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Ty Alyea on "Foundational Fictions"

Cover of "Foundational Fictions": Photograph of Statue

Doris Sommer

Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America

University of California Press, 1993
418 Pages
$16.95

Reviewed by Ty Alyea

In Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America, Doris Sommer examines the implications of a persistent strain in Latin American “national literature:” the heterosexual romance. “The national novels of Latin America,” Sommer argues, “are all love stories,” and for good reason, too. According to Sommer, “national” romances serve as allegories for national consolidation and development. Almost inevitably, such romances present stories of star-crossed lovers who represent particular regions, races, parties economic interests, and the like—and their “passion for conjugal and sexual union spills over to a sentimental readership” that would ideally desire the kind of state that allows such a union to occur. Sommer focuses a large part of her study upon novels that have been institutionally accepted by Latin American governments and educational systems, and thus have been consciously promoted as “national literature.”

Following Benedict Anderson’s argument about print culture’s role in the development of national communities, Sommer gives much evidence suggesting the importance of the “national romances” in the development of Latin American national identities. After the wars of Latin American independence that took place during the early 1800s, Sommer argues, the Creole class needed to legitimize its authority by wooing and domesticating civil society. The importance of romance literature’s role in that process need only be validated by the litany of novelist-politicians that have held important roles in “preparing national projects through prose fiction and implementing foundational fictions through legislative and military campaigns,” including Ignacio Manuel Altamirano, the Mexican nationalist and magistrate who wrote El Zarco (1901) and Clemencia (1869).

Thus, the romance novel served an important role in a general bourgeois project to hegemonize a culture in formation, and what better way to do this than to promote novels that resolve (or contain) class, racial, regional, or social differences within the context of “natural” love? According to Sommer, the romance genre also served as an effective way for the Creole bourgeois class to look forward to an idealized future of resolved conflicts rather than toward a past wherein they were not in power. “Without a proper genealogy to root them in the land,” Sommer contends, “the creoles had at least to establish conjugal and then paternity rights, making a generative rather than a genealogical claim” to power. Accordingly, the romance narrative is one that points forward, unlike Walter Benjamin’s backward-looking “Angel of History,” and the children that result from successful “national romances” point toward the “natural” resolution of the public conflicts that had appeared to get in the way of the lovers earlier in the novel. Likewise, unsuccessful or tragic versions of these romances point toward the problems that need to be solved in order to attain an ideal future.

In the second part of the first chapter, Sommer takes a more theoretical approach to answer the question of how “eroticism and nationalism became figures for each other in modernizing fictions” and explores how the “rhetorical relationship between heterosexual passion and hegemonic states functions as a mutual allegory.” As Sommer acknowledges, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) and Michel Focucalt’s History of Sexuality (1984) are somewhat “foundational” to her approach. Expanding upon Anderson’s point that every modern individual “has” a nationality just as he or she “has” a gender, Sommer argues that the “imaginings” of sex and gender effectively constitute modern subjects, and thus sex and the nation help each other to displace earlier attachments. By allegorizing issues of national import into erotic romances, national romances effectively dissolve the boundaries between public and private spheres. “The pitch of sentiment rises along with the cry of commitment,” Sommer contends, “so that the din makes it ever more difficult to distinguish between our erotic and political fantasies for an ideal ending.” Furthermore, the obstacles that the lovers encounter heighten their desire to couple and reinforce “their/our love for the possible nation in which their relationship could be consummated.” It is therefore fitting, then, that the major obstacles presented in national romances are often public ones.

While Sommer does not spend too much time belaboring points of difference between European and Latin American romances, some general differences and similarities stand to be mentioned. Often, Sommer argues, European romances are characterized by more “private” conflicts, and while many European romances can also serve as allegories for national progress, the Latin American romances are more transparently so. Furthermore, Sommer claims that Latin American romances cross class, gender, and racial stereotypes in ways that are unheard of in European romance—most notably with issues of miscegenation. Whereas miscegenation was often presented in European texts as “the road to racial perdition,” in Latin America such racial mixture served as “a way of annihilating difference and constructing a deeply horizontal, fraternal dream of national identity.” Despite these differences, Sommer does not stress Latin American national romances as fundamentally different from the European ones, but instead uses genetic and appositional comparisons between European, US, and Latin American texts to find important points of similarity and difference. For example, in the second chapter, Sommer re-reads James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826) through the lens of Latin American authors such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento amongst others who “reread and rewrote him, either to defend Cora’s death as a necessary sacrifice or to redeem her as America’s more colorful and convincing heroine.”

Foundational Fictions is a highly ambitious examination of Latin American national romances. As broad-sweeping as Sommer’s approach is, it leaves open a number of avenues for research. For example, one wonders how contemporary “non-national” Latin American romances might have operated during the 19th century, and if it is possible for a romance novel to not serve as an allegory of national destiny. Furthermore, given the fact that Sommer’s field of study is by necessity a broad one, Foundational Fictions could be better followed up by texts that focus more closely upon the romances involving particular nations or variations upon a particular hemispheric theme (Deborah J. Rosenthal’s Race Mixture in Nineteenth-Century US and Spanish American Fictions (2003) has recently responded in this vein) or that examine the national dynamics of the homoerotic romance. Finally, since the texts that Sommer evaluates have all, at one time or another, been supported by governmental institutions and/or political partisans, Sommer’s inquiry also leaves open for analysis texts that did not receive such support. Perhaps analyses of such texts could help us better understand many repressed national imaginings.