Las segundas criaturas. Diego Cornejo Menacho. Columbia: La Pereza Ediciones. 2020. 262 pages.
Las segundas criaturas is one of the most important novels of Ecuadorian literature in the twenty-first century. Like any work that leaves its mark, this novel functions on many levels as a re-reading of a literary tradition. In this case, the difficult history of the narrative tradition of Ecuador.
Historically, Ecuadorian writers have not only felt displaced from the European and Anglo-American canon; the very notion of “Latin American literature” represents an uncomfortable category that seems to not contemplate them. In this sense, Las segundas criaturas delves into the darker corners of that marginalized condition by constructing a text about Marcelo Chiriboga, the most famous writer of the Latin American Boom, an Ecuadorian author invented as a joke by two well-known novelists from the region, Carlos Fuentes and José Donoso.
Cornejo Menacho plays with the idea of placing Ecuadorian narrative at the center of Latin American literature, but said inclusion seems possible only in terms of parody, in the image of an impossible writer who pertains to an invisible tradition. Far from lamenting that invisibility, Las segundas criaturas will utilize it as a strategy to look over not only the unnoticed trajectory of the Ecuadorian arts but also the tensions that occurred in the same cultural field of the region in a key moment of its history: the internationalization of the Hispano-American novel as of the sixties.
If Pierre Menard (one of the metaphors par excellence of Latin American writers) copies the Quixote, Marcelo Chiriboga appears to want to copy Pierre Menard. Unlike Borges, who in every moment seeks to irreverently stand firm before the European tradition, Cornejo Menacho first seeks to face the Latin American tradition that appears to have displaced him. This process, nevertheless, does not imply a double devaluation. It signals, better yet, an opportunity, a movement that opens itself to possibilities of parody, pastiche, and digression. Cornejo Menacho takes hold of Fuentes and Donoso’s character, but by placing him within the controversial territory of the Ecuadorian novel, he completely reinterprets him.
One of the voices in Cristóbal Nonato, by Carlos Fuentes, alludes to Marcelo Chiriboga from his marginal and contemptible origin. In that contempt (“África empieza en los Andes” [Africa starts in the Andes]), the exaltation of a more important and more central Mexican culture is cast:
Naciones subalternas […] que se han pasado pretendiendo ser primeros en todo lo que, obviamente, los mexicanos tuvimos antes: civilizaciones indias, universidades españolas, catedrales católicas, colegios pontificios, democracias dirigidas y poetas populistas.
[Subordinate nations […] that have passed claiming to be first in everything that, obviously, us Mexicans had before: Indian civilizations, Spanish universities, Catholic cathedrals, pontifical schools, guided democracies, and populist poets.]
But that same voice, that marginalizes and disregards Chiriboga, recognizes a value in him. In Cristóbal Nonato, it is the foreign writer Chiriboga whom “fue necesario importar” [was necessary to import] to “bautizar” [baptize] Mexico City “que crecía tan rápido y tan vastamente que rebasaba la capacidad nominativa de sus propios habitantes” [that grew so quickly and vastly that it overflowed the nominative capacity of its own habitants].
In Cornejo Menacho’s novel, his protagonist also worries about insulting (or, on occasion, concealing) his origin: “Si soy ecuatoriano tengo que ser de mierda, ¿no?” [If I am Ecuadorian I have to be shit, right?]. That extreme shift, nevertheless, gives one a curious way of looking at things. The insignificance of the place where Chiriboga is located at the same time serves to be able to express many things. Perhaps, as he himself affirms, Fuentes and Donoso “necesitaban que yo existiera para expresar lo que no podían decir por su propia boca” [needed me to exist to express what they could not say from their own mouths].
The protagonist of Las segundas criaturas suggests that it was necessary for the Chilean and Mexican authors to create an author who would pertain to a forgotten tradition. Inventing a writer from the Boom who was Mexican, Argentinian, Peruvian, Chilean, Colombian, or even Cuban or Uruguayan could have caused too much commotion and lent itself to multiple misunderstandings. An Ecuadorian, however, erased any recognizable reference and got rid of the possibility of seeing in him some trace of a real character. In a certain sense, it was a device that limited the allegorical reading and allowed one to read the complexity of the phenomenon of the Boom in another way.
In El jardín de al lado, José Donoso will use Chiriboga’s character in a similar sense: it is the element he will use to question the group. In the novel, Chiriboga is the greatest author of them all, and the narrator bitterly lashes out against him. Chiriboga represents all that the narrator detests but feels forced to engage in to succeed: Total Novels, “major” tones, profound allegories of Latin America. The narrative voice cannot help but develop a script of minor, personal tones opposed to the regional metaphors of its peers from the Boom (towards the end of the novel, we discover that his wife is in fact the true narrator of the story).
Donoso, without a doubt, identified with the protagonist of his novel. Among other things, this was because he projected the complicated frontier position which he himself occupied in the presence of the Boom, and because he assumed that intimate tone the Chilean author pursued in several of his works. This perhaps led his daughter, Pilar, to come to declare that that narrator was the true alter ego of her father.
Las segundas criaturas cannot be read ignoring the voices of those novels. If Donoso and Fuentes, by placing Chiriboga within a forgotten and foreign literature (Ecuadorian literature), avoided the confusion and suspicion that their observations regarding the Boom could awaken, what Cornejo does by resuming this practice is work within and explore an area all its own. If the Mexican and Chilean authors wanted to avoid the risk of an allegorical reading about somebody, Cornejo Menacho is going to fully assume the allegory as a non-problematic place for a nobody.
The figure of Chiriboga also complicates the idea of “Latin American literature” as a whole: it fragments it into compartments that project a field as divided as it is hierarchical. And it is interesting that Chiriboga places himself precisely at the stage of Latin American literary history when these hierarchical classifications became particularly intense. Chiriboga’s character is paradoxical because, although it is found within the new aristocracy of Latin American writers, it belongs to one of the forgotten national traditions due to the “modernization” of Hispano-American arts which Octavio Paz talks about.
Few novels like Las segundas criaturas have better approached those literary margins that began to multiply since the mid-century in Latin America, that phenomenon that left a trail of poor souls who moved to Paris or Barcelona in hopes of transforming into Cortázar or García Márquez and ended up becoming Julio Méndez, Ulises Lima, or Arturo Belano. Cornejo Menacho’s novel belongs to the lineage of novels that have been charged with deconstructing that moment but also with rummaging through what was hiding behind what that moment left aside, to dismantle the false myths that were sold and to relativize the values of what was understood by Latin American literature at that time. Donoso, Bolaño, and Cornejo Menacho are key references, in that sense, for re-reading the Hispano-American twentieth century in another way.
Needless to say, La Pereza Ediciones, from the United States, deserves all the praise for putting faith in and risking themselves for authors and works that, like Las segundas criaturas, belong to a circuit of important novels that do not often move throughout the common channels of distribution of the editorial market in Latin America.
Carlos Burgos Jara
University of San Diego
Translated by Jared Peterson