Humour and Latin American Literature: An Interview with UCL Professor Evelyn Fishburn

Evelyn Fishburn is an Honorary Professor at University College London and Professor Emeritus of Latin American Literary Studies at London Metropolitan University. She has published widely on Borges and other Latin American writers, focusing on humour and other themes.

Jessica Sequeira: How did you become interested in Argentine literature?

Evelyn Fishburn: I was brought up in Argentina. I was born in Vienna; my mother was Austrian and my father Hungarian. My parents emigrated from Vienna because of Hitler, and we arrived in Argentina in 1939 when I was one and a half years old.

So I grew up there, where I attended the Colegio Northlands in Olivos, but then left for Geneva when I was 17 to study languages at Geneva University. There was this idea at the time that even if the Russians took over, if you were fluent in several languages you’d be alright. I studied Spanish, English, French, and German. I had wanted to study psychology, but languages were considered more practical. Then after graduation, I did go on to study psychology, but I hated it. My professor was the renowned developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, and people are hugely impressed when I mention that, but for me the subject was too theoretical.

JS: And then you came to England.

EF:  I came to England to go to a May Ball at Cambridge, and met my husband during that trip, though not at Cambridge; he’s an Oxford man. In 1957 I came to England permanently. I was very happy to be here. At first I immersed myself in being bourgeois. I began teaching English at a public school. Then one day I attended a seminar delivered by Mario Vargas Llosa at the London School of Economics. It was so fascinating. He mentioned a new course at the UCL, and I thought “I must tell my students.” And then I thought, why don’t I enroll myself? It was a re-entry into academia and literature. Choosing to study literature was easy. That Vargas Llosa seminar thrilled me; I was greatly attracted to literary theory, and he had brought all the latest ideas from Paris to London.

The course was in Latin American-Ibero Regional Studies, like Area Studies. There was a growing awareness in this country that Latin America was a promising place, and this filtered through to academia. It was wonderful because most English honours courses made you choose one track, but this course combined Hispanic studies from the peninsula and Latin American history and literature, with a little Portuguese thrown in. Despite the fact we were looking at a number of different countries, there was a cultural commonality. I did my undergraduate degree there, then a PhD on the portrayal of immigration in Argentine literature.

JS: How did you come to focus on humor? 

EF: My interest was really first kindled by links between humor theory and magical realism, which was the prevailing conceit at the time. “Magical realism” is now used to describe literature from a lot of places in the world, but according to my preferred narrow definition, it started in Latin America and that is the place where the definition best fits. It is a style reflecting a cultural clash between two civilizations with different sets of beliefs, without shared underlying values. What is seen as reality according to one set of beliefs is seen as fantastic, or magical, according to another mentality. Magical realism can be defined as resulting from the clash of these two systems of thought co-existing side by side in certain societies in Latin America. It is akin to what Alejandro Carpentier has termed lo real maravilloso, although this has different connotations.

Lo real maravilloso is wonderfully illustrated by the incident in García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad, when Remedios, la bella is folding sheets with her aunt and she and the sheets fly up to heaven. It is treated as a completely normal event (possibly because the ascension of the Virgin is part of the culture) and not seen as magical.

As an example of magical realism, the same event can be seen from two different perspectives: what is real to one culture is magical to another. So different characters’ reactions to the same event may be described without any hierarchical differences in the narrative. Take the death of a slave in El reino de este mundo, for instance. This is seen with a certain set of values by Christian colonizers, whereas a black person might have African myths as his cultural background. I gave a paper on this at an international conference in Portugal; out of the 180 papers given, only six were published, and mine was one of them.

I came to humor because there are manystructural parallels theoretically. Humor is defined by its clashes, a kind of bissociative shock. There are a lot of theories of humor, from Koestler to Bergson, about the clash of incongruities, cultures, and sets of beliefs, about unexpected connections or registers, about the sacred in vulgar terms. It wasn’t difficult to make connections. But I do find that one has a richer perspective of humor if it is based on a shared knowledge of the cultural context. You need to know the culture to see what something is kicking against, debunking, demystifying.

JS: Do you find it a challenge writing on Latin American literature from the UK?

EF: I think it’s very valuable to look at one culture from the perspective of another. As Borges writes in “El escritor argentino y la tradición”, why should Argentines be condemned to writing about local themes? He wrote this when the theories of Sartre, the idea of engagement, were very popular. Borges felt he had to reclaim the right to write about European culture, and insisted on the value of writing from the margins. In this case, the centre and margin are reversed.

JS: Do you see any tensions in writing on literature and humor using the fairly structured, unhumorous form of the academic essay?

EF: The medium has to convey the message. I try to keep a lightness of touch in my academic writing, although it is intended for a specialized audience.

JS: What writers have you focused on?

EF: I started off with magical realism but then moved to Borges, and then Alejandra Pizarnik. There is a lot of humor in Borges, from jeux d’esprit to very dark, black humor, both overt and implied. Black humor has been defined as the telling of something tragic in a nontragic way. There are hidden, unexpected connections, which are about upturning the establishment. Then you have Pizarnik, who committed suicide. She is remembered for her magnificent poetry. But there is a great deal of humor in her correspondence, diaries, and prose work. There is a lot of wordplay in some of these writings, and a lot of very explicit erotic humor, with strong sexual connotations and an emphasis on bodily functions and the grotesque.

Some of the women writers I have focused on have a lot of ghoulish humor in their work. There’s Armonía Somers from Uruguay. She wrote a wonderful story of a negro ex-slave on the run, who prays to a statue of the virgin. The virgin descends from her altar and makes passionate love to him. It’s non-penetrative sex and the woman’s pleasure takes priority, leaving the poor aroused negro frustrated. So that is a demystification of the Virgin Mary, so outrageously blasphemous that its meaning has hardly been picked up on; since I’m looking at it from the outside, not from the Christian sensibility, I see things others don’t detect. Then there’s Ana Lydia Vega, from Puerto Rico. She writes from two cultures, Puerto Rico and the US, and is able to navigate in interesting ways between the two of them.

JS: What modern writers do you recommend who exemplify the kind of humor you mentioned?

EF: I’m a bit of a dinosaur. There is a novel by Martín Kohan, Ciencias morales, with a lot of humor. A teacher wants to find out who is smoking at a boys’ school; she hides in the boys’ toilet and gets into all sorts of scrapes. You have Mario Szichman. His work has a lovely sort of lightheartedness, and debunks both the Jewish idea of wanting to be assimilated, and the Catholicism in Argentina and hypocrisy of the local population. Some other good authors I can think of are Marcelo Birmajer, Luisa Futoransky, Luisa Valenzuela. And this year there will be widespread celebration of Cortázar’s work in honour of the centenary of his birth.

But I can only echo Josefina Ludmer, ¿Cómo salir de Borges? I’m working now on re-editing all my Borges articles for a revised book publication. I’m doing something on Borges and the Bible, and have been invited by the University of Hamburg for June 2015 to give a paper on Borges, footnotes, and the Talmudic tradition. And I’ve been commissioned to update my co-authored dictionary of allusions in Borges’ work, which is available online.