Barbara Fuchs. Passing for Spain: Cervantes and the Fictions of Identity

Article excerpt

Barbara Fuchs. Passing for Spain: Cervantes and the Fictions of Identity. Urbana: U Illinois P, 2003. xi + 142 pp. ISBN: 0-252-02781-7.

In Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre (Berkeley: U California P, 1975), Robert Alter informs us that Don Quixote "presents us a world of role-playing, where the dividing lines between role and identity are often blurred" (5). He could continue to argue (of, at least, I would argue) that much if not all Cervantes' writing is self-conscious, a type of fiction "that systematically flaunts its own condition of artifice and that by so doing probes into the problematic relationship between real-seeming artifice and reality" (Alter x). By "reality" I would suggest that Alter does not refer merely to verisimilitude but to the actual contemporary world of the author. Generations of critics have readily acknowledged the social implications of Cervantes' "realist" fiction, particularly of Don Quixote, although they have been more reluctant, until recently--especially with the rise of new historicism and cultural criticism--to plumb the historical depths of his "idealist" fiction. Many critics, have, nonetheless, convincingly demonstrated the historical underpinnings and implied social criticism of Cervantes' generically and culturally subversive romances. Although Barbara Fuchs makes no direct reference to Alter and little to recent scholarly investigations on historically grounded, self-conscious, and metafictional aspects of Cervantes' romances, her work follows this critical approach and brilliantly channels it, taking cues from the efforts of Carroll B. Johnson, William H. Clamurro, and others in order to examine "playfulness with genre" and "slipperiness of disguise" in selections from a variety of Cervantine texts (Fuchs ix).

In order to fully appreciate Fuchs' study, the reader must come to grips with two terms. "passing" and "transvestism." Although not exactly synonyms, the two words work together to refer broadly to the same concept: the ability to disguise essence with superficiality. With delightful prose and appealing argumentation, Fuchs demonstrates that these concepts, as applied to Cervantes' writings, enhance our understanding of the fictions of seventeenth-century Spanish identity; in particular, of the artifice of honor and blood purity (3), and, by extension, of gender, ethnicity, and religious affiliation. Spain found herself in a period of identity crisis at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Conquest, colonization, expansion, and defense--with all of their political, social, economic, and religious implications--created a series of physical and social frontiers or boundaries, both literary and real, that people and characters regularly subverted, manipulated, and defied, rendering the limits ineffectual in practice, if still mythically maintained.

Fuchs' book is comprised of a brief preface; an introductory chapter (Chapter One); chapters on Don Quijote (Chapter Two), "Las dos doncellas" (Chapter Three), "El amante liberal" and La gran sultana (Chapter Four), the Persiles and "La espanola inglesa" (Chapter Five), and a short "Afterword." It has 22 pages of endnotes and a six-page index, but no bibliography. The second chapter, "Border Crossings: Transvestism and Passing in Don Quijote; argues that transvestism deconstructs Spanish binarisms: "male versus female, Christian versus Moor, masculine versus effeminate" (22). Fuchs suggest that Cervantes destabilizes gender and religious identities by exploiting traditional romance cross-dressing conventions in narrated, rather than dramatized, scenes. If, Fuchs claims, in the comedia transvestism was eventually "corrected" to produce the reintegration of the transvestite into his or, more often, her "proper" role, cross-dressing in narrative texts has no clear temporal boundaries and introduces the speculation that "any beautiful young man may be a woman in disguise" (22-23), of that any handsome woman may be a young man in disguise. …