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Fidelismo sin Fidel

THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE LETTERED CITY: Latin America in the Cold War, By Jean Franco, Harvard University Press: 320 pp., $22.95 paper

July 21, 2002|FRANCES STONOR SAUNDERS | Frances Stonor Saunders is the author of "The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters" and is the arts editor of the New Statesman.

During the first week of June 1962, Robert Lowell flew to Brazil with his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, and their 5-year-old daughter, Harriet. They were met in Para by journalist Keith Botsford. All went well until Elizabeth and Harriet returned to the United States, leaving Lowell to continue his trip without them. On Sept. 4, accompanied only by Botsford, Lowell left for Argentina.

In Buenos Aires, the trouble started. Lowell threw away the pills prescribed for his manic depression, took a string of double martinis at a reception in the presidential palace and, to the bewilderment of the assembled generals, announced that he was "Caesar of Argentina" and Botsford his "lieutenant." He then gave a speech extolling Hitler and the superman ideology before stripping naked and mounting an equestrian statue in one of the city's main squares. After continuing in this way for several days, he was eventually overpowered in his hotel, wrestled into a straitjacket and taken to the Clinica Bethlehem, where his legs and arms were bound with leather straps while he was injected with vast doses of Thorazine. Botsford's humiliation was completed when Lowell, from this position of Prometheus bound, ordered him to whistle "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Later that month, Mary McCarthy wrote to Hannah Arendt that she had just learned "that Cal Lowell was in a mental ward in Buenos Aires and that Marilyn Monroe committed suicide because she had been having an affair with Bobby Kennedy and the White House had intervened .... Our age begins to sound like some awful colossal movie about the late Roman Emperors and their Messalinas and Poppaeas."

These episodes don't feature in Jean Franco's book, but the disintegration of Lowell and the decadence of the Kennedy prefecture speak eloquently to its title, "The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City." Franco's lettered city is Latin, not North, America, of course, but the two could never be separated as long as the Cold War continued. Indeed, Lowell's tour was a small chapter in the kulturkampf at the heart of that conflict, planned as it was by the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom, which had chosen him "as an outstanding American to counteract ... Communist people like Neruda." As it turned out, Lowell was less an emissary for the virtues of American anti-communism than for the efficiency of Thorazine, but the failure of his trip merely encouraged the CIA to refine its machinations.

Franco's project is to examine the efforts of writers, over the Cold War decades, to open a new space in the cultural and political imagination of Latin America and to chart the loss of their utopian aspirations in the course of the continent's conversion to neo-liberalism and a free-market economy. It's curious, therefore, that she shows only a glancing interest in U.S. strategies to muscle in on this space. To this end, the CIA owned several highbrow magazines circulated behind the Tortilla Curtain, notably Cuadernos and its successor, Mundo Nuevo (edited by Uruguayan literary critic Rodriguez Monegal, and designed to promote the theme of Fidelismo sin Fidel). To ignore the influence of these journals and the significance of their links to the U.S. intelligence community seems almost perverse in a study built around the phrases "Cold War" and "Lettered City."

Perhaps the omission is in deference to existing scholarship, in particular Maria Eugenia Mudrovcic's "Mundo Nuevo: Cultura y Guerra Fria en la decada del 60." More likely, Franco simply couldn't find room for such investigation in a study that is already bursting at the bindings with discoveries of a different kind. For example: "Progress is illusory from its initiation, giving Schopenhauer's veil of illusion and Mauthner's radical nominalism a certain plausibility in the Latin American context." Er, right. Or, of Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and several other writers: "What is interesting about them is not so much their heuristic potential as their ascending hierarchy that puts a totally diverse group ... at the highest level of abstraction and hence creativity." Just so. Or even (under the section heading "The Scopic Regime"): "Power seduces. The penis is the instrument of phallic power, that which activates meaning and fantasy."

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