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A decade of reading Latin America – I

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By Bhupinder Singh

[Read Part-II, Part-III]

Latin American literature is like the Amazon River, massive in its expanse and meandering across many thematic streams. The most well-known of these is its association with magical realism and what has come to be called the “dictatorship novels.” But there is a lot more to it. It has explored fantasy, the eternal theme of love as well as that of sexual suppression and, of late, the psychological life of the individual as the collective village communities give way to urban angst.

Latin American literature is much more than magical realism.

BhupMap depicting the countries and some of the writers that are discussed in part 1 and 2 of this piece (click to enlarge)


My journey into the realm of writing from Latin America began when I was a student and came across an article about magical realism in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was intrigued. Those were pre-internet days and I had no clue about either magical realism or that particular novel. A friend visiting the popular tourist haunt of McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh found the book in a shop that sold books left behind by Western backpack tourists.

I devoured the book with a raving ferocity. To say that I was impressed would be an understatement; I had never read anything like that before. My enthusiasm has not waned since then.

I would go on to read all the other major, and also some of the minor, writers of what came to be known as the Boom period of Latin American literature, before moving on to their successors.

My favourite writers of the Boom generation are undoubtedly Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. The two other pillars of The Boom quartet – Julio Cortazar (Hopscotch) and Carlos Fuentes (The Good Conscience) – somehow didn’t strike a chord when I read them. A few others that I did not relish as much were Alice Lispector (The Apple in the Dark), Jorge Amado (Dona Flor and her Four Husbands) and Jo Soares (Twelve Fingers).


The theme of political upheavals, military dictatorships, and left-wing and millenarian opposition to the establishment in Latin America has been explored in the more well-known works of Garcia Marquez (the brilliant Autumn of the Patriarch and The General in his Labyrinth), Mario Vargas Llosa (The Feast of the Goat, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and his epic novel, The War of the End of the World), and Ariel Dorfman (The Last Song of Manuel Sendora).

Mariano Azuela’s classic, The Underdogs, is a short and succinct novel that captures the essence of the Mexican Revolution. It narrates the trials and tribulations of an Indian peasant leader, Demetrio Marcias and, through him, those of the revolution. The following few lines capture the fate of both.

Why do you keep on fighting Demetrio?
Demetrio, frowning deeply, absentmindedly picks up a small stone and throws it to the bottom of the canyon. He stares pensively over the precipice and says:
“Look at the stone, how it keeps going…”

The stone falling into a bottomless precipice is allegorical of the fate of the Mexican Revolution itself.

The proclamation of land reforms by the PRI party in early 20th century forms the background to the events depicted in Rosario Castellano’s farewell novel, The Book of Lamentations. While many of those revolts failed, recent events in Latin America underscore that not all of them were in vain.

Carlos Martinez Moreno’s El Infierno is a chapter-by-chapter descent into the hell that Uruguay was sinking into during the military dictatorship in the 1970s. The novel is an account of the ‘operations’ of the government as well as leftist guerrillas, written in the nature of a fictional documentary. Martinez Moreno, a major Uruguayan writer, along with the late Eduardo Galeano, was a defense lawyer and, as the book’s blurb says, created his Dantesque vision from the evidence available to him as part of the many legal cases that he handled.

The Last Song of Manuel Sendero by Ariel Dorfman is about the Chilean socialist and democratic revolution of September 1973. The novel brims with ideas and creative techniques, except there are just too many of them and the novel seems to jump across them without tying the threads together. I found the maze undecipherable and gave it up mid-way.

Tomas Eloy Martinez’s Santa Evita, The Peron Novel, and The Tango Singer were published in quick succession just before he died in 2010. His works go beyond dictators and point to the tradition of radical army officers who have been ready to battle with entrenched local landlords and foreign capitalists on behalf of the people. It is to one of these eclectic traditions that the Argentine military officer and later president, Juan Peron, belonged to. His inspiration came from the National Socialism of Hitler in Germany but more than that, of Mussolini in Italy in the form of National Socialism, only without the concentration camps.

In The Peron Novel, Martínez digs out this and other such influences on the mind of the military captain Perón, who went on to become the President of the republic via a military coup and lost his post in another one. Santa Evita is a blend of fact and fiction about a small-time actress who later married Peron and came to be called Eva Peron. Santa Evita is a novel within a non-fictional account, wherein Martínez goes out in search of information about Eva Perón’s corpse. The story emerges as he interviews people associated with Eva or, later, with her restless corpse.

The reader becomes an accomplice in this journey of discovery; it’s a mystery in which the reader has as many, and more often, as few clues as the writer.

The Tango Singer, my favourite of the lot, is a novel whose idea came to Martinez in a dream. Written in the aftermath of Argentina’s financial collapse in 2001, the novel draws a map of Buenos Aires, a labyrinth drawn in time and not space. [To be continued]

[Header Image: Presencia de América Latina (Presence of Latin America), also known as Integración de América Latina (Integration of Latin America), is a mural painted by Mexican artist Jorge González.]

[Read Part-II, Part-III]

Bhupinder Singh blogs at A Reader’s Words.

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9 Responses to “A decade of reading Latin America – I”

    • bhupinder

      There is a bit on Borges as well in one of the later posts, though it doesn’t do justice to the harbinger of modern Latin American writing.

  1. bhupinder

    @ Shine Kumar: I am afraid this post is limited to what I read in the last decade or so. I haven’t read Miguel Asturias at all, and Octavio Paz is not mentioned as I read some of his works many years earlier.


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