Study Guide

Luisa Valenzuela

Luisa Valenzuela Essay - Valenzuela, Luisa (Vol. 104)

Valenzuela, Luisa (Vol. 104)

Introduction

Luisa Valenzuela 1938–

Argentinian novelist, short story writer, journalist, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents criticism of Valenzuela's work through 1995. See also Luisa Valenzuela Criticism (Volume 31).

Recognized as a significant author who has emerged in Argentina since the "boom" in Latin American literature during the 1960s, Valenzuela is one of South America's best known and most widely translated women writers. She has written six novels and six collections of short stories, as well as numerous journalistic essays and a one-act play, each distinguished by a decidedly feminist slant in contrast with the male-dominated world of Hispanic literature. Throughout her writings Valenzuela has focused on contemporary politics, especially those of her native Argentina, and the use, misuse, and abuse of language in order to oppress, control, and censor thought—particularly of women—at both the personal and political level. Critics often have commented on the fantastic, magical elements of her generally realistic fiction, frequently classifying her narrative style as magic realism, a technique used by many writers to reflect the extraordinary qualities of life in Latin America. Although Valenzuela's later works have strayed from personal themes and linear narration toward an emphasis on political concerns and a lyrical, metaphorical style, Cheryl Nimtz has observed that "the personal and the political often reflect each other in Valenzuela's work."

Biographical Information

Valenzuela was born November 26, 1938, in Buenos Aires, to Pablo Franciso Valenzuela, a physician, and Luisa Mercedes Levinson, a novelist and short story writer. Raised by a German governess and English tutor in a household that frequently entertained prominent members of Argentina's literati, among them Jorge Luis Borges and Ernesto Sabato, Valenzuela attended private secondary schools and, as a teenager, began publishing articles in the youth magazine Quince Abriles. Instead of entering the university, she pursued journalism full-time, working for several Buenos Aires newspapers and magazines, and served a stint in the Biblioteca Nacional under the direction of Borges. By 1956, Valenzuela had published her first short story, "Ciudad ajena," in the literary magazine Ficción, but her first short story collection, Los heréticos, didn't appear until 1967. In 1958, she married Theodore Marjak, a French merchant marine (whom she divorced in 1965), and moved to Paris, where she wrote her first novel, Hay que sonreír (1966), and established contacts with the literary groups Tel Quel and the "new novel" movement. When Valenzuela returned to Buenos Aires in 1961, she joined the editorial staff of La Nación Sunday supplement, assuming the position of assistant editor from 1964 to 1972; thereafter, she freelanced for various publications in Buenos Aires until she settled in the United States in 1979. Since the early 1960s, Valenzuela has traveled and lectured extensively throughout the Americas and Europe, receiving a Fulbright fellowship to the Iowa International Writers' Program in 1969 and a National Arts Foundation grant to study literature at Columbia University in New York City in 1972. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Valenzuela wrote fiction and conducted many seminars at Columbia, and she taught writing courses at New York University from 1985 to 1990. During the early 1990s, Valenzuela returned to Buenos Aires, where she has continued to travel, lecture, and write, producing works such as the short story collection Simetrías (1993) and the novel Bedside Manners (1995).

Major Works

Valenzuela's fiction combines the political, the fictional, and the real. Most of her novels take place in the city of Buenos Aires, where lonely inhabitants are victims drowning in their country's violent political history. Valenzuela's works experiment with narrative structure through a constantly shifting point of view and self-conscious language that examines the creative process of art while relating stories. Clara depicts the submissive state of women in Argentina as experienced through the urban encounters of Clara, a young prostitute whose innocent dreams conflict with the values and politics of her patriarchal culture. El gato eficaz (1972) concerns a female narrator who lets loose "the evils of the world" in the metaphorical form of "the black cats of death," revealing how language itself creates the binary systems that seem to structure Western culture. Como en la guerra (1977; He Who Searches) hinges on the surreality of Argentine politics as an anonymous male narrator seeks, linguistically and spacially, his female self and the truth. Cola de lagartija (1983; The Lizard's Tail), widely considered Valenzuela's most important fiction, recounts the rise to power, the fall, the plan to return to power, and the death of a despotic Argentine government official—José López Rega, Isabel Perón's Minister of Social Well-Being—who is a sorcerer and has three testicles. Novela negra con argentinos (1990; Black Novel [with Argentines]) relates the survival of two Argentine writers in New York City through senseless murders, sexual perversion, and rank cynicism. Bedside Manners focuses on a woman who returns to her Latin American homeland to find democracy restored, yet who strangely confines herself to bed at a remote country club, desperately trying to avoid outside events and politics that invade her room. The stories in Open Door (1988) feature most of the thematic concerns, artistic methods, and subject matter that characterize Valenzuela's short stories. This collection provides a translated selection of the author's best earlier short fiction, comprising fourteen stories from Donde viven las águilas (1983; Up among the Eagles), eleven selections from Aquí pasan cosas raras (1975; Strange Things Happen Here) and seven stories from Los heréticos. According to Brooke K. Horvath, "Shamanistic figures, folkloristic superstitions and ritual magic, cultic beliefs and indigenous legends jostle urban settings, café life, state-of-the-art state terrorism, and the amorous doings of vacationing bourgeoisie to yield modern political parables and twice-told (albeit revamped) myths, small comedies of manners and mocking parodies of middle-class conventionality, ironic illuminations of religious realities and secular tales of physical and/or psychological terror. Similarly, traditional narrative techniques combine with a postmodern experimentation (fragmented narration, magical realism, randomness, and linguistic pranksterism) in the service of themes that are as timeless as the search for truth, community, or control over nature's mysteries, and as topical as sexual and political persecution in present-day Argentina or the nature of power relations within and among contemporary social classes."

Critical Reception

Valenzuela has received significant critical attention in the United States. Her fiction is acclaimed for her inventive use of image, metaphor, and symbol in examining themes of violence, political oppression, and cultural repression, especially as the latter relates to women. Commentators have admitted the importance of feminist concerns and Argentine politics in Valenzuela's writings, and others have struggled with her ambiguous narrative structures. However, Caleb Bach remarked that Valenzuela "favors circular, spiral, or even concentric configurations for the passage of events and as to those events themselves, she prefers to describe them with ambiguity." Valenzuela's short stories, on the other hand, have met with a mixed critical response. Critics generally have concluded that her stories appeal mainly to ambitious readers who are willing to search through surreal presentations for meaning. Yet Horvath has suggested that Valenzuela's short stories "explore the boundaries of what is currently thought possible in fiction while reminding us of what must be demanded from fiction in our time." Bach has noted that Valenzuela's ultimate aim in her fiction "is to provoke thoughtfulness, dislodge the apathetic from their comfortable yet fallacious, worn-out assumptions, and see with acuity the disturbing reality within which we live."

Principal Works

Hay que sonreír (novel) 1966
Los heréticos [The Heretics] (short stories) 1967
El gato eficaz (novel) 1972
Aquí pasan cosas raras [Strange Things Happen Here] (short stories) 1975
Clara: 13 Short Stories and a Novel (short stories and novel) 1976
Como en la guerra [He Who Searches] (novel) 1977
Strange Things Happen Here: 26 Short Stories and a Novel (short stories and novel) 1979
§Libro que no muere (short stories) 1980
Cambio de armas [Other Weapons] (short stories) 1982
Cola de lagartija [The Lizard's Tail] (novel) 1983
Donde viven las águilas [Up among the Eagles] (short stories) 1983
Open Door (short stories) 1988
Novela negra con argentinos [Black Novel (with Argentines)] (novel) 1990
Realidad nacional desde la cama ["National Reality from the Bed"] (one-act drama) 1990
Simetrías (short stories) 1993
Bedside Manners (novel) 1995

∗English translations of these works appear in Clara.

†Title means "The Efficient Cat," but portions of this work have appeared in periodicals in English translation under the title Cat-O-Nine-Deaths.

‡English translations of these works appear in Strange Things Happen Here.

§Title means "The Book that Doesn't Bite" and contains stories from Aquí pasan cosas raras and Los heréticos.

Criticism

Luisa Valenzuela with Evelyn Picon Garfield (interview date 18 July 1978)

SOURCE: An interview in Women's Voices from Latin America: Interviews with Six Contemporary Authors, Wayne State University Press, 1985, pp. 141-65.

[In the following interview conducted in Buenos Aires on July 18, 1978, Valenzuela talks about literary and other influences, the relationship between semiotics and eroticism, the similarities of love and death, her approach to language and politics in her works, the question of gendered writing and themes, and the situation of contemporary Hispanic American women writers.]

Luisa Valenzuela's narrative is revolutionary in two contradictory acceptations of the word: it reflects a violent break with tradition, future...

(The entire section is 8117 words.)

Robert Emmet Long (review date 9 July 1979)

SOURCE: "Police State Paranoia," in Christian Science Monitor, July 9, 1979, p. 19.

[Below, Long finds Strange Things Happen Here "stranger than strange," noting that fear and paranoia permeate the collection.]

Strange Things Happen Here, a collection of 22 severely brief stories and a nouvelle by the gifted Argentinean writer Luisa Valenzuela, is stranger than strange. One of the early stories, "The Best Shod," hardly longer than a page, might serve as an example. It recounts the good fortune of beggars in a South American city who are able to find a plentiful plunder—in the shoes of corpses, hidden in vacant lots, sewers, and thickets. The corpses...

(The entire section is 310 words.)

Herbert Gold (review date 11 September 1983)

SOURCE: "Magic and Metaphors of Mystery," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 11, 1983, p. 12.

[In the review below, Gold claims that The Lizard's Tail suffers from Valenzuela's lack of focus on her subjects, stating that she "broods about making magic too much to be able to make the magic."]

The notion that a writer can accumulate notes, scenes, assorted peeks at sexy stuff, italicized thoughts, a little dialogue, myth and mystery without numbering the pages, and then perform the work of writing a novel merely by gazing prayerfully and distractedly at this heap of material and adding page numbers—this has done some damage to the art of the novel....

(The entire section is 906 words.)

Ana María Hernández (review date Spring 1984)

SOURCE: A review of The Lizard's Tail, in World Literature Today, Vol. 58, No. 2, Spring, 1984, p. 247.

[In the following review, Hernández comments on Valenzuela's verbal wit, black humor, and the Argentine vision of magic realism in The Lizard's Tail.]

Carlos Fuentes has hailed Luisa Valenzuela as "the heiress of Latin American fiction." That heritage includes the theme of the caudillo and the vision of magic realism, both of which attain new heights in the course of this novel. There is nothing unusual about this combination: both elements appeared in [Alejo] Carpentier's El recurso del método and in García Márquez's El otoño del...

(The entire section is 560 words.)

Ana M. Fores (essay date Fall 1986)

SOURCE: "Valenzuela's Cat-O-Nine-Deaths," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 39-47.

[In the following essay, Fores examines diverse ways language, or the word, performs in Cat-O-Nine-Deaths.]

The importance of Cat-O-Nine-Deaths (El gato eficaz) does not rely on setting, theme, or even characters, but on the function of the word, the process that man imposes on language as a communicant. The protagonist of the future is the word; it is the only character that counts in all reality: "I am a trap made of paper and mere printed letters."

The novel itself has no plot. If fragments of a story of a mysterious dark...

(The entire section is 3796 words.)

Helena Araújo (essay date Fall 1986)

SOURCE: "Valenzuela's Other Weapons," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 78-81.

[In the essay below, Araújo explains the relation between the feminine body and language in terms of the violence and degradation depicted in Other Weapons.]

The stories, narrations and other works of fiction of Luisa Valenzuela reveal a trajectory that incorporates female identity into social and historical circumstances. El gato eficaz and He Who Searches are baroque, truculent and multiple novels. With bold rhetoric, the erotic is intermingled with the political, thereby propitiating a textuality bordering on the absurd. Her...

(The entire section is 1470 words.)

Dorothy S. Mull (essay date Fall 1986)

SOURCE: "Ritual Transformations in Luisa Valenzuela's 'Rituals of Rejection,'" in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 88-96.

[In the following essay, Mull reviews some of Valenzuela's characteristic thematic concerns, motifs, and stylistic techniques through a close reading of "Rituals of Rejection," which demonstrates her "insistence on breaking apart, altering, and/or combining traditional words in untraditional ways."]

"Rituals of Rejection" ("Ceremonias de rechazo") is the third, and thus in a sense the centerpiece, of the five stories comprising Luisa Valenzuela's highly-acclaimed collection Other Weapons (Cambio de armas, 1982)....

(The entire section is 3952 words.)

Brooke K. Horvath (review date Spring 1989)

SOURCE: A review of Open Door, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. IX, No. 1, Spring, 1989, p. 243-44.

[In the following review of Open Door, Horvath summarizes the themes and techniques of Valenzuela's short stories.]

According to Evelyn Picon Garfield, Luisa Valenzuela "has become the most translated contemporary woman author from Latin America"—and for good reason, as readers of this journal's special issue on Valenzuela (Fall 1986) are well aware. The popularity and importance of her work reside both in the themes she dramatizes and in the means she employs to effect this drama, and if Valenzuela reminds one at times of García Márquez or Lydia...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Patricia Rubio (essay date Spring-Summer 1989)

SOURCE: "Fragmentation in Luisa Valenzuela's Narrative," in Salmagundi, Nos. 82-83, Spring-Summer, 1989, pp. 287-96.

[Below, Rubio discusses the fragmentary nature of Valenzuela's writings, focusing on her narrative procedures, themes, characterizations, discourse, and word-play.]

Luisa Valenzuela's writing belongs to that class of contemporary works Umberto Eco has called "open works." In them the harmonious representation of reality, supported by logic and syllogism, is replaced by a more ample and complex vision in which the laws of causality cease to operate in a linear fashion. The ordered Weltanschauung of the standard realist narrative—the tradition to...

(The entire section is 2512 words.)

Lawrence Thornton (review date 31 May 1992)

SOURCE: "Murder with Mirrors," in The Washington Post Book World, May 31, 1992, p. 4.

[In the following review, Thornton admits that "readers who admire fiction that celebrates its own making will be drawn to Black Novel."]

Like many contemporary Latin American writers, Luisa Valenzuela delights in pushing language to its limits. Black Novel (with Argentines) is rich in puns, double entendre, and razor-sharp images. Here, for example, is a description of the habits of one of the main characters: "Roberta had probably popped that question into his head; it was her off-the-cuff kind of remark, jabbed into the listener like a banderilla."

...

(The entire section is 883 words.)

Michael Harris (review date 14 June 1992)

SOURCE: "Balloon in the Wind," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 14, 1992, p. 12.

[In the following review, Harris emphasizes the theatrical aspect of Black Novel.]

In New York City, an expatriate Argentine writer named Agustin Palant buys a pistol for protection. One evening he takes a walk on the wild side. Among the pimps and drug pushers lurking in doorways is a mysterious man who gives him a ticket to one of the theaters that honeycomb the slums. An actress in the play he sees invites Palant to her apartment. The script seems to call for seduction, but instead Palant shoots her in the head.

Why? The question, like the echo of the shot,...

(The entire section is 772 words.)

Marjorie Agosin (review date 17 June 1992)

SOURCE: "Violence, Politics, and Complex Destinies," in The Christian Science Monitor, June 17, 1992, p. 15.

[In the review below, Agosin focuses on the Argentinian themes of Black Novel.]

Argentine Luisa Valenzuela and Chilean Isabel Allende are Latin America's best known and most widely translated woen writers. Valenzuela comes from a literary family (her mother, Luisa Mercedes Levinson, was a distinguished writer of prose) and is used to dealing with the intricate complexities of language as well as Argentine politics. She has written five novels and five collections of short stories, as well as numerous journalistic essays. One recurrent theme in Valenzuela's...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Amanda Hopkinson (review date 3 July 1992)

SOURCE: "In Flight from the Junta," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4657, July 3, 1992, p. 26.

[In the review below, Hopkinson briefly recounts the themes, style, and plots of Open Door.]

Luísa Valenzuela is among Argentina's best-known writers of the "boom" period of the 1970s. Many voices were silenced when military rule returned in 1976 and waged war on "subversives", a category that inevitably included artists and intellectuals. Valenzuela survived by fleeing her country and spending ten years in exile, mainly in the United States.

Open Door, the latest anthology of her short stories to be published here, is informed by that period. Just...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Marisa Januzzi (review date Fall 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Black Novel (with Argentines), in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 12, No. 30, Fall, 1992, pp. 175-76.

[Below, Januzzi offers a favorable review of Black Novel, remarking that "the text is so well constructed that it provides a tight alibi for her sense of language as a secretion."]

From what she terms the "Argentine darkness," from the metaphorical alphabet city of New York's Lower East Side, and from the wild zones of "authority," gender, and language itself, Luisa Valenzuela has won a brilliant, difficult, involving text. In a 1986 interview Valenzuela said she was "stalking" rather than writing this novel, and signs of the...

(The entire section is 982 words.)

Cheryl Nimtz (review date August-September 1993)

SOURCE: "Enmeshed in Their Own Language," in American Book Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, August-September, 1993, p. 8.

[In the following review, Nimtz details the themes of Black Novel and Valenzuela's oeuvre in general, especially in relation to the author's provocative use of language.]

From the beginning, Luisa Valenzuela's Black Novel with Argentines reads like a murder mystery. The first pages set the scene: place, New York City; time, a freezing predawn Saturday. We meet the murderer/protagonist, Agustín Palant, as he creeps, badly shaken, away from the New York apartment where he has just shot and killed a young actress he met only hours before.

...

(The entire section is 1965 words.)

Caleb Bach (essay date January-February 1995)

SOURCE: "Metaphors and Magic Unmask the Soul," in Américas, Vol. 47, No. 1, January-February, 1995, pp. 22-7.

[In the essay below, Bach provides an overview of Valenzuela's life and works.]

Argentine writer Luisa Valenzuela has defined her country's origins in terms both violent and lyrical. In a 1983 essay penned for the New York Times, she referred to the discovery of the Rio de la Plata by Juan Diaz de Solis in 1516: "Poetry was already lurking: on board with Solis was Martin del Barco Centenera, who wrote an ode titled The Argentina,… a misnomer since there was practically no argentum, no silver, there…. It was written while the first...

(The entire section is 3711 words.)

Ilan Stavans (review date 6 March 1995)

SOURCE: "Autumn of the Matriarch?," in The Nation, Vol. 260, No. 9, March 6, 1995, pp. 316-19.

[In the review below, Stavans reads autobiographical aspects of Valenzuela's life into Bedside Manners.]

Carlos Fuentes once rather pompously referred to Luisa Valenzuela as "the heiress of Latin American fiction" who "wears an opulent, baroque crown, but her feet are naked." That was in the early eighties, when her dislike of dogmas and certainties, her explorations of the uses of ambiguity, her forays into "that reflective field where reality appears at its most real" were the constant subjects of features, book reviews and heavy literary commentary, a time when she could...

(The entire section is 2037 words.)

D. Quentin Miller (review date Summer 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Bedside Manners, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer, 1995, p. 201.

[In the following review, Miller maintains that the "overlapping of military and personal struggles is what makes Bedside Manners so appealing."]

Luisa Valenzuela's short novel Bedside Manners offers a fresh perspective on the difficulties of facing reality, specifically the reality of economic and political instability in an unnamed Latin American country. Valenzuela somehow manages to communicate this theme while creating a landscape that evades realism at every turn. The result is a playful account of one woman's quest to come to terms...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

Lucille Kerr (essay date Autumn 1995)

SOURCE: "Novels and 'Noir' in New York," in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 4, Autumn, 1995, pp. 733-39.

[In the essay below, Kerr explicates the narrative features of Black Novel in terms of conventional crime fiction and its relation to the novela negra genre.]

Near the end of part I of Novela negra con argentinos, one of the novel's protagonists, Roberta Aguilar, an Argentine writer living in New York, considers how to deal with a potentially significant set of papers—more specifically, an unfinished novel manuscript and some of its author's notebooks, which Roberta has removed from the apartment of Agustín Palant, also an Argentine...

(The entire section is 5166 words.)