Antonio Cornejo Polar’s book Writing in the Air: Heterogeneity and
the Persistence of Oral Tradition in Andean Literatures initiates the
reader into an area of literary criticism that moves us beyond the
familiar grounding of the Western canon into areas at once more
challenging and more subtly subversive.
The title, taken from a poem by César Vallejo written during
the Spanish Civil War, is in Cornejo Polar’s words a “call to orality”
that “builds imaginary bridges in order to reconvert the written
word to voice.” The traumatic origin of the contest between oral
and written cultures was “the sudden appearance of writing and
the book as enigmatic instruments of conquest with no immedi-
ate ties to language or communication. The foundational event
that signaled the entry of the book into the New World was re-
corded by chroniclers and occurred soon after the victory of the
Spaniards in Peru when the priest Father Valverde approached
the Inca ruler, Atahualpa, and offered him a breviary that the Inca
threw angrily to the ground. It was not only writing that baffled
the Inca,” argues Cornejo Polar, “but also the mechanics of the
book (opening it and turning its pages), major indications of the
absolute miscommunication that underpins the story of a ‘dia-
logue’ as enduring as it is traumatic.”
Throughout the colonial period and beyond, the confrontation
was enacted and revised in the written histories of conquest, in the
ritual dances and reenactments, and in the many dramatic works
in Quechua or Spanish on the theme of Atahualpa’s death. It was
not only the subjugation of the indigenous that was reiterated but
also the confrontation of oral culture with the written word, and
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