Review by Paul Doyle — Published on September 3, 2012, Quarterly Conversation, Issue 29
Tags: Latin American literature, open letter press, Spanish literature
Latin American literature is not what it used to be. The young writers in The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction were all born during the 1970s, when Boom writers like Carlos Fuentes had arguably done their best work, and they grew up during politically troubled times. Many lived under the military dictatorships that came to power in the ’70s, or amidst the battles between revolutionaries and governments that marked the ’70s and ’80s. The dangers of this era—many writers were disappeared or forced into exile—encouraged this generation to turn away from the politically charged themes that preoccupied the Boom writers.
Editor Diego Trelles Paz notes in his solid and lengthy introduction to The Future Is Not Ours that this trend was first evident with the writers born in the ’60s, especially those of the McOndo and Crack groups, spearheaded by Alberto Fuguet and Jorge Volpi, respectively. Both as a reaction to the constraint imposed by the writing of the Boom, and to the political climate, writers gave up on the “total novel,” which tried to capture the whole of a country. While Paz oversells the importance of events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the murders in Juarez, Mexico, and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, in shaping the writers and works in this collection, there is a clear awareness of the dysfunctional world they inherited. Paz claims “one can recognize the rather nihilistic conviction with which each writer confronts the disillusionment that” uses cynicism and indifference to avoid disappointment. Having seen so many failures, there is only so much one can say about a nation.
Despite this cynicism, a number of the works here focus on purely middle class preoccupations. In Antonio Ortuño’s “Pseudoephedrine,” a married couple disagrees about which type of naturopathic doctors should treat their children for the flu. As the couple drifts apart over a long holiday weekend, each suspecting the other of sleeping with their preferred naturopath, the realities of middle class obligations—vacations, health care, schools—suggest that perhaps there might be happier with someone else. But they aren’t: trading one less-than-perfect spouse for a less-than-perfect lover doesn’t make one happy. The only way to save the marriage is to belittle the physical failings of each other’s naturopath: in one of several sexually charged encounters in the book, a selfish cruelty becomes a godsend.
These middle class tensions frequently reverberate against a background of social hierarchy, as in Santiago Roncagliolo’s “Desert Full of Water.” The story follows Vania, a bored young woman whose friends and brother are only interested in partying and sex. She sees the servant who brings groceries to their island home as someone she can bond with. But her attentions don’t come from friendship so much as a misplaced sense of obligation:
And he [the young man] lowers his head, and Vania feels satisfied that she put him in his place; at least she can put someone in their place this shitty weekend. When she’s about to let it go, she realizes that she screamed too loudly and the women in the shops are giving her dirty looks; that’s not how you treat people, so what if he’s an Indian; the nun at school says there’s nothing wrong with being one, but Vania wants to explain to these women that it doesn’t matter what he is; no one should laugh at her like that.
Pursuing this naïve encounter, she encourages him to come meet her one night, unaware of the danger that he could lose everything. In her complete cluelessness, things end badly for both of them. Her pouty little game only works when the boundaries of her world are understood.
If Roncagliolo’s work hints at deep class divisions, Andrea Jeftanovic’s “Family Tree” confronts sexual hypocrisy and is easily the most transgressive work in the collection. Here the narrator describes how his 15-year-old daughter forced him to move into the woods with her to start a new species. She says,
“Inbreeding isn’t necessarily harmful. That’s a myth. Sharing genetic inheritance sometimes strengthens positive characteristics.” She took the drawing and said more, paying no heed to my ignorant judgment. “Every time we have a child, we’ll add a branch to the tree, and the tree will grow bigger and bigger.”
It’s unclear if the daughter is really asking her father to sleep wither her, as the narrator opens the story by saying, “I don’t know when children’s asses first began to interest me. Ever since the priests, the senators, and businessmen all started appearing on TV with their evasive looks.” He repeatedly references politicians and priests, who have gotten away with something: is this the cause of the affair or just a twisted justification for it? Either way, Jeftanovic turns a story of abuse into something larger. Her use of a wildly unreliable narrator unsettles, and she includes a subtle take on how the abusers and abused can hold to the same logic. Most importantly, she questions how the right to abuse is sanctioned. Her inventive handling of what might have easily become didactic makes this one of the standout stories of the collection.
Daniel Alarcón’s “Lima, Peru, July 28, 1979,” takes a more comical approach to failure. Here, a former art student and revolutionary describe the night that began the Shining Path insurgency. Their part in the uprising was to capture homeless dogs, kill them, paint them with the slogan “Die Capitalist Dogs,” and hang them from a conspicuous location. As they stand over a bleeding dog they haven’t quite managed to kill, a policeman finds them. They lie and say the dog had bitten their brother, a lie that bonds them for a short while, erasing their political tensions. But the peace doesn’t last. What marks the story more than the humanistic leveling is the comic ineptitude of the revolutionaries. They are out trying to find homeless dogs, a challenging task, and they make things even harder with arguments about what color dog they need for maximum readability. In many ways they are the same naïve kids from “Desert Full of Water.” What gives the story a chilling edge is the psychopathic nature of their revolution: what starts with hanging dogs will surely become quite ugly.
In one of the collection’s most inventive stories, Samanta Schweblin’s “On the Steppe,” a couple moves to the titular landscape. It might be the Pampas, but the Argentine Schweblin typically uses the fantastic in her writing, so the location remains mysterious. The couple is desperate, alone, hoping they can capture something. The exact things remains unclear, except that it is dear.
I ask only to make him keep talking, and then he says something wonderful, something that never would have occurred to me, yet I understand it will change everything.
“They had the same problem,” he says. His eyes shine and he knows I’m dying for him to continue—“and they have one, they’ve had him for a month.”
As Schweblin builds the story there is an interplay between what they are searching for and the language of expectation. They meet another couple who has one of these mysterious things, and the more they talk about it the more it seems it is a child: How much does it sleep? Is it cute? The narrator is so desperate by the time she sees it, it might as well be a child. The disturbing ending breaks the domesticity that has settled over the two couples, again throwing the language into sharp relief. It is Schweblin’s great strength as a writer to take the ordinary and make it perplexing.
Finally, the Brazilian author Santiago Nazarian’s “Fish Spine” turns a deceptively simple story into a lyrical moment: a boy who sells fish in a market wants to date a wealthier girl who works elsewhere. Nazarian blends images of the fish spines the boy cleans with those of his back, as if his body is fighting a fish within. Contrasted against the physical fish are the origami fish, which are pure and do not smell, as do those from the market. Whenever he is with the girl studying for exams or taking the bus, he wonders if he smells like fish, or if the origami fish he gives her will smell. Has he been able to move from the physical world to an ephemeral one of paper and ideas? The longing for transformation, both socially and physical is indicative of what these characters see as actually possible.
The stories in this collection show a new generation confronting different realities and forging a new ascetic. The total novel of the Boom is over, but authors like Alarcón and Roncagliolo certainly have not refrained from addressing current events (Their novels are even more indicative of this). Yet in reading the volume it is hard to see how the historical events Paz mentions have shaped the authors. There is always something in the background, but what marks these authors both politically and aesthetically is a turn towards the personal. The ascetic is not about self-absorption, but experiencing the common place with its deep flaws and rendering it in small portraits. It is an approach that eschews the literary nation building of the Boom and leaves a series of fragmented voices unable to capture the totality of any one country. Their work is not as easy to categorize, but it offers new directions for Latin American fiction.