Barbara Burns speaks to Karunika Kardak whose book Memory, Identity and the Historical Novel in Uruguay: Opening up the Archive 1985-2010 has just been published by Legenda.

Memory, Identity and the Historical Novel in Uruguay: Opening up the Archive 1985-2010

BB. Your book explores Uruguayan works of historical fiction that have been published since the country’s return to democracy in 1985, all of them portraying events that took place in the nineteenth century, but that have something to say about national identity and cultural memory today. Can you give us a sense of what your study reveals about the role of historical novels in highlighting the injustices of the past or exploring stories from the perspectives of the marginalised and the forgotten?

Karunika Kardak

KK. My book focuses on how literature, especially historical fiction, can serve as a space to redefine narratives of cultural memory and identity. It explores how historical novels not only engage with archival works but also challenge memory-making apparatuses such as textbooks, commemorations and material culture like monuments and museums. Taking Uruguayan historical fiction as a starting point, it examines how literature reinterprets the presence and absence of historically marginalised people within the archive whilst confronting the politics of remembering and forgetting.

BB. Uruguay is the second-smallest South American country, a place that most Europeans don’t know much about. Some will associate it with the colonial struggles of the past, or the economic crises and military dictatorship of the twentieth century, but since its emergence as a democratic republic in 1985, it is now recognized to be one of the most peaceful, tolerant, and progressive countries in Latin America. Do you find yourself having to correct misconceptions about Uruguay? How do you contextualize the country and present it in a nutshell for non-specialists?

KK. During the twentieth century, in essence Uruguay was regarded as a peaceful country with a great football team. It was labelled as the Switzerland of Latin America, distinguishing it from the rest of the region. This national identity was in crisis after the dictatorship ended in 1985. In my book, I explore how one of the means of exploring this crisis of identity was historical fiction. More recently, you’re right, it has been recognised as one of the most socially progressive countries in Latin America, and to a certain extent I agree with this. That said, the historical novels I discuss in my book question and nuance this identity narrative.

BB. Can you tell us a bit about your educational background and how you became interested in Uruguayan literature?

KK. I am originally from Mumbai, India and I started learning Spanish as a weekend hobby when I was 17. I moved to Europe ten years ago for my Masters, based in Spain, France and St Andrews in Scotland. Ironically, it was at St Andrews (not in Spain!) that I became acquainted with Uruguayan literature; met one of my PhD supervisors, a scholar of Uruguayan literature and Uruguayan himself; and read Carolina de Robertis’s The Invisible Mountain (2009). Although I didn’t end up discussing de Robertis’s work in my thesis, I would say it was a starting point for me to learn more about Uruguayan history and culture.

BB. You choose works by two women authors for analysis. Has Uruguayan women’s writing tended to be neglected by scholarship, and in what ways does including their perceptions of national history shift the focus of your study or complement its scope?

KK. It would not be an exaggeration to say that women’s historical fiction is often viewed as ‘popular’ writing which is not serious enough for academic research, and this is even more the case in Latin America (e. g. Isabel Allende). That’s why it was important for me to include women who are accomplished authors in their own right. In particular, I find Marcia Collazo Ibáñez’s works point to a trend in how women’s historical fiction engages with archival documents and not only brings out hidden stories but also highlights women’s contributions in traditionally male-dominated history.

BB. Of the five works of fiction on which you concentrate, which is your favourite, and why?

KK. It’s difficult to choose a favourite, but I really enjoyed writing about Artigas Blues Band by Amir Hamed. Hamed’s deep understanding of the myth of Uruguay’s national hero, José Gervasio Artigas, and the novel’s postmodern, playful register, along with its polyphony, make for a difficult but fascinating read.

A book-stall in Feria de Tristán Narvaja, Montevideo: photograph Rodrigo Olivera.

BB. To what extent was archival or other cultural research in Montevideo essential to your project, and were you able to meet any of the authors whose work you examine?

KK. My visit to Montevideo in November 2016 was essential for the project. I was able to access some 19th-century books and magazines in the National Library, and bought a lot of primary and secondary literature in the city’s bookstores and street markets. But more importantly, I met many academics (historians and literary scholars alike) who were kind enough to discuss their ideas and refer me to relevant literature. I was also lucky to meet Amir Hamed and Mario Delgado Aparaín, and my conversations with both of them were the highlight of my trip. Subsequently, I corresponded via email with Marcia Collazo Ibáñez who answered some of my questions about history, memory and women’s historical fiction.

On the left, the cover of El Indiscreto for 5 November 1885. Note the figure in the masthead, a dynamic court jester who could pass for a modern superhero. The figure below is also ambiguous, to our eyes: a soldier called Bernabé Rivera, 1795-1832, who led a General Custer-like life of brutally killing indigenous peoples until he was cornered by them and killed in turn. Like Custer, Bernabé became part of a colonizing narrative of the taming of a basically uninhabited interior: but the bestselling 1988 novel ¡Bernabé, Bernabé! cast him in quite a different light.

BB. What was the most rewarding or memorable aspect of your project?

KK. The connections I made in Montevideo were very special. The people I met, including academics and authors, were all extremely welcoming and generous with their time and expertise. Although I’m not working in academia anymore, I’m glad to have friends in a little corner of the world which is so far away from where I grew up.

BB. You’re based in Leiden now. What type of work do you do, and are you continuing your research on Latin American literature and culture?

KK. Yes, I’m now in Leiden, the Netherlands, working as a managing editor for new journals at a publishing house called Springer Nature. Although I’m not directly involved in academia these days, I’m co-editing a volume on women’s historical fiction with Dr Catherine Barbour (Trinity College, Dublin, also a Legenda author) to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2024. In my free time, I enjoy long walks on the beach and making pottery at a local studio.

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