University of Wisconsin-Madison
Department of Comparative Literature
The connection between nation and woman, or nation and love, is a well-worn metaphor that extends far beyond some sort of traditional connection between the earth and women as "bearers of fruit." The idea that an intangible creation like a nation is able to evoke amorous or erotic emotions, sentiments that tend to be directed toward more concrete entities, such as humans, would presumably seem odd, were it not that, as nations have come to be constructed, the correlation between woman and nation has become so commonplace as to seem almost cliché. And yet, the prevalence of the metaphor does not seem to have reduced its effectiveness; the equation of woman and nation remains strong today in nationalist rhetoric and literature, where nations must be cherished, like a good (and valuable) woman, and also protected, like a good (and fragile) woman. One only has to look so far as the international outrage over the rape of Bosnian women, a violation that received much more press coverage than the other forms of pillage and plunder which took place in Bosnia, to see the thin line that separates the rape of a woman and the rape of a country; the systematic rape of women became the most effective means of rallying support for intervention in the Bosnian conflict, not because rape is a new phenomenon in the former Yugoslavia, but because it symbolizes the unjust violation of national sovereignty more dramatically than other available examples of the horrors of war. But even when national defense is not in question and the conflation of invasion and rape is not employed within national rhetoric, the nation still appears in literature as a woman, not only bearing children but also instilling within them the virtues and values that they will cherish throughout their lives. Within Latin American literature, there is a lengthy tradition of an explicit comparison between the nation and the woman, one that has manifested itself differently throughout the years but which continues through the present. As Doris Sommer has pointed out, "the national novels of Latin America--the ones that governments institutionalized in the schools and that are by now indistinguishable from patriotic histories--are all love stories" (30). These novels, written in the wake of national independence, draw direct connections in one way or another between the nation and the women they portray--either linking their physical bodies with the nation, or drawing parallels between the roles that their bodies play, via romance or parenting, in the foundation of the nation. Approximately a century after these novels were published, and in reaction to the earlier national novels, the Boom produced another group of novels that can be broadly seen as an attempt to provide Latin America with new forms of both literary and national narratives. Nevertheless, while the Boom narratives are more critical than accepting of the national romances portrayed in the earlier Latin American novels, works like Mario Vargas Llosa's Captain Pantoja and The Special Service and Carlos Fuentes' The Death of Artemio Cruz continue to reproduce a similar paradigm, simply on more creative terms. Most recently, a number of Latin American women writers have generated yet another rewriting of the connection between the fatherland and the woman. In texts such as Other Weapons or Sacred Cow, Luisa Valenzuela and Diamela Eltit produce allegories that provide a great deal more sexual freedom for women, even within the confines of the oppressive military regimes in which they are set, but that ultimately leave the women and their sexuality inherently linked to the nation and its development.
Benedict Anderson defines the nation as "an imagined political community--and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign" (6). Arguing that nationalism per se did not truly come into existence until the nineteenth century, Anderson suggests that one of the developments most central to the creation of a passionate sense of belonging to these imagined communities, in the absence of any tangible indication of their natural existence, was the founding of "print communities." He points to print communities, formed in part by groups of people reading the same newspapers daily, or weekly, as a means of bringing people together and establishing a sense of unity in much the same way that television today is suggested as having a key role in the formation of a "global community," leveling cultural differences and providing a shared base of information. So, if the nation is not an inherent community but an imagined one--but one which must appear to be both inherent and fixed--, one of the most effective means to promote such an appearance becomes the creation of stories about the nation, stories which claim to relate an essential truth about the community.
The links between nations and narratives have traditionally been quite strong within Latin America, perhaps in part because written Latin American narratives themselves were born basically at the same time as the nations themselves. Iberian colonization tended to utilize Central and South America more as a source of raw materials than as a site of manufacturing; therefore, what printed materials there were within the colonies had to be imported almost entirely from Europe. In the nineteenth century, however, printing presses began to spring up throughout the continent, and not surprisingly, many of the fictional works written shortly after national independence and published locally focused on the establishment of a unique and autonomous identity for the newly-created nation-states. Moreover, a number of the founding political figures of the fledgling Latin American nations were (and continue to be, today) authors as well. One of the most influential of these politician-authors was Argentina's Juan Bautista Alberdi, who provided the now-famous (or infamous) slogan of national political policy, "To govern is to populate". Alberdi's programs of multiplying his country's population were imitated widely throughout much of Latin America, usually coupled either with projects of "blanquecimiento" or "whitening," which encouraged to varying degrees the "breeding out" of African or Indian strains of the populace, or with celebrations of the Creole, in which the blending of ethnicities was seen as an essential national trait that emphasized the differences between Latin American and European peoples.
Vital to these political projects of purifying and augmenting society were, of course, women, who served both as citizen factories and as nurturing instillers of virtues and values within their productive yield. As Doris Sommer has masterfully demonstrated in Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America, the results of which I cannot hope to reproduce more effectively here, the national novels published during the early years of Latin American independence both explicitly and implicitly encourage a correspondence between a romantic love for women and a nationalistic love for country; patriotic heroes demonstrate their commitment to country by committing their hearts to young, voluptuous women. The standard format of national novels becomes the historical romance, where romance is defined as "a cross between our contemporary use of the word as a love story and a nineteenth century use that distinguished the genre as more boldly allegorical that the novel" (5). Citing a lengthy series of narratives ranging from mid-nineteenth-century texts such as Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda's abolitionist novel Sab and José Mármol's Amalia, to Rómulo Gallegos' Doña Bárbara, a 1929 novel designed to rally national resistance against U.S. economic imperialism, Sommer investigates the various manners in which the novels conspire to show that romance is patriotic and patriotism is romantic, with the goal of proving that countries, like women, must be both fathered and husbanded. Ultimately, the founding of a nation is naturalized through the comparison that equates it with an amorous "conquest."
By the middle of the twentieth century, however, Boom authors were arguing that Latin American literature and Latin America itself were in desperate need of a new identity. Their "foundational fictions" were based on European models of identity and written with European models of literature; both models had proved, in the century or more separating the Boom authors from national independence, to be hopelessly flawed, at least when applied within Latin America. In their efforts to recreate the identity of their countries and rewrite their myths of origin, Mexican Carlos Fuentes and Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa are two of the many Boom writers who take on directly the allegorical connections between amorous romance and benevolent nation-building; however, these new narratives, which I will only explore briefly here, inevitably leave in place the metaphor of nation as woman. In The Death of Artemio Cruz, Fuentes presents the life (and death) of an ex-revolutionary from Pancho Villa's army, highlighting Cruz' past relationships with four women. Post-revolutionary Mexico, Fuentes seems to argue, does rely upon a union between men and women, although it is not the glorified romance of earlier narratives; in the case of Cruz' marriage to Catalina, it is a calculated economic negotiation between men, based not upon love but money and power. Furthermore, economic exchange is in fact one of the least objectionable types of sexual union that forms the new Mexico; the more idyllic relationship, the passionate and patriotic union between Cruz and Regina, the young revolutionary officer and the beautiful soldadera who are to found the new nation, is ultimately portrayed instead as a violent rape.
But is this new construction of the national history a liberating move? Does it in fact provide an alternative means to imagine the nation or its inhabitants? It is certainly a more guilty version of the story. Within Fuentes' rewriting, the land, the nation, and the Indians are not integrated into a harmonious community through love and romance; the new Mexico, as well as the old Mexico, is established by raping the land and the Indians. Ultimately, however, the nation is still a woman, and this time she is seen negatively, as the tainted victim of violence or oppression, so that Fuentes' new version of the Mexican conquest becomes arguably even more problematic than the original formation of the Mexican national identity. While it writes the romance out of national history, it substitutes a violent rape in which the woman/nation becomes implicated. Vargas Llosa also explores the rape of women by the "settlers" of the nation in his highly parodic Captain Pantoja and the Special Service. When the soldiers of the Peruvian army stationed in the far reaches of the Amazonian region begin raping the women there, thus harming the people whom they are ostensibly in the region to protect, the army invents the Special Service for Garrisons Frontier and Related Installations, a troop of prostitutes under the auspices of the meticulous Captain Pantoja. The services of the SSGFRI are intended to provide an outlet for the uncontrollable sexual drives of the men stationed in the Amazon, men who up until that point have been deprived of their sexual "rights", serving in a relatively unpopulated region that apparently has not accommodated them with sufficient available women to prevent their obtaining satisfaction through rape. Of course, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service is intended to be humorous, but it simultaneously addresses central issues in the construction of national identity, raising insightful questions about who gets to serve the nation and how. Much of the novel's humor stems from the seriousness conferred on the SSGFRI, an organization so thoroughly ridiculous in both concept and practice. But the question we must ask is why the SSGFRI is ridiculous, since the practice of having a brothel near a military base is in fact commonplace. The irony arises in large part because the prostitutes, typically portrayed as "bad" or "fallen" members of society or even traitors to the state, become patriots and even national heroines through their service to the nation. Vargas Llosa finds humor and irony in the destabilization of what constitutes service to the country, when the servicemen rape women and prostitutes are patriots; ultimately, however, he does not destabilize the naturalized links between nation and woman.
In the wake of the violent military dictatorships that have plagued much of Latin America throughout the latter half of the century, many more writers have emerged to question Latin American narrative and identity, among them women such as Cristina Peri Rossi, Luisa Valenzuela, Diamela Eltit, and Leila Míccolis, all from nations that underwent military regimes and suffered under restricted civil liberties and human rights. Some of the similarities to be found in much of their work includes a continued questioning and destabilizing of genre and other categories of identity, both literary and extraliterary, along with a focus upon themes of sexuality, violence, politics, and the connections between the three, engaging in what Luisa Valenzuela terms a "fascination with the disgusting" or "un regodeo en el asco" ("Other Face" 244). Once again in their works, the comparison between the national body and the female body appears with its customary regularity. In fact, in many ways the links are even stronger, with the allegorical nature of the story as explicit as in the foundational fictions, if not more so. With the nation in a state of political and social turmoil, however, the nature of the sexual liaisons in which the women protagonists of the narratives engage is not romantic but similarly violent and tumultuous. And while, in one sense, the narratives allow for a shattering of women's traditional roles as pure, non-sexual beings, the insistence upon a connection between their sexuality and national politics simultaneously reinforces many of the old codes of interpretation.
Diamela Eltit's novel Sacred Cow centers around the character of Francisca, a young woman living under the increasingly oppressive Chilean regime who regularly abuses drugs and engages in violent sexual relationships, the combination of which leaves her bed-ridden more than once. The object of her most passionate desires throughout the narrative is Manuel, with whom she does not have a traditional relationship, but rather a kind of "understanding". This understanding tends to manifest itself through various combinations of mutual insults and violence, coupled with sexual intercourse; their sexual desires are particularly aroused by Francisca's menstrual blood:
"Standing, legs open, my blood ran over Manuel and that
image was endless. We looked at the red stains on his body, on
the sheets, falling from the opening of my legs. Manuel asked
that my blood infect him. I delivered it to him when he sought
(22) Almost casually, as if by accident, among the threads of narrative that describe Francisca's relationships with Manuel, with Sergio, with wine, with heroin, the beginning of the novel contains references to the worsening socio-political climate of the city: Francisca finds it impossible to find work that pays a living wage, and the city seems incredibly tense. There are also remarks about the perversity, cruelty, or confusion of the times, but these seem to refer more to Francisca's life itself than to the country. However, by the fourth chapter of the novel, it becomes impossible to deny that Francisca is also referring to her surrounding environment when she claims,
"I have no form of recounting how those days were, because those days cannot be contained by words.... It was inside my head and it was only in the outside space.... I have forgotten the most concrete part of the events and I just conserve images, pieces of images, words without images. An order, a flight, a scream, a sound of war, a peck, a writhing woman. Not even."(35)
Immediately following this passage, she discovers that Manuel has been detained and is being held in a clandestine prison in the south of the country. Francisca becomes obsessed with developing a form of mental communication with him, touching him telepathically in an effort to protect him. Reliving the scenes with him in which they took pleasure in her blood, eventually her own blood becomes the means through which she imagines herself keeping him alive.
The fact that Francisca's remarks early in the novel regarding the nature of "the times" are so ambiguous in terms of their precise referent allows the narrative to establish an extremely fluid boundary between the novel's protagonist and its setting. Ultimately, it becomes difficult if not impossible to distinguish Francisca's fate from that of the nation, so that both entities are "bleeding" profusely. As Chile falls victim to increased political oppression, Francisca's physical state deteriorates, and it seems her state would improve if only the nation's would--or perhaps, the nation's recovery is contingent upon hers. And while it seems clear that the women citizens of a nation suffer increasingly when subject to horrific oppression, it is not as clear that an insistence upon a direct link between the woman's health and the nation's is any more liberating, in terms of a woman's place in both the nation itself and the national discourse, than a link between the control of women (via romance and domesticity) and the control of nations (via independence and definitive national boundaries).
Luisa Valenzuela establishes similar connections in many of her texts, perhaps most notably in Other Weapons. Although the setting of many of this collection's narratives is never stated, it seems that most are set in Argentina, judging by the Spanish spoken by the characters. While the associations between politics and sexuality are evident throughout the text, the connections become most clear in the first and last stories, "Fourth Version" and "Other Weapons," in which the female protagonists are most deeply involved in political struggles. And although both stories focus not upon the political but the sexual, the text is insistent in establishing them as inseparable.
Bella, the protagonist of "Fourth Version," is an actress who has an affair with Pedro, the ambassador of an unnamed foreign country who allows Bella to bring a limited number of political refugees into the embassy--as the story progresses and the political situation within Argentina worsens, this number becomes more limited. Bella's history is retold in fragments pieced together by a narrator who has found the scraps of paper on which she bases the story; Bella herself cannot be consulted, for she is assassinated at the end of the story by the embassy guards. This leads to a number of uncertainties within the narration; the story we have is the fourth version that has been produced. Despite the difficulties she faces, the narrator feels a sense of urgency in relating the story:
"I study [the papers], rule them out, then reconsider them in a mad attempt to put the puzzle back together. I try to figure out where they go, to imprint somewhere a frozen memory of the facts so the chain of events won't be forgotten or repeated. I must by all means reconstruct the story--whose story? The story of those who are no longer themselves..."(3) However, aside from Bella, the text does not reconstruct the story of the dead; it reconstructs the story of Bella and Pedro's affair, how they dance at embassy parties, what they chat about, what they refuse to mention. Bella is clearly involved in some form of political resistance, but she rarely discusses it with Pedro, and then in vague terms. The narrator addresses this discrepancy, in case the audience has not noticed it:
"This seems to be a story about what is left unsaid.
Desire, on the other hand, is mentioned but not enacted. Pedro
caresses Bella, sometimes he even holds her in his arms,
surrounding her with words and confessions but not actions. They
talk and talk and talk about everything there is to talk about
except for the other things: the refugees...
The papers tell her story of love, not her story of death" (21, 22).
In telling the story of that which is not talked about (the
political violence of Argentina) by not telling the history of
Argentina but the history of an actress' illicit affair with a
foreign ambassador, and by reminding her readers that this is
what she is doing through intratextual commentary on her
discourse and its formation, Valenzuela establishes unavoidable
ties between the nation and Bella. Within the story, we know
Argentina to be dominated by a corrupt and brutal military; we
discover too that Bella has allowed her love for a man of
questionable or at least wavering morality to place her in a
situation that leads directly to her death. Valenzuela supports
neither the military dictatorship nor the subjugation of women,
and yet the delineation of such clear parallels between the two
seems to lead back to an allegory uncomfortably similar to the
connections between national conquest and romantic conquest; both
actions are now shown in a negative light, but the underlying
metaphor remains the same, so that both are naturalized by the
other's existence. She extends the metaphor in "Other
Weapons," implying not only that national and sexual
subjugation are inextricably linked but that sexual and national
liberation are themselves virtually a singular event. The story
relates the political and sexual reawakening of "the
so-called Laura", "so-called" because she is a
political prisoner who has been so severely tortured that she has
lost all memory and has no way of verifying that her name is
Laura, as she has been told by "the so-called Roque."
After she has recovered physically from her torture, Roque, who
is a colonel in the Argentine military, takes Laura to a private,
windowless apartment to keep her as his personal sex slave. With
no other human contact, aside from carefully circumscribed
encounters with the maid, Laura depends entirely upon the
colonel's visits for her sense of self: "The moments when
she makes love with him are the only ones that really belong to
her. They're truly hers, they belong to the so-called Laura, to
this body right here, the body she's touching, and that gives her
shape, all of her" (120). Gradually, however, she begins to
develop her identity, to regain her past identity, recovering
first the names of objects and then discovering the ways in which
they relate to her. However, she remains fearful of her memory;
most of her sense of self continues to stem from the immediate
sensations of her body, particularly the sexual. The colonel
encourages this, referring to her as "whore" and
"bitch" and forcing her to look at the mirrors which
cover her ceiling during their sexual encounters, trying to make
her to think of herself in utterly sexual terms. However, his
plan backfires, for Laura has begun to recognize herself in the
mirror's reflection. When she closes her eyes during orgasm, he
yells, "Open your eyes, spit it out, tell me who sent you,
who gave the order" (115); disobeying him for the first time
in present memory, Laura screams instead "a no that seems to
shatter the mirror on the ceiling, that multiplies and maims and
destroys his image" (115). Although she does not rebel
outright at this point, eventually Laura pieces together her
past, using information gathered from her reflection, Roque's
confession, and her own sexuality to discover that she had been,
before her capture, on the verge of killing the colonel in a
terrorist attack; as the story ends, she has regained her
consciousness and is pointing a revolver at her captor's back as
he turns to walk out the door.
In many ways, the simultaneity of Laura's sexual and political reawakenings is very appealing in its insistence that the socio-political liberation of a nation cannot occur without the social and sexual emancipation of its female citizens. However, it seems appropriate here to remember Audre Lorde's well-known caution regarding revolutionary strategies: "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" (99). If Latin American national narratives begin, as Sommer has shown, with an equation between the loving conquering of a woman and the tender domination of the nation, then a rewriting that alters the superficial structure of the relationship without altering the underlying comparison between the woman and the nation does not ultimately change the national narrative in a way that cannot be reappropriated or even reversed through the rhetoric of the founding fiction. Despite the significant differences between a nineteenth-century historical romance and the narratives of Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, Eltit and Valenzuela, all return in the end to a dependence upon the nation=woman equation, a correspondence which itself limits the possibilities of imagining a truly new national identity or narrative.
Alberdi, Juan Bautista. 1852. Bases y puntos de partida para la organización política de la república Argentina. Buenos Aires: Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires, 1966.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. New York: Verso, 1991.
Eltit, Diamela. 1991. Vaca sagrada. Mexico City: UNAM, 1992.
Fuentes, Carlos. 1962. La muerte de Artemio Cruz. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1978. Trans. Sam Hileman. The Death of Artemio Cruz. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1964.
Lorde, Audre. "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master's House." This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. 2nd ed. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1983. 98-101.
Sommer, Doris. Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America. Berkeley, Los Angeles: U of California P, 1991.
Valenzuela, Luisa. Cambio de armas. Hanover, NH: Ediciones del Norte, 1982. Trans. Deborah Bonner. Other Weapons. Hanover, NH: Ediciones del Norte, 1985.
---. "The Other Face of the Phallus." Reinventing the Americas: Comparative Studies of Literature of the United States and Spanish America. Eds. Bell Gale Chevigny and Gari LaGuardia. New York: Cambridge UP, 1986. 242-48.
Vargas Llosa, Mario. 1973. Pantaleón y las visitadoras. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1991. Trans. Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ. Captain Pantoja and the Special Service. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.
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