20.4.09

Conclusion:


[Diego Rivera: Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda (1948)]


The Idea of the Post-modern


Angela Carter
(1940-1992)




I

Southern Gothic






A quota system is to be introduced on fiction set in South America. The intention is to curb the spread of package-tour baroque and heavy irony. Ah, the propinquity of cheap life and expensive principles, of religion and banditry, of surprising honour and random cruelty. Ah, the daiquiri bird which incubates its eggs on the wing; ah, the fredonna tree whose roots grow at the tips of its branches, and whose fibres assist the hunchback to impregnate by telepathy the haughty wife of the hacienda owner; ah, the opera house now overgrown by jungle. Permit me to rap on the table and murmur 'Pass!' (Barnes, 1985, p.99)

This, one of the prescriptions for modern literature made by Geoffrey Braithwaite, the hero of Julian Barnes' novel-parody Flaubert's Parrot (1984), is typical of many other expressions of discontent at the 'boom' in Latin American settings and narrative devices in the contemporary novel.

Other witnesses to this disgruntlement include Anthony Burgess (Martin, 1989, p.142) and Julian Rivers, who remarked at the 1988 British Book Marketing Council conference that 'the push would be for "genuine books – not junk", and particularly not for "dead gay South American writers"' ('In Brief', 1988, p.1108). It is difficult to know to whom Mr. Rivers was referring – García Lorca is dead and gay, but not South American; Neruda is dead and South American, but not gay; Manuel Puig is alive and well and living in New York [or was at the time I wrote this: 1989-90] – but his general point is clear enough. In the eyes of many commentators, South American 'magic realism' and all its attendant features (hunchbacks, ghosts, bestiality, etc.), has become the late twentieth century equivalent of Southern Gothic. Just as waves of influence emanated out from William Faulkner to Katharine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Robert Penn Warren, only to lose themselves in a maze of imitations and pastiche; so novels like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Cien años de soledad have inspired copiers both indigenous (Isabel Allende's La casa de los espiritus (1982)), and foreign (Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), Lisa St Aubin de Téran's Keepers of the House (1982) and Lawrence Thornton's Imagining Argentina (1987)).

This is, at any rate, the 'view from abroad' – the natural conclusion to be drawn from the simultaneous existence (in translation) of strong, original works by Cortázar, García Márquez and Vargas Llosa, and later, weaker novels by a variety of successors both Western and Latin American. It is also, however, to my mind, a dangerous over-simplification, and one which takes no account of the sort of evidence which has been marshalled in this study. The first point to be made in this connection is that, in placing such emphasis on South America as the seeding ground of contemporary 'magic realism', Julian Barnes is largely ignoring the English-language tradition of portrayals of the continent – the subject of most of our discussion up to now.

The picture presented here of the narrative strategies adopted by a number of authors in order to construct a textual adjunct to 'South America' has ranged chronologically from Aphra Behn's Oroonoko to Elizabeth Bishop's translation of The Diary of 'Helena Morley', and generically from the scientific notations of Darwin's Journal of Researches to the imaginary landscapes of Masefield's Sard Harker. I have tried throughout to avoid giving any impression of an 'advance' or evolution in attitudes during this span of time, since it is by no means my view that (say) the sophistication of Conrad's Nostromo is due to its being two hundred years later than Aphra Behn, but it is undoubtedly true that the set of influences and attitudes – both technical and ideological – acting on anyone of our authors must be seen partly as a function of the periods in which they came to intellectual maturity. The choice of these seven authors has therefore been conditioned as much by the 'iconographic' forces to which each of them bears witness, as by the intrinsic interest of their books.

In this concluding chapter I hope to employ the generic and chronological distinctions already made in the body of the thesis to offer both a more satisfactory account of the genealogy of contemporary mythologizers of 'South America' than that suggested by Barnes or Burgess – and, in the process, a revised model of the relationship between European and Latin American portrayals of the continent. This should also throw some retrospective light on the two questions highlighted in my preface – how can 'South America' be effectively differentiated from the physical South America? and in what ways does this 'South America' differ from the 'Africa', 'South-East Asia' and 'Polynesia' of the European imagination? – questions which have been present at the borders of our Inquiry ever since.

The second point to be made about Barnes' model is, then, following on from our discussion in Chapter Seven, the extent of its reliance on Translation (just as Discovery acted as the principle vehicle of textual information about the New World for Aphra Behn, Natural Science for Darwin, Historiography for Prescott and Cunninghame Graham, and the techniques of Romance for Hudson, Conrad and Masefield). However, again, just as those earlier 'versions' relied for their effect on a contrast between the physical South America and the literary conventions surrounding it; so translations of Latin American fiction exist as imperfect mirrors – because interpreted according to an alien tradition (Like Borges' Pierre Menard) – of their Spanish or Portuguese originals. As a result, we must extend our original Barthean paradigm of the physical South America as la Chine, and 'South America' as his mythologized sinité to include both Latin American literature (which offers another 'mirror' of the geographical reality), and its translations into European culture – literal (Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende), and figurative (in works set in South America and influenced by its contemporary literature – Angela Carter, Lisa St Aubin de Téran. and Lawrence Thornton).

The point might be better made in a diagram:



Mirror

South America / Europe

(a) REALITY / (b) TEXTUALITY

Mirror

(c) LATIN-AMERICAN WRITING / (d) LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION

Latin America / English-speaking World

Thus, we have a place – (a) – described and rationalized according to European literary conventions – (b). This is an example of direct reflection, but (b) also influences the writing of the indigenous inhabitants – (c) - who nevertheless possess certain internal paradigms of representation. Indigenous writing is then translated back into European culture - (d) – which has two consequences:
  1. it inevitably comes to mean something different in its new cultural and linguistic context; &
  2. as a consequence it influences (b) in a turn-around way.

The first part of this process, (a) to (b), has already been fully dealt with – and all of the authors so far mentioned, from Columbus to Conrad, exemplify it to some degree. The transition from (b) to (c) is also well represented in our argument to date. We have seen how Sarmiento's Facundo exemplifies a whole series of 'textualizing' techniques, from pastoral to anthropology. Other authors such as Mario Vargas L1osa, Octavio Paz and Gabriel García Márquez have also assisted us in elaborating this set of 'Western' strategies of representation. The increasing numbers of translations from (c) to (d) in the second half of this century (and particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, the period of the 'boom' in the Latin American novel), has, however, upset this orderly picture.

When Gabriel García Márquez said 'Graham Greene me enseñó nada menos que a descifrar el trópico’ (García Márquez, 1982, p.43) ['Graham Greene taught me how to decipher the tropics, no less.' (García Márquez, 1983, p.32)], and went on to claim that 'Con ese metodo se puede reducir todo el enigma del trópico a la fragancia de una guayaba podrida’ (García Márquez, 1982, p.44) ['Using this method you can reduce the whole enigma of the tropics to the fragrance of a rotten guava.' (García Márquez, 1983, p.32)], it became clear that Greene's celebrated 'seediness' had been used as one of the models for Macondo. This supplied at least a partial answer to Gerald Martin's question (quoted in my preface, above) about the source of the appeal to 'Anglo-American' readers of the 'tropical "Greeneland"' of magic realism – they were responding to what they already knew only too well. But the implications of the remark go beyond that. Since García Márquez's vision, in its turn, has supplied the inspiration and the form for a whole series of novels – Carter's and de Téran's above mentioned, as well as Zulfikar Ghose's A New History of Torments (1982) and Don Bueno (1983), Christopher Burns' Snakewrist (1986), and Lucius Shepard's Life During Wartime (1988)[1] – it is clear that the influences exerted on each of these novels must be seen as at least double. In other words, if Greene taught García Márquez 'a descifrar el trópico (having learnt it himself from Conrad), and Garcia Marquez inspired Western writers such as Carter and Thornton to blend mythology and history into 'magic realism', then these latter authors have become simultaneously translators from another culture (Latin America) and heirs to a European tradition of which they may, paradoxically, be less aware.[2]

The major novelists we have already looked at, Conrad, Hudson and Masefield, attempted to project and articulate an entire world as an expression of their vision of South America. Writers from this later era (what might be called 'the age of translation '), such as Bishop and Carter, seem more often to re-arrange one which comes to them ready-made, and – far from expending pains to make it seem solid – positively delight in its flimsiness as a construct (as we will see later in our discussion of Angela Carter's and Kathy Acker's 'post-modern' landscapes). Their dependence on traditional mythologies as providers of material to subvert, rather than as structures to be filled out, is shown by an increasing attention to translation in the Borgesian rather than the Benjaminian sense – as a vehicle of cultural relativity and contingency. In order to demonstrate the implications of this procedure, I propose to examine Carter's novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman at some length, showing the ways in which it fulfills the paradigms already described in the body of the thesis – as well as detailing the divergences brought about by the impact of post-modernism on the Arts in general.

[Angela Carter: The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann (1972)]

II

The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann



Angela Carter's novel is divided into eight chapters, each one designed to strip away another mask or screen (like the peep-show, repository of Dr. Hoffman's 'set of samples', which begins the protagonist Desiderio's quest), from the 'reality' finally revealed. I therefore propose to go through it sequentially, discussing the issues raised by each discrete section as it comes. This procedure also has the advantage of supplying a kind of textual rhyme to the eight chapters of this study of versions of South America in English literature – highlighting, as it does, the similar issues dealt with by both investigations.

I shall accordingly begin by asking where the novel is set. The question is by no means as simple as it seems, as Carter leaves us in considerable doubt on the point until quite a late stage in the narrative – nor is this the result of a desire to leave it in an undefined 'otherwhere', the realm of fairy tales. On the contrary, she lavishes a great deal of descriptive power on very precise details of 'race and place' – nationalities. and character-studies in terms of such traits. (Would it be too far-fetched to equate this reluctance to name her setting with the generalized nature of the mythological evocation of 'alien-ness' in the European narrative tradition? – It is a thought worth bearing in mind as we proceed).

[Amazon Basin (2004)]



(a) The City Under Siege



The city was built on a tidal river and the slums and the area around the docks still pullulated with blacks, browns and Orientals who lived in a picturesque squalor the city fathers in their veranda'd suburbs contrived to ignore. Yet the city ... was just a little nervous, all the same. It hardly ever dared peer over its well-upholstered shoulder in case it glimpsed the yellow mountains louring far towards the north, atavistic reminders of the interior of a continent which inspired a wordless fear in those who had come here so lately. The word 'indigenous' was unmentionable. Yet some of the buildings, dating from the colonial period, were impressive ... stone memorials of a past to which few, if any, of us had contributed though, since I was of Indian extraction, I suffered the ironic knowledge that my forefathers had anointed the foundations of the state with a good deal of their blood. (Carter, 1982, p.16)

We are told a good deal in this passage from the first chapter of Carter's novel. The 'tidal river', the 'blacks, browns and Orientals' who 'pullulate' around the docks, above all the 'exiled scum of Europe' (Carter, 1982, p.16) (her personification of the city), suggest one of the great colonial cities – Hong Kong, Bombay or Shanghai. 'Blacks, browns and Orientals' is suitably unspecific, too – the first implying, presumably, Africa; the second the East or West Indies, Oceania, Indonesia, India, or America; and the third Asia. 'Veranda'd suburbs' is suggestive also – verandah is a Portuguese word, but the concept, again, applies to any tropical port around the equator. 'Yellow mountains ... far towards the North' could be the Himalayas, if this is India; the Andes, if this is equatorial South America; the Mountains of the Moon, if it is Africa; or Tibet, if it is China. 'The interior of a continent which inspired a wordless fear' would apply equally well to any of these – Asia, Africa, India, or South America.

The description seems, in fact, almost a textbook illustration of the interchangeable nature of the mythological imagery associated with each of these regions in European tradition, However, when our narrator. Desiderio, the old man who is telling this story of his youth for the benefit of the younger inhabitants of the city, appears on the scene, things suddenly become more specific. 'I was of Indian extraction', and therefore. it is implied, 'indigenous'. This narrows our speculations considerably – the city could still be Bombay, but not Shanghai or Cape Town (unless one were prepared to postulate a use of the word 'Indian' to imply simply a native inhabitant). The West Indies, South or Central America, and the Indian subcontinent – these are the practical possibilities, given the way in which the word is used.

But, only a little further on, Carter seems to mock such expectations of topographical fixity in the following passage, describing the siege of dreams conducted by the abominable Dr. Hoffman:

A group of chanting pillars exploded in the middle of a mantra and lo! they were once again street lamps until, with night, they changed to silent flowers. Giant heads in the helmets of conquistadors sailed up like sad, painted kites over the giggling chimney pots ... the city was no longer the conscious production of humanity; it had become the arbitrary realm of dream. (Carter, 1982, p.18)

'Mantra' is, of course, an Indian image – the flowers, too, remind us of the colourful trappings of Hinduism. 'Conquistadors' might be used here in the generalized sense of 'conquerors', but it tends to recall the fate of the New World Indians – especially the Aztecs and the Incas.

In a sense, all this squares very well with the city's having become the 'arbitrary realm of dream' – a post-colonial landscape which combines features of transplanted Europe and an overlay of native cultures, such as that evoked in Jan Morris's Last Letters from Hav (1984), or Alfred Kubin's Central Asian 'dream kingdom' in Die andere Seite (1909). One must, however, remember that a 'War of Dreams' (the title of the American edition of the book) is being waged between the Dr. Hoffman of the title and his adversary, the city's Minister of Determination. It may be in Hoffman's interests to obscure the city's origins and existential status, but the Minister is determined to keep it solidly in the realm of fact. In a sense. then. our efforts to ascertain the city's precise location through the agency of such 'dream-like' clues might be compared to an attempt to find solid ground in a narrative which is being buffeted by a war on whose outcome depends the very information we are trying to uncover.

The next clue comes when Hoffman sends an emissary to negotiate with the Minister, sole leader of the resistance within the city. This ambassador was 'the most beautiful human being I [Desiderio] have ever seen" (Carter, 1982, p.32). ('He' later turns out to be Hoffman's daughter, Albertina):

Presumably he was either of Mongolian extraction or else he numbered among his ancestors, as [ did, certain of the forgotten Indians who still linger miserably in the more impenetrable mountains or skulk along the waterways, for his skin was like polished brass, at once greenish and yellowish ... and his cheekbones unusually high. (Carter, 1982, p.32)

'Mongolian' suggests New World Indians, with their 'unusually high' cheekbones - nor is 'greenish and yellowish' an impossible characterization of the hue usually described as red ('like polished brass'), Mongolia and Tibet are undoubtedly nearer to India than America, but one wonders whether, even in the unspecified modernity in which the story is set, Indians could be described as 'forgotten' in their own country 'pullulation' is a more conventional image for India's great coastal ports.

Further indications come further down:

his eyes ... were as hieratically brown and uncommunicative as those the Ancient Egyptians painted on their sarcophagi ...

All his gestures were instinct with a self-conscious but extraordinary reptilian liquidity ... I saw that he seemed to move in soft coils ...

He was a manicured leopard patently in complicity with chaos. (Carter, 1982, p.32)

Taken in order. these statements present us with first. a red herring, since we have already ruled out the possibility of Africa: second. a suggestive piece of 'serpent' imagery, given the omnipresence of that symbol in evocations of South America; and third, a leopard – or, in other words, an Old World animal which can, like Aphra Behn's 'tigers', be associated with New World cats like the jaguar.

In the light of this persistently ambiguous imagery – Egyptian sarcophagi, leopards, serpents, mantras, and Indians – it no longer seems paradoxical to claim that Carter is not simply failing to convey a precise 'sense of place' for her story, but that she has a point to make by this persistent mystification. South America (no single country or aspect of which has yet been named among the plethora of mentions of Old World endroits) appears to be the only continent which could meet all the conditions required, but there is almost what one might call a 'rhetoric of absence' in this failure to name what is becoming increasingly plain to the reader.

I propose to discuss this aspect of Carter's book further in later sections. but for the moment let us explore another aspect of Dr. Hoffman's 'War of Dreams' as waged against this unspecified 'city':

Abandoned lovers were often lured into the false embraces of faithless mistresses and this caused the Minister the gravest concern for he feared that one day a man might impregnate an illusion and then a generation of half-breed ghosts would befoul the city even more. But as I often felt I was a half-breed ghost myself, I did not feel much concerned over that! (Carter, 1982, p.19)

These ghosts and illusions which can ensnare former lovers remind one a little of the successive generations of ghosts in the Buendía family in Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad . Indeed, even the long sprawling sentences which Carter indulges herself in here recall the poetic monologue of Melquíades the gipsy, who proves finally to be the narrator of the 'hundred years'. Of course. it is natural that an author seeking to make plausible such a war of illusions will gravitate towards the style most appropriate for her purposes – in this case, Latin American magic realism as practised by Asturias, Cortázar, Borges and García Márquez – but her dependence on them does not end there. Desiderio's revealing remark 'I often felt I was a half-breed ghost myself' alerts us to another intention in the passage.

The War of Dreams is, in effect, a war of interpretations – the monolithic world of the Minister held up against the almost oppressively 'free' polylogue of Dr. Hoffman and his illusions. A more important point, however, is how this parallels the earlier battle between the European founders of the city and the displaced indigenous inhabitants. Members of a race which has lost its hegemony of 'meaning-giving' – both through language and cosmology – may legitimately feel themselves to be 'ghosts', and a sexual union between the dominant and recessive groups in such a society is likely to lead to even more comprehensive deracination rather than to any harmony of exchanged attributes. Desiderio certainly fits these criteria:

My mother came from feckless, middle-European immigrant stock and her business, which was prostitution of the least exalted type, took her to the slums a good deal. I do not know who my father was but I carried his genetic imprint on my face, although my colleagues always contrived politely to ignore it since the white, pious nuns had vouched for me. (Carter, 1982, p.16)

One must make allowance for the characteristic orotundity of Carter's prose, but the way in which Desiderio refers to his mother's 'business' taking her 'to the slums a good deal' – the absurd parody of the business trips associated with a more respectable métier (like being a slum landlord) – seems to mask a certain bitterness at being just such a 'half-breed ghost'. The image he gives of himself in these opening pages is that of the blasé roué, devotee of the 'inhuman stylization of opera' (Carter, 1982, p.16), but one can scarcely ignore the resentment in his reference to his colleagues' 'contriving politely to ignore' his racial origins. In any case, this is a theme which will recur later, among the 'river people' of the third chapter.

[David Shankbone: Peep Show (2007)]



(b) The Mansion of Midnight


At the beginning of the second chapter, Desiderio is sent by the Minister of Determination to investigate 'the activities of the proprietor of a certain peep-show who had operated his business upon the pier at the seaside resort of S. throughout the summer' (Carter, 1982, p.39). 'It seemed a small enough clue to me', says Desiderio, and, indeed, some of the clues which we will be following in this chapter seem, in all conscience, small enough - but they do offer a fruitful sidelight on the intentions of Carter's novel.

Let us begin with her description of the peep-show itself:

It was ... the coloured replica of the canvas tent I had seen in monochrome in the files of the Bureau ... A yellowed play-bill in old-fashioned lettering announced that the SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD IN THREE LIFELIKE DIMENSIONS awaited one inside' (Carter, 1982, p.42)

Of the seven exhibits, only the first, 'I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE' need detain us long:

The legs of a woman, raised and open as if ready to admit a lover, formed a curvilinear triumphal arch ... The dark red and purple crenellations surrounding the vagina acted as a frame for a perfectly round hole through which the viewer glimpsed the moist, luxuriant landscape of the interior.

Here endlessly receded before one's eyes a miniature but irresistible vista of semi-tropical forest where amazing fruits hung on the trees ... Small, brilliant birds trilled silently on the branches; animals of exquisite shapes and colours, among them unicorns, giraffes and herbivorous lions, cropped up buttercups and daisies from the impossibly green grass ... As I watched, the pent-up force of the sweet juice within it burst open a persimmon and the split skin let out a night of orange tawny singing birds ... A fish sprang out of the river, became a white rabbit and bounded away. (Carter, 1982, p.44)

The fantasy landscape spread out before us has elements of any idealized 'semi-tropical' landscape – though the white rabbit and the vegetarian lions remind us, respectively, of literary gardens (Lewis Carroll's 'Alice' books, Behn's Oroonoko, Le Roman de la Rose), as well as the garden of Eden. Interestingly, however, this 'exhibit' also recalls the setting of one of Carter's short stories, 'Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest', in Fireworks (1974), which, like the novel, was written 'between 1970 and 1973' (Carter, 1987, p.ii).

The story, a kind of malign parody of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie (1787), concerns Emile and Madeline, the two children of the French Naturalist Dubois. The narrative treats of their quest for 'the central node of the unvisited valley, the navel of the forest'(Carter, 1987, p.53), which turns out to be another 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil'. The imagery associated with this forest – its rabbits twitching 'moist, velvet noses'(Carter, 1987, p.55) and trees 'with trunks scaled like trout', whose fruit tasted of oysters'(Carter, 1987, p.58), or which were 'knobbed with white, red-tipped whorls that looked so much like breasts they put their mouths to the nipples and sucked a sweet, refreshing milk' (Carter, 1987, p.59) – matches the vaginal vistas of 'I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE'. Even the 'herbivorous lions' in the peep-show can be equated with the description of Dubois as 'hirsute and gentle as a herbivorous lion' (Carter, 1987, p.49).

While it has not yet been possible to prove that Carter's novel is set in South America, 'Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest' certainly is – and the coincidence of imagery in the two stories offers us some further perspectives on Carter's strategies of representation. Note, for example, the prevalent Europeanism of this section of the narrative – towns are identified as 'the seaside resort of S.' (Carter, 1982, p.39), 'the University of P .... the mountain resort of L.' (Carter, 1982, p.27) in the style of a Russian novel ('It was in the year 18-, in the town of N-, that I first became acquainted with the Countess von 0-'). Even the local flora and fauna seem European – 'a family of young foxes' (Carter, 1982, p.55) gambol on the lawn outside the house in which Desiderio takes up residence, matching the 'fox cubs' who 'rolled in play' (Carter, 1987, p.51) around the feet of Dubois.

It is not so much that Carter is trying to persuade us that her narrative really is set in Europe – if this were the case, the Brazilian forest in Fireworks would have to be described differently from the 'seaside resort of S.' in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. It is more as if she matches her choice of the correct genre for a particular chapter or section with an appropriate background. The last, and perhaps most significant component of the scene in the peep-show is 'the misty battlements of a castle'.

The longer one looked at the dim outlines of this castle, the more sinister it grew, as though its granite viscera housed as many torture chambers as the Chateau of Silling. (Carter, 1982, pp.44-45)

The castle is formally identified as being that of Dr. Hoffman later in the novel (Carter, 1982, p.196), but the trappings of German Romanticism which surround it – torture chambers, mist, battlements – should have already let us guess as much. Nor is the name 'Hoffman' the only link here with Gothic fiction – the 'Mansion of Midnight' in which Desiderio lodges comes straight out of Edgar Allan Poe – and 'Mary Anne', the young, wild-eyed girl he makes love to there, resembles the Ligeias and Morellas who abound in Poe's fiction.

Like a true Poe heroine, Mary Anne drowns herself after being deflowered (or is murdered, as Desiderio believes), and our hero is arrested by the Determination police on the following four counts:

(1) obtaining carnal knowledge of a minor ...

(2) procuring death by drowning of the said minor;

(3) practising necrophily on the corpse of the said minor ... and:

(4) posing as an Inspector of Veracity Class Three when I was really the fatherless son of a known prostitute of Indian extraction, an offence against the Determination Regulations ... viz.: 'Any thing or person seen to diverge significantly from it or his own known identity is committing an offence and may be apprehended and tested.' (Carter, 1982, p.62)

The last (and most serious) charge sounds almost like a definition of the realist novel – 'staying in character', 'conforming to known laws', etc. – and it appears that Desiderio's is, in fact (like Dr. Hoffman's), an essentially generic offence.

The seven exhibits in the 'SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD' show consist, in order, of a vagina; a pair of eyes – the 'ETERNAL VISTAS OF LOVE' (Carter, 1982, p.45); a pair of breasts served like ice-cream (like the tree in the story); the mutilated torso of a woman; the same woman's severed head – with 'a hideous expression of resignation' (Carter, 1982, p.46); a penis – 'I was struck with the notion that this was supposed to represent the Minister's penis' (Carter, 1982, p.46); and a couple engaged in the 'perpetual motion' of copulation. This malign view of sexuality as machinery, mutilation, commodity and death is Hoffman's diagnosis of the repressed patriarchal world of the Minister and the city, but the Doctor's own alternative order seems to consist merely of the perpetual revelation of this 'truth' of love-as-death. [t seems, then, that Carter is attempting in this section to suggest an identification of Gothic and Romantic artifice with the perversions of eroticism which they are attempting to suppress (Desiderio's later examination of the peep-show reveals a series of tableaux giving a malign fairy-tale version of his seduction of Mary Anne, much in the manner of Carter's later book The Bloody Chamber (1979). But whether this is her own analysis, or that of Hoffman or one of the other characters is not, as yet, entirely clear.

To return to our central thread, though, the location of Carter's novel is becoming more certain as her actual landscapes become more eclectic – including, here, European houses and animals as an adjunct to 'European' literary forms such as the Gothic novel. Another clue to her strategy is given in the passage where Desiderio describes:

A child with crinkled hair tied up in the innumerable pigtails the poor and superstitious adopt for, I think. reasons of voodoo ... she answered me incomprehensibly in the multi-lingual patois of the slums. (Carter, 1982, p.60)

These 'reasons of voodoo' are. of course, West Indian or Caribbean – and recall the 'dark. voodoo folklore' (Carter, 1987, p.48) of 'Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest', Desiderio's insistence on describing the New World in terms of the Old is weakening as he comes to feel 'a degree of ambivalence towards the Minister's architectonic vision of the perfect state, This was because I was aware of what would have been my own position in that watertight schema' (Carter, 1982, p.60). The little (black?) girl is beginning to offer a more attractive prospect – though she is still incomprehensible because of her 'voodoo' and her 'patois' (both importations from the Old World – a reversal of expectations worthy of Aphra Behn).

[Indian River (Dominica)]



(c) The River People


In the first two sections of this analysis it has been possible to make some interesting equations between the concerns of Carter's novel and those of this study as a whole. The 'multi-cultural' identity of the 'City under Siege' can be seen to be analogous with the mythological cliches characteristic of European perceptions of South America – a misleading specificity of detail which masks an actual interchangeability of 'alien' personnel. The 'Mansion of Midnight', on the other hand, employs the trappings of Gothic Romanticism in order to uncover some of the contradictions and suppressed motivations within it – in a way not dissimilar to Oroonoko's use of the conventions of 'New World' description to paint the Dystopia of the slave-state Surinam. So precise a fit cannot be hoped for throughout (would, in fact, be somewhat suspicious), but – while the chapter numbers may not match – the similarity between the two projects continues to be striking.

She begins her third chapter in the following manner:

The Portuguese did us the honour of discovering us towards the middle of the sixteenth century ... they ... found a tenuous coastline of fever-sodden swamp which, as they reluctantly penetrated inland. they found solidified to form a great expanse of sun-baked prairie. Lavishly distributing the white spirochete and the word of God as they went, they travelled far enough to glimpse the hostile ramparts of the mountains before they turned back for there was no gold or silver to be had, only malaria and yellow fever. So they left it to the industrious Dutch a century later to drain the marshes and set up that intricate system of canals, later completed and extended during a brief visit by the British, to which the country was to owe so much of its later wealth. (Carter, 1982, p.67)

Having sufficiently problematicized any possible solution to the question of 'setting' to make it no loss for her to reveal where her story is taking place, Carter at last offers us the decisive information. Pausing to note the collocation of 'swamp', 'prairie' and 'hostile mountains' – our three paradigmatic South American landscapes of Amazon. Pampa and Andes as well as the characteristically European quest for 'gold and silver', let us ask ourselves what countries were:
  1. discovered by the Portuguese in the 'middle of the sixteenth century';
  2. taken over by the Dutch, who then alternated for dominance with the English; &
  3. had a capital 'founded in the early eighteenth century' (Carter, 1982, p.67)[3]?


Number l seems to fit Brazil best, both because of the date and because of the remark that 'our nation began as an afterthought, or a footnote to other, more magnificent conquests' (Carter, 1982, p.67) – presumably, those in Africa, India and the East Indies commemorated by Camões in the Lusiads (1572). Number 2 would lead us to think of the Guianan territories – Dutch Surinam and British Guiana – a little further north. Number 3, along with the mention of how 'a brief but bloody slave revolt put a stop to slavery at the time of the French Revolution' (Carter, 1982, p.67), recalls Cuba or Haiti, but the veiled reference to the Southern States of the U.S.A. in the comment 'enough black slaves ran away from the plantations of the northern continent to provide cheap labour in the factories, shipyards and open-cast mines' puts the hemisphere at least beyond doubt.

Or rather, not absolutely beyond doubt, as Carter still persists in suppressing the word 'America' – especially in the form, 'South America', which is most commonly employed for the continent she is describing. She gets tantalizingly closer and closer to it in the pages that follow: 'They were no Aztecs or Incas but brown, native men and women' (Carter, 1982, p.68), she says of the indigenous tribes whom the Jesuits, 'those indefatigable storm-troopers of the Lord', tried in vain to convert, 'But those defunct Amerindians had possessed a singular charm' (Carter, 1982, p.69). This is the crucial statement – the one from which she cannot go back. We are in South America. The city is situated in the top half of that continent, with mountains to the north of it (like Venezuela or Guiana), and an Atlantic coast (as we will see when Desiderio sets sail for Africa with his travelling companion the Count). The successive layers of Portuguese, Dutch and English occupancy make it tempting to identify it with the Surinam of Aphra Behn – at any rate as a kind of rough 'mirror'. just as Colombia serves as a template for Conrad's Costaguana (at least in geographical position).

The word' Amerindian' may leave us with no doubts, but it is still curious that it should have been delayed so long, surrounded with so much mystification (a mystification accompanied by almost obsessive detailing of 'physical features of landscape and people), and that the formula 'South America' has still not been used. [spoke earlier of a 'rhetoric of absence' – a kind of accent placed on the one, almost inevitable word or phrase associated with a particular situation which is not said – but a further reason for Carter's choice of South America as the setting for her metaphysical war of dreams is hinted at in Desiderio's remark:

if we had not existed, Dr. Hoffman could not have invented a better country in which to perform his experiments ... were we not – except myself – almost all of us expatriates? (Carter, 1982, p.68)

For 'Dr. Hoffman', read 'Angela Carter'. South America offers all the facilities for her deracinated, post-modern narrative style. It is both part of the colonized world and, because of the antiquity of its conquest, one of the colonizers – it is both Europeanized and ambivalently 'native'. It contains representatives of all races, and yet is not (unlike, say, China or India) still dominated by its indigenous inhabitants. Unlike more recent countries where Europeans have displaced the native races (Australia, New Zealand), the dominant culture in Latin America is neither Iberian nor Indian but something new, something in the process of becoming. Something, what is more, which is perpetually renewed in the Old World's need for an alternative, a mirror for its own entrenched ways.

The 'river people' themselves, the Indian tribe which Desiderio takes up with after his escape from the Determination police, offer another example of this employment of South America as a kind of 'control culture' – one which, by including all peoples and customs, is left with none of its own. The girl Aoi, who is offered to Desiderio in marriage, wears the elaborate make-up of a Japanese doll: 'it was the custom for all the women to stain their teeth black' (Carter, 1982, p.71); they also painted their faces so that' A coat of matt white covered [their] nose, cheeks and forehead but left [their] necks and ears as brown as nature made them', while 'On top of this white crust [they] put a spherical scarlet dot in the middle of each cheek' (Carter, 1982, p.71). Their mouths are painted with a red heart which 'completely ignored the real contours of the lips', and 'The eyebrows were painted out and painted in again some three inches above the natural position, giving ... an habitual look of extreme surprise (Carter, 1982, p.72). Some of these details – the brown faces, or the red dots on the cheeks might be matched by the customary regalia of certain Amazon tribes, The white, mask-like make-up, the false eyebrows and the blackened teeth are. however, all familiar features of Japanese high fashion in the Heian era (c.900-1100 A.D.), during which Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji, one of whose heroines is also called 'Aoi', was composed.

This 'Japanese' iconography might be accidental if it were not for the fact that it matched the themes of the chapter so closely. Aoi, who is still a little girl, carries a doll which turns out to be a 'large fish dressed up in baby clothes':

Whenever the fish began to rot, Mama exchanged it for a fresh one just like it so that, though the doll was always changing, it always stayed exactly the same. (Carter, 1982, pp.75-76)

This last remark becomes significant when Desiderio begins to suspect that the real 'consummation' of the elaborate courtship rituals he is being led through by Aoi and her grandmother is his own death. He finds that a large kitchen knife has replaced the dressed-up fish.

Carter seems, then, to be using national features as a kind of extended metaphor. Just as the imagery of German Romanticism assisted her in the last chapter to make a series of points about the elaborate death-in-love at the root of nineteenth-century Gothic: in this one Carter wishes to show a class of women outwardly conforming to all the characteristics of a 'living doll', but in fact concealing murderous aggression within. Another one of the stories in Fireworks becomes significant in this context – The Loves of Lady Purple' – one of the several on Japanese themes written after her visit there in the early seventies.

In this story, a doll which has been used as the repository for the sadistic fantasies of its creator, the 'Asiatic Professor' (Carter, 1987, p.23), finally comes to life and murders its Pygmalion. In a similar way, the river-women, slaves, to a, rigid kinship structure, are programmed both to make love to and (in cases determined by the tribe), murder strangers. Desiderio feels unable to blame them as he once again makes his escape – they assumed that by eating him they would gain his knowledge of reading and writing – but it convinces him that his desire to become, once again, an 'Indian' is impossible. Is it that the river-dwellers are seen by him as Japanese, and are therefore presented as such in his narrative – or that Carter herself means to imply that there is no road back from the colonial impasse, the appropriation of meaning by an alien culture? [n either case, Desiderio finds himself forced to resume his deracinated progress through the successive genres and peoples of this textualized 'South America'.

[Acrobats (1934)]



(d) The Acrobats of Desire


It would be neither practical nor desirable to continue our discussion of Carter's novel on this scale. I therefore propose, in our examination of the remaining five chapters, to highlight only a few themes in each, reserving a more comprehensive analysis for the conclusion.

This town was full of malevolent saints. Shut in on themselves in their isolation, they were an inbred mixture of Carpathian Poles and mountain French whose forefathers had fled to Europe in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries due to persecutions of the squpulous sects of the reformed religion to which they belonged. (Carter, 1982, p.114)

After his traumatic escape from the river people, with whom he had hoped to stay forever, Desiderio returns to the travelling carnival and becomes assistant to the old man in charge of the peep-show containing Dr. Hoffman's 'set of samples' (Carter, 1982, p.95). These (including the pictures that Desiderio saw before) are the 'symbolic constituents of representations of the basic constituents of the universe. If they are properly arranged, all the possible situations in the world and every possible mutation of those situations can be represented' (Carter, 1982, pp.95-96).

In other words, then, the peep-show might be seen as a kind of 'Memory-theatre', like those discussed in Frances Yates' Art of Memory (1966), which enables its controller, or 'Magus', to order and thus contain and control the structure of the universe. This cabbalistic vision is summed up in the following terms:

everything it is possible to imagine can also exist. A vast encyclopedia of mythological references supported this initial hypothesis – shamans of Oceania ... poets of medieval Ireland ... Hoffman had moved well out of the realm of pure science and resurrected all manner of antique pseudo-sciences, alchemy, geomancy ... th~ ancient Chinese ... elemental aspects of maleness and femaleness. (Carter, 1982, p.97)

All that is needed for the display of such a plethora of different powers is a central, neutral ground; and thus it is that we notice in this list that Oceania, Europe (in the form of ancient Ireland), Asia (in the form of ancient China), even (a little further down) the Marquis de Sade are all invoked, but there is no mention made of any aspect of America – despite its obvious associations with shamanism.

The travelling fair itself, personification of the chaos of carnival, is also a 'microcosm with as gaudy, circumscribed, rotary and absurd a structure as a roundabout' (Carter, 1982, p.99):

Mexican comedians: intrepid equestriennes from Nebraska, Kansas or Ohio whose endless legs and scrubbed features were labelled 'Made in U.S.A.'; Japanese dwarfs ... ; Norwegian motor-cyclists ... dancing albinos ... the bearded lady and the alligator man (Carter, 1982, p.98).

Mexico and the United States at last rate a mention, but only in the catalogue of freaks – South Americans remaining obstinately absent ('Natives of the fairground, they acknowledged no other nationality' (Carter, 1982, p.98)).

It is in this context that the quotation at the beginning of this section acquires interest. There is a misprint in it. It should be 'whose forefathers had fled from Europe [to South America)', instead of 'fled to Europe', but the fact that the mistake could be made at all is not without a certain interest. Carter's South America is, after all, so obstinately un-South American. It is not, therefore, surprising that a proofreader should miss so subtle an error – after all, the Carpathians, the mountain French, these are all aspects of Europe.

I highlight this insignificant error because it allows us to see how far the purposes of Dr. Hoffman at this point resemble those of his creator, Angela Carter. Like him. she is assembling the 'symbolic constituents' of her culture in the form of a picaresque novel (significantly, when the leader of the river people decides to try and learn to read from Desiderio, 'he sent one of his sons off to buy ... any book he could find, which happened to be a translation of Gulliver's Travels' (Carter, 1982, pp.74-75) – Carter's narrative, too, could be said to be a 'translation' of Swift's satire on the follies and knaveries of mankind). Just as Hoffman, the Magus at the centre of his Memory Theatre, must situate himself in neutral space – his castle in the womb, 'I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE' – so Carter places her narrative in a New World that is so much a mirror for the Old' that it has no character of its own. Carnival, the world upside down, is at the centre of both their enterprises – and the 'Minister of Determination' places the same necessary but unwelcome brake on both. Hoffman's world dissolves into anarchy when his 'set of samples' is lost in an earthquake – and the brutal oppression needed to return it to any semblance of form results in the loss of the fruitful fantasies he has collected. Carter's novel, too, can convey its simultaneous love and suspicion of chaos only through the rigidities of the conventional novelistic structure she has chosen – and her failure to bring about a happy consummation seems as much a result of the constraints of form as an expression of ideology.

The metaphor for this in the context of this chapter is the performance of the nine Moroccan acrobats, who 'limb by limb ... dismembered themselves' until The severed heads and arms and feet and navels began to juggle with eighteen fringed, unblinking eyes' (Carter, 1982, pp.113-14). In a novel, anything is possible which can be expressed in words – but that does not mean that anything is desirable. The wonderful (and impossible) act of these acrobats is by no means morally neutral - like the free-ranging illusions of Dr. Hoffman, their control of their own bodies encourages them to experiment with Desiderio's, so that:

in this holy city, I was fucked in the anus, against my will (as far, that is, as I was conscious of my desires), by all nine of the Moroccan acrobats, one after the other. (Carter, 1982, p.115)

This sexual cataclysm, it is implied, may be responsible for the earthquake which swallows up the entire travel1ing fair (with the exception of Desiderio), and destroys Hoffman's control over his own creations.

The structure of this chapter, then, is expressed in a series of ordering devices which in fact promote chaos, The 'symbolic constituents ... of the universe' in the peep-show are mirrored by the 'microcosm' of the travelling fair (echoes in the world of the novel of the use to which Carter herself is putting 'South America'). The gang-rape of Desiderio by the 'Acrobats of Desire' is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that so rigid a structure cannot be extended to contain its opposites and antitheses – that no balance can be achieved between the 'Determinism' of the Minister's city and the absolute freedom (freedom even to self-destruct) of Hoffman's universe.

[Clovis Trouille: Dolmance]



(e) The Erotic Traveller


With Hoffman's control over his own creations broken, Carter's novel, too, begins to come loose from its own self-definition in terms of setting and era, The first expression of this state of flux comes with the advent of the Count, an amalgam of Gilles de Retz, Cagliostro, the Marquis de Sade, and Casanova, His account of his travels confirms his status as 'some kind of ontological freelance' (Carter, 1982, pp.144-45) who thrives on the imbalance between the two armed camps of the Minister and Dr. Hoffman:

I witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius when thousands were coffined alive in molten lava, I saw eyes burst and fat run out of roast crackling in Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Dresden. I dabbled my fingers in the blood beneath the guillotine during the Terror. (Carter, 1982, pp.122-23)

His freedom to range through Roman antiquity, the eighteenth century, and up to World War Two is presumably the result of the existential anarchy unleashed by the destruction of Dr. Hoffman's samples in the earthquake – but it is significant that the only link between these eras is the different types of cruelty and suffering they contain. The Count, who also seems to have something of Count Dracula in him, demands to be serviced in the whorehouse they visit by a girl who 'must have come straight from the whipping parlour for her back was a ravelled palimpsest of wound upon wound – she was neither animal nor vegetable nor technological; this torn and bleeding she was the most dramatic revelation of the nature of meat that I have ever seen' (Carter, 1982, p.133). After the Count's attentions she is left 'only a bleeding moan' (Carter, 1982, p.137). The house, fittingly enough, is called the 'House of Anonymity' – symbolizing, one presumes. the power of sexuality in its most impersonal form.

Once again, South America is the one place not mentioned by name in the Count's account of his own peregrinations:

When I first left my native Lithuania. I went at once to China ... [then] the rest of Asia ... the exquisitely bell-haunted city of Kyoto ... Siam ... Europe ... condemned to burn at the stake in Spain, to hang by the neck in England and to break upon the wheel in a singularly inhospitable France ... (fled to North America, where I knew my barbarities would pass unnoticed ... Quebec ... Salem, Mass. ... Alabama ... New Orleans (Carter, 1982, pp.126-27).

There, however, he meets his nemesis. 'In a perfumed bordello in New Orleans I strangled with my legs a mulatto whore ... But after that, I became the object of the vengeance of her enraged pimp, a black of more than superhuman inhumanity, in whom I sense a twin', and who has pursued him

over the neck of the continent, through deserts ... jungles ... and then across those rearing mountains ... than which, even in the steppes of Central Asia, I have seen nothing more arid or inimical. (Carter, 1982, p.127)

The Count is not so much a character as an expression of desire – or, at any rate, of the rationalized cruelty and perversity known as Sadism. His effect on the narrative is to reduce it to its barest essentials – the chronological confusion here being matched by wholesale geographical relativity in the next chapter.

[The Would-be Cannibal Feast]



(f) The Coast of Africa


The Count persuaded Desiderio, at the end of the previous chapter, that:

I must go with him to Europe, to another continent, to another hemisphere, where everything would be new because it was so old and there was no war, no Dr Hoffman, no Minister, no quest, no Albertina – nothing familiar except myself. (Carter, 1982, p.141)

This is perhaps the nicest twist yet in Carter's subversion of the conventional 'New World' narrative – the Old World is defined precisely as the absence of those qualities it has supplied to the New.

I had not the least idea what time or place the Count might take me to though, since his modes of travel were horseback. gig and tall-masted schooner, I guessed, wherever it was, it would be somewhere in the early nineteenth century. (Carter, 1982, p.143)

So powerful is the ontological effect of the Count's solipsism, that he is able to impose his own view of their surroundings on his companions – even to the extent, when he conjures up a group of blood-crazed pirates, of endangering his own life. Vestiges of another reality keep on breaking through, however. Desiderio and the Count's servant Lafleur (actually Albertina in disguise) notice 'one or two teasing anachronisms' (Carter, 1982, p.144) – a wind-up gramophone, a radio – on board the schooner, but the Count's vision again prevails when they are shipwrecked on the coast of Africa:

I was not at all sure to which continent the ground belonged. I thought it must be my own far American South but the Count opted hopefully for savage Africa while Lafleur observed remotely that we had not the least notion where we really were but had probably been blown willy-nilly on to the coast of some distant island. When we went down to the beach to wash ourselves. we soon saw the inhabitants were black and so felt certain we were in Africa. (Carter, 1982, p.155)

Again, there is a battle of genres among our three protagonists. 'Lafleur' (Albertina) plumps for a Robinsonade on a desert island; Desiderio prefers a Ulysses-like return to his 'own far American South' – note, still not 'South America' itself – while the Count would prefer a reversion to savagery on the one continent, by his own account, which he has not yet visited and named.

In these regions, you may observe man in his constitutionally vicious, instinctively evil and studiously ferocious form – in a word, in the closest possible harmony with the natural world. (Carter, 1982, p.161)

With both place and time uncertain, thanks to the loss of Hoffman's samples, the Count is forced to take refuge in the certainties of his own imagination. The imagery of his 'Africa' might have come straight from Montaigne's essay 'Des Cannibales', about Brazil. The malleable nature of this stereotypical 'savage' landscape is stressed in the descriptive details that follow – 'a jaunty detachment of Amazons' (p.156) form the Chief's bodyguard; they march through 'vaulted architraves of the palms ... emerald feathers which formed the capitals of this vegetable cathedral' (p.157) – a reference to Hudson's Green Mansions?; 'The chief' wears, impossibly, 'the pelt of a tiger' (p.159), while 'His appalling face suggested more than Aztec horrors' (p.159), Finally, he informs them, 'those delightful children who seem, each one, to have stepped straight off the pen of Jean-Jacques Rousseau ... [dine] daily off a grilled rump, or roasted shoulder, a stew, a fricassee, or else a hash of human meat ... since this diet is certain to triple the libidinal capacities, as my wives and concubines can willingly testify' (Carter, 1982, p.159). The Count, deciding that this 'chief' is none other than his old enemy, the black pimp, resigns himself to dying in a cooking pot. Freed finally from his destructive imagination, Albertina and Desderio are able narrowly to escape the same fate.

[Jean Grandville: Voyage chez les Houyhnhnms (1856)]



(g) Lost in Nebulous Time


Wandering in the shadowy regions of possibility opened up by the Count's death and her father's loss of complete control over nature, Albertina and Desiderio come upon a race of centaurs, living lives of classic ease and simplicity, who take them in as slaves, Having examined in successive chapters the motivating forces behind European Romanticism ('The Mansion.'.of Midnight'), anthropophragous native cultures (The River People', Carnival(The Acrobats of Desire'), Sadistic Picaresque (The Erotic Traveller'), and now Rousseau-esque 'savagery' ('The Coast of Africa '), Carter is now prepared to re-imagine the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels (1726). Lest the allusion to Swift should be lost on us, she adds:

when I tried to tell the bay that by far the greater number of social institutions in the world were made by weak, two-legged, thin-skinned creatures much the same as Albertina and I, he told me in so many words that I was lying. For, because they were men, they had many words to describe conditions of deceit; they were not Houyhnhnms. (Carter, 1982, p.187)

Certainly one's sense of disquiet at the 'ideal' lives of Swift's Houyhnhnms is given ammunition here. All the males in the herd rape Albertina on her first arriving in their midst.

And though Albertina was the object of a rape, the males clearly did not know it was a rape. They showed neither enthusiasm nor gratification. It was only some form of ritual, another invocation of the Sacred Horse. (Carter, 1982, p.180)

Another ritual of the same kind is their yahoo-like emptying of the bowels on any ceremonial or religious occasion. Their theologians, still with the same simple logic and lack of affect, decide to torture their two guests to death by tattooing them, then nailing horseshoes to their feet and leaving them to be trampled to death by the wild horses .. Only the sudden advent of one of Dr. Hoffman's reconnaissance squads saves them from this fate, though the centaurs' civilization is swallowed up in the fire-storm that ensues.

[David Lee Fisher: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (2006)]



(h) The Castle


The quasi-fascism of these Swiftian monads is succeeded by Desiderio's final penetration of the castle of Dr. Hoffman himself. We have, however, 'been here before' – and it is difficult to keep up the tension as we approach this most preordained of conclusions.

Our analysis of the implications of the name 'Hoffman' is confirmed by the statement that his study

was half Rottwang's laboratory in Lang's Metropolis but it was also the cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Carter, 1982, p.204).

– Two of the most potent images of German Expressionist cinema, heir to the Gothic impulse.

The Doctor also confirms the reasons for his choice of South America as a base:

I used the capital city of this country as the testing ground for my first experiments because the unstable existential structure of its institutions could not suppress the latent consciousness as effectively as a structure with a firmer societal organization. I should have had very little success in, for example, Peking (Carter, 1982, p.211).

(If this is also Carter's reasoning concerning her choice of South America, it would imply an interesting distinction between Barthes' sinité – his clichés associated with China – and the elusive and oblique readings of 'South America' which have been explored in this study).

Finally, we come to Desiderio's inevitable break with Albertina, when he refuses to convert their 'eroto-energy' into the force required to power the Doctor's unreality dynamos. As they grapple over the corpse of her father, 'I savaged her throat with my teeth as if I were a tiger and she were the trophy I seized in the forests of the night' (Carter, 1982, p.216). The uneasy prophecy of the peep-show's severed female head – 'TROPHY OF A HUNTER IN THE FORESTS OF THE NIGHT' (Carter, 1982, p.46) – is at last confirmed.

The sources of Hoffman's power are absent in the new city which grows up after his downfall.

The golden bowl is not broken in this city. It is round as a cake and everyone may have a slice of it, according to his need. A need is nothing like a desire. (Carter, 1982, p.207)

'Desire', then – the forces associated with the chaos and fantasy of Dr. Hoffman - is defeated by 'need' (personified by the Minister of Determination). In Carter's novel, though, the two remain in tension – the struggle between rigid (if picaresque) form and fantastic content cannot be resolved in favour of one or the other. Albertina, significantly, continues to visit Desiderio in his dreams.

[Kathy Acker (1940-1997)]

III

Conclusion



We have charted the literary uses of the concept of 'South America' in a number of ways in the course of this study – from the straightforwardly Edenic 'New World' readings of the first discoverers, to the subtler fictions of writers like Behn, Hudson, Masefield and Conrad, and finally the subversive strategies of Elizabeth Bishop and Angela Carter, who see in South America' a mirror for their own deracination both as women (in a patriarchal society), and writers (whose tools of discourse come to them ideologically 'ready-made'). This reversal of traditional views may be apparent only by implication (signalled by elements which have not been repeated) in Bishop's poems and translations. but it can be demonstrated in detail in writers like Carter and Kathy Acker (whose Blood and Guts in High School (1978) is set partly in Yucatán, Mexico). This last strand seems to me, if not the most interesting, at any rate the most sustainable of these stances in view of the plethora of 'native voices' which can now, in the second half of the twentieth century, lay claim to providing a literary model for their own continent.

Both Carter and Acker (in Kathy Goes to Haiti (1978)) have seized upon South America's reputation for carnivalesque inversion and eroticism to provide a complementary critique of Western (generic) norms of love and sexuality. In Acker's books, sex is shown as an irretrievably tainted act in a culture dominated by death. She describes the Mayan ruins explored by her heroine 'Janey' in the following terms:

Monumental ruins.

... buildings, vast and fearsome. Thousands of endlessly wide steps on all sides lead up to a tiny room, eagles and rattlesnakes, outside. inside? Inside this structure, steps, narrow, steep and wet, deep within the structure a small jaguar whose teeth are bright white, mounted by a reclining man. The outer steps are so tiny, the burning white sun endlessly high. The climb. It is easy to fall.

All of the other structures are the same way. Heavily ornamented and constructed so beyond human scale they cause fear. Ball parks that cause fear. What for? Why does Rockefeller need more money so badly he kills the life in the waters around Puerto Rico? Why does one person follow his/her whims to the detriment (deep suffering) of someone that person supposedly loves?

.. Don't say it out loud. The long wall of skulls next to the ball park repeats the death. (Acker, 1984, pp.16-17)

The tainted quality of the writing she has inherited is satirized by her broken, fragmentary sentences, followed by the clichéd speech of the professional counsellor, 'his/her whims to the detriment (deep suffering) of someone that person supposedly loves'. So deeply infected is this language that Janey is forced to resort to literal cribs of Sextus Propertius' Latin when she attempts to compose a series of love poems to her pimp, the Persian slave trader, whom she loves 'because she had nothing else to feel':

Slave Trader first with his lousy me imprisoned eyes
diseased by no before wants.
Then my strong he threw down the drain individuality
and head forced into the dust LOVE'S feet
(Acker, 1984, pp.101).

Though, perversely, this process ends by yielding a sort of pared-down eloquence:

You hear can the raging of oceans under bridges,
brave? on hard cold floor how to sleep you can know?
you, delicate and scared, survive chills and frosts
you can, not used to the slightest snow?
Let winter's be double the length of solstice
let be dead 'cause of late the sailors Pleiades
let no your from the Tyrrhenian be freed ropes muck
let not unfriendly my throwaway winds pleas!
(Acker, 1984, pp.105)

Seeking to destroy conventional rhetoric. Acker succeeds in resurrecting an earlier diction – the speech rhythms of the Anglo-Saxon 'Seafarer'.

The similarity to Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is at once apparent. This novel, essentially, is devoted to dramatizing the links between love and death in Western tradition. In chapter 1, Carter has Hoffman's illusions mating with their abandoned lovers: in chapter 2, the 'liebestod' of the Poe-like Mary Anne. who kills herself or is murdered as a direct result of sleep-walking into the arms' of Desiderio: in chapter 3, the river people conflate the marriage of their daughter with a cannibal feast on the remains of the bridegroom; in chapter 4, an earthquake is triggered by the homosexual rape of Desiderio; in chapter 5, the Count will only make love to what is, in effect, a piece of 'meat'; in chapter 6, members of the African chief's harem lie beneath the wheels of his rolling throne to be mutilated; in chapter 7, the centaurs rape . Albertina as a ritual gesture, and decide to consecrate both bipeds to the service of their god by torturing them to death; while finally, in chapterS, Desiderio is offered a choice between a death-in-life of perpetual love-making to power the Doctor's generators, or the death of his beloved, He chooses the latter.

Carter's employment of 'South America' seems unusual among the authors we have been studying because of her reluctance to name the continent in which her characters reside, This lack of specificity has had the effect, however, as we have seen, of freeing her narrative from the constraints of realist convention and subordinating it solely to the laws of genre, Like Acker, then, she might be seen to be acting more in the service of language itself than as an ideological contestant in the Western 'ball park' of games with love and death.

When, at the beginning of this thesis, I made it clear that this was to be a theoretical exploration of the ways in which the necessity of evoking 'alien-ness' in fiction can be based on the mythological clichés linked to particular regions by the popular imagination, I found it necessary to reject a number of perhaps more obvious approaches to such an inquiry. Catalogues of themes and readings associated with South America certainly still remain to be compiled, but my stress has had to be laid instead on conventions of genre (fiction and non-fiction, history and travel-writing), chronology (methodological distinctions between diachronic and synchronic accounts of the same phenomena), and setting ('real' and 'imaginary' countries – epistemological and ontological worlds).

Carter's, then, far from being a reading of 'South America' anomalous to other parts of the European tradition, can be seen almost as their logical conclusion. Her dependence on genre to dictate the details of both setting and chronology (Desiderio 'guesses' that he will end up in the early nineteenth century, because the Count's 'modes of travel were horseback, gig and tall-masted schooner'; the 'Japanese' and 'Gothic' trimmings of her second and third chapters are dictated by the types of action being described. rather than by any South American 'local colour'), illustrate perfectly the distinction between the geographical and imaginary 'South Americas' which I have been attempting to make throughout.

In short, the answer to the conundrum first posed in my preface is that South America can be distinguished from the 'South America' of particular works of the imagination insofar as only the precise letter of their texts can be a sufficient exposition of the complexity of their relation to that setting. Following on from this point, the distinction between the 'South America', 'Africa', 'South-East Asia' and 'Polynesia' of the European mind is again illustrated by Carter's novel. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman contains, as I have been careful to point out in my account of it, no specifically 'South American' features. True, she mentions 'Indians', the 'Old and New World', the paraphernalia of Carnival, but anyone of these might be taken just as easily to refer to one of the other regions listed above. Its 'South American-ness', then, depends on the emphasis Carter lays throughout on the arbitrariness of such indicators of place. She includes aspects of Europe, of Africa (indeed, the 'Africa' conjured up by the Count's imagination contains more 'South American' elements than any of the scenes set in Desiderio's 'own far American South') – even of Japan – in the effort to establish the textual quality of this 'place'. Carter's 'South America' is nowhere except on paper – nowhere except in the words with which it is evoked – and the only way in which she can signal this is to leave out those two words altogether.

The Latin American writer's relationship to 'Latin America' is a complex one, compounded of national and regional allegiances, and a substratum of literary tropes and conventions coming to him or her from the past. This I have tried to acknowledge in my diagrammatic representation of these influences in Section I of this chapter. The European (or 'Western' – one feels that North America and even Australasia should be included under this heading) writer's relationship to 'South America' is both simpler and more paradoxical. It is paper-thin. What all of the mythologizers and fictionalizers of 'South America' have in common is that their version of it is as comprehensive or subversive as the laws of genre and the dictates of individual talent allow. The 'elusiveness' of identity promised in my title consists in the fact that it can never be extracted from the body of textuality itself – an ontology that consists simply of naming a New World.

[Kathy Acker: Blood and Guts in High School (1984)]




1. Indeed, Gerald Martin claims that 'since the 1960s many of the most important new writers – Italo Calvino, Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco – have had to become "Latin American" novelists' (1989, p.7).

2. Another example of this 'double-influence' from (b) to (c), and then from (d) to (b) is supplied by Isabel Allende, a model for modern women writers such as Christine Bell (Saint (1985)) and Charlotte Mendez (Condor and Hummingbird (1986)), who began her literary career as a translator of Barbara Cartland novels into Spanish, 'subversively rewriting them to make the heroines stronger characters' – though, as Antony Beevor, one of the reviewers of her second novel Of Love and Shadows, remarks: 'It is almost as if Allende ... had in the end been slightly corrupted by the contact.' (1987, p.740).

3. 'Here they built a house for Jesus, a bank, a prison, a stock exchange, a madhouse, a suburb and a slum. It was complete. It prospered.' (Carter, 1982, p.67).




[Steve Pyke: Kathy Acker (New York, 1984)]

Works Cited:

  • Acker, Kathy. Blood and Guts in High School, plus two. London: Picador, 1984.

  • Acker, Kathy. Young Lust: Kathy Goes to Haiti; The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec; Florida. London: Pandora, 1989.

  • Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits. Trans. Magda Bogin. London, 1986.

  • Barnes, Julian. Flaubert's Parrot. 1984. London: Picador, 1985.

  • Beevor, Antony. 'Review of Of Love and Shadows, by Isabel Allende'. TLS, 4397 (10 July 1987): 740.

  • Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

  • Carter, Angela. Fireworks. 1974. Rev. Ed. London: Virago, 1987.

  • Carter, Angela. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. 1972. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

  • García Márquez, Gabriel. El olor de la guayaba: Conversaciones can Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza. Barcelona, 1982.

  • García Márquez, Gabriel. The Fragrance of Guava: Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza in Conversation with Gabriel García Márquez. Trans. Ann Wright. London, 1983.

  • 'In Brief'. TLS, 4462 (7 October 1988): 1108.

  • Martin, Gerald. Journeys through the Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Critical Studies in Latin American Culture. London: Bloomsbury, l989.

  • Shikibu, Murasaki. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Edward D. Seidensticker. Harmondsworth: Penguin,1981.

  • Yates, Frances A. The Art of Memory. 1966. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987.



[Kathy Acker: Don Quixote, Which Was a Dream (1986)]

1 comment: