To Bolivian-born author Edmundo Paz Soldan, Berkeley is a magnifying glass through which he examines the world from which he came.
While studying for his Ph.D. in literature at UC Berkeley in the early ‘90s, Paz Soldan started walked the streets of the city, noticing its history painted on walls, noting its awareness for social justice issues. He was inspired, he said, to take a closer look at his native Bolivia.
“I couldn’t unplug myself [from Berkeley], there was always something going on, it was in the air, it was hard to avoid,” Paz Soldan said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “What I tried to see was what my experience in the U.S. would help me understand in Latin America.”
After social and cultural upheavals that dominated the continent into the ‘80s, Latin America seemed to be on idle when Paz Soldan left to study in the United States. But what he discovered when he looked back—and what he began to write about—was a flourishing, vivid subculture, not widely acknowledged.
Other young authors like Paz Soldan were also taking another look at their southern native lands, and daring to acknowledge the changes that were quietly reshaping Latin America. Like Berkeley, their work went against the grain, creating a backlash from literature critics.
The grain this new group of Latin American authors was working against had been set down by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the near-mythical Colombian novelist whose ground-breaking, prize-winning work has made modern Latin American literature synonymous with the term “magical realism.” In that genre, fantasy and fact merge into a seamless narrative whole, almost as if someone told a fairy tale in the manner of a news story. Once that form became a popular seller in the United States, Latin American authors who did not conform found themselves without publishing contracts.
But Paz Soldan and his fellow Latin-American up-and-coming authors were realists (in their writing form, if not necessarily in their approach to the potential market). They kept writing, however, and eventually created a new generation of Latin American literature called McCondo. The name itself is both a parody and a political-social statement. It derives from Maconda, the town that was the setting in the Marquez book—One Hundred Years of Solitude—that put the author on the literary map and is still considered the seminal magic realism work. But the altered spelling is meant to symbolize the Yankification of Latin America—a play on the cultural world of McDonalds, Macintosh computers, and condominiums.
For Paz Soldan, the McCondo literary form symbolized looking at his native land through the eyes of an outsider—from Berkeley.
“I realized that I could contribute,” he said, “because I had an outside perspective. [That idea] jelled for me at the time, [the idea that] I’m changing, I’m seeing my country with the eyes of a stranger.”
This allowed him to recognize certain things that others took for granted, like the heavy American cultural influence that was shaping Latin America culture. And the political apathy of his generation that was very different from both the previous Latin American generation as well as from the political sensitivity that dominated Berkeley.
“In 1993 in Bolivia, for the first time, they chose an indigenous leader,” Paz Soldan explained. “I lived that through the eyes of Berkeley. I read it in an article about how things were changing in Latin America. Of course, I was very happy. So when I went back home that summer with all my multicultural Berkeley points of view, I was shocked to see that they were shocked to have an Indian as vice president. They would say, ‘can you imagine, if the president dies, then we will have an Indian president?’ If I had stayed in Bolivia I might have been like them. But I was in Berkeley.”
Like the other authors in the McCondo genre, Paz Soldan wrote the world as he saw it, with all its quirks and faults and changes. Paz Soldan was not afraid to expose the fact that the modern Latin America was different from the Latin America Garcia Marquez and others had described in their books.
For example, he said he originally read some of the other authors’ work and saw how much their characters sounded like American teenagers. At first he thought it was just an attempt to mimic America because it was “cool.” But then he realized that these authors had caught an important point.
“The cultural forces industry in Latin America is not very strong,” he said. “Maybe in Mexico and Argentina. [But if] a kid in Bolivia meets a kid from Ecuador and they want to talk about something common, they talk about The X-Files. The kid in Bolivia hasn’t seen Ecuadorian sitcoms. American popular culture was becoming a way to communicate.”
Paz Soldan said the Latin American cultural critics, while secretly revering the United States, refused to publicly acknowledge their respect. So McCondo’s attempt to expose the U.S. cultural dominance of Latin America generated heat.
In his most recent book, The Matter of Desire, Berkeley continues to be an important theme. The book is about a young Bolivian, much like Paz Soldan, who comes to the United States only to refocus on Latin America. In the book the protagonist returns to Bolivia after teaching in the U.S. to rediscover the life of his father, an iconic revolutionary figure, whose manifesto is aptly titled Berkeley.
“I wanted to show what Berkeley represented for Latin America, it was the symbol of the fight against the war, for civil rights,” he said.
The young man’s father, who was in Berkeley during the 60s, finds his political calling and returns to Bolivia to fight. He then dies, before the protagonist really grows to know him. All the young man knows of his dad is the posters and statues of him hung around the country.
Without giving away the plot, the young man decides he has to return to Berkeley to try and find what created the human being behind the poster. What he finds is something we here in Berkeley all know to be true, that times have changed.
“Berkeley represents many things [in the book]. It represents a lost paradise,” Paz Soldan said. “One day all these dreams were in place. But afterwards Berkeley became a pale imitation of itself with the years. But the stereotype remains, and many people have benefited from that stereotype.”
Paz Soldan’s new book, The Matter of Desire, is published by Houghton Mifflin and is available at all major bookstores. 224 pages. $12. ›