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Book Reviews

Cypess, Sandra M. (2012) Uncivil Wars: Elena Garro, Octavio Paz, and the Battle for
Cultural Memory, The University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), xii + 247 pp. 34.00 hbk.
The word iconic has been much used and abused of late. In the Mexican context, it
has most often been applied to the painter Frida Kahlo, who, decades after her passing,
has arguably become more famous and popular than her husband, Diego Rivera. In the
field of Mexican literature, Elena Garro has been experiencing a similar rise in esteem;
she is certainly close to becoming an iconic figure of twentieth-century Mexican letters.
Like Kahlo, Garro was married to a powerful and influential artist, the poet Octavio Paz
(married in 1937, they divorced in 1959), with whom she had a tempestuous relationship, even after their divorce. She was a prolific novelist, playwright and essayist; many
critics regard her masterpiece, the novel Los recuerdos del porvenir (1963), as a seminal influence on Garca Mrquezs One Hundred Years of Solitude. Also, like Kahlo,
Garro was combative, prickly and eccentric traits perhaps necessary to survive in the
male-dominated cultural milieu of mid-twentieth century Mexico. She refused to be characterised as either a feminist or as a leftist (although she expressed feminist and leftist
views at different points in her life), and remained controversial until her death in 1998.
All of the facts about Garro summarised above have been known for many years and
are documented in interviews with Garro and articles about her by scholars such as Luca
Melgar and Rebecca Biron. Sandra Messinger Cypesss Uncivil Wars skilfully collects
and synthesises these and other materials about Garro, and does so, for the first time,
in the context of Garros relationship with Octavio Paz. A biography neither of Garro
nor of Paz (although offering plenty of biographical background), this splendid book
presents, through contrastive readings of many of Pazs and Garros key works, a portrait
of the personal, socio-political and literary intersections in the work of both writers.
2014 The Author. Bulletin of Latin American Research 2014 Society for Latin American Studies
Bulletin of Latin American Research Vol. 33, No. 4


Book Reviews
Inevitably, this makes for a rather dramatic book, although Cypess wisely hews closer
to the intellectual debates between Garro and Paz rather than the gossipy aspects of
their relationship. Cypess underscores instead the drama in their conflicting worldviews,
arising in large part from gender differences and from the subordinate role of women
in Mexican society in much of the twentieth century. The battle of the sexes between
Paz and Garro, Cypess observes, was similar to malefemale relationships between
other noted Mexican intellectuals, such as Nelly Campobello and Martn Luis Guzmn,
Antonieta Rivas Mercado and Jos Vasconcelos, and Rosario Castellanos and Ricardo
Guerra (pp. 176177).
Throughout this books six chapters, Cypess is guided by this battle of the sexes
metaphor and by the idea that the differences between Paz and Garro also involved
a battle for Mexican cultural memory. By cultural memory, Cypess means the diverse
interpretations of Mexicos history and culture proposed by Mexican intellectuals. Garro
and Paz certainly offer clearly opposite views on major issues of Mexicos cultural origins and evolution: in contrast to Pazs ahistorical view of La Malinche as an essential
paradigm of womens passivity in Mexican society, in La culpa es de los tlaxcaltecas
Garro argues for the agency of La Malinche and her female counterparts in modern
Mexico (pp. 1348).
Cypess explores similar contrasts regarding Pazs and Garros views of the Mexican revolution, which both saw as deficient and inconclusive although Garros vision,
Cypess argues, rests on the need to encourage all Mexicans to challenge the belief in
a circular repetitive course of history like that proposed by Paz (p. 77). In this regard,
Chapter 4 seeks to clarify Garros equivocal situation after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, when Garro was singled out in the newspapers as one of the instigators of the
student movement and then, worse, as a key informer against the intellectuals who had
supported the student movement. Ironically, she was damned first for having been part
of the student movement and then for having betrayed it (p. 132). Cypess points out
that after Tlatelolco, as before, Garro was attacked from both right and left for her
outspokenness as both an intellectual and as a woman, while Pazs resignation from his
post as Mexicos ambassador to India further exalted his reputation as a critic of the
Mexican government and the hegemonic PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional).
Cypess concludes her book by observing how Pazs views about Mexican politics
and culture after 1968 grew closer to those of his ex-wife, even as she became ever
more alienated from Mexican life, living in self-imposed exile in Spain (p. 178). With
the passage of time, Cypess notes, social changes made it possible to better understand
Garros perspective on gender and power relations, thus encouraging the growth of her
Anbal Gonzlez
Yale University


2014 The Author. Bulletin of Latin American Research 2014 Society for Latin American Studies
Bulletin of Latin American Research Vol. 33, No. 4

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