(And Roberto Bolaño and Tomás Eloy Martínez.)
- By Edmundo Paz Soldán<p> Edmundo Paz Soldán, professor of Hispanic literature at Cornell University, is the author of nine novels and three books of short stories. His new novel, Norte, will be released in the United States in June. </p>
Novelists in Latin America have long occupied a privileged position in society. During the foundation of the Latin American republics, in the 19th century, writers helped draft constitutions, laws, even new grammars. Many participated actively in politics. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, whose 1845 classic, Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism, was read as a blueprint for Latin America — either civilize like the Europeans or become "barbarians" like the continent’s remaining indigenous societies — became president of Argentina in 1868. Well into the 20th century, authors from Venezuela’s Rómulo Gallegos to Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa had such stature that they were serious presidential candidates in their countries.
But ever since Latin America’s literary boom of the 1960s, the notion of the novelist as a larger-than-life figure, able and willing to intervene in national and continental politics, has appeared to fade. Earlier authors, most famously Gabriel García Márquez, ushered in an era of magical realism, depicting the extraordinary as commonplace. In reaction, the Latin American novelists of subsequent years became more modest and introspective — more interested in depicting private lives than crafting allegories for their nations. Today, the novel in Latin America has lost the privileged space it once occupied, and writers are simply not seen as the monumental figures they used to be.
But this is not to say that they have abandoned political themes or that readers should abandon the Latin American novel as a gateway into the region’s politics. The violence currently gripping Mexico, for instance, has been perfectly represented by a Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño, in his posthumous 2004 masterpiece 2666. And Tomás Eloy Martínez’s 1991 novel, Santa Evita, tells us much about the passion play that has become the Argentina of the Kirchners — Néstor, who ruled from 2003 to 2007, and his wife, Cristina, who has been president since 2007. Even magical realism, after all, is a partially "realist" genre, and García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, though published in 1975, offers striking insights into the politics of contemporary Cuba. To understand today’s Latin America, literature is as good a guide as any number of think-tank reports — and perhaps better.
2666, Roberto Bolaño
Before settling in Spain, Bolaño lived for several years in Mexico, the setting for some of his best works, including both 2666 and 1998’s The Savage Detectives. 2666 is a monumental, 1,000-page novel divided into five parts, the fourth of which, "The Part of the Crimes," deals with the femicides that have plagued the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez — the model for the fictional city of Santa Teresa, in which the novel is set. In his descriptions of more than 100 fictional homicides, Bolaño’s use of clinical details — he notes exactly where the women are killed and even what they are wearing — makes the novel’s resemblance to reality all the more apparent. Some critics and readers have taken issue with the specificity of these violent scenes, but this is precisely Bolaño’s point. He finds a way to represent the repetition of violence and the impunity of its perpetrators — the lack of solutions to these crimes. In Santa Teresa, the pathological public sphere ends up normalizing something that is truly abnormal: compulsive, repetitive murders.
At the same time, Bolaño’s novel suggests there is a point when this tragedy cannot be normalized. The policemen in charge of finding the killers are depicted as casual misogynists, even joking about the murdered women; with these men’s prejudices, it is almost impossible that any crime against women will be solved. Bolaño also portrays some of the killers as jealous husbands, men resentful that their wives make more money than they do. More than a recounting of violent crimes, then, 2666 can be read as a critique of the Mexican social order: It goes beyond the gory violence to its roots, suggesting that at its dark core a patriarchal culture is responsible for treating women as objects easily disposed of — as much by their partners and friends as by the drug lords or the factories where they work.
The whole of 2666 can be read as an allegory for the darkness of life in today’s Mexico. The killings in Santa Teresa go on, but the citizens, used to it, continue with the party. Christmas, for instance, is celebrated in "the usual fashion" — with posadas, piñatas, tequila, and beer — despite the violence enveloping their society.
Santa Evita, Tomás Eloy Martínez
Martínez’s Santa Evita, which deals with the necrophiliac character of Argentine politics, is grounded in well-known historical facts. Part of the book is a biography of Evita Perón, the charismatic leader who was the wife of President Juan Perón in the 1940s and became a populist leader in her own right. Another section concerns the afterlife of Evita’s body, which was embalmed and later confiscated by the military that overthrew Perón in order to prevent the body from being used as an anti-authoritarian symbol. The novel follows the wanderings of the embalmed body, which gives this otherwise realist text a potently surreal tone. The narrator wants to escape her but can’t: "She always finds me," he says. In death, Evita becomes even more powerful — a secular saint of sorts, forever influencing Argentina’s politics.
In real life, following the untimely death in 2010 of Néstor Kirchner, who was expected to run for the presidency again in 2011, his widow, Cristina, the current president of Argentina, has similarly sought to create a cult of personality surrounding her deceased husband. In speeches, she refers to Néstor simply as "Him," painting the dead president as an outsized figure, a providential man who pulled the country from the abyss. In turn, Néstor has become more powerful dead than alive — a phenomenon that Martínez’s novel prefigures.
Some analysts say the cult of personality Cristina has created seems to be about Néstor but ultimately is about her. In this sense, Cristina is the new Evita; as Perón says in the novel about his wife, "She is Argentina."
The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel García Márquez
Nearly four decades after its publication, García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch provides surprisingly skillful commentary on contemporary politics, namely in Cuba. The novel belongs to the Latin American subgenre of the "dictator novel," which reveals many aspects of Latin American political culture under dictatorships: the outsized character of the autocrat, the cult of personality surrounding him, and his populist appeal.
Although The Autumn of the Patriarch is set in a fictional Latin American country, García Márquez may have modeled his dictator on several historical Latin American strongmen: Bolivia’s Mariano Melgarejo, the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo, and Venezuela’s Marcos Pérez Jiménez. But the behavior of the novel’s patriarch, slowly losing his grip on power and reality itself, bears a striking resemblance to that of Fidel Castro, who has become a totemic figure in Cuban and Latin American politics and shows up for special occasions, though he no longer wields any real power — it is Castro’s brother Raúl who is the real ruler.
Cuban bureaucracy, the product of 50 years of Communist Party rule, has created an endless parade of party officials intent on preventing promised changes from ever arriving; change would mean losing power. García Marquez’s novel suggests that no one lets go of power easily, not even a dictator’s most pragmatic advisors. In the novel, the patriarch’s circle of advisors plants the dictator’s face everywhere — on stamps, coins, statues — as part of an elaborate charade to make the dictator think he is still in control. By mounting this campaign, however, it is the advisors who end up in charge. García Márquez, the fanciful magical realist, knows more than we might think about how mass media can control societies.
Latin American writers today may have lost the privileged space they once occupied in society, but their works are no less politically insightful. Bolaño, Eloy Martínez, and García Márquez are latter-day Virgils, guiding their readers through Latin America’s complex, labyrinthine politics.