Behind its flash, the boom in Latin American fiction is merely that continent's version of the copious documentary practiced by Arnold Bennett and deplored by Virginia Woolf in her famous essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.' Except for the work of Carlos Fuentes, whose ebullient mind urges him toward the impossible, the undone, there is little in recent Latin American fiction that bears comparison with the innovations of authors as diverse as Samuel Beckett, Maurice Blanchot and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Instead, the boom is thickset family chronicle, done with much the same enticing garrulity that Gabriel Garcia Marquez attributes to his favorite aunt, who told him stories nonstop.
The Latin Americans who have been most celebrated have given the world yet another good solid read, whereas the truly inventive Latin American writers --from Jorge Luis Borges, Jose Lezama Lima, Julio Cortazar and Mario Satz to the Brazilians Joao Guimaraes Rosa, Mario de Andrade and Osman Lins--find a smaller public, fewer major prizes and a discerning readership akin to the one that gave the French nouvequ roman more serious attention in the United States than it initially got in France. It was ever thus. Rossini is not Ives.
Family chronicle reassures us, of course. It teaches us that this thing that we curse and yet prize is really the main stuff of life, the source of endurance and mutation, the irreducible focus and context, and dimension in which all things happen. In the family the human being is at his or her most commonplace, and it is against a family background that black sheep must be savored. Anf family, happy or unhappy, is the team version of existential pain, the theatrical version of something most grievously expressed by loners and pariahs or by the fierce paucity of so unpeopled a fiction as Beckett's How It Is. The act of reading is a lonely one, and perhaps lonely readers, or at any rate readers who are by themselves, prefer something chummy before their eyes--some festive, uproarious knockabout to distract them from the knowledge that the family of man is truly the loneliest individual of all, a hapless sacrificial animal on the altar of zealous militarism. As my mother used to say during the blitzkrieg, as we crouched under the kitchen table (until we got an air raid shelter), "If we go we'll go together.' The thing she abhorred, on behalf of the rest of us, was any one of us having to go it alone. In this sense, the family novel is a talisman.
Perhaps this explains the runaway vogue of Isabel Allende's first novel, which has been translated into at least a dozen languages. The author happens to be the niece of the slain Chilean President, but even that fateful connection can hardly account for the response to this ably done variant of the typical recent Latin American novel, one formula for which might run: while moving elastically about in time, heap up incongruous juxtapositions (a block of ice in the jungle, Marquez; a mouse trapped inside a worn corset, Allende) and encrust the characters with eccentric surface. Many times over, convey the notion of plenty, and overanimate everyone to fever pitch. Make the baggy monster spill over. Make it groan and seep like the exploding gourmand in a recent Monty Python movie. Suggest the swarmingness of things to give the impression, as the poet Diane Ackerman puts it, that we are "sucking on jungle.'
There is much to be said for this attitude to people and their mores. At least it requires that the novelist be observant and inventive; at most it requires what many novelists lack, a surfeit of material. The boom novelist must appear to be immersed in life, a life more garish and more intense than most folk know. Here are glimpses at random from the opening pages of The House of the Spirits. While the household tries to sleep, Uncle Marcos drags his suticases up and down the halls, tooting on barbaric musical instruments. He takes off aboard a mechanical bird with an eagle's face. A dog grows to be the size of a sheep, its tail long as a golf club, and one of its bouts of diarrhea lasts four days. Rosa the Beautiful has green hair years before punk. Young Clara witnesses Rosa's autopsy, sees them slice her open from throat to groin and then watches the young doctor kiss the resewn Rosa between the legs. After that, Clara doesn't speak for nine years. There is more-- from an idiot tethered in a courtyard, beating his enormous penis on the ground, to a mother whose legs resemble "bruised, elephantine columns covered with open wounds in which the larvae of flies and worms had made their nests.'
Images this lurid suit me. Something is making full use of my mind's eye, a rare thing in contemporary English or American fiction. But such images do blot out what goes on among the characters. I found myself bored by the family to and fro, what I could discern of it, and eager for the next sensational tableau. I had to keep reminding myself that this is the saga of the Trueba family, that Clara and Esteban have a daughter Blanca and two twins, Nicholas and Jaime, who get involved with a socialist leader called the Candidate. As The House of the Spirits advances, it calms down into the book Allende probably wanted to write, and would have had she not felt obliged to toe the line of magical realism. Hers is a realism learned from models and ritually imposed from without: heraldic, not sociological. As the book begins to get allegorical, through the introduction of a murdered poet of world stature and a murdered president, Allende begins the diatribe she no doubt had in mind all along.
If you recall the opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude ("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'), you may hear echoes in this book, as in "At the end of his life, when his ninety years had turned him into a twisted fragile tree, Esteban Trueba would recall those moments with his granddaughter as the happiest of his whole existence.' Such echoes are bows, perhaps, but a book of bows becomes a bow-wow.
Macunama, however, is the real thing. First published by the author himself, in 1928, it is the earliest effective attempt to weld Brazilian mythology into a single narrative lump. Sly, ribald and opulent in a hardheaded, buoyant way, the book is a classic, and you might never guess that Mario de Andrade had hit on the idea for its hero, Macunaima, in the works of a German anthropologist. It's as if someone had unearthed Pan from the whimsical texts of Levi-Strauss and orchestrated the result in the fashion of Villa-Lobos. A hallucinative poet suckled on Apollinaire and Laforgue, de Andrade takes in everything, ancient and modern, African and Italian, and creates from it a chirping icon, cosmic and undusty.
As stories go, and they come and go fast in this book, Macunaima is that of a folk hero who sets out in quest of a charm he's lost. He has broken tribal law, so the gods punish him. In this sense, the story is that of the dispossessed young prince all over again. There is more than a touch of mysticism to the madcap knockabout, and the ending is truly poignant, as Macunaima, seeing nothing worth staying on earth for, ascends to heaven, slaps the moon's face (cause of those dark blotches) and persuades the Father of the Crested Curassows to turn him and his belongings--"the cock, the hen, the coop, the revolver and the clock'--into a new constellation called the Great Bear. So much for the family of man, forever busy, forever evasive.
In the end we learn that the whole tale has been told by a parrot, full of sounds and fury, signifying more than most novels because it doesn't halt at the border of fiction or sociology or fable but becomes the rhapsody that de Andrade intended. What an amazing supple text it is, woven together from songs, curses, obscenities, tall tales, erudite letters and primitive improvisation.
It is almost beside the point to note that the book's content is just as varied as its manner, piling up with breezy receptivity the musician wren, a fortune in cocoa beans, a ship's wake of chocolate, a tree on which pistols grow and sometimes ripen, a cannibal soup "made from the body of a meat porter frozen overnight in a Sao Paulo cold storage,' a sex change under rainbows, "that sublime village, Rio de Janeiro,' a man from British Guiana with a cold virus in his Gladstone bag and the golden-brown jaguar that fathers every Mercedes and Bentley. More urban paraphernalia would have enriched the mix; after all, de Andrade had a free hand in making this tapestry. Also some of the Britishisms in the translation ("peeler' for cop, "the horn' for a hard-on) should have been excised. All the same, the full tune, the ample flavor, of the original come through, reminding us that in this world of the subatomic, anything has the right to be next to anything else. Not many such chromatic romps will come our way.
As a novelist, I find the technique fascinating because it runs on sheer telling, with no effort to convince. The result is a free-associative consecutiveness which turns causation into a phantom and realism into a quibble. The myth is senseless and porous, a massive nub of fluidity done in an idiom glib and precise. You read it, you should read it, with gratitude for the open-ended fashion in which the hero's metamorphoses embody the universe he lives in: a fresh antidote to the anorexic provincialism of much that gets published today.
Almost sixty years after Macunaima first appeared, de Andrade seems less the obscurantist musicologist-explorer-scholar-novelist than the Orpheus of the Amazon, but with a barbaric narrative drive and a full-blooded brand of wordplay. In the movie version of the book, Macunaima teams up with urban guerrillas, reminding us that when the Great Bear is a family member, the human family is endless.
In his lecture "The Argentine Writer and Tradition,' Borges makes two points that are relevant here, claiming that the absence of camels proves the Koran an Arabian work (Mohammed had no reason to suppose camels were especially Arabian) and that South Americans in general are no more obligated to Western culture than are Jews, or than Irishmen to theculture of England. Just so: Allende's novel is full of camels, so to speak, whereas Macunaima's patrimony is the universe. After Allende's confected, middling family, there is de Andrade's colossal one. He reminds us that the word "family' is from the Latin word for servant, and servants we are in his household of the All, along with monkeys, cowbirds, bushmasters, tacuri ants, Maceio mussels, pepper and cassareep.
It is interesting to compare E.A. Goodland's translation of Chapter Three with the one by Barbara Shelby in The Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature. Goodland, worth a novel himself, was a Cambridge-educated chemical engineer who traveled widely in Brazil, went on some tricky voyages by canoe on the Rio Negro and made the translation of Macunaima his labor of love during retirement. His labor was not lost, but Shelby has an American ear, although sometimes Goodland's Britishisms make the jungle seem even more exotic than ever, giving the swarmingness a touch of Victorian Hauteur. De Andrade would have smiled, I think, and devoured the protean shift, if he had lived long enough to see the word bandeirante ("an armed band') become the name of a short-haul passenger airplane.