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.

Los Angeles, France, and the Search for a New Noir

Salonica has a great post from Larry Fondation about LA and the search for a writer that encompass the city. What makes it even more interesting is it was published in France as a kind of what Americans should do next. While Noir is a and LA are fascinating as our the American writers of the 30’s I’m not sure if they are the salvation Fondation sees.

Outside a select and celebrated few – Cain, Chandler and West among them — most 1930s authors have been neglected, forgotten, ignored or downplayed in the United States. Writers such as James T. Farrell, Ellen Glasgow, Jack Conroy and Henry Roth rarely get their due. Even John Dos Passos’ masterpiece, The USA Trilogy, remains vastly underappreciated.

Instead, many critics trumpet the Post-World War II era of American fiction as a kind of Golden Age.  I take the opposite view. Much of the literature of the past several decades has been overly introspective and self-indulgent. University writing programs turn out scores of harmless craftspeople, superficially skilled stylists who have nothing to say. Chain bookstore shelves are redolent with works of glittering shit, finely wrought bits of nothing, the fool’s gold of the written word.

For decades now, there has been no Fante, no Nelson Algren, no Jack London or Stephen Crane. Yet the new realities of our age, a time of limits, will force our literature once again to address the margins – as it did in the 1930s.  This will reinvigorate American literature, and great public fiction will again emerge from Los Angeles.  I am naturally suspicious of the glamour of gold.  But our times will almost forcibly birth a new era in American writing: the Literature of Iron — a fresh body of enduring, meaningful and deeply moving work, work that matters.

The social realism/noir of the writers, I’m not sure are the answer (although, perhaps no answer is needed), but there is a grit to them that sometimes seems to be missing. Unless you are into the Dirty Realism mentioned in the Program Era, where the external fight against society or the machinations that it closes in on one are replaced by the internal and self destructive so that in the former alcoholism is what a tough world forces on you, and in the latter humans self destruct because of weakness and inner daemons.

I do find his statement the NWA’s Straight Out of Compton the best novel of LA in the last 20 years to be spot on. Too bad that album has generated so many lesser imitations.

Jorge Volpi on Bolaño and American Literary Reaction

Three Percent continues its serialization of Jorge Volpi’s comments on Latin American literature.  In this section he takes American critics to task for building up a Bolaño myth much like that of Jack Kerouac so they could sell the story of a rebel. In contrast, the Spanish language press has looked at Bolaño more in terms of his way of attacking and rebuilding literary ideas.

In general, Volpi has taken the line that American critics have exoticized the Latin America as a dark world of corruption and political intrigue, or a  one of superstitious peasants. The criticisms are fair and show both a miopia on the part of some critics who wish to put some certain literature in well defined categories, and a drive of the market to produce more of what sold so well before. It is the plea of an artist for freedom, which also means that while he says there is no Latin American Literature, there are some links between authors, not necessarily in theme, or style, or history, or whatever element you would like to focus on, but a more general closeness of experience. They have lived lives that have more inter connections than those on other continents and so it gives the writing not a similarity, but a fraternity. And even in opposition to one’s fraternity, fraternity can still shape one’s self.

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.

Jorge Volpi on Latin American Literature

Three Percent is serializing an excellent lecture by Jorge Volpi about Latin American Literature. In the first installment he is talking about Magical Realism and its suffocating history. Well worth the read.

[…] 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.