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Historical Fiction

Bringing Nineteenth-Century Women to Life in Present-day Uruguay

800px-Juan_Manuel_Blanes_-_Artigas_en_la_Ciudadela

As a cultural studies scholar, my work on historical novels from Uruguay at first glance seems to stand out from a website titled ‘History Matters’. Whilst many consider historical fiction to be the frivolous sibling to the rigor and precision of historical research, what happens when history cannot provide any answers? What about people who were marginalised for their gender, sexuality, class and/or colour and could not leave traces of their lives? How do we access their past experiences when historically we know very little about them? It is in these recesses of history where, I argue, fiction can play a significant role. In other words, narrative imagination can function as an effective tool for studying and thinking about an inaccessible past.

One of the Uruguayan historical novels that features in my research is titled Untamed Love: The Women of Artigas (Amores cimarrones: Las mujeres de Artigas, 2011, translation mine). Written by Marcia Collazo Ibáñez, who is also a historian by profession, this highly successful novel traces the lives of six women connected to Uruguay’s ultimate national hero, José Artigas (1764-1850).

One of the leaders of the revolutions which began in 1810 against the Spanish Crown in the River Plate of South America, Artigas led and later governed the Banda Oriental region (present-day Uruguay). In 1816 Banda Oriental was gradually invaded by Portuguese forces, and by 1820 Artigas and his armies were forced into exile in Paraguay where he spent the last thirty years of his life.[1] Despite being defeated by the Portuguese, curiously, after Artigas’ death his actions and ideals were exalted to proclaim him the father of the Uruguayan nation, a position he holds until today.

So, what about the women connected to Artigas, one may ask? Although his grandmothers, Ignacia Carrasco (1701-1773) and María Camejo (1714-1772), and his mother Francisca Asnar (1743-1803) are sometimes mentioned in historical works, they are often side-lined to highlight Artigas’s noble and honourable actions. His wife, Rosalía Rafaela Villagrán (1775-1824), furthermore, was portrayed not only as a ‘mad’ woman due to her ill health but also as someone who could not understand his need to fight for self-determination. His other partners, Isabel Sánchez (dates disputed) and Melchora Cuenca (birth date disputed-1870), on the other hand, were deemed inconsequential by male historians who also glossed over the national hero’s possibly promiscuous behaviour.[2]

Published in 2011, when Uruguayans celebrated the bicentenary of Artigas’s heroic actions, Collazo Ibáñez’s novel Untamed Love is divided into six parts with separate sections devoted to each of his grandmothers, his mother and his most significant three partners. In each of these six sections, the novel follows a very interesting pattern, as history and narrative imagination co-exist side by side. After conducting thorough historical research, the author precedes each anecdote about the women’s lives with short quotes by mostly male historians, significant leaders and sometimes Artigas himself. Then she proceeds to describe what might have occurred from the women’s perspectives, sometimes questioning Artigas’s behaviour towards them. Indulging her readers in a counter-history, which is partly imagined, the author, in a rather feminist gesture, writes these women into history.

In the case of Artigas’s official wife, Rosalía Rafaela, although she has been often mentioned in history books, even school textbooks, there are no known archival sources from her hand, i.e. no letters nor a diary. The information we have on her is second-hand: letters her husband or other officials wrote and parish entries. In Untamed Love, on the other hand, Collazo Ibáñez uses a first-person narrative to describe Rosalía’s ‘madness’. The section on Rosalía in the novel begins with her interior monologue as she wakes up in a hospital bed and inadvertently overhears her doctors discussing the reasons for her illness and unfortunate situation. This scene, symbolic of historians talking about Rosalía whilst her response was only silence, counters patriarchal history as the author uses narrative imagination to portray Rosalía’s experience in the hospital.

One might ask, how does this work differ from any other historical novel? Untamed Love is not a mere fictionalisation of the past. That is to say, it does not depict historical types but instead fictionalises the lives of real, often marginalised people. In doing so, it engages with a recent sub-genre that Linda Hutcheon has termed ‘historiographical metafiction’.[3] In fact, as Untamed Love’s author Collazo Ibáñez first attempts to access these women’s lives through history, she points to gaps in historical discourses and utilises fiction to fill them. In this sense, history does matter, but when there are insufficient historical sources available, fiction offers a space to imagine how traditionally marginalised people, like women, lived their lives. That is to say, when history is not enough, fiction steps in.

Karunika Kardak recently completed her PhD in Hispanic Studies from the University of St Andrews and is currently an academic tutor at the Department of Spanish there. Her doctoral research focused on literature from the post-dictatorship period in Uruguay and studied issues of national identity and cultural memory in historical fiction. You can find her on Twitter @KKarunika.

Cover image: Portrait of José Gervasio Artigas, circa 1884.

[1] John Street’s Artigas and the Emancipation of Uruguay serves as a perfect introduction for Anglophone readers to Uruguay’s history and the national hero’s role in it. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959).

[2] See Isidoro de María, Rasgos biográficos de hombres notables de la República Oriental del Uruguay, 3rd edn (Montevideo: Imprenta Artística, de Dornalecha y Reyes, 1889); Luis Bonavita, Sombras heroicas (Montevideo: Impresora L.I.G.U., 1949); and Juan Alberto Gadea, El ambiente hogareño donde nació Artigas (Montevideo: Estado Mayor del Ejército, 1974).

[3] Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York and London: Routledge, 1988), p. 114. See Jerome de Groot on historiographical metafiction in The Historical Novel (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 119–21.

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