Back to the Future in Vanguardia Narrative:
MartÌn Adán's Vision and Revisioning of the New Era
Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez
Sonoma State University, California.
With the exception of Brazil, Peru's launching into a new narrative
in the early part of this century was more unified and had more nationalistic
orientation than other Latin American countries, which primarily identified
with specific urban areas. Peru's first renovative literary stirrings
occurred before the 1920s (as in Brazil) in futurist poems and in narrative
published in journals such as La Tea (1917-1919) and La Semana
(1918-23), blossoming into the Vanguardia journals Flechas , Boletín
Titikaka , and Amauta . These journals helped sustain an examination
of developments in the arts, including national, international, and regional
issues. Although César Vallejo's (1892-1938) poetry is the most
obvious example of Peru's early Vanguardia production, the outstanding
contributor to Vanguardia narrative is surely Martín Adán
(née Rafael de la Fuente Benavides, 1908-1984).
Adán grew up in this era of rapid technological and literary
change, began publishing poetry as a teenager, and started a novel when
he was 18 years old. That short novel, La casa de cartón
(1928; The Cardboard House , 1990), published when Adán
was 20 years old, is the outstanding piece of Vanguardia narrative of the
1920s in Peru. It contains repeated descriptions of smells and sounds,
elaborated in short sentences and paragraphs, not unlike the prose of other
early experimenters, such as Arqueles Vela in Mexico. But Adán
also brought a poetic quality to his prose; he is seen as a rarity who
began his craft by reworking old Spanish style--sonnets, stanzas, romantic
verse--to include neologisms (newly invented words), giddy metaphors, and
magical lyricism. He called his sonnets "anti-sonnets" (Anderson
Imbert 201). This early experimentation in poetry, and his use of irony,
all enhance Adán's prose--a new narrative that resulted
from these influences and his own willingness to experiment.
Politics also played a hand in influencing Adán and other Vanguardia
writers in the early part of the century, who saw the need for understanding
the various facets of reality , and for the acceptance and incorporation
of the origins of Latin American civilization. One of Peru's impressive
presidents, Ramón Castilla, achieved power through armed struggles
in 1844-45 and 1855-1862. A poorly educated mestizo , he seemed
to favor the lower classes. Due to his views on national responsibility
and economic development, he decreed the end of the Indian tribute and
immediate emancipation of slaves; in his second term, he improved public
education, supported military professionalization, and presided over assemblies
that produced two constitutions, a federalist document and a centralized
charter (Skidmore 193). He also pressed for continental unity that would
ensure greater respect for South American republics. Castilla's philosophy
and actions are noted because several presidents of the nineteenth century
seemed interested primarily in power for personal gain. None who succeeded
him were dedicated to helping the mestizo or Indian population. Augusto
Leguía, cited in La casa de cartón , took the reins
in 1919 and ruled Peru as dictator until 1930 (Franco 82), during which
term the nation's social situation, work opportunities, and education scarcely
During Leguía's tenure, Peru suffered the effects of a worldwide
economic depression after World War I, the decline in export demand, and
pressures for technological change. Martín Adán would be
one of the earliest to reflect societal unrest and technological pressures
in prose fiction in Peru. His attempt to help Peruvians remember and cling
to their regional uniqueness is noted by Katherine Silver, who published
an English version of Adán's novel in 1990, in her introduction.
She declares having worked image by image rather than word by word in
her translation, in order to savor each sight, smell, or flight of fancy
evoked by the language. (All English quotes in this essay will be from
Mario Vargas Llosa called Adán's novel "a poetic, sensual,
intuitive, non rational testimony of exterior reality" (Silver viii).
Adán not only wanted to find meaning in his society, but also in
his language. Silver points to Adán's own verse from La casa
de cartón --which is supposed to have been written by the narrator's
alter-ego, Ramón--to seek the intention of Adán's writing
I am not wholly convinced of my own inhumanity:
I do not wish to be like others. I do not want to be
happy with permission of the police . . . ..
The world is insufficient for me (viii).
Adán foresaw the need for a new prose in the twentieth century.
His discourse is based on the shifting forces of life that seldom remain
the same except in memory, hence, the cardboard house. He documents the
tangible and intangible realities of the village of Barranco while dealing
with global conditions of change and modernization that destroy human qualities
for the sake of growth and production. While the novel is critical of
the middle-class society of Lima, it is also a tender portrait of a Peruvian
landscape. The narrator alternates between morose and fond memories, and
the narrative is somewhat expressionistic for its extreme subjectivity
and individualism. Through images, he shows that while the old is lost,
it can be remade a better reality. He renounced traditional narrative
to show how the novel could modernize and art could become new. The village
is a metaphor for his art and his art a metaphor for Peruvian life.
More than nostalgia for the old days of Barranco, his descriptions
illuminated the old and traditional that "will never be" again.
Adán used memories and subconscious observations as images, and
the result was his own sensorial, intuitive, non-rational, poetic testimony
of an exterior reality in contrast to the traditional Realism of a folkloric
Peru (Aguilar Mora 52). Adán's novel is more than lyrical narrative;
it is an avant-garde art representation of socio-political conditions,
of the ineffectiveness of the traditional novel in the new century, and
of the impact of Freudianism or psychological impulses on artistic creation.
Like several other Vanguardia writers, Adán documents the making
of a novel: he cites and critiques modern and traditional writers, poking
fun at conventional rules and structure as he pursues inspiration toward
a new kind of novel. He shows that life's shifting forces of political
change and modernization have a correlative in the need for modernization
La casa de cartón presents the impressions, sensations,
and emotions of Barranco, a small village near the Pacific cliffs and ten
minutes from Lima; it is based on the memories of the narrator's adolescent
vacations with his family. Adán stakes a claim in his prose for
that world of the coastal village, now rapidly changing with economic and
tourist invasions. Although there are sharp comments in the novel about
a gringa (English/Anglo woman) photographer, and older German man,
and a gringo (U.S. American) travel agent, the plot consists mainly
of the narrator's obsession for the loss of his childhood friend Ramón.
The narrator addresses a "you," usually Ramón, as he
recalls their experiences and Ramón's erotic adventures, including
his relationship with his girlfriend, Catita. Ramón died young
and now the narrator has only memories, just as Peru's first century as
an independent nation is a memory as it enters the international world
economy. The name "Ramón" coincides perfectly with the
nineteenth-century president Ramón Castilla, and thus, represents
the lost innocence of a previous era. The narrator also has a relationship
with Catita and at times addresses her as "you" as well. As
the novel develops, in non sequitur short chapters, Ramón and Catita
take on the roles of muses.
The state of narrative fiction merges with the state of Barranco, a
microcosm of Peru, and its/their precarious conditions in a new century
where technology and war threaten their very existence:
El cielo, afiliado al vanguardismo, hace de su blancura pulverulenta,
nubes redondadas de todos los colores que unas veces parecen
pelotas alemanas . . . (Adán 42).
Out of its dusty whiteness, the sky--affiliated with the vanguard--
creates round, multicolored clouds that at times look like German
balls . . . (Silver 42).
The reference to "German" is interesting for its correlation
to recent technology; the toy ball may have been an inflated one, similar
to the world-famous German dirigibles of this era. The melancholic tone
of this paragraph pinpoints achievements--technological or human--that
only result in the end of the world:
¡Ay del que realiza su deseo! . . . (63)
El mundo est· prieto, chico, terroso, como acabado de cosechar
en no sé qué infinitud agrícola (42).
Parecía que todo iba a derrumbarse . . . . (45).
[Un hombre] . . . al filo de un malecón sin baranda. Quizá
no es sino elementos esenciales, fechas fisonómicas, cruces y
mayúsculas, taquigrafía de observador viandante . . . (47).
Woe to the one that realizes his desire! . . . (Silver 71)
The world is little, dark, gritty, as if just harvested in some
unknown agricultural infinity (42).
Everything seemed on the verge of collapse . . . (47).
[A man is at] the edge of the promenade without a railing.
Perhaps everything is nothing but the essential elements,
physiognomic dates, crosses and capital letters, the shorthand
of a wayfaring observer . . . (40).
These words are also a commentary on the frustrations of the creative
act: A new harvest, or a novel, is dark, gritty, essentially newborn,
and precarious; it could easily collapse or fall off the edge as the author
goes about collecting the essential elements to construct the text. The
new novel may also seem as alienating and without reason as some
of the modern changes.
Adán does not look for stable signifiers in his fiction; instead,
his scenes run on incessantly as though subconsciously searching throughout
its discourse (Elmore 76). European narrative after the turn of the century
and preceding World War I sought to interweave reality and imagination,
or science and fiction, in order to explain the creative process. But
the following generation found science-fiction and popular fiction such
as the detective story unable to show the creative dynamic; instead, they
[T]he myth of childhood innocence, the Romantic search for
creativity in naivety, is rendered momentarily inoperative by a
rapid allusion to a metaphorised experience of the machine: the
signifier carburetor, for an emphatic moment, supersedes the
signifier 'enfant' (Mathews 128-129).
As this critic explains, the Romantic and post-Romantic artist's representation
had to be superseded by a new format, even a new creativity. Latin American
artists, primarily residing in urban centers, explored new paths for their
fiction that depicted the impact of modern technology. Adán's narrative
oscillates between excitement and anxiety about the impact of technology.
It has a "sense of development absolutely disrupted, and of coherence
fragmented, gloriously, irredeemably" (126)--a central motif of both
European and Latin American avant-garde in the early decades of this century.
In Adán's novel, fear and despair about the creative act is
compared to the fragility of life, both human and other. In the end, however,
nothing is left, only the originating source, as the narrator's final fragments
of the novel dwell on the immortality of the sea: "Solamente el mar
no ha dejado de ser" (81; "Only the sea has not ceased to be;"
93). This likelihood of failure, of nothing, is a fact of life. The final
pages use images of cancer, mortal fever, a smell of illness, Freud's senselessness,
social revolutions, traveling seventy kilometers an hour on a street where
donkeys pull carts--or a combination of insanities that render a world
truly alienated and replete with despair. In a nutshell, that was reality
in the new technological era.
In this novel, Adán goes full circle to reach this conclusion.
The opening words, "Ya ha principiado el invierno en Barranco;"
"Winter in Barranco has already begun," are followed by a description
of winter, the feelings of a child reluctantly plodding off to school,
and a commentary on the weather. The second fragment is about the sun
and cliffs at the Pacific Ocean's edge; the artist is considering his identity
in his surroundings--an identity that is now at winter, or ending-stage.
The cliffs seem to hold the four cardinal points of the world and the
likeness of faces of old men in the escarpment:
Los huesos crujen a compás en el acompasado accionar, en el
rítmico tender de las manos al cielo del horizonte . . . . Los
mostachos de los viejos cortan finamente, en lonjas como mermelada
cara, una brisa marina y la impregnan de olor de guamanripa, de tabaco
tumbesino, de pañuelo de yerbas, de jarabes criollos para la tos
The bones creak in time with the timed gestures, with the rhythmic
stretching of hands to the sky along the horizon . . . . The old men's
whiskers slice into fine strips like expensive jelly, the sea breeze and
infuse it with the scent of guava trees, tobacco from Tumbes, herb-
scented handkerchiefs, Peruvian cough syrups (4).
The smells of marine commerce combine with nature's rocky cliffs, sea,
and sky. Then, abruptly, the narrator mentions "el Consulado General
de Tomesia, país que hizo Giraudoux . . ." (17; "Consulate
General of Tomesia, a country created by Giraudoux;" 4), making note
of the well-known French writer Jean Giraudoux, considered an influence
on Hispanic avant-garde writers by Susan Nagel (76). By mentioning his
name here, Adán raises a flag to warn his readers that his novel
would be different. Nagel sees Giraudoux's intentions as similar to a
Like Cervantes, Giraudoux also sought to deconstruct a genre and
often shares his use of literary convention with the reader . . . Thus,
his novels are not merely concerned with formal narrative technique
but reveal philosophical attitudes as well. Giraudoux's radical
techniques of pneumatic metaphor and decharacterization have often
been misjudged by critics who have accused him of being a frivolous
writer concerned solely with style. They have completely misinterpreted-
his aims (Nagel 19).
Nagel then quotes from Patricia Waugh to exonerate Giraudoux's metafictional
novel and explain its dual role:
Metafiction pursues such questions through its formal self-
exploration, drawing on the traditional metaphor of the world
as a book, but often recasting it in terms of contemporary
philosophical, linguistic or literary theory." Waugh believes that
the difference between the modern novel and the postmodern novel
is that, while the modern novel is concerned with psychology, the
postmodern novel is concerned with fictionality and becomes a
"metafictional novel" exploding illusion. [Quoting again from
"In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such
writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative
fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside
the literary fictional test (19-20).
Giraudoux was not a postmodern writer in the contemporary sense, for
he accepted the universe as a joyful and bountiful experience in contrast
to current postmodernists' vacuum of desolate experience. Adán,
whether or not influenced by Giraudoux's earliest production (his first
novels appeared in 1909-1910, and principal novels were published in the
1920s), shares this metafictional goal of demonstrating that the pursuits
of life and creation of the novel are similar acts affected by political,
philosophical, scientific, and linguistic movements. Peruvian critic Luis
Alberto Sánchez called Adán "both very young and very
old at the same time," for his extreme awareness in his youth when
he created this novel (Aguilar Mora 11). He was much ahead of his time
in an environment where traditional realist fiction would continue to predominate
until well into the middle of the twentieth century. La casa de cartón
predates by more than twenty years the renovation in creative fiction
undertaken in the 1950s (Higgins 295). Adán had two goals: to
renovate Latin American fiction and, much like Giraudoux, examine the intention
of constructing a novel.
The plot of Adán's novel is no more than an ephemeral shell
for his discourse. The characters, not fully developed, are essentially
deconstructed as non-stereotypical characters that merge into the sights,
smells, and plants of Barranco. Adán teases the reader with possible
information that is never provided; instead, he takes particular memories
and develops them into a discourse. The narrator/author pretends to be
describing life and Barranco while he develops his artistic theories.
The narrator observes an ice cream vendor's cart (the vendor's trumpet
will open the last fragment of the novel) pulled by an old nag--creating
a confluence of new and old technologies, and new and old narrative. The
vendor is representative of the Peruvian:
El sonar de las ruedas de la carreta en las piedras del pavimento
alegra a la fuente las aguas tristes de la pila. El cholo, con mejillas
de tierra mojada de sangre y la nariz orvallada de sudor en gotas
atómicas, redondas--el cholo carretero no deja pasar la carreta
el césped del jardín ralísimo (18).
The rumble of the cart's wheels on the paving stones gladdens the
sad waters of the fountain. The mestizo--his cheeks the color of
blood-soaked earth and his nose sprinkled with tiny, round drops
of sweat--the mestizo carter doe not allow the cart to roll over the
lawn of that meager garden (5).
In crisp, scintillating adjectives and descriptions, Adán captures
a moment in the hard life of a worker in this vacation town. Reference
is made to the toils of the mestizo (Indian and European race, called "cholo"
in Peru) often in the novel. In this and in other references, Adán
notes the hard work and sacrifices of the Indians and mestizos for their
society; they are members of a society who are left behind by the dictates
of a new world economy. In fact, Adán lays the groundwork for writing
about racial concerns more than a decade ahead of Peruvian writers Ciro
Alegría (1909-1967) and José María Arguedas (1911-1969),
who received fame for vividly portraying the conflict between indigenous
and European cultures. Adán also makes note of concerns about African
race: in the fourth segment, the narrator begins addressing a "you"
which is the narrator's boyhood friend Ramón, who is said to look
"más zambo que nunca" (20; "more Negroid than ever;"
Ramón, the alter-ego of the narrator, is Everyman: "Y
nadie hay que no seas tú o yo" (20; "And there is nobody
who is not you or I;" 9). Adán alludes to Determinism, suggesting
that no Peruvian--in other words, Everyman--has a way out. Man must follow
the path he is destined to follow, which is uncertain, like Ramón's
death: "Por esta calle se va al mar, a un mar que nadie ve"
(19; "This street leads to the sea, a sea no one sees;" 8).
But this is also an evolutionary route: The sea is where Charles Darwin's
theory of evolution says human life began. If it is the origin of life,
it must also be the origin of creation. Barranco is "sumergida en
agua" and there are even "campanadas mojadas" (18; sunken
under water, and soggy ringing of bells;" 6). That constantly wet
ambience will continue forever, but "Ramón en cambio, no volver·
nunca" (52; "Ramón, on the other hand, will never return;"
57). The narrator places Barranco near the edge of the origins of life,
so close to returning to the water that it is always soggy and wet. The
artist is also on the edge, attempting to create a new artistic expression
with only the subconscious, the tangible is untrustworthy. The narrator
is lonely because he is on that edge, alone in his risk and attempt to
move toward a new creative expression.
Mario Vargas Llosa (who is greatly responsible for a resurgence in
the critical analysis of La casa de cartón , due to two essays
he published in 1965), considered Adán's novel a better representation
of Peruvian reality than the highly acclaimed El mundo es ancho y ajeno
(1941; Broad and Alien is the World , 1945), by Ciro Alegría.
Vargas Llosa noted that Adán sacrificed a clarity in plot and structure
in order to reach into his inner depths and show the ambience, character,
color, and anguish of Barranco (Kinsella 33). In conveying the narrator's
loneliness and Barranco's monotony, Adán demonstrates some of the
concrete emotions and conflict of daily suburban life. In such, his novel
prefigures the works of several Peruvian writers of ensuing generations,
namely, Vargas Llosa, Julio Ramón Ribeyro (1929-94), and Alfredo
Bryce Echenique (1939-).
Specific aspects of the city and plant life help paint Barranco's reality,
a modern seaside retreat: streetcars, telephone poles, carts led by donkeys
alongside motorcars on the streets, a view of the city from a rooftop,
jacaranda plants and fig trees, the bathing resort, the promenades, the
breakwaters and the coastal garúa (misty rain). In opposition,
Lima is captured with references to sticky asphalt streets, filthy movie
theaters, and belching oil factories. But Lima also represents the modernity
that is reaching Barranco.
The resort suburb and the city are contrasts, and so are many other
images. The characters become images that often confuse and merge with
others. For example, the narrator associates an English lady, Miss Annie
Doll (also known as the gringa photographer), with the jacaranda plant,
and humorously acknowledges his inability to distinguish between the woman
Y el jacarandá que está en esa calle es el que yo digo
que es la
gringa, no sé si es un jacarandá que es la gringa o si la
es un jacarandá. Es el árbol no sé si muy joven o
muy viejo . . .
Quizá el jacarandá de la calle Mott es joven o viejo a la
la gringa--larguirucho, casi calato del todo . . . que parece haberlo
echado el aire (24-25).
And the jacaranda on that street is the one I say is the gringa, or
I don't know if it is a jacaranda that is the gringa, or if it is the
gringa that is the jacaranda. Whether the tree is very young or
very old I don't know . . . Perhaps the jacaranda on Mott Street
is both young and old at the same time, like the gringa--lanky,
almost completely naked-- . . . as if blown there by the wind (17-18).
The jacaranda "both young and old at the same time" is a phrase
Luis Alberto Sánchez appropriated to describe Adán's work.
But the narrator, by using the example of a tree specific to the region,
wanted to stress Peru's own history and language, and its distortion by
Other identities are also blurred, creating images in the narrator's
memory which are "temblante, oscuro, como en pantalla de cinema,"
and "a merced de la fuerza que la mueve" (23; "tremulous,
dark, as if on a movie screen, and at the mercy of the force that moves
it;" 15). This force--muse or subconscious impulse--controls what
the narrator reveals. The narrator only describes what he is capable of
comprehending, leaving the reader to deduce other information (Lauer 1983,
The narrator flips through Ramón's diary, remembering childhood
friends, and events that occur along the coast, which read like information
from a newspaper: descriptions of a sailing boat race, merchants with
exotic foods, a buxom lady, a policeman, Portuguese sailors, heirs to textile
mills, and devout women who go to Barranco for health reasons (27). These
people, who may have existed in years past, conjure images that may or
may not be true.
The diary and/or memory also contains intimate details about events
at the boarding house run by Ramón's aunt: a 28-year-old public
school teacher named Señorita Muller arrives; she dreams of Napoleon
on a horse, says "bon dieu," and only cries when she has a handkerchief
(29). She is an image of the old Romanticism. One night Ramón
penetrates her dreams, the narrator says. She falls in love with him,
but Ramón, age 18, does not fall in love with her:
Y un triángulo de palomas vulgares se llevaba los palotes de
Señorita Muller en el pico, románticamente (35).
And a triangle of vulgar pigeons carried off Señorita Muller's
pen strokes in their beaks, romantically (30).
These specific aspects parody a reality that does not exist; they can
only be images created by memories. Realism is no longer cutting-edge.
The boarding house with its guests and adventures represents experiences
of life which with time become images. The series of Ramón's and
the narrator's early loves represents a muse or inspiration that will direct
realities into images.
When Ramón reaches twenty years old, he listens to music played
by an older, German man in his room at the boarding house:
Mozart, liquidado, descendía la escalera y se empozaba en las
oquedades como una lluviaza que hubiera traspasado los techos.
. . . Y Ramón se alargaba en su butaquita, y se endurecía,
y acababa mareándose, con una flauta mágica en los tímpanos
Liquefied Mozart descended the staircase and formed puddles in
the hollows like a torrent of rain that had soaked through the roof.
. . And Ramón drifted away in his armchair and hardened, and
listened, and in the end grew dizzy with a magic flute in his
There is no attempt to describe a reality behind the lives of the residents
or visitors, or any sense of encounter with the people themselves. The
narrator prefers to portray his own subjective perspective, his own map
of feeling (Kinsella 35).
Malecón lleno de perros lobos y niñeras inglesas, mar
doméstico, historia de familia, el bisabuelo capitán de fragata
o filibustero del mar de las Antillas, millonario y barbudo.
Malecón con jardines antiguos de rosales débiles y palmeras
enanas y sucias; un fox terrier ladra al sol . . . (39).
The promenade is full of wolfdogs and English nursemaids,
a domestic sea, family histories, the great-grandfather who was
captain of a frigate, or a freebooter in the sea of Antilles, a
bearded millionaire. A promenade of ancient gardens of fragile
roses and dirty and dwarfed palm trees; a fox terrier barks
at the sun . . . (37).
While Kinsella defines these feelings as expressions for the sake of
feeling or for their subjective quality, Adán uses the expression
of feelings to represent his search for inspiration, and the people themselves
become sketches for characters. He spreads out his selections before the
reader. Old memories, observations, and the imaginative quality that accompanies
them are tools of the artist in creating his narrative. While Ramón
seems to be of inspiration to the artist/narrator, he is more a mentor
(as life is) than a muse.
The implication of each remembrance is that the narrator chooses to
recognize another person's reality in terms of a collection of plastic
or spatial representations, that is, through images that he projects onto
the character. Thus, it is scarcely the other person's reality, but rather
the narrator's own highly subjective impressions of what he sees in his
mind (Kinsella 36). Adán expresses the idea further:
Todos somos imágenes concebidas en un trozo amplio y
calmoso, imágenes que se folian, o se enyesan y fenestran,
o se visten de dril, o se ciman con casquete de vidrio (87).
We are all images conceived during a calm and supple trot [sic],
images that become foliated, plastered, and fenestrated, or are
clothed in drill, or topped with a glass helmet (99).
People symbolically understand life through imagery, but the images
are often changing (or are encapsulated in a glass helmet); they cannot
be restricted to any fixed rendering. The only possible permanence is
that of change, therefore, the process of change is favored over the product
On the one hand, La casa de cartón is rich in sensuous
imagery which strives to convey myriad sensations and emotions underneath
the surface reality of Barranco, or, as Vargas Llosa points out, the truest
version of reality in Peru (Kinsella 36). On the other hand, the novel
is limited by the subjective perceptions of a shy, sensitive youth whose
consciousness filters the images (just as any artist brings his own limitations
and inspirations). He is a youth who has difficulty communicating with
others, preferring to project his own images onto them. The title of the
novel is an analogue of literature itself, a "house" of fiction
where life and imagination are defined by the flimsy "cardboard"
materials of language (36), and shifting subconscious states of mind.
If Ramón is the narrator's alter ego, the house is a retreat for
artistic imagination, from which the author can gaze uninhibitedly at the
La casa de cartón could be easily interpreted as surrealistic
fiction of dreamlike quality where the author/narrator's subconscious speaks,
but Adán's poetic prose furthers his discourse with the use of Expressionism
(mostly unrecognized in his day). Fresh from Germany after World War I,
Expressionism--a movement that began among painters--provided a way for
the artist to reach deeper into the subconscious (Schwartz 402). The narrator's
disillusion and sentiments are more intensely portrayed by the strong and
exaggerated descriptions of smell and sounds. The external reality dissolves
into the quiet and melancholy consciousness of Barranco, which is described
from the interior perspective of one of its own inhabitants, the narrator.
The subconscious is represented in three metaphors recurring throughout
the novel: "campo" (field), "mar" (sea), and "cielo"
(sky). By the end of the novel, all three come together as the narrator
nostalgically recalls the previous summer:
El mar es también las afueras de la ciudad. Ahora el mar es
espejo donde se mira el cielo, un grueso y vasto cristal azogado
de lizas y corvinas. El mar está verde porque el cielo est. verde.
El cielo, rostro inmenso, sin facciones y verde . . . .
El cielo puede ser un campo agrícola o pecuario. Pero no; ahora
es un rostro que se mira en el espejo del mar (85-86).
The sea is also the outskirts of the city. Now the sea is a mirror
that reflects the sky, a thick and enormous looking-glass quick-
silvered with mullets and corbinas. The sea is green because the
sky is green. The sky, immense face, green and featureless . . . .
The sky can be a field for farming or livestock. But it isn't; now
it is a face that looks at itself in the mirror of the sea (98).
Adán reverses the normal idea of reflected color by noting the
green of the sea in relation to the green of the sky, instead of the reflection
of the blue in the sky turning the sea blue. The sea is furthermore pictured
as a face without features, only color. The metaphor of the countryside
strikes his imagination, but he returns to the original metaphors of face
and mirror. The narrator is recalling the green and pleasant days of summer
(although now it is winter), and his concentration on physical reality
reveals his nostalgia. In fact, Ramón introduced the narrator to
the vital pleasures of life during the beautiful summer months (94). With
Ramón dead and winter upon him, the past seems gone forever, lingering
only, and forever in the narrator's memory. But what is stronger--conscious
or subconscious reality?
Hanging in the balance are life and imagination, both of which seem
to fascinate the narrator/author (Unruh 112). While one Barranco street
ends at the sea, another ends in an open field on the edge of town. The
narrator imagines those boundaries--the sea and a field--changing in the
future as the city expands. They remind him of limits between the human
and non-human worlds, and between life and death. These boundaries are
undefined sites of transformations, harbingers of what is yet to unfold--both
in life and in fiction. Boundary positions point metaphorically to the
artist's desire within the vanguardista spirit to keep a distance from
his surroundings while immersing himself in them (113). Blurred dimensions
or boundaries are fundamental to the artistic process, and to the artist's
ambivalent engagement with a changing world. The artist is not composed
of one figure or one dimension--the narrator and/or Ramón his alter-ego--just
as the muse, the source of inspiration, blurs distinctions from woman to
man to woman. In the penultimate fragments, animal and human life (including
technology or science) are blurred:
La tarde proviene de esta mula pasilarga, tordilla, despaciosa. De
ella emanan, en radiaciones que invisibiliza la iluminación de las
posmeridiano y revela el lino de la atmósfera--pantalla de cinematográfico,
redonda y sin ncecesidad de sombra--de ella emanan
todas las cosas. Al fin de cada haz de rayos--una casa, un árbol,
un farol, yo mismo. Esta mula nos está creando al imaginarnos.
En ella me siento yo solidario en origen con lo animado y lo
The afternoon arises from this slow-moving, dapple-gray mule
with a long stride. From her emanates--in waves that make visible
the light of three o'clock postmeridian and reveal the canvas of
the atmosphere--the movie screen, a round one that does not need
darkness; from her all things emanate. At the end of each bundle
of rays: a house, a tree, a lamp, myself. This mule is creating us
as it imagines us. Through her I feel the solidarity of my origins
with the animate and the inanimate (99).
Whether in life or an artistic creation, we are all "conceived
images" (99). These images have no borders, for they are blurred
to include the imagined, real, constructed, and always changing. These
are the images of the artist, and of the twentieth century.
A conception of boundaries, edges, and ends of roads strongly suggests
consciousness, while their blurring suggests subconsciousness. While the
argument is well made by critic John Kinsella for subconscious motivation--pursued
by Adán's innovative peers in the 1920s--Adán's narrative
vacillates between conscious and subconscious inclinations, either to tease
the reader or to suggest a new outlook on creation. The narrator's memory
is, of course, his subconscious, but when he attempts to paint images and
construct a new reality, it is his conscious state that does so. Mikhail
Bakhtin, writing at approximately the same time as Martín Adán,
believed the conscious state was the more powerful:
"Consciousness is far more frightening than all unconscious
complexes." That is because, for Bakhtin, "at the bottom of
man" we find not the Id, but the other (Todorov 33).
Bakhtin was opposed to the idea of psychological inspiration, finding
that the artist was always cognizant of his discourse with the "other."
Adán, seemingly ahead for his time, effectively discards Freudian
thought, and shows the artistic process from inspiration (nostalgic memories)
to artistic creation, or tangible connections.
Toward the end of the novel, Adán describes how, after thoughts
leave one's head, the conscious state remains observing, stepping, or tripping
over an unexpected human being on the street. These experiences lead to
a consciousness of images:
Una paloma se ha llevado mi último buen pensamiento. Ahora
soy yo como soy verdaderamente, limpio, asiático, fino, malo.
Ahora llevo cuello redondo de caucho. Ahora salto por sobre
una pobre vieja ciegatona (83).
A dove has carried away my last good thought. Now I am as
I truly am: clean, Asiatic, refined, bad. Now I have a round-
rubber neck. Now I jump over an old woman who examines
her shoe on the street, poor old blind woman (95).
Once his thoughts leave, along with the inspiration and creative activity,
the narrator becomes aware again of the physical around him. And of its
impact on his life, even when he has been unaware of its presence.
Finally, the narrator speaks to his "you" (muse) about wrestling
between conscious and unconscious states. Everything in life, in Barranco,
represents these opposites:
Tú desapareces a cada instante de mi conciencia, y al volver,
estás cálida, como el sombrero o un libro que olvidamos a
sol cuando huímos a la sombra. La calle ancha nos abre los ojos,
violenta, hasta dolernos y cegarnos. Todo el pueblo se arrastra--
postes, árboles, gentes, calles--a las orillas de este arroyo de
frescura y brisas del mar. En el horno de verano, humean las casas
de masa de pan, y se requeman por debajo. Ya no vienes tú a mi
You disappear from my consciousness every instant, and when
you return, you are warm, like the hat or the book we leave in
the bright sun when we escape to the shade. The wide street opens
our eyes, violently, until it hurts and blinds us. The whole town
drags itself along--posts, trees, people, streets--along the banks of
this stream of freshness and sea breezes. In the oven of sun, the
houses made of bread dough bake and get burned on the bottom.
You no longer walk by my side (103).
Once the narrator feels the heat of the sun and hears the church bells,
he finds himself deeply aware of exterior reality. The artist may tap
into the subconscious state for his inspiration, but he will never be far
from awareness of the reality in which he lives. The possibility seems
important enough for Adán to end the novel with this kind of reflection.
In the final fragment of La casa de cartón , there is
a gentle admonition that the artist can no longer be still, simply contemplating
the "indoors" or inner being of the subconscious (103). The blurred
positions of Ramón and the narrator, Ramón and Catita, Catita
and the sea, and other characters depict not only the changing world and
the artist's necessity to change with it (and be part of it), but also
the blurring of influences and stylistic techniques in the construction
of the novel. The artist is a participant in life, a workman, not simply
a creator (as previous literary generations thought); as a producer of
texts, he must relate to the stimuli around him. He believes in the permanence
of change and wants to keep his senses sharp to create along with change,
or even ahead of it, if he is to relate and create to the realities of
the twentieth century (an idea uncannily relevant to the present impending
change of century, and even millennium). Adán's vision of the future,
and revisioning of narrative fiction, laid a foundation for postmodern
writing, and provides a beam of light toward new creative spirit.
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