By Mike Gonzalez
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From One Struggle to Another

This article is over 17 years, 10 months old
From colonialism to nationhood and capitalism, Mike Gonzalez looks at the evolution of Latin American literature and its inspirations.
Issue 305

In 1941 the US publisher Farrar & Rinehart advertised a competition for the best Latin American novel. It was won by Broad and Alien is the World, set in a mountain community in Peru. Its author, Ciro Alegria, was one of a generation of writers who called themselves the indigenistas, middle class intellectuals committed to recuperating the culture and traditions of the indigenous communities of the Andes. The second place in the competition went to Juan Carlos Onetti, a Uruguayan whose No Man’s Land seemed to belong with the novels of urban alienation more familiar to the richer countries in the north. It was as if these two works stood at a crossroads, looking in two different directions at Latin America’s reality.

Four centuries earlier, Spain’s conquest of the Americas was recorded by the victors. The native populations of the region, some 30 million of them, disappeared from sight into a murky world of barbarians and mythical animals. They had become invisible in a culture dominated now by an imperial vision, and the language and traditions of Europe. Some 10 percent of the original population of the Americas survived the combined assault of hard labour, war and disease. Most of them were sent into the mines or forced to labour, alongside the slaves recently brought from Africa, on the great plantations. Yet, amazingly, their language and cultural memory survived, in Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia and Peru, and the slave communities of Cuba and Brazil.

By the early 20th century, when Spanish domination was almost a memory, a new colossus threatened to overwhelm Latin America again, culturally as well as economically. A burgeoning US had already announced its “right to control” the region in a new version of the Monroe Doctrine first enunciated in 1843. A cultural resistance began to form among the middle class intellectuals who had no interest in colluding with the new empire, but who were bent on developing nation-states capable of negotiating with the giant from a position of strength. And the symbol they chose to represent what was distinct about their nations was the hidden Indian past, or the memory of black communities.

It was these populations who filled the pages of the new literature of Latin America, and more generally defined the cultural expression of Latin America in the 1920s and 1930s. Indigenous music was rediscovered by nationalist music scholars.

The new poets looked for the languages of black speech. There were occasional voices who spoke authentically from their experience – like Nicolás Guillén, the black Cuban poet who learned from Langston Hughes, the voice of the Harlem Renaissance. The new novelists introduced indigenous characters into their work. They were unremarkable novels for the most part, stages where stereotyped evil landowners, corrupt priests, violent police chiefs, and mute and oppressed Indians met in carefully choreographed encounters.

The problem was that the writers were well meaning non-Indians whose sympathy with the oppressed did not extend to giving them their own voice – although they showed their mistreatment by the old ruling classes to powerful effect.

A younger generation, particularly in Peru, tried to address the problem of the voiceless victims. José María Arguedas, who had grown up speaking Quechua, the predominant indigenous language, spent a lifetime trying to recreate for a Spanish-speaking audience the culture and worldview of the Andean communities, particularly in his wonderful Deep Rivers. Ciro Alegría, the winner of the 1941 competition, also set out to represent the Indian communities – but he tended to idealise the past and also, more seriously, to speak on behalf of those still voiceless people.

This was the literature of nationhood. Every current within the intellectual left saw in the narrative an opportunity to create an image of community rooted in a shared past. Except, of course, that the indigenous peoples remained poor and marginalised, and society was still dominated by the rich and powerful. The rural community could no longer represent modern cities where so many of those who had suffered the brutalities of the landowners were drifting into the cardboard cities swelling around the metropolises like Mexico City, Rio, Bogota and Buenos Aires. In 1969 Arguedas committed suicide. He left a note which spoke of his despair at the irreconcilability of the Quechua and Spanish worlds.

Historical obstacles

Carlos Fuentes came from a wealthy and cosmopolitan background. His terrain was the burgeoning Mexican capital, whose population had doubled between 1954 and 1958, the year his urban novel Where The Air Is Clear was published. In the same year his Colombian contemporary Gabriel García Márquez published his brilliant first novel Nobody Writes to the Colonel, mostly written in the brothels of Barranquilla, where he earned his living as a journalist. The Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, the third of this trio who would found the “new Latin American novel”, produced a volume of short stories.

The movement’s three leading writers were very different. Fuentes and Vargas Llosa set their work in a new and urban setting – and both, in some sense, were fascinated by the cultural and historical obstacles that lay in the way of progress, or the legacies that a modernising Mexico or Peru had to deal with. Fuentes was more sympathic to the historical memories embedded in a pre-Hispanic Mexico. His book The Death Of Artemio Cruz saved its wrath for the opportunists and cynics who had betrayed the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17. Vargas Llosa was brutal in his rejection of what he saw as a pointless historical nostalgia, whose effects he explored in a marvellous novel recreating a famous millenarian movement of the late 19th century called The War at the End of the World – in fact he wrote an essay attacking Arguedas for that very offence.

But the major Latin American influence on world writing, García Márquez, was very different from his two very cosmopolitan contemporaries. He developed what he called magical realism, a term he borrowed from the great Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier. And while others around the world seized on this idea of magical realism as a kind of reinvention of the surrealist tradition, or an excursion into some primitive worlds, Márquez’s vision of it was much more profound. Latin America, as he saw it, was born in a colonial mind thousands of miles across the Atlantic. It wasn’t so much “discovered” as invented, leaving all those who were living there in a state of limbo.

And yet they did sustain a vision of their own, a distinct memory, a different history, enshrined in oral cultures, stories, legends and collective myth. It might have been better for Márquez to call his method mythical realism – since magic evokes ideas of conjuring and trickery. What his novels do, and what his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude enshrines, is explore the ways in which two parallel realities, two ways of seeing and remembering, clash within this one Latin American reality. If they could be reconciled, or somehow merged, perhaps a different Latin America, or a series of changed nations, could be born out of this new consciousness. The paradox is that in many ways these writers became rich and famous because they were exotic and “other”, rather than because they were asking for the West to reconsider its monolithic and imperial vision of culture and change.

Today Latin America’s voice is less strange, ironically, just as it is in some ways more despairing. The kids of Cidade de Deus (the film City of God, set in the slums of Rio) speak a language familiar to inner-city rap, and reflected in the work of the younger novelists like Patrícia Melo. Mexico City is no longer a melting pot for a new nation, but instead the fragmented and alienated environment reflected in films like Amores Perros and the urban ironies of commentators like Carlos Monsiváis. In Chile a generation of writers learned to write in the obscure and closed vocabularies that censorship and repression forced upon them. And even the newest generation of Cuban writers seem to endlessly reproduce images of nihilism and hopelessness captured, for example, in the Dirty Havana trilogy of Pedro Juan Gutiérrez.

Perhaps a newer generation has found its voice in new forms – in music, in film, in performance – and in the testimonies and documentaries that will provide the materials for a new writing not concerned with founding a national culture but with exposing its limits.

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