Amaryll B. Chanady (essay date summer 1983)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1567

SOURCE: Chanady, Amaryll B. “Cristina Peri Rossi and the Other Side of Reality.” Antigonish Review 54 (summer 1983): 44–48.

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[In the following essay, Chanady examines the unique perspective in Peri Rossi's work and argues that through Peri Rossi's prose “we get a different insight into our own experiences and the world around us.”]

The first time I saw Cristina Peri Rossi was in Paris, at a conference on Latin American Literature held at the Unesco. She was sitting between her famous Uruguayan compatriot, Mario Benedetti, and the novelist Antonio Skármeta from Chile. The three were being interviewed in front of a group of professors, whose eyes would wander from the faces of the authors to the brilliant water jugs, and occasionally to some distant point as they gave in to the drowsiness of the fourth day of lectures and discussion. What immediately drew my attention to the figure in the centre of the long table was the extreme seriousness of Cristina Peri Rossi's gaze and the liveliness of her eyes. They would rapidly sweep the audience without seeming to miss a single detail and then focus pensively on the air in front of her as if she were suddenly inspired by something she had seen, and had started to imagine an absurd and fantastic plot for her next short story. She is one of those authors who can create a masterpiece from any experience and construct a story on the basis of a single glance or word exchanged between two people.

By one of those strange coincidences that we attribute to mere chance, I happened to meet Cristina Peri Rossi again the following week in Madrid. Over sweet, black coffee in miniscule cups she told me that, like so many poets, novelists and critics, she had to flee the turmoil of an impending coup d'etat in her native- Uruguay. With only ten dollars in her pocket and no luggage that would arose the suspicion of the authorities, she escaped on a boat in the middle of the night and sought refuge in Barcelona, where she has been living for the past eleven years. Soon after Uruguay was shaken by the coup that Cristina had foreseen. In fact, she had written a short story in 1971 in which she imagined the political events that were to take place two years later. Entitled “The Rebellion of the Children”1, the story describes the “re-education” of the sons and daughters of dead or imprisoned victims of the coup. The children are taken in by the “best and most patriotic families of the country, those who, in order to destroy the dangerous seed of subversion that (they) may have inherited, like a disease in the dark room of the genes, kindly offered their services to guard (them), re-educate (them) …” (p. 104). At an art workshop and competition organized by the government, a fourteen-year-old girl creates a kaleidoscopic machine of glass tubes and sprinkling water which wins first prize. As the audience is congratulating her, she activates the mechanism of the device, which spews out streams of gasoline all over the assembly, hurling the people against the walls with its sheer force and preventing them from opening doors and windows. A flame thrown into the hall converts everything into a blazing pyre. “The Rebellion of the Children” was condemned by the authorities as well as by their opponents, who considered it unrealistically pessimistic after Uruguay's democratic past. But the author's prediction was closer to reality than they suspected.

Cristina Peri Rossi is the author of four books of poetry and six collections of short stories, the last of which has just appeared in Spain with a rather strange title—The Museum of Useless Efforts. The title story introduces us into a fascinating universe, which, by its very absurdity, casts doubt on those activities of ours that have always been consecrated by tradition. The traveller who has walked through an infinity of labyrinthine museums in his informed wanderings from city to city, and seen so many Greek vases, Egyptian mummies, Aztec statuettes, medieval suits of armour and countless other artifacts, that he has given up trying to remember what he has seen in which anonymous hall, is suddenly confronted by another museum of a very different nature—or is it really so different?—a museum of “useless efforts.” Descriptions of the senseless endeavours of humanity are painstakingly catalogued—children who tried to fly, men in search of riches, unhappy couples, prostitutes who wanted to change their profession, a woman with artistic aspirations. Only an infinitesimal part of mankind's useless efforts can be stored in the museum, since there is such an exorbitant number of them. The protagonist, who spends every day in the reading room, finds accounts of people trying to teach their dogs how to speak, of a man wanting to conquer a woman for twenty years. Others have wasted their lives in the reconstruction of their family tree, the search for gold, the desire to win the lottery, the vain hope of avoiding war, or the attempt to regain a boxing title. The most extensive section of the museum is devoted to travellers:

After navigating different oceans, passing through shady forests, visiting cities and markets, crossing bridges, sleeping in trains or on benches in railway stations, they forget the object of their voyage, but still continue travelling. One day they disappear leaving behind them neither trace nor memories. They are lost in a flood, stuck in a tunnel, or asleep forever on a threshold. Nobody claims them.2

The situations created in the other stories in the collection are just as unusual. In “Tightrope,” a boy spends his life on a rope suspended from the high ceiling in his house. An old man, whose job it is to look after him, scuttles from one side of the room to the other underneath the rope, holding an open sack in his hands to catch the boy, who is moving about constantly. Since the child never leaves his elevated position, his guardian has constructed an ingenious system of pulleys to hoist up food, a table, books, soap and water, newspapers, a mirror and clean clothes. With melancholy envy, the old man wishes he were younger, so that he too could spend his days on the tightrope. In a surprising ending characteristic of most of Cristina Peri Rossi's stories, the unusual and the normal are suddenly reversed. The protagonist, from his perch, hears loud voices approaching his house:

I walked nervously along the rope. The old man continued listening at the door. I heard shouts, exhortations, whistles and blows.

“What do they want?” I asked the old man, who was bathed in sweat.

The man pointed to the rope.

“They all want to climb up there,” he answered, exhausted.

(p. 25)

In “Mona Lisa,” the painter of Gioconda's portrait punishes his avaricious patron by painting a thin mustache on the canvas, which is almost finished. The champion runner in “The Runner Trips” decides a few yards before the finish line that he prefers to sit down and look at the trees instead of winning the race. The psychiatrist in “Consultation” complains to his patient that his wife is betraying her lover with a third man, while the client, who pays for these “services” rendered over the telephone, unsuccessfully looks for the truth which successively hides under the bed, crawls under the rug or slithers up the wall. In “Letters,” a vagrant harasses a mailman because he has received no mail; after all, as a law-abiding citizen he has every right to get letters even though he has no address and knows nobody who would write to him. Toronto is the setting for “Airports,” in which an international conference takes place for those travellers who have never been able to leave an airport. They arrive by train, boat and car. First prize is given to a man who tried 25 times, unsuccessfully, to leave the airport of Copenhagen and was always prevented, for one reason or another, from taking the plane. But the most popular participant is a businessman from New York who rented an empty hall at the airport to attend to his business. After several weeks of commuting between his house and his “office,” he even stopped returning home at night to sleep, and ended up living in the airport, where heat, electricity and water were free, there were no taxes to pay, and he could always meet interesting people or watch the planes without travelling anywhere. The businessman, as well as the other delegates, go back home by car or train after the conference.

Through the fantastic world of Cristina Peri Rossi, we get a different insight into our own experiences and the world around us. Her imagination amplifies and distorts reality in such a way that the commonplace becomes noteworthy and the remarkable becomes common. The improbability of the situations in her stories does not lead us away from our own world. As Lord Haldane once remarked, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”


  1. “La rebelión de los ninõs” in La rebelión de los ninõs (Barcelona: Monte Avila, 1980), pp. 93–117. The translations are my own.

  2. El museo de los esfuerzos inútiles (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1983) p. 13.

The author is extremely grateful to Cristina Peri Rossi for having granted her an interview and permission to translate her work.

Cristina Peri Rossi and Psiche Hughes (interview date 1984)

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SOURCE: Peri Rossi, Cristina, and Psiche Hughes. “Interview with Cristina Peri Rossi.” In Unheard Words: Women and Literature in Africa, the Arab World, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America, edited by Mineke Schipper, pp. 255–74. London: Allison & Busby, 1984.

[In the following interview, Peri Rossi discusses the stylistic and thematic aspects of her work and her role as a female Latin American author.]

Cristina Peri Rossi was born in Montevideo in 1941. Since 1972 she has been living as an exile in Barcelona. She is the author of several volumes of poetry: Evohé (1971), Descripción de un naufragio (1974), Diáspora (1976) and Linguística general (1979). She has also published collections of short stories: Viviendo (1963), Los museos abandonados (1969), Indicios pánicos (1970), La tarde del dinosaurio (1976), La rebelión de los niños (1980) and El museo de los esfuerzos inútiles (1983). In addition she has written two novels: El libro de mis primos (1969) and La nave de los locos (1984).

Cristina Peri Rossi is at present correspondent of the Spanish newspaper El País.

This interview took place in the spring of 1984.

[Hughes:] Why do you think there are so few women writers in Latin America in comparison with the number of male writers of international reputation?

[Rossi:] One of the reasons why there are less women writers than men in Latin America is the enforcement of the traditional female role which still occurs in our countries, especially in the least developed ones whose social customs are still those of the last century. In many cases, the Latin American woman is still limited to the domestic and family world with a specific set of duties. As such, she is the victim of circumstances which have prevented her from developing a personal cultural life and a specific space around herself, what Virginia Woolf called a “room of her own.”

Do you know whether women writers active now in Latin America are writing more prose, drama or poetry?

I believe that the general tendency so far has been for women to write more poetry than prose. In Mexico and Argentina, for example, there have been and there are many women who have written poetry of high quality. The reasons for this are many and complex. The principal one is that poetry, whilst it is a rigorous and exacting discipline as far as expression and language use are concerned, needs less time and less space than a long term project like a novel. Also, traditionally, lyrical poetry (and I mainly refer myself to the poetry which has been written by Latin American women) deals principally with emotions, sensitiveness and affection, all of which have been traditionally the private lot of women, attributed to women. The world for men, emotions for women. … To write a novel, on the other hand, almost always implies a worldly vision and a rich vital experience of life, neither of them generally within the reach of the Latin American woman.

Do women writers in Latin America form an intellectual élite or do they integrate with the rest of the population, try to communicate with them and interpret their desires and ambition?

It is difficult to generalize and see the Latin American countries at the same level of economic, political and social development. In fact, Latin America is a series of countries of different races, different origin and in many cases with a different history. I am not happy talking of Latin American writers in general when their countries are so different, without distinguishing between the one who lives in a large industrial town in Brazil or in Buenos Aires and the one from a village in Peru or in Ecuador.

My personal experience is very limited because I only know Uruguay, and Argentina a little. I do not know the rest of Latin America, even though I know the work of many of its women. Up to say 1950, there was a series of women writers, particularly Argentinian writers, belonging to a class which may be described as an intellectual élite. But from 1950 onwards, during the period of great economic and social crisis in Latin America, I believe that women writers have been as politically committed as their male colleagues and have reflected the great conflict of our countries as much as men have done.

In general, the work of women in Latin America has great difficulty in crossing national frontiers. There are some Mexican women writers, for example, who are very much in touch with the questions of their country and yet they are only known in Mexico. It is very hard for a writer who has not travelled and has always lived in her own country to have her works known outside the geographical context in which she lives. In Latin America the frontiers are real barriers against communication among the various nations, in spite of their common language. Also, publishing houses in Latin America are on such tight budget that that in itself prevents books from being known outside their countries of origin.

How are Latin American women writers received by the society to which they belong? Are they admired, criticized, or ignored? Are they treated with the same respect with which men writers are treated?

The very existence of the word “poetess” which has a pejorative connotation, reflects the fact that society does not treat a man and a woman writing poetry the same way. In general, female poets (and I use this term to avoid the word “poetess”) are considered capable of writing poetry within the terms of what I would call “official literature,” a decorative literature. Certain Central American politicians, for instance, considered it to be a matter of good taste to have wives who could write occasional verse, at public occasions. As a toast, during a banquet, it was not uncommon for the wife of a particular minister to get up and recite four or five lines of homage to the national flag or to the dictator in power. Within what is considered “official literature” in Latin America, the attitude towards women has been ambiguous: on the one hand it is considered proper for them to write decorative, incidental (and accidental) poetry; on the other hand we see how the very application of the word “poetess” carries slighting connotations.

With regard to what is not “official literature,” that is real literature, the attitude towards women cannot be generalized. In some cases, and I am thinking particularly of the biography of the Latin American woman poet par excellence the Brazilian Clarice Lispector, we see the struggle she had in order to write within the social context in which she operated, in order to write. In other cases, there has been admiration but it has been ambivalent. I know of instances of people praising the beauty of a woman writer, who deserves to be praised for her work. Elsewhere, they criticize women when they no longer accomplish the traditional feminine literary role and instead compose literature of a more liberated or ambiguous kind. There is no doubt that the attitude towards women writers in Latin America is permanently ambivalent and that at the same time it reflects the uneasiness of men in the face of a woman who performs an activity which until then has been the exclusive purview of the male sex.

In Latin America who writes radio serials, the text of soap operas, the novelettes and short stories of magazines? Is it men or is it women? And, as far as you know, does this kind of writing reflect the influence of the European and or North American culture or is it based on the Latin American scene?

I confess that I am not in a good position to answer this question. First, I have been away from Latin America for twelve years. Secondly, my disregard of commercial literature has made me not pay too much attention to its manifestations. In order to answer you I must say this. I believe that the commercial literature on the radio, television and magazines has been created by both men and women but destined principally for feminine public. It seems to me that the writer is of less interest than the public at which the work is aimed. The programmes, both on radio and television, have been for several years even in countries of a higher cultural level like Uruguay and Argentina, the daily nourishment, a permanent form of escapism and alienation for women of all social classes.

As for the world which these programmes and this kind of commercial literature reflect, I believe it is a fictitious world, specially created to compensate for the poverty of reality, the conflicts of reality. The problems they present are generally of a sentimental nature. Hardly ever of a social or political one. Moreover they reflect a universal model. There is no difference in the style and content of North or South American serials and there is not much difference between those made by men and women for the daily consumption of housewives of any social class. In all cases it seems to me that this kind of art accentuates the most trivial, the most banal aspects of life and in general deforms the expression of sentiments and emotions and creates a sort of sentimental mystification of life totally removed from the real conflicts of existence.

Do you think that Latin American writers of today intend to break the moral and sexual taboos which have been imposed on women and society for thousands of years? If so, do you believe this is done more by women than by men?

Once again, one cannot generalize because men and women writers of different Latin American countries obviously reflect different realities. Your question can only be answered by analysing one by one the case of each individual writer. On the whole, I do not know whether most writers have been consciously aiming at breaking social and sexual taboos. One must not forget that many of them have lived during the 1970s, through a process of great political and social conflicts. The exacerbation of these conflicts in the face of the great dictatorships of the Southern Cone for example, has produced some specific consequences for literature causing it to give priority to social and political problems. Therefore, all the revolutionary and subversive intents of the writers have been directed towards certain fields, neglecting others. All the same, I think that there are some instances, mine among them, of authors who have realized that it is not only a matter of denouncing political problems, but also of denouncing the fixed roles and all the forms of social oppressions which still apply in Latin America.

Among Latin American intellectuals what is the general opinion about feminism and what attitude do critics assume faced with a feminist writer?

Feminism has been problematic in Latin American countries. First, for the reason I gave in my previous answer: the priority writers have given to the political struggle, justified by political tyrannies and by the economic crisis which the continent has suffered and is still suffering. This has pushed other struggles, equally justified, in the background.

Feminism has appeared only very recently in Latin America and in a very tentative form. All the same it has created great problems and embarrassment for men, generally quite satisfied and complacent when watching women accomplish the role allotted to them. This embarrassment has manifested itself in attitudes of great ambiguity among intellectuals faced with women writers who assume a positively feminist attitude. In some cases what has happened is that men have superficially accepted the revindication of feminism. This is a false and dangerous way of adopting feminist ideas. What I mean is that men continue being “machistas” and only consider it necessary to change some gestures and some forms of behaviour towards women. I think this is what has happened with many male writers and intellectuals in Latin America who have realized that they could not go on with the traditional manifestations of machismo. All they have done is to change for the time being some of their attitudes, but in the daily contact with their wives or sweethearts, I do not think their sexual and social behaviour has changed at all. These changes of course cannot occur suddenly. Machismo is a form of alienation, I'm sure of this. The process of integration is slow and needs a lot of deep thought.

My personal experience tells me that, faced with a feminist writer or even just a woman writer who does not play her habitual role, that is, for example, the poetess who writes occasional verse for toasts and ceremonies, male writers feel uncomfortable. They feel confronted with a person out of her natural place. A person who calls into question their own position, who makes them feel unhappy by just being there. This is of course a permanent source of a dialectic process of conflict. I believe that a feminist woman writer, even though she is not necessarily so in a militant way, creates a kind of bad conscience in men and therefore their relationship with this kind of woman is generally awkward.

As for the critics, I believe that they can be similarly classified. Although it is easier to analyse a text without having to refer to the author, I have observed that when the text breaks with a traditional scheme both in its content and in its form, it creates a very embarrassing situation for the critic who would of course prefer that the author of this text were either already dead or someone with no apparent sex. Someone who is just a mind and an abstraction.

Is there any difference in the form of criticism which men and women write in Latin America?

Only recently have women had access to critical activities in Latin America. Principally because these activities require a formation which women did not have. Also because the language, the apparatus necessary to exercise criticism, had already been chosen by men. One had to learn it as one learns any other form of knowledge. This explains the fact that there are less women than men involved in critical work in Latin America. The few women critics in existence, however, have shown deep sensitivity and a perception which in my opinion reflect a richer, deeper and more flexible understanding of literature.

What do you think and what do Latin American women writers think of European women and of their position in relation to men and to their society?

I am glad you have asked me this question because it is a subject on which I have reflected a lot. Having lived both in Latin America and in Europe, I have been able to observe the curious and different relationships established between women writers of the two continents. I would say there is a phenomenon of reciprocal admiration and at times, of course, also of reciprocal interests. Admiration because the conditions in which Latin American and European female writers work are different. For a European a Mexican woman writer, for example, is the object of great admiration because, in order to publish a poem or a book of poems, she has had to fight against a quantity of hostile factors which in Europe have already been overcome. She has had to break with her traditional role and make a place for herself in the intellectual world exclusive to men. All this requires great courage and energy and provokes the admiration of European women who have lived and succeeded in another context.

On the other hand, Latin American women writers in contact with their European colleagues have realized to what extent it is easier in Europe for women to write and to create. Women here have already been accepted. This has caused a deeper awareness of our situation in Latin America. It has made us understand that it is not only a matter of improving the economic and political conditions of our countries but also of effecting a social revolution. Personally, I have felt as much at home with European women writers as with Latin American. From them I have understood that the personal effort I had made in order to be able to write and publish, and free myself of the myths and taboos involved in my feminine role, is something that they had already done. This put me on a level of sisterhood with all European writers whatever language they used.

Do many Latin American women writers leave their countries and, if so, why?

The case of Latin American women writers living outside their country or even in other Latin American countries is not frequent. The insecurity of the social and material position in which women find themselves in Latin America, their dependence on their social role and in many cases their economic dependence on men prevent them from leaving their homes. On the other hand, of course, they all share the dream of travelling to Europe, of knowing Europe. But this does not mean wanting to establish themselves there. There are writers in exile, of course, a much more dramatic condition in which some Latin American intellectuals and artists have lived in the last ten years, but, as you know, they are a minority.

The greater majority of women have preferred to remain in their countries, even if this limits their chance of writing and being published because their work might be forbidden there, rather than facing that option. They have decided against having to start life afresh in another country and having to find an opening in other societies which, as well as proving protective towards them, might exact a higher level of intellectual performance. Therefore there are very few women writers in exile and very few artists by profession who at present live in Europe.

I would now like to ask you some questions concerning your own work. I have noticed that, in spite of the inevitable changes and developments, there are some recurring constants. As with many Latin American writers I think that you feel a strong preoccupation with language and are urged by the necessity to renovate it. This is noticeable in the use you make of syntax, punctuation, images, word-associations, neologisms and “genres.” The position of the writer vis-à-vis the language she uses and her continuous frustration is something which you express in many of your poems. I am thinking of some poems from Diáspora. May I quote? “If only language were the way of making love, of wrapping myself in your hair …” or: “You loved children because their language flies freely, ignoring the fundamental laws. …” And elsewhere: “You stopped talking out of sheer prudence, then out of annoyance, finally to punish the words.” Would you like to comment on this, please?

It is a complex question which involves a certain amount of clarification. My work has been constant, preoccupied with language not only in the poems but also in the stories. I refer in particular to the book The Rebellion of the Children, in which I often refer to language as a manifestation of social oppression, being institutionalized and posing a permanent dialectic relationship between its official and personal usage.

Many Latin American writers who have contemplated a literary revolution, as well as social and political, have believed that to change a society implies also a free and more creative use of language. Accordingly they have set out to make frequent breaks with the traditional linguistic structures and, above all, with literary genres and these have undertaken a total transformation in contemporary literatures. Novels in our countries are much less formal, much less along the patterns of nineteenth century novels than they were at the beginning of the century. In the same way, short stories, which are in great supply in Latin America, have broken the conventional rules and often been converted some into aphorisms, others into a kind of prose poem or into a vignette. There is a tendency not to accept the conventional patterns of “genres” as a symbolic way of breaking with the limitations of reality.

I too have felt the same necessity of forcing literary forms, of utilizing a quantity of personally imaginative and creative techniques to establish my own identity outside the norm. Any kind of norm. I think this has been the great contribution of contemporary Latin American literature: the freedom that it has achieved. I imagine that literature has been the only territory of real freedom that we Latin Americans have had for a long time. We, especially the exiled, who have been able to publish all we have written. Personally, I consider myself a rebel against all laws. Literature has been the space which has permitted any transgression. I think this is the key word which explains most of the work of Latin American writers: transgression, the desire to break with norms and create a proper time and space.

Latin American reality is so complex and so rich in landscapes which change rapidly from one place to another in the same country that it has been too difficult to enclose it in forms. In spite of the wealth of language, we still lack the words to name the enormous number of nuances and shades of this reality, accounting for the fact that the imaginary is also a form of it. These poems of mine from which you quote are no more than a way of expressing exactly the poverty of traditional inherited language in the face of this multiple, complex, contradictory reality. I believe that almost all Latin American writers have felt on the edge of the genesis. Neruda's poetry, for example, is a way of giving a permanent name to this multiplicity of Latin America. The task, of course, is almost impossible. We have to be like gods to be able to name all that exists. In the poems which you mentioned I reduced this challenge to circumstances purely personal.

Museums feature in your first collection of stories of 1969 and also in the last collection of 1983, and these museums are always old, deserted, abandoned, and have succumbed to dust and disorder. Am I correct in attributing to them a symbolic function? Do they constitute a reflection of the society in which we live?

I am aware that the title of my last book in relation to my second one creates a certain confusion. But this confusion does not bother me. I have deliberately played with it. In actual fact your interpretation is correct. Both in poems and in prose I have used museums as allegory, more than as a symbol, because they are a complex symbol. Museum is an image which I have tried to enrich as it returns in a dialectic form in the various books I have written. It constitutes for me an allegory of the culture, society and world in which we live. The content of this allegory is multiple and only with an analysis of the term in relation to the context in which it appears can one visualize exactly what it means. I don't think it is difficult. Museums are in the first case a symbol of an old society which retains old values, principally aesthetic ones, and enters into contradictions with modern ideas and with life and death.

In other cases museums are a symbol of exactly the opposite. They indicate the dream of crystallizing time and space. What attracts us when we enter a museum is exactly the fact that we are confronted by the most positive aspect of humanity: its creativity. In fact a picture always fixes a time and a space and at the same time it eliminates the anxiety which arises in man when in conflict with time, which means death, and with space. The crystallization involved in a work of art, a painting or a poem is a way of comforting, of protecting us from the essential anguish which is created by the sense that all is transitory, all is ephemeral. It has been very important to me to emphasize this element of museums. Because I believe that the fundamental drama of life, of personal existence, is the struggle against the ephemeral; we die but also die all the things around us. They are changing. The permanent process of life and death is a source of the anguish which, it would seem, the work of art manages to suppress by presenting us at the same time with something which is permanent. Be it in the words of a writing, the colours and shapes of a picture, or the sounds of a piece of music. The great merit of art is, banal though it sounds, that it triumphs over time, and finally over death.

In many of your stories one notices traces of cruelty and in those landscapes of surrealistic nightmares which you describe one senses a feeling of alienation, anxiety and persecution. Is this the reflection of your particular position, or is it also an expression of the predominant political situation in Latin America?

El museo de los esfuerzos inútiles, my last book of 1983, begins with a series of quotations among which there is one by the German poet Gottfried Benn which goes: “The category in which the universe manifests itself is that of hallucination.” I was very happy to find this sentence, which expresses something I have felt during most of my life: hallucination, the paranoiac hallucination of persecution is a way of interpreting and understanding the world.

Your observations are very accurate. For me literature is a vision, a creation of symbols to interpret and understand reality. This reality is nightmarish not only for those political elements to which you refer and which exist in Latin America. Not only because, for instance, in Argentina thirty thousand people have disappeared and one out of five Uruguayans have suffered cruel torture and persecution, but also because when it is not the military, the totalitarian regime in power, who persecute us, there often remain our internal phantoms, our own hallucinations.

My literature is one of a disturbing and paranoiac nature. I believe that paranoia is one of the most real ways of understanding the world. I remember an anecdote, which I will tell you. I have a friend in Uruguay who is a psychoanalyst. Once, when she was attending a paranoiac patient trying to convince him that life was not persecuting him as much as he thought, six soldiers armed with machine-guns broke into her clinic to inspect her files. They lined up against the wall and handcuffed her patients and held her captive for various hours.

Paranoia is not just a fantasy. It often reflects the tension and the struggle of life. On the other hand my literature is generally symbolic. Therefore I often start by writing my own nocturnal nightmares. I believe that there are a few writers (and Kafka is one of them) who have succeeded to give literary form to their internal visions and fantasies, to that nightmarish world where all is symbol. I often start writing from my dreams knowing perfectly well that dreams are symbolic constructions whose task is to interpret reality. If the writer is a creator of symbols, man in his dreams is also one.

Psychoanalysis—for which I feel great respect—and literature are similar in this: both work with language trying to discover the meanings contained in language. I am well aware that these dreams, which are often a source of inspiration for a writer, are not the property of the individual. By this I mean that a large number of our nightmares are part of a collective unconscious. We dream what others have already dreamt years and centuries ago and we dream with the same fears that men have had, faced by a reality which pursues them. The theme of my stories is in fact fear. Fear of all forms of exterior life, fear of freedom, as well as the fear which produces in us the daily acts of aggression of the world. Be they spiritual or concrete. I think that this fear exists in all of us in different forms. At times it takes the appearance of euphoria, at other times it is simply the horror of death. Finally, it is fear of the rest of the humanity which appears to consist of potential aggressors and persecutors.

You have been away from Uruguay a long time, some twelve years. Do you miss it and do you miss your own people?

Exile is always a form of tearing oneself away, a loss, a breakage. In this sense I think it is the final experience in which one's whole identity crashes. When I arrived in Barcelona in '72 I was 30, had published five books in Uruguay and so was relatively known in my country. Besides I had a career, I was professor of literature, had a circle of friends and ample contacts within the context in which I lived. The change was a violent uprooting and therefore had consequences which I could not foresee. I was living in Barcelona but of course I was merely existing there.

What we must realize when talking of exile is that we have to start living afresh, being in a place where nobody can name us, in a place where nobody knows us. Identity is to have a name in relation to others. To exist for the rest of the people, to see that their look reflects us, recognizes us. Exile is to lose this context, this look which others give us, and therefore exile sets a challenge. We have to be reborn in a place where nobody knows us yet and can share our past. All those things which until then had been part of our identity. I believe that this challenge puts in question the whole of our personality.

The first years of exile are the most dramatic. One's heart and emotion are elsewhere. One becomes a ghost. One has stopped existing for one's country and for the people with whom one was living and one is still not in the place to which one has arrived. This ghost-like existence of being in exile makes us less real even in front of ourselves. The city we left appears in our dreams, in our nightmares, yet we still do not know the city to which we have come. All this causes anguish, but also makes for deep reflection. I believe that all those who have lived in exile can talk of the grief, terror and separation of their experience.

At the same time, one can talk of the stimulus, painful though it may be, created by having to live suddenly at the age of 30–35 in a place where we have no past, only a present (because often we don't even have a future). For me Montevideo has become a city remote in time and space. I am completely aware that the Montevideo I knew and where I lived the first thirty years of my life no longer exists. The present Montevideo is another. Twelve years have elapsed during which I have not been there and in which the city did not exist except as a memory for me. My main fear, in fact, is to feel a stranger the day when I return to Montevideo, even if it is only for a visit. I prefer to feel a stranger in a country where I know I am a stranger because I know I was not born there.

I believe that the exile is victim of certain fantasies. One is that of time: the exile lives in an unreal time which is static. It is the time in which she left her country. This staticness, immobility of time, is like a delirium. It is also a delirium of space. The exile mentally lives in a geographic space which is not the city to which she has come to live but the one in which she has lived her fundamental experience, the one which she has left behind. These two deliriums of time and space provoke that permanent sensation of unreality, of floating, which the exile feels.

I have understood in a very dramatic way that exile is something more than leaving one's country, being torn away from the place of one's birth. It is a great metaphor of the human condition. We have been exiled from almost everything. We have lost childhood, innocence, friends, loves. Above all for me to be exiled symbolizes that space in which writers, those who interest me anyway, write. The writer is the person who looks on from a certain distance (which of course does not at all imply lack of emotion), the distance which is the one of the person who observes and judges. In other words I mean that the writer is the person who entirely complies with the sentiments of Adamow, who said that the duty of the writer is to describe the horror of the time in which he has had to live. I think that this defines perfectly the condition of the writer. She is an exile because not only she “suffers” the time in which she has to live, but also because she has to create a space, a distance which will allow her to reflect the time in which she has to live.

In your work there are many allusions to sex and to love but they are almost always of a rather bitter nature. I am thinking for instance of how you describe the deterioration of a love relationship when the two lovers are incapable of ending it, and also of the destructive element present in a situation in which two people are compelled to be together for life. A character of one of your stories says: “We have the sex that they impose upon us; at the most we accept it.” Do you think that your attitude is in part a consequence of the sexual conventions and of the stereotypes which society forces upon us?

First of all I would like to say that there certainly are many references to love in my books and in particular in my poems. I don't, however, think that in most cases the destructive aggressive element of love is what I have emphasized, on the contrary.

There is a book which you will of course not know, a book which I published in Uruguay in 1971 and which is now out of print and forbidden. It is a book of poems called Evohé. Evohé, as you might know, is a Greek word transferred into Spanish. It is a call of the Bacchantes during Dionysiac ceremonies. I was in fact writing a book which I would describe as dionysiac. It is a book about the pleasure of love, in which I celebrate the joy of the human body. It belongs to my youth, it is an erotic book, in fact its other title is Erotic Poems. In it I compare the pleasure of physical love to the sensual pleasure which the use of words gives to the writer and to the reader of poetry.

Erotic action and the action of writing hold for me something in common which is the ludic element. The element of play. In the same way in which a body has density, colour, light and shape, so words have texture, density, and there are bodies which I love and words which I love in the same way in which there are bodies and words which repel me. Eroticism is very similar to the creating activity.

This is however only one of the aspects of love. It is true that in other texts (and you refer particularly to the story “Punto Final” in my last collection) I have accentuated the destructive element of love, because love is not only one thing. It is sensual pleasure, communication, but it is also a terrible struggle between two identities which lose their individualities and enter into conflict. The only way out of this situation is the survival of one of the two. This double-headed monster, as at times married couples have been described, implies the fight between two individuals in a state of osmosis and it implies also the predominance and the power of one or the other.

It is true also that our concepts of love are historic and therefore reflect the ideology of social and sexual classifications. In Latin America they have almost excessively caricatured the element of power in heterosexual couples.

Power relations are always ambivalent. This I wish to point out because between the master and the slave one finds multiple types of relationship where sometimes power is not total but partial. At times slavery possesses the expedients of power so that I would not want in any case to fall into the category which affirms that heterosexual relationships in Latin America are purely relations of power. It is true that these relationships are that of the master and the maid. But it is also certain that they are subject to all the contradictions which are proper of any struggle for power. In this sense I think that when I describe the destructive element of love, I refer fundamentally to the appearance. That is, in many cases, love relationships, so-called love relationships, enclose other elements which are not specifically of love. For example, envy; power provokes envy and envy leads in many cases to attitudes which are not just, which betray and therefore destroy. Love is not, or hardly ever is, Christian love based on compassion such as a whole tradition has assumed throughout the centuries. Love is often destruction, fight and triumph on one side and defeat on the other.

As for sex, I believe we do have the sex which is socially imposed upon us, first by our parents and next by society. Sex for me is not the simple result of biological elements and of genetic characteristics. These genetic characteristics impose a social role (and this in Latin America is felt in very strong terms), a social role which is almost always an imposition on our sentiments and on our free behaviour. In this sense we don't have the sex we would like to have for in many cases this would be a multiple sex. And in this sense I am convinced that to limit this multiple sex to one sex only involves a limitation of our freedom. Of course I understand the social reasons for this limitation but I also believe that they are a source of neurosis and of pathological conditions. If only we could all have various sexes and use them at liberty without society feeling attacked and upheaved by this!

What do you think of the role of women? In your poems woman is described as “filling the world” but at the same time as “looking and destroying.” Perhaps it is not fair to take sentences out of their context. What seems to be most relevant at this point is your poem which says: “You are here as the result of twenty centuries of predestination in which men of the past made you so in order to love you according to their needs and their rules, and this tradition, though in just and offensive, is not after all the least of your attractions.” The end of this poem is for me very interesting because it turns an argument which could be feminist in a banal way into something much more thoughtful, complex and ambiguous.

Talking of women's role and also of men's role, I think that the problem is to have a specific role generally imposed on us by our education, tradition and by the people around us. What is terrible about roles is that they limit our freedom of choice and even our freedom to make mistakes, to misunderstand ourselves. Therefore I rebel against traditional roles both in my personal life and in my writing, which means that I have to break away from the conditioning of society which sets definite and predetermined ways both for men and women.

I believe that just as it would be better if we had various sexes during the course of our life and if we could enjoy them all, it would also be better for each of us to elect our role. This would not have to be predetermined and unchangeable and above all would not be a role imposed in social or historical terms by the functions which we have to perform in society.

It is true that I have played extensively in my poems with the role traditionally attributed to women particularly in the field of literature and art. It is a role full of ambiguities from the poetry of the troubadours to the portraits of the Renaissance. The way of presenting women has always been complex and contradictory. On one hand, woman has been turned into an object of veneration, into a myth. On the other hand she has been sold and prostituted. By tradition woman has played different and multiple parts. We all write by this tradition and base ourselves on the dialectical interplay with it.

Woman in my poems and in my books is made up of many, not just one. I often place myself in the position of those who look at her and watch her birth and are fascinated by the multiple aspects within one person. Ambiguity, which is for me a source of poetry, is also a source of love and therefore, perhaps, in some of my poems the image of woman is not only based on the aspects which previous poets have given her, but also undergoes a process of mythification, counterbalanced by a vision which is ironic up to a point and also critical of woman.

What I am sure of is that each woman must look for the role which corresponds to her in each individual stage of her life and must not yield to the conditioning to which society submits her because of tradition or because of man's needs. This role must at once be highly flexible and must be able to evolve constantly.

Amy Kaminsky (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Kaminsky, Amy. “Gender and Exile in Cristina Peri Rossi.” In Continental, Latin-American and Francophone Women Writers, edited by Eunice Myers and Ginette Adamson, pp. 149–59. Lanham: Md.: University Press of America, 1987.

[In the following essay, Kaminsky explores the ways in which gender and exile interact in Peri Rossi's work following the 1972 military coup in Uruguay.]

According to Angel Rama, “literary production in forced or voluntary exile is almost a continental standard from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego” (17).1 Though Rama may have overstated his case, it is certainly true that exile is a condition of literary production in much of Spanish America, and that it is not simply idiosyncratic to individual writers but is, significantly, a result of the communal experience of political repression and economic suffering.

The exile writer's responsibility is expressed by the Chilean novelist, Antonio Skármeta, who calls writing in exile “an emergency operation to recuperate the land that is its desired destination” (64). The state of exile, he says, “breaks the ceremony of cultural identity. The exile faces the break and tries to repair it” (64). The fact that the project of repairing the break takes place, by necessity, somewhere other than home means that the writer must function within the framework of international culture, and that having departed from a closed and hostile atmosphere the writer gains a certain clarification of vision (Rama 18). As outsiders, exile writers are not immediately constrained by the cultural norms of their adopted lands and are thus further freed into a perspective of universality from which to contemplate their now distant homes. The freedom of a universal perspective is accompanied by a sense of dislocation, however. The place of exile may be perceived as a non-country, not as a different country, defined by what is missing, not by what it contains.

Skármeta, in his insistence on the continuing participation of the exile writer in the political and cultural process, presupposes that the repression which precipitates the state of exile is an aberration disrupting a beneficent culture. The writer's task is the preservation and continuation of the national culture elsewhere, while the disruptive power remains in control at home. What this construct does not take into account is the pernicious effect of androcentric culture on women living in virtually all modern societies. While women can and do act against the repression of, say, a military junta, for them the culture being strangled by such repression is by no means unproblematically benign. The ceremony of cultural identity Skármeta seeks to make whole may well include such rituals of female degradation as the repression of women's sexuality, the exclusion of women from public discourse, and the economic disempowerment of women.2 The experience of living within any modern nation state is informed by gender, and so is the experience of being cast out of a nation state. This paper examines the ways in which gender and exile interact in the poetry and short narrative written by Cristina Peri Rossi in the ten years following the 1972 military coup in Uruguay. Exile is a condition of Peri Rossi's writing; it is as well theme and metaphor through which issues of gender and sexuality are played out in the literary texts.

Among the striking images Cristina Peri Rossi uses to evoke certain states of consciousness in her work are those which call forth the multiform experience of exile.3 The cold vacant-eyed figures of her mini-narrative, “Las estatuas, o la condición del extranjero” (“Statues, or The Foreigner's Condition”), which appears in the 1983 collection, El museo de los esfuerzos inútiles (The Museum of Futile Efforts), are tangible figures of absence. In this piece, which is virtually devoid of anecdote, the land of exile is represented by the town square, i.e., the center of community for the occupants of the place. Yet, for the foreigner, the square is recognizable as such only by its shape. All the human and social institutions which normally frame and mark it—buildings, church, houses, jail—are missing. Even nature barely survives: “The trees were almost dry, their leaves were gray and the trunks on the point of disintegration” (Museo, 132). This null space, first described as “empty,” is in fact densely populated with people whom the speaker sees as statues, since they are, to him, lifeless. Like statues, they do not see him, do not admit him to what for them must be life but for him has none of the color and warmth of life. To them the foreigner/exile is simply invisible. His sense of causing disturbance is directed inward since statues cannot be aware of it. The only one disturbed is himself:

No one looked at me, but it was precisely that absence of contemplation which made me feel strange. I discovered then that the foreigner's condition is the void: not to be recognized by those who occupy a place simply because they are there.

(Museo 132)

Rendered invisible by those around him, the speaker experiences less his own emptiness than the emptiness that surrounds him. Here the familiar items of home are displaced but not replaced, and the land of exile becomes a spectral land of absence.

But to the exile the homeland can be a hallucinatory space as well. Peri Rossi's “La ciudad” (“The City”), also from El museo de los esfuerzos inútiles, contains an exile's recurrent dream of the native city he left sixteen years before. The dream combines reassuringly familiar details: a courtyard filled with flowers and mosaics, the window of a friend's house; with disconcerting ones: spinning mountains, blue leaves on the trees, an uncharacteristically empty urban landscape, and an enigmatic presence which most disturbs the protagonist because he cannot ascertain its sex. As a result, the protagonist feels he simultaneously belongs to and is excluded from the city. Statues are once again part of the scene, this time with their backs turned to the dreamer to suggest the inhabitants' refusal to acknowledge his presence. In the second half of the story, the protagonist tries unsuccessfully to elicit information from a friend who has recently returned from a visit to their native city. Like the dream, the friend is unable to provide him with what he wants—namely, a vital connection with home. In the final scene, he achieves that connection by merging dream with waking life, converting his friend's vague description together with his dream into a sort of phenomenal reality. Caught between dream of home and the increasing alienation of exile, between desire and fear, the character, accompanied by the androgynous presence, enters this third city. It is this intermediate place which traps him in the end. Sucked into a sink of mud which announced itself as a street—a road to somewhere—accompanied by the now oppressive and annihilating presence, the protagonist is consigned to his own nightmare city. Obsessed by it, he is consumed.

Simply going home, in the sense of returning to a (politically) prelapsarian space, is not possible for the exile who is therefore constrained to live in a state of spiritual and physical displacement. The father in Peri Rossi's “La influencia de Edgar Allan Poe en la poesía de Raimundo Arias,” from La tarde del dinosaurio (“The Influence of Edgar Allan Poe on the Poetry of Raimundo Arias,” The Afternoon of the Dinosaur) is uprooted, dislocated, and ineffectual. Living outside his own country he is unable to fulfill his primary function—earning money to support himself and his young daughter. In “Las estatuas” the foreigner is unacknowledged, invisible, while in “La ciudad” the exile's experience of alienation is denied. He is told that he has had sufficient time to adjust to life in Europe, which, it is suggested, is far superior to his own continent. For his homeland has become the repository of all the dangers and attributes Europeans wish to deny in their own lives. His ex-wife Luisa

had never been with him in his native city. She experienced a strong feeling of rejection toward any non-European country, convinced, in an obscure and uncontrollable way, that beyond the ocean a different world began, filled with malignant diseases, poisoned food, grotesque creatures, wild animals, choleric volcanoes, raging rivers and a general dirtiness. The long conversations that he had had to convince her that things weren't quite like that clashed with a resistance that much more than rational was instinctive: as if Luisa wanted to defend herself against a great danger, which she placed across the ocean, in order to live comfortably and in peace on this other side.

(Museo 179)

Invisibility, denial of one's experience by the dominant group, economic impotence, displacement of unwanted characteristics onto one, marginality—all these phenomena of exile have a familiar sound. The condition of the exile in all of these stories and that of women in male-dominated culture are remarkably alike. It is not at all surprising that Peri Rossi uses male characters to tell these three tales of exile, since the suffering of each of the protagonists is predicated on his un-self-reflexive experience as a gendered subject. The male exile is feminized by his displacement into a foreign culture. He experiences there the alienation and disempowerment that women “at home” have learned to consider normal.

As a man, the protagonist of “La ciudad” suffers the anguish of the displaced citizen—by definition male—, whose vital connection with his country has been severed by the condition of exile. He feels split off from a part of himself, and that part is “home.” At one with his culture before political circumstances forced his departure, he yearns for return, not only to a beloved place but to an earlier time. It is no coincidence that the reassuring elements of the dream city in Peri Rossi's story are associated with the character's childhood, when the nurturance of the culture was embodied in and magnified by the nurturance of the mother. Antonio Skármeta's project of repairing the break with a cultural identity is perfectly congruent with Peri Rossi's male exile's yearning for home, and both take for granted a culture that nourishes the individual. But Peri Rossi refuses her exiles that solution. Her male exiles remain lost and confused. In “La ciudad” the character who attempts to go back is annihilated.

Happily, the condition of exile can produce more than a desperate and fruitless desire to return. Exile can be, as perhaps the first exile was, a fortunate fall offering possibilities for growth and transcendence. In Peri Rossi these possibilities are figured in female characters. Less nurtured and protected by the national culture which they are constrained to leave, women are perhaps less likely than men to experience exile as a division within the self that can be healed only through reunion with the homeland. While the pain of being torn from a familiar place, from family and friends, often from one's own language, is as intense for women as for men, this pain is accompanied by a potential for emancipation from that in their culture which oppresses them as women. Even during the time of intense shock and grief of the initial moment of exile, there is, in Peri Rossi's work, a recognition of a woman's empowerment when she discovers in herself the capacity to survive.

Descripción de un naufragio (Description of a Shipwreck) is Peri Rossi's cycle of poems concerned with the aftermath of the military takeover of Uruguay in 1972, and especially with the effects of the coup on the politically progressive groups to which the poet and many of her compatriots belonged. The shipwreck is an extended metaphor for the lost revolution; the sailors are political activists who are advised by their captain to save themselves at the moment it becomes clear that their cause is lost. One woman, observed by the captain and by her husband, follows that advice. Three of the four poems dealing with the shipwreck itself and of the woman's escape into exile are spoken by the husband who is surprised to discover that his wife is strong, brave and magnificent in her decisiveness, even as he condemns her as despicable and selfish for abandoning him and their comrades. The fourth—which is actually the third in the series, allowing the husband to have the last word—is spoken by the woman, who discovers that the catastrophe has given her the opportunity to act for herself, to survive, to be, in fact, reborn. What appears to her husband to be coldness and strength (her not looking back as she rows away) is, in truth, an admission of sentiment. The woman reports that only by suppressing the desire to look back could she be sure of maintaining her determination to escape and survive.

If I had looked
if I had looked back
like Eurydice
I could not have leaped
I would belong to the past
anchored among the nets of the ship, your captain, the
                                                                                                                        mold on the chairs
the poems we consumed on the nights we sat watch
your laziness in leaping
your shame of running
trapped in the lovely vines of our favorite poems,
I might not again have breathed the salty air
nor seen the sun appear;
it was a case of life or death
“Every man for himself”
the captain shouted,
life was a sudden hypothesis
remaining, a certain death.

(Descripción 88)

Once the courageous leap into an unknowable future has been taken, the woman finds the physical strength to save herself. Survival, however, must constantly be won, and in other pieces by Peri Rossi it is again the female character who is competent to do so. Alicia, the little girl in “La influencia de Edgar Allen Poe en la poesía de Raimundo Arias,” assumes the role of parent when she and her father are in exile in Spain. It is she who, in the improbable disguise of a South American Indian, begs enough money for them to live on. Here, the child turns the Europeans' massive ignorance of America to her advantage. Her invisibility allows her, a fair blue-eyed girl, to “be” Indian. Unlike the male protagonists of “La ciudad” and “Las estatuas,” for whom the unfamiliar experience of being rendered invisible means only an eviscerating alienation and an inability to cope with their surroundings, Alicia, accustomed to being doubly insignificant as female and child, makes use of what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire calls manhas, a mixture of cunning and canniness the underclass must cultivate in order to survive.4

Descripción de un naufragio is Peri Rossi's homage to the lost revolution and especially to its heroes and victims, some of whom she names in the final poem. The work fulfills one of the tasks of Spanish-American exile literature, the obligation to offer testimony to political repression. It is not surprising, (and not to be condemned but certainly to be noted) that the revolutionary content of the poems unquestioningly embraces the terms of androcentric politics. While the expressions of loss, confusion, grief, and anger which pervade the poems are not marked for gender, the poetic voice (with the exception of the single poem noted above) is male; and the language reinscribes male dominance and female subordination. The speaker of one of the early poems of the collection evokes a female sexuality marked by extreme passivity:

                                        As if all the calm of the world
                                        had taken residence in her body, upon her skin,
                                        to hold her so,
                                        freed from time
                                        from appointments and from cities
                    Sleek. Smooth and impervious as a statue,
                                        with no more hair on her body than a gentle tuft on
                                                                                                                        her pubis,
                                        like a breeze,
                                        where lips wind afternoon heat and tears
                                        are trapped
                                        —Salt water I drank between her legs—.
                                        Rocked by the air
                                        that rises and falls from her body
                                        making her sway like a reed,
                                        without her feeling it,
                                        without her breathing it,
                                        without her moaning or responding.
                                        Soaked by the rain
                                        that dripped once and again on her skin
                                        opening her pores like portal
                                        —where all the sea entered—.

(Descripción 17–18)

The marmoreal repose of this figure makes her invulnerable, but it is the invulnerability of death:

                    fixed in time,
                    like a statue
                    so quiet that she seems dead,
                    resistant to all assaults,
                    she gazes indifferently at the couples loving,
                    I cannot possess her
                    cannot dislodge her from me,
and so alone that sometimes I feel sorry for her.

(Descripción 19–20)

In another poem, Peri Rossi superimposes the rape—or at best the seduction—of a woman on the image of a defeated, sinking ship. The identification between the two is not complete, however, since the woman may experience pleasure:

Conquest of the boat, of the woman
from the effects of a strong wind, seasickness
                                                                                                    or the current.
The boat falls leeward,
the woman on her back
whose humbling is measured by degrees.
A large audience gathers.
The boat tilts.
The woman moans
and sometimes enjoys it.

(Descripción 62)

Perhaps the most extreme example of the appropriation of female sexuality by patriarchal language in these poems is Peri Rossi's use of the archetypal figure of the Whore of Babylon. In the three final poems but one, history is personified as a bikini-clad harlot, whose obscene body entices men to imperialist destruction:

And in a bikini we saw
history in synthesis go by,
with great spongy breasts
from which hung, openmouthed,
three ministers and five generals. …

(Descripción 92)

This monumental figure seduces men through dance and devours them sexually. Her power, tied to her sexuality, is undeniable, but it is also reprehensible.

Descripción de un naufragio takes seriously the task of personal and political testimony, and it does so by heeding Skármeta's injunction to keep intact the ceremony of cultural identity. In this case, ironically, the culturally sanctioned linguistic appropriation of female sexuality serves to disempower women. The single woman actor in the shipwreck, the one who rows away and saves herself, is undermined not only by the comments of her husband and her captain, but by the symbolic use to which woman has been put in the surrounding poems. Of course, it is also quite legitimate to claim that the heroic figure of the woman who survives calls into question the assumptions concerning female sexuality that inform the poems in which men are speakers. It is also possible, perhaps, to read a certain covert power in the passive impregnability of the figure in the early poem, or a vengeful majesty in the whore of the later ones. One curious poem in the collection appears to be an acknowledgement of the work of Olga Broumas, whose celebration of lesbian sexuality, Beginning with O, may have encouraged Peri Rossi to reconsider the ways in which women's sexuality could and should be represented, if not in these poems in later ones.5

Written not long after the military takeover of Uruguay, Descripción de un naufragio concentrates on the loss and pain of seeing the failure of the left to prevent the fall of the poet's country. Under these circumstances of mourning, even mere survival is an almost unthinkable gift. The guilt of the survivor is evident in the sailor who, after the shipwreck, finds himself lured by the whore of history, and that guilt is projected onto the woman and other anonymous survivors who forsake heroism and community in favor of staying alive. It is only much later that the survivors of the lost revolution can experience, no less recognize and celebrate, any positive outcome of the catastrophe. The poems of Linguística general (General Linguistics), which Peri Rossi published in 1980, continue to rely on the maritime language that infuses Descripción de un naufragio. They reaffirm the implication of Descripción that the shipwreck is at least partially redeemed by the will to navigate—to choose a course, to act morally and ethically:

To navigate is necessary,
to live is not.

(Linguística 17)

In Linguística general, however, the emphasis shifts from the disaster to the recovery of the course. The erotic poems of the section of the book entitled “Cuadernos de navegación” (“Navigation Notebooks”) indicate that sexuality and language are its essential components:

In the nostalgic distance that travels
from dream to reality
the alchemy of the poem
and of love
is installed.

(Linguística 31)

In this collection, the talk is of love and eroticism rather than rape and prostitution, and sexuality is healing, often playful. It is also freed of the male voice. An early poem in the collection, “Te conocí en septiembre” (“I Met You in September”), specifically connects the damaging experience of exile to the healing encounter with the beloved. In this poem, the nightmare image of blue-leaved trees which haunted the protagonist of “La ciudad” becomes a symbol of transformation, a promise of hope and love, Exile becomes rebirth:

I met you in September
and it was autumn in the hemisphere of the
                                                  great marine fossils,
and it was spring in the country whose war we
                                                  had lost
—beautiful and naive as children—
and violently it sent us off
whose wounds we call
second birth, exile
          —bitter meditation or disillusion.

(Linguística 10)

The rebirth is not easy, but it means that the speaker, fully embracing her status as outsider not only as political exile but as a lesbian as well, turns toward the new world that exile offers her. The final section of Linguística general chronicles the travels of the speaker and her lover through Europe. Now, movement from place to place is wholly voluntary and joyful. The lovers, as lesbians, know they can never belong to the places they visit; their relationship is a “subversion / of the status quo.” Yet they are far from invisible, and take a playful enjoyment from

scandalizing the fish and the good citizens of
this and all other parties.

(Linguística 74)

The speaker identifies her lover as “my double, my equal, my likeness,” and later as “my sister.” They become each other by wearing each other's clothes and by claiming as their own the other's body and her history:

I love you this and other nights
with our signs of identity
as joyfully as we trade clothes
and your dress is mine
and my sandals are yours
As my breast
is your breast
and your ancient mothers are my own.

(Linguística 74)

This unfolding of self through a shared history and shared identity, the annihilation of dominance and submission as terms of interaction between the lovers, marks an enormous change from the notion of female sexuality that pervades Peri Rossi's earlier work. In an 1978 interview, in which she comments on new ways to represent sexuality, Peri Rossi suggests that erotic poetry in contemporary Western culture objectifies women almost of necessity (Deredita 136–138); and in Descripción de un naufragio, her attention focused on the recent political catastrophe, Peri Rossi seems content to use the disempowering erotic language already in place. Surviving exile, I believe, gave Peri Rossi the freedom to explore lesbian sexuality in Linguística general, and to proclaim it as a valid continuation of the political struggle in which she has been engaged as a writer and activist.


  1. This and all other translations from the Spanish are my own.

  2. For the phrase, “rituals of female degradation,” I am indebted to sociologist Barbara Laslett.

  3. To my knowledge, the critic who first wrote about “states of consciousness” in Peri Rossi's narrative was Hugo Verani.

  4. The word mañas also exists in Spanish, of course. I refer to the Portuguese because it is Freire who brings to the surface the political content of the term latent in both languages.

  5. Although Beginning with O was published a year after Descripción de un naufragio, it is possible that Peri Rossi was familiar with the individual poems Broumas published in small magazines.

Works Cited

Broumas, Olga. Beginning with O. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977.

Deredita, John F. “Desde la diáspora: entrevista con Cristina Peri Rossi.” Texto Crítico 9 (1978): 131–142.

Peri Rossi, Cristina. Descripción de un naufragio. Barcelona: Lumen, 1976.

———. Linguística general. Editorial Prometeo, 1979.

———. El museo de los esfuerzos inútiles. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1983.

———. La tarde del dinosaurio. Barcelona: Planeta, 1976.

Rama, Angel. “Los contestarios del poder.” Novísimos narradores hispanoamericanos en marcha, 1964–1980. Ed. Angel Rama. Mexico: Marcha Editores, 1981.

Skármeta, Antonio. “Perspectiva de ‘los novisimos.’” Hispamérica 10 (1981): 28.

Verani, Hugo. “Una experiencia de límites: La narrativa de Cristina Peri Rossi.” Revista Iberoamericana 48 (1982): 118–119.

Mercedes M. de Rodríguez (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6372

SOURCE: de Rodríguez, Mercedes M. “Oneiric Riddles in Peri Rossi's La nave de los locos.RLA 1 (1989): 521–27.

[In the following essay, Rodríguez provides a psychoanalytic perspective on the theme of exile in La nave de los locos.]

La nave de los locos has been generally acknowledged as Cristina Peri Rossi's consummate novel on the subject of exile, a persistent theme in her previous works, particularly in her poetry and short stories. It seems pertinent to observe, however, that Peri Rossi renders in this novel her account of two different kinds of exile by means of a rhetorical mode of discourse. At one level, she deals with exile as banishment from one's homeland, while at another, she alludes to a more subtle form of exile, ascribing to the word the meaning of marginality to refer to the position adjudicated by men to women in the history of civilization. A political expatriate herself, and a woman, she is keenly aware of both forms of exile. Furthermore, it is my contention that the novel is also an indictment of Freud's phallocentric views as expressed in his psychological works, particularly his theory of psychoanalysis, and that the prevalent theme of exile in the novel can be interpreted in psychoanalytic terms.

The oneiric riddles that appear in the narrative hold the key to its psychoanalytic interpretation. In his extensive works on dreams, Freud referred to dreams as picture puzzles, rebuses that should not be approached as total pictorial compositions. The analyst should rather focus attention on the components or pieces of the rebus/dream. He maintained that the analyst should “try to replace each separate element by a syllable or word that can be represented by that element in some way or other”1 (“The Dream Work.” S.E. IV, 278). On the other hand, Freud also asserted that dreams were the result of a process of condensation, being “brief, meagre and laconic in comparison with the range and wealth of the dream thoughts” (S.E. IV, 279). It is the analysis of the dream thoughts uncovered in the analysand's discourse that allows for the interpretation of the dream. Thus, the dream thoughts elicit, by association, an explanation of the symbols present in the dream (the pieces of the puzzle).

The dreams in Peri Rossi's novel can be seen as individual rebuses that in turn constitute the pieces of a larger rebus, the novel in its entirety. Each one conceals Freudian themes and together conform the scheme of Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex, generating a subversive effect. By adopting, as reader, the role of the analyst in relation to the literary text—the analysand—and using a linguistic, albeit postfreudian instrument to interpret the dreams, it is possible to identify signifiers and signifieds that will unravel the riddles posited in the dreams and provide the clues to the interpretation of the narrative as a whole. This results in the deconstruction of Peri Rossi's novelistic discourse, and consequently, in the deconstruction of Freud's views and theories, and, alas, in its revision. It must be added that Peri Rossi's translation of Freudian themes and theories into her fiction reflects Luce Irigaray's “reading” of Freud in her two major works, Speculum of the Other Woman and This Sex Which is Not One.

La nave de los locos opens with a cryptic dream. The protagonist, Equis (X), any man, unnamed to establish his universality,2 hears a voice that orders him to describe the city at which he would arrive. It can be assumed that Equis has been ordered to leave. As the title of the first chapter, “Equis: El viaje,” indicates, Equis must initiate his journey outwards. He is forced to abandon his homeland much the same way Adam was expelled from Paradise. But Oedipus too was ousted from his homeland by his father, the king of Thebes, to prevent the fulfillment of a terrible prophesy, and it is precisely the Oedipus myth, as it appears in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, that Freud recreates to serve as the backdrop of his theory of psychoanalysis.

In Spanish, the homeland is “the motherland,” the “madre-patria”; exile is thus, the separation from the mother/land, the severing of ties with the mother and place of origin, a state that brings about a deep sense of nostalgia. In “The Uncanny,” Freud compares the womb to the former home of all human beings, “to the place where each one of us lived once upon a time in the beginning” (S.E. XVII, 245). It can be inferred from these words that the nostalgia of the exile is analogous to the nostalgia of the womb felt by the new-born infant upon his/her birth, that is, his/her expulsion from the mother's womb. Peri Rossi elaborates on this as she defines the essence of the stranger in the passage that follows the first dream: “Extranjero. Ex. Extrañamiento. Fuera de las entrañas de la tierra. Desentrañado: vuelto a parir” (10). Born again, and as the infant thrust out of the womb misses its medium, its easy protection, the exile feels uneasy facing unknown surroundings.

Uprooted, Equis is aboard the “ship of fools,” as the title La nave de los locos suggests. In medieval iconography, it refers to the idea of “sailing as an end,” which is the fate of the exile (Cirlot, 282). Melancholy, he looks at the ocean around him, and compares the waters to the amniotic fluids: “A occidente, vio el mar envuelto en olas blancas, como un recién nacido; a Oriente, un líquido espeso, con pequeñas raíces vegetales, bolsa amniótica. …” (17). In yet another dream, Equis reiterates the motif of longing for the womb as parallel to the longing for the homeland. In it, Equis is fishing in a strange river of transparent waters: “Equis puede sumergirse en ellas hasta quedar tapado por las aguas, sin necesidad de nadar, sin mojarse, sin ahogarse …” (47). He knows, however, that he cannot return because the ocean is behind him, and he cannot advance because the waters impede him. Commenting on Freud's assimilation of homesickness to the longing to return to the womb, Jane Gallop explains that this feeling corresponds to the stage of the dissolution of the Oedipus Complex within the sexual development of the child in the Freudian system. According to Gallop, “the fact that the mother is not phallic means that the mother as mother is lost forever, that the mother as womb, homeland, source, and grounding for the subject is irretrievably past. The subject is hence in a foreign land, alienated” (Reading Lacan, 148). This is ultimately the implication in La nave de los locos; Equis/Freud is unable to go back to the castrated mother/land and is forever doomed to exile, to alienation.

The first dream is also a metaphoric representation of the Origins as told in Genesis. When the voice orders Equis to describe the city at which he would arrive, Equis asks how is he to distinguish between what is “significant” and what is “insignificant.” Equis, alone in a field resembling the garden of Eden, proceeds to separate the grain/seed, what is significant, from the straw/hollow tube, the insignificant. The seed and the hollow straw, the male and female signifiers, are under Equis's control before “she” enters the picture. To please her—as Adam pleased Eve—Equis began to mix the grain with the grass. Thus the significant, seed/man, and the insignificant, straw/woman, “mixed” and reproduced from then on.

In The Daughter's Seduction. Gallop has remarked pointedly that Freud's theory of sexuality is a theory of the sexual function taken only from the perspective of its reproductive goal, and is devoid of any implication of pleasure (67). Indeed, the ideas of the “Father of Psychoanalysis” manifest a moralistic approach to sexuality that is not too far apart from the religious idea of the blessing of sexual relations solely for the purpose of reproduction. To this end, it seems relevant to refer to a passage from Freud's “Short Account of Psychoanalysis,” where he establishes the connection between the psychical and the biological, and further accepts their link with religion and the organization of society. Freud states here that the importance of the Oedipus complex lies in the psychical correlation of two biological facts, the lengthy period of the child's dependency and the pattern of development of his sexual life, which reaches its first climax in the third to fifth years of life, and, following a period of inhibition, sets in again at puberty. But, what is most revealing is what follows these two stages:

And here the discovery was made that a third and extremely serious part of human intellectual activity, the part which has created the great institutions of religion, law, ethics, and all forms of civic life, has as its fundamental aim the enabling of the individual to master his Oedipus complex and to divert his libido from its infantile attachments into social ones that are ultimately desired.

Freud is referring here to the applications of psychoanalysis to the science of religion and sociology proposed by Theodor Reik and Oskas Pfister (S.E. XIX, 208).

It was previously noted that the dream thoughts or associations provided by the dreamer give the clue to the interpretation of his dreams. Since we are dealing here with literary dreams, their originator, the author, takes care to provide such associations throughout the novel, for the reader's consumption. These “conscious” dream thoughts help us trace the design of Peri Rossi's multi-level text.

Closely related to Equis's first dream, the loss of Paradise, is the gradual description of the tapestry of Creation, purportedly found by Equis in one of his trips, in the Cathedral of Gerona. The first mention of the tapestry in the novel concludes with the following joco-serious commentary: “Lo que nos asombra y nos asombrará siempre, es que una sola mente haya podido concebir una estructura convincente, placentera y dichosa como ésta; una estructura que es una metáfora, sin dejar de ser por ello también una realidad” (21).

Peri Rossi's tongue-in-cheek observation puts to test the religious description of the Genesis, the creation of mankind and the world by a male God who established from the beginning a patriarchal order in society. The same order—no doubt—embraced by Freud, who, as mentioned before, accepted the connection between the mastering of the Oedipus complex and the moment when man created religion, law and morality to control his sexuality.

Fragments describing the tapestry precede various chapters to maintain the focus on the Creation. The story, as told by the weaver of the tapestry, appears in opposition to the commentaries about the story told in the tapestry by a female artist, the writer.3 In the tapestry, the Creator—a male God—is at the center of the story. He is the Pantócrator, and appears with a book in his hands (The Bible) with the inscription “Rex Fortis.” To the right of the Creator is the Angel of Light, next to the circle that contains the head of a man ending in flames, representative of the sun. Next, another circle of lesser dimensions encloses the head of a woman, and above it, the moon. There is also a circle over the head of the Pantócrator surrounding the Holy Spirit, symbolized by a dove with the inscription “incuba sobre las aguas.” This representation alludes to Virgin Mary's “impregnation” by the Holy Spirit, the Third element of the Trinity in the Christian dogma, whose symbol in Christian iconography is a dove (Cirlot, 81). To the left of the figure of the dove incubating over the waters (implying the female sexual principle), there is another segment that shows an angel levitating over a field of bamboos in flower; it is the Angel of Darkness.

In the novel, Equis is indirectly identified with Christ, the Son of God. He is thirty-three years old, as was Jesus at the time of his death. His age is given in a numerical riddle: “cuando él tuvo … quince años, ella tenía cincuenta. Ahora [ella] debería tener sesenta y ocho” (78). It is not coincidental that one of the very few items that Equis carries from place to place and displays prominently in his modest homes is his dove: “Una paloma de barro, acuclillada, celeste, provista de una espléndida cola rosada. Tenía el pico amarillo, las alas se abrían como un abanico y le producía una grata sensación de placidez: en alguna parte esa paloma empollaba, satisfecha del mundo, oronda y repleta de sí” (34). Equis did not remember how he had come to possess his “paloma,” “pequeña y plácida, pero le gustaba su forma y acariciaba con deleite la superficie lisa y fresca del barro pintado” (34). The dove's beak has an obvious phallic connotation, further emphasized by the fact that in colloquial Spanish “la palomita,” “el pico,” “el pajarito,” are synonymous for a child's penis. Also on the shelf with the dove, Equis had put a small can of tea, with drawings depicting a young woman in innocent but evoking position (35). The can, a tin box, may be symbolic of the uterus, as mentioned by Freud among other symbols in On Dreams (109). Representations of the sexes are as indispensable to Equis as to Freud for his psychological studies on human sexuality.

The deconstruction of the symbols that appear in the tapestry manifest the hierarchical order of the sexes as established in the patriarchal organization of society set forward in Genesis and consecrated by Freud in his theories. Signifiers and signifieds unveil the carefully wrought scheme as it still stands today: Pantócrator/Father, man-sun/light-power, woman-moon/darkness-secret nature, dove beak/phallus, water-hollow bamboo/female sex organ. Freud's phallocentric views in psychoanalysis originate in this patriarchal order of society. As Juliet Mitchell has claimed, “if psychoanalysis is phallocentric, it is because the human social order … is patrocentric” (Mitchell, Juliet & Rose, J, Feminine Sexuality, 23). Insisting on this point, it is worth mentioning Estelle Roith's comments that for Mitchell, “Freud's theory is always a social one with the various formations of the Oedipus complex seen as symbolic representations of the patriarchal form of social organization” (The Riddle of Freud, 12). Roith also makes reference to Freud's own admission of his “deep engrossment in the Bible story” (“An Autobiographical Study,” S.E. XX, 80), which she reads as the origins of his theories (68).4 Peri Rossi seems to voice this assertion as she involucrates in the dreams (the realm of Freud's expertise) the story of Genesis leading to man's condemnation to eternal exile from Paradise, and the Oedipus complex, which is the nucleus of Equis's last dream, and appears in the latter part of the narrative.

The creation of Eve is presented in the last fragment describing the Creation in the tapestry, in keeping with woman's secondary role in this episode of Genesis, and here-after. Like Equis in the first dream, Adam was alone, surrounded by plants and flowers, and a tree. Adam was holding a woman—Eve—at the height of his ribs, smaller than him, but in his own semblance. The legend on the figure reads: “Infundió el Señor un sueño a Adán y tomó una de sus costillas”(150). Lucía, Equis's antagonist in the novel, has a persistent dream that is a metaphoric representation of this story of Eve's creation. She tells Equis: “En mis sueños, siempre soy una niña … Es extraño: parece que no puedo crecer. Quiero decir que soy una niña aunque a veces no lo parezca”(153). It is also relevant to relate this dream to Freud's own perception of women, his lack of understanding of the feminine sexual and psychical development, or perhaps, his lack of interest in this matter, a position possibly derived from his religious convictions, as Roith sustains in The Riddle of Freud.

Lucía's dream intends to question the image of women forged by men for their own benefit. Considering Peri Rossi's appropriation of Luce Irigaray's critique of Freud, it may not be too far-fetched to see the similarity of the names, Lucía/Luce, as deliberate. Lucía's ambivalent feelings about the way she sees herself in the dream saws doubt about the actual dream instigator, her marginal position in society. She says with candor that she awakes at night, and it seems that the dream continues, “sigo mirándome como si fuera yo y otra al mismo tiempo, y nunca sé si he despertado de veras o sólo después” (173). The fragmentation of her ego indicates the polarity between her own image of herself and that perceived and imposed by others. If dreams, as Freud upheld, are often the expression of wish-fulfillment, Lucía's puzzlement with her dream is clear. The dream is a projection of male wishes, not unlike Adam's dream of the creation of Eve, and such wishes obliterate her own.

In The Lost Rib, Sharon Magnarelli points out that the continued repetition of the “rib story” has been one of the main sources for the perception of women as “by-product” of man (11). She charges the formulation of the “rib” version of the Creation by the Jahvist writers (Genesis 2.21–22) as being the one that sets the foundations for the myth of the superiority of the male. This version came at a later time than that attributed to the Elohist writers, which tells of the simultaneous creation of man and woman (Genesis 1.26–27).5 The popularity of the “rib story” is, in her words, the result of proselytizing labor by the sole beneficiary of this legacy, man, who “has been charged with writing civilization's sacred books, and epics” (11–2).

This privileged role of man as writer and propagator of stories that form the bedrock of civilization does not escape Peri Rossi. In La nave, the narrator looks at the ocean and the monsters depicted at the bottom of the tapestry and recognizes with a chuckle the importance of ship captains and ancient mariners, who were not only the ones who knew the Universe best, but also, the ones that could tell the world how the world was, preserve the legends, know its myths (112). The dead-pan irony of the following statement subverts the story of Creation as it is told in the Scriptures and as it appears in the tapestry: “Portadores de sabiduría y de viajeros, su memoria—y a veces: los textos que escribían—constituyó la fuente de conocimiento y una forma de difusión” (113).

The secondary position assigned to Eve by man/kind is examined in the text in Eve's “unpublished confessions,” the “dream thoughts” that help interpret Lucía's dream. In contrast with the widely known stories written by men, Eve's confessions remain unpublished. She tells of the impossibility to escape the conventions created by men, the predominant members of the human tribe: “Inscrita, desde que nací, en los conjuros tribales de la segunda naturaleza, igual que los iniciados, experimento la imposibilidad de escapar a las ceremonias transmitidas por los brujos a través de los años, de palabras y de imágenes …” (153). She says that she must stay in the house of the “severe gods,” and “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” (153). However, the time has come to repute such collaboration. Children, always wiser than adults in Peri Rossi's stories, are instrumental in shedding light on the story of the Origins. Following the fragment from Eve's “unpublished confessions,” Peri Rossi presents Graciela, a young teacher that Equis meets in his travels, conducting a survey on the perceptions of Adam and Eve. The respondents are forty children ranging in age from seven to twelve. They are asked to describe Adam and Eve in Paradise. They all see Eve as the “housewife,” performing domestic chores, while Adam fishes and hunts.

Peri Rossi, like Irigaray, seems to blame the organization of the patriarchal family for women's unrecognized participation in the social process of life. In Speculum Irigaray stresses that only with the advent of the patriarchal family, and more particularly with the monogamous individual family, does housekeeping lose its social character and limits itself to private service (121). The entire section on Eve revolves around this topic and the unflattering “rib story.”

The result of the survey shows Adam as the overall winner in the “contest.” One of the boys even wonders why God did not give Adam another man as companion; after all, they would have enjoyed fishing and hunting together. Two of the girls, on the other hand, do not seem to accept the story of Creation. One says that God, since He was “muy machista,” invented man first, and then claimed that Eve was born from his side. She is not too sure about that, however, since she has heard her mother say that she wishes that all births were like that “first one,” considering that women would suffer much less (158). The other girl shows a sophistication beyond her years when she states that she believes that the entire story about Paradise is a metaphor; it does not appear real to her. On the one hand, she finds it hard to understand why God, having created man in his own image, created such an imperfect being as Adam, who would eventually feel bored and need a companion. But most importantly, she finds that the story about God taking a rib from Adam to create Eve is rather implausible, for, after all, why should He use that procedure only once, and then forever after having human beings born from their mother's womb? She concludes that those are all symbols.

Peri Rossi probes the outcome to human/kind if men were to face a refusal on the part of women to contribute their receptacle to participate in the reproduction of the species. Graciela and Lucía, the previously mentioned female characters, will be instrumental in such a challenge. However, even before they surface in the narrative, various signifiers and signifieds hint at this. The title of the third chapter reads: “Equis, III: El hombre es el pasado de la mujer” (22). This seemingly announces the story of Genesis, but the contents of that chapter, quite to the contrary, prepare the ground to undo that scheme. Here, Equis's fixation with the film Demon Seed, in which Julie Christie is pursued and violated by a robot, a phallic machine, provides the counter motif of no-procreation to that of Creation. The slogan of the title, “El hombre es el pasado de la mujer,” corresponds to the theme of the Creation, while the new one, “La mujer es el futuro del hombre,” reflects the postulates of the theory of the Anti-Oedipus developed by Deleuze and Guattari, and predicts the end of the human race.

Alice Jardine explains in Gynesis that with the Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari attempt to “denaturalize Bodies of all kinds—and especially the ‘human’ one. To do that means denaturalizing sexuality and especially its polarized genders” (211). Further ahead Jardine adds: “Woman is never a subject but a limit—a border of and for Man; the ‘becoming woman’ is l'avenir de l'homme tout entier—the future of all Mankind … She is what the entire world must become in order for Man—men and women—to truly disappear” (217).

This motif reappears much later in the novel, when Equis meets Graciela on the beach. The omniscient narrator says: “Como el Pantócrator en el tapiz ordena y mira la creación, conociendo, desde ya, su futuro, adivinando en el presente el desarrollo del avenir (my emphasis), Equis observó a la muchacha que con paso firme y seguro se aproximaba, golpeando el suelo con sus zapatillas negras deshilachadas” (86). Thus Equis/Oedipus meets Graciela/the Anti-Oedipus. Some hints alluding to Equis's identification with Oedipus had become noticeable in the text. Oedipus means swollen or deformed foot; his father Laios, after hearing the oracle say that his newborn son would kill him, cut the tendons of the child's feet before abandoning him in the mountains, exiling him. The shoe is a Freudian symbol for the genital of the female.6 Equis has a fetishistic obsession with women's feet in sandals. At one point the narrator comments: “Si hubiera sido un maniático sexual—y en sus sueños lo era, como todo el mundo—Equis se habría dedicado a perseguir a mujeres que usaran sandalias” (79). Later, as he watches an old prostitute undress, his attention focuses on her feet: “Los pies, en cambio eran blancos, regordetes y pequeños, como los de una ángela pintada por Tiziano” (83). When Graciela appears, he observes her “zapatillas negras deshilachadas.”

Peri Rossi cleverly adopts Michel Foucault's principle of “reversed discourse” (The History of Sexuality, I, 101), based on the premise of acquisition of power through knowledge (Foucault, Power/Knowledge, 131–2), to deconstruct Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex.7 The character Graciela serves to initiate this trend. She is young, uninhibited, informed, smokes marijuana, adores movies and pursues sexual pleasure in the sun. Free-spirited Graciela is the opposite of the passive female. She abruptly asks Equis, “¿Tienes preservativos?” He uneasily responds that he does not, allowing her to snap back at him: “¿Eres de los que pretenden que una se arruine la salud tomando píldoras o abortando en una clínica sólo-para-mujeres?” (91). However, she is prepared; this “new woman” carries her indispensable possessions in an empty guitar case, allusive for its shape to the woman's body: a toothbrush, lingerie, socks, a broken mirror (she will not be assimilated to the traditional female model), a comb, matches, a pen, and, yes, condoms.

The motif of the ill-effects of “the pill” reappears in a brief newspaper announcement that precedes Graciela's previously discussed survey. It tells the case of a young woman found guilty of negligence by a judge in Scotland, for having become pregnant despite having had knowledge and access to “the pill.” The woman, like Graciela, had considered that method of birth control unhealthy, as did Lucía, whose case this foreshadows. This reaction towards a new and very popular method of contraception is indicative of a politics of resistance. The power over a woman's body, traditionally exercised by men, is now being reclaimed by women themselves.

Graciela, liberated woman, teacher, student of Logic, leaves for Africa, where she plans to study the practice of infibulation in adolescents, another example of the abuse of masculinist power over women's bodies. After Graciela's departure, the role of the Anti-Oedipus falls on Lucía.

Shortly before Lucía appears in the narrative, Peri Rossi introduces the last dream of the novel, the most significant one from the psychoanalytic perspective. This dream contains a spoken riddle whose answer Equis, the dreamer, must find. The dream is a metaphor of Freud's Oedipus complex, and the riddle spoken in the dream serves as a deconstructive device. Equis hears a question that seems to float in the air, “como aquellos acertijos que los reyes, enamorados de sus hijas, proponían a los pretendientes” (163). Peri Rossi inverts the protagonists in the alluded incest from son/mother in the Oedipus story to daughter/father. The riddle heard by Equis is, like that proposed by the Sphinx, an enigma: “¿Cuál es el mayor tributo, el homenaje que un hombre puede ofrecer a la mujer que ama?” (163). It echoes another riddle mentioned by Freud at the start of his famous work, “Femininity,” one of his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, which reads: “Throughout history people have knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity” (S.E. XXII, 113). The king/father makes his daughter's suitors “knock their heads” against the riddle of female sexuality, much the same way Freud/the Father of psychoanalysis did.

Peri Rossi provides enough signifiers in the narrative to allow for the identification of Equis with Oedipus, and eventually, with Freud. Equis is exiled, and so is Oedipus. Equis's fixation with women's feet alludes Oedipus's name. They are both faced with an enigma which is associated with incestuous relations, and, lastly, the answer to the enigma they are both confronted with leads to the death of the father and the blinding of Oedipus. In Equis's case, his “blindness” to understanding femininity brings about the death of the king, the father. Another antecedent of the Oedipal complex schema is Equis's recollection of his “first love,” a woman he used to know many years before, when he was about six years old. This is the approximate age the dissolution of the Oedipus complex occurs according to Freud, marking the end of the phallic phase of the male child development as a consequence of the child's discovery of his mother's “castration,” her lack of penis. Equis's absorption with the phallus signifier and anal eroticism have obvious Freudian connotations and help to introduce the themes of castration and female homosexuality in the novel.

Equis meets Lucía, his antagonist, while working as “guía abortista” with a travel company that takes women to an abortion clinic in London. Lucía is one of the passengers in the bus, and Equis becomes infatuated with her. She, on the other hand, feels depressed and angry, considering herself a victim of fate, her pregnancy due to an accident, “un imperceptible orificio en el condón” (174). Because of her misfortune, she decides never to sleep with a man again. It is at this time that references to the phallus begin to appear in the narrative, as when on the way to the abortion clinic, Equis observes: “Entraban a la parte de la ciudad sin árboles, como hombres sin falo” (174).

Equis's castration anxiety seems to grow as he later searches for Lucía all over the city in the hope of gaining her love. In his mind, Lucía is the king's daughter, as he sees her in his dream, and he is now convinced that if he unravels the riddle proposed by the king, he will win Lucía's affection. Thus the connection between oneiric symbols and the events of real life holds the key to the interpretation of his dream. Freud states in On Dreams that “Dream symbolism extends far beyond dreams: it is not peculiar to dreams, but exercises a similar dominating influence on representation in fairy tales, myths and legends, in jokes and in folklore. It enables us to trace the intimate connections between dreams and these latter productions” (111). Equis's dream establishes the framework of Freud's Oedipus complex, and when the pieces of the rebus fall into place, this becomes apparent. The critic/analyst finally interprets the analysand/text's dream. Equis finds no traces of Lucía in hotels, restaurants and cafes, and he begins to speculate whether he will end the night “eyaculando tristezas en otro culo … porque para eso tiene falo y paga …” (178). Conscious that Lucía has repudiated heterosexual relations after her abortion, he further ponders, “¿dónde eyaculan las mujeres, en qué culo se descargan?” (178). This brings about the aspect of anal-erotic impulses, which, according to Freud, precedes the boy's identification with the father in the phallic phase, but also occurs in cases of psychosis, causing a man to reverse to that stage on account of fear of castration (“Anal Erotism and the Castration Complex,” S. E. XVII). One way or the other, this leads to the question of homosexuality, male and female, approached, however, as Freud did, from the perspective of male homosexuality. Irigaray points out that the “homo”/sameness only exists for Freud as the sameness of the “hommo”/man. Incapable of understanding female homosexuality, he “specularizes the phallus” (Speculum, 103).

Peri Rossi also seems to draw the final episode of La nave from Irigaray's text. Equis finds Lucía in a pornographic establishment; the sign at the door announcing a sensational spectacle “porno-sexy,” “Sensacionales travesties. ¿Hombres o Mujeres? Véalos y decida Usted Mismo” (189). Referring to Freud's inability to comprehend female homosexuality, Irigaray asserts in Speculum that “Female homosexuality would … remain obliterated, travestied-transvestized-and withdrawn from interpretation” (101). It is not surprising then that Lucía appears as Marlene Dietrich “de frac y galera,” and her companion in the lesbian act as Dolores del Río, someone who changed her sexual identity to appropriate a fantasized one: “alguien que se había decidido a ser quien quería ser y no quien estaba determinado a ser” (191). As the audience incites them to reach a sexual climax, Equis, convinced that such is impossible, believes that he has found the answer to the riddle, and after confronting Lucía with his solution to the enigma, he runs home to sleep and summon the king in his dream.

As the conclusion to the Equis/Oedipus story nears, it is important to focus also on the opposing Anti-Oedipus theme. Introduced by the phallic machine violating Julie Christie in the film, and the slogan “la mujer es el avenir del hombre,” it was also invoked by Graciela's ideas of birth control and Lucía's renunciation to heterosexuality. The Anti-Oedipus/Oedipus complex binary pair posits a dilemma: if women are “defective” because of their “castration,” and of secondary importance in the reproductive function, as Freud surmised, what would happen if women withheld their reproductive power and refused their role? It will certainly mean the end of human/kind.

Equis's answer to the enigma coincides with Freud's assumption that women need a penis. They presumably obtain it indirectly when giving birth to a child, particularly a male child. Upon seeing “castrated” Lucía, or rather, not being able to see her female sexual organ (dubbed by Irigaray “the blind spot”), Equis resolves that the greatest tribute a man can offer to the woman he loves is his virility. Peri Rossi debunks the freudian mystique by reducing the king/the father, to a cartoon-like figure. When Equis shouts his answer, a great commotion occurs, and: “el rey, súbitamente disminuido, el rey, como un caballito de juguete, el rey, como un muñequito de pasta, el reyecito de chocolate cae de bruces, vencido, el reyecito se hunde en el barro, el reyecito, derrotado, desaparece. Gime antes de morir” (197). Thus concludes the novel.

This brings forward the idea of the son's veiled desire to kill the father to supplant him with his women (the kings and daughters of the riddle in the story). This, Freud said in “Totem and Taboo,” led to the creation of the totem to substitute for the father to prevent incest (S.E. XIII, 106–7). However, it rather seems to represent here the author's desire to kill the “Father of psychoanalysis,” to undermine his authority in order to eradicate patriarchy. For as Irigaray rhetorically asks in This Sex Which Is Not One, “what meaning could the Oedipus complex have in a symbolic system other than patriarchy?” (73).

If we are to agree with Soshana Felman that literature is “the unconscious of psychoanalysis,” its “unthought,” and that it functions “as the condition of possibility and the self-subversive blind spot of psychoanalytic thought,”8 then, Cristina Peri Rossi has delivered in her novel such “unthought.”


  1. All quotations from Freud, unless otherwise noted, are from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 1953–74), henceforth referred to as S.E.

  2. It is perhaps relevant to add that Irigaray refers to the “all” of X as the “symbol of universality” and the “universal quantifier” in “ The ‘Mechanics’ of Fluids,” in This Sex Which Is Not One, 108.

  3. It is ironic that Peri Rossi uses a male weaver to tell the story of Genesis that set the basis for the patriarchal order of society, when Irigaray says in “Women have Never Invented Anything but Weaving,” Speculum, 115, that weaving is the only recognized female invention.

  4. Roith claims that “the main source of his [Freud's] sexual ethic lies in that of traditional Judaism” (The Riddle of Freud, 5).

  5. Magnarelli cites Theodor Reik's The Creation of Woman. New York: McGraw-Hill,1960; Naomi Goldenberg's Changing of the Gods, Boston: Beacon, 1979; Merlin Stone's When God Was a Woman. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978; Mary Daly's Beyond God the Father. Boston: Beacon, 1973, and The Church and the Second Sex. New York: Harper & Row, 1975, to support her point of view.

  6. Robert Fliess disagrees with Freud and considers the “shoe” a bisexual symbol (Symbol, Dream and Psychosis, Vol. III, 107).

  7. Foucault's name appears in Peri Rossi's text as one of the authors whose works Equis recommended in his “forced” literacy campaign, which he carried out by reading “pornographic” books in the bus to provoke the interest of his fellow passengers.

  8. Gallop quotes Felman's “To Open the Question, ‘Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise.” Yale French Studies 55–6 (1978–79): 10, in The Daughter's Seduction, 60.

Works Cited

Cirlot, J. E. A Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. Jack Sage. New York: Philosophical Library, 1962.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. New York: Viking, 1977.

Felman, Shoshana. “‘To Open the Question,’ Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise.” Yale French Studies 55–6 (1978–79): 10.

Fliess, Robert. Symbol, Dream and Psychosis. Vol. III. Psychoanalytic Series. New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1973.

Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

———. The History of Sexuality, Vol. I An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage/Random House, 1980.

Freud, Sigmund. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. J. Strachey. Vols. I–XXIV. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953—74.

———. On Dreams. Trans. J. Strachey. New York: Norton, 1952.

Gallop, Jane. The Daughter's Seduction. Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

———. Reading Lacan. Ithaca & London: Cornell UP, 1985.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986.

———. This Sex Which is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Jardine, Alice A. Gynesis. Configurations of Woman and Modernity. Ithaca & London: Cornell UP, 1985.

Magnarelli, Sharon. The Lost Rib. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1985.

Mitchell, Juliet and Rose, J. Eds. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne. Trans. J. Rose. London: MacMillan Paperback, 1982.

Peri Rossi, Cristina. La nave de los locos. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1984.

Roith, Estelle. The Riddle of Freud. Jewish Influences on His Theory of Female Sexuality. London and New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987.

Elia Kantaris (essay date July 1989)

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SOURCE: Kantaris, Elia. “The Politics of Desire: Alienation and Identity in the Work of Marta Traba and Cristina Peri Rossi.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 25, no. 3 (July 1989): 248–64.

[In the following essay, Kantaris argues that both the work of Marta Traba and Peri Rossi deal with the mechanisms of dictatorship, particularly the function of alienation and group identity.]

In an essay entitled “Garcia Márquez y el arte del reportaje: de Lukács al post-boom”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, centralising control exercised by the military in all areas of public communication, created the hostile conditions in which a new, “politicised” 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 exile2, 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 monopolise 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 Lacan3 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 centralising patriarchal system, such as dictatorship, exerts its prohibitory power not only by institutionalising 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 “naturalise” possession, violence and alienation by “naturalising” 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. Firstly, 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 “naturalisation” 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 woman 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 marginalised. As we shall see, for Traba this final realisation 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 comments4. 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.


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 prohibida5 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 distant representations is one which Peri Rossi herself uses a lot in her writing as a strategy for evading the seemingly all-persuasive 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, marginalises, 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 marginalised 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 scene7 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 marginalises 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 jouissance8. 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 marginalisation 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 marginalisation 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 realisation 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 lugar9, 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 rematerialise 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 recognise 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 locos10. 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 Franco11 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 jerarqúia 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 “denaturalise” 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 naturalising 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 summarises 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).

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 medieval tapestry from Gerona entitled El tapiz de la creación. María Rosa Olivera-Williams12, 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 podŕia 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 organisation 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:

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.


sí, para la latinoamericana la escritura ha sido siempre un síntoma de defensa contra la opresión.


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 marginalised 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 recognise the relativity of systems, ideologies and identities (Dolores' 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 […] ¿0 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; ¿0 cómo se hace para vivir con este fardo de desdichas? ¿0 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 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 los 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' 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 “roadblocks” 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 le 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 realisation 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 Traba14. 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.”


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, summarise 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 Cixous15, 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 girl who has been the 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 circumcision—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, dressed as a man imitating Charlotte Rampling imitating Helmut Berger imitating Marlene Dietrich in drag, 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 surrending/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 writing16. For Peri Rossi on the other hand, the distorted power relations which beset the organisation 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.


  1. De García Márquez al postboom (Madrid: Editorial Orígenes, 1986), pp. 13–20.

  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 granted 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 Garćia Pinto [see below].)

  3. Écrits (Paris: Éditions du Seuil), 1966. In Lacanian theory, “the Law of the Father” is a term representing the social structures 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 realisation 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 emphasised 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).

  4. Conversación al sur, 2nd ed. (Mexico: Siglo veintiuno editores, 1981: rpt 1984), p. 46.

  5. Barcelona: Seix Barral.

  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 “internalise” the Law of the Father. This illusory image, however, becomes a wall forever separating the “self” from the object of its desire.

  7. See for example Elena Poniatowska, “Marta Traba o el salto al vacío,” Revista Iberoamericana LI, 132–33 (1985), pp. 883–97.

  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 language poétique (Paris: Éditions de Seuil, 1974), pp. 453, 462.

  9. Bogotá: Siglo veintiuno editores, 1984.

  10. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1984.

  11. “Apuntes sobre la crítca feminista y la literatura hispanoamericana,” Hispamérica XV, 45 (1986), pp. 31–43.

  12. La nave de los locos de Cristina Peri Rossi,” Revista de crítica literaria latinoamericana XI, 23 (1986), pp. 81–89.

  13. Helena Araújo, “Escritoros latinoamericanas: ¿por fuera de ‘boom’?” El Espectador: Magazín Dominical, no. 81 (Bogotá: 14 Oct. 1984). See also “Narrativa femenina latinoamericana,” Hispamérica XI, 32 (1982), pp. 23–34.

  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).

  15. La Jeune Née (en collaboration avec Catherine Clément) (Paris: UGE, 1975), pp. 115–16.

  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, emphasises the speaking subject and utilises 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.)

Jöran Mjöberg (review date winter 1990)

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SOURCE: Mjöberg, Jöran. Review of La rebelión de los niños, by Cristina Peri Rossi. World Literature Today 64, no. 1 (winter 1990): 79.

[In the following review, Mjöberg offers a positive assessment of La rebelión de los niños.]

Cristina Peri Rossi hails from Uruguay, but in 1971 she moved to Spain as an exile and for the last few years has been residing in Sweden. She has published at least seven books, including poems, short stories, and a novel. She worked first as a teacher and then as a political journalist, collaborating with such writers as Eduardo Galeano, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Angel Rama. Feminist concerns have also informed her work.

The stories contained in La rebelión de los niños are fantastic tales which draw from surrealism, science fiction, and political satire, with the occasional incorporation of a silent monologue. Peri Rossi has a masterly capacity for depicting exceptional psychological states and for imbuing such descriptions with metaphysical overtones. In a way her work is closely related to that of Julio Cortázar while remaining essentially independent from it; when a volume of her stories was published in Stockholm, for example, it included an enthusiastic introduction by Cortázar in which he emphasized the fact that she is a woman who has experienced both the hell of our world and the hell of writing about the times in which we live. He also found in her works a commendable intent to transfigure the actual and historical—however tragic—into something fantastic, both conserving its most exact meaning and manifesting its power on a new, higher level.

In some of her stories Peri Rossi paints a gruesome picture of a society in which tyranny reigns and secret police and soldiers carry out their terrifying duties as servants of repression and torture. In this appalling world children play a significant role, and the author is always concerned with their destinies. Peri Rossi is a master of style, even if her sentences are sometimes quite long and complicated and their content rather abstract. There is always a deeper meaning within her work, a message for all her readers.

Gustavo San Román (essay date April 1990)

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SOURCE: San Román, Gustavo. “Fantastic Political Allegory in the Early Work of Cristina Peri Rossi.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies LXVII, no. 2 (April 1990): 151–64.

[In the following essay, Román traces the role of political allegory in Peri Rossi's work.]

‘eso es una de mis debilidades: la alegoría’1

Although there has been a change of emphasis in what can loosely be called the themes of Cristina Peri Rossi (b. 1941) over the years, some basic preoccupations and literary strategies have remained constant throughout her highly productive career as poet and prose writer. Among her preoccupations are dreams, childhood and (often alternative) sexuality; among her strategies, a predilection for allegory and fantasy. After she had to leave her native Uruguay at a time when the preparations for the military coup of June 1973 became all too evident, the theme of exile entered her work. This is the most obvious innovation during her stay in Spain: there have also been new or stronger emphases, inevitably encouraged by her European perspective, such as an interest in pollution, consumerism, the nuclear threat and women. Underlying all of Peri Rossi's work is a concern with liberation in its broadest sense.

A prominent characteristic of the early works, and one which will be highlighted in the present account of them, is their political quality; this quality remains in the Spanish period, but assumes a new, less transparent guise.


A useful first classification of Peri Rossi's several books so far, I suggest, could divide her production into two groups: those of the ‘Uruguayan period’ (which includes the works published up to 1971) on the one hand, and on the other hand those of the ‘Spanish period’ (which came out after she settled in exile in Barcelona). I would like to argue that whilst she was in Uruguay Peri Rossi's literature was strongly affected by the local political situation. This is because of her own personal commitment but also and more simply because of the particularly effervescent atmosphere which then prevailed in Uruguay. In this she was not alone, since the majority of writers of the time were similarly concerned. In a note on Mario Benedetti's El cumpleaños de Juan Angel (1971), she comments on the critical role of contemporary Uruguayan intellectuals:

la novela de Benedetti es un reflejo de la realidad urbana posterior al 68 siendo a la vez padecedora de la crisis, pero como el pueblo, lucha y se revuelve, no acepta un orden injusto y despótico. La cultura, por tanto, da también su ‘respuestazo’ (al decir de Milton Schinca), sea a través de la militancia heroica y sin pausas de los estudiantes, sea a través de las obras públicas—orales o escritas—de los intelectuales.2

In this paper I shall consider the main prose works of Peri Rossi's Uruguayan period, namely Los museos abandonados (June 1969), El libro de mis primos (October 1969) and, in less detail and introductorily, Indicios pánicos (December 1970), bearing in mind the historical context in which they were produced. I believe that each of them not only implies a political statement in its own right but more precisely that they form a trilogy that in each case reflects the increasing seriousness of the political situation as it developed during the time when they were written. In order to illustrate this claim I shall include information about the political background to the Uruguayan crisis. The works of the second, Spanish phase of Peri Rossi's production reflect a shift of emphasis in her thematic range which I believe corresponds to her new European circumstances, where she has felt freer to explore wider political and psychological issues.

The literature of Peri Rossi shares with many of the works of ‘the Boom’ an interest in the obscure parts of man as manifested inwardly and outwardly. Her work also fits in a tradition that explores the abnormal by making use in differing degrees of a discourse that often draws on fantasy. In her first period the emphasis is on the external forms of evil and terror as imposed by those who misuse power, and reaches its most outspoken expression in the latest of the three works to be considered here. Because its importance is more documentary than aesthetic, I turn to it first, and briefly. The two earlier works, which I proceed to analyse subsequently, are both subtler and more accomplished (because less ‘urgent’) texts.


In her prologue to the second, 1980 Spanish edition of her fourth book of prose, Indicios pánicos, (originally published in Montevideo, 1970) Peri Rossi lays out in a revised version a ‘Sistema poético del libro’ which can be usefully borne in mind when the rest of the collection is considered. The new prologue is interesting for two reasons. Firstly because it was written by an older, more mature Peri Rossi who was looking at her work of ‘between twenty-five and thirty years of age’ in a calmer light. Secondly, because she was already in exile in Barcelona, where she has written less politically-specific texts, which show other more personal concerns. These two factors led her to claim that in the original edition ‘Olvidaba, en el prólogo, algo que el propio libro descubría: las fuentes privadas, particulares, individuales de la alucinación, del terror, de lo maravilloso o absurdo.’3 This is largely (although by no means totally), I believe, wishful thinking, since by far the majority of the texts of Indicios pánicos are quite transparently political statements. The fact that Peri Rossi chose the opportunity of a second edition to amend the prologue (as well as to remove some of the original texts, possibly on aesthetic grounds) is an indication of the shift I have indicated between the two periods. The main change in the prologue implies a softening of the emphasis on the specific political nature of the work which follows it. The original prefatory material was louder in its denunciation of a government repression which had reached quite intolerable conditions and which eventually, two-and-a-half years later, was to culminate in a military coup that put the country under a dictatorship for twelve years.4 The following passage from the 1970 prologue (absent in the second edition) illustrates this emphasis:

En épocas de terribles luchas por el poder (o sea cuando la clase que lo posee no desea abandonarlo al requerimiento de la clase que pretende apoderarse de él para usarlo un rato) la palabra deja de nombrar directamente las cosas para aludirlas, en virtud de su capacidad de signar.

Entonces, en lugar de mostrar, simboliza.

Elude y alude.5

This passage might legitimately be taken as authorial reassurance that fantastic or absurd elements (motifs and discourse) in the book stand as symbols and metaphors of political statements, in the fashion of traditional satire as exemplified by Gulliver's Travels (a reference to which is included, incidentally, in El libro de mis primos, 24n). It is my view that such an interpretation would be justified. Thus when in the first text a student is burned to death at a police station for injuring an officer with the leaf of a plane tree, the reader is to take the scene as a hyperbolic description of the excessively severe treatment received by demonstrating students at the hands of the security forces.

Furthermore, many of the less transparent metaphors included in the collection also become clearer through a political reading. Thus, in texts numbered 16 and 17 (not quite chapters or short stories) a son lives in a jar of water until he is 45, at which point his mother takes his place because she is tired of perceiving the ‘pobrezas y castigos’ which abound outside. Similar political connotations can be inferred from other texts about self-imposed isolation (e.g. Nos. 3 and 4) or about the refusal or inability to be born (5, 6) or give birth (20, 21), or accept the passing of time (8). It is true nevertheless that texts of this latter sort represent a more ambiguous writing, not fully accountable for in political terms alone, and which recur in Peri Rossi's later, Spanish work (especially in her last two collections to date: El museo de los esfuerzos inútiles [1983], and Una pasión prohibida [1986]). It is there that she concentrates on the ‘fuentes privadas … del terror,’ etc., she mentions in the prologue.

Indicios pánicos, then, can be seen primarily as a response to the ideological oppression which was being exercised at the time in Uruguay. It can be compared with a more subtle, and therefore more technically fantastic, response by writers like Borges and Cortázar in the Buenos Aires of the 1940s and 1950s under Peronism.6 But whilst the indirect modes of expression of the seemingly apolitical fantastic reply in Argentina might be seen to fit a less overt repression, the Uruguayan situation, being far blunter (and announcing horrific developments which included the most sophisticated forms of torture to have been practised in Latin America), led to a more openly ideological literature. Peri Rossi's work of this period, notably Indicios pánicos, is reminiscent of the more vociferous line of contemporary Uruguayan literature, epitomized in Benedetti's notion of letras de emergencia.7Indicios pánicos as a reference point can be compared on the one hand with the author's previous work in Uruguay (the book was only followed in 1971 by the collection of lesbian erotic verse Evohé) and on the other hand with her Spanish production, both of notably higher literary merit. Since the comparison would illustrate, I would claim, Peri Rossi's concern with the political climate of her environment, it is necessary to give a brief account of the contemporary history of Uruguay.


The crucial factor that led to the success of the celebrated Uruguayan democratic and economic stability of the first half of this century was the institutionalization of ‘coparticipation.’ This means that the political system reflected the realization that compromises were necessary. As Diego Abente notes: ‘regardless of which of the two traditional parties, the Blancos … or the Colorados … was in power, there was always room, a coparticipative role, for the opposition’ (453).8 The practice grew out of the wars between caudillos, and continued to be applied at the time of electoral stability, notably during the period in Uruguayan politics dominated by the progressive policies of José Batlle y Ordóñez (1856–1929). Batlle founded the national welfare state, nationalized banks and public service companies and led the modernization of the country's economy.

Coparticipation succeeded, argues Abente, on account of three factors; firstly, because of the country's steady rate of economic growth in the first half of the century, which permitted the satisfaction of the increasing political and economic demands for a semi-welfare state. A second factor was the country's peculiar legal-constitutional framework, notably the ley de lemas, ‘(law of party designations) [which] established a system in which the voter, in national elections, chose, simultaneously, the party of his preference and, within that party, the candidate of his preference’ (455). This was a response to a highly fragmented political scene. Finally, the third factor is ‘the reinforcing effect of the political culture—a tolerant and inclusive, rather than exclusive, one’ (ibid.). Such a successful combination of factors was not to last, however. The decline, economic and political, started in the 1950s, and these are the reasons Abente gives: ‘The excessive dependence on exports, particularly on a few products, and the nature of an industrialization process that relied too heavily on protectionist measures and on foreign currencies generated by a depressed export sector brought about a series of crises of increasing gravity’ (ibid.). The details of this collapse are complex and are still being studied, but for present purposes it may be sufficient to say that the crisis brought with it a heavy drop in exports (50 per cent from 1950 to 1960), the continuing devaluation of the peso, and a decline in the annual rate of growth as well as a rapid and drastic rise in inflation (from under 10 per cent in 1955 to over 125 per cent in 1968). Predictably, and more tangibly, real wages dropped almost 25 per cent from 1957 to 1967 (and the trend continued with a further drop of 33 per cent from 1968 to 1979). Although the economic decline affected everyone, it particularly provoked the landed classes; the colegiado (Swiss-style power-sharing presidency) was eventually blamed for many of the difficulties and was abandoned with the 1966 elections and constitutional referendum. The elections were won by Oscar Gestido, a Colorado retired general who died shortly afterwards of a heart attack, and who was succeeded by the hard-line right-wing vice-president Jorge Pacheco Areco, an ex-amateur boxer. By this time the Tupamaros, the urban guerrilla group, had become increasingly active, and Pacheco Areco made it his goal to exterminate them. To do this he called in the army, a move which was to speed the process leading to the formal military coup of June 1973. Pacheco also acted unconstitutionally by attacking several left-wing organizations and suspending and closing down the louder radical newspapers, under the excuse of so-called ‘medidas prontas de seguridad.’ In short, Pacheco Areco, appointed at a time of acute economic crisis, reacted with brutal and tyrannical political measures which paved the way for the eventual take-over of power by the armed forces.9

A political reaction to Pacheco's repressive régime was the establishment of the Frente Amplio, a left-wing coalition that obtained 18 per cent of the votes at the 1971 elections (which were won by Pacheco's successor, perhaps thanks to fraud). The Frente was overwhelmingly supported by the intelligentsia, an example of whose critical position comes across in Peri Rossi's contemporary work, to which we can now return.


In both the works preceding Indicios pánicos, Peri Rossi makes use of fantastic techniques to make what can ultimately be taken as political statements. The method is less obvious and direct than in Indicios, and the quality of the texts reflects this. I shall first consider Los museos abandonados, an early text and therefore one where politics is least explicit, although, given its date (released in 1969, having won the 1968 ‘Premio de los jóvenes’ of Arca the publishers) the book comes at the first peak of the national crisis.

Los museos abandonados is divided almost exactly equally into two quite different discourses. The first half of the book is occupied by the fairly traditional discourse (almost perfectly realist but for the leitmotif of a UFO and its effects) of the story ‘Los extraños objetos voladores.’ The second half, by contrast, is composed of three stories of at times orgiastic sensuality, written in a rich discourse reminiscent of modernismo. These are set in museums and have ghostlike pairs of characters, one being the (interestingly and as usual in Peri Rossi, male) narrator, the other the mythologically intertextual Ariadne (‘Los juegos’ and ‘Los refugios’) or Euridice (‘Un cuento para Eurídice’). I have chosen to concentrate on ‘Los extraños objetos voladores,’ which is incidentally nearer the format of the ‘classical’ fantastic plot of the Buenos Aires version of the genre, where à supernatural element enters the world of normal reality and ends by conquering it—as in Cortázar's ‘Casa tomada’ (1951). Before moving on to ‘Los extraños objetos voladores,’ however, a few words on the second half of the book are relevant. ‘Los juegos’ is a fine and interesting text, the other two less so. ‘Un cuento para Eurídice’ is a feat of celebration in modernista discourse—the main story told by the narrator to Euridice is about ‘fábulos’ and ‘efímeras.’ ‘Los refugios’ illustrates a rather blunt proposition to the effect that change in the structure of power is nigh: a change already forecast in the ending of ‘Un cuento para Eurídice’ through the symbolic obliterating appearance of the sun, which had been intermittently ominous throughout the story. The change announced in ‘Los refugios’ is precisely their destruction by the forces of a demonstrating group of youths who place a bomb on the museum where Ariadne and the narrator, perhaps a new version of the protagonists of ‘Los juegos,’ chose to remain, without ‘abandoning’ it.

The link between the two halves of the book is at first sight difficult to discern, although the recurring references to the sun in ‘Un cuento para Eurídice,’ and the sun's eventual dissolution of the darkness in the museum parallel the intermittent descriptions of the unidentified object in ‘Los extraños objetos voladores,’ which only disappears in the last line. The endings of these two texts also recall the final explosion which terminates ‘Los refugios.’ In all three stories there is a similar development towards a final closing absence/annihilation. In ‘Los juegos’ such annihilation ends in a terrifying isolation for the protagonist, thus replicating the outcome of ‘Los extraños objetos voladores’; in the other two stories both characters fail to survive. Such similar endings mark, by implication, a new beginning, and so an exit from ‘los museos abandonados.’ All the stories thus suggest that a cycle is finishing to open up a new era. I shall now consider ‘Los extraños objetos voladores’ more closely.

The claim that the story carries a political message is easy to justify. To start with, the whole collection bears a rather unequivocal dedication:

A los guerrilleros. / A sus héroes innominados. / A sus mártires. / A sus muertos. / Al Hombre Nuevo que nace de ellos. / Aunque éste sea, en definitiva, el / más torpe homenaje que se les pueda hacer. / Montevideo, 1969.10

The mention of the ‘new man’ tallies with an interpretation of an ending of old systems (museums to be abandoned) and their replacement with new, more salutary conditions. Unlike the three shorter stories presenting unrealistic set-ups, ‘Los extraños objetos voladores’ deals with fairly typical characters, which makes the message more politically direct, but for the enigma of the object in the sky. The object then must carry a special, preferably political meaning. I suggest it stands for a materialization of otherness—of all the forces which determine the protagonist's self and his situation of poverty and marginality. (The old man protagonist, Lautaro, is the character most seriously affected by the object.) Furthermore, and in the context of the collection as a whole, the object imbues the story with a political-allegorical significance. Thus, although the object, as the representation of faceless power, annihilates Lautaro by taking over his world, the stories of the second half of the book, especially the one closing the volume (‘Los refugios’), can correspondingly be seen as signalling the complementary and liberating destruction of the old systems responsible for Lautaro's alienation.

The UFO is central to the plot. It appears in the first line of the story (it is implied in the request by Lautaro to his wife: ‘—María—llamó el viejo. Había salido al campo. Ven a ver lo que yo veo’), and it is present throughout as a haunting figure, to disappear only in the very last line (‘Despavorido, [Lautaro] miró hacia el cielo. El objeto marrón también había desaparecido’ [75]), having fulfilled the old man's fear of finding himself alone in a barren world:

ya nada tiene estabilidad, uno no puede estar seguro, a lo mejor desaparece lo que menos esperamos, un día de estos amanece y yo estoy solo en el mundo, todo se ha perdido, se ha volado, ha desaparecido, me dejan solo delante de una llanura inmensa pelada sin nada

(47–48, my emphasis)

The image presages the final one of a world without even the sun, which Lautaro had earlier thought could not disappear (‘el sol era seguro lo único que quedaría, tullido y todo, de tanto salir, pero eso no se animarían a llevárselo, eso no se puede evitar, todo se lo llevarían menos el sol, con ese nadie puede’ [48]):

En el cielo, el sol se había borrado. Comprendió que rápidamente iba a desaparecer, sumiéndolo en la oscuridad más completa. ‘Hasta el sol, se lo llevarán, que yo no creí,’ pensó, y se dio cuenta que tenía poco tiempo.


It is interesting that the old man refers to the force which has taken the sun away as ‘them.’ I suggest this is the clue to the meaning of the object as a unifying figure of the powers which have (always had) control over Lautaro's life. These powers are referred to in several places as ‘el extranjero’ or ‘el gobierno’:

si encontrara algún día andando por el pueblo al extranjero bien que le daría unos tiros de escopeta para que se dejara de andar embromando reclamando cuentas; en cuanto al gobierno, él no lo había visto más que algunas veces, en un pueblo vecino, cuando vino a dar una conferencia sobre el sacrificio que debían hacer ellos para que el país se compusiera.


This kind of description shows how culturally and politically alienated Lautaro is (and his wife is even more so: ‘—La ciudad me lo mató’ [23], she says of her son; she also offers the UFO food several times). He does not know who these forces running his life are, and so the object provides a face that can be blamed. At first he links the losing of half of his own face with the possibility of his being punished for not paying his dues to the landowner (36), but later on (70), after the doctor, a figure of power, has given him a diagnosis, he thinks the object might also, like his symptoms, soon go away. A clear vision of the object as representing a superior force appears when he reprimands his wife for having talked to it all morning and possibly having complained about their lot: ‘uno no sabía cómo podría reaccionar aquello que estaba en el aire … si no sería irritarle andar contándole las cosas de sus vidas y los días que fueron de hambre’ (41). The most explicit statement of the different status of man and object takes place when Lautaro is walking towards the village to see the doctor: he is highly disturbed by the object looking down on him: ‘qué te he hecho yo para que así me tengas toda la vida observando’ (50). The contrast here can be seen in terms of antonyms: knowledge/ignorance, high/low, observer/observed, powerful/powerless, other/self.

Looked at as a political statement, the story is an allegory of a struggle against an all-powerful and incomprehensible force which is to blame for the characters' (social, political, ultimately moral) alienation and eventual annihilation. (The other characters react differently from the old man, however: the doctor and nurse, in rather Onettian fashion—the village is also reminiscent of Santa María—just ignore it, sunk as they are in existential apathy. Lautaro's wife exercises her motherliness stoically by worrying about the object's loneliness and uninterrupted inanition. Their different reactions might incidentally account for the otherwise intriguing plural in the title.) At a certain point the text hints at an explanation of the object (in terms that again recall Onetti) which stresses its function as materialization of desire—to be free/to assign meaning. As he gives Lautaro a diagnosis of hallucination he ponders to himself:

confundir el embotamiento del alcohol con aquel deseo impreciso de moverse, de echar a andar … confundir la abulia vagarosa de la media tarde con el deseo de partir.

(67, my emphasis)

The story closes with the disappearance of the UFO, the last object in a barren, sunless world. The sun, as was pointed out above, stands for the sole unshakeable security in Lautaro's world of cultural alienation. Its disappearance marks the complete obliteration of the world as he knew it. There has been a full circle: the isolation Lautaro finds himself in finally replicates in a symbolic (and fantastic) image the situation of political incapacity that was illustrated throughout the text. However frightening an ending in itself, it may still contribute to a positive general interpretation of Los museos abandonados as a whole; the three stories that follow can now be seen to proceed to demonstrate the way out of alienation: the abandonment and destruction of the old system (‘the museums’), whose values and rules curtailed self-realization. The final sentence of the last story in the collection reads: ‘Nos quedamos adentro, en silencio, hasta que todo estalló, como una fruta madura, como una formidable víscera descompuesta.’


The last text of Indicios pánicos, ‘El prócer,’ is about the statue of the national hero, José Gervasio Artigas (1764–1850), climbing down from his bronze horse to look around the centre of Montevideo and assess from his historical innocence the state of the country he once fought to liberate. In the last section he talks with a young man who, on parting, tells Artigas that what he is going to do next is a secret. The text's (and the book's) final words are: ‘Aunque el diálogo lo había llenado de tristeza, la última frase del joven lo animó bastante. Ahora estaba seguro de que había dejado descendientes.’ It would be quite clear to a Uruguayan reader that the young man is meant to be a Tupamaro. The guerrilla group in fact took its name from a special regiment of the historical ‘prócer.’11 The book thus concludes on a happy, or at least hopeful, note; and arguably so too finishes Los museos abandonados. The innovation of El libro de mis primos is to have as one of its main characters, Federico, the figure of a Tupamaro. And although the book has two endings there is a final page by Federico describing a triumphal—albeit quiet and nocturnal—arrival at an unidentified town. The mood is one of calm happiness and accomplishment, as the text insists on the auspiciously white quality of the night: ‘y Rafael [the leader] se sonríe, como nunca, en la noche blanca claranoche contento pone su brazo sobre mi hombro se sonríe. Es la hora. HEMOS LLEGADO.’12 The message seems unambiguous: they have arrived, and with them has arrived the expected change. But the book is more than pamphlet-literature, expression of denunciation and hope. It is possibly the author's best work (it won her the 1969 prize of the prestigious journal Marcha), and deserves to rank with the major novels of Latin America.

El libro de mis primos is partly a biographical novel, mainly told from the viewpoint of Oliverio (whose name recalls Rayuela), one of the youngest children of a large upper class extended household with about a dozen adults and another dozen children, the ‘primos’ of the title. The plot is realist in general but has details of fantasy which are the expression of Oliverio's perception. Two notable cases are chapter XII where the aunts of the family are hens which attack uncle Andrés, the alternative scientist and eccentric and one of the family's virtuous characters; and the last part of the ‘Primer final’ (162–65), which describes how a stone thrown by Oliverio's sling slowly and steadily destroys furniture and injures relatives until the whole house collapses. Another significant occasion for fantasy is the description of Oliverio's father's agony in chapter IV. In all these cases the fantastic can be ‘naturalized’ on the grounds that the point of view is by a child; indeed, it is by a child whose capacity to dream—and therefore fantasize—is extraordinary, as explained in chapter II, devoted to ‘Los sueños’: ‘La borrachera de sueños se me subía a la cabeza con los primeros fríos. Soñaba despierto, soñaba sentado en la silla y mientras comía’ (12). He is also more attracted by dreams than by reality: ‘mis despertares eran inquietos, porque prefería estar dormido’ (ibid.).

The fact that Oliverio's statements are acknowledged as fantasies by the text (that they are naturalized through a scientifically valid explanation) would make the novel not fantastic in the technical sense that theorists such as Ana María Barrenechea and Rosemary Jackson, building on Todorov's model, assign to the term. These critics demand that fantastic texts should be ‘problematic’ and ‘subversive’ respectively.13 (The supernatural object in ‘Los extraños objetos voladores,’ by contrast, was seen by all four characters, but no rational explanation was provided by the text, thus refusing naturalization and highlighting its presence as disturbing.)

The ‘explanation’ for the non-realist discourse of El libro de mis primos is, however, not straightforward, as it would be in a naive supernatural text such as a classical fairy-tale (for instance, Oliverio's perception is not altered through his taking a magic potion). It therefore makes it theoretically interesting and so relevant to a study of the fantastic.14 The fact that Oliverio draws on dreams is, furthermore, significant in the context of Peri Rossi's work as a whole. The theme of dreams figures prominently in all of the author's production, as a rich world of escape and freedom from the restrictions of waking life. One of the worst things that can happen to her characters is their being unable to dream, as is the case with a woman in the story ‘El umbral,’ of Una pasión prohibida (1986); dreams (often as omens) are also significant in her second novel, La nave de los locos (1984). The other factor causing non-realism in the first novel is what could perhaps be described as ‘poetic language,’ where punctuation is absent or arbitrary, layout is surprising, statements are inextricably ambiguous, intertextual references are interwoven (and often acknowledged) and the flow of sentences loses apparent logical links. All of these features, furthermore, are common in a highly untamed text, where passages are probably intentionally left obscure in order to puzzle or enchant the reader. Since I have chosen—and I believe for good reasons—to emphasize the political nature of the three texts of this first period of Peri Rossi's production, I shall confine my comments mainly to that area in my attempt to elucidate the use of fantasy.

El libro de mis primos is clearly a ‘novela de denuncia,’15 which demands a moral rejuvenation of the social order represented mainly by the older members of the family: ‘para eso habíamos sepultado a nuestros abuelos debajo de una pila de anécdotas donde sus rostros sus convenciones sus dentaduras postizas sus intereses económicos su poligamia sus haciendas sus herencias su moral burocrática [etc.] … quedaba a la luz’ (115), summarizes Federico to Aurelia, the more ideological of his two quasi-incestuous lovers (chapter XIV establishes the contrast between Dionysian Alejandra and Apollonian Aurelia). The continuation from Peri Rossi's previous volume is explicit; in the same paragraph Federico, the image of the ‘new man’ to whom Los museos abandonados had been dedicated, declares: ‘para eso habíamos abandonado … los museos.’16 Furthermore, the novel represents a shift of focus from the rural, isolated and politically uneducated peasantry to the urban bourgeoisie who were in fact responsible for organizing the guerrilla movement in Uruguay. Whilst ‘Los extraños objetos voladores’ showed the victims, El libro de mis primos is concerned with the guilty groups, and with the protagonists of the revolution within them; it also explores the conflict represented by the removal of the infrastructure which supports privilege.17 The novel presents a struggle (metaphorical and literal—cf. ‘Primer final,’ chapter XVII) between two sides and ideologies, one which is approved of, the other which is condemned, and it treats the characters according to their loyalties.

A basic opposition is built in the novel between the figures of Oliverio's father and mother, and the (roughly corresponding) territories of the house and the garden. Around these two pairs of opposites it is possible to locate most of the characters and to establish the scale of values favoured by the text. The father represents authority, at times fierce and terrifying, and the pragmatism and inhumanity of the established but declining order. He stands for profitable work and his territory is the house. The mother represents love of poetry, plants and dreams, and her territory is the garden or (in chapter V) the cellar.18 She stands in Oliverio's eyes for play.

It is first of all significant that it should be the father and not the mother who dies. A father slowly dying in agony, whose decomposition is described in chapter IV (‘La muerte de mi padre’) using fantastic discourse, represents the equally dying old order—it is not by chance that fantasy is also present in the final description of the collapse of the house. Moreover, the image used by Oliverio when he realizes that his father poses no danger to him any longer—earlier he had been terrified by his height and the sound of his voice: ‘No era solamente su altura la que me inspiraba el pánico …; también su voz me producía estremecimientos desagradables, sacudidas y terrores, no bien lo oía llegar’ (24)—is reminiscent of that describing the collapse of the museum at the end of Los museos abandonados (see above). Oliverio notices with some surprise (‘Fue una experiencia singular’) that:

Con un solo movimiento de mis manos, podía hacerlo estallar contra el suelo, como una fruta que se había caído por el propio peso de su madurez, y ya en el suelo, su jugo ensucia la hilera que conduce al jardín.


Something similar is said of the ancient grandmother Clara, who stands for the roots of the old order, her sadist husband having turned senile: ‘También pienso que es una mandarina que cuelga de la rama, única fruta, y el viento la sacude y en cualquier momento se vendrá al suelo y alguien al caminar la pisará sin darse cuenta’ (53). The imagery is significant in several respects. Firstly, what in Los museos abandonados had to be caused by an explosion (‘todo estalló, como una fruta madura’), in the novel falls from the height of authority ‘por su propio peso,’ signalling that the conditions are (like a fruit) riper than earlier. This reflects the extratextual parallel of a worsening of the political situation and a higher profile by the Tupamaros. Secondly, the father's blood trickles towards the garden, as if acknowledging that a change of territory has taken place. Finally, even his death is tarnished (‘su jugo ensucia la hilera’); earlier in chapter III Oliverio had described the immorality of the dealings of the men in the family:

Ganar dinero, adquirir bienes inmuebles, acciones de compañías extranjeras, invertir dólares en bancos privados … lucrativas especulaciones … salas de juego instaladas gracias a promisorias concesiones del estado, los beneficios que puntualmente remitíamos a cuentas en el exterior.


These ‘dirty’ transactions of the men contrast with or are complemented by the second major task of the women in the house, after procreation (also the first duty of the men): ‘Aparte de producir, pues, descendientes … las mujeres de nuestra familia no tenían otra tarea, más que la limpieza. Y se entregaban a ella ferozmente’ (15).

The choice of fantasy for the descriptions of the father's death and the collapse of the house reinforces the opposition between father and mother. Both passages are expressions of non-pragmatic, ‘motherese’ discourse, compatible with the stories Oliverio's mother used to tell him (some of which include interesting symbols decoded in the plot of the novel): ‘de barcos hundidos o naufragados, de antiguas coronas extraviadas en el filo de las barajas … cuentos de hechiceros y murciélagos, sodomías, alquimias y otras cosas’ (36). By contrast, the father's demand for rationality is evident in his complaint to his wife after Oliverio failed to play the piano without giving a reason (note the distancing markers of polite form of address and ill-choice of personal pronoun): ‘—Ema, creo que su hijo es algo tonto. Fíjese en su árbol genealógico: debe reproducir alguna tara de sus mayores’ (27).

The ideological clash is also evident in the parents' relation to the piano. Whilst for the father Oliverio's playing provides background noise (‘no era que a él le gustara la música; en realidad, los sonidos le eran completamente indiferentes, pero le gustaba—para pensar en sus cosas—que hubiera ruido alrededor, algo que le tapara el rugido, el rumor, el gran trueno que llevaba adentro’ [25]), the mother for Oliverio has positive associations with the piano: ‘con él [el vestido floreado de mi madre] ella parecía desligada de la casa, de mi padre, de mi hermano Oscar, sólo referida a mí y al piano’ (36).

The last quotation expands further on the range of the opposition between the two factions of characters. Oscar is associated with the father—he will narrate the ‘segundo final,’ alternative to Oliverio's and expressing the last convulsions of the voice of reaction; he is also the father's favourite and resembles him physically:

Oscar, que no ha vacilado nunca delante de nadie y que está creciendo casi tanto como tú, papá, seguramente llegará a tener unas piernas largas como las tuyas, y gritará como tú.


The mother, on the other hand, confirms her alliance with Oliverio by disliking Oscar:

Me gustas más que Oscar. Eres más sincero. Creo que te pareces un poco a mí. El, en cambio—agregó con un do grave, bajo, de rencor—es parecido a su padre; … ella me prefería a mí antes que a Oscar


and Oscar, in his conclusion, corroborates that she is of the other faction: ‘Con mamá no se puede contar … pobre mamá’ (166). Moreover, the mother's favourite dress in the opinion of Oliverio is one with a pattern of flowers, which links her with the garden, the good territory. Federico, the ‘new man,’ likes plants as well as poetry (‘Ves cómo la botánica se parece a la poesía,’ he tells Oliverio [161]). In this respect he fulfils the image of the poet-revolutionary, along the lines of the new ideology which for intellectuals such as Cortázar19 was part and parcel of the goals of the Cuban revolution: to make truly revolutionary culture—as opposed to socialist realist recipes—available to the masses. The function of poetry in the revolution is discussed in chapter XVI, where one of the guerrillas is temporarily opposed to Federico's non-pragmatic inclinations.

The garden as a territory of revolution appears prominently in the novel. It is the focus of aggression by the old order—the house dwellers—when uncle Alberto in an ‘ataque de furor’ (32) uproots plants during a night ominously filled with ‘perfumes intensos, terror, pasos furiosos y delirio’ (ibid.). The imagery used denotes an attack by the pragmatic fatherly forces upon the revolutionary sensuality of motherliness:

El las había tomado de la cabellera, de los largos cabellos verdes que les nacían por encima del cuello, y prendido de aquellas finas hebras, las había sacudido con desesperación.


The garden is then declared by uncle Alejandro (the authority replacing Oliverio's father after his death) forbidden and subversive ground from which the children are to keep clear: ‘Que nadie se incline a conocer lo que guarda la tierra dentro de sí, porque desaparecerá’ (33). The underground world opened up by the disappearance of the plants is likened to ‘calles negras y … ciudades de tentación y de pecado’ (ibid.). The children especially are at risk, as ‘su curiosidad puede ser nefasta; … aspirarán a hacerla temblar, a estremecerla, creyendo ingenuamente que [la ciudad nocturna] los ama; después de esto, todo [i.e. the established order] estará perdido’ (33–34). But the garden counter-attacks by overgrowing and laying siege to the house:

… una vegetación salvaje, amenazadora, que crecía sin límites y acechaba la casa, relegándonos al interior; yo a veces pensaba que un día amaneceríamos sitiados por los árboles, que nos cerrarían puertas y ventanas, dispuestos a ahogarnos.


Uncle Alejandro's response is to call in carpenters to build underground escape exits, but this proves to no avail, as the vegetation relentlessly reconquers the garden, thus making the house, significantly, into ‘un museo’ (36). More explicitly, the plants are likened to ‘un escuadrón de combate, fiero y silencioso’ (ibid.), which forces the family, under Alejandro's orders, to barricade themselves inside the house, now turned into ‘un arca’ of diluvian connotations.

The confrontations between the two territories is eventually and explicitly carried out in the first ending, where the house is destroyed by a stone which Oliverio has thrown, significantly, from the top of a tree, during the re-enactment in play of the guerrilla warfare being fought in the world outside. Amongst the targets hit is uncle Alberto, who is struck between his legs (164) thus compensating for his earlier rape-like treatment of the women-plants. Oliverio's ending describes in fantasy an expression of desire; the last page (by Federico, as the guerrillas enter the city) is an expression of fact. The novel, like Oliverio's prospective ‘obra’ (see chapter V) aims at being a ‘total work,’ one combining reality and fantasy: ‘En mi obra, debía aparecer todo lo que yo conocía, todo lo que imaginaba, lo que había podido ver y lo que no’ (29).

The stress in the above account of Peri Rossi's early work has been on a political reading, bearing in mind the historical circumstances of the Uruguay in which it was written. The implications of the interpretation given are wider, however—one being that a call is expressed for a freer world and for freer human beings in more general terms. I believe such a call is inherent in Cristina Peri Rossi's work as a whole, and that in her Spanish production it has become more explicitly universal. She has nevertheless remained loyal to her ‘debilidad por la alegoria.’


  1. Peri Rossi has repeatedly stated her interest in allegory; the above quotation comes from Susanna Ragazzoni, ‘La escritura como indentidad [sic]: una entrevista con Cristina Peri Rossi,’ Studi di letteratura ispano-americana, XIII–XIV (Milano: Cisalpino-Goliardica, 1983), 240.

  2. Cristina Peri Rossi, ‘Respuestazo’ (1971), in Jorge Ruffinelli (ed.), Mario Benedetti—variaciones críticas (Montevideo: Libros del astillero, 1973), 191.

  3. Cristina Peri Rossi, Indicios pánicos (Barcelona: Bruguera, 1981), 12.

  4. The dictatorship lasted from June 1973 until the elections of November 1984: the new government formally took office in March 1985.

  5. Cristina Peri Rossi, Indicios pánicos (Montevideo: Editorial Nuestra América, Col. Los narradores, 2, 1970), 13.

  6. Andrés Avellaneda, El habla de la ideología (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1983), argues very convincingly for a link between the oppressive and uncouth ideology behind Peronist policies encouraging immigration into the capital from the rural areas of Argentina and abroad, and the development of fantastic literature by writers from the intellectual élite of the old upper middle classes of Buenos Aires. Avellaneda builds on an argument earlier expounded by David Viñas in his De Sarmiento a Cortázar (1971). A typical example of Argentinian ‘literatura fantástica’ is Cortázar's ‘Casa tomada,’ where the unnamed invaders can be taken to represent Peronism and its beneficiaries.

  7. See the prologue to Mario Benedetti, Letras de emergencia (Buenos Aires: Alfa, 1973), where the author defines the genre as being ‘literatura, pero de emergencia; es decir, directamente motivada por la coyuntura, y también claramente destinada a desempeñar una función social y política, pero no como panfleto, sino como literatura’ (9). Much of Benedetti's work is ‘de denuncia,’ and he has tirelessly expressed his attack on the myth of a paradisiacal Uruguay in his essays, poetry, prose and theatre. He says in El país de la cola de paja (1960) that the cliché ‘Como el Uruguay no hay’ should in any case read ‘… no hubo’ (8th ed., Montevideo: Arca, 1973, 65).

  8. For the notion of coparticipation (originally proposed by M. Weinstein in Uruguay: The Politics of Failure [Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975]), and for the general account of Uruguayan economic and political history that follows, I have drawn on the first section of Diego Abente, ‘Uruguay and Paraguay’ in Jan Knippers Black (ed.), Latin America, Its Problems and its Promises—A Multidisciplinary Introduction (Boulder and London: Westview Press, 1984), 451–71, which I found particularly concise. Page references to Abente's article appear in brackets in the text of this paper. For more detailed studies on Uruguay, see Roque Faraone, De la prosperidad a la ruina (Montevideo: Arca, 1987); and M. H. J. Finch, A Political Economy of Uruguay since 1870 (London: Macmillan, 1981).

  9. In 1987 Pacheco Areco was the Uruguayan ambassador in Paraguay and, a candidate for a Colorado faction in the November 1989 general elections, he won a seat in the Senate.

  10. Cristina Peri Rossi, Los museos abandonados (Montevideo: Arca, 1969), 7. It is interesting that in a second edition (Barcelona: Lumen, 1974) this dedication—like the prologue to Indicios pánicos—was toned down. It became a short epigraph: ‘Por la revolución / por la poesía. René Depestre.’

  11. On one of their broadcasts on national radio—having taken over one of the main stations of Montevideo during the transmission of a football match between a Uruguayan and an Argentinian team—on 15 May 1969, the Tupamaros said: ‘They were Tupamaros, called “bandits” by the Spaniards, who joined Artigas' army and drove the foreigners out.’ (Quoted in Alain Labrousse, The Tupamaros [Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1973], 148.)

  12. Cristina Peri Rossi, El libro de mis primos (Montevideo: Biblioteca de Marcha, 1969), 173.

  13. See Ana María Barrenechea, ‘Ensayo de una tipología fantástica (a propósito de la literatura hispanoamericana),’ in Revista Iberoamericana, LXXX (1972), 391–403; and Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Methuen, 1981).

  14. Certain parallels can be seen between a paradigm of fantastic literature in Latin America, ‘Casa tomada,’ and ‘Los extraños objetos voladores’: each is a short story; in each an unnamed and perhaps supernatural presence takes over the characters' lives; the presence is in each case the main focus of the text (thus inviting the question, ‘What is the presence?’); the presence inspires fear or an uncanny feeling in both characters and reader. El libro de mis primos, on the other hand, displays parallels with the paradigm of ‘magical realism,’ namely Cien años de soledad (1967): each is a novel; in each, supernatural but not frightening or uncanny events (e.g. the decaying body of a father is still alive; self-propelling blood from the dead José Arcadio trickles across Macondo) are rhetorical tools rather than the main focus of the novel, thus making the question ‘What is X?’ less relevant to the meaning of the work as a whole. The difference in the degree of intelligibility between the metaphors of fantastic literature and magical realism (their degree of scriptibilité, to use Barthes' term) is also evident in the two texts by Peri Rossi: my interpretation of ‘Los extraños objetos voladores’ is probably more open to disagreement and expansion than that of El libro de mis primos.

  15. A local near contemporary and influential precedent of the genre of ‘denuncia’ novel is Benedetti's Gracias por el fuego (1965).

  16. The image of demolition/burial of old institutions and systems used by Federico in the last paragraph just quoted—‘habíamos sepultado a nuestros abuelos …’—is a recurrent one in Peri Rossi's (especially Uruguayan) work: see the similar endings of ‘Los juegos’ and ‘Los refugios’ in Los museos abandonados, as well as that of ‘El primer final’ in El libro de mis primos, and that of the story ‘La rebelión de los niños.’ The latter was published for the first time in Eco, 156 (1973), 465–89; as the author says in a preface to the 1980 edition of the eponymous book (Caracas: Monte Avila), she had written it before the coup in Uruguay, but chose not to publish it lest she should be considered a pessimist.

  17. This latter theme is also a concern of other contemporary Uruguayan women writers, notably Sylvia Lago, and especially in such collections of her short stories as Detrás del rojo (1967) and Las flores conjuradas (1972).

  18. Amongst the lumber in the cellar, incidentally, Oliverio and his mother find ‘un escudo de mar, muy blando y bien conservado, que tenía una estrella de cinco pétalos dibujada’ (39). A five-pointed star was the symbol used by the Tupamaros.

  19. See Julio Cortázar, ‘Algunos aspectos del cuento’ (Casa de las Américas, XV–XVI [1962–1963], 3–14).

Cynthia A. Schmidt (essay date fall–winter 1990)

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SOURCE: Schmidt, Cynthia A. “A Satiric Perspective on the Experience of Exile in the Short Fiction of Cristina Peri Rossi.” Americas Review 18, nos. 3–4 (fall–winter 1990): 218–26.

[In the following essay, Schmidt explores Peri Rossi's satiric treatment of exile in “La tarde del dinosaurio” and “La influencia de Edgar Allan Poe en la poesía de Raimuno Arias.”]

Cristina Peri Rossi's work was already well-known in her native Uruguay when she went into exile in Spain in 1972. Her years in exile have been highly productive. In addition to literary translations and journalistic writing, she has published four volumes of poetry, five collections of short stories and two novels. If we were to single out a common thematic thread unifying her works before and after exile, it could be her criticism of oppressive social structures. CPR explains the sense of continuity in her writings: “Escribo contra la realidad. Empecé a hacerlo porque la realidad que veía a mi alrededor—en mi casa, primero; luego en mi país—no me gustaba. Y sigo escribiendo, me parece, por la misma razón … En este sentido, poco importa cuál sea la realidad geográfica.”1

Exile, a reality which CPR has been forced to experience, is a frequent target of her satiric vision of social ills. Two highly imaginative short stories, “La tarde del dinosaurio” and “La influencia de Edgar Allan Poe en la poesía de Raimundo Arias” focus on the psychological trauma and social margination of the Uruguayans who were ideologically opposed to the military coup of 1973. The former is about exile within the limits of the country, while the latter tells a tale of extraterritorial exile. Imagination, fantasy, a keen sense of the absurd, irony and humor all come into play in CPR's vision of a reality which is other than the desired. In these stories, as in all of CPR's fiction, allegory serves as a structuring principle, linking the singular case to its abstract, universal meaning.

Both stories recount the events from the perspective of a child, and in both cases the loser of the local “war” is the child's father, represented as a worn-out small-time intellectual. No one escapes the critical vision—both the victors and the defeated are demystified. Far from attempting to detail a sweeping portrait of the Southern Cone diáspora, Peri Rossi's families are at once a microcosm of Uruguayan society and human society. Social catastrophe is interpreted in individual terms—defeat in politics is equated to loss in love, and loss of social esteem is reflected in the lucid uncompromising scrutiny of a young son or daughter.

“La tarde del dinosaurio” encompasses multiple levels of reading. On the literal level it is the story of a child of divorce who lives with his remarried mother and stepfather. The child feels sympathy for his real father, a social misfit, and resents his adoptive father, a highly successful businessman. Within this reading, the child's recurring nightmares of a huge brontosaurus can be interpreted as the result of the anguish and confusion caused by his family situation. On an allegorical level, the story depicts the fissures within Uruguayan society created by repressive military rule. The broken and re-formed family represents Uruguay after the coup of 1973. The natural father and the adoptive father are metaphors for the state, the mother embodies Uruguayan civil society and the child is at once the innocent victim of the fractured country and its future. Within the double articulation of the allegory, the regional situation is a reflection of Peri Rossi's vision of the human condition, permeated with millenary fears brought on by our own irrationality. My analysis will focus on how the story blends historical fact and free imagination to depict the alienating effect of social upheaval in Uruguay.

The narrator provides a brief historical allusion to account for the contrasting lifestyle of his two fathers: “ellos habían tenido … una guerra pequeña, no de las grandes guerras internacionales, … una guerra dentro de los límites del país, pero guerra al fin” (84)2. This reference undoubtedly corresponds to the period immediately before the coup when the Tupamaros assassinated several government officials, and President Bordaberry responded by declaring “internal war.”3 The narrator tells us the results of the war: “De la guerra había surgido un sentimiento de seguridad para unos y un sentimiento de inseguridad para otros” (84).

The boy's real father, to whom he refers as Father no. 1, is one of those who suffered adverse effects from the internal war. Father no. 1's situation and personal characteristics seem to parallel the liberal faction of the constitutional government in exile. The son's observation: “Le era muy difícil no preocuparse por todos los hombres y mujeres que encontraba en su camino” (98) hints at the socialist concept of a welfare-oriented polity. Father no. 1 lives in a state of internal exile. The child's description of him reveals both the causes and effect of his failure. Besides having lost the custody of his child, he is nearly indigent, and the reader is first introduced to him in terms of lack: “—¿No tendrás un cigarrillo para darme?—le había pedido su padre, el primero, el que no tenía oficina, ni casa en la ciudad, ni otra casa en el mar o en la montaña, ni auto propio, ni tenía televisor ni nevera ni mocasines de piel ni cigarrillos ni nada” (82).

This father is a journalist. One day he decides to show his articles to his son, but he has to look in drawers of unmatched socks and other unlikely places to gather them together. The articles run a gamut of topics from growing roses to sailing to instructions for preparing a delicious rice pudding. The narrator reflects: “Se ve que su padre era un tipo muy capaz. De escribir cualquier cosa” (85). In reality, he had never planted roses, he was afraid to sail and he hated rice. Despite the shortcomings he recognizes in Father no. 1, the child feels genuine sympathy for this tender and inept fellow: “Era más amable y más suave, vivía dando explicaciones de todo. A él le parecía que las explicaciones las usaba para sí mismo, porque le debía resultar muy complicado vivir” (84). Although kind-hearted and well-meaning, Father no. 1 is too weak, too reflective, and too beaten-down by life's problems to try to take control. He prefers to make peace. Thus, Father no. 1 echoes the bankrupt liberal faction which proved itself incapable of overcoming Uruguay's economic crisis and lost the capacity to articulate an alternative political response.4 Although it produced convincing rhetoric, it could not systematize a program and put its words into action.

Father no. 2, his mother's second husband and a winner of the war, represents the military dictatorship. He is depicted as if he were part of the Junta de Comandantes, the self-proclaimed builders of the nation: “Tenía una oficina toda para él. Parece que no se trataba de un empleado cualquiera, sino de un patrón algo así. Daba órdenes por un dictáfono y le mostraba la oficina como si toda fuera suya, como si él mismo, con gran esfuerzo, hubiera colocado piedra sobre piedra, ladrillo sobre ladrillo …” (82). The most salient characteristic of Father no. 2 is his authoritarianism: “daba órdenes con la aparente seguridad de que sus órdenes respondían íntimamente a los deseos ajenos” (85).

Peri Rossi's satiric picture of the military regime's vision of the future finds its symbol in “la máquina.” Father no. 2 insists his son accompany him to the office to admire “el último modelo de calculadora que hemos adquirido” (89), which the father proclaims to be “símbolo del futuro, símbolo de la unidad familiar, símbolo de esfuerzo y del genio del hombre” (94). When the father exhorts the child to think up an appropriate name for the machine, the boy reflects on its meaning: “la máquina parecía … un soldado que sólo cumplía órdenes, sin discutir, sin pensar, … un soldado exento de reflexión, pero adoctrinado, programado, útil para servir y para callar. Obediencia.” Obediencia thus encapsulates Peri Rossi's vision of the regimes' plan for its citizenry. The machine represents its impersonal and alienating rule as well as the sterile and unimaginative future to be created in a country where intellectuals were considered subversives, and the most talented and creative people were censored, imprisoned, tortured and exiled.

Although he has two fathers, the boy continues to have only one mother. The mother resembles Uruguayan civil society, weak and subordinated to a paternalistic state. His mother married young, and later found she was married to “un loco.” The way the child refers to her seems to disclose an attitude between resentment and resigned disgust: “su madre. O sea la esposa de su padre, que ya no era su esposa, aunque seguía siendo su madre. ¿Por qué uno no podía divorciarse de las madres, como había hecho su padre?” (83). Even though he disapproves of her fickle behavior he cannot disown his mother, just as one cannot disown the people of one's country. She is the average Uruguayan who initially supported the Left's demands for a restructuring of the economy to later reject them in favor of middle-class security. Turning against the liberal factions and succumbing to the military's gradual take-over, this sector acquiesced to the erosion and destruction of the constitutional government.

The boy is the country's youth who must grow up under the dictatorship and will inherit its legacy. He embodies the tension of living in a country divided by a civil war: he retains a feeling of loyalty to his real father, but he must live with and obey his adoptive father, the man his mother married. The boy's haunting oneiric vision—his recurring dream of a dinosaur emerging from the waters—is a pervasive and enigmatic symbol. When the monster first appears, the boy is afraid of it, but it gradually becomes familiar: “Se acostumbró a verlo aparecer, a nombrarlo, a caminar con él por las calles, a tenerlo por compañero y amigo. … Dino, monstruo ingenuo, y familiar” (99–100). The boy is aware that one day the dream creature will burst into his waking life and carry out the terrible threat of his dreams. When this happens, he realizes he must mediate between the dinosaur and the other people: “Su tarea consistía en detenerlo. Apaciguarlo. Domesticarlo. Evitar la destrucción. … También debía impedir que alguien lo matara al descubrirlo” (110).

The story draws to a close as the child witnesses the portentous emergence of the huge brontosaurus from the sea. It walks like a baby trying out its first steps in a fragile, watery territory. It looks toward the house and calls out “¡Papá!” In this final cry for help, for recognition or of warning, we realize the child has fused with his oneiric vision. This dinosaur is a paradoxical creature: he is baby-like but prehistoric, fearful yet familiar. He opposes Father no. 2's vision of the future as a supercomputer—the irruption of this irrational nightmare was not calculated in Father no. 2's meticulous plans for obedience, order and progress.

Explaining her use of nightmarish landscape, Peri Rossi provides important clues for the meaning of this symbol: “[S]omething I have felt most of my life [is] hallucination, the paranoiac hallucination of persecution is a way of interpreting and understanding the world. … For me literature is a vision, a creation of symbols to interpret and understand reality. This reality is nightmarish not only … because, for instance in Argentina thirty thousand people have disappeared and one out of five Uruguayans have suffered cruel torture and persecution, but also because when it is not the military, the totalitarian regime in power, who persecute us, there often remain our internal phantoms, our own hallucinations.”5

With the insight afforded by this statement, we can see Dino as an oneiric representation of paranoia of persecution at both a personal and political level. The prehistoric dinosaur represents the repressed horror at the torture and abuse of the regime which had accumulated gradually behind the boy's submissive daytime facade. The dinosaur is the revelation of the future, suggesting an apocalypse when the youth rise up against the absurd and alienating structures of the military dictatorship.

“La influencia de Edgar Allan Poe en la poesía de Raimundo Arias” deals with the trials of extraterritorial exile. The story is centered around a father and his young daughter who go into exile after the father is accused of professing “la fe marxista-leninista.” The mother had left them previously to join the guerillas. These characters do not correspond to specific political entities as in “La tarde” but rather represent the plight of exile in general.

The story develops through constant shifts between the two spaces created by the experience of exile: the “here and now” as opposed to the “over there and then.” The “here and now” is a European country, unnamed, but obviously Spain. The father returns home after a hard day trying to sell jabones-maravilla in the streets of a bustling city. His daughter, Alicia, informs him that they have no money. Continuing what seems to be a daily ritual for the pair, the father studies his address book and admits there is no one they can ask for money. The story ends as Alicia, dressed as a Charrúa Indian, goes out the door to beg for money in the streets. This story line is constantly interrupted with extended flashbacks relating the experiences of the father and daughter in their country of origin, their ocean voyage and their arrival.

The “over there and then” is their non-European country where there was a revolution. Paradoxically, an element of differentiation between the country of origin and the country of refuge, according to Alicia, is their common language: “Ella comió … pan con mantequilla y mermelada de melocotón, que era como en este país llamaban a los duraznos. … las frutillas eran fresas, en el país donde habían decidido ir, por hablar el mismo idioma.” (51)

The characters' displacement results in disorientation, humiliation and loss of identity. The humiliation of the father is a leitmotif of the story. Life seems to be nothing but a series of indignities for him, in his own country as well as in the country of refuge, and in his relations with both his wife and his pre-adolescent daughter. In Europe, the humiliation begins at the moment of disembarkment: “nadie les recibió, mas bien fueron mal-recibidos” (48). The narrator provides an endless list of all the documents they were required to present. An absurd situation is created when the Spanish functionary insists the presence of the mother is necessary in order for the girl to enter the country: “—Deberá venir la madre a confirmar que la niña es fruto del matrimonio con usted—… Usted puede ser un delincuente, un raptor, un violador de menores, y esta niña, su rehén” (49–50). They decide to perform a blood test to verify his paternity. Here we see a literal translation of the figurative expression as the Spanish authorities extract blood from the father-daughter couple: “un cuarto de litro de sangre más de lo necesario, como se hacía con los extranjeros, porque eran extranjeros” (50). In exile, the father suffers daily humiliation to survive as he fights his way down the jammed sidewalks, peddling soap.

The indignity he suffers in exile is a variation of that which he experienced in his own country. Through the contrast between the father, a literary critic and would-be novelist, and his revolutionary wife, Peri Rossi satirizes the perceived superfluousness of the academic at a time of political upheaval. The title of the story is a paper the father is writing. He runs into his wife's sister, a screen for a clandestine revolutionary group, in a grocery store. He is attracted to her and would have liked to show her his paper, but he tells himself “ella no tenía tiempo para esas cosas.” As if to confirm the father's imagined belittlement in the eyes of his sister-in-law, the reader is given access to her thoughts: “Ella pensó que era una lástima que él fuera un intelectual pequeño-burgués, tal como le había dicho su hermana antes de abandonarlo” (46). He was working on a novel about the revolution at the time his wife joined the guerilla.

Heaped upon his feelings of disparagement as an intellectual, is his sexual emasculation. To cover up when his wife goes underground, they say she went to Czechoslovakia with another man; thus he meekly assumes the public image of a man betrayed by his wife. We note the reversal between the traditional male and female roles—when she becomes a warrior, he must become the caregiver for their daughter. It seems he is ill-equipped for violent tasks: when they are taking his blood for the paternity test in Spain, he faints as he always does when he sees blood. At this moment he recalls his wife's admonition: “Así no se puede hacer la revolución” (50).

Finally, he must endure disapproval from his young daughter. He is expulsed from the country for having written “artículos que eran verdaderos panegíricos a la turba guerrillera que pretendía socavar la patria y el prestigio de las instituciones nacionales. Muy dignamente asió a su hija de la mano—no soy objeto, para que me lleves en brazos, dijo ella—” (47). Precisely in the moment when he wanted desperately to summon up all his self-respect, he is forced to face insubordination from a child. The reader does not fail to see the irony of the dangerous subversive intentions the government attributes to a man who is seen as a useless intellectual by his wife and sister-in-law. At the moment of disembarkment, Alicia observes that no one has come to meet them, to which the father replies, “Bien sabes que no soy un jugador de fútbol.” Alicia looks at her father's skinny legs in his only pair of pants, “y reflexionó que como hija no había tenido demasiado suerte” (47–48).

With the repatriation comes a loss of identity. On one hand, the father and daughter feel isolated from and misunderstood by the Europeans, and, on the other, their presence in Europe makes them aware of their lack of knowledge regarding their own cultural heritage. As Alicia dons her Indian costume, the father and daughter realize how little they know about their country's original inhabitants because they were destroyed by the Spaniards and reelaborated by Hollywood. Alicia's disguise is a creative and cynical solution to their economic problems. In order to survive in this hostile land, she exploits the Europeans' ignorance regarding Latin America, projecting a false image of an indigenous population which bears correspondence to neither the reality of her country nor her own cultural identity.

The transition between the home land and the country of refuge—the sea voyage—creates a third space, both in the surface of the narrative and in psychic dimensions. This passage is characterized by loss, symbolized by the loss of time as they sail from west to east. Alicia is incensed by the fact that they have stolen four hours from her. She imagines traffickers in stolen time: “Pensó en barcos … que atravesaban el mar con su carga secreta de tiempo … robado … a involuntarios emigrados, como su padre y ella” (53). Her image creates a metaphor for the exiles' divestment of their inalienable rights. “—Putaquelosparió a los barcos—” Alicia cries out. This emotional outburst expresses her feeling of impotence in the face of cosmic injustice. Her father does not know how to comfort her about the lost time, nor has he any consolation for the even greater injustices of which he has been victim: “le habían robado mucho más de cuatro horas, y no había podido hacer casi nada para cambiar el orden de las cosas” (52).

In the new country, Alicia becomes her father's parent. She assumes control and treats him like a child, and he, in turn, behaves childishly and is submissive to her. The role reversal symbolizes the overwhelming psychological effects of exile. So debilitating is the exile, and so incapable is the father of reconciling himself to it and facing up to the continual humiliation that he experiences infantile regression. The shock of violent times and sudden change has had the opposite effect on Alicia, causing her to mature overnight.

The father attributes his daughter's resilience and ingenuity to the idea that her generation is a new breed: “Esta era otra raza, provista de una singular resistencia … habían asimilado las enseñanzas de íntimas, oscurísimas derrotas … Concebidas en noches amargas” (58–59). However, since Peri Rossi's vision of a disharmonious and fractured world allows for no heroes, Alicia's final words serve to demystify this elevated vision of the country's youth: “—Estoy segura de que lo que piensas acerca de nuestra generación es completamente falso” (59).

In these stories, CPR uses free imagination to dramatize the dehumanizing effects of civil war, the implantation of an authoritarian regime and exile. In addition to her criticism of the practices of the military regime, CPR implicates the reasons why liberal intellectuals—persons like herself—failed to prevent the military take-over and had to go into exile. The self-mockery we glimpse behind the satirization of tired, impotent journalists and literary critics allows no room for self-indulgent pity. The unrelenting and unforgiving child observer will accept no justification or rationalization for this failure. CPR's intuitive creatures, surely first cousins to the child who cried out, “The emperor has no clothes on,” do not hesitate to expose the perversity and falsehood which surrounds them. Their creative and unexpected self-transformations serve to both defy and parody the alienating structures of which they are victims. While the ominous dinosaur is a paranoiac response to life under the dictatorship, Alicia's Indian disguise calls attention to the humiliation and incomprehension which the Latin American exiles must endure in Europe.


  1. Interview with Ana Basualdo, “Cristina Peri Rossi: Apocalipsis y paraíso,” El Viejo topo 56 (1981): 48.

  2. Cristina Peri Rossi, La tarde del dinosauro (Barcelona: Plaza & Janés, 1985). Page numbers following all quotations from the stories correspond to this edition.

  3. Martin Weinstein, Uruguay. Democracy at the Crossroads (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988): 41.

  4. Ibid, 47–49

  5. Psiche Hughes, “Interview with Cristina Peri Rossi,” Unheard Words. Mineke Schipper, ed. (New York: Allison & Busby, 1984): 267–68.

Gabriela Mora (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4413

SOURCE: Mora, Gabriela. “Enigmas and Subversions in Cristina Peri Rossi's La nave de los locos [Ship of Fools.]” In Splintering Darkness: Latin American Women Writers in Search of Themselves, edited by Lucia Guerra Cunningham, pp. 19–30. Pittsburgh: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Mora provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of La nave de los locos, focusing on the story's ambiguity and emphasis on harmony.]

The Uruguayan Cristina Peri Rossi has published four books of poetry and eight of prose including two novels and six collections of stories. Committed to change in literature, politics and sexual mores, Peri Rossi breaks generic modes and traditional patterns and speaks with great imagination against oppression and the abuse of power.1 The author's political and artistic sophistication, evident in her first novel El libro de mis primos [My Cousins' Book], are found again in La nave de los locos [Ship of Fools] as we hope will be shown when we analyze one aspect of its many facets. Peri Rossi's clear understanding of the deep causes of social injustice are not readily apparent to the reader. Her/his active participation is required to perceive those causes through the novel's elliptic and indirect techniques. The ambiguity produced by the mixing of different modes of writing in Ship of Fools is reinforced by changes of narrators and points of view as well as the omission or distortion of information about time, place and the background of characters.

The title of the novel attests to Peri Rossi's ambitious project. She uses the old medieval metaphor worked by, among others, Sebastian Brant in the fifteenth century (Narrenschiff) and Michel Foucault in the twentieth (Histoire de la Folie) to examine the human behaviour that results in suffering and world devastation.

Like other contemporary fiction, Ship of Fools is ruled by the principles of heterogeneity and multiplicity of meanings. Contributing to this polisemic character is the dense intertextual network with explicit references to Borges, Cortázar, and Foucault, and implicit ones to Georges Bataille and Pierre Klossowski, among others.2 Although this subject deserves a special study, it will not be the object of our attention. Rather, we want to explore the connections that unify the seemingly disparate pieces that compose the structure of the novel. We intend to see what certain events and situations—a sea voyage, a battered woman, a man who “disappears,” a limp phallus, and the obstacles to obtaining an abortion—have in common.

The abundant metafictional material of the novel is a good guide for approaching its format. For example, the description that the character Morris provides of his own book could be that of Peri Rossi's Ship of Fools. Morris does not know if his text is “a short novel, a long story, or a narrative essay.” He does know, however, that “within the epic nature of the whole,” some “poetic fragments are found” (127).3 The narrative mode dominates in Ship of Fools, although like Morris's book, it also has essayistic passages and other pages that qualify as poetry. Moreover, Equis, who in the traditional novel would function as the hero, thinks that the trip he has embarked upon could be the basis for a book of “long crossings that begin unceasingly and never end” (15), mirroring the episodes of Ship of Fools where characters appear and disappear in the flow of new narratives. A closer look at the novel's structure will help to clarify this point.

According to the table of contents, Ship of Fools is composed of twenty-one fragments entitled “The Voyage,” principally concerned with the character called Equis (i.e. “X”). Of different lengths, these fragments are interrupted by pieces not listed in that table such as newspaper items (70, 155, 182), footnotes (25, 28, 37, 61), fictional questionnaires (127, 157), songs (191), or a poem (39). Nonetheless, the principal interruptions are twelve descriptions of sections of a medieval tapestry found in the Cathedral of Gerona.4

Printed in italics, as distinct from the type faces used in the rest of the novel, these descriptions explain the creation of the world as depicted in the tapestry. In our reading, these descriptions constitute the heart of the poetics on which the book is grounded. The following passage, while referring to the tapestry, is one of the many metafictional signs pointing to the construction of the narrative and its deep meaning:

What we admire in the tapestry, besides its fine work, its beautiful weaving and the harmony of its colors, is its structure; a structure so perfect and geometrical, so verifiable that even though half has disappeared, it is possible to reconstruct the whole, if not on the wall of the cathedral, certainly in the loom of one's mind. There the missing pieces unfold as fragments of harmony whose meaning is the metaphor of the universe. What we love in any structure is a composition of the world that orders the meaning of the devouring chaos, an hypothesis that is understandable and therefore restorative. It helps to alleviate our feeling of fugacity and dispersion, our desolate experience of disorder

(my emphasis)

Lo que admiramos en la obra, además de su fina elaboración, de su bello entramado y la armonía de sus colores, es una estructura; una estructura tan perfecta y geométrica, tan verificable que aún habiendo desaparecido casi su mitad, es posible reconstruir el todo, si no en el muro de la catedral, en el bastidor de la mente. Allí se despliegan los metros que faltan, como fragmentos de una armonía cuyo sentido es la metáfora del universo. Lo que amamos en toda estructura es una composición del mundo, un significado que ordene el caos devorador, una hipótesis comprensible y por ende reparadora. Repara nuestro sentimiento de la fuga y de la dispersión, nuestra desolada experiencia del desorden

(21, mi subrayado)

In opposition to the tapestry of perfect symmetry and intelligible meaning reflecting the medieval artisan's notion that “all things that (God) had made were very good” (150), Ship of Fools has a very asymmetrical composition and proposes enigmas whose hidden meanings are not easily solved. Faithful, however, to the metafictional character of the quotation above, the novel does represent “our desolate experience of disorder.” Like the tapestry, the book is a “structure that is a metaphor” of the “devouring chaos” of today's life. Furthermore, the meaningful “whole” has to be reconstructed in the mind of the reader who, like the person looking at the tapestry, has to fill the gaps and sew together the fragments to see that the “convincing and pleasant structure” that “is a metaphor,” is at the same time a “reality” (21).

As we will try to show, the various episodes and characters of the novel illustrate in one way or another the desire of harmony we see as the underlying theme linking the different fragments. Harmony is understood in general as acts accepted as natural, as phenomena integrated in a balanced way into a system “set upon the hypothesis of a stable eternity” (187). This longing for a world ordered more harmoniously has nothing to do with religion or the wish to return to a past as ‘disordered’ as the present. The feeling of loss afflicting most of the characters is not for a lost world but for the possibility of a better one that could (have) exist(ed).5

Following the subversive aims characteristic of her previous works, Peri Rossi in Ship of Fools imagines situations that break acceptable forms of social conduct.6 The desire to make natural acts that transgress social taboos seems to be inspired by the medieval tapestry with its emphasis on the harmonious integration of the “monsters” peacefully accommodated among the other creatures:

The sea monsters of the tapestry do not inspire fear. They are integrated harmoniously into the great system of creation, along with the birds and the plants. They are strange creatures, but neither terrifying nor grotesque, like the amphisbena or the myrmeleon. They glide through the waters in a natural way, without any apparent desire to stand out, and the fish which surround them do not experience any feeling of competition or danger

(114, my emphasis)

Los monstruos marinos del tapiz no inspiran temor. Se integran armoniosamente al gran sistema de la creación, junto a las aves y a las plantas. Son criaturas curiosas, pero no terroríficas o extravagantes, como la anfibena o el mirmecolen. Se deslizan por las aguas de una manera natural, sin aparentes deseos de sobresalir y los peces que las rodean no experimentan ninguna sensación de competencia o de peligro

(114, mi subrayado)

The reference to contemporary phenomena in the last line brings us to focus on the equivalents to those “monsters” in the novel, who unlike those of the tapestry are not integrated harmoniously into the system.

Equis, for example, is attracted to books and old women. One episode describes his seduction of a very fat 68-year-old lady (he is 33), who speaks a language that Equis does not understand. In describing the meeting, the narrator emphasizes the “serenity and placidness” on the face of the woman (77), whose smile is for Equis “the model of harmony, (the model) of the order of the universe” (78). The act of love takes place in a “serene room” (81), and is told without hint of mockery or grotesque parody (tones Peri Rossi uses very well in her earlier novel) but with dignity and ‘naturalness.’ When with gentle tenderness Equis has managed to take off her clothes, he sees her: “Splendid, in her fatness, without clothing, her legs together and twisted a little bit inwards, hairless with her few pale pubic hairs almost imperceptible … Equis contemplated her as one of those marvelous creatures … one of those imaginary beings appearing in dreams and color illustrations.” (Espléndida en su gordura, sin ropas, las piernas muy juntas y un poco torcidas hacia adentro; imberbe, con los pocos pelos claros del pubis casi imperceptibles … Equis la contempló como a una de esas maravillosas criaturas … como a los seres imaginarios que aparecen en los sueños y en las láminas” (83).

The coupling of Equis and the character Graciela as soon as they meet might not seem very ‘normal’ to many readers either. Much younger than the man, the girl is a free spirit who does what she pleases, such as initiating sexual relations with strangers. Besides not living with her family, Graciela smokes marijuana and keeps a supply of contraceptives in her guitar/suitcase (83–93). This ‘reprehensible behaviour,’ however, is accompanied by an alert intelligence and a kind, generous heart.

Even more unacceptable perhaps is the love that Morris, a man in his thirties, feels for Percival, a nine-year old boy. Their meeting and the development of their relationship, as in the story of Equis and the old lady, evoke a feeling of clean and respectful dignity. Morris is an eccentric collector and an enemy of the contemporary city. Percival, according to him, is a true “knight of the Holy Grail” (144), “beautiful, tender and wise” (146). Similar to Peri Rossi's other “wise” children (in the short stories of La rebelión de los niños, for example), this boy with the soul and the tongue of a poet takes pleasure in frequenting a duckpond because he is sensitive to the “harmony and placid affinities” he sees in the integration of birds and water (134). The equilibrium “that the water of the lake and the ducks maintained naturally” has been broken by destructive hands trying to poison both water and birds (137). The child who has witnessed this acts as the ducks' guardian. The love born between Morris and Percival is taken by the boy's mother with ‘naturalness.’ Described by her son as “intelligent and sensual,” the woman happily sails with them on a voyage to Africa where each will study the areas that appeal to their curiosity (146).

The light-heartedness of these love stories contrasts with the somberness of other fictional episodes. These episodes, however, are not only accepted by many people in the ‘real’ world, but are repeated with the frequency of ‘normal’ behaviour. The events include the disappearance of Vercingetrix for political reasons, the odyssey of Lucía, a poor single woman looking for an abortion, and Equis' meeting with a prostitute deformed by beatings.7

The juxtaposition of these and the other episodes we have alluded to invites the reader to ask why society accepts the fact that a political enemy can be made to disappear, a woman beaten, or obstacles put in the way of those seeking an abortion, while it rejects love affairs based on tenderness and respect. Which is natural and which against nature? No doubt the novel with its allusions to the tapestry implies that the dirt and poverty of contemporary cities, like the aggression against the ‘disappeared,’ the prostitute and the pregnant woman, are in sharp contrast to the naturalness and harmony of a world of ideal equilibrium. Therefore, it seems also ‘natural’ that in the composition of the novel certain motifs such as exile and the oppression of women are touched upon frequently.

A quote from the Book of Exodus introduces the motif of exile at the beginning of Ship of Fools. The concept is treated in the broadest sense, appearing in many forms: the exile is the “foreigner,” the “stranger,” the “interloper,” “the fugitive,” among others (10). Equis and Vercingetrix are political exiles who remember “bad times when many people were persecuted” in countries ruled by generals, a clear reference to recent events in the Southern Cone.8

Morris has exiled himself from a country incompatible with his tastes and desires. Gordon, on the other hand, is an American astronaut who cannot adjust to the Earth after his trip to the moon for which he feels a “perpetual nostalgia” (109). Graciela is running away from a “bureaucratic” and “authoritarian” father (99). All these expatriates live on a beautiful island significantly called Pueblo de Dios (The Village of God), that seems to replace the paradise they all have lost.9 The importance of the human condition of exile, felt deeply by all the characters, is summed up by Equis who thinks “exile is the true condition of mankind” (106).

Peri Rossi's concern with the oppression of women is developed in the novel through the stories of the battered prostitute and of Lucía, the pregnant woman. However, it is also found in other forms and in the statements of other characters. For example, Percival's mother divorced her husband because he wanted “a woman that cooks well and takes care of the plants” instead of an “intelligent, educated wife” (147). In a fragment of her confessions, Eve—the Biblical character—complains she is unable to escape the conventions imposed on her and must “hide forever the conflicts arising from those impositions” (153). This short section is immediately followed by a news item in which a woman, not her male companion, is accused of being responsible for her pregnancy (155). Finally, Graciela, who reads about the Nazi experiments on women, plans to go to Africa to investigate the practice of infibulation (mutilation of the clitoris and/or the vulva) to pursue her writing on “the oppression of women” (148).10

Ship of Fools oppressed women, like its persecuted males, illustrate the central motif of the “exile,” the “suspicious stranger” who must be kept away because his/her presence subverts the conventional order. In the composition and ideology of the novel, the aggressive ways in which the world (both ‘real’ and fictional) keeps these people apart is a break in the harmony of the universe. Discarded with them—and sailing on the ship of the book's title—are the old, the children, the insane, and the deformed all separated from the ‘normal’ and lacking in power.11

At the beginning we stated that Ship of Fools shows a decided inclination towards the ambiguous and the unresolved. Perhaps the most difficult passages of this kind are to be found in two scenes included in the section “El Viaje XXI: El enigma” (The Voyage XXI: the Enigma). The first tells of Equis' meeting the poor prostitute who grateful for his attention, offers him free sex. The sexual act does not take place because, Equis explains, it has been a long time since “he has had an erection” (188). The important thing about the incident is that neither of the two mind the lack of potency. On the contrary both find in “impotence a kind of harmony” (188).

The second event occurs in a pornographic theater where two women enact a scene of lesbian love. One of the women is Lucía (now loved and searched for by Equis) dressed as a man imitating Marlene Dietrich; the other mimics Dolores del Río. Putting aside the question of whether the scene is an erotic or a pornographic one, the reader has to ask about its relationship to the rest of the novel.12 The passage, seeded with ambiguities, offers no simple answers and ours is clearly tentative.

As the title of the section indicates, here is an enigma. The enigma is related to a riddle Equis repeatedly dreams about: “What is the greatest tribute a man can offer the woman he loves?” (163) Equis finds the solution just after witnessing the lesbian stage act. The answer, according to the text, is “his virility,” which if clear to the character, is not to the reader given the rich connotational weight of the word virility. An obvious explanation of the enigma that has troubled Equis for so many pages (183, 187, 189, 190) treats virility as a synonym of the male organ. This solution, however, seems too simple for the semantic doublings and redoublings arising from the use of the word in the text. Another approach juxtaposes the first scene in which the flaccidness of the penis is taken naturally with the second where the sexual act lacks the male organ.13

In making the juxtaposition one must also keep in mind an idea that often appears in the text: In the equilibrium longed for in the novel, anything accidental or unexpected is the enemy of harmony, understood also as stability. An explicit eruption of chance with unfortunate consequences comes from the erect penis: unwanted pregnancy (as in the case of Lucía).14 Perfect stability is found by the novel's narrator in paintings and tapestries, because they fix time and space and so stop the intrusion of chance (175). Thus the book establishes a direct relation between chance, the erect phallus and the oppression of women.

After reviewing these words and scenes, it seems legitimate to think that Ship of Fools proposes as natural and therefore harmonious the man with a relaxed, non-aggressive penis. The tentative phrasing we adopt is to suggest the polysemic character of these sections and at the same time to recall that the novel presents itself from the beginning as a metaphor of reality. In the world metaphor represented in the book, the exaltation of the fallen penis accords with the novel's design to illuminate the lives of people thought of as “different.” In the fervent call for universal harmony, it seems just to include the man of the limp phallus, who in a ‘macho’ society is considered ‘inferior.’

Metaphorically, then, in finding harmony in the flaccid penis and in representing sexual pleasure without penetration, we believe Ship of Fools attacks the old mythologies built upon the erect phallus and its positive signs: masculinity, potency, virility. In other words, the novel in the Lacan fashion takes the phallus as a cultural symbol on which social phenomena like aggressiveness and dominance have been founded.

The relations between the characters of the novel, their actions and words, are ruled by mutual respect; there is neither coercion nor a wish for power. Individual peculiarities are accepted “naturally” without any sign of surprise, reproach or disguised paternalism. As opposed to the madmen of Brant's ship carrying all kinds of “sinners” (gluttons, adulterers, liars, the ambitious, the envious, etc), in Peri Rossi's voyage the true lunatics are the tyrannical generals, violent husbands, greedy doctors, and people blind to injustice who expel from society those who do not conform.

If we are right and the wish for harmony is the underlying theme of the text, there should be in the novel an obvious tension between the desire representing the permanent and stable and the urge for renovation and change. As we have shown, art is appreciated in Ship of Fools because contrary to life, which “rarely can stop the humiliation of chance,” art eliminates it (175). But art also teaches, and as Foucault has demonstrated, knowledge is linked intimately to power and sexuality (L'Historie de la sexualité). Very conscious of the distance that exists between art and life, Peri Rossi presents a literal (in the typography) and metaphoric confrontation between the tapestry of unchangeable harmony and all those episodes illustrating the aggressive exercise of power. At the same time, however, the characters and their actions represent resistance to that power through the transgression of social arrangements. And isn't resistance to aggression a way of restoring the lost equilibrium?


  1. A listing with brief descriptions of Peri Rossi's works is found in Women Writers of Spanish America: An Annotated Bio-bibliographical Guide edited by Diane E. Marting (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987), 302–304. The same editor and press will publish Fifty Spanish American Women Writers, which will include my longer essay with comments on Peri Rossi's major themes. Publication is scheduled for late 1988 or early 1989.

  2. In the first edition of La nave de los locos (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1984), the one used in this study, Cortázar and Foucault appear on page 97, Borges on 40 and 97. The reference to Klosowski is explicit in the title of the poem “Las leyes de la hospitalidad” (39), the name under which the Frenchman collected Robert ce soir, La révocation de l'édit de Nantes, and Le souffleur. Klosowski's work is implicit in, among other passages, the invocation of androgyny and bisexuality. In Peri Rossi's novel, Morris categorizes his book as “androgynous” (129). Traces of some of the best known ideas of Bataille may be found in the exaltation of eroticism, associated in Ship of Fools with “metaphysical trembling” (41), a la Bataille. The allusions to the pleasure of giving, freed from the sign of exchange, incarnated in some of The Ship of Fools' characters, and the preoccupation with incest (a frequent motif in Peri Rossi's narratives) have affinities with Bataille's work.

  3. The translations are my own throughout this essay. I am conscious that some of the lyrical qualities of Peri Rossi's style are lost in translation as will be seen in the longer passages. Does the challenge posed by the extraordinary richness of her work account for the dearth of translation?

  4. Peri Rossi's description of the Gerona tapestry corresponds with those found in the pertinent guides. For example, see Mariano Oliver Alberti, La catedral de Gerona (Len: Ed. Everest, 1973), p. 57.

  5. A footnote on page 20 reads: “But any harmony supposes the destruction of the real elements opposed to it, that is why it is almost always symbolic. Equis contemplated the tapestry like an ancient legend whose rhythm fascinates us, but does not provoke nostalgia” (“Pero cualquier armonía supone la destrucción de los elementos reales que se le oponen, por eso es casi siempre simbólica. Equis contempló el tapiz como una vieja leyenda cuyo ritmo fascina, pero que no provoca nostalgia”). This passage is another important metafictional sign for the symbolic character the novel adopts when referring to social situations. The symbolic nature of the notion harmony ought to be taken into account especially in the final pages of my analysis.

  6. See Hugo Verani, “Una experiencia de límites: la narrativa de Cristina Peri Rossi,” Revista Iberoamericana, 118–119 (1982), 303–316. On El libro de mis primos, see my study in The Analysis of Literary Texts: Current Trends in Methodology, edited by Randolph D. Pope (Michigan: Bilingual Press, 1980), 66–77.

  7. Peri Rossi's depiction of the concentration camp where Vercingetrix is imprisoned (58), vividly recalls the one recreated by Lina Wertmüller in the film “Seven Beauties.” The connection is not accidental, for both the author and the novel's characters show a great interest in the movies. For example, see Equis' passion for Julie Christie (22–26) or the erotic scene with the imitators of Marlene Dietrich and Dolores del Río (191 ff).

  8. The novel omits or mischievously disguises the geographical and chronological cues that would lead to a known referent. However, the episode of Vercingetrix's disappearance contains one of the few specific geographical references to the Southern Cone. Vercingetrix “had been a child” in Bahía Blanca where his father went on a business trip (61).

  9. From Peri Rossi's references to Ramón Lull, Pueblo de Dios probably alludes to Palma de Majorca where the medieval philosopher lived.

  10. From a feminist perspective, among the many subjects of interest in the novel is that of the non-erect phallus which I treat only in relation to my central premise. Of course there are other possible interpretations. Also suggestive are the answers forty schoolchildren in the novel give to a questionnaire on Adam and Eve: the humor in the children's answers hides painful truths (157–161).

  11. There are poor and abandoned children in the description of a contemporary city (186). Vercingetrix feels attracted to a circus midget, an angry blonde (57). The section “El viaje VIII La nave de los locos” deals directly with the fate of the insane in the sixteenth century (49–53). Insanity is ever present in the actions of the aggressors who have the power to put a man in a concentration camp, make war and act unjustly.

  12. The difference between erotic and pornographic writing continues to be debated. Some fundamental ideas, related somewhat to Peri Rossi's position on the matter, are found in Georges Bataille's L'Erotisme and Michel Foucault's L'Histoire de la sexualité.

  13. In the scene with the prostitute, Equis' sex organ is described: “his flaccid member between his legs did not merit anybody's comments” (“el sexo fláccido entre las piernas, que no merecía observación de nadie” (188). On the other hand, the male spectators in the pornographic theatre are described as having “an ‘unreflexed’ muscle between the legs” (“un músculo reflejo entre las piernas” 190).

  14. The novel refers to the unwanted pregnancy thus: “And the source of anguish. Thousands of daily condoms from which an unnoticeable drop slips. To continue the chain of (unlucky) chance.” (Y la fuente de angustia. Miles de condones diarios de los cuales se desliza una gota imperceptible. Para continuar la cadena del azar” (174).

This is a translation of a modified version of “La búsqueda de la armonía en La nave de los locos,Nuevo texto crítico (Stanford, California) in 1989.

Christine Arkinstall (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Arkinstall, Christine. “Fabrics and Fabrications in Cristina Peri Rossi's La nave de los locos.” In Travellers' Tales, Real and Imaginary, in the Hispanic World and Its Literature, edited by Alun Kenwood, pp. 150–58. Melbourne: Voz Hispanica, 1992.

[In the following essay, Arkinstall analyzes Peri Rossi's use of the Tapestry of the Creation from the Gerona Cathedral and sixteenth-century paintings as metaphors in La nave de los locos.]

The novel La nave de los locos by the Uruguayan writer, Cristina Peri Rossi, resident in Spain since 1972, has close links with her own life. The perpetual state of exile suffered by her character Equis or “X” can well be connected with the enforced exile of his creator, as Peri Rossi, a militant dissident in the left-wing coalition Frente Amplio, had to abandon Uruguay shortly before the military coup.1 The theme of exile embodied by Equis reveals Peri Rossi's opposition to all totalitarian governments, since, as she declares, Equis “huye permanentemente del fascismo, pero no sólo … del fascismo político sino de todas las formas de violencia.”2

La nave de los locos, published in Spain in 1984, is thus the product of the exiled person's perspective, which is, for Peri Rossi, “un estímulo para admitir la diversidad y rechazar cualquier sistema u opinión reduccionista.”3 To distance oneself from the world, thus seeing it from another perspective, permits hidden facets of a reality that one thought one knew to be discovered. Consequently, the novel aims at defamiliarising a given reality so that one may contemplate it from another angle and begin, like Equis, from the reader's armchair, a symbolic voyage of no return.4

For Peri Rossi, navigation is a metaphor for the creative act,5 an equation that has been stressed by the critic Luis Martul Tobío: “Entre los motivos predilectos de Peri Rossi hay algunos de tradición intensa como el del viaje y, más concretamente, el del viaje marítimo. Este, como en la poesía de Mallarmé, es navegación o naufragio, inspiración y escritura o silencio.”6 In La nave, Peri Rossi once again takes this topical metaphor of the sea as the source of linguistic creation and transforms it into the linguistic map through which the reader travels in search of another land or reality, unknown because it has been suppressed.7

Consequently, it is not surprising that the novel's main axes are two forms of representation which also highlight the importance of the gaze and of reading or interpretation: the Tapestry of the Creation of the Gerona Cathedral, which dates from the eleventh or twelfth century, and a sixteenth-century painting entitled “La nave de los locos” or “Ship of Fools.” This choice is hardly coincidental, given that both the tapestry and the painting constitute two conceptual constructions representative of a hierarchical power model. Although the world of the tapestry, apparently perfectly harmonious, represents “un significado que orden[a] el caos devorador,” it is, in reality, “una metáfora donde todo el universo está encerrado” (21); that is to say, a referential framework which reduces the world to one legitimate image. As far as the painting is concerned, the ship, with its cargo of mad people condemned by society to float over the oceans until the vessel sinks, also bears witness to the violence and death on which supposed perfection rests. As is stated in the novel, “cualquier armonía supone la destrucción de los elementos reales que se le oponen” (20, n.1).

Like the act of navigation, the tapestry also represents a creative process. As Juan-Eduardo Cirlot indicates, the tapestry or fabric is an ancient symbol of life, being composed of the passive and active elements of woof and warp, respectively.8 Although such a combination may well be seen as a metaphor for the shared and equal creation of the world by man and woman, the plot woven by the Creation Tapestry presents the male figure as the only creator, without any allusion whatsoever to woman's work, as essential in the sphere of life as in the creative process of the Tapestry itself. It must be remembered that, according to mythology, the first weavers were female figures, such as Isis and Arachne.9

The figure of Arachne proves to be especially relevant as far as the theme of weaving developed in the novel is concerned, as Arachne, deprived of a public means of expression, uncovers in her tapestries the violence inherent in the love relationships of the gods: the rape of women and their subsequent transformation into nature in order to prevent public knowledge of such crimes. Arachne paid for this disclosure with her life, when Athena, Zeus's daughter and mouthpiece, killed her and changed her into a spider. Athena then replaced Arachne's tapestry with one of her own which depicted the glory of the gods, thus tacitly condoning the use of violence towards women. This story, symbolic of patriarchy's suppression of the dissident voice, is represented in the embodying of the universe's negative and positive principles in Arachne or the spider and God, respectively.10 Whereas dissident history, represented by Arachne's tapestries, is not only silenced, but also likened to a malignant nature, man's is deified.

Also fundamental to Arachne's story is the gods' jealousy of the creative power of woman, capable of producing, like the spider, with her own bodily fluids. In the eyes of patriarchy, however, the jealous one is woman. This point of view is evident in more recent times in Freud's theories, which maintain that woman probably invented the art of weaving when she attempted to form, with her public hair, the penis she supposedly lacks.11

If, on the one hand, the medieval Tapestry represents a concentric and phallogocentric universe fabricated by the Creator or “Rex Fortis” (68) on patriarchy's conceptual frame, on the other, Peri Rossi's words—the secretions of her tongue—bear witness to Arachne's strangled truth and to the atrocities perpetrated by the earthly gods or dictators. Consequently, in her text, the ship of fools does not so much allude to what the ideal representation of power considers to be undesirable and thus casts out of society, as to the insanity of a linguistic and ideological order that is responsible for the world's shipwreck.12

The totalitarian construction of the Tapestry, with its different sections perfectly integrated into the univocal theme of the divine creation, is challenged by Peri Rossi's own text: a polyphonic mixture of multiple genres, styles and intertextual references,13 in which the parable, the fairy-tale, newspaper cuttings and other passages that seem straight out of a science-fiction novel are present.14

Particularly relevant is the insertion in the novel of extracts taken from a supposed tourist guide on the Tapestry, which transpose into linguistic images the same patriarchal vision present in the wall-hanging.15 However, out of their context—the omniscient guide—these descriptive passages are rendered unfamiliar, thus revealing their ideological framework. On many occasions, this defamiliarising effect is reinforced still further when Peri Rossi takes up again, in subsequent chapters, the elements of the Tapestry that the guide has just explained, in order to reinterpret and subvert them.16 Likewise, the constant use of irony also serves a distancing function, preventing the reader from identifying with the represented world.

Consequently, throughout the novel, a literal language which imposes one definition only of reality is being continually contrasted with an ambiguous, fantastic and thus, demythicising language which turns the known world upside down.17 If, as Peri Rossi declares, “sólo los psicóticos … confunden las fantasías con la realidad,”18 in La nave it is shown that this confusion, far from being madness, may be the only way of redeeming reality from the nightmare engendered by power. Peri Rossi's revolutionary intention can be seen in her use of footnotes and notes at the end of chapters, both of which are often longer than the chapters themselves, serving to displace the limits of fiction and reality so that the supposed fictional story is perceived as real history.19

Similarly, several of the characters in the novel come from a context that is already recognised as being fictitious in the reader's world, one example being the child Percival, who is searching, like his medieval namesake, for a lost purity.20 However, Peri Rossi emphasises that these characters that have been doubly framed by fiction are more “real” in human terms than the described reality surrounding them: a world of delirium and spine-chilling nightmare, where the power of a very few rests on the exploitation, torture and slaughter of others. One example of such a desolate vision is the description of the fascist regime that attempts to crush the character Vercingetórix—Peri Rossi's version of Astérix, the fictitious Gallic leader who fights against Imperial Rome's occupation of his motherland.21 In La nave Vercingetórix, the political dissident abducted by a police car or “saurio depredador” (55), represents the missing: those who have been made invisible by the anonymous totalitarian machine. The fact that the preservation of power, both for the Creator in the Tapestry and the dictator, depends on distance being maintained between subject and object, oppressor and oppressed, is clearly shown when Vercingetórix describes his concentration camp and the great city as being “dos mundos perfectamente paralelos, distantes y desconocidos entre sí” (59). This similarity between totalitarianism's socio-political edifice and the perfectly concentric design of the Creation Tapestry is still further highlighted in the following quotation:

[La ciudad] era una enorme torre, de varias plantas, ignorantes entre sí. … Cada planta tenía sus horarios, su rutina, sus leyes y su código, incomunicable, paralelo y secreto—en el inferior, para la tortura, la violación o la muerte; en la de arriba, para las funciones de cine, los partidos de fútbol y el colegio


In an immediately preceding episode referring to Roger Vadim's film, Barbarella, it is once more evident that such dehumanisation is caused by a totalitarian power. Here the suppressed reality of daily life is again revealed by a fictional creation, given that the image of the beauty about to be raped by a phallic machine is the imaginative materialisation of the patriarchal monster, whose truth may only be expressed by means of fiction.22 Just as the police car that swallows up Vercingetórix is compared to a “saurio depredador” or “predatory dinosaur”—a prehistoric animal existing before human “civilisation”—so too does one read in the sequence depicting the rape of the woman that “EL HOMBRE ES EL PASADO DE LA MUJER” (24); that is to say, that patriarchy lies behind the barbarous civilisation which oppresses what is “other” or “contrary,” in order to present only one history.23 Thus the image of the raped women, silenced by being transformed into non-human forms, which is present in Arachne's tapestries, is taken up by Peri Rossi, who stresses that the true animal is not the person who is violated, be s/he woman or dissident, but the inhuman power machine inflicting the violation. This relationship between the violation of human and woman's rights is especially emphasised in the last part of La nave, which begins by analysing the figure of Eve. Contrary to the story told in the Tapestry, according to which Eve is the source of humanity's ills, here Eve's true story can be read, in the form of her confessions—unpublished of course—in which the victim is not Adam or Man, but woman, “[i]nscrita, desde que nac[ió], en los conjuros tribales de la segunda naturaleza” (153). Peri Rossi goes on immediately to examine the various ways in which such a patriarchal inscription may be seen in different societies: in the indoctrination of children (157–61)—a mental colonisation that establishes a division of labour based on sex; in the infibulation of young girls (170–71)—the partial removal and patriarchal sewing-up of the female sexual lips; in the stoning of adulterous women in ancient Greece (178) and in the commercial exploitation of pregnant women, forced to travel outside the boundaries of the fatherland for an abortion, given that “[s]e necesitan dos para nacer pero uno sólo tiene la culpa” (155). The political implications of this traffic in humans become evident when the foreign hospitals are compared with “[s]elvas apropiadas para arrojar opositores incómodos. Naves de locos. … Cárceles hediondas donde encerrar a los transgresores” (176).

Since the transgression of limits, in this process of defamiliarisation and discovery, depends on a change of place and focus, the already mentioned insistence in the novel on a real and metaphoric journey is hardly surprising.24 This journey to the peripheries of the world recognised by the centres of power is specially undertaken by Equis, whose eccentric position is obvious in that he lacks those attributes, such as family, a fixed profession and homeland, that give one a certain social position and identity. The semantic ramifications of his name—“Extranjero. Ex. Extrañamiento. Fuera de las entrañas de la tierra. Desentrañado: vuelto a parir” (10)—clearly indicate that here the name, far from giving Equis a fixed identity, synonymous with his acceptance of the world created by the Fathers, is symptomatic of his rejection of definitions and delimitations.25 His name, or rather, lack of name, transposed as a sign, is the symbol par excellence of ambiguity and contradiction and, consequently, of the unknown factor that totalitarianism has suppressed.26 Thus, Equis' peripatetic itinerary, governed purely by chance, stands in opposition to the principles of predetermination and order symbolised by the Creator. His journey truly resembles that ship of fools depicted in medieval iconography, which also represented “la idea de navegación como finalidad en sí, … contraria al concepto de transición y de evolución.”27 Driven by his desire, which he has refused to sacrifice in name of the Fathers, Equis seeks, in real and linguistic topographies, the solution to a riddle that old kings posed to their daughters' suitors: “¿Cuál es el tributo mayor que un hombre puede hacer a la mujer que ama?” (195). The answer, glimpsed at the end of the novel, not only causes the king to die, but also frees the Father's daughter: “¡Su virilidad!, grita Equis, y el rey, súbitamente disminuido, … el rey, como un muñequito de pasta, el reyecito de chocolate cae de bruces, vencido, el reyecito se hunde en el barro, el reyecito, derrotado, desaparece. Gime antes de morir” (197).

In this way, Cristina Peri Rossi affirms that human relationships should not be based on the possession and assimilation of an “other” to a homogeneous image. On the contrary, her quest for diversity requires that man give up what most defines him and maintains differences: the Phallus or symbol of patriarchal power. Only this act will bring down totalitarian systems, freeing the occupied space for the creation of a new society, until now historically unknown, in which the oppression of others will indeed belong to the world of fiction.


  1. See Ana María Moix's article, “Encuentro con Cristina Peri Rossi,” Camp de l'arpa, no. 82 (December 1980): 59. All quotes from La nave de los locos are taken from the Seix Barral edition (Barcelona), 1984.

  2. See Moix, 62

  3. Peri Rossi, “Génesis de Europa después de la lluvia,” in Studi di letteratura ispano-americana no. 13–14 (Milano: Cisalpino-Goliardica, 1983) 71. This insistence on heterogeneity is constantly present in Peri Rossi's work, reappearing in her latest book of poems Babel bárbara, where she celebrates “la diversidad / ambigua como los sexos / nostálgica del paraíso perdido” (“El bautismo,” Babel bárbara [Caracas: Angria, 1990] 11).

  4. The emphasis on the act of reading as a kind of journey is constant throughout the novel; for example, Equis declares: “he leído todos los viajes posibles en los libros” (11) and later on: “El viaje. … He recorrido mundos, sin moverme de mi butaca” (174).

  5. Peri Rossi comments: “Navegar (o sea, crear) es necesario, vivir no” (Quoted by Luis Martul Tobío, “(In)conclusiones sobre la obra de Cristina Peri Rossi,” in Cristina Peri Rossi, ed. Uberto Stabile, in Quervo. Poesía (Valencia) no. 7 (Dec. 1984): 20.

  6. See Martul Tobío in Stabile, 19.

  7. As Luis Martul Tobío points out, “[el] mar, entonces, es también el lenguaje y por consiguiente la realidad que éste estructura” (Stabile, 19). In La nave de los locos, this symbol of the word as a linguistic map is evident in the following quotation: “en los diccionarios las palabras aparecen, otras envejecen y mueren, se agregan acepciones y los mapas se modifican” (36). A similar concept is present in “Babel, la ambigüedad,” a poem belonging to Babel bárbara, where Peri Rossi contrasts “las palabras … / primigenias en la lengua antigua y materna” with “la segunda piel del uso, / la cultura, / ancha geografía” (20).

  8. See Cirlot, Diccionario de símbolos, 5th. ed. (Barcelona: Labor, 1982) 428.

  9. As far as Arachne is concerned, see Patricia Klindienst Joplin, “The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours,” Stanford Literature Review 1984.1 (1): 48–51.

  10. See Cirlot's analysis of the symbol of the spider's web, 429. One of the many references in La nave to woman as a kind of Arachne figure is the following one: “En las plazas, en los cafés y en los lugares nocturnos [Vercingetórix] miraba fijamente el pelo de las desconocidas, tratando de descubrir, bajo las tinturas, el oscuro nido del arácnido” (13, n.1).

  11. See Sigmund Freud, “Femininity,” New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 22, trans. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1964) 132.

  12. The fact that in La nave the ship represents the same hierarchical world present in the Tapestry becomes evident in the episode referring to the pleasure cruise, which is highly reminiscent of Katherine Anne Porter's novel of the same name: Ship of Fools (1945; London: Secker & Warburg, 1962). Such a similarity between Tapestry and ship stands out in the following quote: “el barco es una réplica, una maqueta del otro mundo … pero igualmente regido por leyes, igualmente centrado en la cacería; con sus autoridades, sus clases sociales y su mercado” (12).

  13. Some of the numerous literary voices mentioned in La nave are: Quasimodo, Cortázar, Valéry, Salinger, Foucault, Sterne, Nabokov, Ramón Llull, Dante, Horacio and Virgil. On many occasions the writers' names have been changed, so that they are perceived as being unfamiliar, from the exile's or foreigner's point of view; one example is the name of Jorge Luis Borges, which appears in the text as “George Lewis Borges” (40).

  14. A similar anarchic mixture of languages and narrative genres, with the same demythicising intention, can also be observed in Peri Rossi's early text, Indicios pánicos (1970; Barcelona: Bruguera, 1981), which is also a savage indictment of fascism, as Luis Martul Tobío indicates:

    Es evidente que el conjunto de textos que constituyen este libro desbordan el concepto. Asimismo, la autora no tiene inconveniente en recurrir a la introducción de textos poéticos, a la intercalación de frases aforísticas, de períodos escuetos, de pensamiento concentrado

    (Stabile, 16)

  15. Thus the extracts refer to the “anónimo tejedor del tapiz” (73 and 114), to the “magnífico tejedor” (150) and to the “antiguo tejedor” (162).

  16. For example, the description of the Creator reading (68) is followed by the chapter that relates how Equis reads on buses. Similarly, the description of the Tapestry's angel of darkness (73) is followed by a chapter entitled “El ángel caído,” in which the angel—significantly not a male, but a female figure—is found in a place known as the “Pueblo de Dios” (74).

  17. Martul Tobío highlights this same characteristic with regard to Peri Rossi's earlier work, Indicios pánicos, pointing out that “La fantasía asume la tarea … de hacer quebrar la realidad aparente bajo el primado de lo imaginativo” (Stabile, 16). The fact that for the established power true perversity consists of what is imagined and not yet written is evident in the following quote from La nave: “prefiere que ella lea libros no escritos todavía, libros sólo imaginados [libros perversos]” (36).

  18. Fantasías eróticas (Madrid: Ediciones Temas de Hoy, 1991) 33.

  19. A good example can be seen in La nave, 28–32.

  20. See especially the chapter entitled “El viaje, XVIII: un caballero del Santo Grial,” 133–45.

  21. Astérix is immortalised in the comic-strips of Goscini and Uderzo.

  22. Peri Rossi analyses the significance of this film in Fantasías eróticas, 84–86.

  23. In La nave, the epitome of the homogeneity desired by patriarchy is a place called the “Gran Ombligo,” inhabited by the “navelists”—a parody of the Lilliputians in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. A visit to this city must be planned with the utmost care, due to the dangers, caused by its uniformity, which there lie in wait for the unwary foreigner (see 115–24).

  24. The importance of the journey is stressed even on a structural level, as most chapters contain the word “viaje” in their title.

  25. Peri Rossi's belief that individuality demands the rejection of all limiting socio-political laws is evident in her following commentary:

    Cada una de las situaciones de la vida diaria tiene un momento límite, y es entonces cuando aumenta la incertidumbre acerca de Es el momento en que el hombre vuelve a hacerse las mismas preguntas que se ha hecho desde siempre y que siguen sin respuesta … En los últimos libros de narrativa estoy buscando casi exclusivamente esa situacióń límite, reveládora

    (Quoted by Ana Basualdo, “Fragmentos de una entrevista,” in Stabile, 10.)

  26. I am grateful to Prof. Djelal Kadir for pointing out that the name Equis or “X” also suggests another famous traveller—Homer's Odysseus—who, while a prisoner in the Cyclops's cave, gives his name as “No-man,” in order to escape identification and death (See The Odyssey, trans. Walter Shewring [1980; Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1990] 108). Equis is also reminiscent of the character Equus from the play of the same name by Peter Schaffer (1973); like Equis, Equus represents the “abnormality” that society has to cure or eliminate in order to maintain its apparently perfect image.

  27. See Cirlot, 323.

Lorraine Elena Roses (review date July 1993)

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SOURCE: Roses, Lorraine Elena. “A Wandering Magician.” Women's Review of Books 10, nos. 10–11 (July 1993): 35–36.

[In the following favorable review of A Forbidden Passion, Roses compares Peri Rossi with the Latin-American writers Isabel Allende and Luisa Valenzuela.]

If you aren't already a devotee of magical realism, a literary mode from Latin America whose hallmarks are levitating women, dissolving gypsies, time warps, invisible house guests and other pregnant inversions of fantasy and reality, let Cristina Peri Rossi initiate you into its riches. In her eerie world, a lone fallen angel exists unnoticed amid the grinding anomie and environmental blight of a big city until a homeless woman starts a street-corner conversation with him. The marginality of this middle-aged woman is like the angel's—the two share an invisibility that allows them to become confidantes. While they are speaking, the woman is whisked away by security forces; the angel is left to wonder whether anyone will notice she is missing (“The Fallen Angel”).

Cristina Peri Rossi's characters live with frustrations that are sometimes less magical than absurd. In “The Trip,” an office worker spends years planning and discussing with friends a trip to a remote destination. As he pores over guidebooks, searches out ancient and modern maps of his chosen country and learns its language, the trip is forever postponed and a lifetime frittered away. Still other characters find themselves thwarted by circumstance, while the embers of their desires are never wholly extinguished. The title of this collection, A Forbidden Passion, conjures up steamy couplings and fierce repression, but eroticism is curiously absent from it. The passions Peri Rossi describes are often muted ones, the idées fixes of people who suffer mysteriously and sabotage themselves, perhaps because they have internalized the violence of a society that has ceased to be civilized.

Peri Rossi knows something about violence, coming from a country that in 1973 plunged into a bloody “dirty war” against “subversives.” Uruguay, thanks to its military, has earned the dubious distinction of liquidating, exiling, or imprisoning a higher proportion of its own citizens than any other regime in Latin America (and the competition from Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Guatemala has been fierce). Herself an exile, Peri Rossi can never forget the events that devastated her country and eclipsed its once proud democratic tradition. She does not depict scenes of explicit political violence or banishment, but she encodes them obliquely here and there, showing the psychological damage left in their wake. In “The Bell Ringer,” for example, a carillon player sounds his instrument in an empty village. Its ringing goes unheard, “but he suspects, and sometimes even holds the conviction, that the bell rings in another sky.” Perhaps the bell-ringer is a metaphor for the writer in exile, who hopes her words will be heard in the country she has left behind.

Latin America is a region that does not exactly cherish its subversives, especially not female ones, so it should come as no surprise that Cristina Peri Rossi is not officially recognized as a national treasure in Uruguay, where she was born in 1941. Though she has been writing prolifically and steadily since the late 1960s and her work includes some thirteen books of prose and poetry, it is as a journalist that she is best known in the Spanish-speaking world. Here in the United States it is difficult to find any reference to her, even in the usual academic sources. (I thumbed through several before I finally located her in Diane Marting's Spanish American Women Writers.) In Uruguay an early collection of her homoerotic poems called Evohé (1971) was met with a mixture of shock and stony silence from critics and intellectuals. Homosexual expression was not exactly new to the reading public, but it had always been male-identified.

When Peri Rossi turned to bold denunciations of the military and its politics she got a different response: her name was placed on the wanted list. In 1972, in a climate of growing repression, with abductions and disappearances on the rise, she fled not to Italy, whence her grandparents had emigrated to South America, but to Spain (ironically, still under the Franco regime). The military took power in 1973—the same year that in Chile Salvador Allende's democratically elected government was toppled in a CIA-assisted coup—and repression in Uruguay worsened. Peri Rossi earned the distinction of having one of her books banned (Indicios pánicos [Signs of Panic, 1970]).

Her hasty departure from Montevideo turned Peri Rossi into a displaced individual—a sad personal circumstance, but a happy literary one, since exile internationalized her reputation (one novel, La nave de los locos [Ship of Fools], published in Barcelona in 1984, came out in English in 1989). Exile has broadened her expressive repertoire, too. The stories in A Forbidden Passion surely could not have been written at home. They bear the scars of banishment and display a rootless quality, like the feel of European cobblestones beneath the feet of wandering expatriates. Now residing in Barcelona, Peri Rossi has continued to publish poetry, fiction and essays that enjoy a fine critical reception, most recently a book of essays titled Fantasías eróticas (1991).

In certain respects, Peri Rossi can be aptly compared to Isabel Allende, whose purple-haired heroines and scribes chronicle the history of their families, which become metaphors for the nation. Like those clairvoyant characters, Peri Rossi is obsessed with the daily persecution of powerless people and angry that this abuse is omitted from the official histories. But in contrast to the exuberant exaggerations of Allende, who follows in the footsteps of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Peri Rossi often deals in wry understatement. She has much in common with Luisa Valenzuela, another forceful and intellectually sharp writer who turns fiction to highly political use. Both women are capable of mordant, abstract fiction that must be read between the lines. All three women writers—Allende, Valenzuela and Peri Rossi—live in political exile far from their countries of origin; all have paid a price for dissent.

Peri Rossi uses the notion of lost time as a metaphor for the many losses of exile. In “A Useless Passion,” a writer arrives at his hotel in a foreign city only to be told that the publisher he has come to see died suddenly a few hours before. Given that they normally inhabit different time zones, he speculates that perhaps he can add the hours of one life to the other so that the two can still have their meeting:

In effect, I had traveled ten hours in a plane, in spite of which I arrived at G.'s city only four hours after my departure. There was, then, six hours of difference, and in these six hours which I was supposed to live twice, G. had died in his city, but he did not die for me who had six hours advantage over him. If G. had died—as they told me—five hours before my arrival, I still had an hour to find him.

(p. 120)

Like Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, her literary forebears from Argentina, Peri Rossi believes in the malleability of time. From this notion she creates a world that blends the mundane with the mythical, the magical and the absurd. She deviates from the classic short-story form to construct the “mini-story,” the “micro-story,” the hybrid fragment suspended between poetry and fairy tale that mocks generic categories. Sometimes she concocts an ingenious blend of fiction and aphorism. something between prose and poetry, with a texture all its own. Peri Rossi's voice is powered by black humor and political irony, usually laced with playfulness and whimsy. She doesn't aim to make life easy for the reader: she serves up her words as if they were puzzles or unfinished experiments in which the reader may participate.

Mary Jane Treacy's translations are graceful and seamless; the reader never stumbles on an imperfectly assimilated Spanish word. What's more, the English, which sounds a bit Continental, matches the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the stories. Though not all twenty of them are equally successful—if truth be told, a few are flimsy, overly allegorical, or even moralistic—I like the book and I hope that more of Peri Rossi's writing, especially the bolder texts in a female voice, will be translated for US readers. Peri Rossi writes for a more intellectual audience than Allende and her sexual politics are more inclusive.

Rosemary Geisdorfer Feal (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Feal, Geisdorfer Rosemary. “Cristina Peri Rossi and the Erotic Imagination.” In Reinterpretating the Spanish American Essay: Women Writers of the 19th and 20th Centuries, edited by Doris Meyers, pp. 215–26. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Feal argues that Peri Rossi's treatment of the erotic in Fantasías eróticas is unconventional, asserting that the essays break “with traditional notions of that genre.”]

New Year's Eve, 1989. She walks through the door at Daniel's, the small, intimate lesbian bar in Barcelona, after being recognized by the scrutinizing eye of the owner, who guards over her business as if it were “a protective womb that frees [the patrons] from outside hostility” (13). So begins the Preamble to Cristina Peri Rossi's volume of essays entitled Fantasías eróticas (Erotic Fantasies, 1991), in which she cultivates the confessional mode, film criticism, commentary on popular culture, literary criticism, and erotic fictions of her own. The “I” of the Preamble, whom we may assign to Peri Rossi in her function as implied author, narrator, and protagonist of the vignette, enters into the sheltered world of a women-only club at the same time that the “I” comes out of metaphoric closets and textual cloaks to proclaim a lesbian identity and subjectivity through the telling of the New Year's Eve adventure.1 The Preamble initiates a collection of essays that breaks with traditional notions of that genre as one dominated by objectivity, ratiónality, and suppression of creative writing and of the fictional imagination. To write of erotica under the erasure of the erotic imagination is exactly what Peri Rossi has refused to do. But the “I” of the Preamble does not sustain itself in that dramatized form throughout the essays proper, a shift that in turn brings up questions concerning identities and positionings.

Back to Daniel's, the lesbian bar as “theoretical joint,” to borrow from Teresa de Lauretis (iv), where the solitary narrator retreats to a corner, outwardly recognized by none of the women there, knowing no one—“I like to observe without being observed” (13). From this position of voyeur, the narrator takes in the stunning spectacle of a couple—one woman cross-dresses as a man, while the other engages in an exquisite display of homeovestism, their appearances and movements exuding the signs of a calculated simulacrum, a fiction, all “arte y artificio” (17).2 Representation for Peri Rossi is linked to seduction and the erotic imagination: the false man in the couple, in her absolute beauty and perfection, can offer the marvels of “her not-being, her not-having” (18). For Jacques Lacan the manque-à-être and the manque-à-avoir center on the status of the phallus and thus implicate the psychic signification of the other's desire and of one's own lack, but for the Uruguayan author, this not-being and not-having also invoke an always mobile or fictional sexual identification that produces its corresponding erotic displays. Stuck in the imaginary, cries Lacan; the route to psychosis, shouts Kristeva: but no, we might answer back for Peri Rossi through Judith Butler, out onto the stage of performative gender acts, where sexual identification, a fantasy of a fantasy, is symptomatically encoded through imposture and parody.3 Lesbian sexual discourse, for Butler, constitutes a privileged site for contesting the Lacanian notion of the phallus, since the “status of ‘having’ is redelineated, rendered transferable, substitutable, plastic; and the eroticism produced within such an exchange depends on the displacement from traditional masculinist contexts as well as the critical redeployment of its central figures of power” (“Lesbian Phallus” 162).

This dynamic seems to describe Peri Rossi's performance in Fantasías eróticas, in that she both displaces eroticism from the stranglehold of masculinity (Freud: there is only one libido, and it is masculine) and recirculates it through the principal signs of power. It has been over twenty-five years since Susan Sontag wrote her pioneering essay, “The Pornographic Imagination,” in which she discusses a masculine mode of pornographic production that aims to drive a wedge between “one's existence as a full human being and one's existence as a sexual being” (58) within the context of modern capitalist society. In recent years, we have witnessed a lively interest on the part of women writers and feminist critics in matters erotic: women have produced new modes of “sexual fiction” and have provided serious intellectual commentary on how these texts depart from masculinist origins. This compendium of Peri Rossi's thoughts and imaginings on eroticism signals a key contribution to the growing corpus of female erotica, which has reached a peak in Spain in the series called La sonrisa vertical (The Vertical Smile) edited by Spanish film director Luis García Berlanga.4 From the “pornographic imagination” of Sontag we have arrived at the contemporary “erotic imagination,” as Robert Stoller calls it in his analysis of sexuality in the “theatre of risk” (9), which reads much like Peri Rossi's descriptions of the sexual underground and its blatant surfacings in urban culture. Stoller affirms that “the construction of erotic excitement is every bit as subtle, complex, inspired, profound, tidal, fascinating, awesome, problematic, unconscious-soaked, and genius-haunted as the creation of dreams or art” (47). Peri Rossi agrees from the corner at Daniel's as she admires the artful arousal of the erotic imagination staged by a lesbian couple in an act of aesthetics and transgression. And she and Stoller coincide both in their appreciation of aesthetics and in their distinguishing it from the dehumanization and flight from intimacy that take place when the erotic imagination conjures up performed acts of cruelty, humiliation, and degradation. Perhaps Peri Rossi's essays have not departed as much from Sontag's critique of pornography as we might presuppose.

Peri Rossi, the writer, the aesthetician, admits, “I love beauty above all else and I know that it is hardly ever spontaneous, that one must win it and merit it” (16). Thus, it is not surprising that she makes the following analogies: “eroticism is to sexuality what the sentence is to a shout, what theatre is to a gesture, and what fashion is to a loincloth: a cultural activity, the elaborated satisfaction of an instinctual necessity” (41). Note, however, that Peri Rossi makes no suppositions about the essence of that instinct, choosing instead to examine the wide range of erotic variations through literature, art, and classic Hollywood cinema for the first half of her book, following which she plunges (or ascends, as one prefers) into the world of inflatable dolls, prostitution, rape fantasies, fetishism, and sadomasochistic practices. Who are the holders of power selected by Peri Rossi to serve as guides through the high cultural territory of Plato, Ovid, Beethoven, Wagner? Freud and Bataille, for beginners. She takes a fairly classic view of sublimation and fantasy as the necessary responses to impossible desire: where myth goes, there once was id. Curiously, Peri Rossi accomplishes the opposite of her stated objectives in celebrating the erotic imagination, for she insistently reminds the reader that human capacity for pleasure is limited, and any attempt to surpass those limits is a narcissistic defiance that leads to a place beyond pleasure where there is pain and psychosis (77). Of what use is the erotic imagination if we monitor its productions when they threaten to surpass accepted behavioral limits? Is not fantasy and representation precisely the site where the weight of desire may be fully measured, where it may be distinguished from human acts, and where women's subjectivity, pleasure, and power may be exposed and claimed? Perhaps Peri Rossi struggles with this notion of claiming, particularly since she has shown reluctance to embody lesbian desire in female characters in her fiction; this may indicate an admirable degree of mobility in terms of identification with the desiring subject and desired object, but it may also be symptomatic of the wish not to push the erotic imagination into corners. Corners, such as the one in Daniel's, force identifications and positions, which Peri Rossi boldly confronts in her Preamble to these essays in a way that she declines to do in her fictional texts. (That the Preamble may be read as a short story should give us cause to reexamine the author's identificatory poses.)

It is my view that Fantasías eróticas offers more originality and promise when Peri Rossi leaves behind the icons of high cultural discourse, along with their explicators, and turns toward specific erotic practices with their corresponding fantasies and significations. In chapter 5, “The Fantasy of the Passive Object: Inflatable Dolls,” the author formulates a logical question: Why would men choose to perform sexually on an inanimate object when interpersonal relationships are freer, when women today are willing to explore their sexuality (or even assert their desires)? (92). No, it is not a shortage of women that leads contemporary men to purchase these life-size plastic humanoids: quite the opposite, according to Peri Rossi, who claims that masculine anxiety stirred up by the unthinkable spectacle of feminine sexual agency and autonomy sends them member-first into an objectified latex lady: “a completely passive woman-container, the recipient of fantasies that will never exhibit disappointment, nor dissatisfaction, nor rebellion” (93). One could elect to analyze this fantasy-made-rubber-flesh as a sex toy comparable to, say, a vibrator (though a bit less discreet) if one viewed auto-erotic practices as fundamentally distinct from relations with another human. But if we accept Stoller's definition of “perversion” as the desire to sin by harming one's erotic object, or Louise Kaplan's notion that “male perversions manifest as forbidden sexual acts that impersonate and caricature adult genital performance” (16), or Otto Kernberg's formulation that “perversions should be defined more narrowly as the obligatory, habitual restriction of sexual fantasies and activities to one particular sexual component” (65), then Peri Rossi's conclusion on this subject would make moral and psychological sense: “coitus as power, as domination, as humiliation,” that is, a variant of the sadomasochistic sexual relations characteristic of patriarchal societies (94). Contrast this to feminine eroticism, which Peri Rossi claims is always humanized, because it does not separate sexuality from the rest of the person nor does it seek to possess; further, she believes that women would resist the commercialization of standard mass-marketed erotic fantasies, and would get a good laugh at an inflatable boy doll with a synthetic penis (94–98). Tell this to the founders of Good Vibrations and to the suppliers of mass-produced fantasies for women like the Harlequin romances that encourage the female reader to participate in sexual self-betrayal, according to Tania Modleski (37).

There is, however, much ground on which to agree with Peri Rossi. Certainly such writers as Andrea Dworkin and Robin Morgan have presented extensive arguments to corroborate this take on masculine sexuality, finding, along with the Uruguayan author, that feminine sexuality, in particular that of lesbians, in its natural essence embraces a gentler, more fluid relatedness that rejects objectification and eroticism disengaged from whole selves. In fact, mutuality and relatedness are often cited as mature psychosexual ideals for men and women, where exclusive pairings serve as viable and sustainable cover for the wilder polymorphously perverse scenarios that must become integrated into the sex life of the monogamous heterosexual couple.5 Recent theories of lesbian sexuality instead posit a strategic rebellion against the shackles of eroticism devoid of fantasy, including fantasies of dominance, objectification, and humiliation.6 As Julia Creet puts it, “the most striking feature of lesbian s/m writing, and of writing on lesbian s/m, is that it is less a conscious transgression of the law of the Father (‘woman’ as lack), than a transgression against the feminist Mother (‘woman’ as morally superior)” (145). The lesbian position such as the one Peri Rossi takes up in chapter 5 runs the risk of reifying an equally oppressive regime of the “Law of the Mother” that says no-no to forms of sexuality that do not speak in love's name. (That human sexual malaise is not necessarily eradicated when eroticism is unchained from the bonds of love is another matter entirely.) Theorists of lesbian sexuality have been cautious not to conflate rebellion against the “Law of the Mother” with complicity toward the violence committed against women in patriarchal societies, but in advocating a complex accounting of the manifestations of eroticism, fantasy, and desire, they clearly seek a more comprehensive stage for gender performatives of all types. The use of inflatable dolls reveals a rather literal-minded erotic economy—the ultimate objectification fantasy turned into a real object—and so perhaps this imaginative paucity is the highest masculine offense of all when it comes to blow-up Barbies. But when we endeavor to strip sexuality of its obscure desires, including what Peri Rossi calls “its obscure desire to possess and humiliate” (98), we may have invented the most psychologically untrue strip-show of all.

In chapter 7, on “Eros in the Temple,” Peri Rossi returns to notions of “instinct” and “civilization” to arrive at the following: “If eroticism has any future it is precisely that site of fracture, of recuperation of the most primitive impulses, now under industrial transformation” (125). Industrial-age eroticism takes “frank and violent body odors” and recirculates them as Eau de Sauvage, or it picks up cherished articles of clothing, former relics of ancient cults, and fashions them into peekaboo panties by Frederick's of Hollywood. It is reassuring to know that Peri Rossi sees some future for fetish, some role for lights, music, and props, some place for the postcoital cigarette, but these are about ritual transformation of base instinctual activity into the aesthetics of eroticism, where the participants are high priests and priestesses whose artful artifice wins admirers and imitators. What we may critique in Peri Rossi's exposition of this material is the implicit assumption that these scenes of desire represent a higher order of sexual fantasy, a richness of erotic imagination, when in fact the psychological content of these displays remains quite veiled to the observer. If Stoller and Kaplan delve into the mental lives of the practitioners of the perversions that they name and study, it is through an analysis—a psychoanalysis, to be precise—of that sign system as interpreted through an individual (or a group of individuals, producing a psychosocial analysis). Although this work is not the goal of Peri Rossi's essays, she nevertheless notes that the imagination as creator of fantasy must be given priority over the surface manifestations of eroticism, which, after all, may be either a repetitive and compulsive form of enslavement and dehumanization or an infinitely variable production of one's most profound humanity.

Now, in the age of late capitalism, Peri Rossi sees erotic imagination and fantasy as having been insidiously excluded from matrimonial life, which she calls “the institutional framework of postindustrial societies” (146–148). Caught in their struggle for higher positions and their search for love that sticks around, these modern married folks move in a reduced space and in regularized time to the beat of a ringing telephone and the hum of a television set. The erotic imagination has taken refuge in two sites, according to the Uruguayan writer: prostitution and alternative sexualities, fundamentally that of gays and lesbians (148). This notion—that institutionalized heterosexuality seeks to sustain itself by means of the very forms of sexual abjection that this hegemonic order has itself defined—coincides with Judith Butler's views on the social construction of identifications through what she terms “gender performativity.” That which is taboo becomes eroticized: the homosexual abjection (what Butler has called the terror of occupying the position of the feminized fag or the phallicized dyke) is necessary for the production of heterosexuality, and identity operates through a mechanism of disavowal and repudiation (“Phantasmatic Identification”).

Curiously, however, when Peri Rossi points to prostitution as the playground for cast-out fantasy, she names a site that has been a men-only pleasure club, unless she believes that female sex workers successfully assert their erotic imaginations through their labors. Culling evidence from Lizzie Borden's film Working Girls, Peri Rossi claims that clients purchase their impossible dreams and their illusions from prostitutes at a more modest economic and psychological cost than investing in a mutual relationship: “it does less harm and it maintains a strict separation between sexual fantasy and reality” (152). That is exactly the point. The ability (or liability, if you prefer) to perform a splitting operation between one's sexual self and one's whole self, between one's fantasy and one's reality, is the key to the erotic imagination: what one does in society with those desires is a moral choice, and when those needs are used to oppress others, a moral society reacts accordingly. Peri Rossi seems to vacillate here: on the one hand she condemns enactments of the masculine erotic imagination such as those performed in a prostitution economy because they are in opposition to human intimacy, and on the other hand she recognizes the necessary roles of “alternative sexualities” and prostitution as antidotes to the ills of late capitalist coupling, bourgeois boredom, and gender jail.7 But for women—read heterosexual women, an unpardonable straightjacket for Peri Rossi to throw on after coming out with lesbian specificity in her Preamble—the most commonly experienced fantasy in this regard culminates in the utterance made to a beloved man, “I want to be your whore” (159). For the author, this erotic imagining reveals the contamination these women have suffered from the masculine schizophrenic division between dichotomous sexualities: legal and illegal, permitted and prohibited, and between dichotomous femininity: good girls and bad girls (160). Almost makes a girl want to head to a theoretical joint like Daniel's for a long think-twice about the subjectivities and sexualities of those who embody the abject others of the hegemonic heterosexual gender order, which, according to Butler, rests on an identity purchased at the expense of the “outlaws.”8

In her chapter on “erotic ambiguity” and the “beautiful hermaphrodite,” Peri Rossi returns to notions of artifice and construction to affirm the role of fantasy in creating and sustaining sexual identities. Peri Rossi's statement that transvestism operates in a symbolic mise-en-scène where impersonation, ambiguity, and artifice signal the primacy of gender incoherence (165–166) is in keeping with more elaborated studies of drag, camp, and transvestism that have emerged in recent queer theory.9 But Peri Rossi claims that transvestites in particular place illusion over reality, artifice over instinct, whereas a wider critique of gender disorder might look at normative sexualities as equally posturing, equally founded on a phantasmatic identity, equally illusionary and maybe more incoherent than the so-called alternative sexualities. In her discussion of sexual life-styles in Madrid during the '70s and '80s, Peri Rossi alludes to the tensions between lesbians and transvestites, claiming that lesbians openly rejected the caricature that female impersonators made of the homoerotic object of lesbian desire. Yet, once extracted from the scenarios where gays, lesbians, and transvestites share social space, this variant of the erotic imagination is conceded value as a kind of fantasy in service of what Peri Rossi sees as “full erotic life”: “But without going so far as the exaggerated and sometimes ridiculous transvestism of professionals, a full erotic life needs disguises, the stimulus that comes from a change of the marks of exterior identity in order to develop the phantoms of the imagination” (168). Or perhaps the exterior erotic expressions need to change not in order to provide a disguise (of what one is) but rather to offer cover (for what one can never fully be). Peri Rossi is right on track when she refuses to make a psychological distinction between “feeling” and “being,” since, she claims, one believes that one feels and one believes that one is (165), and, she concludes, “Being is revealed more in that which it desires to be than in that which it is” (18). Philosophy in the bedroom for a postindustrial age.

In the final chapter of Fantasías eróticas, Peri Rossi turns to the role of the senses in erotic life. “Bodies know, bodies taste, in the double meaning of saber” (188). But bodies do not know: rather, it is the creative consciousness of the writer that taps into the erotic imagination to render the corporeal and the sensual into words that move us, arouse us, inspire us, or even evoke our repulsion and fear. In her fiction writing Peri Rossi has given proof of her vivid sensorial command of the language of desire, and in her essays, she establishes stylistic continuity with her novels and short stories: “Your body is my body, your breath is mine, your flesh is my flesh, your death is my death” (189). By refusing to relinquish her writerly fantasy in this chapter, and by embracing the confessional mode in the Preamble, the author frames her essays with the marks of a particular psyche engaged in an exploration of erotics that is firmly rooted in inner experience and in language. The essay writer and the creative writer merge in an act of boldness, in an ultimate demonstration of the value of imagination, without which the themes that Peri Rossi explores would be as devoid of originality as the mass-produced and mass-consumed inflatable dolls that she sees as the sign of erotic bankruptcy.

Cristina Peri Rossi offers an innovative approach to the essay in her reworking of the erotic imagination, but she also falls short of a radical critique of the sexual economies she examines. Positioned “on the margin” and “in the middle,” as scholarly observer and witty creator, as “seer” and “doer,” Peri Rossi suggests new paradigms for the female erotic imagination and sexual desire. She tests the limits of essay, understood as nonfiction analytic prose, and as “an attempt,” “a try,” not in disharmony with the self-contemplating spirit of Michel de Montaigne, whose examinations of his soul might look quite different if he visited some of the sites of gender trouble through which this contemporary Uruguayan writer has guided us, Beatrice incognita. In her introduction to Inside Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, Diana Fuss suggests that “what we need is a theory of sexual borders that will help us to come to terms with, and to organize around, the new cultural and sexual arrangements occasioned by the movements and transmutations of pleasure in the social field” (5). Peri Rossi has made important inroads into this borderland in a collection of essays that stand out for their originality in Hispanic letters and that represent a signal new direction in Peri Rossi's distinguished trajectory as a writer.


  1. In a chapter entitled “Cristina Peri Rossi and the Question of Lesbian Presence,” Amy Kaminsky notes that many of Peri Rossi's stories are not visibly lesbian in content but rather encoded. She concludes that a more direct lesbian presence has become possible for Peri Rossi in the international context—opened up through exile—which tolerates political opposition (in this case, one that encompasses opposition to heterosexist orders).

  2. Homeovestism, according to Louise Kaplan, is dressing up to impersonate one's own gender; Kaplan takes the concept from psychoanalyst George Zavitzianos. This act may involve masquerading as the stereotyped notion of a woman, and, in a heterosexual economy, could signify exhibiting oneself as a valuable sexual commodity (251–257). I am extracting homeovestism from Kaplan's clinical context of “female perversions” to appropriate it for a context of lesbian performance. For my purposes here, I wish the term “homeovestism” to be as loaded as “transvestism,” that is, to point to a multiplicity of psychosexual-social positions, and thus I dissociate it from the pathological model of the paraphilias (deviant sexual behaviors).

  3. In Gender Trouble, Butler calls gestures, desires, and enactments “performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means” (136). She claims that there is “no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (25).

  4. Some works in this series by women authors include the much-celebrated Las edades de Lulú (The Ages of Lulu, 1989) by Spanish writer Almudena Grandes, La educación sentimental de la señorita Sonia (The Sentimental Education of Miss Sonia, 1979) by Susana Constante of Argentina, and La última noche que pasé contigo (The Last Night I Spent with You, 1991) by Mayra Montero, a resident of Puerto Rico. In the Biblioteca erótica collection in which Peri Rossi's Fantasías eróticas appears, Mercedes Abad of La sonrisa vertical fame has published her Sólo dime dónde lo hacemos (Just Tell Me Where We'll Do It, 1991), and Nobel laureate Camilo José Cela has added one of his infamous erotic outbursts, Cachondeos, escarceos y otros meneos (Passions, Passes, and Other Moves, 1991). The titles in the Biblioteca erótica, along with their warning to underage readers and their titillating cover designs, are indicative of the type of material presented and of the intended audience. Peri Rossi's essays, published in this collection in this particular way (her book has wrap-around breasts spanning the front and back covers) are thus bound to please, and yet the Biblioteca erótica binds her to the constraints of quasi-intellectual pop erotica.

  5. Kernberg proposes that “normal polymorphously perverse sexuality is an essential component that maintains the intensity of a passionate love relation, and recruits—in its function as the receptacle of unconscious fantasy—the conflictual relations and meanings that evolve in a couple's relationship throughout time” (65). Roy Schafer posits this hope: “to reclaim many disclaimed sexual actions and thereby to help people be whole, responsible, reciprocally related persons” (99), which responds to the hypothetical ideal in psychoanalysis of genitality, that is, “the actual erotic and affectionate interactions” of “total involvement in the immediate personal relationship” (86). Needless to say, Kernberg and Schafer focus on heterosexual genitality as mature ideals: a broader psychoanalytic economy might view “whole person adult sexuality” as independent of a heterosexual or even a monogamous norm.

  6. Peri Rossi is wrong when she claims that “there is no lesbian movement that assumes either sadomasochistic paraphernalia or its aesthetics” (107). Certainly publications such as On Our Backs and the works of Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin, among others, offer models for a lesbian s/m position and take stock of the movements around the issue.

  7. That Peri Rossi should place “alternative sexualities” and “prostitution” in juxtaposition should raise questions of its own. Peri Rossi is not speaking of these sexual relations per se but rather of their function as spectacle and fetish in post-industrial societies.

  8. Linda Williams offers this defense of the female pornographic imagination, which she does not view as contaminated by perverse masculinity: “For obscenity is simply the notion that some things—particularly the dirty confessions of female difference—must remain off the scene of representation. If those ‘sexual things’ are no longer dirty, if sexual desire and pleasure are no more unseemly in women than in men, then perhaps pornography will serve women's fantasies as much as it has served men's” (276–277).

  9. For a fine example of work along these lines, see Tyler.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

———. “The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary.” Differences 4:1 (1992), 133–171.

———. “Phantasmatic Identification and the Question of Sex.” Susan B. Anthony Center Lecture Series on Identity and Politics, The University of Rochester. 13 November 1991.

Creet, Julia. “Daughter of the Movement: The Psychodynamics of Lesbian S/M Fantasy.” Differences 3:2 (1991), 135–159.

de Lauretis, Teresa. “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities. An Introduction.” Differences 3:2 (1991), iii–xviii.

Fuss, Diana. “Inside/Out.” In Inside Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, 1–10. Ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Kaminsky, Amy. Reading the Body Politic: Feminist Criticism and Latin American Women Writers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Kaplan, Louise. Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1991.

Kernberg, Otto. “Between Conventionality and Aggression: The Boundaries of Passion.” In Passionate Attachments: Thinking about Love. Ed. Willard Gaylin and Ethel Person. New York: Free Press, 1988.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. 1982. New York: Methuen, 1984.

Peri Rossi, Cristina. Fantasías eróticas. Colección Biblioteca Erótica. Madrid: Ediciones Temas de Hoy, 1991.

Schafer, Roy. Retelling a Life: Narration and Dialogue in Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

Sontag, Susan. “The Pornographic Imagination.” 1966. In Styles of Radical Will. New York: Delta, 1970.

Stoller, Robert. Observing the Erotic Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Tyler, Carole-Anne. “Boys Will Be Girls: The Politics of Gay Drag.” In Inside Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, 32–70. Ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Eric Henager (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6394

SOURCE: Henager, Eric. “Girls and Other Problems: The Young Male Character in Two Short Stories by Cristina Peri Rossi.” RLA 8 (1996): 509–14.

[In the following essay, Henager examines the portrayal of young male characters in Peri Rossi's “La índole del lenguaje” and “La navidad de los lagartos.”]

Cristina Peri Rossi's short stories often incorporate the, perspective of children into adult problems. With only a few notable exceptions,1 the children at the center of the stories are male, and often their encounters with females play significant roles in the tales' development. Several of the stories present young male characters who are only beginning to be aware of the impact girls and women can potentially have on them. In this article, I contrast two such stories, “La índole del lenguaje” (Cosmoagonías 83–92) and “La navidad de los lagartos” (El museo de los esfuerzos inútiles 48–55), in order to highlight key issues in Peri Rossi's representation of young boys' introduction to problems involved with “reading”2 girls and women.

In “La índole del lenguaje,” a young boy arrives at certain conclusions regarding the subjective nature of language through a process I describe below. In the background of the language issues are an enigmatic verbal exchange between the boy and his sister, initiated when she tells him she has something that he does not, and a conflict between the boy and his male teacher. As the story opens, the boy is in school attempting to correct his misspelling of the word “ojo” by erasing with his finger the “h” he has added at the beginning. As he erases, and as balls of damp paper stick to his finger, he recalls his sister's troublesome words: “Tengo una cosa que tú no tienes” (85). His guesses as to what it is that she possesses and he lacks lead him to think of other things he cannot have or is prohibited from doing, such as smoking in the bathroom and, to bring his stream of consciousness back to where it started, erasing with his finger. As he continues to mull over his sister's riddle-like utterance, the narration flashes back to a dialogue between them in which he ventures a series of guesses to what she has. Following the prohibitions I mention above, the issue of authority re-surfaces inasmuch as one of his guesses is the word “equinodermo,” which he pronounces with flare, “convencido de que la palabra equinodermo la iba a impresionar” (86). At this point, the flashback closes and the narration returns to the narrative present-time in the boy's classroom, where he mentally expresses the idea that concerns me here: that “[l]as relaciones con las mujeres no eran fáciles: Seguramente pertenecían a otro género, de ahí la rivalidad” (86).

The boy's confrontation with his sister and the other issues he faces conjoin concretely around this issue of rivalry. The developing power-play between the boy and his sister, in which she bothers him by saying that she has something he does not and in which he tries to impress her with lengthy words, leads him to think of his rivalry with other students who, unlike him, do not detest the military officer who is a teacher in their school. From this peer-rivalry, his jumbled thoughts run to the scandalous number of military men among families of his schoolmates and from there to his Uncle Daniel, a relative whom his parents have told him is ill but who, as it becomes clear later, is in reality a “disappeared” guerrilla fighter. The simple act of erasing an extra “h” thus leads the boy to mull over a series of subordinate-to-dominate relationships: his alleged lack to his sister's possession, his subordination to the teacher's authority, the sister to his alleged mastery of impressive language, and Uncle Daniel and society as a whole to the military regime.

This series of subordinate-to-dominant relationships resounds in the conclusion to which the boy arrives at the end of the text. There, in the last words of the story, he tells his father that he finally understands that “[e]l lenguaje es de los que mandan” (92). Since throughout the narrative, language questions3 have been placed in association in the boy's mind with a series of relationships of dominance, his final conclusion is based on his recent experience not only with language, but also with issues of gender and politics. A brief survey of the specifics of these relationships of dominance is, therefore, in order.

The broader significance of the boy's experience at school, the venue in which all but the last lines of the narrative present-time take place, is suggested early on when we read that he:

… detestaba el colegio, donde no podía borrar con el dedo y casi todo el tiempo uno corría el riesgo de estar sometido a interrogatorios acerca de diversísimas cosas.


This reference to “interrogatorios” is followed by a list of examples of the type of questions that are common in the school. Among them is one regarding “las normas cívicas y morales y las obras públicas que el gobierno había realizados desde que estaba en el poder” (86). The consistent interrogations and the official language in this example establish a clearly politicized atmosphere allusive to the Southern Cone military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s, a parallel reaffirmed by the presence of many military members among the families of the boy's schoolmates.4

Allusions to dictatorship and political oppression, some veiled and others overt, accumulate as the narrative progresses and continue to take the young boy and the reader farther from the innocent act of erasing into much more serious territory. The reader only really begins to see the assorted images and references to domination converge when, near the end of the text, the teacher snatches up the sheet of paper on which the boy has been erasing:

… el oficial … asió la hoja, la miró a trasluz, como si sospechara que había una inscripción velada, confidencial, y luego, continuando la frase y el paseo, la rompió en cien pedazos.


The destruction of the paper comes immediately before the boy announces his conclusion about language belonging to the power structure, and thus seems to be the event that leads him directly to it. The teacher's reaction to the erased paper is, however, only one in a chain of anxieties in each of which the boy plays a role. He provokes the teacher's anxiety with his erasing; he becomes anxious himself as a response to his sister's disquieting riddle; and at one point he remembers eavesdropping as his parents expressed their anxiety that he might end up like his Uncle Daniel. Most interesting for my purposes, however, is the parallel between the boy's relationship with his sister and his relationship with his teacher, both based on an anxious response to an intangible, and probably non-existent, threat. We know, for example, that the young protagonist is only erasing an innocent misspelling, but the teacher suspects that the hole in the paper indicates that some subversive secret has been covered up. On the other hand, the boy finds himself in a position analogous to that of the teacher when his sister says she has something he does not. Both the hole in the paper and the sister's statement seem to indicate something meaningful that must be controlled. The boy's strategy for dealing with the nagging thought of this threatening unknown differs considerably from that of the teacher. He continues to be distressed about his sister's claim, but at one point adopts the strategy of denial: “—No tienes nada—dijo, cobardemente” (87). Such a tack is an attempt to take from the sister her feeling of dominance over him by demonstrating that he is not worried by her statement. Both the “cowardice” observed by the narrator and also the boy's protracted anguish confirm how truly bothersome is the idea that his sister may hold some advantage over him.5 Whereas the teacher can simply destroy the written (and partially erased) language that troubles him, the boy cannot obliterate the sister's spoken words. It occurs to him that he could take out his frustration by striking her, as he has done in the past, but he summarily dismisses the idea due to the guilt that violence against her produces in him. With the military teacher and the subversive Uncle Daniel shaping the other issues the boy thinks over, therefore, it is significant that he dismisses violence as a strategy for dealing with the disquieting signs of a threat to his dominance. What he understands about the recent political history of his country and about the events of his classroom could apparently have conditioned him to see violence as an appropriate response to his sister. That he does not choose that course is a decision that deserves further attention. I begin by focusing upon the specific role that gender plays in the story's representation of the boy's sense of lack and his eventual decision against violence as a solution to it.

The sense of lack is, of course, from Freud through Jacques Lacan to Julia Kristeva a crucial issue in modern thinking on the process of psychological development. Freud's work on “penis envy” and the “castration complex” has been adapted figuratively by numerous writers after Freud to refer to the anxieties produced by lack, anxieties that form both in the one who lacks something deemed important and in the possessor of an important item who encounters someone who lacks it. Peri Rossi here reverses Freudian “penis envy” and inflicts its equivalent on the boy by demonstrating the anxiety he feels when his sister claims to be more complete than he.6 His sister uses language to subvert his presumption of dominance, and he recalls that challenge as his teacher takes innocent erasing for subversion and responds with a display of authority. The boy's sense of lack then interacts with that of the other characters, demonstrating parallels between his panicked response to lack and their own. The sister's assertion thus causes him a sense of lack that conditions his growing understanding of how the dominant desires to repress the language and actions of the subordinate and of how language is, then, a tool of domination or, potentially, of subversion.

It is at precisely the moment of relating his panic to the teacher's that the boy closely examines the specific issues related to gender-difference that enter his dilemma. As discussed above, the parallel themes of sex-rivalry and power over language develop with the boy's unease at his sister's riddle. The boy presumes her gender to be significant and it is easy enough for the reader to do so as well. After all, the issue of lack practically invites comparison to Freud, Lacan, and Kristeva's use of the concept in their arguments concerning children's developing encounters with gender-difference. The sister's gender only becomes clearly significant to the story, however, when the boy begins to worry that she is at least his intellectual equal if not his intellectual superior: “… a pesar de que él la consideraba terriblemente vanidosa, reconocía que se trataba de una persona tan inteligente por lo menos como él” (89). This realization comes associated with remorse the boy feels for having struck his sister on previous occasions. The memory of striking her makes him imagine himself as a terrorist like those “cuyas fotos pasaban por la televisión y aparecían en todas las paredes” (90).7 After thinking of this image of the terrorists on television and wanted posters, the guilt of the boy's violence against his younger sister is juxtaposed with a certain embarrasment that pictures of women terrorists inspire in him:

… también algunas mujeres eran terroristas, las había visto, aunque las fotografías tenían el raro poder de alejarlo a uno de la contemplación; a uno le daba una especie de secreta vergüenza, se pasaba de costado para no verlas, ¿por qué sería?


A possible answer to the boy's question is that the women terrorists serve as a reminder that even groups seen as the most subordinate and powerless are capable of uprising. This point is where the boy's thought is the most complex and even contradictory. Although he later associates himself with the terrorists and fears his poster will appear on the wall if he strikes his sister, he also associates his treatment of his sister to government repression, thinking to himself that his violence against her is unjustifiable, but perhaps implying as well that he fears she may at some moment respond violently, like the women terrorists. What is clear is that the idea that women are acting as terrorists worries him. He associates women with submissiveness and the posters provide disquieting evidence to the contrary.

The boy's thought process goes off in one more direction and thereby brings another parallel anxiety into the equation. He worries about the word “terrorist,” and wonders if his Uncle Daniel, presumably a kidnapped subversive,8 might belong to that category of person. The reference to Uncle Daniel, thus, aligns the leaders of a repressive regime and the anxieties that subversives cause them with the anxieties the boy feels from his sister and from the women on the posters. All three types of anxiety are based upon the response of a member of a purportedly dominant group to the disquieting signs that one who is a member of a group considered to be disenfranchised or subordinate knows or possesses something with power that is, hence, automatically subversive. Later in the episode with the teacher, when the boy is cast as the one suspected of possessing something threatening, he is able to see the relationship of anxiety from the other extreme. Knowing that his erased language was the result of an innocent misspelling and sensing how the teacher's anxiety is brought on by an absence read to signal a threat is an important step toward his realization of the role he has played with his sister. It is also key in his growing understanding of how power over language and other potentially subversive tools is exercised and to his formulation of the final realization that “[e]l lenguaje es de los que mandan.”

There are two major options for reading this conclusion at which the boy arrives. One is that it represents his resignation to a continuing dynamic of domination that he sees as inevitable. For the reader who chooses this option, the boy's conclusion is, presumably, his initial step to ward perpetuating dominance himself in his physical power over his sister. In such an interpretation, the teacher's gesture of power over the boy makes the youngster decide that, as long as he will be dominated in some contexts, he might as well dominate in others. The option I find more convincing, however, is to see the boy's statement as an indication of his ability to understand abuses of power in general, even his own. In this reading, the conclusion represents his first step toward ceasing to abuse his physical power over his sister, and the phrase, “language belongs to those who are in command,” lends itself to a dual interpretation. On one hand, those who are in command can, like the teacher, determine whether a particular use of language is appropriate or not and can obliterate certain manifestations of language. On the other hand, language also belongs to those who, like the boy's sister, from a position of apparent subordinance take another sort of command by using language to disquiet authority and subvert its power. Therefore, although authority may take power over certain aspects of language, there are others it cannot control, which can be a weapon of the subaltern. The boy thus sees his use of impressive language and his violent silencing of his sister as just one form of power over language. His sister may have access to other forms of language power and he must, therefore, try to stop abusing his own. This second reading is more in line with the complex and often contradictory thought process through which the boy passes.

I now turn attention to “La navidad de los lagartos,” a story in which another young male protagonist, also a first-person narrator, deals with the issue of gender-difference as a key to understanding a complicated series of other issues. The focus of comparison will be the process that ultimately leads this boy only to an inability to express any sort of learning, as opposed to the partially successful conclusion of “La índole del lenguaje.” By highlighting notable points of convergence and divergence between the two texts, we will see more clearly the boys' ability or inability to arrive at a satisfying understanding of their relationships with girls and the issues to which girls become attached.

The narrator of “La navidad de los lagartos” is a young male who hunts lizards in the outskirts of his village. Three other details revealed at the beginning of the narrative are significant to this discussion: nine months have passed without rain; it is just before Christmas; and the narrator's grandfather is carrying out an odd ritual in the bottom of a well where he has vowed to stay until rainwater drives him out. As in “La índole del lenguaje,” early in the story the boy begins to draw mental parallels between his own personal issues with a girl and other issues in his environment. The first set of parallels in “La navidad de los lagartos” is based on a series of beings who wait.9 The boy associates his grandfather who waits for rain with the lizards waiting for sun and with himself waiting for the lizards just before he thinks about the neighbor girl dressed as the Virgin Mary who is waiting in the church for the arrival of the Child:

Y la Virgen, espera al Niño. La Virgen que tenemos en el pueblo, es vecina mía. No siempre ha sido Virgen: ésta es la primera vez. Yo no sabía que era la Virgen, pero ayer, cuando entré a la iglesia para ver el pesebre, vi que ella era la Virgen y en seguida me arrodillé.


Although the neighbor girl seems taller to the boy in her new role than when he had seen her previously, he recognizes her and compares her as she appears in the nativity scene to other times: “El manto me pareció muy bonito, aunque yo prefiero mirarla cuando va con los cabellos sueltos” (51). Crucial in the passages that follow is the ironic juxtaposition of references that demonstrate the boy's ability to recognize the Virgin as his neighbor with references that suggest his belief in a real magic power associated with the Virgin and the imminent arrival of the Son:

Hoy me desperté pensando que es el día en que el Niño llega y quizás con él llegue también un poco de lluvia. Todo el mundo irá a depositar regalos al pie de su cuna, porque no es un niño cualquiera.


In the nativity scene, therefore, the boy perceives the potential for supernatural power and it thus becomes a place in which several very different desires come together for him. The first, as shown in the passage above, is that the Child's arrival will finally bring rain. His desire for rain goes well beyond the simple desire that the town and its people receive the rain necessary for their daily lives, given that he even fears that if it does not rain soon he will “dry up,” and remain forever a child:

… si no llueve antes de que el Niño nazca en el pesebre de la iglesia, seguramente no tendremos ni Navidad, ni Año Nuevo, ni ningún año, los años van a detenerse, los años se volverán piedra y no pasarán. Nos quedaremos para siempre fijos en esta edad, yo no creceré y moriremos niños, sedientos y cubiertos de polvo, amarillaremos, como el campo, como las plantas, nos secaremos, como la hierba.


The narrator contradicts himself somewhat with regard to this particular desire in that along with the hope that the Child's birth will bring rain, he also suggests on two occasions that he believes rain to be a precondition for the Child's birth. Furthermore, in an apparent non-sequitur, he links the birth of the Child with the lizards that come out of their holes on hot days:

… si no llueve … [t]ampoco nacerá el Niño, aunque el camino esté lleno de lagartos que salen a calentarse al sol, a dormir bajo la modorra de la luz, en el lecho de tierra seca, tan seca que no se ve ni un mendrugo de planta, ni un retoño de árbol.


In the expression of this first desire associated with the nativity scene, therefore, the boy strings together a set of rather freely-associated and even contradictory beliefs.

Introduced early on to this self-contradicting and sub-logical narrator, the reader is somewhat prepared for the development of the boy's second rather illogical desire associated with the nativity scene; that is, that the neighbor girl/Virgin will accept him in response to his gift to her of two dead lizards.10 The girl in fact fascinates him outside her role as Virgin: “Me pareció muy alta, más que cuando desde el fondo de mi casa la veo alzarse para arrancar una manzana o pasearse entre los árboles” (50). Moreover, as he hunts lizards, apparently in order to offer them as gifts to the Child, his thoughts continually return to the girl:

Los lagartos, lentos, bajaban. El Niño tendría muchos regalos. Su venida sería celebrada, a pesar del calor, de la seca, del cielo despejado. Y a lo mejor tenía más regalos que nunca, para convencerlo de que hiciera llover. Vendrían todos los del pueblo, más los Reyes, gente de un lado y de otro, a conocer al Niño. Y ella estará allí, muy quieta, mirando la cuna.


As suggested, the neighbor girl, through her role as the Virgin in the nativity scene, becomes the point around which turn two sets of the juvenile narrator's desires: his basic, confused desire for the girl herself and his desire that the Child, upon his arrival, will be pleased by the gifts offered him and that he will thus make it rain so that the boy will not be “dried up” as a perpetual child.

The story's dénouement involves the girl's rejection of the boy's gift of two dead lizards and his subsequent descent into the well to join his grandfather. First, as the boy enters the church to offer his lizards (it is at this moment still ambiguous to whom exactly he intends to offer them), he sees the gifts others have left the Child: “A los pies de la cuna, vi manzanas rojas, naranjas, grandes limones maduros, una cabra atada” (53). The boy seems to feel that his own gifts are inadequate. Quickly, however, we see that he is not so much concerned about pleasing the Child as with pleasing the neighbor/Virgin, who has received no gifts to which he could compare his own. His attention rapidly moves entirely to her in a passage that draws an even tighter juxtaposition than before between the boy's spiritual and amorous objectives. He refers to her in this passage exclusively as “the Virgin” and remarks that she “tenía una expresión muy serena, muy compuesta, muy digna” (53), thus demonstrating that she conforms to his concept of the cultural icon she represents. Here, she is the blessed Mother awaiting the Child who has, in the boy's understanding, power to change his and the town's destiny. One last time, however, he remembers, still without calling her anything but “the Virgin,” that she was once in his view simply the neighbor girl with whom he had casual contact and with whom he apparently was and still is fascinated:

Yo la había visto antes andar por el patio, encalar las paredes, juntar limones caídos, desplumar los pollos que servirían para el almuerzo. Entonces, yo no sabía que era la Virgen; entonces hablábamos como vecinos, me preguntaba por el abuelo, por mi madre, yo le decía que se nos había muerto el perro.


The boy's careful catalogue of the activities he has seen the girl doing indicates that even before her role as the Virgin he had more than just a passing interest in her. These times he has seen the girl outside her role as Virgin are the moments he thinks over just before he decides to give her the lizards, placing them directly in her lap, rather than on the platform where the other gifts to the Child are. He then proceeds to make an odd request to the girl, in keeping with his sometimes illogical and contradictory thoughts. Seeing the manger empty, he tells the girl that he wishes to be the Child and desperately pleads with her to allow him that role. Notably, he asks not to play the part of the Child in a mere symbolic representation but rather to actually “be” the Child. The girl/Virgin instead scolds him for offering dead lizards, stressing to him that for the Child everything must be living. Her rejection angers the boy, who shouts that the lizards are not for the Child but for her and that he can bring her more so that she can sell the skins. He thus reveals explicitly their symbolism to him: his own skill and worth, plus the “magic” a gift is supposed to have over its receiver, as he sees in the gifts for the Child. Finally, she repeats her rejection of the animals and suggests that the boy spare them whereupon he snatches them up, runs from the church, and joins his grandfather at the bottom of the well.

By rejecting the gift of the lizards, the girl frustrates the jumbled desires that the boy expresses throughout the story. At different moments he wants to attract the girl's attention by giving her a gift, to give the Child a gift that might persuade him to make it rain, and to actually be the Child himself. As narrator, the boy never elaborates on any of the desires that surface in his telling of the story, but his response to the girl's rejection very clearly indicates that nothing he might have truly desired to happen as a result of the gift of the lizards has occurred. His encounter with the feminine, both as simple object of preamorous desire (girl) and as important spiritual icon (Virgin), has thus failed both to bring him a deeper relationship with the girl who infatuates him and to produce the other results for which he had at different moments expressed hope (that it might rain or that he would grow up).

By the time of the scene in the church the simple desire to become more intimately connected with the girl seems more important than the desire to bring rain or change his destiny. Since the boy clearly sees the girl as somehow superior, “being her Child” both would place him close to her and make their relationship less one-way. Furthermore, the boy's words indicate a need to please the girl over a need to receive a divine blessing through his offering. However, the descent to the well with the grandfather who is there invoking rain also suggests that all the boy's intentions have been thwarted. As he joins his grandfather, the latter's comment and then his command resonate explicitly with the boy's foiled attempt to bring on rain through an act of religious devotion, and underline the grandfather's belief in magic: “—Era hora de que bajaras—me dijo él, sin sonreír—. Ponte a hacer ruido con esas latas—agregó—. A veces, así, se atrae el agua” (55). Before descending into the well, the boy throws away the lizards, which were so closely linked to both his desire for rain and his desire for a more intimate connection with the neighbor girl. The story's end further emphasizes the idea of his lost illusion by re-characterizing the grandfather as one who from the bottom of the well, uselessly “rumiaba, a la luz de una vela, sus maldiciones acerca de la vida” (55). Thus, by descending into the well (with all its connotations of a descent to hell, a negative womb/vagina, or a tomb), the boy tosses away the objects associated with his juvenile illusions to join his ancestor who, considering his grumblings about life, was likely long ago embittered and disillusioned.

In both “La índole del lenguaje” and “La navidad de los lagartos,” a boy comes to doubt some previously-accepted truth through an episode that also introduces him to certain problems involving girls. In “La índole del lenguaje,” the boy comes to recognize that one of authority's key strategies in maintaining its dominance is to control the representation of phenomena by manipulating the very material of representation, language. The primary catalyst that brings on the realization is his sister's claim, which annoys him and leads him to realize that he, like his teacher and the authoritarian regime, is bothered by even the slightest indication that the subaltern can also manipulate language. The boy's final realization is at least somewhat hopeful, therefore, because in coming to a partial understanding of the dynamic of language as a tool of domination, he also sees the injustice in his past treatment of his sister. The ending of “La navidad de los lagartos” is not nearly as hopeful, however, for the boy has learned only disillusion through the experience with the neighbor girl. The descent into the well to join his grumbling grandfather leaves us with an image that communicates defeat, rather than growth.

“La índole del lenguaje,” thus, leaves us with a young male character who is able to confidently (although painfully) express the realization at which he has arrived and who could conceivably continue from that point to deepen his understanding of the issues he has confronted. The descent into the well at the end of “La navidad de los lagartos,” however, suggests that the boy's encounter with the neighbor girl has caused him to angrily abandon both the religious discourse that promised him redemption and the fleeting hope for a meaningful connection to a girl. The boy in “La índole del lenguaje” is able to organize the converging conflicts into a meaningful resolution primarily because he is able to see himself both as dominant and subordinate in parallel relationships that involve panic. The boy in “La navidad de los lagartos” struggles throughout to organize his jumbled thoughts regarding converging conflicts and ultimately gives up on doing so because the point of their convergence is the girl who, as both his religious icon and love object, rejects him doubly. Whereas for the boy in “La índole del lenguaje” the association of other issues with the difficulties a girl causes him becomes key to his resolution of crisis, a similar association is what eventually causes the boy in “La navidad de los lagartos” to give up on all fronts his attempt to make sense of the nativity scene and to take some lasting benefit or happiness from it. Both girls have and assert power through language and other means and thus “de-masculinize” the boys. The boy in “La navidad de los lagartos” then has nowhere to go but into the well. The boy in “La índole del lenguaje,” on the other hand does move on from his “de-masculinizing” to re-read his different roles in various types of power relationships. Though he is likely not conscious of the issues involved in male-centered thinking, his success as opposed to the other boy's failure is related to a re-reading of what it means to be masculine, a re-reading that is, ironically, catalyzed primarily by his little sister.


  1. Among the most conspicuous exceptions are “La influencia de Edgar Allan Poe en la poesía de Raimundo Arias,” “Los sintaxis,” “En la playa,” and “Ulva lactuca.”

  2. I will often use the term “read” as “perceive and interpret,” regardless of the senses or media involved.

  3. The primary language questions are the boy's use of words designed to dazzle his sister and the teacher's suspicious response to the erased “h.”

  4. Mario Vargas Llosa's La ciudad y los perros and Eraclio Zepeda's Asalto nocturno are just two of the many antecedents for this analogy between school and the harsher modes of governing.

  5. An emphasis on such a response to girls is typical for Peri Rossi's young male protagonists. In “El laberinto” (La rebelión de los niños 15–27), for example, the young boy's initial encounter with a girl is described in the following terms: “Ver a la niña lo puso medio loco. La niña iba acompañada por su madre caminaba a su lado con gran dignidad. Su dignidad lo excitó, le hizo mal y bien al mismo tiempo” (19). In “El laberinto,” as in “La índole del lenguaje,” the boy's attempts to organize his relationship to the girl in a way that asserts his dominance end up reaffirming the fears that are produced by anything that might suggest that the girl holds some sort of advantage over him: “¿por qué su padre no lo ayudaba, por qué no le daba una orden, por qué no los invitaba a correr por el sendero, a irse lejos de allí? Pondría una enorme distancia, una gran distancia, seguramente él podía correr más que ella y se subiría a una loma, aprovecharía una elevación del terreno para treparse y desde allí la observaría sin temor, sin enrojecimientos, ni balbuceos” (22).

  6. Although the scope of this article does not permit such a diversion in the corpus, a comparison between the treatment of the theme of lack in “La índole del lenguaje” and the same in “El arte de la pérdida” (Una pasión prohibida 129–41) could produce interesting results. In “El arte de la pérdida,” the adult male protagonist becomes convinced that he possesses something significant after reading an article entitled “El secreto de la identidad personal” in the dentist's office. The story narrates his joy in suddenly becoming aware that he possesses something that others do not know he possesses, his increasing obsession with this “personal identity,” and his growing neurotic suspicion that everyone around him is trying to take the possession away from him. Whereas “La índole del lenguaje” develops around panic based on a series of unknowns that allegedly reside in others, the panic in “El arte de la pérdida” is based upon an artificially constructed unknown within the self. Although the character does not know what it is he possesses, he is obsessed with the desire to keep it and protect it from others. The characters in “La índole del lenguaje,” on the other hand, are made by an inexplicable absence to feel already dispossessed of some item or knowledge that another possesses and are driven by the desire to uncover it. In the two stories, therefore, Peri Rossi illustrates that the idea of lack can produce anxiety even when there is actually nothing to be possessed or when there is no real threat that something already possessed will be lost.

  7. The reference is overtly historical. During the most recent period of military dictatorship in Uruguay, it was common for the government to broadcast pictures of suspected “terrorists,” of those who had been imprisoned and released, and of those who had died in “confrontations” with the police. The strategy was most effective in the case of those who had been imprisoned and released as it sent a clear message to their acquaintances that it would be wise not to resume normal social association with the outcasts. Thus, the boy's shame for striking his sister is directly related to the institutional strategy of shaming the opponents of the regime, thereby cutting them off from “law-abiding” society. The boy fears that his treatment of his sister might lead to just such a separation from society.

  8. The boy's parents tell him that Uncle Daniel is away somewhere being treated for an illness. One particular passage both shows that the boy understands more about Daniel than his parents suspect and also concretely demonstrates the mental link that he makes between political terrorism and his violence toward his sister. Moreover, the use of the notion of illness resounds with the political rhetoric of the Southern Cone regimes who often spoke of subversion as an epidemic to be eradicated. The passage reads: “… y él iba a estar en la lista por haber matado a su hermana, iba a tener que esconderse como la gente de la fotografía, si no quería pasarse el resto de la vida en un campo de concentración, seguido por los perros, apuntado por las ametralladoras, como Daniel, ¿o era verdad que Daniel estaba enfermo? ¿El terrorismo era una enfermedad? ¿Alguien estaba dispuesto a explicárselo?” (90).

  9. I have chosen to translate the Spanish verb “esperar” as “to wait” though the correlation is far from perfect. Especially in the phrase, “El [el abuelo] espera la lluvia,” the better translation for “esperar” might well be “to hope for.” Depending on its context, the verb “esperar” can approximate the meaning of either of these English verbs or also “to expect.” No single English expression is adequate for translating Peri Rossi's multi-level use of the verb “esperar” in the passage.

  10. It is worth noting, for further commentary on the theme of gifts as power, that in another Peri Rossi's story, “La anunciación,” yet another young male protagonist is practically obsessed with the need to please with gifts a woman he takes for the Virgin. This later story takes on more overtly political overtones as the “Virgin” is gradually identified as a subversive guerrilla.

Works Cited

Kristeva, Julia. “Women's Time.” Trans. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake. Signs 7.1 (1981): 13–35.

Peri Rossi, Cristina. Cosmoagonías. Barcelona: Laia, 1988.

———. El museo de los esfuerzos inútiles. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1983.

———. Los museos abandonados. Barcelona: Palabra Menor, 1974.

———. Una pasión prohibida. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1986.

———. La rebelión de los niños. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1988.

———. La tarde del dinosaurio. Barcelona: Plaza & Janes, 1985.

Vargas Llosa, Mario. La ciudad y los perros. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1967.

Zepeda, Eraclio. Asalto nocturno. México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1975.

Andrea L. Bell (essay date summer 1996)

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SOURCE: Bell, Andrea L. “Creating Space in the Margins: Power and Identity in the ‘Cuentos Breves’ of Pia Barros and Cristina Peri Rossi.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 3 (summer 1996): 345–43.

[In the following essay, Bell explores Pia Barros and Peri Rossi's use of the cuento breve [brief short story] to deal with issues such as oppression, misogyny, and the nature of identity.]

Creative expression, whether public or private, can be read as the manifestation of an individual's desire for freedom, for empowered selfhood, and for inclusion in the discourses of one's community. Pia Barros and Cristina Peri Rossi, two Latin American women who have successfully created space for their voices through literature, use their prose fiction pieces to question the nature of identity and the politics of community for those as yet without recognized place or voice. Barros and Peri Rossi are writers who have challenged and ultimately transcended boundaries both personal and professional, as victims of political oppression and as artists noted for literary works that violate orthodox genre definitions.1 They rebel in both substance and style, utilizing an undervalued, under represented art form—the cuento breve [very short story]—to explore issues of powerlessness in society.

The cuento breve occupies a particularly marginalized position within what is still a hierarchy of literary genres. In Latin America, the cuento breve is a form that has generally been mistrusted and misunderstood by readers, writers and publishers alike. Readers who are reluctant to commit the time and mental energy required by lengthy novels, for example, and who mistakenly equate physical brevity with a fast and easy read, can be put off by the sophistication and ambiguity that has been a hallmark of the cuento breve form. Similarly, writers with whom I have spoken repeatedly bemoan the unexpectedly difficult task of producing stories that are meaningful, polished, and yet markedly concise. Finally, and perhaps most prejudicial of all, many editors mistakenly view the cuento breve as an incomplete or inferior work of art. Because publishers operate, at least in part, out of a concern for the bottom line, they have avoided the form as being too physically insubstantial for the buying public. Readers, they fear, will not consider that they are getting their money's worth when buying a book that is so weightless when compared to a hefty novel that sells for the same price. Consequently, the cuento breve is often only able to negotiate space for itself as “filler” in the literary sections of newspapers or, in some cases, as fliers handed out in buses and on street corners, unprepossessing and impermanent flashes of art.2

In her analysis of an early cuento breve by Pia Barros, Liliana Trevizan sees the text as an articulation of variables of class and gender, which she identifies as issues of power. In A horcajadas [Astride], the book I will focus on for this paper, sex and sexuality have become the locus of struggles for identity and power. Sex—and it is usually sex without love—surfaces the quest for domination, and power becomes a source of erotic arousal. Indeed, many stories tacitly or explicitly couple sex with violence. In “Prefiguracion de una huella” [“Foreshadowing of a Sign”], the first story in the collection, a female narrator, employing physical and psychological force, insists on the sexual devotion of her male partner. The language she uses to describe their relationship evokes a sense of battle. There is no dialogue, no hint of love or tenderness; indeed, the powerful control she has over her lover borders on sadomasochism:

Lame mis rodillas, devocioname … sometete, succioname, lame mi deseo y el dolor muerde mis hombros y tiembla, deja que te invada el temor, la ansiedad, restregare mi rostro en tu angustia y tendre que sostenerte con fuerza … estaras llorando y yo sere poderosa e invencible ante ti y no podras tomarme, ahora que eres tan vulnerado, … derrotado. …


From the beginning, the narrator positions herself as the center, alternating between object and subject in the brief space of the text without ever forsaking control, demanding as hers the role of both giver and taker of pleasure.

This first story sets the tone for the rest of the book. Barros's erotic texts present woman's desire as a revolutionary act, and in her writing she refuses to relinquish or subordinate female jouissance to a traditional male-centered discourse. Throughout the stories in A horcajadas the struggle for power is waged on many levels, and the chief strategy for women is appropriation: appropriation of the narrative voice; of the theme of sexuality; of the privilege of orgasm and self-gratification; and of language, where explicit terminology—pene, pezones, pubis [penis, nipples, pubis]—unashamedly replaces metaphor. Suzette A. Henke, writing about women's erotic literature, voiced a concern that, “By consenting to the terms of a male discourse of desire, women authors have relinquished the power to articulate their own sexuality. All too often, they surrender the female point of view to a pornotopic language of phallic urgency” (53). Barros, in contrast, acknowledges, even celebrates, the reality of female sexual desire and a woman's right to pleasure. Her literature is a declaration of emancipation for women's sexuality, for in her stories women are openly assertive in their pursuit of sexual fulfillment. Her appropriation of sex as a theme and the explicitness of her descriptions represent a bold transgression of predominant Latin American literary and cultural boundaries.

The struggle for power and identity in A horcajadas is often expressed in the discourse of ownership. In the course of describing physical intimacy, Barros frequently employs the word “huellas” [imprints], traces that are left on the skin as a result of sexual contact. Like graffiti, huellas are signs that announce the invasion of one's territory by an outsider. They function as a tattoo of ownership, marking the body as explored and occupied territory and challenging the proprietary claims upon self by the other.

Another rather unusual element common to several of Barros's stories is a predilection for licking: as a means of arousal, for example, it is frequently a precursor to sexual conquest. For if the skin is considered the demarcation line of the individual, the physical boundary of self, in the sexual act in A horcajadas it becomes the place for confrontation, negotiation, and ultimately invasion and conquest. Licking is a means of exploring the unknown territory of the other, and knowledge of that territory can lead to its appropriation, to being named and claimed. Intercourse is the stage in the negotiations that involves going beyond the surface, but the skin is where the initial tenders are made. It is where each person brings to the table their borders, their contact zones. If the skin is a territory, one of whose functions is to try to stop the intruder, penetration (through sex, as well as through violence) becomes the level on which one's defenses are overpowered, where individual autonomy is violated.

“Conmiseraciones” [“Commiserations”], one of the most haunting stories in A horcajadas, narrates an anonymous woman's animal-like behavior when she finds in the streets the body of a boy who was machine-gunned to death. She cradles the bloody head in her lap, rocking back and forth, alternately howling her despair and anguish and licking his lifeless body. When animals lick, it can be to comfort, to cleanse, and to heal; the woman, by her instinctive and pathetic act of licking, is attempting to comfort the young victim of violence, to cleanse his body of its wounds, and to “heal” the boy by reclaiming him from his killers through the superimposition of her marks over theirs. Her act is a symbolic process of erasure, the restoration of identity to the marginalized and powerless victim.

The exploration of issues of power and identity must take into account the dynamics of place and the politics of oppression. Pia Barros and Cristina Peri Rossi do so by examining the ironic situation of those who have become marginalized within their own society. Their stories are studies of the survival strategies of the displaced: the abused, the poor, the lonely, and those deemed crazy or generally expendable by dominant forces. Their texts highlight power as an issue of locality within the subject/object relationship, of margin to center.

Cristina Peri Rossi reasserts the legitimacy of the marginalized in her 1983 collection of stories, El museo de los esfuerzos inútiles [The Museum of Vain Endeavors]. El museo is a collection of short and very short prose fiction pieces that display for us, like curiosities on a shelf, the empty hopes and frustrated efforts of our lives. In tones of driest irony, Peri Rossi creates an allegorical world in which we see ourselves succumbing to despair after having been entrapped by the forces of politics, social conventions, language, routine, loneliness, and our own overwhelming desires and fears.

Margin confronts center on the level of form as well as content in this book, which is made up of over a dozen cuentos breves—averaging a mere 700 words—intermingled with stories of a more customary length. In these texts, Peri Rossi defamiliarizes by means of the fantastic, effectively recasting accepted behaviors and attitudes as something strange and outrageous in order to provide us with a new perspective from which to consider them. Such is her approach in the cuento breve “Cartas” [“Letters”], a lyrical and softly humorous text that calls into question cultural assumptions about placelessness and insanity. The story's first-person narrator laments not being able to answer the myriad letters that she never receives, due to the fact that she has neither typewriter nor fixed address. That is to say, she has neither the tools nor the position necessary to be recognizable to others, and this aberration effectively renders her invisible to mainstream society. The letters symbolize communication and existence, and without them, to the postman, she is nobody. Borrowing from Shoshana Felman's analysis, one sees the narrator as a victim of

a latent design to exclude the woman from the production of speech, since the woman, and the other as such, are philosophically subjugated to the logical principle of Identity—Identity being conceived as a solely masculine sameness, apprehended as male self-presence and consciousness-to-itself

(136, italics in original)

The narrator is certain that the letters exist, however, and interrogates the postman as to why they are never delivered. All of his responses reflect the logic and beliefs of the postman's rule-governed world, but the answers seem totally absurd to the narrator, who occupies a marginalized space in that world and consequently does not share its cultural codes. Witness this exchange:

“Reclame en la administracion,” me dijo el cartero, fastidiado. “Declare en que lugar y fecha le fueron expedidas y quien se las envo.” Le dije que no podia saber quien las habia escrito ni de donde venian, dado que nunca las recibi. …


The mailman goes on to declare:

“Si no sabe quien las remitio, ni de que lugar proceden, las cartas no existen. …” Me parecio completamente injusto que alguien pudiera decretar la inexistencia de mis cartas solo porque yo no las habia recibido aim, a pesar de mi firme voluntad de leerlas y del teson que ponia en encontrarlas.


The postman then launches into a lengthy description of the bizarre procedures that the bureaucracy goes through with lost letters: recording them, filing them and storing them in vast warehouses where, ironically, a letter never gets lost. The failure of contact and communication is thus atoned for by the creation of a place, sanctified by all the weight of officialdom, in which human interaction can be held in infinite stasis. Ridiculed and even denied existence in the world represented by the postman, the narrator chooses to assert her identity by creating her own space, her own sense of reason, rejecting the confining boundaries of the dominant culture through her unquestioning belief in the existence of those letters. This act is seen not as piteous but as triumphant and empowering, for immediately after the mailman's pedantic discourse the narrator closes the story with this serene declaration:

Recibo muchas cartas y lamento no contestar la mayoria de ellas, ya que no tengo domicilio fijo, ni maquina de escribir. De todos modos, es muy frecuente que las cartas no me lleguen, pero yo se que hay gente que las escribe y siempre es posible leerlas en las alas de los pajaros, o en el fondo de una botella, o en la arena humeda del mar.


Leonard Lutwack has observed that “Writers for whom neither alienation nor recommitment is acceptable turn to other choices: escape into nostalgia, distortions of place through fantasy and hallucination, and the rejection of place altogether in favor of other dimensions of existence such as time and motion” (184). The writer-narrator in “Cartas” takes refuge in her letters: they are a life-line she has strung between the two worlds in whose interstices she exists. her belief in the people who write these letters affirms her membership in some as-yet unself-conscious community; it is an act of bravado intended to rebuff her dismissal as mad. While she does not fully share or even understand the rules by which the dominant culture operates, she is shrewd enough to manipulate them for her own survival. She demonstrates mastery of the communications act by initiating as well as interpreting, by being both reader and writer of those mysterious letters. “Women … are associated both with madness and with silence, whereas men are identified with prerogatives of discourse and of reason,” writes Shoshana Felman (145). The narrator of “Cartas” rejects silence and appropriates these prerogatives of men. In her solitude, she has created a specialized discourse that defies the isolation of placelessness and abrogates the boundaries that would confine her to the margins.

In another cuento breve, “La peluqueria” [“The Beauty Salon”], Peri Rossi criticizes the slavish devotion to dominant codes of beauty and challenges the notion put forth by some that women who patronize beauty salons do so as an independent act of choice. The salon in Peri Rossi's story is but another type of museum, one whose futile endeavor is the repeated attempt at meaningful change. This attempt is completely undermined by the subordinate position the women occupy during a procedure that denies them any voice in determining their outcome. Furthermore, the very frequency of their visits to the salon underscores the evanescent nature of the changes they seek.

“La peluqueria” describes a trip to the beauty parlor as if it were a religious ritual. It depicts a collection of anonymous women undergoing a process of physical obliteration and rebirth in an environment that pretends to be spiritual. Tunic-clad women are seated in a row before sinks (referred to as “baptismal fonts”), being systematically prodded, pulled, and shaped by another set of women under the supervision of “la superiora” [the Mother Superior], who wears a toga. The narrator utilizes the language of a divine ceremony to describe the actions of the faithful, who bow their heads while liquid ablutions are poured over hair that has been raised and pinned into crosses and who, upon leaving, pay their tithes at the door.

The total absence of dialogue in the brief text destroys the image of the beauty salon as a locus of solidarity and companionship among women. In its place is an atmosphere of silent subjugation. The traditional paradigms of power are inverted, for in this world the laborer reigns supreme and the privileged consumer is rendered mute and helpless. This hierarchy is reinforced in the spatial deployment of the characters: the powerful have mobility and superior height, while the powerless are confined to their chairs, objects of physical and emotional manipulation. One could find complicity everywhere and fall into the unjust practice of blaming the victims, the women who perpetuate artificial concepts of beauty and worth by patronizing the salons in the first place. By obfuscating blame, however, Peri Rossi underscores our inability to break free from futile, self-denigrating practices and instead highlights a repetitive, ossified ritual of entrapment.

Stylistically, the narration resembles a movie camera that slowly pans the room, fighting first on one figure and then another. As if to indict superficial concepts of beauty, all description is strictly physical. Indeed, far from being an individualizing act of creative expression, the beauty parlor trip that Peri Rossi shows consists of the stripping away of identity. The women in the salon are systematically depersonalized, as someone ceremonially spreads their faces with cream, “procurando borrar los rasgos, tapar las estrias, ocultar las formas. Simetricamente, la hilera se transforma en una sucesion de lapidas mortuorias” (134).7 Tombstones that are the static testament to spent lives. The final irony is articulated in the closing scene, in which the women are “atadas a las sillas [mientras que] la maestra de ceremonias eleva, en el copon dorado, por encima de su cabeza, la sangre menstrual de una tintura” (134).8 This image, a reference to reproductive power and creativity, stands in sharp contrast to the women's impotence and lack of self-creation. As a symbolic definer of womanhood, this menstrual blood is co-opted to serve the age-old, oppressive “duty” of woman to be beautiful. As it is poured over the women's heads, then, it effectively overpowers wisdom and silences thought.

Many of Pia Barros's and Cristina Peri Rossi's cuentos breves symbolize, on both thematic and structural levels, a fragmented, alienating and ambiguous vision of contemporary society. Yet they oppose any attitude of superficiality or indifference with which we would try to navigate modern urban life, and thus are ultimately optimistic; for like the society they reflect, the cuento breve requires of us a significant amount of thoughtful and committed engagement in order for our search for meaning to be satisfied.

Through their choice both of subject matter and literary form, Barros and Peri Rossi champion the cause of all those who would challenge the boundaries that seek to (de/con)fine identity, reality, and meaning. But are these, then, vain attempts, mere curiosities in a museum of futile endeavors? I believe they are not, for A horcajadas and El museo de los esfuerzos inútiles are ultimately reaffirmations of the marginalized and indictments of the limits on the female self. Functioning as display pieces, the stories are moments abstracted from the lives of others. They have been selected for inclusion in a museum, a place of great cultural prestige. Likewise, as a form of writing, the cuento breve must fight not to be crushed by the weight of canonical genres, and by participating in the cuento breve tradition Barros and Peri Rossi increase the visibility, and thus the legitimacy, of the form.


  1. Peri Rossi's El libro de mis primos, published in 1969, mixes poetry and prose, realism and fantasy. The author made it clear in an interview with Eileen Zeitz that the restraints set in place by canonical concepts of genre are, by and large, meaningless to her: “a veces escribo prosa y poesia al mismo tiempo. Para mi no existen diferencias importantes entre ambas, son los temas que exigen una u otra forma” (80; “sometimes I write prose and poetry at the same time. For me, there are no important differences between them; it is the themes which require one form or the other”).

  2. Pia Barros and the participants in her writers' workshops occasionally self-publish their creations using a singularly innovative approach in order to increase the texts' sales potential. The authors print up their stories on sheets of brown paper folded into thirds, each story illustrated by graphic artists in the local community. These triptychs are then packaged in eye-catching yet inexpensive containers, such as small cardboard suitcases or burlap bags, and are sold at street fairs, poetry readings, and the like, as well as in bookstores. In this way Barros seeks to increase the visibility of her and others' cuentos breves while keeping them accessible to readers at almost all economic levels.

  3. Lick my knees, worship me … submit to me, suck me, lick my desire and my pain … bite my shoulders and tremble, let fear and anxiety invade you, … I will rub my face in your anguish, and I will have to bear you up with force … you will be crying, and I will be powerful and invincible before you, and you will not be able to take me, now that you are so violated, … so defeated. …

  4. “File a claim with the administration,” the postman told me, annoyed. “State the place and the date they were mailed, and who sent them.” I told him I could have no way of knowing who had written them or where they came from, given that I had never received them. …

  5. “If you don't know who mailed them, or where they originated; then the letters don't exist. …”

    It seemed completely unfair to me that someone could decree the nonexistence of my letters simply because I hadn't received them yet, in spite of my strong desire to read them and my tenacity in trying to locate them.

  6. I receive many letters and regret not answering most of them, since I have neither fixed address nor typewriter. In any event, oftentimes the letters may never reach me, but I know that there are people who write them, and it's always possible to read them on the wings of birds, or in the depths of a bottle, or in the damp sands of the sea.

  7. “… attempting to erase the features, cover up the lines, muffle the shapes. Symmetrically, the row is transformed into a succession of tombstones.”

  8. “… tied to their chairs (while) the mistress of ceremonies raises above their heads, in a golden goblet, the menstrual blood of a dye.”

Works Cited

Barros, Pia. A horcajadas. Santiago: Editorial Mosquito Comunicaciones, 1990.

Felman, Shoshana. “Women and Madness: The Critical Phallacy.” The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Ed. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore. New York: Blackwell, 1989. 133–53.

Henke, Suzette A. “Sexuality and Silence in Women's Literature.” Power, Gender, Values. Ed. Judith Genova. Alberta: Academic Printing, 1987. 45–62.

Lutwack, Leonard. The Role of Place in Literature. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1984.

Peri Rossi, Cristina. El museo de los esfuerzos inútiles. Barcelona: Editorial Seix Barral, S. A., 1983.

Trevizan, Liliana. “La articulacion estetica entre la variable de clase y la variable dc genero en un cuento de Pia Barros.” Plaza: Revista de Literatura 14–15 (1988): 51–56.

Zeitz, Eileen. “Tres escritores uruguayos en el exilio.” Chasqui: Revista dc Literatura Latinoamericana 9 (1979): 79–101.

Mary S. Gossy (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Gossy, Mary S. “Not So Lonely: A Butch-Femme Reading of Cristina Peri Rossi's Solitario de amor.” In Bodies and Biases: Sexualities in Hispanic Cultures and Literature, edited by David William Foster and Roberto Reis, pp. 238–45. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Gossy provides a detailed reading of Solitario de amor as a lesbian novel.]

When I first heard that Cristina Peri Rossi had published an erotic novel I looked forward to Solitario de amor's being an addition to the fairly small population of “out” lesbian novels published in Spanish. I opened the book at random in a bookstore in Madrid in 1988 and found the following passage:

I do not love her body, I am loving her imperceptibly palpating membranous liver, the white sclera of her eyes, the bleeding endometrium, the perforated lobe, the stria of the fingernails, the small and turbulent intestinal appendix, the tonsils as red as berries, the hidden mastoids, the crunching jaw, the inflammable meninges, the vaulted palate, the roots of the teeth, the brown place on the shoulder, the carotid as tense as a cord, the lungs poisoned by smoke, the little clitoris set in the vulva like a lighthouse.1

The reference and homage to Monique Wittig's 1973 The Lesbian Body was fully apparent. A little taste of Wittig's book may be useful for comparison:

M/y most delectable one I set about eating you, m/y tongue moistens the helix of your ear delicately gliding around, m/y tongue inserts itself in the auricle, it touches the antihelix, m/y teeth seek the lobe, they begin to gnaw at it, m/y tongue gets into your ear canal.


The similarity that I want to highlight is the repetitive, scientific, anatomically correct terminology that the narrator uses to describe the activity of loving the body of the beloved. Wittig's text is almost nothing but a series of these erotic incantations, and it appeared that Peri Rossi's text was echoing Wittig's stylistics because it, too, was a lesbian novel: that is, a novel in which a lesbian writer represents lesbian desire. In the case of such “lesbian novels,” theoretical doubts about the relationship between a real and an implied author, between the human writer and the author function, disappear. To know or to believe that the historical author is a lesbian has specific aesthetic and political effects on the lesbian reader's interpretation and reception of a lesbian text. These effects are produced by the desire of an embodied lesbian to identify and make contact with the body of a lesbian author as it is (or may be) materialized in her writing. I know that it is true that some straight women have sex with lesbians; and as much recent research shows, some women who identify as lesbians sleep with men, sometimes, for various reasons. But lesbian desire is also mobilized by and for another woman whom the reader knows (because she or someone else who knows has said so) is a lesbian. Lesbian desire depends upon the presence of another lesbian, who has been narrated as lesbian. In terms of the reception of a lesbian novel, this other lesbian is the historical author who has come out, or been outed, as a lesbian.

The cursory browsing in the Madrid bookstore, combined with what I then knew of Cristina Peri Rossi's work and life, led me to expect that Solitario de amor would be an explicitly lesbian novel. I bought the book without reading any more of it; like so many book purchases, this one was like a blind date; I had the distant recommendations of friends, and I was hoping for the best. But our perverse, nonlinear acquaintance in the bookstore proved to be insufficient. When I finally sat down to read it from beginning to end, on the second page I encountered the sentence, “So that I am condemned to live it in solitude”—“De modo que estoy condenado a vivirlo en soledad” (8). Was that “-o” at the end of condenado a misprint? No, two pages later, the “I” of the narrator describes itself as “shipwrecked,” náufrago, and a “lost traveller,” a viajero perdido. What kind of lesbian novel has a narrator that takes the masculine pronoun, anyway?

The historical author said, in a 1988 interview, “I feel completely identified with the protagonist, in spite of the fact that it is a man. I think that in this case it is irrelevant. Whether the protagonist is a woman or a man changes nothing.”2

There are few things that are certain, but one of them is that in literature and in life, whether one is a man or a woman makes a difference; and that difference does change things. At first the presence of a narrator who insistently describes himself by saying “I am a man who …,” “Soy un hombre que …” seemed to make Solitario de amor unavailable as a text for lesbian desire.

In the psychic space of desiring reading, it is precisely the uncertainty of the mark of sexual difference that opens the text to different readings. Like a four-year old doing her first sexual researches in an attempt to formulate sexual difference, I wanted to see exactly to what extent whether the protagonist was a man or a woman changed anything, so I began to look for the narrator's phallus—to see if he had one and, if so, what it was like. The characteristics of this phallus would help to show the extent to which the text might be read as a lesbian novel.

The narrator describes his lover Aída's genitals in insistent anatomical detail or simply as her “sex,” sexo. He also uses the term sexo for his own sexual organ; the other term that comes up is “member,” miembro. But nowhere in the book is this organ called “penis,” pene; there are no “testicles,” testículos, or any other less scientific but equally specific terms. There is no mention of an erection or of any of the other physiological attributes of a penis. Nevertheless, penetration is one of the sexual acts of the two lovers. The narrator introduces his sexo into Aída, who does not similarly penetrate him. The narrator says that his “sexo” is a “weak vine,” débil liana that connects him to Aída; but in their act of lovemaking, while “the end of my member touches the head of your uterus,” the narrator says that simultaneously, “we shake each other, … we snort, mucous membrane against mucous membrane.”3 Whatever the narrator's sexo is, it does not exclude the possibility of a meeting of genital mucous membranes, which is something that is possible when two women's bodies come together.

The other way that the narrator describes his genital contact with Aída is that she is the “lock,” la cerradura, and he is the “key,” la llave. The key in the lock is a symbol for heterosexual intercourse that predates Freud's use of it in dream symbols, but what is interesting about it here is that the key is a symbol for the penis, but not the penis itself. In the descriptions that he offers, the narrator's sexo, too, participates in the penis's symbolic economy, but is nowhere named “penis.” Something that depends upon the penis for its meaning, but is not the penis itself, is the phallus.

It is not possible to say accurately that there is a penis represented in Solitario de amor. At no time, despite the frequency of the use of anatomical terms for the female genitalia in the book, is a penis mentioned by name. There is, however, a miembro, a sexo through whose erotic activity the narrator identifies himself as grammatically masculine. This brings us back to the body of the historical lesbian author, who has already told her readers that she feels “completamente identificada con el personaje protagonista, a pesar de que es un hombre.” When a woman, fully cognizant of the fact that she is a woman, publicly identifies completely with the masculine, while fully cognizant that she is not a man, she produces a definition of herself as butch. Within this identification with and putting on of gender, it is important to remember that the masculine cannot exist in a vacuum. Its definition and continuity require a feminine counterpart, or as Sue-Ellen Case's now classic definition of the butch-femme relationship states, “You can't have one without the other.” Case refers to the hyphen that customarily marks the term butch-femme as a “lesbian bar” that brings the two together. If a butch is defined in relationship to a femme, then her butchness, that which makes her masculine in reference to the femme's femininity, and keeps the two terms connected, may be graphically represented as that hyphen. Another name for this masculine term that the butch uses to connect with the femme, a term that is distantly founded upon the penis, but which displaces and exceeds, it, is phallus. A woman who puts on the phallus in erotic reference to another woman is butch. When a lesbian reader reads that a woman wrote an erotic novel about a relationship between a “he,” él, and a “she,” ella, and that that woman, who is thus erotically obsessed with ella,feels completely identified” with él, then the reader must conclude that what has come before her is a lesbian novel. This reception of Solitario de amor as a butch-femme novel of lesbian desire has several terms. One is the infantile, Freudian definition of gender difference; because there is no specifically embodied penis in Solitario de amor, the narrator may be read as masculine, but not male, that is, as butch. Another consists of the rumors, literary biography, and statements about herself that the historical author has made. People have said that she is a lesbian, she herself identifies completely with a masculine protagonist who is erotically obsessed with a woman, and she also says that Solitario de amor is “my most autobiographical book.”4 If it were not for my knowledge of the author's embodied sexuality, I might still be able to show on textual grounds that Solitario de amor has many elements that suggest that it is a story of lesbian desire, or at the very least something other than a heterosexual romance. But the knowledge that the author is a man or a woman, straight or gay, does change things for the lesbian reader, as it does in other contexts for other readers who find themselves oppressed and excluded from dominant discourses of race, class, or sex. There is interpretive significance in the relationship of the author's body to the reader's desire. The embodied identity of the author is a matter of desire for readers—and even for readers who fight over canonical questions of authorship, for the most philological of reasons. The scholarly quibbles of savants over the attribution of texts are a way not only to identify with the (supposed) author, but also to interact passionately—that is, frequently, homoerotically, but in a socially approved, scholarly way—with other critics. The reader's investment in interpreting the author's identity is—from Homer to Cervantes, and Shakespeare to Peri Rossi—an erotic one. This relationship may not make for dispassionate readings (if dispassionate readings are possible at all), but it certainly can be a source of pleasure.

The pleasure of a femme reader before Cristina Peri Rossi's butch text is at least partially conditioned by the text's representation of the lesbian phallus. Judith Butler says that this lesbian phallus “is and is not a masculinist figure of power; the signifier is significantly split, for it both recalls and displaces the masculinism by which it is impelled” (Butler 162). This significant split is evident in the statement “I feel completely identified with the protagonist, in spite of the fact that it is a man.” The phrase a pesar de que, “in spite of,” here invokes causation as much as it does obstacle. “In spite of” here means “because he is” and “because I am not” a man. The splitting of the meaning of the lesbian phallus continues in the word “identified,” identificada. According to Wittig, the trace of the phallus in grammar is in the personal pronoun and the masculine and feminine endings that proceed from it.5 The persistent “-a” at the end of identificada shows the limits that language puts upon a woman who wants to identify, or feels identified, with the man. But that “-a” is also the precondition of a butch identity. If, as Butler and Charles Bernheimer have it, “the phallus would be nothing without the penis” (Butler 157; cf. also Bernheimer), then the butch would be nothing without her femme-ininity. That is, if it were not for the lesbian (female-on-female) desire that she has for or in reference to a femme, the butch's masculinity could not exist. Butch-femme depends somewhere upon a female body for its definition. The “-a” in identificada in this context marks how the lesbian phallus is a split signifier or, similarly, where the terms “lesbian” and “phallus” may be brought together.

This “-a” persists in two points that are crucial to a butch-femme reading of Solitario de amor. As I mention above, the narrator refers to his “sex,” sexo, as a “a weak vine,” una débil liana, that connects him and Aída. (Peri Rossi's cultural references in this text run from La celestina to Verdi to Lacan. Is it possible that she saw John Sayles's 1980 movie about a lesbian's coming out, Lianna?) This sexo is also una llave. Out of all the possible metaphoric representations of a phallus, why use two that are so clearly (if arbitrarily) grammatically marked as feminine? In both cases, the narrator's phallus carries a heavy layer of structural femininity. The question of la llave is of particular importance, because keys figure in the book's climax and end. The narrator always meets Aída for sex at her place. The relationship goes on for a long time, but the reader discovers at the end, when she is mad at him and will not admit him anymore into her life, refusing to answer the telephone or the door, that the narrator has no keys to Aída's house. He cannot let himself in. Earlier in the novel the narrator has said “I am a key,” Soy una llave, and “Aída is a house,” Aída es una casa—but when trouble comes into their relationship, it is a lack of a material, not a symbolic, key that separates the narrator from his beloved. In the text it is not stated why Aída breaks off contact. All that she says, through the locked door, is “I don't want to see you.”6 If Solitario de amor is a tragedy, it is because it is the story of how both characters, butch and femme, who can only exist together, lose their power to be in discourse when one refuses to tell her story along with the other. The negation of their relationship because of the lack of a material key—a male phallus, perhaps?—eradicates both of them from discourse. I wonder, and only wonder, if Solitario de amor could be the sad story of a butch in love with a heterosexual woman.

Perhaps you, dear reader, have had just about as much of the recurrence of the phallus in these books, and in this essay, as you can take, and see it as yet another form of evasion. But the phallus is under analysis because it is part of what makes a butch-femme reading possible, even starting with the book's epigraphs. The first epigraph quotes a fragment from Paul Valéry, “the strange gestures that lovers make to kill Love.”7 The idea of gestures and expressions, symbols represented by the body but not part of it, seems to concur with ideas of gender as performance, and phallus as something coming from, but not part of, the body. The other epigraph is also compelling. It is from Lacan, and says, “To love is to give that which one does not have to someone who does not exist.”8 True, on an abstract level, this may be a description of the fantastical nature of love relations between any two people. But on a paradoxically embodied level, it is an accurate description of a butch-femme relationship, in which the butch gives the phallus that she (by definition) does not have to the woman that the lesbian femme (by definition) is not. The epigraph from Lacan is, in this context, a negative definition of the butch-femme relationship.

On a more positive note, in the middle of the longest sex scene in the book, the narrator says, “Now the down of your pubis is my moustache.”9 An unambiguously “male” narrator would have a moustache, or the possibility of one, without this moment of oral-genital contact. But if we can set the phallus aside for the moment, perhaps we can finally remember what is even more crucial than the phallus to lesbian experience: Peri Rossi's text shows that in the case of a butch-femme relationship, the lesbian vulva makes the man.


  1. “No amo su cuerpo, estoy amando su hígado membranoso de imperceptible pálpito, la blanca esclerótica de sus ojos, el endometrio sangrante, el lóbulo agujereado, las estrías de las uñas, el pequeño y turbulento apéndice intestinal, las amígdalas rojas como guindas, el oculto mastoides, la mandíbula crujiente, las meninges inflamables, el paladar abovedado, las raíces de los dientes, el lugar marrón del hombro, la carótida tensa como una cuerda, los pulmones envenenados por el humo, el pequeño clítoris engarzado en la vulva como un faro” (15–16). Cristina Peri Rossi, Solitario de amor; references in my text are to this edition, and translations are my own.

  2. “Me siento completamente identificada con el personaje protagonista, a pesar de que es un hombre. Creo que en este caso es irrelevante. Que el protagonista sea una mujer o sea un hombre no cambia nada” (43). Susana Camps, interview with Cristina Peri Rossi.

  3. “El extremo de mi miembro toca la cabeza de tu útero”; “nos sacudimos, … resoplamos, mucosa contra mucosa.”

  4. “Mi libro más autobiográfico.”

  5. Monique Wittig, “The Mark of Gender,” in The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 76–89.

  6. “No quiero verte” (172).

  7. “los gestos extraños que para matar al Amor hacen los amantes.”

  8. “Amar es dar lo que no se tiene a quien no es.”

  9. “Ahora el vello de tu pubis es mi bigote.”

Works Cited

Bernheimer, Charles. “Penile Reference in Phallic Theory.” Différences 4.1 (spring 1992): 116–32.

Butler, Judith. “The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary.” Différences 4.1 (spring 1992): 133–71.

Camps, Susana. “La pasión desde la pasión.” Quimera 81 (1988): 40–49.

Peri Rossi, Cristina. Solitario de amor. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1988.

Wittig, Monique. The Lesbian Body. Trans. David Le Vay. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. First English edition, 1975. Orig. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1973.

Linda Gould Levine (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Levine, Linda Gould. “Cristina Peri Rossi's Gender Project: Rewriting Male Subjectivity and Sexuality in Solitario de amor.” In Latin American Women's Writing: Feminist Readings in Theory and Crisis, edited by Anny Brooksbank Jones and Catherine Davies, pp. 148–62. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Levine considers Peri Rossi's conception of androgyny and her reconfiguration of male identity and sexuality in Solitario de amor.]

The writings of Cristina Peri Rossi have long seduced the imagination of the critic in search of transgressive models of gender definitions and sexual roles. Brandishing an allusive and enigmatic literary style, her poetry and prose transport the reader to a metaphorical terrain where phallic power is decentred, sexual multiplicity is suggested, and boundaries of gender and identity are continually collapsed and expanded. Acutely aware of the constraints that fixed definitions place on the subject and well versed in contemporary theories which seek to destabilize phallocentric constructs, Peri Rossi offers her readers a complex body of fiction that inserts itself in a most compelling project for the woman writer: the reconfiguration of male subjectivity and sexuality. This is not to suggest that the restructuring of female subjectivity and sexuality in Latin American literature has been explored in all its possible dimensions, although certainly the writings of Sylvia Molloy, Diamela Eltit, Albalucía Angel, Isabel Allende, Elena Poniatowska, Rosario Ferré, Ana Lydia Vega, and Peri Rossi herself, among others, have greatly contributed to this endeavour. Rather, it is to recognize, as Kaja Silverman has forcefully stated in Male Subjectivity at the Margins, the degree to which ‘“deviant” masculinities … represent a tacit challenge not only to conventional male subjectivity, but to the whole of our “world”’ in that ‘they call sexual difference into question, and beyond that, “reality” itself’ (Silverman 1992: 1).

Nowhere in Peri Rossi's body of writing is this claim more powerfully realized than in her 1988 novel, Solitario de amor.1 Described by the author as the ‘anatomía de la pasión’ (‘anatomy of passion’) (Narváez 1992: 246) and narrated in the first person by an unnamed male character hopelessly in love with the enigmatic Aída, the text plays continual havoc with its readers. Faithful to the author's disavowal of ‘un mundo regido por una sola lectura’ (a world ruled by one reading alone) (Peri Rossi 1981: 10) it can be interpreted on many different levels which intersect with current theories of gender, myths of sexual undifferentiation, critiques of compulsory heterosexuality, and rewritings of Freudian premises. Central to all these readings which suggest the full range of Peri Rossi's engagement with theoretical concerns and issues crucial to feminist scholarship is the author's implicit attempt to expand upon a Utopian project which has haunted her writings during the last twenty-five years. Solitario de amor is, in essence, Peri Rossi's most carefully conceived response to her desire to envision human sexuality as a fluid spectrum of multiple preferences and options open to the subject at all times.

If, in an interview published in 1985, the author decries ‘the sex which is socially imposed upon us’ and expresses the longing for a ‘multiple sex’ to be used ‘at liberty without society feeling attacked and upheaved,’ her prose and poetry have consistently provided the space for the realization of this libidinal multiplicity (Hughes 1985: 272–3). From the pages of El libro de mis primos,2 which call for a society where ‘homosexuales, heterosexuales’ and ‘hermafroditas’ (homosexuals, heterosexuals, and hermaphrodites) (1989: 147) have the right to express themselves freely to the creation of the hermaphrodite Alejandra in ‘Gambito de reina’ (La tarde del dinosauro (1985)), and the poetic declaration in Babel bárbara that ‘hay más de dos sexos’ (there are more than two sexes) (1991: 69), Peri Rossi's transgression extends beyond the postulation of transvestism, lesbianism, and homosexuality as viable sexual alternatives for her characters.3

Echoing and expanding upon Hélène Cixous's belief in the bisexual nature of each person, Peri Rossi's novel, Solitario de amor, provides the ultimate playground battlefield for her most extensive elaboration of the concept of androgyny. That she chooses a male narrator as the central focus of this Utopian endeavour is highly significant. Despite her claims that the narrator's sex is ‘irrelevante’ (irrelevant) because he is ‘un símbolo del amor’ (a symbol of love), his male gender and Peri Rossi's postulation, through him, of a ‘nonphallocentric erotic economy’ serve to ‘dispel the illusions of sex, gender, and identity’ which constitute heterosexual patriarchal society (Camps 1988: 42–3, 45; Butler 1990: 19).4 Iconoclastically breaking down the boundaries which divide the sexes, Peri Rossi's narrator is simultaneously male and female in psyche and sexuality, a transgressive subjective space where heterosexual and lesbian experiences fuse together with dreams and fantasies common to both sexes.

To some degree, the narrator may be viewed as a contemporary version of the androgynous being whose duality is best captured by Plato in his Symposium (Buchanan 1959). In this lyrical tale of the origins of ‘human nature’ (1959: 143) Plato writes of three original sexes, ‘man, woman, and the union of the two’ (1959: 143) who were severed in half by a vengeful Zeus and destined to spend the rest of their lives in search of the other half which would then compose ‘the whole … called love’ (1959: 147). If, for Plato's speaker, Aristophanes, this myth explains the birth of male and female homosexuality, as well as of heterosexuality, since the ‘men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women’ (1959: 146), Peri Rossi extends this tale beyond the limits of two prescribed and separate sexualities and seeks a fidelity to the original double nature of the human species. She achieves this end in Solitario de amor through a continual fluctuation of highly eroticized and lyrical scenarios which suggest, through their very ambiguity and fluidity, the postulation of a non-phallic heterosexual relationship with veiled lesbian connotations lived intensely by her narrator in search of unity with his other half. It is, indeed, no coincidence that the novel is situated in a city ‘de cielos lánguidos … que diluyen los contornos’ (of languid skies … that dilute contours) (1989a: 9); such is the constant slippage and erasure of fixed boundaries and sharply delineated spaces that characterize the novel.

From the very beginning of her text, Peri Rossi alerts her readers to her daring reconfiguration of male identity. As the narrator casts his ‘múltiple mirada’ (multiple gaze) (1989a: 11) upon the body of his beloved, he sees her through the eyes of ‘mi avergonzado macho cabrío y desde mi parte de mujer enamorada de otra mujer’ (my embarrassed maleness and from the vantage of the woman within me enamoured of another woman) (1989a: 11–12). This suggestive fusion of male and female is reinforced countless times in the text through the use of androgynous symbols which compare the two lovers with twins, parallel moons, and incestuous brothers and sisters. On still another level, the narrator experiences an acute split in his being, an inner division that is filled with clues and signs that refer exclusively and secretly to his love for Aída and which separate him from the rest of society and render him useless in his role as professor and intellectual, and, even more significantly, ‘anormal’ (abnormal) (1989a: 79). While the narrator attributes these characteristics to his overriding passion for Aída and the secretive nature of their love affair, the sheer intensity of the contradictory codes that constitute his identity—reminiscent of Juan Goytisolo's psychic battle with homosexuality in such works as Coto vedado—suggest a deviation from ‘normal’ manhood and further clues to Peri Rossi's destabilization of conventional male subjectivity.

The elaborate description of erotic play and the female body which, for Gabriela Mora, ‘constituye uno de los aspectos más extraordinarios del libro’ (constitutes one of the most extraordinary aspects of the book), provides a concrete and metaphorical testing ground for the author's transgressive postulation of sexual identity and gender (Mora, forthcoming 1996). Much of the text reads, in fact, like a lyrical fictionalization of Luce Irigaray's portrayal of ‘female pleasure’ as a vast and total activity centring on the breasts, the vulva, the lips, the vagina, and the mouth of the uterus (Irigaray 1985: 28). Delicate and sensual strokings of the breasts with fingers and mouth coexist with ardent descriptions of oral sex plunging the narrator and reader alike into a flow of bodily fluids and ‘emissions’ that dispel the ‘omissions’ of woman's corporality from literary texts so astutely observed by critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1988: 232). The sheer oral nature of the narrator's sexual activities: ‘sorbo, chupo, bebo, beso, babeo … saboreo, absorbo, relamo, paladeo’ (I sip, I suck, I drink, I kiss, I dribble … I savour, I absorb, I lick, I taste) (Peri Rossi 1989a: 88) not only serve as a model for Jane Gallop's definition of écriture féminine as a ‘switch from the phallic to the oral sexual paradigm,’ but also significantly repeat the patterns of eroticism seen in Peri Rossi's previous writings involving both lesbian and heterosexual relationships (Gallop 1988: 165).

Amy Kaminsky has perceptively noted in her analysis of Peri Rossi's Evohé the presence of male speakers and a non-phallocentric sexuality which, although ‘within the heterosexual repertoire,’ can be read as ‘lesbian poetry lightly coded’ (Kaminsky 1993: 121). Within the context of the ambiguous codes of Solitario de amor, the concerted attempt to decentre the male sexual organ and provide a virtual panegyric of the ‘pleasure extending from male lips to female genitals’ renders a similar interpretation of sexuality (Silverman 1992: 368). Yet at the same time as Peri Rossi leaves her text open to the possibility of a homoerotic reading of the love relationship and the speculation that the male narrator is, in fact, a veiled representation of a lesbian sexuality, she allows for still another reading which, much like the ‘multiple gaze’ and ‘parallel moons,’ suggests the coexistence of a female and male soul, and a lesbian and heterosexual continuum, within her male narrator.

Curiously, Peri Rossi reverts to a conventional code of binary oppositions to communicate the heterosexual spectrum of her novel. The narrator's penis is the ‘llave’ (key) which fits perfectly in Aída's ‘cerradura’ (lock); he is continually situated on the ‘outside’ while she is the desired ‘inside’; he is ‘on top,’ while she is ‘underneath.’ Yet, beneath this somewhat clichéd recourse to stereotypical language lies a transparent reconfiguration of heterosexual lovemaking devoid of power and phallic supremacy. The narrator himself is acutely conscious of the unconventional nature of his sexual relationship. Lyrically describing his act of covering Aída not like ‘los machos a las hembras … sino como las nubes al cielo’ (males on females … but like clouds on the sky) (Peri Rossi 1989a: 127), he categorically reiterates that he experiences ‘ninguna sensación de poder’ (no sense of power) (1989a: 125), and merely seeks to respond to Aída's demands. Yet underneath this postulation of a non-phallic sexuality there lurks a complex web of emotions regarding male gender that haunts the narrator's unconscious. By expanding the scope of her narrator's subjectivity to the realm of his dreams, Peri Rossi not only delves anew into her familiar role of creator of allusive dreams and nightmares viewed as ‘symbolic constructions whose task is to interpret reality,’ but also provides her text with an access point from which to critique psychoanalytical premises regarding the consolidation of male identity (Hughes 1985: 59).

The relationship between the castration complex and the formation of gender constitutes a thought-provoking terrain which has been discussed in great length by social scientists as well as by feminist critics. Disagreements concerning this psychological phenomenon encompass such areas as the cause of the castration complex, the role it plays with regard to the perpetuation of heterosexuality, and the disavowal of femininity and homosexuality, the actual nature of the threatened member as penis or symbolic phallus, and the identification of ‘lack’ as residing in the female or the male. While providing a detailed account of many aspects of this polemic, Kaja Silverman concurs with Serge Leclaire that ‘classic male subjectivity rests upon the denial of castration’ (Silverman 1992: 44). If one accepts this premise as valid, the logical question that follows is: Does acknowledgement of castration hence constitute a refutation of ‘classic male subjectivity’ and the postulation of a new model of gender identification? Solitario de amor offers a fascinating window to this question as Peri Rossi vividly re-creates the castration anxiety that lurks in her narrator's unconscious.

Two main dreams provide the setting for the author's exploration of his psychological phenomenon. In the first one, the narrator describes himself as living in a house similar to Aída's in the city of this childhood. The house to the left is inhabited by his mother; the house to the right, by Aída. Centrally located between his mother and his lover, he is suddenly threatened by the appearance of a strange man, ugly, pimply, and myopic, who informs him that he is Aída's new lover and that, on Aída's request, he has come for the key to her house. Overcome with pain and distress, the narrator replies that he doesn't have the key, that, in fact, he never had it, but that if he did have it, he would never hand it over. The strange man decides to enter by the window, leaving the narrator alone with his mother, who declares: ‘Es muy raro que nunca hayas tenido la llave de Aída’ (It's very odd that you have never had Aída's key) (Peri Rossi 1989a: 64).

Before the reader has the chance to dissect the significance of this dream, the narrator himself offers his own version of its meaning after relating it to Aída and speculating to himself: ‘Soy un hombre sin llave, es decir, un hombre sin sexo’ (I'm a man without a key, that is, a man without a sex) (1989a: 64). What strikes this critic as even more interesting than the concluding acknowledgement of castration or the implicit association of ‘sex’ with ‘el poder simbólico del falo’ and ‘el biológico del pene’ (the symbolic power of the phallus and the biological power of the penis) as Gabriela Mora has suggested is the ambiguous suggestion of female identification that shapes the initial image of the dream and is carried throughout the entire text (Mora, forthcoming 1995). The comforting similarity of the two houses, or two wombs, of Aída and the narrator, serves to disrupt, on a very basic level, the ‘repudiation of femininity’ which is central to the Freudian notion of male ‘gender consolidation’ (Butler 1990: 59). Securely situated in a state of gender undifferentiation and pre-Oedipal comfort between mother and lover, it is only the intrusion of the strange man, the representative of the Lacanian ‘symbolic order’ or ‘Law’ of the ‘Father’ that disturbs the narrator's sense of harmonious union with woman and makes him long for a return to a protective female space instead of denying it as a component of his own subjectivity (Lacan 1977: 321).

The second dream, which serves as a foreshadowing of the end of the novel and the termination of the love affair, also functions to specify the precise meaning of the house of the first dream. This oneiric sequence is described as a nightmare in which the narrator dreams that Aída has expelled him ‘de su casa, de su útero, de su habitación, de su cuerpo’ (from her house, from her womb, from her room, from her body) (Peri Rossi 1989a: 169). The conversion of nightmare to reality and the ensuing sense of displacement from the female body marks the narrator so severely that he acknowledges with even greater force the full dimensions of his castration. Reversing his previous vision of himself as ‘el tronco hundido en la matriz’ (the trunk submerged in the womb) (1989a: 98), he now declares that Aída was his ‘tronco’ (trunk), his ‘centro’ (centre), and that he is left ‘un sexo fláccido’ (a flaccid penis), ‘un hombre castrado’ (a castrated man) (1989a: 178–81).

While clearly conveying the narrator's sense of despair at losing his physical and symbolic access to Aída's womb, Peri Rossi's novel provides a still more subtle enquiry into the narrator's conflicting feelings regarding his sexuality and identification with male gender. Rather than locating ‘lack’ in the feminine spectrum—despite the enigmatic references to Aída's ‘pequeño sexo’ (small sex) (1989a: 95)—he consciously appropriates this lack for himself. To this degree, the very nature of his fetishism, which is exhibited in his compulsive purchase of sandals for Aída as well as in his frequent allusions to her small feet (125, 143), responds less to his desire to find ‘objects chosen as substitutes for the absent female phallus’ than to his implicit recognition that the real subject of castration is not Aída, but himself (Strachey 1973: 155). And yet, the sandal itself, the displacement and replacement of the endangered penis, is not the mainstay of security and protector of gender identity as it is for the textbook fetishist. Rather, in a typical Peri Rossian twist which negates the desirability of the threatened organ, the narrator continually displays an ambiguous attitude toward the symbolic order that the penis/phallus has come to represent.

In one of his romantic reveries that occurs while he and Aída contemplate maps of ‘paraísos perdidos’ (lost paradises) (Peri Rossi 1989a: 31) in the Cofradía de Ingenieros, the narrator feels transported back in time to the ‘soledad del paraíso anterior a la caída’ (solitude of paradise before the Fall) (1989a: 34), where Aída becomes a symbol of the primeval woman, without a navel, without a husband, without children. As he savours his love for her in this eternal moment, he realizes that the paradise will be destroyed, lost forever, at the moment Aída's sandals cross the threshold of the Cofradía and plant themselves on the other side of the pavement, where she will once again become ‘la mujer dotada de ombligo’ (the woman endowed with a navel) (1989a: 34). Through this brief passage Peri Rossi fuses myths and theories of a diverse and heterogeneous nature to suggest that the original lost paradise was one of sexual non-differentiation erased by the emblem of the phallus (sandal) that separates the ‘imaginary, where loss and difference are unthinkable’ from the symbolic or patriarchal order (Eagleton 1983: 186).

Returning again to Plato's Symposium as an initial access point to address this speculation, the Greek philosopher offers a fascinating account of the construction of human form following the division in half of the original three beings that inhabited the universe. Desirous of fashioning a body that would serve as a reminder of their previous state, Zeus calls upon Apollo ‘to heal their wombs and compose their forms’ (Buchanan 1959: 145). Responding to this request, Apollo creates a belly with ‘one mouth at the centre, which he fastened in a knot’ leaving in that region various wrinkles ‘as a memorial of the primeval state’ before the skin was smoothed out and moulded (Peri Rossi 1989a: 145). The reference to both a state of paradise and to Aída as a woman who inhabits that terrain without a navel clearly reinforces Peri Rossi's multiple configurations of the desirability of an androgynous state untarnished by the imprint of the phallus/sandal or patriarchy/pavement on the terrain of paradise. The frequent appearance in the novel of images suggesting a primeval state—‘lago antediluviano’ (antediluvian lake) (1989a: 10), ‘anterior a la palabra’ (before the word) (1989a: 53)—further reinforces the mythical substratum of the novel as Peri Rossi combines Platonic theory with a re-creation of the prelapsarian paradise which suggests, in turn, an integral relationship between androgyny and the power of naming.

To clarify this relationship, Carolyn Heilbrun's Towards a Recognition of Androgyny provides a useful tool. In this classic study, Heilbrun offers provocative evidence for the postulation of ‘the androgynous nature of God and of human perfection before the Fall’ (Heilbrun 1964: p. xvii). Citing extensively from the literature of mysticism, she presents a compelling portrayal of ‘God's conception of man’ as ‘a complete, masculinely feminine being,’ and suggests that ‘Original sin is connected in the first instance with division into two sexes and the Fall of the androgyne, i.e. of man as a complete being’ (1964: p. xvii). If one adds to this theory the concept of the ‘original Logos’ transmitted from God to Adam before the Fall, the complex dynamics of Peri Rossi's libidinal and linguistic politics acquires even greater significance (Steiner 1975: 58). Ever faithful to her belief that ‘nombrar las cosas es imitar a Dios’ (to name things is to imitate God) (Camps 1988: 47) or as Percival declares in La nave de los locos, ‘apoderarse un poco de ellas’ (to gain some control over them),5 she bequeaths the power of naming and rite of linguistic baptism to Aída and the narrator alike, thus extending her concept of androgyny to the terrain of language.

Perhaps even more significant than this sharing of linguistic power, however, is the fact that naming becomes a vehicle by which the narrator is not only able to fuse himself anew with the desired body of his beloved, but also to claim for himself the primacy of birthing, of bringing forth words from his entrails. Lyrically and powerfully shattering the exclusive identification between women and birth, Peri Rossi presents a passage rich with connotations of an androgynous nature, where the narrator's body acquires and assimilates the texture of woman as he defines himself as both lover and midwife in possession of the creation of language and the word made flesh:

Voy poniendo nombres a las partes de Aída, soy el primer hombre; asombrado y azorado … Palpo su cuerpo, imagen del mundo, y bautizo los órganos; emocionado, saco palabras como piedras arcaicas y las instalo en las partes de Aída, como eslabones de mi ignorancia.

El lenguaje debió de nacer así, de la pasión, no de la razón. … Soy el primer hombre que, desde la oscuridad de sus vísceras, extrae a borbotones un grito gutural y profundo, un grito lleno de hilachas y de ramas, de sangre y de saliva para nombrar la pasión que lo acosa.

(Peri Rossi 1989a: 18–19)

I am naming Aída's private parts, I am the first man, astonished and confused … I touch her body, image of the world, and baptize her organs; excited, I pull out words like ancient stones and I place them in Aída's private parts, as links of my ignorance.

This must be how language was born, out of passion rather than reason. … I am the first man to extract from the utter darkness of his entrails a deep, shuddering cry, a cry of tattered threads and branches, blood and saliva, to name the passion that haunts him.

Although the narrator clearly appropriates for himself in an androgynous fusion traditional female powers associated with the mystery of the womb and traditional female powers associated with the mystery of the womb and traditional male privileges associated with naming, this multitextured generation of words does not complete his identity. To exist, the narrator, too, must be named. Defining himself as both the womb and the space inside the womb, he portrays his own birth inexorably linked to the birth of words that shatter conventional language and create ‘otras palabras, otros sonidos, muerte y resurrección’ (other words, other sounds, death and resurrection) (Peri Rossi 1989a: 15). His need to emerge from the depths of Aída's entrails and the depth of her words is so great that, echoing his previous acknowledgement of castration but applying it now to the man/child in search of a lover/mother, he declares: ‘Si ella no me nombra, soy un ser anónimo, despersonalizado, sin carácter, sin identidad. Soy un niño castrado’ (If she doesn't name me, I am an anonymous being, depersonalized, without character, without identity. I am a castrated child) (1989a: 179).

This desire to have the word and identity emerge from the maternal body introduces still another reading, previously suggested, of Solitario de amor as a fascinating rendition of the pre-Oedipal phase and its relationship to the creation of language. Peri Rossi, herself, throughout her writings and interviews, has expressed her belief that ‘el paraíso perdido del amor siempre es la relación intrauterina’ (the lost paradise of love is always the intrauterine relationship), the sense of ‘unidad umbilical’ (umbilical unity), where one can disappear as a separate entity and fuse completely and totally with the body of woman (Camps 1988: 42). If her writings are continually filled with multiple symbols of the womb as well as of suggestive scenarios of exile from the lost paradise, Solitario de amor gives new meaning to this quest as the narrator longingly and desperately seeks to perpetuate ‘este instante, sagrado … sacro … uterino … total’ (this sacred … holy … uterine … total instant) (Peri Rossi 1989a: 98) when, as both lover and foetus, he feels united and fused with Aída and dreams of ‘un paraíso donde nada cambia’ (a paradise where nothing changes) (1989a: 146). The space of Aída's house, her symbolic womb, captured so well in the narrator's dreams, is the site of this pre-Oedipal paradise which holds at bay the symbolic order dominated by the imprint of the Father on social and linguistic practices.

In consonance with the shattering of gender boundaries that Peri Rossi has suggested throughout her entire novel, the fictionalized re-creation of the pre-Oedipal phase offers still another dimension to this theme. Pre-Oedipality has been conceptualized as a phase where the ‘opposition between masculine and feminine does not exist’ (Moi 1985: 165) and where ‘semiotic’ emerges as one of the ‘two modalities’ of the ‘signifying process’ whose ‘drives’ and ‘energy discharges … connect and orient the body to the mother’ (Kristeva 1984: 24). While Peri Rossi's novel does not reproduce the ‘preverbal semiotic space’ Kristeva writes of (1984: 27), it does capture the ‘dissolution of difference’ that Paul Julian Smith views as characteristic of this modality (Smith 1989: 27). This expression of a prime component of the semiotic within ‘the syntactic language’ of the symbolic—the other modality of the signifying process (Kristeva 1984: 22)—is most strikingly demonstrated when the narrator and his lover mirror each other in their lovemaking and erase the boundaries between their separate selves: ‘Gime. Gimo. Grita. Grito. Jadea. Jadeo. Aúlla. Aúllo. Fricciona. Fricciono’ (She moans. I moan. She screams. I scream. She pants. I pant. She howls. I howl. She rubs. I rub) (Peri Rossi 1989a: 125).

Just as the semiotic cannot ultimately replace the symbolic, Peri Rossi's narrator, too, is unable to safeguard the bond he shares with Aída and is ultimately expelled from his intrauterine paradise and forced to take up residence on the other side of the pavement. His attempt to recapture the contours of Aída's body through the act of writing ushers in further speculations on the complex nature of both language and androgyny in the novel. Lacanian theory postulates that, following the termination of the pre-Oedipal phase and the entrance of the male into the symbolic order, language is created as a substitute for an ‘absence,’ a void that is particularly related to ‘the primordial relation to the mother’ (Lacan 1977: 286). As Judith Butler clarifies in Gender Trouble, ‘the loss of the maternal body as an object of love is understood to establish the empty space out of which words originate’ (1990: 68). But here, it must be noted that, in opposition to the plurality and fluidity of the semiotic and its intimate connection with the maternal, the language that marks the Law of the Father is one that implies hierarchical notions of power and the positionality of woman on the margins. Does this imply that once the narrator has been definitely expelled from Aída's womb/house/body he becomes a ‘bearer or proponent of this repressive law’ (Butler 1990: 79)? Or does the body of his writing and the words he generates approximate in such intensity the body of Aída that they enable him to expand the boundaries of the symbolic and experience anew a semblance of the semiotic or lost fusion with the maternal?

Peri Rossi's novel responds affirmatively to this latter question and ultimately substantiates Kristeva's claim that ‘the subject is always both semiotic and symbolic’ and hence, the ‘signifying system he produces … is necessarily marked by an indebtedness to both’ (Kristeva 1984: 24). The manner in which the narrator inhabits the two modalities is particularly clear at the end of the novel after Aída terminates her relationship with him. He embarks on a journey in the solitary space of a train compartment, a vehicle which represents a symbol of the womb according to the author's own account (Ragazzoni 1983: 235). In possession of a black notebook which reproduces the black mesh that covered Aída's naked body, and dressed himself in a dark suit that mirrors her own garb, he implicitly rests his fingers, once dipped in the milk that emerged from his lover's nipples, upon his notebook. Submerging himself in the symbolic ‘white ink’ of creativity which is bequeathed from mother to offspring as Hélène Cixous suggests (Cixous 1981: 251), but which also reinstates his former role as a man of letters, he writes Aída's body as he envisions her slowly and sensually masturbating to climax. Once again, he is aligned to the feminine sphere, as the multifolded contour of her clitoris shapes his fluid writing and the sibylline message she emits catapults him back to still another pre-Oedipal paradise. Responding to a Hebrew proverb's query about the destination of the lover blinded by passion, Aída suggests to the narrator that he seek his mother's house. His first dream is thus recast as his mother's house becomes the desired maternal womb that replaces the lost paradise. Residing simultaneously in a female and male terrain as he again appropriates the right of birthing his lover's passion and naming her body, the narrator sustains his dualistic nature up to the close of the novel.

Thus concludes Peri Rossi's audacious challenge to the limits of gender and her postulation of an androgynous subjectivity and sexuality as the centre of her male narrator. The implications of this work, which branches out in countless directions, collides with Freudian thought, rethinks Lacanian theory, intersects with French feminist's concept of language, reproduces themes from Platonic literature, and responds implicitly to serious enquiries on gender formation, are, indeed, enticing and daringly conceptualized. If gender may ultimately be viewed as a construct that responds to society's desire to perpetuate structures of power, Peri Rossi compellingly suggests in Solitario de amor that male gender can be reconfigured in the transgressive realm of fiction. By creating a male character intimately involved in the feminine sphere on many levels, she acknowledges the power of femininity as an integral source of human subjectivity which cannot be relegated to the margin or repudiated. To this degree, the fact that her narrator is nameless is, indeed, important. It is not to him per se that we must look for a new model of gender roles, but to what he represents for Peri Rossi: a blank page, or perhaps a black notebook on which to inscribe, in white ink, the contours of a radically different male subjectivity which could potentially restructure gender relationships and enable us to envision the impact of the written word on society.


  1. Citations are from the third edition, published in Barcelona in 1989.

  2. Originally published in Montevideo in 1969. Citations are from the 1989 edition, published in Barcelona.

  3. For an analysis of the language of eroticism in Peri Rossi's early works, see John F. Deredita, ‘Desde la diáspora: entrevista con Cristina Peri Rossi,’ Texto Crítico, 9 (1978), 131–42, and Hugo J. Verani, ‘La rebelión del cuerpo y el lenguaje (a propósito de Cristina Peri Rossi),’ Revista de la Universidad de México, 37 (1982), 19–22. For further commentaries on sexual ambiguity and plurality in Peri Rossi's novel La nave de los locos, see Lucía Guerra Cunningham, ‘La referencialidad como negación del paraíso: exilio y excentrismo en La nave de los locos de Cristina Peri Rossi,’ Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, 23 (1989), 63–74; Elia Kantaris, ‘The Politics of Desire: Alienation and Identity in the Works of Marta Traba and Cristina Peri Rossi,’ Forum for Modern Language Studies, 25 (1989), 248–64; and Hugo J. Verani, ‘La historia como metáfora: La nave de los locos de Cristina Peri Rossi,’ La Torre: Revista de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 4 (1990), 79–82.

  4. For further discussion on the role of gender in narrative voice, see Gustavo San Román, ‘Entrevista a Peri Rossi,’ Revista Iberoamericana, 58 (1992), 1041–8, 1045.

  5. Citations from this 1984 novel are from the 1989 edition, published by Seix Barral of Barcelona, 139.

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Butler, Judith (1990), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London).

Camps, Susana (1988), ‘La pasión desde la pasión: entrevista con Cristina Peri Rossi,’ Quimera, 81: 40–9.

Cixous, Hélène (1981), ‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’ in Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (eds.), New French Feminisms: An Anthology, trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen (New York, 1981), 245–64.

Eagleton, Terry (1983), Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis).

Gallop, Jane (1988), Thinking Through the Body (New York).

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Gubar, Susan (1988), No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (New Haven).

Heilbrun, Carolyn (1964), Towards a Recognition of Androgyny (New York).

Hughes, Psiche (1985), ‘Interview with Cristina Peri Rossi,’ in Mineke Schipper (ed.), Unheard Voices: Women and Literature in Africa, the Arab World, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America, trans. Barbara Potter Fasting (London, 1985), 255–74.

Irigaray, Luce (1985), This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, NY).

Kaminsky, Amy K. (1993), ‘Cristina Peri Rossi and the Question of Lesbian Presence’ in Reading the Body Politic: Feminist Criticism and Latin American Women Writers (London and Minneapolis), 115–33.

Kristeva, Julia (1984), Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Walker (New York).

Lacan, Jacques (1977), Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York).

Moi, Toril (1985), Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London).

Mora, Gabriela (1995), ‘Solitario de amor de Cristina Peri Rossi: una desmitificación del amor y otros retos,’ in JoAnne Engelbert with Dianne Bono (eds.), Hacia un nuevo canon literario (Hanover, NH, forthcoming).

Narváez, Carlos Raúl (1992), ‘Eros y Thanatos en Solitario de amor de Cristina Peri Rossi,’ ‘Alba de América, 10: 245–50.

Peri Rossi, Cristina (1981), Indicios pánicos (Barcelona).

———. (1985), La tarde del dinosauro (Barcelona).

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Ragazzoni, Susana (1983), ‘La escritura como identidad: una entrevista con Cristina Peri Rossi,’ Studi di Letteratura Ispano-Americana, 15–16: 227–41.

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Smith, Paul Julian (1989), The Body Hispanic: Gender and Sexuality in Spanish and Spanish American Literature (Oxford).

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Steiner, George (1975), After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (New York).

Helena Antolin Cochrane (essay date September 1997)

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SOURCE: Cochrane, Helena Antolin. “Androgynous Voices in the Novels of Cristina Peri Rossi.” Mosaic 30, no. 3 (September 1997): 97–114.

[In the following essay, Cochrane explores Peri Rossi's treatment of sexual identity and gender roles in her novels.]

In emphasizing the need for women to construct their own identities and challenge traditional concepts of gender, Anglo-American feminist critics sometimes overlook the adjustments in strategy that are necessary because of differences in social climates and cultures. As Amy Kaminsky has noted in her Reading the Body Politic: Feminist Criticism and Latin American Women Writers, in Hispanic cultures there are key points of divergence from mainstream European traditions. If in Hispanic cultures, there is a basic tendency to treat the female as a passive, silent “object,” there is also, as Paul Julian Smith points out, the sense that sexual preference is itself a social construct. Both Smith and Kaminsky highlight the way that Hispanic culture rejects the notion that sexual preference is an immutable quality at the core of human identity, and in doing so they shift attention away from the mere recognition of sexual identity to the ways in which it is actively constructed. Along the same lines, Sylvia Molloy has enlisted Carolyn Heilbrun's Toward a Recognition of Androgyny in discussing the way that Latin American autobiographies cross sexual boundaries in their pursuit of an active reconfiguration of identity.

Among the Latin American writers who have problematized conventional concepts of gender, one might list Severo Sarduy (Cuba), Jose Donoso and Isabel Allende (Chile), or Luisa Valenzuela (Argentina), all of whom depict characters whose sexuality and sexual preference are unconventional—at times monstrous, at times just playfully altered. Yet in certain ways the writer who is most provocative and subtle is Cristina Peri Rossi. Born in Uruguay in 1941, and a resident of Barcelona since her emigration to Spain in 1972, Peri Rossi has published in a variety of genres: nine collections of short stories, seven books of poetry, and four novels. As a woman author, and a lesbian, she not only uses language thematically to question traditional depictions of the feminine but frequently also deliberately adopts a masculine voice in order to undermine automatic gender assumptions and to challenge readers who might suppose that one can linguistically detect the difference between masculine and feminine. Similarly, in conjunction with a skillful deployment of ironic undertones, her strategy involves the use of a highly lyrical prose that is designed to enable readers to identify without regard for gender distinctions.

In the following essay, I wish to focus specifically on Peri Rossi's four novels, all of which either feature first-person male narrators or a male protagonist: El libro de mis primos/The Book of My Cousins (1969), La nave de los locos/The Ship of Fools (1984), Solitario de amor/Solitary in Love (1989), and La última noche de Dostoievski/Dostoevsky's Last Night (1992). In the first two, as I will demonstrate, questions of sexuality are foregrounded, while in the later two equal attention is given to language as the means to an alternative, more receptive identity. Before turning to the novels themselves, however, I will first examine Peri Rossi's general observations about narrative strategies, and discuss the way that these relate to the theories of feminists like Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. Overall my concern is to suggest that while critics like Kaminsky, Mabel Moraña and Gabriela Mora have discussed Peri Rossi's writing as subversive of the patriarchal order, more attention needs to be given to the way that she constructs an authorial self that fuses masculine and feminine in what amounts to a textual performance of the androgyne.

The writings of Cristina Peri Rossi break with traditional realistic conventions on many fronts, such as including poetry, essayist sections, and allegorical components. Similarly, Moraña draws attention to the “scandal” she has created by introducing topics like incest and pedophilia (40). Yet primarily it is her use of the masculine voice that distinguishes her as a subversive novelist, because of the subtle way that this enables her to contribute to feminist discourse. As a lesbian, she frequently writes in a masculine voice that stresses appreciation and passion for the feminine, as in the case of her book of erotic poetry, Evohé. Not only does the use of the masculine voice serve to heighten the erotic aspect of male-female sexual relationships, but the tone challenges the reader to uncover the gender of the speaker. Insofar as the use of a masculine voice seems to be at odds with a feminist message, however, her practice has both intrigued and provoked readers. As Kaminsky points out, the rendering of the female as the object of desire could be seen as a silencing of the feminine as subject and the shifting of the text away from feminist discourse. In addition, Kaminsky notes how the reader's awareness of Peri Rossi's lesbianism increases problems of critical interpretation because the writer's textual identity is not clearly established with respect to a given feminist political stance.

As Kristeva points out, however, lesbianism and androgyny have a great deal in common:

androgynous paradise and, in another way, lesbian loves comprise the delightful arena of a neutralized filtered libido, devoid of the erotic cutting edge of masculine sexuality. Light touches, caresses, barely distinct, images fading one into the other, growing dim or veiled without bright flashes into the mellowness of a dissolution, a liquefaction, a merger. …


Kristeva's characterization of the lesbian libido as close to androgynous can be applied to Peri Rossi's writing. Although she seldom explicitly describes physical penetration, her male characters do express the wish to enter their female partners, and this desire accordingly serves to undermine the historical and social presumption of innate male superiority. Many times, moreover, Peri Rossi's male narrator hesitates, equivocates, contemplates, rather than charging headlong into decisive action.

Irigaray's comments about mimicry of the male voice are also applicable to the way that Peri Rossi assumes the masculine voice at the same time that it allows the feminine to operate. Irigaray addresses the difficulty of the feminine writer in articulating the experience and desire of the female sex, even when linguistics and psychoanalysis are integrated into her discourse to differentiate it from the masculine:

What remains to be done then, is to work at destroying the discursive mechanism. … There is an initial phase, perhaps only one “path,” the one historically assigned to the feminine: that of mimicry. One must assume the feminine role deliberately. … To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced by it. It means to resubmit herself—inasmuch as she is on the side of the “perceptible” of “matter”—to “ideas” in particular, to ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by a masculine logic, but so as to make “visible” by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language.


Peri Rossi undertakes this process of mimicry, and in doing so, undermines the traditional masculine depiction of reality by weaving into it a peculiarly androgynous sensibility.

Another reason why she adopts the male voice, as she has stated in interviews with both Adriana Bergero and Susana Camps, is that the male voice is the universal one, insofar as a broad range of readers is concerned. Similarly she feels that to focus on topics such as political persecution, subversion of social mores, exile, desperation and obsession within the more limited framework of Uruguay in particular, or of a woman exclusively, or a lesbian especially, would be to narrow the potential for reader identification and empathy with the novel's content. Yet as much as she uses the masculine voice because it is the one that the reading public has grown to expect, and because her male protagonists stand in for the human experience generally, so much within her novels each male protagonist describes sentiments and desires which he admits are manifestations of his “female side,” and thus atypical.

In her elaboration of love relationships, furthermore, Peri Rossi admits elements which differ greatly from the traditional pursuit of a woman by a man whose hope it is to consummate a sexual relationship. Tender, respectful, passionate love can develop between an old woman and a young man, between a former political prisoner and a circus dwarf, between an avid collector of objects and a sensitive nine-year-old boy. It is accordingly her desire to break with all kinds of social mores that attracts her to androgyny. As she explains in an interview:

As for sex, I believe we do have the sex which is socially imposed upon us, first by our parents and next by society. Sex for me is not the simple result of biological elements and of genetic characteristics. These genetic characteristics impose a social role (and this in Latin America is felt in very strong terms), a social role which is almost always an imposition on our sentiments and on our free behavior. In this sense we don't have the sex we would like to have for in many cases this would be a multiple sex. And in this sense I am convinced that to limit this multiple sex to one sex only involves a limitation of our freedom.

(Hughes 273)

Peri Rossi's interest in androgyny goes hand in hand with the lyricism of her prose. Her poetic style is her method of replacing conventional notions of an ordered rendering of existence with a chaotic and organic new representation. In this way, not only are her characters androgynous, but their language tends to blur differences established by conventions based on gender. Her novels are highly suggestive of freer, less constrained lifestyles which are at odds with those of her native Uruguay but also those in the modern, urban, vaguely identifiable and uniformly impersonal spaces of the world her characters inhabit. Her novels are about linguistic transgression and redefinition of limits as much as they are about patriarchal/dictatorial society, exile, unrequited passion, and addiction to gambling. Additionally, Peri Rossi's poetic prose brings the reader face to face with the plurality of meanings that each word is capable of carrying. Poetic language breaks down conventional transferal of meaning, opening up wider possibilities of expression, at the same time that it allows a greater ambiguity into the discourse.

By way of turning now specifically to the novels themselves, we might note that in all of them except Solitario de amor, Peri Rossi's use of the masculine voice has ironic undertones, and only in La nave de los locos does this reach a blitheness that is suggestive of the degree to which she might expect to thwart conventional patriarchal politics and sexuality. Additionally, it is only in La nave that lesbianism is specifically characterized as a neutral alternative to traditional mainstream heterosexuality, though her depiction of subversion is by no means limited to the scrambling of traits and roles based upon gender.

El libro de mis primos, Peri Rossi's first novel, is centered on the world of children, their language and its relationship to the world they describe. The protagonist/narrator Oliverio is the youngest male cousin living among his extended family in their compound in Montevideo during the 1950s. In the years that Oliverio describes in the novel, Uruguayan society suffers upheaval and decay, due to years of repression, and the dominant society is no longer able to dismiss insubordinate elements. Since he is a child, Oliverio observes with candor and ingenuousness, a world full of contradictions, amid his parents, aunts, uncle and father, with the help of the family physician. In this novel, however, children not only bear witness to, but also carry out transgressive and subversive acts. Two of Oliverio's cousins are carrying on a passionate love affair, as described in the chapter titled “Incesto”/“Incest.” In the penultimate chapters of the novel, the cousins launch a stone with a slingshot that hits each of the adult members of the household, by turning and twisting its way through the house and garden. Oliverio's cousin Federico leaves home in the dark of night to join the Marxist guerrillas, a personal as well as political affront to his family.

The mother alludes at the outset of the novel to sincerity as the quality that distinguishes the women in the household from the men, and places Oliverio closer to the feminine end of the spectrum. There is a readier correlation between words and their purported meanings among the women of the family. The absence of such a correlation in the language of the men often results in the suppression and marginalization of the women in the family, and the words of the family patriarchs blur or obfuscate deeper motives of their speakers. Admonishing the mother about their younger son's upbringing, the father disdains the thought that Oliverio is going to become too fearful, timorous, foolish and effeminate, like the women in the family (35). Only later, between herself and her son does the mother acknowledge Oliverio's feminine characteristics—but more so as a positive aspect of his personality: “I like you more than [your brother] Oscar. You're more sincere. I think you're like me. He, on the other hand—she added in a low, somber tone of voice filled with bitterness—is similar to his father” (42).1 Although there is no deliberate obfuscation of gendered voices in this first novel, when Peri Rossi uses the mother to point out that Oliverio is as sincere as she, she implies by extension that there lies an empathy between honest children of all sexes and honest women in a world dominated by “insincere” men.

Transgression functions from the inside out. That is, lyrical interludes emanate from an uninhibited first person, who must later be informed of the transgressive nature of his actions. In both El libro de mis primos and La nave de los locos, characters learn that their personal moral codes barely correspond to the moral codes in the larger world around them. Whereas in Primos this discrepancy is never the source of shame for the children who are initiated into the larger moral arena, in La nave the main character observes with chagrin the demands of a neurotic society upon its individual members.

La nave de los locos is a novel of 21 chapters, devoted to “el viaje”—the voyage—of “Equis,” a nameless protagonist (“X”) who has been exiled from his homeland, and travels by sea to a new country. Upon reaching his new destination, Equis then makes the painful adjustment to a world in which he is the perpetual outcast, despite finding that his condition as exile is a shared human condition. Interspersed between these chapters are eleven descriptions of the tapestry of Creation on display in the cathedral of Gerona in Spain. Also included are a poem, a newspaper clipping, and the results of a survey conducted by one of the characters that X befriends in his voyage, so that the novel appears to be a compilation of disparate documents, as well as a story about X's experiences.

In La nave, Peri Rossi provides a sympathetic exploration of various different relationships that society generally has deplored: Equis seduces an elderly overweight woman, engages in sexual relations with a young girl immediately upon meeting her, and later goes to bed with a badly beaten prostitute. Morris, a thirthy-ish drifter, falls in love with a nine-year-old boy, and the height of a former prisoner, Vercingetorix, is contrasted with the dwarf with whom he's fallen in love. The most pointed portrait of alternative sexuality is that of Lucía, with whom he falls in love, before she slips anonymously into the streets of the city. One of Equis's jobs in his adopted land is as an escort for the bus that carries women to London for abortions, and he managed to get only Lucía's first name before she disappeared after the excursion. After searching for her in all the places he thought likely to find a poor woman in the city, he discovers her as a performer in a lesbian pornographic revue. Outside the show, the billboard reads “SENSATIONAL TRANSVESTITES: WOMEN OR MEN? SEE THEM AND DECIDE FOR YOURSELVES” (189). Indeed, the ambiguity surrounding the performer's sexual identity in this show would require an intensive process of unmasking. But, as Dejbord, Mora and Kaminsky have all pointed out, the ambiguity does not require a resolution, for it is the ambivalence itself that constitutes the attraction.

When Equis faces the ambiguity of Lucía's sexual proclivity, he finds that this gives her an attractiveness even greater than she had as a poor, vulnerable woman ending her unwanted pregnancy in an undesirable ordeal. She can be limited neither to heterosexuality nor to homosexuality, and the simultaneous presentation of multiple, as yet unrealized, possibilities heightens the desire for each component as much as it dazzles with the complexity of its wholeness.

In this novel, Peri Rossi explores the subject's need for plural and continuous possibilities in several aspects of life, not just sexuality, underscoring what she has stated in a 1993 interview: that identity is an ongoing process, not to be limited by precipitous categorization (Dejbord 295). Sexuality, however, does function as a springboard toward a development of identity, for identity is also equivalent to passion and, as such, evolves in accordance with the development and fulfillment of passion (Camps 46). But passion has its narcissistic feature as well: we tend to love what is similar to ourselves. We sculpt our identity through the company we keep, and as we find ourselves in the other, we may exchange gender roles in the process. Peri Rossi underscores, however, the irrelevance of gender in the fulfillment of passion, and its lack of consequence in the formation of identity (Bergero 79). Though sexuality is a component of identity, Peri Rossi suggests that gender and desire are choices that a person can make rather than having them imposed from outside.

An undercurrent of sexual politics runs throughout the La nave, but does not reach the surface until the very end, when it seems to do so rather abruptly. The ending sends the reader back to the beginning, to retrace what could have led to such a closing. Such a reexamination uncovers Peri Rossi's strategy of developing both a story and a parallel series of digressive comments upon the events in the story. The culminating scene of the novel, in which Equis confronts notions of boundary-less sexuality seems to import a radically different tone to an otherwise ironic treatment of Equis's “journey.” Whereas the majority of the novel depicted parodic scenes of the exiled wanderer and his counterparts, the final three chapters concentrate on Equis's search for Lucía and an answer to the question about what is the greatest gift that a man can give to his beloved.

That the mixture of generic modes is deliberately designed to reflect a multifaceted authorial identity may be seen from the chapters that deal with Morris's trip to Albion, a publishing house in El Gran Ombligo (The Great Navel). Here, the editor from the publishing company serves as a device for Peri Rossi to discuss her novel metaliterarily. While the conversation between Morris and the editor maintains its ironic tone, it also portends the blurring of genders that emerges so strongly at the finale, and it does so by reason of the connection between gender and genre in Spanish—i.e., the use of one word to designate both literary and sexual category.

In order to submit his “work” for publication, Morris must answer a questionnaire about the genre and content of his book. Mora has pointed out that Morris's explanations correspond to Peri Rossi's own novel—the difficulty of defining it or whether it should be seen as a short novel, or long short story or narrative essay, with poetic fragments interspersed among the epic whole (21). Morris is unable to summarize his opus because doing so ignores the wealth of variety contained within it. Similarly, being assigned and remaining enclosed within one category of sexual preference is a limitation that Peri Rossi renounces.

When asked if there is sex, action or violence in his novel, Morris responds with a question: “Insofar as sex … Does the questionnaire have a preference? Is there a privileged sex, so to speak?” (128). The woman processing his application emphasizes that feminine books tend neither to be written nor published, pointing out that the reading public prefers a masculine book: “The public is always expecting masculine books, and the critics, too. Women prefer to read masculine books, it's the tendency of our civilization” (129). The subtle implication is that fewer women than men tend to read, and that even those eschew works clearly authored by their own sex, as if they lack authority. In order to establish her own ironic distance from this editor, Peri Rossi has Morris parenthetically observe that “A secret mechanism makes the most oppressed into the greatest oppressors” (127). As a woman, the editor belongs to the category of those whose voices are not part of the general reading public, and yet she promotes the suppression of the same. In this chapter, entitled “The Things That Happened to Morris in Albion,” Peri Rossi seems more clearly than ever to have projected a masculine voice that mocks its own authority, by undermining general assumptions about a preference for masculinity within the written text. What Peri Rossi settles upon, then, is the androgynous text, as Morris somewhat abashedly concedes: “Well then I'll tell you—stammered Morris—: I'm completely sure that my opus is androgynous” (129).

While Peri Rossi here treats the topic ironically, the mocking attitude is dropped later on, and androgyny is extolled in the novel's concluding chapters which deal with Lucía's indeterminate sexuality. The final chapter, appropriately entitled “The Enigma,” describes the moment when Equis discovers Lucía again, after his ardent search in the city's seamier side:

Dressed as a man, with a brilliant blue-eyed gaze, accentuated by the dark outline of her eyes, the powdered cheeks and two discreet earrings in its ears, was a handsome youth that looked at Equis, and he was subjugated by her ambiguity. He was discovering, and before him were developing, in all their splendor, two simultaneous worlds, two distinct callings, two messages, two costumes, two perceptions, two discourses, however indissolubly linked, so that the predominance of one would have provoked the extinction of both. Moreover: he was aware that the beauty of one increased that of the other, no matter what it was. As if two pairs of eyes were watching him, four lips murmuring, two magnificent heads enveloping him in their rhythm. The revelation was almost unbearable.


Ambiguity and its concomitant complexity does not lend itself to facile resolutions, and displaces established hierarchical relationships. Equis is humbled by the revelation of Lucía's ambiguity, and realizes that he could not be her hero, even if he were to solve the riddle about the greatest gift. When he discovers the answer—“The greatest gift a man can offer his beloved is his virility” (196)—Peri Rossi ties the solution directly to sexual ambiguity. For to the extent that virility means the exercise of masculine power over feminine submission, then if a man offers his virility to his beloved, he is relinquishing his traditionally accepted power over her.

Peri Rossi is not the first Hispanic woman to advocate the idea that a difference in gender ought not presuppose an assignment of power. As Beth Bauer demonstrates in her study of Spain's 19th-century feminist author Emilia Pardo Bazán, gender coding, such as emphasis on the emotional state of fictional characters, points to a woman's voice behind a man's face (24), and yet this does not yield a silent female subject. Pardo Bazán frequently used a male protagonist in novels such as Memorias de un solterón/Memoirs of an Old Bachelor. As did Pardo Bazán, Peri Rossi leaves her own name on the novel, but allows the male character to demonstrate through his own enlightenment, that there can be new and innovative ways to carry out male-female relationships. While Equis denounces relationships that assign power according to gender throughout La nave, only at the end is he truly convinced of the value of an uncompromised equality.

Peri Rossi's third novel, Solitario de amor, spans the breadth of erotic experience on page after page. Although, like La nave it features a male voice, instead of a positive ending that affirms the speaking subject's autonomy and appreciation of himself, Solitario de amor is a novel of unrequited passion, frustrated desire and love disdained. The masculine narrator of Solitario maintains no ironic distance from his own sexuality, as did Equis in La nave. Instead, he is as absorbed by passion as he would like to be absorbed by the woman who is its recipient. The speaker of Solitario has no name, enabling him to function as a kind of Everyman. He narrates in second person, in present tense, his consuming love for Aída, telling how this love has left him humorless, sleepless, friendless, jealous and subservient. Only the voice of his psychiatrist Raúl mediates and intervenes, answering or questioning his monologue.

The narrator/protagonist's consuming passion toward Aída is characterized from the beginning as the primordial gaze, a desire once again not limited to one historical or sexual identity (11). The androgynous gaze of the lover does not correspond, however, to an androgynous coupling with Aída. Their scenes of eroticism are unequivocally a pairing of masculine and feminine, with her sex described as the house, and his, the key (63, 64). And yet, in the fashion of the courtly love tradition, she turns their relationship into an inverse struggle of dominance and submission, wherein the lover hangs precipitously on the approval of the beloved. There is a brief moment of departure from the troubadour model when Aída appears resplendent in her attractiveness as an androgynous creature: “Finally, you appeared, very white, in the black tuxedo. The white shirt underneath had starched stripes, and your ambiguity stood out, despite your long hair” (117–18). The ambiguity of Aída, however, is never referred to again after this scene, and her domination of her lover corresponds more to courtly love than to any androgynous manifestation, as becomes obvious when Peri Rossi includes a pastiche of Fernando de Rojas's well-known 1502 novel La Celestina in her narrator's assertions that “melibeo soy”/“I am Melibean” (146–51). The narrator of Solitario has engulfed himself with his lover as homeland, primordial mother, spiritual source and holy devotion, recalling what de Rojas's Calixto did when he sinfully placed Melibea above God himself, in the Spanish moralistic novel of courtly love.

Just as the narrator possesses a keen awareness of literature and alludes constantly to it in his appreciation of Aída, so he begins to recover from her rejection of him by appointing himself “el escriba de este amor”/“the scribe of this love” (183). He cannot imagine any other task or operation to occupy his time now that Aída has spurned him, and he draws a direct line from literary endeavor to sexual satisfaction. The concluding chapter describes an orgasm which Aída gives herself through masturbation, as a final counterpoint to the couple's erotic experiences, suggesting that Aída's pleasure was never a shared one, and that her sexuality never required a male partner for its fulfillment. The narrator's fixation with Aída, and his final decision to act as the transcriber of all their life together continues with his own “solitary vice” as a tool for describing his former lover's “solitary vice.”

Peri Rossi's most recent novel, La última noche de Dostoievski, is narrated by a male persona as well. Jorge, a reporter for a widely popular tabloid magazine who has broken up with Claudia, his lover of three years, is pursuing Marta, another man's wife, and is undergoing psychoanalysis with his analyst, Lucía. Addicted to gambling, he is fascinated with the legendary Dostoevsky, by virtue of his also being a writer and compulsive gambler. Although at first glance it is only because of our knowledge that the author is a woman that we sense an androgynous element in the narrator's character, with measured irony Peri Rossi proceeds to insert bit by bit the feminine presence into the masculine mind. When Jorge monologues about his activities and his preferences, for example, his difference from the stereotypical male becomes apparent:

The majority of the men I know only like women so they can make love with them, even though it means they have to marry them. I, on the other hand, like them not only for making love: I like to contemplate them, watch them move, and especially, I like to converse with them. It's my feminine side.


Other references to sex and gender hint similarly at a reconciliation of gender differences within Jorge. His mother, Michelle, was abandoned while still pregnant with him, and Jorge is reassured by the example she provides of a woman who possesses both masculine and feminine traits: “Michelle was mother and father at the same time: Affection and the law in the same person” (76). His upbringing renders him capable and pleased to discover people whose personalities bear both masculine and feminine inclinations. His comprehension of his mother's own disclosure that, had she been the man, she would have abandoned the woman in order to preserve her freedom, is another indication of the way that the circumstances of the protagonist's life have contributed to the development of an androgynous mentality.

When Jorge gambles, he finds that gender is insignificant, as in any manifestation of desire. In the bingo parlor “no hay sexo que valga”/“sex makes no difference” (11). This erasure of gender at the point of expressing his most pressing desires corresponds to Sandra Gilbert's ideal of a journey back in time, to a prehistory that lauds “androgynous wholeness and holiness” (182). Sylvia Molloy, in her discussion of women's self-figurations in the literary text, notes that the text becomes a performance for the feminine writer, who thereby enunciates, rather than accepts an assignment from the patriarchal canon (112). Elia Kantaris similarly states that the female writer seizes the written word as an opportunity to re-figure as subject, what had been so long portrayed as an object (251). If that is so, then Peri Rossi is dramatizing the ideal male that she would have elected to be. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that Jorge appreciates women's sexuality the way that women would tend to, and that he expresses a proclivity to erasure of sexual differences. When he meets Magda, a young woman who enters a casino and seems out of place among all the elder clients there, they are drawn immediately to one another, and end up in bed together. As an overture, they say no more to one another than “me gustas”/“I like you.” Jorge digresses a moment to explore the nature of the verb gustar as it relates to the sexual act:

… it's an excellent verb for human relations. It signifies the predominance of the sensorial in them: I'll taste [be pleased by] your skin, your breasts, your mouth, your neck, the back of your head, your armpits, your crotch, your sex; you'll taste [be pleased by] my ears, my cheeks, my chin, my back, my fingers, my fingertips, my legs.


He makes no mention of his own sexual member in the geography of sensual pleasure, and this omission could well suggest that the female author is lesbian, though certainly it is also a further indication of Jorge's androgyny.

Jorge, however, is not consistently a liberated, androgynously inclined man, for there are times when he regresses from the egalitarian approach he prides himself on taking towards women. In some instances, Jorge's appreciation of women, like his attitude toward gambling, devolves into an attempt at mere seduction. For example, at one point he plays a slot machine in a way that indicates his need to take possession of the object of his desire. Here, the slot machine stands in for a woman as a seducible, passive, merely reactive partner:

“Come on,” I tell the luminous slot machine in the bar. “You and I know one another, sweetie. You have a program, I mean, a secret. I'm going to discover it. I'm stronger than you. Sing, princess, sing. Let your cascade of coins go, your golden stream. Be a good girl, with multiple orgasms.”

For a moment, however, he then goes on to reflect on the superior qualities of women, compared to the brute force of men:

Women are more generous than men: They feed, give birth, protect, console. We men are not very generous. We give a little semen, not much more. We don't like to give, nor being asked. We have to learn a lot, to give what little we do give. The only thing we have in abundance is strength.

Although this realization is a subtle movement towards the androgynous ideal, he still feels a need for domination, however circuitously it can be achieved. Thus even as he indicates his awareness of the rules of the game, which permit him entry to the woman's domain, he ignores the notion of woman as autonomous subject. She is, rather, a conquest to be made, a whore:

“But I'm not allowed to rape you, baby. I can't break you, so you give in. I have to respect the rules of the game. I can't rape you. I have to warm you up, first, inserting coins, like foreplay. Like the client with the prostitutes.”


Jorge equates the passion for gambling with sexual desire, contradicting his denial earlier in the novel that sexuality can have no role in gambling, and the same tendency later causes him to run head-on with Lucía, his analyst, who reminds him that their professional relationship can only be among equals if he leaves his sexuality at the door. As much as he might invoke Dostoevsky as an example of complete surrender to the libido as a manifestation of any and all feeling, Peri Rossi thoughtfully plants contradictions in his words that indicate the need for an evolutionary process if he is to achieve a primordial state of androgynous wholeness. While he is capable of understanding the seductive power of both women and men, he leans heavily on his libidinous appreciation of women, and there are moments when he can see the “seductiveness” of men, such as the probable lover of his mother (71). Wholeness for Jorge must be attained when he is freed from his compulsion toward some of his desires.

His need for a woman is related to his need for gambling and, similarly, to his need for psychotherapy. The psychoanalyst notes that while Jorge could relate to any addicted gambler on the street, he has chosen Dostoevsky not only for his passionate side, but also because he is a writer. In this way, Lucía serves to establish within the novel a connection between the writer, the libido, imagination, and expression. As Peri Rossi has explained in an interview, psychoanalysis operates in tandem with literature, in that “they both work with language, trying to discover the meanings contained in language” (Hughes 268). Just as language is a set of signs that corresponds to a code, ideally understood by a pair of speakers in a mutually based system of rules and their infractions, so gambling and psychotherapy require a degree of cooperation that may not lead to anyone's winning or even being cured, but which is the prerequisite for participation in the process.

As a therapist, Lucía's refusal to admit even the language of sexual conquest counteracts Jorge's instinctual approach, in which he tries to impose his power in the relationship. Jorge seeks to control the dialogue between himself and his therapist, to dominate the outcome of the bingo game, and to express indifferent composure upon seeing his former lover Claudia again. Lucía reminds him, however, that he needs to neutralize his male aggression in order to be free of his obsessions. Jorge's complaint that gambling and psychoanalysis are costly vices to maintain link both activities with prostitution in his mind, and delay the possibility of his freeing himself from these obsessions (106). Despite Jorge's own descriptions of his non-aggressive approach to love, his taking pleasure in the process rather than the culmination of love-making, he still expects to subjugate Lucía. A sexual relationship with her patient would be ethically inadmissible from Lucía's point of view, but even further, it is undesirable, because of Jorge's aggressive language of seduction.

To his credit, however, Jorge possesses a double awareness of masculine and feminine tendencies, and he reverts, by turns, to a more liberated stance, that supports the development of each person's autonomy. In this novel, Peri Rossi counterbalances the patient's awareness of sexual difference with the analyst's proclivity toward sexual neutrality, toward androgyny. As Lucía tries to tell him:

By alluding to my condition as a woman, and not a professional … you have tried to cross the boundary. You've tried to play another field, to use a terminology that might sound familiar to you. I'm not disposed to enter into that territory. We've never said anything, you and I, man to woman, or woman to man, not yet.


Whereas her interest is in curing him of his addiction to gambling, his transferal of uncontrollable desire from the bingo parlor to the female doctor's office leads him to expect that a similar seduction will take place. For him, it is simply a matter of whether he gives enough money to the slot machine (female) or to the psychologist (also female).

Aggression and subjugation had been the ruling principles in his relationship with Claudia. With Claudia, the desire to gamble immediately followed their lovemaking sessions, which resembled battle in their own turn. She, however, had participated fully and willingly in this struggle for power: “For Claudia (very masculine of her) war formed an active part of love, of eroticism” (102). Claudia's full participation in the power struggle places her within the ranks of the masculine, and the failure of their relationship had to do with their inability to determine which of them was to occupy the masculine, dominant space. Thus while he laments the loss of the relationship, he shows that it functioned only as a struggle, without ever reaching a harmonious balance. One of their favorite pastimes was, however, to point out for one another the women (for Jorge) and the men (for Claudia) that would be appealing lovers for each other. Within the struggle for power there lay the recognition of the necessity to understand and empathize with the other's desires, and to assume the perspective of the other in order to fulfill him/her. Despite his failure within that relationship, Jorge's intermittent understanding of the feminine perspective renders him ever closer to the androgynous, and therefore more comprehensive, human being. In doing so, he also evidences what psychologist Martin Seligman posits as a more adult attitude:

As a child matures … considerations of morality, of justice, of fairness come into play, and tolerance can start to displace blind conformity. He or she now chooses how to behave. Decisions about androgyny, about unconventionality, about rebellion, are conscious decisions based on a sense of what is right and what an adolescent wants for the future. As such, the choice of androgyny requires a mature mind and a conscience: it is not a product of simple training.


Jorge must learn through the women in his life that an androgynous, egalitarian approach is his only viable connection with them. Thus Peri Rossi attempts to undermine the masculine struggle for power in relationships with women. When Jorge becomes attracted to another woman, Marta, whose husband is so possessive of her that he has bodyguards to watch her, he makes explicit denunciations of a man's proprietary perception of his wife. In the love-making session between Jorge and Marta, Peri Rossi deliberately suppresses the physical details in order to focus on psychic features of an egalitarian union that moves away from subordination, proprietary rights or domination. When they decide to go to bed together, it is for both of them a transgression of cumbersome social convention (140). Though this scene is explicitly sexual, it does not highlight any transfer of masculine features to Marta, nor assign any “feminine” proclivities to Jorge, as had been done in describing Jorge's relationship with his former lover Claudia. Rather than interchange or subvert conventional sexual differences, Peri Rossi has chosen to transcend them.

It is at the end of Dostoievski that Peri Rossi establishes not only a meaningful resolution to Jorge's addiction to gambling, but also a deliberate connection among the multiple elements that have contributed to the establishment of his identity. In his final session with Lucía, the psychologist, she suggests that he seems poised to write a book about luck. His response—that writing “makes no sense. You don't earn a nickel, it's exhausting, causes envy and its outcome is uncertain”—is identical to the description he had given Lucía previously of gambling. This coincidence highlights the importance for Jorge of defeating the role that chance has in his life, much as Peri Rossi has advocated the refusal of people to accept biological fate in the determination of their identities. The one redeeming feature of both writing and gambling for Jorge is that one does it for the pleasure of it. In this way, writing is depicted as parallel to the means that a person possesses for determining his/her own identity, in both sexual and ontological terms.

If Peri Rossi's concern is to construct a sexually ambiguous discourse and to champion sexual neutrality, her method is effective. The reader is fully aware that a woman has written the text, and yet the voice she assumes, in its masculinity, neither precludes nor automatically signals a sympathy for the feminine. Women in her novels are admirable insofar as they avoid social and psychological traps to which women in life may be susceptible. Men in her novels are presented positively insofar as they equate openness and wholeness with acceptance of traditionally feminine traits, or with the rejection of masculine aggression, and where they fall short she employs irony as a strategy. Heterosexual pairing is approved of to the extent that it involves a relationship among equals, and in this way she dramatizes the androgynous ideal described by Heilbrun: “not only the equality of the sexes, but a distinct similarity of roles and tastes, an equivalent interest in costume and a great deal of time spent in mixed company” (29). The portrayal of the androgyne on the sexual level corresponds to the furthering of equality that Peri Rossi espouses on a political and social level. For her, true equality, true love, sincere devotion, and instinctual desire have no gender, and linguistically she demonstrates the same plurality by employing a montage of literary genres within one text. In her prologue to the 1989 edition of El libro de mis primos, she explains that she wrote this first novel “on the very limit of genres, deliberately mixing prose and poetry. It was not merely a personal effort: the Romantic writers had already practiced it before, proposing a fragmentary, borderline literature, where poetry and prose were combined in order to broaden the tone of each” (12). In her later novels, she transfers this mutual enrichment and hybridization to the matter of gender, assuring us that desire need have no generic origin in the one sense and therefore need not have as its object a specific generic component in the other sense.

Hugo Verani has described Peri Rossi's work as an expression of limits that beg transgression (313). Unwilling to accept social, political and personal limits imposed by others, she practices the art of transgression and inclusion. Through the hybrid lyricism of her novels, she constructs a space in which characters are pliant and open, and are willing, if at times unable, to reach toward uncharted territory. This transcendence pertains to both personal and political endeavor, making sexual indeterminacy an overall way of being and relating to others. Through her lyrical depiction of sexual relationships and by showing their interdependence with the establishment of human identity as a whole, Peri Rossi is able to present androgyny as a viable and desirable state of freedom in all senses. She subverts the conventions of male-female relationships through the assumption of the male voice and by demonstrating that one can credibly assume the persona of the other sex, but also by crossing back and forth at will across gender and sex roles. Additionally, in Solitario and Dostoievski she emphasizes the ever-important connection between an author's creative pleasure and sexual pleasure, linking productive to reproductive acts. In this way she also attempts to subvert any impositions on the human will. For Peri Rossi, sexual ambiguity correlates with lexical plurality, both of which provide vitality to the text, itself an ontological performance of the author whose creation it is.


  1. This and all translations from Peri Rossi's novels and Spanish critics are my own.

Works Cited

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Timothy Foster (essay date fall 1997)

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SOURCE: Foster, Timothy. “Transgressions in Literature, Politics, and Gender: Peri Rossi's La nave de los locos.Confluencia 13, no. 1 (fall 1997): 73–86.

[In the following essay, Foster examines Peri Rossi's unconventional narrative strategy in La nave de los locos, focusing on her critiques of sociopolitical and gender issues.]

Cristina Peri Rossi's novel, La nave de los locos, questions and proposes transgressions of the seemingly “natural” sex-gender-desire continuum—a cultural matrix through which hegemonic heterosexualist discourse makes itself intelligible: gender follows from a specific sexual configuration and desires the opposite of that assignation.1 In doing so she reveals the hegemonic prevalence of this sociocultural construction and documents its regulatory effects on the individual. As with all ideological constructions, this continuum of sex-gender-desire that differentiates and confers preference has corollaries on both linguistic and political levels. Language functions through a heterosexualist matrix and the State distributes power and favor along lines of cults of the self-same. In other words, Western culture is homosocial and delineates difference along the “natural” divisions of gender thereby brokering power among privileged male equals. This fusion of politics, language and gender is particularly prevalent in Latin American feminist literature. The Uruguayan born Peri Rossi questions the “naturalness” and rationality of the continuum fusing both literary and political levels in her unique view of human behavior and its governance. Unlike her compatriot predecessors, writers such as Juan Carlos Onetti or Mario Benedetti of the so-called “Generación Crítica” or “Generación del 45,” Peri Rossi's narrative “apela intensamente a la contribución de la fantasía y de la imaginación, condiciones casi archivadas tras el realismo urbano y grisuras cotidianas que una y otra de las promociones de la generación crítica desarrollaron en sus treinta años de reinado cultural.” Yet, as Angel Rama points out, Peri Rossi and others of her generation such as Mercedes Rein, Gley Eyherabide, Jorge Onetti, Mario Levrero and Teresa Porzecanski continue to critique their reality whether from exile or inside national borders, “no se trata de escritores propiamente militantes en el sentido que manejan temas políticos o sociales (…) pero no por eso pueden estimarse alejados de tal militancia. Sólo que, en ellos, (estos temas) han contaminado las formas encendiéndolas de agitación y de percepción rápida de la nueva sensibilidad” (Rama 101). Peri Rossi's literary language favors the non-linear, the metaphoric, the freeplay of image, the ludic rather than an authoritarian teleology of apparently transparent communication. Her ability to weave together State politics, gender issues and literary confabulation along with the complex intertextuality that permeates her work places her in what Rama proposed to call the Uruguayan “Generación del 69.” Her unique literary style coupled with her critiques of sociopolitical and gender issues also mark her as an important Latin American feminist.

The protagonist of La nave de los locos is a political and physical exile denied access to his habitual place and cultural identity. Lucía, the object of the protagonist's desire, is of uncertain gender and sexual orientation. She is intersexual in this very intertextual novel. A majority of Peri Rossi's characters display an essential oddity and non-conformity that places them outside of the “natural” be it on cultural or political levels. The characters of La nave de los locos share many of the protagonist's personality traits of a basic “strangeness,” of one experiencing a definitely geographic exile due to a more basic, less identifiable, alienation from a prohibitive authoritarian hegemonic discourse. The characters of La nave de los locos share a condition that blurs “natural” cultural and linguistic categories making them “Other” to a rigid hegemonic discourse that is never fully explained nor documented yet provides the always-already-there ideological setting of the novel.

Peri Rossi explores relationships of love which in her view should be free of cultural intervention and prohibitive constructions like the sex-gender-desire continuum. Love, as idiosyncratic as the individual and as inherent a drive as instinct, liberates one from the isolation of exile—be it geographic, political or cultural. La nave de los locos documents an individual's search for the authentic and meaningful in an explicitly authoritarian political reality and an implicitly prohibitive cultural world both of which skew the freedom of choice. Additionally, the political and cultural realms of control that serve as the backdrop to Peri Rossi's novel create a context where words and actions have limited parameters and meaning has clearly marked boundaries. Constructed political and cultural realities create frontiers that cannot be crossed if one is not to be considered “Other.” These limitations attempt to reduce the heteroglossic possibilities of word-concepts like “fulfillment,” “desire,” and “love” whose meaning should be contextually determined nor politically nor culturally imposed. La nave de los locos with its ludic and metaphoric language attempts to unyoke both the sex-gender-desire continuum and the mandated meanings of its terms from its prohibitive cultural and political context by focussing on an individual's project to deconstruct the ship of fools on which he necessarily travels in order to reveal and establish a more authentic, less mediated communication. His quest for love becomes a process of shedding layers of oppression and alienation, seen here as political, cultural and linguistic exile, that inhibit the mutual reconciliation and authentic appreciation of self and “Other.”

Peri Rossi's protagonist's quest is neither unique nor original. The conception of this world as a ship of fools, La nave de los locos, was already well worn when Sebastian Brandt first published his satirical book-length poem, or “Mosaic” in his words, of the same name in 1494 (Jamieson xiii). Brandt's Ship of Fools, like Peri Rossi's, is highly intertextual, “a collection of quotations from biblical and classical authors.” Katherine Anne Porter also published a novel of the same title and it is equally as possible that Peri Rossi may be referring to her version of this ship of fools. Porter wrote the novel just after her first trip to Europe where she read Brandt's version. The publication date of Peri Rossi's book is after her move to Barcelona in exile from her native Uruguay. Or, the possibility exists that Peri Rossi's inspiration may have come from viewing a 1965 Columbia Pictures release starring Vivian Leigh, Simone Signoret, José Ferrer and Lee Marvin under the direction Stanley Cramer. This celluloid Ship of Fools is described as “An unforgettable voyage of discovery and self-delusion”2 and is an adaptation of Porter's book. This series of possible, plausible sources for Peri Rossi's version points to the complex intertextuality in her novel—her protagonist is an avid reader, appreciates medieval tapestries and enjoys movie-going—and emphasizes the degree to which discourses that configure the world are interwoven and interlocked. The heterosexualist matrix functions on a myriad of inseparable levels. This “Mosaic,” this piecing together of disparate discourses has also been theorized to be a woman's approach and style of writing (Showalter 222–247). It is precisely Peri Rossi's focus on issues of gender as it is constructed and endlessly performed, as it regulates human experience, that makes Peri Rossi's La nave de los locos unique.

As he is introduced in the second chapter of her novel, Peri Rossi's protagonist, Equis (X), is the generic being that populates the world. He is the West's original exile as the last line of the quotation below reveals; a reference to the chapter's epigraph from Exodus (23, 9). Equis, even in name is:

Extranjero. Ex. Extrañamiento. Faera de la entrañas de la tierra. Desentrañado: vuelto a parir. (…) ¿Alguien, acaso, sabía cómo se encontraba el alma del extranjero? ¿El alma del extranjero estaba dolorida? ¿Estaba resentida? ¿Tenía alma el extranjero? Ya que fuisteis extranjeros en la tierra de Egipto.

(Peri Rossi 10)

He is the stranger within that escapes the nurturing, conditioning and indoctrination of cultural norms and he presents his strangeness to the world. The stuttering of the protagonist's introduction also emphasizes the difficulty of advancing narrative when the focus is simultaneously and paradoxically the definitive “Other”—the exile—and its opposite, the almost universal social condition of conformity to cultural norms, an isolation from one's self. One of the cornerstones of Peri Rossi's ontological view is precisely this ecision of the self, the difficult resolution of responsibility to self and coexistence in a society frequently prohibiting individual expression e.g., transgressing the sex-gender-desire continuum. Equis represents the individual, the foreigner, the transgressor as well as the generic social condition of us all. His introduction also anticipates the jouissance—the freedom to enjoy, discover and be desired3—that readers experience when confronted with Peri Rossi's texts. As Hugo Verani points out,

La sensibilidad idiomática de CPR se manifiesta principalmente, en su barroquismo esencial, en el deleite proporcionado por el lenguaje, en el placer de saturar el discurso de sintagmas no progresivos que detienen el impulso narrativo y desplazan el núcleo verbal del cual dependen. La cargazón sintáctica, el despliegue libre e imaginativo del lenguaje y la proliferación de series enumerativas infunden a la palabra un ritmo envolvente, referente de sí mismo que instala al lector en su centro.

(Verani 313)

Peri Rossi's narrative breaks with what Lacan would call the Symbolic—the law of the Father that establishes fixed, universal and intelligible categories—and invests her narrative with multiple, heterogeneous possibilities of meaning rather than a teleologically decidable utterance. Her writing more closely echoes Julia Kristeva's views that privilege poetic language as the linguistic occasion that dismantles univocity and exposes the heteroglossic possibilities of utterances (Kristeva). Peri Rossi challenges the hegemonic in favor of multiplicity, subjectivity and the idiosyncratic reception of her prose. In foregrounding the subjective, the stuttering of Equis's introduction not only puts emphasis on the creation and understanding of what will follow but also the act of witnessing Equis's creation. Allowing reader involvement, creating characters and narrative ab ovo, and encouraging multiple readings. Peri Rossi puts the act of writing on equal footing with the act of reading by re-enacting her protagonist's literary birth. Equis is the consummate exile in his synecdochic, alliterative, and even etymological relationship with words like “extranjero” and “extrañamiento.” The introduction also mentions the errant nature of the exile which is the structuring principle that moves the narration along. Equis is a traveller and his objective, as he was ordered in a dream, is to describe the cities to which he travels, “La ciudad a la que llegues, descríbela.” (Peri Rossi 9) Again dreams beg for interpretation and, in a Freudian sense, conceptualize instinctual drives, repressions, and sociocultural prohibitions. Peri Rossi, in documenting Equis's travels, invites participation in this narration of discovery that reveals many forms of repression—not the least of which are Lacanian laws of the Symbolic, Kristeva's privileging of poetic discourse and its corollary in the maternal relationship and Freudian psychology's categorical configurations of the psyche.

In opposition to the life-as-journey motif, the novel's other organizing principle is a repeating reference to and description of a medieval tapestry called “El tapiz de la creación” found in Girona's cathedral in Catalunya.4 The tapestry counters Equis's travels on his ship of fools in that it is static, frozen in time and place and provides a comfortable, delineated structure in which to operate. There is both beginning and end. There is a place for all things and, although the tapestry is complex, it can be fathomed, studied and understood. “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.” (Peri Rossi 21) The exile's universe, on the other hand, is unstructured, open-ended and thoroughly borderless. Peri Rossi admires this structure yet ultimately rejects its seductiveness. Enclosure runs counter to liberation, no matter how complex and accommodating.

By nature, Equis, the paradigmatic exile, keeps true to his course journeying, describing and deconstructing his observations. As an exile, he has been denied access to the seductiveness and structural ease of an existence in ideological and geographic comfort. Peri Rossi proposes that this is an almost universal condition. She advocates a liberation from the deceiving simplicity of established political and social orders that in many cases lack a meaningful cohesion. Readers, for their part, must create—from the intertextual complexity, stylistic density and multiplicity of discursive voices—their own subjective sense out of this narrative. Equis is “Other” to the world he describes just as the reader is “Other” to the text. In an essential way, then, Equis lives a life that is the paradoxical metaphor for all lives which in turn makes him a perhaps unwitting participant in the social and political order that complicates and alienates existence. The novel traces and describes Equis's journey through a world of illusions and unreasonable stability. Arguably, his inevitable quest, like art, is the attempt to create or find an at least hypothetical structure in which a life can be lived with perhaps some modicum of purpose and achievement. La nave de los locos moves between the oppositional tensions of established social orders and individual freedoms. Equis's task is describing the ship of fools upon which he finds himself. It is a rather hackneyed quest but one recast in Peri Rossi's terms requiring a progressive dismantling of regulatory practices and institutions guilty of heterosexualist bias. So, like the novel's ludic and creative beginning, there is no narrative thread connecting his passage from city to city other than his observation.

Verani describes Peri Rossi's narrative as breaking down the logical relationship between events; to which the wandering of an exile is well-suited.

Sus relatos rompen la relación lógica de las partes, renuncian todo mimetismo anecdótico en favor de la presentación de estados de conciencia en función de imágenes. La actitud lírica, la exploración lúdica de la realidad, la profusión metafórica, la forma digresiva y acumulativa son signos de una realidad poética, de una experiencia total que no tolera límites.

(Verani 305)

The absence of a logical syntagmatic continuity in Peri Rossi's narration reinforces subjective and experiential participation in her novel. She attempts to create meaning in a space free from the generic constraints of established norms of literature. It is impossible to expect or to rely on a conventional narratee's role as passive receptor of socially and politically imbued discourse as an accomplice/witness in the always-already-understood system and its already inscribed opposition. Peri Rossi orients her narrative between only two oppositional poles: individual freedom embodied by Equis's journey versus the seductively simple social order as seen in the tapestry.

Equis searches for liberation from an alienating sociopolitical order full of sometimes absurd conventions. He is at large in a dogmatic world, fulfilling orders he receives only in his dreams. The first tells him to observe—to describe the cities to which he journeys. A second dream drives him to search for the answer to an enigmatic question that is posed to him by a king, jealous of his daughter's affections. If he answers incorrectly, he is beheaded. A correct answer, however, assures him the princess's love. This dream has overtones of incest, the original taboo. The king's jealousy is an expression of that which can only be dreamed of, a desire that must only be played out in dreams. Cultural norms forbid incest in the interest of the preservation of that same culture (Lévi-Strauss). Equis's answer to the riddle of the taboo of incest will either insure his death or liberate him through preparing him to love authentically. Travelling, observing and searching for the answer to life's riddles—be it death or love's liberation—are the self's only authentic activities.

At the other end of the spectrum in this self/other opposition is the world. The world, in Peri Rossi's view, is mechanistic in its orderly functioning, prescribed values, and inhibiting moral norms. It is insidious in its omnipresent invasion of all aspects of human life including language. Particularly revealing in this respect, and I will quote liberally from the text, is Equis's description of a movie, The Demon Seed, in which a computer attacks Julie Christie:

… La máquina rompiendo, destructora e implacable, todos los objetos de la habitación; la máquina perforando las paredes; la máquina resoplando mientras reduce a escombros los obstáculos que ella, ingenuamente, pone a su paso; la máquina convirtiendo en hojarasca el vestido de Julie Christie, riendo cuando ella queda desnuda, indefensa y en el colmo de su atracción; … Todo aparecía irremediablemente estúpido alrededor, en la pantalla, salvo aquel acto descomunal y polimorfo, brutal como la conquista de Leda por el cisne. Todo parecía irremediablemente estúpido al lado de la cosmogónica deflagración del orgasmo macho, especialmente los hombres tontos y ciegos, incapaces de oponerse a la máquina y su furor, … Y él, todavía borracho por la luz de neón y por los efluvios de los ojos azules de Julie Christie secuestrada, de Julie Christie empalada por la máquina fálica, cambiaba las escenas de la película y sobre la pantalla ya no veía más el pésimo film de Danniels, solo veía a Julie Christie balanceándose, a Julie Christie sacudiendo los cabellos, a Julie Christie susurrando el hombre es el pasado de la mujer, un pasado tosco, anterior a la conciencia, deplorable, como todos los pasados, y la máquina estaba a punto de violarla por segunda vez, una máquina bestial y omnipresente, a la cual era imposible identificar porque se trataba, en realidad, de un símbolo, un símbolo que estaba en todas partes y contra la que Julie Christie, el porvenir del hombre, nada podía hacer, pues esa máquina pesada y torpe, tosca y ensobercida, no conocía el límite ni la resistencia, gran símbolo fálico, estructura de poder invencible.

(Peri Rossi 23–4)

This machine controls omnipotently and ideologically. This kind of “machine” taken to its political extremes comes to represent an authoritarian dictatorship—an attempt to control all discourse. In discursive terms, it is phallogocentric—it banishes all traces of the feminine to the category of “Other”—and permeates all discourse requiring communication to pass through a heterosexualist male dominated-matrix. The machine is reminiscent of Irigaray's view that language annuls the possibility of even speaking of a female sex. Linguistic phallogocentricism denies of the possibility of female representation (Irigaray). Referring to the computer, Vercingetórix, Equis's sidekick as well as a well-known character from the French comic strip “Asterix,” says the machine is a “monstruo—invisible y omnipresente ⟪como las dictaduras⟫” (Peri Rossi 23). He is experientially knowledgeable about these matters.

Vercingetórix desapareció una manana cruda de agosto, en que el tiempo estaba algo frío, es verdad, él no había tomado ninguna disposición para combatirlo, ni preparar el viaje, por que hay viajes involuntarios que nos soprenden en medio de nuestra candorosa hipótesis del tiempo y del espacio. Desaparecer deja entonces de ser un acto voluntario y se convierte en una actitud pasiva; nos desaparecen, decía …

(Peri Rossi 55)

The next two years,

los pasó en un campo de desaparecidos, lejos de la ciudad, en un lugar apartado, entre una montaña de piedra lisa, sin vegetación, y una fábrica de cemento que cubría de polvo la barraca donde vivín y los escasos árboles de los alrededores … Nadie conocía, tampoco, la existencia de los desaparecidos, en ese lugar, atrapadas entre el polvo del olvido y el polvo de la muerte, como una legión de hormigas que trabaja en las cañerías mientras la ciudad, ajena, duerme.

(Peri Rossi 58)

The demon seed computer and the cement factory's dust invade all individual, personal spaces and interlock both cultural and political discourse. They are an omnipotent force and an artificial omnipresence in the lives of individuals forced to submit to their control.

Equis is perversely attracted to this artificial ordering of the world, “… con el temor de que sus propias fantasías aparezcan ahora en la pantalla, y dividido entre el amor a Julie Christie, el deseo de salvarla y la secreta, maligna complacencia con lo que va a ocurrir …” (Peri Rossi 23). This power is attractive and decidedly male. Political domination and gender are an inseparable, interlocking ideological construct since both originate from the hegemonic dominant class that establishes norms of behavior for the majority. Yet for Peri Rossi this is but one facet of the world. It is as undeniably real as it is artificial and just as reprehensible as is any rapist of the marginalized or oppressor of the politically oppositional. Gender, as a male/female binary, is an oppressive cultural construction that favors the male configuration of the seemingly “natural” continuum: sex, gender, and desire. The presence of a phallus presupposes natural male desires for the female while the absence of phallus is the female condition that naturally desires its male supplement. The ideological naturalness of this configuration, when critically examined in La nave de los locos, reveals its strategic construction for the distribution power enabling some and subjugating others. When the continuum is broken into discrete elements through transgressions of one or all of its terms, the cultural configuration of gender is revealed to have little natural origin or basis. Political power, much more obviously, functions in a similar fashion. Peri Rossi's narrative does not choose sides in the game of the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy of discursive power. On the contrary, she attempts to make up a new game in the creative and ludic structure of her novel.

The society presented in La nave de los locos is regulated by social conventions, artificial powers and inherited beliefs. Equis is well aware of this social and political, ordering of the world, as he often repeats, his journey is “el viaje leído” (Peri Rossi 11 etal.). His experience of the world is not unique. As a white male, his youth most probably socialized him to both appreciate and purvey the conventions, rites and beliefs of the majority. The novel, however, presents one voice that has not been integrated into the sociopolitical body. Even in name he symbolizes paradigmatic innocence. Percival is “natural,” “inteligente” y “sensual” as the narrator refers to him in italics throughout the novel's 18th chapter. He is a child and embodies Peri Rossi's approach to narrative creation.5 Children have not yet been indoctrinated by society's institutions of power. According to Julio Cortázar, “Los niños desnudarán al mundo de quienes pretenden regirlos y lo reducirán a la irrisión de la verdad” (Cortázar 8).

Percival's conversation with Morris, Equis's friend from the island of exiles, is filled with surprising and truthful statements about the world and one's experiences in it. After pages and pages of Morris's satirical commentary about cities as “ombligos del mundo” overrun with near-sighted citizens contemplating only the intricacies of the wrinkles of their own navels, Percival appears in a park with some liberating and critically honest views on life.

—Ten cuidado, no te mojes—le dijo [Morris] al niño.

—Está usted seguro de eso?—le preguntó, inquisidor—. La gente siempre cree es bueno, sano o algo así, contarle a uno una sarta de disparates. Le llaman a eso fantasía (hizo un gesto de asco). Lo maravilloso es real, alcanza con descubrirlo Sólo los imbéciles tienen que andar por la vida inventando cosas para parecer muy imaginativos. Con seguridad se pierden toda la fantasía que hay en las cosas, pero ellos no ven.

(Peri Rossi 142)

Morris's seemingly innocuous advice stemming from the common and traditionally held belief of a causal relationship between getting wet and getting sick is unmasked as such by Percival's acute lack of integration into such social conventions. The differentiation between the fantastic and the marvelous is also important. Fantasy is an imaginative fictional activity while the marvelous is an appreciation of the actual. Peri Rossi's acts of literary creation are not fantasy, they have an intense critical conscience presented in such a way as to promote the appreciation of a marvelous world hidden beneath the artificiality of social and literary convention and the dust of their silencing oppression.

The conversation between the aging Morris and the pre-adolescent Percival ends with a sensuous kiss on the lips, “y suave, muy suavemente, lo besó en la boca” (Peri Rossi 145). This transgression of accepted sexual norms is a constant throughout La nave de los locos and reverberates in Equis's dreams. Vercingetórix's greatest sense of loss during his incarceration in the prison camp comes from his disappearance the night before the circus begins. His abduction forces him to miss a soiree with his blonde midget lover. He is also somewhat of a pedophile, “Desde que salió del campo y desapareció por sus propios medios, son las conversaciones que prefiere: con niñas, o con enanas” (Peri Rossi 64). Equis, for his part, has a series of sexual relationships with women. He is attracted to the snowy white blubber of a “dama noble,” propositioned by the disarmingly uninhibited, sinewy Graciela, and pursued by a battered prostitute to whom he admits his impotency. This sexual gregariousness and idiosyncrasy has its corollary in Peri Rossi's prose. Como afirma Roland Barthes,

el deseo de romper con todo lo que limita la libertad humana y de despojarse de convencionalismo e hipocresías encuentra en el lenguaje y en el erotismo un placer semejante; es que el placer del lenguaje es de la misma índole que el placer erótico.6

Acts of sexual defiance in the face of social conventions while obvious in avant-garde literature take on new meaning given Peri Rossi's feminist perspective and serve as a thematic intersection for a variety of Peri Rossi's narrative goals.

First there is Peri Rossi's literary impulse to create in a space free of the generic constraints and accepted norms of the novel. Sexual expression, like communication be it literary or otherwise, is also one of humanity's most basic and simultaneously most coded behaviors. Power, be it political or sexual, is the controlling of desire. The transgression of literary genre, norms of sexual behavior, or political authority are acts of subversion yet in Peri Rossi's view they are uninhibited acts of liberation and therefore associated with the positive aspects of the world that Percival represents. Freedom is marvelously real and attainable but not before radical change in the configuration of power.

Equis and his closest friends Morris and Graciela all find if not happiness at least a sense of purpose. Morris, his child-lover Percival and the boy's mother move to Africa and as Morris writes, “Componemos un trío bastante singular, como imaginarás” (Peri Rossi 146). Graciela does sociological research on social perceptions of Adam and Eve in Paradise by distributing questionaires to school children who have obviously been integrated into the hegemonic cultural matrix. They make statements such as, “El estava solo y no la pasava muy bien porque no tenía con quien havlar pero cuando nació ella fue mucho peor.” (Peri Rossi 157) Graciela also becomes interested in and does research on atrocities committed against women by men in positions of political or cultural authority, such as Nazi drug experimentation on pregnant Jewish women in which there were no survivors and the African custom of performing clitorectomies on adolescent females. Graciela's interest in women's issues serves to sensitize Equis to the social construction of gender. After having secured work as a conductor on a bus that transports pregnant women to London for legal abortions, he makes connections between the women he accompanies and the Nazi atrocities that Graciela studied.

Oscuramente, (Equis) presiente también que el hecho de compartir una circunstancia venial y accesoria, pero que las somete a esta humillación (el hecho de estar embarazadas, como tener la piel oscura, haber nacido en el Canaán, ser exiliado, pelirrojo o manco), las vuelve hostiles entre sí, porque nadie experimenta simpatía por quienes comparten un estigma, una tara o un accidente.

(Peri Rossi 166)

As well as becoming aware of the social construction of gender, Equis also observes the paradoxic power of heterosexualist discourse to integrate and infiltrate even the minds of the powerless and oppressed; those who suffer its injustices most directly. On that same bus ride, he falls in love with one of his employer's clients, Lucía. Although she eludes him for a time after her abortion, he finds her again, this time in a transvestite theater. Lucía is dressed as a man and playing the role of Marlene Dietrich as sexual siren, seducing a Dolores del Río character of ambiguous gender. The scene is graphic in its depiction of Sapphic love, yet it is precisely this transgression of the social taboos of love that reveal the transgression as socioculturally imposed rather than instinctual. He comes to understand gender as a performance endlessly re-enacted to hide its origin as a cultural construction of differentiation and conference of power. It allows Equis to answer the king's riddle that will assure him the princess's hand in marriage—in this case Lucía's love. In other words, he arrives at the correct response by shedding ideological limitations in order to accept the “Other” without any cultural baggage or regulatory prohibitions that would interfere with the authenticity of his emotions. “¿Cuál es el tributo mayor, el homenaje que un hombre puede hacer a la mujer que ama? … El tributo mayor, el homenaje que un hombre puede hacer a la mujer que ama, es su virilidad” (Peri Rossi 196). Equis, the male exile, is actualized through his virility and only upon disposing of this seemingly “natural” construction—the sex-gender-desire continuum—can he authentically “love.” Once one is aware of the invisible ideologies that normalize thought and action, one can expose them, extricate oneself from their hold, and resist their oppression. The novel concludes with the death of the king, the symbol of patriarchal, phallogocentric and sociopolitical authority—“… el reyecito de chocolate cae de bruces, vencido, el reyecito se hunde en el barro, el reyecito, derrotado, desaparece. Gime antes de morir” (Peri Rossi 197).

Love is a method of liberation because in its free expression, outside of the boundaries of social convention, it is instinctual and natural. Love then is not only oppositional to the status quo but a force of resistance. Power and desire in this instance are not an either/or dialectic of controller versus controlled, authoritarian versus subversive, nor social good versus individual freedom but the mutual recognition of human needs. Action without the constraints of ideological prisons of social conventions is Cristina Peri Rossi's self-professed literary task: a “forma de identidad y liberación” (Derridita 133). She doubts authority and her satirical voice is a stylistic constant in all of her work. In La nave de los locos, the path to liberation for Peri Rossi's protagonist Equis leads to love and his desire is deflected, as seen in his reading of “The Demon Seed,” from his embarrassing complicitous fascination with but more often oppositional repulsion toward authority to his recognition of his role in the structuring of an authoritarian, patriarchal and ultimately restrictive system of power. His virility, the ideological and ontological structure of his subjectivity, is revealed to him and once recognized as such the king dies, writing as a “forma de identidad y liberación” has accomplished its task, and the novel ends.

Peri Rossi liberates Equis by sensitizing him to one of the most basic of ideological constructions: gender. She makes clear that gender is not a classification of sexual performance. Equis is sexually dysfunctional. Gender is an ideological construct that distributes power in ways similar to systems of political authority and social norms that determine allowable and prohibited expression. Furthermore, authority implies a notion of writing that dreams the conveyance of a non-mediated message, secure in its transmission and unequivocally understood—the antithesis of Peri Rossi's style and purpose which allows a multiplicity of meanings and a liberation from authority of any kind. Authority, of course, is a myth: “Mito enraizado en el saber aristotélico, logocéntrico, en el saber del origen, de un algo primitivo y verdadero que el autor llevaría al blanco de la página.”7 In order to deconstruct the ideological functioning of gender, liberate Equis from his phallogocentric prison, and answer the enigmatic riddle which accomplishes both regicide and the freeing of his love (like Oedipus?), Peri Rossi describes her protagonist's thoughts after viewing the transvestite strip show in which Lucía was the star.

Transvestites are sites of ideological inversion, as Severo Sarduy shows in his article “Escritura/Travestismo.” Although the article refers specifically to José Donoso's transvestite protagonist La Manuela in El lugar sin límites, its arguments can be generalized to elucidate Lucía's narrative status in Peri Rossi's book. Lucía is 1) a woman that 2) cross dresses as a man that 3) is attractive because of that which is womanly in her that 4) is active as seducer in the sexual act. These successive inversions of traditional hierarchies and conventions transgress cultural codes, one inside of another, and paradoxically reveal an essential superficiality, exteriority and arbitrariness with respect to gender. She transgresses the gender codes of dress to appear to be a man, yet in the show, what excites the crowd and her androgynous partner dressed as Dolores del Río (hence coded female) is not the unveiling of a penis but rather her vagina and breasts. But she is not converted into an object of passive penetration, instead she commands her kneeling partner to perform cunnilingus. Lucía is “la coexistencia, en un solo cuerpo, de significantes masculinos y femeninos: la tensión, la repulsión, el antagonismo que entre ellos se crea” (Sarduy 48). None of the ideologically established pigeonholes fit her situation, she refers to no specific exteriority. She exists in a narrative that explores the possibilities of an authentic appreciation of the “Other,” a liberation from the cult of the self-same, and the desire for power. According to Sarduy,

Esos planos de intersexualidad son análogos a los planos de intertextualidad que constituyen el objeto literario. Planos que dialogan en un mismo exterior, que se responden y completan, que se exaltan y definen uno al otro; esa interacción de texturas lingüísticas, de discursos, esa danza, esa parodia es la escritura.

(Sarduy 48)

The quotation not only describes Equis's experience of self-recognition as an ideological construct that is gendered as male but of Peri Rossi's narrative style and what she purports to be her literary task. The transvestite strip show produces the answer to Equis's dreamed enigmatic riddle that oppresses him. “¿Cuál es el tributo mayor, el homenaje que un hombre puede hacer a la mujer que ama? Su virilidad.” By “giving up” and delivering his “virility” as an ideologically constructed male to Lucía (the light), Equis hopes that his self-recognition, insight and therefore self-effacement will be answered by Lucía's love. Equis is willing to let go of his tight hold on self-identity—that which he has been socialized to hold onto most dearly.

Although Lucía never returns Equis's love as he points out, “1. ⟪Entre nosotros había una perfecta coincidencia—pensó Equis después—: Yo la amaba por cosas que sólo tenían que ver conmigo; ella no me amaba por cosas que sólo tenían que ver consigo⟫” (Peri Rossi 177). Lucía, as intersexual/intertextual narration, deflects Equis's desire for power and fear of the “Other” thereby revealing the marvelous in life: love's liberation and a mutual recognition of human needs. In refusing to give Equis's quest closure, Peri Rossi emphasizes the fact that it is perhaps not a teleologically definable, specific goal that should motivate deconstructing the complexities of ideological and cultural regulations on human behavior but, instead, the endless process of learning and liberation itself. Cristina Peri Rossi's La nave de los locos participates in this process by creating a narrative that ignores the limitations of literary convention, that criticizes explicit human rights violations by State authorities and that transgresses implicit cultural constructions of gender in order to advocate for the marvelous intertextual/intersexual complexity of the world.


  1. This concept comes from Butler's Gender Trouble.

  2. The OCLC's description of the movie (Record Number 25028639) continues. This vessel is sailing from Mexico to pre-Hitler Germany. Among the interlocking stories that unfold on this fateful cruise is the sad, tender affair between La Condessa, a doomed Spanish noblewoman, and the ship doctor, Schumann. The cross-section of humanity on board also includes Mary Treadwell, an embittered divorcee; Bill Tenny, an aging ballplayer; and Siegfried Rieber a smug disciple of Nazism.” This short citation is filled with possible references and resonances in Peri Rossi's novel.

  3. See Barthes. Although it is beyond the scope of this paper, an interesting line of inquiry would consider the body/text relationship in La nave de los locos. I do discuss matters of intertextuality as related to intersexuality later in this paper.

  4. Peri Rossi must have contemplated this tapestry while in residence in Barcelona as an exile from Uruguay while writing and publishing as she does today.

  5. Peri Rossi's first novel, El libro de mis primos (Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1969, 1989) and scores of her short stories have child protagonists.

  6. Verani 313. He refers to a Roland Barthes article, “Sarduy: la faz barroca,” Mundo Nuevo, no. 14 (agosto 1967) 70.

  7. Severo Sarduy, “Escritura/Travestismo,” en Escrito sobre un cuerpo, p. 47. This sentence is near the end of a long paragraph without quotation marks, yet is footnoted to “Jacque Derrida: L'ecriture et la difference, 1967.”

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Richard Miller, trans. London, 1976.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cortázar, Julio. “Inivitación a entrar en una casa” in Cristina Peri Rossi. La tarde del dinosaurio. Barcelona: Planeta, 1976.

Derridita, John F. “Desde la diáspora: Entrevista con Cristina Peri Rossi,” Texto Crítico, Año 4, no. 9 (enero-abril 1978).

Irigaray, Luce. The Sex Which is Not One. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Jamieson, T. H. ed. The Ship of Fools. Translated by Alexander Barclay. Edinburgh: William Paterson, 1874.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Principles of Kinship. Boston: Beacon Press. 1969.

Peri Rossi, Cristina. La nave de los locos. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1987.

———. El libro de mis primos. Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1969.

Porter, Katherine Anne. Ship of Fools. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1962.

Rama, Angel. La Generación Crítica (1939–1969). Montevideo: Arca, 1972.

Showalter, Elaine. “Piecing and Writing” in Nancy K. Miller, ed. The Poetics of Gender. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Verani, Hugo J. “Una experiencia de límites: La narrativa de Cristina Peri Rossi,” Revista Iberoamericana, 48 (enero-junio 1982).

Z. Nelly Martinez (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Martinez, Nelly Z. “Cristina Peri Rossi's The Ship of Fools, or the Garden of Forking Desire(s).” In Latin American Postmodernisms, edited by Richard A. Young, pp. 271–82. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997.

[In the following essay, Martinez identifies and discusses two of the dominant motifs in The Ship of Fools.]

Two leitmotifs articulate Cristina Peri Rossi's The Ship of Fools (1984; La nave de los locos). The first, which extends over twelve brief chapters, focuses on the Tapestry of the Creation. An eleventh-century work depicting the creation of the world which was found in the Cathedral of Gerona, the Tapestry is described in detail in the novel. The second refers to a dream containing an enigmatic question which haunts Ecks, the male protagonist. His ability to eventually solve the riddle and answer the question justifies the quest in which he is engaged and renders it meaningful. To be sure, the protagonist's quest is both external and internal as he not only travels the world but draws upon his unconscious in particular to explore his dreams.

A metaphor of the nostalgia for centeredness, order and intelligibility that is the cornerstone of Western culture, the Medieval Tapestry functions as background to Ecks's journey, a never-ending journey which reaches a momentous phase when he solves the riddle. Posed to his daughter's suitors by the archetypal king of traditional fairy tales, who wishes to eliminate the suitors and keep the princess to himself, the question attempts to elucidate the greatest tribute and homage a man can give the woman he loves. Ecks's solution to the riddle, with the realization that the answer is his virility, invalidates the powerful presence of the king. In this instance, virility must be interpreted in terms of a sexuality which exalts the phallus and affirms the law of the father, and not in terms of the sexuality which the novel honors, that is, one that celebrates the play of differences, devalues the phallus and validates the “other.” Because it eschews the rigid differentiation which privileges male desire (the desire to possess the “other” and control reproduction), this sexuality also permits ambiguity, the undecidability of sexual gender. In fact, Ecks's quest may be interpreted in terms of a persistent longing to fully comprehend the implications of ambiguity, which he perceives even in himself, on every level of experience. The eventual comprehension and acceptance of this disturbing reality, which contradicts Western logic and common sense, proves liberating to Ecks. It enables him to experience life as plural and irreducible, and to open up to the myriad possibilities life ever offers in the here and now.

Clearly, The Ship of Fools informs a critique and even an indictment of our patriarchal Western culture. Moreover, the fact that the protagonist is male underlines the role played by men in the deconstruction of the androcentric world suggested in the novel. Even the name of the character (a “no name,” in fact, since it points to that which is not named) is worthy of note: Ecks's presence in the novel suggests the many women and men who have metaphorically renounced their social identity (bestowed upon them in the name of the father),1 and who are presently committed to subverting tradition and altering the world. The protagonist purposely situates himself in the position of “the other” by inhabiting, like the women and the other characters he encounters in his travels, the margins of the established order. In other words, he voluntarily assumes the role of a stranger or outsider to counteract the estrangement traditionally regarded as the essence of the human condition. From this position of exile, Ecks earnestly endeavors to alter the world he inhabits by constantly becoming an other, by constantly capitalizing on his ambiguity. As Peri Rossi's novel suggests, ambiguity implies both open-endedness and perpetual motion.

To be sure, the disclosure of the answer to the king's query does not necessarily signify the closure of the protagonist's quest; rather, it sets him on yet another stage in a voyage which remains open-ended. It is no surprise that in the end the Tapestry itself, the very symbol of closure, is revealed as incomplete and open-ended, implying perpetual motion: “all is moving,” reads a passage describing the tapestry, “nothing in the Universe remains still” (Peri Rossi 1989:165). The last words recorded in the novel, “the tapestry is missing January, November, December and at least two of the rivers of Paradise” (205), are also significant since rather than implying closure they underline the open-endedness of the text itself: a pastiche of sundry discursive practices which celebrates the play of differences, devalues the logos of the father and allows for the emergence of the silenced “other” voices of Western culture.

One critic has rightly characterized The Ship of Fools as “a playful postmodern text” (Hart 1993:124). Peri Rossi seems to imply, however, that the play is deadly serious. The corrosive effects of humor and irony which traverse the novel illuminate the radical deconstruction it suggests. As exemplified by Ecks, this deconstruction alludes, on the one hand, to the subversion of the socially constructed identity, while, on the other, it implies the dismantling of traditional sexuality based on male desire, that is, on possession and control. Clearly the desire Ecks liberates as an exile from his culture is the “other” desire.2 Interpreted from a dual perspective, the “other” desire reveals a yearning to interrelate freely and creatively with “an-other,” while surrendering to the manifold and irreducible movement or freeplay of desire, to its “otherness.”3 In essence, to surrender to the “other” desire means to surrender to the play of ambiguity.

In this paper I focus primarily on the figure of Ecks who represents the numerous women and men presently committed to the subversion of the old order and the transformation of the world. To intimate the character's evolution, as well as his temporal and spatial displacement, the novel records, albeit not always chronologically, some of the important events from his journey. Worthy of note are the following: his youthful transatlantic voyage, as well as his coming to awareness while on board of the role of outsider or exile shaping within him; his life-long obsession with a movie in which the English actress Julie Christie is repeatedly victimized by a destructive machine which he perceives as symbolic of patriarchal power, and with which, paradoxically, he often identifies; his long-term friendship with Vercingetorix, who joins him temporarily after being miraculously released from a clandestine detention center for “disappeared” people; and, finally, his brief stays in countless cities where, by renting rooms and obtaining jobs, he creates for himself a comforting, albeit purposely temporary, illusion of permanence.

Among his transitory sojourns in different places, two are particularly significant: one on an island (the Island of God) where he meets other exiles like himself; the other in a city (presumably London) where he meets Lucía, the woman who plays a crucial role in his development. These two stays mark a crucial stage in Ecks's journey. It is during them that he engages in a decisive meditation on the plight of women, a meditation that results in an intensified awareness of the atrocities committed upon them throughout the centuries in the name of the father. (Among others, infibulation, cliterodectomy and rape.) Following this pondering over woman's fate, he becomes more involved in the process of surrendering his virility; of transcending male desire and embracing the “other” (desire). Symbolized by the image of a “flaccid member” (195) between his legs, this momentous shift may be said to install the protagonist in the land of the fallen (in the sense of dethroned) phallus: in a metaphoric garden of soon to be discovered novel desires and delights. Although he is unaware of it at the time, Ecks is also preparing himself to solve the enigma which had long haunted him through the dream of the king and the princess's suitors, and to confirm his long held suspicion about the revelatory power of dreams and the unconscious. In fact, the gradual surrender to the decentering promptings of the unconscious has also marked the protagonist's journey.

Two opposing forces, manifestations of his own essential ambiguity, have consistently propelled Ecks. Faithful to tradition, he has been guided by a nostalgia for centeredness, order and closure; on one occasion, while contemplating an engraving of Venice (35), he longed for the comforting and redemptive harmony it suggested. Equally faithful to tradition, he has occasionally been moved by the desire to possess and violate; let us remember how he identifies with the “phallic machine” (18) which rapes Julie Christie in one of his favorite movies. On the other hand, nonetheless, whenever he has been faithful to his inner self, to his dreams and unconscious urges, he has also felt the urge to free himself from the infernal phallic machine and to surrender to the movement of his “other” desire. (This surrender definitively occurs when the protagonist encounters Lucía for the second time in the city of London). Polymorphous and insatiable, the “other” desire (the desire for the “other” and for the multiple and irreducible movement or “otherness” of desire) gradually decentralizes his experience and eventually places him in the plural and ambiguous world of the fallen phallus, one that seeks deliverance from the transcendental categories (the meta-narratives) which have enthralled the Western mind. This “brave new world” of the protagonist's own making bears witness to a plural and ambiguous identity, one that courageously opens to the myriad possibilities life offers in the here and now.

Echoing Jorge Luis Borges, whom Peri Rossi evokes in the novel,4 this world may be interpreted as a garden of forking desire(s), a site of unorthodox delights born out of the awareness of the infinite possibilities (sexual or otherwise) each individual life contains at any given moment. The fact that at every step of his journey the protagonist must choose only the possibility that is relevant to the present, does not preclude his embracing others. In this regard, Ecks metaphorically chooses, like the character in Ts'ui Pen's novel, all possibilities simultaneously. The idea here is that although he may actualize one possibility, he does not repress the others, does not remove them from conscious awareness; he thus escapes the conceptual trap which blinds humans to any reality beyond the patriarchal boundaries. (Ecks calls this trap the Great Navel.)5 Clearly, awareness is all in the ever-changing world the protagonist's experience inaugurates, a world in which personal identity as well as sexuality are also irreducibly plural and imbued with ambiguity.

Remarkably, this garden of forking desire(s) Ecks creates stands in sharp contrast to the Garden of Eden. Not accidentally, the novel contains a section that deconstructs the story of Eden by trusting its re-writing to a number of school children. Their interpretation of paradisiacal beginnings, traversed by humor and irony, reveals the inconsistencies and illogicality of the original tale. Even more crucial, the novel also contains an apocryphal text by Eve, a passage from her unpublished memoirs which bears witness to her exile and reveals her feelings of impotence at her role as man's “other.” “One must stay inside the temple, the house of our relentless gods,” writes the primordial mother, “and collaborate in perpetuating the myths which sustain the structure, ideology and spirit of the tribe. Any conflict arising from our forced condition must be hidden” (158). Assuming the role of the archetypal exile Eve, Ecks has set out to illuminate these conflicts, deconstruct the myths and defy the tyrannical deities: a complex undertaking aimed ultimately at empowerment. However, at odds with the traditional interpretation of power as contingent upon knowledge, empowerment here is viewed as dependent on un-knowing: Ecks must gradually extricate himself from the canonized Western truths (“The chain of certitudes whose sequence he had confidently trusted” [192]) in order to redeem himself from patriarchal repression and reclaim the power to create a world of his own. It is a sacred mission that transforms the protagonist's journey into a veritable pilgrimage.

As I suggested earlier, Ecks fulfils the role of exile by assuming that of a traveller who wanders in the world while journeying into his uncharted self. Both roles ultimately merge into that of a pilgrim engaged in the sacred mission of transcending his condition of a stranger in a strange land. In fact, the forces of desire which Ecks's voyage liberates tend to integrate self and “other” and thus overcome estrangement by rendering human experience sacred, whole. The sacredness of the protagonist's voyage is also implied in a reference to Dante and the archetypal pilgrimage. Moreover Lucía, the young woman who brings light to Ecks's life, evokes the young woman named Lucía, who bore the sleeping Pilgrim in her arms before he entered Purgatory and proceeded on his journey (75–76). Before further examination of Ecks's pilgrimage, let us focus briefly on the world he seeks to subvert.

As with the rest of the characters in The Ship of Fools, Ecks inhabits a land of estrangement, a land where desire has been perverted and turned into a fragmenting force which thwarts the play of differences, establishes hierarchies and represses the “other”; a land where those who refuse to conform to the law of the father are declared mad, hidden from view and made to disappear into places of confinement which are metaphors for the all-pervasive repression underlying Western culture. As the title indicates, the prototypical symbol of confinement in the novel is the ship of fools; this symbol recalls that of the asylum which replaced the infamous ship during the Age of Reason, as Michel Foucault persuasively argued. Even more importantly, the place that houses the dangerous “other” is also symbolized in the novel by the detention center, a no-man's-land where people are “disappeared” and exterminated. The transitive use of an otherwise intransitive verb here underlines the involuntary quality of the forced disappearance suffered by thousands of citizens in some countries of Spanish America. In effect, although it alludes to all the infamous prisons of the world where the undesirable “others” are sacrificed to appease the gods of the culture, the detention center in Peri Rossi's text refers particularly to the places of confinement which multiplied in her native Uruguay and in both Chile and Argentina during their recent military dictatorships.

Hidden from view and thus removed from consciousness, these clandestine places of horror which allegedly house the insane, merely mask the real insanity: that of a culture that hunts down the resistant “other” which the system refuses to absorb, and condemns to ostracism at best, and extinction at worst. It comes as no surprise that hunting is a central metaphor in the novel. For Ecks, the world of the ship on which he journeys in his youth is a replica of the one the travellers “are missing during the fortnight's voyage” (4), a temporary domain which is nevertheless “ruled by the same laws, with its hunter and hunted” (4), with the former deciding the fate of all. Clearly, the hunting metaphor is also related to the lethal machine which rapes Julie Christie in the movie that obsesses the protagonist. Let us recall that this phallic machine, as he categorizes it, awakens in Ecks both the desire to rape as well as the desire to rescue and protect the innocent victim. The eventual acceptance and celebration of this ambiguity within himself will lead the protagonist to the awareness that he indeed has a choice, that he may escape the patriarchal trap of a world where boys will, inevitably, always be boys. Moved by the force of his “other” desire, Ecks will be whoever he decides to be at any given moment, but always surrendering to his newly acknowledged impulse to honor otherness and transform the world.

Thus, one night on the Island of God, where, as suggested earlier, his experience deepens significantly, he is the tender lover to the old lady he meets in a coffee shop, and to whom he “surrenders his virility” by renouncing the male obsession of sexually possessing a youthful and attractive female body; oblivious to the ravages of time on his partner's body, Ecks lovingly yields to the lady's angelic quality and the serenity she exudes. In a similar fashion, he is a caring friend to the battered prostitute who begs for and obtains his protection one night in the city, and to whom he metaphorically surrenders his virility by claiming impotence; lying naked by her side, with “the flaccid member between his legs” (195), he surrenders to the strong feelings of compassion evoked in him by the defeated female. Finally, he is the good friend of Lucía, whose very name is indicative of the light (of revelation) she brings to his life and to whom he surrenders what is left of his patriarchal conditioning. Let us now examine the protagonist's encounters with Lucía and the prostitute, encounters which mark a decisive stage in his pilgrimage: the stage when he enters the land of the fallen phallus, that is, the garden of forking desire(s).

Clearly, both Lucía and the prostitute play the role of exiles in a culture which disempowers women by controlling their sexuality and their reproductive power. The battered prostitute, whom Ecks protects against male brutality, is at the mercy of both pimps and patrons. As a woman seeking a seemingly illegal abortion, Lucía is at the mercy of male doctors (characterized as “butchers” [168]) and other male authority figures, including the men who organize the clandestine transport to an abortion clinic of a number of pregnant women. In need of temporarily earning a livelihood while in the city, Ecks reluctantly participates in the transport of the anxious females, unaware that his encounter with Lucía while on the job will determine his fate. Attracted to her from the start, he makes possible her admission into “the load of bulging women” (170) being carried to the hospital, and ends up deeply sympathizing with the feelings of emptiness and despair which overwhelm her once the abortion is completed. After their return from the clinic, he is overcome by the desire to meet with her again, and begins to search for her earnestly in the labyrinthine city. This search is briefly interrupted by his chance encounter with the battered prostitute.

Significantly, Ecks's experience takes on an added intensity when he renews his search for Lucía, right after the encounter with the prostitute. Leaving the latter's room, he feels that something “had cleared” in his mind, and that he probably was “nearer the solution of his dream” (195), that is, of the king's enigma. Not surprisingly, this emerging lucidity conjures up images of Christopher Columbus and other travellers who had ventured into “mysterious seas” (195) impelled by the desire to discover unknown territories. For Ecks is himself at the point of “discovering” or unveiling the brave new world he has been creating for himself. This world decisively opens up to him at the main door to a cheap dance hall where he will find Lucía.

The words on the sign at the entrance of the dance hall are significant and provide a clue to the entire novel:









As soon as he enters the hall, Ecks sees Lucía and detects the sexual ambiguity promised on the door sign. Dressed in baggy pants, a top hat and tails, she is on stage imitating Marlene Dietrich as she appeared, impersonating a man, in the film classic The Blue Angel, and also as she (Marlene) was later imitated by Helmut Berger in The Twilight of the God, who himself attempted to imitate Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter (197). To add depth to the spectacle of endless imitations which blur the difference between the sexes, Lucía is accompanied by a man or a woman impersonating the voluptuous Dolores del Río, a man or a woman “who had decided to be what s/he wanted to be, and not what s/he was programmed to be” (198). In a carefully orchestrated ceremony that climaxes with a sexual encounter, Marlene undresses for Dolores's benefit as they both, unencumbered by patriarchal conditioning, surrender to the freeplay of desire, to its “otherness.” In this way they open up a space which affirms the undecidability of sexual gender and deeply engages Ecks. Unlike the coarse males in the audience who, faithful to their conditioning, enjoy the spectacle merely as porno-sex, Ecks enjoys the spectacle differently as he surrenders to its ambiguity. This prepares him for the unveiling of the enigma put forward to his daughter's suitors by the archetypal king of traditional fairy tales.

When he confronts Lucía shortly after the spectacle concludes, Ecks reaches a crucial stage in his journey, a stage that translates into a moment of glorious understanding. Still dressed in men's clothes, Lucía presents a powerful androgynous image to the protagonist, an image that brings him to the long-sought understanding of the nature and implications of ambiguity. In the young woman, he unequivocally discerns the uninhibited movement of desire, the unencumbered play of differences. In other words, Lucía's presence reveals to him

the unfolding of two parallel worlds in all their splendour; two different calls, two messages, two appearances, two perceptions, two languages, yet inseparably connected in such a way that the triumph of one would cause the death of both.

(202; my emphasis)

It also reveals to him that

the beauty of one increased the beauty of the other, that two pairs of eyes looked at him, four lips whispered, two wonderful heads shone in their harmony. The revelation was unbearable; it suffused everything around him. Yet he needed to be humble in its presence.


The light of understanding which suffuses everything around him is unbearable simply because he feels himself to be participating in the play of ambiguity and humbly renouncing male sexuality, a sexuality which has traditionally triumphed over the “other” and in a way caused the death of both.

As Ecks surrenders to the play of ambiguity and renounces patriarchal desire for possession and control, he is simultaneously solving the King's riddle and in fact killing the King (in himself). He thus breathes life into his “other” desire, into the “otherness” of his desire:

and the king shrinks, is now no bigger than a toy, a paper-maché puppet, a chocolate king; and he falls to the ground, blends with the mud; overcome, beaten, the poor little king disappears. He dies with a whimper.


Freed from the tyrannical father, Ecks surrenders to the delights of the garden of the fallen phallus, the garden of forking desire(s) where no desire excludes others and where the desire for the “other” (person) translates into the desire for the multiple and irreducible “otherness” of desire. Armed with the powerful tool of a renewed understanding of reality, he is ready to start his journey anew. Like the novel as well as the tapestry, his journey is forever incomplete and open-ended. His journey also keeps him in perpetual motion for it is true that “all is moving; nothing in the Universe remains still” (165). And although he still continues to inhabit the margins of his culture, Ecks is no longer a stranger in a strange land because he has overcome the estrangement which is falsely conceived of as inherent to the human condition. For Ecks, humans must create their own “condition” by surrendering their conditioning to the movement of their desire just as he has surrendered his virility to the woman he loves. Therein lies the sacredness of the protagonist's pilgrimage.


  1. This phrase, which recalls Lacan's nom-du-père, points to the traditional figure of the Father in his role of absolute center of the world. The embodiment of transcendent authority and the author of the Law that constitutes and institutes human society, the figure of the Father is linked to the order of language and thereby to the order of the symbolic (see Lacan 1977, especially Chap. 6).

  2. As employed here, the notion of the “other” desire relates to Lacan's interpretation of “desire” as a transpersonal, unifying force, which exceeds masculinist parameters and involves language in a fundamental way. It also suggests the eccentricity and insatiability of that force. In this essay I have taken the liberty of pluralizing the term “desire” which, in the Lacanian context, admits only a singular verb.

  3. In effect, the “otherness” of the “other desire” points to its freeplay, that is, to its expression in a continuous and ever-transforming motion or flow. Clearly, this is anathema in a culture such as ours, which tends to stabilize movement and reduce it to immutability.

  4. Among the books supposedly ordered by Ecks from a bookshop in a city where he resides temporarily, The Garden of Forking Desires by George Lewis Barges, is worthy of note (Peri Rossi 1989:36).

  5. A metaphor for the “city” or “metropolis,” which epitomizes the traditional organization of society, the Navel here functions as a symbol of the myopia with which the Western world confronts cultures other than its own. “The Great Navel,” explains the narrative voice, “has a more-or-less oval shape, from whatever angle it may be viewed. Those who enter there, as if in the depths of a mine, find their way out with difficulty. Trapped like flies, in vain they stretch their limbs or wave their antennae: the viscid folds impede their escape” (123). Clearly, Ecks represents those who struggle to escape by attempting to transcend the limited and limiting vision pervading the Great Navel.

Works Cited

Hart, Stephen M. White Ink: Essays on Twentieth-Century Feminine Fiction in Spain and Latin America. London: Tamesis Books Limited, 1993.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

Peri Rossi, Cristina. The Ship of Fools. Trans. Psiche Hughes. London: Readers International, 1989. [1984]

Cynthia Schmidt-Cruz (essay date fall 1998)

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SOURCE: Schmidt-Cruz, Cynthia. “The Children's Revolt against Structures of Repression in Cristina Peri Rossi's ‘La rebelión de los niños.’” College Literature 25, no. 3 (fall 1998): 145–62.

[In the following essay, Schmidt-Cruz examines the role of the child figure in three of Peri Rossi's short stories: “Ulva lactuca,” “La rebelión de los niños,” and “Feliz cumpleanos.”]

Uruguayan writer Cristina Peri Rossi is concerned with all forms of repressive cultural practices which limit individual freedom. As a liberal intellectual who was exiled in Spain during the military dictatorship which terrorized Uruguay in the 1970's, Peri Rossi experienced first-hand the alienating and dehumanizing effects of an authoritarian regime. At a more personal level, she also explores how language and power relations impose a socially-constructed identity. Her critique of structures of power links political oppression to psycho-sexual repression, as struggles against patriarchal power within the nuclear family are juxtaposed to rebellion against a paternalistic authoritarian state.

Peri Rossi's work can be divided into two periods. The Uruguayan period, encompassing all works written up to her exile in 1972, is more openly ideological, reflecting the seriousness of the political situation on the brink of military take-over. In Europe, there is a shift in Peri Rossi's thematic range, as she feels freer to explore wider political and psychological issues (San Roman 1990, 151–53). The collection of short stories which I will address in this article, La rebelión de los niños (1988) [The Rebellion of the Children], was first published in 1980, eight years into Peri Rossi's residence in Europe, yet its final and title story was written in 1971, the year before Peri Rossi was exiled and a time of political urgency. All of the stories depict the children's confrontation with cultural practices which function to repress their natural desires and identity. The story from the Uruguayan period, which picks up on the warning signs of the military take-over, is, in part, a transparent political denunciation, while the other seven stories, written some years later in Europe, deal with domestic power relations. By bringing together the two types of stories in a single collection, Peri Rossi is implicitly comparing and juxtaposing their message, pointing to the connection between the power complexes of the patriarchal family and the authoritarian state. The present study analyzes three stories from the collection—namely “Ulva lactuca,” “Feliz cumpleanos” [“Happy Birthday”], and “La rebelión de los niños” [“The Rebellion of the Children”]—to show how they work together to expose the link between psychosexual repression and political repression by conflating the sphere of the family with that of the nation. In all of the stories, Peri Rossi's satiric scrutiny of cultural institutions and practices serves to deconstruct oppressive systems of signification which have been naturalized in certain cultures, as the transgressive behavior of her child protagonists resists sexually-based power relations.

Several major studies in feminist Latin American literary criticism have demonstrated how fictional works of Latin American women writers serve to expose, confront and/or dismantle what has been variously termed “the master narrative,” or “the patriarchal voice” [in particular the books of Jean Franco (1989), Debra A. Castillo (1992), Amy Kaminsky (1993), and Lucia Guerra Cunningham (1990)]. Within this line, recent studies by Mary Beth Tierney-Tello (1996) and Elia Kantaris (1989, 1995) have lucidly analyzed and articulated the link between sexual and political oppression in the fiction of Peri Rossi as well as other women writing against the Southern Cone dictatorships of the 1970's. Tierney-Tello notes that the “relationship between the patriarchal sexual economy and authoritarian practices has become increasingly clear to women of the Southern Cone,” and the texts which she analyzes challenge “both the authority of gender codes as well as the more sociopolitical authority of the authoritarian state, in such a way that resistance to authority is enacted on both a sexual and political level.” The power struggles represented in these texts “enact a double social critique: of the patriarchal sexual economy as well as authoritarianism” (1996, 6, 11). Kantaris also elucidates how women writers such as Peri Rossi and Marta Traba (of Argentina) “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” (1989, 248). Significantly, Tierney-Tello and Kantaris study novels published in the 1980's which illustrate the “irruption of gender into the political narratives of the Southern Cone” (Kantaris 1995, 238), but the story “La rebelión de los niños,” written in 1971, anticipates this phenomenon by a decade, attesting to Peri Rossi's visionary intuition.

While various studies, including those of Tierney-Tello and Kantaris, analyze the politics of sexuality in Peri Rossi's novel The Ship of Fools,1 no study has addressed how La rebelión de los niños dramatizes the “intersection of politics, gender, and sexuality” which “must be the crux of a Latin American feminist criticism” according to Kaminsky.2 To date, two reviews and one critical article have been published about this curious collection of stories whose protagonists are questioning and defiant children,3 but none explain the innovative manner in which the stories, precursors of sorts to The Ship of Fools, contribute to our understanding of the link between psycho-sexual and political oppression. The present article attempts to demonstrate how Cristina Peri Rossi uses the child figure to deconstruct both the traditional psychoanalytic concept of patriarchal sexual economy as well as a paternalistic authoritarian regime as interrelated, overlapping, or analogous structures which oppress individual identity by “naturalizing” culturally-transmitted values, including gender-based power relations. The children represent the most marginalized victims of these oppressive social systems, and, by depicting youths who succeed in subverting the dominant cultural values, Peri Rossi creates a site of resistance from which to challenge and denaturalize hegemonic cultural discourses.

Taken as a trilogy, the three stories which are the object of this article vividly portray the correlation between sexual and political oppression as the child protagonists expose and defy structures of hegemonic patriarchal domination. In “Ulva lactuca” and “Feliz cumpleanos” the father's privileged role within the nuclear family is displaced: instead of the child's symbolic castration by and surrender of authority to the father, the opposite occurs, as the father is rendered impotent by the cunning and persistence of the child. In “La rebelión de los niños,” the family conflict assumes socio-political dimensions: the children oppose, and eventually subvert, a repressive military state which ostensibly assumes the paternal role. In her short stories, Peri Rossi often uses children symbolically to represent a site of opposition or otherness in contrast to the adult world. While the children may be physically oppressed, psychologically they are freer than adults because they are not yet totally co-opted by social institutions and cultural practices. Peri Rossi's children invariably display precocious wisdom and corrupted innocence which draw attention to the perversion which attempts to disguise itself as normalcy in the world around them. The children's spontaneity and creativity enable them to come up with ingenious ways to oppose and subvert social structures which alienate them and rob them of their authenticity.4

The child protagonists of the first two stories make a mockery of patriarchal sexual economy by resisting their “Oedipal destiny,” or in Lacanian terms, the “law of the father.” By thus displacing the conventional wisdom regarding the child's acquisition of sexual identity, Peri Rossi's stories critique and attack the ideological construction of the individual and, by extension, the sociopolitical order. The family can be considered the primary site for ideological reproduction (Boose 1989, 3), and psychoanalysis, by focusing on relations between family members, analyses the mechanisms by which the social world enters into the experience of each individual (Frosh 1987, 11). The Oedipus complex, the cornerstone of Freudian psychoanalysis, is an account of the perpetuation of patriarchal authority. Since the complex originates in the incest taboo, its successful resolution, according to Freudian thought, structures desire into a socialized form. In a nutshell, the child's desire for the mother is contradicted by the paternal authority and enforced by the threat of castration (Frosh 1987, 47–48). When the Oedipus complex of the boy is shattered, he gives up his mother as his object of desire and identifies with the father. He must be like his father, but not too like him; that is, he must not wish to take his father's place with the mother. The little girl, on the other hand, must shift from her mother attachment to a sexual desire for the father as a recognition of her fundamental castration. Therefore, within this explanation of the formation of the human psyche, the destiny of womanhood is defined in passive terms: to want to be wanted by the father (Mitchell 1975, 96, 108). Freud believed this was the state of affairs under nature, but Peri Rossi's stories, by deconstructing and desacralizing the paternal function through the children's acts of resistance to their father's sexual authority, imagine an alternative to a seemingly inescapable destiny.

“Ulva lactuca” depicts the subversion of the father by the mother-daughter “team,” at the same time that it delegitimizes patriarchal authority by exposing the father's incestuous desire for his daughter. We learn that the wife left her husband, and he offered to care for their small daughter, at least for a while, so he wouldn't feel so lonely. The story relates the father's attempts to feed the child her soup while the tiny girl continually refuses to open her mouth. This incident is recounted in a stream-of-consciousness narrative which alternates between the little girl's thoughts of repulsion toward the spoon: “Por que la apuntaba con aquel objeto metalico, provisto de una palita concava que servia para llevar a la boca las cosas liquidas?” [Why did he point at her with that metallic object with its concave shovel which carries liquids to the mouth?] (Peri Rossi 1988, 6)5 and the father's frustration toward this behavior: “Por que esa criatura no queria abrir la boca?” [Why didn't that creature want to open her mouth?]6. His exasperation with his daughter's rejection of his feeding attempts echoes his feelings of resentment toward his estranged wife for not allowing him to buy a water bed while they were still together: “Si no habian comprado el colchon de agua era porque ella no quiso. Seguramente ya entonces no lo amaba, por eso no le entusiasmo la idea del colchon flotante” [If they hadn't bought the water bed it was because she didn't want to. She probably didn't love him then, that was why she wasn't enthused about the idea of the floating mattress]7. The water bed and the spoon thus acquire symbolic value as tangible representations of the females' rejection of the husband/father figure. We witness the fusion of these two acts of resistance in the father's mind when they are articulated in the same thought: “Pero ella no quiso comprar el colchon de agua y ahora la nina no abria la boca … por nada del mundo” [But she refused to buy the water bed and now the girl wouldn't open her mouth … for anything in the world]8.

At the same time, the spoon takes on phallic connotations when the child's refusal to open her mouth and allow the spoon to penetrate and deposit its sticky liquid is juxtaposed to the wife's refusal to indulge in his sexual fantasy of making love in a water bed. By describing at length the child's reaction of repulsion toward the spoon and her father's feeding attempts, Peri Rossi effectively deconstructs or denaturalizes a quotidian act that is normally taken for granted, just as Freud's theory of what he considered the normal passive female desire for the phallic male has been taken for granted in traditional psychoanalytic thought. So the little girl persistently repels the spoon—or will not consent to its penetration, a symbolic rebellion against her Oedipal situation. She refuses to acquiesce to passivity, to desire to be the object of her father's desire, to embark upon the pathway to “normal femininity.” Thus, “Ulva lactuca” turns around the traditional notion of what is supposed to be the woman's destiny as the tiny girl refuses to be the dutiful daughter who is compliant with her father's desire.

A sub theme of the story is a reflection on the relationships within the family as a cycle of domination and oppression. Although the father professes to hate the spoon himself, he feels that he must carry on what he sees as an age-old custom:

Por que se veia ahora en la obligacion de blandirla, Ilena de sopa, de intentar introducirla en la boca de aquella pequena criatura, como sus padres habian hecho con el, como seguramente los padres de sus padres habian hecho, si es que … algun estupido ya las habia inventado?

[Why did he feel obligated now to brandish it, filled with soup, to try to insert it in the mouth of that small creature, as his parents had done with him, as his parents' parents certainly had done, if indeed … some stupid idiot had already invented them?]


The father thus describes himself as another victim of the inescapable socialization of family order as the parental role is passed from one generation to the next. His moment of self-doubt and hesitation regarding his task deconstructs a common parental function as another culturally-transmitted power relation, rather than an unquestionable essence of family duties. At the same time, the child's description of the spoon as a despised, alien object along with her continual rebuff of its insertion into her mouth serves to “make strange” a widely-accepted alimentary tool and practice.

Returning to the father-daughter tale, the final passage of the story suggests the sinister side of the so-called “positive female Oedipus”: paternal sexual abuse. The closing images intertwine the wife and daughter, and the act of forced feeding with the act of making love:

Por que no queria abrir la boca? … Acerco la cuchara a la cara de la nina, y con dos dedos, la asio por la nuca. Asi la tendria sujeta. No quise nunca oprimirte. Una posesion sin limites. … Se sintio atenazada por unos dedos grandes, poderosos. No te hare dano. Solo quiero que extiendas los brazos en cruz, y en el lecho de agua naveguemos como dos barcos mecidos por la marea. Comprendio que no podia zafarse. Asi. La cuchara, en punta, cruzaba el espacio con su carga l'lquida … ella quiso rechazarlo, tuvo miedo. El se acercaba mas y mas. … Se dio cuenta de que tenia los ojos lienos de lagrimas, que iba a sollozar en el orgasmo de la pena, no grites, por favor, no grites, ella aspiro profundamente, quedate asi, un minuto mas, y soplo con todas sus fuerzas sobre la cuchara, sobre el liquido pegajoso, sobre el mantel de la sabana y la sabana blanca como un mantel.

[Why didn't she want to open her mouth? … He drew the spoon up to the child's face, and seized her by the nape of her neck with two fingers. That way he'd have her in his grasp. I never wanted to oppress you. Possession without limits. … She felt herself gripped by strong, powerful fingers. I won't harm you. I only want you to spread your arms in a cross, and let's sail in the water bed like two boats rocked by the tide. She realized that she couldn't escape. Like this. The pointed spoon traversed space with its liquid cargo … she wanted to repel it, she was 'afraid. He got closer and closer …

He realized that her eyes were filled with tears, she was going to sob in the orgasm of sorrow, don't scream, please, don't scream, she inhaled deeply, stay like that, one more minute, and blew with all her strength on the spoon, on the sticky liquid, on the tablecloth like a sheet and the white sheet like a tablecloth].


In this stream-of-consciousness narration, which ends by fusing the sheet and the tablecloth into a single image, the father seems to be overpowering and sexually penetrating the terrified infant girl.

“Patriarchy is grounded in the uprightness of the father,” Jane Gallop tells us. “Freud as father must deny the possibility of being seductive. If [the father] were devious and unreliable, he would not have the power to legislate. The law is supposed to be just—that is impartial and free from desire” (1982, 75). Thus the theme of fictional incest does not represent the fulfillment of phallic signification, but rather reinforces its failure (Spillers 1989, 168). Finally, “Ulva lactuca” depicts a father figure stripped of authority by his own transgressions as well as by the insubordination of his wife and daughter. The phallus is thus deconstructed as privileged signifier and the paternal function desacralized. While this story dramatizes Gallop's concept of a breakdown in paternal power due to the father's illicit desire, at the same time, Peri Rossi's vision offers a more radical assault on conventional patriarchal economy. By portraying an infant who instinctively refuses to submit to her “feminine destiny,” Peri Rossi re-imagines and re-writes the margins, transforming the victimized infant into an agent capable of assuming her own social subjectivity. (6)

An alternative concept of sexual economy is suggested in the image from which the story's title is borrowed. “‘We'll sail all our life,’” the husband tells his wife when he tries to convince her about the water bed. “‘Navegaremos la vida entera. “Tendras un lecho de agua como las esponjas y los corales.’ Como la ulva lactuca, que es como la enciclopedia llama a la lechuga de mar” [“You will have a bed of water like the sponges and the corals.” Like the ulva lactuca, which is what the encyclopedia calls the lettuce of the sea] (8). He goes on to mention the special qualities of the sea lettuce: it can make your skin look young again, and a shipwrecked man survived for two months eating only sea lettuce. This watery marine plant, with its distinctive lettuce-like shape and capacity to regenerate and sustain life, evokes the female sex. Add a letter, and “ulva” becomes “vulva.”(7) Later the father reflects: “La gran mayoria de las esponjas se reproducen vegetativamente” [The great majority of sponges reproduce vegetatively] (12). Vegetative reproduction, by budding or another asexual method, offers an alternative, androgynous model of sexual economy, without phallic intervention.(8) So in this story, by way of marine imagery, Peri Rossi alludes to a brave new world which now seems to be a distinct possibility, based on recent successful cloning of adult animals.

While “Ulva lactuca” displaces the father's time-honored role in the girl's acquisition of sexual identity, “Feliz cumpleanos” [“Happy Birthday”] presents an analogous assault on patriarchal authority within the nuclear family through the male child's refusal to assume the socially-dictated resolution of the Oedipus complex. A mirror image of the father-daughter incest in the first story, the modern-day Oedipus of “Feliz cumpleanos” schemes to get rid of his father and marry his mother. And like “Ulva lactuca,” the story enacts a symbolic constellation of sexual power structures as a parody of Freudian concepts.

The story line develops along the child's desire to usurp his father's place with his mother. The boy is constantly trying to show that the father is an intruder or a third wheel in the house. One way of leaving out his father is the personal, exclusive language which the child has invented to use with his mother, described by him as “extraordinariamente sensible, bella e inteligente” [extraordinarily sensitive, beautiful and intelligent] (30), who learned it immediately. She does not like to speak the secret language in the presence of his father, but the boy forces her to give in by refusing to eat his meal. In this way, the mother becomes a pawn in the boy's power struggle with his father. Another devious recourse of the child is to misplace his father's things:

Otros procedimientos … eran mas sutiles. Consistian, por ejemplo, en ocultar su cigarrera, adelantar las agujas de su reloj pulsera, extraviar deliberadamente su agenda, esconder sus boligrafos o sus herramientas.

[Other methods … were more subtle. For example, they consisted of hiding his cigar case, moving ahead the hands of his wrist watch, deliberately misplacing his agenda, hiding his pens or his tools.]


The boy wants to get a big bed so his mother can sleep with him, and he imagines their future bedroom, and the tender care he will give her:

[A]ndaba como loco buscando una cama mils grande, para que su madre pudiera dormir con el, y abandonara el odiado dormitorio del padre.

[He went around like crazy looking for a bigger bed, so that his mother could sleep with him, and abandon his father's hated bedroom.]


[T]endremos un dormitorio empapelado con un oceano enorme y peces de colores. Yo la arrullare para que se duerma, todas las noches, y le contare fabulas y acertijos. Seremos muy felices.

[We'll have a bedroom papered with an enormous ocean and colorful fish. I'll lull her to sleep every night, and tell her fables and fiddles. We'll be very happy.]


The boy's description of his plans reveals his ambiguous relationship to his mother because he incorporates both the infant and the authority figure. On one hand, the child imagines himself assuming the paternal role and infantilizes his mother by putting her under his loving control. At the same time, the bedroom wallpaper of the child's fantasy evokes Freud's description of the longed-for return to the womb as a state of “oceanic oneness” with the mother.

The story's title refers to the time-reference of the story—the boy's fifth birthday. This event signals his desire to “catch up” to his mother in age so he can marry her:

Esperaba con verdadera ansicdad el dia de su aniversario, … yen cualquier momento (en cualquier aniversario) se encontraria de pronto tan alto y grande como su padre, tan fuerte como el, entonces perfectamente podria casarse con ella, como habia hecho su padre.

[He anxiously awaited his birthday, … and at any moment (on any birthday) suddenly he would be as tall and as big as his father, as strong as him, then he could certainly marry her, as his father had done.]


We recall Freud's admonition: the male child must desire to be like his father, but not too like him—he must not desire his father's wife.

Finally, in a highly symbolic gesture, the boy hides the father's keys under a sofa cushion, and calmly sits on top of them as his father searches:

Ojala las llaves se rompieran, se hicieran trizas y el ya no tuviera con que entrar a la casa, la puerta estaria cerrada toda la noche y el no tendria que poner en la cerradura y ellos dos, su madre y el, estarian solos muy solos los dos dentro de la casa y el padre sin llaves.

[If only the keys would break into pieces, and he wouldn't have a way to get into the house, the door would be closed all night and he wouldn't have anything to put in the lock and the two of them, he and his mother, would be alone, completely alone, inside the house, and the father without keys.]


So, without his keys, or phallus, the father will not be able to enter the house, nor the mother's bedroom, nor—by extension—the mother. Through his theft of the keys, the boy inverts the socially-sanctioned outcome of the Oedipal crisis, performing a symbolic castration of his father. The boy obtains an ax by trading in his birthday bicycle, and as the story comes to a close, the father has gone out to get a new set of keys, the mother is sleeping alone inside the bedroom, and the boy imagines himself waiting outside his parents' bedroom door with the ax in hand so that no one can enter, “trajera o no trajera llaves.” [whether or not he brings keys] (44). In this final image, the symbolic castration is projected into actual castration with the suggestion of the cutting blade of the ax.

Thus, the child's plotting to transgress the incest prohibition challenges the seemingly all-pervasive law of the father. We may note that in his attempt to take his father's place, the youngster becomes possessive and aggressive himself. This suggests that the Oedipal crisis, or the power struggle between the father and son in which the mother is the prize, can provoke violence in the weaker party who lacks the authority invested in him by the law. But the authority figure may also abuse his power, as “Ulva lactuca” depicts the helpless daughter confronting the erotic violence of her father in the absence of the mother. In this way, these inversions of the Oedipus complex deconstruct the father's authority as a sham which covers over a violent desire. Peri Rossi's allegoric enactments of the “other side of the Oedipal drama”9 function to “denaturalize” the traditional patriarchal economy which governs the transmission of ideology related to the construction of sexual identity. Rather than an essential human destiny, it is exposed as a constricting cultural construct.

“La rebelión de los niños,” the third story in what I am considering a trilogy, aligns the family power struggle with social and political concerns as the authoritarian family structure is carried over to the political arena. While this story, which contains a message of political denunciation, does not lend itself to a purely psychoanalytic reading as do “Ulva lactuca” and “Feliz cumpleanos,” I am considering it as a companion to the other two because, by including it in the same collection, Peri Rossi dramatizes the continuum between patriarchal oppression within the nuclear family and oppression perpetuated by authoritarian nationalism based on patriarchal principles. The child narrator of “La rebelión” describes a totalitarian society which was organized after a civil war. The losers of the war are either dead or in prison, and their children have been placed under the custodianship of the state—a military dictatorship. In a 1979 preface to the story, which Peri Rossi calls “her anguished premonition,” she tells us that she wrote it in Montevideo in 1971, two years before the military coup in Uruguay. The political developments, she laments, were soon to turn her literary fable into tragic reality.

Peri Rossi's Orwellian “fantasy” links patriarchal sexual economy to authoritarianism by merging the domain of nation with that of family. The state elaborates a paternalistic metaphor as its moral basis for the authoritarian regime, casting the nation as its extended family which it must protect from dangerous “others” who would wreak havoc and disorder. The victors of the war become the symbolic fathers as they take over the reeducation of the children of presumed revolutionaries. The younger children are put in state-run orphanages, and the older, and perhaps more hardened, children are placed in the most “patriotic” families, according to the narrator, “para arrancar el peligroso germen de la subversion que posiblemente habiamos heredado … reeducarnos, instruirnos de acuerdo al sistema … integrarnos … a su sociedad.” [to root out the dangerous seed of subversion that we had possibly inherited … to reeducate us, to train us according to the system … integrate us … in their society] (121). The state thus becomes a parental proxy—through the agencies of the orphanage and carefully-selected families which have a vested interest in consolidating the regime's power. The story centers on an art exhibit by these children, organized by state authorities who believe that artistic expression is an excellent activity for the resocialization of these black sheep.

Our analysis will focus on how the authoritarian state appropriates and distorts the ideological reproduction and civilizing functions of the patriarchal family in order to repress the populace, and how the children succeed in subverting the state. By representing themselves as fathers who provide for and protect their nation-family, the generals in charge attempt to legitimize their rule of oppression, and what is more, the principles of patriarchal sexual economy seem to be custom-made for their aim to control the people. But the perspicacious and resourceful children expose the falsity of the generals' dehumanizing regime and rise up against it. The children turn the strategy of the state against it, parodying its official discourse and finally transforming their own marginalized status into a site of resistance.

The dictatorial generals manipulate language to achieve their ends, and Peri Rossi, through the voice of the narrator, reminds us that the superimposition of a linguistic system on the young child is the most primordial form of cultural oppression. The narrator recalls his younger brother's co-optation into language:

El nino pequeno—recuerdo a mi hermano—comienza inventando simbolos, hasta que los opresores lo obligan a aceptar un lenguage ya confeccionado … como todo oprimido, debio aceptar el lenguaje de los vencedores … Lo habian integrado.”

[The small child—I recall my brother—begins inventing symbols, until the oppressors make him accept a ready-made language … like all oppressed people, he had to accept the language of the victors. … They had assimilated him.]


Language is depicted as the basis of an extensive system of rules and customs which parents (or fathers) transmit to their children, in other words, the apparatus of ideological reproduction. In this passage the narrator mocks the role of the authoritarian father:

dado que el lenguaje es una convencion … [sin el] las madres no tendrian que ensenarle [sic] a sus hijos pequenos, y el dia en que los padres no sirvan como intermediarios para que un convencionalismo se transmita generacionalmente, ¿me pueden decir que sucedera con las nociones de autoridad, respeto, propiedad, herencia, cultura y sociedad?

[since language is a convention … [without it] mothers wouldn't have anything to teach their young children, and the day that fathers don't serve as intermediaries to pass on a conventionality from one generation to the next, can you tell me what will happen to notions of authority, respect, decorum, heritage, culture, and society?]


The rhetorical question implies that without the intervention of a strong paternal order, there would be a break-down in law and order and civilized society. The child's parody points to the manner in which the authoritarian state justifies its regime as it presumes to take over the paternal duties toward would-be wayward children like himself and the nation in general.

However, in the hands of these corrupt dictators, the concept of ideological reproduction is twisted to signify reeducation and takes on perverse forms such as brainwashing, censorship, and thought control. For instance, the regime attempts to manipulate and control the collective memory by prohibiting the storage of documental data:

[N]uestros tutores nos prohiben archivar informacion. Confian en el rapido deterioro de la memoria, para lo cual la ayuden impidiendonos cifrar, certificar nuestros recuerdos documentalmente. … [La memoria] no es libre, se trata tambien de una memoria oprimida, condicionada, tentada a olvidar.

[Our tutors prohibit us from storing information, they depend on the rapid deterioration of memory, which they help by preventing us from encoding, registering our memories documentally. … [Memory] is not free, it is an oppressed memory, conditioned, tempted to forget.]


Censorship is depicted through the policing of the possession of pens and pencils: “Todos aquellos instrumentos que sirven para expresarnos, estan rigurosamente controlados, para evitar que expresemos cosas que no conviene expresar.” [All those instruments which allow us to express ourselves are rigorously controlled, to avoid our expressing things which are not advisable to express] (124). Finally, the rulers try to distract the populace by promoting extensive coverage of sporting events, “convencidos de que si nos volvemos fanaticos del deporte, alejaremos otras ideas perniciosas de nuestras mentes.” [convinced that if we become sports fanatics, we'll distance other pernicious ideas from our minds] (126).

A key element in the generals' scheme to control and repress the populace is the creation of an enemy to the supposedly sacrosanct family structure and social order. The existence of a dangerous and unnatural enemy serves to legitimize their take-over, as they posit themselves as the protecting force which must check this danger to civilized society. While the armed forces have already physically eliminated the children's parents and other dissenters by assassination or imprisonment, the military rulers stage an ideological campaign to marginalize those opposed to their rule. The regime's discourse is carefully chosen to depict its opponents as enemies of the family and civilized society in general, implying their ideas would lead to “la destruccion familiar, [el] aniquilamiento institucional y la corrupcion de la sociedad.” [the destruction of the family, the break-down of institutions and the corruption of society] (107). Thus, the official discourse creates its own social fiction, blatantly ignoring the patent hypocrisy of defending family values when it is guilty of separating countless children from their natural parents. Additionally, the state perpetuates fanciful myths about the defeated political left: to console the children over the separation from their parents, the children are told “de haber triunfado la revolucion … habrian mandado a todos los ninos a Siberia, que es mucho mas fria, como todo el mundo sabe, y esta llena de osos.” [if the revolution had triumphed … they would have sent all the children to Siberia, which is much colder, as everyone knows, and is full of bears] (123).

The regime's discourse cleverly manipulates the paternal metaphor in order to make its suppression of freedom of expression appear to be the natural thing to do:

el Estado tiene la obligacion constitucional de dar techo, abrigo y comida a todos sus hijos sin distincion … Lo que puede distinguir si es el color de las ideas, porque el Estado no va a estar dando techo … a quienes siniestramente socavan sus instituciones, maquinan su destruccion y lo desprestigian.

[the state has the constitutional obligation to provide shelter and food to all its children without distinction. … But it can discriminate based on the color of their ideas because the state is not going to be giving shelter … to those who underhandedly undermine its institutions, conspire to bring about its destruction, and discredit it.]


This statement exposes the hypocritical nature of a paternalistic state which first claims to protect all its citizens through the concept of the so-called “extended national family,” and then rationalizes the exclusion of dissenters through its claim to ideological hegemony.

In this way, the authoritarian state exploits basic tenets of the patriarchal family—ideological reproduction, law and order, protection from harmful outsiders—in order to justify and enforce its regime of political repression. However, the clever children are not fooled by state-sponsored lies, and parody the language of the state in order to expose its falsehood. Laura, a young friend of the narrator whose art is also on exhibit, tells him:

Mis padres estan metidos en un cuartel. Un juez militar les tipifico “Atentado a la constitucion,” “Asociacion subversiva,” “Complicidad en evasion,” “Conspiracion,” “Encubrimiento,” “Instigacion a la violencia,” “Ofensa alas Fuerzas Armadas,” “Atentado,” “Tenencia de explosivos,” “Alta traicion.” ¿No es sorprendente que una sola persona pueda cometer tantos delitos simultaneamente?

[My parents are in a military barracks. A military judge accused them of “Threat to the constitution,” “Subversive association,” “Complicity to escape,” “Conspiracy,” “Concealment,” “Instigation to violence,” “Affront to the Armed Forces,” “Attack,” “Possession of explosives,” “High treason.” Isn't it surprising that a single person could commit so many crimes simultaneously?]


The girl's tongue-in-cheek rhetorical question points to the fact that the sheer accumulation of offenses levied against her parents exposes the charges as trumped-up. This observation reveals the pretenses behind the regime's campaign to create a dangerous enemy who must be suppressed with whatever means necessary.

The high point of the parody and deconstruction of the regime's discourse is achieved through the art object designed by the narrator, a fourteen-year-old boy who, according to him, has been placed in “una de las mas rancias familias del pals.” [one of the most rancid families in the country] (122).

He designs a chair covered with newspaper clippings which record, among other topics, speeches of “generales y otros tipos que gobiernan los paises.” [generals and other guys who govern countries] (114). The speeches present a veritable repertoire of the official language used by authoritarian states in an attempt to discredit opponents and legitimize their regime as the protector of social values:

“bienestar de la nacion,” “defensa de las libertades,” “salvaguardar los intereses comunes,” “proteccion de las instituciones publicas,” “legalidad y orden,” “progreso y desarrollo,” … “sacrificio y empeno de las Fuerzas Armadas,” “dura lucha contra los enemigos foraneous,” “inspiracion extranjera,” “sano nacionalismo,” “honradez y honor militares,” “fuerzas oscuras que socavan la nacionalidad.”

[“the well-being of the nation,” “defense of liberty,” “safeguard common interests,” “protection of public institutions,” “law and order,” “progress and development,” … “sacrifice and determination of the Armed Forces,” “tough battle against outside enemies,” “outside agitators,” “healthy nationalism,” “military honor,” “dark forces which undermine our nation.”]


Glued onto a chair and entered into an art exhibit, the official discourse is converted by the youngster into an art object, a constructed, man-made entity. By placing the regime's speeches in this context, the insightful child creates a critical distance between the cliche phrases and their intended recipients, effectively defamiliarizing the words and drawing attention to them as artifacts. The boy remarks that “las frases … se repetian, como si todos hubieran sido escritos por la misma persona, o copiados de un solo manual.” [the phrases … kept reappearing, as if they had all been written by the same person, or copied from the same manual] (114). This observation further deconstructs the regime's discourse, exposing it as a script, composed of a string of empty, spurious phrases. The clever child's act is implicitly subversive, as he employs the regime's words against itself.

While these parodies remain at the verbal level, Laura, with the assistance of the narrator, prepares and executes an ingenious guerrilla attack against the state. Laura is depicted as a strong and seductive woman-child, possessing a “felina sensualidad,” “un andar sigilioso y lascivo, insinuante, entre el poder y la seduccion.” [“feline sensuality,” a mysterious, lascivious, and provocative bearing”] (111). “Tanta serenidad solamente puede ser la apariencia de una terrible fuerza interior.” [So much serenity can only be the outward manifestation of a terrible interior force] (109), comments the narrator to describe the latent power he senses in her. Laura epitomizes a primordial feminine force, drawing its power through irresistible sexuality, mystery, indirection, and occultation, rather than physical force or direct confrontation.

Like the narrator, Laura is one of the “black sheep” who are supposedly being reeducated through the task of preparing and displaying artwork, and she feigns submissive conformity to the official function only long enough to prepare her strike against the state. The authorities in charge of the art exposition award first prize to Laura for her display of water fountains and ask her to come forward to receive the prize. She does so with extreme elegance, projecting an angelic expression on her face in order to trick the officials into believing that she is a well-mannered young woman and an obedient citizen. The official awards her a gold metal decorated with ribbons in the national colors,

como si depositara en ella el peso de los antiguos iconos conservados en la ciudad … le entrego el maximo trofeo, el simbolo de la propagacion y conservacion de la especie, del triunfo del bien sobre el mal, del orden frente al caos, de las instituciones sobre la anarquia; ella, la reivindicadora, la depositaria del futuro, en cuyo regazo se alimentarian y buscarian calor y proteccion las generaciones venideras, ella, la iluminada, la vestal a quien se confiaba el porvenir de la ciudad, las llaves del reino.

[as if he invested her with the burden of the ancient icons of the city … he presented her with the highest honor, the symbol of the propagation and conservation of the species, the triumph of good over evil, order over chaos, institutions over anarchy; she, the vindicator, the guarantor of the future in whose breast the generations to come would be nourished and would seek warmth and protection, she, the enlightened vestal virgin to whom the future of the city, the keys to the kingdom were entrusted.]


Laura pretends to be deeply moved as she accepts the prize, and clutches it to her chest, “como correspondia a una digna ciudadana, a una futura madre de la patria.” [as be fitted an honorable citizen, a future mother of the country] (136). Thus, Laura is chosen by the officials to represent the mother of future generations of obedient citizens, scions of the totalitarian state. With her demure and gracious behavior, she seduces them into believing she has been reeducated and co-opted into their order. These qualities, along with her artistic creativity and feminine bearing, seem to make her the perfect candidate for this honorary role.

The maternal order, as demonstrated in this passage, is essential to the continuation of the patriarchal regime. Since the generals have usurped the principles of the patriarchal family to legitimize and perpetrate their regime, the “fathers” of the country need a future-mother figure to symbolize the continuity of the species, of their society. With their highly-charged rhetoric, the officials invest Laura with the values on which they have based their regime, at the same time that they put her on a pedestal, thus immobilizing her as a venerated possession. So the regime reverts to the manipulation of symbolic language, this time as it attempts to sculpt the maternal role into a collaborator with its authoritarian rule.

But Laura turns out to be a treacherous woman who seduces in order to seek revenge and restitution. She converts her new, privileged but passive, role into a site of active and aggressive resistance. At the end of the ceremony, when she is invited to demonstrate her fountains for the visiting dignitaries, the spigots go berserk, spraying gasoline instead of water on the distinguished audience. This act parodies the behavior of the military regime, as the narrator compares it to their strategy of spraying protesters with powerful streams of water in order to break up demonstrations. Laura and the narrator scamper out the window, the narrator, following Laura's prior instructions, tosses in a burning torch, and the hall lights up in flames. Art, which was intended to be a tool of the social reintegration program, boomerangs, as it becomes a weapon of subversion toward the perpetuators of ideological reeducation. Regeneration is possible, as Laura and the narrator constitute a young couple with the potential to procreate a new nation free from the grip of the generals.

The authoritarian regime has fallen victim to its own deceitful strategy. It usurped patriarchal family values in order to legitimize its rule, justifying its strong-arm tactics through the construction of a dangerous enemy which it sought to marginalize and vilify. However, this “other” which is capable of committing treason and wreaking chaos, turns out to reside in the feminine force which seduces the father into letting down his guard with the promise of bearing his children. The patriarchal state needed to collude with the feminine force because it requires its potential maternity for the continuation of the species, but the woman-child they chose for this role saw through and rebelled against their cruel and alienating rule.

Finally, Peri Rossi's story demonstrates not only the link between authoritarian practices and the patriarchal sexual economy, but also the fallacy of attempting to appropriate the family metaphor to legitimize and naturalize a totalitarian regime because it involves isolating a portion of the population as an internal enemy. The “other,” this story proves, is within and cannot be cast out and disowned without dire consequences for the subject. The elements of society marginalized by the patriarchal state—the children of dissidents, who ultimately are identified with the repressed maternal role—take advantage of their outsider status to seek revenge, and in them Peri Rossi envisions a nucleus of resistance and a source of hope for change. Finally, through the intuitive gestures of innocent but sly children, “La rebelión de los niños” serves to expose and deconstruct the hypocritical and dehumanizing manipulations of the authoritarian state, at the same time that it dramatically portrays the transformative power of the maternal space.

The fact that Peri Rossi published together in a single volume the 1980 stories about sexual identity within the nuclear family and the earlier politically-oriented story draws attention to the cultural bond between domestic power relations and those of the authoritarian state. Although “La rebelión de los niños” was written approximately nine years before the other stories, it is the last story in the book, and lends its title to the entire collection. This placement and choice of title provide a sense of progression from the personal to the political, from the microcosm of the nuclear family to the macrocosm of the national state. The stories “Ulva lactuca” and “Feliz cumpleanos” bring into question the sanctity of the socially-dictated resolution of the Oedipus complex by depicting individual attacks on the paternal order. These random challenges take on a new meaning seen in the context of the title story of the collection. Here we see the brutal extremes patriarchal authority can employ when it is used to justify a repressive social order which appropriates the supposed “civilizing” function and attempts to control the maternal body to further its ends. As seen in these stories, Peri Rossi's temporal and geographical distance from the urgent political situation in Uruguay allowed her to reflect on the insidious and pervasive nature of the abuse of power and envision a continuity of sexual and political oppression where both are based on a hegemony of patriarchal authority.

Peri Rossi's commitment to change in social relations and resistance to discourses of power will be continued in The Ship of Fools which attempts to undo the cultural bond between sexuality and power-possession, attacking the phallus as a cultural symbol in the Lacanian sense on which male aggressiveness and dominance have been founded (Kantaris 1995, 70; Mora 1990, 27). With this novel, she envisions a relationship between the sexes ruled by mutual respect, a relationship in which the males voluntarily give up their position of power (Mora 1990, 27). In this sense, La rebelión de los niños, which creates scenarios where the children expose and transgress the patriarchal rule, is a precursor to the search for harmony represented in The Ship of Fools. Although largely overlooked by critics, La rebelión de los niños deserves attention for heralding the intersection of gender and politics in women's narrative of the Southern Cone, for dramatizing the link between the patriarchal family and the authoritarian nation-state, and for imagining attacks on these exercises of power from the site of the repressed and marginalized “other,” be it the child or the maternal figure.


  1. Cunningham (1989, 63–74), Oliviera-Williams (1980, 81–89), and Mora (1990, 19–30) have also studied the power relations depicted in The Ship of Fools.

  2. In this context, Kaminsky (1993, 115) confronts “the irony that in any individual text by Peri Rossi these elements rarely meet head-on.” Thus the collection La rebelión de los niños provides a rare example where Peri Rossi does group together stories which, through their juxtaposition, demonstrate the relationship between the three issues.

  3. The article is by Carlos Raul Narvaez (1995) and the reviews are by Francisco Lopez (1982, 102–03), and Blas Matamoro (1981, 408–09). Narvaez's article presents an insightful analysis of the structure of the story, “La rebelión de los niños.” According to Narvaez, it is characterized by treelike digressive ramifications which lead to the same center of thematic gravity (1995, 135–50). Another article, by Ana Rueda (1989, 197–204), which studies the use of museums and art as metaphors in the narrative of Peri Rossi, dedicates several paragraphs to “La rebelión de los niños.”

  4. Several critical studies analyze or draw attention to the role of the child in confronting and defying social norms in the work of Peri Rossi, for example the articles of Mora (1980, 66–77), Morana (1987, 33–48), Schmidt (1990, 218–26), and Verani (1982b, 303–16; 1982a, 1039–46).

  5. All translations of the stories are my own. All quotations are from Peri Rossi (1988).

  6. I am indebted to Tierney-Tello's analysis of this phenomenon in Eltit's Por la patria [For the Country] (1996, 127).

  7. The Spanish spelling of “vulva” is identical to the English.

  8. Kaminsky, in the chapter of her book entitled “Cristina Peri Rossi and the Question of Lesbian Presence,” provides an incisive discussion of how Peri Rossi's work. In this context, “Ulva lactuca” corresponds to “Peri Rossi's prose in the post-Uruguayan period … [which] deals with lesbianism peripherally, if at all” (1993, 126).

  9. See Tierny-Tello (1996, 101–09), for her analysis of this concept in Por ta patria [For the Country] by Diamela Eltit.

  10. While padres signifies both “fathers” and “parents,” in this passage I translated it as “fathers” because it appears to be used as the counterpart of madres in the previous phrase.

Works Cited

Boose, Lynda E. 1989. Introduction to Daughters and Fathers. Ed. Lynda E. Boose and Betty S. Flowers. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Castillo, Debra A. 1992. Talking Back: Toward a Latin American Feminist Literary Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Franco, Jean. 1989. “Plotting women.” Gender and Representation in Mexico. New York: Columbia University Press.

Frosh, Stephen. 1987. The Politics of Psychoanalysis: An Introduction to Freudian and Post-Freudian Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Gallop, Jane. 1982. “The daughter's seduction.” Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Guerra Cunningham, Lucia. 1989. “La referencialidad como negacion del paraiso: Exilio y excentrismo en La nave de los locos de Cristina Peri Rossi.” Revista de estudios hispanicos 23.2 (May): 63–74.

———. ed. 1990. Splintering Darkness: Latin American Women in Search of Themselves. Pittsburgh: Latin American Literary Review Press

Irigaray, Luce. 1994. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Kaminsky, Amy. 1993. Reading the Body Politic: Feminist Criticism and Latin American Women Writers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kantaris, Elia. 1989. The Politics of Desire: Alienation and Identity in the Work of Marta Traba and Cristina Peri Rossi Forum for Modern Language Studies 25.3 (July): 248454.

———. 1995 Subversive Psyche. Contemporary Women's Narrative from Argentina and Uruguay. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lopez, Francisco. 1982. “Rebeldes y prodigiosas criaturas.” Review of La rebelión de los niños by Cristina Peri Rossi. Nueva estafeta 38: 102–03.

Matamoro, Blas. 1981. Review of La rebelión de los niños by Cristina Peri Rossi. Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos 367–68 (January-February): 408–09.

Mitchell, Juliet. 1975. Psycho-analysis and Feminism. New York: Random House.

Mora, Gabriela. 1980. “El mito degradado de la familia en El libro de mis primos de Cristina Peri Rossi.” In/the Analysis of Literary Texts: Current Trends in Methodology. Ed. Randolph D. Pope. Ypsilanti: Bilingual Press.

———. 1990. “Enigmas and subversions in Cristina Peri Rossi's La nave de los locos.” In Splintering Darkness: Latin American Women Writers in Search of Themselves. Ed. Luc'a Guerra Cunningham. Pittsburgh: Latin American Literary Review Press.

Morana, Mabel. 1987. “Hacia una critica de la nueva narrativa hispanoamericana: alegoria y realismo en Cristina Peri Rossi.” Revista de estudios hispanicos 21.3 (October): 33–48.

Narvaez, Carlos Raul. 1995. “Cristina Peri Rossi y el acto radical de la escritura.” In Hacia un nuevo canon literario. Actas del XII Congreso de Literatura Latinamericana. Montclair State University. Ed. JoAnne Engelbert and Dianne Bono. Hanover: Ediciones del Norte.

Olivera-Williams, Maria Rosa. 1986. “La nave de los locos de Cristina Peri-Ross.” Revista de critica literaria latinoamericana 23: 81–89.

Peri Rossi, Cristina. 1988. La rebelión de los niños. Barcelona: Seix Barral.

———. 1989. The Ship of Fools. Trans. Psiche Hughes. London: Readers International. [Originally published as La nave de los locos. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1984].

Rueda, Ana. 1989. “Cristina Peri Rossi: El esfuerzo inutil de erigir un museo natural.” Nuevo texto critico 4. 11: 197–204.

San Roman, Gustavo. 1990. “Fantastic political allegory in the early work of Cristina Peri Rossi.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 67: 151–64.

Schmidt, Cynthia. 1990. “A satiric perspective on the experience of exile in the short fiction of Cristina Peri Rossi. Paradise lost or gained? The literature of the Hispanic exile.” The Americas Review 18.34: 218–26.

Spillers, Hortense J. 1989. “The permanent obliquity of an in[pha]llibly straight: In the time of the Daughters and the fathers.” In Daughters and Fathers. Ed. Lynda E. Boose and Betty S. Flowers. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, Press.

Tierney-Tello, Mary Beth. 1996. “Allegories of transgression and transformation.” Experimental Fiction by Women Writing Under Dictatorship. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Verani, Hugo. 1982. “Una experiencia de limites: La narrativa de Cristina Peri Rossi.” Revista iberoamericana 48. 118–19 (January-June): 303–16.

———. 1982. “La narrativa de Cristina Peri Rossi: arte de digresion.” In Actas del Septimo Congreso de la Asociacion Internacional de Hispanistas. Vol. 2. Roma: Bulzoni.

Consuelo Arias (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Arias, Consuelo. “Writing the Female Body in the Texts of Cristina Peri Rossi: Excess, Monumentality and Fluidity,” In Literature and Homosexuality, edited by Michael J. Meyer, pp. 183–203. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Arias discusses Peri Rossi's role as a gay writer and how her works Solitario de amor, “El testigo,” and “Nochevieja en el Daniel's” function as lesbian texts.]

Why is it that the Lesbian seems like a shadow—a shadow with/in woman, with/in writing?

Writing the Lesbian means writing someone who does not yet exist.

Elizabeth Meese, (Sem)Erotics. Theorizing Lesbian Writing

A Lesbian who does not reinvent the word is a Lesbian in the process of disappearing.

Nicole Brossard, The Aerial Letter

In the ocean between night and day, word and word, between you and me. In the liminal space—between English and French—language and meaning, poetry and prose, in the suspended space between you and me. In the sexual space. In the space between (pink) your breast. In the space (pink) between your mouth (rose) (descending) and my abricot. A light fuzz.

Carole Maso, Aureole


The original title of this paper was “Now You Hear Her, Now You Don't: the Voices of the Lesbian Lover in the Texts of Cristina Peri Rossi.” I had wanted to explore the problematical construction of the erotic in a corpus of the Uruguayan writer's poetic and prose texts which could be seen as “informed” by Lesbianism. Yet those which are “explicitly” Lesbian or coded as such in obvious ways, specifically poems from Evohé (1976), Diáspora (1976), Linguística general (1979) and Otra vez Eros (1994) did not seem to seduce me, entice me and saturate me the way two narrative texts, Solitario de amor (1988)1 and “El testigo” (1988)2 and an article “Nochevieja en el Daniel's” (Fantasías eróticas, 1991)3 did. While I am not disputing the merits—both aesthetic and political—of the poetic texts, not to mention their position as foundational texts of an emerging Latin American Lesbian literary tradition, they can nonetheless be situated in a modality of Lesbian literary aesthetics which privileges certain conventional imagery in the representation of “women loving women.”

I choose this phrase purposely, yet with some trepidation, for it is anchored in a specific historical conjuncture: that of Lesbian Feminism of the nineteen-seventies in the context of the United States. This social, political and cultural movement drew, in its aesthetic manifestations, much of its inspiration from the growing literary and historical archive in the initial phases of its construction, which involved the recuperation of transhistorical and transcultural Lesbian figures such as Sappho, Colette, Natalie Clifford Barney, Renée Vivien and Romaine Brooks, among others. Perhaps the title of Adrienne Rich's collection of poems, The Dream of a Common Language (1974–1977), encompasses this instance in Lesbian literary “herstory”: a common language is the language of equals, of sisters, of warriors, of mirror images, of symmetry … it is the language in which the Lesbian poets of the seventies spoke. Cristina Peri Rossi, though unfortunately not known in Anglo-American Lesbian/feminist literary spaces … has an important, though unacknowledged place in this moment. I wish I had discovered her poems then, as a woman whose identity and politics are irrevocably marked by that culture of fierce womanism, of female community.

Yet now, the other three texts I mentioned seduce me … Politics have changed, the dichotomous views of gender and sexuality of that period have been called into question and transformed into more flexible, more fluid, less centered theories and aesthetics, and my own life has evolved in ways I would have then thought unthinkable. I am now drawn to more transgressive notions of identities and aesthetics … to that place which is now termed “queer.” My tentative proposal, part of a more extensive study of “queer” writing in Hispanic literatures, is that Solitario de amor and “El testigo” are in fact “queer” texts by a “queer” writer. Thus my stated discomfort with the original title of my essay.

My choice of the term “queer,” more than a response to what may seem an ephimeral trend, is determined by my belief that it is a useful category of analysis in the study of literatures, especially those of other cultures. If we accept that gender and sexuality are socially constructed, then we must also recognize that they are geographically and historically specific. Thus, the categories of Lesbian/gay identities and communities are also culturally specific: they are imbricated in a primarily Anglo (United States and Great Britain) space and (recent) history. Yet the social, historical, and cultural contexts of other geographical and political cultures have conditioning determinants that preclude the notions of gay/Lesbian identity and community as we think of them in US context (and even here, there is no unified model of gay/Lesbian identity or community, except perhaps the one constructed by the media). The very notions of gay/Lesbian community and identity is primarily a socio-political construct associated with the urban United States, primarily New York and San Francisco. Gay/Lesbian/homosexual have many different meanings and inflections from culture to culture: they may refer to a desire for the “same,” to gender inversion, to a biological destiny, to a pathology, to a fixed identity, to a type of behaviour … the list of possibilities is infinite.

As Paul Julian Smith and Emilie Bergmann have observed in their groundbreaking ¿Entiendes? Queer Readings, Hispanic Writings (1995), though the fundamental tenets of Anglophone Queer theory are useful to the study of texts from the Spanish-speaking worlds, as students of these texts, we have to address other issues: the very real problem of the closet and the “respect” for the desire to stay in it (since being out, or being “outed” can be problematic and even dangerous in other worlds), the relative rarity of self-identification as gay or Lesbian in Hispanic cultures (it is in exile that many of these writers “come out”), the urgency and difficulty of establishing an archive, the resistance to being categorized as gay/Lesbian (or even “feminist”), for these categories are often viewed as examples of Anglo dogmatism and typologizing tendencies (especially problematic to writers who have lived under repressive political regimes which have generated a phobia towards any politics faintly reminiscent of authoritarianism or orthodoxy).

In this respect, “Queer” seems to be a more fitting analytical concept, for it is not about object choice, but as Michael Warner in Fear of a Queer Planet (1993) has observed, it is about resistance to normative regimes of gender and sexuality.4 The opposite of “Queer” is “Normal”; it is thus more inclusive than the homo- versus hetero- dichotomy. Yet “Lesbian”/“feminist”/“queer” do not cancel each other out, but rather, expand each other's boundaries. In this discussion, I will utilize all three terms as deemed necessary by the context. In the specific case of Peri Rossi, about whom so much has been written regarding the possible confluence of her person, her personas and the fictional voices in her erotic texts, “queer” is especially suggestive. As Diana Fuss (1993) has pointed out: “A certain pressure is applied to the Lesbian subject, either to ‘claim’ or to ‘discover’ her true identity before she can elaborate a personal politics.”5 Warner has elaborated that “For Lesbian theorists, queer theory offers a way of basing politics in the personal without acceding to this pressure to clean up personal identity” (26).

So, what's queer about Peri Rossi? To begin with, her voice in the numerous interviews that have been published.6 Though this is not the moment to go into detail, I can safely affirm that her ambiguities, contradictions, defensiveness, and at times labyrinthian logic, reveal a complex picture of her views on gender and sexuality (and their relationship to her aesthetics). Peri Rossi consistently resists her interviewers' attempts at positioning her in the neat little category of “closeted Lesbian writer,” as well as their subtle insistence that a Lesbian writer should write about Lesbians.

As she frequently says, she writes what she wants to write, that her concerns—aesthetic and political—at once include and transcend the simple categories of closets and Lesbianism. I would venture to say that this is her queer voice speaking, and that it is a dimension of the complex voice that speaks fictionally in two particular narratives (Solitario and “Testigo”) and presumably from the place of “reality” in “Nochevieja.”

What follows are reflections on specific aspects of these texts, elements which signal their oddness, queerness, strangeness and ultimate ambiguity, as well as the difficulty of positioning them within a more conventional type of Lesbian literature. Their eloquent absence from Elena Martínez's Lesbian Voices from Latin America (1996) attests to their noncomformity; they do not have a place in the author's definition of Lesbian literature as the “representation of women who have erotic and sexual interest in each other and whose fundamental emotional connections are with other women.”7 The analyses I propose are not attempts to categorize Peri Rossi as a Lesbian writer, but rather to interrogate the complex workings and representation of fictive desiring erotic subjectivities and objects of desire in her texts.

I want to focus on the representation of a specific aspect of the female body in Solitario de amor, a novel which may be placed in a new international “tradition,” what Marilyn Farwell (in Heterosexual Plots and Lesbian Narratives [1996]) has called the “postmodern Lesbian text,” in which the textualization of the beloved female body is characterized by excess and fragmentation and ultimately, performs a metatextual function. Monique Wittig's The Lesbian Body (1973), Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body (1993) and Carole Maso's Aureole (1996) are perhaps the most extraordinary examples of this sub-genre (in French and English, respectively). I believe that Peri Rossi's Solitario de amor may also be included in this emerging transnational aesthetic.

I have also included an analysis of “El testigo,” a “family romance” told from the perspective of the narrator, a queer boy who is eventually transformed into the embodiment of phallic power, as a response to his life in a Lesbian household. The violence which erupts in the domestic—“Heather-has-two-mommies”—bliss may be seen as a manifestation of “Lesbian expression … created in isolation, which often reflects the antipathy of patriarchal culture towards Lesbianism” … and which are “nonetheless powerful and articulate statements of the Lesbian experience lived and expressed in isolation in a heterosexist environment …, without the support of a Lesbian/feminist community.”8


Though Peri Rossi's place in the canon of modern Latin American literature is firmly established, her explicitly Lesbian and her ambiguously Lesbian voices have only recently been the focus of study. Critics such as Linda Gould Levine, Gabriela Mora, Rosemary Geisdorfer Feal, Elena Martínez and Amy Kaminsky9 have all indicated the ambiguity and dissident status of Peri Rossi's texts with regards to heterosexist and patriarchal social and representational models.

As I read through the scholarship on the novel, and through the interviews conducted with the author, I began to see a pattern: that the main concern was with the identity and subjectivity of the narrative or poetic voice, which was also my concern. As I thought about this, I also began to see that by focusing on the voice which tells the story, or describes, desires and writes the body of the beloved, as well as on the author's sexual orientation, we were all inadvertently reinscribing the patriarchal imperative which privileges the active subject which speaks, desires and constructs the feminine object.

I need to add a sort of digression here, by way of analogy. When Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body was published in 1993, much was made of the purposely de-gendered nature of the lover speaking the text. The question was “Is it or isn't a Lesbian novel?.” In fact there was a furor over its consideration for a 1993 Lambda literary award: the selection committee could not decide whether or not Winterson's novel was, in fact, Lesbian fiction. One faction believed that it should be disqualified, and the other faction claimed that the book could be only understood as Lesbian fiction.”10 Though Winterson has always been an “out” Lesbian, the excitement over the novel's publication in the literary establishment had more to do with the “real” identity of the beloved than the sex of the narrator. The juicy bit of literary gossip which titillated readers (myself included) familiar with the British fiction scene was that the “beloved” was “really” the wife of Julian Barnes, with whom Winterson was supposedly having an adulterous affair.

In a perverse way, this anecdote has tangentially fueled my reading of Peri Rossi's texts and the scholarship generated by them. I am not concerned with establishing the “real” identities of the various female beloveds in a selection of Peri Rossi's texts, or with confronting the author's sexual identity or practices, but rather, with examining their textual construction.11 As I said earlier, by choosing the active agent of speech and writing, we are in a sense, obscuring the body of the object, which, in the cases which I will analyze, are all feminine.

Though the text of Solitario explicitly posits the narrator as male, but with a certain deviance from the norms of heterosexual masculinity and sexuality, to my knowledge no one has addressed the problematic construction of the feminine object of desire in a detailed or comparative fashion. Here is where we come to an impasse, however. Are we asking how Peri Rossi's Lesbianism determines the representation of female love objects in her texts? It would be puerile to assume that our knowledge of the author's sexual orientation (as in the case of Winterson) will not influence our reading. That is a given. As Kaminsky has observed regarding Peri Rossi's poetry:

By using the existing tropes and conventions [and I must add, transforming them, and in the case of the narratives I am focusing on, making positive meanings from signs of repulsive femaleness from a patriarchal perspective], writing about women as sexually desirable objects, Peri Rossi, as a woman poet, calls into question both the universality of heterosexuality and the notion of the freestanding text. Meanings shift when the gender of the author is known. Even (or perhaps especially) when she uses a male persona, the effect of her erotic poem about a woman is the opposite of a man's. Whereas the man's poem reinscribes and reinforces traditional gender relations and the notions of sexuality, hers questions them.12

Though I do not share Kaminsky's somewhat essentializing perspective regarding “man” and “woman,” her analysis of the dissident nature of the very gesture of a woman writing about a woman as an object of desire, of obsession, of lust, sheds light on the complexity of Peri Rossi's texts. Gabriela Mora (1991) has pointed out that the female identity of the author is manifested in the representation of a long period of foreplay before intercourse.13 In principle, this is a suggestive notion, yet it displaces the eroticism represented as (heterosexual) “foreplay,” thereby reinscribing the heterosexism of the very notion of foreplay, as well as privileging “intercourse” (that is in fact rarely described in the non-phallic libidinal economy of Solitario in which the male sexual organ is in fact decentred, as Gould Levine (1996) has acutely perceived.14 Mora's observation that the naming of internal organs unnameable in traditional erotic language (133) is much more intriguing, however, for it affirms the erasure and corporeal specificities of the female body in patriarchal representation. What I hope to determine, is the following: is there a particular way in which the erotic, and more specifically, the eroticized body of the female beloved, is represented in Peri Rossi's texts which in fact disrupt, violate or question the conventional representation of the feminine love object?

I think there is something specific, something curious, something ambiguous, something queer, if you will. In fact the category of queer, with all of its inclusiveness, fluidities and assumed contradictions is more suited to Peri Rossi's amorous/erotic texts than categories such as “Lesbian” or “heterosexual.” As Gould Levine has noted, the male lover is an androgynous figure, “simultaneously male and female in psyche and sexuality, a transgressive subjective space where heterosexual and Lesbian experience fuse together with dreams and fantasies common to both sexes ” (150). In addition, she posits that the text is left “open to a homoerotic reading … and the speculation that the male narrator is … is a veiled representation of Lesbian sexuality” (152) thus suggesting that Solitario de amor proposes a masculine figure which encodes Lesbian eroticism in a male gaze and voice. The heterosexual male narrator articulates a modality of desire which encompasses a decidedly feminine erotic impulse involving a subsumption of the self into the body of the beloved. This loss of self is further complicated by an incestuous longing as well as certain literal and metaphorical symptoms of specifically female neuroses (such as eating disorders). In Solitario, one could assert that the erotic subject is in fact, Lesbianized, or at least, feminized, in a fashion which also evokes the Barthian voice of Fragments of a Lover's Discourse. My concern, or my challenge, is proposing the body of the love object as Lesbianized, or at least configured from a perspective at odds with the canonical representation of the female body.

I believe that the singularity of the representation of the female bodies in Solitario resides in the notion of excess.15 It seems evident that the voices of the lovers in Peri Rossi's texts are themselves excessive, and that perhaps immoderateness is the nucleus of the subversive power of the erotic in literature. The particular type of excess attributed to the female beloved's body runs counter to heterosexist and patriarchal notions which if anything, limit, constrain and suffocate the female body, and erase its emissions. In Peri Rossi's texts however, the bodies of the female love objects are excessive and exuberant, as are in fact the voices of the explicitly Lesbian lover-subjects in many of her poetic texts. What do I mean by excess and exuberance? Contrary to the dominant aesthetic of containment of the feminine—in the context of Hispanic literatures, modern and pre-modern—the bodies in Peri Rossi's texts have no boundaries. Much like the bodies in Monique Wittig's texts, no fragment or secretion is left unsung. It is in fact the constant references to female secretions which in part constitute the excess of the bodies. As Farwell has stated, and I use her thesis as point of departure, “the excessive female body is a challenge to the traditional Western textualization of the female body” (187). It stands in opposition to the masculine/patriarchal/misogynistic loathing of biological femaleness—ciphered in the Freudian “vagina dentata” and in the cultural distaste (and I use this verb intentionally) for feminine secretions evident in everything from Quevedo's misogynist (and an entire medieval tradition) verse to masculine Anglo-American Modernist panic (most notably Eliot and Joyce) regarding female secretions16 to the industry of and TV commercials for feminine “hygiene” (in itself a statement of the messiness, foulness and fundamentally unclean nature of female genitalia) products. The Lesbian or “queer” texts revels in these secretions, celebrates them, and is nourished by them. Gould Levine has astutely noted that the “oral sexual paradigm” (a lyrical fictionalization of Irigaray's portrayal of female jouissance as a type of pleasure at once centered and decentered in through and around the various sites of the body)17 of Solitario plunges “the narrator and reader alike into a flow of bodily fluids and ‘emissions’ that dispel the ‘omissions’ of woman's corporeality from literary texts” (152). The specific references to the vagina and its secretions—present in the long tradition of Lesbian erotic poetry, mostly absent or ambivalently, if not grotesquely represented in male-authored texts,—proliferate in the text of Solitario.

Solitario also manifests another type of excess: that of textuality itself, which is excessive on the formal level, thus in fact mirroring the content of the representation. The dominant linguistic strategies consist of a plethora of rhetorical devices such as repetition, accumulation, enumeration, expansion and metaphor as well as an overuse of descriptive adjectives connoting the protean, the apocalyptical, the apotheosized. I want to briefly concentrate however, on the modalities of excess in the description of the feminine beloved. They may be positioned into several categories: the fluid, the monumental, the overcrowded, the enormous, the animal, and the voracious.18 I will focus exclusively on the first of this series comparatively, juxtaposing the textualization of female secretions in Solitario with that of its “sister” texts, Maso's Aureole and Winterson's Written on the Body.

The reference to the secretions of Aida's body have been amply documented by scholars, yet the following fragment is quite irresistible and certainly worth quoting and examining:

I love not just her smells, but also her secretions: the small salty droplets of sweat barely visible between her breasts; the dense thick saliva in the corners of her mouth, like a foamy spring; the sinuous bile she vomits when overwhelmed by fatigue; the oxidized menstrual blood with which I write ancient Cretan symbols on her back, the aqueous and transparent fluids of her nostrils; the exuberant urine cascading down her thick open legs. I am reborn, stripped of all euphemisms; I love not just her body, I am also loving her membranous liver. …19

Perhaps what seems the most épatante (again, to the misogynist senses) are the references to the “unladylike” fluids, especially menstrual blood. Just think of the various Western cultural mythologies and practices surrounding menstruation. Yet the narrator celebrates menstrual blood, he even uses it as ink with which to write signs associated with the ancient matriarchal space of Crete. By deploying this image, Peri Rossi positions herself within a tradition which exalts female material corporeality. This positive fixation with menstrual blood is an important dimension of the recuperation and recodification of the female body engaged in by seventies' Lesbian feminists, and, a constant in Lesbian and feminist erotic poetry. The narrator also rejects the cultural and aestheticized euphemisms for the female body in favor of naming its physiology, anatomy and organic structure in a manner reminiscent of Wittig's The Lesbian Body.

Jeanette Winterson's version, voiced by an “ungendered narrator” presents striking parallels:

Articulacy of fingers, the language of the deaf and dumb, signing on the body longing. Who taught you to write in blood on my back? Who taught you to use your hands as branding irons? You have scored your name into my shoulders, referenced me with your mark. The pads of your fingers have become printing blocks, you tap a message onto my skin, tap meaning into my body.20

Here, the blood is literal as well as metaphorical and it is the lover who is marked by the blood of the beloved. The blood also writes a language a desire, a hermetic language whose meaning can only be deciphered within the space of obsessive love. In “The women wash lentils” (French slang for Lesbian), Carole Maso also incorporates menstrual blood into the erotic encounter in an oneiric sequence which first describes an encounter with a man: “His long hair is draped over my swollen belly. ‘Sel de mer,’ he says. ‘Oui. I am salty. Soon there will be blood.’ This excites him. We imagine together the blood that is to come. I tell him a story about the ruby jewels hidden deep within my kingdom.”21 An amorous interlude with a woman also places menstrual blood at center stage:

Your lips at my lips. Your mouth painted red. From the Book of Slang: To menstruate-avoir ses cardinales, avoir ses coquelicots, avoir son drapeau-rouge, avoir ses anglais, avoir de la visite, avoir ses ours. That is to have one's cardinals, to have one's red poppies, to have one's red flags, to have one's English, to have visitors, to have one's bears. To have one's cousin. To repaint one's grill red.


In the gap between having one's period and repainting one's grill red. in the joyful, mysterious passage to metaphor … Give me your red poppies. Give me your tomatoes, your cardinals. Give me your bears. Do you have visitors? Have you received your cousins?


These three fragments share an obsession with fusing language, blood and the erotic in the context of metalinguistic textuality. “Because the topic of most postmodern Lesbian writing is language and the body, it follows that the smells, secretions and images of the female body are in effect, metafictional discussions about Lesbian and female representation in language and narrative” (Farwell, 1993, 170)

By engaging in this modality of writing, Peri Rossi not only explodes the boundaries of representing the feminine, but she also reconfigures the positionalities of lover and beloved, inverting the traditional heterosexual imperative in which the woman experiences a loss of self in the structure of obsessive love and the man is nurtured by that which she loses. The narrator's love illness at times manifests itself as an eating disorder, a typically feminine ailment/neurosis. He begins to develop a “food phobia” because he literally cannot eat that which is not Aida, or can only do so in a chaotic, bulemic manner which only serves to fill the space and time until his next encounter with the beloved, the only nourishment he requires: “I only want to feed on Aida. I only want to nourish my body from Aida's, from her juices, from her flesh, from her voice, from her emanations” (59).22

In Solitario, the overabundance of the female body does nourish the lover, whose need is infinite. His desire is never satiated because it is he, not the woman, who experiences loss of self, an “horror vacui.” While he chants “I drink from you your tears, your bile, your sweat, your menstrual blood, your urine, your pancreatic juices … your virulent bile, your weary tears, your painful menses, your aggressive urine, your toxic saliva …”(71),23 Aida sleeps, emptied of her pain, materialized, literalized and embodied in the fluids which congest her. The narrator experiences a literal and metaphorical satiety from drinking the fluids of her suffering. Aida has deposited her overabundance of rage, pain and humiliation into him, and, in a dream, he expulses them. In this transmission of bodily fluids, it is the male who is penetrated and contaminated, but willingly so. Only in the space of nightmare may he, in an interminable expulsion, rid himself of her fluids and of her pain, which have been transfigured into his pain. Thus, what is expelled from the beloved's body is received by narrator's body in an inversion of the heterosexual norm. Aida's excessively sexual and secreting body explodes “natural” gender boundaries, her “undomesticated” body a counter-representation of the “controlled, closed female body of traditional male expectation” (Farwell, 1996,170).


This rather perverse tale [“El testigo”] appears in Cuentos eróticos, an anthology published in Spain in 1988. It is surprising that it has not received, to my knowledge, critical attention, nor has it been brought up in interviews with the author. It seems to me that the text merits a critical examination, for various reasons: the evolution of the narrator from a rather “queer” figure to the embodiment of aggressive male heterosexuality; the obsessive description of the female (in this case, Lesbian) as excessive; the conflation of the erotic and the maternal in the feminine; and the literal silencing and final erasure of Lesbian sex. In addition, the story fictionalizes the contradictions, discomfort and ambiguity towards questions of gender and sexuality continually manifested in interviews with the author.

The narrative I, and its context, is established in the first line of the text “I grew up among my mother's friends” (150).24 The juxtaposition of “friends” (amigas in Spanish, means “[women] friends” yet it is also used to mean “[women] lovers) and, along with the words “my mother,” immediately sets up a disruption of the patriarchal family ideal constituted by a mother, a father and children. The effect produced by the straightforward tone and syntax of the phrase, however, establishes the narrator's reality as “normal.” The normative character of the unconventional familial structure inhabited by the narrator is naturalized throughout the text: there are never any interventions of the social which would define the household as deviant, and never any questioning of the nature of the relationship between his mother and the “friends.” Not only is it naturalized, but it is actually viewed as an antidote to the possible Oedipal issues of the narrator:

“I really enjoy not having other men around the house,” I told my mother once, thanking her for not having blighted my childhood with the screams of a violent father or a demanding lover. Women are so much sweeter. I get along much better with them. I would not liked sharing the house with other men; but I found it enchanting to share it with my mother's friends


This fragment, in addition to being a rather naïve resolution of the Oedipal crisis, is also striking because of its espousal of what has been termed “the feminism of yin and yang,” imbricated in the cultural feminism—separatist and essentialist—of the seventies in the U.S. context. The narrator's voice articulates a scathing critique of the institution of heterosexuality, embodied by the oppressive figures of violent and demanding males, while essentializing the feminine as the cipher of goodness and sweetness.

The character of the narrator is a queer one: he describes himself as “solitary” (“solitario”), rejecting the company of other children while preferring the company of machines, his mother's friends or “others like me” (which never appear in the text, either implicitly or explicitly). In addition, his gender identification is rather dysphoric. As he watches his mother comb her lover's long blond hair, in parentheses he reflects “(I regretted many times not having been born a girl, so that my mother could brush my hair [with which she brushed her own/her lovers' hair] with the same fervor and absorption); I regretted being a short-haired boy and thus being excluded from something that afforded them so much pleasure.)” (151).26 Only at the end of the tale do we recognize the fetishistic resonances of this statement: the child, at that point an adolescent male (except for this moment, when he states that he was three, precise information about his age are absent from the rest of the text), literally and figuratively penetrates the space of female pleasure, thus participating in that unnamed thing that gives his mother and her lovers so much pleasure. The beginning of the text is constituted by a series of descriptions of the mother's lovers, thus emphasizing voyeurism as the prime libidinal activity of the not-yet-sexual child.

With one particular lover, Helena, the beautiful young actress, the mother unwittingly lays the foundation for the triangle which brings the narration to its violent conclusion. Throughout the text, the mother has been both lover and protective maternal figure to her woman “friends.” In the case of Helena, she encourages a sibling relationship between Helena and her son, as an antidote, ironically enough, to her son's “queerness.” She tells him: “The company will do you good … you're growing lonelier by the day” (152).27 The son then proceeds to say “And indeed I enjoyed her company ” (152).28 and continues with a description of Helena's beauty and an admission of voyeurism: “I liked looking at her”(152).29 The description is worth citing in its entirety, for it reveals the perverse gaze of the narrator, at once tinged with the awakenings of sexual desire and the gender dysphoria mentioned earlier: “She had agile and subtle movements, not awkward like mine (I've grown a lot lately and can't control my limbs very well); she spoke in a soft, delicate and very suggestive voice, and when she came near me, I felt vague stirrings” (152).30

In a twist on the sibling rivalry motif which subtly underlies the triangular relationships in the family, the narrator compares what may be termed Helena's corporeal “feminine” grace with the awkwardness of his emerging adolescent masculinity. The figure of the narrator has evolved from that of an asexual child to that of liminal masculinity … that is to say, adolescence is the moment in which the frontiers between asexuality and genderedness begin to be erased and transformed into masculine gendered subjectivity and adult physiological maleness.

The narrator/voyeur later discovers the contours of Helena's body during a moment of familial routine: before going to school, he always goes into his mother's room to say goodbye. The description of the bedroom, veiled in shadows and silence, is at once literal and metaphorical. In this queer household, the space of Lesbian sexuality is always behind the closed closet/bedroom door, its sound, that of silence, its moment, that of the liminal place between darkness and light. The narrator is allowed access only in the morning, though in his fantasies, he seems to have continual access. Yet one morning, the moment of what could be termed his first transgression, he enters unexpectedly: “But once I went in without knocking and saw Helena half-asleep, wearing a sheer gown; her cleavage showed precociously through the fabric, and I glimpsed-her thighs, firm and resplendent, through the sheets. The discovery dazzled me” (153).31

A complicity between the narrator and Helena develops, built on their infantile and playful nature, and of course, their ties to the maternal body. When the narrator masturbates, his fantasy fuses Helen'a body with that of his mother: “I did it thinking of Helena's breasts and my mother's legs. Earlier, when I was little, my mother used to walk around the house almost naked, displaying her beautiful white legs. They are full, luminous, like two Roman columns. Not even Helen's legs could compare to my mother's. Now, since Helen has been with us, my mother has stopped lounging almost naked in my presence” (153).32 The monumental nature of the female body is a constant in this text. The description of the mother's legs as “Roman columns” is repeated in Solitario de amor. The metaphorization of the female body rests on a prestigious architectural image, thus conferring grandeur onto the body while contaminating the space of classical Antiquity with femaleness and Lesbianism.

When the narrator fantasizes what he has never seen, he also defines himself as an intruder in the symmetrical world of his mother and her lovers. The fantasy of the two women together may be conceptualized as a perversion, or a transformation of the Freudian “primal scene.” Just as the norm is heterosexuality in Freud, in the domestic and familial space of “The Witness,” the norm is Lesbianism. The narrator continually “queers” himself, by establishing his emerging male heterosexual identity as marginal: “I was the excluded one, the rejected one, the absent one” (154).33 The only way in which he can disturb the symmetry is by misbehaving: he becomes hostile, spills a glass of wine, and while his mother scolds him, he receives a complicitous and seductive gesture from his rival, Helena “She winked at me, smiled, and touched my leg with her foot under the table” (154).34

On the afternoon of the second and culminating transgression, the narrator comes home earlier than usual and “The house was in silence” (153).35 Again, silence encodes Lesbian sexuality. He approaches and finally intrudes upon the two women. What he sees is a staging of female excess, abandon and wildness in the figure of his mother: “Her feet were bare, and she was only wearing a black lace camisole. I saw her beautiful white legs, the opulent breasts barely covered by the netting, the inflammation of her lips, her untidy hair” (155).36

The vision of excess is tempered by a fetishistic detail: the black lace camisole. This rather conventional erotic image is destabilized and transformed by being placed in a perverse context and on a perverse body: the Lesbianized maternal body, at once desired and loathed by the filial gaze. Helena's body is also a site of excess: “Helena's body emerged from under the bedclothes, long and narrow, the marked bones on her shoulders, her nipples like purple grapes, the very dark pubic hair, the red toenails” (155).37 The narrator's gaze focuses on specific fragments of Helena's body, all of which are qualified with a sign of excess: the Odalisque-like length, the darkness of the nipples and pubic hair, the redness of the toe nail polish. Yet, as in other moments in Peri Rossi's texts, the potentially stereotypical signs of femininity are deconstructed for they appear on and define an unconventional body and libido.

In the final scene, the formerly “queer” body of the narrator is transformed into a “straight” body, his infantile, marginal and weak physicality and presence is transformed into an adult, dominating and aggressive presence. The Lesbian norm is violently erased, the heterosexual norm is proclaimed. He forces Helena to lie on top of his mother and describes the symmetry of the pair, now no longer a pair, but passive components of an asymmetrical triangle. Yet the mother's body is still excessive: “ My mother's body was barely underneath Helena's” (156).38 The only way to contain, to erase, and violate the Lesbian excess and the legitimacy of the maternal rule is by imposing the patriarchal, heterosexual order, in a gesture—the narrator rapes Helena—and in words: “Now I am really a man. The one that was lacking in this house (157).39

The question is, how do we interpret this ending from an ideological perspective? Peri Rossi herself has acknowledged the political character of Lesbianism in various interviews. Yet, she has also shown a discomfort with regards to gender and sexuality in her work, at times insisting on the notion of universality, at times insisting that Lesbianism is not an issue or an identity, but rather a practice, at times defensively resisting the specificity of Lesbianism, while recognizing that it is specific (in its specularity). She often seems to be responding to voices which encode her writing as Lesbian, by making statements such as: “What must remain clear is that when I feel like writing about that [Lesbianism], I will do so, without transforming it into something else” (Pérez Sánchez, 1995, 69).40 The particular instance of “The Witness” seems to point to her own ambiguity, contradictions and discomfort with writing about and speaking about Lesbianism. On the one hand, Lesbianism may be viewed as a norm, as a “conduct” in the work, but on the other, the awareness of its deviance, its dissidence and its subversive power is encoded in the final act which reestablishes heterosexuality as the norm.

A reading grounded in the precepts of queer theory recognizes the complexity of the apparently masculine heterosexual voices and gazes in Peri Rossi's Solitario de amor and “El testigo.” Rather than viewing the masculine figures as manifestations of a “closeted” Lesbianism, I propose interpreting them as interrogations of traditional erotic/amorous discourses grounded in dichotomized views of gender and sexuality. The male lover in Solitario at once suggests Lesbianized eroticism and expands the discursive possibilities of masculine amorous discourse centered on the feminine beloved. A parallelism of this sort may be found in the representation of the female bodies: while their excess, monumentality and fluidity originate in Lesbian literary celebrations of womanhood which challenge the traditional containment and repression of the feminine, the conventionally taboo corporeality is repositioned at the center of ostensibly heterosexual amorous discourse. Peri Rossi's texts may thus be placed in an emerging literary tradition, the postmodern Lesbian text.


  1. Solitario de amor (The Solitary Lover) has not been translated into English; the translations included in the text are mine. The original Spanish quotations are from the original (Spanish) edition (Solitario de amor [Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1988]) and are included in the notes.

  2. “El testigo” has been translated into English by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert as “The Witness.” The quotations included in the text are from this translation (“The Witness.” In Pleasure in the Word. Erotic Writing by Latin American Women, [Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1993]). The original Spanish quotations are included in the notes and are from “El testigo” (In Cuentos eróticos [Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1988]).

  3. “Nochevieja” (“New Year's Eve at Daniel's”) has not been translated.

  4. Warner, 26.

  5. Fuss, xxvii.

  6. Deredita, “Desde la diáspora,” 1978; Pérez Sánchez, “Entrevista,” 1995

  7. Martínez, 4.

  8. Raven and Iskin, 258.

  9. See bibliography for complete references.

  10. Farwell, 179.

  11. In a 1995 interview, the author affirms that Lesbianism is not an identity, but a practice, and that there is no such thing as a Lesbian novel: “I do not accept the category of Lesbian literature” (“Yo me niego a considerar una literatura Lesbiana” [Pérez Sánchez, Entrevista, 59])

  12. Kaminsky, 121

  13. Mora, 133. All translations included in the text are mine.

  14. Gould Levine, 152.

  15. In Diana Fuss's analysis of Freud's theory of female sexual “inversion” (“Freud's Fallen Women”), she cites the following from the case: “Homosexuality in women, which is certainly not less common than in men, although much less glaring, has not only been ignored by the law, but has also been neglected by psychoanalytic research.” Fuss then observes: “In their specific relation to the question of homosexuality in women, psychoanalysis and the law are analogously related: neither is able to see what is immediately before it. Homosexuality constitutes not an absence, strictly speaking, but an overpresence, an excess, a surplus, or an overabundance; homosexuality may be ‘less glaring’ in women than in men, but it is still ‘glaring’ (lärmend). Freud's choice of the word lärmend (riotous, noisy, unruly) to describe homosexuality insinuates that the blindness issues from homosexuality itself, its very excess an assault upon the senses, a blinding and deafening spectacle” (46).

  16. Gilbert and Gubar, 235–237.

  17. Gould Levine derives the concept of “oral sexual paradigm ” from Jane Gallop, Thinking Through the Body (1988).

  18. Aida's excess is also architectural, she evokes monumental structures often associated with the classical world: her legs are like “Roman columns” (“columnas romanas”), they are “majestic” (“majestuosas”), “ large, solid legs like those of statues of Roman matrons in the gardens of Carthage” (“grandes piernas de estatua romana, de matrona en un patio de Cartago”) (93). She is also described as a “drunken Bacchae” (“bacante ebria”) (23), a figure of female wildness, voraciousness and transgression. Her breasts are duplicated images of the earth, as well as “two overpopulated cities” (“dos ciudades superpobladas”) (17). Her monumentality is also related to the earth's origins: she walks like “ a great Mesozoic animal” (“un gran animal Mesozoico”) (23), she sleeps like “ a great sea animal” (“un gran animal marino”) (104). The narrator buys her a book of reproductions of the work of Tamata de Lempicka whose work Aida adores: the artist always paints the same types of figures” which have “the marmoreal beauty of bodies without souls, bone structures at once opulent and autistic” (“pinta siempre lo mismo: la belleza marmórea de cuerpos sin alma, estructuras óseas casi opulentas pero autistas”) (101).

  19. “No amo sus olores, amo sus secreciones: el sudor escaso y salado que asoma entre ambos senos; la saliva densa que se instala en sus comisuras, como un pozo de espuma; la sinuosa bilis que vomita cuando está cansada; la oxidada sangre menstrual, con la que dibujo signos cretenses sobre su espalda; el humor transparente de su nariz; la espléndida y sonora orina de caballo que cae como cascada de sus largas y anchas piernas abiertas. Nazco y me despojo de eufemismos; no amo su cuerpo, estoy amando su hígado membranoso …” (15).

  20. Winterson, 89.

  21. Maso, 16

  22. “[S]ólo quiero alimentarme de Aída, de sus jugos, de su carne, de sus secreciones, de su voz, de sus emanaciones” (59).

  23. “Bebo de ti las lágrimas, la bilis, el sudor, la sangre menstrual, la orina, la cólera, el jugo pancreático. … La bilis rencorosa, las lágrimas hastiadas, el menstruo irritado, la orina agresiva, la saliva tóxica …” (71).

  24. “Me crié entre las amigas de mi madre” (92).

  25. “‘Me gusta mucho que no haya otros hombres en la casa,’ le dije una vez a mi madre, agradeciéndole que mi infancia no haya estado ensordecida por los gritos de un padre violento o de un amante exigente. Las mujeres son mucho más dulces. Con ellas me entiendo mejor. No me hubiera gustado compartir la casa con otros hombres; compartirla, en cambio, con las amigas de mi madre me parecía encantador” (93).

  26. “Lamenté entonces, muchas veces, no haber nacido niña, para que mi madre peinara con unción y recogimiento mi pelo; lamenté muchas veces ser niño de cabellos cortos y perderme, de esa manera, algo que les proporcionaba tanto placer” (94).

  27. “A ti te vendrá bien su compañía … porque cada vez estás más solitario” (94).

  28. “En efecto, me gustaba su compañí” (94).

  29. “Me gustaba mirarla” (94).

  30. “Tenía unos movimientos ágiles y sutiles, no torpes, como los míos (he crecido mucho, en los últimos tiempos, y no controlo bien mis miembros); hablaba con una voz delicada y suave, pero llena de sugestión, y cuando se acercaba a mí, yo sentía vagos estremecimientos” (94–95).

  31. “Pero una vez que entré sin llamar, encontré a Helena semidormida, con una bata transparente: el nacimiento de sus senos se descubría, precoz, bajo la tela, y sus muslos, firmes y brillantes, asomaban entre las sábanas. El descubrimiento me deslumbró” (95).

  32. “Lo hice pensando en los senos de Helena y en las piernas de mi madre. Ah, las piernas de mi madre. Antes, cuando yo era pequeño, mi madre solía pasearse casi desnuda por la casa, luciendo sus hermosas piernas blancas. Son anchas, luminosas, como dos columnas romanas. Ni siquiera las piernas de Helena me gustaban tanto como las piernas de mi madre. Ahora, desde que Helena está entre nosotros, mi madre ha dejado de pasearse casi desnuda ante mí” (96).

  33. “Yo era el excluído, el rechazado, el ausente” (96).

  34. “Me guiñó los ojos, me sonrió y tocó mi pierna por debajo de la mesa” (96).

  35. “La casa estaba en silencio” (96).

  36. “ (Mi madre) tenía los pies desnudos, y estaba vestida tan sólo con una malla negra, de encaje. Vi sus hermosas piernas blancas, los senos opulentos apenas ocultos por el entramado, la inflamación de sus labios, su cabello desordenado” (97).

  37. “El cuerpo de Helena apareció, largo y estrecho, los acentuados huesos de los hombros, sus pezones como uvas moradas, el vello muy oscuro del pubis, las rojas uñas de los pies” (97).

  38. “El cuerpo de mi madre sobresalía bajo el de Helena” (99).

  39. “Ya soy todo un hombre. El que faltaba en esta casa” (99).

  40. “Lo que sí tiene que quedar claro es que cuando quiera escribir sobre eso, voy a escribir sobre eso sin transformarlo en otra cosa.” (62)

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Maso, Carole. Aureole. New York: Ecco Press (Norton), 1996.

Peri Rossi, Cristina. Solitario de amor. Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1988.

———. “El testigo” in Cuentos eroticos. Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1988.

———. “The Witness.” Translated by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. In Pleasure in the Word. Erotic Writing by Latin American Women, edited by Marguerite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. Fredonia, N.Y.: White Pine Press, 1993.

Winterson, Jeanettte. Written on the Body. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Secondary Sources

Deredita, John F. “Desde la diáspora: entrevista con Cristina Peri Rossi.” Texto crítico 9 (1978): 121–142.

Farwell, Marilyn R. Heterosexual Plots and Lesbian Narratives. New York and London: New York University Press, 1996.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. New York: Routledge Kegan and Paul, 1990.

———. “Freud's Fallen Women: Identification, Desire, and The Case of Homosexuality in a Woman” In Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, edited by Michael Warner. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Geisdorfer Feal, Rosemary. “Cristina Peri Rossi and the Erotic Imagination.” In Reinterpreting the Spanish American Essay: Women Writers of the 19th and 20th Centuries, edited by Doris Meyer, 215–226. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Vol. 1, The War of the Words. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1988.

Gould Levine, Linda. “Cristina Peri Rossi's Gender Project. Rewriting Male Subjectivity and Sexuality in ‘Solitario de amor.’” In Latin American Women's Writing. Feminist Readings in Theory and Crisis, edited by Anny Brooksbank Jones and Catherine Davies, 148–162. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Kaminsky, Amy. Reading the Body Politic. Feminist Criticism and Latin American Women Writers. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Martínez, Elena. Lesbian Voices from Latin America. New York: Garland, 1996.

Meese, Elizabeth A. (Sem)Erotics. Theorizing Lesbian: Writing. New York and London: New York University Press, 1992.

Mora, Gabriela. “Escritura erótica: Cristina Peri Rossi y Tununa Mercado.” In Carnal Knowledge. Essays on the Flesh, Sex and Sexuality in Hispanic Letters and Film, edited by Pamela Bacarisse. Pittsburgh: Ediciones Tres Ríos, 1991. (129–140)

Pérez Sánchez, Gema. “Entrevista.” Revista de literatura 72 (1995): 59–72.

Raven, Arlene and Ruth Iskin. “Through the Peephole: Toward a Lesbian Sensibility in Art.” In Women and Values: Readings in Recent Feminist Philosophy, edited by Marilyn Pearsall. Belmont, Ca : Wadsworth, 1986. (257–261)

Smith, Paul Julian and Emilie L. Bergmann. “Introduction.” In ¿Entiendes? Queer Readings, Hispanic Contexts, edited by Smith and Bergmann. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995. (1–14)

Warner, Michael. Introduction to Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, edited by Warner. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

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Principal Works


Further Reading