Latin American Long Fiction Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Inherent in the ideology underlying the conquest and colonization of Latin America were certain factors that severely curtailed the development of the novel there. Notable among those factors was the Roman Catholic Church’s view that the novel form was harmful to morals, coupled with the vision of Latin America as a mission field, from which such negative influences could and should be excluded. Thus, in 1531, it was forbidden for books such as Amadís de Gaula (1508; Amadis of Gaul, partial translation, 1567, 1803; better known as Amadís) to be imported.

While it is true that from 1580 on, all sorts of fiction did enter the region—and it even appears that a sizable portion of the first edition of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615) came to the New World—the law is indicative of an attitude that, in the Spanish-speaking regions, successfully prevented until 1816 the production of anything that might properly be called a novel.

In Brazil, in contrast, the attempt to exclude the form was not so successful. It was, in fact, a churchman who produced Brazil’s first novel. Four years after the publication of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), the Jesuit Alexandre de Gusmão (1628-1724) published História do predestinado peregrino e seu irmão Precito (1682). Also in the allegorical mode is the Compêndio narrativo do peregrino da América (1728), by Nuno Marques Pereira (1652-1728), and Teresa Margarida da Silva e Orta’s Aventuras de Diófanes (1752). These attempts to turn the form to the service of morality left no progeny, and when the Brazilian novel returned, it was in the fullness of the Romantic movement.

The outstanding Brazilian novelist of the Romantic period was José de Alencar (1829-1877), whose early work consists of a series of sentimental novels of adventure, dealing particularly with the idealized “Indian,” modeled on Chateaubriand’s “noble savage,” who predominated throughout Latin American literature in this era. Alencar’s more mature works, including Lucíola (1862), Iracema (1865; Iracema, the Honey-Lips: A Legend of Brazil, 1886), and Senhora (1875; Senhora: Profile of a Woman, 1994), are more concerned with the portrayal of urban society, as is the notable Memórias de um sargento de milícias (1854; Memoirs of a Militia Sergeant, 1959), by Manuel Antônio de Almeida (1831-1861), which concentrates on Rio de Janeiro. At the same time, Bernardo Guimarães (1825-1884) was dealing with nationalistic themes.

The nineteenth century

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The first novel of Spanish America, as well, appeared within the politically liberal orientation of nascent Romanticism. With the accession of the Bourbons to the Spanish throne in 1700, considerable French influence began entering the colonies, and the Enlightenment left its mark on their literature.

José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi (1776-1827), known as the Mexican Thinker, was fundamentally a pamphleteer and essayist who traveled with a portable printing press, turning out material in support of the war of independence. His first novel, El periquillo sarniento (1816; The Itching Parrot, 1942), was a statement of reason at the same time that it led to a current of Romantic novels in the region. Although the picaresque genre in Spain had been an instrument of the Church, useful in the preaching of morality, Lizardi’s picaresque novel is brutally anticlerical even while its entertaining narrative is marred by lengthy sermons. This tendency toward essay in the novel perhaps had its roots in the missionary traditions of the colonies and has continued to the present day, particularly in the fiction of Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. In the Mexican novel, there is also a tendency to employ circular structures, which are already visible in Lizardi’s work. Each episode presents the reader with a turn of the Wheel of Fortune, as the protagonist becomes successful only to end in desperate straits again.

The vast majority of Latin America’s nineteenth century novels appeared in the second half of that century, although one notable work spans nearly a half century in itself: Cecilia Valdés (first part 1839, completed 1882; Cecilia Valdés: A Novel of Cuban Customs, 1962), by the Cuban author Cirilo Villaverde (1812-1894). Like nearly all fiction following the attainment of independence by most of Latin America (although not yet by Cuba), Cecilia Valdés is Romantic in character; following the example set by Lizardi, Villaverde’s is a political Romanticism, relatively unconcerned with nature.

The Latin American short story has its roots in the celebrated narrative “El matadero,” by Esteban Echeverría (1805-1851). Another hard-to-categorize work from the same era, Vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga (1845; Facundo: Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants: Or, Civilization and Barbarism, 1868), by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888), exercised considerable influence on the novel for decades to come. A combination of biography, novel, and essay, it establishes with its subtitle, Civilización y barbarie, the theme of the struggle between the relatively sophisticated, often Europeanized, cities of Latin America and the developing, “barbaric” outlying areas, be they the Argentine pampas or the Venezuelan llanos. In general terms, the novel of the nineteenth century tends to contrast the refinement of Europe with the crudeness of the New World. The sons of Brazilian planters, for example, received the finest education that Europe could offer, often returning to bewail their homeland’s lack of culture.

The most prominent of a number of novels written in opposition to the Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas was Amalia (first part 1851, second part 1855; Amalia: A Romance of the Argentine, 1919), by José Mármol (1817-1871), who learned his craft from Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas, père. In his struggle against injustice, Mármol’s Daniel Bello is the prototype of the Romantic hero, while the heroine, Amalia, is representative of European refinement surrounded by New World vulgarity. In this era, many novels were serialized in newspapers, among them Amalia, which exhibits the episodic character of this type of composition.

Probably the most widely read Latin American novel of the nineteenth century was María (1867; María: A South American Romance, 1890), by Jorge Isaacs (1837-1895). At this stage, the Romantics were generally more concerned with nature, and the heroine of Isaacs’s novel appears to be almost a projection of the landscape of Colombia’s Cauca Valley. The tale is typical of the novels of its day, involving an encounter of soul mates who are separated and then reunited at the conclusion, only to learn that fate has made their marriage impossible. In this case, the couple are brother and sister by adoption, and her death prevents their marriage. A variation on the theme appears in Cumandá (1879), by the Ecuadoran Juan León Mera (1832-1894): After the lovers have overcome many obstacles, the proposed marriage is prevented by the revelation that the couple are brother and sister, separated in infancy. In Cumandá, Mera lays the foundations for the modern novel of protest against the inhuman treatment of Indians, concerning whom he has solid documentary knowledge.

In 1889, the same type of novel, overlaid with European sentimentalism and full of fateful coincidences and melodramatic surprises, including the usual impossible marriage of siblings, appeared in Peru under the title Aves sin nido (Birds Without a Nest: A Story of Indian Life and Priestly Oppression in Peru, 1904). The author, Clorinda Matto de Turner (1854-1909), wrote a preface within the tradition of the moralistic essay, declaring that her purpose in writing was to exhibit the unjust treatment of the Peruvian Indian and argue for the marriage of priests. It is a prime example of the nineteenth century Romantic novel, far more concerned with theme than with technique. Nevertheless, it exercised a powerful influence in Latin America.

Cuban-born Gertrudis Gómez de...

(The entire section is 2335 words.)

The early twentieth century

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In the novel at this time, there is an increasing commitment to technical quality, along with an attempt at a more skillful analysis of the regions in which the authors lived. Regionalist tendencies were accentuated in the first decades of the twentieth century by the relative isolation of national capitals from one another, and added to the geographical isolation was the almost worshipful attention paid by authors in each region to what was taking place in Europe, so that a writer in Lima, Peru, and one in Santiago, Chile, might each be far more aware of the literary scene in Paris than in the other’s city. Therefore, the regionalist tendency became strong within a general criollista current.

One of the most skillful of the regionalist writers was Tomás Carrasquilla (1858-1940), whose novels, including Frutos de mi tierra (1896), Grandeza (1910), La marquesa de Yolombó (1928), and Hace tiempos (1935), are set in the city and countryside of Colombia’s Antioquia, a region of difficult access before the advent of air travel. Correspondingly, the circumstances of Carrasquilla’s characters are static, as is generally the case in the early regionalist novels of Latin America. Characterization for Carrasquilla is largely by way of regionalist speech.

In Chile, Alberto Blest Gana had a successor in Luis Orrego Luco (1866-1949), whose Casa grande (1908) was the first novel to analyze in depth the life of the Chilean upper classes. Orrego Luco’s concern, that of the psychological penetration of a social sphere that interests him, using a calm, controlled, polished language, is typical of Chilean fiction, from its inception to the present day, and is especially evident in the work of José Donoso (1924-1996). Orrego Luco is something of a transitional figure, standing between nineteenth century realism and twentieth century criollismo. Another transitional figure is Manuel Gálvez (1882-1962), who straddled the gap between Romanticism and Modernismo, producing books of unbridled subjectivism, a quality associated with both schools. As typically Argentine as Orrego Luco was Chilean, Gálvez sought to analyze his nation’s reality in terms of his own ongoing spiritual crisis, to produce an opus illustrative of his and Argentina’s anxiety and hope for the future. His La maestra normal (1914) is a prime example of the costumbrista novel, but in its agonized introspection it anticipates the novels of Eduardo Mallea (1903-1983) as well as the call for social reform and women’s rights.

Among the Brazilian regionalists, the most prominent was Lima Barreto (1881-1922), who, like Machado de Assis, was black. Unlike Machado de Assis, however, Barreto reacted violently against the racism that he felt even in his relatively easygoing country, becoming a militant anarchist. His bitter parodies of the Brazilian mainstream caused the critics of his day to ignore him.

Out of the wave-interference pattern of sometimes contradictory literary movements, there emerged some novels of clearly definable Modernista character, while others whose Modernista aesthetic is discernible, such as El embrujo de Sevilla (1922; Castanets, 1929) and El gaucho florido (1932), by the Uruguayan Carlos Reyles (1868-1938), betray the melodramatic character of the old Romanticism. Among the better Modernista novelists was the Chilean Augusto d’Halmar (1882-1950).

In 1902, Manuel Díaz Rodríguez (1868-1927) published Sangre patricia (English translation, 1946), in which he struggled to force psychological penetration beyond the limits of Modernismo’s usual superficiality. In it, however, even the protagonist’s suicide becomes a positive aesthetic event. Another tour de force is La gloria de don Ramiro (1908; The Glory of Don Ramiro, 1924), by Enrique Larreta (1865-1961), which employs a historical setting in Toledo as the basis for a transformation of that reality into a sensorial experience—a process betraying Modernismo’s roots in Symbolism, in which the object perceived is gradually metamorphosed into a representation of the observer’s psychic state. Some critics have mistakenly placed Rafael Arévalo Martínez (1884-1975) and his works, such as the short-story collection El hombre que parecía un caballo (1916), in the naturalist camp because his characters are often compared to animals. In fact, this process in his stories is also an example of Symbolist transformation.

The advent of modern communications eventually began unifying Latin America to the extent that authors came to have freer access to one another. There are some modern authors who have commented that, as their centuries-long insularity finally gave way, they became aware of their common goals, and several have even spoken of “the novel that we are all writing.” Carlos Fuentes, in his Terra nostra (1975; English translation, 1976), attempts to pick up the quests of the heroes of several novels written by his peers and complete them, even bringing a number of those heroes together at the conclusion of his novel. This attitude stands in contrast to that of many nationalistic leaders of the individual countries, who at times insist that there is no real Latin America—that each individual nation is an entity in itself and impossible to classify with others.

As the authors of Latin America came to an increasing awareness of their common experience and concerns, regionalist tendencies gradually became less important, and the focus came to be upon America as a problem. While European literary currents continued to exercise a strong influence, a...

(The entire section is 2358 words.)

The 1920’s and 1930’s

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

There has been a critical tendency to treat the situation of prose fiction in the 1920’s and 1930’s as if the only significant works were of the regionalist variety, whether they deal with the Mexican Revolution, social issues of some other sort, or more general Latin American themes. For this reason, many have viewed later Latin American novels as if they had been created ex nihilo or pieced together from foreign sources. The fact is that there had been a more or less steady and consistent development of the vanguardist novel, parallel to those works preoccupied with sociopolitical issues. The most important link between the two lay in the profound rejection of existing social values in virtually all the novels of this period....

(The entire section is 678 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In Brazil, the regionalist tendency was first challenged by that country’s version of modernism, which represents a combination of vanguardist currents. Modernism suddenly appeared on the scene in 1922 and had the effect of making poetry dominant until 1930, when a series of neorealistic novels of a social orientation began appearing, among them Vidas sêcas (1938; Barren Lives, 1965), by Graciliano Ramos (1892-1953), a novel of psychological realism in the tradition of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis focusing on character development rather than plot.

Still another major contribution to the complex set of influences on the Latin American novel was made byJorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), who never wrote...

(The entire section is 1248 words.)

Magical Realism

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The term “magical realism” is nebulous, and many authors and critics prefer lo real maravilloso, which is based loosely on the Surrealist concept of le merveilleux. Magical Realism is fundamentally a reflection of the twentieth century’s departure from what has been perceived as bourgeois categories. Psychology and sociology have shown that rational categories are not necessarily dominant in determining the course of the life of a person or society, and even physics has departed from the Newtonian model, with its more or less mechanistic bias. While the nineteenth century realist wanted to show life as it was actually lived, the Magical Realist believes that true reality is that which underlies the ordinary...

(The entire section is 1387 words.)

The new Latin American novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Fuentes’s works are central to the related but separate phenomena known as the new Latin American novel and the Latin American boom. The former refers to what most critics would call the coming of age of the Latin American novel, a gradual process that was accelerated in the 1950’s. At that time, Latin American prose fiction was worthy of moving into the realm of world literature and exercising a good deal of influence of its own.

The Latin American boom, somewhat difficult to define at best, is fundamentally a phenomenon of the 1960’s and early 1970’s and involves a more general recognition of the quality of the novels of a limited group of authors, some of whom believe that the boom was essentially a...

(The entire section is 1804 words.)

The late twentieth century and beyond

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The decade of the 1980’s was the era of the post-Latin America boom, and it signaled a new era in which women, gays and lesbians, and Afro-Hispanics were finally accepted into the literary canon. While a boom-era novel typically portrays the earnest search of the protagonist for the meaning of life, the postboom novel is more likely to describe a journey of this kind with parodic humor; pastiche is its favored trope. It is true that the boom writers continued to publish during the 1980’s—García Márquez wrote Crónica de una muerte anunciada (1981; Chronicle of a Death Foretold, 1982), Fuentes wrote Gringo viejo (1985; The Old Gringo, 1985), and Vargas Llosa wrote Quién mató a...

(The entire section is 1189 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Boland, Roy C., and Sally Harvey, eds. Magical Realism and Beyond: The Contemporary Spanish and Latin American Novel. Madrid: Vox/AHS, 1991. Articles in this edited collection explore Magical Realism in the works of Latin American and Spanish novelists of the twentieth century.

Comprone, Raphael. Four Major Latin American Writers: Pablo Neruda, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Márquez. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008. Drawing on one major work by each of the four named novelists, Comprone creates a coherent history and theory of Magical Realism in Latin American literature.


(The entire section is 513 words.)