Friday, November 26, 2010

El Sueño del Celta

Mario Vargas Llosa's new novel, just published in Spanish,concerns Roger Casement, the Irish anti-colonial activist who later took up the irish cause against the British in World War I, going so far as to overtly collaborate with the Germans. He also was a homosexual, revelations of whose sexual hijinks seriously undermined his plea for clemency when the British decided to execute him for his political activity. Vargas Llosa is not an advocate for Casement, nor obviously does he celebrate all his activities, but he does present him as a fascinating and generally sympathetic figure. 


As my co-edited book indicates, Vargas Llosa is generally seen as of the Right politically; when he won the Nobel, the right-wing mediasphere either was content or faintly annoyed that somebody it felt sympathetic had finlaly own, thus no more griping at the seeming prejudices of the Swedish Academy. This new novel makes clear, though, that, though while Vargas Llosa may favor economic libertarianism and an anti-collectivist vision of society, he is not a moral traditionalist, a political legitimist, or nostalgic for the pre-colonial order, unlike so many on the Right. (Witness the indictment of Obama as 'anti-colonial', an epithet most US Presidents would have worn with pride). Moreover, Vargas Llosa is neither anti-gay nor in sympathy with politico- religious zealotry.


Pp. 448-49 of the novel--where Casements increasing celebration within Ireland is connected to Ireland becoming less dominated by ecclesiastical conservatism-- is a very explicit linkage of (neo)liberalism and anticolonialism, and confirms what have assumed all along about his views on religion and the gay issue. Interesting that Ross Douthat, the conservative NYT columnist, seems to blame Ireland’s break from strict Catholicism for the economic crisis, so in a sense Vargas Llosa is to this extent a 'moderate;. 

EL sueño del celta was much easier for me to read in Spanish than most of his other fiction, this is likely because I know the anterior subject matter well, but still seems a lot more accessible certainly than La casa verde.

The book has three parts: the Congo (early 1900s), Amazonia (circa 1910), and during the First World War and the Irish revolt. The book's middle, the Amazonia section, is very evocative, really brings alive the place (something rather difficult to do to a reader such as me who cannot read the language 'deeply', but even I sense he does it).

Vargas Llosa does take a really anti-colonial stance, which at this point is not controversial except the US Right is full of people saying the British Empire was wonderful; Africa had its finest times under European rule, etc. Even these might say the Belgian Congo is something different (and, indeed, Chinua Achebe makes the point that Conrad’s denunciation of Belgian imperialism actually privileged a more benign British imperialism) but it is clearly Vargas Llosa going to the 'left' again, at least as far as the US is concerned.

With regard to technical/formal considerations--the starting off with the execution scene and then flashing back, fairly conventional by now, but still well done. And the staying in Rogers consciousness virtually the whole time, the narration is not split as in La guerra del fin del mundo and La fiesta del chivo.. The author clearly does not agree with everything Casement does, but alas empathy, stays with him.

Clearly, as with Flora Tristán, the feminist hero of Vargas Llosa's novel The Way to Paradise, the Peruvian connection was the origin, and then he radiated out for the more global stories, it is in a sense of example of how one can be global and local at the same time. 

Funny there is not a  translation of 'Sheriff' into Spanish; I guess the word is so English (with its roots in 'shire') it just cannot be done.

Julio Cesar Arana, the rubber/robber baron of the Amazon,  is not a very positive portrait of a businessman (cf. Jean Knight's article in Vargas Llosa and Latin American Politics.

The Crusader analogy on page 27 is interesting in light of what I said in the da Cunha article in Vargas Llosa and Latin American Politics.

In general, I liked the book, and I felt critiques such as that of the usually spectacularly able Gustavo Faverón's slighted it. One might wonder why the author is so interested in Celts (we remember Galileo Gall, the Scotsman in La guerra) but not only is there sympathy for the underdog but perhaps a vestigial memory of the large Celtic admixture of the population of Spain, especially Galicia, named after the Gauls. Vargas Llosa is also quite an Anglophile, though, so the advocacy of Celticity is not polemical.....

Monday, November 8, 2010

Winter break?

After one more hectic week of meetings and activities, the pace of my academic year will begin to slow down; final papers will come in, my attention can withdraw to concentrate on marking them and dwelling on my classes, I wil not have to  do a lot of writing over Thanksgiving break (unlike the past two years), the MLA will be in and I can read some new books, something which i have had all too little time to do recently--'new" in the sense of recently published, that is.

One book I have had a chance to read that I find I like more than does the consensus is Seamus Heaney's latest, Human Chain, which I reviewed for a reference compendium. William Logan slapped around the book a bit in his Times review, less really for any inherent deficiency than Heaney is a big target waiting to be taken down a notch. This is unfair to Heaney who has continued to write good poetry distinct from his earlier work if manifesting a continuity with it. I also find myself gravitating to different poems in this new volume than have most of the reviewers; the story the news headline, are the poems directly and indirectly about Heaney's recovery from a stroke, but for me the heart of Human Chain is in the translations from Pascoli and Guillevic. In the latter, "A Herbal" (sic) even the grass is alive with motility and tension, "It too takes issue.now sets its face/to the wind". What seems low-key in this book is throbbing with life, of one bends to examine closely enough. In any event go out and buy the book; don't listen too the consensus! In fact, don;t everlasting to the consensus, other than on those occasions where it happens to be right!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

One more theory post

A colleague wrote me and asked what I thought of Guy Debord's semiotics, and I had to admit that I had never really read Debord, that the closest I came to him was reading Baudrillard. Debord is too Sixties-radical for me; he acted as if the dilemmas of semiosis could be solved through inversion or parody. What I value about Derrida and Foucault and Baudrillard is their sense of both celebrating instability and acknowledging limits; there is both euphoria and bitterness in their tone. It is not all-just deformation and--though I may be unfair to Debord here, as I said I have not really read him--this has always struck me as the agenda of his work.

I heard an interesting talk last week, where the speaker argued that our existing view of a certain text was limited because it had been anchored in what was essentially, though not locally, a New Critical reading which emphasized a binary approach to the work, when the interpretive possibilities it offered were much more variegated. Why this lasted, inferentially, was because it was good for the undergraduate classroom, it protected students form naive readings. But a reading that is there to protect from naive readings, if it becomes anchored and permanent, acquires the very naïveté it sought to dispel. This is why I go as high as two cheers for deconstruction, because if not for deconstruction who knows that these simplistic readings would not have endured forever. What is valuable in the undergraduate classroom in 1959 is not necessarily valuable in the graduate classroom over five decades later on, or in the very different undergraduate classroom of today for that matter. It is not just times change and people need to change with them but texts need to be read more thoroughly, more adequately. And deconstruction offered this, without, again, falling into simple deformation or parody--though many thought it did.

I would argue the age of deconstruction has most likely neared its end, and we need to think in new ways, but this thought made a very important contribution to the history thinking about literature, for, among others, the reasons outlined above.




Monday, November 1, 2010

THEORY and deconstruction

No, not theory as such, but my recently issued book, THEORY AFTER THEORY (Broadview).


Some professors have been asking publishers' representatives whether the use of the subtitle 'deconstruction' in nearly all the chapter titles meant the book was endorsing or favoring deconstruction, or applying deconstruction as a method across the board.

The answer is, emphatically, no. The book is indeed quite critical of deconstruction and its limitations, and only part of chapter 2 is devoted to deconstruction per se. What the book, does, though, argue is that principles analogous to deconstruction can be found in the other theories, and that there is an intimate intellectual relationship between them; they are not cordoned off.

But the book is not entirely critical of deconstruction, thus differentiating it from Eagleton or, on the other side of things, Corral/Patai. It is not saying deconstruction is/was worthless.  Its stance is deconstruction happened, it mattered,it is now over, and we can assess its strengths and weaknesses. Its stance is. at most, 'two cheers for deconstruction". 

That's what I asked my publisher to tell people. You might though  ask hen why I chose the title in the first place when any intelligent person might predict these sorts of questions would arise (and potentially turn off customers/readers). I did it because deconstruction is the word, and the set of ideas/practices, that really arouse emotions about theory, and one of the agendas of the book is to explain to today's students, who if they are traditional-age were born well after the heights of debates about theory, why people got so emotionally worked-up over theory. I wanted, as that non-deconstructionist Gerald Graff would say, to 'teach the conflict'. Also, I wanted to normalize the word deconstruction, to make people less afraid of it, to render the willing to remember and cultivate the good aspects of the 'method', if it was such--and that someone clearly as non-card-carrying-deconstructionist as myself is willing to use the term should help accomplish this task of normalization.