Time for a “Re-View” of a Great Literary Event:
Seva, by Luis López Nieves
Dra. Estelle Irizarry
Georgetown University, Wáshington, D.C.
The publication of a ninth edition of Seva: Historia de la primera invasión norteamericana de la isla de Puerto Rico ocurrida en mayo de 1898, by Luis López Nieves (Editorial Cordillera, 1997), is an extraordinary, and in some respects surprising, event.
It has been fourteen years since the “story that shook Puerto Rico” (as the cover strip announces) first came out. That should have been enough time for the “commotion” caused by the spurious account of an American invasion of the island prior to that of July 1998 to have died down and gone away. As I demonstrated in my book about literary hoaxes (La broma literaria en nuestros días, Eliseo Torres 1978), people would rather forget that they were taken in by a tall tale.
Seva, however, continues to flourish, and with nine editions in thirteen years, can be said to have reached the point where it has to be recognized as a Puerto Rican “classic.” Why does a story everyone knows is false continue to fascinate readers and turn up on reading lists from high school through postgraduate studies?
The story is about a university professor, Víctor Cabañas, who comes across a casual reference to a U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico in May of 1898 rather than in July, as the historians tell us. His curiosity leads him eventually to the archives of General Miles’s granddaughter Peggy, in Alexandria, VA. There he discovers the general’s diaries that tell of a prior invasion on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico in which the defenders perished in the face of a formidable military force and the survivors, mostly women and children, were subsequently massacred. Cabañas continues his investigation in Spain and in Puerto Rico and then mysteriously disappears.
Photos, maps, Miles’s handwritten letters, and a sworn affidavit from the only survivor are convincing evidence to support Cabaña’s findings that Roosevelt Roads and the town of Ceiba today conceal the scene of the crime.
The story was published in Claridad, the week of December 23, 1983, and was taken for a true account. The disappearance of Víctor Cabañas became a cause celebré, and a public and media outcry ensued. The hoax had gone too far; the public had to be reassured that the whole story was a literary fabrication.
Obviously the readers of 1983 forgot that in Spanish the word historia has two meanings: “story or tale” and “History.” They also missed the significance of the timing of the story, just before the Day of the Innocents (a sort of April Fool’s Day occurring in December).
The revelation that the whole thing was a fiction seems to have caused more indignation than bemusement: intellectuals especially don’t like to be fooled. By all indications Seva, soon should have fallen into oblivion.
So why does Seva continue edition after edition, when it is perfectly clear that there was no such U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico in May and no massacre of civilians?
Part of the answer lies in the fact, which has gone unnoticed, that Seva is really two works. The first is the original story “Seva” published in Claridad the week of Dec. 23, 1983. The second is the book Seva (1984), in which the original story is sandwiched between newspaper reports about the hoax at the beginning and at the end. This material–comments, reviews, opinions, articles, and criticism that appeared in the media–takes up a full half of the book.
Considering that none of this was written by López Nieves, one may well ask why he included it in his book. First of all, it serves as an announcement to new readers that the story is fictitious. Secondly, it proves the worth of the story as fiction, which after all could be defined as “a convincing lie.”
But things took an ironic turn. Today, those same authentic comments about the book appear to today’s readers as invented as the story! The most extensive is an account of the aftermath of the story’s original publication, signed by Josean Ramos, whose 59-word biography makes him seem as invented as the sixty mini-biographies the Spanish hoaxer Max Aub included in his Translated Anthology of (nonexistent) poets. If López Nieves turned himself into a (fictional) character in his story, couldn’t the comments attributed to Fernando Picó, Emilio Díaz Valcárcel, Isabelo Zenón Cruz, Josean Ramos, Pedro Zervigón, and Marco Rosado Conde also be fictitious? As time goes by and names mentioned become less and less familiar, it is possible that future readers will conclude they were, like “Seva,” figments of the author’s literary imagination.
In short, the original story reads like truth, and the authentic comments read like fiction! This leads to an even more provocative question. Will Seva the book keep growing? Will future editions, like some roaming circle-with-a-mouth in a Pak Man computer game, swallow up criticism and commentary? Will these very words I am writing here appear in the nineteenth edition of Seva and look like fiction?
It takes a really brilliant writer of fiction to stymie his or her readers. The unanswered questions keep us reading great works of fiction. And Seva is filled with unanswered questions.
For example, is Seva Puerto Rico’s heroic epic, as some critics have said, or does it reveal a collective weakness? On the one hand, the heroic story stimulates Puerto Rican pride in debunking the negative “docile Puerto Rican” myth. Seva would go alongside heroic examples of Numancia, Troy, Sagunto, Massada, and other cities glorified by history. But the down side to this euphoria is that the public reaction showed that if Puerto Ricans weren’t docile, they were indeed credulous; they would believe anything that sounded official enough. Cerro Maravilla, political promises, and everyday life should be enough to prove this point.
Nevertheless, it is important to point out that Puerto Ricans may be no more vulnerable than anyone else. The Spanish writer Julio Caro Baroja provides a long list of examples in his 1991 book Las falsificaciones de la historia (Falsifications of History).
Another reason for the book’s continued success is that in addition to being a patriotic tale, it is a fist-rate piece of fiction. With the advantage of hindsight we can analyze the reasons why the book was so convincing. Readers can now see the humor of including a framed blank space for the photo of the only survivor. Scholars can appreciate the author’s extraordinary skill in imitating diverse writing styles–military, legal, journalistic. Details of he craftsmanship become more evident, like the clever rectification of previous information (such as the age of the survivor) that makes it all sound so authentic. Perhaps the most clever trick was presenting Miles’s diary in Spanish translations, making it impossible to compare it to any authentic documents written by the general in English.
For scholars of literature, the book poses literary questions that challenge the whole notion of genre and of where fiction begins and ends in the book. Seva also promises to be a key in the analysis of López Nieves’s still growing repertoire, from his 1987 book of stories, Escribir para Rafa (Writing for Rafa) to his extraordinary short story published in the journal Inti in the fall of 1996, “La verdadera muerte de Juan Ponce de León” (The True Story of the Death of Juan Ponce de León), which will be the lead story in his forthcoming volume of that title.
With the passage of time, the original reactions of emotion and indignance give way to analysis and admiration.
As the year 1898 approaches, Seva takes on even more relevance than it did when first published in 1983. A civilization with great myths can never entirely disappear. In the heroic events of Seva, Luis López Nieves has given modern Puerto Rico a mythology that will live on, regardless of what 1998 will bring.
The ninth edition of Seva touches that dormant note of resistance that makes Puerto Ricans proud of their history, heritage, language, while it urges us implicitly not to believe everything we are told. At the same time, it is in its own right an extraordinary literary work filled with fascinating theoretical questions. Here is a work that will surely take us into the next century.
La Dra. Estelle Irizarry es catedrática de literatura hispánica de la Universidad de Georgetown, en Washington, D.C., EE.UU; autora de 29 libros sobre literatura (9 de ellos sobre literatura puertorriqueña); miembro de número de la Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española y correspondiente de la Real Academia Española; dirigió Hispania, la revista de la Asociación Americana de Profesores de Español y Portugués, durante los años 1993-2000.
“Time for a ‘re-view’of a great literary event: Seva”, Estelle Irizarry, The San Juan Star, San Juan de Puerto Rico, 15 junio 1997, p.16 (Venue).