Where Have the Latin American Novelists and the Dictators Gone?

Ilan Stavans has an article in the Chronicle Review looking at the demise of Latin American novelists who were politically engaged. I think the article provides a good overview of the boom authors, but I think it is a little weak when describing younger authors. Certainly there are authors who haven’t been politically engaged like Llosa or Fuentes, but not all of them. It also depends what engagement means. Is it writing about a dictatorship, or has it shifted to the narco novel? Perhaps when Volpi goes expands from Mexico, he is actually making a new engagement with the new realities that leave a country like Mexico at the mercy of other forces, too. I wonder what he would think of Jorge Volpi’s three examples of political writers: Edmundo Paz Soldan, Ivan Thays, or Santiago Rocagliolo? Ultimately, what he didn’t mention was perhaps the novel of the cauldio is just tired. There are so many of them that they may have worn themselves out.

Is it that they don’t usually torture and kill adversaries? That their regimes aren’t controlled by vengeful police forces? That they have been democratically (more or less) elected? Perhaps. But in important ways, they are caudillos. They rewrite constitutions to perpetuate themselves as supreme leaders. They embrace a populist oratory that condemns materialism and ridicules individuality (thereby fostering an environment where freedom is often a casualty). They promote an anti-imperialist (often synonymous with anti-American) message that brooks no disagreement. Their rhetoric embraces the downtrodden but creates fear among all who disagree with them.

To answer why writers have not taken on the left-wing strongmen, it is important to remember that the Latin American intelligentsia in the 20th century, particularly from the 1930s through the 70s, habitually embraced communism. To be a novelist was tantamount to being anti-establishment. As opposed to writers in North America, you didn’t need to be a bohemian to be considered serious. You needed to believe that power corrupts, and that excess power corrupts excessively. And you needed to see Latin America as the victim of colonialism and capitalism.

The road to the region’s redemption lay in rejecting foreign ideologies—except those of communism. Communism was viewed as representative of collective goodness, a utopianism that would magically retrieve what was best in the pre-Columbian past, as if the indigenous population before the arrival of the Europeans had always lived in harmony. Communism became a vindication of the Indian past.

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