The masters who married modernism with magic

March 23, 2007

On the 40th anniversary of One Hundred Years of Solitude , Roberto González Echevarría charts the extraordinary recent history of Latin American literature.

Latin American literature specialists gathering in Colombia next week will be privy to an extraordinary reconciliation. A special edition of Gabriel García Márquez's best-known work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, will be launched at the meeting to mark the 40 years since its publication. It will feature a foreword by his one-time friend and recent enemy, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. They are part of a golden generation of writers who found fame worldwide, but what led to their extraordinary rise, and who will replace them?

Latin American literature was largely unknown before the mid-1960s when the emergence of a handful of remarkable writers put it at the forefront of world literature and concepts associated with it such as magical realism became common cultural currency. The writers who detonated what came to be known as "The boom of the Latin American novel" were the Argentinian Julio Cortázar, the Mexican Carlos Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, and the Chilean Jose Donoso.

But to these young writers was added an older figure, much revered among certain circles in Latin America and Europe, the Argentinian short-story writer, essayist and poet Jorge Luis Borges. The hullabaloo created by these writers brought about the discovery of close precursors such as the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, the Mexican Juan Rulfo, whose meagre work (two books) was nevertheless recognised as brilliant, the Uruguayan Juan Carlos Onetti, and the Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967. In addition, the success of the narrative drew attention to Latin America's impressive array of living poets: the Chilean Pablo Neruda, who won a Nobel in 1971, the Mexican Octavio Paz, who won one in 1990, the Cubans Nicol s Guillen and Jose Lezama Lima, and the Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal.

The boom was brought about by the indisputable talent of Cortázar, Donoso, Fuentes and García Márquez, but also by their personalities. All were cosmopolitan in spirit and action, living abroad and speaking several languages, most significantly French and English, which gave them access to the media. The boom novelists and the poets became fully fledged members of the international jet set of celebrities. They were visiting professors at major universities throughout Europe and the US.

They also won major literary prizes. To the Nobels earned by Asturias, Neruda and Paz, one must add that collected by García Márquez in 1982. His Nobel prize was in recognition not only of his great work, particularly One Hundred Years of Solitude , but of the whole group, and of Latin American literature in general. All of the boom novelists won important prizes in Spain and Latin America as well.

What did these writers have, other than talent and ambition, that suddenly brought them into the limelight? The briefest answer is that they successfully adapted, somewhat belatedly, the aesthetics of modernism to the Latin American narrative tradition. This does not apply to Borges, of course, who had been immersed in modernist aesthetics since the beginning of his career and whose work is so original that it is itself a major influence on the boom writers. But the younger ones began to write novels and stories that were very much in the manner of two major modernist prose writers: James Joyce and William Faulkner.

The Latin American writers felt profound affinities with these writers: with Joyce, perhaps because of a shared Catholic background. Faulkner's American South had much in common with rural Latin America and its telluric conflicts. Both Joyce and Faulkner offered ways out of the realist conventions of the Latin American novels of the 1930s and 1940s. They now boasted interior monologues, unreliable narrators, fragmented plots, twisted family relations and stigmatised sexual practices.

It was a belated rebellion against bourgeois novelistic practice and a gleeful enlistment in modernism. A new trait the Latin American novelists displayed with gusto was humour of all kinds, from the most refined irony to the crudest slapstick, something that was utterly lacking in previous Latin American literature.

A first generation of younger writers, still fellow travellers of the boom, was led by the Cuban Severo Sarduy and the Argentinian Manuel Puig. Sarduy produced highly experimental novels that were, in many ways, parodies of those written by the novelists of the boom. His adherence to cutting-edge critical theory made him difficult to read, which limited his impact to a small circle of other writers and intellectuals.

Puig's obsession was the impact of the mass media, particularly film, on ordinary people and therefore on literature. His Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968), set in a small, fictitious Argentine town, has much in common with the work of boom writers. But The Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1976) was something different and a true masterpiece. It is the story of a political activist and a homosexual confined in the same jail cell in Argentina, with the latter seducing the former by telling him the plots of films that he has seen. Although highly original, Puig is refreshingly unselfconscious and easy to read. The early death, from Aids, of these two accomplished yet still promising writers made a smooth transition from the boom to a new generation of writers impossible.

The emergence of such a clear-cut historical break inevitably provoked the desire to discern the appearance of another, particularly one that closed off the period opened by the boom. If there was a boom, there had to be a post-boom. There are already at least two books on the subject, but neither one is very convincing, partly because in literary history it is very difficult to distinguish breaks from continuities unless truly major works and writers arise, as with the boom, and no new figures of the stature of the boom writers have appeared.

Major writers are a rarity, even if the advent of several at once makes one expect the next bunch to promptly rise above the horizon. Besides, the boom novelists continued to produce excellent works unabatedly, some not as good as the ones before but others actually better. The supposed post-boom writers cannot compete with the late works of the boom writers not only because their fame gives them a head start, but because they are simply not as good.

The newer Latin American writers do not so much suffer the continued presence of older writers as ignore them. The reason may very well be that what distinguishes them is a veritable paradigm shift. While the boom writers were the heirs to modernism, their central concern was still the old issue of Latin American cultural identity and uniqueness. This is in part what made them famous abroad: Europeans and Americans want to read about ghostly Latin American towns, outrageous military dictators and improbable happenings attributed to local magic practices. The new writers are not interested in those topics because national or cultural identity does not preoccupy them any more. In fact, it embarrasses them.

A post-boom Latin American literary movement that attempted to distance itself from magical realism and the aesthetics of the famous boom novelists was dubbed "McOndo", an irreverent take-off on the name of the mythic town in One Hundred Years of Solitude , Macondo. Their idea was that the Latin American reality they portrayed is urban, globalised and swamped by US culture, such as McDonald's hamburger chains. A similar group sprang up in Mexico calling itself "Nueva Onda", or "New Wave", which opposed not only Fuentes but also Paz and his hegemonic literary group. Neither of these groups left work of enduring value or a compelling literary figure of national, much less international acclaim.

There are three young novelists who are making their mark: the Mexican Jorge Volpi, the Bolivian Edmundo Paz Sold n and the Colombian Fernando Vallejo. Volpi and Paz Sold n write novels dealing with current developments in science but also the recent past, such as the secret weapons the Nazis attempted to produce.

Macondo, like Homer's Ithaca, Virgil's Rome, Balzac's Paris or Dickens's London, cannot be erased from literary history, but other such imaginary cities may be invented and added to their number.

Roberto González Echevarría is Sterling professor of Hispanic and comparative literatures at Yale University. He co-edited The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature .

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