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1922: Enrique Gómez Carrillo


This week I'm thinking about Enrique Gómez Carrillo's 1922 novel El evangelio del amor, one of the last flowers of the Latin American "modernista" movment which first blossomed in Rubén Dário's 1888 poetry collection Azul.

 The title page from a library copy digitized at  archive.org .

The title page from a library copy digitized at archive.org.


Modernismo, in this strict sense, was the point at which Spanish letters caught up, in a dizzying gulp, with nineteenth-century French poetry: a synthesis from the margins of Romanticism à la Hugo, Parnassianism à la Gautier, and Symbolism à la Verlaine, it was the stuff of decadent criollo aristocracy in Latin America: Dário was Nicaraguan (and mestizo) by birth, but his poetry was championed by the Europeanized aristocrats of the Southern Cone, and nearly all the modernista poets and novelists who followed in his wake were of European descent and comfortable means. (How that differs from their North American equivalents is left as an exercise for the reader.)

This generalization very much includes Enrique Gómez Carrillo, the most famous Guatemalan man of letters in his day, though he spent as little time as possible in Guatemala after helping the dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera win election in 1898. His reward was a series of diplomatic posts which kept him in Europe, principally Paris, though he traveled widely, and was acclaimed as an essayist, travel writer, and war correspondent for Spanish and Argentine newspapers. (His only works to have been translated into English are his volumes of reportage from the Front during World War I.) His early novels of the 1890s were heavily influenced by French Decadents like Jean Lorrain or Remy de Gourmont, enthusiastically describing the love affairs of Parisian coquettes; but he went many years without publishing fiction again. An in-demand "cronista," his decorative prose recounting his impressions of European and Asiatic destinations occupied most of his literary time, while his personal life was one series of high-profile love affairs after another. (Peruvian poet Aurora Cáceres, Spanish soprano Raquel Meller, and the future Comtesse de Saint-Exupéry were the only three he married.)

El evangelio del amor (the gospel of love) is a curious book: nominally a historical novel set in fourteenth-century Byzantium, it's really a fable (or a conte philosophique) about sex and religion, slyly satirical and thoroughly impious. At first I thought I should compare Teófilo, the ex-warrior-turned-anchorite who is the novel's protagonist, to Don Quixote: he, too, is inflamed by his constant reading into a series of laughable follies, although his reading is of the lives of saints, martyrs, and hermits. But eventually I realized that a better comparison would be to late-period Mark Twain, another American who traveled extensively in Europe and viewed the religion he knew intimately with an increasingly jaundiced and satirical eye.

Although as a good Protestant, Twain would never have included the long central chapter in which various high-born Byzantines discuss physical love through the lens of comparative theology, starting with Persian lesbianism and ending on the usual speculation that Christ and the Magdalene were lovers. Few of the propositions raised would raise the eyebrows of anyone familiar with contemporary theology, but my instincts for the period are still so parochially Anglocentric that I was delighted by the novel's frankness and heterodoxy. Although even there, in the year of Ulysses it's hardly the scandal it could have been thirty years earlier.

I don't think it was particularly meant to be scandalous, though: Gómez Carrillo was very familiar with contemporary French literature, not to mention the classical canon, and Spanish literature was already replete with a much more straightforward form of eroticism than he ever attempts here. The moment in which a voice from heaven tells Teófilo with approbation, "Hoy has entrado en ella" (today you have entered into her, in context a pun on physical as well as spiritual intercourse), is as direct as he gets. Much of Gómez Carrillo's satire, in fact, is directed towards the Spanish: the setting of the early fourteenth century was chosen because it was the period when the Catalan Company was pillaging Anatolia; and a scene with the Patriarch Athanasius is heavily satirical about the blasphemies and heresies of the Latin Church.

This is the second novel by Guatemalan writers in the 1920s that I've discussed here (previously: Maelstrom, which was dedicated to Gómez Carrillo), and I was pleasantly surprised by how much of it I was able to understand without recourse to a dictionary. Partly that's because of its specialized subject — I learned Spanish as the child of missionaries, so technical religious vocabulary is much more familiar to me than to many Anglophones at my reading level — but partly it's because despite Gómez Carrillo's reputation as a flowery stylist, he's never too recondite. He was a popular writer, after all, not an avant-gardist.

Jonathan BogartModernismos