13 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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

Territories of Evil

Instead of worrying about what is going wrong in the new democracies—too predicable and boring—the Latin American writers interested in the present situation of their nations have preferred to occupy themselves with the enemies of the system, the criminal bands and drug dealers that are waging a war against the states and their rivals. This new contemporary epic, whose main influence is found in the Westerns and in the blacksploitation films, with touches of The Godfather and Pulp Fiction, has become an authentic literary sub-genre in the region and has even contaminated writers of the international mainstream, like the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, who transformed a drug dealer from Sinaloa into the main character of The Queen of the South (2002). As opposed to the realism of other times, the narco-literature teaches no lessons, passes no moral judgments, and is barely an instrument of criticism, but as its authors have felt compelled to recreate the speech and habits of their protagonists, their out of control lives, and their atrocious deaths with pinpoint accuracy, it has ended up becoming the social art that remains nowadays.

For evident reasons, Columbian literature was the first to explore this territory: the war between the government, the drug dealers, the different guerrilla groups, and the paramilitary quickly inspired a literary explosion. The already classic La virgen de los sicarios (1994) by Fernando Vallejo, centered in the desolate lives of young hit men at the service of the drug barons, pointed a way for the next generation: main characters that seem motivated only by bitterness, inertia, reproduction—or, as in this case, reinvention—written in the language of criminals, and in a style that, thanks to its dryness and distance, emphasizes the protagonists’ alienation. A little bit later, Jorge Franco finished defining the conventions of the genre when he incorporated a vigorous feminine figure into a world that up to then had been ruled by men in Rosario Tijeras (1999). It barely surprises that both novels were quickly adapted into movies: La virgen de los sicarios by the Belgian Barbet Schroeder in 2000 and Rosario Tijeras by the Mexican Emilio Maille in 2005.

As the violence associated with drug dealing started to invade other Latin American cities, writers hurried to incorporate drug dealers in their texts, first as backdrop and then as the center of the action. In an aseptic and unremarkable era, dominated by mistrust of the political, these powerful forces at the margin of the law acquired an almost mythic aura: poor adolescents, enlisted by the mafias until they become professional killers; beautiful young ladies used as exchange currency (girls from Caleña and Sinaloa must be the most beautiful in their countries); gunmen confronted with existential emptiness; pathetic heroes and villains, who are difficult to distinguish from each other; a universe dominated by danger, improvisation, and death; clumsy and underpaid (and almost always corrupt) policemen; and of course, a few multi-millionaire drug barons, who are capable of committing the biggest atrocities. Overnight, all of the elements of an eccentric and harrowing thriller arrived on the table of the Latin American writers: new cavalry novels where nobody knows why they fight; where, as the song says, ”life is worth nothing”; where acts of heroism are rare; and where survival past forty years old is a victory in itself.

If it is true that in Mexico drug traffic has operated, in a more or less quiet manner, since the fifties, its legends were incorporated into literature much later than into popular music, where its leaders have been praised in hundreds of Mexican ballads. The credit for creating a literary universe based on drug traffic falls to Élmer Mendoza from Sinaloa. From Un asesino solitario (1999) to Bala de plata (which won the Premio Tusquets de Novela in 2007), Mendoza has mixed aspects of the black novel with the criminal—and, therefore, political—environment of the North of Mexico. His influence has been felt in the new generation, to the degree that a link to drug traffic is now considered one of the essential characteristics of fiction written in the North of the country. Writers from other regions, such as Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez and Mario González Suárez, have extended this exploration, the first with an unsuccessful combination of the criminal and the supernatural in El vuelo (2008) and the second with the delirious interior monologue of a criminal rogue in A Webo, Padrino (2008), but among the dozens of tales of this sub-species Trabajos del reino (2004) by Yuri Herrera is one of the best.

Narrated with a firm prose that scarcely permits itself a lyric moment, Herrera tells us about the arrival of a Mexican balladeer to the intimate circle of a drug baron, as if he was writing of a bard and a medieval lord. The metaphor works surprisingly well and, without needing to reproduce the clumsy jargon of its characters, it says in a few pages what would take less talented writers hundreds: a miasma of loyalties and treason surrounds the chiefs; the vileness, inexperience, and fear of the hired assassins; the unavoidable corruption of the environment; and the way in which art becomes an accomplice to crime. A novel of narcotics and implicit criticism, Trabajos del reino shines as a small literary jewel in a genre dominated by clichés.

No matter how saturated we are by the reports in newspapers and on television, violence in Latin America is not limited to drug traffic, and other types of criminals have also inspired numerous novels. They’re almost all about political violence—I insist: the only bastion of social novel—although they are devoid of the ideological compromise that marked Paco Ignacio Taibo II. I will confine myself to pointing out three examples. Satan, by the Columbian Mario Mendoza (winner of Premio Biblioteca Breve in 2001), and effectively adapted to film by Andres Baiz in 2007. It recreates the madness of a veteran of the Vietnam War who assassinated ten people in a pizza parlor in Bogotá in 1986. The Mexican Martín Solares investigates police intrigues through his very acute sense of humor. Solares considers himself the heir of Jorge Ibargüengoitia, and, escaping the solemnity of the genre, he leads us through the tangled investigation of a tropical detective, the Macetón Cabrera, utilizing a tone that brilliantly combines satire and intrigue. And, finally, Al otro lado (2008) by Heriberto Yepez from Tijuana, holds a distorted mirror up to the border between Mexico and the United States. Located in an indeterminate future, he takes us a step further into the conditions of life on the border, and his Ciudad del Paso, with its avalanche of ”half castes”, immigrants, drug dealers, and hired assassins, looks very much like Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez. A Tex-Mex Under the Volcano, the novel follows the fate of Shark, a miserable hired assassin who is dulled by phoco—a fashionable synthetic drug.

While the plot twists and tangles without end—a natural effect of the phoco—Shark’s hallucinations offer the best point of view to describe the rarified atmosphere in this no man’s land. These are the exceptions; the truth is that the Latin American police novel only rarely manages to escape cliché: stupid and perverse anti-heroes, writing that reads like a film script, foreseeably colloquial language—sometimes disguised as avant-garde experiment—and indifference toward the socio-political context. Nothing close to the masterpiece of the genre: Bolaño’s harrowing reconstruction of the Santa Teresa crimes in 2666.

12 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

11 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

3. Bolaño, perturbation

Not since the Boom, or to be precise, since García Márquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, had a Latin American writer enjoyed such sudden celebrity as Roberto Bolaño: After his success in Spanish—winning the Herralde and Romulo Gallegos prizes and his conversion into the guru of the new generation—he received unanimous praise from the French critics, his fame spread to the rest of Europe, and, five years after his death, it exploded in the United States, one of the most difficult media for foreign literature to penetrate. The publication of 2666 in English at the beginning of 2009 became the fifth moment of the Bolaño delirium, and so began the construction of a global icon: thousands of copies sold, each article and review more praise-filled than the last—including in the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker, the trend-setters of intellectual fashion—and the launch of a legend that combined his personal excesses and his early death. And if that were not enough, his heirs abandoned the agency of Carmen Balcells, the mythical co-founder of the Boom, for Andrew Wylie, aka the Jackal, the New York literary agent who has concentrated more Nobel prizes and cult authors per square meter in his office (and who has already announced the recovery of a novel that Bolaño left among his papers) than any other agent.

While reading the reviews and articles published in the North American literary media about Bolaño, I was continually surprised that the American reading of Bolaño, especially the reinvention of his biography, had almost nothing in common with the reception of Bolaño in Spanish. I do not believe, as some Spanish critics and even some of his friends do, that the American Bolaño is a falsification, a marketing product, a forced reinvention, or a simple misunderstanding: on the contrary, maybe the power of his texts lives in the diverse interpretations, sometimes contrasting or opposed, that it is possible to extract from his books. But the reception of his American critics reveals, however, another phenomenon: not only does the Bolaño read and recreated by them have nothing to do with his Spanish reception, but it seems that none of his panegyrists took the trouble of reading what the Spanish speaking critics had been saying about him—with almost always the same admiration—for more than a decade. When he arrived in the United States, he suddenly became a cult author; Bolaño got across the desert, crossed the border, and escaped the literary migration, but he could not take his family with him: as a whole, the American critics boasted about their discovery, as if they were responsible for unearthing Bolaño; they considered only their contrived mythological creation and didn’t take the real world into account.

Few authors were so conscious of their place in world literature, especially in the Latin America world, as this Chilean author: each one of his texts is a double answer—it might be worthwhile to say a slap in the face—to the traditions that obsessed him. Of course, none of that appears in the readings of the American critics. For a Mexican like myself, who also had the opportunity to converse with Bolaño dozens of times, it’s hard to believe that a book as plagued with references to Mexican literary history as The Savage Detectives—in my opinion, a boxing ring in which Bolaño settles accounts with his past—could be read, understood, and enjoyed by a media that totally ignores them. However, that is what happened: his success in the United States was absolute. What does that mean? In the first place, the book is so universal—and so open—that Bolaño’s scholarly winks lose their importance; and perhaps the prejudices and the superficiality of the American reading are huge. Bolaño has not been glorified in English for being Latin American or Chilean, nor because of his ties with this part of the world—he could easily have been Thai or Kuwaiti—but for other reasons, literary as well as extra-literary, and his case is not comparable, in any measure, to other writers of the region—or even Isabel Allende—and perhaps only to Haruki Murakami, the only international literary star capable of casting a similar shadow in English.

If there is something outstanding in the critical reception of Bolaño in the United States, it is the evaluation—or the reinvention—of his biography. The novelist Jonathan Lethem in his earth-shattering review in the New York Times set the tone: ”In a burst of invention now legendary in contemporary Spanish-language literature, and rapidly becoming so internationally, Bolaño in the last decade of his life, writing with the urgency of poverty and his failing health, constructed a remarkable body of stories and novels out of precisely such doubts: that literature, which he revered the way a penitent loves (and yet rails against) an elusive God, could meaning­fully articulate the low truths he knew as rebel, exile, addict […].”

Beyond the discussion of Bolaño’s supposed heroin use, none of the critics of his books in the Spanish language made a point of focusing on his life, ”rebel, exile, addict”. (If this were not enough, during his last decade Bolaño never lived ”in the urgency of poverty”, but the modest life of the suburban middle class, a life infinitely more placid than the other Latin American immigrants in Cataluña). Without a doubt, the relation between the life and works possesses greater enchantment in the United States than in any other part of the world, but the emphasis on his supposed or real penury have played a key role in interpreting (and, obviously, selling) his books. The American literary world has been obliged to construct a radical rebel from a simple misunderstanding: confusing a first person narrator with its author. Bolaño, who during the last years of his life had a more or less normal life, not full of luxuries, but clothed by an almost simultaneous recognition from the publication of his first books (Nazi Literature in the Americas and Distant Star in 1997 and The Savage Detectives in 1998), has been transformed into one of those furious writers who, facing down the scorn of his contemporaries and through a fierce individual fight, manage to convert themselves into tragic artists, posthumous heroes: a new example of the myth of the self-made man. Bolaño, thus, as the last revolutionary or the heir of Salinger or the Beats: it is not coincidental that the other Latin American figure exalted to his in the United States is the sugarcoated Che Guevara by Benicio del Toro and Steven Soderbergh. Both of them have become, in their American versions, bastions of fierceness and defiance, prophets equipped with a blind faith in their respective causes—in one case art and in the other politics—ideal models for the intimidated and disbelieving society of the United States under George Bush.

Although no one has dared point it out, the reasons for Bolaño’s ascent are not that different from those that governed García Márquez’s rise forty years ago: for the developed world, both have been mirrors of a necessary exoticism. The step from magical realism to the reaction of visceral realism sounds, all of the sudden, almost foreseeable: in both cases ”the political” has been the key to drawing the attention of the meek American readers, no matter that the left-wing compromise of one has nothing to do with the acid post-political criticism of the other; and last, both have been received as a breath of fresh air—in other words, of savagery—before the contemporary lack of will power.

After a decade of reigning as the new paradigm for Latin American writers, Bolaño’s ascent to the throne—let us not get to say ”manipulation”—in the United States and his rapid inclusion in the official cannon, has severely perturbed us. As was expected, many of those who glorified him while he was a minor author now point out the dangers of his accelerated upgrade to the mainstream, and while some take advantage of his fame and present themselves as his confidants or literary heirs, others question a success that suddenly seems suspect.

The Bolaño case marks a watershed moment for Latin American literature. While he is unanimously idolized by the greater part of the new writers, none of them has continued the relationship that the Chilean used to keep with the Hispanic American tradition. Dozens of youths imitate his awkward style, his ”fractal” stories, his games and stylish threats, his plots as alleys without exit, his delirious monologues, and his literary erudition, but none, in turn, has looked for dialogue, or war, with his predecessors—with the vast plot that goes from modernism to the Boom—that is found in the center of almost all of Bolaño’s books.

Bolaño represents one of the highest points of our tradition—that spider web that goes from Rayuela to 2666—and at the same time a fracture at its center. It is difficult to know if this break will be definitive, but for the time being all of the signs point to a cataclysm: even if it were in a rebellious and radically ironic manner, Bolaño continued to present himself as a Latin American writer, in both the literary and political senses; after him, nobody seems to have kept that abstruse faith in a cause that began to be extinguished in the nineties. The followers or imitators of Bolaño do not follow or imitate his spirit, but his formal procedures, emptied of the Bolaño’s eccentric political and artistic militancy.

It is not accidental that Bolaño, a Chilean who owned a house in Spain, wrote Mexican, Chilean, Argentinean, or Peruvian short stories and novels with the same ease and conviction. It was not about only copying the linguistic peculiarities of each place—a mere exercise of memory and a good ear—but of creating books that would really deal with the tradition of each one of these countries. If the members of the Boom wrote books centered in their respective places of origin with the goal of summoning an elusive Latin American essence, Bolaño did just the opposite: he wrote books that played at belonging to the literature of these countries and ended up revealing the vacuity of the concept. While he sounded the voices of his compatriots, Bolaño assumed the role of the last total Latin American, capable of supplanting a full generation of writers single-handed. Or in another sense, his imitation of different accents and idiosyncrasies, taking it all the way to parody (for example the Argentinean in the wonderful tale ”El Gaucho insufrible”), hid a hilarious critique of the proper idea of national literature. Since Bolaño, writing in the solemn Bolivian faith of the Boom has become impossible: one of the central ruptures that mark his work. That does not mean that Latin America has disappeared as scenery or point of interest, but it is beginning to be perceived with that post-national character, devoid of a fixed identity, that is appropriate in a global world at the beginning of the 21st century. And Bolaño is, in a good measure, responsible of this change.

10 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

2. Hologram

Let us be radical: Latin American literature does not exist anymore. Lovely: hundreds or thousands of Latin American writers exist, or better said, hundred of thousands of Chilean, Honduran, Dominican, Venezuelan (et cetera) writers exist, but a unique literary body endowed with recognizable characteristics, no. We have just seen it: the Spanish language is not a shared characteristic. And, if truth be told, there is nothing to lament.

The idea of a national literature, with typical and unrepeatable peculiarities, completely different from any other, is an anachronistic invention of the 19th century. As Benedict Anderson demonstrated in Imagined Communities (1983), the incipient European states were the ones that, threatened by popular revolts in that period, persisted in accentuating the consensus of its citizens through all kinds of schemes, patronage of the national literatures being one of the most powerful.

From 1820 on, while France and Germany reinvented their own respective national traditions, followed by Russia, Italy, and the rest of the countries that little by little surged on to the changing map of Europe, a great variety of institutions were created to study and protect local literatures against their neighbors. Up until then, literature had not been treated as the private property of one or various countries; suddenly the languages and literature bolstered the ideological artillery of the new bourgeois governments. It was only then that specialists sprouted in each one of these fields who, with the same zeal as historians and anthropologists, persisted in discovering and protecting the ”national soul” which was buried in its myths and legends or in the words of its artists, who were promoted from that moment on to demigods or heroes.

Latin America, which just then was fighting to detach itself from Spain, wasted no time in imitating these procedures (and, in some cases, advanced the field); in its need to differentiate itself from the hated metropolis—and, later on, from their no less hated neighbors—every new Latin American nation became obsessed in building its own history and inventing their own literature: even the indigenous and vice-regal writers born in the territories of the new nations became the exclusive property of each one of them. From that moment on the new powers persisted in promoting the writers—who could equally be traced from Europe—that shared this nationalistic faith. It is not surprising that the different Latin American nations were obsessed with finding their essence through literature during the second half of the 19th century and the first of the 20th century: this is why an occasionally militant national tradition, opposed to the cosmopolitan writers who were looking for a way of freeing themselves from the straight-jacket, emerged. The nationalists imposed their kingdom in the different countries of Latin America, although in permanent conflict—and at times, in happy cohabitation—with the universal tradition that never disappeared from the zone.

With the advent of the second half of the 20th century, the power of the literary nationalists became so oppressive that writers who looked to escape their influence began to appear, although there were few with the energy of the poets and narrators born in the first decades of the 20th century, who passed their youth in the shadow of authoritarian and fiercely chauvinistic regimes. Borges, Reyes, or Paz became the symbol of those who turned their back on official nationalism, and following their example, the narrators of the following generation took their defiance to the limit.

The first books by Fuentes, Cortázar, García Márquez, or Vargas Llosa, to only mention the official payroll of the Boom, were perceived as a slap in the face by the nationalist writers and critics: instead of remaining tied up in their respective local traditions, all of them preferred to look outside and incorporate aspects of the European and North American novel into their own creations. All of them—as well as many of their contemporaries—were accused of being traitors by the nationalist critics, as if incorporating interior monologues, temporary dislocations, and stylish games in their novels were acts of sedition.

Unfortunately for their enemies, their artistic bet paid off so well that, by the end of the decade, they were no longer pariahs; they became the authentic—and sometimes the only—representatives of Latin America. United in that nomadic guild that came to be known as the Boom and inflamed with the ideals that the triumph of the Cuban Revolution aroused, they abandoned the obsolete bourgeois nationalism of their countries in order to create, in its place, a united Latin American front from deep Bolivian roots. Paradoxically, when they escaped from their cages, Cortázar, Fuentes, García Márquez, and Vargas Llosa helped to found a new nationalism, this time a Latin American one, more original and deeper, but no less exclusionary.

The local critics and academics, followed by their counterparts in the rest of the world, quickly accommodated themselves to the new situation, and without even adjusting their sights, they ended up sanctioning that Latin American literature whose disappearance they now so deplore. The result was a complete success; on one hand, the local media were happy to be able to identify with their own literature, one different from that produced elsewhere, capable of granting an individual identity to the Latin American nations as a unit, while the foreign readers, editors, and critics found the last stronghold of exoticism—of difference—within the everyday, more predictable margins of the western literature. E tutti contenti.

If up-to-date critics and academics pursue an essential characteristic of Latin American literature, and organize dozens of congresses from which Spanish writers are always excluded, it is because the ghosts of nationalism are still among us. Even then, nationalism was losing validity among the new Latin American writers, especially those born after 1960. Witnesses of the crumbling of socialism and the discrediting of utopias, and every day more skeptical of politics, these authors seem to have finally freed themselves from any nationalist constipation. Even though they don’t openly grumble about their origins, this fact is now merely an autobiographical footnote, not a stamp of origin for their work. Unlike their predecessors, they don’t seem to be obsessed with Latin American identity—and less for Mexican, Bolivian, or Argentinean—even if they continue to write about their countries or even about their neighbors.

Yes, neo-nationalists who rend their garments about this lack of identity abound, and now they blame the ”lack of roots” on globalization (it used to be Colonialism or Imperialism). Their incessant whimpering does not take into account that, unlike political frontiers, literary borders have always been permeable: the exchange of ideas and history among cities, regions, countries, and continents has been infinitely more prosperous and natural than movement among people. Globalization has nothing to do with the supposed appearance of an ”international Spanish”, concocted to be successful in the new global market, nor with the scandalous standardization of the stories that a Latin American narrator now feels free to tell. On the contrary: to persist in defining the different countries of Latin America as mere ”producers of exoticism” would constitute a real negative effect of globalization. Cornering the writers of the Third World in ”identity”, obliging them to always take into account the special conditions of their country, is a far more dangerous practice than allowing them to choose their themes with full liberty.

The new Latin American authors are not waging a war against the idea of being Latin American, and their books do not have the declared object of escaping Latin America. There is no confrontation with the neo-nationalists, but a kind of truce, or to say it openly, an enormous indifference before the dictates of the critics. The majority of the writers born from 1960 on, even the veteran members of McOndo or of Crack, have written books that take place in Latin America and that explore different aspects of that reality, in the same manner that they situate other of their stories in foreign territories. In fact, Latin America continues to be one of the fundamental preoccupations of a good number of the books published over the few last years, but their obsession is devoid of the militant character of other times.

Unlike their elders, the writers born from 1960 on do not need to found a tradition—as did Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, or García Márquez. They do not possess a Bolivian yearning and do not aspire to become the spokesmen of Latin America: their method, more modest but also more natural, consists in carefully studying the problems and history of their respective countries, and even of the whole region, without the messianic tone of some of their predecessors.

More than discovering a continent, placing a forgotten region on the map, establishing their own spokesmen, positioning themselves as the avant-garde of the elites, the new narrators speak about their countries without the aftertaste of romanticism or of political compromise, without hopes or plans for the future, and maybe just with the proud disenchantment of one who recognizes the limits of his responsibility in front of history. Instead of presenting themselves as inventors of Latin America—the great achievement of the Boom—they seek to decipher and unarm it.

Their books do not pretend to add themselves to the stones with which the writers of the Boom erected their arrogant cathedral of Latin American literature, but miniatures that hope to condense in themselves all that now can be said of Latin America. The paradigm no longer consists in erecting a new tower or a new cupola, but in creating a hologram: novels that only in an oblique and confused, fractal and fragmentary way are trying to disembowel the mystery of Latin America. Novels that look toward The Savage Detectives and, above all, that magnificent hologram of the region which has been so little explored—and is already so opaque due to prejudices and misunderstandings—the somber and enigmatic 2666.

9 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

1. Without the pig’s tail

Latin America is magical. García Márquez should not be held accountable for spreading this belief across the globe, but many of his readers think this. If you ask his faithful in the United States, Europe, or Asia to explain his success, many would say that the fantasy of the Colombian writer is based on the magical nature of Latin American reality. A legend holds that, when he arrived in Mexico—there are versions from other countries as well—André Breton discovered the real origin of Surrealism, and according to another local joke, if Kafka had been born in Latin America, he would have described the customs of the region. The myth is maintained: we live in a strange territory, alien to Occidental modernity, where miracles are administered in abundance and anything can happen; a place where violence and the supernatural, misery and prodigies, coexist; a paradise where Pre-Hispanic traditions and Catholic superstitions mingle and where the only logic is the absence of logic. A wonderland elevated to a continent. It is a theme park of the absurd. A fantasy island, even though the fantasy is frequently atrocious.

García Márquez is not given, in this version, much credit: his talent does not reside in his capacity for inventing stories, but in the long and sinuous lectures that enabled him to transfer his everyday experience on to paper. The mistake would not be so regrettable if it had not been used as a pretext to excuse our misery, our barbarism, our mistakes: Latin America is extravagant and irrational, nothing can be done about it; its dictators are savages and inhumane, but we miss them as characters of a novel; and we find solace in its inhabitants’ ability to maintain their will to dream in the middle of poverty and injustice. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is very nice to be exotic, to brown under the sun and to be neighbors with criminals and torturers, to populate chaotic and bloody cities, to believe in voodoo or in the Virgin of Guadalupe, to belong to such gracious and unusual nations. Too bad that none of this pleases us: at least for us, the sad inhabitants of these lands, Latin American reality is as crude and unremarkable—or as fascinating and terrible —as any other.

As the Mexican historian Edmundo O’Gorman pointed out, our continent was not discovered by the Spanish conquerors; it was invented by them. Or, in the best scenario, reinvented in accordance with the dictates of the medieval imagination: a habitat of monsters and prodigies, tropical utopia and tropical hell, a space of our time, refuge of madmen and poets on the borderline of civilization. And even today, when the frontiers of the West are drawn, Latin America is excluded without fear, not withstanding our claim of being, in words of Octavio Paz, an essential portion, although eccentric, of this kingdom (or at least the ”Extreme West” to which the French diplomat Alain Rouquié referred). If no one accepts us in their exclusive club, it is not due to our development problems or our indigenous past, but to the perennial European desire to maintain us as receptacles of their frustrations and wishes, of their fantasies.

This is not the place to discern the academic, petty things that separate ”magical realism” from the ”real wonderful”: it is enough to underline that the artistic category suddenly became a sociopolitical tag for the whole region. The canonic definition establishes that, unlike traditional fantastic literature, where magic or miracles are not lacking, an essential characteristic of the Latin American current is indifference before the extraordinary. A maiden flies on air, and we lift our shoulders; a corpse asks for his father, and we yawn; time runs backwards, and we make a fastidious grimace; children are born with a pig’s tail, and oh, we prefer a soap opera. Since this lack of reason governs us—a lack which in any other place would be considered unnatural and would unleash curiosity, astonishment, or morbid fascination—these events are a mere distraction. When the critics of Cambridge, Harvard, or Paris fill their mouths with the phrase “magical realism”, we imagine a current of socialist realism.

In what role does this thesis leave us? Once again we appear as good savages, dominated by superstition and mystery, accustomed to coexisting with the supernatural, or, in the other extreme, as a primitive people who remain apathetic in the face of the very unusual. The social interpretation of the literature thus acquires an unsettling political shade: Latin American people are not distinguished by our fantasy, but by our resignation. A resignation of a murky Catholic origin that explains the conformism which turns us into docile subjects, cannon fodder, the successive victims of Colonialism, Imperialism, Communism, and Capitalism.

But even in purely literary terms, the absolute identification of Latin America with magical realism has wreaked havoc. In the first place, it erased, with a single stoke, all of Latin America’s previous explorations—from the babblings of the 19th century to some of the brilliant recent moments of our literature, including the avant-garde of the beginning of the 20th century. And it became a choke-chain for those writers who didn’t show any interest in magic. If this were not enough, it promulgated a profound misunderstanding of the Boom. And, perhaps most seriously, it elevated literary nationalism above the rich universal tradition of the region.

Let’s see. When, in the middle of 1967, One Hundred Years of Solitude was published, no one imagined that it would become one of the most influential literary phenomena in history, much less that it was going to so suddenly disrupt the image of Latin America in the world. The previous works of García Márquez, as well as those of Vargas Llosa (The Time of the Hero, Conversation in the Cathedral) and Fuentes (The Death of Artemio Cruz, A Change of Skin), had not created a novelistic necessity, and they limited themselves to combining realism with the stylistic resources of the modern French and Anglo-Saxon novel and emulating Faulkner, their god. In fact, when these works came out in their respective countries, they were unanimously condemned by the nationalistic critics, who viewed them as damaging examples of foreign contamination. Even though, in those times, the members of the Boom professed their faith in Castro and the Revolution, the local media accused them of imitating outside models, betraying the Colombian, Peruvian, or Mexican traditions to which they were obliged to belong.

The planetary success of One Hundred Years of Solitude abruptly changed this situation: García Márquez’s prose dazzled European and North American readers to such a degree that, after millions of copies were sold, magical realism became paradigmatic, and after being called sell-outs in their own countries, the Boom ended up as the incarnation of Latin America’s essence. Driven by their avid readers—and even more so by their avid editors—this assigned identity resulted in a huge misunderstanding, and overnight, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, and Cortázar were assimilated into the magical realism myth. A bit later, authors as diverse as Rulfo, Onetti, Cabrera Infante, Donoso and even Borges—yes, Borges—were viewed through the same lens. Unless otherwise proven, being born in Latin America and writing fiction for a living implied a blind faith in magical realism. Authors such as the Argentinean Antonio Di Benedetto or the Mexican Salvador Elizondo, just to give two examples, had nothing to do with magical realism, and even today they are waiting for the place that is rightfully theirs in our literature. The guilt, I want to make it clear, does not lie with García Márquez, nor with the Boom, not with Carmen Balcells, nor with Carlos Barral, nor with Imperialism, nor with the market—the guilt lies with laziness. Laziness and the inertia of the media, who would rather sell a name-tag than admit the impossibility of scrutinizing, in less than a minute, the subtlety of an affirmation.

Repeated a thousand times, the lie transformed itself into dogma: the only legitimate expression of Latin America is magical realism, amen. The local critics, always upstarts and always voluble, did not take long to readjust their sights: at the end of the day, they only wanted to defend nationalism, and if this happened to become the exclusive property of the Boom as such, so be it. Their accusations were the same: Hang the foreign lovers, shoot the cosmopolites, behead the universalists!—except that this time the insults were hurled against the enemies of magical realism, that is, against anyone who made fun of their frontiers. Foreignism had once been measured by stylistic ambition, flashbacks, changes in point of view, or internal monologues; now it was enough for a novel to take place outside Latin America for the author to be detained by the inquisition and stripped of his literary nationality.

In order to carry out this purging mission, the nationalistic critics counted on the inestimable collaboration (no one should be surprised) of foreign critics, foreign editors, and foreign readers. All of them agreed: the only Latin American literature that is worthwhile is, well, this. If a Latin American author does not write as a Latin American, it lacks interest. Why should we read—or study or edit—someone who narrates as, let’s say, a Hungarian, a Pole, or a Frenchwoman if we already have the original Polish, French, or Hungarian on our pay rolls? For editorial, and ideological, reasons, one had to promote only that which was authentic, only those who—and playing the same tune—differentiate this literature from any other.

As has happened with the decline of dictators and guerillas, at the beginning of the 21st century, magical realism has also stopped dominating the literary life of Latin America. Its loss of influence has not been immediate, but it has been irreversible: an overpopulation of ghosts, oracular maidens, and the immortal elderly had snatched away all the freshness of magical realism and ended up conducting it towards a sweetened mannerism. The first ones to show their weariness were the Latin American writers themselves, especially those born from the decade of the seventies on. Fed up with the official moral stories and fairy tales about national identity, and of those who had been educated under the shadow of the Anglo-Saxon culture, it did not take long for them to rebel against the dictates that obliged them to be typically Latin American. Next to the Crack Mexican group, the McOndo anthology was the most representative of this tendency; edited by Alberto Fuguet and Sergio Gómez in Chile in 1996, it gathered a dozen Latin Americans, with different aesthetics, who all rejected magical realism.

More than a decade has passed since this anthology was published—and then dismissed as an adolescent tantrum—and their predictions have been verified: in Latin America, the children are not born with pig’s tails anymore, even though thousands still inhabit towns and low-income districts that resemble pigsties. In the rest of the world, the process has been slower, and some readers and editors continue to miss those times in which these prodigal books would arrive from Latin America (in the same way they would be surprised by the arrival of a shipment of bananas or pineapples). In extreme cases, foreign editors have had to resurrect the few authors who have remained faithful to magical realism, or they have simply substituted for the Latin Americans with their followers from Japan or India, the new paradises of magic and exoticism. But the end of the period that exalted this literary current as the sole legitimate expression of our countries has finally ended.

Fiction in Latin America is living through an unpublished moment: for the first time, it is not victim of novelistic necessity. The norms vanished, the canons, the prohibitions—write this way or we will place you in front of a firing squad, do not write that way or we will ignore you—and except for a few venomous and widely-resented critics, nobody pretends to measure the writers of the continent with a yardstick. For the first time, I insist, one can choose any style and be received with the same critical legitimacy (or the same indifference): the subtle decorators of stylish miniatures; the buffalos of political intrigue; those who narrate with whatever skill; the last minute avant-gardes; the ethereal meta-fictionists; the mutants of the novel and the essay; the admirers of Vila-Matas, Amis, Murakami, Kafka, Pérez-Reverte, or Beckett; the post-modern romantics; the devout of the melodramatic; and well, including those who persevere in the magical realism—all can write, publish, and direct their readers without fear of being excommunicated or of being summarily judged. Outside of two or three apocalyptic critics, who rend their garments, crying out for decadence, accusing the market of all of our woes—they were communism or imperialism before—and write reviews only to crush their neighbors, no one laments the change. And even though the absence of laws and norms entails the possibility that a joke may be confused with a work of art or that a trifle may sell millions of copies, this is not due to globalization or the loss of identity, but of an agèd virus Duchamp introduced at the beginning of the 20th century: inevitably, the democratization of taste allows for minor works to become global hits and for masterpieces to be appreciated by just a few.

For many, it is a pity that Latin American literature has been extinguished in this manner, and they deplore the absence of a regional peculiarity in the new generation of Latin American writers: make them different, please, from their European, Asiatic, or American colleagues. This is their problem. Naked, stripped of all exoticism, the Latin American writer can finally carry out his pirouettes and prancing without a safety net: whether his works become everlasting or are thrown over a cliff into oblivion depends only on his talent—and, of course, on the laws of the market, of fashion, and of fate.

5 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From Okla Elliott’s review of Season of Ash in Inside Higher Ed:

Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash is the kind of novel that reminds me why I read novels in the first place, but it’s also the kind that makes me wonder why I bother to write. Before the end of this review, I am going to try to convince you that Volpi is a genius, that you have to buy this book, and that he’ll end up with the Nobel Prize in Literature if there is any justice in the world (which there might not be . . .)—but before I attempt all that, you should know who Jorge Volpi is, as he is not yet well-known to North American readers.

Jorge Volpi, born in the internationally tumultuous year of 1968 in Mexico City, has written nine novels, including one other, In Search of Klingsor, that has been translated into English and which has won prizes in Spain and France, as well as Volpi’s native Mexico. He is one of the founders (along with Ignacio Padilla, Pedro Ángel Palou, et al) of the “Crack Movement” in Mexican literature, a movement attempting to free itself from what its members perceive as the chains of magical realism, hoping to return to the joys found in the work of, for example, Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. Volpi studied law at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and holds his PhD in Spanish philology from Universidad de Salamanca in Spain. He has worked as a lawyer, a political aide, and as a scholar. The evidence of this political/legal praxis and this scholarly knowledge certainly show up in his work, though never pedantically or gratuitously. In the world of Spanish-language literature, he is known for his wide-ranging intelligence, the ambition of his work, his intricate plots, and a subtly dark humor.

Season of Ash opens with the infamous 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl. (So, okay, here I have an admission: I rather disliked the first few paragraphs of the novel—so much so, in fact, I was disappointed I’d agreed to review the book, since I was worried the rest of it would be equally unpleasant. I mention this for two reasons—to let you know I’m not such a fan of Volpi’s novel that I can’t admit its failings, and to make sure if you pick up a copy of the book, that you force past the first two pages, because after that, it’s pretty much perfect.) Here is Volpi, several pages in, at his lyric finest, personifying the radiation from the reactor’s meltdown as a monster the hopeless Soviet soldiers die trying to fight:

Wind and rain were carrying its humors toward Europe and the Pacific, its dregs were piling up in lakes, and its semen was filtering its way through the geological strata. The monster was in no hurry. It was patiently planning its revenge: Every baby born without legs, without a pancreas, every sterile sheep, dying cow, every rusty lung, every malignant tumor, every eaten-away brain would celebrate its revenge.

That wide narrative view—which takes in so much geography, time, and human suffering—is paradoxically one of the joys throughout the novel. The various plotlines, however, occasionally focus very closely on certain characters, the POV embedding so deeply into the consciousness of a particular character in the ensemble cast that we forget the novel spans four continents, eight decades, and over a dozen important characters (not to mention such historical figures as Joseph Stalin, Ronald Reagan, and Boris Yeltsin). Though, now looking over the above excerpt, I see just how intricately Volpi weaves his narrative lines, how flawlessly he modulates his narrative registers; I say this because while I enjoy the excerpt by itself, it loses much (most?) of its power out of context, where we see Soviet soldiers sent to their deaths, ordered to bury the site of the incident with sand, ordered to axe to death all the animals in the region and incinerate them, all the while dying slowly or quickly of radiation poisoning. We also are worried about the political well-being of the scientists involved as we read all this. And on, and on.

And as a not-so-subtle reminder, this is available as part of our 2 for $22 offer. And as a reminder, when you buy any 2 Open Letter books for $22, you’re automatically entered in a drawing to win a year’s subscription . . .

27 October 09 | N. J. Furl | Comments

The video is now available of last week’s (and, dare we say, our best to date) Reading the World Conversation Series event with the internationally bestselling author Jorge Volpi and preeminent translator Alfred Mac Adam. Parts 1-3 are Jorge’s reading, and parts 4-8 are the questions/answers between Jorge, Alfred, and the audience.

Here’s the skinny on the event:
Oct. 20, 2009 – Jorge Volpi—author of international bestseller In Search of Klingsor, and a founder of the “Crack” group—reads from his latest novel, Season of Ash, and discusses the new generation of Mexican writers.

Season of Ash puts a human face on the earth-shaking events of the late twentieth century: the Chernobyl disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Soviet communism and the rise of the Russian oligarchs, the cascading collapse of developing economies, and the near-miraculous scientific advances of the Human Genome Project. Praised throughout the world for his inventive story telling and stylistic ambition, Jorge Volpi has become one of the leading innovators of twenty-first-century world literature.

After reading from Season of Ash, Jorge Volpi is joined in conversation by Alfred Mac Adam—professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University since 1983 and translator of novels by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, José Donoso, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Julio Cortázar, as well as Season of Ash.

(This event is hosted by Open Letter and University of Rochester Arts & Sciences. It is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.)

20 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you happen to be here in Rochester, you should definitely come to U of R’s Plutzik Library at 6:30 for tonight’s Reading the World Conversation Series event with Jorge Volpi and Alfred Mac Adam.

Jorge is one of the founding members of the “Crack” group—a collection of young Mexican writers who put together this manifesto about breaking with the (derivative) tradition of magical realism, and writing structurally complex, cosmopolitan books. Simon & Schuster published In Search of Klingsor a few years back, and we just got our copies of Season of Ash back from the printer.

Here’s the description:

Jorge Volpi’s international bestseller Season of Ash puts a human face on the earth-shaking events of the late twentieth century: the Chernobyl disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Soviet communism and the rise fo the Russian oligarchs, the cascading collapse of developing economies, and the near-miraculous scientific advances of the Human Genome Project. Told through the intertwined lives of three women—Irina, a Soviet biologist; Eva, a Hungarian computer scientist; and Jennifer, an American economist—this novel-of-ideas is part detective novel, part scientific investigation, and part journalistic expose, with a dark, destructive love story at its center.

Praised throughout the world for his inventive storytelling and stylistic ambition, Jorge Volpi has become one of the leading innovators of twenty-first-century world literature. Season of Ash calls to mind the best works of Richard Powers and Carlos Fuentes, and it is a stunning, singular achievement.

Here’s a promo bit from this morning’s news program (which, fantastically, always interviews out RTWCS authors):

Jorge’s an impressive guy, and when I was with him at the Guadalajara Book Fair, he was the equivalent of a literary rockstar. And his translator Alfred Mac Adam is equally interesting. Alfred has translated Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jose Donoso, and Julio Coratzar among others. He also used to edit Review: Latin American Literature and Arts and currently teaches at Barnard College.

The event should be really interesting, both in the discussion of the book itself and in talking about the future of Latin American literature. (All next week we’ll be running a five-part essay by Jorge about the future of L.A. lit . . . ) And for those of you not fortunate enough to live in Rochester (or, you know, whatever), we’ll be videotaping this and will post it as soon as possible.

(Also want to take a line here and thank both the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts for making the entire Reading the World Conversation Series possible.)

15 October 09 | N. J. Furl | Comments

Our second Reading the World event in Rochester, NY, is right around the corner, and it’s going to be a great one featuring internationally best-selling author Jorge Vopli and Spanish translator Alfred Mac Adam. One and all should come. Here are the details:

OCT. 20, 2009
6:30 p.m.
Plutzik Library (in Rush Rhees Library)
University of Rochester
(free and open to the public)

Jorge Volpi—author of international bestseller In Search of Klingsor, and a founder of the “Crack” group—reads from his latest novel, Season of Ash, and discusses the new generation of Mexican writers.

Alfred Mac Adam is the acclaimed Spanish translator of Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes, among others.

Jorge Volpi’s new international bestseller Season of Ash puts a human face on the earth-shaking events of the late twentieth century: the Cher­nobyl disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Soviet communism and the rise of the Russian oligarchs, the cascading collapse of developing economies, and the near-miraculous scientific advances of the Human Genome Project. Praised throughout the world for his inventive story­telling and stylistic am­bition, Jorge Volpi has become one of the leading innovators of twenty-first-century world literature.

After reading from Season of Ash, Jorge Volpi will be joined in conversation by Alfred Mac Adam—professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University since 1983 and translator of novels by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, José Donoso, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Julio Cortázar, as well as Season of Ash.

(This event is hosted by Open Letter and University of Rochester Arts & Sciences. It is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.)

14 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’ll highlight all of the books in here one by one over the next week, but for anyone who can’t wait, you’ll find descriptions, author and translator info, and most importantly, samples from each of the books in the pdf version of the catalog.

Obviously biased, but this is a great list, with Jakov Lind’s wondrously bizarre Ergo, Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), an anthology with Words Without Borders, Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash, and the first complete translation of Ilf & Petrov’s The Golden Calf.


The Odyssey
The Odyssey by Homer
Reviewed by Peter Constantine

Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.

–(The Odyssey, Book I, line 10. Emily Wilson)

In literary translation of works from other eras, there are always two basic tasks that a translator needs. . .

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I Remember Nightfall
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

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Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

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Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

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The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

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Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

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The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

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