Academic journal article MELUS

The Historical Imagination in Arturo Islas's 'The Rain God' and 'Migrant Souls.'(Theory, Culture and Criticism)

Academic journal article MELUS

The Historical Imagination in Arturo Islas's 'The Rain God' and 'Migrant Souls.'(Theory, Culture and Criticism)

Article excerpt

"To some extent the maturity of Chicano writers," Eliud Martinez contends, "can be attributed to their growing knowledge of contemporary Mexican and Latin American literature and to the influence of la nueva novela latinoamericana on Chicano novels" (9). It is a reasonable assertion and further evidence can be found in the convergence of Latin American and Chicano/a historical narratives. It is certainly noteworthy that writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes have turned with full force toward the writing of massive historical novels. In addressing this intriguing turn of events and examining historical consciousness in Latin American literature, Alfred J. MacAdam makes this observation "Writing has now become the means by which Latin America can learn to live with its ghosts, learn from them and use the burden of history instead of being crushed by it" (562). Notably, the historian of the Angel family in The Rain God admixes el dia de los muertos with the reconstruction of history as he sits and writes the history of the family: "He needed very much to make peace with his dead, to prepare a feast for them so that they would stop haunting him" (160). The dialectics of past and present, life and death, self and community, and the necessary reconciliations are strong philosophical and cultural currents in The Rain God (1984) and Migrant Souls (1990). This cultural touchstone evokes Octavio Paz's celebrated essay on the Day of the Dead in The Labyrinth of Solitude "...time comes to a full stop...instead of pushing us towards a deceptive tomorrow that is always beyond our reach.... Time is no longer succession, and becomes what it originally was and is: the present, in which past and future are reconciled" (47). We cannot overlook the curious fact that "Die del los muertos/Day of the Dead" was the original title for the manuscript that eventually became The Rain God.(1)

A more telling bridging of the two literatures is the inspiration of Neruda's "The Heights of Macchu Picchu," from which Islas drew the epigraph to The Rain God:

I come to speak through your dead mouths...

Give me silence, water, hope.

Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.

Fasten your bodies to me like magnets.

Hasten to my veins, to my mouth.

Speak through my words and by blood.

Inspired by Neruda's bardic magnificence, Islas gives expressive voice to the dead, and retrieves the ghosts of a family and extended families from the oblivion of unrecorded history. The similarities and striking correspondences between Latin American historical novels and the representation of history in Islas's Rain God and Migrant Souls rest on three basic constructs outlined by Ramon Saldivar "[1] in these narratives we are given history and mediating elements through which history is narrated; [2] there is actually in these texts the existence of an inner historian who reads cultural conversations, records the oral text, interprets it, and writes the history; and [3] there is usually an unfinished history that the inner historian is trying to complete" (179). The wherewithal for the conversion of the "burden of history" and for the recreation of the past is the historical imagination.

In investigating the philosophy of history in relation to Hispanic studies, Mario J. Valdes advances this central point: "Every aspect of the present is grounded in a past of its own, and the very birth of understanding is the imaginative reconstruction of what came before.... The aim of the historical imagination is to utilize the fullest spectrum of perception as the starting point for the building of the past through which it has come to be. It is therefore a return to the headwaters of present experience" (84). The reconstruction and understanding of the past are prime characteristics of Chicano/a cultural studies and form an important component of Chicano/a literature. …

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