Over to you Ivanka: Donald Trump's nepotism echoes the South American leaders of the past ©Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The book of Donald

Novelists searching for clues on tackling the US president should revisit the preening strongmen of Latin American literature
April 13, 2017

It is still a point of pride among some clever people never to read novels, as if they were an indulgence for soft minds. But if we ever needed proof that fiction has a place in public discourse, it’s in the current rush to read novels about authoritarianism. In the week after Kellyanne Conway, a counsellor to President Donald Trump, coined the phrase “alternative facts,” George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World were back in the bestseller lists. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), both of which imagine a fascist America, are also selling briskly. The window of Waterstone’s flagship store in Piccadilly has been given over to a display of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935), which follows a right-wing populist taking charge of the US in the 1930s. In a world where images threaten to eclipse print as the dominant medium, the thirst for novels is heartening. News alone is not enough: it can’t jump into the future or go behind the scenes. In fiction every perspective can be considered, and every consequence explored.

So what will fiction be like in the Trump era? The new regime demands interpretation. Never in living memory has a US president lied so brazenly or declared war on the media so openly. Never has one boasted of assaulting women or bragged about the size of his penis. Not for a long time has one felt no need to disguise his racism. Satirists complain that Trump is not an easy target: you can’t lampoon a guy who already seems to be making a joke of himself. So how will novelists tackle him? Huxley and Lewis were writing in the 1930s and Orwell in 1948. Roth has promised us he won’t write any more novels. We need something current—but novels take a long time to write and events are moving so fast that keeping up means either writing very quickly or taking a longer view.

On this side of the Atlantic, Howard Jacobson has already opted for the first approach. His novella, Pussy, was written in two months after the November election, in a “fury of disbelief,” and has just been published. “I wanted to get over Trump’s moral bankruptcy but also the sheer bankruptcy of a culture that could produce him,” Jacobson told the Guardian. Salman Rushdie’s novel The Golden House, due in September and set during the Obama administration, charts the rise of the ultra-Conservative Tea Party and “the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain sporting makeup and coloured hair.”

This is just the start: more novels are in the works. Will they be Orwellian? Rothian? Atwoodian? Anglo-American dystopias, especially when informed by Soviet communism, somehow don’t capture the colourful excesses of a man whose power comes married to a fragile ego, a love of beauty queens and a clutch of peculiar phobias. We might do better to look for influences south of Trump’s proposed border wall, to Latin America and the touchy despots created by Miguel Ángel Asturias, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and other writers, in a genre so established that it has its own name: dictator fiction.

Trump isn’t a dictator, of course, but he certainly calls to mind the caudillo, or strongman, who features so regularly in Latin American fiction that for a time it felt as though every writer had to have a go at one, much as British actors try their hand at Hamlet. From Juan and Eva Perón in Argentina to Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, there have been plenty of despots to choose from.

"When populists grab power, intellectuals enter a game of wits that they often win on paper, but at a price"
Your typical Latin American caudillo tends to be vain, paying a lot of attention to his hair and looks. (Argentina’s Carlos Menem was said to get up at 4am for beauty treatments and hair weaves). Caudillos like naming things after themselves, and putting up statues. (Eva Perón was going to be honoured with a memorial taller than the Statue of Liberty, before her husband Juan got deposed). They divert attention from their flagging potency by surrounding themselves with beauty queens—dating or marrying them whenever possible (in the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo even crowned his own daughter a beauty queen). Even when democratically elected, they show a reluctance to relinquish power—then become paranoid about their opponents, calling them “enemies.” After Alberto Fujimori was elected president of Peru in 1990—beating Mario Vargas Llosa—he shut down the Congress and sacked judges. He’s in prison now, serving 25 years for corruption and crimes against humanity. Caudillos often have strange fears and phobias: François Duvalier (“Papa Doc”), suspecting that his opponent had been transformed into a black dog by voodoo, had every black dog in Haiti put down.

Such macabre eccentricities have been grist to the novelist’s mill. The “father of the dictator novel” was the Argentine Domingo Sarmiento. In 1845 he wrote Facundo, not a novel in fact, but a novelistic portrait of a local strongman, and an excoriating indictment of the brutal regime of President Juan Manuel de Rosas during which thousands died. Facundo had an urgent purpose: to argue for a more enlightened, (preferably European) style of government. Argentines must choose Civilisation over Barbarism, said Sarmiento, who became president himself in 1868.

Facundo is both a manifesto and an investigation into the conditions that allow caudillos to thrive. Sarmiento discerned a dangerous divide between populists and intellectuals. That same mistrust, now visible in the United States, has long been a feature of Latin American political life. In his essay “Against the Heroes,” Carlos Franz describes Latin Americans’ longing for a strong leader as a sentimental trap: “Distrust of democracy and of individual responsibility produces an irrational desire for a leader, a hero who can make all the difficult decisions.”

When the populists gain—or grab—power, intellectuals are expected to oppose them, entering into a game of wits that they often win, but only on paper, and at a price. For much of the 20th century, Latin America’s best writers lived in exile, many in neighbouring countries; others were murdered, imprisoned or humiliated like Jorge Luis Borges, who was demoted by Perón from municipal librarian to poultry inspector. It can be dangerous to be too clever, or too critical. Writers have to stay on their toes, inventing new ways to take on the tyrants.

The novel that would reinvent modern South American literature was published half a century ago. In May 1967, 8,000 copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude came off the presses in Buenos Aires. Its Colombian author, Gabriel García Márquez, had written four novels, none of which had sold more than a few hundred copies. The family’s fridge had to be pawned before he could afford postage for this hefty manuscript. But the publisher was optimistic. He thought the run could sell in six months. In fact all 8,000 copies sold in one week in Buenos Aires. More than 30m have been sold since then.

A literary star was born, with an accompanying clamour that has been compared to Beatlemania. One Hundred Years of Solitude charted the experience, through one family, of a region dogged by bad politics. Soon after its foundation by José Arcadio Buendía, the peaceful town of Macondo is drawn into a cycle of violence and dictatorship that corrupts every generation. When Buendía’s grandson becomes ruler of Macondo we see him transformed from an intelligent schoolteacher into a tyrannical despot, at the head of an army of teenage thugs.

García Márquez had been planning his novel for 20 years but couldn’t find a way into it until the solution came to him in a flash, on a family outing: the trick was to use his native Colombian styles of speech. The author’s model was his grandmother, whose conversation moved between mundane, extraordinary and even impossible events and treated them all the same. (In more sinister fashion, dictators were also adept at mingling fiction and reality.) “When I finally discovered the tone I had to use, I sat down for 18 months and worked every day,” García Márquez said.

Language was key to this new literature, quickly dubbed “magical realism.” Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa read One Hundred Years at his home in Cricklewood, North London (yes, really) and declared it a work of “literary genius.” The novel opened the door to him and a generation of Latin American writers whose explosion on to the world scene earned them the moniker, “Boom Generation.”

It was apparently on a pub crawl through 1960s London that Carlos Fuentes proposed to Mario Vargas Llosa that they collaborate on a book of dictators. They and fellow “Boomers” would take a chapter each to write about their favourite despots. Julio Cortázar, for example, would profile Evita.

That book never materialised, but more novels did. The year 1974 saw “dictator novels” from Alejandro Carpentier, Augusto Roa Bastos and García Márquez himself. Later offerings came from Luisa Valenzuela and Tomás Eloy Martínez.

I, The Supreme (1974), by Roa Bastos, was inspired by José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, dictator of Paraguay (1814-1840) and self-styled “Supremo,” though the suspicion that it was also about General Alfredo Stroessner, ruler for 35 years until 1989, was enough to send the author into exile. El Supremo is obsessed with communication as a tool of power and paranoid about having it used against him. He would surely have been a fan of early morning tweeting. “I don’t write history,” he says. “I make it. I can remake it as I please, adjusting, stressing, enriching its meaning and truth.” It isn’t hard to imagine Conway or White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer talking about “enriched truth.”

The general in García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) also takes a relaxed approach to facts: “It doesn’t matter if something’s not true now, because at some point in the future it will be true.” Based on no particular historical figure, this archetypal tyrant has held onto power so long that he is rumoured to be more than 200 years old. In one scene he has the Minister of Defence served up at a banquet, stuffed with pine nuts and aromatic herbs.

Sometimes compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses for its linguistic difficulty, The Autumn of the Patriarch includes stream-of-consciousness sections and sentences that go on for pages. This syntactical chaos reflects the general’s chaotic rule; just as people have been violated, so language is violated.

Yet, for García Márquez, “dictators are victims” too, because all are lonely. “The more power you have, the harder it is to know who is lying to you and who is not. When you reach absolute power, there is no contact with reality, and that’s the worst kind of solitude there can be. A very powerful person, a dictator, is surrounded by interests and people whose final aim is to isolate him from reality; everything is in concert to isolate him.”

It’s a compelling image, the figure of the leader walking alone through his palace, perhaps recalling Trump alone at the White House while his wife and son stay in New York. In Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (2000) the dictator, a fictionalised version of Rafael Trujillo, is also holed up in his palace, paranoid and raging after discovering that the US has dropped its backing because of his human rights violations. Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic for 31 years until his assassination in 1961.

Vargas Llosa’s novel was hugely acclaimed and that reception, as well as Trujillo’s tyranny, was the inspiration for Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. Díaz, born in Santo Domingo but mostly brought up in the US, makes no secret of his contempt for The Feast of the Goat, which he sees as legitimising Trujillo by using realist language to describe his abuses.

Realism is the wrong mode, Díaz says, because the dictator was “so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up.” His own approach is to mix Spanglish, street slang, sci-fi and comic book language in a concoction so heady that his publishers at one time insisted on including a glossary.

Given the US president’s unique and surreal style of communication, perhaps we can expect similar language innovations in the Trump-era novel. By now all of us are familiar with his Twitterese: the indignant statement followed by a one-word exclamation, usually “Sad!” or “Unfair!”

A whole narrative built on this staccato style might be indigestible, but Jacobson, for one, takes aim at Twitter. “Social media thrives on the assertive single point of view,” he says, “which is what he is able to do. If you have Twitter, you don’t need tanks.”

Future novels might show Trump from the point of view of a beauty queen, or the White House staffer charged with bringing him fast food. The president’s attacks on Latinos and Mexicans could also make him a literary target south of the border. For Latin American novelists, railing against tyrannical leaders was not only a political imperative but the spur to invent new literary forms. American journalists are already discovering how galvanising it can be to spar with a figure who is not merely evasive or dishonest, but actively wishes you ill. Novelists cannot be far behind.