Latin American Fiction
Labyrinths of the Irrational
Allowing ourselves to generalize from the particular, let us say that Latin American literature concerns itself with the fantastic and the social, two contrary perspectives that nevertheless allow for a twofold escape from Eurocentric 'enlightenment' complacency. Whether on the left (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Ernesto Sabato, Jorge Amado), or on the right (Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Mario Vargas Llosa), numerous writers from south and central America create not so much real worlds as universes that defy the laws of physics. This is what Vargas Llosa calls the "passionate irrationalism of the Latin tradition" according to Jason Cowley. In Amado's 'The Miracle of the Birds', the cuckolded husband in the story turns into a large Horntree, in Cortazar's 'Axolotl' a man who visits the Jardin des plantes, fascinated by axolotls, becomes one himself. In 'The Smallest Woman in the World' Clarice Lispector offers a woman who is seventeen and three quarter inches high, while in 'The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World', Garcia Marquez's dead man is "taller than all other men because there was barely enough room for him in the house." If the Amado and Cortazar stories hinge on impossibilities, Garcia Marquez's and Lispector's reside in unlikelihoods. The actual smallest man in the world isn't too far off Lispector's smallest woman (he is 21.5 inches), and Garcia Marquez gives a realistic indication of the man's size by suggesting he weighs almost as much as a horse. Yet whether the story defies the possible or exaggerates the unlikely, this is a fictional world that that has no particular fidelity to the real.
Obviously there is a long history of the fantastic in European literature and the US, and Borges, Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares give numerous examples of it in their international collection The Book of Fantasy, including tales by Evelyn Waugh, Rudyard Kipling and Guy de Maupassant, as well as by Joyce, Kafka and Poe. But overall the western canon is realistic rather than unlikely, with 20th century stories by Kafka like 'Metamorphosis' and 'Josephine the Singer', Dino Buzzati tales including 'The Bewitched Jacket' and 'Ubiquitous', more the exception than the rule. Despite the high reputations of anyone from Italo Calvino to Salman Rushdie, writers who share numerous affinities with Latin American fiction, they don't represent the norm.
Taking into account Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America, it is as though over the last few centuries Europe had the enlightenment, and the price of it was paid for by the rest of the world and especially Latin America. It is as if the European common sense approach to commerce became the continent's tragedy. Galeano quotes Adam Smith saying one of the principal effects of the discovery of America "has been to raise the mercantile system to a degree of splendour and glory which it could never have otherwise attained." But was it splendour and glory for some and misery and squalor for others? Galeano follows the Smith comment with one from Sergio Bagu saying the most potent force for the accumulation of mercantile capital was slavery in the Americas; and this capital in turn became "the foundation stone on which the giant industrialised capital of modern times was built." We needn't underestimate the terrible lives of the proletariat in Europe during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. But David Thomson in Europe After Napoleon notes "the second half of the year 1830 saw revolutions in France, Belgium, parts of Germany, Italy and in Poland" under the chapter heading The Liberal Revolutions of 1830-3". In 1833 Britain, for example, under a Whig government "abolished slavery as an institution throughout the whole of the British Empire." There was the idea in Europe that social progress was being made because of the enlightenment, but for many of the indigenous people in Latin America, enlightenment values indicated personal darkness. Slavery in Brazil was not abolished until 1888.
One is in danger here of simplifying huge swathes of social history. We should remember after all that in 1824 Simon Bolivar "issued the Trujillo Decree, designed to protect the Indians and reorganize the land-ownership system in Peru", and was known to quote Rousseau and Voltaire according to biographer John Lynch. (Simon Bolivar: A Life). Meanwhile Britain was well capable of oppressive politics before and after. In 1819, 60,000 workers gathered in Manchester over industrial depression and high food prices, and though the crowd included women and children, with no one armed and the marching crowd peaceable (according to the Encyclopedia Britannica) they were charged by the yeamonry, resulting in eleven deaths. The incident is known as the Massacre at Peterloo. Fifteen years later, six English farm labourers were sent off to an Australian penal colony for organizing trade union activity in Dorset. They became known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs. But it is as though these two famous examples of political oppression in Britain nevertheless came out of the sort of enlightenment values offered by Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot. The marchers and martyrs wanted to live the enlightenment ideal. A claim like Rousseau's "man is born free but is everywhere in chains", could have been Marx's, and the social movements in Britain were generally about gaining freedoms more than regaining aspects of their previous existence. Indeed many land issues in Latin America concerning indigenous people are not progressive in any enlightenment sense of the term. They are about giving something back rather than moving something forward.
There is a mistrust of the poor in Latin American fiction we find in writers of the right (in Borges's gaucho stories, in Bioy Casares's The Dream of Heroes) just as there is a specific concern for the people that we are more inclined to find on the left, for example in Jorge Amado and Juan Rulfo. Yet whether the writer is concerned with the people or apparently indifferent to their needs, a common denominator can be found. Amado could say at one end: "[Many of my] novels narrate the life of the people, everyday life, the struggle against extreme poverty, against hunger, the large estates, racial prejudice, backwardness, underdevelopment. The hero of my novels is the Brazilian people. My characters are the most destitute, the most needy, the most oppressed (Bookrags)". Borges, in contrast, insisted, according to his biographer Edwin Williamson, that he "was in favor of an "enlightened dictatorship" by an ethical elite for the sake of the long-term good of democracy." (Borges: A Life).
Nevertheless the questioning of the rational in both writers' work is paramount. Near the end of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands the title character frets over whether to banish the ghostly late husband, Vadinho, from her life, a man who returns at night and takes her body, or to accept that this love is much more important than the actual relationship she has with her second husband Dr Teodoro. Yet though the novel offers it as a question of choice, we might feel the book is already half on the side of the ex by virtue of the book's invocation of the impossible. If the choice is between a man of virtue and a man of passion, and the woman feels she is irrationally choosing the man of passion, then what happens if the irrational is also a dimension of the work we are reading? It is not as if only her feelings are irrational, as they might have been earlier in the book when she looks back on her life with Vadinho. Now the entire diegetic world itself is irrational as he comes back to her as a ghost. Amado plays up the ethical contrast but with the mischievous acknowledgement that this is hardly a fair fight. The irrational hasn't only made it into Dona Flor's mind, but also into the fabric of the novel itself.
Borges would constantly question the rational, saying in the essay, 'A New Refutation of Time', "I deny the existence of one single time, in which all things are linked as in a chain. The denial of coexistence is no less arduous than the denial of succession." In his fiction he often turned the thirst for knowledge and the need to know into the absurd, with 'On The Exactitude of Science' mocking empirical precision: the cartographers guild create maps that are exactly the same size as the city, region and empire that they capture. In 'Funes the Memorious' the central character remembers everything. "With no effort he had learned English, French, Portuguese and Latin. I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions." Whether it is capturing the enormousness of space or recalling the enormous nature of time, Borges says this rational project contains within it a madness greater than in many an irrational idea. It is the reductio ad absurdum of a thinking process that can duplicate, replicate and know all.
It is as though much Latin American fiction keeps in mind the story of Cortes and Montezuma, the idea that the white man in the midst of the Aztecs was their greatly feared white god Quetzalcoatl, who would return and take over their empire. Cortes played on this fear and defeated the Aztecs. Such a story could be viewed as no more than an absurd superstition or a mythic understanding of the white man's dangerous power. It might have been an American Donald Barthelme who wrote a story about the meeting called, simply, 'Cortes and Montezuma', but it is as if the myth is the founding tale for much great Latin American fiction, with the wily and greedy ways of Cortes contrasted with the deeper beliefs of Montezuma, and in this historical account lies suspicion towards the European way of thinking: that it is too cold and calculating. From a rationalist point of view of course Cortes won the clash: it was the end of the Aztecs, and many say Montezuma lost even the respect of his own people. Some reckon he died after he spoke to the crowds and they threw stones and fired arrows which killed him. Others insist that he was murdered in captivity at the hands of the Spanish while trying to escape. (Encyclopedia Britannica) Whatever the truth, the notion of the mythically inclined Montezuma and the rationally sly Cortes plays out in a fiction that finally appears more on the side of Montezuma than the Spanish conquistador, on mythological possibilities that counter the real over conforming to it.
In 'Major Aranda's Hand', Alfonso Reyes writes about the titular body part that takes on a life all its own, and introduces us to the difference between theological and biological man. "Theological man has been shaped in clay, like a doll, by the hand of God. Biological man evolves thanks to the service of his hand, and his hand has endowed the world with a new natural kingdom, the kingdom of the industries and the arts." Reyes's narrator adds: "left to its own nature, the hand gradually came to embody the Platonic idea that gave it being, the idea of seizing, the eagerness to acquire control." Our purpose in invoking Reyes's story isn't to idealize a Latin America before the white man that indicated bliss versus despair. Reyes's story is also happy to invoke Greek myths of Amphion's lyre and Zethus's mason building to indicate the difference between the artistic and the industrious, and later also invokes Maupassant and Nerval. Reyes is hardly a figure insisting on Edenic naivety over western progress or influence. But it is as though the divide interests him, that he wants to call into question progress as a given.
We might especially wish to muse over it when progress would be seen to have such a high cost, and the continent's natural environment completely manipulated. In Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano talks of Darcy Ribeiro and Sergio Bagu commenting on how Europe saw the Indians as the fuel of the colonial productive system, and, in Bagu's words, "that hundreds of Indian sculptors, architects, engineers and astronomers were sent into the mines along with the mass of slaves for the killing task of getting out the ore. The technical ability of these people was of no interest to the colonial economy." Later Galeano quotes Marx. "You believe, perhaps, gentlemen that the production of coffee and sugar is the natural destiny of the West Indies. Two centuries ago, nature, which does not trouble herself about commerce, had planted neither sugarcane nor coffee trees there." Adam Smith's famous claim about the invisible hand of the market was very visible indeed in the lives of the artisans and on a transfigured landscape. In Reyes' story we hear that the hand "became ungovernable, became temperamental", for hands can serve the people or destroy them. As Reyes says, mentioning fellow Mexican and muralist Diego Rivera's work, "the hand grasps the cosmic globe that contains the powers of creation and destruction; and in Chapingo the proletarian hands are ready to reclaim the patrimony of the earth." How does the hand make or destroy a people; allow a land to exist or become a factory production for western economic growth?
The Edenic dimension is more obviously evident in Machado de Assis's story 'Adam and Eve', where a narrator within the story says that Adam and Eve are listening to the snake telling them they can be at the birth of history, where they can "have royalty, divinity and poetry", "you'll found cities, and your name will be Cleopatra, Dido, Semiramis." Instead they choose heaven and escape the awfulness of historical event. How can history and progress avoid carrying inverted commas when so many atrocities have been done in their name? Galeano's book name-checks various writers that he feels augment the socio-political points he happens to be making, quoting and invoking Amado, Carlos Fuentes and Miguel Angel Asturias. He quotes Amado's Cacao where "not even the children touched the cacao fruit. They were afraid of those yellow berries, so sweet on the inside, which enslaved them to this life of breadfruit and dried meat." Asturias in The Green Pope talks of Minor C. Keith, someone whom Galeano sees plundering Latin America: "we have docks, railroads, land, building, and water...Chicago could not help but feel proud of that son who went off with a brace of pistols and returned to demand his position among the meat emperors, the railroad kings, the copper kings, the chewing-gum kings." In The Death of Artemio Cruz, Fuentes looks at a man from a humble background who starts out as a revolutionary and ends his life having exploited the land, resources and the people. As Galeano says: "his pilgrim's progress resembles that of the potently impotent party of the Mexican revolution which virtually monopolized the country's political life in our time. Both have fallen upward."
It is of course dangerous to turn the writers of a continent into political spokesmen for the people, and indeed Ericka Beckman has written well on numerous Latin American writers of the nineteenth century who were also involved in the higher echelons of politics, and who supported colonial endeavour. In Capital Fictions she says: "Nineteenth-century Spanish American political elites are frequently referred to as letrados, or men of letters, a term that points to the centrality of literary expression within early projects of nation building and modernization." These were figures often supporting exploitation rather than countering its implementation. Yet our purpose is to explore the numerous writers who were inclined to question colonialism and any apparent rational project behind it.
Juan Rulfo is for many Mexico's finest writer, someone who, Susan Sontag believed, wrote a "legendary book...who became a legend too, in his lifetime." The book was Pedro Paramo, and apart from The Burning Plain and Other Stories he didn't publish any other book of fiction in his lifetime. All his work focuses on the one region of Mexico (Jalisco) and later in life he worked as an editor for the National Institute for Indigenous People. Yet his work is harsh, and few would wish to be reflected in Rulfo's fiction: its purpose isn't to shine a spotlight on the people of his region; more a search light: he offers a penetrating look at lives hard on the inside as well as out. As a characters says in 'At Daybreak': "And I would've broken his nose if the boss, Don Justo, hadn't appeared suddenly and given me a swift kick to calm me down. He gave me such a beating that I was almost out cold among the rocks, my bones crackling with pain they were so battered." In 'Talpa' a couple of lovers drag the wife's ill husband on a long pilgrimage that all but kills him. The wife's lover is the husband's brother. "...what happened is that Natalia and I killed Tanilo Santos between the two of us. We got him to go with us to Talpa so he'd die. And he died." If Rulfo's work for the indigenous people was unequivocally aimed at improving their lot; art is an equivocal activity, demanding nuance and perspective that can undermine a clear political throughline. The 'lower classes' are much more vividly present than in Bioy Casares and Borges's more deliberately caricatural accounts, but they aren't readily sympathetic.
What we're proposing is that the political point in many great Latin American writers is sublimated into a fictional purpose, and that fictional purpose consists of a political stance that comes less out of a party position (Conservative or Socialist) than through undermining the assumptions behind an enlightenment project. When Galeano says "the private property system molds the production system: 1.5 percent of the agricultural landlords own half of all cultivable land, and every year Latin America spends more than $500million on importing food that its own broad and fertile land could produce without difficulty", the rational seems far away. There will be a rationale somewhere, but it has little to do with economic truth and much more to do with the vagaries of power. In 'They Gave Us the Land', Rulfo shows a few men given land by the state. It is post-revolutionary Mexico, and the story, published in the forties, would have coincided with the presidency of Manuel Avila Camacho, who supported only minimal land reform, and represented a turn to the right and friendship with the United States. "So they've given us the land. And in this sizzling frying pan they want us to plant some kind of seeds to see if something will take root and come up. But nothing will come up here. Not even buzzards." There is no apparent logic to receiving this earth that cannot be cultivated. However Rulfo's purpose isn't to offer a political position; more to indicate the severity of place that suspect politics gives him the opportunity to explore. Rulfo's world is usually unremitting, and failed social policy allows him to find the imagery he seeks. "A big fat drop of water falls, making a hole in the earth and leaving a mark like spit, it's the only one that falls." There is a madness at work in Rulfo's environments, but it is one generated by poverty and destitution. It is irrational partly because of bigger forces beyond the characters' ken.
Other writers who possess a political purpose in their lives nevertheless write fiction that concerns the problems of fiction, or what we might call fictional problems. What do we mean by this: what is the difference between a fictional problem and a political one? A politically oriented work aims usually at changing the world one happens to be in, whether it be Marx's The Communist Manifesto, Orwell's Homage to Catalonia or Tom Paine's The Rights of Man. Yet there are novels that possess an aspect of this pamphleteering, like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which was first serialized in a socialist newspaper. They were based on Sinclair's journalistic investigations, and led to a government enquiry into the meat packing industry. Yet the great nineteenth century Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, while offering numerous stories that attack enlightenment assumption, wrote tales that hardly lend themselves to the amelioratively political. Even non-polemical novels like Oliver Twist and Jude the Obscure can still nevertheless have political consequences, whether through raising questions about working conditions in the early-to-mid nineteenth century, or educational possibilities at the end of it. All three novels (The Jungle, Oliver Twist and Jude the Obscure) contain within them the politically plausible and create the grounds for change.
But many of Machado de Assis's stories are nonsensical in their grounding however well argued they happen to be in their style. In The Bonze's Secret the writer explores the notion of a metaphysical nose, drawing on Kant's transcendental idealism. Since the world is invisible to us except through our senses, then what is really the difference between a real nose and a made up one if people believe in the latter? As the doctor explains to a learned audience of philosophers and physicians that he managed to find a way to persuade those who had a strange disease that they should get rid of their horribly swollen noses, so initially people resisted because a deformed nose was better than none at all. No, the doctor manages to insist; they wouldn't be without a nose - it was going to be replaced instead by a metaphysical one. "After skilfully removing a patient's nose, he would carefully dip his fingers into a box of metaphysical noses, take one out and apply it to the empty spot." Indeed "his patients, cured and compensated for their loss in this manner, looked on another and could see nothing in the place of the organ that had been cut off. But they were so certain that the substitute organ was there - even though they couldn't see or feel it - that they didn't consider themselves cheated and went about their affairs." If Sinclair can indicate the horrors of the meat-packing industry in Chicago, what could a government do about the introduction of metaphysical noses?
Like 'Adam and Eve' and 'The Devil's Church', many of Machado de Assis's stories have a point to make, but one that hardly indicates ready social implementation. In 'Adam and Eve' someone muses over whether we might think of an alternative Adam and Eve', one where Eve rejects the apple and, as we've noted, the future of civilization with its wars and technological progression, instead ascending "to the eternal abode". In the 'Devil's Church' the devil goes to the Lord and says "it won't be long before Heaven will be like a hotel that is empty because of its high rates. I'm going to build a cheap boardinghouse, that is, I'm going to found my own church. I'm tired of my disorganization and my haphazard, adventitious reign." And so he does, with a new set of virtues: "Vanity, lust, and sloth were reinstated, as was avarice, which he declared was only the mother of economy...anger had its best justification in the existence of Homer - without Achilles' fury there would have been no Iliad..." Preaching base values proves immensely popular until the Devil realizes that actually numerous members started practising the Godly virtues in secret. The Devil furiously goes up to Heaven to have it out with the Lord, and God tells him: "What did you expect, My poor devil? The cotton cloaks now have silken fringes, just as those of velvet had cotton fringes. What did you expect? It's the eternal human contradiction." Many of Machado de Assis's stories have little interest in rational progress, but it might be more useful to talk of a politics of perception in the writer's work. Like numerous other Latin American figures he is interesting not because he has a political position to advance, but a resistance to assumptions concerning progressive history.
What often interests the Latin American writer is internal plausibility over general verisimilitude, finding ways of questioning truths rather than assuming certain truths underpin one's work. Both Garcia Marquez and Borges invoke this refusal of the readily true, though in different ways. Garcia Marquez says, "For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you." (Paris Review) Borges reckons, "I think one should work into a story the idea of not being sure of all things, because that's the way reality is. If you state a given fact and then say that you know nothing whatever of some second element, that makes the first fact a real one, because it gives the whole a wider existence." (Borges on Writing) If Garcia Marquez wants the unlikely to be given concreteness through numerical specificity, Borges wants the notion of fact evident by the absence of a second one that in the process validates the first. Garcia Marquez says that constantly giving specific details about the impossible was a trick central to One Hundred Years of Solitude, while for Borges in, for example, 'The Other Death' and 'Theme of the Traitor and the Hero', the past makes the present impossible to invoke in its entirety. In 'The Other Death' the narrator says, "In the Summa Theologiae, it is denied that God can unmake the past, but nothing is said of the complicated concatenation of causes and effects which is so vast and so intimate that perhaps it might prove impossible to annul a single remote fact, insignificant as it may seem, without invalidating the present." In 'Theme of the Traitor and the Hero', we hear that "the action takes place in an oppressed and tenacious country: Poland, Ireland, the Venetian Republic, some South American or Balkan state...Or rather it has taken place, since, though the narrator is contemporary, his story occurred towards the middle or the beginning of the nineteenth century."
In each story Borges throws the authority of the telling into doubt, and thus it made sense that a favourite Borges film was Citizen Kane, which he admired for the manifold perspectives offered. "Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and to reconstruct him." (The Total Library) For many this is a film about a man's enormous appetite for wealth and power; for Borges the enormous is less tangible; more metaphysical. It is not the story of a man making the most of the capitalist system, but someone caught in the perspectives others have of his personality. No truth can come out of the life because all we have are manifold angles on it. Obviously Borges wasn't alone in seeing this side of the film, but few have so obviously drawn out its 'infinite aspect'.
Both Borges and Garcia Marquez are quintessential figures of Latin American fiction, perhaps the two writers who will be thought of automatically when invoking writing from the continent. This may reside partly in their capacity to undermine conventional narrative thinking, but it also rests in them doing so quite antithetically. Garcia Marquez has of course written numerous short stories, but he is a writer famous for big books, especially for One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. Milan Kundera insists in The Curtain that partly what makes Garcia Marquez such an important writer is that there are no scenes: In One Hundred Years of Solitude "they are completely diluted in the drunken flow of narration. I know no other example of such a style. As if the novel were moving back centuries, toward a narrator who describes nothing, only recounts, but recounts with a freedom of fantasy never seen before." This is the sort of freedom where one can talk of four hundred and twenty five flying elephants. The work becomes gargantuan as more and more asides become absorbed into the fantastic telling. When Garcia Marquez offers an exaggeration he then has to justify the hyperbole with detail evident in his remark about pachyderms. Borges moves in the other direction towards ellipsis, through detail's very absence as we've noticed as he discusses offering one fact and then indicating the absence of a second. Hence in 'The Shape of the Sword' the narrator says "his real name is of no importance", in 'The Aleph' the narrator sees all things simultaneously in the basement of a friend's house, but admits the best he can do "is recollect what I can".
Nevertheless whether it is hyperbolizing the real or acknowledging exaggeration but within limitations, both writers don't allow for reason to manifest itself readily. Even when Borges does invoke the opposite of ellipsis, as we've seen in stories like 'Funes the Memorious' and 'On the Exactitude of Science', the capacity for complete knowledge is mocked. These are writers who would be unlikely to claim, as Emile Zola did, that in "Therese Raquin my aim has been to study temperaments and not characters. That is the whole point of the book. I have chosen people completely dominated by their nerves and blood, without free will, drawn into each action of their lives by the inexorable laws of their physical nature." This is Zola as the arch-rationalist, part of a movement in late nineteenth century art, naturalism, that was seen as "a form of literary positivism, naturalism is basically post-Darwinian and inclined towards an environmentalist and often evolutionary explanation of life." (The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought) There was of course more than this to Zola, but the notion of the scientific was never far from his work, nor Ibsen's, another famous naturalist figure. One would hardly expect either of them to side with Argentinean writer Ernesto Sabato when he says "apart from the fact that the work of art has no reason to be intelligible (what does a Mozart symphony "mean?"), in the case of the novel it is irrelevant to ask for the intellectual order that pertains to logic and science." ('Aspects of Irrationalism in the Novel')
Of course Europe has had numerous literary and art movements playing up the irrational and working against enlightenment thinking. Encyclopedia Britannica notes that Romanticism was "to some extent a reaction against 18th century rationalism and physical materialism in general." Romanticism emphasized "the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional..." And what about surrealism, with "its manifesto, proclaiming the inferiority of realism to 'psychic automatism' and 'previously neglected forms of association" (The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought)? Yet surely we must accept that the irrational is the exception in Europe and the norm in Latin America. A recent work like Cesar Aira's An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter takes a realist European artist and explores what happens to his precise, realistic work after an accident in South America. In Roberto Bolano's work the Chilean writer has learnt much from Borges, even if he has written novels bigger still than Garcia Marquez's. He is fascinated by the gaps that can't easily be filled in, whether in huge novels like 2666 where the central figure of Archimboldi remains for much of the book an enigma, or in short stories like 'Grub' and 'Days of 1978'. In the former, the narrator skives off school in Barcelona and meets a man on a park bench who will remain a mystery to him; in the latter, the character of U gets into an argument with the narrator, and the narrator muses over U's life but finally remains removed from it. The novel and the two stories work partly because Bolano absorbs into his prose the limits of knowing. He does not claim omniscience but instead often bafflement. If Bolano has less of an irrationalist streak than many a Latin American writer, he nevertheless remains absolutely true to the Borgesian legacy of ellipsis. "Like all men, like all living things, Borges is inexhaustible" Bolano claimed in 'Without Parenthesis'. Like the great Argentinean, he wanted also to suggest the infinite, and drew from Borges the capacity for ellipsis as enigma.
It might be useful to round off our discussion on Latin American literature by looking at these two masters, and their rather different socio-political positions. There was the aging Borges in the mid-to-late seventies all but accepting benign dictatorships; there was the young Bolano in his early-to-mid twenties more interested in revolutionary impulse. "During the late sixties, mass demonstrations erupted frequently on Mexico City's streets, and Bolano revelled in the political ferment. He became a Trotskyist and travelled to El Salvador, where he befriended leftist poets who carried guns alongside their notebooks." This is how Daniel Zalewski describes Bolano in a New Yorker essay 'Vagabonds', and though many have since disputed certain facts about Bolano's life, the general notion holds: that Bolano was a writer more interested in challenging the state than bolstering it. Bolano belonged to the Infrarealists in the seventies. Here was a group of young poets who "felt that the literary world was too stodgy and too bourgeois, which made it unappealing to the common people. This was happening in the early 1970s, in the midst of a time of political turmoil in Latin America, and they were inspired by political revolutions. Bolao and his friends wanted to stage their own revolution in the world of poetry, so Infrarealism was born." (Buzzle) At the same time Borges was receiving awards from Pinochet, and discussing with the Chilean dictator "the necessity of rescuing "liberty and order" in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay from the anarchy stirred up by the communists." (Borges: A Life)
It is a wonderful exemplification of the two poles available to the Latin American writer: establishment success which leads to fraternizing with the powerful, or a position that insists power must be constantly questioned. Numerous Latin American writers have found themselves embroiled in the political. Octavio Paz "became a hero for Mexico's rebellious youth when he bravely resigned as ambassador to India to protest the government's massacre of students in Tlatelolco Plaza during the 1968 Olympic Games" (New York Times). Vargas Llosa and Garcia Marquez fell out over the latter's admiration for Castro. Vargas Llosa "broke publicly with many of his old friends, including the Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, about whom he once wrote a book but whose support of Castro he condemned. Is it true he once punched Marquez? 'What can I say about that?' he laughs. 'We fell out not over literature, but over politics. In Latin America it's difficult to separate political and personal differences, especially when politics is so often a matter of life and death.'" (Telegraph) Meanwhile, Carlos "Fuentes was appointed the Mexican ambassador to France in 1975, but he resigned two years later to protest the appointment of Gustavo Daz Ordaz as ambassador to Spain. Mr. Daz Ordaz had been president of Mexico in 1968 when Mexican troops opened fire on student protesters in Mexico City." (New York Times) We can also think again of Borges and that, after Peron came to power, the writer "was honored with the news that I had been 'promoted' out of the library to the spectatorship of poultry and rabbits in the public markets." (Borges: A Life)
If Latin American writers are more likely than most to become politically active (Mario Vargas Llosa ran for the Peruvian presidency, Romulo Gallegos was Venezualan president, Miguel Angel Asturias was ambassador to France), or at least diplomatically involved (Reyes, Fuentes, Paz) this indicates that in Latin America politics is not easily separated from the aesthetic. Yet the more interesting question is surely the idea that the political is the personal: that a rejection of enlightenment belief is replaced by a much greater suspension of disbelief than is commonly demanded in European literature. In his major work The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz ends his book by saying, "modern man likes to pretend that his thinking is wide-awake. But this wide-awake thinking has led us into the mazes of a nightmare in which torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason." Paz, like many another Latin American writer, is more interested in the labyrinths of the irrational. This is not the 'failure' of reason, but closer to reason's source, an infinite awareness that time and space are constructs that 'fail' in the face of infinitude. As Borges says in 'Avatars of the Tortoise', "there is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite." The idea of an enlightenment projects towards reason and sense is all very well for understanding a moment in time, but how can it claim such importance within the realm of time? Much Latin American fiction doesn't make this assumption, and remains fascinatingly rich partly because of it.
© Tony McKibbin