Diana De Armas Wilson. Cervantes, the Novel, and the New World

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Diana de Armas Wilson. Cervantes, the Novel, and the New World. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 270 pp. ISBN: 0-19-816005-4.

During the first week of my course on Cervantes, I mention to students that had the author of Don Quixote been granted the employment he sought in the Indies in the 1590s, in all likelihood the class they are about to begin would not exist and the long text before them never would have been written. Cervantes' request was denied, however, and rather than becoming a wealthy indiano, he became instead the progenitor of the modern novel.

In her new study, Diana de Armas Wilson has decided to transport Cervantes and his writings to the New World and, more important perhaps, she has chosen to situate the New World firmly in the literary and political reality that was Cervantes' Spain. These initial moves--in effect to think against the grain of artificial disciplinary boundaries that have separated peninsular and Latin American studies--are in themselves a major contribution to the field of early modern Spanish research. For although literary scholars have long known that Habsburg Spain was an imperial power, they have been unwilling to investigate the ways in which empire permeated the discursive field of Spanish writing and how cultural forms and styles thought to be European in origin were in fact the hybrid offspring of the colonial experience. The fact that Sancho Panza glibly remarks that any black subjects he may find on his insula will be sold into slavery--to mention only one of the many fascinating examples cataloged by Wilson--already catapults us out of Europe and into the Atlantic world that stretched from Seville to Lisbon to West Africa, the Caribbean and back again. Although Cervantes never traversed any of these transatlantic (or transpacific) routes, they nonetheless constituted ah integral part of his creative geography. Situated next to the inns and palaces of Andalucia and Castilla, the soldiers' barracks of Naples, and the dank bagnios of North Africa were islands filled with "barbaros," gold, and human sacrifice.

Wilson begins her study with ah inventory of references to America found in the Cervantine opus. Each of these references on its own might render a sustained analysis, and Wilson offers a number of suggestive models for further research. Her contribution here, however, is more general insofar as she proposes to construct ah inclusive theory of intertextuality that might move us, as she puts it, from "inventory to interpretation" (30). According to Wilson, the "Americanist Cervantes" must be understood both through his literary relationships with New World cronistas as well as through the geographical and spatial relations that structure his texts and biography. In this first chapter, then, Wilson expands and enriches the image of a "traveling Cervantes," an image previously fashioned into a different variation by Steven Hutchinson in his Cervantine Journeys (1992).

In Chapter Two, "The Novel about the Novel," Wilson enters the heavily trampled terrain of debates about the origins of the novel. In response to theories disseminated by professors of English literature, most notably Ian Watt in his influential Rise of the Novel (1957), Wilson argues (correctly in my opinion) that the most productive approach to the issue is to trace the "multiple rises of the novel" or, to put it another way, the intersecting genealogies of what today we understand to be the modern narrative form. Given the premise of Wilson's project, one is struck by the "European" focus of this chapter where the proposed shift to New World concerns is reduced momentarily to the level of thematics. But in a sense the entire second chapter is a prelude to Wilson's reading of Cervantine allusions to America and their intertextual relationship to Robinson Crusoe. Thus the title of Chapter Three: "The Novel as `Moletta': Cervantes and Defoe. …