Between Tradition & Innovation
The New Latin American Narrative
EDMUNDO PAZ SOLDÁN
The dawn of the twenty-first century is an appropriate time to pause and take stock of the resources at our disposal to confront the challenges of a new era. Caught between tradition and innovation, Latin American narrative is currently at a crossroads. People are reading and writing more, although that does not mean that people are reading and writing better. More books are being published, but that in itself does not mean that works of greater quality are being produced. As Álvaro Mutis suggests, books have become part of the culture of show business and mass-marketing, which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing; rather, it is a testament to the times in which we live. Lost in a world of mass media, in a storm of digital images and frequencies, we struggle to make ourselves heard. We are like the poet from one of Rubén Darío's short stories who went before a king to portend the future in song. The king, in order to mollify the poet, hired him as an organ-grinder and placed him in the palace garden, where the poet eventually met his demise from neglect and froze to death.
Let this not be reason for despair, however, as much as a matter of concern for the necessary self-analysis. Consider, for example, the nineteenth century, commonly regarded as the great century of the novel. Indeed, it was, but only for certain countries: England, France, and Russia, among others. For most people, the novel has always been marginal to society. In this respect, perhaps the situation has not changed much, although one might suggest that in a universe saturated by mass-media discourse, our marginality has become even greater today.
A necessary point of departure in confronting the challenges of the present could be, therefore, for us to draw strength from such marginality. More than other media, the novel allows one to exercise greater freedom to criticize our times and society. Through the novel, one can explore in greater detail human consciousness and the unconscious by dialoguing with and transcending our historical context. The novel serves as an experimental textual laboratory for new subjective realities, new forms of interpersonal relations, and a renewal of threatened sensibilities.
Such exploration and experimentation should begin with the essential elements to which any writer is committed: language and imagination. Despite great technological changes and the fact that writing with a computer is not the same as writing using a typewriter or writing by hand, our basic tools remain the same as they have always been. Therein lies a principal challenge: to seek amid the dizzying speed of our times ultimate reality, where our words and imagination can help us express meaningful doubt, pose questions that offer wisdom, and discover the small truths that make it possible for us to go on, if only for just a few more days.
Traditions that do not constantly renew themselves become stagnant. There is nothing healthier for a culture than an attitude of recognition of the great artistic works of the past, coupled with a playful irreverence, a constant rejection of that same past. I believe I recognize this dual attitude among the majority of Latin American writers with whom it has been my fortune to share in this journey as an author. We are profoundly, self-admittedly, and gratefully indebted to authors like Jorge Luis Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa, and we reserve special affection toward Cervantes and Quevedo as well. They are our classics, upon whom we do not allow dust to settle, for we give them renewed meaning with each reading of their work.
At the same time, we maintain an irreverence toward such writers, and we place them in the company of those who would have scandalized them. Perhaps as readers we admire these classics but do not wish to follow in their footsteps as writers. We know Gabriel García Márquez's tricks by heart and have fallen under his spell with naïveté and wonder. Such influence ebbs and flows. We have had to turn our backs on his manner of storytelling, because his extraordinary influence has ended up exoticizing Latin America for many readers elsewhere; it has also made magical realism an easy synonym for what actually turns out to be a very diverse Latin American literature. I am certain that at this very moment in Latin America there is a young person, a teenager, who has just finished reading Cien años de soledad (1967; Eng. One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970) and, while still under its influence, jots down some lines in a notebook from his or her first short story–in-progress, as he or she embarks on rebelling against those of us who rebelled against García Márquez, thereby preparing his inevitable return.
Be that as it may, our literary trends nowadays have different names, all of which, as is often the case, are somewhat inaccurate. Virtual realism is one such name. Dirty realism, another phrase, has also come into use. Postmodern costumbrismo is yet another label applied. Is this a new realism? And what about fantastical literature? Is this a new form of narrative? Well, not exactly. These are all just similar ways of traversing down the same paths, representing various quests for unknown lands and a healthy eclecticism in which coexist the warm and circuitous voice of Mayra Santos (Puerto Rico), the overwhelming voice of Rodrigo Fresán (Argentina), the introspective voice of Iván Thays (Peru), the perverse and dispassionate voice of Mario Bellatin (Mexico/Peru), the somewhere-between-grotesque-and-caricaturesque voice of Carlos Cortés (Costa Rica), and the both crude and tender voice of Alberto Fuguet (Chile). There are several narrative trends that are developing and maturing before our own eyes that promise to expand even further the already diverse levels of discourse that are seen to represent Latin American literature.
Within this varied and still somewhat dispersed panorama, there are certain points of convergence. There is, for example, the explicit will on the part of some Latin American writers to rid themselves of the obligation to be spokespersons for an entire nation and for readers to avoid searching obsessively in their texts for the representation of a national identity or essence. As the moral conscience of the nation, the writer has made claim, in the words of Pablo Neruda, that through his or her voice shall speak those who have no voice of their own. Today, we prefer that such an obligation be merely an option for the writer. This is not to disavow the moral responsibilities of writers representing societies such as ours, which remain in permanent crisis. It is not only a matter of one's not attempting to legitimize himself or herself by speaking for others who have not designated them as representatives of anything. It is a matter, within the continent, of cutting the strict bonds of association between literature and nation. Perhaps for this reason, we find ourselves on such a surprising path of novels and short stories set in countries outside Latin America. The list of such works is extensive: Germany and post-Nazi Germany in En busca de Klingsor (1999; Eng. In Search of Klingsor, 2002) by Jorge Volpi (Mexico); the Austro-Hungarian empire in Amphitryon (2000; Amphitryon) as well as the British empire in Las antípodas del siglo (2001; Eng. Antipodes, 2004), by Ignacio Padilla (Mexico); Shakespeare's England in Inglaterra (1999; England), by Leopoldo Brizuela (Argentina); the Greek islands of the Mediterranean in El viaje interior (1999; The inner journey) by Iván Thays (Peru); and Japan in El jardín de la señora Murakami (2001; Mrs. Murakami's garden), by Mario Bellatin (Mexico/Peru).
At this historic moment of global tension, there are many today who seek refuge in a cultish defense of local reality; Latin American novelists, however, have preferred, as it were, to identify with something Borges said more than half a century ago: our heritage is the universe. Such a statement, of course, does not imply escapism or a flight from the cruel vicissitudes of our history or from the brutal neoliberal present, nor does it mean turning one's back on local reality. The journey is in search of other geographies and other themes, allowing one, moreover, to return to what is ours with a freer perspective, one less tied to certain obsessions within our literary tradition, which, over the years, has become a set of obligations for the writer--yet another ebbing and flowing. This is not the first time this has happened. The cosmopolitan will of Latin American modernistas and the unconventional views of the literary avant-garde represent just a few of the precursors to this pendulum swing.
The emblematic symbol of the development of an author is the library, that space which many of us want to equate with the universe itself. Nevertheless, the library has never been a sole factor in our development. The realists of the nineteenth century learned to narrate in art galleries. And the list of novelists who learned the art of narration by going to the movies is extensive. If Darío was once able to envision the ivory tower as both a temptation and something to which he would aspire, today we must say that such temptation hardly exists among the new generation of Latin American writers. The presence of technology and mass media in our lives is more and more pervasive. In addition to the clear influence such factors have on our identity, they prevent us from isolating ourselves, even if we might wish to do so, for we walk the streets of cities, travel by way of movies and television, and navigate via our computers. We have allowed ourselves to be seduced by new digital technologies, at times very easily so, without articulating any kind of a critical stance to the way they transform our subjective beliefs and change our societies.
It is not now a matter of going to the other extreme and embracing an apocalyptic view of our world. Nevertheless, our continued fascination with new technologies must give way to a measured and critical perspective that seeks to become aware of the persistent and extensive white noise that keeps us from knowing ourselves and others. Neither does any good come from retreating before the endless advance of audiovisual culture. The novel, at risk of becoming irrelevant, should coexist with the world in all its grandeur and misery. But the novel should also confront the world on its own terms; the ascendancy of fast-paced culture does not necessarily imply that we should devote ourselves to a literature of rapid and easy consumption. How can we coexist with the world without remaining within the mere echo of its clamor? This is the great challenge facing writers at the dawn of this new century.
Let us respect and at the same time maintain a playful attitude when it comes to the library, swarm the video-rental stores, and the cresting wave of the computer and its network of networks. Let us translate the language of new urban dwellers but do so with the bold language and imagination of all literature that seeks to endure. And may we explore the darkness of our unconscious in order to get to the heart of what surrounds us. Let us portray our village but do so while being fully aware of our belonging to a greater global village. Many are the challenges facing the contemporary novelist, and many are the temptations for us as writers to stray off the path. There are no easy answers to such uncertainty. This panorama of bewilderment and awe is perhaps the best incentive for authors to continue our pursuit of the increasingly elusive reader.
Ithaca, New York
Translation from the Spanish
By David Draper Clark & César Ferreira
Editorial note: First publication in English. The original title reads, "Entre la tradición y la innovación: Globalismos locales y realidades virtuales en la nueva narrativa latinoamericana."
Edmundo Paz Soldán, winner of the Juan Rulfo Award for the short story (France, 1997), finalist of the Romulo Gállegos Award for the novel (Venezuela, 1999), and winner of the Bolivian National Book Award in 2003 for his novel El delirio de Turing, was born in 1967 in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He holds a Ph.D. in Latin American literature and currently is an assistant professor of Hispanic literatures at Cornell University. He has published six novels, among them Río Fugitivo (1998), Sueños digitales (2000), and La materia del deseo (2001), which was just published in English as The Matter of Desire (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). He has also published three books of short stories, among them Amores imperfectos (1998), and his work has been translated into several languages.
“From the September-December 2004 issue of World Literature Today (78:3), pages 16-19. Copyright 2004 World Literature Today.”