Chronicle of the fallow years

From Gabriel García Márquez to Mario Vargas Llosa, Latin American writers have been celebrated worldwide. But the 1960s "boom" has bust. Richard Gott explains why the Latin American novelist ran out of steam
January 20, 1996

Everyone knows that there was once a Latin American "boom" in the writing of fiction. The names of Gabriel García Márquez (who was born in 1928) and Mario Vargas Llosa (born in 1936) are still dropped into the conversation whenever world literature in the second half of the 20th century is discussed. At least half a dozen other names could be bravely mentioned: Julio Cort?r (b.1914), Carlos Fuentes (b.1928), and Augusto Roa Bastos (b.1917) among them. European publishers have long lived in hope that other such jewels might yet be picked up in the desert.

What is less well known outside specialist circles (perhaps because of time and distance) is that the "boom" began and ended rather a long time ago. Cortazar is long dead, and most of the others are over 60. The "boom" occurred at a specific moment in the history of Latin America, in the 1960s.

It was the literary equivalent of the Cuban Revolution of 1959; it sprang out of the atmosphere of optimism and hope which that revolution itself created. Castro himself, born in 1926, is at least an honorary member of the "boom" generation, a man to whom García Márquez always has privileged access. Cuba and Fidel put Latin America on the map, and a generation of Latin American writers stood ready to celebrate their continent's coming of age.

Their fiction dazzled and bewitched. With immense powers of imagination and of language, they could draw on half a century of previous experiment and endeavour. With the time-lag inherent in Latin American culture since colonial days, they built on the Joycean Modernism of the 1920s which had all but disappeared in Europe by the 1960s. Even in translation (García Márquez had superb translators in Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossmann, to whom readers in the English-speaking world are forever indebted), their unusual quality shone through. One Hundred Years of Solitude, first published in 1967 and so apparently "Latin American" in style and content, was published and read all over the world. It soon became established as the greatest Latin American novel of all time, bringing its author the Nobel prize for literature, hitherto bestowed on Latin America's less immediately accessible talents.

When that heady draught of liberation had been drained to the dregs, by the beginning of the 1970s, it was replaced by a decade of the fiercest military repression seen in the continent since the 19th century. Even the Cuban revolution lost its original allure. The novelists of the boom generation turned quietly away in despair. (Brazil, of course, had entered the dark night of military rule as early as 1964, which partly explains why there were no significant Brazilian novelists of the boom generation.)

by the middle of the 1970s, the sparkling mysteries of the continent that its novelists had so brilliantly celebrated and re-invented, and brought to the world's attention, had turned sour. Fact-as so often-had become stranger (and infinitely darker) than fiction. The boom was over; the balloon had burst. The writers themselves, in harmony with the society around them, were driven ineluctably to the right, in their writing if not necessarily in their politics (although Vargas Llosa became famously reactionary). Some of them wrote romantically nostalgic stories about dead dictators, just at the moment when living dictators were at their most unromantic. Soon almost all of them had abandoned the contemporary scene and were delving back into history, first into the 19th century, and then, in the decade of the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of 1492, even further back-to Columbus and the "Encounter" (as the Spanish conquest is now benignly described). Latin American writers have conducted an elegiac retreat from the struggles of contemporary society, tinged with great sadness.

Most European publishers have never really recognised that the boom is long gone. They still hope that they will find some unknown or under-valued Latin American writer who will make their fortunes. Taking the hint, many Latin American novelists have started to try to write for that wider market instead of concentrating on their traditional audiences. The success of such a very moderate writer as Isabel Allende has put heart into the hundreds of would-be magical realists. But in reality Latin America's moment of glory has long passed.

Latin American writing, of course, had gone on before the boom, and it has continued since-though without the innovative brio of the 1960s. The post- boom writers have moved into the post-modern world like everyone else, and their writing has lost its special edge. Latin America's semi-aristocratic bourgeois culture always set great store by its writers, but today, as for much of the past 150 years, their writing is fier-cely derivative and imitative. Paris was always at the centre of their imaginary world. Indeed, even the writers of the boom generation had only half their attention on Latin America. Perhaps the greatest Latin American novelists of all, Cort?r and Roa Bastos, spent most of their lives in France. García Márquez remains a regular commuter to Barcelona, and Vargas Llosa, after his failed attempt to become president of Peru, has become a Spanish citizen. Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican who has lived most of his life in Latin America, teaches in the United States. Latin America's fictional vision, even at its most triumphant, has always been bifocal.

but this is not the whole story. Young Latin Americans from comfortable, privileged homes have traditionally been marked off from their contemporaries in other parts of the "western" world by three admirable, practical characteristics: they can sing and play the guitar, they can talk the hindlegs off the proverbial donkey, and they can endlessly celebrate their loves in verse and prose. These are no mean achievements.

The result is that Latin Americans are still participants in life rather than mere observers. This has affected the novels that they write: García Márquez was a journalist, Vargas Llosa was a politician manqu?Europeans have become more passive: they watch football rather than play it; they listen to music rather than go to concerts; they criticise painters rather than paint themselves; they watch television adaptations rather than read the original novel; and they have exchanged the sound-bite for the political speech.

Latin Americans have remained infinitely more active. Although they have lived, for much of the 20th century, in a 19th century time warp, they have continued to be in love with the written and the spoken word-witness, for example, the euphoric reception of Fidel Castro's early speeches, the charismatic appeal of Evita Peron which can still be caught on old recordings of her voice, the immense nostalgia in the monotonous reading voice of Pablo Neruda who could hold vast audiences spellbound, and the magic of the old Ecuadorean caudillo, Jos?ar? Velasco Ibarra (Dadme un balc?Give me a balcony!-he would say in moments of political trouble, and his rhetorical skills would turn a crowd in his favour).

Latin Americans still appreciate the written word rather more than Europeans-both to read and to write. Carlos Menem, the Argentine president, is no Bloomsbury-style intellectual. But on his first presidential campaign he was to be found on the plane reading García Márquez. (John Major's favourite read at the time was Jeffrey Archer.)

The cultural drawback to all this is that most Latin American writers remain preoccupied with the familiar bourgeois world in which they were brought up. They rarely escape from it, either into the lives of the shanty-town dwellers or into those of the indigenous peoples. They write about what they know, and their fiction is nearly always richly autobiographical. They do not know-because Latin America is as class and ethnically divided as South Africa-about the lives of the poor majority of the population, and they do not write about them. Even today, few fiction writers venture into the world of the dispossessed. Writings in Quechua or Guaran?have no market beyond their specific milieu.

The Latin American writer lived for the first two-thirds of this century in a European-style 19th century culture. In the provincial cities of the continent, the top segment of the population still lives in a way which would have been familiar to Stendhal, to Balzac, to Flaubert, or to Zola. A thousand Madame Bovarys are still to be found behind the lace curtains. In these circumstances it is no accident that the novel should have flowered so luxuriantly in the continent in the 1960s; the conditions of life in the countries of South America provided a hot-house culture for the creation (and the reception) of such essentially traditionalist fiction (albeit, usually, in Modernist guise).

But in the 1970s, that familiar bourgeois world was itself suddenly transformed, never to return. The post-boom writers, notably in Argentina, found for a while that they were forced to draw on the horrific drama of their own lives. They began writing novels which, without reaching the heights of Primo Levi, covered some of the ground which has become so familiar from the experiences of the Holocaust and of the first world war-novels which have become staples of the current European diet.

But this too is now in the past, and yet more dramatic changes have overtaken the continent. In the 1980s and 1990s Latin America has gone through a period of revolutionary change even more extraordinary than that sparked off by the Cuban revolution. It has moved forever out of the cultural orbit of Europe, to become an adjunct of the US. The Latin American Free Trade Area, devised to construct a closer economic relationship between the two Americas, has its counterpart in the cultural field. The construction of immense supermarkets and of protestant churches are the two most obviously visible signs of this seismic shift, God and Mammon moving seamlessly together.

Gradually, the two disparate sections of the continent have been growing together-Hispanic culture in North America, Gringo culture in South America-and the process is still going on. In this climate, the next great fiction boom will have to be the hemispheric novel, as writers north and south come to grips with the intriguing new hybrid culture in which they now live. There is little sign of it yet, though some of the most intriguing new writing comes from the children of Cuban exiles. The extraordinary influence of that small island, detonator of so much cultural change, has remained a constant.