Sunday, April 27, 2014

Banana Republics

I don't mean the clothing retailer, or even merely the political science term in its broadest since, but instead something matching O. Henry's original use to describe his fictional Central America country of Anchuria in Cabbages and Kings (1904). The banana republic then is a sort of sultry colonial companion to the Old World charm of the Ruritania: A fictional, politically unstable Latin American or Caribbean country under the thumb of foreign interests. In gaming terms, it might be the more cynical (and perhaps more interesting) result of the standard D&D endgame.

The real world prototype of the banana republic was Honduras in the late 19th to early 20th Century; a nation that fell more and more under the thrall of U.S. fruit companies. The mercenary army of the Cuyamel Fruit even toppled the elected government and installed General Lee Christmas as commander in chief of the Honduran Army and U.S. Consul. Guatemala in the 1950s shared a similar fate when the elected government was successfully painted as pro-Communist to the U.S. government because they were anti-the United Fruit Company. These examples have the banana republic essentials: greedy foreigners, downtrodden peasantry, passionate revolutionaries, corrupt oligarchs, violent mercenaries, and torrid jungle.

In real-life, adventurers (we could even call them murderhoboes) like William Walker set up regimes pretty much fitting the banana republic mold in the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike the Ruritanian Rogue, your foreign rogue in a banana republic might be a central player in the countries woes instead of just having to deal with them.

Here's a list of fictional Latin American countries. There were a lot of likely banana republics in 80s TV and film, though they weren't always potrayed specifically in those terms. Good examples include Costaguana from Joseph Conrad's Nostromo and Queimada from the film Burn! (1969). Though the Zapata Western (either in its Italian or American form) is always set in Mexico, its themes, roquish characters, and ample chili con carnage are good inspirations for a banana republic based game.


Gothridge Manor said...

Loved that list of fictional names. That time period/setting would make some interesting gaming. I don't think I've ever read/encounter a came where 20's or 30's latin america was the setting.

Trey said...

I haven't either, though it would be interesting, I thinking. It wouldn't be hard to add magic to it either, if you wanted. Of course, a sort of banana republic type vibe could easily be built in a non-real world setting, too.

richard said...

Don't forget the Oriental equivalent: White Rajahs (the flipside of White Slavers)

Putting the academic hat on for a minute, like Ruritania, I think the Banana Republic defines the borders of The West as a cultural entity (in the latter case in order to include America). It's a dangerous heterotopia, which promises freedom from the usual restrictions (political, sexual, economic) at the price of substituting the Law of the Jungle (which probably deserves its own post and tends to in fact reinforce conservative values of gender and racial identity). Which is why it's a critical parent of Pulp Fantasy.

It might be interesting to explore what the classic plots of banana republic stories are, to see if there's some distinctive flavour to them. There's colonial white mischief, natch, and native joojoo (generally inherited from African explorer tales), but the role of the sinister foreign corporate interest is intriguing. Is Dune actually a banana republic tale?

richard said...

also I can't believe that list omits Cascara!

Trey said...

I think you're on to something there, though I think the interplay of "civilization vs. savagery" is more a factor of Africa or India narratives and pre-banana republic tales rather than these. The dangers of the banana republic are typically "civilized" ills: improper social order, femme fatales, dictators. There is a bit of North reservedness vs. Latin hotblooded passions in it, too.

richard said...

It seems like there's an implicit critique of the standard Colonial trope, actually, when the corporation is the primary ill. Like it's news from below the wire on what the colonial/imperial state is doing - the Banana Republic is not modern precisely because the Banana Company is keeping it down, and where the corporation does its dirty work, so you also find all the other ills and social disorders, either as symptoms or as co-infections.

During the period 1860-1940 there were lots of contradictory messages in popular culture about South America, from Flying Down to Rio (Brazil is modern, a dance partner for the US) to steamer brochures (there was massive migration from Europe and Japan to South America through the period, much of it on relatively luxurious liners) on one hand, and Zapatista zealots, disorder, incurable corruption and jungle magic on the other. The Banana Republic could be seen as one of the failure modes of southern modernity; succumbing to the colonial condition, just when equal status seems within reach.

richard said...

(gloss: here I use "modernity" to mean an ideology of orderly success and reliability, defined by European colonial powers and expressed through bureaucracy, technology and exports. It's that indefinable je ne sais quoi that colonizing powers have and colonized states must forever aspire to, which makes all the difference in business negotiations, property rights and the international seriousness of one's wars)

Trey said...

Good points, all.

It's interesting, in looking for art for this piece, I reviewed the covers of a lot of men's adventure magazines of the 40s-60s looking for art. The Central South American dictator/firing squad stock scene was nowhere in evidence. I'm sure those stories existed (I've seen a few), but when Latin America showed up on the cover at that time, it was all Mato Grosso and Jivaro headhunters. I wonder if too many banana republics might raise questions of American complicity and so were instinctively shied away from?