Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Latin American Literature Time

I’ll go ahead and say it: One Hundred Years of Solitude is a great book. And furthermore, Octavio Paz is a wonderful poet. But, Roberto Bolaño is, like it or love it, the new voice of Latin American literature. He established himself as such before his untimely death. The last decade of his life saw the writing and publication of an astounding amount of work from this Chilean exile and literary enfant terrible who, if you read anything about his youth (see link provided above) founded a small poetic movement in Mexico called infrarealism, a movement that rejected Garcia Marquez and the Boom members, so much so that the infrarealists would shout out their own poems while people like Paz were reading on stage.

What a little brat, this Bolaño was. It’s easy to think as much from the ivory tower of Gringolandia and Europe with established literary traditions that go back centuries, but Latin America has had a stranger literary history. Though there are significant literary periods there, the rest of the world knows only the Boom and the ever-expanding term “Magic Realism” and assumes that all writers south of the U.S. border write sweeping family histories with supernatural events, ghosts and desperate lovers eating rose petals. Not true. To Bolaño and many of his generation, this was upsetting. How to reconcile getting published, or even recognized, with kowtowing to trends and being pigeonholed? When Bolaño famously stated that Magic Realism “stinks” I don’t think he was saying that the entire style was inherently bad as much as he was doing what many generations do: rebel. And he was not avoiding politics in his assessment. It was not only Marquez’s writing that might have bothered Bolaño but also his friendship with Castro. Coming from Chile and witnessing the Pinochet coup, I’m sure human rights violations were often on Bolaño’s mind. They do appear, in a way, in his writing. What was his problem with Paz? I’m not sure yet. Aesthetically, and this is based on hearsay, Bolaño wrote poetry that sounds just as experimental and surreal as Paz. I doubt their styles match completely, but philosophically there seems to be a correlation, however tenuous. Obviously I need to do some serious investigation (and I hope to have the chance, though I don’t think Bolaño’s poems are in English as of yet) but I suspect the heckling of Paz has more to do with tearing down institutions in the hope of forging new ones than it does with truly disliking the great Mexican poet. Kind of the way the punks lambasted the hippies even if they secretly owned Led Zeppelin records. Kind of the way I understand the importance of Bob Dylan even if I long to smack him in the face with a pillowcase full of D batteries.

The sentimentality of folks like Neruda (still, in my assessment, THE poet) was largely rejected by the Bolaño generation, and I can accept that and still read Bolaño without feeling like I’m betraying anyone or choosing sides. And I’ve kept my collected Neruda close at hand all the while as I’ve been pouring over Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (and loving every moment!). Camus makes fun of Flaubert in The Plague, and it does nothing to tarnish the reputation of Madam Bovary. You can read it all, and why the hell shouldn’t you? This literary mudslinging is a symptom of generational differences, that’s all. Every generation should feel an equal measure of respect and disdain for that which preceded it. It’s the best way to get over Bloom’s “anxiety of influence.”

For the record: Bolaño is fantastic and deserves all the praise you’ll see if you Google his name. And Marquez is great when he’s great (I love One Hundred Years of Solitude, though Love in the Time of Cholera is rather a medicore book, but my reaction may be due to personal biases against it. In Evil Hour was really flat to me. Even Of Love and Other Demons was a bit of a disappointment. I think I need to read his other ambitious books, like The General in his Labyrinth). Borges and Cortazar (both heroes of Bolaño) are wonderful as well. I am itching to read Vargas Llosa. But never do I hear Arenas mentioned in these debates. I would be curious to discover what the erudite and opinionated Bolaño thought of his work. So everyone go out and read some Bolaño and then go back and take another look at the Boom generation. And what’s up with the Crack Generation from Mexico? Don't forget Jose Donoso and Manuel Puig either. And let’s still pay some attention to the pre-Boom figures of Borges, Cortazar, Rulfo and Bioy-Casares while we’re at it.