Preferred Citation: Unruh, Vicky. Latin American Vanguards: The Art of Contentious Encounters. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1994.

5— From Early Words to the Vernacular Inflection: Vanguard Tales of Linguistic Encounter

A Play of Linguistic Confusion: Asturias's Cuculcán

Asturias's Cuculcán, a dramatic collage of color, sound, motion, and words, is his most overtly ethnographic play and, as a product of his vanguardist years, the most radically experimental. Cuculcán did not appear in print until 1948,[40] but Asturias described the work in progress in a 1932 essay, "Las posibilidades de un teatro americano."[41] Like the Leyendas de Guatemala collection to which it was eventually added, Cuculcán draws on the Popol Vuh and the books of


Chilam Balam . James Clifford, who has documented the interaction between ethnography and art in the European avant-gardes, argues that because of its decontextualized quality, deliberately ethnographic writing undertaken either by artists or anthropologists is always allegorical (Writing Culture) . Certainly in Latin America this situation was somewhat different because writers with ethnographic interests were responding to the non-Western cultures that, on some level, constituted part of their own milieu. Latin American artists, as I have documented, drew on ethnographic material in part to affirm the intrinsic worth of these cultures and their unofficial languages. But they also used this material allegorically to speak more broadly about culture, art, and language. In this vein, Asturias's Cuculcán, through its linguistic theme, brings together the dialogue between Huidobro's Altazor and Asturias's own Leyendas —the dialogue with which I began this chapter—and dramatizes the vanguardist concerns about language encompassed in that exchange.

Described by Richard Callan as a chromatic ballet (124), the play enacts a series of encounters between the supreme plumed serpent god Cuculcán (likened in power to the sun) and the Guacamayo, the false god Vukub Cakix and a verbal trickster embodied in a parrot of many colors.[42] The piece is organized into three sets of three alternating cortinas (or curtains)—yellow, red, and black. These colors correspond to stages in the sun's daily journey through the sky and are reflected in the colors of onstage curtains and the clothing and accoutrements of Cuculcán and his warriors. Other participants in the encounter between Cuculcán and the Guacamayo includc Yaí and Chinchibirín. Yaí, a yellow flower sometimes linked to the moon in Mayan myth, has been destined since birth to mate with the supreme god and then be cast aside. Chinchibirín, a yellow warrior serving Cuculcán, loves Yaí from afar.

Cuculcán incorporates these characters and others into a series of interlocking dialogues and displays of color, light, sound, and dance to enact a sustained debate on the nature of the worlds they inhabit between Cuculcán and the Guacamayo. Declaring repeatedly "I am like the sun," Cuculcán affirms the palpable permanence of the world manifested in the cyclical re-creation of each day (54). The Guacamayo, or "Gran Saliva del Espejo" (Great Saliva of the Mirror), as he is called, harasses Cuculcán and his retinue with a repetitive "Acucúac, acucúac" and by endlessly asserting the transitory and illusory nature of a reality intertwined with language, "a game of mirrors, of words" (87). "What


is seen is seen and is not a fiction!" declares Cuculcán's warrior, Chinchibirín (63). "Nothing exists," the Guacamayo contradicts, "all is a dream in the immobile mirage" (57). Although the play does not resolve this debate, more often than not, the Guacamayo's version of reality prevails, as Yaí's union with the supreme god is portrayed as a fall from innocence that attests to the parrot's verbal power.[43] Yaí seeks to defend her illusion of love's permanence against her fate to be with Cuculcán for only one night, but, verbally seduced by the Guacamayo, she becomes like him, "word wrapped in words" (86). The parrot offers Yaí paradoxical counsel on love: "It is eternal, but not in the Palace of the Sun, in the Palace of the Senses, where, like all things, it passes, it changes!" (87). The final dance between Cuculcán and Yaí is performed as a fleeting encounter between the sun and the moon, a Mayan motif often favored by Asturias.

The play's title names the supreme plumed serpent god, but the piece focuses more consistently on the Guacamayo who frequently steals the seene. Either in person or through the colors and the retinue that represent him, Cuculcán is omnipresent. But the Guacamayo is far more active on stage as he disrupts the vast and orderly universe that Cuculcán embodies. Visually, kinetically, and, above all, linguistically, the contrasts between the two figures are sharply drawn. The largerthan-life Cuculcán appears on stilts, appropriate to his royal stature. The Guacamayo, according to stage directions, is "the size of a man" and appears initially "standing on the ground" (54). Cuculcán traverses the stage with "priestlike movements" (80), and his rhythmical, circular dance with Yaí emulates the periodic motion of heavenly bodies. By contrast, the Guacamayo's movements are playful, erratic, and clumsy, as he spins around, "entangled" and with "childlike joy" (55). Cuculcán's realm changes regularly with the time of day, but, at any given moment, this world is pervasively monochromatic: yellow, red, or black. The Guacamayo, in contrast, a bird of many colors with plumage like a "Rainbow of Deception" (82), is multiple.

But Cuculcán is primarily a play about language, a sustained debate about the power of an all-encompassing language sufficient to itself, on the one hand, and the duplicity and foreignness of language and its consequent critical power, on the other. Dorita Nouhaud has suggested that the irreverent Guacamayo incarnates the spirit of the vanguardist poet.[44] I would agree but also argue that both Cuculcán and the Guacamayo personify vanguardist artists, in that they embody the vanguards' contrasting images of language. The Guacamayo may be an


incorrigible verbal trickster, but Cuculcán also invariably speaks with the words of a talented lyricist. In fact, many of Cuculcán's traits in this play, in particular, his relationship to language, recall Bakhtin's characterization of aestheticist poetic language as monologic and unified with its author's semantic and expressive intentions (Bakhtin 285). Cuculcán's language, like Krauss's gridlike ground zero of creation, is hostile to the intrusion of alien speech, that is, to Bakhtinian "quotation marks" from others. By contrast, the Guacamayo, who as a parrot by definition speaks with quotation marks, that is, with the words of others, embodies the persistent foreignness of all language. On the visual level, the work's contrapuntal play of colors between a monochromatic Cuculcán and the chromatically volatile Guacamayo renders visually this profound contrast in the two beings' relationship to language. Linked, like Huidobro's Altazor, to the original sources of creation, manifested here through the sun's cyclical re-creation of each day, Cuculcán incarnates the power of a unified and unisonant cosmos. His similarity to the sun links him with the ordering of time and space, but like the absolute power of the vanguardist grid, his sunlike power is also impervious to the temporal and the contingent: "my rays turn into brilliant wasps and I fly to the honeycombs, to then continue on clothed in the yellow of my image which rises from the water without becoming wet and from the honeycombs without burning" (55). In this spirit, Cuculcán's language affirms the scope of his own power and displays a respect for power itself as well as for the language that expresses it. Thus, although the Guacamayo repeatedly tries to trick Cuculcán into a self-exalting identification with the sun ("You are the sun," the Guacamayo proclaims), the supreme god is careful always to compare himself to and never to equate himself with the sun: "I am like the Sun" (54; my emphasis).[45] This caution notwithstanding, Cuculcán's unifying language, even as he speaks poetically, circumscribes the orderly natural world of creation that constitutes his domain: "In my morning habitats ... I am joined . . . by those in charge of the Treasure, of the Gardens, of the Granaries, as they inform me as to what happens in my dominions: whether the clouds have made their beds, . . .  whether that which has ripened has not spoiled" (56).

Like the artist who invents a primal language to designate a new world, Cuculcán lays claim to what he names through the frequent use of possessives and affirms the uniformity of his creation: "Yellow is my tree, yellow is my sweet potato, yellow are my turkeys" (74). Cuculcán's language confidently affirms the nature of the world that it names


and, in this aspect, epitomizes what Bakhtin describes as the manifestation in aestheticist poetic language of the speaker's drive for linguistic control. We recall Bakhtin's words: "In poetic genres, artistic consciousness—understood as a unity of all the author's semantic and expressive intentions—fully realizes itself within its own language." Cuculcán's frequent use of possessives in naming his world, moreover, links him inextricably with his own language in the Bakhtinian sense: "The language of the poet is his language, he is utterly immersed in it, inseparable from it" ("Discourse in the Novel" 284; emphasis in original). Cuculcán's regal demeanor imbues his language with the air of the "priestly language of poetry" Bakhtin ascribes to the aestheticist tradition. Cuculcán's speech is also sometimes characterized by simple declarative pronouncements and repetitions of the verb to be, reaffirming the stability of things as Cuculcán defines them. Such statements often exploit the grammatical equation between subject noun and predicate noun (a = b ), a structure that implies a self-sufficient completeness of the metaphor (solar, in this case) and an equilibrium between the word and the world it evokes, for example, "The yellow flint is the morning stone" (74).[46] Cuculcán's faithful warrior Chinchibirín employs a similar grammatical structure, in which a equals b so totally that the equation could easily be rendered as a = a . Thus Chinchibirín intones the creed of Cuculcán's all-encompassing worldview and affirms the unisonance of his creation: "What is seen is seen and is not a fiction!" (my emphasis). This linguistic structure, with the quality of a word definition, also foregrounds the desire to fix meanings manifested not only in normative linguistic forces but also in the poet's dream of inventing a language to mean exactly what he wills it to mean.

The Guacamayo's response to Chinchibirín's statement "Let's play with words!" (63) affirms the bird's playful approach to language and undermines the reliability of his own words as well as the linguistic uniformity proclaimed by Cuculcán. As a diviner, a storyteller, and a verbal gymnast, the Guacamayo emerges as the disruptive artist figure in Cuculcán's world and dramatizes the vanguardist fascination with linguistic confusion and difficulty. As the "Great Saliva of the Mirror," the Guacamayo embodies linguistic deceit and impurity. His dissonant speech is described as "jerigonza, " gibberish that twists the facts, and, in keeping with a Popol Vuh story of Vukub Cakix, he suffers from a twisted mouth and a painful toothache from having "chewed so many lies" (62). But though the parrot may be an inveterate liar, the auditory,


chromatic, and tactile metaphors and synesthesias that characterize his language emphasize the creative and critical power of his "incorrect" or deliberately misused words. Thus the "bird of enchantment" speaks in a "jerigonza of colors" with words like lies "clothed in precious stones." The "rainbow of his voice" emerges from the Guacamayo's feathers, like the "rich plumage and perfect color" of his words. Most significantly, the Guacamayo's "voicc of fire" constitutes an acute and acerbic critical force that disrupts the orderly flow of discourse and, as the embodiment of alterity, needles, discomfits, and consumes from within those who hear it (50–86). "Your voice," the yellow warrior Chinchibirín tells the Guacamayo, "fills my soul with ticklings" (60). "Your fine thread of colors," Yaí tells the parrot of his language, "perforated my ears in order to contaminate me within" (92).

If the pronouncements of Cuculcán and his followers affirm the stable nature of creation ("what is seen is seen"), the Guacamayo's words assert the unstable and the discontinuous. "Nothing exists," the parrot likes to quip (57), and he patiently explains to Chinchibirín that the afternoon is an illusion and life itself a "fictitious chain of days that leads to nothing" (92). To Cuculcán's pronouncements about the time-outof-time permanence of his own creation, the Guacamayo responds with reminders of the historical and the contingent that, like the love between Yaí and Cuculcán, changes and passes. While Cuculcán's language, in the tradition of the priestly poet, shores up his own identity as a supreme creator, the Guacamayo's words undercut in those who hear him any unified sense of being, fragmenting the simulacrum of a single self into the multiple. Such is the parrot's powerful effect on Yaí whose hands are transformed into mirrors by his saliva, or his words, "in order to multiply myself into vain others ... that are the same as me and that are nothing but an image of myself that I am not" (91).

In keeping with his parrotlike nature, the Guacamayo mimics Cuculcán's orderly syntax, the declarative affirmations that assert a stable word-reality relationship ("The yellow flint is the morning stone"). But the parrot's mimicry is critical, as he appropriates this syntax in semantic paradoxes that assert the existence of nonexistence ("The afternoon is a fiction" [64], "Life is a deception" [60]) or in vanguardist similes that construct a different order of things from that which prevails in Cuculcán's palace: "Women are vegetables" (58). It is precisely by imitating Cuculcán's speech, moreover, that the Guacamayo underscores the heteroglossic in language; unlikc Cuculcán's, his speech contains Bakhtinian quotation marks against which his own words may sound,


foregrounding the interaction of "alien" speech with his own. Moreover, by parodying the normative quality in Cuculcán's proclivity for self-contained definitions, the Guacamayo appropriates and questions both the centripetal impulse in language and the vanguardist poet's own dream—like Altazor's—of inventing from the void a pure and "uninflected" idiom.

This play's contraposition through characters of contrary approaches to language is reinforced by kinetic elements, staging, and dramatic structurc. Cuculcán's "priestly language" of poetry (to quote Bakhtin) is visually reinforced by his "priestlike movements," his regal stature, and his rhythmical dance with Yaí emulating the universes heavenly bodies. The Guacamayo's erratic, clumsy, and entangling movements duplicate the disruptive and discontinuous quality of his stammering and fragmented speech. In staging, the framing device of alternating series of three sets of curtains marks an unending cyclical repetition, as uniform as Cuculcán's language and as the sun's passage through the sky. By contrast, the play's visual and verbal debates enclosed by this frame enact a volatile world (in which the "fruit run like rabbits") through the interplay of darkness, light, and color and the interweaving of voices, onomatopoetic natural and instrumental sounds, and dancelike actor movements. Thus Cuculcán's orderly journey through the days that imitates the universe's primal movements is transformed by the Guacamayo's presence into a symphonic babble orchestrated by the poetic parrot's linguistic play, as indicated in stage directions: "dog barks, chicken cacklings, tempest thunderclaps, serpent hissings, troupial, guardabarranca, and mockingbird warblings, are heard as the Guacamayo names them, just as the cry of children, the laughter of women and to close the commotion and chatter of a multitude that passes " (57).

This cacophonic din invoked by the Guacamayo infects other characters who engage in similar verbal antics. The Popol Vuh figure Huaravarix, for example, composes nocturnal songs with wordplays similar in auditory effect to the tongue twisters of vanguardist poets: "¡El Cerbatanero de la Cerbatana de Sauco ha salido del Baúl de los Gigantes que en el rondo tiene arena y sobre la arena, aguarena y sobre la aguarena, agua honda y sobre el agua honda, agua queda y sobre el agua queda, agua verde y sobre el agua verde, agua azul y sobrc el agua azul, aguasol y sobre el aguasol, aguacielo!" (69).

Even the powerful Cuculcán himself, in words suggestively echoing Huidobro's Altazor on his disintegrating linguistic quest, succumbs to the game of words in the final encounter with Yaí as they twirl around


in opposite directions: "¡Y otra vez girasol de sol a sol, / sol, girasol y gira, girasol!" and, as he describes Yaí, "¡Otra vez picaflor de flor en flor! / Recuerdo de la flor ¿qué fue de la flor?" (97).[47]

Notwithstanding the carefully structured nine cortinas that frame it, the play is shaped by an alternating but continuing chain of verbal jousting, between the Guacamayo and Cuculcán, the Guacamayo and Chinchibirín, Chinchibirín and Yaí, the Guacamayo and Yaí, and Yaí and Cuculcán. Chinchibirín remarks that he yearns to "win the meet" with the Guacamayo (63). But winning in Cuculcán is based not so much on converting others to one's views as on the virtuosity of the performance and the power of the critique. The idea of a verbal match is reinforced by stage directions that portray Cuculcán's warriors as traders and their confrontation as an unending dance of exchange. The directions for this scene point to the underlying structure of the play itself: "They enter and exit in interminable formation ..., [and] the battle begins to be announced with strident shouts. The red warriors, by their genuflections, look more like traders than warriors. It is a dance of offers and replies" (80; my emphasis). Interestingly, this reference to the performance of a verbal exchange is repeated in a 1959 piece by Asturias on Mayan elements in a contemporary Guatemalan market, "Lo maya en los mereados guatemaltecos." Echoing the stage directions and recalling the visual display from Cuculcán, this bargaining ballet underscores verbal exchange—"a lengthy rosary of offers and rejected demands"—and exalts the virtuosity of the performance—"a dance to the rhythm of the soft murmur of the words that fancy the flight of scores of bees over all of those black heads and bodies of colorful dress appropriate to a ballet" (América 256). But the explicit comparison between the verbal jousting of the Guacamayo's world and a linguistic marketplace had already been made in Cuculcán by the warrior Chinchibirín: "A market is like a Great Guacamayo, everybody talks, everybody offers colored things, everybody deceives" (75). The marketplace metaphor also suggestively imagines language as a conflictive activity of exchange. Thus, like much vanguardist discourse on language, the verbal commerce between Cuculcán and the Guacamayo—the difficult dialogue itself embodied in the warriors' ballet—posits language, even in its performative lyricism, as the site of contentious social exchange and struggles for power.

We must not forget, however, that Cuculcán is an insistently autochthonous work, and it is therefore very tempting to see the Guacamayo's


approach to language as the embodiment of the vanguards' vernacular linguistic projects. In such a reading, we can see that the Guacamayo repeatedly disrupts the priestly Cuculcán's self-present and self-sufficient language with the impure, dissonant, and confusing heteroglossic language of alien "quotations," or, to extend the image, of cultural difference. This reading is reinforced by Asturias's own subsequent references to the Guacamayo as the incarnation of Latin American literary language. With strong echoes from the polychromatic, linguistically agile parrot of his play, Asturias suggested in his 1967 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, for example, that Latin American writers had created their own language, that their work constituted a "verbal feat," and that their language itself was "chromatic," "musical," "tactile, plural, and irreverent" (América 156, 158). Later, in a 1969 essay, "América, la engañadora," a piece that speaks extensively about a familiar parrot, Asturias recounted the Popol Vuh's portrayal of the bird as a colorful verbal trickster. But here he also noted the parrot's role as America's ambassador, as Columbus returned to the Old World with a parrot, not a hawk, on his arm, "a diplomat who to his jacket of live colors adds a tangled speech typical of the dialogue that would follow between Europeans and Americans." This deceptive dialogue, he added, served as a self-protective tactic that allowed Latin America to save itself from exoticism-seeking foreigners by "counterfeiting paradises" (América 343).

This reading of Cuculcán is plausible but not complete. As I have demonstrated in this chapter, the stories of linguistic encounter in a vernacular mode drew on both kinds of language images that shape vanguardist discourse: the image of linguistic purity and universality ascribed to a "ground zero" of linguistic creation and the linguistic estrangement manifested in polyphony, dissonance, and impurity. Significantly, Cuculcán 's own drama of linguistic creation incorporates both views into a single primeval event. Thus Cuculcán himself explains that even when the world and its language were emerging for the very first time, confusion, critique, and the Guacamayo were already on the scene.

Su voz. Habla obscuridad. De lejos es lindo su plumaje de alboroto de maíz dorado sobre el mar y la sangre. Todo estaba en las jícaras de la tiniebla revuelto, descompuesto, informe. El silencio rodeaba la vida. Era insufrible el silencio y los Creadores dejaron sus sandalias para significar que no estaban ausentes de los cielos. Sus sandalias o ecos. Pero el Guacamayo, jugando con


las palabras, confundió los ecos, sandalias de los dioses. El Guacamayo con su lengua enredó los dioses por los pies, al confundirles sus sandalias, al hacerles andar con los ecos del pie derecho en el pie izquierdo. (75)

His voice. It speaks darkness. From afar his plumage of the disorder of golden corn over the sea and blood is beautiful. Everything was in the gourds of the darkness scrambled, out of order, formless. Silence enveloped life. The silence was insufferable and the Creators left their sandals to signify that they were not absent from the heavens. Their sandals or echoes. But the Guacamayo, playing with words, confused the echoes, sandals of the gods. The Guacamayo with his tongue entangled the gods by their feet, by confusing their sandals, by making them walk with the echoes from the right foot on the left foot.

In fact, this scene should remind us of another: Altazor's initial encounter with his creator who shares the story of inventing language, the scene with which I opened this chapter. Even Altazor's own pursuit of a pure, original word is marred from the outset by the creator's account of primal linguistic confusion: "'I created the tongue of the mouth which man diverted from its role to make it learn to speak'" (OC 1: 366; EW 5). In both stories, then, with or without an explicit vernacular inflection, the possibility of a confusing, alien language is always present from the beginning, contaminating the poetic utopia of a pristine linguistic space and its pure, original word.

5— From Early Words to the Vernacular Inflection: Vanguard Tales of Linguistic Encounter

Preferred Citation: Unruh, Vicky. Latin American Vanguards: The Art of Contentious Encounters. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1994.