Delirious Writing: A View of Albalucía Ángel’s Novels
Given the oft-repeated sentence, we tend to think that in the beginning was the word. Nonetheless, in the beginning was the dialogue tag, “And God said.” This is a perfect example of introducing character voice in direct narrative style; indeed, later came the word and then light was created. Dialogue tags are extraordinary given their invisibility. Thanks to the narrative pact, the reader accepts this concealment as a standard element of narration. This is akin to a story beginning with “Once upon a time…”: we recognize that we will be told a fairy tale, a children’s story, or something along those lines. Dialogue tags and phrases are part of a universe of rules, forms, devices, and processes that the reader accepts as part of the text’s proposal.
In Albalucía Ángel’s work, in the beginning was the noun, or, more precisely, the noun phrase opening Girasoles en invierno. The novel begins with “One more minute,” followed by language play: “Two-three-four-five-sixseveneightnineteneleventwelvethirteen…eight and two minutes.” The narrative pact is in the here and now of the beginning in medias res. The action starts in the middle of something, although we do not know what. Someone is looking at other customers and the street from what appears to be a café or a bar. There is no starting point. At the close of the novel, we discover there is no ending or tying up of the narrative threads either. Instead, everything remains open. It seems as if the reader were also a voyeur who sees Alejandra, the protagonist, sitting in a bar waiting for someone. In the end, she leaves and boards the metro. Perhaps the voyeuristic reader will go with her. What is certain is that in the beginning and the end, we are in medias res, somewhere in the midst of the protagonist’s life and we have only glimpsed a snapshot of her world.
Albalucía Ángel is a cult writer among critics. Given her use of daydreaming, experimentation with language and rupture of literary forms, she is the heir of a relatively unknown tradition with a limited corresponding circulation. She tried the luck of her predecessors, such as María Luisa Bombal and Gilberto Owen, and surfaced just before Diamela Eltit. Her radical wager in favor of fiction that breaks with traditional narrational form lands her among the vanguard of writers renovating the 1970s Latin American novel.
Her work is not cryptic; but entry into her narrative universe is not particularly easy. In this context, we might consider her writing as delirious. A constant in her work is the search for a form that accounts for the voice of thoughts flowing in the characters’ minds. She is known for her novels: Los girasoles en invierno (1966), Dos veces Alicia (1972), Estaba la pájara pinta sentada en el verde limón (1975), Misiá señora (1982), Las andariegas (1984) and Tierra de nadie (2003); and her book of stories ¡Oh gloria inmarcesible! (1979).1
The first novel, Los girasoles en inverno, introduces the dual axis of the author’s narrative universe: first, the main character’s stream of consciousness and, second, experimentation with narrative form to determine how verbal language translates the voice of thoughts. Despite alternating between narrative modes—between first, second and third person—we perceive the author’s intent to showcase the characters’ stream of consciousness:
El presentimiento de que no resultara nada agradable la función de esa noche comienza a roerle el cerebro despacito, va a ser una porquería… qué idiota, quién sabe qué clase de concurso es… de todas maneras el dinero es lo único importante, no voy a pensar más en algo que no tiene remedio. (p. 84)
The feeling that nothing good would come of the night’s event slowly began eating away at her brain, it’s going to be crap…what an idiot, god knows what kind of competition it is…anyway, money’s all that matters, I won’t give something that’s got no solution another thought. (p. 84)
As this passage shows, the narration begins in third person, an omniscient narrator who enters the protagonist’s mind, and then narrates in free indirect speech: “it’s going to be crap…what an idiot.” In this sense, even though the novel plays with narrational mode, there is a search for the voice of thoughts. This intention is a constant thread in Albalucía Ángel’s novels and we can point to it as a unique aspect of her work.
In Ángel’s novels, multiple levels of fragmentation—in structure, voice, mode, and the paragraphs themselves—take discontinuity and formal inconsistency to the extreme. Two levels develop in the beginning of her second novel, Dos veces Alicia. One level portrays the attempt to write a story, while the other signals the stream of consciousness of the person trying to write it. This strategy is confusing for the reader until later in the work when a tacit explanation reveals what is at play:
Las barcas en
Las barcas en el lago, las barcas en el lago, las barcas en el lago, las qué quiere decir las barcas en el lago, en un lago, las, sufro de pereza mental. Eso es. Si me concentro entonces de seguro que la historia resulta. Si me aplico, si trato juiciosamente de adquirir la disciplina, el buen gusto, el oficio, etc., y demás. (p. 9)
The boats in
The boats in the lake, the boats in the lake, the boats in the lake, the, what does boats in the lake even mean, in a lake, the, I have a lazy brain. That’s it. If I focus, certainly the story will come along. If I apply myself, if I really try to learn discipline, good sense, the craft, etc. and everything else. (p. 9)
Like the harlequin showing his mask, the story, along with the writing of it, unfold on the page through the writer’s stream of consciousness. The novel becomes a search for a form that can narrate what the narrative voice sees while walking in the park: the people, the landscape, the news reports about Roberts, an alleged cop killer, and the experiences of occupants in Alice Wilson’s boarding house for poor foreigners. While the dramatic tension never resolves, this psychological fluctuation sustains the narrative:
Yo soy Alicia.
Estoy tratando de escribir una historia y el personaje más difícil es usted, para decirle la verdad. (p. 170)
I am Alicia.
I am trying to write a story and the most difficult character is you, to tell you the truth. (p. 170)
Throughout the novel, we witness this difficult aspect of writing: expressing the personal experience of reality and giving meaning to that expression. On the one hand, the voice emerges. Who says I am Alicia? On the other hand, it is the mirror’s reflection, the narrative voice that says the name—is the narrative voice saying its name or suggesting that in the end the writer becomes a character? Thus, the impossibility of constructing a coherent image of reality intersects with the inability to understand human actions and the illusion of trying to capture it all in writing.
In Estaba la pájara pinta sentada en el verde limón in the beginning was half-sleep—that state just before waking—in which dreams and memory merge. At the end of the novel, the protagonist, Ana, wakes up completely, has coffee with other young people who are waiting in the morning to go into the wilderness and join the guerrilla. The novel is set in the space of half-sleep so we can travel back in time. Within this logic, Ana returns to herself as a child on April 9, 1948 and, from this vantage point, she witnesses the historic moment when the political leader, Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, was assassinated and the wave of violence that followed.
As is typical in Ángel’s writing, the thinking voice of Ana the adolescent appears in the same paragraph, while Ana is being initiated into the social protest movements by Valeria and Valeria’s brother Lorenzo. Simultaneously, Ana tries to make sense of the young peoples’ decisions to join the guerrilla, including that of her boyfriend Lorenzo. Thus, in the state of half-sleep, we see the three versions of Ana at different ages as they crisscross the history of these decades, grapple with the position of women in that context and search for an individual and collective identity in the midst of it all.
We find narrative unity in Misia señora thanks to Ángel’s use of free indirect speech and stream of consciousness to progressively elaborate the voices of the Marianas (grandmother, daughter, granddaughter). This narrative form allows for the first, second and third person voices to play off of one another, as one voice turns into the next, nearly unbeknownst to the reader. At the same time, the sensation of a delirious voice is sustained—one that expresses frustration with historical events and how these events impact the women of each generation. In the novel’s first part, “Los dueños del silencio,” Mariana the grandmother symbolizes a longing for feudalism and its corresponding values. She represents life in the first half of the twentieth century, marked by religion, conservative morals and political repression. Mariana the daughter in the second part, “Antígona sin sombra,” signals the transition from a feudal society to a modern one, without the transformation of feudal values: the protagonist remains in this state of inadaptability until she is ultimately admitted to a sanitarium. In the third part, “Tengo una muñeca vestida de azul,” all the voices come together to express a search for this inability to adapt – the emphasis is on a search, rather than on delirium. The Marianas, therefore, bring forth into the storytelling different tensions surrounding images of women: sexuality, maternity, feminine identity vis-à-vis masculinity.
In Las andariegas, the narrational mode plays with the demystification of images that have been created of women by masculine myths and official history. We see a kind of deconstruction of the foundational myth’s gaze:
descendieron prendidas la una de la otra. parecía una cadena de acero rutilante, brilloso con el sol que era de mediodía y de verano, parecían bucaneras al asalto. vorágines, cristales, vientos abrasadores
armaduras y espadas de cristal. (p.15)
they came down, linked together, one to the other. they looked like a glimmering steel chain, shiny in the midday summer sun, they looked like storming buccaneers. whirlwinds, crystals, blazing winds
mercury, they looked like
suits of armor and glass swords. (p. 15)
A break with grammatical norms combines with ruptured punctuation and split paragraphs to create a kind of affirmation of the traditional order’s dissolution. That the narrative begins with lower-case letters is also a clue for how to read this new story. It opens with the interaction between a type of choral voice corresponding to a mythical narration, and the voices of women deconstructing these traditional figures—Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Pre-Columbian (Peru, Colombia, Mesoamerica…) goddesses along with historical figures like Juana of Castile and Joan of Arc.
These wanderers move from ancient Egypt to a dystopian New York of the future. Along the journey, they dismantle the official history that has been crafted of woman. They no longer look like mercury, alchemists’ precious metal for finding the philosophers’ stone. Perhaps after their journey they have found it and scaled it. Therefore, the ending must be the completed myth:
ascendieron prendidas la una de la otra. parecía una cadena de acero rutilante, brilloso con el sol que era de mediodía y de verano, parecían bucaneras al asalto. vorágines, cristales, vientos abrasadores.
Armaduras y espadas de cristal. (p. 137)
they came down, linked together, one to the other. they looked like a glimmering steel chain, shiny in the midday summer sun, they looked like storming buccaneers. whirlwinds, crystals, blazing winds.
Suits of armor and glass swords. (p. 137)
In this brief study, we see how delirious writing evolves in Albalucía Ángel’s novels. We can perceive how fragmented form corresponds to the author’s style and manifests in stream of consciousness, breaks in syntaxis, and multiple voices, among other modes of exploring the possibilities of verbal text. While Ángel’s writing has been classified in many ways, such as uncontrolled, wandering, experimental, feminist… (and any of these could apply), all of them, at once, demonstrate a search for language.
In the configuration of fictional universes, Ángel’s work signals ruptures with storyline linearity, the relevance of the anecdote, or the elevated nature of characters. Her inquiry appears to focus on centering the voice of thoughts: stream of consciousness, interior monologue, and, as with the harlequin, an intent to demonstrate the representational play that the verbal text signifies. Therefore, delirium operates on two levels: one the one hand, what tends to occur for the protagonists as their lived experiences; and on the other hand, a form of writing that, even within its own construction, recognizes the fragmentation of the thinking voice.
Thus, we can conclude that delirium is not simply experimentation. Going beyond metafiction, its aesthetic proposal corresponds to the understanding of literature as form, in other words, of writing as language play. Perhaps uncontrolled, wandering, experimental, feminist writing corresponds to our interpretation of how stream of consciousness is presented in texts and how it moves from one work to another, illuminating, as the mark of the author, the paths she proposes in her collection of novels.
Translated by Amy Olen
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
1 Full references for the works indicated above are: Girasoles en invierno. Bogotá: Ed. Linotipia Bolívar, 1970 [Universidad de los Andes/Panamericana Editorial/Universidad EAFIT/ Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2017]; Dos veces Alicia. Barcelona: Editorial Barral, 1972; Estaba la pájara pinta sentada en su verde limón. Bogotá: Instituto colombiano de cultura. Subdirección de comunicaciones culturales. División de publicaciones, 1975; Misiá Señora. Barcelona: Argos Vergara, 1982; Las andariegas. Barcelona: Argos Vergara, 1984.
Amy Olen is Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her Ph.D. is in Spanish and Portuguese from The University of Texas at Austin. She holds Master’s Degrees in Translation Studies and Spanish and Portuguese, both from UW-Milwaukee. Her research interests include Latin American Indigenous writing and Translation Studies.
Aleyda Gutiérrez Mavesoy completed postdoctoral studies in Modern Letters at the Universidad de São Paulo (2019), and is director of the School of Arts of Universidad Central. She is a scholar of Latin American and Caribbean literature, literature written by women, and contemporary Colombian narrative. Her recent publications include “Por qué leer El hostigante Verano de los dioses de Fanny Buitrago,” “Más acá del lirismo, más allá de la narración: Pavana del ángel de Roberto Burgos Cantor,” and “Escribir el Caribe fuera de los límites de Macondo.” Also forthcoming is her book of essays Fin de siglo XX: escritura y novela en Colombia.
In our seventeenth issue, we highlight the work of groundbreaking Colombian writer Albalucía Ángel, alongside Octavio Paz, a towering figure of Mexican letters and the second Latin American winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. We also feature Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos, a series of photo portraits of writers in the pandemic, a selection of new translations seeking publisher, plus writing in the Murui, Quechua, and Tseltal lenguages in our ongoing Indigenous Literature section.