Elena Garro Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Elena Garro 1920-1998

Mexican novelist, short-story writer, playwright, essayist, and memoirist.

Best known in the English-speaking world as the author of the novel Los recuerdos del porvenir (1963; Recollections of Things to Come), Garro is considered by many critics to have been one the greatest twentieth-century Latin-American writers.

Biographical Information

Garro was born in Puebla, Mexico, in 1920. She studied at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City and was active in Julio Bracho's theater group as both a choreographer and an actress. In 1937 Garro married Mexican poet Octavio Paz. The union was stormy both personally and professionally, with Garro claiming that Paz intentionally damaged her budding career as an actress. She would later use her fiction and drama as a platform from which to denounce many of Paz's social and aesthetic theories. The couple traveled to Europe and briefly lived in the United States when Paz received a Guggenheim grant. Paz filed for divorce in 1959, but the Mexican government did not recognize the judgment as legal until many years later. In the early 1950s Garro stayed in Switzerland while she recovered from a serious illness; it was during this time that she wrote Recollections of Things to Come. In the late 1950s Garro moved between Mexico and Paris, finally returning to her homeland more permanently in 1963. Recollections of Things to Come won the prestigious Villaurrutia Prize in Mexico in 1964. Actively involved in the defense of Mexico's native Indian rights, Garro published politically charged works that led to her detention by Mexican authorities after the massacre in the Plaza de Tlatelolco in October 1968. She was then placed under “arraigo,” meaning her passport was revoked and she was not allowed to leave the country. Garro fled Mexico anyway, moving first to New York and later to Spain. In 1993 she returned to Mexico, where she and her daughter by Paz settled in Cuernavaca. The novel Testimonios sobre Mariana (first published serially in 1967 and then in novel form in 1981; Testimonies about Mariana) won the Juan Grijalbo Prize in 1980. Garro died of a heart attack in Cuernavaca in 1998.

Major Works

The common theme in Garro's work is the contrast between imagination and reality, often depicted as a conflict between two types of characters who represent opposing worldviews: adult and child, male and female, white and Indian. While one represents the limited perspective of reason, logic, and chronological order, the other allows access into a fantasy world unbound by time and created by the force of the imagination. As with many Latin-American writers of her generation, Garro used the technique of magic realism to portray historical reality interfused with fantastical, dream-like elements. Recollections of Things to Come is considered a seminal example of this genre of literature. Although it does not follow strict chronological order, the novel takes place during the period in Mexican history when President Plutarco Elias Calles sought to limit the power of the Roman Catholic church, sparking a revolt by Church supporters. The story is told from the viewpoint of an imaginary Mexican town, which takes part in the rebellion. Trying to save a well-loved priest, the women of the town conspire against the military forces. The central image in the novel is stone, into which one woman turns, symbolizing women's immobilization throughout history. Garro's most important novel after Recollections of Things to Come is Testimonies about Mariana. Consisting of three separate stories narrated by characters who verbally reconstruct their relationships with Mariana, an enigmatic woman without a past or a future, the novel asks the reader to piece together the three viewpoints into a coherent story in order to bring Mariana, who exists nowhere but in fiction, to life. With no identity of her own, Mariana represents the universal problem of identity—and hence, reality—itself. The question of the existence of reality is again posed in Reencuentro de personajes (1982; Reunion of Characters), in which Garro assembles the cast of characters from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in order to explore the fictional nature of the world overall. Garro's last novel, Y Matarazo no llamó … (1989; And Matarazo Never Called Back …) is a Kafkaesque portrayal of Mexico's highly charged political climate that anticipates the massacre of Tlatelolco and the cruel repression of the student movement in 1968. Memorias de España (1992; Memoirs of Spain) also centers on politics, as Garro recounts her experiences with Paz in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

Critical Reception

Although Garro remains lesser known than most of her male counterparts, Garro's innovative narrative techniques, coupled with her focus on upturning social and historical hierarchies, have led many critics to place her among the most important figures in the Latin American “boom” period. Gabriela Mora remarked, “With demanding artistry, Garro has explored the Latin American self and society in a body of work that deserves a place alongside the better known writings of her peers.”