Juan Leon Mera’s Cumandá


          The description in Friday’s class of Cumandá as a canonical (and the first) novel in Ecuador that everyone in that country has read and studied in school, made me think.  If Mera’s Cumandá is to Ecuadorian literature as Shakespeare and Dickens are to British literature, is there a Canadian equivalent?  When that question was put before the class on Friday, no one had a real answer.  Will there ever be a novel that we can point to as “the great Canadian novel?”  Does that matter? 

            After Friday’s class, I finally started reading the book, and I got to thinking about what makes it such an important book to Ecuadorians, with, according to the book’s back cover, “Su importancia no soló radical en su character inaugural, sino sobre todo en haber sintetizado casi todos los temas que han tejido la historia idealólogica interna del romanticismo hispanoamericano.”

            In the opening chapter of the book, Mera’s rich, evocative descriptions of the Ecuadorian jungles and volcanoes are captivating.  I don’t often enjoy reading lengthy passages of description at the beginning of a novel, but I found myself immersed in the landscape of Mera’s Spanish prose.  If this novel is to typify and represent Ecuador and Ecuadorian literature, then Mera seems intent on making the land of Ecuador itself an important part of the novel.  If “the great Canadian novel” began with passages describing frozen lakes, snow-covered trees, huge snowbanks, and more snow, would many readers continue past the opening chapter?  Not that those images can’t be beautiful, but I have a tough time imagining an author describing them as fascinatingly as Mera’s tropical landscape. 

Published in: on January 16, 2007 at 2:31 am  Comments (8)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Dan, just a technical note: you should use the “category” “span365”.

  2. I’m sure there is a Canadian canon: works now taken to found a national literature.

    And regarding the Canadian landscape, that certainly has been the basis of what’s now taken to be a distinct tradition in Canadian visual art: think of Emily Carr or (even more obviously) the so-called “Group of Seven.”

  3. Dan,

    I too share your sentiments about generally not enjoying lengthy passages full of description. Usually I am easily bored by such writing. However, I was suprised as how much I enjoyed the opening chapter and became engaged in the novel. For me, the appeal of the writing is because the landscape he describes is quite exotic and therefore desirable. In regards to your comparison about the description of Canadian landscape, not to say that it is not beautiful, but in my experience snow and frozen lakes are not foreign the way volcanoes and jungles are. For me the desirability and fascination lies in the exoticism os the landscape he describes. I am curious if the same effect would occur with someone from Ecuador reading a Canadian novel.



  4. Hola! Estoy completamente de acuerdo con tu descripcion del primer capitulo del libro, cuando Mera describe la naturaleza en una manera fascinante. Usualmente, estoy aburrida con la descripcion con muchos detalles sobre cosas como volcanos, o rios, etc, pero en este caso, parece mas como poesia.

  5. Hey Dan,
    I agree with your arguement of not particularly liking long descriptive pieces, especially when nature is concerned. Yes, it can serve to set up the greater benefit of the book but other than that it can at times seem too drawn out and tedious. As for the comparison to the Canadian novel, all i can attest to having read was Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace” and i hardly think that qualifies as a real representation of Canadian literature. It did have its fair share of descriptive narrative but for me, it made the book far too long and a chore to read. I think Cumanda is much more bearable in that respect.

  6. Bedridden with a virus for the past five days, I wrote this last post with a very high fever, and I don’t think I made my point nearly as clearly or as well as I would have liked. I’d like to focus on one point to try to clarify a little bit what I meant to say about Canadian literature.
    Although there is a Canadian canon, it doesn’t seem to me to be as easily definable or as set as that of British or American literature, and furthermore there is no Canadian Shakespeare, a literary figure whose importance is (almost) universally accepted. I know as many people who hate Margaret Atwood’s writing as who admire it. Although Robertson Davies is sometimes pointed to as one of our country’s brightest literary lights, Dr. Beasely-Murray dismisses his work on his blog. I could definitely be wrong, but it seems to me that Canada doesn’t have authors whose importance, merit and significance to national identity are so widely accepted and agreed upon as an American like Mark Twain or a Briton like Charles Dickens.
    I didn’t mean to suggest that nothing important has been published in Canada. It’s just that it doesn’t seem like one or two authors have had their works placed on a pantheon above all the rest. Maybe this is indicative of that famous “Canadian niceness” and the equally (in)famous Canadian blandness: “If we declare William Shakespeare our national poet, how will poor Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson feel? We don’t want to hurt their feelings.” Of course Canada has literary awards and competitions, but we’re also such an underdog country, I think people might be less likely to love an author or a book because everyone tells them it is brilliant.
    As for the Canadian landscape, I am aware of its centrality to a lot of Canadian art (like Emily Carr and the Group of Seven), and I probably should have mentioned that, but I meant to refer specifically to literature. When I think of Canadian literature that deals extensively with descriptions of landscapes I think of Catherine Parr Trail and Susanna Moodie, or Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese, all of which I had to read for a Canadian Lit class at UBC, and all of which bored me out of my skull.
    If I get better at blogging, hopefully I can learn to make my point the first time, and much more concisely.
    Thanks very much for all of your comments!

  7. Meanwhile, I was chatting to a colleague in Canadian Studies, and he suggested Hugh Maclennan’s Two Solitudes as an equivalent “founding fiction” for Canada. Moreover, apparently it opens with what my colleague called “a paean to the Canadian shield.”

  8. Perhaps because our culture is so young, we have yet to discover “our” Shakespere, but I am hopeful. And I do think it is possible to spend pages describing Canadian landscape but I agree with you more than I do Jon statement, that, it would be more difficult to keep a readers attention. A jungle contains so much stimuli, it is like standing in the middle of a city. I think it would take me many pages as well to describe the jungle, and a paragraph to describe Canadian tundra. Not as much going on here in the cold. Though, the temperate rainforest on Vancouver Island may take a few more pages, but still, not as comparible as the jungle.
    Regarding, Cumanda and the imagery being able to transport you there, I agree. I had the same experience, though I did find it a little long-winded in the end. I would have enjoyed the desciptions more if they had been spread out in between the action (though there was still jungle decription– hmmm, maybe I could have done with a couple pages less)

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