Latin American Fiction and the Poetics of History
Roberto González Echevarría (2006)
IN 1948, ALEJO CARPENTIER published a brief essay in Caracas’ El Nacional that was to have a lasting impact on Latin American fiction after it appeared again, the very next year, as the prologue to his vastly influential novel El reino de este mundo (1949). In that text, which laid out Carpentier’s ideas about “the marvelous real” quality of Latin America’s reality, he concluded:
Y ES QUE, POR LA VIRGINIDAD DEL PAISAJE, POR LA FORMACIÓN, POR LA ONTOLOGÍA, POR LA PRESENCIA FÁUSTICA DEL INDIO Y DEL NEGRO, POR LA REVELACIÓN QUE CONSTITUYÓ SU RECIENTE DESCUBRIMIENTO, POR LOS FECUNDOS MESTIZAJES QUE PROPICIÓ, AMÉRICA ESTÁ MUY LEJOS DE HABER AGOTADO SU CAUDAL DE MITOLOGÍAS (1949: 15–16).
This is a fundamental and difficult passage, which has not fared well in English translation and has been variously interpreted. I quote the original because I wish to refer to it in my commentary, which will attempt to come as close as possible to what Carpentier meant, in order to reflect upon the reason for his text’s influence on recent Latin American fiction. My own attempt at translating Carpentier’s statement into English would read:
AND IT IS JUST THAT BECAUSE OF ITS UNSPOILED LANDSCAPE, ITS HISTORICAL EVOLUTION; AS A RESULT OF ITS ONTOLOGY, THE FAUSTIC PRESENCE OF INDIANS AND BLACKS; BECAUSE OF THE REVELATION THAT ITS RECENT DISCOVERY CONSTITUTED, AND BECAUSE OF THE FRUITFUL CROSS-BREEDINGS THAT IT PROPITIATED, AMERICA IS FAR FROM HAVING ALREADY EXHAUSTED ITS WEALTH OF MYTHOLOGIES.
A gloss of each of the six characteristics in Carpentier’s list leads into what I would like to call the poetics of Latin American history, as it is manifest in the recent novelistic output of the region, whose major practitioners have been Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Augusto Roa Bastos; and among a younger group Reynaldo Arenas, Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá, Antonio Benítez Rojo, and Abel Posse. By “poetics of history” I mean, initially, that modern Latin American novelists obsessively turn to Latin American history as source because they find there the prolegomena of their narrative art—what comes first, how events determine each other, how causality works, who are the heroes and villains. History becomes in the works of Latin American novelists an artistic construct whose truth is aesthetic rather than documentary or factual, and more often than not runs counter to official histories found in textbooks and government pronouncements. Furthermore, because the issue of beginnings or origins is so crucial, colonial history is privileged by this recent tradition, which focuses repeatedly on figures like Christopher Columbus, Lope de Aguirre, and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Taking each of the six terms in the order in which they appear in Carpentier’s sentence, here is the gloss, which will be followed by my own formulation about the main characteristics of modern Latin American fiction, especially the novel.
The “unspoiled quality of the landscape” means that American nature has yet to be tamed by the destructive forces unleashed by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Latin America’s nature remains, Carpentier claims, largely pre-modern and unscathed. He uses the cliché “virginal” for poetic purposes. Carpentier conceives of the Discovery and Conquest as part of a nuptial drama of cosmic dimensions not unlike Neruda’s vision of American history in his Canto general (1950), which is nearly contemporary with El reino de este mundo. Carpentier also wants to emphasize that the landscape that Latin Americans perceive, internalize, and later project in their art is different from that of Europe because it has yet to be transformed by modern technology. Carpentier had learned in the influential Spanish translation of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West that the uniqueness of a given culture was based on the way in which it viewed the dimension of the space in which it dwelled, hence that diverse kinds of landscape produced distinct cultural expressions. Beholding a “virginal” landscape Latin Americans would consequently generate a fresh kind of artistic expression. “Unspoiled quality of the landscape” can also be a tangential allusion to one of the central topics of Latin American literature and thought: the opposition between civilization and barbarism, first formulated in Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s monumental Facundo (1845). The clash between the “civilizing” impulse of Europe and the resisting forces of untamed American nature provides the New World’s central drama, one no longer available in Europe because the process of civilization had been completed there long ago.
By formación I believe that Carpentier means “development” or “evolution” in the sense of the unfolding of history as it shapes the Continent’s culture, with the clear suggestion that it is unique. It seems to me that Carpentier is echoing Goethe here, applying to history the German’s ideas about Urformen, the basic or elementary natural forms out of which all others derive, a sort of naturalistic Platonism. The originality of form, paradoxically, means a return to elementary shapes that are at the root of all configurations. The German term Bildung, education, may also be in the background, because it leads back to “shaping,” “giving form,” hence formación. But the crucial element is the suggestion of singularity, meaning that the history of the New World has, because of the uniqueness of its history, yielded a different shape that is sui generis. This shape, in turn, determines the shapes of Latin American art, particularly the novel, which will reflect (on) that history in its plots, characters, and ambience.
With the term ontología Carpentier wishes to affirm the uniqueness of the American way of being, derived from the previously glossed formación. Carpentier is writing this prologue just as the first Spanish translation of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit was being published in Mexico, but he had surely been aware of this book’s influence through the work of José Ortega y Gasset and French commentators and disciples of the German philosopher like Jean-Paul Sartre (to whom there is a disparaging allusion in the prologue under discussion here). I do not think that Carpentier is using the term “ontology” in a formal philosophical sense, but simply to characterize the Latin American way of being, as shaped by Latin American history. But in his novels the idea does acquire a more profound significance that will be crucial to the work of disciples like García Márquez. I will return to this.
The “Faustic presence of Indians and Blacks” refers to the decisive questions that the uniqueness of their cultures—particularly their beliefs—opened because of their contrast to that of the West. “Faustic” was another term made popular by the Spanish translation of Spengler’s book, and it meant something like the depth and sublimity of matters concerning the infinite and unfathomable, beyond the grasp of reason or method. Spengler applied it to developments in modern mathematics during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Carpentier probably means that the presence of Indians and Blacks forced the West to radically question itself because of the way that it exploited them, which revealed flagrant contradictions between Christian doctrine and political practice. The religious beliefs of Indians and Blacks, with no connection to known theogonies derived from classical mythology or the three religions of the Book (Judaic, Muslim, and Christian), puzzled and enraged Europeans because they held up a mirror to theirs that exposed startling differences as well as beguiling coincidences. How could these strange people believe in such weird stories; how could some of those stories resemble classical mythology and Biblical lore? Both the contrasts and the similarities led to serious questions about the hold on the truth that Western doctrines claimed for themselves. This process is part of the “shaping” and uniqueness Carpentier mentioned in reference to Latin American history.
“Revelation” has a Biblical resonance (Carpentier was very fond of Scripture as he was of all founding stories) that underlines the apocalyptic effect of the Discovery. The Discovery produced a heightened sense of temporality because it seemed to signal the end of a vast historical era, or the beginning of a new, greatly different one. In this it was like the time recounted in the Book of Revelation, redolent with the anticipation of portentous events that would come to fulfill prophecies and forebodings reaching back to the dawn of human consciousness. One cannot escape the Joycean ring of this word, akin to “epiphany” but it has a broader reach, beyond individual illumination. Carpentier’s own sense of history, which was set in the years of the first post-war period and in the Paris of the avant-garde, was heightened in the late 1940s in the wake of World War II, which had if anything, as a result of Hiroshima and the gruesome discoveries of the Holocaust in Europe, an even greater apocalyptic quality. “Revelation” also feeds into the notion of the exceptional form of Latin American history as perceived and expressed by Latin American novelists.
The “fruitful cross-breedings,” or as it is called now, mestizaje, alludes naturally to the exchange of practices, customs, and beliefs among the various cultures that met as a result of the Discovery and Conquest. Carpentier’s biological metaphor is a topic in Latin American writing that gained currency particularly in the work of Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos, whose La raza cósmica (1925) had proposed that Latin American culture was the product of a “cosmic race” because it resulted from an intermingling of all the principal races in the world. The whole idea harkens back, of course, to the emerging social sciences in the nineteenth century, which had as their original model a Darwinian conception of evolution. Its application to culture can be deceiving on the level of social and political practice and can easily be turned into an ideological tool by governments, as is the case in Mexico. But Carpentier’s “cross-breedings” argues that hegemonic groups are also affected by those whose position in society is inferior—human commerce, no matter how opprobrious and oppressive to some, is always two-way. Carpentier had just published in 1946 his beautiful book La música en Cuba, the research for which had led him to write El reino de este mundo and the stories that were to be collected in Guerra del tiempo (1958). The subtext of La música en Cuba is that the music of the sons and daughters of former slaves had exerted a decisive influence on that most Cuban of cultural products, Cuban music itself. Even if whites and mainstream Western culture hold sway in Cuba, the unavoidable truth is that what makes Cuban music Cuban is the African component. So much for mechanical models of sociopolitical evolution and bleeding-heart theories about the subjugated—“cross-breeding” is mutual in all instances, regardless of the social stations of the partners involved. For Carpentier the model of cultural evolution in the Americas is the one he provides in La música en Cuba. The bountiful products of this “cross-breeding” attest to its fertility, from the danzón to salsa.
By stating that in the New World the “wealth of mythologies” has hardly been exhausted, Carpentier brings out that Latin America’s literature is capable of producing new stories not contained or understood by received Western ideas. He is proposing, I believe, that Latin American literature can be original precisely by returning to mythology, not to modern narrative forms. This statement has to be understood in the context of the debate about the viability of the novel in which Ortega and Borges were engaged (at a distance). Ortega had held that the pool of novelistic plots was exhausted and that therefore novelists had to turn to what he called the “psychological novel,” something akin, I suppose, to what one finds in Henry James’ works. Borges, on the other hand, who abhorred the novel for its prolixity, thought that there were plenty of plots—stories about compelling enigmas—available to detective fiction, for instance. He stated, famously, that the Russian novelists had really exhausted all the possible psychological permutations—killing for love, etc.—and what was left was the composition of labyrinth-like tales, a kind of Aristotelian plot factory that centered on the search for a “prime mover,” which in Borges always turns out to be a slightly ludicrous simulacrum of God. Carpentier weighed in with a complementary solution, which was to have felicitous consequences in Latin America: a return to mythology, to vast narrative cycles concerned with larger-than-life heroes and adventures of cosmic dimensions, like the Discovery and Conquest.
(A parenthetical remark is in order here about Carpentier’s use of the term “America.” Although presumably he means Latin America, he may very well be alluding to the entire Continent, as a response to formulations of American poetics by the likes of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. After all, the issue of “newness” applies just as well to U.S. and Canadian literature as to Latin America’s, perhaps even more so. The American pilgrims sought to found a new society, whereas colonial Latin America was an extension, a series of viceroyalties, of Iberian monarchies, subject to highly centralized Roman Catholicism. On the other hand, the cult of the “new” led in the North to a radical break with its own past, whereas in Latin America the colonial world seems to endure and project itself into the present. The day when Columbus’ sails rose above the horizon was a dawn whose dusk has yet to come, as can be seen in tensions that have lingered since the 1990s in Chiapas.)
Carpentier’s theoretical proposals, and mostly novels such as El reino de este mundo, Los pasos perdidos (1953), Guerra del tiempo, El siglo de las luces (1962), El recurso del método (1974), Concierto barroco (1974), and El arpa y la sombra (1979) set the course for historical novelists in Latin America. He made possible the creation of books such as Carlos Fuentes’ Terra nostra (1975), García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (1967), Mario Vargas Llosa’s La guerra del fin del mundo (1981), Augusto Roa Bastos’ Yo el Supremo (1974), Reynaldo Arenas’ El mundo alucinante (1969), Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá’s La noche oscura del Niño Avilés (1984), Antonio Benítez Rojo’s El mar de las lentejas (1985), and Abel Posse’s Daimón (1978). One can derive from these works, as if closing the loop of a hermeneutical circle, three distinct characteristics of Latin America’s historical fiction which, because of the centrality of that subgenre, could perhaps be extended to Latin American fiction and even art in general. These are: (1) a return to the chronicles of the Discovery and Conquest to deal with the issue of origins and sources, with the ontological problem of Latin America’s “being in history,” which is tied to the question of originality, difference, and the marvelous; (2) the expression of mixture through the trope of translation, or the uneasiness of the text in a given linguistic context; (3) the preference for themes, plots, and characters of what I call “cosmic” or “historical” dimensions, to give it a Hegelian turn, as opposed to fictions about bourgeois dilemmas and psychological dramas and melodramas. In his Lessons on the Philosophy of History Hegel had spoken, with his contemporary Napoleon Bonaparte in mind, of “world-historical-individuals,” whose agency could transform history.
In the prologue to El reino de este mundo and the novels and stories that followed, Carpentier taught Latin American writers how to plumb New World history for stories, plots, and characters. The main lesson was that American history was the greatest story of all since the Bible—new, astonishing, and filled with marvels. That story and its dense and rich ramifications were to be culled from the chronicles of the Discovery and Conquest, the vast and polemical record of the encounter of two worlds that brought about, for the first time, a sense of global coexistence and universal history. These old books dealt with enormously complex questions of shocking novelty and far-reaching philosophical and theological consequences. Why was there no record of the American continent in the Bible or the Greek and Roman classics? How could the church fathers not have talked about these populous civilizations, some of them magnificently developed? How could a historical discourse based on the Judeo-Christian tradition be recast to account for their existence? The Discovery and Conquest had been the first truly consciousness-altering event since the birth of Christ, hence writing as compelling as the Gospels was needed to inscribe them into the new conception of history that issued from those events.
The newness of the chronicles was not just in the events narrated, but in the sense of historical rebirth that they attempted to convey. They expressed, for the first time since Paul and Augustine, the feeling of being “in” history, not just of recording history. Thucydides wrote about events in which he participated, but as important as the Peloponnesian Wars were, they could not be construed as the dawn of a new era. In the chronicles of the Discovery and Conquest, on the other hand, personal and historical times converged in a break with the past, a sensation that the writer was part of something fresh, distinct, and momentous. Nowhere is this expressed more dramatically than in the “Summary” inserted before Bartolomé de Las Casas’ Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias [A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies], where his editor, or perhaps Las Casas himself, states:
TODAS LAS COSAS QUE HAN ACAECIDO EN LAS INDIAS, DESDE SU MARAVILLOSO DESCUBRIMIENTO Y DEL PRINCIPIO QUE A ELLAS FUERON ESPAÑOLES PARA ESTAR TIEMPO ALGUNO, Y DESPUÉS EN EL PROCESO ADELANTE HASTA LOS DÍAS DE AGORA, HAN SIDO TAN ADMIRABLES Y TAN NO CREÍBLES EN TODO GÉNERO A QUIEN NO LAS VIDO, QUE PARECE HABER AÑUBLADO Y PUESTO SILENCIO Y BASTANTES A PONER OLVIDO A TODAS CUANTAS, POR HAZAÑOSAS QUE FUESEN, EN LOS SIGLOS PASADOS SE VIERON Y OYERON EN EL MUNDO (LAS CASAS 1552 IN 1982: 65).
This “Summary,” not included in English translations of the book, reads as follows (I have tried to preserve the sinuous syntax of 16th-century Spanish):
ALL OF THE THINGS THAT HAVE HAPPENED IN THE INDIES, SINCE THEIR MARVELOUS DISCOVERY AND THE MOMENT SPANIARDS WENT THERE TO STAY, AND LATER ON IN THE PROCESS THAT FOLLOWED UNTIL THE PRESENT, HAVE BEEN SO ADMIRABLE AND INCREDIBLE IN SO MANY WAYS TO THOSE WHO DID NOT SEE THEM, THAT THEY HAVE BECLOUDED AND SILENCED, ENOUGH TO CAST INTO OBLIVION, ALL THOSE DEEDS THAT, NO MATTER HOW GREAT THEY WERE, OCCURRED IN PREVIOUS CENTURIES AND WERE SEEN AND HEARD OF IN THE ENTIRE WORLD.
The dramatic response of those who hear or read about what is happening in the New World at that very time is itself startling. The vivid descriptions render previous history mute (puesto silencio) or barely visible (añublado). Later on in the same text, after a brief introduction to the atrocities perpetrated on the natives, the writer again dwells upon the effect on those who heard about the events taking place in the New World, this time as Las Casas expounded upon them before the Emperor, “causando a los oyentes con la relación dellas una manera de éxtasi y suspensión de ánimos” (1552 in 1982: 65), which could be rendered as, “producing on the listeners a kind of ecstasy and astonishment.” I suspect that Las Casas’s listeners were shocked not only by the rarity of it all, but by the feeling that they themselves were also experiencing a historical moment. What Carpentier perceived as the “marvelous” quality of American history is determined by that break with the familiar, and by the way that the selves of writer and reader are suddenly cast in a formless, unintelligible void, blind and deaf to the past that previously supported them. The chronicles strain the limits of representation in search of familiar shapes that will make the present comprehensible to the readers and allow them to regain their own sense of self. These are texts that mirror their own beginning, as well as the beginning of that which they purport to represent, conflating beginnings and foundations. It is this ontological predicament that makes the chronicles a privileged source for modern Latin American novelists: the erasure of the past, the muting of language itself, calls for the invention of the self, of the stories that prop it up.
The experience of silence resulting from wonder before the radically new, a quality implicit in Carpentier’s pronouncements and practice, had an echo in the opening scene of a novel in which his influence is clear: García Márquez’ Cien años de soledad. Macondo, a mythic town that is quite like those founded by the conquistadores in the New World, exists before language has finished naming its reality: “Macondo era entonces una aldea de veinte casas de barro y cañabrava construidas a la orilla de un río de aguas diáfanas que se precipitaban por un lecho de piedras pulidas, blancas y enormes como huevos prehistóricos. El mundo era tan reciente, que muchas cosas carecían de nombre, y para mencionarlas había que señalarlas con el dedo” (García Márquez 1967: 9). “At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point” (García Márquez 1970: 1). The same ontological void reappears later in the novel when the insomnia epidemic deprives the citizens of Macondo of their memory, hence of the link between reality and language. The vexations of narrative beginnings and naming the unknown García Márquez found in the chronicles, as he declared in his speech accepting the 1982 Nobel Prize in literature:
ANTONIO PIGAFETTA, UN NAVEGANTE FLORENTINO QUE ACOMPAÑÓ A MAGALLANES EN EL PRIMER VIAJE ALREDEDOR DEL MUNDO, ESCRIBIÓ A SU PASO POR NUESTRA AMÉRICA MERIDIONAL UNA CRÓNICA RIGUROSA QUE, SIN EMBARGO, PARECE UNA AVENTURA DE LA IMAGINACIÓN. CONTÓ QUE HABÍA VISTO CERDOS CON EL OMBLIGO EN EL LOMO, Y UNOS PÁJAROS SIN PATAS CUYAS HEMBRAS EMPOLLABAN EN LAS ESPALDAS DEL MACHO Y OTROS COMO ALCATRACES SIN LENGUA CUYOS PICOS PARECÍAN UNA CUCHARA. CONTÓ QUE HABÍA VISTO UN ENGENDRO ANIMAL CON CABEZA Y OREJAS DE MULA, CUERPO DE CAMELLO, PATAS DE CIERVO Y RELINCHO DE CABALLO. CONTÓ QUE AL PRIMER NATIVO QUE ENCONTRARON EN LA PATAGONIA LE PUSIERON ENFRENTE UN ESPEJO, Y QUE AQUEL GIGANTE ENARDECIDO PERDIÓ EL USO DE LA RAZÓN POR EL PAVOR DE SU PROPIA IMAGEN. ESTE LIBRO BREVE Y FASCINANTE, EN EL CUAL YA SE VISLUMBRAN LOS GÉRMENES DE NUESTRAS NOVELAS DE HOY, NO ES NI MUCHO MENOS EL TESTIMONIO MÁS ASOMBROSO DE NUESTRA REALIDAD DE AQUELLOS TIEMPOS. LOS CRONISTAS DE INDIAS NOS LEGARON OTROS INCONTABLES. ELDORADO, NUESTRO PAÍS ILUSORIO TAN CODICIADO, FIGURÓ EN MAPAS NUMEROSOS DURANTE LARGOS AÑOS, CAMBIANDO DE LUGAR Y DE FORMA SEGÚN LA FANTASÍA DE LOS CARTÓGRAFOS. EN BUSCA DE LA FUENTE DE LA ETERNA JUVENTUD, EL MÍTICO ALVAR NÚÑEZ CABEZA DE VACA EXPLORÓ DURANTE OCHO AÑOS EL NORTE DE MÉXICO, EN UNA EXPEDICIÓN VENÁTICA CUYOS MIEMBROS SE COMIERON UNOS A OTROS, Y SÓLO LLEGARON CINCO DE LOS SEISCIENTOS QUE LA EMPRENDIERON (1982: 21-C).
The English version that was circulated reads:
ANTONIO PIGAFETTA, THE FLORENTINE NAVIGATOR WHO ACCOMPANIED MAGELLAN ON THE FIRST CIRCUMNAVIGATION OF THE WORLD, KEPT A METICULOUS LOG ON HIS JOURNEY THROUGH OUR SOUTHERN AMERICAN CONTINENT WHICH, NEVERTHELESS, ALSO SEEMS TO BE AN ADVENTURE INTO THE IMAGINATION. HE RELATED THAT HE HAD SEEN PIGS WITH THEIR UMBILICUS ON THEIR BACKS AND BIRDS WITHOUT FEET, THE FEMALES OF THE SPECIES OF WHICH WOULD BROOD THEIR EGGS ON THE BACKS OF THE MALES, AS WELL AS OTHERS LIKE GANNETS WITHOUT TONGUES WHOSE BEAKS LOOKED LIKE A SPOON. HE WROTE THAT HE HAD SEEN A MONSTROSITY OF AN ANIMAL WITH THE HEAD AND EARS OF A MULE, THE BODY OF A CAMEL, THE HOOVES OF A DEER AND THE NEIGH OF A HORSE. HE RELATED THAT THEY PUT A MIRROR IN FRONT OF THE FIRST NATIVE THEY MET IN PATAGONIA AND HOW THAT OVEREXCITED GIANT LOST THE USE OF HIS REASON OUT OF FEAR OF HIS OWN IMAGE. THIS SHORT AND FASCINATING BOOK, IN WHICH WE CAN PERCEIVE THE SEEDS OF OUR CONTEMPORARY NOVELS, IS NOT, BY ANY MEANS, THE MOST SURPRISING TESTIMONY OF OUR REALITY AT THAT TIME. THE CHRONICLERS OF THE INDIES HAVE LEFT US INNUMERABLE OTHERS. ELDORADO, OUR ILLUSORY LAND WHICH WAS MUCH SOUGHT AFTER, FIGURED ON MANY MAPS OVER A LONG PERIOD, CHANGING IN SITUATION AND EXTENT TO THE WHIM OF THE CARTOGRAPHERS. THE MYTHICAL ALVAR NÚÑEZ CABEZA DE VACA, IN SEARCH OF THE FOUNT OF ETERNAL YOUTH, SPENT EIGHT YEARS EXPLORING THE NORTH OF MEXICO IN A CRAZY EXPEDITION WHOSE MEMBERS ATE ONE ANOTHER; ONLY FIVE OF THE SIX HUNDRED WHO SET OUT RETURNED HOME (1982: 207).
Like those listening to Las Casas’ account, Pigafetta is mesmerized by the newness of what he beholds, and like the native whose own image turns him mad, is forced to re-conceive himself, as it were, to narrate the incident. It is that feeling of ontological shock that modern Latin American novelists wish to provoke in their readers by evoking, once and again, the silence of unknown objects, beings, and practices that erase our memory and wipe clean the slate of language. Octavio Paz has expounded on this notion when he proposes that the uniqueness of Latin American literature is found precisely in the concomitance of its practice and the invention of its own foundations. This is the essence of the “marvelous real” that Carpentier speaks about in the prologue of El reino de este mundo.
But, of course, literature is not written with silences but with words. What language to use when in a predicament such as Pigafetta’s, or Columbus’ (who took manatees for mermaids), is an issue both consubstantial with it and of unavoidable resolution unless one wishes to remain in the ecstatic condition described in Las Casas’ “Summary.” The predicament leads to a probe into the nature of language itself, an issue that is very much a part of modern literature’s penchant for self-reflection. How does one name for the first time? Clearly there can never be a first time, and to conceive of a moment of consciousness without language is an impossibility because we think in and through language. Either objects have already been labeled, the case in the New World where what was mute for Europeans had been named in the native tongues, or there are other words that can be contingently applied with paraphrases and circumlocutions. Naming is always misnaming. In our post-Saussurean era, writers are painfully aware of the conventionality of language: i.e., that there is no natural or necessary relation between words and things. Naming, then, like poetic language, is the art of approximation. The Discovery and Conquest dramatized this condition for the first time in modern historical consciousness, as can be gleaned from García Márquez’ evocation of Pigafetta’s conundrum before animals so strange that neither personal experience nor recourse to the authorities of his time, like Pliny, could have provided their names. (Of course, I am talking about the written record, for the problem of naming the unknown is, and has been, an everyday phenomenon anywhere at all times, solved with words such as “thingamajig” in English or tareco in Spanish.) Paraphrases, circumlocutions, repetition, and other figures of speech, paradoxically a certain rhetorical or poetic garrulousness, make up for the silence of unknown things. The process is one of translation, which is not just switching linguistic codes, but holding at least both simultaneously in mind and text. The significance of this procedure in the chronicles of the Discovery and Conquest was first identified by Stephen Gilman, as he commented upon the famous passage in Bernal Díaz del Castillo in which the old conquistador describes the wonders of Tenochtitlán by alluding to Amadís de Gaula:
THUS IN A VERY REAL WAY, THIS ONE PASSAGE FROM THE HISTORIA VERDADERA—A PASSAGE FASCINATING TO GENERATIONS OF VICARIOUS ADVENTURERS—IS REPRESENTATIVE OF ALL OF AMERICAN LITERATURE. THE NEW WORLD MUST BE GIVEN IN TRANSLATION; YET IN THE VERY ACT OF TRANSLATION THERE CAN BE LINGUISTIC SALVATION, RECREATION OF THE OLD IN SUCH A WAY THAT IT MEANS MORE THAN IT EVER MEANT BEFORE. LANGUAGE AND TRADITION, BOTH ENGLISH AND SPANISH, ARE SUBMITTED IN AMERICA TO THE PROOF OF ADVENTURE. AS FOR BERNAL DÍAZ, IT WAS HIS HONOR TO HAVE ACHIEVED THIS ADVENTURE OF THE PEN WITH EVEN MORE GLORY THAN THAT OF THE SWORD SO LONG BEFORE. ONCE THE AMADÍS HAS ENABLED HIM TO HOLD FOREVER ON PAPER THE FIRST MARVEL OF DISCOVERY, HE GOES ON WITH UNDIMINISHED LITERARY COMMAND TO TRANSLATE FOR US HIS EXPERIENCE OF THE WHOLE OF THE CITY: PLAZAS, BUILDINGS, CANALS, COMMERCE, PALACES, GARDENS, AND ALL THE REST (1961: 114).
This and that, or this is also that, or in the process of becoming that; translation is the mestizaje of literary language, and its convolutions result in the baroqueness of Latin American literary discourse. Hence, ontological self-questioning becomes (is translated into) verbal artifice, and Latin American history an aesthetic construct as elaborate and massive as Fuentes’ Terra nostra, or Cien años de soledad itself. In a superb article on this novel, Aníbal González has shown how “The topic of translation in One Hundred Years of Solitude is a reminder of Latin America’s ‘impure’ and conflictive origins” (1987: 77). With their foundations sunk in the voids of self and language, these are magnificent verbal cathedrals that assimilate the disparate and diverse as part of their intricate balance of contrasting stresses and forces.
The preceding anticipates the next feature of Latin American fiction: its partiality for subjects, stories, events, and actors of what I call “cosmic” or “historical” stature, rather than for fictions about domestic and urban life and strife. There are among the protagonists discoverers, conquistadors, nation builders, patriots, dictators, revolutionaries, founders of cities, being driven by political energy to feats of immense good, but more often of limitless evil. A recent example is García Márquez’s portrayal of Bolívar in his El general en su laberinto and Roa Bastos’ Columbus in Vigilia del Almirante. I am told that Posse has just finished a novel about Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Because the narrative of Latin American history began with a story of cosmic dimensions, Latin American novelists are drawn to these vast issues, which take on the quality of mythic cycles, to echo Carpentier’s formulations in the prologue to El reino de este mundo. This is a trait shared by major Latin American poetry, like Pablo Neruda’s Canto general, particularly (but not exclusively) the section known as “Alturas de Machu Picchu.” Neruda writes inspired by the ruins of the Inca city, which mark the temporal and geographic site of the historical chasm upon which Latin American history was founded. The new and the old are conjoined by Neruda’s poetic imagination and voice, spanning the break “like an empty net.” Such harmony, involving nature, the silent stones of the ruins, and the creative consciousness of the poet, is a romantic ideal that is at the core of Latin American literature. This is, again, what Octavio Paz meant by the “foundational quality” of Latin American literature, which, as I have proposed here, is mainly concerned with Latin American history, and is forever questioning its own legitimacy, its own principles and beginnings, as well as the very reality and existence of Latin America as a cultural entity. It is also the ecstasy of the listeners of Las Casas’ accounts, the unnamed muteness of early Macondo, the vertigo of the man in Borges’ story “Ruinas circulares” who suddenly suspects that he is but another person’s dream.
The most salient difference between Latin American fiction and that of the modern West is this foundational quality, which empowers it to be concerned impudently with riddles that are universal and timeless. Western literature, even the most modern or even postmodern, assumes that the major questions have been solved or are too unwieldy to introduce without embarrassment. Only in the most ironic or oblique fashion would a French, English, or North American novelist deal with themes such as the historical foundations of the societies in which they live. But because Latin American writers feel that their literature—their language and tradition—emerged with and at a major historical break, they feel compelled to rake over the still smoldering ashes of that historical Big Bang. This is why Carpentier dares to make Columbus and Queen Isabella, engaged in a sizzling love affair, protagonists or El arpa y la sombra, and Fuentes can write a massive novel whose cast includes Philip II, Francisco Franco, and Miguel de Cervantes.
There is a strategic naïveté in this stance, as well as an homage to the romantic heritage of all modern literature. Carpentier often recognized his debt to Blake, and proclaimed that all modern Latin American literature was basically romantic. He often said that the task of Latin American writers was to name things for the first time, like Blake’s Adam, and like Columbus. The exuberance of the Latin American muse, then, is due to its lack of measure, its lack of a sense of proportion (Fernando Botero’s obese figures come to mind). This is why the baroque rather than the classical has prospered in Latin America. Latin America’s sense of its station in world history does not allow for discretion or for acquiescent imitation. Carpentier was right when he suggested that Latin America’s wealth of mythologies was not exhausted. It is, in fact, forever renewed because Latin American history continues to be mythical in conception and dimension. Latin America’s world is ruled by heroes and antiheroes of immeasurable proportions: drug kingpins like Pablo Escobar, whose net worth was larger than his own country’s national budget; international terrorists like “Carlos,” who elude for years the police of the entire world and aim at stopping single-handedly the “Macdonaldization” of the planet; military goons in Chile and Argentina who can make thousands “disappear” as if by large-scale magic, and dictators like Fidel Castro whose reign has lasted forty years and nearly brought about a nuclear holocaust from his little island. Time is itself hyperbolic in Latin America, a fantastic feature exploited by most of the novelists mentioned here: the present, as can be seen in the Chiapas revolt, has a density of five hundred years and is still populated by the soldiers, priests, and natives who first met in the sixteenth century.
A corollary of the foregoing is that Latin American literature, particularly historical fictions, has had the proclivity to function as a kind of secular theogony, or like the myth of origins in pre-modern societies. History as aesthetic construct is so involved with large ontological questions as to be theogonic or mythological like, but by virtue of being modern (an American condition made so by the Discovery) can only reach the status of the literary, not really the doctrinal. Latin American historical novels are tall tales about heroes and diabolical figures, mixtures of fact, fiction, and hyperbole, in which the forces of good and evil seem to clash again as in Genesis. But in the modern era the book as liturgical utensil has lost its sacred aura and can only be used in the lay rituals or reading for pleasure, or the various kinds of exegesis, including teaching and academic criticism. But the main function these modern mythologies have served has been political, even if only in a putative sense. The performance of Latin American writers in high political office as presidents, ambassadors, cultural attachés, and a few even as revolutionaries, underlines this quasi-religious role of historical fictions in Latin America. Sarmiento (Argentina), Rómulo Gallegos (Venezuela) and Juan Bosch (Dominican Republic) have been presidents of their countries, and Vargas Llosa came close to being the president of Peru. José Martí, the only major writer who was also a real revolutionary, was president of a Cuban government in arms at war against Spain, and has been enshrined as the Apostle of the Nation. Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Fuentes, Carpentier, and Posse, among the most prominent, have been or are diplomats. García Márquez stood, suited and solemn, next to Fidel Castro at Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución to hear the Pope say mass in January 1998. Writers and intellectuals, like the amautas of the Incaic world, but also impelled by modernist yearnings for political agency, are or want to be the high priests of Latin American societies. Their creation of secular historical myths is part and parcel of these activities.
José Lezama Lima, himself a pontiff of poetry, proposed the most cogent theory about the relation of the American poetics of history to Latin American history itself in a superb essay called “Imagen de América Latina.” After a brilliant discussion of the Discovery and Conquest as temporal break and clash of cultures, Lezama proposes that only poetry and the novel can cover the gap by creating what he enigmatically calls the “image.” This image—a poetic act that blends the essence of a culture with its fate—in turn acts upon reality as great figures impose it on historical unfolding. As he says: “Así como Europa, como pudo precisar Vico, ha marchado desde las fábulas a los mitos, en América hemos tenido que ir de los mitos a la imagen. En qué forma la imagen ha creado cultura, en qué espacios esa imagen resultó más suscitante, cuándo la imagen ya no puede ser fabulación ni mito, son preguntas que sólo la poesía y la novela pueden ir contestando. Y sobre todo en la forma que la imagen actuará en la historia, tendrá virtud operante, fuerza traslaticia para que las piedras vuelvan a ser imágenes” (1972: 465). “Thus, as Europe, as Vico could note, moved from fables to myths, in America we have had to go from myths to the image. How the image has created culture, how that image has been most stimulating, how and when the image can no longer be fabulation or myth, are questions which only poetry and the novel can gradually answer. And above all, in what form the image will take part in history, will have effective powers, metaphorical strength so that the stones may again become images” (1980: 324). Lezama alludes at the end of this quote to one of the Incaic myths recounted by Garcilaso de la Vega, el Inca. He goes on to explain—as I gloss-translate—that in Latin America the Romantic rebellion was not simply a demonic search of the rare, but was closely allied to historical reality, which it simultaneously expressed. The verbal revolt of the great Latin American Romantics, he avers, from Sarmiento to Martí, was consubstantial with their nation-building. In contrast to Europe, where Dante’s monumental poetic creation had no repercussions on subsequent Florentine history, Martí’s poetry acquired substantiality in the Revolution, the poetic image becoming historical reality as a fresh foundation, poetry transformed into a choral chant. He evokes, as another prime example, Simón Rodríguez, who built his independence project on his readings of Garcilaso de la Vega, el Inca, who had himself used as the beginning of his Comentarios reales (1609) myths about the founding of Tahuantinsuyu. This consubstantiality of poetry with history, history as fulfilled poetic prophecy is a kind of writing, a new gospel, that the chasm of American history demanded: a modern poetics of history.
Arenas, Reynaldo 1969. El mundo alucinante. México: Diógenes. English translation by Gordon Brotherson, Hallucinations: Being an account of the life and adventures of Friar Servando Teresa de Mier (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).
Benítez Rojo, Antonio 1985. El mar de las lentejas. La Habana: Editorial Letras Cubanas. English translation by James Maraniss, Sea of lentils (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990).
Borges, Jorge Luis 1953. “Prólogo,” La invención de Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 11–15.
Carpentier, Alejo 1946. La música en Cuba. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica. The 1972 reprint edition in the Colección Popular of Fondo de Cultura Económica was overseen by Hilario González (personal communication to Malena Kuss, 1982). English translation by Alan West-Durán, Music in Cuba, edited and with an introduction by Timothy Brennan (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).
___________ 1948. “Lo real maravilloso de América,” El Nacional (Caracas, April 8): 8.
___________ 1949. El reino de este mundo. México: Edición y Distribución Iberoamericana de Publicaciones. English translation by Harriet de Onís, The kingdom of this world (New York: Knopf, 1957).
___________ 1953. Los pasos perdidos. México: Edición y Distribución Iberoamericana de Publicaciones. English translation by Harriet de Onís, The lost steps, 2nd ed. (New York: Knopf, 1971). Critical edition, edited and with an introduction by Roberto González Echevarría, Los pasos perdidos (Madrid: Cátedra, 1985).
___________ 1958. Guerra del tiempo. México: Cía General de Ediciones. English translation by Frances Partridge, War of time (New York: Knopf, 1970).
___________ 1962. El siglo de las luces. México: Cía General de Ediciones. English translation by John Sturrock, Explosion in a cathedral (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1962).
___________ 1974. Concierto barroco. México: Siglo Veintiuno Editores. English translation by Asa Zatz, Concierto barroco (Tulsa, Oklahoma: Council Oaks Books / Hecate, with the University of Tulsa, 1988).
___________ 1974. El recurso del método. México: Siglo Veintiuno Editores. English translation by Frances Partridge, Reasons of state (New York: Knopf, 1976).
___________ 1979. El arpa y la sombra. México: Siglo Veintiuno Editores. English translation by Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen, The harp and the shadow (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1990).
Casas, Bartolomé de las 1552 in 1982. Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, ed. by André Saint-Lu. Madrid: Cátedra.
Fuentes, Carlos 1975. Terra nostra. México: J. Mortiz. English translation by Margaret Sayers Peden, Terra nostra (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1976).
García Márquez, Gabriel 1967. Cien años de soledad. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana. English translation by Gregory Rabassa, One hundred years of solitude (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).
___________ 1982. “La soledad de América Latina,” El Mundo (December 12): 21-C. English translation, “The solitude of Latin America: Nobel Address 1982” in Gabriel García Márquez: New readings, ed. by Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 207–11.
___________ 1989. El general en su laberinto. Madrid: Mondadori España. English translation by Edith Grossman, The general in his labyrinth (New York: Knopf, 1990).
Gilman, Stephen 1961. “Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Amadís de Gaula,” Studia philologica: Homenaje ofrecido a Dámaso Alonso. Madrid: Gredos, 99–114.
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González Echevarría, Roberto 1977. Alejo Carpentier: The pilgrim at home. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. Revised and expanded paperback edition (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990); Spanish edition, Alejo Carpentier: El peregrino en su patria (México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1993).
___________ 1990. Myth and archive: A theory of Latin American narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Spanish translation by Virginia Aguirre Muñoz, Mito y archivo: Una teoría de la narrativa latinoamericana (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1998).
___________ 1993. Celestina’s brood: Continuities of the baroque in Spanish and Latin American literature. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
González Echevarría, Roberto, ed. 1997. The Oxford book of Latin American short stories. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Heidegger, Martin 1927. Sein und Zeit. Halle: M. Niemeyer. Spanish translation by José Gaos, El ser y el tiempo (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1951). English translation by Joan Stambaugh, Being and time (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996).
Lezama Lima, José 1972. “Imagen de América Latina,” América latina en su literatura, edited and with an introduction by César Fernández Moreno. México: siglo xxi editores—UNESCO, 462–68. English edition edited by Ivan A. Schulman, “Image of Latin America,” Latin America in its literature, under the general editorship of César Fernández Moreno, and Julio Ortega, assistant editor (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1980), 321–27.
Neruda, Pablo 1950. Canto general. México: Ediciones Océano. English translation by Jack Schmitt, Canto general (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
Paz, Octavio 1969. “A literature of foundations,” The tri-quarterly anthology of Latin American literature, ed. by José Donoso and William A. Henkin. New York: Dutton, 2–9.
Roa Bastos, Augusto 1974. Yo el Supremo. Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno Editores. English translation by Helen Lane, I, the Supreme (New York: Knopf, 1986).
Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino 1845. Civilización i barbarie: Vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga, aspecto físico, costumbres i ábitos de la República Argentina. Santiago: El Progreso. First English edition, Facundo: Life in the Argentine Republic in the days of the tyrants, or, civilization and barbarism (New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1868).
Spengler, Oswald 1920. Der Untergang des Abendlandes. München: C.H. Beck. Spanish translation by Manuel García Morente, La decadencia de Occidente (Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1923).
Vargas Llosa, Mario 1981. La guerra del fin del mundo. Barcelona: Seix Barral. English translation by Helen Lane, The war of the end of the world (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1984).
Vasconcelos, José 1925 in 1948. La raza cósmica. México: Espasa-Calpe Mexicana. English translation by Didier T. Jaen, The cosmic race: A bilingual edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).