I am just back from a quick, five-day trip to Brazil. This was a journey of great significance for me. Not only did I get to present my research on the complicated intertextual relationship of Mario Vargas Llosa's The War Of The End of The World (La guerra del fin del mundo). with Euclides da Cunha's Os sertões at the LASA conference, but I got to have a thorough experience of Rio--its beaches, its bookstores, its restaurants, and even got to see a bit more of the city than the tourist guides, panicked about crime that in fact is largely gang warfare, tend to encourage. Even though my Portuguese is analogous to Shakespeare's Greek, as diagnosed by Ben Jonson, I managed to get by, although having a friend in my colleague Juan de Castro who speaks it well was a great help. (My Spanish, I think, is comparable to Shakespeare's Latin; pretty bad, but if I had to only read Ovid in Spanish I could crib it, as Shakespeare presumably did with respect to Latin).
The LASA conference was held in the Gavéa neighborhood, which I quickly, after a couple of times taking the shuttle bus, found was walkable from my Ipanema hotel; my morning walks allowed me to see a great deal of the city's Zona Sul. One of the aspects one quickly noticed was the massive security. Some guessed that this was because the former President of Brazil, Francisco Henrique Cardoso, was scheduled to speak (I believe he cancelled; if any readers know otherwise, let me know); others, like Idelber Avelar in his Portuguese-language blog, attributed it to paranoia about Rio and an exclusionary attitude towards the local populace. There was in any event, far more security than even an MLA, and it was not to check the badges, as the last day I left my badge at the hotel and I was unapprehended. The conference itself, though, was fun: some of my favourite sessions were on the representation of the Chaco War in literature, on the Supreme Courts of Latin American nations as figuring, performing, legitimacy (and thus being in a sense 'imaginative; as well as 'formally legal') and NGOs as enabling 'organic intellectuals' in the Granscian sense. This was the best side of the interdisciplinarity of the group; which inevitably led to fragmentation. I also confess to finding, true intellectuals like Alfred Stepan aside (and Stepan's work was explicitly lauded for itself being interdisciplinary) , the old-school poli-sci analyses to be a bit stultifying. There were also just too many sessions; on the security line at the Rio airport, I heard once of the section chairs say that at the next conference, which will be held in 2011 in Toronto, the acceptance rate will be reduced to 33% for individual papers and 66% for panels. Although our own panel was marred by there being no question period (because some of the speakers including myself, went on too long), it was a very stimulating occasion, and had I been in the audience, it would have been one of the most stimulating. It was conducted in two languages, included discussions of authors in yet a third, represented three continents, and included two people who had connections with Australia, as well as academics with both Roman Catholic and Episcopal/Anglican connections. Besides De Castro and myself, other speakers included Paul Allatson and Rocio Silva Santisteban. We were disparate individuals brought together by a common interest--not even a common enthusiasm, as all of our talks contained some castigation of the author under scrutiny--but a common fascination with Vargas Llosa and how he represents the overdetermined relationship of literature and politics at its richest.
At the beginning of my Vargas Llosa/da Cunha talk, I made a point (thereby adding sometime to it, alas of mentioning Elizabeth Bishop’s support for the 1964 military coup in Brazil; I felt this was unseemly, especially since those friends of Bishop's who protested so vehemently against the US role in Vietnam seemed not to notice or care that she was supporting a regime much lauded by right-wing elements in the US. As Mario Vargas Llosa himself might say, does not Brazil deserve self-determination as well? I admire Bishop's poetry tremendously, but other writers get called for political missteps, and she tends not to be. The coup was in my mind because the previous day I had seen Stepan, of Columbia University being honored with LASA's Kalman Silvert award for contributions to the filed, and in his acceptance talk Stepan spoke eloquently of his experience in his youth witnessing the run-up to the coup, which deprived Brazilians of democracy for twenty years. Stepan is an acquaintance of my father's, and I conveyed my father's congratulations to him, as well as noting that I had known Silvert, the namesake of the award, as a child and had visited his New England country home. Even at the young age I was then, I recall him as a formidable intellect and compassionate man. In my comments, I spoke of Latin American Studies somewhat presumptuously and grandiloquently as 'our field'. But, even though this was my first formal paper in the area, Latin Americanists have been so hospitable to me and encouraging on my interest in region and its literature that I felt at home to make this declaration. Indeed, I generally felt at home in Rio, and plan to go back there, visit other parts of Brazil, and indeed other nations in South America in the hopefully very near future.