FL 380: An Archaeology of the "Boom": Modern Latin American Prose Fiction

Donoso, José. The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History. Gregory Kolovakos Trans. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. [In Spanish: Barcelona: Anagrama, 1972] RESERVE

Fuentes, Carlos. La nueva novela hispanoamericana. 1st. Rpt. of 6th. ed. (1980). México D.F.: Joaquín Mortiz, 1984.

Gálvez, Marina. La novela hispanoamericana contemporánea. Madrid: Taurus, 1988.

boom = a deep, hollow sound like the roar of a cannon or of big waves ... a sudden activity and increase in business, prices or values of property...
boom-and-bust = an economic cycle of great prosperity followed by a serious depression.

From the start literature has had to contend with curious problems in Latin America. Early on the Spanish Inquisition established branches in capitals such as Lima and México. In the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books [c.1570]) it codified what books were to be censored. As Vargas Llosa has commented, one ought to acknowledge the Inquisition's intellectual acuity in recognizing literature's subversive powers.

The importation of novels to colonial Spanish America was strictly prohibited by the Spanish Crown since the late sixteenth century. This prohibition, though, was not hermetic and books of chivalry, picaresque novels and even Cervantes's Don Quijote (1605, 1615) managed to circulate. However, the early Latin American writers were forced to channel their inventiveness differently. History texts, chronicles, accounts of the conquest and exploration of America become the only "legal" space where the native imagination can prosper.

As a result, Fiction and History become united in a particularly curious way. What is history? and What is fiction? are questions that at some level or other can be asked in dealing with colonial texts and beyond.

Two examples:
1) In 1580, prior to the independence of any American state, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a foot soldier in Hernán Cortéz's army, writes Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (The True Account of the Conquest of New Spain [1632]) an autobiographical description of the conquest of México (1519-1521). This chronicle of historical events, is seen by some critics as the "first Spanish American novel". Bernal Díaz's characterization of Cortéz, Moctezuma, and many other secondary characters accentuates the humane, the personal, and other characteristics that stand out in them. The composition of the book is reminiscent of the fictional best-sellers of the time, that is, books of chivalry such as Amadís de Gaula (Amadis of Gaul [1508]), Tirant lo Blanc (1490), etc. In these, valiant knights travelled to unknown lands to face uncertain perils in the pursuit of high minded victories.

2) In 1816, after the independence of México from Spain, Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi pens El periquillo Sarniento (The Itching Parrot). This work is officially considered to be the first Latin American Novel. Lizardi -a journalist- was unable to write freely in local gacetas (newspapers) on account of censorship. Thus, he ends up writing a "novel" that allows him to criticize the backwardness of his native country and the flaws in the "national character" of its people.

Constrained by religious and political strictures, and conditioned to glorify and differentiate the character of emerging nations, the novel in Latin America evolves out of the necessity to speak out, to preach, to educate the nascent peoples of the continent. Writers see themselves as privileged voices in charge of "creating a national literature that refers to and documents the national reality" as the Argentinian writer Esteban Echeverría (1805-1851) put it. This was to have both positive and negative consequences.

This tendency is felt the most in the work of essayists such as the Argentinian Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888). His Facundo: Civilización y Barbarie (Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism [1845]), a somewhat fanciful and certainly vitriolic biography of the Argentinian dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas, put forward a thesis that would be embraced by the majority of the Latin American intellectuals. Latin American social and political problems, so believed Sarmiento, stemmed from the conflict between Europeanized urban classes and the barbarism of the ignorant rural population (gauchos, indians, peasants, etc.). The solution posited by Sarmiento advocated the introduction of European ways at the expense of the backward heritage left by Spain and continued by segments of the native population.

In fiction this thesis reaches its apogee in the so-called novela de la tierra (telluric novel) or novela costumbrista, regionalista or criollista. These regionalist novels seek to prove a point in an often manichean fashion usually centered around the oppositional conflicts elaborated by Sarmiento and other intellectuals. These novels tend to divide the universe between polar extremes: GOOD v. EVIL, NATURE v. URBAN PROGRESS, CIVILIZATION v. BARBARISM, etc. Highly documentary, the authors of these texts claimed to portray a realistic view of their particular regional situation, a "slice of life"; whether it be the Argentinian pampas (plains), the Venezuelan jungle, the Puertorrican cane-fields, etc. Their aim was to discover and present what is particularly native, emphasizing especially the landscape and the sociological reality. Nature is thus highlighted and almost made into a character all into itself. Men and women are seen in the midst of their struggles, often in search of enlightened ideals of progress and civilization, but always doomed to failure. Chief among these texts are: Los de abajo (1916) (The Underdogs), Doña Bárbara (1929), La vorágine (The Vortex) (1924), Don Segundo Sombra (1926), etc.

After the Mexican Revolution (1910-1940) a series of novels by Mexican writers that have this revolution as their subject matter begins to break with this pattern. With the introduction of ambiguity, Carlos Fuentes argues, heroes or bandits, uncivilized peasants or corrupt urban dwellers, good and/or evil the novel gains in complexity. The Revolution brought Mexico out of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. It began the process of turning an agrarian culture into an urban culture with all its ancillary virtues, pleasures, vices, and problems. The old dichotomy between "Civilization and Barbarism" begins to lose currency.

A similar process takes place in Argentina. The European upheavals brought forth by the First World War make Argentina, a prime exporter of wheat and beef, enormously rich. Immigrants arrive in hordes: famished Italians, vanquished Spaniards after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), fleeing Central European Jews, English merchants and technicians, etc. Of course, by Argentina we mean mostly Buenos Aires, a bustling city with cosmopolitan ambitions. Buenos Aires turns into a huge prosperous city without much history to back it up. That is, a city in a nation needing to invent and live its own mythology as fast as it can: the gaucho (Argentinian cowboy), the compadrito (petty gangster), the tango, Carlos Gardel, a mixture of Valentino and Elvis all in one, Juan Domingo Perón, strongman and all-mighty father of the nation, Evita Perón, movie star and helper of the poor, etc.

All throughout the continent, the rise of urban centers brings with it modern Western problems: atomization, alienation, working class struggles, popular culture, consumerism, etc. This is a great part of the social, historical, and literary background in a process that leads to the writers of the Boom.