Friday, June 11, 2010

Art That Changed My Life: Latin American Literature

It began with One Hundred Years of Solitude. So many stories told by so many gringos, who also “discovered” the thriving, awe inspiring literary tradition south of the border, also begin with this book. Marquez is a gateway drug and, like it or not, he has become for the most of the world outside of Latin America the guy to measure all texts produced from that large region against. The McCondo group might write in opposition of Marquez, and the Crack Generation might seek to move beyond the narrow parameters of magic realism, but both have to admit that Bloom’s anxiety of influence theory is inescapable and that there’s no getting away from Gabbo. This is really too bad: Marquez, for all his talent, is not a spot on the ass of Reinaldo Arenas, Jose Donoso, Cesar Vallejo, Manuel Puig, or Adolfo Bioy Casares. Even more known, and read, writers like G. Cabrera Infante, J. L. Borges and the now ubiquitous Roberto Bolaño trump Marquez in my book, but their books will never match the revenue generated from One Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera (in the U.S., that is).

But I digress.

Cassandra gave me One Hundred Years of Solitude as a gift. I had a copy already, though it was, then, unread. I decided to give Marquez a try. It was, I do admit, a fantastic read. Everything I loved about Faulkner was on display in Marquez (to be sure, Faulkner is the most revered gringo writer by much of the Boom figures). (Years later I would read Arenas dismiss Marquez’s writing as being a pastiche of Faulkner.) And I was already open to the magic realist tinkering, having done time with the likes of Rushdie and Murakami and, well, a lot of writers who might fall into the category by sad default (even Ovid, for fuck’s sake). It was a short hop from there to Juan Rulfo. And Borges was already read, but I dipped back after for, you know, comparison’s sake. I went deeper. Neruda? Yeah, there were Neruda moments that kicked my ass, but Vallejo more so. Octavio Paz confused and excited me, Sunstone especially. I think the real explosion was when I investigated Arenas and fell into an obsession with all things Cuban. Since then I have focused a lot of attention to Cuban literature, mostly the work of my hero Cabrera Infante. Though he eschews overtly political statements in his big book Three Trapped Tigers (tied for number one on my list of greatest novels), the time and setting (Havana just before Castro’s take over) and lack of Castro references (one in the whole tome) make the political atmosphere he is not describing more glaring.

All this was in 2002. I think 2003 was the year I read all of Arenas’ Pentagonia as well as his brilliant memoir. Eight years later, I am still neck deep in Latin American lit. If pressed, I might make the same argument about the books of this region that I made about the Irish: conflict and invention undercut so much of the writing. I seem to be attracted to work that is born from struggle, though, when you think about it, what art isn’t? Whatever the case, I retain my hispaniphone interests, even when straying to Northern Ireland and Russia, where I often find myself.