Volume 2, Number 2 (Spring 2001)
Idelber Avelar, The Untimely Present: Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction and the Task of Mourning

Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999.
293 pp. ISBN 0822324156.


Reviewed by Laura García-Moreno
University of California, Irvine

The recent release of documents on “Operación Condor” reporting the CIA’s active role in Latin American dictatorships during the second half of the twentieth century gives Idelber Avelar’s critical intervention a particular timeliness. The Untimely Present convincingly argues that the distinctive feature of South American fiction in the aftermath of military regimes, a horizon marked by a sense of defeat, loss, and the impossibility of writing itself, lies in its efforts to insert the untimely, “that which has failed in history but without which no history can be constituted” (157). All the texts considered individually by Avelar in chapters two to eight raise the question of how to retrieve or provoke “the eruption of untimely memory” at a time when the market rules unchallenged, the atrophy of memory prevails, and “the enterprise of modern literature” has met “its epochal limit” (232). Each in its own way manifests a profound sense of discord with its present (refuses what is), addresses the unresolved task of mourning left by dictatorships, and resists the neutralization of the past at work in narratives written before and during dictatorship that take on a recuperative or compensatory function.

What I find most compelling about Avelar’s book is its own “refus[al] to accommodate to the limits of the possible” (105) that he sees as characteristic of postdictatorial fiction. The Untimely Present, in other words, participates in the insertion of the untimely, the mode in which, Avelar argues, resistance still manages to manifest itself under present neoliberal conditions where notions of resistance active before and during dictatorship have been eroded. This participation--the reluctance to adjust to the present conditions but also to accept “a nostalgic reactive defense of the [lost] auratic quality of the literary” (231)--is carried out by paying sustained attention to a body of dense, allegorical works by some of the most innovative contemporary writers from Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. The body of literary works under scrutiny, marked by a heightened self-reflective awareness of its conditions of production and by a resistance to easy appropriation, falls between the cracks of magical realism, a narrative mode with which Latin American fiction is often reductively associated, and, in general, between the cracks of one of the most commercially successful moments in the history of Latin American literature often referred to as the “Boom,” a period from the sixties throughout the seventies when modern fiction in particular enjoyed unprecedented reception and distribution both within and outside the continent. Confronted by the ruins left by dictatorship and by the dilemmas of mourning and restitution posed by these ruins, the texts by Ricardo Piglia, Tununa Mercado, Silviano Santiago, Joao Gilberto Noll, and Diamela Eltit included in Avelar’s study speak of trauma, failure, and the waning of literature’s “experiential and social relevance” (230). Such themes are undoubtedly less attractive than rains of yellow butterflies, mad inventors, endless battles, and family genealogies. They do not  satisfy fantasies of the exotic often projected onto Latin American literature. The rhetorical strategies favored in postdictatorial writing: pastiche and repetition, “allegorical encryption” and “overcodification of the margins” are also less seductive than those at work in magical realism. Furthermore, the mutual contamination of theory and fiction or fiction and critical theory at work in writing by Piglia, Eltit, Noll, and Santiago not only demands attentive, critical readers; it does not trigger the cathartic effect on the reader common to accounts of suffering given in the confessional narratives that proliferated under dictatorship.

The Untimely Present addresses the most pressing “tasks, paradoxes, and possibilities” (1) confronting Latin American fiction in the last two decades. Among them, Avelar foregrounds the need to situate itself in relation to a neoliberal present, the double imperative to mourn a recent catastrophic past and at the same time resist passive forgetting or accepted modes of memory, and the critique of modern narrative modes and literary legacies such as magical realism and testimonial narratives that ultimately assume a compensatory or reconciliatory role in relation to the contradictory experiences of modernity in Latin American countries. Allegory, Avelar proposes, is the preferred mode through which postdictatorial writing engages with a very recent past threatened with erasure under late capitalism and attempts to assure its survival in the present. To advance his view on the “epochal primacy of allegory in postdictatorial fiction” (2) in Latin America, particularly in the Southern Cone, Avelar draws heavily on Fredric Jameson’s understanding of late capitalism and on the notion of allegory developed by Walter Benjamin in Allegory and Mourning: The Origins of German Tragic Drama as a mode intricately related to mourning that “flourishes in a world abandoned by the gods” (7). Why allegory? Allegory’s penchant for breaks, discontinuities, and paradox makes it the mode best suited to narrate the break in representation (237) brought about by experiences of loss and exile. Its emphasis on the impossibility of representing totalities, its resistance to interpretation and transcendentalization, and its connections to the task of mourning and the problem of memory, at least in Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of the term: all of these features, along with the observation that the allegorical interpreter of the past, as opposed to the historicist, “does not forget what s/he knows about the later course of history” (97), make of allegory the preferred narrative mode to address the temporal impasse characteristic of postdictatorial societies, the simultaneous yearning for and the impossibility of restitution being one of the most crucial paradoxes it confronts. Other recurrent dilemmas include: How to mourn or move out of melancholia without forgetting? How to write one’s way out of melancholia while refusing to remain at what Freud calls its triumphant, affirmative phase which would entail forgetting or repressing loss?  How to bring about the eruption of the past into the present in order to destabilize its complacency without being trapped in and by the past?  How to open up the possibility of an unimaginable future without ignoring the past or succumbing to the triumphant rhetoric of neoliberalism? In short, how to resignify melancholia’s self-reflexive obsession with the negative as a critical form of thinking rather than as an affective state conducive to the belittling of self?

It would be easy to classify The Untimely Present as a reflection on the preference in recent Latin American writing for allegorical narratives, given the difficult task it faces of working with and through the legacy of trauma left by dictatorships. The significance of Avelar’s book, however, goes beyond the field of Latin American literary studies insofar as the questions raised in the selected texts--What possibilities of writing remain after catastrophe? How can one trace a hidden trauma that present conditions prevent from tracing?--emerge at the present juncture of economic globalization. The tasks confronting postdictatorial writing for Avelar are not unrelated to those confronting intellectuals and literary studies within the current transition from State to Market, which he considers crucial to understanding the selected texts. Insofar as dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile were instrumental in bringing about the transition from State to Market that we have been witnessing on a world-wide scale in the last decades and which, Avelar insists, has affected all spheres including the university with its shift towards the specialization and “technification” (14) of knowledge, The Untimely Present can be considered an important contribution to the developing area of global literary and cultural studies.

To return to Avelar’s introduction, allegory is the mode chosen by survivors of a catastrophe who are faced with a contradictory imperative: to mourn and yet to resist the restitution of the lost object that mourning entails, to underline the impossibility of substituting loss on the one hand and, on the other, to find a way of working through loss, a condition necessary for the task of mourning to begin. In order to insert the untimely and thereby unsettle the present, the texts in question must first acknowledge trauma along with a series of historical failures: the loss of literature’s auratic role in the era of the information industry, the failure of utopian thinking or the difficulty of imagining alternative political futures, and what Avelar sees as “the dissolution of the signature” (152) or “the loss of the proper name” (101) pervasive in Piglia’s La ciudad ausente (1992), Santiago’s Em Liberdade (1981), and Noll’s fiction. Skeptical of “nationalist fables” and myths of a continental identity, postdictatorial narratives interrupt the telos and the appearance of coherence underlying celebratory narratives of progress that cushion defeat and loss. In this sense they confirm Avelar’s insistence on allegory as “the aesthetic face of political defeat” (68).

The emphasis in The Untimely Present on allegorical texts where political failure, fragmentation, and  psychological defeat are the main experience seems to be at odds with its reliance on Fredric Jameson’s cohesive narrative of late capitalism around which Avelar elaborates his theoretical framework. For in order to account for the emergence of allegory in late twentieth-century Latin American fiction, Avelar follows the same logic that Jameson uses when he establishes correlations or parallels among a set of political, economic, and cultural transitions to explain the rise of postmodernism. The implicit reliance on Jameson’s reading of postmodernism as the cultural politics that accompanies the shift toward the transnational phase of capitalism, which in turn coincides with “the colonization of the planet,” betrays a certain nostalgia on Avelar’s part for a time prior to a market economy in which intellectuals could still engage in “the formulation of projects for the totality of the social fabric” or in “the mapping of knowledge” to which, he claims, they can no longer aspire. This is ironic, in light of the efforts Avelar takes to stress the cautionary stance toward nostalgia that he detects in his allegorical objects of study. And yet, the Jamesonian logic behind Avelar’s project allows him to place his discussion of contemporary Southern Cone narratives in a broader comparative context. On the other hand, it also leads him to equate the predicament of postdictatorial societies with that of postmodern and postcolonial societies. By taking such a step, Avelar risks losing the specificity of the Latin American postdictatorial situation that he otherwise so carefully builds through his nuanced reading of individual texts. However intricately woven the presents and futures of postmodern, postcolonial and postmilitary societies might be, it is highly debatable whether their predicaments are really the same. 

At any rate, because of its untimeliness, then, its essential discomfort with both past and present, allegory emerges as the preferred mode to address the current challenge to rethink relationships between past, present, and future. According to Avelar, whatever conditions of possibility are left in postdictatorial allegorical narratives reside in their incorporation of the ruins of history; the embrace of failure is the prerequisite necessary to move out of paralysis and to guarantee the function attributed to these narratives as “critical antidote” to recently canonized narrative modes that promote acquiescence with the present. 

The advent of allegorical narratives consistently on guard against the risk of betraying or developing complicity with current pressures to erase a violent past regarded as an obstacle to market-oriented societies, in fact announces the end or crisis of a series of narrative conventions that had hitherto enjoyed a hegemonic role: magical realism, confessional testimonial narratives, and journalistic fiction being three of the most widespread literary legacies against which postdictatorial allegorical fiction emerges. In postdictatorial times, the transition from State to Market facilitated by the dictatorships is confirmed. Under these circumstances the roles of literature and the writer, as well as notions of resistance active before and during dictatorship, call for redefinition. Confessional narrative forms once deemed capable of enacting resistance, as well as strategies developed by writers during the so called “Boom” period of Latin American literature, now “meet their historical limits” and reveal their inability to deal with problems of memory and restitution rendered particularly acute after dictatorship. 

The first two chapters, “Oedipus in Post-Auratic Times: Modernization and Mourning in the Spanish American Boom” and “The Genealogy of a Defeat: Latin American Culture Under Dictatorship,” deal with literary forms dominant before and during dictatorship against which Avelar then presents the dense, difficult allegorical texts that constitute his main object of study. Chapter 1 distinguishes the different objects and reasons for mourning and the different dilemmas confronting postdictatorial writers and writers during the Boom of modern Latin American fiction. The sixties and seventies mark a shift toward the professionalization and autonomization of the literary sphere in Latin America. One of the consequences of the shift away from state patronage was the loss of the auratic role of the writer which, Avelar argues, was then compensated for by the aestheticization of politics pervasive in the literature of the Boom. In the postdictatorial present the auratic role of the writer is no longer an object of nostalgia or mourning as it was for the writers of the Boom. Literature and writers have lost any privileged role they might once have enjoyed. The current cultural and political horizon is an anti-utopian one wary of compensatory fictions; the losses are of a different order, and the sense of powerlessness is stronger. Hence the deliberate distancing in the current literary scene from the marvelous, the magical real, the fantastic--all those elements on which the reputation of Latin American modern fiction and the myth of a Latin American identity active during the Boom had been built. The eagerness to engage in quests of a collective identity is no longer present in postdictatorial fiction.

The relationship to the past in postdictatorial fiction also differs dramatically from that of a preceding generation of writers, who were still burdened by the feeling of belatedness that has plagued Latin American intellectuals since the moment of the continent’s insertion within accelerated processes of economic modernization. In order to assert themselves and claim a privileged position in relation to the present, Boom writers felt they needed to discard the past and cut ties to previous Latin American literary (realist) traditions. Contrary to these writers, who were eager to secure a position for themselves within a modern Western literary horizon that they deemed “universal,” postdictatorial writers are busy trying to catch up with a recent past threatened with erasure. For these writers there is no successful overcoming of the past, no neat break between past and present, and the longing to be included within modern Western traditions is not an issue. This different temporality in postdictatorial writing coincides with the refusal to take an affirmative stance in relation to the present, a refusal that clashes with the celebratory tone toward the present often underlying Boom literature.

Chapter 2 offers two examples of narrative modes that proliferated in Latin America during dictatorship: the confessional testimonial narrative and the “romance-reportagem,” a brand of narrative journalism in Brazil. Both forms share an unquestioning confidence in the possibility of communicating, which is highly distrusted in allegory. In contrast to their faith in communicability that makes these forms easily prone to take on imaginary compensatory roles, the allegorical texts chosen by Avelar engage with the rhetorical questions often elided by the former. Allegory counters the unquestioned trust in the possibility of communicating or speaking of personal and collective experiences of trauma that are essentially untranslatable. Narrative forms that do not incorporate the challenge to reinvent memory or displace language, Avelar suggests, are likely to end by upholding official positions. This is the case of the “romance-reportagem” popular during the dictatorship in Brazil, which, Avelar argues, fits smoothly within the official celebration of popular culture or the folklorization promoted by the state.

In contrast, then, to testimonial or journalistic narratives that tend to ignore the gap between experience and the writing of experience and often limit their task to the naming or piling up of atrocities, the texts Avelar considers stress the impossibility of putting forward syntheses or smooth narratives and point to the inadequacies of accepted narrative modes that articulate loss thematically but not linguistically. While acknowledging the cathartic effect of confessional narratives, Avelar finds the language in which they are written limited insofar as it does not register any signs of the radical epistemic crisis brought about by dictatorship and persistent after processes of democratization. The possibility of experience or of making “recourse to a self” (103) assumed to possess a “romantic uniqueness located in some interiority. . . and later expressed in organicist fashion” (101) has been been shattered in the texts by Ricardo Piglia, Silviano Santiago, and Joao Gilberto Noll that Avelar discusses in chapters 3, 4, 5, and 7. For this reason, and because the ideology of suffering often exploited in confessional narratives can be easily recuperated in reactive ways--a point Diamela Eltit brilliantly makes in her essay “Nomadic Bodies”--postdictatorial fiction not only avoids personalized accounts of suffering but engages in an active depersonalization of mourning. 

Suspicion toward notions of authenticity and (literary) propriety is particularly acute in the work of Ricardo Piglia, the Argentine writer discussed in Chapters 3 and 4. In his two major novels, Respiración artificial (1985) and La ciudad ausente (1992), Piglia offers an allegorical reading of the past by turning to countertraditions within modern Argentine and Western literature (Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Arlt, Macedonio Fernández, James Joyce, etc.) that transgress generic boundaries, stress “the impossibility of originality” (103), and put forth an understanding of fiction as the domain of falsification, deceit, forgery, and undecidability. These two novels, where fiction and non-fiction coexist (90), foreground the distancing from experience and “the disappearance of transcendental points of anchorage” (231) that Avelar sees as main characteristics of literary writing in postdictatorial times. Piglia’s novels also reiterate “the powerlessness of literature to maintain the role of civilizer” (13) or to act as “a controlling device” for the contradictions of the polis already acknowledged in those countertraditions with which he is in dialogue.

Chapters 5 and 7 discuss fiction by Silviano Santiago and Joao Gilberto Noll, the two Brazilian writers included in The Untimely Present. The narrative strategies implemented by these writers and their concern with impersonality and anonymity is close to Piglia’s. All three deal with the loss of the proper name and the impoverishment of experience affecting contemporary subjectivity. In response to the present “dissolution of individual signatures” (153) Noll adopts “an avant-garde poetics of negativity” (188), whereas Santiago turns to pastiche which involves the “improper appropriation of proper names.” Like his Argentine contemporary, Santiago returns to a marginalized tradition within modern literature, in this case, within Brazilian modernism, in order to redeem certain links between past and present. In Em Liberdade he appropriates the figure of Graciliano Ramos, “the fiercest enemy that romantic and neo-romantic aesthetics ever faced in Brazil" (141). The refusal to adopt ideologies of martyrdom and suffering that Santiago finds in Graciliano Ramos’s prison diaries, Memórias do Cárcere, serves as a model that allows him to underline his own rejection of “the heroic sacrificial rhetoric of the romance-reportagem” popular during dictatorship and criticized in Chapter 2 for fulfilling a compensatory function.

Chapters 6 and 8 focus on the two women writers included in The Untimely Present: Diamela Eltit (Chile) and Tununa Mercado (Argentina). The shift from a dictatorial to a postdictatorial epoch central to Avelar’s thesis finds its clearest example in Chapter 6, where Avelar traces the trajectory of Eltit’s writing from her first novel Lumpérica, published in 1983 and recently translated into English by Ronald Christ as E. Luminata, to Los vigilantes (1994), a truly postdictatorial “chronicle of defeat” written ten years after the first. Of all the texts included in The Untimely Present, Lumpérica is the one where the shattering of experience linked to dictatorship finds its most radical expression and language is taken to its furthest extreme. Eltit uses a variety of interruptive strategies from different discursive fields (visual arts, critical theory, performance art) to denaturalize and resignify meanings attributed to the female body and the public sphere. Although she repeatedly calls attention to the failure of her attempts at resignifying individual and collective identities through writing, one can still detect a certain utopian strain in Eltit’s first novel that is all but smothered in Los vigilantes. Here public spaces have dwindled, the scarce affirmative potential behind the impossible dream of writing an epic of the defeated has been emptied, and the problem of survival has taken over the desire to engage in symbolic reinscriptions of a female (literary) body into a public space.

The last chapter focuses on Tununa Mercado’s En estado de memoria (1992), a fictional memoir that traces a female protagonist’s difficult struggle against the silencing of the work of mourning and her discovery of writing as the practice that will aid her in the slow trajectory out of melancholia. Questions about the role of writing during times of defeat (267), the impact of exile upon writing, and the need to reactivate memory under the current “oblivion-dominated return to democracy” (183) emerge with particular urgency in Mercado’s fiction, where writing takes on a crucial role in relation to the task of mourning. Intent on searching for alternatives to adaptive psychologies or to the identitarian nationalist rhetoric which many Argentine exiles held on to as a means to survive their years in exile as well as the return home, Mercado’s protagonist comes to the conclusion that melancholy cannot be eluded if one wants to establish the conditions for the work of mourning: the burden of the unburied dead must be assumed; the debris under the rhetoric of progress must be unearthed. 

And thus we are back to the Benjaminian gesture of “reading in every document of culture the barbarism that made it possible” at work in The Untimely Present. Even students of societies that do not see themselves as undergoing or living in a post-catastrophic moment have much to learn from the recollective act implicit in the “interruptive machine” of allegory as conceived by Benjamin (10) and recaptured by Avelar in his brilliant analysis of contemporary Southern Cone fiction. At a time of accelerated changes when the atrophy of memory threatens us all, to be reminded of allegory’s potential to make us pause and consider “the rhetoric of temporality” and the dangers of forgetting is indeed a timely critical intervention. The need to work through disturbing remainders from the past that powerful forces would rather have too quickly swept under the carpet is an urgent task not restricted to a handful of writers in the Southern Cone.

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