Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Sara Castro-Klaren reviews Antonio Cornejo Polar’s Writing in the Air

Antonio Cornejo Polar. Writing in the Air: Heterogeneity and Persistence of Oral Traditions in Andean Literatures. Trans. Lynda J.  Jentsch. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2013. 232 pp. Hardcover $65.75. 

Reviewed by Sara Castro-Klaren

4 June 2014

Writing in the Air is the translation of the last book authored by Antonio Cornejo Polar. This influential critic made his reputation across Latin America, Europe, and the United States with his analysis of the novels of José Maria Arguedas, his subsequent book-length studies of the Indigenista novel in the Andes and the development of a national literary tradition in Peru in light of the social and aesthetic challenges that modernity posed for postcolonial, often bilingual and bicultural authors as cultural agents. For cultural critics and theorists who read only English, Writing in the Air will have a special value, as each chapter (dealing with a major problem in the cultural formation of Latin America) benefits from the perspective that an extremely well-read and well-versed critic brings to the formulation of the problematic at hand. The prose is clear, the thinking has been slimmed down, the focus is unyielding, and the translator has done a very good job. In a certain way this is Cornejo Polar’s most deeply theoretical book—it tackles the long, vexed, splendid, and paradoxical story of the wrestling of orality and writing in Peru—and yet the most accessible to those not very familiar with Andean cultural formations.

This translation comes to join the work of other influential and indispensable Latin American cultural critics and historians based in Latin America whose work has not been accessible to the English-language-only reading public. The points of departure, the epistemological questions and thesis developed in the light of Latin America’s history by theorists such as Antonio Candido, Darcy Riberio, Angel Rama, Enrique Dussel, Roberto Schwartz, and Beatriz Sarlo, to name a few, are sorely missing from discussions in the North American academy on key topics in postcolonial studies, cultural criticism, subaltern studies and postmodern theory. Having Writing in the Air at hand will ameliorate the partiality of this theoretical milieu.  Cornejo Polar’s critical perspective offers an always historically entwined theorization of the text as event in both the social text as well as in the realm of consciousness as historically lived.

Writing in the Air theorizes a seminal idea taken from a poem by Cesar Vallejo from his last book, Spain, Let This Cup Pass from Me (1939). Intrigued and guided by the inviting paradox of Vallejo’s “aerial graffiti” (p. 171), Cornejo Polar plunges deeply and historically into the multivalence of the dramatic scenes in Peruvian culture when orality, as the cultural norm, engages in an intense and deadly struggle with writing, that is to say, with the absence of the voice. As Vallejo would have it in one of his early poems, the poet calibrates the suffering of his failure to reach, to commune with “‘the illiterate to whom I write’” (p. 170). Starting out with the scene of Cajamarca in 1532 when the Inca Atahualpa, already captive, is presented with a nondescript object (the Bible) that is said to contain the word of God, Writing in the Air  considers the sequences and consequences for Andean peoples of the fact that the Inca did not hear any voice, any language at all, or, rather, that the book failed to speak. For the Inca, the book was most definitely not the word of God, and he promptly threw the Bible on the ground, manifesting through his inadequate translator that he felt cheated and deceived by the Spaniards. The invaders claimed blasphemy in turn, for the sacred object had been decontextualized  (by the other) and thus desecrated.  The only way to restore the book’s authority was to condemn the Inca to death and thus absorb his orality (the other) into the “universal” claims of the system of writing.

All this happened in the flash of second.  It is in this traumatic moment that writing is introduced as one with conquest, and the fate of millions of Andeans is forever decided. Cornejo Polar advances the thesis that in many texts authored by Peruvian writers there is nostalgia for an oral world unbreached by writing, a world in which all could and would communicate without the division brought about by literacy. Followers of Walter Ong, literacy scholars, and media students will be most interested in the orality/literacy pugilistic matches analyzed in this original study of coloniality.