Some Thoughts on Latin American Literature

© 2010 by Metta Anderson

Everyone would probably agree that there are major differences between the styles and contents found in books written by Latin American authors since at least 1960, although these differences were apparent long before then. Case in point is Gabriel García Márquez, whose literary production has not produced much critical writing in the past thirty or more years. After winning the Nobel for Literature in 1982, he seems to have become untouchable, and that’s a shame. There is nothing wrong with examining his work and that of his contemporaries and making some comparisons. This is a function of writing and should not be used as a source of warfare.

This all starts in the 15th Century, when Isabel and Ferdinand in May 1492 were able to defeat the Moors and unite a country now known as Spain. This event was not quite as blessed as it appeared at the time. It drained the royal treasuries, created a diaspora of the best creative minds in the country (Arab and Jewish) and installed one of the most anti-progressive ideas of all time—the Inquisition. Queen Isabel’s Best Friend Forever was the Dominican friar Torquemada, whose basic ideas on “cleansing” the new country for a new reign look surprisingly like Hitler’s. But while Hitler was stopped in his tracks in 1945, Torquemada’s ideas, theories, rules and regulations were dispersed all over a vast region called “The New World,” and took root. Even in the 21st Century, Latin America continues to pull itself free of the last traces of this brand of nihilism.

Sidestepping the religious issue somewhat, we have to look at events in the larger world, starting especially in the 16th Century. The first major development after the Gutenberg press was the rise of Protestantism and with it, a new role for women. Even though more female education was principally for the wealthy, the ideas eventually trickled down to the middle classes, producing Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and many others. Since the United States was founded with Protestant principles, the concept of women being able to read and write and do some arithmetic took root as well. As society became more and more secular, the idea that an educated woman could be an excellent “helpmate” protecting her husband’s and family’s assets gained favor (slowly, but surely). Not only that, but an educated woman might be able to find a way to support herself with dignity, rather than falling on prostitution, if the case arose (in theory).

This did not happen in Latin America. First, the Catholocism which arrived was an amalgam of older Roman Catholicism blended with 800 years of Islamic culture. “Fate” and not “free will” was a key ingredient. “Dominance” (the verb is “domar,” in Spanish) covered all social interactions. Even though the women who came to Latin America were hardly delicate flowers, they were treated as such. That they did contribute to the establishment of a European-based society in the Spanish colonies has been largely ignored. Fewer of them, of course, got an education. Women without an education are heavily dependent on men (fathers, husbands, uncles, brothers and sons), which means they are not going to rock the boat by telling these men how to behave. If they encouraged education among their sons, it was to get ahead socially, to impress the less educated. It had nothing to do with creating a better place to live. It had everything to do with making sure the women had something to live on.

In the 18th C., and the rise of declarations of rights, the one regarding freedom of expression was fiercely defended in France, Germany, England and the American colonies (soon to become the United States). In Latin America, the same right was defended, but with some caution. The Inquisition as a cultural heritage was strong enough to make a writer think twice, and from that comes a tendency to create “someplace else.” This even happened to Cervantes. While Shakespeare was specific about his plays taking place in England (the “Henry” series, for example) and Scotland (“Macbeth”), Cervantes only gets as far as La Mancha. Shakespeare talks about battles and skulduggery in real places (Venice), while Cervantes is creating a parallel universe (the characters in “Don Quijote” are effectively similar to characters in any episode of “Law & Order”). And not even the advent of “le réalisme” in 19th Century France had much impact on Latin American writers. A few really and truly did write about genuine social problems in their own countries and today these books are considered part of a vanguard.

Simply put, it really wasn’t until after World War II that a new generation of writers actually began to look at their own countries and write about what they saw, thought and experienced.

And then a lot of them left their own countries and went to live in Europe. Three writers who emerged at that time can be seen as representative of these first steps on a long road to intellectual independence. One is Julio Cortázar, of Argentina, who died in Paris a few years ago. Another is Mario Vargas Llosa, from Peru, and still writing. The third is Gabriel García Márquez, also still writing, and who lives most of the time in Mexico. (Vargas Llosa seems to be more peripatetic—he lives in Spain, but shows up in Lima, in London, in Paris, in New York, in Mexico. . . and he’s writing as he does this.) These three were also part of the literary “boom” of the 1960s, as their works were translated into multiple languages and published.

Bigger surprise—they made money from their books.The general practice in Latin America was to hold down a fulltime job at something (lawyer and/or journalist and/or college professor, and combinations of these) and pay for part or all of the costs of publication. Publicity for the books boiled down to notices in local literary reviews, maybe the local newspaper. This comes from the general low economic levels of these countries as well as a more generalized “cultural poverty” (or maybe a culture of poverty) as well as the fact that at least half the population in any given Latin American country was illiterate. Vargas Llosa has discussed some of these things in different essays, and has remarked that a problem in Latin America is the lack of playwrights because of a lack of a theatrical tradition, and he’s right about that. Simultaneously, poetry was considered superior to writing a novel, although I have no idea why this was so. Nevertheless, the success of these and other writers in the larger world not only ignited a certain amount of envy and jealousy among local writers, it made criticism impossible. Local education did not develop the discipline of critical analysis required even for writing a review of a book, and a lack of financial resources kept too many people tied to the local point of view. Thus, there was no “global perspective.” Furthermore, so many books considered “classics” or at least “worthwhile” in other parts of the world were not available in Spanish, so any kind of “compare and contrast” analysis would be impossible on the local level.

Gabriel García Márquez was always an excellent writer, even when he was a reporter at “El Espectador.” This alone incited probably more jealousy and envy than anyone in Colombia would like to admit. Local publishers refused to take on “100 Years of Solitude,” so it came out in Argentina. Its success on an international level simply cancelled out any discussion of its merits, at least locally and probably globally as well, at the time. His later books have done equally well and deservedly so, as books. They are brilliantly written, seductive and fascinating to read.

But not so much when transferred to film. I have watched so far the film versions of “Chronicle of an Announced Death” (a local version is better than the Italian version directed by Francesco Rossi, although the cinematography in the latter is excellent); “Love in the Time of Cholera” (Benjamín Bratt is much more “Colombian” than Javier Bardem, sad to say) and “Love and Other Demons,” done by a Costa Rican woman director (gorgeous cinematography). As a fine art photographer, I do appreciate how well these films are done on the visual level, but as someone who buys a ticket and sits through them in a theater in Bogotá, I’m not crazy about them. I think they show up García Márquez’s major weaknesses and they’re hard to miss.

The women come across as stereotyped and one-dimensional. The Colombian actress Angie Cepeda was supposed to be a hot young prostitute in “Love in the Time of Cholera,” but onscreen, she was just a young chick without clothes. No sex appeal, no seduction, no nothing. In the same film, a romantically-lit scene of two young women in a tub up in the mountains should have been erotic (or could have been). It wasn’t. The long shots of the Colombian landscape which followed this scene definitely were sensual and fascinating and enveloping.

And then we have “Love and Other Demons.” I think the other demon here would have to be the Marquis de Sade, who was alive and writing (extremely well, since his books are still in print, in various languages) during the period in which the film and original story took place. And the Marquis did it so much better!

There are serious problems with this movie. Yes, it is—again!—gorgeously filmed. But at the time it was shown in Bogotá, the local newspapers were carrying stories about priests abusing children, and the legal and moral implications that come with it. Yet the movie was trying to make a sympathetic argument precisely in favor of child abuse. I do not know what version my readers saw, but in the one at the Andino, here in Bogotá, that 14 year old girl keeps saying, “NO!” So have other 14 year olds in similar situations and the results are the same—no one listens.

The above-mentioned Marquis de Sade, for all his sins, made sure the reader understood that priests (bishops, cardinals, etc) seducing children (anyone under 18, basically) were lascivious scoundrels from the beginning, and their sexual proclivities served to underscore what kind of scumbag they really were. Usually they got punished (i.e., tortured) for their sins.

Not so the friar in “Love and Other Demons.” We are supposed to feel sorry for him, locked away with only his memories.

This is an undiscussed problem with García Márquez. Either he has no moral quibbles about the seduction of children or he’s trying to titillate. His women are either one-dimensional “ladies” or one-dimensional whores. In neither case are they actual human beings. This doesn’t show up so much in his books, because he’s very gifted with words. We just go along for the ride in his literary jungle.

At the same time, he is talking about a Colombia that disappeared a very long time ago. It’s colorful, “folkloric” and “magically realistic” (or “realistically magical,” if you prefer). In the reality of Colombia itself, it’s a thin disguise for anarchy, where the upper classes have literally gotten away with murder for centuries. But adhering to the longer Spanish literary tradition (“Quijote”), García Márquez does not name names nor get really specific about places. Yes, Aracataca exists, but getting there takes a while and you really have to be fluent in Spanish in order to have meaningful conversations with its inhabitants. For someone coming from an urban environment (foreign or domestic), the heat and the daily rhythms and the massive and exuberant foliage will genuinely take your breath away. García Márquez creates an environment in writing that stands up to the reality described, and that’s no mean feat. Besides, it’s really comforting to foreigners reading the book (especially “100 Years of Solitude”) to believe in this universe and not have to deal with the realities of Colombia and Latin America. For that, you have to read Mario Vargas Llosa.

Vargas Llosa started out at San Marco University in Lima, Peru, planning (half-heartedly, by his own account) to become a lawyer while continuing to write. But he dropped out and went to Paris. He not only acquired fluency in French, but later fluency in English (in London). I think this gave him the global view that sets his work apart from his contemporaries (as well as the young Turks coming up behind him). He remembered Peru and wrote about it, but he did so with the realism that pervaded (pervades) European and North American writers. He got to know women, as people, and included them in his books. I think he is today the only Latin American writer who rejected the “Fleurs du Mal Syndrome” of the Symbolists in 19th C. France, who clearly saw women as evil incarnate and whose philosophies permeate much of Latin American writing, even now. Yes, movies have been made from his books, and there are at least three film versions of “Pantaleón y las Visitadoras,” a genuinely funny novel about the Peruvian military. The book also deals with certain realities of life in the jungle which have not been described by any other fiction writer I can think of. “Paradise on the Other Corner” is a novel based on historical fact which ought to give artists and art historians some thoughts about genuinely dedicating oneself to one’s art. And let’s not forget that Hugo Chávez seems to be using “La Fiesta del Chivo” as a playbook on How to Run Your Country Right Into the Ground. I don’t think these books would have been possible if Vargas Llosa had followed the tradition of creating a nebulous but parallel universe without much specificity.

More clearly—I know that Aracataca exists, on a map, in the Republic of Colombia. But the one created by García Márquez is nebulous. In fact, it is specifically nebulous, in order to be a stand-in for reality. In literature, this works very well, no question. It also works in film. But given the realities of Latin America and its history, and the emergence of educated and talented writers, it may be time to make room on the bookshelf for something a little more concrete.


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