Mabel Moraña, The Monster as War Machine, trans. Andrew Ascherl (Cambria Press, 2018, 532pp, £87.99)
Reviewed by David Dalton
Moraña’s book is a must-read for anyone working in the field of teratology or postcolonial studies. Her ambitious project aims to categorize and theorize the monstrous from the medieval period to the present. The scope constitutes one of its great strengths and lays bare one of its most severe limitations: in attempting to categorically define the monster, she necessarily cherry-picks certain cases that highlight her arguments particularly well while ignoring other cases of monstrosity that could qualify or challenge her claims. I do not mean to levy this as a harsh critique of her work; rather, I wish to point out that even after finishing the entire tome – which consists of excellent argumentation over more than five hundred pages of painstaking research – the reader feels as if s/he has only scratched the surface of the subject. Far from a shortcoming on Moraña’s part, this fact testifies to the extent to which she has opened new avenues for future inquiry on the intersections of the monstrous and postcolonial thought. Originally published in Spanish as El monstruo como máquina de Guerra (Verso, 2017), the book was not immediately available to Anglophone audiences despite its clear pertinence to so many fields. Fortunately, its translation has greatly expanded the book’s potential reach, beyond its original audience, and to broader discussions of teratology than the Latin American and Iberian Peninsula.
The translation is both engaging and true to the academic rigour of the original text (which I have also read). I was a bit disappointed in Cambria Press’s decision not to translate some direct quotations from Spanish into English, but a non-Hispanic reader will still understand Moraña’s principal arguments. When the book delves into literary and cultural production from outside the Hispanic world, such as when discussing King Kong (1933) and Godzilla (1954) or theorizing a zombie aesthetic in Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982), the secondary criticism is almost exclusively rendered in English. Consequently, even if the reader is not a Spanish speaker, the few direct quotations left in the original language will not deter them from an understanding of the argument.
Moraña begins with an introduction that attempts to situate the monster within Western thought; she highlights, for example, its subversive potential to ‘[ruin] the status quo’. She also explains her decision to favour the Latin American cultural context in her later chapters because it provides a key, peripheral counterweight to Western articulations. She then provides several chapters, each of which could easily be a book in and of itself, to consider the monster from different academic/theoretical standpoints. Some of the chapters attempt to parse a genealogy of the monster, while others focus primarily on the intersection between the monster and critical theory.
Chapter two provides an excellent – though extremely long – study that showcases both the great strengths and the limitations of Moraña’s methodological approach. She provides a rough chronology that begins with the vampires that haunted Medieval European thought before advancing slowly toward the colonial Americas. From there she moves to the post-Enlightenment monster. In these first three sections of the chapter, the reader can – and probably will – construct a genealogy of the Latin American monster: the medieval ideas, while not exactly Hispanic, provide a baseline for understanding the monsters that would later engender those that emerged on the other side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, this genealogy becomes much less clear in later sections of the chapter, which highlight Frankenstein (1818), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Dracula (1897). Given that these texts emerged in the Old World after the colonization of Latin America, one begins to wonder how she decided which monsters to include (and which to exclude) in her study. She finishes this chapter with a section on post-WW2 monsters. Many of these later case studies will prove especially interesting to scholars working outside of Latin American studies. Indeed, the translation brings parts of the book that would have been of lesser interest to scholars of Latin American literature to the fore, making them available to specialists who previously may not have known about – or been able to read – Moraña’s work.
Chapters three to six are particularly useful for scholars of teratology and/or postcolonialism, regardless of their regional focus. Chapter three uses the vampire, the zombie and the cyborg to discuss Marxist critiques of capital. Chapter four engages a host of Global North theorists ranging from Sigmund Freud to Jean Baudrillard, Donna Haraway to Gilles Deleuze. The academic dialogues tease out how the monster interfaces with some of the most important thinkers of the Western world. Chapter six begins with a discussion of freak shows before moving onto Thriller and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). These chapters should prove insightful for anyone working on the monster from a theoretical perspective. Certainly, people familiar with Moraña’s work will see the connections between her teratological and Latin American thought. Nevertheless, this book may prove to be especially fruitful to people not familiar with her previous work precisely because it will allow scholars to engage her teratology without immediately tying it to her pioneering work in Latin Americanism.
Chapter seven discusses numerous Latin American iterations of different monsters. It is here that Moraña most explicitly argues for the importance of studying teratological works from beyond the cultural centre. Peripheral regions like Latin America have a unique colonial experience; their relationship to capital and capitalism is more visibly oppressive. Beyond discussing the works of important Latin American authors and directors like Adolfo Bioy Casares and Guillermo del Toro, she also discusses Latin America’s contribution to the monster imaginary at a more basic level, for example, the zombie’s etymological roots in Haiti, while also dedicating a chapter to new monsters like the chupacabras. This chapter is perhaps where Moraña finds herself most explicitly in her element just because she is able to build on the painstaking theoretical approach that she has put together over three hundred pages and apply it to the region that has received most of her academic attention throughout her career.
Nevertheless, there are moments where the book struggles with its own identity: is it primarily a book about monstrosity and postcoloniality, or is it first and foremost a book on Latin American thought? The original Spanish text has primarily found itself associated with the latter, though this seems to reflect linguistic considerations more so than the actual argumentation of the text itself. Certainly, Moraña favours Latin America within her study, particularly in parts of chapters two and seven. Nonetheless, most of the examples extend far beyond a single region. The book is theoretically ambitious and at times it is quite dense. That said, its innovative contributions to the monster’s role in society, particularly within a postcolonial setting, makes it essential for any scholar interested in monstrosity and how that interfaces with other academic traditions throughout the world.