Schéhérazade, qui chaque matin trompait la mort avec une histoire de
plus, histoires racontées dans Les mille et une nuits.
98 Notez la coïncidence avec le mot de Borges (emphase de l’auteur de cette thèse).
Dans le roman de Bolaño, les personnages et leurs travaux sont tous absents de
l’acte narratif, une absence réfléchie dans la structure du roman, où tout tourne autour du
récit de seconde main à la troisième personne d’une histoire s’étant déjà déroulée au
moment où l’acte narratif prend place. Cette technique d’anachronisme délibéré, que
Gérard Genette nomme « analepse » lorsque l’histoire est construite après le déroulement
des événements, est également la possibilité assumée du « prolepse », quand l’histoire est
racontée avant son déroulement99 (82-83). Jaromir Hladík était le personnage archétypal
dans l’analyse de l’absence de l’œuvre comme stratégie textuelle dans El milagro secreto
de Borges. Tout comme lui, Bolaño disposait d’un temps limité puisqu’il apprit en 1992
qu’il souffrait d’une maladie fatale du foie. L’(im)possibilité d’écrire une œuvre parfaite
le conduisit à écrire obsessionnellement contre le temps, en particulier pour le dernier de
ses romans, 2666, un travail inachevé qui n’avait pas été publié lorsqu’il est mort. Écrire,
pour Bolaño et Hladík, était une question de vie ou de mort, et lorsque la mort vint
finalement à bout de l’auteur, la fonctionnalité de son nom devint une part intégrale de la
structure narrative.
Le travail lui-même, cependant, demeure toujours absent car il est le produit d’un
acte de discours continu d’un écrivain ayant atteint ses limites. Alors que la possibilité de
continuation de (ré)écriture du travail prévaut, l’infini ouvre tout d’abord la structure
narrative, l’artifice faisant face au précipice, comme l’indiquait Bolaño. Les quatre
99 Ces deux concepts, étudiés avec soin dans Figures III de Genette, sont les deux côtés opposés de
l’anachronisme littéraire. Voir en particulier le chapitre 1 du livre, intitulé « Order ».
catégories peuvent donc être tracées dans Los detectives salvajes, confirmant la
correspondance entre les quatre œuvres choisies ici et leur place dans la généalogie de
l’infini littéraire :
1) Los detectives salvajes créent l’espace où le langage poursuit son exhaustion
radicale, en particulier avec l’usage du langage et les poèmes visuels de Tinajero et des
fenêtres de Madero, tout comme la confluence de la terminologie érudite de la poésie
classique récitée par García Madero au cours du voyage dans le désert mexicain,
contrastant avec le vocabulaire populaire inventé dans les rues de Mexico tel que
reproduit par Lupe, un recours également exploré jusqu’à l’exhaustion par Sada dans
Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe. Cette technique culmine lorsque García
Madero liste dans son journal les nombreux villages miséreux traversés dans le Sonora
juste avant de dessiner les dernières fenêtres. Leur sonorité nous rappelle le jeu constant
de Sada sur les noms et les verbes (Remadrín, Capila etc.), comme s’il opérait des
déclinaisons et des variations inattendues : « Cucurpe, Tuape, Meresichic, Opodepe,
Carbó, El oasis, Félix Gómez, El Cuatro, Trincheras, La Ciénega, Bamuri, Pitiquito,
Caborca, San Juan, Las Maravillas, Las Calenturas » (Los detectives salvajes 608).
2) Comme nous en avons déjà parlé en détail, la notion traditionnelle de l’œuvre
achevée est désarticulée. Mettant en mouvement narratif la question de Foucault dans
Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur ?, Bolaño nous présente des écrivains aux œuvres non publiées.
Belano, Lima et García Madero cherchent la poète disparue qu’ils n’ont jamais lu et dont
ils prétendent comprendre, d’une façon ou d’une autre, la conception qu’elle se fait de la
littérature. Comme si la littérature était un courant qui dirige les actions et les attitudes
même des écrivains, les travaux de tous les personnages sont inscrits dans le roman de
Bolaño, car le seul travail visible de l’art n’est montré que dans leur histoire. Ce travail,
Los detectives salvajes lui-même, est également un fragment toujours sur le point d’être
achevé et toujours sur le point de débuter, puisque la linéarité brisée et curieuse du
discours a besoin du lecteur pour pouvoir être recollée. L’anachronisme d’une analepse et
d’une prolepse simultanées (en tant qu’histoire racontée avant et après le déroulement
effectif des événements, mais jamais pendant) oblige le lecteur à anticiper en permanence
la promesse de son achèvement.
3) En tant que mouvement des doubles dans une autoréflexion constante, le roman
est l’exemple même de la stratégie textuelle du dynamisme oscillant entre le Même et
l’Autre. La subjectivité moderne se développe constamment entre elle-même et son autre
tout au long de l’histoire. Les real visceralistas espèrent donc imiter le groupe original en
portant le même nom, mais ils échouent au cours de leur quête à atteindre une
compréhension pleine et véritable de la première avant-garde, se retrouvant à la place de
leurs autres. Le même phénomène est observé par Cesárea Tinajero elle-même, car elle
considère son mouvement comme étant l’autre du mouvement plus connu
d’Estridentismo. Alors qu’ils cherchent désespérément leur mère symbolique, les jeunes
poètes, et tout particulièrement García Madero, suivent accidentellement une trajectoire
parallèle, finissant par se perdre dans l’immensité du désert, en ce qui concerne García
Madero, ou dans le reste du monde pour Belano et Lima. Enfin, le même mouvement est
suivi par Bolaño et Santiago, qui se transforment eux-mêmes en leurs autres fictifs,
s’assurant ainsi de leur place dans la structure de l’histoire qui permet un nouveau départ
constant de leur voyage à chaque fois qu’un lecteur commence une nouvelle lecture du
4) Le langage littéraire dans son ensemble exerce un acte de transgression dans
Los detectives salvajes, qui le sépare d’un langage maintenant toujours la logique de
l’épistémè moderne. Les romans qui naissent au sein de la cohérence épistémologique de
la modernité sont construits autour de la narration de l’Homme comme objet et sujet
centraux de connaissance. Leur structure narrative s’adapte donc à la dialectique de
l’histoire et couvre généralement les épisodes historiques importants eux-mêmes, comme
dans le cas archétype de Vargas Llosa analysé dans le chapitre II de cette thèse. En tant
que partie d’une généalogie émergeant de la crise de cette modernité, Los detectives
salvajes défie la structure traditionnelle du roman et des thèmes qui caractérisent les
romans les plus célèbres de la période du boom, précisément parce qu’ils tentent de
définir une culture et une identité latino-américaines exceptionnelles. Los detectives
salvajes, tout comme les trois autres romans étudiés dans cette thèse, est principalement
un travail de langage en quête constante de ses propres limites. C’est pourquoi, dans ses
pages, toutes les figures de l’auteur sont réduites à de simples fonctions du récit, pourquoi
la notion traditionnelle de l’œuvre est déconstruite, et pourquoi toute possibilité de
subjectivité est constamment menacée par la présence de l’autre. Bolaño caractérisait son
ars poetica dans des termes plus éloquents mais similaires lors de son discours de
remerciement pour le célèbre prix Rómulo Gallegos :
¿Entonces qué es una escritura de calidad? Pues lo que siempre ha sido: saber
meter la cabeza en lo oscuro, saber saltar al vacío, saber que la literatura
básicamente es un oficio peligroso. Correr por el borde del precipicio: a un lado el
abismo sin fondo y al otro lado las caras que uno quiere, las sonrientes caras que
uno quiere, y los libros, y los amigos, y la comida. Y aceptar esa evidencia
aunque a veces nos pese más que la losa que cubre los restos de todos los
escritores muertos. La literatura, como diría una folklórica andaluza, es un peligro
("Discurso de Caracas" 36-37).
Une littérature qui court le long du précipice est peut-être la meilleure métaphore
possible pour décrire la crise du sujet moderne faisant face au vide d’un langage tourné
vers l’infini et éloigné de la réalité de l’auteur. Nous croyons que Bolaño espérait
souligner ce même message dans la conférence inachevée qu’il aurait dû donner aux
écrivains latino-américains réunis à Séville l’été où il est mort. Une leçon plus compacte
mais similaire peut être apprise d’un autre essai écrit par Bolaño pour clarifier le
panorama du récit contemporain en Amérique Latine. Il appelait ceci un corollaire et
nous le reproduisons ici en espérant obtenir le même effet : « Il faut relire Borges encore
une fois » (« Derivas de la pesada » 30). Tout est terminé et pourtant tout commence à
CHAPITRE IV : L’infini continue
I. Cristina Rivera Garza et La cresta de ilión: le Même, l’Autre
Au bord de la frontière
En 2000, la publication de Nadie me verá llorar établit Cristina Rivera Garza
(Matamoros 1964) comme l’une des écrivaines les plus importantes de sa génération. Le
roman, salué comme une « révélation » par Carlos Fuentes, est une histoire d’amour qui
prend place dans l’hôpital psychiatrique « La Castañeda » de Mexico au début du 20ème
siècle. Le roman met en jeu de nombre de thèmes, époques et techniques de récit que
Rivera Garza avait déjà exploré dans ses précédents écrits. Même si elle a déjà, à
quelques reprises, considéré son roman comme étant « historique », Rivera Garza a
souligné que son but était d’explorer certaines stratégies pour expérimenter le langage,
pas la réalité.
Le projet littéraire de Rivera Garza a connu plusieurs mutations différentes. Dans
leur développement graduel, ces changements ont été célébrés par les critiques comme
« l’hybridation » croissante de son ars poetica, qui avait refusé de demeurer statique. Sa
propre carrière pluridisciplinaire suit ce même chemin : cette historienne mexicaine née
au bord de la frontière avec les États-Unis s’intéresse aux maladies mentales et à leur
pathologie, et elle a été publiée en anglais et en espagnol dans des contextes
universitaires et littéraires. Ses écrits sont très éclectiques : articles de revues médicales,
poésies, romans, nouvelles, théorie littéraire, et plus récemment son propre blog100. En ce
100 Voir :
qui concerne Nadie me verá llorar, le roman maintient une historicité qui sert un cadre
identifiable pour l’histoire. Pour ses projets futurs, Rivera Garza a déclaré se sentir
obligée d’expérimenter de « nouvelles stratégies » avec son utilisation du langage
littéraire. Nous croyons que cette nouvelle approche, qui fut matérialisée en 2002 avec la
publication de La cresta de ilión, est plus proche de la prose poétique et qu’elle
représente la version romanesque de son premier recueil de poèmes, La más mía (1998).
Étant donné son affinité pour les études et les écrits pluridisciplinaires, il est peu étonnant
que Rivera Garza franchisse la frontière entre un roman proche de l’histoire (Nadie me
verá llorar) et un recueil de poèmes basé sur un langage littéraire dépuré (La más mía).
Dans ces pages, nous étudierons la façon dont le projet littéraire de Rivera Garza
est en quête permanente de son autre. Elle dit que sa vision a été influencée par certaines
théories des tendances de la « nouvelle histoire culturelle » du milieu universitaire nordaméricain101, tout particulièrement sur le concept d’identité, qu’elle comprend comme
« un forum dynamique et fluide » (Castañeda H.). Nous avancerons que La cresta de
ilión, en tant que roman qui expérimente radicalement avec ces idées, est avant tout une
quête linguistique de son autre narratif, qui désarticule constamment toute possibilité
d’une identité univoque. Afin de produire cette narration discutable, Rivera Garza
menace l’unité même de son identité d’auteur en établissant un dialogue direct avec les
101 La « nouvelle histoire culturelle » fait référence à des projets philosophiques et historiques distincts qui
sont étudiés ensemble dans des contextes communs. C’est le cas des travaux de penseurs très différents
comme le philosophe Michel Foucault et des historiens comme Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra.
Pour une anthologie représentative de cette tendance voir : Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History. Pour une
étude de l’application de la nouvelle historie culturelle à l’historiographie mexicaine voir : Knight,
"Subalterns, Signifiers, and Statistics: Perspectives on Mexican Historiography."
travaux et la figure d’Amparo Dávila (Pinos, Zacatecas 1928), une écrivaine mexicaine
oubliée de la génération connue sous le terme « medio siglo » (milieu de siècle).
Affiliant son roman à une tradition qui relie Dávila, Julio Cortázar et Macedonio
Fernández, Rivera Garza participe à la généalogie littéraire qui considère le langage
comme le lieu instable d’identités changeantes. Comme dans Museo de la novela de la
eterna et Rayuela, La cresta de ilión fait un usage radical de la stratégie textuelle que
nous avons appelé le Même, l’Autre, qui vise une modification constante de la structure
d’un roman et de l’identité des personnages comme le moyen d’atteindre le but ultime du
texte : questionner la nature véritable de l’identité. En cela, La cresta de ilión est une
expérience radicale du langage littéraire qui synthétise ses précédents dans le récit
moderne latino-américain et atteint un nouveau niveau. Comme les personnages
principaux, la structure même du roman craint et embrasse à la fois, paradoxalement, la
présence dérangeante de l’autre, métaphoriquement et physiquement présente dans
l’apparition intertextuelle d’Amparo Dávila et de ses travaux. Nous allons maintenant
considérer les stratégies textuelles du roman, son utilisation radicale du langage et
l’insertion déstabilisante d’Amparo Dávila et de ses écrits. Nous poursuivrons en passant
en revue les quatre stratégies textuelles identifiées ici en relation à l’infini littéraire. Nous
finirons ensuite ce chapitre avec un exercice similaire dans notre approche de A pesar del
oscuro silencio de Jorge Volpi, et pour finir nous apporteront quelques remarques finales
qui viendront clore cette thèse sous forme d’un épilogue.
Un forum dynamique et fluide
En analysant La cresta de ilión, notre objectif est depuis le début de retracer sa
relation avec ce que nous avons appelé dans cette thèse une « généalogie de l’infini
littéraire ». En nous concentrant sur la stratégie textuelle de ce que nous avons identifié
comme « le Même, l’Autre », nous essayerons de démontrer que le roman de Rivera
Garza opère au sein des mêmes conditions épistémologiques qui permettent les
expériences de modernité dans la langue espagnole depuis l’irruption des modernistas à
la fin du 19ème siècle. Les références que Rivera Garza fait à la littérature anglophone
nous ont donné l’occasion d’étendre le cadre de cette thèse à une discussion plus large sur
la modernité dans la littérature occidentale. Nous avons fait brièvement référence à
quelques concepts du langage littéraire en tant qu’articulation de la contemporanéité, tel
que le voyait Gertrud Stein et qui peut facilement s’appliquer à de nombreuses autres
expressions de la littérature moderne de sa génération. Comprenant le langage littéraire
dans des termes très modernes, Rivera Garza a dit que l’identité ne peut être assumée
comme le profil stable et univoque du sujet mais comme un « forum dynamique et
fluide » (Castañeda H.). Ce forum suppose donc la présence d’éléments variés dans la
généalogie présente dans les stratégies textuelles de La cresta de ilión. Pour mieux isoler
ces aspects de la modernité dans le roman, nous étudierons les quatre stratégies énoncées
dans cette thèse telles que nous les avons appliquées aux travaux de Sada et Bolaño dans
le chapitre précédent :
1) L’exhaustion radicale du langage : en s’appropriant quelques unes des idées
modernes des poètes du « langage », La cresta de ilión est une « conspiration » littéraire
qui insère les stratégies, les personnages et quelques uns des thèmes présents dans les
écrits d’Amparo Dávila. Le roman devient l’endroit où le langage littéraire repousse ses
propres limites et incorpore de nombreuses expériences de la modernité des littératures
hispanophones et anglophones. Pris à son extrême, ce projet littéraire est reformulé en un
code secret, visible dans le nouveau langage articulé par les deux femmes dans le roman,
mais aussi dans le fonctionnement particulier des sujets sous-jacents d’Amparo Dávila.
Comme si son seul discours littéraire ne pouvait atteindre lui-même ses limites, Rivera
Garza semble invoquer de nombreuses expériences modernes qui, ensemble, amènent le
langage littéraire à son exhaustion. La cresta de ilión préfigure aussi la route que Rivera
Garza prendra dans ses prochains projets, écrivant en anglais et s’essayant au projet
public immédiat et inachevé du blog-roman sur Internet. La cresta de ilión est la
conception centrale d’une stratégie textuelle qui cherche à déstabiliser le discours
littéraire jusqu’à un point d’exhaustion en radicalisant l’intertextualité (insérer certains
travaux d’Amparo Dávila), l’hybridation (écrire en anglais) et la transfiguration
immédiate et publique d’un livre en cours d’écriture (le blog-roman).
2) L’absence de l’œuvre : La cresta de ilión commence avec l’arrivée d’Amparo
Dávila « la Fausse » qui est désespérément à la recherche d’un manuscrit perdu qui, selon
elle, contient la clef d’une mémoire perdue et de ses possibilités littéraires. Le roman
imite cet effet en ne permettant jamais à l’histoire d’avancer de son propre chef,
puisqu’elle est constamment complétée et emmenée dans des directions différentes par
les interpolations des nouvelles d’Amparo Dávila La cresta de ilión n’atteint jamais
vraiment son statut d’œuvre achevée, devenant à la place un texte dont les références
marginales gagnent une importance croissante dans la direction de l’intrigue, menaçant
l’achèvement de l’histoire. Le roman de Rivera Garza peut être lu comme un appendice
aux histoires d’Amparo Dávila, qui à leur tour ne peuvent plus rester dans leur cadre
initial après le dialogue établi avec La cresta de ilión. La correspondance littéraire mêlée
entre ces différents travaux assujettit ceux-ci à une tension qui neutralise leur identité de
livres. Dans un effet digne de Derrida, La cresta de ilión et Árboles petrificados, tout
comme les autres références littéraires en anglais et en espagnol, deviennent une part
intégrale de la notion plus élargie de texte dans la littérature moderne. Un langage
cherchant son autre n’est jamais pleinement présent mais plutôt toujours sur le point
d’être achevé, toujours sur le point de commencer.
3) Le Même, l’Autre : le déplacement du Même vers son Autre est l’un des effets
les plus importants de la subjectivité moderne, comme Foucault l’a analysé dans Les mots
et les choses. Derrida avait différents noms pour ce phénomène dans les termes qu’il
inventa : « trace », « différance » et même « supplément ». Dans la modernité, la stabilité
des signes subit une perturbation qui devient négativité pure et produit donc l’autre.
Comme nous l’avons noté dans le chapitre I de cette thèse, le déplacement permanent du
Même vers son Autre ne garantit pas à ce dernier le privilège d’une autre identité
composée de cette négativité. Le mouvement inaugure en revanche un mouvement
constant entre les deux pôles de chaque identité qui surpasse la force de la dialectique
avec un dynamisme sans fin. Chaque personnage de La cresta de ilión demeure donc
instable car la présence de l’autre oppose une négativité qui habite la consolidation de
l’identité. Le personnage masculin accepte son autre petit à petit, et le déplacement de
son identité est complet à la fin du roman. La possibilité d’être une femme ne reste
toutefois que ceci : une possibilité. Mais si cette situation n’est jamais résolue, la question
de cette masculinité qui est maintenant aussi possible est posée ; l’oscillation dynamique
entre les deux sexes est activée comme une stratégie textuelle qui intrigue le lecteur et
transforme l’impression que le personnage se construit tout au long du roman. En
d’autres termes, le lecteur expérimente, à cause de cette stratégie textuelle, le vide d’un
langage qui refuse de reconnaître l’identité de son personnage principal. Par là-même, le
discours narratif entre donc l’infini littéraire. Les autres personnages du roman traversent
le même processus : Amparo Dávila « la Fausse » est l’autre de Amparo Dávila « la
Véridique », qui est à son tour l’autre d’Amparo Dávila, l’écrivaine réelle et l’auteur de
Árboles petrificados. L’ancienne maîtresse du personnage apparaît sous le nom de « la
Trahie » par opposition à son autre, « la Traîtresse ». Au milieu du roman, elle devient
toutefois son autre en trahissant sa nouvelle compagne, Amparo Dávila « la Fausse »,
acquérant ainsi la condition opposée de « la Traîtresse ».
Comme nous en avons longuement discuté, le texte du roman est structuré sous la
même prémisse de la stratégie textuelle analysée dans les personnages. La cresta de ilión
est écrit avec une technique radicale d’intertextualité qui reconfigure sa conception
narrative en incorporant le projet littéraire d’Amparo Dávila. Le Même et l’Autre sont
présents dans un roman qui tire profit de ce que Derrida nomme l’ « indécidabilité » en
tant que source d’élan pour ses stratégies textuelles. Le mouvement incessant entre le
Même et l’Autre est au cœur de la structure du roman.
4) La transgression : La cresta de ilión est en soi un acte de transgression dans la
généalogie de l’infini littéraire. Le roman défie l’unité du livre et la stabilité de ses
personnages en transgressant toutes ses limites. Cette stratégie textuelle a été analysée en
détail dans les travaux de Borges. L’incorporation d’un intertexte (les histoires d’Amparo
Dávila) qui évolue de sa qualité de supplément au roman jusqu’à finir par gagner la
centralité du discours narratif ; chaque personnage est toujours sur le point de devenir
l’autre. Cette stratégie est également appliquée à l’intégralité du scénario du roman,
puisque l’action se déroule dans une ville qui est toujours entre deux mondes opposés (la
Ville du Nord et la Ville du Sud). Les techniques narratives sont l’objet de cette
transgression comme dans « Pierre Ménard, auteur du Quichotte » : La cresta de ilión
produit le premier écrit des histoires d’Amparo Dávila, mais cet effet peut aussi être
inversé pour déclarer que Árboles petrificados est en réalité la première version de la
variation constituée par La cresta de ilión.
Nous avons donc pu prendre en compte les quatre stratégies textuelles dans notre
analyse de chacun des romans choisis pour cette thèse, ce qui nous a amené à une
compréhension claire de la façon dont les questions essentielles qui surgirent dans la
culture occidentale à l’aube de la modernité se font très présentes dans le récit
contemporain mexicain. Il est donc logique de trouver que Porque parece mentira la
verdad nunca se sabe de Sada, Los detectives salvajes de Bolaño et La cresta de ilión de
Rivera Garza ont une approche similaire de leurs projets littéraires. Au-delà des études
traditionnelles passant par les générations, et en laissant de côté la classification rapide
par thème ou par style narratif, nous croyons avoir été capables de démontrer que le
discours narratif des quatre romans, au niveau épistémologique, participe à une plus
grande expérience de la modernité qui fut inaugurée en Amérique Latine par des livres
comme Azul… de Darío, qui se poursuivit à l’époque expérimentale des avant-gardes, qui
atteignit son niveau maximal de transgression avec la littérature de Borges, et que l’on
peut encore retracer dans les romans des écrivains contemporains. Pour conclure, nous
allons maintenant aborder un dernier roman afin d’explorer la quatrième stratégie
textuelle que nous avons nommé transgression. Synthèse des trois premières, cette
stratégie textuelle concentre toutes les dimensions de la modernité littéraire proposée
comme sujet d’étude de ces pages. Nous conclurons avec une discussion générale sur la
modernité, en suggérant que la tâche de discerner toutes les implications de la littérature
moderne, comme le disait Borges, a seulement été esquissée.
II. Jorge Volpi et A pesar del oscuro silencio : la transgression
Cosmopolitisme et modernité mexicaine
En 1996, un groupe de quatre jeunes écrivains102, tous nés dans les années 1960, a
tenu une conférence de presse à Mexico afin de lire le « Manifesto Crack », un projet
littéraire imitant les déclarations révolutionnaires des avant-gardes poétiques des années
1920 et 1930 en Amérique Latine. Dans ce document, ils appelaient à une renaissance de
la veine cosmopolite de la littérature mexicaine, et en particulier du genre romanesque,
afin de neutraliser ce qu’ils considéraient comme l’idée stéréotypée de la littérature
latino-américaine propagée par les « épigones103 » du réalisme magique formulé par
Gabriel García Márquez. Les membres du « crack » faisaient écho aux opinions de
groupes similaires d’Amérique du Sud, qui déclaraient leur éloignement de l’hégémonie
des imitateurs de García Márquez dans le marketing du récit latino-américain, à la fois
par les principaux éditeurs espagnols et par leur réception dans les cercles universitaires,
tout particulièrement aux États-Unis. Le manifeste était divisé en quatre parties dans
lesquelles chaque auteur exposait quelques idées principales du projet, et présentait ses
romans. Par cette intervention, Ignacio Padilla résumait leur analyse des conditions
problématiques du récit latino-américain :
Ahí hay más bien una mera reacción contra el agotamiento; cansancio de que la
gran literatura latinoamericana y el dudoso realismo mágico se hayan convertido,
para nuestras letras, en magiquismo trágico (Chávez Castañeda, Padilla, Palou
and Urroz).
102 Ricardo Chávez Castañeda, Ignacio Padilla, Pedro Ángel Palou, Eloy Urroz et Jorge Volpi.
103 Les écrivains « crack » ont plus particulièrement attaqué la figure d’écrivains tels que Isabel Allende,
qui a transformé l’utilisation d’éléments magiques de García Márquez dans ses écrits en recette de bestseller.
Au-delà du manifeste, cependant, le groupe fit des remarques publiques
incendiaires qui relancèrent le vieux débat qui, depuis le modernismo, et en particulier
après les travaux de Rúben Darío, a oscillé entre cosmopolitisme et nationalisme. Comme
nous l’avons analysé dans le chapitre II de cette thèse, c’est la même discussion qui
amena de nombreux critiques à déclarer que Borges n’était pas un écrivain latinoaméricain, comme certains ont pu le déclarer à propos de Darío. Contre ce sujet récurrent,
et afin de corriger ceux qui croyaient que le « crack » avait inventé le cosmopolitisme,
des critiques tels que Christopher Domínguez Michael nous ont rappelé que la tradition la
plus importante du récit mexicain moderne, et d’ailleurs du récit moderne de tout le
continent, était en réalité très cosmopolite. Dans sa présentation d’un « dossier » du récit
latino-américain contemporain préparé pour un numéro récent de La Nouvelle Revue
Française, qui comprenait quelques uns des auteurs du « crack », Domínguez Michael
explique que les travaux des auteurs comme du ceux du « crack » n’est que le produit
final logique de cette condition :
Cela ne fait que prouver, une fois encore, la vigueur du dialogue cosmopolite
entre les écrivains mexicains, écho d’une tradition presque centenaire, celle qui
marqua la rencontre entre Alfonso Reyes et Valery Larbaud, entre le surréalisme
et la poésie latino-américaine ou même, la découverte des textes sacrés des Mayas
par Miguel Ángel Asturias dans leur traduction française. Il n’existe pas et il n’a
jamais existé de littérature « post-coloniale » —sauf peut-être dans l’âme
corrompue de racisme de certains professeurs—, que ce soit au Mexique ou dans
le reste de l’Amérique latine ("La mort de la littérature mexicaine" 125-26)104.
104 Ce texte était à l’origine écrit en espagnol et il a été traduit pour La Nouvelle Revue Française. Il n’a
pas, à ma connaissance, été publié ailleurs.
Le débat entre cosmopolitisme et nationalisme est loin d’être clôt, et les écrivains
« crack » ont saisi la chance de réactiver un nouvel épisode et de placer leur groupe au
centre du conflit. Ils ont ainsi essayé d’affilier leur élan créatif à une discussion vieille
d’un siècle qui a été lancée et relancée à travers ce que Octavio Paz a qualifié, comme
chacun le sait, de « tradition de la rupture105 » : le renouvellement continu du langage
littéraire qui, depuis le modernismo, a été l’objectif de chaque nouveau groupe ou
génération. Nous croyons cependant que le débat pourrait être amené à un nouveau
niveau s’il était réinterprété sous une lumière épistémologique. En ce sens, le
nationalisme serait le courant littéraire qui maintient la centralité de l’Homme et la
nécessité d’écrire sur l’histoire et la culture d’Amérique Latine.
En analysant le cosmopolitisme, nous croyons néanmoins que de nouvelles
différences apparaissent dans cette approche de la littérature. Un roman tel que En busca
de Klingsor106 de Volpi est certainement cosmopolite, si nous nous concentrons sur
l’utilisation de thèmes et de personnages qui n’ont aucun rapport avec l’Amérique Latine.
Au niveau épistémologique, cependant, le roman de Volpi et, par exemple, La muerte de
Artemio Cruz, appartiennent à la même généalogie : ils opèrent tous deux au sein des
mêmes conditions épistémologiques. Ils mettent en effet en mouvement narratif des
événements historiques et questionnent l’identité et la culture dans le monde moderne. Ils
ont beau se référer à des pays différents, cette différence n’est toutefois que thématique :
si l’un traite de l’Allemagne nazie et l’autre du Mexique postrévolutionnaire, cela ne
105 Voir Paz, "Los hijos del limo."
À la recherche de Klingsor, Paris, Plon, 2003. Traduction Gabriel Iaculli.
change rien au fait qu’ils sont tous deux construits au sein de paramètres historiques et
culturels qui définissent le choix de langage et de structure de l’intrigue. Une analyse très
différente émerge si l’on compare le roman de Volpi à El jardín de senderos que se
bifurcan107 de Borges. L’histoire prend place pendant la première Guerre mondiale et ses
personnages sont européens ou asiatiques. La liberté recherchée par le « crack » est très
présente dans cette histoire, si nous cherchons est une thématique qui n’est pas latinoaméricaine. En ce sens, le roman de Volpi et la nouvelle de Borges sont évidemment
cosmopolites. Pourquoi semblent-ils alors si différents ? Au niveau épistémologique,
elles appartiennent à deux généalogies très différentes : le roman de Volpi fonctionne
dans les mêmes limites épistémiques du roman de Fuentes car il émane d’un langage
littéraire qui poursuit le même mouvement dialectique de l’histoire. Il cherche à résoudre
l’identité de l’Homme immergé dans une culture complexe en crise, dans laquelle sa
place centrale doit être toujours prise en compte. La nouvelle de Borges est avant tout le
récit d’une stratégie textuelle dans laquelle la subjectivité est constamment déplacée entre
le Même et l’Autre, et où les personnages peuvent échanger leurs identités parce qu’ils
imitent la nature d’un langage en reformulation constante, défiant toujours ses propres
limites en quête de ce « dehors » qui mène en fin de compte à son exhaustion radicale.
Le cosmopolitisme et le nationalisme sont en fait deux étiquettes européennes très
anciennes qui reflètent les divisions primaires entre les cultures occidentales, comme
nous allons le voir dans ces pages. Et peut-être parce que les deux côtés d’une même
pièce ne se rejoindront jamais, la discussion peut continuer plus d’un siècle après son
107 Cette nouvelle, présente dans Ficciones (1944), a été analysée dans le chapitre II de cette thèse.
début. Il est intéressant de constater que le premier roman de Volpi, A pesar del oscuro
silencio, surpasse les éléments de base de ce débat. Il raconte l’histoire de Jorge, un
homme obsédé par la vie et la mort de Jorge Cuesta (1903-1942), un poète mexicain
membre du groupe d’avant-garde qui publia la célèbre revue « Contemporáneos » (19281931) dont le groupe tira son nom. Dans le roman, Jorge décide de découvrir les secrets
derrière le suicide tragique de Cuesta, qui finit d’écrire l’un des poèmes les plus
hermétiques et difficiles de la littérature contemporaine mexicaine juste quelques heures
avant d’être interné dans un asile. Au fil du roman, Jorge se retrouve à imiter la vie de
Cuesta, et son langage narratif reproduit des fragments des écrits de Cuesta. Comme les
personnages de Rivera Garza dans La cresta de ilión, qui reflètent la métaphore
récurrente des miroirs se faisant face chez Borges, Jorge et Cuesta échangent leurs écrits
et mélangent leurs faits biographiques dans une altérité changeante qui finit par
transformer leurs identités en fonction du langage. Le langage littéraire est à son tour
confronté à sa propre altérité : le roman de Volpi assimile son autre, la vraie poésie de
Cuesta, mais il rejette toute paternité. À la fin, A pesar del oscuro silencio devient un
texte trangressif en démontrant qu’il a retenu la leçon des expériences modernes
antérieures : le langage littéraire peut toujours se réinventer en se contemplant dans le
La liberté du récit moderne
Nous avons déjà souligné quelques aspects de cette transgression : dans Porque
parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe de Sada avec la séparation du langage de son
substrat et de son exhaustion finale, dans Los detectives salvajes de Bolaño avec la
stabilité changeante de l’auteur et de son œuvre, et enfin dans La cresta de ilión de Rivera
Garza avec l’exacerbation de l’intertextualité qui transforme son langage littéraire (le
même) en discours d’Amparo Dávila (l’autre), produisant une hypertextualité servant de
pont entre deux discours littéraires qui deviennent le négatif l’un de l’autre.
A pesar del oscuro silencio de Volpi complète l’analyse de ces romans qui
partagent les quatre stratégies textuelles de l’infini littéraire. 1) L’exhaustion radicale du
langage : dans la quête permanente du discours poétique de Cuesta, Jorge opère une
reformulation obsessive de son récit, imitant la structure hermétique de Canto a un dios
mineral de Cuesta. L’espoir de trouver le langage permettant la reconfiguration de son
être amène Jorge à faire des expériences avec un langage qui finit par être à court de
possibilités et qui produit sa propre crise. 2) Le Même, l’Autre : Jorge l’écrivain suggère
que Cuesta voulait décrire l’alchimie du langage et la transformation de la matière dans
Canto a un dios mineral. Cette approche est avant tout construite sur la stratégie en
question : le langage espère visualiser le processus de transmutation du Même en Autre,
un processus suivi par Jorge qui souhaite devenir Cuesta et par le roman lui-même qui
souhaite devenir l’écrit de Cuesta. En ce qui concerne la dialectique, en revanche, le
processus n’est jamais concluant et il est en reformulation constante, ne se décidant
jamais pour une des deux identités. 3) L’absence d’œuvre : à la surface d’un langage
cherchant sa transformation, le roman « parfait » que Jorge l’écrivain se représente n’est
jamais achevé à cause de la nature même de sa constitution : un langage repoussant ses
propres limites ne peut rester fixé dans le cadre univoque de l’œuvre et devient à la place
un texte se dirigeant vers le « dehors » de Blanchot. 4) La transgression : comme les fous
de l’asile visité par Jorge le narrateur, Cuesta cherche la « liberté » de son désir, rêvant de
contrôler le temps et la matière. En imitant la vie de Cuesta, Jorge décide de reproduire la
même transgression afin de surmonter les limites du temps et de la matière. Il insistera
pour revivre la vie de Cuesta comme si répéter son cours permettra au temps et à la
matière de retrouver leur état initial, la répétition éternelle avec une fin corrigée : le
suicide immaculé de Jorge, se pendant avec ses draps de lit, refusant de reproduire
l’émasculation de Cuesta. Sa mort ressemble en cela à une page blanche portant
l’inscription d’une réponse qui ne peut être articulée. Le langage a trouvé sa transgression
ultime : un message qui est présent dans son absence la plus profonde.
Comme au sens le plus efficace de Foucault, cette thèse n’est qu’une description
de la façon dont la littérature opère dans le contexte plus large de la modernité. Nous
avons été capables d’isoler quelques uns des aspects du récit moderne en se concentrant
sur ces stratégies textuelles qui procurent ensemble les composantes des romans analysés
dans les deux derniers chapitres. En écrivant ces pages nous avons mentionné quelques
unes des limites les plus évidentes de cette approche : le fait que toute une dimension du
récit moderne a été laissée de côté en retraçant une généalogie de l’infini littéraire. Cet
autre récit participe à la centralité de l’Homme moderne, cherchant donc à capturer les
flux évolutifs de l’histoire de l’Homme et de sa culture. Mais les limites sont également
très visibles dans la tentative de discuter de l’objectif de cette thèse. En recourant à un
genre d’ellipse, cette thèse laisse au lecteur la tâche de remplir les blancs de la généalogie
de l’infini littéraire afin d’obtenir un panorama plus complet. La généalogie est
suffisamment importante pour permettre de futures recherches sur le récit mexicain
moderne, tout comme les récits d’autres pays latino-américains, mais nous ne pouvons
pas encore en parler. La limite la plus importante de cette thèse est cependant liée au
langage lui-même, ou mieux encore, avec l’être du langage. Tout comme Foucault ne
parvint pas complètement à expliquer pourquoi le changement épistémique se produit, il
se sent également incapable de discuter de la nature du langage. Avec lui, nous nous
étendons dans les frontières de la description afin de souligner comment le récit moderne
est visible dans ses stratégies textuelles. Mais la question fondamentale demeure : quel est
l’être du langage ? Si le langage s’est séparé de son substrat, s’il se dirige vers une région
créée par et pour lui-même, s’il peut dissoudre la subjectivité et se reformuler à l’infini,
quel est ce langage ? Comment pouvons-nous définir son mode d’existence ? Comment
se fait-il que le langage soit ? Mis en face de cette énigme, nous retirons la question et la
remettons à plus tard pour quiconque souhaitera explorer l’immense avenue de la
recherche linguistique et philosophique. En regardant l’immensité du langage, nous nous
souvenons de la leçon de Wittgenstein : « ce qui peut être dit, peut être dit clairement, et
ce dont nous ne pouvons parler, il faut le passer sous silence ». (3)
ÉPILOGUE : Modernité, encore et toujours
Ces pages ont essayé, par-dessus tout, de rappeler au lecteur que les questions
formulées depuis l’aube de la modernité littéraire en Europe, et plus tard en Amérique
Latine, sont loin d’avoir reçu des réponses satisfaisantes. La quête de la modernité,
comme une littérature tournée vers l’infini, est toujours sur le point d’être achevée et
toujours sur le point de commencer. C’est notre volonté d’être moderne et c’est à cet
effet, comme Paz l’a noté dans son discours d’acceptance du Prix Nobel, que nous
apprenons enfin à expérimenter la modernité tout en étant toujours incapables de délivrer
une réponse définitive expliquant ce que c’est :
Perseguimos a la modernidad en sus incesantes metamorfosis y nunca logramos
asirla. Se escapa siempre: cada encuentro es una fuga. La abrazamos y al punto se
disipa: sólo era un poco de aire. Es el instante, ese pájaro que está en todas partes
y en ninguna. Queremos asirlo vivo pero abre las alas y se desvanece, vuelto un
puñado de sílabas. Nos quedamos con las manos vacías (Paz "La búsqueda del
presente: Conferencia Nobel" 41).
Dans le premier chapitre, nous avons rappelé quelques unes des idées les plus
importantes à propos de la modernité littéraire, en particulier la vision de Michel
Foucault. Tout comme les pairs de sa génération tels que Maurice Blanchot, Jacques
Derrida et Roland Barthes, nous avons conclu qu’un certain courant littéraire du 20ème
siècle a rendu évidente la crise de la subjectivité moderne. Nous nous référons plus
précisément à ce que Foucault appelle l’ « Homme » : la figure épistémologique centrale
qui devint, dans la modernité, le sujet et l’objet du savoir, réorientant les sciences
humaines afin d’étudier la culture et l’histoire de l’homme. À la fin du 19ème siècle, les
expériences les plus consolidées de modernité littéraire – les projets de Baudelaire,
Rimbaud et Mallarmé, entre autres –, ont prononcé un nouveau paradigme qui défiait la
centralité de cet « Homme » moderne grâce à un langage sur la surface duquel l’influence
d’un objet ne pouvait plus être maintenue.
Cette littérature ne représentait plus le monde, elle ne représentait qu’elle-même.
Tandis que cette expérience littéraire radicale était assimilée et reconfigurée en Amérique
latine, de nouvelles alternatives devinrent visibles dans les travaux de Darío, Martí,
Gutiérrez Nájera, Rodó et les autres modernistas. Mais la modernité est toujours quelque
chose d’autre, selon Paz. Les années 1920 virent donc l’émergence de mouvements
poétiques d’avant-garde ainsi que des phénomènes similaires dans le récit de l’époque.
Lorsque Ficciones de Borges parurent en 1944, la généalogie de la littérature moderne
radicalisa sa relation à l’infini, toujours définie ici comme une stratégie textuelle. Comme
nous l’avons analysé dans le deuxième chapitre de cette thèse, Borges fit irruption dans
l’intégralité de la littérature hispano-américaine en exacerbant les différences entre ce que
nous avons identifié comme les deux principales généalogies de la littérature
contemporaine : l’une qui soutenait la centralité de l’ « Homme » moderne et qui
représentait dans ses textes la culture et l’histoire humaines ; l’autre qui rejetait
l’arrangement épistémologique de la modernité et qui, dans sa crise, ne pouvait que se
représenter elle-même.
Avec les écrits de Borges, la modernité atteignit sa limite supérieure, et toute
réflexion ou conceptualisation de la littérature hispano-américaine doit prendre en compte
l’influence durable de l’écrivain argentin. Nous pouvons nous rappeler que la présence de
Borges est vue de façon « positive » par quelques écrivains comme Carlos Fuentes et
Roberto Bolaño. Cependant, Mario Vargas Llosa et Ernesto Sábato ont des perceptions
de la modernité qui considèrent la littérature de Borges comme une « négativité » ou un
autre. Enfin, dans nos analyses de quelques unes des nouvelles les plus importantes de
Borges, nous pourrions dériver et mettre à l’essai ce que nous avons appelé les quatre
stratégies textuelles de l’infini littéraire. À travers elles, notre but était d’isoler ce que
nous considérons comme la caractéristique la plus significative de l’infini littéraire dans
la modernité.
Dans les deux derniers chapitres, nous avons proposé une analyse des romans de
Sada, Bolaño, Rivera Garza et Volpi afin d’étudier chaque stratégie en profondeur au sein
d’une œuvre. Pour chaque roman, nous avons également démontré la présence des trois
autres stratégies textuelles afin de donner une preuve solide de la façon dont la modernité
littéraire, à travers le commentaire analytique, peut être reconnue et étudiée dans ses
implications textuelles les plus importantes. En confirmant que la modernité littéraire est,
par-dessus tout, un phénomène de langage changeant, nous souhaitons souligner que
notre analyse implique évidemment un degré d’arbitraire dans le choix des romans et
dans la catégorisation des stratégies textuelles proposées. En dépit de ces limites
naturelles, nous croyons cependant que cette thèse contribue à ce domaine d’études en
démontrant que l’histoire littéraire peut aspirer à une plus grande précision et à une
réflexion philosophique, au-delà des étiquettes faciles souvent acceptées aujourd’hui dans
la plupart des salles de classe au nom de principes pédagogiques. En approchant la
généalogie littéraire par le biais de l’analyse de discours, et la conceptualisation de la
modernité par la description philosophique de Foucault, nous avons essayé de placer la
littérature dans le contexte de son environnement épistémologique. Cette méthodologie
cherche à rendre compte des différences entre les projets littéraires, au lieu de s’étendre
sur les divisions que les groupes d’écrivains établissent entre les générations, les
mouvements ou les tendances. Nous sommes persuadés que des analyses similaires du
récit contemporain pourront être articulées par de futures recherches afin d’étendre notre
compréhension du phénomène le plus courant dans la littérature hispano-américaine.
Le poète français Armand Robin (1912-1961), dont peu se souviennent, avait
tracé dans un poème ce qu’il appelait le « programme de quelques siècles ». En quelques
strophes, nous pouvons lire l’esquisse des ruptures épistémologiques qui fascinaient
Foucault et qui ont dirigé cette thèse, affectant les possibilités de littérature moderne :
On supprimera la Foi
Au nom de la Lumière,
Puis on supprimera la lumière
On supprimera l’Âme
Au nom de la Raison,
Puis on supprimera la raison.
On supprimera la Charité
Au nom de la Justice,
Puis on supprimera la justice.
On supprimera l’Amour
Au nom de la Fraternité,
Puis on supprimera la fraternité.
On supprimera l’Esprit de Vérité
Au nom de l’Esprit critique,
Puis on supprimera l’esprit critique.
On supprimera le Sens du Mot
Au nom du Sens des mots,
Puis on supprimera le sens du mots.
On supprimera le Sublime
Au nom de l’Art,
Puis on supprimera l’art.
On supprimera les Écrits
Au nom des Commentaires,
Puis on supprimera les commentaires.
On supprimera le Saint
Au nom du Génie,
Puis on supprimera le génie.
On supprimera le Prophète
Au nom du Poète,
Puis on supprimera le poète.
On supprimera l’Esprit
Au nom de la Matière,
Puis on supprimera la matière.
Le nom de l’Homme a été dilué dans l’expérience du récit contemporain. À la
surface du langage, l’Homme devient une fonction de la littérature qui n’existe que pour
continuer à défier sa structure linguistique. Il n’y a plus de vérités ou d’essences
humaines à découvrir dans la profondeur ontologique du langage. Dans la poursuite
constante de ses propres limites, il n’y a que le langage se cherchant lui-même à l’infini,
telle l’image classique du serpent se mordant la queue. Dans l’impossibilité de jamais
atteindre une définition complète de sa modernité, le récit contemporain offre une unique
consolation : l’expérience infinie de lire ce qui sera à son tour un acte d’écriture sans fin.
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Oswaldo Zavala was born in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, on October 3, 1975, the son of
María del Rosario Espinoza and Rosendo Zavala. After completing his studies at the
Colegio de Bachilleres in Chihuahua, in 1993, he entered The University of Texas at El
Paso. During the academic year 1997-1998 he attended Florida International University
as an honors exchange student. From 1994 until 1999 he worked as a journalist for
various newspapers, television and radio stations both in Mexico and the US. In 1999, he
received the degree of Bachelor of Arts, with a double major in Communications and
Hispanic Literature, from the University of Texas at El Paso. During the following year,
he was employed as a foreign correspondent in Washington, DC, for the Mexico Citybased political magazine Proceso. In 2000, he began his graduate work at the University
of Texas at Austin. He received a Master’s of Arts in 2002, with a specialization in
Hispanic Literature. The same year, Zavala was accepted for the joint doctoral program
of Comparative Literature at the University of Paris III, Sorbonne Nouvelle, and the
University of Texas at Austin. In recent years, Zavala has published works of fiction in
several magazines and this year he will submit a collection of short stories for
publication. In September 2006, he will join the faculty of the College of Staten Island of
the City University of New York as an Assistant Professor of Spanish. Zavala married
Sarah Pollack in 2004, and together they will continue their academic and literary
Permanent Address: 562 N. St. Asaph St.
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This dissertation was typed by the author.