Latin American Short Fiction Summary


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

As common and somewhat acceptable as the term “Latin American literature” is as a functional label for literature produced in the “Latin” countries of the Americas, most anthologists and scholars tend to take time to apologize for its usage or, at least, to justify its usage in the face of some opposition. The basic contention is valid: Latin America is not a distinctive geographical or geopolitical space. Nor is it a culturally homogenous space. The term is a convenience, but it is a convenience that is rooted in some basic facts of history. For the purposes of this survey, the term encompasses those countries in the “New World” formerly colonized by Portugal, Spain, and Italy. Included, therefore, are the countries that are located on the South American continent and those countries in the area that is now called Central America. Those islands in the Caribbean that share a history of colonization with the South American continent are also included. The functional languages of Latin American literature are Spanish and Portuguese. Spanish dominates. Without Brazil and its formidable tradition of literature, Latin America would be exclusively a Spanish domain. Very little exists in Latin America that pertains to Italy, even though Italians have had a significant presence in countries like Argentina and Bolivia, but then so have the English. English remains a distinct foil to the march of Latin American literature and culture.

The history of Latin America is a history which could have paralleled the history of North America and its increasingly homogenized single-nation identity. Like the American North, the South has had a strong imaginative sense of its unity. This imaginative identity dominated much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries largely because of the liberation efforts of individuals like Simón Bolívar. Bolívar imagined and wrote about a Latin American state that would share much of the sense of nationalism that would come to define the North. There is a reason for this development. As with the British empire, the Spanish empire was quite clearly understood to be an extension of the Spanish nation-state. Brazil remained a peculiar and massive interruption of the dominance of Spanish culture in the Americas. That dominance extended well into the North American continent until a century ago and has slowly begun to crawl its way back into that continent now through immigration and a redefining of cultural and racial demographics.

The Spanish colonial government understood its empire as a single force and a single protectorate and thus sought to conceive of a culture that was distinctive and somewhat homogeneous. The variations emerged through the peculiar dialogues and clashes that took place between these Spanish societies and the native communities that existed in the regions before the arrival of the Spanish. The Inca in eastern South America, the Aztec in Central America, and the Mayans in the rain forests of northeastern South America were large and dominant cultures before the arrival of the Spanish. Spanish colonialism forced these cultures to struggle for survival, but in their struggle they had lasting effect on the culture of the region—the understanding of landscape and the shaping of the imagination.

Latin American literature and, in many ways, Latin American short fiction emerge out of the strange contradictions between nationalism and empire that characterize the experience of the region. The movement toward independence in Latin America, as in all other formerly colonized states, entailed a cultural quest for a distinctive cultural and national identity. This identity would be found in the history and native presence of these nations and in the agendas for self-actualization that would emerge during the period leading toward independence and the demise of the Spanish empire’s rule. Latin American identity is peculiarly defined by the tension between the colonial force of Spanish dominance, the spirit of discovery and the quest to found a new society with new values and a new understanding of landscape and individuality, and the presence of non-European cultures in the region. In Brazil, this pattern is very much a part of what has given a distinction to its cultural identity and to its literature. Brazil’s distinction lies in the dialogue that the society has had with its racial complexity, particularly the presence of African slaves and freed people, especially from Nigeria, in the region. The religious and narrative experiences have given rise to a distinctive literary sensibility, which remains one of the more remarkable and fresh in the modern world.

Most scholars recognize in Latin American culture and literary practice the importance of history and the way that...

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Latin American Short Fiction Nationalism and the Emergence of the Short Story

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The nineteenth century saw the continent-wide press toward nationalism. In many ways this pattern would not take root in Brazil in the same way because Brazil’s position as the seat of the Portuguese empire was largely unassailable from the onset. In fact, much of the literature that has emerged in Brazil, while being rooted in the landscape and culture of the region, has so shaped and defined Portuguese letters that there is far less of a sense of inferiority and acquiescence to the metropolis or the mother country than has occurred in the literatures from the former English colonies and the Spanish colonial countries. The emergence of nationalism in the nineteenth century, however, played a major part in the shaping of a literary aesthetic. This aesthetic, influenced by the push for nationalism in such places as the United States, Haiti, and the march for revolution in France, generated, at first, works that sought to locate a literary tradition in the region. This attempt was not unlike the nineteenth century preoccupation with origins that characterized literary practice in Europe. In England, there was the championing of the Anglo-Saxon mythic narrative Beowulf (c. 1000), while in Germany numerous renderings of Nibelungenlied (c. 1200; The Nibelungenlied, 1848) served as foundation blocks for a nationalist aesthetic. In Chile, Diego Barros Arana produced a seminal edition of the epic poem by Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, Purén Indómito (1862), which would compete with the Argentine Juan María Gutiérrez’s 1848 edition of Pedro de Oña’s epic Arauco domado (Aracuo Tamed, 1948), which appeared in 1596.

It was also during this period that the first distinctive collections of short stories began to appear in Latin America. While some critics remain adamant that the “cuadros de costumbres” were in fact not quite short stories but narratives, which functioned as anecdotal tales with little of the structural unities normally associated with the short story as it emerged in the latter part of the nineteenth century. These narratives undeniably influenced the short-story movement that assumed full force at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The earlier part of the nineteenth century saw many examples of the long narrative. The novel was thriving,...

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Latin American Short Fiction The Modern Short Story

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

There are several ways to talk about the Latin American short story. Some scholars have, in an attempt to underplay the regional distinctions of the genre, focused on a select number of stellar writers who have formed an impressive pantheon of Latin American giants stretching across the “cone” of South America and into the islands of the Caribbean archipelago. These writers all helped to shape a Latin American aesthetic that would give rise to even more cosmopolitan writers of the contemporary period. While movements are acknowledged, they are not defined by nationality but by literary trends and concerns. Others have sought more regional and nationalistic readings of the literature of the region. The distinctions that separate the Brazilian and Cuban literary traditions from those of the larger nation-states on the mainland of South America, for instance, are often cited as the basis for this approach. A number of short-story anthologies argue the case for a well-defined tradition by nationality, which must be identified, understood, and appreciated for any genuine understanding of the work of the region. These two approaches to the Latin American short story, however, cannot be seen as exclusive. Indeed, what is worth noting here is that the Latin American short story, like all of Latin American letters has, in the last century, been forced to define its relevance and strength in a milieu that lends itself to easy generalizations and the regionalism of the publishing world. In other words, for the last hundred years, Latin American literature has been perceived as a “new thing,” a fantastic and unknown thing to be discovered. While literature from the region has never been obscure and inaccessible, it has been distant enough to make the discovery of a new voice an occasion for the celebration of otherness.

Many of the major writers of the region have, at some point in their careers, lived in extended exile from their home countries either in Latin American or Europe. This fact encourages a survey of the literature of the region through examination of the writers who have come to have an impact on the international stage. There are a number of indisputable giants of Latin American writing, figures who have been seen as representatives of the region and who have unquestionably influenced writers in the twentieth century. These stalwart figures have shaped the way in which the short story has been written in Latin America and around the world. They are influential writers, major figures of the century, and writers who should be studied carefully by anyone interested in examining Latin American literature. These writers, tellingly, have developed international reputations, but their lasting legacy is “local”—it rests in their success at establishing a tradition in Latin American writing.

Of this group of writers, Rubén Darío of Nicaragua is the least likely to be considered a master of the short story. He was better known as a poet. Darío is arguably the most important Spanish poet in centuries. His fresh modernism was, at its core, a rejection of the old literary traditions of Spain and an embrace of anything outside that sensibility. In a jazzlike openness to all other forms, Darío, on the strength of his first major success, Azul (1888), saw develop around him a movement that would be called Modernismo—a movement which would change the direction of Latin American writing. Dario’s contributions were largely in poetry but he also wrote a series of very short, poetic narratives, which would influence the works of numerous short-story writers to come.

If Darío was a central influence, the person who would take Darío’s ideas and transform them into the short- story genre, bringing to the form a perfection rarely surpassed since, was Horacio Quiroga, often labeled the father of the Latin American short story. His dispassionate rendering of narratives set in the jungles of Uruguay and his exploration of themes of violence and human abjection shaped an aesthetic which would come to be called Borges-like in the latter part of the twentieth century. Jorge Luis Borges, along with Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar, admitted an indebtedness to this writer of sublime tragedies.

During the early twentieth century, several important fiction writers emerged, many of them specializing in the short story. Their importance as writers rested largely on their international reputations. These writers included the Argentine Ricardo Güiraldes, author of Cuentos de muerte y de sangre (1915); Rómulo Gallegos of Venezuela, who, apart from writing one of the most important and definitive novels of Latin American letters, Doña Bárbara (1929; English translation, 1984), also published several short stories in the realist vein; and Luisa Mercedes Levinson, an Argentine who lived much of her life outside Argentina and who produced a small but significant body of stories and novels, which are notable for their striking comingling of the erotic and the violent.

It would be Jorge Luis Borges, however, her blind countryman and one of the first writers to declare exclusive loyalty to the short story (having found the novel to be far too long and flawed in its very essence), who has come to define the Latin American short story. Borges, in many ways, seems an unlikely spokesperson for a nationalist literary...

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Latin American Short Fiction The Caribbean Short Story

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Unlike Latin American literature, fiction from the English- speaking Caribbean remains a relatively new development. While there is a history of writing by colonial inhabitants of the islands, to a large extent this writing has been quite unremarkable and, more important, has not been part of the tradition that led to the developments in fiction in the twentieth century. The most useful writing of this type was travel writing—the work of travelers from Europe and the United States, who spent months traveling through the islands and writing accounts of their journeys. Filled with evidence of ignorance and arrogance, many of these narratives can be credited for the sometimes exotic and always negative image of the Caribbean that...

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