Luisa Valenzuela Valenzuela, Luisa (Vol. 31) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Luisa Valenzuela 1938–

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

Valenzuela is recognized as one of the significant authors to have emerged in Argentina since the "boom" in Latin American literature during the 1960s. Like many of her literary contemporaries, Valenzuela introduces fantastic events into socially realistic settings—a technique known as magic realism which allows fiction to reflect the extraordinary qualities of life in Latin America.

Valenzuela's use of magic realism emphasizes the surreal and bizarre more so than does the fiction of such pioneers of the technique as Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar. Accordingly, some critics find her stories less reflective of social or psychological reality than those of her contemporaries and claim that she is more interested in experimenting with literary form than in telling stories. Valenzuela experiments with narrative structure through a constantly shifting point of view and through self-conscious language that examines the creative process of art while relating stories. She has been praised 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. These aspects of Valenzuela's writings reflect her statement that "magic realism was a beautiful resting place, but the thing to do is go forward."

Valenzuela first gained attention with Hay que sonreir (1966), a novel that depicts that submissive state of women in Argentina. This novel, which appeared in English in Clara: Thirteen Short Stories and a Novel (1976), interrelates themes dealing with violence, women, and politics through the encounters of Clara, a beautiful young woman whose innocent dreams conflict with the values of her culture. Critics admired Valenzuela's infusion of magic realism into the novel's conventional structure. However, her short stories have met with a mixed critical response. Critics generally concluded that her stories appeal to ambitious readers who are willing to search through surreal presentations for meaning. Valenzuela's recent novel The Lizard's Tail (1983) is a fictional biography of a despotic government official who is also a sorcerer. This novel has been especially praised for Valenzuela's use of sorcery as a metaphor for the means by which political power is used to control people and is considered by some critics to be her most important work. Valenzuela presently lives in New York City.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101.)

[Amanda Y. Heller]

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although the collection [Strange Things Happen Here] is prosaically subtitled "Twenty-six Short Stories and a Novel," it comprises a variety of forms, from single-page sketches to a novella-length fiction [He Who Searches] that shifts scene and point of view with unnerving abandon.

Throughout, these pieces offer a surrealistic picture of life in a fascist state. Though the themes of the stories vary from sex to politics to philosophical quest, in each one the threat of violence lurks close to the surface. Valenzuela's Argentina is a place where any ordinary parcel may contain a bomb, where any car may belong to the secret police, where even the conversation of children turns to talk of guns….

On the whole,… the collection gives a vivid, eerie, and affecting sense of life in a society where a cruel tension is the governing condition.

[Amanda Y. Heller], in a review of "Strange Things Happen Here," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 244, No. 1, July, 1979, p. 80.

Roger Sale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maybe Luisa Valenzuela is not, as her American publishers allege, "one of Argentina's foremost writers and journalists," but if she is even close to that, Buenos Aires is no place for anyone to point his cultural telescope at in hopes of seeing anything new. "Strange Things Happen Here," which attempts nothing if not being up-to-date, is a collection of very short stories and an interminable short novel: "One more person dead in the city. It's getting to be a vice." "If we want to blame somebody, let's blame ourselves for being alive in this part of the world in these times." "I suppose I could ask them to stop munching celery at three in the morning, but that doesn't seem right. What with the price of celery these days." Even the height of banality for "these days" talk: "So many things are confused now that the abnormal is imitating the natural and vice versa."

And those who don't have the celery munchies do predictably abnormal things: burn their feet, find pubic hairs in their soup, make horizontal ladders, dial FR (Frontal Rapists), "the well-known Argentine branch of the U.R.U. (United Rapes Unlimited) with headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, and important branches all over the United States." There's a story called "Meaningless Story," another is "Silly Talk About Suicide," and a third is "Neither the Most Terrifying Nor the Least Memorable." The titles are strictly accurate, though to find the least memorable among these 26 would...

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Julio Cortazar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

After a long period during which Argentine literature (and Latin American literature in general) was almost always cast in molds imposed by foreign examples or by internal limitations, we have been witnessing over the past thirty years the appearance of creativity that is at last free, at last our own. But, as always happens in times of liberation, many of the new writers have fallen too easily into the trap of exaggeration and verbal libertinism…. Little by little, however, we are beginning to map perplexing territories, and the best Argentine writers labor in search for—and often the discovery of—that difficult balance from which great literature has always sprung. Luisa Valenzuela seems to me to be a perfect example of what I am asserting.

Courageous—with neither self-censorship or prejudice—careful of her language—which is excessive when necessary but magnificently refined and modest as well, whenever reality is—Luisa Valenzuela travels through her various books, lucidly charting the seldom-chosen course of a woman deeply anchored in her condition, conscious of discriminations that are still horrible all over our continent, but, at the same time, filled with a joy in life that permits her to surmount both the elementary stages of protest and an overestimation of women in order to put herself on a perfectly equal footing with any literature—masculine or not. To read her is to enter our reality fully, where plurality surpasses the limitations of the past; to read her is to participate in a search for Latin American identity, which offers its rewards beforehand. Luisa Valenzuela's books are our present but they also contain much of our future; there is true resplendence, true love, true freedom on each of her pages.

Julio Cortázar, "Luisa Valenzuela," in Review, No. 24, 1979, p. 44.

Clara Claiborne Park

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Some of the stories [in Strange Things Happen Here] aren't half a page long; two pages is average. Mostly they're finished before we know what they're up to. There's one about a woman in a bus who picks the pocket of a man who feels her ass. It's well done, but it's over in a paragraph. What did we miss? The point, obviously. There's one about a pampas thistle that "thrives in a city that has eradicated green by decree," "a prickly, ugly little thistle, which even so looks radiantly beautiful to many." A dissident group, initially in pursuit of noble ends, turns it into a false idol and is co-opted by the tyrannical government. There is no hope in greenery or anything else. Maybe it's safer to stick to parable and mysterious vignette if you want to go on living and publishing in Argentina, where Valenzuela is a prominent journalist. Or to write anti-novels. He Who Searches, the anti-novella included in Strange Things, was not banned in Argentina, though it begins with interrogation and torture and ends with the detonation of a bomb. It seems a world which Puig has prepared us to understand. Not so, though; between beginning and end obtain the weary puzzlements of that orphaned form, the nouveau roman…. To read Valenzuela after Puig is to experience the difference between narrative subtlety in the service of worthy subject and compelling story, and the artfulness that "gives priority to the means over the end." If this is the price of writing in Argentina it is a heavy one.

Clara Claiborne Park, in a review of "Strange Things Happen Here," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Winter, 1979–80, p. 577.

Fimie Richie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Considering the political content of several of the twenty-six short stories and of the last segment of the novel included in [Strange Things Happen Here], the present regime of Argentina would appear to be less repressive than Luisa Valenzuela … herself represents it….

The obscurity of the novel [He Who Searches] cannot be attributed to the translation but rather to a style reminiscent of Carlos Fuentes' Where the Air is Clear or García Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude. Her writing also bears comparison to that of Kurt Vonnegut and Günther Grass. Vonnegut does not have the thick social protest that pervades the work of Valenzuela, but they are alike in the shifting points of view and the blunt, scatological language.

Three themes are found in the majority of the stories. Fifteen concern political repression and, closely linked to this, the poverty of the Latin-American populace. Each contains a streak of pornography, especially "The Verb to Kill," "Porno Flick," and "United Rapes Unlimited, Argentina."

Two stories, "Vision out of the Corner of the Eye" and "A Meaningless Story," are unusual for her in that they simply narrate a slice of life, with no special overtones….

Seemingly, [in He Who Searches] an Argentine psychiatrist-professor in Barcelona re-encounters a prostitute (a Che Guevara Tania-type) whom he had met fifteen years earlier in Buenos Aires; and after long pages of his probing into her psyche and soma, she vanishes inexplicably. He returns to Buenos Aires via a peyote ceremony in Mexico (shades of D. H. Lawrence) and joins in the fight against "hunger and ignominy." There, he finds her apotheosized and enshrined a la Eva Perón. There, we leave him on the brink of a horrifying extinction, as we already knew from "page zero."

None of this is edifying nor pleasurable reading. Naturally there is some evocation of Borges. Her literary lineage traces back to Jorge Icaza's Huasipungo and mainstreams into the protest stories of the late sixties and early seventies in the United States.

Fimie Richie, in a review of "Strange Things Happen Here," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Spring, 1980, p. 190.

Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The historical events gaudily disguised and deeply interred in ["The Lizard's Tail"], while recognizable enough, must be gleaned from the swirling, spiraling masses of language, image, metaphor, folklore, imaginative conceit, hallucination. One by one the events are exhumed: Eva (the "Venerated Dead Woman"); Isabel (the "Intruder" or "Madame President"); the Generalissimo; the succession of brutal, absurd, strutting, bloody-minded colonels and generals, pretenders and juntists who have made a nightmare of that enchanted dreamscape. Fantasy, myth, magical transformations, bizarre ritual, caustic satire prevail over any semblance of conventional narrative, much less plot. By turns exuberant, ribald, excessively self-indulgent, the novel is also modish in mocking some of the buzzwords and ideas of advanced literary theory and avant-garde writing: deconstruction, semiotics, textuality, direct entry by the author into the work. Readers may regard the novel as a stylish feat of imagination or as an exercise in literary chic, depending on their penchant. (pp. 59-60)

A review of "The Lizard's Tail," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 223, No. 21, May 27, 1983, pp. 59-60.

W. A. Luchting

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Argentine writer Luisa Valenzuela … is what, after due apologies, still may be called a women's novelist; talkative, impulsive and full of unexpected turns in the flow of her stories. Her earlier work was regarded highly: the novels Hay que sonreír (1966) and Como en la guerra (1977); the short-story collections Los heréticos (1967), Aquí pasan cosas raras (1975) and Libro que no muerde (1980)…. (p. 438)

[Cambio de armas] contains five stories of varying length. All have as theme the relationship between men and women, mostly in the form of love affairs that are either successful or not (in the title story the woman, in the final line of the book, points a revolver at the man—and presumably shoots). The feminist point of view is unmistakable but not obtrusive. Nevertheless, the overall impression created by the stories (except the final selection) is that the women suffer injustice. As behooves recent Argentine narrative, politics invade the stories with cruel consequences; and as behooves modern narrative in general, the stories, to varying degrees, engage in narrative self-reflection. At times this turns into self-indulgence (especially in "Cuarta versión," the first and longest of the stories). All in all, while they are not Valenzuela's best tales and are, moreover, of uneven quality, the texts of Cambio de armas are interesting to read. (pp. 438-39)

W. A. Luchting, in a review of "Cambio de armas," in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 438-39.

Allen Josephs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Lizard's Tail" by Luisa Valenzuela is an exotic roman à clef based loosely on the life of José López Rega, one of Isabel Perón's despotic ministers. Yet much more than fictionalized biography, the novel is a baroque and parodistic fantasy centered on and in the mind of a nameless mad Sorcerer. In this plotless, rambling and episodic novel, Miss Valenzuela attempts to plumb the depths of unmitigated evil by examining the Sorcerer's frenzied and bizarre machinations. From his stream-of-consciousness monologues, sometimes called his novel or diary, and from Miss Valenzuela's first- and third-person narration, the reader gradually pieces together the life story of this unusual personage—his childhood,...

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Anne Marie Schultheis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Lizard's Tail opens with a narrative stylistically similar to the Benjy section of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Details and shreads of insight seem never to fuse. Each sentence starts a string of thoughts which remain dangling, unknotted by the paragraph's end. And understandably, this makes for frustrating reading.

Faulkner's narrator is an idiot; Valenzuela's is a messianic maniac, a Sorcerer and witchdoc. (p. 287)

The power source for this witchdoc is his third testicle, an appendage which he believes to be his sister, Estrella. By means of this third testicle he plans to conceive a son who will regain the power the Sorcerer himself once wielded.


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Sharon Magnarelli

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Unquestionably, one of the most characteristic qualities of Valenzuela's prose is the plurality to which Cortázar has referred [see excerpt above], for her work inevitably offers or even demands a multiplicity of readings and interpretations. At times deceptively simple, always subtly political and/or feminist but never sententious, her prose rarely offers solutions to the problems it posits, for that is not her intent. Instead, her work examines life, reality and sociopolitical structures from different vantage points and in a variety of contexts in order to suggest new definitions or even a plurality of interpretations for situations not necessarily recognized as problematic. Much of the wealth and beauty of her...

(The entire section is 2387 words.)