Book review – British Representations of Latin America, Luz Elena Ramirez

800px-Page_187_(The_Lost_World,_1912)While not officially part of the British Empire, interactions between Britain and Latin America have existed in reports, literary accounts, and detail-rich descriptions. Reading a variety of 19th century British writers, we find similarities in reports from many distinct countries that constitute what we call by Latin America; countries as distinct from each other as Mexico and Uruguay, Argentina and Panama, Brazil and Colombia. In British Representations of Latin America (University of Florida Press), we find an interesting model of sociological analysis of these accounts, without resorting to the traditional post-colonial, capitalist imperialism seen when looking at transatlantic relations.

Ramirez starts by reviewing many of the shortcomings of these postcolonial, imperialism theories to explain why British interpretations of Latin America seem so unusual. On the one hand, capitalism theories have focused on trade in colonial times, much embedded in Marxism values, which fail to see implications that lie beyond the much quoted “dependence” theory. For example, these theories would forget the role of British commerce had for the struggle for the region’s independence, which comes down as a relatively positive outcome, let alone all the collaborations that foreign traders received from natives, and local elites.

41mHwueHBSL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_On the postcolonial side, Ramirez sees writers such as Césaire as “romanticizing” Latin America, as much as the “dependence” theory did. Yet, here authors have oversimplified the local context, where “no conflict” existed before the European conquest. Said’s Orientalism is reviewed more positively in that sense, particularly because it fits in very well to understand British colonial narratives. Despite British presence in Latin America appears as less aggressive than in India, for example, though “more risk-sensitive”, Said’s inclination to portray power lays a good foundation for this study, especially in what touches the Foucauldian articulations of power through the discourse.

We are introduced to what Ramirez calls as the Americanist discourse, the colonial view developed by the British on Latin America. Following the next chapters, we find key case studies. Ralegh’s Discovery of Guiana, Conrad’s Nostromo, Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Lowrey’s Under the Volcano, and Greene’s work on Mexico, Argentina and Panama. They will subside a discussion that brings about more than “cultural bearing”, that is, despite being novels, some of them ficcional reports, they are also embedded in the complexity of commercial relations between Britain and Latin America of the time. It is not about escaping the image of the “barbarian vs the civilized”, but these texts will reveal much of the post-imperial mood in Britain as the Empire starts its decline at the late 19th century.

We see, for instance, the extent to which Ralegh’s and Schomburgk’s travels across Guiana have brought much of its enthusiasm from the Armada victory against the Spanish. Yet, how Schomburgk’s search for the place of British Empire amid the “savages” of the Amazon. Both are accounts that end up being more about Britain than about Latin America. Not much distant from this, Conrad’s characters have mirrored the late development of the Andean region, but also invites the inevitable “cynicism” with which he sees the dubious role of foreigners in the country’s stabilization. Doyle’s regard to Brazil and the Amazon bears ties with Darwin’s evolution theory and its naturalization of colonizing practices (“beating the natives”, p. 109), but witnesses much of the problematic adaptation of foreigners to the new tropical reality.

The most interesting part of Ramirez’s detailed exploration dwells on the links with metropolitan publications, namely The Review of Reviews, the London-based tabloid. Plenty of satirical views of Britons in the region came out in the tabloid, some of which mirroring prejudice and humor. Not less sensationalist, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Doyle’s The Lost Word stressed the consequences of the British man’s expeditions around the world; in Latin America this gets supernatural tones of shock with nature, the dangers of bureaucracy and corruption among the barbarians. Greene’s The Lawless Roads adds “irritation and boredom” to it, as it quotes the “mañana, mañana” jargon (tomorrow things will be ready) (p. 151).

The merit in critically engaging with such Americanist narratives is that of recognizing what lies behind the literary interpretations from the Empire, whether on Asia and Africa, but which, on Latin America, assume features of its own. It is a “literary conversation” on key themes such as development and trade (p. 169), but which imports folklore and mysticism, unveiling insecurity of Britain’s attempts to engage with the wider world on a non-extractive, classic colonial basis (at least directly). There was a need for the country to launch such expeditions, and much of the disillusion appears in the way Latin America is portrayed as the “disappointing” endeavor, the failing region in the extent of risky commercial partner, which is an impression that stretches over other subjects.

At one level, it is a discourse that fits well in a context of Britain intellectual expansionism to readers back home, partly based on academic interest, as seen in the example in Darwin’s goals of collecting species from around the world, but partly mundane as a pub chat. At another level, that effort is articulated within a new modernist look to the outside, as writers do not get rid of old “civilizing” ideas, which results in their own detachment and poor self-assessment of what “being foreigner” means, a dismay to the outer world that may last to this day.

At the end, Ramirez aims to continue the conversation by citing films that follow this Americanist orientation in contemporary times. And yet, there lies a missed opportunity in this book. Ramirez falls short of developing about Americanism in the aftermath of the British Empire, which could appear interesting to discuss in a time of declining British presence in Latin America.

To what extent could the Americanist discourse reside in Britain’s loss of influence, if not, isolation, in contemporary affairs? How could this framework serve a more ambitious narrative that leads, if not only to indifference, to a certain ignorance? The look at the Americanist narratives as a framework on its own versus its post-colonial implications could also deserve further reviews as the post-structuralism and the preoccupation with language loses popularity in academia, opening space to the political correct.

In any case, British Representations of Latin America achieves a good deal of empirical research regarding an often-dismissed relationship, as it comes as an alternative way of looking at colonial mind set. It confirms neither the hegemonic British look of authority and knowledge, nor the victimizing position that Latin America may assume in post-colonial studies, as hegemonic relations carry far more complexity.

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