While I was sick last week of I have a dim memory of being asked by my wife Mariel to write a tribute to the then recently deceased Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Why the one of the 20th Century’s greatest writer’s legacy needs more noise from me I couldn’t wrap my head around. But, then I thought of the great heritage of writers from Latin America that people either don’t read or have never heard of. So I thought I could put together a list of ones I have read and reviewed in the past. This is my list it is not intended as critical overview of the whole “Latin American boom”, I am forgetting all the beautiful poets and most importantly I am lacking any female authors. Is this my fault or are other factors at work. I usually read a lot of female authors(Carter, O’Conner, Ducornet, Rhys, Bowles, Dineson, Spiotta, Joy Williams, Unica Zurn, Brontes, Djuna Barnes etc.) so who know where the failure is, probably my own ignorance. There is of course Isabel Allende who is almost as famous as Marquez, but I have never reviewed her, though am annoyed that her work get derided as historical romance, which I have feeling if she was Llosa, Marquez, or Fuentes this criticism would never come up. There is also the brilliant Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector but once again I have no reviews, I might right that wrong in the future as her work is definitely recommended.
A brief word on Marquez himself. I first read his work in the strange city of Chicago (a city both over commercialized and decaying) living off punk rock, free jazz, beer, and burritos (didn’t even have to leave my building for a $3 one). I was out of the habit of reading and remember being pulled into a full reality, like I discovered a bible from an alternate reality. Many of the writers on this list cannot be described as “magical realism” but most combine the traits of the 19th century novelists to take in the whole of society, the surrealism of the European writers, and their individual take on their culture. Bolano in fact speaks against the term, whether this is a genuine feeling, attention seeking behavior, or a case of kill yr idols is lost without context. But all these writers influenced or were influenced by Marquez (whether or not if it was to reject him or embrace him). For direct influence from Marquez I look more to work of Rushdie, Okri, Grass, and Pynchon who used his work as model.
I will go from the most obscure to the more accepted and recognized of these authors.
First up is the oddball Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández. He is known if at all as an influence on Calvino, Cortazar, and Marquez.
I would not be the writer I am today. Because he taught me that the most haunting mysteries are those of everyday life. -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez
His most widely available collection is Piano Stories. Here is my review of it.
The weird world of Uruguayan fantasist Felisberto is like one of his book flaps states, a look into "slightly different but parallel dimension", oddball humor meets phantasmagorical prose. Bizarre sketches etched with autobiographical authenticity that resemble Proust's capturing of time and memory, automatic writing of the surrealist school, and the goofball antics of silent film comedy. The highlights are definitely "Daisy Dolls" and "The Flooded House". The former takes place in weird house next door to a mysterious factory, and filled with eccentric servants, mirrors (which one of the characters is terrified of) and lifelike human size dolls (some in display cases acting out scenes which reminds of Raymond Rousell's Locus Solus") It is a full plunge into a world of erotic pathos and very bizarre ideas. The missing link between Hoffman's "The Sandman" and Landolfi's "Gogol's Wife" The latter is another odd dream were a possibly blind, obese women has an author slowly paddle her around her designed flooded house where she occasionally holds her own wake and waxes eccentricities about the nature of water. Other stories feature men who think they are horses,ushers whose eyes glow in the dark, companies that inject commercials into you by syringe, and a woman who can never leave her balcony.
Next is the equally odd Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera. A vegetarian and open homosexual whose writing style was surrealist, savage, and blackly comic. He did not fare well under Castro and there is the story (maybe apocryphal) of Che throwing his books across a library in disgust. His collection Cold Tales and bizarre novel Rene’s Flesh are recommended. He would be called ‘transgressive” or other such garbage if he had written more recently. sadly the editions imaged below are not the beautiful Eridanos editions I read. Here is my review of novel.
Piñera crafts an odd allegorical novel. A parody of coming of age novels or the novel of education, he has his young man Rene coming to self-realization in a very twisted version of our own world, where people are obsessed with eating meat (Piñera was a vegetarian I believe), a school teaches its students to suffer in silence (electrocuting them in chairs with muzzles on), murder is legal, people are paid to be surgically rendered as people’s identical doubles (also everyone seems to have a mannequin), and secret societies fight over the distribution of chocolate. A parade of grotesque characters (Skeleton and Ball of Meat, the king of meat), odd encounters, a surreal dead pan orgy out Marquis de Sade, and general absurdity is the state of affairs in this novel. Resembles very little, except possibly Kobo Abe’s bizarre novels of the seventies (Box Man, Secret Rendezvous) and Burroughs (though more linear). Not for the faint of heart.
This book by obscure Argentinian author Leopoldo Lugones Strange Forces is a wonder of weird gaslight science fiction and horror stories.
Adolfo Bioy Casare's Invention of Morel is haunting and singular fable that sticks in ones mind.Source material for the movie Last Year at Marienbad.
Brazilian writer Ignacio de Loyola Brandao’s wild and angry novel Zero is another neglected classic. Here is my review.
Zero is a wild, profane, irreverent, surreal novel written in Brazil’s years of lead during a repressive military dictatorship. The author uses collages, random illustrations, textual experiments, cinematic technique, faux documentary and textbook appropriations, advertisements, hilarious footnotes in an exuberant style that resembles Dos Passos , the over the top dark humor of Vonnegut or Pynchon, torture sequences worthy of de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius adventures, and foreshadows Junot Diaz, while creating a funny vibrant, and very black humored indictment of his time period that still feels fresh.
Columbian writer and poet Álvaro Mutis was friend of Marquez and wrote one of my all-time favorite novels (or series of novellas) The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. My review.
A beautiful and comic voyage of a book that at different times will evoke Heart of Darkness, Greek tragedy, Moby Dick, Sinbad’s voyages, King Solomon’s Mines, narratives of Proust and Nabokov, the rogue casts of Pynchon and Dickens, Don Quixote, Journey to the End of the Night, and Borges. These seven novellas form one novel are filled with stories that are comically absurd, fraught with menace or existential doom, and or both at the same time. The at times anachronistic feeling of the narrative, mix with the timelessness of the themes in a very effective way, and its underworld setting of rotting ports, abandoned and deadly mines, steaming jungles, whorehouses, army outposts, and rusty tramp steamers with its cast of terrorists, suicides, dreamers, psychopaths, homicidal dwarfs, drug dealers, soldiers, and the blind, are an endless riot, Adventure stories fill with wide eyed wonder but wrapped in a dreamy melancholy with ontological concerns. One of the great books of our time which I recommend wholeheartedly.
Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano’s Memories of Fire trilogy is a monumental work. It is a blend of documentary and more fantastic impulses. Here is my review of the first volume.
A beautiful book that exist in the strange ground between Howard Zinn”s People’s History and Borges’s Brief History of Infamy. It featured the rage and the unpeeling of the veneer of nostalgia and romance of history of the former and the irony, pocket novels, morbid humor of the latter. This is not a scholarly or popular history though the author does show his research, but more in the realm of epic poem and Borges, a savage and beautiful book.
Roberto Bolaño (from Chile, but lived in Mexico and Spain after fleeing the coup) has been getting a lot of attention recently for his posthumously available work. There have been some excellent novellas (my favorite Amulet is about the Tlatelolco massacre) but his most impressive is the novel 2666 which is almost a masterpiece. Each section builds in menace and weirdness until section called “Part about Crimes” which is a hellish noir abyss up there with Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy, a witnessing of the murders of woman in Ciudad Juarez (renamed in the novel) that is harrowing. A pointless section tacked on at the end blunts the impact of the book.
Borges is everything; no writer has altered my vision or reality and literature in quite the same way.
Argentinian Julio Cortázar is nearly up there with Borges. His novel Hopscotch is playful and sometimes obnoxious reordering of the novel and his short stories are sometimes as brilliant as Borges or Kafka. My favorite is the absurdist Cronopios and Famas. He had a story of endless traffic jam which I’m sure influenced Godard’s Weekend and Ballard’s Crash.
Carlos Fuentes is probably the most famous Mexican novelist internationally. His work is ambitious, widely varied in tone and quality, and at some points bristles with political anger (long stander on the left, he was at the barricades during 1968 May revolts in Paris, I wonder if that saved him from Tlatelolco?) As I said he can vary from ambitious work such as Christopher Unborn, Terra Nostra, and Where the Air is Clear, and Years of Laura Diaz to lighter and shorter works. For an intro to his work I suggest one of both, the weird gothic novella Aura and the ambitious Death of Artemio Cruz
A 2nd person nightmare by Fuentes...terrifying and gripping and near genius.
70 years of Mexican history are covered in Fuentes’ fever dream of a novel. Featuring narration that’s part Beckett, part Stern, and part Citizen Cane, Cruz recounts his life while rotting on his death bed with first person morbid reflection, second person rants, and third person remembrances. Bitter and profane at times and pretty relentless dark, but this is such a thoroughly realized book with the experimentation serving the ideas at every chance.
Mario Vargas Llosa the famous Peruvian novelist and now noble laureate. His work is as vast as Fuentes though Llosa moved to the right over the years. You can find epics, tales of dictatorship (Feast of the Goat, Conversations in the Cathedral), to lighter works and even comedies and romances. His masterpiece without a doubt is War at the End of the World, I also enjoy his story of Peru’s horrible civil war Death in the Andes. These are good intro to his work.
Another tale of mayhem, history and the macabre from Vargas Llosa. Whereas Death in the Andes was compared to a Diane Arbus styled portrait the visual artists this book evokes is Heiryonmous Bosch or Breughal. A medieval meets the wild west landscape(turn of the century Brazil) of prophets, bandits, water witches, droughts, a storytelling dwarf, flagellants, miracle healers, madmen, plagues, vultures, rats, a revolutionary phrenologist, pariah dogs, Barons whose time has past, circus freaks, a utopian colony, and marauding destructive army. Festooned with grotesques and corpses this is a book of violence and horror but it is a conflation of real history and not fiction. A historical novel in the tradition of Tolstoy, McCarthy, and Lampedusa. Exhaustingly long but worth it.
A masterful meditation on violence and its roots in politics, poverty, sex, and folklore; and a portrait of the mountain people caught between government indifference (and malice), the seemingly irrational violence of the Shining path rebels, and the harshness of the landscape. Told through flashbacks, and variety of intertwining stories this book has a love story, murder mystery, the bizarre tale of a Dionysian cult , and a dozen or so little stories thrown in, which makes the book sound really dense and complicated but the story telling is so effective I didn’t really notice. The title of the book must have been given in translation because the Spanish title is Lituma en los Andes (Lituma being one of the characters), but it works since it evokes both Agatha Christie and Thomas Mann, as this odd book should.