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Jonathan Fleck on "Unraveling the Real"

Cover of "Unraveling the Real": Red Hallways

Cynthia Duncan

Unraveling the Real: The Fantastic in Spanish-American Ficciones

Temple University Press, 2010
264 pages
$26.95

Reviewed by Jonathan Fleck

Cynthia Duncan’s Unraveling the Real presents and employs a methodology for reading Latin American fantastic short stories, novels, and film. This fantastic fiction, according to Duncan, avoids closure and fixed definitions, which in turn subverts both normative definitions of the ‘real’ and normative ideological discourses—be they nationalist, gender-normative, or masculinist— and thereby enacts social criticism. Thus, in Latin America, the literature of the fantastic “is essentially a subversive form of discourse, for it uncovers and undermines the status quo and calls attention to the fact that very often what we believe is what we have been taught through an inherited set of cultural norms.” After presenting her theoretical framework, the author reads six groups of texts, from the early twentieth century to the first years of the twenty-first. Although the book is written in English, a reading knowledge of Spanish is required because all primary citations are left untranslated.

The introduction cohesively engages with a wide variety of critical sources. Duncan starts with Tzvetan Todorov’s characterization of the “fantastic effect” as the construction of key moments in which the reader cannot reconcile what is “real and possible” with what is “unreal and impossible.” The reader hesitates between mutually exclusive natural and supernatural explanations. As Duncan argues, however, Todorov’s paradigm proves inadequate on several counts. His claim that psychoanalysis has supplanted the fantastic genre does not account for the complexity and indeterminateness of modern experience. Furthermore, he wrongly excludes Latin American writing from the canon of fantastic fiction. Finally, Todorov fails to take into consideration fantastic fiction’s engagement with social and historical concerns. In contrast, Rosemary Jackson describes the reader’s hesitation as a subversion of what constitutes the normative ‘real,’ challenging assumptions about gender and social norms. In addition, Latin American theoretical voices, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Victoria Ocampo, Julio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes, have expanded general theories of the fantastic to read Latin American texts. Duncan concludes: “In Spanish America [...] the fantastic continues to be used as a sophisticated vehicle for social criticism, the questioning of cultural stereotypes, and explorations of issues related to personal and national identity.” Unraveling the Real masterfully synthesizes a wide range of theory into a readable and immediately applicable form, even for readers whose background knowledge of the subject is limited.

In Chapter One, “Modernist Short Stories and the Fantastic,” Duncan reads stories by Rubén Darío, Leopoldo Lugones, and Horacio Quiroga, attempting to correct previous criticism’s dismissal of fantastic stories from these authors’ most important work. Prior interpretations have too often focused on the seemingly escapist subject matter of the stories. However, as Duncan shows, the lack of definition inherent in the fantastic intervenes in the political project of positivism that underpinned nationalism and the ideology of modernization. Chapter Two, “The Fantastic as an Interrogation of Literary Practices,” attends to works by Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Emilio Pacheco. These authors foreground and literalize the reading process—the characters themselves are often poor or naïve readers. The real reader, then, questions his or her own ideological assumptions about literature. While her application of fantastic theory to these stories is engaging and readable, Duncan does not make a strong enough case for viewing these stories through the lens of Todorov’s theory, which seems to reduce the stories’ play with information, falsity, and non-information into two mutually-exclusive poles of natural or supernatural. Duncan’s readings will be of limited use for Borges or Cortázar scholars seeking innovative ways of reading ficciones.

Chapter Three, “Reclaiming History: Fantastic Journeys in Time and Space,” deals with stories by Elena Garro and Carlos Fuentes, along with more work by Cortázar and Borges. The characters of these ficciones appear to

travel back in time to take on the identity of past figures, which allows the narratives to engage with important historical issues. Chapter Four, “Psychoanalytic Readings of the Fantastic,” analyzes stories by Silvina Ocampo, Bioy Casares, and Cortázar. By problematizing the male narrators’ ‘Othering’ of and identification with female characters, these stories postulate that “many of our notions about the wholeness and cohesiveness of the male subject are incorrect, as are many of our preconceptions about the solidity of language.”

Chapters Five and Six, “The Fantastic and Conventions of Gothic Romance” and “Women Writers of the Fantastic,” offer convincing and valuable insights that describe fantastic “hesitation” as a linguistic subversion of patriarchal, rationalizing discourse. Authors have employed the genre to advance traditionally disempowered voices. In the stories of María Luisa Bombal and Carlos Fuentes analyzed in Chapter Five, marginalized women’s voices play against the dominant discourses of the expected male narrator. Chapter Six continues this inquiry with stories by Elvira Orphee, Garro, and Silvina Ocampo. These readings culminate in one of the most intriguing threads of Duncan’s book. As the author synthesizes, “[W]omen feel a strong attraction to the fantastic as a mode of expression precisely because it allows them to voice concerns about the way mainstream patriarchal culture has traditionally limited their access to discursive power.” Duncan opens the door for a rereading of the fantastic as a subversion of patriarchal, rationalizing discourse in Latin America.

In Chapter Seven, “Cinematic Encounters with the Fantastic,” Duncan duly acknowledges that reading film texts through the same theoretical lens as written fiction can be limited by the technical differences of the media. Nevertheless, films by two Latin American directors of the 1990s—Eliseo Subiela and Pastor Vega—succeed in “revealing the underpinnings of the system of reference we use to orient ourselves in life and call our attention to the ways in which we construct knowledge and interpret experience to prop up the beliefs we already possess.” The book’s final chapter focuses on Carlos Fuentes’s 2004 short story collection “Compañía inquieta” as an emblem for the possibilities of future fantastic fiction in Latin America. Fuentes addresses “social, economic, and political issues” specific to the twenty-first century.

Duncan’s style is fluid and clear. However, the references to theory are noticeably repetitive, especially if the book is read cover-to-cover rather than for a specific chapter. The chapter introductions tend to drag, as they echo points from the book’s general introduction.

Unraveling the Real is effective and mobile, offering a paradigm for deep analyses of a wide range of texts. The comparative framework of the book will benefit those exploring historical, psychological, gendered, and economic concerns in fantastic literature. The book will also serve those approaching the fantastic as a key to understanding the Latin American corpus as a whole.