5th February, 2000

I've been spending a lot of time lately with the literary movement that Spanish calls Modernismo, which is a different beast from the Anglo-Celto-American novels and epic poems we usually refer to as modernism in English: primarily a poetic flowering (the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío kickstarted it in the 1880s), influenced by the French Symbolists but without the strict metrical heritage to rebel against (and so equally influenced by the French Parnassians), deeply romantic in the Harlequin-novel sense as well as the Keats-and-Shelley sense, and very much a Europe-oriented movement, with its its Latin American poets and feuilletonists like Leopoldo Lugones or Horacio Quiroga just as identified with their nations' European elite as Spaniards like Antonio Machado or Juan Ramón Jiménez. It's a whole world of literature I was largely unaware of before the past year, but which my newly-discovered facility with reading Spanish has opened up to me, and which I'm still excited to explore.

I bring all this up because Ricardo Arjona is from Guatemala, but his music is not particularly Guatemalan. Like Enrique Gómez Carrillo, the Guatemalan Modernista poet who spent his career in Europe boosting the Estrada Cabrera dictatorship, Arjona is an internationalist, which (in Latin America) is to say a European; and if I'm particularly sensitive to this point in regards to Guatemala when it doesn't necessarily bother me from any other Latin American nation, it probably has more to do with my own bad conscience towards the place I spent my teenage years than with Guatemala's particular ethnic or aesthetic identities.

But I also bring it up because Arjona is himself a Modernista, aesthetically if not chronologically: "Desnuda" could have been written by Jiménez or Darío, it so thoroughly examines its central image ("desnuda" can be both the adjective "nude" and the imperative "take [your] clothes off") and complicates it, turning it inside out so that a shedding becomes a filling up, and he applies all the rhetorical tricks at his disposal to convince his apparently shy lover of the naturalness, the profitability, and the giddy lunacy of nakedness.

It's one of the best lyrics we've encountered in this travelogue, judged simply as a lyric, poetic and erotic and funny, so it's a bit disappointing that the musical backing is so soft-rock standard. It's as professional and tasteful as Arjona's text, with Elizabeth Meza's harmonies and wordless sighs adding erotic weight to the guitar curlicues and accentuating percussion. Arjona's voice is a fine, burnished instrument in the post-stadium rock tradition -- a little gritty, a little sensitive -- but his performance doesn't live up to his writing. He's a generic Western singer, in other words, which is why I think of him as failing to be particularly Guatemalan.

But Guatemala is not one thing. (Nothing is ever one thing.) Although it is has one of the largest indigenous populations by percentage in the Americas, it is just as much a Western nation as Argentina, or yes, the United States -- if we want to talk about non-Western nations as those with impoverished underclasses, stratified by race and language, that's not a conversation that will flatter the traditional great powers. Art for art's sake has historically been the province of the elite, in every culture, and at least in Arjona's case, his mass art, blanketing radios, constantly on tour, and accessible via every cell phone in the hemisphere, is more widely available, and more widely beloved, than that of any of the precious, finicky Modernistas of a century before.

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