Writing from a Deceptive Continent

The Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature

selected and edited by Emir Rodríguez Monegal, with the assistance of Thomas Colchie
Knopf, 2 vols., 982 pp., $7.95 each (paper)

The Boom in Spanish American Literature Inter-American Relations

by José Donoso, translated by Gregory Kolovakos
Columbia University Press in association with the Center for, 122 pp., $4.95 (paper)

“Our America,” the Cuban José Martí wrote, meaning theirs. And the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, who died in 1916, picked up the refrain: “the America of Moctezuma and Atahualpa, / the aromatic America of Columbus, / Catholic America, Spanish America, /…our America.” It is the literature of this America that the Borzoi anthology sets out to represent, and its editor, Emir Rodríguez Monegal, a noted Uruguayan critic and a professor at Yale, has not, like Darío, forgotten that a large part of this region is not Spanish at all. The book’s generous selections from Brazilian literature, so often ignored or slighted on such occasions, are among its chief attractions.

This America, their America, aromatic, Catholic, Spanish, Portuguese, is now divided into twenty-one countries, and Rodríguez Monegal, like many other Latin American writers and critics, appears to dream pan-continental dreams. “A new perspective on Latin American letters has been attempted in this book,” he says,

a perspective which presents New World writing as a permanent quest for a literature of the future, a literary utopia in which an integrated image of a whole continent will be at long last possible.

This makes the book itself a would-be utopia, and one which the texts it contains insistently break up and deny. But I wonder why such a utopia should even seem desirable. What would we gain, for example, from running Portuguese and Spanish writing into something called Iberian literature? Or from asking the various romance languages to give us “an integrated image” of southwestern Europe?

The texts of the anthology, which takes us from the letters of Columbus (born 1451) and Vespucci (born 1454) to the novels of the Mexican Sáinz (born 1940) and the Cuban Arenas (born 1943), suggest more complicated principles of study. They suggest, first, that Brazilian literature may well be a separate story, and while we should pay it much more attention than we do, we should probably look at it on its own. It belongs to another empire and another, later emancipation; to another history and another language. The texts suggest, second, that the literature of Spanish America is in one sense already integrated, through language and a common or similar colonial and post-colonial experience—whether writers happen to see things this way or not. This doesn’t unite the continent itself, but it does mean, as Octavio Paz has said, that the “nationality” of Spanish American writers is often illusory. And third, the texts remind us that the great fact about modern Latin American writing is not the creation of, or even the desire for, what Rodríguez Monegal calls “a truly Latin American literature,” but the emergence of this writing on to the international scene.

It is not simply that we have “discovered” the literature of their America. They have discovered a literary modernity that cancels frontiers. As José Donoso remarks in his engaging memoir on the Spanish American novel of the 1960s, this “internationalization” is not a matter of translations and prizes and gossip…

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