Tuesday, April 17, 2012


© Farouk Asvat  

# Pablo Neruda  
# Carlos Fuentes  
# Gabriel García Márquez  

     "Every Latin American writer goes around dragging a heavy body, the body of his people, of his past, of his national history," Pablo Neruda once said.  

     It is a statement pertinent to our own situation, for the wonder, scope and sadness of Latin American literature reflects so much of our own anguish and quest.  

     From Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias' fantasy-filled The Mulatta And Mister Fly, who, lusting after fabulous riches, bargains with the corn demon, appears at mass with his fly unbuttoned, mortgages his soul, sacrificing his wife to marry the beautiful, bisexual Mulatta, mysterious as the moon; through Brazilian Jorge Amado's cinnamon-coloured, clove­smelling Gabriela, indifferent to political intrigues and materialism; to Cuban Alejo Carpentier's Explosion In A Cathedral; and Mario Vargas Llosa's deceptively light-hearted, haunting portrait, Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter, that transforms the vagaries of youth into a daring, multilayered novel about love and art beneath the drizzle and mists of Lima; to Mexican poet Octavio Paz's task of making delicate and exact literal statements of consciousness; and Argentine Jorge Luis Borges' metaphysical teasers of mathematical style, in a new world where objects assume shapes to please the beholder - and his unforgettable exercises in the art of astonishment; to Brazilian Julio Cortázar's bedazzling Hopscotch which undermines conventional notions of time, place and character; and Chilean José Donoso's hallucinatory observations in Obscene Bird Of Night; to Guillermo Cabrera Infante's history of Cuba from Columbus to Castro in Three Trapped Tigers, where memory splits the images, and works the magnifications, producing prose pratfalls, cross-cuttings of parody, and boozy interior monologues; through to Brazil's Márcio Souza's bawdy epic tale of The Emperor Of The Amazon, an exuberant latter­day conquistador, who becomes a revolutionary leader in the shadows of a diamond-studded opera house, voyaging with his three mistresses into the heart of the rubber kingdom - Latin American literature has an extraordinary vitality.  

     Out of the turmoils of South America have come works of art which challenge the imagination, showing us new relationships between psychic drives and social reality, attempting to create a cultural identity, with everything to write about, giving voice to all that has been silenced by four centuries of history: an epic surge encompassing a phenomenal array of social and historical perspectives.  

     The genre is filled with Márquez's problem that "Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination," in spite of Neruda's caution: "God help me from inventing when I sing."  

     Caught in the tension of illusory realism, because the realism of these novels is illusory, inaugurating realism by casting doubt on reality, using this illusory realism which is extremely real, because it takes place in the mind, Latin American literature is a reality not of paper, but one that lives within the writers (and the readers), nourishing a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty.  

     Faced with provincialism, political suppression and foreign influences that threatened to drown out their own voices, Pablo Neruda from Chile, Carlos Fuentes from Mexico and Gabriel García Márquez from Colombia have nevertheless come out with magic, fiction with a new dimension; a fabulous diversity inspiring a flowering of unconventional expression.  

     By using their magnificent ability to combine images and words in a fantastic realm, and their active involvement in the social consciousness of their people, they have created a world of apparent wonder firmly established in the realities of their lives.  

     And here we thank the couriers of culture, Nathaniel Tarn and Gregory Rabassa, among others, who by deciphering the Hispanic writers' verbal gymnastics, have given life to us in a foreign literature and culture, by transforming the translations themselves into works of art.  


     "I have never thought of my life as divided between poetry and politics," Pablo Neruda once said.  "I have never been in with those in power and have always felt that my vocation and my duty was to serve the Chilean people in my actions and with my poetry.  I have lived singing and defending them."  

     Neruda regarded poetry not as an elite pursuit but as a statement of human solidarity addressed to the ordinary people.  

     A prolific writer, with more than 40 anthologies to his credit, Neruda had the "protean ability to be always in the vanguard of change," periodically shedding his poetic skin to assume new forms.  

     From the vitality of his youthful love poetry, to the dislocation and isolation expressed in poems written during his years as consul in the East, to the odes that pay homage to the people and objects of daily living, to the nature poems of the birds and stones of Chile - in subject, form, tone, language and imagery, Neruda's poems contain astonishing riches, bound by a coherent vision of man and the universe, a socialist vision of unalienated man, working towards justice on earth.  

     Neruda put eyes and tongues into every inanimate object, breaking the wall of silence around crystal, wood and stone, desiring a poetry that would strive after a knowledge without antecedents.  Neruda's sensibility to nature is unique, but he encompassed a political consciousness which made him the poet laureate of the masses, a public poet who addressed himself to the community not simply as an individual but as their voice; giving substance to his prophecy, providing the key to his deciphering of the universe, enabling him to stand up, and assume a prophetic role.  

     Twenty Love Poems And A Song Of Despair is familiar to South Americans the way proverbs and popular songs are.  Espousing the vitality of his youthful love, they are poems of discovery, an adolescent's confrontation of woman and the universe.  The women merge into nature, metamorphosed into earth or mist, with the poet as interrogator and explorer:  

     Every day you play with the light of the universe.
     Subtle visitor, you arrive in the flower and the water.
     Who writes your name in letters of smoke among the stars of the south?  

     Serving as a diplomat in Rangoon, cut off from spoken Spanish, and lonely to the point of desperation, he transformed his isolation into poetry as Residence On Earth.  Here his dialogue was with a dying universe, where men and objects became opaque and unresponsive.  Neruda would later consider them aberrant, but Julio Cortázar has defended them eloquently; and in fact they are probably nearer the mood of our age than anything he wrote since, for he suggests that man, a recent invention, is destined to disappear; and whatever laws exist in the universe, they are not human ones.  Yet even as he fails to envisage anything grander than a futile individual existence, he repudiates his trivial destiny:  

     I do not want to be the inheritor of so many misfortunes.
     I do not want to continue as a root and as a tomb,
     as a solitary tunnel, as a cellar full of corpses,
     stiff with cold, dying with pain.  

     There is then a kind of resurrection in his poetry.  In Spain as consul, Neruda found himself in a community of poets who had a sense of relationship with the people: Rafael Alberti (whose home was later destroyed by Fascists), and Federico García Lorca (who was assassinated soon after the outbreak of the Civil War):  

     And one morning all that was burning,
     one morning the bonfires
     leapt out of the earth
     devouring human beings -
     and from then on fire,
     gunpowder from then on,
     and from then on blood.
     Bandits with planes and Moors,
     bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
     bandits with black friars spattering blessings
     came through the sky to kill children
     and the blood of children ran through the streets
     without fuss, like children‘s blood.

     Jackals that the jackals would despise,
     stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
     vipers that the vipers would abominate!

     Face to face with you I have seen the blood
     of Spain tower like a tide
     to drown you in one wave
     of pride and knives!

     see my dead house,
     look at broken Spain:
     from every house burning metal flows
     instead of flowers,
     from every socket of Spain
     Spain emerges
     and from every dead child a rifle with eyes,
     and from every crime bullets are born
     which will one day find
     the bull's eye of your hearts.

     And you will ask: why doesn't his poetry
     speak of dreams and leaves
     and the great volcanoes of his native land?

     Come and see the blood in the streets.
     Come and see
     the blood in the streets.
     Come and see the blood
     in the streets!  

     With Spain In My Heart Neruda discovered the power of "great speech," for the poems are unmistakably addressed to an audience Neruda both addresses and accuses.  

     This sense of a public became more specific as he began to conceive the Chilean epic that would become the Canto General.  During the twelve years of its composition Neruda began regarding his poetry not as an elite pursuit, but as a statement of human solidarity addressed to the ordinary people.  In the supreme voice of the Canto General, Pablo Neruda unfolds the secret patterns of nature and history, revealing the true story of the Americas, explaining their geography, and the oppression by conquerors and dictators.  

     He began to read his poetry at trade union meetings and political rallies.  Threatened with arrest under Videla for his famous "I accuse" speech, Neruda went into hiding, sheltered by workers and country people, sharing the homes of the people for whom his poetry was intended.  This contributed to the final form of the Canto General, in which, without resorting to the language of daily life, he uses the heightened form of speech used in oratory, ceremony and invective.  Throughout Neruda is the mediator, he who hears the voice of nature and history, he who deciphers the enigma of stones, rivers and forests.  

     This addressing of nature and history, to penetrate their occult significance, recurs in each section of Canto General, but nowhere more powerfully than in The Heights Of Macchu Picchu, a poem of epic proportions, tracing the history of South America and evoking the grandeur of its landscapes.  Meditating on the Inca fortress which for centuries lay hidden in the Andean mountains, and on its vast mysterious structures, Neruda brings the past to life and makes the stones speak of those who laboured to build them.  

     But Canto General also re-enacts that important moment of genesis when consciousness emerged from darkness, going back time and again to that step, both in his own life, and to the remote past when men first separated their destiny from the cycle of nature, and came to the realization that man and woman are the true gods of their own destiny.  

     Using invective and insult, the curses fall on the exploiters of Chile, on tyrants and dictators, on "celestial poets," so that these ritual insults, like those of the ancient warriors, are destined to lead to a reversal of fortune: the dead to be born again, the exploiters silenced and destroyed.  

     Neruda then became increasingly preoccupied with clarity, with the communication of his poetry to a non­literary public.  Elemental Odes marks a development towards a poetry intended to be as natural as song, wishing to suggest an art as close as possible to life.  The odes are a homage to daily living, to ordinary people and objects: they celebrate bread, wood, tomatoes, weather, clothes, without the horror of the banal.  He wrote of those whose work involves the handling of primary materials, restoring a sense of the wholesomeness to work.  

     Unlike many contemporary writers whose distrust of language reduces them to silence, Neruda not only regards the word as a communion vessel with the past but also as the giver of life:  

     … the word fills with meaning,
     It remained gravid and it filled up with lives.
     Everything had to do with birth and sounds -
     the verb took over all the power
     and blended existence with essence
     in the electricity of its beauty.  

     Though Pablo Neruda viewed poetry as a social act, this by no means limited his range, and a vast amount of his poetry is autobiographical.  But he has also resorted to the mythical and the fabulous, as in some of the poems in Extravagario, where he declared that he did not want to name things, but to "mix them up."  And there was an astonishing revival of love poetry in The Captain's Verse, a tribute to his second wife, to whom he also addressed One Hundred Sonnets Of Love.  

     Neruda's poetry underwent a further metamorphosis, as he began to write more and more intensely of nature, the ocean, of his house.  After so many wanderings, the traveller appeared to come to rest, to come into an almost religious communion with the natural world.  He published collections of poems on the birds of Chile, on its stones, on his house, and drew up an inventory of his life in poetry.  It is as if on a shrinking planet, Neruda wished to restore a sense of wonder, of the sacredness of the natural world.  

     Though he did not stop writing political and historical poetry, in this too there was a sense of returning to essences, to his origins, as in Ceremonial Songs.  

     In Watersong he again takes stock of his life, speaking of his wanderings, his political involvement, his personal happiness, and death:  

     It is time, love, to break off that sombre rose,
     shut up the stars and bury the ash in the earth;
     and, in the rising of the light, wake with those who awoke
     or go on in the dream, reaching the other shore of the sea which has no other shore.  

     But Neruda's life and poetry continued, taking new directions.  He published a musical play, dealing with a Californian folk hero supposedly of Chilean origin, and wrote a myth poem on the genesis of human progress.  

     With Incitement To Nixonicide And Celebration Of The Chilean Revolution he had recourse to "the most ancient weapons of poetry" - the song and the broad sheet which had been used by both classical and romantic poets against the enemy.  In spite of its title, it is one of the most consciously literary of his collections, rich in references to Whitman, Quevedo and Zúñiga.  

     With the election of Allende to the presidency in 1970, Chile had taken a decisive step towards a socialism the poet believed in.  He was appointed ambassador to Paris; and received the Nobel Prize for Poetry in 1971.  

     But he was a sick man now, and returned to Isla Nigra, believing he had earned his retirement to "winter quarters."  He found himself, instead, in a country on the verge of civil war.  "This is a heart-rending moment for Chile," he declared, "it invades my study and there is no option but to go on participating in this great struggle."  Long experience of Chilean politics made him singularly aware of the imminence of the tragic confrontation.  He went on to describe his homeland as a "silent Viet Nam without bombs or gunfire."  As he lay mortally sick, the army and navy rebelled, the palace was bombed, and Allende killed.  Neruda had lived long enough to see the results of half a century of struggle liquidated.  He died on 23 September 1973; and his funeral became the first public demonstration against the military government.  

     The poets thus established the language for the novelists: without Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Vicente Huidobro, Gabriela Mistral and José Martí there would perhaps be no Latin American novel, or one that would definitely be very different.  

     Latin America is the only place where the novel is really alive: a cultural zone where people feel that things have to be said, and if the writer does not say them, nobody will - creating a tremendous responsibility for the writer.  

     Latin American writers, especially Carlos Fuentes, have revolutionized the concept of linear time.  Their breaking up of time, their refusal to accept the singular concept of linear time imposed by the West, coincides profoundly with the Indian religious sense of circular time, time as a spiral, and also the everyday experience that times coexist.  


     Carlos Fuentes, a "chameleon" among his Latin American contemporaries, having eight novels and a collection of short stories to his credit, is also a distinguished essayist, dramatist, and political pamphleteer.  

     "We have to assimilate the enormous weight of our past so we will not forget what gives us life," he says - a past that was silent, that was dead, that had to be brought alive through language.  Fuentes sees the Latin American writers' need to atone for four centuries of silence; and using the history of Mexico, something dreamed and imagined, he has utilized writing to establish an identity with his country.  

     He startled Mexico with Where The Air Is Clear, a caustic analysis of Mexico after the 1910-20 revolution.  A biography of Mexico City, it is a reflection of the many ancient strands of imaginary and historical life in the city, with its baroque essence, its breakdown of barriers, its overflow of cultures.  

     The Death Of Artemio Cruz is an exploration of one man's odyssey, simultaneously creating a vivid and haunting kaleidoscope of a country's history -: a novel of voices, it is about the death of life.  As Artemio Cruz, self-made tycoon of the new Mexico lies dying, memories struggle thickly to the surface: his youthful allegiance to the Revolution; his murdered first love; his wife who always hated him; his adored son who died in the Spanish Civil war; his own ruthless pursuit of wealth and manipulation of power. 

     Holy Place traces the Oedipal meanderings of a young man; while The Hydra Head studies the nature of power - a recurrent theme with Latin American novelists.  

     A Change Of Skin is a book as intricately designed as ceremonial brocade, a fascinating elegy for a dead world, with that unmistakable authority of creation on the most committed and personal level.  Four people on a desultory, self-searching pilgrimage from Mexico City to Vera Cruz for Holy Week, spend a night in Cholula, the former pantheon city of old Mexico and theatre of an Aztec bloodletting.  In the leisure of the long hot night, they interchange passion and confession, revealing to themselves and to each other the suppressed truths of many years.  

     Terra Nostra is an extraordinary novel that fuses fact and fiction, past and future into one continuum.  Centering on Felipe El Señor (Philip II of Spain) chronological time and conventional history are abolished as Felipe builds El Escorial, marries England's Elizabeth Tudor and witnesses the discovery of the New World.  Entwining the miraculous and the fantastic with the grim and grotesque, Terra Nostra stands as a work of sustained allegory and imagination that encapsulates both the ‘New’ World's future and the decay of Spanish glory.  Taking place between June 1999 and December 1999, its primary concern is the past, exploring the fatal sin in Philip II's maniacal search for purity and orthodoxy.  It is "a whacking great affirmation of fiction as the only proper vehicle for poetry, speculation, prophecy, surmise, heroic optimism and most of the more worthwhile human preoccupations."  It is also an awesome and cruel look at western civilization.  

     Distant Relations is "a ghost story about the ghost of literature:" stretching imagination and intelligence, it leaves you dreaming its magic landscapes and interiors.  A dazzling display of literary pyrotechnics, it is richly imaginative and profoundly humane.  The ability of Fuentes to fascinate, battle and provoke, makes him "one of the mandarin magicians of literature."  As the afternoon draws on at a club in France, the Comte de Branly, old as the century, relates his experiences to his younger friend.  Dreams, reality and dim recollections are interwoven and suffused with haunting melodies, magic landscapes and lost childhood scenes.  It is an exquisite tale of corruption and illusion, of the relationship between the ‘Old’ World and the ‘New’. 

     The short stories in Burnt Water are set in an imaginary apartment in Mexico City, where Artemio Cruz lives in splendour in the penthouse, descending (or ascending?) with a cast of characters, to Aura the witch in the basement.  

     Presently writing Cristobal Nonato, a novel that takes place on the five hundredth anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of the ‘New’ world, it is a gloomy projection wondering what Mexico will be like as Mexicans take stock of being ‘discovered’ by Europeans five centuries ago.  The story is told by an unborn child, as the city drowns in faeces.  

     Every word of Fuentes' novels seem to resound into the past as well as the future: there is a ghost on every page, with every character.  He has a mythical vision of the Mexican culture, and the Mexico City of his dreams and nightmares.  

     Carlos Fuentes says that as writers "We have the privilege of speech in societies where it is rare to have that privilege.  We speak for others... "  But he equally warns: "Nothing kills a man as much as having to represent his country."  


     "A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it," Gabriel García Márquez says, as long as there is a literary and political responsibility behind it.  

     An unaffiliated socialist, he is a firm supporter of the Sandanista government, and a close friend of Cuba.  But Márquez is also "a retailer of wonders," and the Nobel Prize awarded him in 1982 merely confirmed his reshaping of Latin American literature.  

     Born in the small declining town of Aracataca in Colombia, his childhood impressions of the heat, decadence and isolation affected his life and his writings.  "Journalism taught me ways of lending my stories authenticity," Márquez says of his other occupation, insisting "there's not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality.  The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination."  His grandmother was the greatest influence on his long apprenticeship.  The tone for One Hundred Years Of Solitude "was based on the way my grandmother used to tell her stories."  …"She used to tell me about the most atrocious things without turning a hair, as if it was something she'd just seen.  ... it was her impassive manner and her wealth of images that made her stories so credible."  But he also says that one cannot escape from having to "face and write about the political reality of the country."  

     So that moral centres of gravity are located in most of Márquez's works; even though they are frequently praised for their fantasy and elegiac tone at the expense of their social realism, because he describes seemingly fantastic events in such minute detail that it gives them their own reality.  

     Leaf Storm, a collection of mostly fables, is "a celebration of the myth-making process."  With enormous gifts of narrative, wit and irony, with exact and subtle prose, Márquez easily leaps into the comical and exuberant.  

     Leaf Storm itself is a hypnotic, mysterious tale, a wonderful story about a week-long South American rainstorm.  And there is also a delicious fable of a tatty angel who crash-lands in a village and is kept in a hencoop. 

     In No One Writes To The Colonel Márquez evokes the different kinds of despair which bind the members of a small South American community.  There is a dreadful sense of heat and rot in all these stories, and helpless hopelessness hangs like a cloud over all of them.  Márquez conveys this without comment and with splendidly few adjectives: character and situation are revealed by dialogue and small details of action.  

     In the title story the Colonel expectantly waits for his war pension: "It was supposed to come today for sure," he laments.  The postman shrugs: "The only thing that comes for sure is death, Colonel."  

     And One Of These Days is a masterpiece of understatement in political revenge.  

     The collection is a masterly picture of despair and optimism whose vivid alternations seem to characterise so much of Latin American life.  Márquez has insights and sympathies which he can project with the intensity of a reflecting mirror in a bright sun.  The stories are rich and full of incident and the dignity of men and women who have little else left.  

     Innocent Eréndira is another collection of short stories: in a world of lonely itinerants and haunting desert landscapes, Márquez once again leaves an ineffaceable impression of magic, mystery and mastery.  

     The Incredible And Sad Tale Of Innocent Eréndira And Her Heartless Grandmother takes up a theme mentioned in passing in One Hundred Years Of Solitude - the tale of a young girl who accidentally burns down her grandmother’s house, and is forced into a life of prostitution and slavery to repay her debt.  

     One Hundred Years Of Solitude is an outlandish, exuberant chronicle of a tragicomically doomed family, that was hailed as an epic and a metaphor for the isolation and terrible realities of Latin America.  This phantasmagorical novel is a modern parable told without moralizing: its genius lies not only in making us laugh at the human predicament, but making us laugh in sympathy.  

     A band of adventurers establish a town in the heart of the South American jungle, marking the occasion of the beginning, the world, a great family, of a century of extraordinary events, and of a quite extraordinary novel.  

     From the moment Melquiades the gipsy walks into the jungle settlement of Macondo - the village-universe of the novel - nothing is ever the same again.  Melquiades, an appealing serpent, brings to this protected Eden knowledge and the tools of discovery.  With them the patriarch José Arcadia Buendía painstakingly re-invents man's seminal discoveries.  The only time Ursula, his wife, loses patience with him is when he re-discovers that the world is round like an orange.  

     But José Arcadia Buendía's primitive laboratory contains the seeds of destruction, bringing down war, pestilence and other sorrows upon his many descendents.  Only Ursula remains uncorrupted, a touchstone of reality in a world of shifting standards.  In prosperity or decay, Macondo is the centre around which giant events slowly revolve.  Founded in an age of miracle and innocence, corrupted by civil wars and banana fevers, "the extraordinary fuses, in all innocence, with the common-place:" small-town gossip, and the superstitious rites surrounding birth, puberty, marriage and death go on, while a woman sails to heaven on a laundry sheet, a priest levitates after drinking hot chocolate, and a baby is born with a pig's tail.  

     With its sweeping and chaotic brilliance, often more poetry than prose, it is one vast musical saga.  It is a classic on the grandest scale: an immensely rich piece of writing, dense as the jungle foliage, packed with learned allusions, action and humour, full of incidents to enjoy and philosophies to wonder at.  The dazzling novel is an experience of incomparable richness, and Márquez is a spellbinder.  One emerges from it as if from a dream, the mind on fire.  Márquez's appetite is as enormous as his imagination, his fatalism greater than almost any other writer.  

     The Autumn Of The Patriarch is a dreamlike portrayal of the decay and loneliness of a despot.  A fictional investigation of solitude and its relationship to power, it is an extraordinary experience: resonant, angry and spellbinding.  It confirms Márquez as a masterweaver of the real and the conjectured.  The novel, more poetry than prose, is mesmeric, ornate and horrifying, a magnificat to the harsh Latin American reality.  It is also rich, brilliant, macabre , and funny.  It makes most modern day novelists look anaemic.  

     In the presidential palace of an anonymous Latin American country lies the rotting corpse of a dictator.  For as long as his suffering people can remember, the Patriarch has held them in the grip of his limitless power and awesome cruelty.  He has been both the creator of myths and the subject of them.  Now, as the vultures and the worms feast on his remains, the process of demythologising begins, the memories of those who loved him and of those who hated him combining in a rich and complex patchwork of narrative to provide a memorable portrait of a memorably evil tyrant.  

     In Evil Hour has the air of being not just about one specific bad time but about all times when doubt, secrets, corruption, double-dealing and guilt come to a head like a boil, and burst in a shower of blood and pus.  A masterly book, it is nevertheless exceptionally fast-moving and rich in wit and humanity.  But underlying the marvelous wit, the inimitable humour and the superbly paced dialogue, there is the author's own anger, always controlled, but bitterly contemptuous of the political exigencies which make for injustice and corruption.  Yet alongside the most savage ironies, there are felicities of description which suggest great warmth and compassion.  

     The people of the nameless small town in the nameless South American republic face, as usual, a dripping, sweaty autumn.  The heat is unbearable, the rain falls in torrents, the mice are eating the church foundations, the people groan under the yoke of a faraway dictatorship.  In this miserable land nothing changes except governments - and governments change, frequently and bloodily.

     In Chronicle Of A Death Foretold Márquez mixes imagination and fact into a suspenseful novella of honour and revenge in a Colombian town.  Aware that there can be as much suspense in foreknowledge as in the unknown - one already knows the fate of the victim in the first sentence - fiction feeds on fact and fact and fate bite back.  

     A shadowy, almost anonymous narrator visits the scene of the killing many years later, and begins an investigation into the past, trying to establish what happened and why, achieving only provisional answers: but slowly, painfully, through the mists of half-accurate memories, the equivocations of the inhabitants and the contradictory recollections of the witnesses a picture emerges of warnings withheld and paths failing to cross - so leading to the avoidable, inevitable murder.

     A fable of that madness which only an obscure principle can produce, the book is a tour de force of moral and emotional complexity.  A mesmerizing and haunting work on the intractability of destiny, it is also Márquez's most understated, despairing and memorable statement on the theme of powerlessness yet.  What really fascinates us is the leisurely, almost desultory artistry with which Márquez extends an incident into an event: turning a simple tale into pure art - its hesitancy and uncertainties becoming its source of strength. 


     Fiction is the artifice of transforming old realities into new ones.  As writers and artists we have to create a new reality, not simply mirror a reality.  "I don't think literature can content itself with being either a mask or a mirror of reality.  I think literature creates reality or it is not literature at all."  

     Like Latin American writers we have a double culture, one indigenous, the other external: both Western, and that brought by the slaves and indentured labourers.  We have to learn these cultures, and like Latin Americans we also have to appropriate writers of other traditions in order to fill the void.  

     Like South Americans we live in a continent where the novel is a recent development, where many things have been left unsaid.  We have largely an oral culture to fall back on, but without that tradition there can be no creation.  When we sit down to write, we must feel the whole of our tradition in our bones; it must be a tradition that extends from Homer to Soyinka; Shakespeare to oral poetry; from Mishima to Márquez; from Khoi-Khoi paintings to Pablo Picasso; from warriors to guerillas.  

     Western culture often portrays a selective history of its past - constantly projecting a fashionable present and an unattainable future of its own creation for the rest of us.  And all of Latin America, Africa and Asia have been fooled by this illusion of progress.  Our political life is fragmented, our history filled with failure, so that all we have is our rich cultural tradition (if we will only seek it) - and the hope that lives in our hearts.  For the time is at hand when we must look at our own faces, our own past: look into our own reflections, and look at these masks we have created.  

     But unfortunately there is little for us here in Azania to go on; we have no historians; few records of traditional songs; a written literature that is nascent, going back less than a century.  And the challenges that confront us are many.  And that is the challenge I put before you today.  Myths are a tradition, myths breathe, and we have to create our own myths based entirely on the truth, for myths nourish the epics, the tragedies, and even the melodramas.  

     We have to decipher the environment, to separate the essential elements of a poetic synthesis from an environment we know all too well.  And we have to learn the craft of writing: the laborious techniques of moulding words and sentences.  "To find probabilities out of real facts is the work of the journalist and the novelist, and it is also the work of the prophet."  

     Writers are pretty powerful, because people eventually come to believe their writers more than their politicians; because the function of the true artist has always been to be the keeper of the truth.  It is a most harrowing task; with a great sense of responsibility.  

     And unfortunately "many writers who think of themselves as politically committed feel obligated to write stories not about what they want, but about what they think they should want, making for a certain type of calculated literature that doesn't have anything to do with experience or intuition."  

     And so to end, with Márquez, a statement pertinent to all the favourite arguments bandied about here: "I have a great many reservations about what came in Latin America to be called ‘committed literature,’ … the novel of social protest …  This is mainly because I think its limited view of the world and life does not help achieve anything in political terms.  Far from accelerating any process of raising consciousness, it actually slows it down.  Latin Americans expect more from a novel than an exposé of the oppression and injustice they know all too well.  Many of my militant friends who so often feel the need to dictate to writers what they should or should not write are, unconsciously perhaps, taking a reactionary stance inasmuch as they are imposing restrictions on creative freedom.  I believe a novel about love is as valid as any other.  When it comes down to it, the writer's duty - his revolutionary duty if you like - is to write well." 

© farouk asvat

composed: 1985 [Johannesburg, South Africa under apartheid]

[] Acknowledgements:

The Sad Splendour Of Latin American Literature was initially presented at:
     the launch of the Writers' Forum, 29 June 1985.

The Sad Splendour Of Latin American Literature was serialized in the Sowetan as:
     Latin American Writers (Sowetan, Argus, p12, 10.06.1987);
     Pablo Neruda, (Sowetan, Argus, p12, 17.06.1987);
     Loss Of The Fruits Of The Struggle [Neruda] (Sowetan, Argus, p27, 24.06.1987);
     Fuentes Brings Back The Past Through Writing (Sowetan, Argus, p?, 01.07.1987);
     Márquez Is A Spellbinder, (Sowetan, Argus, p10, 15.07.1987);
     Gabriel García Márquez (cont.) (Sowetan, Argus, p12, 22.07.1987].

The Sad Splendour Of Latin American Literature was previously published in:
     Weapons of Words (kindle, 2016);
     Weapons of Words (amazon paperback, p28, 2016).

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