The Future of Latin American Fiction (Part IV)

To celebrate the recent release of Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash, all this week we’re going to serialize a speech that Jorge gave this past summer on the Future of Latin American Fiction.

And, as a special offer, for the next 20 people who subscribe to Open Letter—either a 5 book or 10 book subscription—will receive a signed copy of Season of Ash. These won’t last long . . .

More info about the book can be found here and a video of Jorge reading and talking with translator Alfred Mac Adam can be found here. Enjoy!


By Jorge Volpi

4. The ruins of Latin America

The writers who were born from the sixties on, the heirs and admirers of Bolaño, aspire to continue following that road, and while they continue looking for scenes and stories that are foreign to Latin America, they also continue situating many of their books in their home countries, although without yearning to preserve the parameters of national literature. Again: we cannot read their books as pieces of a Latin American jigsaw puzzle—as many critics of the Boom did—because they have no consistency: there is nothing to construct with those pieces, they are not bricks or Lego pieces that can be assembled into a larger building. The links are fluid, liquid, and never static: perhaps one can travel from one novel to another, or from one tale to another, but they cannot be united in a common corpus. Each one of these books is a unit in itself, or, in a more tragic sense, each one represents the ruin of Latin America, that mythic territory that was imagined—and jealously protected—by our parents and grandparents. The Latin American utopia has disappeared; nothing remains of El Dorado except its memory. Let us observe, then, these ruins. As the archeologists of the 19th century knew, ruins are frequently more beautiful, enigmatic, and unsettling than a recently finished work.

The basements of memory

If there is a tendency that has prevailed in Latin America, it has been the loss of memory. Outside of the tiresome repetition of national exploits, historians and journalists have had to dodge uncountable obstacles to remain objective in their work. For many years, the recent past was prohibited territory that every government jealously guarded from outside scrutiny. One could write about the pre-Hispanic world or of the years of independence, but not about those periods which the regimes identified as “dangerous”, and of course, it became unimaginable to examine the infinite list of abuses and tragedies they caused. If the history of Latin America in the 20th century seems so opaque, it is because the instruments of history were used as the instruments of legitimacy for the leader or the party: all history was official history. To poke in to the chicanery and violence that took someone to the presidency could cost the curious their freedom or their life.

Latin American despots went to extreme lengths to prevent anyone from scrutinizing their lives; they should be admired: distant, martial, and perfect, as the stamps of heroes ought to be. That is why Latin America has no biographical tradition: our powerful men, who are fascinating because they are so mysterious, lack exhaustive biographies. Novelists, less dangerous than the historians, had to be responsible for investigating tyrants and heads of state: novels from Memoirs of Pancho Villa to The Feast of the Goat have been responsible for reminding readers of their leaders’ eternal disposition for barbarism.

The transition to democracy has scarcely made things better: our new leaders, as bribable, fierce, and corrupt as their predecessors, have also tried to escape public scrutiny by any means. To this date, except for a few pamphlets of support or opposition, characters as fascinating and dark as Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Carlos Andrés Pérez, Carlos Menem, Alberto Fujimori, Daniel Ortega, Evo Morales, and Hugo Chávez all lack definitive biographies. There is hardly any detail of their intimate lives or examination of their public performance or, at the other extreme, novelistic explorations of their acts (among the few exceptions, the already classic Santa Evita by Tomás Eloy Martínez or La hora azul by Alonso Cueto about Vladimiro Montesinos).

The ”historical novel” blossoms in Latin America just like everywhere else, but in general it covers a more remote past—the Pre-Hispanic or the Colonial period—or it aspires to secularizing heroes and official villains, but always distant in time. If to that you add the lack of interest—or the revulsion—that politics awakens among the writers who were born from the sixties on, the result is an absence of stories related to our recent history.

In the countries where paying ransom to memory has become the official policy of the new democratic governments, such as Chile, but most of all Peru, novels that preoccupy themselves with the immediate past are more numerous and brilliant. In Mexico, by way of contrast, works of fiction that examine the last years of the PRI barely exist, and something similar has happened in Columbia and Venezuela: the social breakdown has left writers so disconsolate that they seem to reject politics as much as the citizens do. As we will see further on, Mexicans and Colombians prefer to get closer to drug dealers, their new favorite villains, leaving our pathetic politicians on the side.

In Peru, after the grotesque Fujimori-Montesinos government, the new democracy installed a Commission of Truth and Reconciliation that played a significant role in public life. It could be a coincidence, but from that moment on, a good number of writers have dared to scrutinize the immediate past with different and sometimes contrary perspectives. Besides de Cueto, I consider the work of three authors born after 1960 outstanding: Abril rojo (2002) by Santiago Roncagliolo, War by Candelight (2006) by Daniel Alarcón—whose first novel Lost City Radio (2008) also refers to this theme—and Un lugar llamado Oreja de Perro (2008) by Iván Thays.

Structured as a thriller that gathers all the elements of the genre—a serial killer, a town flogged by remorse, and a detective who is reluctant to become involved—Abril rojo is also a fiercely political novel. Felix Chacaltana Saldivar, a rusty, old-fashioned rascal, modeled, perhaps too obviously, on Pereira de Tabucchi, travels from Lima to Ayacucho, his birthplace, to investigate an atrocious string of crimes that were committed during Holy Week in 2000, which many assumed were the work of Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path).

The government of Fujmori had decreed the end of the guerrilla, but the violence does not seem to have been totally eradicated. At the beginning, Chacaltana only aspires to carry out his work without making too much of a fuss, but little by little he becomes conscious of the horror and, much to his regret, he has to face the resentment of former guerillas and corruption in the militia. In a dazzling descent into the inferno, Chacaltana finds himself trapped in a ”community of the dead”, in the middle of celebration of the passion and resurrection of Christ. His investigation does not take long to reveal that, even if the government has celebrated its end, the consequences of terrorism continue to lash a society paralyzed by fear.

Written with a sure hand and filled with suspense, Abril rojo reflects on what happens in a country that is deeply marked by inequality: the atrocities of the past do not simply disappear, they remain inscribed on the bodies and in the minds of the survivors. As I do not want to ruin a crime novel by revealing the identity of the assassin, I will only tell you that it is someone who does not want an end to terrorism, who needs it to preserve fear and keep his power. In one of the final monologues, he justifies his crimes (and simultaneously, the politics of Fujimori): ”I was asked to not shed blood in vain, Chacaltana, and we did it: a terrorist, a military man, a farmer, a woman, and a judge. Now they are all together. They form a part of the body that has claimed all those who died before. Do you understand? They will serve to construct history, to recuperate greatness, so that mountains tremble when they see our work.”

War by Candlelight, the magnificent collection of short stories by Daniel Alarcón, is unique in Latin American literature: Alarcón belongs to a Peruvian family—his father is a doctor who immigrated for professional reasons—was educated in the United States, and writes only in English. This is not the work of a political exile, nor of a member of the large Hispanic communities who live beyond the Rio Grande, like Junot Diaz, whose Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, constantly refers to the dictatorship of Trujillo, but of an American citizen, and while he never severed ties with the country of his parents, he does not respond, in a direct manner, to the Latin American literary tradition. His investigation of Peruvian violence thus acquires a different intensity: it is the quest of someone who did not suffer violence personally but feels the need to understand it.

While Lost City Radio possesses a narrative so meticulous that it sometimes becomes a bit artificial, the tales of War by Candlelight deal with violence in an elliptical manner and take a closer look at its causes and effects. Unlike Roncagliolo or Thays, Alarcón does not play with genre nor does he create middlemen—detectives or investigators—for his quest, but he dares to offer the direct testimony of the protagonists of terror. Few short stories have managed to more effectively capture the obscure zones of terrorism than ”Lima, Peru, July 28th, 1997”. The place and the date describe a precise moment in the life of this country, when Sendero Luminoso decided to hang black dogs from poles, in order to intimidate the ”capitalist dogs”. The main character, a former art student, reveals the motives of the guerrillas, while he finds himself obligated to kill a white dog with his own hands and paint him black in order to carry out the mad order of his bosses: the cruelty concentrated in the episode, masterfully described, sums up a whole era. When he is about to kill the animal, a police officer, whose last name is Carrion, draws near the young man; disconcerted, he invents a childish story to exonerate himself, which creates a moment of unwonted intimacy with his enemy. Just at that moment, a comrade of the main character appears; he is just about to kill another dog, and the lie is uncovered. The destiny of the wasted artist-cum-guerrilla is sealed in a few seconds: Carrion hits him with his gun and springs after the other terrorist. “Reeling, I fell toward what I recognized was my death. It was only sleep. Into the grass, clutching my jaw, eyes closed, my sight swelled into black. Half-dead dogs howled and whimpered. In the distance, I heard a gunshot.”

In Un lugar llamado Oreja de Perro, Iván Thays constructs a stark novel of family life, about the encounter of an individual with the gap between memory and oblivion. Abandoned by a woman, he goes towards Dog’s Ear, where he discovers, with more revulsion than empathy, a region destroyed by the terrorism of the eighties, and he also debates between remembering what happened or turning the page towards a present of supposed peace and reconciliation. With a tense, sparse, monotonous prose, Thays’s character gets into a universe that disgusts him, reveals his edges, without causing him any distress; he’s foreign to a pain that is not his own, until he is inevitably touched by the fatal luck that befalls Oreja de Perro and so much of Peru. Close to the end, after listening to Jasmin´s horrifying tale—her mother was arrested and disappeared during the war—the main character reflects: ”The ideal of memory should be the imagination, fantasizing, creating fiction. Not amnesia.”

Novels that examine violence in the military dictatorships also abound in Argentina, but I will only refer to two of them, both published in 2007, as models of the form: Historia del llanto by Alan Pauls and Ciencas moralos by Martín Kohan. Although both novels are about settling accounts with the past, the first examines the political compromise that prevailed among the youth then, while the second follows the authoritarian logic which contaminated the whole of Argentinean society to its horrific conclusion.

The main character in Historia del llanto had a first-class leftist education and sympathized with all its causes until his thirteen year in 1973, when he is unable to weep over the coup against Allende, as if the only thing that would have fascinated him about the revolution was the epic discharge of violence. Pauls throws his darts at this ballroom progressivism, so typical of its time, which is personified in the figure of a singer-songwriter whose evident banality demonstrates the intellectual poverty of his generation.

A very short novel that is brought together with intentionally confusing and elliptic language, Historia del llanto not only decries the excesses, but also examines the ostensibly apolitical—and beautiful—world that assumes itself to be proudly distant from ideology. Few authors have dared to scrutinize with such fervor the errors of those who, until recently, were always portrayed as victims in Latin American novels. But while examining their past, Pauls resuscitates the style of Communist ”self criticism”, even if he turns it inside out, and his declaration of guilt, for having allowed themselves to be manipulated by the leftist mythology, perhaps ends up being as falsely simplistic as the mellifluous progress that he is looking to debunk.

In Ciencias morales, Martín Kohan departs from the opposite premise: while narrating the everyday life of a school during a military dictatorship, he conceives a shrewd fable about the mechanisms of despotic power and shows the consequences that every citizen has to face, including in the apparently innocent world of students and teachers, and the implantation of an authoritarian mentality. María Teresa, a cold and timid young lady, is hired as headmistress of the venerable National School of Buenos Aires during the years of the Falklands War. The environment of the school is sober and oppressive, as one would expect at institution of this nature: a universe that, even though it is apparently isolated from the real world, is soon contaminated by what is happening outside.

María Teresa admires her boss, a rude and implacable guy, and decides to emulate him: she suspects that one of the students is smoking—she smells the aroma of tobacco, the smell of the prohibited—and starts a crazy hunt that carries her to the students’ bathrooms, where she tries to surprise them on the spot. María Teresa remains there, hidden in the toilets, observing the adolescents while they urinate, haunted by an ever growing excitement.

The perversity of the spy is juxtaposed with that of the tyrant: María Teresa loses her humanity little by little, in scenes charged with a profound interior violence. Kohan does not need to describe tortures or humiliations to reveal the logic that motivates them. The disheartening corruption of this young woman, condemned to join the inquisition, completes the picture of a completely corrupt era: in the end, anyone can become a monster in a totalitarian regime.

Politics has become so overwhelming discredited among the new Latin American writers that the ins and outs of the new democratic regimes barely interest them. Nobody seems to be narrating the adventures of our new leaders. I have already said it: Salinas or Menem, who would make ideal characters for a Latin American Shakespeare, have not gotten any literary treatment, and Chávez and his followers have not even been victims of high-flying satire. The new Latin American imagination has abandoned a mission that until very recently was its birthright: revealing the depravity of our rulers. Maybe because they are now subject to constant scrutiny by the media—or because they control the media—fiction writers have abandoned them. The loss is regrettable: in countries where historians do not usually nose around in their lives, the absence of a literary examination only adds to the impunity of our democratic leaders.

The Bolivian Edmundo Paz-Soldán is one of the few narrators of the new generation for whom fiction continues to be an instrument for exploring politics. Power occupied a significant place in his novels Río Fugitivo and El delirio de Turing, and in Palacio quemado (2006), where he narrates, in an almost journalistic manner, the 2003 fall of President Gonzalez Sánchez de Lozada, it becomes its center. Oscar, a historian, is hired by the new president, Canedo de la Tapia (Sánchez de Lozada), as a speechwriter. For the first time in the history of Bolivia, a large group of indigenous people, headed by Remigio Jiménez (Evo Morales), has been elected to parliament—with causes great unease among the aristocracy, who had governed without counter-balance until then—and Canedo de la Tapia and their group dedicate themselves to undermining the newcomers. From inside the Burned Palace, the official residence that is a mixture of jail and scale model of the country, Oscar becomes a witness to the infinite variety of intrigues that are necessary to reach, and maintain, power in a Latin American country.

Seeking resources to help him settle in to his post, Canedo de la Tapia signs an agreement with the hated Chileans to export natural gas through Bolivia’s ports: the spark that starts the fire of protest, with Jiménez at its head. (An invaluable scene: a coca-producing leader’s first visit to the Burned Palace). The murky net of advisors surrounding the president, including a Machiavelli from the Andes nicknamed the Coyote (Carlos Sánchez Berzaín) and the historian and vice-president Luis Mendoza (Carlos Mesa), are constantly seeking to destroy Jiménez, including Oscar himself, who enters the game when he places himself at the service of the Coyote. The escalating clumsiness, lies, and palatial style-treason grow until, fearing the incessant indigenous protests, Canedo de Tapia follows the Coyote’s advice and orders an armed confrontation with the demonstrators, leaving dozens dead. The protests increase, La Paz is surrounded by Jiménez’s indigenous supporters, and Canedo is forced to renounce his post, which ends up in the hands of Mendoza. The president flees to the United States, and Oscar discovers some of the secrets of his story, although he finds no comfort in the change.

The closeness to the facts is so obvious that changing the names barely serves as disguise. Paz-Soldán gets as close to the intrigues of the Burned Palace as a forensic pathologist to a corpse: his main character is not a hero, he’s just one more Latin American intellectual who has been co-opted by power, and it’s only at the last minute that he acquires a certain critical dimension. In Latin American politics, hypothesizes Paz-Soldán, there is no space for heroism or ethics: all will end up soiled by the incurable cancer. None of the main characters (Canedo de la Tapia, Mendoza, Jiménez, or even Oscar) can be admired: even those who have the best intentions do not abandon deceit and lies to get want they want. The picture that Paz-Soldán paints of the turbulent Bolivian democracy is a mirror of what happens in all of Latin America: technocrats who are far away from reality, old politicians who are willing to do anything as long as they can keep their influence, new leaders that have never believed in democratic rules, intellectuals who are ready to sell themselves to the highest bidder, and at the other extreme, amazed and sickened citizens who do not feel represented by them: more than victims, they are indifferent witnesses to a fight for power that barely concerns them.

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