Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Revising the "Oppositional": A Reading of Isabel Allende's Eva Luna

Amanda Nettlebeck


Recently there has been a good deal of discussion in the literary field, not only about what might constitute postcolonial "conditions," but also about the nature and role of postcolonial criticism and, in a wider sense, about the critical packaging of postcolonial literatures. Whereas critical focus in the past has largely been on the process of reclaiming racial and cultural autonomy (through the legitimizing of native subjectivities), a more recent focus has been the interrogation of that legitimizing process. Various recent studies have expressed alarm about, for instance, the increasing self-referentiality of theory, with its rhetoric of spatiality which elides specific and complex social conditions; about the "purity" of a discourse which excludes, say, "second world cultures" (that is, ex-settler colonies) and/or the gendered aspects of the colonizing processes from the postcolonial "umbrella."1 Ultimately, these kinds of critique have called for a closer look at some otherwise submerged aspects of postcolonialism as a critical practice. These include: the space between a deconstructive theory and the material conditions attached to the processes of decolonization; the problematic aspects of the notions of an authenticated subject position and a vitalized nationalism; and the gendered aspects of the colonizer/colonized relation. Such issues have implications for the critical marketing of certain literatures. Who provides the categories of "postcolonial" literatures, and for whom? How, and in whose terms, is the "oppositional" defined? In the Latin American context, which will be of interest here, these questions can be read in relation to Jean Franco's argument that Latin American literatures have been taken up by mainstream critics either as national allegory or as postmodernist play, implying a view of such texts as "either in opposition to the metropolis or as part of the metropolis's postmodern repertoire": a view which reduces the complexity of their cultural, political and historical status.2

What I intend to focus on here is the way in which some of the ambivalences currently informing postcolonial debate emerge in relation to a text which holds a particularly ambivalent position in terms of postcolonial conditions: that is, the Chilean writer Isabel Allende's Eva Luna.3 In the light of the concerns foregrounded, a reading of a text which resists ready categorization might suggest a recontextualizing of a problematic postcolonial discourse and its critical constitution of the "oppositional." This novel is written, from a position of exile, by a Chilean woman who was the niece of overthrown Socialist president Salvador Allende, who was herself a dissident of Pinochet's miliary regime, but who holds, at the same time, a privileged social status; out of a culture which, as ex-Spanish settler colony, is both resistant to and complicitous with the processes of colonial oppression; from a political climate which is patriarchal, totalitarian, and also marked by the powerful northern influence of the USA. These complexities, inherent in the context of its production, are perhaps suggestive of the ways in which Eva Luna is a novel of ambivalent positions. It is the self-narrated story, or rather series of stories, of Eva's invention of possible lives for herself that are other to the one designated to her by a restrictive society; by extension, it is a self-reflexive text about the process of writing and the possibility of creation within a culture which is circumscribed by the politics of ongoing economic, racial, class and sexual oppressions. Yet as fiction which speaks both from within and from without that culture, it is conservative and transgressive in different ways. It has been read, for instance, as popular romance which reinscribes patriarchal and cultural clichés, and read as a novel which challenges the various repressive configurations of an authoritarian state. What becomes of interest here, therefore, is the extent to which this text does in fact unsettle readily circumscribed models, and in such a way that necessarily recalls the social and political particularity of its concerns.

Most cultures which are designated by the term "postcolonial" also carry with them unresolved issues of oppression or exclusion of some kind, and critics tend to agree that the term does not so much signify a closure of colonialism, a complete separation from dominant codes of reference, as suggest a society in flux, redefining altered structures of power as they operate both internally and externally. Chile, of course, was granted political independence from Spain in 1818 but is a known site of strongly centralized and authoritarian government that has included periodic bouts of military dictatorship. In exploring the ways in which Chile's relation to unresolved systems of oppression is complicated and problematic, then, one might point to: the social, racial, economic and political oppressions that are the ongoing conditions of an authoritarian state; the position of Chile (among other Latin American countries) as being subject to the neo colonialism of north America; the sharp division in Chile between a veneer of Europeanisation and technological sophistication, and a society which is largely poor, culturally traditionalist and racially divided. Indeed, Frederick Pike, in his book on tradition and social innovation in Latin America, sees these countries, despite their flag independence, as being for most of the twentieth century deeply divided in ways which are not simply polarized but pluralized:

At the top is a dominant culture, vastly complex in its composition and frequently split by internal divisions. Beneath it lies a vast lower mass or subordinate culture . . . [also] made up of many elements. Some of these, domestic servants and unskilled urban manual labourers, for example, may be in intimate contact with the dominant culture. Others, among them unassimilated Indians, are isolated and remote from the dominant culture.4

Clearly Latin American countries are placed in an ambivalent position in the mapping out of what might constitute "postcoloniality," and what this might be suggestive of in a broader sense is the problematic status of the term itself. What postcolonial society, after all, is free of inequities or hierarchies of power, either in its own internal structure or in its shifting relation to other cultures? Presumably, then, that element of ambivalence is not so much to be resolved as to be recognized as the condition which generates postcolonial discourse and oppositional discourse more widely. As Jenny Sharpe has argued in relation to India since independence, oppositionality to dominant discourses is always ambivalent, since "the colonial subject who can answer the colonizers back is the product of the same vast ideological machinery" that is being challenged.5

What such an argument recalls is the need to read "opposition," not as a totalized or fixed position, but as a relative process that is specified by locality. Of course it is crucial here to guard against a conflation of postcolonial and oppositional discourses: they are not necessarily mutually inclusive, and their definition is further contingent upon who is doing the defining, and for whom. In relation to Eva Luna, however, a particular intersection between them can be read in relation to the fact that this is a text which expresses its opposition, not so much to a clearly locatable and externally imposed structure of oppression, but to a complex system of internally imposed oppressions which in turn disguise the influence of a northern neocolonialist presence. And in particular, the text brings its unsettled status to bear upon two of the most contested issues in recent postcolonial debate: those of the legitimation of (a dispossessed) nationalism and the authentication of (a dispossessed) subjectivity.


Before turning to these issues, however, I would like to look at the narrative frame through which they are played out in this novel. Most critical commentaries on Allende in English pay attention to her use of magic realism, in which the borderline between the axiomatic and the untenable is blurred. But such commentary - reliant as it is upon the translation and, to some extent, the critical categorization of Latin American texts - tends only to see the relevance of this genre to her work: firstly, in terms of its comparability to other Latin American writers and primarily Gabriel Garc’a M‡rquez6 (thus claiming it, to return to Franco's point, for a model of national allegory), and secondly, in terms of its play upon conventions of narrative and of the "real" (claiming it for postmodernism). Reduced by mainstream critics to such models, the magic realist genre for Latin American literature is thus generalized, deprived of its particular relevance to cultural and political history. Yet as Stephen Slemon has argued in his article "Magic Realism as Post-Colonial Discourse," in relation to another ex-settler/postcolonial locality (that is, English Canada), the genre of magic realism, in effecting a kind of "double vision or metaphysical clash,"7 is defined by an ambivalence which is not simply relevant to the postcolonial context, but which further demands a reading informed by a particularly ambivalent cultural and political history. In its refusal to relax the sliding tension it maintains between its two discursive systems, magic realism can move between the cultural/political positions of what Slemon calls "inherited" codes and "imagined" codes:

these binary constrictions undergo a process of dialectical interplay between opposing terms which undermines the fixity of borders between them. Each term invades the other, eroding its absolute nature and addressing the gaps . . . that fixed systems inevitably create.8

The eroding of such fixed systems is the starting point of Eva Luna. This is a point which bears, not only upon the binaries of centre/periphery, masculine/feminine, dominant/subservient which have become familiar to a particular kind of postcolonial discourse, but also upon the strategic one of authoritative/transgressive. These become areas of shifting signification in the text, in which the space between the poles is to be negotiated rather than organized. The possibility of such heterogeneity lies partially with the structure of the text, not as a singular and linear narrative, but as a web of stories within stories. Born into poverty of a servant mother and an Indian father, Eva is a child of the shadows; yet this is not so much disabling for her as it is the source of creative possibility. Eva's position, rather than reinscribing the centre/margin binary with its attendant attributes, instead provides camouflage from which, as storyteller, she can occupy any space. Although her world is "bounded by the iron railings of the garden," Eva finds that "[w]ithin them, time [is] ruled by caprice . . . Light and shadow create fundamental changes in the nature of objects . . . Space expand[s] and contract[s] according to my will" (23-24). As "a prolongation of [the] shadow[s]," she is "transformed into a multifaceted being, reproduced to infinity, seeing my own reflection in multiple mirrors . . . speaking with many voices" (263).

Here, the magic realist does not so much transcend the material conditions of the social world as challenge the regime's circumscribed version of that world by drawing upon its own narrative strategies. In other words, in dislocating the operative boundaries of an authoritarian regime, Eva is in fact appropriating and revising the very strategies which maintain it. Any totalizing system only survives, after all, on a suspension of disbelief. Information and disinformation dissolve into one another; a story of stability sustains a society in which dissidents who are existent one day are non-existent the next. In order to keep the "official truth" intact, in effect, a lot of narrative invention has to be done. What Eva's reinventions of the "official truth" can imply, therefore, is an unsettling of the polarized relationship between authority and transgression, recalling Sharpe's point that the oppositional position is always and necessarily an ambiguous or ambivalent one. This can be read in relation to Ross Chambers' argument in his book, Room for Maneuver, that critiques of the systems of domination tend to "exclude the possibility of anything but either repression or cooption for counter- or oppositional discourse" but that oppositional practice may be seen "more accurately to 'maneuver' within the 'room' that opens up between the two."9


How, then, does such narrative form bear upon the concepts of nation and subject, as they are configured by postcolonial discourse? It can be argued that Allende's text, positioned as it is within a complicated pattern of power relations, does "maneuver within the room" that opens up between an affirmation and a deconstruction of these configurations: a strategy which, in its ultimate forbidding of all binary configurations, suggests a reconstitution of "oppositionality" and its implications.

One debate which has pervaded postcolonial criticism is the issue of the affirmation or rejection of the concept of "nation." In its defence, some critics have argued that such a structure of self-definition is an important achievement for new nationalisms in throwing off what Simon During calls "universalist or Eurocentric concepts and images."10 A counter argument has been that any structure of identification, and particularly that of nation, is always and inevitably an ideological effect which will obscure various kinds of social difference. Accordingly, the kinds of questions to be asked about any formulation of national identity need to pinpoint, as Richard White phrases it, "what their function is, whose construction they are, and whose interests they serve."11

Yet although "nation" is acknowledged as a contested term in any debate about postcolonial identity, it is especially so in the Latin American context where national discourse has: firstly, developed out of settler colonies in which women and the indigenous peoples have, in different ways, either been invisible in or subservient to the dominant culture; and secondly, been appropriated by authoritarian regimes in what Jean Franco regards as a cyclical conjunction of modernity and repression. She argues:

. . . nation states were in Latin America vehicles for (often enforced) captialist modernisation. The stabilization of the nation state (often built on old colonial bureaucratic infrastructures) occurred for the most part without . . . any form of democratic debate and was often vehiculated by autocratic or populist/authoritarian regimes. 12

In Eva Luna, however, the concept of nation is neither wholly recuperated nor dismantled, but is instead treated with a slippery duplicity. On the one hand, "the nation" is appealed to in a testimonial way through the narrative as the site of a polarized struggle between "the people" and an unwanted government. There is the version of nation which is imposed from above (that is, the "inherited" code of dispossession, based on a relation between power and capitalist modernization); and then there is the "nationhood" of the people (that is, the "imagined" or nostalgic code of repossession, based on a relation between tradition and the agrarian world). Yet on the other hand, this very conceptualizing of nation as the site of political tug of war is, in another sense, critiqued in the novel. In the stories that Eva tells, there is the assumed centre of power, but then this is undermined by a multiplicity of "exuberant" and "immoderate geograph[ies]" (67; 158). This variable hinterland is called by Eva the "interior" (68). And here, Eva Luna destablizes that easy binary of centre/margin in such a way that collapses it altogether. The assumed "centre" is defined not by an exterior space which can be characterized as general and undifferentiated, but by its own interior: an interior which is complex, multifaceted and sprawling. Running through this "most hallucinatory land on earth" is a river of "opalescent waters whose banks evaporated in the reverberating light," whose current carries an inconguous diversity of "garbage, carcasses of dogs and rats, and inexplicable white blossoms [along with] images, smells, colours, and myths" (5). In contrast to this, the now centreless "centre" of authority is described in ways which render it flat, caricatured, inanimate against the multiple worlds of the interior.

Such textual ambivalence about the constitution of nation as potentially both retrievable concept and ideological investment has a parallel in the novel's treatment of the possibility of a coherent subjectivity. In her recent article, "The Debate on Current Theories of Colonial Discourse," Anne Maxwell summarizes the contending critical arguments surrounding the possibility and nature of subjectivity.13 Framing the many complexities of this issue, she suggests, is a kind of polarization between an expressionist and a deconstructionist argument of subjectivity. In focusing these arguments, Maxwell uses Benita Parry's contention in her article, "Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse," that sovereign subjectivity can and must be retrievable,14 and Gayatri Spivak's contention in her chapter, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" that subjectivity is always discursively mediated and capable of deconstruction.15 In employing this debate, Maxwell makes it clear that the intent is not to validate either contention but rather to trace the development and, most especially, the function and effect of postcolonial theoretical models.

Eva Luna, however, is a text which eludes such critical configurations. Again, the space between restorative essentialism and provisional representation is "maneuvered" and this textual ambivalence is most apparent in the ways in which subjectivity is gendered. Eva's peculiar status, not only as a woman living in the shadows of an authoritarian patriarchy but also as straddling both the colonizing and the native cultures, calls for a recognition of the gendered aspects of colonizing processes as much more complex than a generalized model of "masculine/colonizer versus feminine/colonized" can suggest.

In this text, the power of female sexuality is explored as the means of unsettling and reconceiving the particularly masculine historical narratives of conquest and possession. The women in the novel are the keepers, by matrilineal inheritance, of an energy that is life-giving and ongoing, and which can be pitched against the various violences of a masculinist and militant culture. This women-shared energy is rooted in the image of mother love. Mother figures are prevalent in the novel as the holders of a capacity to heal and to create, and this capacity is manifested in ways which disrupt and reinvent the traditionally valorized (and thereby depoliticized) signification of "mother." Apart from the ghostly presence of her dead mother Consuelo, Eva's life is guided and protected by characters like Elvira: the shrivelled "grandmother" who never was a mother; the madrina: the tough and sassy alcoholic whose only child was born with two heads, presumably as punishment for her various sins; La Se–ora: the painted brothel owner who knows how to care for her "girls." Yet although the most familiar meanings of "mother" are refused in this way, Allende's focus on female solidarity provides a recuperative image of female subjectivity which is consistent with a particular western feminist tradition of a separable and unproblematic women's identity. Critics like Doris Meyer and Maureen Shea have argued that such a positioning of female power - a configuration of female energy as nurturing and cyclical and male energy as culturally based and destructive - must be understood within the social/political context of a powerful nexus, both past and present, between colonial, capitalist and patriarchal violences.16

However, although it is recuperated in this way, the gendered nature of subjectivity is equally the object of dismantlement in Eva Luna. This is particularly apparent in the character of Melisio/Mimi, a transvestite who beomes biologically female. An "ambiguous" figure, Melisio/Mimi is both a "fictional woman" and "the absolute female" (227). This ambiguity is compounded when Melisio/Mimi attends the Carnival Ball dressed as a man (198). The result, says Eva, "is unsettling, to say the least" (189). That there is much more to be said about the unsettling of subjectivity is further implied in the fact that Melisio/Mimi works both on the stage, in the art of role playing, and at the language institute, in the translation (and transformation) of meanings. Her life becomes a "suspended" (189) exercise of transformation, in which identity is only, and always, provisional. In the house which Eva shares with Melisio/Mimi and La Se–ora, life is lived "in a forest of ambiguities":

In that house day and night were reversed, you lived at night and slept during the day; the girls became entirely different creatures once they put on their makeup; [La Se–ora] was a tangle of contradictions; Melisio was without sex or age . . . [all was] profusion and total disorder. (113)

Eva Luna, then, remains for the critic an irresolvable text. In the romanticising of national and subjective identities as either polarized or unproblematic it reveals a complicity with "inherited codes" of reference. In the dismantling of these concepts as ideological effects it also reveals a refusal of such codes. And in their refusal to relax, the tensions which inform this text forbid all easy configurations, requiring instead an acknowledgement of its ambivalent and complex social/political status. The society it sets out to suggest (rather than to represent) is a complex one in which different economic, racial and gendered groups have been, and continue to be, both the victims and the perpetrators of different acts of oppression. Yet perhaps it is in the very space which it leaves open between positions that the text can most successfully maneuver its oppositional role: an oppositionality which, as Ross Chambers says, "can only be complicitous,"17 but which is thereby slippery of critical categories, demanding of critical specificity.

University of Western Australia


1 See, for instance, Stephen Slemon, "Unsettling the Empire: Resistance Theory for the Second World," World Literatures Written in English 30. 2 (1990): 30-41; Ketu H. Katrak, "Decolonizing Culture: Towards a Theory for Postcolonial Women's Texts," Modern Fiction Studies 35. 1 (1989): 157-179; Jenny Sharpe, "Figures of Colonial Resistance," Modern Fiction Studies 35. 1 (1989): 137-55; Anne Maxwell, "The Debate on Current Theories of Colonial Discourse," Kunapipi 13. 3 (1991): 70-84.

2 Jean Franco, "The Nation as Imagined Community" in H. Aram Veeser, ed. The New Historicism (New York: Routledge, 1989) 210.

3 Isabel Allende, Eva Luna (1987; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989). References in the text are to this edition.

4 Fredrick B. Pike, Spanish America 1900-1970: Tradition and Social Innovation (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973) 9.

5 Sharpe, 143.

6 See, for instance, Robert Antoni, "Parody or Piracy: The Relationship of The House of the Spirits to One Hundred Years of Solitude," Latin American Literary Review 32 (1988): 16-28. Antoni asks: "How does one get beyond One Hundred Years of Solitude, since all writing in the genre [of magic realism] would seem, in the end, a rewriting of this novel" (16); and he says specifically of Allende: "[she] would also have been drawn to Garcia Marquez's novel in that it is the story of a Latin American family, precisely the type of story she set out to tell" (26).

7 Stephen Slemon, "Magic Realism as Post-Colonial Discourse," Canadian Literature 16 (Spring 1988): 12.

8 Slemon, 1988.

9 Ross Chambers, Room for Maneuver: Reading [the] Oppostional [in] Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) 3.

10 Simon During, "Postmodernism or Post-Colonialism Today" in Andrew Milner, et al, eds. Postmodern Conditions (Clayton, Vic.: Centre for General and Comparative Literature, Monash University, 1988) 112.

11 Richard White, Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980 (Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1981), viii.

12 Franco, 205.

13 Anne Maxwell, "The Debate on Current Theories of Colonial Discourse," Kunapipi 13.3 (1991): 70-84.

14 Benita Parry, "Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse," Oxford Literary Review 9.1-2 (1987): 27-58.

15 Gayatri C. Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" in Gary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

16 Doris Meyer, "Exile and the Female Condition in Isabel Allende's De amor y de sombra," International Fiction Review 15. 2 (1988): 151-57; Maureen Shea, "A Growing Awareness of Sexual Oppression in the Novels of Contemporary Latin American Women Writers," Conflencia: Revista Hispanica de Cultura y Literaura 4. 1 (1988): 53-59 and "Love, Eroticism, and Pornography in the Works of Isabel Allende," Women's Studies 18 (1990): 223-31.

17 Chambers, xv.

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