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
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.
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .