To Be like Funes the Memorious

A Distortion of Latin American Literature

Tomasz Pindel

Do not the history of literature and its reception rely in fact on the distortion of this literature?

In Poland, any mention of Latin American literature immediately brings to mind its 1970s boom on the Polish market a striking phenomenon that has underlined our notions about literature from that part of the world, at least among readers, even for those not old enough to remember that time. The phenomenal popularity of American, and in particular Spanish-language literature (Brazil, with its Portuguese-language literature did also have an effect, albeit less striking) that took place during that decade has been widely associated with the series of Ibero-American prose published by Wydawnictwo Literackie and Czytelnik but it was the former that proved more memorable, probably precisely because of this homogenous and graphically distinct series.1 It was during that decade that a host of writers and titles were put on the map for the Polish reader in due course, they would become part of the ultimate canon. Polish readers were presented with texts by Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, and Carlos Fuentes, to name only the five most high-profile writers. Ever since, these five have been consistently on sale in Poland and even if their books disappeared for a while from bookshops, sooner or later they would reappear. During the 1990s, the Muza publishing house brought back many of these titles, Borges came to have a tasteful collection courtesy of the publisher Prószyński i spółka, Vargas Llosa made a triumphant comeback in the colorful series by Znak, and Fuentes found a home at Świat Książki.

Notwithstanding the fact that hundreds of other translated works of Latin American authors have been published in Poland for decades, the classic literary corps can be traced back precisely to the 1970s boom with but a few exceptions. Isabel Allende was to achieve major stardom in Latin American literature, starting with her debut House of Spirits first published in 1982, but only in 1996 in Poland as was the very readable Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, also on the Polish market since the mid-1990s. Pre-2000, the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, whose novels include The Savage Detectives, albeit his case is quite different from that of the previous two: Bolaño received considerable media exposure and became a household name among Polish readers but, if truth be told, they were not so very numerous at all, and the print runs of his books very small.

To sum up: the corps of the Latin American classics in Poland consists of a few veteran megastars, with a small additional sprinkling of “commercial artists, and the bigger picture is supplemented by a number of more or less readable, but not very recognizable authors. What is interesting is that when we take a closer look at what the Polish reader associates with the literature of this region, only one aspect stands out: magical realism. If one follows online comments and opinions, one will soon find comments like “I like / dont like Latin American prose, because it is such and such, with reference to its particular characteristics. This is quite surprising even for someone who may only be acquainted with the five greats of Latin American literature. For what do Vargas Llosa, Borges, Fuentes, and García Márquez have in common? Perhaps, if one were to ponder this for a while, some similarity might be found but following this principle, one could find links between any two writers at all, especially, if they had been writing during the same era. The gist is that, for the Polish reader, what characterizes Latin American prose is a single aesthetic: magical realism.

There is no scope here to analyze what exactly magical realism is;2 let us treat the term as it is understood colloquially not as a concrete trend of world literature but as a sui generis aesthetic, in which the realism of the world represented combines with supernatural elements, as in a fairytale. The great hold that this aesthetic has acquired over readers awareness can be directly attributed to the phenomenal success of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez; although historians of literature are not given to compiling Top 10 rankings, there is always only one winner in a boom. Ever since the Columbian writers novel first came out five decades ago, it has enjoyed enormous popularity both in strictly commercial terms and among critics. Although for literary experts and researchers, One Hundred Years of Solitude represents the culmination of magical realism, the peak (and previously, after all, there had been Asturias, Carpentier, and Rulfo), it is a veritable beginning in terms of popular reception. The success of the novel encouraged many who followed in its footsteps, their pioneer probably Isabel Allende. She was followed by plenty more writers, both male and female, who explored the image of a magical Latin America, where fierce romance is pursued under palm trees, in a country ruled by a cruel dictator, as if in a fairytale.3

This in itself has been an interesting as well as paradoxical phenomenon: the immense wealth and diversity of the literary boom that involved a veritable explosion of talent and creativity from Mexico to Chile has been reduced to this apparent common denominator of magical exoticism. Paradoxical because the writers who contributed to the new Latin American novel that brought about the boom differed in almost every aspect, apart from one: each wanted to get away from a stereotypical image of his country and region. From the 19th century through the first decades of the next century, Latinos wrote about their part of America following quite rigidly realistic forms, focusing above all on the typical: climate, the natural environment, and social and class conditioning. Not only did the new writers revolutionize the form but also and especially so, the image of the described world only for the stereotype to return in greater force during their lifetime. The world wanted to see Latin America as exotic, possessed of spectacular landscapes and great passions and somewhat at odds with the common-sensical realism of the Western world Europe and the USA.

For and this is an important proviso such a perception is not a Polish prerogative but is, in fact, one that prevails generally, as can be seen from, for example, the actions of the young Latin writers of the 1990s, such as the acclaimed manifesto anthology McOndo or the Mexican group Crack.4 What these had in common was the desire to return to the exquisite literature of the halcyon years and a distaste for “banana literature as it was dubbed in Mexico a simplified vision of America interwoven with banal miracles. Today, when almost three decades have passed since these actions, the-then Young Angry ones have gone grey but also have clocked up a sizeable bibliography. Now we know that just as was true about the great writers of the boom time there are more ways in which they are different than they are similar, but they do have this in common: their dislike of clichéd magical realism.

The general perception has not, however, varied: we still view Latin America though Allendes glasses. It is difficult not to note a post-colonial stance in this: the “banana literature supplies us with an image of Latin America that we are already familiar with and that suits us well. In keeping with the general stereotype, derived from past centuries, this is an exotic region read: clearly very different with a hot climate and exuberant fauna and flora, politically unstable, with a penchant for Ruritanian dictators, backward lands whose inhabitants are noted for violence and passionate inclination.

A quick glance at the map and a moments reflection will suffice to realize that any generalizations about Latin America are doomed to failure. Yes, there is a broad common backdrop, due to the history and cultural conditions in the region but it is clear that in a land as vast and differentiated as this there must prevail profound differences. After all, the various countries of the continent have different social, racial, biological, and cultural profiles. It is true that many parallels can be found between Argentina and Chile, or Cuba and Haiti but if you take Peru, Argentina, and Haiti these are worlds apart. Moreover, a commonly shared stereotype has been overtaken by events: the grim and bloody dictatorships of the 1970s have, in the last few decades, evolved into consistent democracy. With a few exceptions, the countries of Latin America boast democratically elected governments; groups formerly absent from the political scene have gained positions of power, and corruption scandals get wide media exposure proving viscerally that Latin American communities have gained civic awareness. Problems do remain sometimes of great magnitude, as in Mexico and Venezuela but can anyone say with hand on heart that Europe and the USA have no such problems?

The perception of Latin American literature has thus been based on a great distortion: we select only one aspect of it, simplify it, and use it as the general principle. This is sad. And yet perhaps unavoidable or even... necessary.

Because how can one describe the literature of Latin America? What were the distinguishing features of its prose in the halcyon decades? Or, to update the issue of contemporary Latin American literature? How and what do the writers of the region write? I have no answer. I would need to obfuscate, making general statements about what intentions may perhaps, in a sense, link the writers of the two periods: the “new prose from the 1960s is a quest for new ways of expressing reality in opposition to the well-worn formulas of realism; the later prose of the 1990s marks a desire to return to that search and “telling it like it is in opposition to the clichés of magical romance. The point is that these are no more than intentions a starting point but the paths that specific writers have chosen are often radically different.

One can and must grumble about the stereotyping of Latin American literature, and culture in general, in Europe, yet is talking about any literature not a distortion by definition? It is possible to proclaim sound views about the oeuvre of a given author; it is, to my mind, also possible to hold such views about a specific genre if I read 250 thrillers, my view of the genre constructed on that basis will probably also apply with justification to the 251st. With respect to national literature, however, this approach does not seem to be possible, and even less so when one tries to make even greater generalizations and look for the defining features of this entire vast continent which would be akin to trying to arrive at a holistic analysis of European literature, not an endeavor that anyone has proposed, for good reasons.

Therefore, the best approach to Latin American literature seems to be to see it as the sum total of specific writers, titles, trends, themes and genres that combine into a whole not necessarily coherent but rather disorderly, full of internal contradictions and entirely non-homogenous. A well-read connoisseur will always be able to prove any thesis concerning that literature, since it is so rich and composed of so many strands that there are always examples at hand to back up any theory. Of course, there are trends and phenomena which are more visible at a given time and place that could be taken to typify it. For instance, it is not a coincidence that the “narconovela genre has taken off with gusto in Mexico and earlier in Columbia but they are not the be-all and end-all nor do they dominate the literary scene.

In fact, in our approach to literature whether Latin American or any other we should be like the protagonist of Borgess acclaimed short story “Funes the Memorious: as a result of an accident, Funes was unable to see the wood for the trees, unable to generalize. He saw everything in its infinite detail; for him the dog seen “at three-fourteen (seen from the side) was not the same as dog as the one “seen at three-fifteen (seen from the front).5

The only thing is that, in fact, Funes had gone mad.

Therefore after all, a distortion?

BIO

Tomasz Pindel studied Hispanic Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, where he received his PhD degree in 2002 in the field of fantasy and magical realism in Latin American literature. He is an expert in the field of Latin American prose, the author of two books of literature studies, a biography of Mario Vargas Llosa (Cracow: Znak, 2014), and one novel. Pindel has worked at the Department of Latin America of Jagiellonian University and at the Book Institute. He is also a co-author of the radio broadcast on literature Piątka z literatury on RMF Classic as well as a publicist, author of texts on literature and columnist. He was the managing editor of the postm@condo series at the Muchaniesiada publishing house; he currently manages the series Las Américas: the Unknown Classics of Latino Literature (Las Américas: nieznana klasyka literatury latynoskiej) at the Universitas publishing house and works as an initiating editor at the SIW Znak. In 2003, Pindel debuted as a translator, and has since translated more than 40 books (novels and short story collections) as well as several books for children and more than a dozen short stories published in the press. He specialises in contemporary Latino prose, actively working towards its promotion in Poland. Awarded in the competition organised by the Cervantes Institute in Poland for the best translation of Hispanic literature in 2007 for Noc jest dziewicą (La noche es virgen) by Jaime Bayly; he has also received two distinctions in the same competition: in 2006 for W poszukiwaniu jednorożca (En busca del unicorno) by Juan Eslava Galán, and in 2010 for Gorączka w Hawanie (La neblina del ayer) by Leonardo Padura. His biography of Mario Vargas Llosa was selected as the Cracow Book of the Month in December 2014 and received a nomination for the Jan Długosz Award in 2015.

* Cover photo: Holland House in Kensington, London. An interior view of the bombed library at Holland House with readers apparently choosing books regardless of the damage. Photographed in 1940. Source: wikimedia commons, (c) Fox Photos Limited

[1] Małgorzata Gaszyńska-Magiera provides a comprehensive look at the Polish boom in Latin American literature in: Recepcja przekładów literatury iberoamerykańskiej w Polsce w latach 1945-2005 z perspektywy komunikacji międzykulturowej, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, Kraków 2011.

[2] It is something that I have done elsewhere: Tomasz Pindel Zjawy, szaleństwo i śmierć. Fantastyka i realizm magiczny w literaturze hispanoamerykańskiej, TAiWPN Universitas, Kraków, 1st edition. 2004, 2nd edition 2014; also: Tomasz Pindel Realizm magiczny. Przewodnik praktyczny, Universitas, Kraków 2014.

[3] More on this topic in the chapter “Jak realizm magiczny stał się romansem magicznym, in: Tomasz Pindel Realizm magiczny. Przewodnik..., op. cit., pp. 7078.

[4] More on this in: Marcin Sarna Boom i McOndo. Wokół nowej prozy hispanoamerykańskiej, Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Pedagogicznego w Krakowie, 2017.

[5] Jorge Luis Borges, “Funes the Momorious, in: Labyrinths, translated by James E. Irby, New Directions, New York 1962, 1964, p. 153.