Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom

Four decades later, awareness of Latin American literature reaches a new peak.

Forgive my temporary amnesia but I cannot recall what caused the heightened awareness of Latin American literature resulting in the so-called Latin American Boom of the '60s and '70s (both the rubric and the fact attached to it)--the conventional wisdom holding that it was the confluence of the emergence of a group of young writers and their publication by Europe's literary presses. Looking back, I find it hard to believe Latin American literature(s) weren't being regularly refreshed by young talent and that it took European acknowledgment to validate it. In any case, the cause of this (my) contemplation in the rearview mirror has to do with my burgeoning awareness of some recent wonderful fiction by South American writers. Call it a boom, call it a new wave, call it the next big thing, call it an alert insight by a vigilant enthusiast--here they are:

The mini, posthumous renaissance of Chilean Roberto Bolaño is a natural result of New Directions and FSG (re)publishing his works. It's not often that "exciting" is used to describe a writer, but that adjective (and many enthusiastic others) fits Roberto Bolaño. The most recent book published, The Skating Rink (New Directions, translated by Chris Andrews), takes place in a Spanish seaside town on the Costa Brava and revolves around a beautiful figure-skating champion, Nuria Martí, and the havoc that follows when an admiring civil servant builds her a skating rink with public funds. Crimes take place, investigation seems in order, odd characters appear. Bolaño seems to be having fun and so should the reader.

Argentine writer Cesar Aira's (How I Became a Nun) Ghosts (New Directions, translated by Chris Andrews) tells the story of a migrant Chilean family squatting in an unfinished Buenos Aires apartment house. The family's patriarch, Raul Viñas, hosts a New Year's Eve party in which the ghosts that inhabit the building become visible to his wife and daughter. La Patri, the daughter, becomes involved with the ghosts, putting her at great risk--the entire story spinning out as an allegory of class consciousness.

The regime of Alberto Fujimori in '90s Peru has been exposed to have been brutal and corrupt (Ann Patchett's Bel Canto was set in one of the more memorable episodes of the time). Peruvian novelist Santiago Roncagliolo's first novel Red April (Pantheon, translated by Edith Grossman) is set in rural Peru, where a minor bureaucrat, Associate District Prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar, presses for an official investigation regarding the discovery of a charred corpse. This sheds skeptical attention on the party line that the Shining Path revolutionaries were no longer in play. Saldívar's naivete leads to his reassignment, where he stumbles (given his clumsiness, "stumble" is exactly the correct verb) onto more corruption. Along with the protagonist's idiosyncrasies, which add depth to this crime story, Roncagliolo vividly portrays life under a repressive government.

Given the dramatic history of Colombia in the latter part of the 20th century, the civil unrest known as La Violencia and then the emergence of the drug cartels, I did not expect that Juan Gabriel Vásquez's The Informers (Riverhead, translated by Anne McLean) would involve the slightly more distant past of WWII and home-grown Nazi sympathizers and the case of a father and son's relationship to a Jewish emigre family fleeing the Reich in 1938. The father, a famous scholar, has refused to discuss the past even as the son writes a book about their friend Sara Guterman of that emigre family. The elder Gabriel Santoro's declining health moves him to disturbing revelations that end up with his being denounced on national television. All of which showcase the moral ambiguities and ethical dilemmas facing the younger Santoro as he processes his father's past and his own complicated present.

Mexican Mario Bellatin's short allegory Beauty Salon (City Lights, translated by Kurt Hollander) is set in a salon that has been transformed into an ad-hoc hospice for the victims of an unnamed lethal plague (AIDS). Managed by a former stylist, "The Terminal" has been adapted to meet the needs of its occupants--though he does keep exotic fish as well--and as he becomes symptomatic, he notices an angelfish with a growing fungal infection that kills the other fish. Hmm, what could that represent?

The Halfway House (New Directions, translated by Anna Kushner and José Manuel Prieto) by Guillermo Rosales, a Cuban-American writer who destroyed most of his work before he committed suicide in 1993, tells of a Miami home for the mentally ill that reverberates as a latter-day One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Rosales was early diagnosed as a schizophrenic and Manuel Prieto's preface sympathetically lays out Rosales's fascinating personal story, putting, The Halfway House in heart-wrenching focus.

Chilean Alejandro Zambra's novella Bonsai (Melville House, translated by Carolina De Robertis) is less than a hundred pages, and charts the ebb and flow of Julio and Emilia's relationship--whose narrative arc somehow parallels the care and nurturing of a bonsai (tree).

Born in Uruguay and well traveled, De Robertis offers up The Invisible Mountain (Knopf), an ambitious debut novel that begins on the first day of the 20th century in a small town in Uruguay and follows the lives of three woman--Pajarita, Eva, and Salomé--through to the cataclysmic '60s, also assembling an album of snapshots of Uruguay's history.

Though not a work of fiction, I would be remiss if I didn't note Harper's magazine book guy Benjamin Moser's universally praised Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (Oxford University Press). Lispector (Near to the Wild at Heart, The Passion According to G.H), who died in 1977, was born in the Ukraine in 1920 and immigrated to Brazil and was immensely popular there and in the rest of the Southern Hemisphere and is credited as the author of, according to Moser, "perhaps the greatest spiritual autobiography of the twentieth century." Moser writes of his fascination:
Outside Latin America, I found to my dismay very few people knew her, and I long wondered why. Was it because she wrote in Portuguese, a language whose literary productions were so invisible outside its own territory that it was once nicknamed "the tomb of thought"? Was it because nobody expects the greatest Jewish writer since Kafka to be a part-time beauty columnist whose Chanel suits and wraparound sunglasses made her look more like a Rio socialite than a mystic genius?

...Guillermo Arriaga, a famous Mexican novelist and screenwriter, said that you can't read Clarice Lispector without falling in love with her.

And that is exactly what I hoped I could make happen by writing "Why This World": to get more people, not just the literati, but everyone who cares about art and literature, to fall in love with her.
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