115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Guignol Puppets of Arnáiz: Imagining Alternative Forms of Belonging through Vulnerability

Nagore Sedano, University of Oregon

The presentation examines Spain's politics of historical memory concentrating on the processes of (de)humanization intrinsic to its representation of the past. I argue that the memoirs of Basque exile Aurora Arnáiz propose a new way of seeing what it means to be human that places vulnerability and gender at its core.


After three decades of exile in Mexico, the Basque Spanish author Aurora Arnáiz writes her autobiography Spoken Portrait of Luisa Julián. Memoirs of War[Retrato hablado de Luisa Julián. Memorias de una guerra](1996). Published in Madrid in the mid 1990s, the work has been inserted under what critics have termed as the “memory boom” of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) to address Spain's turn to historical memory from the late 1980's on. The title is evocative of the impetus of her biographical account: Arnáiz's narrating voice sets to the twofold task of exorcizing her identity during the armed conflict (under the fake name of Luisa Julián), while reconciling it with her fragmented present self. Julián's traumatic experiences are structured around the trope of guignol puppets and narrated in the third person through Arnáiz's recollections about this previous self. This literary strategy converts these passages into meta-narrative instances that question the phallocentric and monological conceptions that cement Spain's politics of historical memory. In one of these meta-narrative passages, the author declares: “It was dark. Why did images from the past appear to her as deformed dolls? Why did she remember her beloved ones as guignol puppets? Was it because she had already become a guignol figure?” (57). Thus, Arnáiz incites the reader to interrogate the humanization and dehumanization mechanisms intrinsic to the ways of looking at Spain's violent past. What does Arnáiz's choice of the guignol puppets reveal about her approach to the category of the human and the representation of trauma? Considering that the loss of her child is established as the central axis of trauma of the text, how does the literary treatment of the guignol interweave text, affect, and gender to implicitly allude to this loss? How does it function to delineate certain forms of collectivity among Spanish and Basque women-in-exile? Departing from these questions, this presentation focuses on Arnaiz's literary resort to the guignol puppets to recount the loss of her child during the armed conflict, reading it as the nucleus of her critique to the image of the traumatized female subject within the Spanish Civil War canon. Drawing on Julia Kristeva's postulates on the abject and Judith Butler's approach to the concept of vulnerability, I argue that the figure of the guignol puppet emerges as a new economy of the sign “human.” A new way of seeing what it means to be human that places vulnerability at its core, while unmasking the bonds between language, affect and ethics. The centrality of the concept of vulnerability via the guignol puppets is not fortuitous: it genders and traffics with trauma to unravel the loss of a child as a communal tie between Spanish and Basque women-in-exile. A bond that, as Arnáiz reminds us, despite having been obliterated by the Spanish Civil war canon, has the potential to imagine alternative forms of belonging that denaturalize the categories of gender and the human.