A collection of “piezas de ocasion” – slim essays, reviews and prologues by South American writers looking north, and North American writers looking south.
Author and essayist Stavans, who grew up Jewish in Mexico and now teaches at Amherst, makes maximal use of geographic and cultural distances in organizing this collection. Although he defines a border as “nothing but an artificial divide,” he also maintains that for him, “la frontera” has been an obsession since 1985, when he first crossed it. Here he gathers an array of pieces that function almost like facing mirrors: From each side of the Rio Grande, consummate writers reflect on their peers from the opposite shore. Rather than revealing unsuspected truths about each other, though, they invariable expose specific truths about themselves. Carlos Fuentes, writing about William Styron’s use of language as a paradoxical force, demonstrates his own sensitivity to the interplay of language and power – and the importance he places on both. Juan Carlos Onetti, reviewing Lolita, reveals his contempt for the “secret symbols, melancholy, and handshakes” shared by the author and his audience, even as he lauds Nabokov’s talent. And Jorge Luis Borges betrays his disaffection for allegory as he explores the implications of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Calvinism. Although each essay has its own integrity, the 32 selections are not uniformly strong; nor do they cohere any more readily when ordered by the academic conceit of the frontier. Borderline opposition certainly exists, but as a structural device it seems highly artificial; these writers do not speak to division as much as connection, even when they’re taking issue with each others’ artistic obsessions.
The border breaks down at this collection’s core. No matter how resonant the metaphor, the writers Stavans has gathered do not address cultural and political divisions as directly as the omnipresent links between power, language, and art.