Jorge Volpi – the Historical Novel in Latin America

In part four of Three Percent’s talk from Jorge Volpi, Volpi discusses recent historical novels in Latin America. What is interesting is that after saying there was no Latin American literature, he talks as if there were one. However, he sees in Latin American historical novels a reluctance to deal with the now.

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.

But if younger writers have been younger fiction writers have been reluctant to write about recent history, historians have even been more reluctant and so it has to fall to the fiction writers to do something.

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).

Part of the dearth has been fear and some of it has been disillusion with politics in general. Now, though, he sees some younger writers who have begun to tackle some of the issues of violence in their home countries.

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.

The rest of the article explains the books and how they represent the trend he has been talking about and is a good conceptualization of novels in the historical genre.

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