Is The Center of Spanish Language Publishing Returning to Latin America?

El Pais had an article recently about La Feria del LIbro de Buenos Aires and a group of Latin American authors who gave their thoughts on where the power base of Spanish publishing is. Historically it has gone back and forth. While Spain was under Franco Latin America was the publishing center. When Spain became a democracy and Latin America had its own problems the center of publishing moved to Spain. Now the question is, is it about to change? Many of the authors consulted hoped it would, pointing out it is silly that to get books published they have to go to Spain, and that if they only publish in their home country their book probably won’t leave their home country. Ebooks, of course, were touted as one of the solutions but it is uncertain if that is going to be as liberating as might be hoped for. Given that Spain refused to put in a large presence in the book fair do to a squabble with Argentina, things are certain to change.

Vale, no hay un nuevo Gabriel García Márquez en Latinoamérica. Ni “rayuelas”, ni “conversaciones en la catedral”. No hay millones de personas en el mundo esperando a que salga el último libro de la porteña Claudia Piñeiro, o de su compatriota Marcelo Cohen, premio de la Crítica en Argentina por su novela Balada. La gente no abarrota las salas donde habla la mexicana Guadalupe Nettel, ni se detiene el tráfico cuando cruza un semáforo con su mochila al hombro el chileno Alejandro Zambra o el colombiano Tomás González. Y sin embargo, a todos ellos les va bien dentro y, a veces, fuera de sus países. La Feria del Libro de Buenos Aires también goza de excelente salud: desde el 19 de abril y hasta el 7 de mayo se espera la asistencia de 1.250.000 personas que pagarán el equivalente a 4,5 euros por entrar en un recinto casi tan grande como cinco campos de fútbol lleno de libros. Los cinco novelistas se dieron cita el viernes en la Feria para hablar ante una audiencia de unas 200 personas no sobre sus propios libros, sino de sus experiencias como lectores. Muy pronto surgió la cuestión de España: ¿Por qué se depende tanto de las editoriales españolas para encontrar a los buenos autores de Latinoamérica? ¿Por qué siguen llegando los libros de otros idiomas traducidos al español de España?

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Mexico and the Narco Wars – Some New Books

The New York Review of Books has an excellent article on the narco wars that have over taken Mexico in the last couple of years and have been brewing for even longer. If you are interested in Latin America or Mexico they are interesting in themselves, but it will also be helpful to understand the growing body of literature that is covering these events (you can see some of my posts on the subject here and here). Reading the review may leave you depressed, but at least it will give a bit more context than another story on beheaded corpses that seem to come up every so often.

How to write about Mexico’s drug war? There are only a limited number of ways that readers can be reminded of the desperate acts of human sacrifice that go on every day in this country, or of the by now calamitous statistics: the nearly 28,000 people who have been killed in drug-related battles or assassinations since President Felipe Calderón took power almost four years ago, the thousands of kidnappings, the wanton acts of rape and torture, the growing number of orphaned children.

For reasons they themselves probably do not completely understand, the various Mexican drug clans and organizations responsible for so much bloodshed have acquired a liking for public attention, and to hold it they have developed a grisly theatrical performance of death, a roving display of grotesque mutilations and executions. But for all the constant innovations, one horrifying beheading is, in the end, much like the next one. The audience’s saturation point arrives all too quickly, and news coverage of the war, event-driven as all news is, has become the point when people turn the page or continue surfing.

We, the people in charge of telling the story, know far too little ourselves about a clandestine upstart society we long viewed as marginal, and what little we know cannot be explained in print media’s standard eight hundred words or less (or broadcast’s two minutes or under). And the story, like the murders, is endlessly repetitive and confusing: there are the double-barreled family names, the shifting alliances, the double-crossing army generals, the capo betrayed by a close associate who is in turn killed by another betrayer in a small town with an impossible name, followed by another capo with a double-barreled last name who is betrayed by a high-ranking army officer who is killed in turn. The absence of understanding of these surface narratives is what keeps the story static, and readers feeling impotent. Enough time has passed, though, since the beginning of the drug war nightmare1 that there is now a little perspective on the problem. Academics on both sides of the border have been busy writing, and so have the journalists with the most experience. Thanks to their efforts, we can now begin to place some of the better-known traffickers in their proper landscape.

BabeliAmérica Spain-Latin America On-line Literary Conference Starts Monday

Babelia y El Pais have created an on-line conference that will from Monday October 4 to 10. It will feature authors and artists from Latin America. Babelia will have interviews, profiles, conversations, and other digital means of getting to know the invited artists from Latin America as they discuss the different paths of culture in Latin America. Those participating are the film makers Claudia Llosa (Perú), Marcelo Piñeyro (Argentina), Paz Fábrega (Costa Rica) y Óscar Ruiz (Colombia); the folk singer Jorge Drexler (Uruguay);  the writers Martín Caparrós (Argentina), William Ospina y Héctor Abad Faciolince (Colombia), Iván Thays (Perú), Élmer Mendoza y Jorge Volpi (México); Wendy Guerra (Cuba); the artists Carlos Garaicoa (Cuba) y Miguel Calderón (México); the historian Felipe Pigna (Argentina) and the Puerto Rican Band Calle 13. Carlos Fuentes will open the proceedings.

Except for the time zone issue, it looks like a good conference:

BabeliAmérica. Maloca cultural-virtual es un escenario digital multimedia e interactivo a través del cual invitamos a todos los internautas a disfrutar y vivir, del 4 al 10 de octubre, dos eventos clave en la capital española: VivAmérica, organizado por Casa de América, y Ágora. América Latina, 100 voces diferentes. Un compromiso común, organizado por la Fiiapp (Fundación Internacional y para Iberoamérica de Administración y Políticas Públicas).

Con una programación propia y variada, por BabeliAmérica pasarán más de veinte personajes que están marcando los derroteros culturales y artísticos de América Latina. Entre ellos los cineastas Claudia Llosa (Perú), Marcelo Piñeyro (Argentina), Paz Fábrega (Costa Rica) y Óscar Ruiz (Colombia); el cantautor Jorge Drexler (Uruguay); los escritores Martín Caparrós (Argentina), William Ospina y Héctor Abad Faciolince (Colombia), Iván Thays (Perú), Élmer Mendoza y Jorge Volpi (México); Wendy Guerra (Cuba); los artistas Carlos Garaicoa (Cuba) y Miguel Calderón (México); el historiador y experto en el bicentenario Felipe Pigna (Argentina) y la banda de música puertorriqueña Calle 13.

BabeliAmérica te acercará a todos estos y más personajes y a sus obras a través de vídeos, entrevistas, conversaciones, encuentros digitales, crónicas, diarios de la jornada, álbumes fotográficos, reportajes y una mesa redonda basada en las preguntas que ustedes formulen a los invitados, en la sede madrileña de EL PAÍS, y que podrán seguir desde sus computadores en vivo y en directo; o en el lenguaje del medio: en streaming. Será el viernes 8 de octubre y el nombre de los tres invitados lo revelaré mañana.

Como ya he dicho, la inauguración de esta fiesta en la Maloca cultural-virtual corre por cuenta de Carlos Fuentes desde Nueva York. Un día antes de que el casi centenar de creadores y otras tantas actividades entre exposiciones, foros y mesas redondas invadan Madrid. Pero antes, a las 11 de la mañana, ELPAIS.com lanzará en la Red ese escenario cultural y digital, donde se presentará toda la programación propia que llevaremos hasta sus computadores, basados en la oferta de los eventos madrileños. También se explicará en que consiste cada una de las seis secciones o salas previstas cada día, con sus respectivos horarios, que se irán llenando de contenido a medida que avance la semana, y que usted podrá consultar cuando quieran. Esas secciones son Autorretrato, Protagonistas, La cita, Diario del anfitrión, Encuentro digital y Sesión Eskup América.

Sólo basta entrar en ELPAIS.com o en este blog de Babelia, Papeles perdidos, a partir de mañana, para conocer las diferentes actividades y vivirlas desde cualquier lugar del mundo.

Mexican Author Carlos Monsivais has Passed Away

I haven’t read anything from Monsivais but he was an important writer, one whose work has been little appreciated in the English speaking world. His book on Mexico City sounds fascinating. La Plaza has an excellent appreciation on his like and work in English and El Pais has a lengthy piece in Spanish.

The writer was not well-known outside Mexico. Translation of his work is very limited. Unlike contemporaries such as Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, Monsivais did not strive to address great universal themes but instead concerned himself with the politics and peculiarities of life in Mexico. And specifically, in the urban carnival that is modern Mexico City.

His first book “Dias de guardar” (“Days to Remember,” 1970) chronicles the tumult and tragedy of the 1968 student movement, which culminated with the massacre at Tlatelolco. In “Amor perdido” (“Love Lost,” 1977) Monsivais writes eloquently on the politicians, artists and movie stars of the moment. In “Los rituales de caos” (“Rituals of Chaos,” 1995) Monsivais weaves a kaleidoscopic look at a Mexico City brimming with life under the duress of pollution, crime and overcrowding.

“In the visual terrain,” the book’s opening line says, “Mexico City is, above all, the too-many-people.”

He also wrote numerous biographies, including volumes on artist Frida Kahlo, singer Pedro Infante and  Salvador Novo, an eccentric early 20th century bohemian who is considered Monsivais’ primary predecessor. He published prolifically even late into his life, producing a new set of essays on Mexico City in 2009, “Apocalipstick.”

A dedicated lover of Mexican cinema and popular culture, Monsivais offered to the general public his collection of thousands of photographs, prints and other items with the formation of the Museo del Estanquillo in downtown Mexico City.

Where’s The Magic, Isabel? Reviewing Allende’s Recent Reviews

I haven’t read an Isabel Allende book in ages, but I noticed she had a new one coming out and as one of the most famous Latin American authors in the States, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at the reviews. For old time sakes, at least. What is obvious is that if you live by magical realism, you die by it. Every reviewer I came across was asking for some of the good stuff, that old magic that made House of Spirits famous. It is a little lazy to demand a writer keep writing in the same style. Again books from Latin American authors must fit some sort of mold and here it must be the exotic locals, war and love. At least the Times review mentioned Alejo Carpentier.

I wasn’t much impressed by the reviews. From the NY Times:

The resulting canvas contains no less than the revolutionary history of the world’s first black republic as Allende portrays the island’s various factions: republicans versus monarchists, blacks versus mulattoes, abolitionists versus planters, slaves versus masters. She revels in period detail: ostrich-feathered hats, high-waisted gowns, meals featuring suckling pigs with cherries. Her cast is equally vibrant: a quadroon courtesan and the French officer who marries her; Valmorain’s second wife, a controlling Louisiana Creole; Zarité’s rebel lover, who joins Toussaint L’Ouverture in the hills. But for all its entertaining sweep, the story lacks complex characterization and originality. And its style is traditional. Where, you wonder, are the headless men — or, in ­Allende’s case, headless women? Where is the magical realism?

[…]

Ultimately, however, Allende has traded innovative language and technique for a fundamentally straight­forward historical pageant. There is plenty of melodrama and coincidence in “Island Beneath the Sea,” but not much magic.

The review from the LA Times was a plot summary. At least you will know what happens in the book.

With this admirable novel, Allende cements her reputation as a writer of wide scope and amazing talent. Although very traditional in its unfolding — readers enamored by her use of magical realism will find little in this narrative — this historical novel does what one hopes a book of its ilk will do: transport readers to a new world, open up history and make it come alive, and cause readers to forget time passing in the world the author has so carefully and lovingly built.

Forget Magical Realism-It’s The Narco Novel in Latin America

El País and Global Newsroom Americas have an articles on the boom in narco novels in Latin America. From countries like Mexico and Columbia and places like Puerto Rico, the narco novel is replacing the novel of the dictator and, instead, replacing it with stories of drug lords and the violence that comes with it.

“If we are talking about violence we are talking about narco violence,” says Cabiya while Élmer Mendoza notes that it is about the second most important business after arms trafficking: “It is not something exotic, but daily life.”

“Si hablamos de violencia hablamos de narco”, dice Cabiya mientras Élmer Mendoza apunta que se trata del segundo negocio más importante del mundo después del tráfico de armas: “No es algo exótico sino la realidad cotidiana”.

The story is all to familiar and the United States, unfortunately, is part of the problem. It seems problems never end and get recycled in fiction:

What the Paraguay of José Gaspar Rodrígues de Francia, the Dominican Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, the Guatemalan Estrada Caberera or the Chilean Agusto Pinochet represented for he authors of the boom, today the leaders of the mafias from Medellín or Ciudad Juarez represent for their heirs. The capos of the drug traffickers have been substituted for the dictators en Latin American Literature. The military jeeps had given way to fleets of four by fours with tinted windows and the violence has stopped moving in the sense of vertical to colonize horizontally the entire society.

Lo que para los autores del boom representaron el paraguayo José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, el dominicano Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, el guatemalteco Estrada Cabrera o el chileno Augusto Pinochet lo representan hoy para sus herederos los jefes de las bandas mafiosas de Medellín o Ciudad Juárez. Los capos del narcotráfico han sustituido a los dictadores en la literatura latinoamericana. Los jeeps militares han dado paso a una flota de aparatosos cuatro por cuatro con cristales ahumados y la violencia ha dejado de moverse en sentido vertical para colonizar horizontalmente la sociedad entera.

The Global Newsroom Americas has a similar story in English. In both there is the notion that magical realism has out lived its usefulness, which probably over states the power of magical realism and plays into the stereotype of Latin American literature.  They do raise a valid point: when does art describe and when does it celebrate? Although they don’t make the connection the world of naro-corridos is the extreme end, where drug gangs and their members are celebrated in song. Much as gangster rap described the tough world of the streets then became a self reinforcing parody of themselves.

“Overnight, all of the elements of an eccentric and harrowing thriller arrived on the table of the Latin American writers,” says Mexican writer and scholar, Jorge Volpi. Latin American writers “hurried to incorporate drug dealers into their texts, first as a backdrop then as the centre of the action.” The traffickers acquired an almost “mythic aura,” he said, speaking last year to an audience at the University of Rochester, USA. Stories tell of poverty stricken adolescents struggling up through the ranks of drug gangs, of young hit men, as portrayed in Colombian writer, Fernando Vallejo’s novel, La Virgin de los Sicarios, (Our Lady of the Assassins), of women more beautiful than any other and of the police; underpaid and almost always corrupt.

[…]

This style of fiction is a world away from the Latin American style of magical realism, with its tales of morality and fairy stories, seen in literature such as Gabriel García Márquez’s, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The contemporary novel finds its influence in westerns and films such as The Godfather and Pulp Fiction. And writers draw on what is happening around them. Dictators have fallen out of favour, says Volpi, what interests them now is, “the enemies of the system, the criminal bands and drug dealers that are waging war against the state and their rivals.”

[…]

But for some members of the public it is not only the characters of narco-literature who are the bad guys, it’s the writers. Drug traffickers have gone mainstream. No longer are they just constrained to Mexican ballads. They are now regular stars not only in books but also in films and soap operas. And with this new found popularity comes concern. Groups such as, No more Narco books in Colombia and No more Violence nor Narco Books on Facebook, talk about social responsibility and the danger of glorifying violence and drug traffickers. Writing on, No more Narco Books, Series and Films, one member said, “With all the damage that drug trafficking has done us, television now wants to glorify it. They want to damage us with more and more violence.”

Review of New Horacio Castellanos Moya Book at El Pais

El Pais gave a brief review of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s latest book Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta. It is a good review, if brief.

Even though he has not put the stories together with this purpose, the 22 stories in Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta (With the Grief of the Tormented Past), by the Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya (Tegucigalpa, 1957), could serve one who does not know the rest of his books as an introduction to characters and themes that people them. Here one meets soldiers and journalists, professors and waiters, photographers and whores, revolutionaries and ex-prisoners, in addition to the endless supporting characters that with a  mere stroke acquire an immediate life (in this Castelanos is Cervantesque). As for the themes, over all of them is one: love, but not hevenly but the other urgent love that is the passion to posses, already seducing, cheating or believing cheated, paying or believing bought. In fact, some stories would fit well in a magazine with naked bodies if it were not for the literary quality, that style of sensual microsurgeon, that is as torrid as the subject mater. Also, because in the stories appear some complicated characters, insecure and anxious men, enfeebled by the testosterone that eroticises one with fantasies about what the rest do in their bed. Likewise alcohol occupies a place of honor – whiskey and beer most of all -, the public places where people drink and the alcoholics in general. And finally, the last of the short list is war, that conditions everything, manipulates and overturns so that the characters walk through the path of exile or brutalization. These three themes, nerveless, treat with unequal fortune and provoke disparate stories, something normal to keep in mind is the stories were written over 20 years. You can recognize two of stories, ‘Variaciones sobre el asesinato de Francisco Olmedo’ and ‘Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta’, that are really short novels. The first relates a trip into the past of a man who looks for the truth about the death of his friend in a gang, or that is what he believes, and fabricates the search with success until it leaves the reader convinced of all his uncertainties. The second uses for its title a quote from Don Quixote when the he found himself at the sale of prostitutes, drinkers and squabbles. Here the narrator is a waiter that becomes involved in a nightmaire at the hands of snobs of all types, and is also about the investigation of a murder. Both stories are near perfect and show that Castellanos dominates that rythm that is not easy to control.

Aunque él no los haya reunido con este propósito, los 22 cuentos de Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta, del escritor salvadoreño Horacio Castellanos Moya (Tegucigalpa, 1957), podrían servir a quien no conociera el resto de su obra literaria como introducción a los personajes y los asuntos que la pueblan. Aquí se encuentran militares y periodistas, profesores y camareros, fotógrafos y putas, revolucionarios y ex reclusos, además de un sinfín de secundarios que con un simple trazo adquieren vida inmediata (en esto Castellanos es cervantino). En cuanto a los asuntos, son sobre todo uno: el amor, pero no el celeste sino ese otro amor urgente que es la pasión por poseer, ya sea seduciendo, engañando o creyendo engañar, pagando o creyendo comprar. De hecho, algunos relatos encajarían bien en una revista con cuerpos desnudos si no fuera porque aquí la calidad literaria, ese estilo de microcirujano sensual, es tan tórrida como el contenido. Y también porque en ellos aparecen algunos personajes complejos, hombres inseguros y ansiosos, enfebrecidos por la testosterona que se erotizan con fantasías sobre lo que hacen los demás en la cama. Asimismo ocupan un lugar de honor el alcohol -sobre todo la cerveza y el whisky-, los lugares públicos en donde se consume y los dipsómanos en general. Y, por fin, el último de la terna es la guerra, que todo lo condiciona, lo manipula y lo trastoca para que los personajes caminen por la senda del exilio o del embrutecimiento. Los tres asuntos, sin embargo, se tratan con fortuna desigual y dan lugar a cuentos dispares, algo normal teniendo en cuenta que se trata de relatos escritos a lo largo de 20 años. Hay que destacar dos de las historias, ‘Variaciones sobre el asesinato de Francisco Olmedo’ y ‘Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta’, que en realidad son novelas cortas. La primera relata el viaje al pasado de un hombre que busca la verdad sobre la muerte de su amigo de pandilla, o eso cree, y que fabula esa búsqueda con éxito hasta dejar al lector convencido de todas sus incertidumbres. La segunda lleva por título una cita tomada del Quijote, cuando el caballero se encuentra en la venta, de nuevo lugar de putas, bebedores y trifulcas. Aquí el narrador es un camarero que se ve involucrado en una pesadilla a manos de señoritos de todos los pelajes, también a propósito de la investigación de una muerte. Ambos relatos rozan la perfección y vienen a demostrar que Castellanos domina ese ritmo nada fácil que exige el medio fondo.

Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta

Horacio Castellanos Moya

Tusquets. Barcelona, 2009

309 páginas. 18 euros