Final Paper

Michael Zyskind

Professor Alvarez

English 363

26 June 2011

Stories within Stories: The Use of Narrative Levels in Experimental Hispanic Literature

            In the film Inception, the brilliant writer/director Christopher Nolan dares the viewer not to question where imagination ends and reality begins. The film is set in a world where people have control over their dreams: are able to build, inside their dreams, anything their minds can imagine. Early on, the film takes dream-world building to another level by allowing characters to have dreams within dreams, mentally constructed worlds within mentally constructed worlds, plunging the characters into imaginative bliss. The brilliance of it all, without delving into plot specifics, is that a dreamer can take others into their world and experience what they’ve created. The trouble is the dream worlds feel so real that unless you know you’re in it, it’s near impossible to understand that what’s occurring around you isn’t real. This is why most of the main cast of characters that deal extensively in the dream world carry around totems that are unique to them so that they can tell if they are in the real world or someone else’s dream. In fact, one of the main storylines revolves around a character that loses her grasp on what is real and what isn’t after living in the dream world for a long time, and winds up losing her mind when confronted with a reality she no longer trusts.

            While the experimental Hispanic literature that I’ll be discussing in this essay doesn’t strive to make one lose his or her mind, per say, there is an attempt to make the reader lose him- or herself in the text. In The Museum of Eterna’s Novel, Macedonio Fernandez’s goal for the reader is to “win him over as a character, so that for an instant he believes that he himself does not live” (32). In this essay, in the works of writers’ Guillermo Samperio, Cervantes, and Edgardo Vega Yunque, I will demonstrate how the effective employment of narrative levels can help the reader lose themselves, if but for a moment, in the fictional world of the text.

Narrative Levels: A Definition

“She lived in a Story” by Guillermo Samperio, Don Quixote by Cervantes, and The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle by Edgardo Vega Yunque are all examples of what Manfred Jahn calls matrix narratives. “A matrix narrative is a narrative containing an ‘embedded’ or ‘hyponarrative’” (Jahn N2.4.1). In simpler terms, this concept contains the idea of stories within stories: the matrix narrative becomes the first-degree narrative (or primary narrative), and the narrative embedded in it is the second-degree narrative, and if the second-degree narrative has a narrative embedded in it that becomes known as the third-degree narrative, etc (Jahn N2.4.2). Embedded narratives serve a number of functions in a narrative; examples include: actional integration, exposition, distraction, obstruction/retardation, and analogy (Jahn N2.4.6). The definitions of these five aforementioned terms—and several others that are confusing when viewed outside their employment—and their impact on the narratives listed above will be illustrated below, demonstrating how they create the effect of plunging the reader into the text.

“She Lived in a Story”

Guillermo Samperio’s “She Lived in a Story” is a fine example of an author tinkering with the narrative levels of a story. Jahn writes, “Ordinarily, both the transition to a hyponarrative, its termination and the return to the matrix narrative are explicitly signaled in a text; occasionally, however, a text closes on a hyponarrative without explicitly resuming the matrix narrative” (Jahn 2.4.1). In the story, Samperio clearly transitions into the each successive hyponarrative—both Segovia’s story involving Ofelia and Ofelia’s story involving Segovia—but, following this latter and rarer practice Jahn mentions, he never retraces his steps back to the primary storyline that was Segovia sitting down to write the story. Further, as a result of the story’s ending, where the two characters meet in a loopy twist of colliding narratives, not only does the story not return to the matrix narrative (if there can even be said to be one, when all is said in done), it’s as if the matrix narrative has been consumed by the narratives beneath it. Samperio, by making the reader question which character—Ofelia or Segovia—is the one responsible for creating the other, thereby calls into question which is truly the primary narrative and which is the embedded one. Part of the brilliance of his tinkering is that the answer isn’t clear, and it isn’t meant to be clear; it’s meant to throw the reader for a brain-loop. The effect Samperio seems to be shooting for here with his befuddling scenario is called mise en abyme: “The infinite loop created when a hyponarrative embeds its matrix narrative. ‘It can be described as the equivalent of something like Matisse’s famous painting of a room in which a miniature version of the same paintings [sic] hangs on one of the walls’” (Jahn N2.4.7).

This painting by Velazquez shows a painter painting a portrait as a reflection in a mirror. It boggles my mind every time.

            Proceeding to a simpler and less confounding narratological element, Samperio also uses exposition as a hyponarrative function. Exposition is where “the hyponarrative provides information about events that lie outside the primary action line of the matrix narrative (specifically, events that occurred in the past)” (Jahn N2.4.6). Guillermo Segovia is driving home after having given a lecture to a gathering of students at a University when the narrator breaks from the primary narrative of the text to reveal information about Segovia:

                        Guillermo Segovia had just turned thirty-four; he had three books of stories, a novel and a series of newspaper articles published domestically and abroad, especially in France, where he received his degree in literature. Returning to Mexico six years before his speech at the Academy, he had married Elena, a young Columbian researcher, with whom he had two children. On his return, the writer took a job at a newspaper, while his wife worked at the National University of Mexico. They rented a small house in old Coyoacan, where they lived comfortably. (Samperio 57)

This passage breaks from the primary narrative, and is embedded into the primary narrative, in order to expose information about past events in the life of Guillermo Segovia. The exposition gives Guillermo’s age (“just turned thirty-four”) and it tells of his literary accomplishments (“he had three books …”). The exposition tells of how long it has been since Guillermo returned to Mexico (“six years”), where he now lives (“Mexico”), and reveals the makeup of his family (a wife, “Elena,” and two children). The exposition tells the specific locale of his home (“Coyoacan”) and the nature of his living arrangements (“small house …”). All of this exposition is background information, primarily about past events, and operates in the backdrop of the primary narrative (disregarding the whole complication of which is the real matrix narrative): Guillermo’s arc of travelling home to begin work on his story.

Don Quixote

In Don Quixote, Cervantes uses layered narrative levels to great effect: the story of Don Quixote, as chronicled by some unknown narrator, being read and pursued by some non-specified “I.” But perhaps his finest “leveled” moment occurs when he uses a hyponarrative for the sake of obstruction/retardation. Obstruction/retardation is where “the hyponarrative momentarily suspends the continuation of the matrix narrative, often creating an effect of heightened suspense” (Jahn N2.4.6). At the conclusion of the novel’s first part, Don Quixote is engaged in fierce combat with a certain Basque guard:

                        So Don Quixote was advancing, as described, on the well-shielded Basque, with his sword aloft, determined to split him in half, and the Basque was awaiting him with his sword also aloft […] and all the bystanders were terrified and wondering what was going to be the outcome […] But the trouble is that at this very point the author of this history leaves the battle unfinished, excusing himself on the ground that he hasn’t found anything more written about these exploits of Don Quixote than what he has narrated. (Cervantes 70)

This obstruction, or interference with the flow of the narrative in order to “momentarily suspend” the action in order to elevate suspense, has a jarring effect on the reader. In this case, the obstruction rips the reader out of the primary narrative right at the climax of the fight in order to drop the reader into an embedded narrative that will flow back into the primary narrative in the next Part. If overused this technique can grow quite irritating, as is the case with the annoying interruptions in Omaha Bigelow, but when used sparingly, as in Cervantes’s case, the device truly heightens suspense by making the reader want to continue reading and catch up to the point where the primary action continues.

            Interestingly, as a side note, this sort of embedded narrative is actually the frame of Don Quixote, if one wants to look at it in that way: the “I,” after all, is the one who’s reading the story in the future, and therefore the story of Don Quixote can be said to be entirely dependent on the “I”; the “I” narrative isn’t so much a hyponarrative of Don Quixote’s adventures as much as it is the other way around. A similar occurrence takes place in Omaha Bigelow, where the “I” is writing the story yet is an embedded narrative to Omaha’s primary narrative. All this is highly perplexing, and up for individual interpretation, so I’ll let it be.

            Cervantes also makes fine use of the hyponarrative function of distraction. Distraction is just what it sounds like: a distraction from the primary narrative. For example: “‘So tell us a story while we’re waiting’” (Jahn N2.4.6). Don Quixote is filled with humorous distractions, though perhaps none as humorous as the one in which Sancho attempts to tell the story about the sheep:

                        Don Quixote asked him to tell a story to while the time away, as he had promised, to which Sancho replied that he would, if his fear of what he was hearing let him.

                         ‘But in spite of that I will try my hardest to tell you a true story that, if I manage to tell it properly and don’t get interrupted, is the best true story there ever was, and now you must pay attention because I’m about to begin.” (Cervantes 157)

Nothing would please me more than to continue Sancho’s absurd story about counting sheep that never truly materializes into a story, but lo and behold it goes on for several pages and space here is short. However, this bit of text alone suffices to illustrate the usage of distraction: breaking away from the primary narrative to tell a hyponarrative, or another story, which doesn’t necessarily, as is the case here, have to be relevant to the overall plot of primary narrative.

Interlude: Patrick Rothfuss and Analogy

As I study the Theory of Narratology, and the idea of taking what are really fairly simple concepts and academicizing (I can make up my own words too, Jahn!) them into complex monstrosities for the sake of looking real smart, I keep coming back to a very interesting passage from Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear. The book is the second in a planned fantasy trilogy from the author, chronicling the life of a hero by the name of Kvothe, who is telling his story in the first-person. In the middle of the book, Kvothe, a skilled musician and song-writer, is thinking about a song, one that defies the standard set of rules, that he’s recently heard from his friend/love/muse, Denna, and relates his feelings into an elaborate analogy:

                        Think of music as being a great snarl of a city […] In the years I spent living there, I came to know its streets. Not just the main streets. Not just the alleys. I knew shortcuts and rooftops and parts of the sewers. Because of this, I could move through the city like a rabbit in a bramble. I was quick and cunning and clever.

                        Denna, on the other hand, had never been trained. She knew nothing of shortcuts. You’d think she’d be forced to wander the city, lost and helpless, trapped in a twisting maze of mortared stone.

                        But instead, she simply walked through the walls. She didn’t know any better. Nobody had ever told her she couldn’t. Because of this, she moved through the city like some faerie creature. She walked roads no one else could see, and it made her music wild and strange and free. (Rothfuss 465-466)

It reminds me of the clichéd saying that every teacher tells his or her students when they decide, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to flout the rules of the English language (after all, you see great writers do it all the time): you have to know the rules before you can break them. Kvothe is a fellow that knows all the rules, is proud that he knows the rules, and because of that, he knows the easiest way to get around a piece of music, twists a song in a way it hasn’t been twisted before in order to suit his purpose. And yet he seems to admire Denna’s blissful ignorance, her freedom to do whatever she wishes because of it, that makes her music so vibrant; there is almost that wish to be free of the constraints of rules, and be able to bust through walls because you don’t see—don’t know—that they’re there. So I wonder if knowing that analogy is where “the hyponnarative corroborates or contradicts a story line of the matrix narrative” (Jahn N2.4.6) really helps me better understand Kvothe’s wonderment in equating Denna’s ignorance with the ability to be free of weighty constraints.

Omaha Bigelow

Actional integration is where “the hyponarrative serves as an important element in the plot of the matrix narrative. For instance, in The Thousand and One Nights Scheherazade’s stories keep the Sultan from killing her. Indeed, in the end, he marries her because she is such an excellent story-teller. Or think of a surprise witness in a crime or courtroom novel whose tale solves the case” (Jahn N2.4.6). In simpler terms, the hyponnarative, in some fashion, has a direct impact on the plot. This function plays a pivotal role in Omaha Bigelow, as the author is actually in contact with his characters and adjusting plot points based upon these conversations. The following passage occurs two-thirds of the way through the book, in the second of these character-author conversations:

                                    [Maruquita to Vega:] “[…] Let me understand this. You’re going to set up the Bush thing and then the wedding. I’m going to have the baby, get my powers back, and then I’m going to meet this bimbo.”

                                    [Vega to Maruquita] “Well, more like the Bush thing, you meet Winnifred, and then the wedding. Or we can insert your meeting prior to the bush thing and the wedding. You won’t have your powers when you meet her. It’s up to you.”

                                    “Yeah, the sooner the better. I can handle her. I’m really pissed at the little twit.”

                                    “Okay, right away then.” (270)

In this scene you see a negotiation taking place between the character and the author, on an embedded plane, deciding how the matrix narrative will proceed. On another, later embedded plane the author will admit to not knowing where the story’s headed because his character has essentially disobeyed him and hijacked the novel (303-305). This is where all the “experimental literature” talk comes from: taking a narratological concept such as actional integration and letting it evolve from an important element related to the plot, to a critical shaper of the plot itself.

Prologue to Conclusion: Losing One’s Self in the Text

In Don Quixote, why does Cervantes bother framing his primary narrative in the “I” that’s seeking out the full tale of Don Quixote? Would the story have been any less impactful had everything been stripped away save for the adventures and misadventures of Sancho and Don Quixote? Why drop narrative levels into the mix? One could argue it’s being clever: just like Don Quixote loses his mind reading knightly stories of chivalry, so too is this “I” obsessed with finding and reading the story of Don Quixote—thus adding another link onto the chain of literary influence, moving it forward in time, eventually reaching the reader and making all that came before real in the sense that it’s been moving toward him or her since 1605, when the novel was written. I believe the effect flows just as effectively, if not more, in the opposite direction: the framework draws the reader back in time, closer to 1605 and even before that. The reader reads a story about an “I”: drawn in one level. The “I” reads a story about Don Quixote: drawn in another level. Don Quixote is reading stories about the knights of old: drawn in yet another level. It’s perfectly logical to look at this chain from either end, but it all comes down to what the reader’s goal is in reading such a fiction—despite the author’s intent. But the dream to be pulled into the text, to, as Macedonio suggests, believe that he himself does not live, is a marvelous sensation.

            Guillermo Segovia, in “She Lived in a Story,” wants the imaginary, prefers it over the reality: “‘Dramatists have written plays in an attempt to approach the ancient dream of the fiction writer: that human beings live in their texts. Thus, artistic creation transcends the imaginary level in order to achieve reality. In regard to my own concept, the movement is reversed; that is, reality moves toward the imaginary” (Samperio 56). To achieve the effect of gearing reality toward the imaginary, and, as I contend in this essay, to move the reader fully into the fictional world, the use of narrative levels is hugely helpful; it creates the illusion that characters live beyond the boundaries of the words that created them. As illustrated through the use of exposition, characters have lives, and events have occurred, that predate the events in the primary narrative; they have lives of their own seemingly outside the control of the author. Through the use of obstruction, narratives can vacate the world of the text, essentially leaving characters on their own outside authorial interference. Through the use of distraction a character can tell a story seemingly outside the narrator’s influence. Through the use of actional integration characters can actually alter entire narratives to suit their purposes. Through mise en abyme, the whole notion of which narrative the reader is supposed to primarily focus on can wreak havoc on the brain. All these devices serve to make these characters and their world so real as to make the reader imagine him- or herself a character in that world, not make the characters real people in the reader’s.


There is a reader with whom I cannot reconcile myself: the reader who wants what all novelists have coveted, to their shame: Hallucination. I want the reader to always know he is reading a novel and not watching the living, not attending to a “life.” The moment the reader falls into Hallucination, that ignominy of Art, I have lost rather than gained a reader. What I want is something very different, which is to win him over as a character, so that for an instant he believes that he himself does not live. This is the emotion for which he should thank me, since until now no one has thought of procuring it for him. (Fernandez 32)

Bravo! You’re book is the ramblings of a madman, Senor Fernandez, but there is genius still! Bravo!

Works Cited

Cervantes, Saavedra Miguel De. The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. 1605. Trans. John Rutherford. Columbus, MT: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Fernández, Macedonio. The Museum of Eterna’s Novel: the First Good Novel. Trans. Margaret Schwartz. Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2010. Print.

Jahn, Manfred. “Jahn: PPP/Narratology.” Universität Zu Köln. 28 May 2005. Web. 12 June 2011. <>.

Rothfuss, Patrick. The Wise Man’s Fear. New York: DAW, 2011. Print.

Samperio, Guillermo.  “She Lived in a Story.” TriQuarterly. Trans. Russel M. Cluff and L. Howard Quackenbush. 85 (1992): 54-62. Print.

“Saved By The Bell – Zack – Best Time Out Ever – Season 3 Episode 18 – Video Yearbook.” stupidition. 3 March 2011. Web. 28 June 2011.

Velázquez, Diego. Las Meninas. 1656. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Museo National del   Prado. Web. 28 June 2011.

Yunqué, Edgardo Vega. The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 2004. Print.

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