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The Unmagical Realism of Latin American Women : WOMEN'S FICTION FROM LATIN AMERICA : Selections From Twelve Contemporary Authors edited with translations by Evelyn Picon Garfield (Wayne State University Press: $29.95, cloth; $13.95, paper; 355 pp.)

August 07, 1988|Jean Franco | Franco is a professor of Spanish and Portuguese literature at Columbia University

Latin American women writers have been neglected both at home and abroad. It is still difficult to find editions of works by the major 19th-Century writer Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, and there is still no decent biography or definitive edition of the poetry and prose of the Nobel Prize-winner Gabriela Mistral. As for contemporary writers, most people in the United States outside specialist circles would find it hard to name a Latin-American woman writer, except perhaps for Isabel Allende and Luisa Valenzuela.

Evelyn Picon Garfield's translations of 12 contemporary authors should help to repair the omission. The translations cover a variety of styles and genres--short stories, selections from novels, a play--so that it is fruitless to search for some common characteristic of the writing. Yet one cannot but be struck by the recurrent violence, especially in male/female relationships. In her play, "Bitter Blood," for instance, the Argentine writer Griselda Gambarro rewrites the family romance as a combination of Victorian melodrama and burlesque in which the father not only makes the rules but plays cruel practical jokes on the family.

In the story "Plunder," the Uruguayan writer, Armonia Somers, takes us into the mind of a vagabond and rapist when he ambushes a little peasant girl as she is carrying bread home from the oven. There is nothing squeamish about this encounter, which manages to convey both horror and tenderness--for instance, the moment when the rapist suddenly notices the girl's face and the "floating freckles that seemed to have descended from her rebellious hair like small lice of the same rust color." But what makes the story even more unusual is that the women are not simply helpless victims. Escaping from the scene of the crime, the rapist takes refuge in a hay cart driven by a peasant woman who, without warning, bares her breasts and forces him to drink from them, thus raping the rapist. Male and female desires are totally at odds.

Many of the stories convey a seething resentment against patriarchy, and this resentment often turns women into aggressors. At the end of Marta Traba's "Conformity," a woman is preparing to attack with a shard of broken glass. In Luisa Valenzuela's "Other Weapons," the woman finallypicks up a gun and turns on the lover/torturer.

It is when these stories deal with the subtleties of human relations, however, that the contrast between these women writers and their male contemporaries is most apparent. For whatever their qualities, the novels of Alejo Carpentier, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes seldom get beyond female stereotypes. It would be hard, for instance, to think of a male Latin-American writer who comes anywhere close to achieving the depth and insight into human relations of Clarice Lispector's "Love" and "Family Ties." In the former, a housewife returning from shopping is suddenly shocked out of her routine by the sight of a blind man chewing gum. This trivial incident is the prelude to a strange kind of epiphany in which beauty and hell share the same world. The woman's universe trembles and then returns to normal. By evening, "the giddiness of compassion spent itself. And if she had crossed love and its hells, she was now combing her hair before the mirror without any world for the moment in her heart. Before getting into bed, as if she were snuffing a candle, she blew out that day's tiny flame."

In Lispector's world, the sure framework of everyday life is always liable to dissolve. In the ironically titled "Family Ties," a married woman takes her unloved and irritating mother to the train station after a visit and then goes for a Sunday walk with her son, leaving her husband behind in the apartment. This is the entire plot, but even a slight deviation from routine--the woman going for a walk without her husband--is always liable to upset a universe that is held together only by custom and habit. The elevator moving smoothly up and down in the apartment building reassures the husband but not the reader.

The anthology includes useful bibliographies on these writers. However, I question the wisdom of including selections from novels, and the translations are not always idiomatic. Despite these reservations, this anthology is an excellent and much needed introduction to writing by Latin-American women.

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