October 22, 2021
Educational Portal of the Americas
 Printer Friendly Version  E-mail this Page  Rate this Page  Add this Page to My Favorites  Home Page 
New User? - Forgot your Password? - Registered User:     

Site Search

Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 55
Year: 1997
Author: Harry Beleván
Title: The Heirs of Ariadne


Harry Belevan: The Poetics of Fantastic Literature

Harry Belevan, the author of this book originally published in Spanish as Teoría de lo Fantástico (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1976), was born in Peru but is a “citizen of the world” by virtue of his diplomatic profession. His work, highly intellectual and aesthetic in quality, includes both fiction and literary criticism. As a fiction writer he has written two collections of short stories, Escuchando tras la Puerta (Listening Behind the Door, 1975) and Fuegos artificiales (Artificial Fires, 1975); a play, Las Coliflores (Cauliflowers); and a novel, La Piedra en el Agua (The Stone in the Water, 1977). As a critic he has published in addition to Teoría de lo Fantástico, an Antología del Cuento Fantástico Peruano (Anthology of Peruvian Fantastic Stories, 1977). His books early won critical acclaim from such distinguished writers as Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar, and Jorge Edwars. Two master’s theses (unpublished) have been devoted to his work: “Harry Belevan: New Directions in Fantastic Literature” (1983) by John Robert Reynolds and “Harry Belevan: Lo Fantástico en torno a la posmodernidad” (1991) by Tania Sánchez Ferrán. He has also been recognized, in many specialized books on the subject written in France, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, as a scholarly taxonomist and anthologist, most recently in the essays that appear in El relato fantástico en España e hispanoamérica (The Fantastic Tale in Spain and Spanish America, 1991) and in Anthropos (1994).

Belevan’s literary trajectory is characterized by the double voice of the writer of fiction and of the literary critic; defender of the imagination and rigorous analyst of language; an innovator and an accomplished classicist. These voices enter into conflict, argue, contradict each other, in an open dispute and incessant textual polemic in which observe and inverse merge into a single text. As a diplomat and a creator of fiction, Belevan has faced conflict and has sought a solution by converting his life and his literature into an interplay of permanent stimuli. Some aspects of his poetics are discussed in the intelligent and subtle Prologue contributed by Belevan’s distinguished compatriot Mario Vargas Llosa to Escuchando tras las Puerta, a collection of nine short stories mostly in the “fantastic” mode. Vargas Llosa makes a point of Belevan’s aesthetic need to consciously rewrite earlier pieces of fiction; we interpret this gesture as a need Belevan has to question originality or pure creativity in literature. The parodic act of rewriting demands from the reader a playful but at the same time confrontational rereading of the “original” texts and of other texts ad infinitum. The author openly and consciously rewrites short stories of Franz Kafka, Dino Buzzati, Jorge Luis Borges, and Adolfo Bioy Casares, among others, in order to recreate them, respecting for the most part the first author’s “original idea” but making just enough slight differences to offer a new reading. Julia Kristeva’s assertion, in her analysis of intertextuality in Semeiotiké, the “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; text is the absorption and transformation of other texts” and that the reader’s function is to decode it as a contemporary text and language in the manner Borges once imagined in ”Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is literally corroborated in Belevan’s work. But Belevan’s defense of the basing of one text on others (remember Picasso redesigning “Las Meninas”) would appear to be a contradiction to his justification of the fantastic mode. This paradox is clarified in Fuegos artificiales, wich summarizes Belevan’s poetics and elucidates his relationship with various literary modes.

That collection consists of twelve sections: three previously published short stories, five more recent ones, and four sections of criticism as epilogues (labeled with the Roman numerals I, II, III, and IV). Among these last are an interview given by Belevan to the French critic Roland Forgues and a fictitious letter to his editor, which explain his views on language, literature, and the process of literary creation. The very title of the volume points up the dismantling of the fictional discourse and unmasks it as a cunning mechanism, a “mere extravaganza of fleeting consequence, despite its possible color and its showy aggressiveness of sound,” as the author himself describes it.

The literary discourse of some of the short stories in the collection takes up the challenges of so-called realistic and socially committed literature by means of an ironic language that pokes fun at bureaucratic pomposity and power in “Apuntes para escribir la Historia de un Farsante” (Notes for the History of a Charlatan), at the false and utopian assemblage of all cultural values by a dictator who wishes to fulfill himself as a man in “El nacimiento de los mitos” (The Birth of Myths), and at the creation of political stereotypes in “Turismo Típico” (Typical Tourism). “Mamá, no quiero morir” (Mama, I Don’t want to Die) condems illegitimate revolutionaries and naïve youngsters whom he calls “café revolutionaries”. “Diagnóstico reservado” (Confidential Diagnosis) ridicules and queries the relationship between literature-science-language and life. The tragic end of the unfortunate situation of the bureaucrat in a mediocre bourgeois capitalist society is well depicted in “Haciendo méritos” (Earning Points) and in “La Máquina para combatir el desempleo y otras tonterías capitalistas” (The Unemployment-Fighting Machine and Other Capitalist Nonsense). In these two stories the narrator satirizes the pomp and protocol that are part of the bureaucratic (and diplomatic) world, the abuse of titles and names, linguistic and pedantic formulas, and finally, the great Utopian delusion of ludicrously easy and specific solutions (a machine) to social and political problems. “Las opciones de Judas” (Juda’s Choices) offers a rereading of Borge’s “Las tres versiones de Judas” (The Three Versions of Judas). It discerns in political, philosophical, and linguistic issues a universal and timeless parable on the human condition and dramatizes the well-known Borgesian discussion of the “original” and the “other” in an anecdote supposedly recounted to the narrator by Thomas Mann’s son. This impeccably fashioned story rewrites the biblical episode of Juda’s betrayal of Christ, updated to Nazi Germany and pre-revolutionary Cuba, by means of a textual duplication technique that juxtaposes two almost identical manuscripts in which minor variation in language alters the meaning completely in two different cultural settings. This delves into a rereading of the ironic relation between a traitor and a victim and the symbiotic inseparability implicit in the existence of a hero and a victim (Christ’s need of a traitor to fulfill his mission as a Redeemer).

Though the short stories express some of Belevan’s theoretical preoccupations and his concern about the creative process, the key to reading Fuegos artificales is to be found in the essays, in which he questions the role of the intellectual in society, the meaning of literature, and the reading-writing process. Belevan discusses the inability of literature to serve as a subversive or revolutionary tool; he also explores its uselessness and gratuitousness, the need to analyze words and their manipulation as a code for transforming human thought, and the position occupied by an intellectual in a bourgeois, capitalist (e.g., Latin American) society. In his short critical essays, he not only reflects on language but proposes a “political critique of culture” as the role of Latin American intellectuals and writers. He says that this critique “must be developed by indicating a possible text-one that takes into account the dominant ideology-and a hypothetical text, written from the very limits imposed by that ideology”, and concludes that “combining the fictitious discourse and the theoretical reflection may be a way to accomplish that end.” As a postmodern writer, Belevan continues in this manner with a philosophical meditation and a play on language, in which self-reflective fiction and literary criticism overlap. Thus he maneuvers the sequence of hypothetical text and the representation of the dominant ideology in Fuegos artificiales: stories summarizing a sociopolitical ideology, theoretical essays that discuss and dismantle that ideology while outlining diverse possibilities, and finally pieces defending “imagination.” At the same time, Belevan includes himself in the text by means of an interview and a letter justifying his conception of literature as “life itself, we are all part of it just as we are part of life, and genres and categories are only tools to release that urge for literature that some of use have.” Further, he defends literature as entertainment and the undeniable value of humor and professes himself and admirer of Cortázar, another author both of fantastic works and of so-called literature of commitment.

Antología del cuento fantástico peruano on the one hand captures Belevan’s preference for this poorly understood mode of writing by collecting two of his fantastic short stories and works by eleven more Peruvian writers; on the other hand, it underlines his need to divulge, to convert the heathen, and to explain and analyze why fantastic literature is looked down upon by many in Latin America as nothing more than “Europeanized paraliterature.” The previously mentioned concurrence of criticism and fiction within a single text again characterizes this anthology, which, in addition to twenty fantastic short stories, conjoins three critical essays in the “Introduction:” “Breves palabras para convencer a los convencidos” (A Few Words to Convince the Convinced), “Apuntes para el análisis de la literatura de expresión fantástica” (Notes for the Analysis of the Literature of Fantastic Expression), and “Apuntes para el análisis de la narrativa peruana de expresión fantástica” (Notes for the Analysis of Peruvian Narratives of Fantastic Expression).

The interplay of creativity, self-reflective literature (that is, conscious of its own creative process), intertextuality (that is, rewriting of other texts), pleasure, and amusement that originates in the fantastic mode is carried on in the novel La piedra en el agua, which in turn is closely related to the present volume of criticism.

The tracing of the trajectory of the fantastic mode in Latin America, experimentation with its effects, and the disengagement of its mechanisms have been the focus of Harry Belevan’s attention. Even though we might argue, as Reynolds does, that these fantastic writings originate in the indigenous myths of Hispanic America, it was in the 19th century that this mode appeared. In the 20th century, Borges reawakened interest in such writing in Historia universal de la infamia (Universal History of Infamy, 1953). The famous discussion about the boundaries that separate magical realism (a term coined by Franz Roh referring to post-Expressionist German painting) from the fantastic (related to imagination and sensation) began with some works by Alejo Carpentier, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, and Gabiel García Márquez, among others, and generated a number of theoretical studies that in many cases questioned the validity of these critical terms as definers of groups of literary works.

Cortázar, Felisberto Hernández, Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo, and José Bianco, among others, either use the fantastic mode as the setting for their writings or take it as their main interest. Most of these Hispanic-American writers have read their European and North American counterparts (Ernst Hoffmann, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Allan Poe) and carry on a dialogue with them through their texts. The preoccupation with classifying or theorizing about this type of literature in Spanish America had already appeared in famous collections such as Borges, Bioy Casares, and Ocampo’s Antología de la literatura fantástica (Anthology of Fantastic Literature, 1940) and Roger Caillois, Antología del cuento fantástico (Anthology of Fantastic Stories, 1967).

The Heirs of Ariadne examines and discusses important studies on this topic not only from the literary point of view but also from that of psychology and the plastic arts, as is obvious from its extensive bibliography, from which may be cited the ideas and theories of Sigmund Freud’s celebrated essay “The Uncanny” (1919), Ana María Barrenechea’s La literatura fantástica en Argentina (1957), Tzvetan Todorov’s Introduction à la Littèrature Fantastique (1970), Irène Bessière’s Le Rècit Fantastique: La Poètique de l’Incertain (1974), Marce Brion’s Art Fantastique (1961), and two texts by Roger Caillois: the Introducción to his Antología del cuento fantástico and Au Coeur du Fantastique (1965). All these theorists share the perception of the fantastic as a phenomenon of reality that reveals itself through some unreal elements and betrays it intellectual uncertainty by manifesting itself only in the mind of the reader or observer.

The paradoxical nature of the fantastic makes it difficult to define theoretically. As Belevan says, “The fantastic has nothing to contribute to hermeneutics as semiology does, for it only irradiates signals and symptoms,” which makes it very difficult to delimit characteristics or principles that can be observed scientifically. The bases for explaining it should be philosophical, according to Belevan: one should arrive at the essence, at the location and evaluation of the fantastic moment, at the fantastic “epistème.” The definition of the fantastic “epistème” and its structural analysis constitute Belevan’s major contribution as a critic. He arrives at that “moment” through the articulation of three critical terms: “textual slippage,” “dialectical conflict,” and “fantastic de-writing,” maintaining that fantastic resides in the relationship between reader and text, in the superimpositition of reality and unreality in the text – in the ambiguity that keeps the reader on those two different levels of reading. Belevan’s essay surpasses previous critical studies in this field, and his contribution to the study of the fantastic is indisputable and still valid almost two decades after its original publication.

Close bonds between fantastic literature (the aesthetic principle defined by the reader) and the phenomenon of postmodernism are found throughout Belevan’s writing, as Tania Sánchez Ferrán has noted. Theorists in this field such as Jean-François Lyotard, Frederic Jameson, Linda Hutcheon, Umberto Eco, in a polemic still underway, recognize the central role of language as the main element of the postmodern text: the word as its context, characteristic very pertinent to Belevan’s work. Such texts activate the tension between narrating something and showing its mechanisms: without invalidating “reality,” the essence of postmodern writing lies in its self-consciousness, self-contradiction, and self-destructiveness, marginally posing a set of philosophical problems but not hiding the fact that both postmodern and fantastic literature are mainly concerned with the poetic. As Belevan has rightly asserted, the fantastic represents a problematic world in a borderline situation, in the boundary between reality and irreality, just as postmodern art situates itself midway between smashing old codes and articulating new ones, at a point where a “meaning” is debated. As Sánchez Ferrán says in her study, the fantastic defeats absolutes, suggesting instead doubt and uncertainty in its system of rupture of the old and creation of the new. Postmodernism explores the marginal facets of the culture, those that are generally discarded as being disfiguring, disturbing, or unhealthy, among which Sánchez Ferrán includes the fantastic. Belevan’s use of terms like “verbal deconstruction” or “destructuring of the fantastic” belongs to the realm of postmodern aesthetics. The “fantastic de-writing,” as Belevan calls it, would then be the delimitation between two verbal levels: “real” writing and “nonreal” (as opposed to “unreal”) description. On the other hand, the concept of “epistème” presupposes a gnosiological deconstruction of the fantastic, according to Sánchez Ferrán. Finally, if this can be said of an open discussion, a very important characteristic of the fantastic mode as specifically of Belevan’s writings, from his short stories to his latest novel, should be mentioned: his commitment to the double, to duplicity. His writing establishes and reinforces and at the same time subverts the very conventions he is challenging and questioning.

As was mentioned above, there is a very close relationship between Belevan as a creator of fiction and as a literary critic, which denotes a permanent dialogue among literary genres to the point of nullifying the distinction between them. A classic example is his accomplished novel La piedra en el agua, a creative display of the critical principles discussed in his essay. In both structure and content, this novel is a masterly corroboration of the theories put forward in The Heirs of Ariadne, to which he adds the necessary dosage of elaborated language in intrigue to produce aesthetic and intellectual pleasure for the reader. Belevan demonstrates his mastery of the techniques of this mode learned from his mentors, particularly from Poe (atmosphere, confusion of identities among the characters, inclusion of dreams, hallucinations, and especially use of the double). In Belevan, fiction and criticism merge as one, inviting the reader to participate in “the pleasure of the text.”

Isabel Rodríguez Vergara
The George Washington University