Sergio Álvarez: Magical Realism has become an excuse for atrocities

I’m not particularly familiar with Sergio Álvarez but any kind of strong statement like this always catches my interest. Essentially, he is saying that magical realism can lull one into thinking that violence is the natural state of these exotic people.

Pregunta. ¿Este libro tiene algo de manifiesto?

Respuesta. Un poco. Me interesa mucho recuperar el placer de narrar por sí mismo, rescatar historias de personajes sencillos y salir de ese yo permanente, esa introspección permanente, característica de la literatura de hoy.

P. Entiendo, pero yo me refería a ruptura con la tradición del realismo mágico.

R. Es que ese movimiento literario, que fue magnífico, se ha convertido en una excusa para la atrocidad. Tanto en La lectora como aquí, lo que yo más quiero es señalar que en Colombia pasan cosas horribles y no falta quien diga “ah, claro, pero es que ése es el país del realismo mágico”. Mis libros apuntan a lo contrario: ponen las cosas crudas sobre la mesa para que se vea que estas cosas terribles no se pueden justificar.

P. O sea que usted saluda al realismo mágico pero propone pasar página.

R. García Márquez marca una época, pero hay que seguir adelante con la realidad que tenemos y no con la que quisiéramos tener o la que nos inventamos.

Controversy: Isabel Allende and the National Prize for Literature

Perhaps it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone who follows Latin American literature that there would be some controversy about Isabel Allende and Chile’s National Prize for Literature. I haven’t heard a kind word for her in a while, usually it is wrapped up in criticisms of popularity, but none of her recent books have really interested me. She doesn’t have to spend all her time writing magical realism, but I just don’t trust her when she writes about the US. Global Voices has a quick run down on some of the chatter that is accompanying her nomination. You can decide if it is petty or warranted.

Isabel Allende, author of The House of Spirits and the recently published Island Beneath the Sea, among other novels, is one of the best-known and most-read Latin American writers. This year, she is a candidate for the Chilean National Prize for Literature, a prize given by the government, the Ministry of Education, and the National Council of Culture and the Arts. Her candidacy has sparked debate among literature critics, writers, and average Chilean citizens.

Isabel Allende was born in Peru while her father worked there as a diplomat; her father’s cousin was Salvador Allende, the president who was ousted by a coup d’état led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Isabel Allende now lives in California. As reported by the Latin American Herald Tribune, “Her books have been translated into more than two-dozen languages and 51 million copies of her novels have been sold.” However, some critics, and even some readers, think her popularity is not enough reason to give her the prize.

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.

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”.

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.

La Semana De Colores, by Elena Garro – A Review

Elena Garro is not well known in the English speaking world, or if known, she is unfortunately known as the wife of Octavio Paz. She has been called the most important Mexican woman writer after Sor Juana, but for the most part her importance has dimmed over time so that only two books are in print in English.  La semana de colores is not one of those books, although the story Es la culpa de las tlaxcaltecas (It Is the Fault of the Tlaxcaltecas)is quite famous.

The stories in La semana range in style from magical realism to stories of criminal twist. Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas is the best story in the book and shows a mastery of the magical and historical in a story that blends 500 hundred years of history. Garro tells the story of a woman who meets an Indian on the side of the road. He is dressed for battle and keeps mentioning battles of in the distance. Margarita, a woman domineered by her husband, talks with him, but doesn’t understand what he is doing on the side of the road. Latter she sees him in Mexico City and around her home. The Indian, though, is just more than an aparation of the past, he is her cousin and husband, and Margarita continually says she has betrayed him. Yet she has to wait for him in the home of her husband in Mexico City and even tells him about the Indian, which makes him think she is crazy. Throughout the story Margarita shifts between these two realities: the modern Mexican life, and the Indian who is running from a defeat in battle; a loveless and violent marriage, and the true husband. Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas plays with the idea of a golden past, the past before the Spaniards came, to create a work that criticizes the macho world Margarita lives in. In the house she is a prisoner; outside she is free. The link is made all the more clear by the repeated references to the Tlazcaltecas who were the tribe who helped Cortés defeat the Aztecs. And when she says she was a traitor she plays on the story of La Malinche who helped Cortés and became his mistress. Garro uses these elements to create an opposing world where she would be free from the machismo of her house in Mexico City. There is also a longing to correct the mistake La Malinche made in becoming Cortés mistress. For Margarita to free herself of her husband, to do what she wants to do, is the way to break with the last 500 years of history and return at once to the past and the future.

If Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas masterfully blends the magical and the historical, some of the other stories are not quite as well rounded and tend towards a mix of peasants and ghosts or peasants and crime that is tiring. More than a few times I thought I was reading a mix of Juan Rulfo and Edgar Allen Poe. An example of the latter is Perfecto Luna where a man who was so overcome with guilt about killing a friend and disposing of the body parts in the adobe of his home he begins to hear him everywhere. Finally, he has to flee his home and town. As he is fleeing he finds a man on the side of the road and tells him everything. The next morning they find the killer dead. Perfecto Luna like other stories has several elements that run through many of the stories and grow a little tedious: peasants who believe in spirits and which manifests itself as a simple mindedness. While these stories were written in 1964 before Magical Realism became the dominant style, at this point to read stories about ghosts or devils or superstitious people who believe in them seems to insult the characters.

The other story that had some real merit was El arból. El arból while using a twist device at the end shows class tensions between an upper class woman and an illiterate woman from the country. The story, of course, shows the classest and racist attitudes of the rich woman, but it dwells more on how those fears become self fulfilling. However, there is, as always in these stories, a question of whether the attitudes bring on the rich woman’s violent end or was it something super natural. Where as some of the stories rely on the simplicity only of the characters, El arból allows for a broader range of thoughts and emotions between the two characters which makes it a richer story. Unfortunately, the ending is a little bit of a one liner that seems a little easy.

While the stories seem uneven, except for the Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas, there are sufficiently well written to warrant reading one of her few works that are translated into English.