By Bhupinder Singh
[Read Part I]
Among the writers who have looked at the impact political dictatorship in suppressing natural human instincts is Manuel Puig (1932-1990). One of the first post-Boom writers, he’s best known for Kiss of the Spider Woman. Llosa once said about him, “Of all the writers I have known, the one who seemed least interested in literature was Manuel Puig.”
The plot of Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages, Manuel’s first novel in English, is seemingly straightforward. Ramirez, an Argentinian trade union-organizer and revolutionary, is tortured after the military coup in 1976. He manages to find his way to a sanatorium in the United States via a human rights organization and is provided an attendant who takes him around in his wheelchair. The novel is little more than a series of conversations, a continuous stream of dialogue between the two, as the attendant, Larry takes Ramirez around New York.
The plot becomes progressively more convoluted, however, and the novel comes crashing to an uncertain end. The reader is urged to decode the layers of reality and unreality that are unsheathed between the dialogues. The novel contains only dialogues, five letters, one will, and one job application. Despite the title, there is nothing sinister about the novel itself, but it has dark undertones throughout, peppered and enlivened with insights that make one aware of the sensitivities of this “least interested in literature” writer.
Map depicting the countries and some of the writers that are discussed in part 1 and 2 of this piece (click to enlarge)
Jorge Luis Borges was the first great writer who put Latin American literature on the world map. His literary universe was made of fantasy and art for art sake’s. He took delight in the written word both as a prolific reader and as a spell-bindingly creative writer. As Alberto Manguel remarks in his With Borges:
For Borges, the core of reality lay in books; reading books, writing books, talking about books. In a visceral way, he was conscious of continuing a dialogue begun thousands of years before and which he believed would never end. Books restored the past.
All Latin American literature since Borges has borne the imprint of his style, particularly in the use of the fantastical. This is manifested in what came to be called ‘magical realism’, one of whose earliest proponents was the Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo.
Not even a previous reading of Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Paramo could have prepared me for his collection of short stories, The Burning Plain and Other Stories that, in fact, reads like a novel, painting a dark, sombre, and chilling picture of Mexican life – more often than not, of the underdog, the thief, the bandit, a murderer or a peasant.
The feeling that one gets while reading these stories is of a smoky, dark night, filled with suspicious shadows hiding still darker secrets that pour out of the words and sentences.
While I was still under the spell of the writers of the Boom era, a new generation of Latin American writers were ready with more contemporary and evocative works. Beginning in the 1970s, many novels confirm the view that post-Boom Latin American literature has moved beyond ‘magical realism’ and is being enriched by a galaxy of writers with very distinctive styles. If the Boom-era works aroused any hopes of a Latin America united in literature, if not politically as had been Simon Bolivar’s dream, these were quickly put to rest.
César Aira’s critically acclaimed How I Became a Nun is the story of a six-year-old girl caught in the body of a boy, who tastes strawberry ice-cream only to fall into a state of mental delirium emerging from it by having to taste the same ice cream again, culminating in a macabre end. If the short novella was intended to explore the inner workings of the mind of an artist or a writer and their capacity to imagine, the novella is not convincing. It is even distracting in places. I felt a bit disappointed by the book after having been bedazzled by Aira’s two previous works – An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and The Hare.
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter recounts the transformation of Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858), a German landscape painter in South America. He experiences a shift in perspective after being struck by a lightning bolt that leaves him deformed. As a result of this ‘deformation’, Rugendas begins to look beyond the beautiful landscapes of South America and into the faces of the native Indians.
Guatemalan novelist Horacio Castenellos’ novella, Senselessness explores the violence during the 30-year war in Guatemala without describing any incident as such. It begins with the words, “I am not complete in the mind”, and goes on to describe the changes that occur in the mind of the beleaguered proof-reader of a human rights commission’s report. The narrator concludes the book pondering his own image in a mirror, concentrating “on the expression on my face, which suddenly looked different to me, as if he who was there wasn’t me.”
American Visa by Juan de Recacechea is the only book from Bolivia that I have read. It’s a delightfully-racy novel written in the popular style of Raymond Chandler, but on the serious theme of globalization (and immigration) at its core.
The Uncomfortable Dead by the Mexican writer of mysteries, Paco Ignacio Taibo and the leader of the Chiapas’ revolt, Subcommandante Marcos is a pleasantly surprising work. It combines the narrative of a racy suspense thriller with a deeply social and political perspective – an intersection that a delighted Zizek would term as the “Parallax view.” In the book, Elías Conteras, an Indian from the Chiapas, is a wonderful Sancho Panza-like character who lives much beyond the novel. His first-person account of urban Mexico, as well as the Chiapas struggle is both humorous and deeply moving.
This, for example, is how he describes Mexico City – the ‘Monster’:
The Monster has big houses and small ones, tall ones and little bitty ones, fat and skinny, rich and poor. Like people, but without hearts. In the Monster, the most important thing is the houses and the cars, so people get sent underground to the metro. If people stay up there in car country, well, the cars kind of like get very pissed and try to gore them, like bulls would.
In the city, they don’t really know how to speak the language, they don’t even know the difference between a mare and stallion; they just call everything a horse. Then there’s cool. When city people don’t know how to explain how they feel or when they are angry or when they are happy or anything like that, they just say cool.
I found the escapades of this rather subaltern character, which somehow persistently reminded me of The Good Soldier Sjevk, most gripping, and the novel a worthwhile read.
[Read Part I]
[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.]
Bhupinder Singh blogs at A Reader’s Words.
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