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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 and dissertations in North American universities, but “something more elusive”: the question of “how the Spanish American novel began to speak an international language.” It is because they spoke an international language that the new novelists of the Sixties—Cortázar, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, Donoso—were so eager to read each other’s Spanish. García Márquez is not a whimsical Colombian Faulkner, he is Faulkner’s compatriot in a modern kingdom of letters, and in this sense Borges’s sharing the Formentor Prize with Beckett in 1961 is a landmark. It signifies not so much the ascent into international fame of an obscure Argentinian writer as our dilatory recognition that we had been missing out on a master for twenty years. And even then, with Borges, fiction came rather late to such mastery. In poetry, Darío, Neruda, and Vallejo already spoke an international language, and were of international stature. I should add perhaps that the Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis, who died in 1908, seems to me a greater master than any other modern writer in Spanish or Portuguese; but that points us back to the first principle of study I arrived at above.

But if the idea of “a truly Latin American literature” is perhaps a mirage, and perhaps an anachronism, this is not to say that history and geography have not left their marks on this culture. Rubén Darío’s Catholic America is found, in the Borzoi anthology, both in the courage of priests like Las Casas and Vieira, denouncing the atrocities of conquest, and in the record of the penances of Saint Rose of Lima, shifting her crown of nails to open new wounds each day, and “furrowing” her flesh with a home-made scourge. His aromatic America survives in the persistent myth of an earthly paradise in this hemisphere: “this paradise of Mexico,” as the poet Balbuena said in the sixteenth century, this “ruined Eden,” as another Mexican poet put it some three hundred years later. “And surely,” Vespucci had written of Argentina in his letter Mundus Novus of 1503, “if the terrestrial paradise be in any part of this earth, I esteem that it is not far distant from those parts.”

But as Malcolm Lowry understood, and forcefully said in Under the Volcano, this is a paradise which is perhaps not meant to be inhabited, and another great theme of this literature is the inhospitability of these incomparable landscapes. The first voyagers found friendly natives and exotic fruits; the people who later lived in this land found lethal climates and inextricable vegetation. The last words of the Colombian Rivera’s La Vorágine are “The jungle swallowed them,” and Carlos Fuentes has wittily said that a sentence of this kind could be used to describe dozens of Latin American novels, and even novelists: “the jungle, the river, the mountain, the mine, the pampa swallowed them.” In La Vorágine, Rivera comments on the meaning of the “simple and common words,” “We are lost,” when they are uttered in the jungle: “To the mind of the person who hears them comes the vision of a man-consuming hell, a gaping mouth swallowing men whom hunger and disappointment place in its jaws.”

There is more, and in what follows at least it does seem that Brazil and the rest of Latin America follow roughly parallel courses. Rodríguez Monegal notes the persistence of the baroque in the new world long after it was dead in the old, and he remarks too that the picaresque novel was still flourishing in Mexico and Brazil a hundred and fifty and two hundred years after it had gone out of fashion in Spain. These look like authentic signs of cultural underdevelopment, and Rodríguez Monegal’s intimation that the Latin American baroque is to be celebrated as “the first successful attempt to produce a truly new poetry” seems simply wishful. The Mexican nun Sor Juana (1651-1695) is a very great poet indeed, but a new poet is just what she is not.

Yet these long lives of old modes do suggest something specifically Latin American to me—not an integrated image but an enduring or recurring concern. A perseverance with the elaborate artifice of the baroque and with the comic and disreputable trickery of the heroes of the picaresque indicates a continuing preoccupation with deceit and lies, as if the grand theme of error and illusion, of engaño, so powerfully present in Spanish literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had set in so firmly in the new world that it took a further twist or two toward suspicion and bewilderment, and the connotations of the word embeleso, which means fascination and ruse, but seems also to be related to the English embezzlement. Borges uses the word more than once, and so do Sor Juana and her compatriot, the seventeenth-century playwright Ruiz de Alarcón. One of Sor Juana’s most famous poems begins “Verde embeleso de la vida humana,” which Samuel Beckett, in the translation which Rodríguez Monegal borrows from Octavio Paz’s remarkable anthology of Mexican poetry,* renders “Green enravishment of human life.” The poem ends with a grotesque and witty plan for the avoidance of such green deceptions. The poet will take her two eyes into both hands, she says, and will not see anything unless she can touch it: solamente lo que toco veo.

I don’t wish to overread these signs, but the mistrust of appearances, in this and other poems of Sor Juana, seems to go beyond healthy Christian wariness of the lures of the world, and the word ficción is prominent in her work and in Ruiz de Alarcón’s. Later in the history of Latin American literature a Cuban poet, Heredia, starts a poem on Niagara before he visits the place, and an Argentinian, Sarmiento, writes a classic description of the pampas without going there at all. André Breton said that Mexico was the chosen country of surrealism, and the term “magical realism” has been used and abused to describe writers like Asturias, Carpentier, García Márquez, and others who are supposed to specialize in a peculiarly Latin American blend of observation and fantasy. When we learn of a character in a story by the Uruguayan Onetti that “Like all other men, he decided to lie, to lie to himself,” we no doubt catch echoes of Sartre and Camus and various modern doctrines about the difficulties of authenticity. But we hear older and more local echoes too, and even the comments in the Borzoi anthology keep illustrating the mentality I’m trying to evoke.

The most famous portrait of Sor Juana was painted a century after her death, but Rodríguez Monegal tells us not to worry about this:

As a likeness the painting has little value, but as a symbol of Sor Juana’s beauty and passion for study, the portrait is totally accurate. It is truer, in fact, than an accurate likeness would be, for it represents the Sor Juana still available in her unique texts.

The seventeenth-century chronicler Freile is faulted by modern historians, but he is, Rodríguez Monegal says, “probably as accurate” as anyone else: “it really doesn’t matter.” The modern Cuban writer Lezama Lima is “too much of a poet” to check his literary sources, and this, we are to understand, is how it should be.

Rodríguez Monegal, attacking Carpentier’s affirmation of the “marvelous reality” of Latin America, asks sensibly, “Why was the real necessarily more ‘marvelous’ in Latin America than anywhere else? Wasn’t there a substantial element of wishful thinking in such a view?” But of course the instances I’ve given above don’t suggest that the real is marvelous. They suggest that manipulation is everywhere, that geography, and painting, and no doubt politics and history too, are matters of “literature,” and that what actually happens or is said is not, simply because it happens or is said, a privileged form of the real. “Everything becomes fiction,” as Rodríguez Monegal says of Machado de Assis’s Dom Casmurro, and the struggle of the major Latin American writers, from Sor Juana to Borges and beyond, has been to dramatize this hallucinatory state of affairs, and to assert, often with an eloquence that belongs to despair, the fragile life of facts which in other places seem so safe and stable. Sor Juana sees only what she can touch and Borges brings himself home from multiple worlds of speculation by a thought that would be a banality if it were not so unsure: everything that happens to one, he has a Chinese spy think in a story called “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” happens precisely now.

We can begin to “explain” all this by colonial history, a violent and chaotic nineteenth century (in most places), an irregular twentieth century, and the growing presence of the United States—when Martí and Darío write of their America, they do mean not ours, and Darío’s poem is addressed to Teddy Roosevelt. But for the moment I’ll settle for what all this will itself explain. A sense of life as unbearably saturated with fiction surely does account not only for the persistence of the baroque and the picaresque, but for the so-called boom in the novel of the 1960s, the subject of Donoso’s brief book.

There was a boom, represented by the work of Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, and García, Márquez principally, because the novel managed to liberate itself from a decent but dreary naturalism, which was not, as in Europe, an exhausted mode, but a mode that had not even got off the ground, one that represented, for Latin America, a radical error, requiring a commitment to a solid material and historical world which no one entirely believed was there. Solamente lo que toco veo is a sort of prescription for a naturalistic novel, but the anxiety of the phrase also suggests that the novel will never be written, and the boom is the blossoming of the other novel, a reversion to the baroque which displays the brilliant trail of all its deceptions. The title of Ruiz de Alarcón’s best-known play is La Verdad sospechosa, the suspect truth, and its moral is that habitual liars make even the truth sound suspect, when they happen to tell it. In that form, the thought is an interesting truism, but the larger context of Latin American literature suggests another wording: the justified habit of suspicion makes truth a hollow term, at best an object of nostalgia, at worst a matter of indifference.

As I say, the major Latin American writers are those who understand and display the charms of deception; and who understand and visibly count deception’s costs. “Everything becomes fiction” in Dom Casmurro, but this is plainly presented by Machado as a pathological condition. The protagonist thinks his wife’s child is not his own son, and loses wife, child, and himself in the complications of his jealousy. Like an exacerbation of a character in Henry James, he substitutes an epistemological problem for a lived life, and it is in the light of this form of failure, I think, that we should see the frequent calls for simplicity in Latin American literature. They are brave flights from green enravishments. “I hang from a withered tree / my doctor’s hood,” Martí writes, and in the Argentinian epic Martín Fierro we read “Know-it-alls are losers here,” which is a slightly too homely rendering of Aquí no valen dotores.

About half of the Borzoi anthology is devoted to the twentieth century, and prints excellent stories by Borges, Carpentier, Onetti, Guimarães Rosa, Bioy Casares, Cortázar, Rulfo, and García Márquez. There are also excerpts from novels by Asturias, Lezama Lima, Sábato, Cabrera Infante, Puig, Vargas Llosa, Sarduy, Sáinz, Arenas. The poets, as one might expect, fare less well in translation, but the major figures—Huidobro, Vallejo, Gorostiza, Neruda, Drummond de Andrade, Paz, Parra—are reasonably well represented, and there are works by talented younger poets like Roberto Juarroz and Enrique Lihn.

The other half of the book is less satisfactory; both arbitrary and dutiful. The difficulties are plain, of course. Only a handful of earlier writers pick themselves—the Inca Garcilaso, Sor Juana, Lizardi, Hernández (author of Martín Fierro), Machado de Assis, Da Cunha, Martí, Darío, Lugones—and for the rest there is too much to choose from, and not much reason to choose this rather than that. Chronicles, epics, lyrics, history, fiction, legend, sermons, accounts of travels—this is dense, undifferentiated country and there were times when I thought the twentieth century would never arrive, and I would have to say, in a further application of the diagnosis of Rivera and Fuentes, the anthology swallowed me.

  1. *

    Anthology of Mexican Poetry, translated by Samuel Beckett, compiled by Octavio Paz (Indiana University Press, 1958).

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