Arthur Wotton, who is currently studying for an MSt in Spanish at The Queen’s College, is writing a dissertation on the Latin American dictator novel. In this post he shares some insights into this enthralling literary genre.
Latin American literature is among the most popular and rewarding options offered as part of a Spanish degree at Oxford. Students have the opportunity to study a diverse and fascinating corpus of literature, and to explore the innovative styles of writing that authors developed in order to respond to the social, cultural and political landscapes of Latin America. Household names such as García Márquez, Borges and Neruda feature on the reading list, as do huge range of literary movements from the 1800s to the present.
One of Latin America’s most interesting and influential literary traditions reflects a political reality that has been ever-present since independence: dictatorship. A long lineage of caudillos, or strongmen, have loomed large in Latin American politics for centuries: repressive and often brutal figures such as Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua, and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, who ordered that churches display signs reading ‘Dios en cielo, Trujillo en tierra’ (‘God in heaven, Trujillo on Earth’)!
The dictator novel, or novela del dictador, emerged as a result of writers seeking to challenge, satirise, or come to terms with the impact of dictatorship through representing it in fiction, and the genre came to be one of the most influential and important in all of Latin American literature, involving many of its most famous names. Not only do they focus on political machinations and repression, but in depicting visions of authoritarian societies they tackle a huge variety of themes, including historical memory, appearance and reality, the importance of language, and gender roles.
Here’s a brief look at some key dictator novels:
Miguel Ángel Asturias’s El Señor Presidente (completed 1933, published 1946) is a disturbing and experimental novel, loosely based on the Estrada Cabrera regime in Guatemala. Asturias presents a terrifying society governed by whispers and rumours, where dictatorship permeates all aspects of life: he talks of how ‘una red de hilos invisibles, más invisibles que los hilos de telégrafo, comunicaba cada hoja con el Señor Presidente, atento a lo que pasaba en las vísceras más secretas de los ciudadanos’ (‘a web of invisible threads, more invisible than telegraph wires, connected every single leaf with the President, who was aware of what was going on in the citizens’ innermost entrails’). Everyone, from the raving despot to the capital’s homeless, is caught up in this web of oppression, which is juxtaposed with mundane daily life: prisoners are interrogated while jubilant street parties take place outside, and citizens go about their morning chores as the daughter of an exiled colonel frantically searches for her family.
While Asturias’s dictator is only seen briefly, Gabriel García Márquez delves into the mind of the ruler of an unidentified Caribbean country in El otoño del patriarca (1975). García Márquez uses lots of magical realist descriptions in this novel, which seems to go in circles as the dictator’s ‘dead body’ is repeatedly found in the crumbling ruins of his palace. This gives the book a rather timeless quality, and its rambling sentences, which occasionally take up whole pages, make us think about language and who controls it – just like in Augusto Roa Bastos’s monumental Yo el Supremo (1974), an extravagant and complicated work made up of an interlocking series of conversations and footnotes in which language and writing are central.
Memory, history and how we approach them are also prevalent themes in the novel of dictatorship. The question of how people can come to terms with the past after the fall of dictators is explored by Mario Vargas Llosa in Conversación en la Catedral (1969) and La fiesta del Chivo (2000 – a staple of the Oxford first-year reading list). These ground-breaking novels alternate between present-day events and characters’ recollections as their protagonists confront the past. In Conversación en la Catedral, Santiago has a lengthy and revelatory conversation with an old acquaintance in a seedy bar in Lima, while La fiesta del Chivo interweaves Urania’s return to the Dominican Republic with storylines explaining Trujillo’s assassination. Vargas Llosa not only presents a comprehensive picture of societies under dictatorship, but also uses large casts of characters to show how different opinions on these regimes come into being.
At turns comedic, unsettling and mesmerising, dictator novels combine vibrant storytelling with a huge range of interesting themes that are bound up in their depiction of autocracies. Hard-hitting and satirical, they are extremely thought-provoking, and it’s fascinating to consider the resonance they still have today. The relationship between executive power and the media has come into sharp focus recently, as have generational political divides like those we see opening up in Vargas Llosa’s novels as family members hold starkly different perceptions of events that took place.
How might El Señor Presidente’s regime operate in an age of social media, when we share so much about ourselves online? And how would we react upon finding out that one of our world leaders had suddenly been transfigured into an enormous parrot made out of words – or tweets? – like Jorge Zalamea’s Gran Burundún-Burundá?
The dictator novel is a rich and powerful genre of Latin American fiction, and is a great starting point for anyone interested in getting into Spanish-language literature. Some of the longer texts described above can be somewhat daunting, so here are some more accessible recommendations:
Tirano Banderas by Valle-Inclán: perhaps the first true dictator novel, Spanish writer Ramón del Valle-Inclán depicts the ways in which a menacing ruler attempts to crush a revolt and maintain his grip on power.
El gran Burundún-Burundá ha muerto by Jorge Zalamea: a highly underrated but fascinating ‘poem in prose’ about the funeral of a dictator who had banned the use of language itself!
Conversación al sur by Marta Traba: two women reunite after many years and reminisce about their time standing against the Argentinian dictatorship as part of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo movement.
Last week, we brought you part 1 of an interview with Dr Analía Gerbaudo, who was Global South Visiting Fellow at Oxford last term. Today, our undergraduates Stephanie and Sarah bring you the concluding part of this interview, which covers Dr Gerbaudo’s experience founding a literary magazineand an insight into her own writing.
SL & SW: En 2014, usted fundó la revista literaria El Taco en la Brea, además de ser la directora de la editorial Vera cartonera. ¿Qué la inspiró a fundar una revista literaria? ¿Qué desafíos enfrentó al fundar la revista y qué desafíos sigue enfrentando al ser la directora de una editorial?
AG: Mis fantasías de intervención son pretenciosas. Porque sé que es imposible, me encantaría que nuestra revista tuviera el impacto que tuvo en el campo intelectual argentino Punto de vista. Sé que es absolutamente imposible que una revista universitaria tenga el alcance y la llegada que esa revista cultural tuvo en Argentina, en Latinoamérica y más allá, entre 1978 y 2008. Siendo un poco más realista, y en un orden más “nano”, me interesa que los resultados de investigación realizados con fondos públicos puedan ponerse a disposición en una revista on line, de calidad y con acceso abierto para todo aquel que necesite utilizarlo. La editorial cartonera también se mueve en una tensión entre lo pensable y lo posible, tanto en términos de producción como de circulación y consumo: se intenta contribuir a generar nuevos lectores porque se apuesta a la lectura como una de las vías privilegiadas en la construcción de agencia política. Se intenta, entonces, acercar un bien simbólico de calidad a bajo precio: el libro es un objeto suntuoso incluso para un amplio sector de la clase media baja argentina y de nuestro estudiantado universitario, aun cuando la carrera elegida haya sido letras (recordemos que las carreras de grado universitario en Argentina son gratuitas: a ellas acceden estudiantes de ingresos económicos diversos). Y como en el caso de la revista, nuestras fantasías de intervención también tienen un ángulo desmesurado y delirante: estamos trabajando en una página Web para colgar todos nuestros libros cartoneros en acceso abierto. Intentamos con esto generar una circulación que vaya más allá de Argentina. Intentamos generar una circulación que contribuya a incidir en la configuración de la Word literature. Nuestros desafíos son los que atraviesa cualquier espacio institucionalizado en un país inestable como Argentina, con políticas públicas variables. Es decir, nuestros desafíos son poder sostener la calidad a pesar de la falta de financiamiento. Parece una tontería pero tener dinero para invertir en un buen diseño o para algo básico como comprar el papel (en el caso de la cartonera) no son cosas aseguradas. Como Sapiro muestra en sus análisis de la producción literaria bajo la ocupación alemana, el acceso al papel era un problema. En Argentina, el acceso al papel fue un problema no sólo bajo los regímenes dictatoriales. Este es un ejemplo, entre otros. Podríamos analizar con detalle qué relación hay entre, otra vez, activismo y trabajo intelectual en países periféricos como Argentina, Chile, Brasil, Bolivia, constantemente jaqueados por diferentes formas de violencia estatal dados los vaivenes entre ciclos expansionistas de derechos y posdictaduras.
SL & SW: In 2014, you founded the literary magazine El Taco en la Brea, in addition to being the director of the publishing house Vera cartonera. What inspired you to found a literary magazine? What challenges did you face in founding the magazine, and what do you continue to face in being the director of a publishing house?
AG: My “fantasias de intervención” are ambitious.Although I know it is impossible, I would love for our magazine to have the same impact as the cultural magazine Punto de vista did on the Argentinian intellectual scene. But I know that it is absolutely impossible for a university magazine to have the same reach and reception that Punto de vista had in Argentina, in Latin America and beyond, between 1978 and 2008. When I’m being a bit more realistic, and on a smaller, more “nano” scale, I want the research results carried out with public funds to be made available in a quality, online magazine, with open access for anyone who needs to use it. The cartonera publishing house also shifts in a tension between what is conceived and what is possible, as much in terms of production as circulation and consumption. It aims to generate new readers because it is committed to the discipline of reading as one of the privileged methods involved in the construction of political agency. We therefore also have the intention of symbolically reconciling high quality with a low price. Books are a luxury even for a wide section of the lower-middle class in Argentina, as well as for our university students, even when the degree chosen is literature (getting a university degree in Argentina is free, accessible to students from diverse economic backgrounds). And, as in the case of the magazine, our “fantasias de intervención”also have a boundless, delirious element: we are working on a web page to upload all of our cartonero editions with open access. With this, we aim to circulate our work beyond Argentina, and generate a circulation that contributes to underscoring the shape of “world literature”. Our challenges are those that cross into any institutionalized space in an unstable country like Argentina, with changing public politics. That is, our challenges are to be able to maintain quality despite the lack of funding. It seems silly but having money to invest in a good design or for something basic like buying paper (in the case of the cartonera books) is not assured. As Sapiro demonstrates in her analysis of literary production under Nazi occupation, access to paper was a problem. In Argentina, access to paper was not only a problem under dictatorial regimes. This is one example among others. We could, once again, analyse in detail what the relationship is between activism and intellectual labour in peripheral countries such as Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Bolivia – countries constantly rocked by different forms of state violence, given the see-sawing between the expansionist cycles of rights and the post-dictatorial regimes.
SL & SW: Habrá estudiantes que cuando lean esta entrevista tendrán interés en estudiar sus obras. ¿Qué consejos les daría a ellos y a las personas cuyo idioma nativo no es el español si le preguntasen: “por dónde empezar”?
AG: La línea de trabajo que desarrollo se abre con un libro que publiqué en 2016: en Políticas de exhumación. Las clases de los críticos en la universidad argentina de la posdictadura (1984-1986) ensayo una articulación metodológica entre las teorías de Jacques Derrida y de Pierre Bourdieu para analizar cómo se enseñó la teoría literaria y la literatura argentina en mi país durante los primeros años de la restitución “democrática”. En ese libro se muestran modos de leer y de enseñar literatura y teoría literaria desarrolladas entre 1984 y 1986 por algunos de los mejores críticos de argentina: Beatriz Sarlo, Josefina Ludmer, David Viñas, Enrique Pezzoni y Jorge Panesi. Enviar a leer ese libro es enviar a leerlos a ellos. Esa es otra de mis fantasías de nano-intervención más poderosas.
SL & SW: There are students reading this interview who will be interested in studying your works. What advice would you give them, and other people whose native language isn’t Spanish, if they ask where to begin?
AG: The line of work I have developed opens with a book that I published in 2016: in Políticas de exhumación. In Las clases de los críticos en la universidad de argentina de la posdictadura (1984-1986)) I try out an interactive methodology with the theories of Jacques Derrida and Pierre Bourdieu to analyse how literary theory and Argentinian literature was taught in my country during the first years of the “democratic” restitution. This book shows the ways of reading and teaching literature and literary theory developed between 1984 and 1986 by some of Argentina’s best critics: Beatriz Sarlo, Josefina Ludmer, David Viñas, Enrique Pezzoni and Jorge Panesi. In recommending this book to others, I’m urging them to read these critics too. This is another of my more powerful “fantasias de nano-intervención”.
Concluding thoughts from Stephanie and Sarah
Throughout the course of this interview, Gerbaudo gives us an insight into her time at Oxford, the instrumental role of Oxford academics in furthering discussions and a taste of her own approaches to literature and literary theory, especially under censorship and dictatorship. She highlights the influence of Jacques Derrida on her own work, focussing on exhumation policies in her study of historical literary practices. Words are undeniably powerful as she demonstrates with her current role as director of Vera Cartonera editorial. Through her ambitions for the future of the literary magazine, Gerbaudo provokes us into questioning the role of activism, translation and publication in the global dissemination of literature.
We would like to thank Professor Gerbaudo for taking time to talk to us and we hope this taster of her work will inspire others to explore her work further.
This blog post was written by Stephanie Long and Sarah Wadsworth, who are in the final year of their degrees in Spanish. Here, they interview Global South Visiting Fellow, Dr Analía Gerbaudo and discuss literature and political activism, and the role of the translator. Dr Gerbaudo gave this interview in Spanish, and Stephanie and Sarah have translated it into English. As this interview is quite long, we will be publishing it in two parts – check back next week for part 2.
At the end of 2019, we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview Dr Analía Gerbaudo, a Global South Visiting Fellow appointed by the Research Centre for Humanities (TORCH) here in Oxford. She is Professor of Literary Theory and Didactics of Language and Literature at the National University of Litoral in her home country of Argentina, as well as the director of the independent publishing house Vera cartonera, and editor-in-chief of the online literary journal, El Taco en la Brea, which she founded in 2014. Given that one of the key aims of the TORCH project is to help diversify the curriculum at Oxford University, it seems only fitting that such a talented individual with involvement in the “cartonero” movement in Argentina – a movement dedicated to providing quality literature at an affordable price – should have received this appointment. “Translation is necessary in order for one to share texts,” Dr Gerbaudo tells us in one of her answers. For that reason, we feel privileged to have conducted and translated from Spanish the interview presented below. It is a pleasure to share with others Dr Gerbaudo’s obvious knowledge and experience.
SL & SW: Tenemos el privilegio de tener una entrevista con usted aquí en Oxford. En el verano, usted fue nombrada por la organización TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) como una << Global South Visiting Fellow >>. Según usted, ¿en qué consiste dicho nombramiento y cómo se relaciona con sus investigaciones literarias?
AG: Resulta complejo expresar con palabras lo que la experiencia habilitada por este nombramiento de TORCH me ha permitido. Se trata de algo mucho más complejo que la ya enorme posibilidad de transmitir en uno de los centros de producción intelectual más prestigiosos del mundo los resultados de mis investigaciones (siempre repito que el mapa mundial de los estudios literarios tiene tres grandes polos situados en Francia, en Estados Unidos y en Inglaterra): para alguien que estudia los procesos de institucionalización de las disciplinas, conocer las condiciones de producción de la Universidad de Oxford ya es, de por sí, una experiencia intraducible (es decir, es necesario atravesarla, no hay otro modo de sintetizar las sensaciones que uno siente cuando descubre estas increíbles bibliotecas, los equipadísimos espacios de trabajo, los edificios cuidados, los lugares de recreación, la universidad misma en su conjunto). Y en esa línea, hay algo de la sociabilidad académica que me ha parecido muy interesante. Me refiero al modo en que los profesores que confiaron en que mi visita podría realizar algún aporte han organizado los coloquios, los workshops y las presentaciones: se trató de un trabajo realizado con una responsabilidad, un profesionalismo y una obsesión que merecen verdaderamente destacarse (además de donarme su tiempo para organizar cada detalle: recordemos que el filósofo francés Jacques Derrida nos advierte que el único bien del que se tiene derecho a ser avaros es el tiempo dado su carácter irrecuperable). El trabajo que han realizado Stefano María Evangelista, Ben Bollig y Laura Marcus es absolutamente imposible de resumir en dos líneas de una entrevista. Gracias a sus intervenciones se generaron interesantísimas conversaciones con otros profesores participantes de las actividades: con Gisèle Sapiro (CNRS, EHESS, París) trabajo desde el año 2011, pero antes de esta estadía nunca había conversado con Peter McDonald ni con María del Pilar Blanco ni con Patricia Novillo-Corvalán. Es impresionante lo que ha sucedido porque si bien trabajamos mucho durante mis semanas en Oxford, sobre el cierre de la experiencia empezaron a aparecer proyectos de continuidad de la conversación: traducciones, publicaciones en la editorial cartonera que dirijo y un largo etcétera que involucra a este grupo de personas que he mencionado.
SL & SW: We’re privileged to have an interview with you here in Oxford. In the summer, you were appointed by the TORCH organisation (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) as a “Global South Visiting Fellow”. What does such an appointment involve, and how is it connected with your literary research?
AG: It is hard to express in words just what experience this TORCH appointment has afforded me. It goes far beyond the already enormous opportunity of sharing the results of my research in one of the most prestigious centres of intellectual output in the world (I have always said that the world map of literary studies has three large poles located in France, the United States and England). For someone who studies the processes of institutionalisation within disciplines, knowing the environment of the University of Oxford is already, in itself, an indescribable experience. That is to say, one has to go through it, there is no other way to accurately sum up the sensations one feels when discovering these incredible libraries, extraordinarily well-furnished workspaces, cherished buildings, recreation areas, the university itself as a whole. Along those lines, I have been pleasantly surprised by the great enthusiasm and interest of academic circles at Oxford. I refer to the way in which the professors – the ones who believed that something would become of my visit – have organized talks, workshops and presentations: such work was carried out with a responsibility, a professionalism and a dedication that truly deserve to be mentioned, in addition to giving me their time to organize every detail. Let us not forget what the French philosopher Jacques Derrida said: he warned us that the only good that comes from entitled greed is time, given its irretrievable nature. The work that Stefano María Evangelista, Ben Bollig and Laura Marcus have done is absolutely impossible to summarize in two lines of an interview. It is thanks to their involvement, that fascinating conversations have taken place with other professors participating in the activities. I have been working with Gisèle Sapiro (CNRS, EHESS, Paris) since 2011, but before this stay I had never properly spoken to Peter McDonald or María del Pilar Blanco nor to Patricia Novillo-Corvalán. What is truly striking is that although we worked continuously during my weeks in Oxford, towards the end of the experience, projects continuing the conversation began to appear, including translations, publications in the cartonera publishing house that I am director of, and much, much more all involving the group of people that I mention above.
SL & SW: Un artículo publicado por el blog de la facultad de Humanidades de la universidad nos dice que: “Las obras de la doctora Gerbaudo abordan la actual y complicada cuestión de la relación entre los estudios literarios y el activismo político”. ¿Cómo describiría esta relación entre la literatura y el activismo? ¿Se considera usted una activista política?
AG: Hay sobre este punto una larga deriva de una conversación y de una enseñanza de Gisèle Sapiro. Los trabajos de Sapiro muestran que no hay un divorcio entre autonomía y política, como se nos suele hacer creer: nadie le pagaba a Sartre ni a Zola por sus asunciones políticas que atravesaban su filosofía y su literatura. Mis trabajos siguen esa línea abierta por Sapiro: ninguna de las dos somos neutrales. Nuestras posiciones políticas se advierten en todos y cada uno de nuestros trabajos y en nuestras acciones públicas, incluidas nuestras investigaciones. Suelo hablar en mis escritos de “políticas de exhumación”. Jacques Derrida ha escrito, en un texto memorable, “One transforms while exhuming”. Exhumar prácticas clandestinas de enseñanza de teorías literarias y de literatura censuradas durante el terrorismo de Estado en Argentina así como exhumar prácticas que dan cuenta de la continuidad de políticas económicas, culturales y simbólicas de la dictadura, aún bajo el orden “democrático”, es parte de mi trabajo de investigación. Si esas intervenciones pueden considerarse una forma de activismo, entonces se podría decir que soy una activista. Creo y sigo, a pesar de todo (es decir, a pesar de que no pueden tanto como uno quisiera), una tradición francesa que apuesta al poder de las palabras. Trabajamos con palabras y en ese trabajo hay una potencia y una peligrosidad notable. No por casualidad durante la dictadura argentina era complejo hacer circular un texto como How to Do Things with Words.
SL & SW: An article published by the University’s Humanities faculty’s blog tells us: “Dr Gerbaudo’s work tackles the difficult, charged and extremely topical question of the relationship between literary studies and political activism.” How would you describe the relationship between literature and activism? And would you consider yourself a political activist?
AG: A large amount of work by Giséle Sapiro, derived from conversations and her teaching, deals with this subject. Her work demonstrates that neither autonomy nor politics can be divorced from each other, as we are often led to believe: nobody paid Sartre or Zola to include the political suppositions that run through their philosophy and literature. My own work follows the thread drawn by Sapiro: that neither of the two are neutral. Our political stances are apparent in each and every part of our work and in our public activities, including our research. I often talk about the “politics of exhumation” in my writing. Jacques Derrida wrote in one memorable text: “One transforms while exhuming”. Exhuming clandestine teaching practices of literary theories and literature censored during state terrorism in Argentina, as well as exhuming practices that account for the continuity of economic, cultural and symbolic policies of the dictatorship, even under the “democratic” order, constitute part of my research work. If these interventions can be considered a form of activism, then you could say I’m an activist, despite everything. I mean to say we cannot do as much as one would like to. I believe in and follow a French tradition that gambles on the power of words.We work with words and in such a labour, there is remarkable power as well as a marked danger. It’s no coincidence that during the Argentinian dictatorship it was difficult to circulate texts such as How to Do Things with Words.
SL & SW: El artículo dice también que usted es una “traductora activa”. ¿Qué significa ser una traductora de obras argentinas y qué opina de traducirlas de español a inglés? Por otro lado, para usted, ¿qué es lo que más le gusta de la traducción?
AG: La traducción es una herramienta fundamental, en especial en países de preponderancia monolingüe como Argentina: lamentablemente nuestro sistema educativo no afianza la enseñanza de lenguas extranjeras, ni siquiera el portugués que es la lengua que se habla en uno de nuestros países vecinos, Brasil. Por lo tanto traducir es necesario si uno quiere compartir con los estudiantes los textos que ayudan a complejizar ideas, análisis, metodologías, perspectivas de investigación, de reflexión, de pensamiento. En ese sentido, mis traducciones son de textos del francés y del inglés al español. Elijo, en cada ocasión, textos que me permitan introducir categorías teóricas o maneras de leer que problematicen las discusiones recortadas en el campo nacional y, si se quiere, latinoamericano, ya que solemos publicar nuestras traducciones en revistas on line con acceso abierto. El inglés es hoy la lingua franca de la ciencia. ¿Cómo no ponerse contento cuando un texto o una idea se pueden hacer circular por canales que permitan su diseminación por los espacios por los que esta lengua transita?
SL & SW: The article also says that you are an “active translator”. What does it mean to be a translator of Argentinian literature, and what is your opinion on translating them from Spanish to English? On the other hand, what do you enjoy most about translation?
AG:Translation is a fundamental tool, especially in countries like Argentina where monolingualism is dominant. Unfortunately, our education system hasn’t acted to strengthen the teaching of foreign languages, not even with Portuguese – the language spoken in one of our neighbouring countries, Brazil. Therefore, translation is necessary in order for one to share texts with students that help them deal with more complex ideas, analyses, methodologies, research perspectives, reflection, and thought. In that sense, my translations are from French and English into Spanish. At every opportunity, I select texts that allow me to introduce theoretical categories or ways of reading that consider the problems found in discussions cut short in the national sphere, and if you like, the Latin American sphere, too, since we usually publish our translations in online magazines with open access. English is the lingua franca of science today. How can one not be pleased when a text or an idea can circulate by channels allowing their dissemination in spaces where English permits them movement?
Join us next week for the concluding part of this interview…
This blog post was written by Franklin, a second-year student studying Spanish and Portuguese. Here, Franklin tells us about Eduardo Lalo’s stay in Oxford and the way it shone a spotlight on the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.
Every term, a number of academics from countries in the ‘Global South’ – a term that refers to countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean whose economies are small to medium-sized – arrive in Oxford as TORCH Global South Visiting Fellows. TORCH, short for The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, collaborates with an Oxford-based academic to sponsor and support the academic whilst they are here hosting events to do with their research interests and current projects.
One of the academics Oxford welcomed in ‘Trinity’ term (summer term) was Eduardo Lalo, Professor of Literature at the University of Puerto Rico and a multidisciplinary artist, whose work spans creative writing, drawing and photography. Eduardo’s academic host in Oxford was María del Pilar Blanco, Associate Professor of Spanish American Literature and Tutorial Fellow at Trinity College; together, they devised a range of events throughout the term for him to showcase his work and engage with the local and university communities.
The first of those events was a seminar series entitled ‘The Mis-invention of the Caribbean’. In the three seminars that comprised the series, which brought together students, researchers and members of the wider Oxford community, Eduardo examined the literature of the encounter between the Caribbean and its peoples and Europeans, with key texts including Christopher Columbus’s journal, dating from 1493, and the edition of it annotated by Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish cleric whose writings chart the first decades of the colonization of the Caribbean. The series reconsidered the historiography surrounding the ‘discovery’ of the Caribbean, revealing that, at the heart of Columbus’ journal, lie a number of problematics and points of contention, and that, as a text, it cannot always be taken at face value. Beyond Columbus, Eduardo explored works by English travellers in the nineteenth century – texts by such figures as James A. Froude and Spenser St. John – and how they relate in style and content to Columbus’s fifteenth-century diary. In particular, Eduardo analyzed the recurrence of the cannibal as a figure that European writers return to again and again to represent their cultural others.
Alongside his three-part seminar series, Eduardo led a separate creative writing workshop for a group of ten students. After a short question-and-answer session, Eduardo, through a range of exercises, invited seminar-goers to consider the importance of the notion of writing in space (the space of a page of a book, for instance). Those in attendance enjoyed the opportunity to think creatively about, and move through, approaches to creative writing.
Aside from his more academic seminars and creative writing workshop, members of the Oxford community were able to attend an exhibition of his photography, entitled ‘Deudos’, or ‘Death Debts’, held at St John’s College. Eduardo’s black-and-white images of life in Puerto Rico, taken between 2012 and 2018, bring to the fore in powerful detail the realities of day-to-day life in what has been termed the world’s ‘oldest colony’ (Puerto Rico remains a commonwealth of the United States). Held over the course of the fourth week of term, the exhibition was well attended and its venue appropriate, in the light of the recent announcement by St John’s College’s that it will launch a new research project, named ‘St John’s and the Colonial Past’, to examine the role the college played in creating and maintaining Britain’s overseas empire. Eduardo’s exhibition seemed apt at a time when the Oxford community is opening discussions about decolonial approaches to art and scholarly work.
Eduardo’s term as a TORCH Global South Visiting Fellow, then, shone a spotlight on the relative lack of research that is done in Oxford on the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, compared with that done on Spain and South America. His seminar series was a very useful follow-up to Professor Blanco’s lectures in ‘Hilary’ term (spring term) on ‘Literature of the Spanish Caribbean’, providing attendees with important historical context as far as the literary history of the Caribbean is concerned. Equally, it was enjoyable and insightful to explore new approaches to creative writing and to engage with photography, two aspects of the arts under-represented and under-explored in Oxford curricula: approaches that challenge us to think of long-established canons from a decolonial perspective.
This week’s blog post was written by Franklin, a second-year student in French and Portuguese from scratch. Here, Franklin tells us about this year’s ‘Brazil Week’…
In Week Six of Hilary Term every year, the Portuguese Sub-faculty organises ‘Brazil Week’, a series of free events – talks, performances and film screenings, to name just a few – which are open to members of the University and local community. The aim: to raise awareness of the richness and diversity of Brazilian culture. Events, though organised from within the Modern Languages Faculty, are designed to underline the wide variety of disciplines in which aspects of Brazil and Brazilian life are being researched: politics, history, theology, anthropology and sociology, for example. Each year promises to be an engaging and exciting week, and this year’s Brazil Week – whose theme was ‘Brazil Now’, in light of the election of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency – was no exception.
The week began with a focus on film. On Monday evening, St Peter’s – one of the more than 30 colleges that comprise the University – hosted a screening of Flávia Castro’s Deslembro, a film that explores themes of identity and memory through the lens of the experiences of its teenage protagonist, Joana. The following day, we welcomed Dr Maite Conde, Lecturer in Brazilian Studies at Cambridge University, who spoke about her recently published book, Foundational Films: Early Cinema and Modernity in Brazil. Maite’s book discusses the reception of cinema in Brazil in the early twentieth century and explores how early films sought to represent cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, in a similar vein to European capital cities, notably Paris, and her talk was particularly insightful for final year students studying Brazilian cinema.
Later on Tuesday, in what was perhaps the standout event of the week, the Brazilian writer and activist Anderson França gave a talk which touched on his 2017 collection of crônicas, Rio em Shamas (or ‘Rio in Flames’). Attended by students and staff of the University and members of the Portuguese and Brazilian communities in Oxford, Anderson’s talk highlighted the reality of growing up in Rio de Janeiro, how tourists don’t see the real Rio, and the precariousness of the political situation in Brazil.
A theatre workshop for students with the actor and director Almiro Andrade on Wednesday morning marked the halfway point. In it students were able to discuss ways of staging two canonical Brazilian plays, Auto da Compadecida and Morte e vida severina, both of which are studied in first year. Later that day, St Peter’s hosted a well-attended seminar, organised by postgraduate Andrzej Stuart-Thompson, for all those doing research into aspects of Brazil. Thursday saw the University’s Latin America Centre host Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke and Peter Burke, who delivered a lecture on the influential Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, whose work all Portuguese undergraduates come across at some stage in their studies, and, just as it started, the week drew to a close focussing on cinema, with a roundtable, chaired by Professor Claire Williams, involving three specialists in Brazilian cinema.
Overall, the week was a great success, spotlighting the vitality and diversity of Brazilian culture and showcasing the breadth of research focussed on Brazil being carried out at Oxford. Brazil Week is one of many opportunities that students of Portuguese can get involved with to expand their knowledge of the Portuguese-speaking world and be introduced to cutting-edge research. Other events that the Sub-faculty organise include the Research Seminar, which regularly welcomes academics from around the world to speak about their latest work. This year, we have had talks entitled ‘Lima Barreto: An Afro-Brazilian Crusader’, ‘Memórias íntimas marcas: post-war transnational dialogues in Angolan art’ and ‘Critical futurities and queer-disabled existence in Mozambican, Ugandan and Zimbabwean political cultures’ amongst many more, reflecting the global nature of Portuguese as a language and the richness and vibrancy of the cultures of the Lusophone world.
In May The Oxford Centre for Comparative Criticism and Translation, and St Anne’s College hosted a discussion between two of the best-known novelists writing in Spanish today, Javier Cercas and Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Beginning as an introduction to their recent publications, the conversation evolved into an exciting reflection on the role of storytelling in a post-truth age…
Javier Cercas gave an insight into his 2014 novel, El Impostor (The Impostor), which tells the story of Enric Marco Battle, a trade unionist who became famous in Spain as a survivor of the concentration camps Mauthausen and Flossenbürg. Battle became a spokesperson for Spanish survivors of the Holocaust and was a prominent voice against Fascism. However, in 2005 it was revealed that Battle had deceived the public about his experience of the war and had never been held in a concentration camp. He was, in effect, an impostor.
Vásquez introduced his 2015 novel, La forma de las ruinas (The Shape of the Ruins), which traces two political assassinations in Colombia’s history: that of General Rafael Uribe Uribe, a senator and civil war veteran killed in 1914; and that of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a leader of the Liberal party and presidential candidate at the time of his murder in 1948. Vásquez’s novel includes a character called Carlos Carballo, a conspiracy theorist who believes the two crimes are linked, not only to one another, but also to the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy.
Both novels, then, might to some degree be considered historical fiction, taking their storylines from history but marrying this with the imagination to create a version of the past that is closer to what we might expect from fiction. However, the two writers use their novels to problematise this genre, questioning the role fiction can play in an era of alternative facts.
The writers consider the figure of the fantasist, asking what motivates a fantasist to invent alternative scenarios and why such figures are believed. This begs the question, is the novelist a kind of fantasist? And if you can have a factual novel, what is it that makes it a novel, a work of the imagination?
Vásquez suggests that fantasists are fascinated by stories, by creating narrative out of the past as a way to meet their personal objectives. They are detectives of a kind, and the novel is a means of probing reality and humanity. As Ford Madox Ford said, the novel is a ‘medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.’ Cercas, meanwhile, draws a distinction between the different fantasists presented in the two novels: on the one hand, Battle, who distorts history to amplify or falsify his own role within it; on the other, Carballo, who cannot accept that history doesn’t make sense and is ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ (a reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth), and therefore looks endlessly for connections in an effort to find the meaning in history.
What do both fantasists tell us about our relationship to narratives of the past though? Perhaps that history becomes more palatable when it is presented in the form of a story. Between the lack of a story and a lie, we prefer the lie and, to go a step further, when we are dealing with the worst elements of history, we try to mask it with narrative.It is for this reason, Cercas suggests, that General Charles de Gaulle aimed to convince French people that they had all been ‘résistants’ during the war, for, he said, ‘Les Français n’ont pas besoin de la vérité’ [French people do not need the truth].
In the current climate, we find other words for lying, referring to distortions of the truth as ‘alternative facts’. Social media allows us to create alternative chains of events and, for the first time, we have the impression of being able to choose the version of reality we want to hear. Consequently, people who are adept at manipulating storytelling have power. Vásquez points out that the German writer and philosopher Novalis asserted that ‘novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.’ The novel goes where history cannot, reframing history as a narrative that can be edited, manipulated, and used to dominate the political moment. This is because, in the words of the poet T. S. Eliot, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality.’
It seems, therefore, that our present moment is defined by narratology, by storytelling. What do you think – are we facing a battle for the story?
This post was written by Hector Stinton, a third-year Spanish & French student at Keble College.
As an undergraduate reading French and Spanish, I have chosen to spend my year abroad working in Santiago de Chile (August 2017 – June 2018) and Paris (July – September 2018) as a British Council English teacher and Assistant Film Producer, respectively. In the summer before starting the Spanish half of my year, I set myself three main objectives: to enhance my understanding of Hispanic culture, to improve my Spanish, and to challenge myself professionally.
Being embedded in life and work in Chile has given me great insight into Latin culture. For example, in England, flying or wearing our flag is uncommon and has nationalistic associations, even on St George’s Day; whereas in Chile, La Estrella solitaria is seen far more frequently, especially on Independence Day in September. Dig a little deeper, however, and you find that it is still a legal obligation, though rarely enforced, to fly a flag from every house or tower block – a hangover in the constitution written by Pinochet, demonstrating his pervasive legacy. At the other end of the spectrum, and typifying the wry sense of humour, the beverage of choice – a litre of sweet fermented wine with pineapple ice-cream – is called a terremoto (‘earthquake’), despite the fact that tremors regularly raze towns and villages, and have left the capital without any pre-modern architecture.
It is said that if you can speak Castilian in Chile, you can speak it anywhere in the world, since Chilean Spanish has a fearsome reputation for its thick accent, fast delivery, and plethora of peculiar idioms and neologisms, known as chilenismos. Separated from Peru and Bolivia by the Atacama Desert to the north, from Argentina by the Andes to the east, and surrounded by ocean to the south and west, Chile’s geography has seen its language develop hermetically. Even when Chile became more accessible, wars with her neighbours, and continuing mutual suspicion, have made the distinct speech a point of national pride. For this reason, Chilean vocabulary has been particularly enriched by its immigrant and native communities: ya (‘yeah’) from the German ja, ¿cachai? (‘you know?’) from the English ‘to catch one’s drift’, cancha (‘field’) from the Quechua kancha. The grammar, too, prefers the Italian ai or ei ending to the Iberian as or es when using the informal tu form in the present tense, and rejects completely the peninsular vosotros ‘you plural’. Acquiring all these subtleties, and many more besides, has made me a more complete linguist.
Professionally, working at the biggest language school in Santiago, the Instituto Chileno-Británico de Cultura, has presented its own set of challenges. On Friday evenings, I teach an advanced one-on-one student who happens to be the philosophy chair at the top university, and is preparing to deliver a series of lectures at Yale. A few hours later, on Saturday mornings, I go from feeling more like a tutorial student with the aforementioned academic, to helping a class of six-year-old girls colour and annotate big A3 sheets with titles like ‘My Zoo’ and ‘My Favourite Food’. ‘Variety’ is certainly the watchword at the ICBC, because every day I engage with and adapt to a huge range of different ages, backgrounds and abilities.
Thus far, I would go as far as to say I’m meeting or exceeding the objectives I set myself at the beginning of the year, thanks to an opportunity in Chile made possible by the British Council and Instituto Británico. Now I might even have time for some of my secondary objectives: learning to dance, learning to cook, and learning Portuguese…
by Hector Stinton, a third-year undergraduate in French and Spanish at Keble College
Chilean Spanish is the most idiosyncratic Hispanic variant, and it’s partly why I applied to work as a teacher in Santiago for my year abroad. Its earliest phonetic influence was from Andalusian conquistadores, who brought to America yeísmo (/y/ and /ll/ pronounced the same) and seseo (soft /c/ and /z/ pronounced as /s/, itself unpronounced word-finally), but it developed into a more distinctive accent with the conversion of /j/ into aspirate /h/ and the elision of /d/ in words like ciudad. Chile’s geo-political isolation made its patois evolve rapidly and hermetically: separated from its neighbours by the Andes and the Atacama until the 19th century, and with relations soured by conflict and suspicion since then, Chileanese became a point of national pride.
As in other Latin countries, the diminutive –ito/a is used to express affection and diminish the urgency, directness or importance of something, e.g. making something annoying seem more pleasant, and the voseo (use of vos as a second person singular pronoun instead of tuteo) forms the bottom two of the four grades of formality, below tú and usted. Interestingly, however, among friends, Chileans prefer the Italianate –ai or –ei ending to the Iberian –as or –es when using tú in the present tense. More unusual still is the replacement of nuestro ‘our’ with de nosotros, and the rejection of vosotros in favour of ustedes for ‘you plural’.
But above all, Chilean-speak is known for its plethora of peculiar idioms and neologisms, known as chilenismos; look in any Spanish dictionary, and you will see they predominate over all other vernaculars. There are three broad categories: Argentine / Rioplatense / Lunfardo (argot from Buenos Aires and Montevideo) terms carrying either covert prestige or criminal Coa undertones (hacer perro muerto ((literally, ‘to do a dead dog’)) – ‘to dine and dash’); Mapudungun / Quechua loanwords (copihue – Chile’s national flower, huaso – ‘cowboy’); and French / (Swiss-)German / English / Croat loanwords (confort – ‘loo paper’, lumpen – ‘lower class’, cachar – ‘to catch one’s drift’, corbata – ‘tie’). Together, they further enrich the Chilean dialect, which never fails to surprise and delight.
hacer perro muerto – to dine and dash
huaso – cowboy
confort – loo paper
cachar – to catch one’s drift
A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!
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