El insomnio de Bolívar (Bolivar’s Insomnia), by Jorge Volpi Reviewed at Letras Libres

After reading Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash and some of his criticism I have been looking forward to seeing his prize wining El insomnio de Bolívar in print. Letras Libres has given it a mixed review. The basic point is Volpi says there is no national literature and Latin America isn’t filled with strange characters, except that it is. I’m sure it is an interesting read, but it does look flawed.

The problem, almost too much to say it, are not the provocations, large or toothless according to the sensibility to who reads them. The problems are the incoherences: he wants to rescue Latin America from magical realism and in the following act proclaim that Latin American literature has ceased to exist; celebrate that the region has normalized and immediately after proceed to inventory all its abnormalities; protest against the expectation of otherness that the international market has pushed on the Latin American writer, but writing a book in Latin America continues being a field radically different characterized, oy, by its fertile chaos.

El problema, casi sobra decirlo, no son las provocaciones, tremendas o desdentadas según la sensibilidad de quien las lea. El problema son las incoherencias: querer rescatar a América Latina del realismo mágico y, acto seguido, proclamar que la literatura latinoamericana ha dejado de existir; celebrar que la región se ha “normalizado” para, inmediatamente después, proceder al inventario de sus “anormalidades”; protestar contra la expectativa de otredad que el mercado internacional le impone al escritor latinoamericano, pero escribir un libro en el que América Latina sigue siendo un ámbito “radicalmente distinto” caracterizado, ay, por su “fecundo caos”.

Jorge Volpi on the Latin American Noir and Drug Novel

In part five of Jorge Volpi’s excellent lecture on Latin American writing he delves into the world of the narco novel. It is a fascinating list of works and it is a bit of a shame that they won’t make it into English, but since Americans would rather avoid the South than admit they are part of the problem when it comes to drugs, I doubt many will be translated, which only highlights Volpi’s emphasis on the otherness of Latin America.

Instead of worrying about what is going wrong in the new democracies—too predicable and boring—the Latin American writers interested in the present situation of their nations have preferred to occupy themselves with the enemies of the system, the criminal bands and drug dealers that are waging a war against the states and their rivals. This new contemporary epic, whose main influence is found in the Westerns and in the blacksploitation films, with touches of The Godfather and Pulp Fiction, has become an authentic literary sub-genre in the region and has even contaminated writers of the international mainstream, like the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, who transformed a drug dealer from Sinaloa into the main character of The Queen of the South (2002). As opposed to the realism of other times, the narco-literature teaches no lessons, passes no moral judgments, and is barely an instrument of criticism, but as its authors have felt compelled to recreate the speech and habits of their protagonists, their out of control lives, and their atrocious deaths with pinpoint accuracy, it has ended up becoming the social art that remains nowadays.

For evident reasons, Columbian literature was the first to explore this territory: the war between the government, the drug dealers, the different guerrilla groups, and the paramilitary quickly inspired a literary explosion. The already classic La virgen de los sicarios (1994) by Fernando Vallejo, centered in the desolate lives of young hit men at the service of the drug barons, pointed a way for the next generation: main characters that seem motivated only by bitterness, inertia, reproduction—or, as in this case, reinvention—written in the language of criminals, and in a style that, thanks to its dryness and distance, emphasizes the protagonists’ alienation. A little bit later, Jorge Franco finished defining the conventions of the genre when he incorporated a vigorous feminine figure into a world that up to then had been ruled by men in Rosario Tijeras (1999). It barely surprises that both novels were quickly adapted into movies: La virgen de los sicarios by the Belgian Barbet Schroeder in 2000 and Rosario Tijeras by the Mexican Emilio Maille in 2005.

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.

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.

Latin American Literature Does Not Exist Anymore – Jorge Volpi

Three Percent posted part two of Jorge Volpi’s thoughts on Latin American Literature, or perhaps better said, writing that comes from Latin America. Essentially, he states what should be obvious with some fore thought: not all writers in Latin America write about the same thing and the Boom and Magical Realism were nothing more than a straight jacket.

Let us be radical: Latin American literature does not exist anymore. Lovely: hundreds or thousands of Latin American writers exist, or better said, hundred of thousands of Chilean, Honduran, Dominican, Venezuelan (et cetera) writers exist, but a unique literary body endowed with recognizable characteristics, no. We have just seen it: the Spanish language is not a shared characteristic. And, if truth be told, there is nothing to lament.

The idea of a national literature, with typical and unrepeatable peculiarities, completely different from any other, is an anachronistic invention of the 19th century. As Benedict Anderson demonstrated in Imagined Communities (1983), the incipient European states were the ones that, threatened by popular revolts in that period, persisted in accentuating the consensus of its citizens through all kinds of schemes, patronage of the national literatures being one of the most powerful.


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.

Jorge Volpi Wins the Debate-Casa de América Prize

El País reports that Jorge Volpi won the Debate-Casa de América prize for his work El insomnio de Bolívar. From the description it sounds very interesting, a little like News From the Empire. All I need to do now is find a copy.

The history of Latin America from its mythic past to an imagined future is what El insomnio de Bolívar touches. With this work the Mexican writer Jorge Volpi won the Debate-Casa de América prize yesterday. This book, acording to the jury, is “well documented, avoids an academic tone and contributes with humor, irony and great literary skill, to the understanding of the American continent.” The winning work was selected by the jury from among 42 works.

The writer was in the US when he received the news of the award. “I imagine an American future with enormous problems and challenges and with the dream that all of America, including the English speaking, will form something like the European Union.” Volpi has written an essay divided into four parts about the identity, democracy, narrative, and the future of Latin America. “The las part I have added some bits of fiction,” said the writer.

La historia de América Latina desde su pasado mítico hasta un futuro imaginado es lo que aborda El insomnio de Bolívar. Con esta obra, el escritor mexicano Jorge Volpi (México, 1968) se hizo ayer con el Premio Debate-Casa de América. Este libro, según el jurado, está “ampliamente documentado, escapa al tono académico y contribuye, con humor, ironía y gran oficio literario, a la comprensión del continente americano”. La obra ganadora fue seleccionada por el jurado entre un total de 42 trabajos presentados.

El escritor se encontraba en EE UU cuando recibió la noticia del premio. “Imagino un futuro de América con enormes problemas y desafíos y con el sueño de que toda América, incluida la anglosajona, formase algo parecido a la Unión Europea”. Volpi ha escrito un ensayo divido en cuatro partes en el que se acerca a la identidad, la democracia, la narrativa y el futuro de América Latina. “A la última parte le he podido añadir algunos tintes de ficción”, señaló el escritor.