Silvia G. Kurlat Ares, La ilusión persistente: Diálogos entre la ciencia ficción y el campo cultural (Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana, 2018, 430pp, $30.00 [import only])
Reviewed by Valentina Salvatierra
In this volume, Silvia G. Kurlat Ares carries out a synthesis of Anglo-American theory, Latin American criticism, and an Argentine transmedia corpus of science fiction. Kurlat’s approach follows the likes of Samuel R. Delany and Damien Broderick in understanding sf as a mode of reading literature, rather than a genre: ‘hablamos de modalidad en tanto y en cuanto se constituye como un sistema de aproximación/interpretación de y sobre discursos y objetos’. Amid this variety of discourses and objects, La ilusión persistente focuses on three broad categories: comics, magazines and narrative. In these three media, sf is able to reveal the underlying logic and presuppositions of Argentina’s apparent common sense, materials that Kurlat argues remain hidden in canonical literature of the same period. In each part of this book, the works studied are related to canonical texts and mainstream socio-political debates specific to Argentina in order to account for the local specificity and variability of sf. Kurlat’s approach coheres well with Stanislaw Lem’s notion paraphrased in the introduction: it is impossible to read and understand sf without having had the joyous experience of reading canonical literature.
Albeit conceptually ambitious, some formal weaknesses in this book slightly impair the readerly experience, and any future editions could seek to remedy them. There are occasional instances of sloppy referencing, and typos such as duplicate words, which suggest an insufficient editing process. So, for example, the citation for an extensive quote about the idea of the novel as place is absent from both the author-specific bibliographies and the general one. Likewise, occasional paraphrases such J. Andrew Brown’s notions of the specifically Argentine construction of a postmodern subject, despite being crucial to her argument, are too vague to track down. In the same vein, an index would have helped maximize this book’s usefulness as a resource for future research into Latin American sf. Although original and sharp in its treatment of its subject matter, such formal limitations need to be taken into account when considering the work’s overall quality as a piece of scholarship.
The first of the book’s three parts deals with sf comics. This medium’s double marginality is made clear in an opening chapter that points out both the general marginality of science fiction, and the way that Argentine graphic narrative attempted to bridge the gap between the cultured elite and the masses, associated in intellectual circles with the ideals of ‘national’ and ‘popular’ culture. Kurlat sketches the wider cultural field in which the sf comics she analyses in the next two chapters are placed, including political events such as the rise of Peronism and the Revolución Libertadora (the military uprising that ended Juan Perón’s second government). The next chapter turns specifically towards Héctor Germán Oesterheld’s El Eternauta (1957-9). Here, Kurlat shows through close analysis, and the incisive contrast with canonical texts such as Julio Cortázar’s ‘Casa tomada’ (1951), the way that this comic organizes a series of oppositional identities in order to represent a subject-people (literally a ‘sujeto-pueblo’) in a way that parallels the construction of this notion under Peron’s government. Through such movements, the historical context that was perhaps too summarily described in the preceding chapter comes into sharper focus. Chapter 3 then deals with Ciudad (1983), identifying the city as the key novum in the comic, one which allows it to experiment with and defamiliarize ideological materials already present in the Argentine imaginary of the city. Kurlat deftly traces the local genealogy of the city as literary motif and therefore manages to give local specificity to Darko Suvin’s critical apparatus of cognitive estrangement. In the first part’s closing section, Kurlat consolidates her analysis of El Eternauta and Ciudad, explaining that the ‘popular’ dimension in these comics emerges when they are viewed as a list of qualities, a ‘desideratum’, expected from a cultural production that aspires to be national and popular, while at the same time the comics reveal the fragility and inner contradictions of these political ideals.
Part two is concerned more specifically with the construction of the Argentine sf community. It opens with a summary of the history of Argentine sf magazines, tracing both their connections to the North American pulp tradition and local trends such as the general publishing boom of the 1970s and `80s. At this stage, Kurlat delves further into sociological analysis of the genre’s specific audience, a readership with enough economic and cultural capital to consolidate itself into a community and begin establishing a canon. The following analysis delves deeper into the consolidation of the fandom, showing the role of illustration in connecting readers with magazines. Chapter 6 then turns towards the critical articles in the same foundational magazines Péndulo and Minotauro, showing the way they established the ideological and aesthetic parameters of Argentine sf. In a striking confirmation of the bias Kurlat sets out to revise, these magazines constructed their exegetical parameters based on Anglo-American traditions, especially the New Wave, while texts originally written in Spanish often did not fit with their own taxonomy. Magazine editors attempted to exclude both magic realism and mass cultural products (those akin to the pulp and space opera traditions) from the paradigm of Spanish sf production, while at the same time the selection of local authors belied these aims. Ultimately, these magazines helped to locate sf in the cultural field as an object whose enjoyment demands a knowledge of high culture yet is relegated to the space of ‘popular’ literature because of its market characteristics and particular aesthetic. In their complexity and apparent contradictions, magazines emerge as a lens through which to appreciate the complexity of the wider cultural field in which Argentine sf operates.
Having considered magazines and their production context, Kurlat turns towards the long-form prose narratives of Angélica Gorodischer, Carlos Gardini and Marcelo Cohen, devoting one chapter to each. Across these three authors’ oeuvres, spanning the 1960s to the early 2000s, Kurlat detects a critical reflection around how totalizing ideals of society can lead to authoritarianism and fascism, specific political phenomena that Argentine authors had to grapple with in ways that authors of the global North did not. She also contrasts the authors’ ideas of the present as contingent and utopia as a process. Such spatial and temporal notions contrast with the reified past and inescapable present of the historical novel that had become the dominant genre in the Argentine literary mainstream by the 1980s. While deploying Fredric Jameson and Ernst Bloch as key references when articulating these ideas, Kurlat also manages to stay close to the local context, referencing the work of Argentine critic Beatriz Sarlo and the political specificities of the country. In this way, Kurlat avoids falling into the trap that she herself denounces of naively applying foreign theoretical materials to a country with significant differences, in technological and economic development, from the countries where such materials were conceived.
The book’s closing chapter identifies several shared traits across media and therefore effectively avoids an illusory division between them. These include, to name a few, the contradictions in notions of national and popular identity, treatments of monstrosity as a depiction of otherness, and the critical utopia as a method to envision Argentina’s future in opposition to the stagnant present of historical novels. The conclusion makes explicit that sf as a cross-medium modality deals with such materials in a way not available to mainstream cultural products. The presence of these shared topics across the three media analysed confirms that Kurlat’s analysis captures something significant about the way that Argentine sf has operated in the wider cultural field.
In her introduction, Kurlat explains that sf written in Argentina was not easy to classify politically, leading to local critics classifying it as a mass-market product as well as a foreign implantation. This book shows that this stereotype is inaccurate, as sf effectively combines high and low culture for an audience that, if anything, belonged to the educated upper classes. Argentine sf also deals with political events in ways that are far from escapist, although often coded – which is why understanding it as a mode of reading, not always accessible to the uninitiated, is so effective in the Argentine case. This understanding allows Kurlat to present sf as breaking with traditionally dualist political discourses, favouring multiplicity instead and often revealing the programmatic flaws of mainstream tendencies such as the populisms of 21st century Latin America. In this way, Kurlat’s work contributes specifically to the comprehension of Argentine sf, as well as offering a model for the genre’s study in other Latin American countries.