Luisa Valenzuela 1938–
Argentinian novelist, short story writer, journalist, and scriptwriter.
The following entry presents criticism of Valenzuela's work through 1995. See also Luisa Valenzuela Criticism (Volume 31).
Recognized as a significant author who has emerged in Argentina since the "boom" in Latin American literature during the 1960s, Valenzuela is one of South America's best known and most widely translated women writers. She has written six novels and six collections of short stories, as well as numerous journalistic essays and a one-act play, each distinguished by a decidedly feminist slant in contrast with the male-dominated world of Hispanic literature. Throughout her writings Valenzuela has focused on contemporary politics, especially those of her native Argentina, and the use, misuse, and abuse of language in order to oppress, control, and censor thought—particularly of women—at both the personal and political level. Critics often have commented on the fantastic, magical elements of her generally realistic fiction, frequently classifying her narrative style as magic realism, a technique used by many writers to reflect the extraordinary qualities of life in Latin America. Although Valenzuela's later works have strayed from personal themes and linear narration toward an emphasis on political concerns and a lyrical, metaphorical style, Cheryl Nimtz has observed that "the personal and the political often reflect each other in Valenzuela's work."
Valenzuela was born November 26, 1938, in Buenos Aires, to Pablo Franciso Valenzuela, a physician, and Luisa Mercedes Levinson, a novelist and short story writer. Raised by a German governess and English tutor in a household that frequently entertained prominent members of Argentina's literati, among them Jorge Luis Borges and Ernesto Sabato, Valenzuela attended private secondary schools and, as a teenager, began publishing articles in the youth magazine Quince Abriles. Instead of entering the university, she pursued journalism full-time, working for several Buenos Aires newspapers and magazines, and served a stint in the Biblioteca Nacional under the direction of Borges. By 1956, Valenzuela had published her first short story, "Ciudad ajena," in the literary magazine Ficción, but her first short story collection, Los heréticos, didn't appear until 1967. In 1958, she married Theodore Marjak, a French merchant marine (whom she divorced in 1965), and moved to Paris, where she wrote her first novel, Hay que sonreír (1966), and established contacts with the literary groups Tel Quel and the "new novel" movement. When Valenzuela returned to Buenos Aires in 1961, she joined the editorial staff of La Nación Sunday supplement, assuming the position of assistant editor from 1964 to 1972; thereafter, she freelanced for various publications in Buenos Aires until she settled in the United States in 1979. Since the early 1960s, Valenzuela has traveled and lectured extensively throughout the Americas and Europe, receiving a Fulbright fellowship to the Iowa International Writers' Program in 1969 and a National Arts Foundation grant to study literature at Columbia University in New York City in 1972. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Valenzuela wrote fiction and conducted many seminars at Columbia, and she taught writing courses at New York University from 1985 to 1990. During the early 1990s, Valenzuela returned to Buenos Aires, where she has continued to travel, lecture, and write, producing works such as the short story collection Simetrías (1993) and the novel Bedside Manners (1995).
Valenzuela's fiction combines the political, the fictional, and the real. Most of her novels take place in the city of Buenos Aires, where lonely inhabitants are victims drowning in their country's violent political history. Valenzuela's works experiment with narrative structure through a constantly shifting point of view and self-conscious language that examines the creative process of art while relating stories. Clara depicts the submissive state of women in Argentina as experienced through the urban encounters of Clara, a young prostitute whose innocent dreams conflict with the values and politics of her patriarchal culture. El gato eficaz (1972) concerns a female narrator who lets loose "the evils of the world" in the metaphorical form of "the black cats of death," revealing how language itself creates the binary systems that seem to structure Western culture. Como en la guerra (1977; He Who Searches) hinges on the surreality of Argentine politics as an anonymous male narrator seeks, linguistically and spacially, his female self and the truth. Cola de lagartija (1983; The Lizard's Tail), widely considered Valenzuela's most important fiction, recounts the rise to power, the fall, the plan to return to power, and the death of a despotic Argentine government official—José López Rega, Isabel Perón's Minister of Social Well-Being—who is a sorcerer and has three testicles. Novela negra con argentinos (1990; Black Novel [with Argentines]) relates the survival of two Argentine writers in New York City through senseless murders, sexual perversion, and rank cynicism. Bedside Manners focuses on a woman who returns to her Latin American homeland to find democracy restored, yet who strangely confines herself to bed at a remote country club, desperately trying to avoid outside events and politics that invade her room. The stories in Open Door (1988) feature most of the thematic concerns, artistic methods, and subject matter that characterize Valenzuela's short stories. This collection provides a translated selection of the author's best earlier short fiction, comprising fourteen stories from Donde viven las águilas (1983; Up among the Eagles), eleven selections from Aquí pasan cosas raras (1975; Strange Things Happen Here) and seven stories from Los heréticos. According to Brooke K. Horvath, "Shamanistic figures, folkloristic superstitions and ritual magic, cultic beliefs and indigenous legends jostle urban settings, café life, state-of-the-art state terrorism, and the amorous doings of vacationing bourgeoisie to yield modern political parables and twice-told (albeit revamped) myths, small comedies of manners and mocking parodies of middle-class conventionality, ironic illuminations of religious realities and secular tales of physical and/or psychological terror. Similarly, traditional narrative techniques combine with a postmodern experimentation (fragmented narration, magical realism, randomness, and linguistic pranksterism) in the service of themes that are as timeless as the search for truth, community, or control over nature's mysteries, and as topical as sexual and political persecution in present-day Argentina or the nature of power relations within and among contemporary social classes."
Valenzuela has received significant critical attention in the United States. Her fiction is acclaimed for her inventive use of image, metaphor, and symbol in examining themes of violence, political oppression, and cultural repression, especially as the latter relates to women. Commentators have admitted the importance of feminist concerns and Argentine politics in Valenzuela's writings, and others have struggled with her ambiguous narrative structures. However, Caleb Bach remarked that Valenzuela "favors circular, spiral, or even concentric configurations for the passage of events and as to those events themselves, she prefers to describe them with ambiguity." Valenzuela's short stories, on the other hand, have met with a mixed critical response. Critics generally have concluded that her stories appeal mainly to ambitious readers who are willing to search through surreal presentations for meaning. Yet Horvath has suggested that Valenzuela's short stories "explore the boundaries of what is currently thought possible in fiction while reminding us of what must be demanded from fiction in our time." Bach has noted that Valenzuela's ultimate aim in her fiction "is to provoke thoughtfulness, dislodge the apathetic from their comfortable yet fallacious, worn-out assumptions, and see with acuity the disturbing reality within which we live."