Chariot of the Sun 
Marta Traba (Argentina) and
Cristina Peri Rossi (Uruguay)

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This is an early article of mine which forms the basis for part of my lecture on Marta Traba and Cristina Peri Rossi. It looks at the links between alienation, exile, and identity in Conversación al sur (Traba) and La nave de los locos (Peri Rossi), with brief reference also to Una pasión prohibida (Peri Rossi) and En cualquier lugar (Traba). Be warned that this was written in the 1980s, and some of the analytical framework now reads as rather dated: you may well wish to argue with some of the ideas presented and the assumptions underlying them. You may also wish to look at my more recent work on these writers in Elia Geoffrey Kantaris, The Subversive Psyche: Contemporary Women's Narrative from Argentina and Uruguay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
 

This article originally appeared in Forum for Modern Language Studies [St Andrew’s] Vol. 25 No. 3 (July 1989), pp.248-64, and I am grateful to the editors for permission to reprint.

 
THE POLITICS OF DESIRE:
ALIENATION AND IDENTITY IN THE WORK OF MARTA TRABA AND CRISTINA PERI ROSSI
 
 © Geoffrey Kantaris
 
In an essay entitled "García Márquez y el arte del reportaje: de Lukács al postboom"·(1), the (exiled) Paraguayan critic Juan Manuel Marcos describes how the military dictatorships which sprung up in the 'Cono Sur' of South America during the 1970s provoked a decisive change of direction in much of the literature of the subcontinent. The mass expulsion of thousands of intellectuals from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, coupled with the rigorous, centralizing control exercised by the military in all areas of public communication, created the hostile conditions in which a new, 'politicized' literature of exile nevertheless began to take root:

la literatura latinoamericana empezó a ser escrita en una nueva clase de exilio, no el aventurero y pequeño burgués de París, Barcelona o Nueva York, donde algunas estrellas del "boom" habían encontrado un ambiente estimulante, premios jugosos, traductores eficaces y críticos amigos, sino un exilio hostil, agravado por la catastrófica financiera internacional, sembrado de desempleados nativos, crispado de funcionarios amargos [...]: un exilio hacia el que nadie había partido porque quiso, a veces sin cruzar la frontera [p.·14].

It is within this broad social and political context that I wish to situate the work of the two writers I shall be discussing here: that of Marta Traba (Argentina) and Cristina Peri Rossi (Uruguay). Both in fact write from a position of exile·(2), but more importantly, both writers attempt to work through to the root mechanisms underlying the phenomenon of dictatorship, seen as a particularly crude expression of a more insidious, generalized oppression. Specifically, they examine the mechanisms which appear to link the monopoly of power to the process of alienation -- the way the construction of one group's 'self-identity' appears to depend upon the denial and destruction of another's. Furthermore, as will emerge, for both Traba and Peri Rossi the struggle against a seemingly all-pervasive alienating hegemony must be linked to an exposure of the role played within that hegemony of a patriarchal sexual economy in which (male) desire is construed as the desire to possess, and in particular to monopolize the means of (re)production. Just how these concepts become linked in the work of the two writers, and to what extent their attitudes differ, is the issue to be addressed here.
    The phenomenon of military dictatorship could be construed as the crudest socio-political expression of 'the Law of the Father', a concept borrowed from the psychoanalytical model established by Jacques Lacan·(3) and extrapolated into the political arena. I invoke this theory not only in order to underline the link it assumes between language, prohibition and desire (see note) but also because Traba and Peri Rossi appear implicitly (and the latter explicitly) to be working with such a model, drawing from it the political conclusions which Lacan leaves unstated. Both writers perceive that a centralizing patriarchal system, such as dictatorship, exerts its prohibitory power not only by institutionalizing abduction, torture, rape and murder as means of social control, but also by tightly controlling systems of signification. Official censorship is only the crude tip of a more widespread, unconscious process at work in patriarchy as a whole, which attempts to 'naturalize' possession, violence and alienation by 'naturalizing' the Sign. If the process of transmission of ideology is in some way bound up with the emergence of the 'self' into the symbolic, and hence with the acquisition of sexuality and language, then a vital part of the struggle to create a plural space of 'freedom' (the possibility of which both writers work towards) will have to be carried out at the very level of the 'sign' -- necessarily immersed in the field of sexual difference. For Traba and Peri Rossi language is located, a priori, at the intersection of the 'subject' and 'history'.
    Three fundamental concerns arise from the considerations I have outlined above, and they correspond to the three broad areas to be discussed in this article. First, as a way of countering any authoritarian claim to a monopoly of 'natural' order, it is imperative on both writers to expose the mechanism of exile and alienation underlying the 'naturalization' of all such discursive constructs as 'self', 'masculinity', 'femininity', 'patriotism', 'morality', etc. Hand in hand with this attack on the status of authoritarian discourse is the political necessity of adopting the experiences of the margins (of exile, of the torture victim, of women in machista society) as a point of reference, a base from which to defend the right to plurality -- that is, the right to reclaim from the margins whole areas of experience (and crucially 'female experience') as significant and signifying processes. But this second point must always be modified by a third consideration -- the converse recognition that any attempt to reclaim such heterogeneous experience as part of a signifying system slowly kills its plurality and sets up a hierarchy from which someone or something 'else' will be alienated and marginalized. As we shall see, for Traba this final realization is of less immediate importance than the desperate need to find a way of surviving -- "lo importante es sobrevivir", as a character in one of her novels comments·(4). Peri Rossi, on the other hand, locates her texts precisely here in this paradoxical 'limit zone' of signification, and suggests that only a re-assessment of the very basis of the conventional sexual economy could produce any lasting change in society.
 

(i) The construction of 'identity': exile and the policing of pleasure

 
Todos somos exiliados de algo o de alguien [...] En
realidad, ésa es la verdadera condición del hombre.
  --Equis (La nave de los locos)
 
Marta Traba and Cristina Peri Rossi both write about the psychology of exile. All their characters are exiled from somewhere, someone or something. They flounder in the nightmare of a city under curfew, or expelled from the city they wander the earth, physically and in their imaginations, weakly clutching at the flotsam and jetsam of the cultural wreck (Peri Rossi), or patching together the strands of shattered identity in a desperate bid for survival (Traba). The frontiers between self and non-self, sanity and insanity, the 'normal' and the 'subversive', are policed by military men, immigration officials and customs officers -- or even more insidiously, by a panoptic network of fear and denunciation. Visas are rubber-stamped over sexual identity and people are 'disappeared' by the military, their identities rubbed out. In the novels and short stories I shall be discussing here, desire itself is often sent into exile, an errant traveller, longing for human contact and affirmation in the work of Traba, but perpetually shifting in the work of Peri Rossi in an attempt to escape from the intellectual police force of Western male rationalisms. In this section, the different approaches adopted by Traba and Peri Rossi while exploring these themes will be examined at some length. A discussion of Peri Rossi's recent short stories will provide a concise introduction to the problems involved. This will be followed by a discussion of Traba's last two novels, which will help place the philosophical debate in a concrete historical context and prepare the way for an investigation of the more 'difficult' approach adopted by Peri Rossi in her novel La nave de los locos.

The prohibition of desire, the policing of pleasure, is the outrage at the heart of Peri Rossi's novels and short stories. A recent (1986) collection of stories is entitled Una pasión prohibida·(5) and each story centres around the way 'identity' is constructed or deconstructed at the borders and limits imposed upon desire. In the title story [pp.·17-25] a fifteen-year-old boy is sent to Europe by his father to make him forget his passionate love for an older woman. But instead, his love becomes an obsession which invades and transforms every experience into an anguished expression of 'loss' and separation, so that the objects of the outside world lose all meaning, are reduced to empty 'signs' always pointing to the absence of his lover. Prohibition intensifies desire to the point where it retreats into its own imaginary interior space of wish-fulfilment, "internado para siempre en un tiempo y en un espacio completamente interiores, que ningún hecho exterior podía modificar" [p.·21]. This disembodied desire is continually 'displaced' along a metonymic chain of external elements which are reduced to mere substitutions for a repressed experience whose empty 'trace' is written, read or reflected at every juncture of the object world:

las ciudades siempre tenían una letra, un campanario, una plaza, un ruido de agua que la evocaban, en los museos halló cada vez un torso o un perfil similar al suyo, en los puentes la encontraba y la perdía [...], los trenes lo desplazaban sólo de una memoria de vidrios [...] en que se reflejaba, a una memoria de agua [...] donde volvía a verla [p.·19].

    This chain of empty substitutions of desire -- "Te amo [...] Je t'aime [...] Ich liebe dich" [p.·25] -- is, according to Lacan's model, the basic process at work in language, by which we substitute objects as signifiers ("objet petit a") in an attempt to fill the gap opened up when we were originally separated/displaced from the imaginary. A crucial stage in this displacement into the symbolic order is known as the 'mirror stage', when the human being begins to construct its image of 'self' and stake out the boundaries of a 'separate identity'·(6). In "El constructor de espejos" [p.·157], Peri Rossi confronts this concept, not with the inevitability of the symbolic order as portrayed by Lacan, but with the possibility of prising open a gap in the symbolic by opposing to it a new 'imaginary'. The mirror-maker ('author') constructs ingenious mirrors which 'play' with the images people expect to see of themselves reflected in others, distorting, fragmenting or 'equivocating' the codes through which these 'self-representations' are transmitted. One mirror is in the form of a human face, imposing a disconcerting external form on the 'passive' image reflected by a purely representational mirror. Another, called the mirror of love, superimposes the images of two separate identities in such a way as to make one image. As we shall see, this disconcerting technique of equivocating ('equal-voicing') two distinct representations is one which Peri Rossi herself uses a lot in her writing as a strategy for evading the seemingly all-pervasive power of patriarchy. The final masterpiece of the mirror-maker is to be a huge mirror which will enclose the city, multiply and fracture reality -- significantly a 'frontier', but with the difference that instead of reflecting and reinforcing the ego as does Lacan's mirror, it relativizes it by portraying it as one element in a simultaneous, yet because of that erroneous and fragmented, totality.
    Peri Rossi also shows how desire itself banishes, excludes, marginalizes, constructs a sense of 'identity' by seeing itself reflected and intensified in the obstacles that lie in its way. In another story, "La parábola del deseo", the narrator describes how the inhabitants of the city made their identity from their desire, commenting: "Tuvimos mucho cuidado en expulsar a quienes no compartían [nuestro deseo], excluyéndolos de la vida pública, persiguiéndolos con nuestro desprecio hasta arrojarlos a la locura o a la frontera" [p.·91, my emphasis]. But when they finally achieve their desire, they are confronted by a sudden loss of identity, the death of self in the terrible knowledge that there is no longer anything left to desire. As suggested by the quotation from Sartre which opens the collection ("El hombre es una pasión inútil [p.·3]) desire and identity are mutually dependent, and while both rely on exclusion, on banishing the 'other' to the margins of self, both also seem to depend on the very existence of that 'other' upon which to predicate the self.

Marta Traba similarly exposes the way systems and hierarchies secretly depend for their continued survival and self-definition on the very people they attempt to banish to the margins of the social order. In her extraordinary novel Conversación al sur, published in 1981 (two years before the restoration of democracy in Argentina and four years before its restoration in Uruguay), Traba portrays the psychological and emotional effects of the horrors of the military dictatorships in Uruguay, Argentina and Chile on a group of people politically marginalized and all involved to a greater or lesser extent in the struggle against oppression. The novel records the conversation and thoughts of a twenty-eight-year-old poet, Dolores, and an actress of forty, Irene, who had first known each other during the early years of struggle against the dictatorship when the girl had been one of a group of revolutionary students in Montevideo and infatuated with Irene. They now meet again in Irene's flat in Montevideo and look back over the hopes and failures of the past few years. Their conversation and thoughts revolve obsessively around the need to 'make sense' of a series of lives broken by years of struggle, persecution and torture. Using this simple situation, Traba is able to map out the effects of a web of oppression and suffering which embraces all levels of society and spreads geographically over a huge area whose nodal points are the three capital cities of Montevideo, Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile. In the much-celebrated scene·(7) portraying the demonstrations by the mothers of the 'disappeared' in the Plaza de Mayo -- which of all the scenes in the novel perhaps most obviously parallels Peri Rossi's own concerns with sexuality, power and language, and so provides an interesting point of comparison -- Traba shows how the dependence of the military dictatorship on the political process of marginalization and exclusion is closely linked to the way patriarchy marginalizes the female in order to gain a tight control of the means of reproduction, itself essential to patriarchy's self-preservation and self-identity. This rich theme in Traba's work needs now to be looked at in more detail.
    In her book on feminist literary theory entitled Sexual/Textual Politics, Toril Moi writes that "it is not woman as such who is repressed in patriarchal society, but motherhood. The problem is not women's jouissance alone [...] but the necessary relationship between reproduction and jouissance(8). The attempted appropriation of the means of reproduction by the male, which forms the basis of patriarchal institutions, is given a bitterly ironic twist in Conversación al sur where the violence of the military regime is portrayed from the point of view of the mothers. Not only is the torturers' attack on Dolores perceived directly as an attack on her future motherhood -- her child aborts when she is brutally kicked in the stomach by the torturers during her pregnancy [p.·159 et passim] -- but the effects of the military regime on the older generation of women are also perceived as a direct attack on their actual motherhood -- for instance, Irene's anguish at not knowing the fate of her son who is trapped in Chile, and her friend Elena's grief at the 'disappearance' of her daughter Victoria, who is the leader of the Buenos Aires resistance. Exactly midway in the novel, Irene describes how she attended one of the Thursday demonstrations of the mothers of the 'disappeared' in the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, at the invitation of Elena [pp.·84-92]. No image could more hauntingly project the anguish of this 'loss' than that of the collective grief of the hundreds of mothers wailing in the vacuum of a Plaza de Mayo deserted by the rest of the world as if it had suddenly ceased to exist. The scene is constructed around the fundamental problem of human expression discussed above -- the desire for a language to fill the vacuum left when a person is denied the right to control her own meaning -- portrayed here in a concrete, historical event. As the women gather to communicate their loss, Irene begins to understand how devastatingly effective the process of marginalization has become:

¿Así que éstas eran las locas de Plaza de Mayo? Increíble tal cantidad de mujeres y tanto silencio [...] Ni un carro celular, ni un policía, ni un camión del ejército en el horizonte. [...] Fue cuando advirtió la ausencia de los granaderos que la operación del enemigo se le hizo horriblemente transparente: se borraba del mapa la Plaza de Mayo durante las dos o tres horas de las habituales manifestaciones de los jueves [p.·87].

The simplest and most effective form of marginalization is to deny a person access to language and hence to any 'meaning' or significance, to ignore the other person, relegate her to a 'non-space'. The complete absence of the military, or of any witnesses -- but above all that "tanto silencio" which is the realization that there is no articulated language to express the gaping absence around which their lives have been built -- denies the women's very existence, destroys their identity. From this vacuum emerges an utterance that precedes language, the expression of loss in its purest unarticulated form. As the narrative shifts into the mode of direct speech, so a great wailing emerges from the gap which opens up in the text as Irene's own language appears to break down and she stumbles for words to express what is both before and beyond words: "esa cosa que no puedo explicarte, Dolores. ¿Qué te diría? [...] ¿Eso no te dice nada, verdad? [...] no te sé decir qué [...] ¿Qué digo? No sé si fue así. Trato, ¿ves? no puedo" [p.·89]. Emptied of meaning, relegated to a non-space, all links of communication cut, language fails utterly to articulate, and all that is left is pre-human, an animal cry, the purest expression of death: "No quiero ni acordarme de esa cara desfigurada, la boca abierta gritando y sobre todo la piel, esa piel delicada que aparecía manchada, amoratada. No levantaba la foto de Victoria sino que la apretaba con las dos manos contra el pecho, encorvándose; una vieja acosada por la muerte" [p.·90].
    The theme of banishment, exile and identity is taken up more directly in Traba's posthumously published novel En cualquier lugar·(9), which portrays a 'community' of Latin American exiles, torture victims, refugees, trying to come to terms with the limbo which has been imposed on them. As nationals of the country from which they are exiled, they still cling to the vestiges of a former 'identity', yet are unable to 'identify' with the people, language and culture of the host country. A complex matrix of personal relationships slowly begins to disintegrate under the pressure of the individual and collective struggle for 'position', 'place' and 'identity', only to re-materialize in an utterly changed form. This transformation hinges on a pivotal 'archetypal' relationship -- that between oppressor and oppressed, between torturer (Torres) and torture victim (Flora). Torres's only reason for living revolves around his knowing that Flora, his victim, still exists, and his desire to force her to recognize his existence. As a victim she defines him, places him in a position of power. With Flora's suicide, the chain of power enclosed in this binary couple is symbolically broken, and this acts as a catalyst for the break-down of a series of other relationships; indeed, this event, together with the shooting of Torres, leads to the eventual disintegration of the communal identity of the exiles, and to their subsequent absorption (with the exceptions of Mariana and Luis) into the social structure of the host country. Similarly, the analysis of the fate of the self-styled politician Vázquez, who loses his desperate battle to hold together the community which defined him as leader, further serves to underline the link between national or personal identities and the structures of power which hold them together and define them.

Traba's approach in her writing always leads us from a concrete historical situation and plunges us into a dark turmoil of intermeshing forces, sexual drives and power complexes. Peri Rossi on the other hand takes as her starting point those self-same explosive forces and explores the way in which identity, sexuality and language itself warp, bend and fragment as a result. To my mind, her most impressive work to date in this sense is La nave de los locos·(10). Any study of desire, prohibition and identity in La nave de los locos, in the feminist context the book itself suggests, runs up against the fact that the protagonist, Equis, is a man. Indeed in almost all Peri Rossi's writing the narrator or protagonist is a man. Jean Franco·(11) attempts to explain this phenomenon in various women writers like this:

Estas escritoras [Rosario Ferré, Clarice Lispector y Cristina Peri Rossi] desenmascaran la hegemonía genérica que ubica al narrador masculino en la posición de autoridad y de productor. Las mujeres 'ventrílocuas' se instalan en la posición hegemónica desde la cual se ha pronunciado que la literatura es deicidio, la literatura es fuego, la literatura es revolución, la literatura es para cómplices, a fin de hacer evidente la jerarquía masculina/femenina [p.·42].

Peri Rossi subverts the hegemonic position by making Equis uncomfortable whenever he is put in the traditional role of the powerful male. Equis himself is an exile, a traveller expelled from the 'centre', forced to live on the margins, and because of this he himself is predisposed to undermining difference, to subversion and ambiguity as ways of escaping traditional power structures. His unique position as both partaking superficially of conventional sexual hierarchies and at the same time being at the margin of hierarchy as an exile, makes him an ideal mouthpiece for the profound examination of socially constructed identity which Peri Rossi undertakes in this novel. He takes pleasure in watching Julie Christie being raped on the cinema screen by a powerful computer ("invisible pero omnipresente, 'como las dictaduras', dice Vercingetórix") -- a sort of mechanical phallus -- yet he also wants to save her, conforming to a different masculine code, "dividido entre el amor a Julie Christie, el deseo de salvarla y la secreta, maligna complacencia con lo que va ocurrir" [p.·23]. The juxtaposition of these two codes short-circuits them both, exposes the way the one (power-possession) and the other (chivalry) secretly inhere together. As noted above in connection with the mirror, this juxtaposition or equivocation of seemingly distinct codes in order to explode apart their deep structure, to 'denaturalize' them, is a typical technique employed by Peri Rossi. Similarly, Equis actively seduces a woman of almost seventy who has large rolls of white flesh criss-crossed with blue veins, yet the seduction scene [pp.·81-83] is one of the most sensitive and delicate love scenes in the whole book. It is disturbing because their mutual attraction displaces conventional hierarchies of love and sexual desire and resists the naturalizing tactics of repressive discourse. The insistence on the sheer physicality of the woman's body is a way of resisting (phallic) logical reduction, and an interesting parallel can be drawn here with the 'discourse of the body' noted by Julia Kristeva in connection with modernist poetry [op. cit.]. Toril Moi nicely summarizes this idea when she writes that modernist writing with its "abrupt shifts, ellipses, breaks and apparent lack of logical construction is a kind of writing in which the rhythms of the body and the unconscious have managed to break through the strict rational defences of conventional social meaning". [Op. cit., p.·11, my emphasis.]
Chariot of the Sun from the Tapiz de la creación - click for larger picture  Identity can only be fully and univocally constructed within an all-embracing system which can close the possible field of meaning in its own structure. La nave de los locos provides us with one such structuring system -- the mediaeval tapestry from Gerona entitled El tapiz de la creación. María Rosa Olivera-Williams·(12), in her article on La nave de los locos, has pointed out the mirror image associated with the tapestry -- and I have already indicated the importance in Lacan's theory of the 'mirror stage' in the production of 'identity', and Peri Rossi's use of this in her short stories. The tapestry provides an ideal mirror within which identity is constructed, a complete cosmic system in which there is a defined space and purpose for man (Adam) and woman (Eve), where a closed, harmonious and univocal meaning is assigned to the universe:

En el tapiz [...] se podría vivir, si se tuviera la suficiente perseverancia. Todo en él está dispuesto para que el hombre se sienta en perfecta armonía, consustanciado, integrado al universo [...] En telas así sería posible vivir toda la vida, en medio de un discurso perfectamente inteligible, de cuyo sentido no se podría dudar porque es una metáfora donde todo el universo está encerrado [pp.·20-21].
 
This metaphor provides the ideological context -- it represents the pre-Fall ideal of the Judaeo-Christian patriarchal system of social organization whereby all meaning is deferred downwards from the Pantocrator through the man (father, namer) to the woman. The profound interpenetration of this archetype with Western capitalist society is matched by a similar interpenetration of the fragments of the tapestry with the text. The attempted closure of the cosmic circle with the creation of Eve becomes the starting point in the text for an enquiry into the relationship of woman to the enclosing structures of patriarchal power, which is revealed as one of falsification, violation, alienation and suffering. The system attempts to fix an archetypal 'feminine identity' and banish to its borders everything that does not fit, everything that is 'other' to the system. The identity it fixes for woman allows her no freedom within that symbolic order; it even asks for her tacit collaboration in the falsification. In the novel the 'archetypal woman', Eve, attempts to explain her dilemma, caught between the desire to participate in the social and symbolic order and her awareness that this involves the alienation of some vital part of herself:


The Ship of Fools, by Hieronymous Bosch

Inscrita, desde que nací, en los conjuros tribales de la segunda naturaleza [...] experimento la imposibilidad de escapar a las ceremonias transmitidas por los brujos a través de los años, de palabras y de imágenes; luego de someterme a los ritos y a las convenciones, a los juegos, a las danzas y a los sacrificios, no puedo retroceder. El castigo, para la iniciada que huye, es el desprecio, la soledad, la locura o la muerte. Solo resta permanecer en el templo, en la casa de los dioses severos, colaborar en la extensión de los mitos que sostienen la organización y el espíritu de la tribu, sus ideas dominantes y ocultar para siempre los conflictos que esta sujeción plantea. [My emphasis, p.·153.]

Those who do not conform to the identity prescribed by tradition, as transmitted through language, image and ceremony, are declared mad, isolated and left to die. This is the fate of the lunatics abandoned aboard the Ship of Fools [pp.·49-53], the fate of the exiled who are left to wander the world aimlessly.


 

(ii) Re-integration: the experiences of the margins and the re-emergence of the referential

 
Sí, para la latinoamericana la escritura ha sido siempre
un síntoma de defensa contra la opresión.
  --ARAUJO·(13)
 
Both Traba and Peri Rossi write from a position of exile and alienation, yet their works, in very different ways, address the problem of re-integration: the possibility of re-engaging with the other in the face of violence and death; the need to define a place for oneself in which to act, socially and politically; and, paradoxically in view of what I have been discussing so far, a search for some 'identity' for those marginalized from the controlling structures of power. It is on this last point that Peri Rossi and Traba differ radically in their approach. For Peri Rossi, the link between power and desire which I examined in Section (i) suggests that any meaning, ideology, position or identity is potentially terroristic. Consequently, in Section (iii) I shall be offering a reading of La nave de los locos which focuses on the way Peri Rossi copes with the paradox of maintaining plurality in identity. In this section, however, I shall be extending my reading of Conversación al sur to show how Traba weaves the experiences of the margins into a complex signifying material or language which defines both space and identity, using the very act of communication as a way of sharing and working through the unbearable experiences of violence and violation.

Traba, like Peri Rossi, does of course recognize the relativity of systems, ideologies and identities (Dolores's conversation with Victoria during the train journey down south [pp.·120-22] is enlightening in this respect). However, in the context of survival it often becomes necessary to adopt position, belief, identity -- to establish difference -- if it is only to put distance between oneself and the absolute negation of death. As the title implies, the whole trajectory of the novel revolves around the desperate need to open up channels of communication across frontiers, to find a language which will fend off the imposed limbo of marginality, create links and fill the existential vacuum left by the imposition of an alien structure which imposes its own compulsory version of 'the real' on others. "--Pero vos hacés la realidad [...] ¿O te la imponen?" asks Irene. "--Sí, me la han impuesto", replies Dolores [p.·12]. At the same time, the novel turns on an anguished problem of interpretation, or in other words the search for signification and significance which I have already mentioned. How is it possible to live in a world where "los mecanismos de la felicidad se habían roto para siempre" [p.·127], where the random prohibition of patriarchal 'order', the reductionism of phallic logic, has become so violent that it negates the very structures that define existence? These are questions which the characters ask themselves over and over again:

¿cómo hay que tomarlo, carajo, cómo hay que tomarlo? [p.·91];
--Yo tampoco sé cómo hay que tomarlo. Pero hay que hacer de manera que se pueda respirar ¿viste? Porque si no tomás aliento, vos también te morís [p.·92];
lo único decisivo era ir explicando sus sentimientos confusos [...] para llegar hasta la pregunta clave; ¿cómo se hace para vivir con este fardo de desdichas? ¿O cómo hacer para arrancárselo, aunque fuera a pedazos, como vendajes sangrientos, pero con la esperanza de librarse de él y quedar a salvo? [My emphasis, p.·164.]

    The search for a 'language' which can communicate across the negativity of patriarchal alienation, which can both communicate 'meaning' and yet at the same time resist the categories and structures of power, is carried out on various levels. On one level we have the "Conversation", which is the attempt by Dolores and Irene to name and communicate their experiences as victims of oppression (Irene's son has 'disappeared' in Chile, and Dolores, as already stated, was brutally tortured by the military police and lost her baby as a result). In this way they weave a web of correspondences (the weaving metaphor is used often -- the dialogue is described as a "tejido" [p.·35] and again below as an "entretela"), and so define a space of solidarity in which to resist the complete negation of identity. "De lo que sí estaba segura es que la conversación no le servía para escamotear el presente. Al contrario, resultaba una especie de entretela que lo sostenía y, sobre todo, lo hacía admisible. Que otros hubieran pasado por su infierno le permitía tolerarlo" [p.·70]. However, on a further level, the conversation reaches out towards a deeper, unmediated communication: the trusting, loving relationship which the two women build. This is reflected in the past by Dolores's love for Victoria, the leader of the resistance in Buenos Aires. On this level, language and desire (love) both partake of the vital urge to reclaim the plurality of whole areas of existence (including the possibility of lesbian love) negated by the possessive logic of the Phallus. On another level there is the political struggle of the resistance groups who have established an underground network of communications just below the face of urban reality, using all the 'guerrilla tactics' of the margins to escape from the military police who have erected road-blocks, barriers and controls across the normal lines of communication in the city. The crazy roundabout route taken by the driver of the Volkswagen carrying the 'subversive' students, in an attempt to avoid the curfew controls [pp.·36-37], is a concrete example of the way a language of marginality becomes of necessity a language of stops and starts, double-takes and reversals in a desperate effort to avoid the 'road-blocks' of the controlling structures of power. However, the central vehicle used by Traba to convey this quest for a language of communication and communion must be Dolores's meditations on the role of her own art (poetry) in relation to the collective struggle against policedom, which need now to be looked at in more detail.
    Half way through the novel Dolores begins to realize that the "vida perra" to which she and her contemporaries have been condemned nevertheless constitutes a space with which her writing must engage. Without involving herself with that reality, with the irreducibility of human suffering, without shifting the focus from the 'non-space' of limbo (the position imposed by the official discourse) to the real context of violence and death (which the language of authority attempts to silence), then there is no hope of any meaningful "salvation":

le fue traspasando la idea, que ahora veía inocultable, de que todo ese amasijo sangriento de horror y pelos y uñas humanas era el espacio de su vida, un espacio propio; y que la ciega y sorda salvación posterior a la que se agarraba con todas sus fuerzas, carecería de dimensiones si pretendía ignorar aquellos sufrimientos inenarrables. Nada de expiación cristiana, ojo, pero sí el espacio que se ha dado, por las buenas o por las malas y que puede ser realmente inmenso. Si se sabe habitarlo. Si se clarifica. ¿No tenía que situar ahí sus poemas? [p.·96]

There is a material level of oppression which is "inenarrable", irreducible to discourse, yet upon which discourse must be founded. The realization that poetry must be situated somewhere, becomes closely related to the idea that writing and indeed all forms of human expression can be a means of defence, a way of fighting against oppression, maintaining plurality and establishing "las debidas distancias con la muerte" [p.·161]. Everything in the novel, from abduction to torture and rape, leads us to associate "la muerte" with the reductive, monological power of patriarchy, in which the desire to control (conventional male Eros) is inseparable from the death-drive of destruction (Thanatos): "Se dieron el gusto, hay que reconocer que nadie se vengó así antes, al menos de una manera tan fulminante" [p.·140, my emphasis] (and the image of Torres [En cualquier lugar, p.·151] salivating in ecstasy at the thought of torturing a dog, immediately springs to mind). Dolores comments about her writing, "Antes escribía por placer, por vanidad, ¡qué se yo! Ahora porque es mi medio de defensa" [p.·56] and it becomes apparent that writing (loving, acting, conversing) is one more term in a collective effort to reclaim the experiences of the margins, to reinscribe them within a new set of social relations which could displace the production-centres of meaning away from the death-drive of the male power-complex and towards a plural space of 'freedom'.
    "El tema profundo de la Homérica y de la Conversación es, justamente, el del abuso del poder y la aspiración a la libertad dentro de ese poder triturador", comments Traba·(14). The search for an ideal space of freedom, a sort of metaphysical transcendence within the symbolic order (situated, engaged) is common to both Marta Traba and Cristina Peri Rossi, and becomes inseparable from the search for expression and love. Although the repeated cycle of desire and frustration is negative in Conversación al sur, in that desire always leads to frustration, life always leads to destruction, there is (in the text) one instance when Dolores, aided by the human closeness of Irene, is able to glimpse, albeit briefly, a moment of transcendence which re-situates their lives beyond the crude black-and-white logic of policedom:

¡Increíble! Este sitio donde yacemos como muertos se iluminó de nuevo de golpe. He visto las catástrofes de mi vida, no como tumbas apagadas, sino como cosas que fulguran. [Irene] me ha convencido por un momento que el infierno es mejor que el limbo. Cualquier cosa mejor que el limbo, cualquier cosa mejor que el limbo [p.·139].

Despite its pessimistic and tragic finale, this novel, the last published in Traba's lifetime, is an urgent plea for engagement. Even in the midst of the "infierno", human expression (writing, loving) illuminates a space. That space is not, cannot be, the limbo of withdrawal from the world, but the point through which plurality can be maintained, the point which will attempt to hold "las debidas distancias con la muerte".
 

(iii) Identity: the betrayal of plurality, or the shattering of unicity?

So far I have examined the way both Traba and Peri Rossi expose the possessive power structures which define univocal 'identity' and govern the conventional sexual economy. I have also attempted to show that, for Traba at least, the first step in reclaiming the plurality of the margins is to gain some hold over the production centres of meaning, to establish a web of correspondences, a language, akin to the act of writing itself, which will define a space and offer access to significance and identity. What has not yet clearly emerged is how it is possible to define a space whose limits are not exclusion and alienation; how is it possible, while partaking inevitably of the symbolic order, to avoid the hierarchies of dominance and possession upon which it relies? Although no unequivocal 'answer' can be given, I hope that my reading of La nave de los locos will indicate some of the ways in which Peri Rossi approaches this paradox, which as we have seen comes into play even in the act of writing. At the very least I hope I will have shown that it is precisely in her direct tackling of this problem that Cristina Peri Rossi's work ultimately retains its difference from the novels of Marta Traba which I have been discussing.

Throughout the fragmented discourse of La nave de los locos we are implicated with a shattered 'language' of exile and marginality. Words never allow themselves to be pinned down to a univocal or conventional meaning; the narrative jumps laterally between events, periods and places; dreams are interspersed with newspaper reports, diary entries, esoteric book lists or mock statistical surveys. In the context of exile and alienation, all meanings become inherently terroristic. The text shies away from any attempt at closure, always trying to avoid the exclusions and hierarchies upon which signifying systems rely, in an effort to remain irreducibly open and plural. To give this 'style' an inherent 'identity', let us say 'feminine', would be at once to commit such closure. Morris, the author figure of the novel, comes up against just this problem when he takes a copy of the work he has written to a publishing house in the Gran Ombligo. This metropolis is the centre of umbilical self-contemplation, a city whose inhabitants are totally caught up in examining, analysing and writing critical commentaries on the Great Navel, isolated from the referential of the outside world. Here Morris is required to reduce the work he is offering for publication to a series of answers to multiple-choice questions. He is required to classify it according to genre, summarize the plot in ten lines, label the content and give it a sexual identity as either 'masculine' or 'feminine' writing. This closure of the plurality of his text is treachery for Morris:

--Creo que mi libro es andrógino [...] ¿no estaré cometiendo una traición a la esencia profunda, a la verdadera naturaleza de la cosa, atribuyéndole un sexo que no tiene?
--¡Bah! [...] Todo el mundo se atribuye un sexo, ¿no es cierto? Nos pasamos la vida afirmándolo. ¿Se da cuenta? Gastarla así. La vida entera procurando convencer a los demás y a nosotros mismos de que poseemos un sexo, con identidad propia, y de que lo usamos, lo mimamos, lo blandimos con propiedad [p.·129].

    There is no absolute or inherent validity in the arbitrary sexual identity which each of us is compelled to brandish in this way, although the full political force of the identities which Judaeo-Christian capitalist culture has inscribed within us is not diminished by such an observation. La nave de los locos is shot through with examples of the suffering and alienation caused by the sexually driven power complexes and stereotypes of modern Western society (and also of other cultures -- the mutilation of the clitoris and labia of girls in Africa, for example [p.·170]). As suggested by Hélène Cixous·(15), most binary power structures can be expressed in terms of binary sexual roles -- and it is part of the received identity of the male that phallic sexuality, possession and power are perceived as one and the same. When Equis first meets Graciela he is troubled by this "maldita relación del poder" [p.·87], because it is she who has the advantage over him, just as, inversely, he is excited by the rape of Julie Christie in which brute phallic sexuality (described in terms of the Swan-God 'possessing' Leda) becomes the means through which power is exercised and political violence is engendered. Yet when Equis is employed herding women to London to have clandestine abortions, he begins to think seriously about the suffering caused by the phallic logic of possession, and the trade becomes associated in his mind with the Nazi death trains of pregnant Jewesses. He is so disturbed by the experience that it provokes his search for a resolution of the patriarchal hierarchies at the origin of so much suffering. In the light of these and subsequent events, the whole novel becomes an attempt to undo the cultural bond between sexuality and power.
    This is the implication of the enigmatic final section with its riddle which occurs to Equis in a dream: "What is the greatest tribute a man can give to the woman he loves?" Lucía, a young woman who has been a victim of male appropriation and whom Equis helped to obtain an abortion in London, swears she shall never sleep with a man again. The culmination of a series of atrocities committed upon women -- beating, abandonment, rape, clandestine abortion, the Nazi experiments on pregnant women, enforced genital mutilation -- together with Equis's own experience of repression, make him aware that there must be another resolution to the triangle of forces 'self-desire-other', a resolution which allows of ambiguity, which conserves the plurality of both self and other and which does not attempt to possess, fix or enclose the other within a hierarchy of power relations. The transvestite club in which Equis eventually finds Lucía again is the perfect metaphor for a utopian attempt to escape from power relations through the use of ambiguity and unguessability. Solidly and sordidly set within the phallocentric sexual order -- a pornographic spectacle for men -- the act nevertheless escapes that order and moves into a space (imaginary, ideal) where the signifier of sexual identity is free to play, to move and change, untied to any predetermined notion of identity. Lucía is dressed as a man imitating Charlotte Rampling imitating Helmut Berger imitating Marlene Dietrich in drag, while her partner is described as "uno que había cambiado sus señas de identidad para asumir la de sus fantasías, alguien que se había decidido a ser quien quería ser y no quien estaba determinado a ser" [p.·191]. Previously gerontophilia and paedophilia (Morris's love for the child Percival [p.·146]) had been 're-written' in the novel as equivocations of incompatible sexual codes, with the result that they appeared to escape from the conventional power relationships of phallocentric sexuality. So here, the transvestite 'lesbian' act, through the ambiguity of superimposed masks and confusions of (sexual) identity, avoids the establishment within its own framework of any hierarchical levels of domination. When Equis goes backstage after the spectacle to see Lucía (more than reminiscent of the bisexual Hermine in Hermann Hesse's novel Der Steppenwolf), the revelation of her ephebic ambiguity (dressed half as a man, half as a woman, or rather as a woman imitating a man) is overwhelming:

Descubría y se desarrollaba para él, en todo su esplendor, dos mundos simultáneos, dos llamadas distintas, dos mensajes, dos indumentarias, dos percepciones, dos discursos, pero indisolublemente ligados, de modo que el predominio de uno hubiera provocado la extinción de los dos [p.·195].

    The discovery of this 'double discourse', plural yet complementary, provides Equis with an 'answer' to the riddle which will break the old King's patriarchal power and tyrannical (sexual) rule (symbol of the patriarchal sexual codes in society). And the answer itself is, of course, highly ambiguous, multi-layered and plural: "El tributo mayor, el homenaje que un hombre puede hacer a la mujer que ama, es su virilidad" [p.·196]. This surrendering/offering/giving (away) of virility does not imply the crude "corte del falo" which Olivera-Williams interprets here [op. cit., p.·89]. On the contrary, it is open-ended in that it can imply both the giving up of virility and the proffering of virility, the cutting of the cultural bond between authority, power and male sexuality without destroying that sexuality, the creation of a double discourse in which both the male and the female can commune in a harmonious, shifting and complementary relation of equality. It is this open-ended revelation which alone can undo the old hegemony of sexual power. And in the ideal space of the dream-world, it is this revelation which finally fractures the Authority of the patriarchal father-figure (the Pantocrator, the Father, the Namer) and topples the now puny, shrunken king of the castle.
 
In this article I have concentrated on the ways in which the works of Marta Traba and Cristina Peri Rossi examine the complex relationship between the problematic categories of language, identity, sexuality and power. Both writers explore a continuum where alienation is the concomitant of identity, where the dividing line between communication and disjunction marks out the boundaries of the 'self'. Within this basic framework, the emphasis adopted by each writer differs most evidently in the way each views the role of language. As we have seen, Traba's emphasis is on the side of communication. Her texts feel their way towards the possibility of reclaiming language and of constructing an alternative signifying system, if only as a necessary way of establishing the most basic of all 'differences' denied by the military dictatorship -- that between life and death. Because of this, the prose she uses must itself act as a web, weaving correspondences, jumping across the frontiers of black-and-white (binary) logic, in order to define a space from which to resist the onslaught of patriarchal reductionism. In such a situation it becomes clear why the dialogue, the "Conversation", becomes such an important element both of the urge to establish a possible mode of communication in Traba's novels, and of Traba's own confrontation with the act of writing·(16). For Peri Rossi on the other hand, the distorted power relations which beset the organization of society and of human sexuality -- "la maldita relación del poder" -- inhere in those very structures of language which govern the relationship between 'self' and 'other'. As I suggested, this has profound implications for the way in which she and her characters use language. Peri Rossi's suspicion of the rhetoric of words aligns her work with much 'modernist' or 'avant garde' writing in its use of fragmentation, incoherence and disjunction as ways of escaping from the 'controlling structures' of repression. Except for rare utopian moments when the use of ambiguity creates a 'double discourse' capable of cutting through the hierarchies of language, Peri Rossi's texts operate in a space where language and expression are, from the very outset, radically at odds -- very different from the expressive possibilities opened up by the "Conversation" in Traba's work.
    Yet from such varying assumptions about the capacity of language and consequently about style, Traba and Peri Rossi both arrive at very similar conclusions about power, identity and sexuality. Not only do they recognize that the 'self' and its sexuality are always immersed in and traversed by relations of power, but they also suggest that powerful identity is itself dependent upon the existence of the 'other' which it attempts so thoroughly to exclude. Whatever the differences, it remains a constant for these two writers that the arena of the political and sexual battle of identities is language. And literature -- as engagement with language -- is located at the very centre of that social arena.

 
 

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Notes

(1)  De García Márquez al postboom (Madrid: Editorial Orígenes, 1986) pp.·13-20. Return
(2)  Cristina Peri Rossi (b.·1941) was exiled from Uruguay in 1972 and has lived in Spain since then. Marta Traba (b.·1930) left Argentina for Paris and Rome during the upheavals of the first presidential term of Colonel Perón, and took up residence in Colombia from 1952. Following her criticism of the military occupation of the Universidad Nacional de Bogotá, she was given 24 hours to leave the country, but received an eventual reprieve after a public outcry. In 1979 she left for the U.S.A. with her husband Angel Rama but was expelled in 1982, upon which she was conferred Colombian nationality with honours by the then president Belisario Betancur. She and her husband died tragically in the air crash in Madrid on the 27th November, 1983. (Biographical sources: Poniatowska and García Pinto [see below].) Return
(3)  Écrits (Paris: Éditions du Seuil) 1966. In Lacanian theory, 'the Law of the Father' is a term representing the social strictures and psychological prohibitions (ultimately related to the phallus/castration complex and the tabu against incest) which intervene in the 'imaginary' unity of the child with the mother's body and force the child to take up its place in the 'symbolic order'. This process is bound up with the realization of sexual difference; moreover, for Lacan, it is identical with the process of acquiring language -- which is also a 'splitting' of subjectivity across a field of differences -- and is marked by the experience of separation. Language is thus always a sign of the absence of this imaginary unity, and of the desire to return to it. The link between language ('naming') and prohibition (separation from the mother) is emphasized in the French by a word-play on name/no -- "le nom/non du père" -- originally derived from the Greek word-play on "onoma" (name) and "nomos" (law). Return
(4)  Conversación al sur, 2nd ed. (Mexico: Siglo veintiuno editores, 1981; rpt 1984) p.·46. Return
(5)  Barcelona: Seix Barral. Return
(6)  This process of 'specularization' precipitates the child's entry into the symbolic order by providing it with a pleasingly unified self-image (reflected in the mirror, reflected in others, reflected in language), encouraging it to accept and 'internalize' the Law of the Father. This illusory image, however, becomes a wall forever separating the 'self' from the object of its desire. Return
(7)  See for example Elena Poniatowska, "Marta Traba o el salto al vacío", Revista Iberoamericana, LI, 132-33 (1985) pp.·883-97. Return
(8)  Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London: Methuen, 1985) p.·167. Moi is here elaborating on comments made by Julia Kristeva in La Révolution du langage poétique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1974), pp.·453,·462. Return
(9)  Bogotá: Siglo veintiuno editores, 1984. Return
(10) Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1984. Return
(11) "Apuntes sobre la crítica feminista y la literatura hispanoamericana", Hispamérica, XV, 45 (1986) pp.·31-43. Return
(12) "La nave de los locos de Cristina Peri-Rossi", Revista de crítica literaria latinoamericana, XI, 23 (1986) pp.·81-89. Return
(13) Helena Araújo, "Escritoras latinoamericanas: ¿por fuera del 'boom'?" El Espectador: Magazín Dominical, No.·81 (Bogotá: 14 Oct. 1984). See also "Narrativa femenina latinoamericana", Hispamérica, XI, 32 (1982) pp.·23-34. Return
(14) Interviewed by Magdalena García Pinto, Hispamérica, XIII, 38 (1984) P.·41. "La Homérica" refers to Traba's previous novel Homérica Latina (Bogotá: Carlos Valencia Editores, 1979). Return
(15) La Jeune Née (en collaboration avec Catherine Clément) (Paris: UGE, 1975) pp.·115-16. Return
(16) Traba's thinking about writing as set out in her "Hipótesis sobre una escritura diferente" [Fem, VI, 21, pp.·9-12] is strongly influenced by the idea, derived from some Anglo-American feminist criticism, that there is such a thing as a separate "escritura femenina" which, among other characteristics, emphasizes the speaking subject and utilizes the resources of popular oral fiction. (Source: Mario A. Rojas, "La casa de los espíritus de Isabel Allende: una aproximación sociolingüística", Revista de crítica literaria latinoamericana, XI, 21-22 [1985] p.·212. See also García Pinto, op. cit., pp.·43-44.) Return
 
 

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