James Halford is a recipient of a 2016 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the third of three essays by Halford to appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Ali Jane Smith and Ben Brooker. Read all the essays here.
Late on a Monday afternoon in April, I cross Buenos Aires to hear J.M Coetzee give a speech. The journey takes two and a half hours. I leave the cobbled streets, antique stores, and tourist crowds of colonial San Telmo, ride the subway to Retiro Station, and catch a commuter train on the Mitre Line that takes me about 25 kilometres north-west of the centre. As we leave the downtown area, broad boulevards and grand public buildings make way for factories, freeways, and drab apartment blocks. I disembark at Miguelete, the second last station, outside the city limits on the edge of the conurbano, the ring of industrial and working-class neighbourhoods surrounding the federal capital. Imagine a version of Western Sydney with upward of ten million residents. Densely populated, growing fast, and vital to winning government nationally, Greater Buenos Aires is hugely important to the country economically and culturally. But because nearly 40 per cent of the population lives in poverty (on the latest figures from the national statistics institute), and because it has been the heartland of Peronism, the populist workers’ movement that has dominated Argentine politics since the 1940s, the conurbano is often represented as a menace in the mainstream Argentine media. When I ask a group of students for directions to the university campus, they lead me through a suburb of low-set cement buildings, pot-holed streets, and rubble. We cut through an old railway yard where carriages lie rusting in long grass, and squeeze through a gap in the chain-link fence.
The National University of San Martin (UNSAM), a smallish public university with 23,000 students, just celebrated its 25th anniversary. The location of the main campus brings a sense of solidarity with marginal communities and informs the university’s research agenda. There is a large centre dedicated to studies of the global South. In 2014, the rector Carlos Ruta pulled off something of a promotional coup when he persuaded J.M Coetzee to visit twice a year to direct a seminar series on ‘Literatures of the South.’
The seminar brings high-profile South African and Australian writers and critics to Argentina to work with local postgraduate students and writers. It aims to develop comparative perspectives on the literatures of the three countries, to establish new intellectual networks, and to build a corpus of translated works from across the South through collaborative publishing ventures. So far, the project has led to the publication of new Spanish translations of the Australian writers Nicholas Jose, Gail Jones, and Delia Falconer, the South Africans Zoë Wicomb, Ivan Vladislavić, and Antjie Krog, and the Mozambican Mia Couto. New English translations of books by the Argentine writers Maria Dimopulos and Marcelo Cohen are forthcoming in Australia.
Here, I will examine three recent texts by southern-hemisphere writers – Antjie Krog’s País de mi calavera, Delia Falconer’s Al servicio de las nubes, and Santiago La Rosa’s Australia – in terms of how they engage with the idea of the South. All three books were published in Buenos Aires in 2016. Krog and Falconer’s texts, originally published in English in the 1990s, have just been released in new Spanish translations through the UNSAM press. De la Rosa’s Australia was put out in March 2016 by the independent Argentine publisher Metalúcida. Though so far only available in Spanish, the novel is pertinent here because of the way it ‘translates’ its Sydney setting for Argentine readers. I want to use a proximate reading of these texts – Ken Gelder’s term for the strategy of juxtaposing texts from different nodal points of modernity and interpreting them in terms of their distance/nearness from local, national, and transnational readerships – to think through what Coetzee might mean by two terms introduced in his inaugural address to the April 2016 seminar: the ‘mythic South’ and the ‘real South’.
J.M Coetzee on publishing in the South
After a harp and flute recital, and a ceremonious welcome from the vice-rector, Coetzee rises to speak before about a hundred people in a darkened auditorium. About half the audience wear headphones to hear the simultaneous translation. It feels like a scene from Elizabeth Costello. In Coetzee’s 2003 novel, a celebrated Australian writer spends the twilight of her career travelling the world, from small town Pennsylvania, to a cruise ship bound for Cape Town, lecturing on traditional humanist subjects such as ‘Realism’ and ‘The Future of the Novel.’ Costello’s journeys between indistinguishable centres of global culture act as a narrative frame for her lectures, and often ironise or unsettle their arguments. As the book progresses, she becomes increasingly unsure of her principal claims about the novel: its ability to imaginatively bridge the gap between self and other, its relationship to a national readership. ‘The word-mirror is broken, irreparably, it seems,’ she concedes to one audience.
Coetzee’s speech, unlike those delivered by Costello, is shaped to the place where he is standing. He presents himself as a writer who has lived most of his life in two regions of the South ‘and is today visiting a third.’ Like the metropolitan critics associated with the New World Literature – Franco Moretti, Pascale Casanova, Daniel Damrosch, and Emily Apter, among others – Coetzee is interested in the dynamics of literature as a transnational system. But his focus is squarely upon the consequences of this dynamic for the literatures of the so-called periphery. Thus, the practice of translation and publishing in the South is a key theme:
By and large, Australian writers reach Australian readers via publishing houses based in Europe; I believe the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of Argentine writers and the Argentine public. For writers from the South, being published in the North before they are re-exported to the South can mean that they need to follow norms and conform to standards set in the North.
South-South publishing ventures like the UNSAM translations set out, on a small scale, to challenge that arrangement.
Translating the South: Antjie Krog’s País de mi calavera
Since its original English publication in 1998, Antjie Krog’s memoir, Country of My Skull, has become one of the most widely read and influential accounts of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was a best seller in the US and UK, as well as South Africa, and has been remediated by the metropolis in several different forms, including a Hollywood film, and a modified US edition. At several points, the book overtly stages its conflicted relationship with a Northern readership by contrasting the detached viewpoint of foreign journalists reporting the commission with the situated perspective of Krog and her South African colleagues:
Somewhere in a corner, foreign journalists are being briefed on the history of the Eastern Cape, how to pronounce ‘Qaqawuli’ and ‘Mxenge’, who the Cradock Four and the Pebco Three were. Like people possessed they take down notes. The locals watch them from a distance.
Given the strong tradition of testimonial literature in Latin America, and the large number of countries in the region that have had their own truth commissions, it is surprising that this Spanish translation, País de mi Calavera, has taken so long to appear.
The book is an insider’s account of the commission. As a radio journalist during the TRC, Krog recorded, selected, and contexualised soundbites of testimony. Her memoir weaves extracts from victim and perpetrator stories into a comprehensive narrative of the TRC process. It pushes beyond reporting the facts to the feelings behind them, giving a personal account of what it was like to report on the Commission as an Afrikaner woman, and detailing the deterioration of her mental and physical health, her marriage, and her other family relationships.
Krog’s voice is, to borrow Coetzee’s description of William Kentridge, the voice of ‘the troubled, amnesiac white South African psyche.’ Her narrator sounds much the same in Spanish, but the testimony sounds different. Delivered in Xhosa, Zulu and other African languages, it has been translated twice, first into English then into Spanish. Krog, a translator herself, draws the readers’ attention to the complex passage of texts between languages by incorporating meta-commentary from the interpreters into the text. ‘Man that was deep, deep Xhosa,’ the interpreter for Chief Anderson Joyi tells her. ‘We had to use the King James version of English to give people a real impression of how this old man is talking.’ The English versions go to some effort to preserve the ‘feel’ of testimony: the repetition, run on sentences, and grammatical irregularities of oral narrative. Silvia Jawerbaum and Julieta Barba’s Spanish translation makes no attempt to replicate these effects – wisely, I think, given the sensitivity of the material. Elsie Gishie’s harrowing account, delivered in Xhosa, about the day apartheid security forces assaulted her family, succinctly encapsulates how the English and Spanish versions of Krog’s text handle translated testimony differently:
When I came home, I saw there were many white men, they kicked my door, they kicked it and they went in. I am sure I nearly died that day. They missed when they shot – they missed me on my forehead … Now these bullets looked like pellets and they were black. Then I went in next door and I tried to wonder how did my children survive.
Cuando volví a casa, había muchos hombres blancos. Patearon la puerta. La patearon y entraron. Estoy segura de que pude haber muerto ese día. No acertaron… las balas eran redondas y negras. Después fui a la casa del vecino y me preguntó cómo habían sobrevivido mis hijos.
The latter regularises grammar and sentence structure, sacrificing the ‘feel’ of a translated text for clarity and accuracy. Krog is keenly aware of the risks of aestheticising black suffering, indeed she often stages her discomfort in the text. ‘No poetry should come forth from this. May my hand fall off if I write this,’ she says at one point, having recently transcribed a piece of testimony about an ANC activist having his hand hacked off. Nonetheless, the relatively straightforward presentation of testimony in the Spanish translation highlights several instances where Krog’s English version takes distracting liberties with testimony. Are Spanish-speaking readers missing something because the shepherd Lekotse’s horrific narrative is printed as plain prose rather than being set out with line breaks as if it was a poem? Probably not.
Back in 1997, when the first extracts of Country of My Skull appeared in The Guardian, the South African novelist, Zoë Wicomb, questioned Krog’s ‘white right to grief.’ She anticipated that the book’s conflicted and self-reflexive narrator would appeal to a white liberal readership in the US and UK, and voiced concern about Krog’s appropriation of black testimony for the benefit of an ‘albocentric metropolitan’ spectator. Now this Ur-text of the South African TRC has gone into Spanish and returned to the South. Visiting Buenos Aires with Coetzee in September 2016, Krog reminded local journalists about the contribution of Chilean and Argentine advisors to the design of the South African TRC. Begging to Be Black, the third in her trilogy of TRC memoirs, contains a series of dialogues with the Australian philosopher Paul Patton. This new translation of Country of My Skull effectively expands the book’s readership, inviting Latin Americans to join an important dialogue about parallel histories of settler colonialism and white exceptionalism in the South.
J.M Coetzee on the Northern Gaze
Coetzee continues his speech. Unlike Elizabeth Costello, he sticks strictly to his script. His inaugural address discusses the problems and potential of a South-South framework for comparative literary studies. Since the end of the Cold War, he notes, North-South terminology has replaced the older frameworks of centre and periphery, or first, second, and third worlds, in the sociological literature. All of these terms describe a pattern of inequality in power, wealth, and cultural influence that grew historically out of first European and later North American imperialism. Australia, a rich peripheral nation of the southern hemisphere, in some ways unsettles the North-South binary, revealing its basis in economics not geography. Yet Australian literature, no less than that of Argentina and South Africa, has struggled to free itself from a sense of cultural dependency and inferiority, on the one hand, and from nationalist exceptionalism on the other. All three countries feel the weight of what Coetzee calls ‘the Northern Gaze.’
The theoretical framework underpinning ‘Literatures of the South’ draws less on post-colonial studies than one might expect from the author of novels like Foe and Waiting for the Barbarians. Indeed, Coetzee explicitly argues North-South studies should avoid recapitulating post-colonial studies as the field has been understood in the humanities. His approach has more in common with a wave of recent social science research into the geopolitics of contemporary knowledge production at a global scale. The decolonial turn in the social sciences is emerging from across South – from Latin Americans such as Walter Mignolo, Aníbal Quijano, and Enrique Dussel; the South Africans Jean and John Comaroff; and the Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell, among others.
Coetzee’s speech quotes extensively from Connell’s important 2007 book Southern Theory, which argues that modern sociology embeds a metropolitan perspective while presenting itself as universal knowledge. According to Connell, ‘colonised and peripheral societies produce social thought about the modern world which has as much intellectual power as metropolitan thought,’ but their perspectives tend to be ignored due to the hegemony of metropolitan knowledge. Like Coetzee, she points out that Southern intellectuals’ practices of connection have traditionally tethered them to the North, and she calls for networks of cooperation between intellectual workers that run around and across the South (‘tangential globalisation,’ the Mexican theorist García Canclini calls it). Following Connell, Coetzee proposes a comparative literary studies of the South that is less concerned with ‘writing back’ to the old imperial centres than about learning to ‘ignore the gaze of the North’ and ‘to see the South as home.’
Magic Realism in Delia Falconer’s Al servicio de las nubes
UNSAM Edita’s new Spanish translation of The Service of Clouds (1997), Delia Falconer’s Edwardian-period historical novel set in the Blue Mountains, draws our attention to another South-South conversation that has been taking place for some decades now. The influence of Latin American writing in English translation on Australian prose since the 1970s has not been sufficiently acknowledged – perhaps because the region’s literary production remains closely associated with a magic realist mode that has fallen from critical fashion. Since the 1990s, the balance of critical opinion has turned against the genre, which is nowadays often derided as an aesthetic gimmick that panders to metropolitan audiences’ desire for local colour from marginal cultures. Recently, however, several sophisticated and nuanced critical studies have re-evaluated how magic realism works and have begun to remap its history as a world literary genre. Australia’s Maria Takolander has demonstrated the importance of irony in magic realist narratives and undertaken comparative studies of texts by Latin American and Australian indigenous writers; the Argentine critic Mariano Suskind has tracked the genre’s movement beyond its original Latin American context, showing how it was appropriated and re-created from post-colonial India and Nigeria, to the US South. Following the 2014 death of Gabriel García Marquez, magic realism’s greatest exponent, this Spanish version of Falconer’s text is a timely reminder that Latin American fiction opened new pathways for the Australian novel in the 1980s and 1990s.
Magic realism was theorised and pioneered in the 1940s by expatriate Latin American writers in Paris. Among the most influential were the Venezuelan, Arturo Uslar Pietri; the Cuban, Alejo Carpentier; and the Guatemalan, Miguel Ángel Asturias. These writers borrowed the movement’s name from a school of post-expressionist European painting and took many of its techniques from French surrealism, even as they envisaged an aesthetic program that would express Latin America’s cultural particularity, drawing on its colonial history and pre-colombian culture. Through the realistic representation of the fantastic, magical realism is said to imply an equivalence between the two contradictory terms of its name. Some scholars of the genre, such as Zamora and Faris and Jean-Pierre Durix, claim such a strategy allows magic realist texts to subvert Eurocentric historical narratives of modernisation, and to act as a recuperative strategy for colonised societies. In a scene from one of the genre’s founding texts, Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World (1949), Haitian colonial authorities sentence a voodoo priest who has instigated a slave uprising to be burned at the stake. Through the eyes of his followers, the novel shows the priest transform himself into a mosquito and escape; through the eyes of his tormentors, it shows him ‘thrust head first into the fire.’ Neither version of the incident is signalled as authoritative.
If Carpentier positioned lo real maravilloso (the marvellous real) as a strategy for representing Latin American difference – a reality fundamentally distinct from that of his European readers – more recent accounts have tended to see it as a mobile and replicable assemblage of generic and stylistic conventions. Mariano Siskind’s study Cosmopolitan Desires (2014) shows how magic realism was consolidated as a global aesthetic formation by the runaway critical and commercial success of Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), and by his 1982 Nobel Prize. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991), and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997) represent the apotheosis of magic realism as an Anglophone publishing phenomenon. Here in Australia, the global magic realist moment coincided with the period of historical introspection around the 1988 bicentenary. Thus, the revisionist historical novel and the family saga, both of them inflected with magic realism, became the defining Australian prose genres of the period, with Rodney Hall’s Just Relations (1982), Peter Carey’s Illywhacker (1985) and Oscar and Lucinda (1988), Kate Grenville’s Joan Makes History (1988), Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus (1999), and Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish (2001) among the best-known examples. Magic realism’s importance for Australian Indigenous writers can be observed in Sam Watson’s The Kaidatcha Sung (1990), Kim Scott’s Benang (1999), and Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006).
For me, Falconer’s The Service of Clouds is one of the more successful Australian experiments with magic realism, because it grasps what Takolander calls the genre’s ‘fundamentally ironic nature’. Magic abounds in the novel – clouds that rain upwards, a house haunted by spirit children. But since the book’s disillusioned narrator, Eureka Jones, no longer believes, the reader is not expected to either. Eureka tells her story from the deck of a cruise ship taking her into modernist exile in 1926, concentrating on her nine-year relationship with the visionary landscape photographer of the Blue Mountains, Harry Kitchings, in the romantic years between Federation and the first world war:
It was 1909 and we walked without resistance. Things yielded and gave way. Roads unpinned from gravity turned into shimmering mirages. Couches left empty by design turned into lovers’ seats for us.
In this story of a young woman’s education, the failure of first love shapes her sceptical adult sensibility. The magic in the early sections of the novel is therefore always presented with retrospective irony: ‘I witnessed him [Harry] step off cliffs with his eyes closed many times to land on rocky ledges, while, just as trusting, I squandered the gifts of my youth on him.’
As the novel progresses, the magic disappears. Eureka’s separation from Harry, and her experiences as a nurse during the Great War, lead to her disillusionment, not just with romantic love and women’s circumscribed role in early twentieth-century Australia, but also with the larger imperial romance represented by Katoomba’s development from a frontier outpost into a tourist resort. If magic realism has one overriding thematic concern as a genre, it is the tension between modernity and life on the periphery. Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Service of Clouds, explores the apparently magical properties of new technological marvels arriving from the great world – electricity, motorcars, and panoramic lenses. Against this, it counterposes the still-powerful influence of religion, another kind of magical thinking. Harry is a born again Christian and his photography is inspired by his faith: ‘He had come to the Blue Mountains to take photos of God.’ The most pervasive form of magic in the novel, however, is that of the Australian landscape seen through settler eyes: ‘this place; where kitchens were built at such high altitudes that the clouds drifted into bread through open windows and made it rise without yeast.’ In Spanish translation, the title of Harry Kitching’s first photo book, Seventy-Five Views of the Blue Mountains Wonderland (Setenta y cinco vistas del pais de las maravillas de las montanas azules) recalls Carpentier’s real maravilloso.
As the tide of magical effects recedes, the novel deals briefly and obliquely with the history of settler colonialism in the Blue Mountains. It shows how development pushes the Aboriginal encampment out of Katoomba, and how the Indigenous population is ‘cropped out’ of Harry Kitching’s romantic image of the region. By the time Eureka bids Australia farewell aboard the Niagara, she has no more faith in the Anglo-Australian metanarrative of settlement and material progress than in Harry’s romantic aesthetic, with its suggestion ‘the world the frame offers is complete.’ She now believes that ‘Just outside the edges of his photographs there had always been spinsters and shadowed lungs and little deaths which issued from the failure to be seen.’ This acknowledgment of the ‘little deaths’ excluded from history’s frame is about as far as a historical novel narrated by a white woman in 1926 can plausibly go.
If the principal achievement of The Service of Clouds was to demonstrate magic realism’s potential for the feminist historical novel in the Australian context, it was also unusual for the metaphoric richness of its language. Teresa Arijón’s translation skilfully adapts the cadences of Falconer’s exuberant prose into Spanish. Except for a few Argentine lexical items – ‘bombacha’ for women’s underwear, instead of ‘calzones’– Arijón’s version elects for a neutral international Spanish rather than the very distinctive version spoken in the River Plate region of South America. This decision suits the novel’s historical setting and the voice of its narrator. An Australian novel with a contemporary setting and more colloquial Australian English might have called for a Spanish equivalent. This second approach works well in the Krog translation, where Argentine Spanish (‘para vos’ not ‘para ti’) fits the intimacy and drama of the poems interpolated into the narrative. Back in the nineties, some reviewers found Falconer’s homage to Latin American magic realism overly extravagant in English. In Spanish, it feels natural, as if her style has come home.
Globalisation and the South in Santiago La Rosa’s Australia
Santiago La Rosa’s first novel, Australia, embodies many of the characteristics associated with ‘la nueva narrativa Argentina’ (the new Argentine narrative). The younger generation of Argentine prose writers have sought new forms and new language to narrate the lived experience of neo-liberal globalisation. Defining Argentine events of the post-war period such as Peronism, military dictatorship, and the Dirty War have not disappeared from the work of writers like Andres Neuman, Pola Oloixarac, Fabian Martínez Siccardi, and Lucía Puenzo – but they have become less central. Globalisation and its discontents have become a focus, especially since the 2001 Argentine financial crisis, which saw the country default on its foreign debt, drove thousands into poverty, and sparked serious social unrest. In the wave of recriminations and soul-searching that followed, Argentine economists and social commentators sometimes referred to their country as ‘la Australia trunca,’ the truncated or ruined Australia. Why wasn’t Argentina Australia? asked the title of one well-known 2006 monograph by two Argentine economists, Pablo Gerchunoff and Pablo Fajgelbaum. Peronism, has been the traditional answer of the Argentine elite. But Gerchunoff and Fajgelbaum’s explanation is more nuanced. They describe the convergence of the two countries’ agricultural export-driven economies between 1880 and 1930. Argentina’s relative stagnation across the twentieth century, they argue, can be attributed to a ‘distributive crisis’ that Australia, with its stable institutions inherited from Britain, advantageous geography, and system of wage arbitration, was better able to resolve.
La Rosa’s story about a young Argentine couple who migrate to Sydney after the 2001 crash is, on one level, an extended riff on the idea of Australia as the country Argentina could have been. Though it provides brief, fascinating glimpses of how our country might look through the eyes of recently arrived Latin American migrants, a detailed social portrait is not on the agenda. Rather, the book sets out to explore, in the words of its author: ‘The idea of Australia as a country in the imagination of a certain sector of Argentine society… a space without contradictions, better, well-deserved, a place of arrival, for the victors.’ Australia conceives of itself as a critique of the Argentine bourgeoisie who benefited from neoliberal economic policies throughout the 1990s, then fled for the ‘life raft’ of the first world when the economy crashed in the 2000s.
The novel mounts its attack on the Argentine upper classes through the story of the narrator Nicolas, an engineer, and his wife, Gabriella, a painter. Nick and Gabi are the beneficiaries of globalisation: university-educated, middle-class professionals whose youth and relative economic privilege position them to benefit from open borders and employment markets when the Argentine economy tanks. ‘We left because we couldn’t see a future through the tear gas,’ Nick explains. ‘…Buenos Aires exploded in protests and unrest. I quit my job and we left. A better place, she said, half a world away, while we set ourselves up. Better streets, better schools, jobs, salaries. Our own home. Better people’[my translation]. Though the couple do get ahead economically in Australia – even achieving a foothold in the Sydney property market – they struggle emotionally in the absence of family and community networks. Gabi battles depression when unable to fall pregnant, and Nick embarks on a series of affairs. We meet them a decade on, as their Australian dream is definitively unravelling. Having finally conceived, through a long, expensive, and traumatic course of IVF, they lose the baby in the 38th week of pregnancy.
The novel is most convincing and emotionally resonant early on, when exploring the couple’s grief. Like Krog, La Rosa finds effective ways to gesture at traumatic experiences that cannot be translated into language (especially a foreign language): ‘She needs to rest, said Dr Hughes without looking at me… He said it in English…. I gave the taxi driver directions in English. Gabi still said nothing in any language.’ Though somewhat overused, the device of weaving English phrases into the Spanish prose highlights the characters’ instrumental relationship with the language of global business and popular culture. While their English is more than sufficient for business and everyday interactions, they are often frustrated by their inability to express their feelings. Clumsiness in a foreign language becomes a figure for broken communication in a relationship. At moments of high stress, Nick invariably reverts from global to local language, from non-native English to earthy Argentine profanity.
Having already fled the economic crisis at home, Nick and Gabi both, in their respective ways, set about avoiding their personal crisis in Australia. Gabi insists she is still pregnant, and counts down the days to the birth. Nick avoids his wife and his job, wanders the city, and spends money recklessly on an affair with an Ecuadorian prostitute named Evelyn. The brothel scenes burn through the last of the reader’s sympathy for Nick in order to tell us something we already know: that the logic of the market reinforces similar patterns of racial, class, and gender inequality globally. While the bonds of a common language and culture establish a bogus solidarity between customer and prostitute – ‘What news, my Latin-American brother?’ she greets him – the situations of this white, male Argentine engineer and this mestiza Ecuadorian sex worker are not the same. Regardless of their countries’ respective positions on a map, or where they are living now, Nick lives in the North, Evelyn in the South. Here, Latin American regional inequalities are reproduced in a phantasmal Sydney that exists mainly as a projection of frustrated Argentine desire. ‘This country,’ Evelyn remarks to Nick, ‘is whatever you want it to be.’
In La Rosa’s Australia, the Southern landscape and its history of settler colonialism – so central in Falconer and Krog’s texts – is peripheral. Much of the action unfolds within interior spaces that could be anywhere. What is interesting, when the Australian landscape does briefly appear, is that it is described in Argentine terms. Nick and Evelyn fantasise briefly about escaping together into the ‘desierto’ (desert or wilderness). In another scene, as the due date of Gabi’s psychological pregnancy approaches, Dr Hughes drives Nick ‘through the suburbs, the fields, then into the wilderness’ (desierto). The unsubtle use of barren imagery being made here is less interesting than the transferal of this particular word between parallel Southern spaces. In nineteenth-century Argentine literature the ‘desierto’ has a mythical resonance something akin to the Australian outback or bush: Sydney or the bush; Buenos Aires or the desierto. It is the place to which the landless gaucho, Martin Fierro is exiled; the place that represents ‘barbarism’ in the writings of the liberal statesman, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento; the place from which indian raiders snatch their white prisoners in Esteban Echevarría’s The Captive, the founding work of Argentine and Latin American romanticism. Most significantly, the series of genocidal frontier campaigns throughout the 1870s and early 1880s that wiped out the last nomadic tribes on the Argentine pampa is called the ‘Conquest of the Desert’ – a name as self-serving and duplicitous, in its way, as the British ‘terra nullius.’ After all, why would an uninhabited wilderness need to be conquered? Both these phrases are examples of what Connell has called, the ‘grand erasure’ masking the colonial foundations of modernity. It is no coincidence that the moment of Australia and Argentina’s economic ‘convergence,’ the period of miraculous growth beginning in the 1880s, coincides with the closing of the frontier.
La Rosa’s Australia skirts these issues without developing them. It ultimately proves to be one of those books that is less interesting than its generative idea. A promising, imperfect debut, it leaves much territory still to be explored.
J.M Coetzee and the ‘real South’
Coetzee’s address at the UNSAM concludes with his own ‘heterodox’ perspective on the South. It is the view, he stresses, not of a theorist, but of a practicing writer:
In my view ‘South’ will in due course suffer the fate of ‘periphery,’ of ‘Third-World,’ and of other specialist terms of the social sciences… What is left is the real South, the South of this real world, where most of those present in this room were born and most of us will die. It is a unique world – there is only one South – with its unique skies and its unique heavenly constellations. In this South the winds blow in a certain way and the leaves fall in a certain way and the sun beats down in a certain way that is instantly recognisable from one part of the South to another. In the South, as in the North, there are cities, but the cities of the South all have a somewhat phantasmatic quality. The peoples of the South are all, in one way or another, rough and a bit lazy. We have troubled histories behind us, which sometimes haunt us. It is nothing like this in the North. I can go on endlessly with my list. And the literatures of the South do indeed go on endlessly as they try to pin down in words their intuitions of what a life in the South consists in.
I suspect what Coetzee means by the ‘real south’ will come more clearly into focus when counterposed with its opposite, ‘the mythic South,’ which he employed in an earlier speech at the UNSAM to refer to the South as it has been imagined by the North. The huge body of literature by the North about the South stretches from the near present back into antiquity: the South Sea tales of Poe, Swift, Defoe, and More; European narratives of exploration and conquest; the opposition of the Boreal and Mediterranean moods in the work of Paul Celan, Gottfried Benn, and Nietzsche; the cosmogonies of Augustine and Ptolemy; Boreas and Notos, the Greek Gods of the North and South winds. This mythic South is an ‘imagined geography’ constructed through metropolitan discourse, like the Orient in the work of Edward Said. It is the locus onto which the North projects its fantasies, the North’s Other.
The real South, one presumes, is the opposite: the South seen through Southern eyes. For the time being this elusive entity can probably only be glimpsed. Coetzee formulates the opposition of the mythic and real South as an imaginative provocation, not a Theory. We should know better than to expect further explanation. Just as the narrative framing of Elizabeth Costello’s lessons suggested a mistrust of universalising theories, Coetzee’s recent fiction, as James Ley has noted, displays a ‘neo-romantic suspicion that reason is an enclosed and self-validating system.’ The two ‘Jesus’ novels, written across the period Coetzee has been visiting Argentina regularly, are set in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country. The country is not Argentina or any other Latin American republic ‘in this real world,’ but it is clearly located in the South. These recent fictions – focused on the relationship between the stolidly rational Simón, and his wildly imaginative adopted son David – more fully elaborate Coetzee’s richly suggestive ideas about the dialect of North and South.
Like Coetzee’s recent work, the texts by Krog, Falconer, and La Rosa considered here all converse with other parts of the South. Krog discusses human rights in post-colonial contexts with South American and Australian experts. Falconer’s prose dialogues with Latin American magic realism. La Rosa’s novel examines Australia’s place in the Argentine imagination. The linkages between these texts suggest many further directions for comparative work on the literatures of the South: transnational approaches to indigenous storytelling; settler colonial, whiteness, and translation studies; testimony and human rights discourses; ecocriticism. The conversation has just begun.
After Coetzee’s speech, I share a cab back to town with a couple of administrative staff from the university and a Chilean translator who tells me he worked with the writer on Spanish versions of two further lessons of Elizabeth Costello. The belle epoque facades and neon billboards of downtown Buenos Aires come back into view; bars, steak houses, and all-night book stores; a mural of Eva Peron overlooking a huge homeless encampment; hundreds of posters of the recently ousted Peronist President, Cristina Kirchener; graffiti protesting the austerity measures imposed by her successor, Mauricio Macri; a stray dog drinking from a puddle outside a shuttered HSBC; candles flickering beneath an underpass in the ruins of an old torture chamber. We are back in the centre now: the place that is neither North nor South, but somehow both at once.
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The SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowships are supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.