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 . . .
LATIN AMERICA, A HOLOGRAM
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.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .