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

General Introduction #2

Notes on Donoso's The Boom...A Personal History:

On the regional nature of the Spanish American novel prior to 1960:
Before 1960 it was very uncommon to hear laymen speak of the "contemporary Spanish American novel": there were Uruguayan, Ecuadorian, Mexican or Venezuelan novels. (. . .) The novelist in the Spanish American countries wrote for his parish: about the problems of his parish and in the language of his parish, addressing himself to the number and level of his readers -quite different, certainly, in Paraguay than in Argentina, in Mexico than in Ecuador- which his parish was able to offer him, without much hope of anything else. (10-11)

On the different non-Hispanic influences in current Latin American fiction:
On the other hand, today's Spanish American novel was from the very beginning a mestizaje, a crossbreeding, a disregarding of the Hispanic American tradition (as much disregard for what was Hispanic [+Spain] as for what was American [-Spain]) and draws itself almost totally from other literary sources, because without a whimper, our orphaned sensibility let itself be infected by the North Americans, the French, the English, and the Italians, all of whom seemed to us more "ours," much more "our own" that a Gallegos (Doña Bárbara) or a Güiraldes (Don Segundo Sombra) for example, or a Baroja [Spanish novelist (1872- 1956)]. (14)

On the pernicious effect of the regionalista / criollista canon and the prescriptions of social realism:
A novel was considered good if it loyally reproduced those autochthonous concerns, all that which specifically makes us different -which separates us- from other areas and other countries of the continent: a type of foolproof, chauvinistic machismo. (. . .) the only true criterion of excellence is the precision required to depict what is inherently ours, the verifiable verisimilitude that tends to transform a novel into a faithful document portraying or capturing a segment of univocal reality. (15)

In addition to being unmistakably ours, as the criollistas wanted, the novel should be, above all else, "important," "serious," an instrument which would be directly useful to social progress. (. . .) Formal experimentation was prohibited. The architecture of the novel and its language were to be simple, flat, colorless, sober, and poor. (. . .) The fantastic and the personal elements, the strange and marginal writers, those who "abused" the language or the form, were exiled by these criteria, which reigned for so many years that the magnitude and the potential of the novel were sadly impoverished. (16-17)

The first phase of the Boom:
1) A novel: Carlos Fuentes's La región más transparente (Where the Air Is Clear [1958])
2) A momentous event : The Congress of Intellectuals at the University of Concepción, Chile (1962).
3) A personality: Carlos Fuentes
4) A socio-political phenomenon: The Cuban Revolution

A year before the Congress of Intellectuals in Concepción, a novel called Where the Air Is Clear by Fuentes had fallen into my hands. As I read it, literature took on another dimension. . . (37)

The theme which was repeated and repeated and which clearly predominated [at the Congress of Intellectuals] was the common complaint that as Latin Americans we knew European and North American literature perfectly, in addition to our own national literatures, but that isolated by a lack of means and by the egotism and myopia of the publishing houses and the very methods of book distribution, we were almost completely ignorant of literature from other countries on the continent. (33)

Looking, as always, at the phenomenon from my personal point of view, I see the Mexican Carlos Fuentes as the first active and conscious agent of the internationalization of the Spanish American novel of the 1960s. (37)

Not only because of the literary stimulus of his first novels, but also because of his generosity in the form of admiration and help, Carlos Fuentes has been one of the precipitating agents of the Boom. For better or for worse, his name goes on being linked with it as much for his reality as for the legend of his Mafia and his cohorts. (53)

In this sense, the most important thing that Carlos Fuentes told me during the trip to Concepción was that after the Cuban Revolution he agreed to speak publicly only of politics, never of literature; that in Latin America the two were inseparable ant that now Latin America could only look toward Cuba. (. . .) the entire Congress of Intellectuals. . . was strongly politicized as a result of his presence. (. . .) I think that this faith and political unanimity -or near unanimity- was then, and continued to be until the Padilla case exploded in 1971, one of the major factors in the internationalization of the Latin American novel, unifying outlooks and goals, providing an ideological structure to which one could be more or less close -seldom totally opposed- and for a time giving the feeling of a continental cohesion. (49)

A second stage in the making of the Boom: Mario Vargas Llosa:
Mario Vargas Llosa embodies the second phase of the Boom: the great explosion was produced in 1964, when, still a twenty-four-year-old, he received the Biblioteca Breve Prize from the Barcelonese publishing house of Seix Barral. (. . .) La ciudad y los perros (The Time of the Hero [1963]) caused the whole continent to talk. Perhaps it would not be too risky to offer the opinion that its success was in part due to the fame and "maneuverings" of Carlos Fuentes, who had fertilized the land so that the thing could take root. (61)

A third stage in the making of the Boom: Gabriel García Márquez:
From my point of view, the third phase -an perhaps the definitive moment of the Latin American Boom- occurs with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez (. . . ) One edition untiringly follows another: one speaks in terms of millions of copies. (62)

The Boom and its critics:
Among the ill intentioned criticisms levied against the authors of the Boom. such as that
1) "they lead lazy lives of luxury" (55),
2) "that they are fed exclusively on a diet which consists of "martinis toasting to the health of the Fellinis" (63),
3) that "they are fashionable" (64), etc., a few stand out:

a) the preponderance of exile in the group (Fuentes, García Márquez, Cortázar, Donoso, Carpentier, Vargas Llosa, Puig, etc.) and
b) the existence of literary friendships between them, that is, the myth of the literary Mafia.

Exile is another of the legendary elements which the Latin American critics seldom pardon, and by condemning the writers for "living away from national problems," they are accusing them of a rootless cosmopolitanism. (65)

Such "friendships" -sometimes called a "Mafia" by those who feel themselves excluded- are often thrown into the faces of the present day novelists who are accused of blowing each other's horns, of writing about each other, of maintaining a type of united front of admiration tolerating neither criticism nor examination. (66)

The motives for exile may be numerous and varied, from easily formulated political reasons to the most ambiguous causes that might force them to flee the ghosts suffocating and drowning them in their own countries. In any case, it cannot be denied that exile, cosmopolitanism, internationalization, all more or less connected, have shaped a very considerable part of the Latin American narrative of the 1960s. (68)

Other elements in the making of the Boom:
Self promotion between the writers themselves,
2) the impact of the Biblioteca Breve Prize (Seix Barral Press, Barcelona) awarded to five Latin American writers throughout the 1960s,
3) the awakening of an eager reading public, and
4) the adverse reaction of a segment of the critics of the various Latin American cultural establishments.

Since the Biblioteca Breve Prize was in these years the only prize with authentic literary prestige in the Spanish-speaking world, the public lent its ears. And along with the listening, there arose an enemy courier service of chasquis [Inca word for messenger or courier] who decisively influenced the Boom at its zenith: certain speakers travelled throughout the continent accusing the new novelists of living in exile, far from the problems of their countries, in a luxurious, sybaritic limbo abroad. (. . .) these critics did the writers the signal favor of organizing them for the first time into that unity called the Boom; and, having been installed on a polemical plane, the Boom transcended the purely literary to become, more or less, gossip in the street. (91)

A tentative and light hearted listing of the members of the Boom:
.The "kernel"
A.Julio Cortázar - Argentina
B.José Donoso - Chile [my inclusion]
C.Carlos Fuentes - México
D.Gabriel García Márquez - Colombia
E.Mario Vargas Llosa - Perú

II.The "proto-Boom" annexed older writers connected by literary affinities to the "kernel":
A.Jorge Luis Borges - Argentina
B.Alejo Carpentier - Cuba
C.José Lezama Lima - Cuba
D.Juan Carlos Onetti - Uruguay
E.Juan Rulfo - México

III.Two self-excluded possible members of the "kernel"
A.Ernesto Sábato - Argentina
B.Guillermo Cabrera Infante - Cuba

IV.The large group of writers a little below the main body of the Boom:
A.Augusto Roa Bastos - Paraguay
B.Manuel Puig - Argentina
C.Salvador Garmendia - Venezuela
D.David Viñas - Argentina
E.Carlos Martinez Moreno - Uruguay
F.Mario Benedetti - Uruguay
G.Vicente Leñero - México
H.Rosario Castellanos - México
I.Jorge Edwards - Chile
J.Enrique Lafourcade - Chile
K.Augusto Monterroso - Guatemala
L.Joge Ibargüengoitia - México
M.Adriano González León - Venezuela
N.Pedro Juan Soto - Puerto Rico [my inclusion]
O.Elena Garro - México [my inclusion]

V.The "junior Boom", belonging to a younger generation:
A.José Emilio Pacheco - México
B.Gustavo Sáinz - México
C.Alfredo Bryce Echenique - Perú
D.Sergio Pitol - México
E.Luis Rafael Sánchez - Puerto Rico [my inclusion]
F.Cristina Peri Rossi - Uruguay [my inclusion]
G.Isabel Allende - Chile [my inclusion]
H.Reinaldo Arenas - Cuba [my inclusion]

A set of characteristics discernible in many of the novels of the Boom:

.The use of complex narrative structures requires an active reader capable of organizing the narrative matter by her/himself.

II.The development of linguistic experimentation from:
A.the pursuit of a cultural identity that creates its own realitywithin the novel (ie. the Macondian universe in One Hundred Years of Solitude).
B.to the baroque displays of writers like Carpentier, Lezama Lima, andothers.

III.The insistence on the writer's right to create his/her own fictional reality.
A.Frequently the problem of literary Creation is dealt with as a theme, that is, the tendency towards metafiction.

IV. Historical/Social novels abound: ( ie. The Lost Steps, Pedro Páramo, The Death of Artemio Cruz, The Time of The Hero, etc.)

V.The exploration of immediate reality to caricaturesque or grotesque extremes.
A.Humor makes its debut in Latin American fiction.

VI.Existential themes are still dealt with, ignoring though, psychological analysis, and often pursuing mythical or allegorical formulations (ie. Pedro Páramo, Hopscotch, etc.)

VII.Rejection of bourgeois -middle class- morality, certain conventional social mores, and even the customary way of perceiving reality (rationalism).

VIII.Rejection of dominant cultural contexts and models, especially in younger novelists such as Manuel Puig, Reinaldo Arenas, Luis Rafael Sánchez, etc.

IX.A tendency to unify different genres: poetry and narrative, music and narrative, film and narrative.

X. Segmentation and fragmentation of narrative structures (ie. Hopscotch, The Kiss of the Spider Woman, etc.)

XI.The incorporation of popular culture and mass produced cultural artifacts in theme and/or form.

XII.A tendency to re-sacralize art, that is, a turn towards elitism.