(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Latin American literature is filled with narratives that represent the awareness of the physical reality of Latin America and the adoption of an emotional position toward literature. Indeed, the stereotypic caricature of the Latin American narrative, in the eyes of both Latin Americans and their foreign readers, is that of W. H. Hudson (born and reared in Argentina) in Green Mansions (1904) or of reductionist readings of classics such as Ricardo Güiraldes’s Don Segundo Sombra (1926), José Eustasio Rivera’s La vorágine (1923), or Rómulo Gallegos’s Doña Bárbara (1929). At its worst this strain of Latin American literature is a blend of romantic ideals (the Pampas and the Andean highlands) and bizarre exotica (the jungles and feudal oppression). At its best, however, as exemplified in the novels of contemporary masters such as Gabriel García Márquez, Juan Rulfo, Mario Vargas Llosa, Augusto Roa Bastos, and Alejo Carpentier, it represents the attempt to come to grips with the paradoxes and the anomalies of a complex sociocultural tradition that seems to defy its Western roots without really opting out of the modern world nourished by those roots. The fiction of João Guimarães Rosa clearly belongs to this view of Latin America as an unstable amalgam of modern Western myths and a sense of experiential reality as something far richer and more profound than nationalism is capable of recognizing or explaining. Hence there appeared terms such as “Magical Realism” or the “marvelous real” that have been applied to writings exemplified by the aforementioned writers. It is a groping for the much-desired terminological exactitude of academic criticism in the attempt to identify a texture of event and experience in modern Latin American fiction that depends on the reader’s recognizing it as not consonant with the everyday rational description of reality purveyed by official ideologies.

“The Thin Edge of Happiness”

Guimarães Rosa’s “As Margens da Alegria” (“The Thin Edge of Happiness”) is deceptively simple, yet its semiological richness is what makes it so indicative of the sort of fiction described above. Five narrative segments that break up the barely five-page story into microtexts seem to describe no more than a young child’s sadness over realizing that his initial, spontaneous happiness with a newly beheld nature can be so suddenly shattered by the inexorable needs of human society. Taken by an aunt and uncle to visit a new city being carved out of the wilderness (probably the futuristic capital of Brasília, one of the symbols of the mid-twentieth century economic boom of capitalism in Brazil), “the boy” (he remains nameless throughout the story) is thrilled, amazed, and awestruck by the new reality he discovers at the end of a mere two-hour plane trip from his home. This reality includes the hustle and bustle of a veritable frontier city, a big city being built almost overnight by powerful machines, and the lush and seductive flora and fauna of the wilderness literally at his doorstep. Suddenly, however, one of the wondrous creatures he sees, a prancing turkey, is killed for a birthday party. Just as suddenly, the boy is treated to what the adults intend as a marvelous display of the power of the machines being used to carve the new metropolis out of the jungle: A sort of juggernaut machete slashes down a tree so efficaciously that the boy does not even see it fall. One minute it stood in understated beauty, then the...

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