In the Latino Americano Mirror

Macho Camacho's Beat

by Luis Rafael Sánchez, translated by Gregory Rabassa
Pantheon, 213 pp., $10.95

The Emperor of the Amazon

by Márcio Souza, translated by Thomas Colchie
Avon, 190 pp., $2.75 (paper)

Burnt Water

by Carlos Fuentes, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 231 pp., $11.95

On Heroes and Tombs

by Ernesto Sábato, translated by Helen R. Lane
Godine, 496 pp., $17.95

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.