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A Hopeless Potentiality: Infancy and Marginality in Southern Cone Literature

Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott (work in progress)

There are some literary figures that seem to capture the historical complexity of
an epoch. This is the case with contemporary representations of marginal characters,
petite criminals, defenseless women and, to a lesser degree, infants. Appealing to these
characters is, by no means, new in Latin American literature, but what seems to be
lacking here is a specific analysis of these tropes according to their inherent economy. In
what follows, I will pay special attention to the representation of infants in Southern
Cone literature, as I am interested in characters that, as literary figures, interrupt the logic
of signification and the standard reading of literary works as identitarian allegories.
Instead of deciphering the plots of contemporary novels according to a more or less
standard procedure that contrast these narratives with the historical context in which they
emerge, as if we were dealing with elliptical forms of classical realism, what interests me
the most is the way in which these weak or powerless characters suspend the
economy of signification proper to modern literature. In this sense, this modern economy
was related to the division of labor characteristic of the nation-State social contract, in
which literature as an institution but also as a cultural practice, had a clear role, one of
interpellation, confirmation and prognosis of the communities future. To read these
marginal characters as counter-communitarian figures is, therefore, to read them beyond

the historical representation of the community and, at the same time, to read them beyond
the classical role assigned to literature. In other words, the historical transformations of
Latin American realities (economy, politics, and culture), by what has been called
neoliberal globalization, affect the immanent economy of literary signification.
This is the context in which I am reading a series of recent novels and narrative
works by contemporary writers. But also, this is the context in which, beyond the linear
and evolving history of Latin American literature, I have found a sort of counter-history,
non-linear but elliptical; one that seems to repeat itself as the permanent re-elaboration of
some particular characters that refer to a place that is not a common place but a place
for an experience of the common not based upon any attributive ontology, any
identitarian logic. More than a common place, I am talking about a literary place that
enables us to imagine a new experience of the common.
This is, indeed, the kind of repetition produced by the regular manifestations of
precarious forms of life within the literary text. In general and limiting my examples to
the Southern Cone, I am referring to minimal lives that proliferate through Latin
American modern history, and today, when the conditions defining the first instauration
of industrial capitalism in the region seem to be worsening, they re-appear with a
particular force, a weak force as Benjamin would have put it. Indeed, the
contemporary process of capitalist accumulation has become utterly flexible, generating
diverse forms of damage and precarious life. The problem here is that this production of
precarious life is not an accident or a lack of development, but a constitutive process of
this capitalist accumulation. At the same time, the force of these characters we were
speaking about is not related to the classical notion of power and its representational

economy, it rather refers to a powerless potentiality, since what they promise, without the
means to fulfill that promise, is the disclosing of the mechanisms that inform capitals
philosophy of history. They reveal the promises of capitalism as a compulsive
modernization, as the cunning of capital (John Kraniauskas).
Thus, the classical representation of the working class sorrows in texts like Sub
terra (1904) and Sub sole (1907) by the Chilean writer Baldomero Lillo; Vidas mnimas
(1923) by Jos Santos Gonzlez Vera; Hijo de ladrn (1951) by Manuel Rojas, among
others, reappears in contemporary narratives such as Boca de lobo (2000) by the
Argentine novelist Sergio Chejfec and Mano de obra (2002) by the Chilean Diamela
Eltit, to name just two contemporary cases. Of course, the stylistic variations and the
specific historical context of these different works are crucial to understand this repetition
as difference, but according to our interest today, what matters here is not the distance
between social realism and what has been called a contemporary form of bloody or dirty
realism, rather what concerns me today is the kinship of these unfamiliar characters. The
unfamiliarity I am talking about, however, is not the formal ostranenie or
defamiliarization the Russian formalists used to speak about. Neither it coincides with the
Freudian das Unheimliche (or, the uncanny); it rather refers to an atypical family
composed by these characters; a family that has in common the very suspension of the
given community and, therefore, interrupts the allegorical economy of signification that
subordinate literary imagination to a particular political agenda.
Careful though, I am not saying that the writers in question here share the same
impolitical understanding of literature (following the notion the Italian philosopher
Roberto Esposito popularized recently), on the contrary, as it should be clear, most of our

Latin American writers have a particular political engagement and, consequently,

understand their role as a political one. Nonetheless, what concerns me today is not what
they say but what they do, how their characters acquire a life of their own, even if it is a
precarious form of life. In doing so, I read literature not only as an evolving process that
confirms and illustrates the labyrinths of Latin American modern history, but I read it as a
symptomatic place where the disagreement between the historicist hegemonic criticism
proper to the university discourse and the inner literary imagination acquires a visibility
or, as I will put it later, a weak or hopeless potentiality.
Of course, I am not interested in producing a therapeutical approach to this
dysfunctional family; I rather want to dwell on their uncivil characters as forms of
dislocation between the law and the letter. Thus, the defenseless woman in Clarice
Lispector, Diamela Eltit or Sergio Chejfec; the working class boy in Baldomero Lillo,
Manuel Rojas or, in a different way, Osvaldo Lamborghini; the anti-epic or anti-heroic
soldiers in Fogwill or Roberto Bolao; the universal and infamous criminal in Borges,
Ricardo Piglia or Ramn Daz Eterovic; and, the nocturnal travesty in Luis Zapata,
Carlos Velzquez or Pedro Lemebel, all of them and many others, are literary figurations
that move beyond not only the classical subject of the Latin American literature, but also
beyond the very hegemonic logic that functionalizes literary language in a chain of
signifiers based upon a process of translatability. As unfamiliar characters, these are
figures that interrupt the logic of translation and suspend the sovereignty of the literary
discourse. They dwell, to put it in other terms, in the very distance between language and

Let me, then, move forward to the works in question here. In his famous short
story El nio proletario (1973) (The Proletarian Boy), the Argentine writer Osvaldo
Lamborghini resorts to the figure of the infant as the main vehicle for a bloody
representation of the co-belonging of sexuality and cruelty. Indeed, this is the story of a
famished kid that sells newspapers in yellow busses, and his encounter with three middleclass kids who torture, rape, humiliate and, finally, strangle him. A common event (as
capitalisms secret is that a child is always being killed) that is portrayed as a sadist
sexual experience for the middle class boys who celebrate a carnival with their skinny
victim. In a reflexive moment of the plot, after the abject and sacrificial representation of
the violence inflicted upon this disadvantaged boy, the narrator presents the life of
Stroppani, the agonizing protagonist of the story, as an infectious proletarian existence
marked from the beginning with the curse of syphilis, alcoholism and poverty, and
destined to reproduce the army of little black head (cabezitas negras) that characterizes
the working class as a bunch of inmundos cuerpos abandonados (abject abandoned
bodies) in the whereabouts of contemporary capitalist cities. Lamborghinis narrative,
according to Bolao, produces a disturbing effect on the reader, an effect of admiration
and repugnance, both at the same time. Here an example of how Lamborghini states the
condemnation of the proletarian boy from the beginning of his tale:
Since his first steps in life, the proletarian boy suffers the consequences of being
part of the exploited class. He is born in a room that is falling apart, usually with a
big alcoholic legacy in his blood. While his mother throws him into the world,
assisted by an old vicious midwife, the father, the creator, silences the rightful

cries of the mother with the sound of his vomits, meantime he drinks a wine
denser than the filth of his own misery. (56)
If The Proletarian Boy is a sort of re-enactment of the classical novela obrerista
associated to early 20th century social realism, it differs from that model in the lack of
both a redemptive dimension and a politically engaged orientation. This is why
Lamborghini has been called, among many other things, a cynic writer (an immoralist).
His cynicism, however, still needs to be thought because there is a specific im-political
aspect in it (See Karina Millers Escrituras impolticas). In fact, Lamborghinis writing is
not just experimental in a formal or avant-gardist way since he was an active participant
of the psychoanalytical culture of Buenos Aires by the 1960s, and his resorts to violence
and Sadism is meaningful in a non-conventional political form.
As we said earlier, the motto behind The Proletarian Boy is the classical
Freudian one related to the anxiety produced by the undeniable fact that in capitalism a
child is being beating always. Then, this explains his detachment from the tradition of
engaged and political literature, particularly with Grupo Boedo that represents the weepy
tradition of basic social realism. What is to represent a boy being executed in a short
story, asks Lamborghini, compared to the permanent devastation of life within
On the other hand, we should keep in mind another of Lamborghinis bloody
stories, The Fiord (1969), where the author retakes an old national tradition inaugurated
by Esteban Echeverras El matadero (The Slaughterhouse) and Sarmientos Facundo,
and continued into the 20th century, among many others, by Borges and Adolfo Bioy
Casares La fiesta del monstruo and Cortzars Casa tomada. The Fiord

problematizes the literary representation of the people in a sort of catachresis that

interrupts the identification of the literary and the historical corpus of Peronismo and its
Popular Front (See Josefina Ludmers El gnero gauchesco). What appears interrupted,
disarticulated or, more precisely, decomposed with the proliferation of these inmundos
cuerpos abandonados is the relationship between the literary representation and the
constitution of the political subject, a subject that has been crucial for Latin American
literary and political imagination. In a recent article (2001), John Kraniauskas describes
The Fiord in the following terms:
I would like to suggest here that Lamborghinis porno-novella El fiord emerges
from and reflects upon this political crisis to constitute a literary (and sexual)
assault on the Argentine state, an occupation of this empty apparatus, now
become a stage and, perhaps, even a mirror. Written between October 1966 and
March 1967 (and published in 1969, the year of the Cordobazo (city of
Cordobas uprising), the narrative constitutes -in competition with the military
coups of 1956 and 1966- not a demand for Peronist justice, but a pornographic
assault on this scene, a re-occupation of the space of the state by a particular
Peronist unreason; in other words, a kind of perverse, cruel theatre that enacts
yet another Argentine revolution, not a Proletarian Revolution but a pornoRevolution that, through sacrifice, reinstalls Peronist law: The General is dead!
Long live the General! (Porno Revolution 145)
However, it is the impossibility of this Peronist law what exacerbates the catachresis as
the main characteristic of its figurative economy. The Peronist People convened by the
political discourses of the traditional left (and some nationalist sectors) does not agree

with the figurative peoples produce by the literary imagination, in the very same way in
which the epic and sacrificial representation of the working class by classical realism
does not agree with the re-enactment of that sacrificial life in Lamborghinis short stories.
To formulate this disagreement even further, we can say that while Ernesto Laclau
understands The creation of a People as the main task for contemporary politics (Why
Constructing a People is the Main Task of Radical Politics? 2006), Lamborghinis
task would be associated with the destruction of a people, as the condition for its
proliferation beyond the political logic of sovereignty and hegemonic articulations. Here
is where the impolitical character of literary imagination points to a hopeless potentiality,
since this figuration should not be read as a confirmation of humanist modern
representation of the subject of politics and history, of culture and literature. The
precarity of live, the bare condition of blosses Leben, as Benjamin calls it in his essay on
violence (Critique of Violence, 1921), is both, the mirror image of contemporary
capitalist accumulation and its interruption, without force, without sovereignty.

El nio proletario however also anticipates another Argentine contemporary
novel: Sergio Chejfecs Boca de lobo that portraits the meaningless life of Delia, a young
girl sentenced to a life without density, an empty body regardless of her unexpected
pregnancy. Delia is not a very far relative of Macabea, la nordestina, the main character
of Clarice Lispectors later novel The Hour of the Star (1977). Both Macabea and Delia
are female representations of Lamborghinis inmundos cuerpos abandonados, but what
makes of Delia a more radical presentation of this abandonment is her total submission or

subsumption to the contemporary mechanisms of capitalist accumulation, particularly to

Something similar might be said about Rodolfo Enrique Fogwills Los pichiciegos
(1982) translated as Malvinas Requiem a novel that refers to the misadventures of an
Argentine group of deserters in the Falkland War of 1982. The total extermination of
these soldiers, a collateral damage to the warlike discourses of both the UK of Margaret
Thatcher and Argentinas military dictatorship, does not appear in the media neither in
the official narratives and Fogwill, it should be noted, is clever enough to produce a
timely version of the events that points to the blind spot of official national history. Los
pichiciegos also refers to an Argentinean mammal that dwells in a subterranean den, a
sort of crypt or catacomb, that allegorizes the reversal and exhaustion of the trench war,
which has been the favorite image to represent the cultural battles and the fights for
hegemony in the Latin American left. Los pichiciegos as a form of life are not a residual
existence, but a non-hegemonic one, a life without sovereignty in the middle of a
historical crisis. They are a sort of hopeless life confronting the facticity of war.
Certainly, in contemporary Latin American literature these inmundos cuerpos
abandonados return permanently, whether as monster, animal-like characters, or as
minimal representations in the borders of national master narratives, foundational fictions
or fictive ethnicities. We should note, nevertheless, how in Spanish the notion of inmundo
refers to a dirty or filthy condition as well as to the lack of worldliness, a lack of
experience as the result of a social marginalization that re-works the traditional class
identities. For example, in the line that goes from Diamela Eltits Lumprica (1983) and
El padre mo (1989) to Mano de obra (2002) and Impuesto a la carne (2010) one can see

the disarticulation of the national master narrative, the so-called Chilean Exceptionalism.
It is an undoing of history in the context of the dictatorships last years and the political
transition to democracy, probably Chiles main achievement in recent times. Several
characters in her plots are subsumed to the bio-political conditions of contemporary labor
organization and production, which were introduced by the authoritarian and compulsive
neoliberal modernization perpetrated by Pinochets regime. In the last two novels, the
hipper-hygienic staging of the supermarket and the hospital resembles the immunitarian
policy oriented to produce an organic national corpus, a body in good shape that works as
an un-written social contract that exists beneath the law. The characters of Mano de obra,
for example, repeat the tragic lives of Baldomero Lillos Sub-terra (1904) in particular. I
am thinking about La compuerta numero 12 (The Door Number Twelve), a tragic
story of a little boy and his father that are forced to work in a subterranean coalmine just
to survive. However, Eltits characters do not dwell in the darkness of the underground,
neither are related to the coal mining activity, they rather proliferates in the prophylactic
environment of the contemporary mega-markets, which produces an interesting historical
effect of repetition, a contrasting sequence of white/black, down/up, mine/supermarket
that discloses the Real history of capitalism as production of misery more than permanent
On the other hand, the work with language, specific to Lumprica and El padre
mo; a work that interrupts the narrative and/or testimonial functions of literary texts,
allows the emergence of an anasemic experience of meaning, a raw confrontation with
words, opposed to the official political consensus. In other words, the anasemic
dimension interrupts the instrumental use of language as signification favoring a


disagreement with the very discourse of the official consensus characteristic of Southern
Cone post-dictatorship regimens of the 1990s. A similar process could be seen, however,
in the Central American post-war context, where works such as Rodrigo Rey Rosas
Crcel de rboles (1992), and El material humano (2009), and Horacio Castellanos
Moyas El asco (1997) and Insensatez (2004), among many others, stand as narrative
projects that do not content themselves with the simple representation of political
violence, for they problematize the very process of de-narrativization inherent to the
historical crisis of language, in the context of a long standing civil war. In that case, we
are not dealing with the exhaustion of literature and the historical emergence of
testimony, for what these literary practices show is a deep crisis of the language itself that
now seems to be broken and unable to express the painful condition of history. It is not
that literature does not represent correctly the subaltern classes real conditions of life, to
paraphrase John Beverleys famous diatribe; it is rather the brutal condition of a history
without redemption what interrupts the communicative function of modern literature. In
other words, it is not that language has become unfamiliar due to an intentional aesthetic
procedure, as in high modernism; it is rather that language, as Oscar del Barco would
have put it, has abandoned us.
In Crcel de rboles there is a short text called The Pelcary Project where a
character named Yu, hidden in the top of a tree in the middle of a prisoners camp at the
Guatemalan jungle, appears without memory and without language, after suffering a
lobotomy that deactivated his mental functions. We learnt about Yu not because his
narrative abilities but because of a minimal somatic memory that remains in his hand
with which he writes automatic annotations that he couldnt even understand. Yus hand


is the radical reduction of the writing function of thinking, a sort of conditioned reflex
that is radically apart from any deliberate or intentional theory of meaning. His writing,
once again, is anasemic and somehow familiar to the whole problematic of the
instrumental character of the hand, which relates, somehow, to Cortzars infinite hands
that cannot stop growing, or to the enigmatic avant-gardist European painter who after
severing his hand off, in a sort of radical ready-made, put it in the middle of his last work
right before going crazy, in Bolaos 2666. Perhaps what is at stake here is the
instrumental relationship between hands and the world in a process of deterritorialization
that does not imply liberation but an anatomopolical reorganization of the productive
social corpus.
By the same token, in Castellanos Moyas El arma en el hombre (2001), the
skilled hands of Robocop, a paramilitary converted to a hit man in the postwar period,
shows a different articulation between violence and handiness that presents violence itself
not only as the result of an intentional act but as an inherent condition of existence.
Perhaps here lies one of the main problems of todays critical theory, the neoliberal and
post-Fordist nature of contemporary violence executed by a hand deterritorialized from
the assembly line of the former industrial capitalism, subject to no law, in a flexible
contractual regime proper to contemporary accumulation processes.
What matter in all of these new literary elaborations is the way in which crime
and violence appear as a natural attitude, a sort of resource at hand that is already beyond
the moral representation of good and evil. This is something Olvaldo Lamborghini
already anticipates in his El nio proletario, as the guiltless execution of Stroppani by
three other kids, is not only a parodic inversion of the weepy plot of classical realism and


the socialist tradition, but also a premonition of what was about to happen in the region.
We should not forget Lamborghinis enigmatic sentence by 1976, the year of the
Argentine coup dtat that pushed him, finally, to his exile in Barcelona. In that occasion
Lamborghini said: On March 24, 1976, I, who was an alcoholic, druggy, crazy
homosexual and Marxist, become an alcoholic, druggy, crazy homosexual and Marxist
(El 24 de marzo de 1976, yo, que era loco, homosexual, marxista, drogadicto y
alcohlico, me volv loco, homosexual, marxista, drogadicto y alcohlico), pointing to a
secret temporality for which the dramatic occurrence of the military intervention just
confirmed the secret history of capitalism.

Of course, infants are everywhere in Latin American literature, from the clever
protagonist of Los Infortunios de Alonso Ramrez (1690) by Carlos de Sigenza y
Gngora, to The Mangy Parrot (El periquillo sarniento) by Fernndez de Lizardi. I
would, nonetheless, just refer to two other telling contemporary examples where infancy
appears as a figure of deprivation. I am talking about Guillermo Saccomanos El pibe
(2006), a series of interconnected short stories that tell through the memories of a kid, the
history of an Italian immigrant family in a marginal neighborhood in Buenos Aires.
Saccomannos novellas and tales somehow move always around an alternative narrative
to the Argentine national history, from the viewpoint of a kid, an immigrant, a marginal,
and even a regular office worker, we learnt about the quotidian suffering of common
people, with a style exempted from any sort of epic or redemptive tonality. Likewise, the
brutal novella Montacerdos (1981), by the Peruvian writer Cronwell Jara is closely


related to Lamborghinis depiction although in the opposite side of the specter. Jara
portrays the life of a rural immigrant and indigenous family to the suburbs of Lima.
Through the narration of Maruja, a little girl, we learn about the missing father of that
family, the efforts the mother need to do in order to keep them together, and the
whereabouts of his little brother Yococo, a kid that spends his days with an infectious
injury in his head, eating rats and riding a filthy pig that is also his pet. This is almost the
same hopeless life of the proletarian boy, but Jara is not much interested in paraphrasing
or parodying the weepy style of realist writers, he is rather focused in producing a brutal
yet real and minimal description of the life of a kid, Yococo, which express
synecdochically the general conditions of life of immigrant families in the context of the
compulsive neoliberal modernization of Peru in that time. This is, curiously enough, very
similar to the way in which, 10 year before, Jos Mara Arguedas presented the neoliberal
modernization of Chimbote, a small fishing town in the coastal area of Peru, in his last
posthumous novel El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (1971). To put it in
Montacerdos figurative economy, we might say that while this neoliberal compulsive
modernization is taking place in the last years of the twentieth-century, in the middle of
the civil war in Peru, an always forgotten kid walks and plays around with a purulent
injure in his head. This is the purulent wound of history to which infancy works as the
territory that supports it and as the weak potentiality that promises another relationship
between language and experience.
As Giorgio Agamben has recently put it (Infancy and History) literature as a form
of imagination could be though as the place in which the law confronts its groundless
condition, allowing us to think the very figuration of infancy, as a form of puerilia


ludicra that deconstructs the emphatic condition of history proper to the philosophy of
capital, the same philosophy that, according to Rancire, always misses the playful night
of the proletarians, where class identities are put away in favor of a non-instrumental
relationship to time, to history, as an careless game. Wasnt this non-instrumental
relationship to time what Benjamin was wondering in children literature and toys? What
is the secret of toys in relation to the secret of commodities?