By Bhupinder Singh
Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli’s riveting memoir, The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War, gives a glimpse of the deep connection between poets, writers and revolution in Latin America. Belli spent nearly two decades as a sandinismo, working for the overthrow of the US-backed Somoza regime in Nicaragua. When revolution finally arrived, she contritely observes, “It was good to remember that political power, even when it was considered revolutionary, had been for the most part a man’s job, tailored to its needs.”
Women cadres that had fought arm in arm with men were sidelined once the Sandinistas came to power in 1979. The exclusion started with the disbanding of the women’s militia. The book delves rather lengthily on the writer’s numerous affairs and escapades with the half a dozen or so men in her life, but in its second half meanders towards the victory of the Sandinista ‘revolution’. This successful revolution, the second one in Latin America after Cuba, is what leads her to end the book with a sense of optimism, despite the warts and subsequent failure of the revolution.
I dare say, after the life I have lived, that there is nothing quixotic or romantic in wanting to change the world… My deaths, my dead, were not in vain. This is a relay race to the end of time. In the United States, in Nicaragua, I am the same Quixota who learned through life’s battles that defeat can be as much of an illusion as victory.
A scintillating star in the galaxy of the new generation is Roberto Bolaño, who died in 2003 at the age of 50. Principally a poet, he has increasingly been recognized as one of the most important post-Boom novelists. Bolaño was born in Chile, but lived most of his life in Mexico, returning briefly to Chile when Salvadore Allende came to power and miraculously escaping following Pinochet’s coup.
The Savage Detectives, a book on the poets of the post- boom era, is unusual in that it violates some of the most fundamental “rules” of writing, especially those of novel writing. The book leaves one with images floating across turbulent waters, a mosaic of paintings flitting past. Fifty- five characters speak in their own commendably unique voices. The word that occurs the most frequently in the novel is “I.” The breakneck speed of the narrative – not so much action as speed, and the concurrent narrative from multiple geographic places and from various dates on the calendar – make a product of our age, dominated by accelerated speed of communications.
In The Savage Detectives, Bolaño sparks a number of questions in the reader’s mind: is the novel a reflection of the senseless chaos that seems to prevail around us? Is it the post-modern dystopia of all narratives with no plots, no certainties? At one level, Bolaño’s novel would seem to indicate so. At another level, it pulls the rug from under the feet of such a world.
Nazi Literature in the Americas weaves an entire literary universe filled with imaginary writers and their writings. Not all writers were, however, fans of Hitler or other Nazi leaders or even their ideology. Bolano’s biographies of these imaginary writers, inspired in a way by Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, are short – the longest runs into a few pages, the shortest about a page in length, with sharply-etched portraits of writers and of their equally inventive writings.
Bolano’s prose, while being marked by the alacrity of flash fiction – one of the important developments in literature in the internet age – nevertheless carries forward the tradition of the serious novel. The seeming absence of a plot in the story does not mean that there is none, as a post-modern reading would suggest. Instead, the plot is hidden below the surface, like an underground river.
The point that he makes is that Nazi-like brutality has a long lineage, and it resides perceptibly and imperceptibly in literature as well. Literature is, therefore, a battlefield in the recovery of humanity and is not outside the realm of politics just as politics is not outside the realm of poetry and literature.
Map depicting the countries and some of the writers that are discussed in part 1 and 2 of this piece (click to enlarge
Mario Vargas Llosa has outlived all the other writers of the Boom generation. Like him, his works have stretched beyond what came to be associated with the writers of the Boom era. His creative attempts have been ambitious, often pushing the limits of the novel. Llosa has been a prolific writer of essays on diverse subjects, including literature –where he swings to the left, and politics –where ironically he swerves to the right.
In the last decade or so, he has written about Paul Gauguin and his relatively unknown grandmother in The Way to Paradise. The Dream of the Celt is set in the Congo. His other works have explored sexuality and painting. Many of his novels are marked by multiple narratives and shifts in time and space.
Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl is an attempt to transcreate Madame Bovary in the neo-liberal globalized world with its widening class polarities. His latest work, The Discreet Hero, published in Spanish last year is now available in English.
Llosa thus explains the function of literature:
I think that is the function of literature: to make us desire a different kind of world and to create in us a kind of dissatisfaction with the world as it is. I think this is a very important function, because this gives you a kind of motivation to act for changing things, for transforming not only the society but moral values, cultural values.
Latin American literature continues to fulfil that aspiration, its intersection with political change being equally blatant. Its journey goes hand in hand with the continent’s Bolivarian Revolution, marked by the emergence of the radical Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, a host of left-wing regimes and, above all, by the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia as the first indigenous president in any Latin American country.
[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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