Bolaño and beyond: An Interview with Juan E. De Castro on Contemporary Spanish Langauge Literature


Juan E. De Castro is an Associate Professor in Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts, New York, USA. He has published articles in MLN, Latin American Research Review, and Aztlan, among other journals. He is the author of three books, the most recent of which is Mario Vargas Llosa: Public Intellectual in Neoliberal Latin America (2011).  Together with Will H. Corral and Nicholas Birns, he is an editor of The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel: Bolaño and After (2013).

C. Derick Varn:  What do you make of the fact it took a while to get good translations of Bolaño and some of the other “non-magical realist” Latin American literature into translation?

Juan E. De Castro:  It is understandable that Latin American literature would get sidetracked editorially in the United States after the years of the region’s novelistic Boom (Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, etc.), that is the 1960s, and early 1970s.  After all, the Cuban Revolution had helped generate much of the interest in the region and by the mid 1970s its reputation had begun to wane even among many former sympathizers.  Moreover, once Latin America left newspaper front pages, interest in its literature began to fade. One must also remember that the proportion of books translated from Spanish into English is incredibly small. Perhaps the small size of the market also helps explain the slowness of change in market and readerly expectations.

Despite the popular and critical success of García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, magical realism was never hegemonic in Latin American literature.  The flattening of all distinction between fantastic and everyday events, characteristic of magical realism, is only found in some of García Márquez’s texts.  Of the best-known Boom writers, Vargas Llosa is a realist, Cortázar, a fantastic and experimental writer, and Fuentes, though more of a maverick and fond of experimentation, was also not mainly a magical realist author.

However, the congruence between U.S. and European views of Latin America as not following “normal” rules of social and economic development and magical realism’s self-exoticization also helps explain the role of One Hundred Years of Solitude in creating the framework within which Latin American literature would be understood by U.S. readers and cultural circles for the next thirty years or so.  This privileging of magical realism also responded to the search for a proven commercial formula on the part of the U.S. book media.  The commercial success of Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, and of U.S. Latino and Latina and Anglo-Indian writers who appropriated the style, seems to prove the wisdom of the strategy.  However, as we all know, markets evolve and the old formulas may not be working as well as they did during the 1980s and 1990s.

The rise of Roberto Bolaño as a world writer—which, one must remember was preceded by his canonization in Spanish beginning with the granting of the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Award to The Savage Detectives in 1999—responds in part to the waning of the magical realist commercial model.  Of course, Bolaño has rekindled interest in the U.S. for Latin American literature that, one must note, was doing very well on its own.  I’m also tempted to argue, that the rise of Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and the pink tide may have also played a role in this new interest.  After all, Latin America was back in the news.

Which authors do you see benefiting the most from Bolaño’s recent popularity?

Despite the importance of Bolaño that, for instance, we acknowledge in the title of the work Will Corral, Nicholas Birns and I have just published, The Contemporary Spanish American Novel: Bolaño and After, it is difficult to imagine The Savage Detectives or 2666 leading to a commercial formula in the way One Hundred Years of Solitude did. Most of the region’s contemporary writers are characterized not only by the dismissal of magical realism, which, as mentioned before, was never a dominant literary mode in the region, but also by the rejection of the Boom’s “total novel.”

The classic Boom novels are, perhaps without exception, total novels, that is, texts that not only present self-contained literary worlds, as Vargas Llosa liked to point out, but also attempt to provide a kind of map of contemporary reality.  Vargas Llosa’s masterpieces of the 1960s—The Time of the Hero, The Green House, and Conversation in The Cathedral; Cortázar’s Hopscotch; Fuentes’s The Death of Artemio Cruz; and, of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude are all total novels.  In fact, Savage Detectives and 2666 are also total novels and very different from the aesthetics of most of the writers who have come after Bolaño.  Their exceptionality is in many ways an explanation for their success with critics and readers.  There is a throwback aspect to Bolaño that helps explain his success.  This makes Bolaño’s role in a new wave of interest in Latin American literature somewhat ironic.

However, Bolaño has provided other writers with an example of how to write about politics in a post-political manner.  Throughout his novels Bolaño replaces political commitment with ethical evaluation. If the image of the Latin American writer as necessarily radical was a caricature drawn up by both conservatives and leftists during the 1960s—as befits total novels, those mentioned above are resistant to exclusively political readings—most contemporary novelists judge politics from a position akin to that of Bolaño: ethical and beyond any identifiable political current or position.

The fact is that there is a tendency to translate Latin American novels that deal directly or indirectly with political topics. New Directions, which began the Bolaño boom in English, has also translated Horacio Castellanos Moya, who writes about the political history of El Salvador.  Another major “new” writer is Juan Gabriel Vásquez, whose novels also examine the history of Colombia. Nevertheless, as Vásquez’s Secret History of Costaguana exemplifies, the evaluation of politics and history is made through an individual ethical prism.  The same thing can be said of his fellow Colombian Héctor Abad Faciolince’s Oblivion: A Memoir.   Alonso Cueto’s Blue Light, which looks at the brutal military repression against the also brutal Shining Path in Peru during the 1980s and 1990s; Argentine Patricio Pron’s My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, which investigates the disappearances of leftist activist and militants by the military during his country’s dictatorship in the 1970s; also follow this pattern.  It may be symptomatic that there are no plans to translate Cueto’s other major novel, El susurro de la mujer ballena (The Whisper of the Whale Woman), which, though concerned with the issue of reconciliation, dear to the Peruvian author, analyzes it from the perspective of interpersonal relations rather than that of political repression.

Of course, there have been other non-political writers who have had temporary success in the United States.  One thinks of Alberto Fuguet and Jorge Volpi, leaders of two (short-lived) literary movements—McOndo and The Crack—who both became known in the region in 1996 and became international celebrities thanks to their exaggerated dismissal of magical realism.  However, despite their obvious differences, Fuguet embraced mass culture, while Volpi and the other crackites, preached a return to the high cultural values of the Boom and other earlier Latin American novelists, they seem to have faded in the English language markets.  Perhaps the apolitical, rather than post-political, nature of their writings played a role in their limited impact in the United States.  That said, both are major figures in Spanish American literature.   Their limited success in the U.S. raises doubts about the long-term English-language interest in novelists such as Alejandro Zambra or Mario Bellatín who deal only indirectly with political topics.  Though again, it is necessary to distinguish among influence in Latin America, actual value of a work, and the reception of novels and novelists by U.S. cultural circles.  Moreover, it could very well be that U.S. readers who, thanks in part to Bolaño, seem to have moved beyond magical realism could also embrace writers who are not only post-political but also write about non-political topics.

What do you see as the general trends in contemporary Latin American literary fiction?

It is thus difficult to see a common thread among contemporary Latin American writers.  In part this has to do with the obvious fact that these writers belong to diverse nationalities, regions, classes, genders, etc.   Moreover, the group nature of the Boom—Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, García Márquez and Cortázar maintained close personal ties during the 1960s—seems to be absent among current writers.   In fact, we tend to find “common trends” among these earlier writers precisely because we are excluding other contemporary authors who did not participate in the editorial and cultural networks that had the Boom authors at their center.  Nevertheless, the rejection of the total novel, the embrace of mass culture—whether in the form of U.S. popular films and music, as in the case of Fuguet, or in the use of pulp detective or even best-seller narrative forms, as is the case with Leonardo Padura or Guillermo Martínez—the interest in U.S. writers, such as John Updike and especially Phillip Roth, the stress on ethics over politics, and of the personal over the political or social, can be seen as traits common to many of the post-Boom writers.

I would venture to say, however, that a lot of Bolaño works are not total novels in the way 2066 and the Savage Detectives are. I am thinking here of Nazi Literature in the Americas or Antwerp–have those had more influence locally in Latin America?

Agreed.  In fact, what I said about Bolaño is more applicable to the short novels, in particular, By Night in Chile and Distant Star, two extraordinary narratives. While maybe in Chile these texts rival his longer novels in popularity among readers and critics, there is little doubt in my mind that the book that put Bolaño on the Latin American literary map was The Savage Detectives, a novel in which literary politics, rather than political politics is at the forefront, though the latter IS not completely absent.  (One of the “savage detectives,” Ulises Lima, has a checkered participation in the Sandinista revolution and, perhaps allegorically, disappears while in that country). However, Bolaño’s more political texts, By Night in Chile, Distant Star, Amulet, 2666, also present poets, writers, and critics among their protagonists.

As mentioned above, The Savage Detectives received the Rómulo Gallegos, an award that had been won by Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, and Fuentes, and before that had won the Herralde, a lesser, though still prestigious award.  That said, there are readers, such as Mexican critic Christopher Domínguez Michael, who have argued that By Night in Chile is the greatest of Bolaño’s novels.  Of course, one can also find contemporary novelists, such as the Mexicans Heriberto Yepez and Antonio Ortuño who have questioned the importance or originality of Bolaño’s novels.  I think that what Will Corral, the main editor of our The Contemporary Spanish American Novel, notes about the subtitle of our work, After Bolaño, can serve as a summary of the role played by the Chilean author in the region’s contemporary novel: “influence or idea whose time has come, lapsed progenitor, point of reference, and not a perfect personal or aesthetic model.”

What substance do you make of the timing of the turn from more classically political to the ethical-as-political corresponding to the end of the 1990s and the earliest signs of the pink wave? 

Following from the above comment, I think that Bolaño’s novels marked a kind of reaction to the celebrations of neoliberalism that were so in vogue during the 1990s, and that implicitly justified the repression of the 1970s and beyond.  But they were also a reaction against a residual 1960s style radicalism.  It may not be an accident that Bolaño in his Rómulo Gallegos speech speaks bitterly about the Latin American left.  Although he describes its goals and values as “a cause we believed the most generous cause in the world and that in a certain way it was,” he concludes “in reality it wasn’t.”  In that speech, he even admits the virtue of the left’s defeat.

Moreover, I don’t think there’s a necessary incompatibility between an ethical criticism of Latin American dictatorships and a tacit or even explicit support of, at least, neoliberal economic policies. In fact, this has long been Mario Vargas Llosa’s position and, more recently, has been publicly adopted by Sebastián Piñera, the current President of Chile.

The Pink Tide marks a thorough rejection of neoliberalism.  It isn’t only the brutal manner in which these policies were implemented that is criticized.  The policies themselves are seen as implying a wrong historical turn.  As we know Hugo Chávez saw himself as a link in a revolutionary chain that, in addition to figures such as Simón Bolívar, as he so often reminded us, José Martí, or José Carlos Mariátegui, included many of the figures implicitly criticized by Bolaño in the Rómulo Gallegos speech: Fidel Castro, Ernesto Che Guevara, the Sandinista leadership, etc.  However, its populism, by which I mean the celebration of the leader as the incarnation of radical goals, the frequent arbitrariness of some of its policies, and the appearance of corruption, have, I believe, made it difficult for many younger intellectuals to identify with it.  While older writers—like Eduardo Galeano, Elena Poniatowska, or Luisa Valenzuela—have made explicit their support of the Pink Tide, I cannot think of one single author included in our The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel who is a clear unabashed supporter of any of the Pink Tide leaders. (I have to admit that this may very well be a sign of my ignorance of the political statements and positions of some of the authors studied). Obviously there are other relatively young writers, less well-known outside their home countries, that still adhere to 1960s style radicalism or explicitly support the Pink Tide. The Peruvian short story writer Dante Castro is one of these.

Do you think recent political developments in South America may provoke a move back to a more obviously and purely political work?

First I need to point out that we have been discussing successful, even elite, authors: those who have won awards, who are interviewed in journals, who have published in Spanish presses, etc. As I’ve mentioned there are many political authors at work, not only in the Pink Tide countries, but throughout the region who are, however, less well-known.  However, as of now, these would seem residual rather than emergent, to use Raymond Williams’s terminology.

Moreover, as stated above, even in the 1960s, explicit politics were not really present in the work of the major writers, or, at least, their major works.  We justly still read Cortázar’s Hopscotch while his A Manual for Manuel is out of print.  I would guess, that a more important influence on the development of a more clearly political literature would be the effect of the Great Recession in South America.  (The fact that Venezuela, despite obvious achievements regarding social equality, improvement of health care, etc., seems to be facing serious economic problems does not help improve the appeal of the Pink Tide). The three main examples of the success of neoliberal policies, whether in pure or modified forms, Brazil, Chile, and Peru, seem to still be prospering despite the global economic slowdown.  It is possible, therefore, for many to still see in free market policies the key to economic development and cultural freedom. One has also to remember that successful writers, especially in the so-called global south, frequently belong to economically privileged social groups, those who have overall benefitted from these policies.

 In The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel: Bolaño’s and After the authors as a break down into regions, one region that seemed to have less representation was lower Central America. Why do you think there were fewer authors included from that region other than the size of the countries involved?

In the introduction to the volume, Will Corral, the lead editor, notes that the criteria used in the selection of authors is based on: “ 1) the authors’ reception in their native country, Spanish America, and Spain; 2) existing and ongoing translation into English by the authors chosen; 3) critical reception as revealed by the presence of their work in university courses worldwide; and not unimportantly 4) evident literary authority of the fiction published to date.”

These criteria—in particular 2-3—imply that the selection of novelists is mostly done of the basis of the author’s international reception inside and outside Latin America.  To a degree this is unavoidable.  While Will Corral is the most widely read person on the current Latin American novel I have ever met and Nicholas Birns, a true Renaissance man, is fluent in many linguistic and national literary traditions, all of us have access to the Latin American novel primarily through the region’s media networks.  And some countries have a stronger media presence than others.  Thus a book published in Spain by Alfaguara will likely be distributed throughout all of Latin America, while one put out by an artisan press, of which there are many in the region, will have much less distribution.  There are local authors practically impossible to read outside their native countries.  Although this is not a new situation—the major Boom writers were arguably the best novelists in the region, but unarguably the best publicized and distributed—the growing global concentration of capital in the book industry has made the distance between pan-Hispanic and local writers more marked.

Moreover, the intended reader of the book is not the local Guatemalan or Panamanian reader, but, as our choice of language indicates, that of the U.S and other Anglophone countries.  We have to take into account the practical uses our book can be put to inside and outside the classroom and these require we deal with authors whose books can be found in bookstores and libraries in the U.S., England, etc.

As you note in the following question there is a direct correlation between economic development, particularly in the book industry, and number of authors included from a specific country.  It is simply more difficult for us to find out about new Panamanian or, for that matter, Paraguayan writers than about Argentinean and Mexican writers, unless those authors manage to break into the international cultural circuit.  Our book is not a canon—though it is impossible for a book of an encyclopedic nature to completely abandon all canonizing ambition—it instead aims to be an introduction to those “younger” post-Boom authors who are most readily available to readers and who are seen by many critics to have produced work of value.  If we ever have another edition in, lets say, ten years, we’ll probably have to make significant changes.

Conversely Mexico and the Southern Cone have a lot representation, which stands to reason given the economic developments in those two areas; however, interestingly, it seems like the Southern Cone authors are slightly more known that the Mexican ones in the English speaking world.   I admit this may not be the case in a strict sense since it may just be a statement of my own knowledge bias, but I find it interesting that US’s neighbor seems to be going through some major literary developments which have not been represented all that well North of the border?

You obviously have a point.  According to the University of Rochester translation database 65 Argentine books have been published since 2009, compared to only 38 from Mexico. Obviously this reflects a greater interest in the topics on which Argentine writers have been writing, frequently, though not always, the dirty war or its aftermath.  However, I would argue that there are Mexican authors, such as Carmen Boullosa, who lives in New York and now also writes for The Nation, or Daniel Sada, who’s been reviewed in The New York Times, who are as well-known as any of the Southern Cone writers with the exception of Bolaño.

How much does the recent narco troubles in Mexico affect the perspective of contemporary authors as opposed to other Spanish American work? 

A specifically Mexican “narcoliterature” has developed, which includes novels such as Luis Humberto Crosthwaite’s Tijuana: Crimen y olvido (2010. Tijuana: Crime and Punishment), Élmer Mendoza’s El amante de Janis Joplin (2008, Janis Joplin’s Lover), and even Daniel Sada, a novelist best known for his linguistic recreation and experimentation, who in his posthumous novel El lenguaje del juego (2012) incorporates the topic. As is well known, Roberto Bolaño, who had close personal and intellectual ties to Mexico, includes the femicides of Ciudad Juárez, a crime wave related to the narco troubles, in his posthumous 2666.  In some ways this literature can be seen as the literary analogue to the narcocorrido (ballads that narrate the lives of the drug kingpins), though, of course, these novelists are much more detached from the narco lifestyles than popular singers and composers.

There is an important precedent to this narcoliterature in Colombia’s sicaresque novels—from sicario, the drug cartel’s contract killer—of which Jorge Franco’s Rosario Tijeras and Fernando Vallejo’s Our Lady of the Assassins are the best-known examples.
Is there anything that you think our readers would particularly need to understand to position the contemporary Spanish American novel in the context of world literature?

One must not forget that we are dealing with a heterogeneous group of writers who have frequently developed without any contact among each other.  Nevertheless, I think it is necessary to keep in mind the cosmopolitan nature of the region’s literature.  In fact, the rejection of magical realism, which, as mentioned, was never the mainstream, has much to do with the refusal to be exoticized or to self-exocitize. This is not new and in fact constitutes the true literary mainstream. García Márquez, in addition to being one of the main exponents of magical realism, was a disciple of Faulkner, as he reminded us in his Nobel address.  This rejection of exoticism, which has a notable precedent not only in the best of the Boom but in particular in Borges, is as Borges himself noted, not incompatible with the description and investigation of local realities which may in fact be very specific and unique.  Thus from Bolaño to Abad Faciolince to Cueto to Padura, Latin American writers are producing a literature that, while frequently exploring recent history, nevertheless, sees itself as belonging to the world republic of letters.

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