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Narrative Activism in Mid-Century Latin American Fiction


This dissertation argues that the intense politicization of Latin American prose fiction in the mid-twentieth century creates a textual field so potent that the smallest narrative units brim with political significance. Through analysis of two mid-century authors, Peruvian José María Arguedas and Mexican Juan Rulfo, I demonstrate how by reading at a smaller scale, with sensitivity to minute manipulations of form, we at once enrich and complicate our understanding of their fiction's aesthetic and political aims. Moving beyond immediately visible formal categories such as plot structure and dialect, I explore how Rulfo and Arguedas deploy subtle, strange, and inventive narrative strategies--such as understated descriptive passages and small-scale mimetic lapses--in order to lay bare entrenched colonial patterns of thought and behavior and to model pluralistic, egalitarian modes of discourse and perception. This politicized mobilization of the formal categories of fiction is what I call "narrative activism."

Following Bakhtin, I explore novels and short stories as imaginative democracies--resonant with the cacophony of dissenting voices--built up from the textual grassroots: the double-voiced word or phrase, the quiet shift in narrative perspective. My analysis also draws on classical narratology, feminist narratology, and the new field of unnatural narratology, yet I do not privilege narrative form at the expense of political concerns. Rather, the dissertation models a method of reading suited to mid-century prose works, whose subtle and complex formal properties constitute the very locus of their engagement with political issues. Though analysis of form has animated prior critical approaches to Rulfo and Arguedas, perhaps most famously in Ángel Rama's account of their fiction as narrative transculturation, I contend that these studies lack the fine-tuned analysis narratology enables and mid-century texts reward. The tools of narratology allow me to isolate and examine textual properties prior critics have not seen in order to bring into clearer focus the political stakes, ambitions, and agency of the mid-century tradition. Across four chapters I offer readings of the politics of form thus conceived, but I also engage the work of such theorists as Susan Sniader Lanser and Geoffrey Galt Harpham to consider how prose fiction from the 1940s and 50s--conceived by its authors as ethically and politically relevant, then further politicized by its reading public--takes readerly transformation as its ultimate end.

Chapter One, "José María Arguedas and the Reinvention of Narrative Voice: A New Look at Yawar Fiesta," analyzes Arguedas's reinvention of narrative voice in an overlooked work of mid-century fiction. Chapter Two, "The Politics of Description in Arguedas's Los ríos profundos," complements this focus on narrative voice in Arguedas's work with analysis of the politics of the sensory body as worked out in obscure passages of narrative description. Chapter Three, "The Narratee, The Reader, and the Problem of Judgment in Juan Rulfo's `¡Diles que no me maten!'," argues for the crucial, yet widely unacknowledged, role played by the narratee in the politics of Juan Rulfo's fiction. Chapter Four, "Heteroglossia in Latin American Fiction: Rulfo's Pedro Páramo," argues that heteroglossia constitutes an important mode of narrative activism in Pedro Páramo and relates this claim to Ángel Rama's and Roberto González Echevarría's heteroglossic theories of Latin American fiction. Throughout the dissertation, I demonstrate how attention to small, seemingly marginal details of mid-century fiction illuminates the texts' political commitments in unexpectedly powerful ways.

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