Carlos Monsiváis’ contribution to Mexican cultural and intellectual life is truly outstanding. His numerous publications have appeared in newspapers as well as academic journals since the late 1960s. He is highly regarded as a polemicist, advocate, and thinker who has had a powerful influence on the present generation of Mexican artists. He has involved himself in almost every aspect of Mexican intellectual and artistic production: as a narrator, translator, radio director, and commentator, as well as a literary, film, and art critic.
However, it is his essays that are considered to be his most original and perceptive contribution to the critical study and analysis of Mexican society. His early book Días de guardar (1970; Days to keep) traces the beginning of the fateful events of the student rebellion on 2 October 1968, which would culminate in the tragic massacre of Tlatelolco.
With irony and biting humor, Monsiváis places the calendar of Mexican national celebrations under a radically different and critical light.
In the essay Nuevo catecismo para indios remisos (1982; New catechism of remiss Indians), Monsiváis scrutinizes Catholic ethics and faith, especially devotion to the saints, and uncovers the ambivalence, contradictions, and hypocrisy of Mexico’s Catholic Church, with its predominantly orthodox mentality. Through contrast, irony, and juxtaposition of catechistic texts and fragments of the saints’ lives, Monsiváis reveals the self-negating practices of a church almost solely interested in fulfilling its temporal interests even at the expense of its most fundamental principles.
Amor perdido (1977; Lost love) is Monsiváis’ most important and influential work. In this essay on Mexican history he displays valuable critical and analytical abilities, developing a language full of rich metaphor, penetrating humor, and sharp imagery.
Armed with an impressive capacity to reveal a variety of ideological perspectives and events, he approaches the main sociohistorical material with a kaleidoscope of viewpoints drawn from documents and well-informed witnesses. In the process, he constantly challenges the “official version” of events and rewrites important segments of Mexican history and cultural life, with profound implications for its future.
Parading through the pages of Amor perdido are a number of “consecrated” historical characters and events of Mexican history, society, and culture. These characters include those belonging to the middle and upper-middle classes and those who have risen from the poorer strata of Mexican society. They have left their mark, negative and positive, on Mexican life, especially those who were present in the pages of “popular” contemporary chronicles. However, the individuals and events themselves take second place in the essay to the dynamics of their multiple interrelationships within the context of their times and values. Monsiváis’ approach sends the reader in search of meaning as it is generated through the different layers of text, providing the possibility of alternative readings of the characters and events portrayed.
In Amor perdido multiple components of an important event are spatially and temporally collapsed into the present moment and the act of reading; in doing so the interpretation resists being anchored solely on a master narrative of events and characters and goes beyond to embrace new and revealing contexts. In reconstructing events Monsiváis uses cinematic techniques, including fragmentation, flashbacks, interior monologues, and image superimposition; as he explains, the text is aimed at “the operational center of memory…[the one that keeps] melted, dislocated, mixed images…”
The spatio-temporal collapse of historical events and figures enforces a multilateral or “vertical” reading rather than the unilateral or “horizontal” approach that uses chronology as a pointer. Thus, the historical event, the historical protagonist, president, union leader, cultural leader, and the “popular” movie idol are scrutinized from a variety of different and converging perspectives, and through the use of personal diaries, letters, declarations, manifestos, and interviews granted to the media. Other versions of characters come from witnesses (favorable and antagonistic), friends, relatives, coworkers, and lovers, and through evaluations made by critics or commentators. All of this information is enveloped in an agile language which presents a dynamic version of individuals and events so that myth, history, legend, criticism, and even rumor are allowed to play a role in a number of possible interpretations.
Monsiváis’ process establishes a new textual order by radically reassembling events, characters, and contexts and retrieving them from the “official” version. By isolating character and event from context, the official version was able to glorify or condemn those individuals or events from a prejudiced point of view. Monsiváis’ method allows the possibility of different interpretations by a reader who now has at his or her disposal a more complex and complete version of the historical and institutional circumstances.
Amor perdido ultimately sends the literary essay back to its most effective origins as a potent, amusing, fascinating, and forceful “chronicle,” powerfully written yet accessible to all. In this light, the essay is designed to inform, criticize, and reveal while simultaneously producing an enjoyable reading experience through the effective integration of narrative and film techniques. Essays such as Amor perdido are catalysts that have awakened popular interest in the important subjects and events raised within their pages.
Because of its breadth and innovative techniques, Amor perdido is to the essay what Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien ańos de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude) has been to the narrative in terms of its exploration of the possibilities of communication, enjoyment of reading, and multiplicity of interpretation.
Born 4 May 1938 in Mexico City. Studied at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, 1955–60; Centro Mexicano de Escritores, 1962-63 and 1967–68;
Center for International Studies, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1965.
Editor, Medio Siglo (Mid-century), 1956–58, and Estaciones (Stations), 1957–59;
contributor to various Mexican newspapers and journals, including Sucesos, Futuro, Política Proceso, Novedades, El Día, Excelsior, Uno Más Uno (One plus one), La Jornada (The journey), Siempre (Always), and Plural. Director of the program Voz Viva de Mexico (Living voice of Mexico), Radio Universidad, 1961–62. Taught at the University of Essex, Colchester, 1970–71, and the National Autonomous University of Mexico, from 1972.
Awards: National Prize for Journalism, 1978, 1993; Jorge Cuesta Prize; Mazatlán Prize, 1989; Club de Periodistas Prize for Journalism, 1994; Villaurrutia Prize, 1995; honorary degrees from three universities.
Essays and Related Prose
Principados y potestades, 1968
Días de guardar, 1970
Amor perdido, 1977
Nuevo catecismo para indios remisos, 1982.
Celia Montalván (te brindas voluptuosa e impudente), 1983
De qué se rié el licenciado, 1984
María Izquierdo, 1986
Entrada libre: Crónicas de la sociedad que se organiza, 1987
Escenas de pudor y liviandad, 1988
El género epistolar: Un homenaje a manera de carta abierta, 1991
Rostros del cine mexicano, 1993
Por mi madre bohemios, 1993
Los mil y un velorios, 1993
A través del espejo: El cine mexicano y su público, 1994
Los rituales del caos, 1995
Other writings: works on Mexican art and culture, and an autobiography (1966). Also edited anthologies of Mexican prose and poetry, including La poesía mexicana del siglo XX (1966) and A ustedes les consta: Antología de la crónica en México (1979).
Cossio, María Eugenia, “El diálogo sin fin de Monsiváis,” Hispanic Journal 5, no. 2 (Spring 1984): 137–43
Duncan, J.Ann, Voices, Visions, and a New Reality: Mexican Fiction Since 1970, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986: 31–33, 200, 220.
Ocampo de Gomez, Aurora Maura, and Ernesto Prado Velázquez, Diccionario de escritores mexicanos, Mexico City: National Autonomous University of Mexico, 1967: 235–36
Sefchovich, Sara, México: País de ideas, pais de novelas, Mexico City: Grijalbo, 1987: 43–45, 245–47, 251–53
Urrello, Antonio, “Amor perdido: Inversión de la dicotomía y montaje de sus mecanismos,” in his Verosimilitud y estrategia textual en el ensayo hispanoamericano, Mexico City: Premiá, 1986: 112-33
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