Historical And Critical Perspectives
SOURCE: "Books in Flames: A View of Latin American Literature," in The Antioch Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 141-53.
[Cheuse is an American novelist and critic. In the following essay, he traces the influences and evolution of Latin American literature.]
The flat, swampy, low jungle of the Yucatan peninsula is hot enough even in winter for its inhabitants to live without using fires at night for heating purposes. But in the Mayan city of Mani, eighteen kilometers south of Merida, the state's present capital, in the year 1562, a great fire roared for days outside the walls of a convent newly constructed from the stones of a Mayan temple. Tens of thousands of religious articles and every extant Mayan holy manuscript that the priests, led by Bishop Diego de Landa, could find in the territory fed the flames in a book-burning that was much more devastating than those we have seen in films of the Nazi period in Europe. In the age of mechanical reproduction, book burning is a symbolic act. In sixteenth-century Mexico, the priests attempted to destroy an entire culture, the mind of a people, their past, their present, and their future. Nothing was more dangerous to the conquering theologians than the beautiful designs and colors of the Mayan hieroglyphic narratives. For several times a year, as Diego de Landa himself writes in his account of the Mayan culture he worked for decades to destroy,
The priests would take out the books and extend them on cool foliage they had for this purpose… while they diluted a bit of verdigris in a glass with virgin water that they asserted was brought from the mountain where no woman treads, and they would anoint the wooden covers of the books with it… and the most learned of the priests would open a book and look at the omens for that year and make them known to those present.
These holy books, with their stately processions and knotted groups of kings and warriors, books of virgin water and succoring foliage, were painted in profound blues, rich golds, deep greens, and earthy reds, on both sides of thin sheets of pounded bark of the indigenous fig tree, and finished with a layer of calcium carbonate obtained from local rocks. Of their actual content, we still know quite little. "Of five apparent distinct varieties of pictowriting, the first treated years and times, the second days and festivals, the third dreams, delusions, vanities, and omens, the fourth baptism and the naming of children, and the fifth rites and ceremonies related to marriage." As the Mexican art historian María Sten describes it, the content of the manuscripts gave the Mayas an entire world.
It was not merely the content of the books which the priests destroyed. To the Mayans, the act of painting the narratives was holy in itself. As the legend has it, Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent of the Mexican pantheon, came to the Yucatan, in the form of the deity Kukulkan, and before anything else taught the Mayan people how to create the painted books. In this tropical territory, fire remained secondary in importance to the act of creating narratives. The coolness of an orderly universe stood first in importance. To combat the serpent god's invention, the priests plunged the books into the flames.
The discovery of America was thus not an act of uncovering a continent unknown to cultured human beings. As the Colombian historian German Arcieniegas has written, it was not so much an act of descubriemiento as of cubriemiento, not a discovery but a covering over, the burial of a great culture by the agents of another. For more than two centuries, the Spanish criollo ruling class bricked over indigenous Indian folkways, supplying the American continent with an imported theology in exchange for a stage where Spain, undergoing tumultuous social change from within and military and political defeat without, might continue to reenact the tattered glories of its pre-Armada past.
However, colonial rule across oceans can only work well for the mother country if the imagination of the colony remains in its thrall. Ironically, the very allegiance to the traditions and mores of Spain which kept Spanish America in harness for several centuries produced the conditions which led to the burgeoning New World movements. In the eighteenth century, the Latin American ruling class, true to its sense of itself as a European-oriented group, opened wide its arms to the methods of European science, technology, and educational methods. Rationalism and liberalism took hold among an increasingly enlightened young generation and congress with Spain led to congress with Europe as well, a Rousseau-ist Europe in which man was everywhere throwing off his unnatural bondage to monarchy. In the wake of Bolívar's revolutions there emerged a group of independent Latin nations no longer enslaved by European imperialism. Now, however, they freely chose a way of life that was essentially European in nature. While the Indians toiled on, Madrid and Paris became centers of liberalism and bastions of middle-class hegemony, and served as the intellectual capitals of the newly independent American countries ruled by the criollo landowners and professionals.
In his seminal study of Argentine society, Facundo, or Life in the Days of the Argentinian Tyrants, author and statesman Dominigo Sarmiento describes the events of his nation's history as a struggle between the forces of civilization and barbarism. This analysis grew out of his understanding of the early period of Argentine post-Independence politics and the battles that raged between the educated creoles of Buenos Aires and the ragged, rugged uneducated cowboy armies of the countryside which from time to time threw up a leader to take over the urban seat of national power. Sarmiento boldly shows his sympathy for the European-oriented ruling group of the city. He never doubts the necessity for struggling against the rise of dictators from the pampas such as Facundo Quiroga, the figure who stands in his essay for the forces of misrule, anti-democracy, and the destruction of culture. Barbarism represents for him a return to the murder, rampages, and brutal tyranny that obtained during the short period of Facundo's rule.
Yet it also exerts a powerful attraction for the citified, Europeanized Sarmiento. He reserves his finest prose for the description of life among the barbaric gauchos of the pampas. His passages devoted to the skills and talents of the rough-riding gauchos, such as his abilities as a hunter and tracker, horseman, and singer of ballads, present us with a type reminiscent in its mythic stature of our own nineteenth century's Natty Bumpo, the Deerslayer of James Fenimore Cooper. The sections dedicated to the evocation of the landscape, the stage upon which these heroic gauchos ride, strut, sing, and shoot, rival in power and visionary force those of Sarmiento's model, the eighteenth-century French aristocrat Chateaubriand. The vast romantic vista of the pampas becomes a sight worthy of ranking alongside the North American landscapes in Atala and Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales." The line between earth and sky becomes sublimely blurred as indigenous Homers of the plains wander past, singing of victories over the Indians while herding their great droves of cattle from one hazy horizon to the next. Like the first generation of conquerors, Sarmiento seems to admire what he considers most dangerous in indigenous American culture.
The paradox inherent in Sarmiento's work characterizes the next hundred years and more of Latin American literary production. For while it was not true, as he suggested, that all culture in the New World grew from the struggle between the forces of civilization and barbarism, it was evident that those who held the power in the Latin American nations behaved as though it were true. Thus brutal dictatorships arose from time to time throughout the continent, more often again than not in the name of civilization and the European way of life, and creole writers produced slavish imitations of European romantic fiction. As Alejo Carpentier has put it, there was an abundance in this period of novels with the names of women, the foremost example being María by the Colombian Jorge Isaacs. Poetry turned stale, the fragile tranquillity broken now and then by outcries that at last Venezuela had her Virgil or Brazil her Homer (noises akin to our own nineteenth-century proclamations, such as those made by William Cullen Bryant that the U.S. at last had matured to the point where it might make a poetry of its own, with a diction and stress pattern distinct from that of England's). Independence, which came early in the nineteenth century for nations such as Argentina, Venezuela, and Chile, and as late as 1902 for Cuba, did not necessarily mean economic freedom. Certainly it did not mean cultural independence.
For more than a century thereafter, most Latin American novelists applied the techniques of European artists to the materials of their own culture in unashamed imitation. To the ruling practitioners of the time, such models, whether romantic or naturalistic, did not seem "foreign" at all. Since they felt themselves bound to the progress of European culture, these nineteenth-century artists worked as willing slaves to a foreign tradition. The rise of the European regional folkloric novel produced a slight but important turn. Although today most of their works are best left to the specialists, the European writers—Jean Giono, Liam O'Flaherty, Ladislao Raimond—who practiced this sub-genre had a great effect on the first generation of twentieth-century Latin American intellectuals. As Alejo Carpentier, born in 1904, has written of his own encounter with these novels,
In the face of an incredible boredom produced by a day of reading a novel about the customs of Alsatians, I asked myself "Why not do the same to them in Europe with novels about the customs of Cuban peasants or Gauchos or Yucatecans?"
That day, the Cuban novelist asserts, he became the author of Ecue-Yamba-O, his first novel. Written when the author was twenty-five, it grew out of his research into the customs of black Cuban cane-cutters whose lives had been largely ignored by the educated, European-oriented creoles of the cities and large farms.
In similar fashion across Latin America, the Sarmientos of the present day looked beyond the romantic imagery of their predecessors to search out in serious, scientific fashion the facts of the daily life of the large masses of the Indian population of the continent, lives which up until then had been "discovered" only to be covered over by the dominant creoles. The Indians possessed no literature which the curious ethnologists, novelists, poets, and nascent anthropologists might immediately consult. Bishop Diego de Landa had seen to that. But their music, tribal language, work habits, tools, and designs on ceramics or cloth were readily available to the visitors from the urban centers, though most of their ancient cities still lay in vine-covered ruin. This marked the first phase of the true discovery of America by her own inhabitants. Paradoxically, the role of Europe in this major renovation of the Latin American imagination cannot be ignored. To Carpentier, and his Guatemalan contemporary Miguel Angel Asturias, sojourns to the Continent were instrumental in their own personal discoveries of America. What few manuscripts survived the holocaust at Mani in 1562, and the earlier destruction of Montezuma's library in Tenochtitlan when Cortez brought down the pillars of the Aztec empire, could only be found in Paris and Germany. To study the roots of their own culture, these young artists had to study in Europe.
It was in Paris in the 1920s that Carpentier first encountered the manuscripts that would inspire him to return to Cuba and study first-hand the history of his native island. It was in Paris in the 1920s that Asturias first read the Popol-Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche-Maya whose language and imagery would affect his own fiction for nearly fifty years afterward. But while Europe in the 1920s was a place to study in, Europe in the 1930s became a place to flee. As Alfonso Reyes, the Mexican essayist put it, the continent began to disintegrate before the eyes of the world. The clouds gathering over the concentration camps gave notice that the culture of the Conquerors had fallen into a decadence no Aztec priest, hair smeared with blood of sacrificial victims, could ever have imagined. Europe offered no more idols to worship.
Latin American intellectuals, writers, artists, painters, poets, musicians, suddenly found themselves "exiled" in their own countries. Those who had not already turned their eyes toward the arts and traditions of their own population had no other place to turn. In 1945, Carpentier began the composition of his short novel based on the Haitian Revolution led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, El Reino de este Mundo [The Kingdom of this World ] which would dramatize the break between Latin American "magical realist" writers and the European surrealist tradition which had nurtured them. In this same period, parallel with the rise of the continent's first indigenous socialist parties, Asturias published El Senlor Presidente, a ferocious indictment of a Central American dictator in which he employed linguistic and narrative techniques indigenous to Guatemalan Indian narratives. His Hombres de Maiz [Men of Maize] followed shortly thereafter, signalling a break with the naturalist tradition in Latin America. Even the anomalous genius Borges, the eternal cosmopolitan, wrote in his unique "universal" style of city dwellers who dreamed of hand-to-hand combat with murderous gauchos. More than just the rejection of the hegemony of European culture united these men. Like the painters of the Mexican Revolution, Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco, they had finally uncovered their personal connection to the period of the Conquest and found themselves on the other side of the Sarmiento paradigm from civilization in a new world rich with aesthetic possibility and political adventure.
Four hundred years after the burning of the Mayan scriptures, Latin America could once again boast of a literature. Before the end of World War II, the best fiction writers of the continent's first modern generation of intellectuals (specifically, Borges, Carpentier, Asturias, the Brazilian João Guimaraes Rosa, and the Uruguayan Juan Carlos Onetti) had not yet published any of their major work in book form. But between 1944 and 1952, each of them produced at least one novel or collection of short stories which brought his name to the attention of a small but intensely interested national reading public. By the end of the fifties, a second younger group of writers had made its debut, including Julio Cortázar (born in 1914 and thus really a figure who links the two generations) from Argentina, Juan Rulfo in Mexico, Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Colombia, Carlos Fuentes, another Mexican, and the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa.
Taken together, this group forms what critic Luis Harss has definitively proclaimed as the "mainstream" of modern Latin American prose narrative. Although aficionados might wish to add the names of Peruvian novelist José María Arguedas, or the Puerto Rican novelist Pedro Juan Soto, these nine can be viewed as major artists who leaped the boundaries of their individual countries and won international reputation. Asturias, for example, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1967. Carpentier has won several major literary prizes in France and Spain, been applauded both in Moscow and Peking, and had the honor of having his novel Los Pasosperdidos [The Lost Steps] reissued five years after its initial appearance in New York by the same major American publishing house. Pedro Paramo, Juan Rulfo's only novel, a mysterious narrative about life among the dead in a small Mexican village, is currently in print in the same North American edition after twenty years. For a long time, the novels of Carlos Fuentes have rivalled those of Gide and Camus among American college students, but now that the paperback edition of Garcia Marquez' Cien Anlos de Soledad [A Hundred Years of Solitude] has gone into its eleventh printing, it seems that the Colombian writer has no rival on U.S. campuses, not even among the Yankees Vonnegut and Pynchon. Julio Cortizar's novel Rayuela [Hopscotch] wins new converts each day. Less well known are Onetti and Vargas Llosa, but the former's best novel, La Vida Breve [A Brief Life], has just been published in translation here after nearly thirty years of life in Spanish. Front-page reviews of Vargas Llosa's Conversación en la Catedral [Conversation in the Cathedral ] and the growing popularity of the paperback edition of his La Casa Verde [The Green House] suggest that these writers may become as widely known as Fuentes and Garcia Mirquez. Borges, of course, remains as famous as Kafka.
Every generation has its fads, fiction writers both native and foreign, who mean much more at a special moment in the life of a student than they ever will again, and the "marvelous realities" of Garcia Marquez and Carpentier serve that function, I'm sure, in the imagination of some younger readers. But for others, the current bloom in Latin American writing is no mere fad. It is as much a "discovery" for them as it was a "discovery" for those of us who taught some of the books to them, those of us for whom Spanish was once only one language among many foreign tongues, and for that matter a lesser one than any one of a number of European languages. We welcomed the tyranny of European culture and called our education complete. We never burned any books—but we left some important volumes unopened.
Modern Latin American fiction has helped us all to become a bit more civilized and a bit more barbarian. The fruits of an economic system we call "under-developed," it instructs us, paradoxically, in the most sophisticated fashion on the root questions of life. Consider, for example, the Guatemalan masterpiece Hombres de Maiz. The story of the war between the small cultivators of native corn in the Guatemalan countryside and the military forces who work on behalf of economic centralization, the narrative employs local dialects and local mythologies in tandem with Spanish prose and Christian imagery. The strife between the old Indian corn farmers and the new technocrats who manipulate the army becomes a battle for reality itself. Pre-Conquest myth challenges Christian ideology for possession of the reader's imagination, and the seemingly loose development of the plot, with its shifts from one time period to another and from one seemingly unrelated group of characters to the next, becomes emblematic of the practice of nagualismo or the benevolent lycanthropy indigenous to the beliefs of the region (which allows a postman to turn into a coyote and back into a postman again in order to speed along the mails). In this fiction, the leader of the peasant revolt rises again and again in the collective imagination of his followers like the shaman, called the "deer of the seventh fire," whom he has supposedly killed. Each time a cornfield goes up in flames, the Indian guerrilla chief rises in rebellion. Though the North American reader of this difficult but rewarding novel may sometimes feel as he makes his way through the alien territory of Asturias' story as though he were trying to track the evanescent coyote-postman himself, he recognizes that he remains in the hands of a narrative master quite unlike any other he has encountered before. The power and the force of the Popol-Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche-Maya, hovers constantly on the horizon of Asturias' modern-day Guatemalan countryside. The ancient and the modern stamp its pages with a character similar to other recent works of Latin American literature but quite unlike any outside of the region.
The fusion of ancient mysteries and contemporary political struggle, the yoking of the disparate polarities of Latin American culture since the Conquest into a single, unified action, occurs within Alejo Carpentier's El Reino de este Mundo, published in the same decade as Hombres de Maiz. In this short novel, what Carpentier calls "the marvelously real" of the constituents of the Haitian Revolution becomes a metaphor for radical political and social change. The action is presented from the point of view of Ti-Noel, a Haitian of African descent who is first a slave under French rule and then a houngan or master of voodoo who struggles against the reactionary mulatto successors in the regime of Toussaint L'Ouverture. Ti-Noel, like Asturias' coyote-postman, possesses metamorphic powers. Like Mackandal, the leader of the initial rebellion against French rule, he can change back and forth from human to animal form in order to further the cause of Haitian independence. The mode of El Reino is itself metamorphic, weaving back and forth between, on the one hand, creole rationalism and, on the other, indigenous belief in magical transformation as though there were no actual distinctions between the two modes of thought. Here, Carpentier's enlistment of surrealist narrative technique in the service of the revolutionary ideal strikes a fresh and pleasing new style quite unlike the social fantasies of European writers from Gogol to Hoffman. Reality in this novel is a marvelous realm in which one sees no distinction between what the Haitian revolutionaries believe to be true and what appears to be true. At the novel's conclusion, we learn that Mackandal and other revolutionaries had disguised themselves as animals,
to serve man, not to abjure the world of men. It was then that the old man (Ti-Noel), resuming his human form, had a supremely lucid moment. He lived, for the space of a heart beat, the finest moment of his life; he glimpsed once more the heroes who had revealed to him the power and the fullness of his remote African forebears, making him believe in the possible germinations the future held. He felt countless centuries old. A cosmic weariness, as of a planet weighted with stones, fell about his shoulders shrunk by so many blows, sweats, revolts.… Now he understood that a man never knows for whom he suffers and hopes. He suffers and hopes and toils for people he will never know, and who, in turn, will suffer and hope and toil for others who will not be happy either, for man always seeks a happiness far beyond that which is meted out to him… man finds his greatness, his fullest measure, only in the Kingdom of This World.
Then, as if to suggest the ephemeral nature of such rhetoric, Ti-Noel challenges the new mulatto tyrants to battle and fades away into a great green wind that blows in from the Caribbean, a Dionysian figure who came into the world to set things right and then disappears into the sea, leaving nothing but "trails of salt on the flanks of the mountains."
Other more recent works by members of this group of writers further the convention of the "marvelously real" narrative complete and self-contained within the covers of a book which nevertheless demands an active and immediate response from its readers. The person who holds Julio Cortázar's Rayuela in his hands is literally instructed how to play hopscotch back and forth between the scores of short narrative sequences between its covers, and thus dramatize the passage, willy-nilly, between European and American culture, the I and the Other, This Side and The Other Side, inner and outer consciousness, past and present, life and death, passages which the main character, an Argentinian expatriate named Horacio, attempts to enact within the formal narrative itself. Because of Cortázar's radical impressment of the reader in the unfolding of his novel, some critics have called the work the Ulysses of Latin American literature. But it is a Ulysses on the side of change rather than stasis, a novel which, rather than celebrating the repetition, in ever apparent Viconian spirals, of the old, calls out to its readers to give themselves over to the invention of new modes of consciousness.
The novels of the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa are long, difficult, but fascinating works in which the rot and sterility of his nation's psychic and spiritual life are exposed with Balzacian exactitude. Because of their ties to the European naturalist tradition, they point up with striking clarity the important transformation of Continental traditions modern Latin American writers have wrought. In his first novel, La Ciudad y los Perros [The Time of the Hero], Vargas Llosa employed Joycean interior monologues in a ferocious expose of social conditions at a Lima military academy. The success of his experiment—the yoking of high-culture, Mandarin literary technique and naturalist social imperative—may be measured by the fact that the administrators of the academy he had attended in Lima bought up every available copy of the novel and burned them, some six hundred in number, in the main courtyard of the school. Shades of Bishop Diego de Landa! In subsequent novels, Vargas Llosa further refined his use of interior monologue, breaking down the components of the Spanish-American sentence itself in order to convey new states of feeling, and employing Flaubertian finesse in the dramatization of the lives of the near-primitive inhabitants of the Peruvian jungle as well as the cafes and mansions of the Lima middle-class. In La Casa Verde, published in 1965, he portrayed the schism between city life and jungle life which comprises one of the major paradoxes of Peruvian society in such a way as to turn Sarmiento on his head. Further, and perhaps more importantly, he took apart tense and time itself, completely reorienting the reader's sense of past and present and thus demonstrating that the rift between regions and subcultures may be seen as a struggle between distinctive conceptions of time itself.
Time, as Georg Lukacs wrote, is the single major constitutive element of the novel. Poised between the end of the period of European Conquest and the beginning of a new epoch of individual and political independence, Latin American writers have recognized themselves, in the words of the epigram from Lope de Vega which Carpentier employs at the head of his story collection called Guerra de Tiempo, as soldiers in the war of time. A number of interesting and innovative younger writers have added their names to this cadre, among them the Chilean José Donoso, the Argentinian Manuel Puig, and the Cuban exile Guillermo Cabrera Infante. But for many North American readers of Latin American literature, the most effective depiction of how this struggle for the invention of a new mode of being in the world may be waged, if not won, can be found in the pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Cien Anios de Soledad. One hundred years, a century, of solitude. The title itself orders time in the same moment that it presents the problem of being in time. This narrative history of the Buendia clan enhances our understanding of this basic contradiction of Latin American society, the opposition of intellect and feeling, rationalism and intuition, the Apollonian and the Dionysian modes of being, and exposes such paradigms as Sarmiento's as mere rhetorical presentations of situations which can only be understood as living problems, the dialectic made flesh within a clearly defined period of temporal passage. In other words, it is the first major Latin American novel to embrace all of the self-conscious paradoxes of modern Latin American thought in a wholly credible, every-day situation whose nature is entirely unlike any of the major works of Continental fiction.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time, Macondo was a village of twenty adobe homes, 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.
The opening lines of the novel mark a good place to conclude this hurried survey of much more than a hundred years of strife, solitude, false sentiment, and new solidarity. In the face of impending death, Aureliano Buendia, the eponymous protagonist, casts his mind back to a time of origins, childhood, and the early days of the Colombian village of Macondo, but also, given the resemblance of the polished stones along the stream bed, to a prehistorical moment, to an age of ice, a time before language, before fire. His mental gesture seems highly appropriate to recall the task of the Latin American writer, which as Carpentier has written, is the task of Adam: he must give names to the component parts of the magical region that he calls home. Garcia Marquez does precisely that, teaching us how to match language and reality in such a way as to invent a new world with a fresh history. In the face of the fact that most of the indigenous New World texts had been burned by the conquerors in the sixteenth century, no labor less than the creation of living narratives from their ashes will do. The result, as Vargas Llosa has suggested, is a "literature of fire" that illuminates the contradictions of contemporary Latin America but serves at the same time as its greatest creation. In the ice-age of contemporary North American culture, it serves us well to huddle close to this life-giving flame.
Jose Luis Martínez
SOURCE: "Unity and Diversity," in Latin America in Its Literature, edited by César Fernández Moreno, Julio Ortega, and Ivan A. Schulman, translated by Mary G. Berg, Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980, pp. 63-83.
[In the following essay, Martínez provides a historical overview of movements and major figures in Latin American literature.]
We are a small human species; we possess a world apart, surrounded by vast seas, new in nearly all the arts and sciences although, in a certain sense, old in the experience of civil society.
The most unique aspect of Latin America is that it exists as such, that is, as a group of twenty-one countries, with such profound historical, social, and cultural ties that they constitute a single unit in many senses. Other groups of countries may be related by their history and by their race, by their language, and by their religion, or by political or economic pacts. But it is not often that all these connections are found simultaneously, and it is even less frequent that, as in the case of Latin America, the common traits are stronger than the will to individualize and stronger than any dissidence.
Occupying more than half of the American hemisphere, these nations were conquered and colonized in the beginning of the sixteenth century by the Spanish and Portuguese. Since then nineteen of them have retained the Spanish language, and only one, as large as a continent, has retained the Portuguese. They have all experienced parallel histories, cultural formations, and literary developments. But, on the other hand, autochthonous populations and cultures and particular geographical conditions have existed in each zone of America. Common Iberian patterns were imposed upon men, cultures, and nature that encouraged a blending or unifying process, that is, the creation of the community of nations we call Latin America, which are very similar in language, cultural formation, religion, ethnic composition, and economic and social structure.
This complex of particular circumstances—that is, recognition of itself as an American extension of European cultures, the acknowledgment of Indian roots of different thicknesses and depths, and the self-awareness of itself as part of a community made up of countries which are identical in many aspects—can explain the insistent questions which Latin American intellectuals tend to ask themselves about their own identity, their originality, and the nature of their culture. Throughout the nineteenth century, American thinkers reflected constantly about the existence, the condition, and the destiny of America; and in our century, a new cycle of more systematic self-questioning began with Pedro Henriquez Urenla's Seis ensayos en busca de nuestra expresión [Six Essays in Search of Our Expression] (1928). This mood soon moved on to inquiries into the essential nature of each of the cultural nationalities. The collapse of Europe at the end of the Second World War and the existentialist philosophy which was then in fashion encouraged these inquiries into the existence and the destiny of American and the autonomous qualities of national cultures. Since the vogue has passed, now Latin Americans, instead of theorizing, extend their literature in the world and speak and write about the excellence of their poets and novelists, no longer concerned about whether or not they express America or their respective countries.
Nineteenth-century Latin American literature pertains to an era of apprenticeship and formation. The first apprenticeship had to be that of liberty and identity. The new countries were formally independent by then and thus felt obliged to extend that independence to matters of spirit, to achieve that which was then called mental emancipation, and, consequently, to create an original culture. During the first third of the nineteenth century, literature acquired an intense ideological change which caused it to participate strongly in the complex process of cultural elaboration. No later enterprise in Latin America will possess the force of that initial thrust which proposed to secure our literary emancipation because its struggle was to establish the very existence of America's own literary expression.
In effect, the Latin American generations which appeared during the 1830s, when the new republics began to resolve their internal conflicts—except for Brazil, which was an independent kingdom until 1899 when it changed over to the republican system—undertook the creation of a literature which would express our nature and our customs. In all the countries of the region, poets, novelists, dramatists, and essayists dedicated themselves eagerly to the task of singing the splendors of American nature and of describing and exploring the particular qualities of our character and customs, above all the popular ones which had the greatest flavor and picturesqueness.
From the complex literary panorama of nineteenth-century Latin America, from its ranks of thousands of writers and from the multiplicity of trends and literary currents, three outstanding and representative aspects may be singled out: costumbrista narrative, poetry about gauchos and common people, and the prose of thinkers.
The cuadro de costumbres, or "descriptive sketch," was easily adapted to the literary description of the most evolved Latin American societies in the mid-nineteenth century, in which everyday customs and popular types could be clearly defined. The costumbristas described a society in transition: colonial models and customs continued to survive in the upper classes, but the still recent independence had caused many problems to arise and had increased the conspicuousness of the conflicts and social inequalities which the sketches or descriptive articles so humorously satirized.
The extent to which costumbrismo became fashionable, especially in Peru, Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Chile, and Venezuela, was not exclusively due to the desire to imitate Spanish models, such as Mesonero Romanos, Larra, and Estebanez Calderón, but it was also a response to the urgent need for identity which our writers felt and to a search for national and original expression.
The strongest branch of Latin American costumbrismo is the novel. However, the simple accumulation of descriptive sketches did not suffice to create a novel of quality, and perhaps because they understood this, only the most highly endowed intellects of the era accepted the challenge and undertook more profound and ample descriptions of the new societies. When they took up the challenge, some of the best novelists, who were stimulated by the weight of the costumbrista characters and scenes, shifted, sometimes consciously, from romanticism to realism, thus announcing the maturity of the novel in Latin America.
The relative peace which Brazil enjoyed during the nineteenth century—in contrast with the chronic agitation of Hispanic-America—contributed to the flourishing of the novel in this country during the second half of the century, a novel which in its totality constituted the most important body of fiction in Latin America during this period.
Joaquim María Machado de Assis (1839-1908) is the most eminent figure in Brazilian letters. His life was a pathetic and silent struggle. Born a mulatto, poor, a stutterer, and an epileptic, he defeated his adversities so radically that his works are untouched by any of those shadows of his infancy and are centered only upon man, that is, ordinary men and women of the Brazilian middle class, with the vulgar passions and problems of body and soul. He also turned his back on the jungle, on telluric man, who was anguished by febrile passions, and on stylistic exuberance, in order to present another picture of his country, one of repose and sobriety, of delicate humor which enchants his readers with its acute perceptiveness and sensitivity. As he wrote of Alencar, Machado de Assis's words really explain his own style: "There is a way of seeing and of feeling," he said, "which strikes the intimate note of nationality, independent of the external face of things." In his great novels, Epitaph of a Small Winner (1880), Philosopher or Dog [Quincas Borba] (1891), Dom Casmurro (1900), and in his splendid stories, Machado de Assis, intimately Brazilian, is one of the finest universal storytellers.
Colombia also had good novelists of manners and customs during the second half of the nineteenth century, among whom Tomas Carrasquilla (1858-1940) represents one of the peaks of Latin American costumbrismo. The case of this nearly forgotten Colombian writer is unique. If one considers the dates of publication of his works (1896-1935), he coincides with the height of Modernism and even with the beginnings of the modern novel. And although he was well acquainted with the writers of his time, he closed himself within his Antioquean region in order to find himself and to try to understand the men of his time. He achieved thus a body of work which formally must be considered within costumbrista realism, already out of fashion by then, but which reveals a rare aesthetic quality, a penetrating human vision and a re-creation of the popular language which he found in himself and made part of his literary style. He wrote many stories and four extensive novels. Frutos de mi tierra [Fruits of My Land ] (1896), about the people of his region; Grandeza [Greatness] (1910), about Medellin society; La marquesa de Yolomb6 [The Marchioness of Yolombol (1926), about an Antioquean city during the eighteenth century; and Hace tiempos [In Times Past] (1935-1936), a vast evocation of his own experiences and of places he knew. Carrasquilla is a great extemporaneous novelist whose fame has perhaps begun to be celebrated in the narrative magic of some of his countrymen.
The Mexican costumbrista novel has two outstanding narrators, Payno and Inclan. Manuel Payno's (1810-1894) most important novel, Los bandidos de Rio Frio [The Bandits of Rio Frio], is a charming human comedy about Mexican life during the first half of the nineteenth century. Written as a serialized romance, it is not lacking in gory detail. In addition to these qualities, however, it includes costumbrista details of nearly all the social classes of the epoch, portrayed with great sympathy and narrative efficacy. A unique personality is encountered in Luis G. Inclan (1816-1875), merely a "rancher" whose perceptive words leave us his testimony of love for the land and for the "charrerias" [the doings of the cowboys]. His principal work, Astucia [Cunning] (1865-1866), a vast account of the adventures of a band of charros [cowboys] who are tobacco smugglers, is a highly colored and cordial panorama of rural Mexican life during the middle of the nineteenth century.
The variety and the contrasts among the classes of Cuban colonial society may be found in realistic descriptions in Cecilia Valdes (1839-1879), by Cirilo Villaverde (1812-1894), the first Cuban novelist. The narrator of Chilean life during the second half of the nineteenth century was Alberto Blest Gana (1830-1920). Influenced by Balzac, he described Chilean situations and the lack of communication between the social classes.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the expanse of Argentinian territory was very thinly populated. "The problem which afflicts the Argentine Republic," wrote Sarmiento in Facundo (1845), "is that of extension; the desert surrounds it on every side." On those enormous prairies, on the pampas, while the Indians were being persecuted and annihilated, and the nineteenth century had just begun, there developed a type of nomadic cowboy, Creole or mestizo, who would come to be called a gaucho. Those unique inhabitants of the pampas survived, thanks to the abundance of wild horses and cows. Dressed in characteristically distinctive clothing, they wandered ceaselessly from place to place. A picturesque legend was built up around them and their way of life, around the rastreador ("tracker"), the baquiano ("pathfinder"), the bad gaucho, and the cantor or payador ("wandering minstrel"), described by Sarmiento in masterful pages.
The wandering life of the gauchos, the distinctive dialect in which they expressed themselves, their adventures, their wisdom, and their decadence were taken up by a series of poets in Argentina and in Uruguay who transformed that mythology into a unique literary creation, gaucho poetry. Like the Mexican corridos, these poems are yet another resurgence of the old Spanish ballads, and they are both written, with few exceptions, in octosyllables. The gaucho poems were exceptionally popular, were printed in hundreds of editions, were read around campfires while mate was being passed, and many people memorized long sections of them. In 1894 Unamuno celebrated the Hispanic roots of Martín Fierro, and a year later, Menendez y Pelayo affirmed that the gaucho poems were "the most original works of South American literature" and that Martín Fierro was "the masterpiece of the genre."
The first poet to write in the gaucho dialect, the Uruguayan Bartolome Hidalgo (1788-1822) wrote cielitos and patriotic dialogues from 1811 on. He anticipated the tone of the great gaucho poems as well as their motifs and characteristic scenes. Like his contemporary, the Mexican Fernández de Lizardi, Hidalgo peddled the cielitos he wrote in the streets of Buenos Aires. Hilario Ascasubi (1807-1875), an Argentine Creole, lived multiple experiences. He was a sailor and soldier in the civil wars, traveled through Europe and America, and held various jobs. He played cards with the caudillo Facundo Quiroga and heard him recite entire chapters of the Bible. Among his many gaucho writings, Santos Vega (1850-1872) stands out, an enormous poem made up of brief tales and descriptions of pampa customs.
The second generation of gaucho poets is made up of the Argentinians Estanislao del Campo (1834-1880) and José Hernández (1834-1886). Like his friend Ascasubi, whom he admired, del Campo also participated in his country's civil wars. He wrote poems in a conventional language, but he owes his fame to Fausto [Faust] (1866), a poem which narrates the conversation of two gauchos, one of whom has attended a performance of Gounod's opera Faust and, with wit and humor, tells about it, comments upon it, and analyzes it as though the opera were a series of real events. José Hernández knew and learned about gaucho life thanks to his father's business dealings in the country. He was a public functionary, legislator, and combative journalist. El gaucho Martín Fierro [The Gaucho Martín Fierro] (1872), his masterpiece, is the culmination and summary of the genre. This first poem is the story of the rebellion of Martín Fierro, a payador, against civilization, which for him is injustice and oppression. Torn away from his happy life, the primitiveness and miseries of military service on the frontiers have been imposed upon him until he deserts and becomes a gaucho malo, quarrelsome, drunk, and a killer. The second part, La vuelta de Martín Fierro [The Return of Martín Fierro] (1879), recounts the life of the hero with the Indians, among whom he has taken refuge, and his return to the white world. Here Martín Fierro is an old man who remembers and reflects.
One of the merits of Martín Fierro is the human truth of its hero. Misfortunes have involved him in evil, but he retains a core of incorruptible honesty, a profound respect for an unwritten code of valor and decency. There is also a very fortunate contrast between the youthful action of the first part and the evocative and sententious tone which dominates the second. Throughout the poem, a superior command of language and its resources is maintained. As employed by José Hernández, gaucho dialect achieves the height of its power.
A unique phenomenon may be found in nineteenth-century Latin America. The best prose is not to be found in pure literature but rather in sociological meditations about the ills of our societies, in allegations in favor of civic causes, in historical reflections, in polemical and combative writings and, sometimes, in literary criticism. Perhaps this profound urgency, this burning passion or this anger which give rise to the writings of the Latin American thinkers are what give them their affecting truth and their validity as literary creations.
During the course of the century, nearly all of the countries had men who, beyond ambitions and contingencies, fought generously for liberty and culture. Some of these men were also very fine writers, like the Venezuelan Andŕes Bello (1781-1865), the Argentinian Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888), the Ecuadorian Juan Montalvo (1833-1889), the Puerto Rican Eugenio María de Hostos (1839-1903), the Peruvian Manuel González Prada (1848-1918), the Mexican Justo Sierra (1848-1912), the Brazilian Ruy Barbosa (1849-1923), and the Cubans Enrique José Varona (1849-1933) and José Martí (1853-1895). And even among the great soldiers, an occasional excellent writer could be found. The Venezuelan Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), author of more than three thousand letters and two hundred speeches and proclamations, wrote with distinctive liveliness and elegance, and was as revolutionary in his style as with arms.
In the case of Bolívar, the pen was only a complement of the sword. In contrast, the Latin American thinkers depended principally upon words. The majority were great polemicists or sustained long ideological campaigns, like Montalvo's against the theocratic dictatorship of García Moreno, and González Prada's against the social injustice and obscurantism of Peruvian society. Nevertheless, side by side with his combative works, the liberalism of which seems naïve to us today, Montalvo wrote the Capítulos que se le olvidaron a Cervantes [Chapters That Cervantes Forgot] (1898) and Geometría moral [Moral Geometry] (1917), both published posthumously, and remarkable for the elegance and the purity of their prose. And González Prada, in addition to having stimulated the awakening of the social conscience of his country, was a poet who, while he occasionally continued the satiric violence or the political caricatures of his combative prose, did not disdain to re-create ancient forms or to evoke the Indian past of Peru.
In 1842, when they both met in Chile, Bello and Sarmiento carried on a magnificent polemic about the purity of the language or the romantic liberty of expression. Despite all this, Bello's temperament was more suited to the tasks of the scholar and the teacher, although certainly with an eye to reform. He was one of the forerunners of literary emancipation in the two splendid poems called Silvas americanas which sing to the landscape and the past of America. Toward the middle of the century, when the Latin American community seemed to have greater coherence, Bello, from Caracas, was invited to Santiago de Chile where he would be the reorganizer of education and of the university, as well as one of the authors of the civil code (1853-1856). His Filosofia del entendimiento [Philosophy of Understanding] (1843) was written during those years, as well as his scholarly studies and his treatises on grammar which, together with those of the Colombian Rufino José Cuervo, constitute the most important American contribution in this field.
Sarmiento, on the other hand, was a torrential spirit who possessed equal quantities of combative passion and desire to civilize. His was one of the most intense and productive lives. He fought against tyrannies both with arms and with the pen; he left a masterful treatise, Facundo (1845), a lucid diagnosis of Argentine reality and the dilemma of civilization versus barbarism; as president of his country (1868-1874), his accomplishments were substantial. His best works, in addition to Facundo, Viajes [Journeys] (1849), Recuerdos deprovincia [Recollections of Provincial Life] (1850), and so many speeches and journalistic pages, are certainly written hurriedly and tumultuously, as by someone who has a great deal to say and many tasks to tend to, but which, at the same time, expressed his ideas in organic concepts and with perceptiveness. Like Martí, Sarmiento was a natural-born writer and one of the most authentic teachers America has had.
Other American thinkers were also decisive in the moral and cultural formation of their countries. Ruy Barbosa, renowned Brazilian jurist, was the organizer of the republic proclaimed in 1889, an impassioned fighter for the abolition of slavery and a writer of multiple curiosities in his Cartas de Inglaterra [Letters from England] (1896). Eugenio María de Hostos, although he was above all an excellent literary critic (Juicio crítico de Hamlet [Critical Judgment of Hamlet], 1872), a moralist (Moral social [Social Morality], 1888), and a promoter of education in Santo Domingo, had the supreme ambition that his country, Puerto Rico, should achieve independence and form part of a West Indian confederation. Justo Sierra, who was the organizer of Mexican education, founder of the National University—at the inauguration of which (1910) he gave a speech in which he pointed out the necessity of a philosophy and a science "which will defend our country"—and generous guide of national culture, was also a poet, literary critic, and historian in the great Evolución política del pueblo mexicano [Political Evolution of the Mexican People] (1900-1901). Although Enrique José Varona, intellectual and skeptic, did not always succeed in his political ambitions, he served Cuban education and was an intellectual stimulus and a writer of polished style in his brief essays and literary criticism (Desde mi Belvedere [From My Belvedere], 1907, and Violetasyortigas [Violets and Nettles], 1917).
José Martí was one of those exceptional personalities in whom the passion for a political cause was transformed into a written expression of high literary quality. While still an adolescent, he began to fight with his pen for the independence of Cuba, was condemned to forced labor, and left in exile for Spain (1871). He spent the better part of his life in exile, with the exception of a short stay in Cuba between 1878 and 1879. Nevertheless, he dedicated much of his writing to Cuba and its political problems, although he also wrote a great deal about art, letters, politics, personalities, and events in the Latin American and European countries he visited. He also wrote a long series of chronicles about the United States, where he spent his last fourteen years. When he finally managed to unify his desires and organize the war for independence, he returned to Cuba to die. And although he felt that his hour had come, the patriot and the writer continued to be fused; during his last days he made notes in his diary (De Cabo Haitiano a Dos Rios [From the Haitian Cape to Dos Rios]), which are full of poetic intent and of observations about nature, side by side with accounts of guerrilla incidents, right up until the night before his death.
Perhaps with the exception of his dramatic and novelistic attempts, in which he let himself be defeated by the rhetoric of the epoch, the rest of Martí's written work, poetry and essays, is of a quality and an authenticity which are very moving. "What will I have written without bleeding?" he asked. And on his pages his spirit bleeds, both in truth and in literary mastery, with a sense for verbal precision as well as an instinct for the felicitous and expressive turn of phrase. Both in his poetry and in his prose, Martí avoids cliches and abstract images or feelings in order to depict concrete entities, familiar, sometimes picturesque and full of personal emotion, and he knows how to transmit them so well that, in the torrent of his prose, they crystallize into palpitating and perfect expressions. This hurried writer, who only wrote to serve his country or to earn his living; this man who gave himself entirely to the cause of liberty for his people and to the cause of America was at the same time a literary innovator and one of the best writers of Latin America.
No other literary movement in the cultural history of Latin America, either colonial or independent, provides such evidence of the unity and originality of literature in this part of the world as does Modernism. Over a period of forty years, all the countries of the region participated in Modernism; half of them produced twenty or more important writers—among whom would be found the major poet of Hispanic America—who wrote at least thirty significant books, superior to those which had heretofore been written in their line, and which imposed their influence upon their entire area and, for the first time, upon Spain.
With Modernism, Hispanic America exists as a unit, the internal circulation of which has suddenly become fluid. The first manifestations of the movement appear in Mexico, around 1875, with the simultaneous appearance of twenty-two-year-old José Martí and sixteen-year-old Manuel Gutierrez Najera, who begin to manifest new stylistic devices and, above all, a new sensibility. Modernism is already substantially outlined. The clarion call which will give it vitality everywhere and will extend it throughout the continent is heard next in Valparaiso, the opposite geographic corner, where a young Nicaraguan, Ruben...
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