Latin America is many places. They are not separated by a common language, as is often said of England and the United States, they are divided by fiercely diverging political and economic practices, but haunted by parallel pasts and nostalgias, and by what at times seems to be a shared culture. The differences are enormous. Cuba is not Chile; Bolivia is not Puerto Rico. A character in Ernesto Sábato’s On Heroes and Tombs sneers at a book entitled Latin America: One Country, and it is hard to quarrel with his scorn. One country: Buenos Aires is not even one city, it is, like New York, an unmelted pot of all sorts of nationalities. One hesitates to trust one’s own experience very far. A long time spent in Mexico is just that: a long time spent in Mexico.
Yet there are moments when things appear to come together, when the foreigner jumping to conclusions meets a native or two jumping in the same direction, and something of the kind happened for me with the books under review. I had been thinking about the odd sense of secondariness one finds almost everywhere in Latin America, the sense that reality and authority are always elsewhere. It is as if these countries had publicly resolved to talk about autonomy and progress and la patria but had secretly decided they could not live anywhere but in a mirror. Contortions of diffidence accompany proclamations of pride. I should say at once that the pride, where it is not mere arrogance or cruelty, seems to me a good deal more justified than the diffidence—indeed I think the diffidence is a cultural and political trap, an ugly obstacle to independent thought.
The mirror does not reflect only the old dominion of Spain and Portugal. Images of France, for example, stalk Latin America like the ruins of some empire of the mind: codes, constitutions, buildings, books, styles of administration. There are pockets of Anglophilia. In countries where the prehispanic culture was substantial, there is a strong loyalty to the time before the conquest. More recently, the United States has insinuated itself into all parts of this world, a heavy-breathing ogre for some and a dream of paradise for others. What these images and admirations and infiltrations have in common for Latin Americans is that they are not here, not now. “But what is our country really,” a character of Sábato’s asks, “save a series of alienations?” A series of betrayals, Carlos Fuentes would say.
Of course life in a mirror, as any reader of Lewis Carroll knows, is not less agitated or demanding than life in other places. There are abundant pain and terror and talent and affection in these shadowy realms. But it is a life that looks elsewhere, and what these four books have in common is an evocation of a world shut off in various ways from what is seen as full, unreflected reality. Life in Luis Rafael Sánchez’s Puerto Rico is inescapably banal; in Márcio Souza’s nineteenth-century Brazil it is a frivolous newspaper story; in the Mexico of Carlos Fuentes and the Argentina of Ernesto Sábato it is a broken or sundered coherence, an ungatherable Humpty Dumpty. This sense of things often figures in ordinary conversation in Latin America in the current, shoulder-shrugging use of the word underdevelopment. “Well, you know, we in the underdeveloped countries….” Fuentes calls Mexico City “the capital of underdevelopment.” Memories of Underdevelopment is the title of a very good Cuban novel, and of a film made from the novel.
There is a complicated irony here. The architects of Machu Picchu and the lake city of Tenochtitlán were not underdeveloped, and industrial or technological growth alone will not dissolve the feeling of secondariness, of life in the mirror. Underdevelopment in Latin America is a sly new name for an old condition: the climate of dependence, the memory of the colony. A long memory, since these are not new nations, most of them having been politically autonomous since the beginning of the nineteenth century. In some cases, as in Puerto Rico, the mirror is a fact, a mark of the power of the United States. In other cases it is a habit, a form of self-deprecation which lurks behind many of the continent’s most extravagant chauvinisms.
Puerto Rico, Luis Rafael Sánchez says in his funny, angry novel, is the “successive colony of two empires,” an “unprotected concrete island” flooded with American advertising and littered with memories of the distant dreams of Ferdinand and Isabella. It is not a part of North America where they happen to speak Spanish, it is a chunk of Latin America on our doorstep, closer than we think, a region of the mirror where our own faces loom extraordinarily large. There is a First National Festival of Drum Majorettes in this novel, and signs for the First National City Bank hang in the air. The founding fathers of Puerto Rico have mysteriously become Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, and a pro-American senator draws up a resolution “in support of our glorious presence in Vietnam.” Yankee this is home is the slogan he has proudly promoted in answer to the more familiar and manifestly ungrateful one.
Macho Camacho’s Beat appeared in Spanish in 1975. It offers less a narrative than a situation, an image of a stagnant world. It is five o’clock in the afternoon throughout the book, the time of a famous poem by Lorca, only here we witness not the death of an adored bullfighter but the thoughts of people caught in or kept waiting because of a colossal traffic jam—borrowed from a story by Julio Cortázar, Sánchez wryly says, but horribly familiar to anyone who has tried to make even the briefest of trips in any one of a dozen Latin American cities. “The police prophetic services,” Sánchez writes, “predicted transitory difficulties in transit although they would be permanent between three and six o’clock.” The jam, he says, is “an active sample of the Latin American capacity for obstruction.” That is how they talk in the mirror, Sánchez has caught the tone exactly. They don’t really believe there are no traffic jams in Rome, for example, or that there are more obstructions in Latin America than anywhere else. They do like to evoke a special, disheveled destiny, a sense that their failures are more attractive, more peculiarly theirs, than anyone else’s successes. These are the tristes tropiques, as Sánchez playfully puts it, but the sadness is so charming that it hardly looks like sadness at all. That is part of the problem.
It is five o’clock in the afternoon, then, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The pro-American senator in the Puerto Rican assembly is on his way to see his mistress; the senator’s son is stuck in his Ferrari; the senator’s wife is parked in the waiting room of her analyst; the senator’s mistress is getting higher and higher on one cuba libre after another; and an idiot child’s mother, who may also be the mistress in another part of her life—we are not told—chats with her crony, Doña Chon. “Life is a bundle of dirty clothes,” Doña Chon says. The book’s twenty breezy chapters float through the minds and conversations of these characters, the voice of an irrepressible disc jockey looping between them:
And ladies and gentlemen, friends, here is the guaracha by the Tarzan of culture, the Superman of culture, the James Bond of culture, here is and we have here Macho Camacho’s ecumenical guaracha Life is a Phenomenal Thing.
This imaginary popular song, played on every radio in the book, is a figure of persistent movement to answer the congealed traffic jam. It bounces and bumps its way through the world of the novel like the spirit of misrule, provokes dancing and singing and humming, stirs up visions of glamour and sexual appetite. Macho Camacho is not a character in the book, despite the title. He is the man behind the music, a metaphor for the book’s energy and ambivalence. Life is not a phenomenal thing in this cramped colony, the lyric is lying to us, offering false, finger-snapping, toe-tapping comfort. Yet our response cannot be a simple refusal of the comfort, or anything like contempt for those who need it. Imitation happiness is better than real misery; and in some cases is the only available antidote.
The misery comes through, though. The senator’s mistress is drowning in fantasies; the senator himself, entangled in political cliché and preening masculine pride, can’t see beyond his election or his hairy chest; his wife hides among magazines and the consolations of her blue blood. A bomb goes off at the University of Puerto Rico. The senator’s son, out of the jam and doing eighty down the narrow streets of San Juan, appears to run over several women and some children, noticing only the mess on his gleaming car. The idiot child is taunted and maltreated by other children, and is finally terrified by the sight of his own face:
The Kid’s face poured into the piece of mirror, uncontained. The great head raised, held erect, sustained by ten hands. The Kid, waking to the horror of his own horror, tears a protesting whine wrapped in weeping from his throat. Then, all the pain of the world skewers him in the heart and the sky turns dull like an unwashed wooden floor: seamy and mean.
The Kid is everything that is neglected on this singing and dancing island.
There is a certain fussiness in the book, a weight of whimsy and cultural reference which at times looks like clutter. But it persuasively pictures a life of necessary and appealing evasions. In a recent interview Sánchez speaks rather sententiously of the “spiritual decomposition of Puerto Rico,” of “an environment contaminated by colonialism,” but that is not how his novel sounds. It makes those points, but it also catches the gaiety of much of the contamination, the humanity which lingers in those decomposing forms. It is a political work, as he says elsewhere in the same interview, but only because it points us toward realities which are ultimately political. We must change the world, “transform colonial reality in all spheres,” but we must also respect the dreams and songs cherished by the suffering while we do the changing, and that is what this lively, seductive, unsettling book does.
The Emperor of the Amazon was published in Brazil in 1977, and was an immediate best seller, a literary version of Macho Camacho’s guaracha which cost its author his job at the Ministry of Culture. Its subtitle says a great deal: The Life & Unprecedented Adventures of Dom Luiz Galvez Rodrigues de Aria in the Fabulous Cities of the Amazon, including a Farcical Conquest of the Territory of Acre, Set Forth with Perfect Equilibrium of Artistry & Ratiocination for the Delight of the Reader. The book is imitation-picaresque, and recounts, as it promises, the escapades of Don Luis, or Dom Luiz to give him his Portuguese title, a Spanish Casanova who, startled one night by an indignant husband, falls out of a window and lands in an international plot. The territory of Acre, situated at 9 degrees south latitude and 70 degrees west longitude, Souza precisely tells us, was disputed in the nineteenth century by Brazil and Bolivia, with the United States taking an interest in the Bolivian claims. Why this attention to a forgotten region in the upper, western reaches of the Amazon? The last sentence of the following grim paragraph, titled “The Metaphysics of Aristotle,” holds the answer:
In Acre, annually, eight out of twenty children died in the first days of life; 20 percent of the active population suffered from tuberculosis; 15 percent from leprosy. Another 60 percent were infected with diseases typical of an undernourished condition; 80 percent of the population was illiterate. There were no doctors in Acre. A kilo of coffee cost twenty centavos. And 40 percent of the finest rubber in the Amazon came from Acrean territory.
Dom Luiz steals a document on behalf of the Brazilians who wish to keep the Bolivians and the North Americans out of Acre, and is pursued by the police through a performance of Aida given by a visiting French opera troupe. “O terra, addio, addio, valle de pianti!” Radames sings, and Dom Luiz jumps on the stage and hides in the Temple of Vulcan, while the police swarm about the cardboard Egyptian walls. Dom Luiz makes his escape through a back exit, and flees up the river, from Belém, where these antics take place, to Manaus, and finally to Acre. He meets up with Sir Henry Lust, an eccentric Englishman who believes that visitors from outer space have left traces all over the Amazonian jungle, knocks together a ragtaggle army which marches on its inordinate intake of alcohol, and makes himself emperor of the disputed territory. However, he has scarcely started the construction of his new palace, an imitation of an extraordinarily expensive set for The Marriage of Figaro designed by the director of the French opera company, when the nineteenth century comes to an end, and with it Dom Luiz’s brief, disreputable rule.
The empire lasted a little less than six months. “I was deposed by the twentieth century,” Dom Luiz says. “Ah, 1899! Besides my hallucinatory empire, lost in the middle of the jungle like some forgotten utopia of Campanella, future historians will have a great deal to talk about concerning that year.” And yet Dom Luiz himself lives on well into modern times. He dies in 1946, back in his native Cadiz, having few friends and no heirs, leaving only his unlikely memoirs, which turn up in a Paris bookshop to be found by a Brazilian who is none other than our author, Márcio Souza. “The ink is somewhat faded here and there,” Souza writes, “and the moths have tasted a few adjectives,” but the story remains, and needs only a touch of correction now and again. On his way up the river Dom Luiz has a narrow escape from some cannibals, and his editor decides he cannot let this go:
Once again I seem to be obliged to interrupt this narrative. In 1898, there were no Indians left on the banks of the lower Amazon. And since the early eighteenth century there had been no further reports of cannibalism in the region.
We must assume, I think, that it is the supposed editor who is responsible for the witty, offhand paragraph titles which are scattered through the book, two or three or four to the page. Dom Luiz tells his tall, erratic tale, and the interposed titles comment with alarming promptness and erudition: “Mythologies,” “Finances,” “The Ethics of Spinoza,” “Equatorial Fenimore Cooper,” “Sapristi,” “Duetto Buffo.” A section called “Style” begins “I am the prisoner of a paysage.” Another, called “Colonial Erudition,” tells of a native of the Amazon who was taught to read and write and suffered fatal cerebral convulsions while trying to master the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas.
The effect of these proliferating titles—often funny enough in themselves—is to suggest a universe of interminable comment, which recalls some of Joyce’s jokes in Ulysses, and the similar earlier tricks of Machado de Assis. These titles have something to say about everything, and the saying is always slightly wrong, comic because of its failure to fit more than halfway. Dom Luiz describes the murmuring, perennially miserable people of his new empire. The title says “Your Tired and Your Poor.” What is mocked here, in the most easygoing way, is verbal culture, the ready-made reference; that industry which is never at a loss for not entirely appropriate words.
Not only the titles are funny, though, and the editor is far from having things his own way. Dom Luiz’s Spanish eye picks up all kinds of instances of culture and anarchy in the tropics, from a colonel of the civil guard in Belém, who treasures as a literary relic the pair of underpants he has pinched from a visiting writer, to the secretary of the treasury in Manaus, who is interested in spiritualism and girls of twelve, and who shops for panama hats by throwing the ones he doesn’t like into the river. “Ninety hats had soared into the Rio Negro,” Dom Luiz notes, “when the major finally came across a panama to his liking.”
The French presence in Souza’s nineteenth-century Brazil is striking—as if France were the secret homeland of all intellectuals who are not at home. Apart from the doings of the French opera troupe, we hear regularly of Dreyfus, Zola, Flaubert, Anatole France, Voltaire, the Marseillaise. The above-mentioned secretary of the treasury is a member of a group which has been trying to summon the ghost of Victor Hugo. So far they have managed only “a few Indians and some old, black slaves.” A colonial parable: they asked for Europe and were given the Brazilian dead. But there is an English presence in the book, personified by Sir Henry Lust, and so strong in Manaus, Dom Luiz says, that “there were even a few traditional apparitions”:
At a certain palazzo, by a wrought-iron bridge, on a particular hour of the night, with the precision of Greenwich time, it was possible to catch a glimpse of the pale specter of a blind woman—her eyes torn out by revenge—or the bloody figure of an earl, in eighteenth-century costume.
As I think these quotations suggest, The Emperor of the Amazon is a trip through a world of allusions, spiced with knockabout adventures. Dom Luiz has to get out of Manaus, for example, without being seen by the American and Bolivian consuls, who are taking the same boat. He poses as a corpse and is carried aboard in a coffin. Later, taking his nighttime pleasure with the star of the French opera, he is seen by the American, a worried puritan who never recovers from the sight of what he thinks of as “ecstasies d’outre tombe“:
Justine, naked, squatting on the pelvis of the corpse in an unmistakable proof that the French go too far in perversity.
And yet in spite of all the allusions and glancing jokes—Souza and Dom Luiz together make up a tropical Tobias Smollett, perhaps, rather than an equatorial Fenimore Cooper—this book is not as “literary” as Macho Camacho’s Beat. It is both more casual and more historical. What it evokes is not a smothering, confused contemporary culture, but an old, vanished, comic, violent world. It would be wrong to make large claims for the book. One of its charms is that it keeps refusing to be important. “My life could never make a serious story,” Dom Luiz says, “only a theme for a feuilleton.” But it is life itself in Brazil that is seen as the stuff of a feuilleton, and minor European genres often have second careers in the Americas. That is one of the ways in which the mirror shows it is not only a mirror.
Carlos Fuentes is a prolific and intelligent novelist, but it may be that his short stories show his talent at its most focused and eloquent. Four short works have recently been republished in Mexico under the title Agua Quemada, Burnt Water, but the English text of this name brings together eleven pieces from two earlier Spanish collections, Cantar de ciegos (1964) and Chac-Mool y otros cuentos (1973).
The burnt water of the title is the lake of the Aztecs, drained by the conquering Spanish, who wished to recreate their arid homeland in this high tropic. “Burnt water,” Fuentes notes, “atl tlachinolli: the paradox of the creation is also the paradox of destruction.” That is neatly put, but Fuentes’s vision is ultimately less symmetrical than this sentence suggests. The Spanish substituted their world for that of the Aztecs, but the Mexicans since independence have substituted theirs for that of the Spanish, and the name for these substitutions is not creation but ruin. There are many positive things to be said about modern Mexico, but not in this matter of its active relations with its past, and Fuentes returns again and again to images of damage and decay. “These were palaces,” a crippled boy thinks in one of these stories, looking at the once stately mansions of the colony. Now they are slums, vecindades, breeding grounds of what Oscar Lewis called the culture of poverty.
Heedless of the warnings offered by Susan Sontag about the use of such metaphors, Fuentes twice describes Mexico City as “cancerous.” No writer has a better sense of this rambling, uncontrollable city, with its “paint shops, repair shops, small refreshment stands with the box at the entrance filled with ice and carbonated drinks, corrugated tin roofs, and occasionally, the dome of a colonial church lost among a thousand rooftop water-storage tanks….”
Yet there is no nostalgia in these stories, no yearning for earlier or other worlds. There is only what Fuentes calls “the past and its reality”—a spoiled reality, not a backward-looking dream. What happens in Fuentes’s world is that ancestors are killed off before the next generation is ready to live without them, and so they return insistently as ghosts. At times this return is a little too artful or predictable, as when a pre-Columbian statue comes to life and takes over a house, or when the Empress Carlotta haunts a quiet garden in the center of Mexico City. At other times it takes the form of sinister and gripping repetitions: a man returns to look for a child he once knew and finds her twice, first as dead and worshiped by her parents in the image of an excessively beautiful figure of porcelain and wax and cotton, a doll queen, as the title of the story calls her; and then as the misshapen cripple the poor child actually grew into, perm in her hair, hump on her chest, cigarette hanging from her orange-painted lips.
There is a powerful myth at the center of this book, briefly but unforgettably sketched:
Reality: one day it was shattered into a thousand pieces, its head rolled in one direction and its tail in another, and all we have is one of the pieces from the gigantic body.
It is perhaps not an accident, as cautious critics say, that this figure closely resembles the goddess Coyolxauqhi, of whom an enormous image was recently found in an old temple buried beneath the colonial streets of Mexico City. Reality is dismembered; or is a dismembering; and that is why existence seems so partial and ghostly. “You left me out of everything,” a character in another story says to his grandfather, a hero of the Mexican Revolution, “even pain.” Especially pain, we might say; pain is a way of calling up the real.
And what we are to do in the face of this broken reality, this world dominated by a past it has smashed or desecrated, is not to grieve or daydream but to learn how to be faithful to what we need. A girl accompanies the coffin of her dead brother back to Mexico, having provoked his death and that of his fiancée out of a passionate loyalty to the purity of the children they once were, and thinks:
We must remain united in what matters most, we mustn’t concede anything to demands that we be anything other (do you remember?) than love and intelligence and youth and silence.
A character in another story, about to be killed by a gang of muggers, although he doesn’t know that, writes to a now aging friend: “You were the only person I could love without betraying all the other aspects of my life and its demands.”
Fuentes’s world in these stories is haunted but actual. It is Mexico City with its named markets and neighborhoods and stores and restaurants and parks and churches and secrets. It is harshly portrayed, and we cannot offer the conventional piety which suggests that we always chastise the thing we love. Fuentes does something better than love Mexico City, which over the years has busily exacerbated the evils he has been describing for so long. He sees how full it is of living people, and he knows that because of them its betrayals of itself count so much. “We must remain united in what matters most….” He invites his compatriots not to an orgy of slogans, but to a recognition that they can have no future other than that which arises from the way they treat their past. It is not impossible to live without betrayals, and a city too has its versions of love and intelligence and youth and silence. They are the opposite of manipulation and stupidity and weariness and noise. “Stone within stone, and man, where was he?” Fuentes asks, quoting from The Heights of Machu Picchu, in a story dedicated to the memory of Pablo Neruda. The question is easier to evade than it ought to be.
Fuentes’s dismembered reality appears in the novel of the Argentine writer Ernesto Sábato as a geological metaphor. A man going mad feels reality is slipping from him, escaping into fragments—“as though I were a region devastated by an earthquake, with great yawning fissures opening up and all the telephone wires down.” Sábato speaks elsewhere of Latin America as “a different, violent continent,” so that the land becomes a figure for its inhabitants who live in
neither Europe nor America, but a region of faults and fractures, an unstable, tragic, turbulent area where everything cracks apart and is ripped asunder.
It is important to catch the element of myth-making here, the inflection of mirror-talk. There are earthquakes in California, just as there are traffic jams in France. A human, historical violence is being pictured as a natural condition, and it is that violence which dismembers reality—as if Imperial Spain were a nightmare which could be neither dispersed nor displaced, only repeated in a collection of shards.
Sábato also speaks more directly of Argentinian history; of Perón and a burst of church-burning by Perón’s supporters in 1955; of strikes and politics in the 1930s; and obsessively, of the civil wars of the nineteenth century. He describes a defeated, scattered army fleeing toward the frontier, bearing the body of its beloved, stubborn general. This is another haunted book. An old man tells the story of these ancient wars, and the ghosts arrive:
The souls of warriors, of conquistadors, of madmen, of municipal councilors and priests seemed to fill the room with their invisible presence and murmur quietly among themselves.
The heroine of On Heroes and Tombs quotes a poem by Borges in which the streets of Buenos Aires “repeat the preterite names / of my blood,” where “republics, horse and dawns” evoke those fading fratricidal battles. The heroine herself, Alejandra Vidal, is seen as a compression of Argentine history into a troubled person, a difficult, articulate, frightened, frightening girl who finally kills her father and herself; a delegate of those wars, the past’s representative in the present. “And suddenly it seemed,” the boy who loves her feels, “as though it was Alejandra who was his native land…. She was a dark and turbulent territory shaken by earthquakes, swept by hurricanes…this living, contradictory end product of Argentine history….”
Sábato has received extraordinary praise in Europe. His first novel, The Tunnel, published in 1948, an existentialist fable, was much praised by Albert Camus, Thomas Mann, and Graham Greene. It is a nervous, intelligent work, and at times recalls that of Italo Svevo; at other times it is lucid to the point of flatness, suggesting an orderly mind doing what it can to imitate chaos. This is part of the trouble with On Heroes and Tombs, Sábato’s second novel, published in Spanish in 1961, and with his third and last novel, Abbadón el Exterminador, as yet untranslated into English.
An author’s note to On Heroes and Tombs is categorical:
There exists a certain type of fictional narrative whereby the author endeavors to free himself of an obsession that is not clear even to himself. For good or ill, this is the only sort of fiction that I am able to write. I have found myself forced to write countless numbers of stories, incomprehensible to me, since my adolescence. Fortunately, I made few efforts to see them into print….
Now it is impossible to doubt this dignified and vulnerable statement, particularly since On Heroes and Tombs, in parts, really is the kind of book Sábato describes. The figure of Alejandra/Argentina, those shadowy and haunting old wars, the meticulously evoked flavor of the “implacable city” of Buenos Aires, the spectacular surrealist landscapes (“giant ferns everywhere: a cloud-enshrouded, radioactive moon cast its light on a sea of blood licking yellowish shores”) which appear at the climax of the book—all this seems to respond to an unappeasable obsession. Yet much of the book feels very different: not as if Sábato had failed to evoke his obsession in words, but as if the obsession itself were a touch too willed. This is clearest in the centerpiece of the book, a section called “Report on the Blind,” Sábato’s entry for the title currently held by Ivan Karamazov’s “Grand Inquisitor.”
Fernando Vidal, Alejandra’s father, is a “terrorist of ideas,” “a kind of saint of Hell”—it’s hard to see how anyone could live up to that reputation—and he is also a madman who believes that the Blind rule the world, form a “Sacred Sect” whose mastery rests on “nightmare and fits and delirium, hallucinations, plagues, and witches, soothsayers and birds, serpents, and in general, all the monsters of darkness and caverns.” Fernando is not sure whether the Blind can create reality, but he is convinced that they are capable of producing “terrible simulacra outside of time and space, or even within them, transforming them, inverting them, deforming them.”
The difficulty with all this is that the idea of Fernando’s madness hangs so clearly over the text. He is, so to speak, insufficiently grotesque, too carefully crazy, an escapee from The Tunnel. Other characters in the book have a larger, less marionette-like life: Alejandra, the boy in love with her, a thoughtful fellow called Bruno, assorted ghosts and memories. It’s not that Sábato is not the writer he thinks he is, it’s just that he is not always that writer. His notion of the artist (“forced to write”) traps him in a terrible wager: Dostoyevsky or nothing. The ungrateful task of the critic is to refuse the wager. On Heroes and Tombs is neither Dostoyevsky nor nothing, it is a substantial, frequently pedantic, undeniably powerful, often poorly written book.
“She fascinated him like a dark abyss.” “The dark, frigid sky was like a symbol of his soul.” Alejandra, a wonderful figure, is strongly described as a person who has had to learn how to laugh; who despises success; and who can say, “How restful it is to hate oneself.” Yet she is also seen as
a dragon-princess, an unfathomable monster, at once chaste and breathing fire, at once innocent and revolting: an absolutely pure-hearted child in a communion dress possessed by the nightmares of a reptile or bat.
Child, communion, reptile, bat. This is not even myth-making, it is simply reaching for the easiest figures in the bestiary.
Fernando, searching for the secrets of the Blind, finds himself in the sewers of Buenos Aires—“The abominable sewers of Buenos Aires! A hidden inferior world, the fatherland of filth!”—and contrasts the respectable above-ground world with this “obscene and pestilential tumult.” If we resist the question of what is to be expected in a sewer, this figure holds the attention for a moment, but only for a moment. It is too schematic and too obvious to take us very far, too full of off-the-peg assumptions and associations—like the bats and reptiles who have their predictably nasty nightmares. The risk of writing about obsessions that are not clear to you is that they may turn out to be other people’s clichés—or your own in an alienated form.
Yet the power of the book—those ghosts, that city, those landscapes, that girl—assures it a place in literary history; somewhere between Lawrence Durrell and Malcolm Lowry, perhaps, who are susceptible to similar criticisms. And it is important for another reason. It shows us another face of Latin American writing. Since the North American success of One Hundred Years of Solitude we seem to have thought everything was wit and whimsy down there, a world of miracles offering a freshness of feeling, a fund of stories, that our jaded authors could not match. This view is not entirely false, the books of Sánchez and Souza to some extent confirm it. Fuentes’s stories don’t, though, and Sábato represents even more clearly a sterner, more solemn strain in this writing.
It is true that writers of the older generation cut their literary teeth on Sartre, and went in for a lot of cigarettes and raincoats and existential nausea. That was yesterday’s gloomy glamour, and today’s glamour is different, more offhand. But the glamour is not what counts. Sábato has more to tell us about the troubles of Latin America than many more skillful writers. Fate makes us invisible, a character says in Gabriel García Márquez’s recently published novel, Cronica de una muerte anunciada, and we might say the same of many Latin American realities. García Márquez himself has said the same, only the agency, as he well knows, is not fate but fantasy. This is a form of truth too—the truth of the need to muffle or clude the intolerable—but we do need the other, brooding, perspective, the reminder of the harshness of the world that persists behind the parade of images in the mirror. The last word should go to Sábato. Alejandra, he writes, was perhaps
nothing more than one of those mirages of an oasis that cause the traveler in the desert to go desperately onward across the burning sands, and whose vanishing can bring on his death: and yet the ultimate cause of his despair (and hence of his death) is not the false oasis but the implacable, endless desert.
October 22, 1981