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Granta Spotlights (Some) Spanish-Language Novelists

By Joanna Graham
Tuesday December 07, 2010 - 01:39:00 PM

Why would a Peruvian writer who has never been to Brazil set all his stories in Brazil? Is everyone in Chile a poet? And how could a journalist underground for six months in one of the worst sections of Medellín reject “poverty and violence” as a subject in favor of his neighbors’ and co-workers’ “happy life”?

These questions and many others were addressed by three young writers—the Chilean Carlos Labbé, the Peruvian Carlos Yushimito, and the Colombian Andrés Felipe Solano—at a panel discussion moderated by Peruvian writer Daniel Alarcón at the University of California on Monday. 

The panel was sponsored by three U.C. organizations—the Center for Latin American Studies, the English Department, and the Transnational Working Group of the Townsend Center for the Humanities—as well as Granta, the British literary quarterly, which has devoted Granta 113 to “The Best of Young Spanish-language Novelists.” 

Let’s start with Granta. Alarcón began by tossing out as absurdly broad and grandiose Granta’s suggested topic—“The Future of Spanish-language Writing”: he said it was “from London.” An audience member’s comment on the four-member all-male panel (“apparently there are no women writers in Latin America”) elicited a further critique by the panelists of the Granta special dual-language issue. Not only did only five women make the 22-name list but also omitted were any Caribbean writers and only one each was chosen from Central America and from Mexico. Sixty percent of the selected come from just two countries, Spain and Argentina—more than sixty percent, as Alarcón observed, since some of the non-Spaniards selected live in Spain. 

Not only the still-long shadow of Europe, but also the heavy legacy of Latin America’s earlier (“Boom”) generation of world-renowned writers was a topic of intense discussion, particularly since three of the most famous—García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and now Roberto Bolaño, enjoying a weird posthumous celebrity—are from the same countries as the three panelists, who all agreed that magical realism is “a wall,” Alarcón noting that not a year goes by without an imitation of an imitation of Márquez appearing in the U.S. Labbé was particularly concerned with the distinction between writing and the corporate product of modern publishing. Dan Brown is really Dan Brown Inc., he observed. But he felt that the burden of presenting a marketable “persona” fell particularly heavily on Latin American writers who, he said, have to be clowns, public persons, or gunfighters to get noticed. He pointed out that while in life Bolaño nurtured a quiet identity, he was introduced to American readers as a heroin addict. 

Is this generation of Latin American novelists less political than its predecessors? All three panelists foreswore the kind of power hunger which Vargas Llosa (running for president) or García Márquez (cozying up to Castro) evince. The immiseration of their countrymen, however, and indeed of their continent, clearly lies heavily upon them—and Solano, in particular, wearing another hat, is also a prize-winning journalist. Nevertheless, all four writers (including Alarcón) insisted that, while they may be interested or active in politics as citizens, as writers of fiction they do not start from “themes,” as Solano said, while Yushimito stated categorically that literature has no political use. He said that “no books will change the world” and that he writes to affect the private life of the reader, sending “a message in a bottle.” Labbé, whose novels Alarcón described as “interactive demanding puzzles” (one is in “hypertext”!), said that he wanted his writing, not to impose a false clarity, but to express his own inner confusion, and that he makes the democratic assumption that every reader, being at least as intelligent as he is, can understand his work. 

Despite such strong disavowals of political intent, the following statements and facts must be taken into consideration. Labbé declared that violence has been part of Latin American history since the Spanish invasion, and Yushimito observed that the main violence in Latin America is directed inward. Yushimito sets his stories in Brazilian favelas of the imagination because he finds it too painful to write directly of the plight of the poor in Peru. Solano does “not like” Bogotá, a city in which he “suffers, although not in a tragic way.” And Labbé describes Chile as a country in which there are hyper-rich and poor, but no middle class. He calls it also a “part of the U.S.,” since its economy was restructured in the 1970s by the Chicago Boys. In answer to a question from a Mexican student as to whether Latin Americans should come to the U.S. to study Latin American literature (as Yushimito is currently doing, pursuing a graduate degree at Brown), Alarcón eloquently described the plight of San Marcos, a public university in Lima and the oldest university in the Americas, now in ruins from financial neglect. Yushimito also mentioned that college graduates in Peru can expect to drive taxis. 

Which is why, presumably, three of the four panelists currently live in the United States. Speaking, perhaps, as escapees, only steps ahead of a great destructive wave—of colonialism, neocolonialism, neoliberalism, and plain old-fashioned greed and arrogance—they are already only half Latin American and half citizens of the new world order, in which the market rules everywhere but also where colonialism’s “karma,” as Labbé remarked, insures that France is now part of Africa and the U.S. and Mexico are destined to become one entity. They spoke as messengers, in a sense, letting us know what is coming soon to us. What is already upon us, for as Alarcón said, he feared that in ten years time the University of California, where he is currently a scholar in residence, could resemble San Marcos. 

Under such conditions—what the panelists referred to as “post-Boom” in the literary sense but which will serve just as well in other ways—one does not have to go looking for politics, for politics is already inside us, eating us from the inside out. The question for the writer, therefore, becomes how to find a sufficiently undamaged internal space from which to explore worlds both outer and inner, from which to send those creative and thoughtful messages in a bottle. 

If you’d like to receive some, Daniel Alarcón’s stories (in English) are published in the New Yorker and elsewhere; his novel, “Lost City Radio,” is widely available. All three panelists are represented in Granta 113 (published in both Spanish and English); see for details. Andrés Solano’s novel, “Sálvame, Joe Louis” can be purchased from Amazon as can some criticism by Carlos Labbé. Otherwise, the would-be reader may have to go hunting.