Of Monsters and Accents

Posted by Gabriel Eljaiek-Rodriguez on February 12, 2014 in Blog, Gabriel A. Eljaiek-Rodriguez, Guest Blog tagged with

 

Count von Count in his castle

Count von Count in his castle

Before my arrival in the United States I had never paid that much attention to the accent of Count von Count, Sesame Street’s cuddly number-obsessed vampire. It was only after I heard the English-speaking version, with his thick Bela Lugosi-inspired accent, that I realized that the dubbed Count that I watched as a kid also had a vaguely Eastern European accent. Despite this blatant oversight I never doubted that the sympathetic vampire came from some remote Transylvanian corner. This is one of any reader’s first certainties regarding vampire stories: they—along with many other monsters—come from Eastern Europe, from the depths of the Transylvanian forests or the isolated and inaccessible Carpathians. Even if this is not exactly the case and these monsters are described as living elsewhere, their lineage is frequently connected in some way with this region.

While a detailed analysis shows that this is not necessarily the place of origin of all vampires – a wide variety of written and filmic narratives point to different sources and locations – the literary and cinematic imagery and cultural production of the Gothic continues to highlight this geographic region as the provenance and locus amenus of these bloodsucking creatures. Latin American Gothic is no exception to this trend and representations of the East as the cradle of monstrosity can be found in multiple textual and cinematic narratives throughout the continent. But some Latin American writers go beyond the stylistic choice of basing narratives in the East and use their locations in a critical way, stressing elements that make visible the political connotations of this seemingly superficial choice.

In this sense, the representation of Eastern Europe as the place of origin of vampires and other monsters serves a political purpose, demarcating a space of otherness close to Europe and asserting openly that the thirsty undead come from the “barbaric” lands surrounding Central Europe—the periphery of the “civilized world”. The Other of Central Europe not only inhabits the remote regions beyond the Mare ignotum or the wild lands of the Far East and the heart of Africa; it is also dwells in the outskirts of those centralized nations that have defined what is civilized and what is not; in areas of the continent that rub shoulders with Asia and the Middle East, that is, in Eastern Europe. The otherness of these territories is a fact according to Maria Todorova, whose research centers on the deviant behavior (or monstrous behavior) of the people that inhabit these areas: “That the Balkans have been described as the “other” of Europe does not need special proof. What has been emphasized about the Balkans is that its inhabitants do not care to conform to the standards of behavior devised as normative by and for the civilized world” (3).

Latin America (and Latin Americans) are quite familiar with both the harsh reality of being identified as uncivilized as well as with the damaging stereotypes that transform cultural difference into extreme otherness and monstrosity (stereotypes that have been circulating since the encounter between Europe and the Americas), so the literary exercise of drawing identifications and connections between Eastern European and Latin American spaces is not particularly surprising. Writers like Mexicans Carlos Fuentes and Sergio Pitol show the connection as a result of both human migration and hereditary elements, which are both genetic and atavistic. In this way, the protagonist of Pitol’s “Hacia Varsovia” (“Heading towards Warsaw”) takes a trip to the Polish city only to discover in horror the petrified remains of his grandfather (who he presumed alive) and a frightening and vampiric old woman who violently takes her own life. The Eastern European city thus becomes the center of horror; and while the origin and conclusion of the horror story is at first unseen, thanks to the characters making their home in Mexico, the terrible denouement unfolds with the return of the descendant. As the character explains in his own words, as he enters the dilapidated house of the old woman “the horror was reborn within me and started to increase from second to second. I felt attacked by an unexpected wave of madness, a total havoc of senses, a collapse of rational data” (145).

Pitol returns to this area in his short story “Nocturno de Bujara” (“Bukhara Nocturne”), where the narrator tells of the terrifying yet strangely enjoyable experiences of a group of foreigners in the Azerbaijani city of Bukhara. The compass moves further east, bringing the sense of estrangement and defamiliarization to the extreme, to a seemingly indefinable space between Europe and Asia. In both stories Pitol follows Gothic tradition and situates the monstrous otherness in the east, yet at the same time he forces the characters to recognize something of themselves in these spaces, something that—depending on the story— can be either a familiar defamiliarization (the presence of the uncanny) or an intrinsic otherness that results from the product of being Mexican or Latin American.

View of the city of Bukhara in Uzbekistan

View of the city of Bukhara in Uzbekistan

Julio Cortázar also uses these geographical elements in his short story “Reunión con un círculo rojo”  (“Meeting with a red circle”), in a way that is so blatant and tragicomic as to stress the artificiality of the monstrous/Balkan pairing. As in nineteenth-century Gothic tales, the narrative is set in Europe (in Germany, to be precise), specifically in the Balkan microcosm of the Zagreb restaurant, defined by the narrator as a “dark Balkan living room” (139). This geographical setting in the interior of the restaurant thus becomes the perfect paradigm of a vampire story, a “transylvanic settlement” (140) full of pale and awkward waiters who appear out of nowhere and focus their unnerving attention on the only two customers in the place. One of them, Jacobo, notes the bizarre way in which the waiters observe the other guest (who he describes as an English tourist) and decides to stay and protect her. What Jacobo does not know, however, and what the narrator of the story reveals, is that the tourist is in the restaurant precisely to protect him: she is a ghost who tries in vain to divert him from his painful destiny (being devoured by vampires).

"Rueda de locos" (Wheel of Crazies 1974) by Venezuelan painter Jacobo Borges was one of the inspirations for Cortazar's short story (and the narration is dedicated to him)

“Rueda de locos” (Wheel of Crazies 1974) by Venezuelan painter Jacobo Borges was one of the inspirations for Cortazar’s short story (and the narration is dedicated to him)

As in Pitol’s short stories, in this narration the barbaric/vampiric is located in the periphery of Europe – even if the East in this case is a restaurant named after an Eastern European country – and mobilizes itself to “invade” the West (as Dracula and many other vampires and ghosts previously did), encountering and embracing along the way other forms of the monstrous invader; that is, the Latin American. The strange coexistence of the European peripheral-monstrous with the Latin monstrous permeates and moves through these short stories, as well as in other Latin American Gothic narratives where the use of the Gothic trope of the Eastern monstrous is stressed, exaggerated, and tropicalized. This trope can be realized through the use of traditional monsters, as in the case of the vampire in the aforementioned stories, or in novellas like Vlad by Carlos Fuentes and Beber en rojo (Drink in Red) by Alberto Laiseca; or through references to “real life” vampires such as the Countess Erzsébet Báthory, in the essay La condesa sangrienta (The Bloody Countess) by the Argentinean poet Alejandra Pizarnik. While these Gothic narratives undoubtedly validate the European model by replicating and hybridizing it, they also serve to question and criticize its representation of the Other – be it Eastern European or Latin American – by inviting questions about the role of the center and the periphery in the genre; by asking (albeit indirectly), exactly what kind of accent Count von Count should have.

 

References

  • Cortázar, Julio. “Reunión con un círculo rojo”. Alguien que anda por ahí. Barcelona: Bruguera, 1980.
  • Pitol, Sergio. “Hacia Varsovia”. Soñar la realidad. Una antología personal. Barcelona: DeBOLS!LLO, 2007.
  • Pitol, Sergio. “Nocturno de Bujara”. Vals de Mefisto. México: Era, 1989.
  • Todorova, Maria. Imagining the Balkans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

All Cortázar and Pitol quotes are my translation.

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