Jennifer Harford Vargas, Forms of Dictatorship. Power, Narrative, and Authoritarianism in the Latina/o Novel (New York: Oxford UP, 2018), 260 pp.
The 1990 collection Do the Americas Have a Common Literature?, edited by Gustavo Pérez Firmat, argues “that the Americas have a common literature of dictatorship fiction” (qtd. in Harford Vargas 9). In order to investigate the diverse ways in which selected Latina/o novels written around the turn of the twenty-first century narrativize the ongoing meaning of the apparatus of dictatorial power in general and dictatorship in particular, Jennifer Harford Vargas also follows an intra-ethnic approach, yet employs a trans-American framework that moves beyond the boundaries of dictatorship fiction written in Spanish. In Forms of Dictatorship, she focuses her analysis on texts published by writers with a Central, South American, or Caribbean cultural background now living in the United States. In its introductory chapter titled “Literary Form and Authoritarian Power in the Latina/o Dictatorship Novel,” which lays the theoretical groundwork of the monograph, Harford Vargas points out that her study is located in the broader theoretical contexts of the “‘social imaginary’” or “‘trans-American imaginary,’” as conceptualized by Paula M. L. Moya and Ramón Saldívar (qtd. in Harford Vargas 7), and seeks to be understood as a contact zone in which diverse American cultural experiences blend. Moreover, as the monograph reviewed here takes its cue from the presently renewed interest in narratology, it examines the transnationalist implications of dictatorship in mutual interaction with “the central role that narrative form plays in capturing local and hemispheric relations of power” (5).
Discussing selected narratives alongside one another, Harford Vargas elaborates how much these texts share a concern to negotiate “resonances and dissonances between hierarchies of power and modes of repression in the Americas,” thus generating what she calls “the Latina/o counter-dictatorial imaginary” (6), a concept that questions the hemispheric binary pattern which identifies Latin America with dictatorship and the United States with democracy and shows the latter’s manipulative power to veil the direct or indirect collaboration of the United States with authoritarian regimes in its southern neighbor states.
Against this background, Harford Vargas reveals ambivalent relationships between memory, genealogy, writing, and the violent history of dictatorships. Her research interest is directed toward the ways the dictatorship narrative migrated to the United States, hence developing “a new set of dictatorship novels” (4), in which Latina/o writers read dictatorial power “as a trope and an aesthetic problem that enables us to rethink the relationship between different forms of power and the power of form” (14-15). Harford Vargas investigates how this new subgenre of contemporary Latina/o dictatorship novels produces postmemory narratives (in the sense of Marianne Hirsch) which create a difference and distance to historical dictatorial power. In analogy to Saldívar’s argumentation with regard to “postrace” (qtd. in Harford Vargas 22), Harford Vargas conceptualizes the way of narrativizing authorial power in these texts in terms of postdictatorship. Her approach signals a conceptual shift in the understanding of the role of dictatorship and provides a fictional space for the assessment of the legacy of authoritarian power in present-day U.S.-American cultural experience.
The five chapters that follow offer insightful socioformal close readings of selected texts supported by relevant references to other Latina/o fiction that, analyzed as socially symbolic acts (32), function as exemplary case studies for different ways of constructing a Latina/o counter-dictatorial imaginary.
In the first chapter, Harford Vargas demonstrates how Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) uses character representation and the modes of narration for interrogating dictatorial power without reproducing it in his own text. She explores the double meaning of “to dictate” as “to command authoritatively” and “to speak aloud words that are to be written down” in order to explore “the problematic similitude between dictators and writers” (35), and argues that the protagonist “[a]s the primary narrator and storyteller, […] loosely functions as a dictator in both senses because he controls and orders representation and because he collects, writes down, and reshapes a plethora of oral stories that have been recounted to him” (35). Her analysis reveals the novel’s dual narrative technique, as Oscar uses fukú as the language of Spanish and later Trujillo’s oppressive domination, and zafa as the language of a counterdiscourse that builds up resistance—a writing back—to this history.
In Chapter Two, Harford Vargas discusses Salvador Plascencia’s metafictional novel People of Paper (2005) as another experiment in how authorship and authoritarianism may interact in fiction “by figuring the writer as dictator” (61). Examining the structure of the novel, she demonstrates how the fictional figures rebel against this authoritarian power by waging “‘a war on omniscient narration’” (61) and by simultaneously tackling Mexican American borderlands issues, such as undocumented migration, economic exploitation, and folk narratives. Her critical analysis of the function of the polyphonic omniscient narrative technique and the way the struggle for narrative control is mediated through form, in particular the spatial organization of the pages, makes her conclude that writing functions at the same time as a mode of domination and a mode of opposition, since the fictional author regains the control over his narrative, yet lacks authoritative omnipresence in view of the fact that his two main fictional creations disappear from his narrative as suggested by a large black dot on the novel’s final page.
Chapter Three investigates the neoliberal dictator of Francisco Goldman’s novel The Ordinary Seaman (1997), whose marooned ship Harford Vargas reads in a double way. As “a floating dictator-ship” it “symbolically functions as a microcosm of authoritarian relations and as a floating signifier for hemispheric histories of domination and exploitation” (31); as a shipwreck it provides a symbol of the situation of a crew of multiple Central American cultural backgrounds who transform the cracks and holes into instruments to resist authoritarian power, and acts as a death ship that suggests a link between slave ships and dictatorship and between fugitive slaves and undocumented refugees. Recalling discourses of the Black Atlantic, she argues that the capitalist owners of the ship represent “modern-day versions of slave owners, and dictators” (88) who in the wake of post-Cold-War political dictatorships present themselves as neoliberal phantom dictators.
The analysis of Héctor Tobar’s novel The Tattooed Soldier (1998) in Chapter Four focuses on the text’s two narrative strands located in Guatemala and in the United States. The comparative reading of the practices of the U.S.-funded military dictatorship and civil war in the middle-American country and of the 1992 Rodney King uprisings in Los Angeles prepare the ground for Harford Vargas to maintain that the novel’s plot reveals its quest for “Ordering Disorder” (121) as “institutionalized and state-sanctioned violence” (120) in both parts of the Americas. She supports her argument by sketching out the incongruences between the text’s narrative structure and the construction of its characters’ struggle with racism, trauma, and impunity. While the revenge plot is resolved at the end, the larger plot for justice, however, remains unresolved, leading Harford Vargas to interpret Tattooed Soldier as a call “to read state-perpetrated violence transnationally” (121).
Chapter Five reassesses Cristina Garcia’s King of Cuba (2013) as another example of how narrative form is used as a tool for imagining justice by interrogating the heteropatriarchal hero investments of two “Greater Cuban” foil figures, an 86-year-old Cuban exile living in Miami and an 89-year-old unnamed dictator ruling over Cuba. Harford Vargas demonstrates how their efforts to monopolize narrative authority questions “the Cold War binary that constructs Cuba as a site of communist oppression and the United States as a site of democratic freedom” (149). She argues that the—at first sight—two antagonists’ quest for dominance is finally fractured not only through their death, but through a shift in narrative focus on the decolonial critique articulated by the Latina artist-daughter of the conservative exile generation.
Before Harford Vargas rounds up her investigation, she discusses in a final “Coda” (177-94) examples of the Latina/o counter-dictatorial imaginary using non-print-based artistic forms such as the mural project PLACA in the San Francisco Mission District, which the artists wanted to be understood as a “mark of Central American dictatorships and U.S. imperialism” (180). She summarizes that Latina/o dictatorship novels do not offer a permanent resolution to the problems of authoritarian power, but that the counter-dictatorial imaginary expresses at least anti-authoritarian longings and, thus, participates in the creation of a “decolonial imagination,” a “projective power of the imagination to envision a radically different world that is structured through solidarity rather than through dominance” (32). As Harford Vargas repeatedly ends her analyses of the novels with questions, most of which remain unanswered, her study provides a valuable point of departure for further scholarship. With regard to present developments in U.S.- American political discourses, Forms of Dictatorship is not only a worthwhile but also a highly relevant undertaking which pays attention to how literary works created by Latina/o writers living in the United States use the trope of dictatorship to discuss the current sociopolitical landscape of the United States.
Angelika Köhler (TU Dresden)