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The literary pulse of the Americas.

ONCE SPURNED AS A STEPCHILD OF EUROPE, Latin American fiction is now considered one of the most dynamic, innovative, and vibrant literary forces in the West. The influence of the Latin American "new narrative" has not been confined to the Spanish-and Portuguese-speaking countries, but has been felt in Europe and North America as well, as evidenced by Alastair Reid's story "In Memoriam, Amada," included here. Although Reid's story is set in Costa Rica, it is not merely in the recreation of exotic locations and atmospheres that Latin American fiction exerts an influence, but in the very concept of the narrative.

The social realism of the early twentieth century was, in large part, a continuation of the realist and naturalist traditions. The writer used fiction to explore his (or, in a few cases, her) immediate situation. He was an observer of reality for whom writing was a means of exposing social political and economic injustices. The author was omnipresent and omniscient. Although there are experimental elements in the writing of authors such as Jose Eustasio Rivera and Mariano Azuela, for the most part, their work is realistic.

The term "new narrative" refers to widely varying kinds of writing, which, nevertheless, share at least one common trait: the rejection of the kind of documentary approach that - with some exceptions - characterized the novel and short story of earlier periods. Influenced by the Freudian revolution, surrealism, Marxism, and other European movements, writers began to discard traditional notions of reality. They sought a different kind of reality that was not be found in the material world, but in the subjective, interior world. The new generation suggested that reality might be different for everyone or might not be accessible at all. The pessimism and skepticism engendered by the Second World War led intellectuals to doubt the absolute nature of truth and, therefore, the artists' ability to represent reality.

Under these conditions, the traditional narrative became obsolete. The writers of the 50s and 60s, most notably Jorge Luis Borges, sought means of conveying the subjective nature of reality. They replaced chronological time with personal, arbitrary concept of time. By means of structural fragmentation, perspectivism, stream of consciousness, and combinations of fantasy and reality, they created a new relationship between writer and reader. Traditionally passive, readers were now forced to take an active role in the creative process. Readers were compelled to reconstruct the story by supplying transitions, adding missing elements, delving into the hidden meanings of symbols, distinguishing fact from fantasy. Narratives were deliberately "open-ended" and ambiguous, lending themselves to multiple interpretations, thus reinforcing the idea that there was no one single objective reality.

The "new narrative" burgeoned during the Boom, the period in the 60s and early-70s characterized by intense innovation and experimentation in literature, particularly the novel. Writers such as Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa sought to create an unsettling new literary language that would force readers to reevaluate not only their personal views, but also the prevailing social and political institutions. For these writers, politics and literature were inseparable.

Social realism gave way to magical realism, associated primarily with Garcia Marquez but having roots in the works of several pre-Boom writers such as Alcides Arguedas and Alejo Carpentier. Magical realism seeks to blur the distinction between fantasy and reality. It reflects the notion that Latin America is, in essence, "fantastic," its history filled with incredible events and larger-than-life figures. In the world of the magical realists, everyday occurrences take on mythical dimensions, while the most amazing events are narrated with deadpan flatness.

The present generation has continued the structural and linguistic experimentation of the "new narrative," but, for the most part, has rejected the rigid political stance of the Boom novelists. In spite of their solidarity with the masses, the Boom writers produced books that were highly cerebral and therefore inaccessible to uneducated readers. Many younger intellectuals complain that the novelist of the Boom were elitist. In their own books, they tend to glorify popular culture. The late Manuel Puig, who represents the transition between the Boom and the post-Boom, evokes the movies of the 40s in novels such as Boquitas pintadas (Heartbreak Tango), La traicion de Rita Hayworth (Betrayed by Rita Hayworth), and El beso de la mujer arana (Kiss of the Spider Woman). In his 1977 novel La tia Julia y el escribidor (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter), Vargas Llosa recalls the radio soap operas of the 50s. Like the other Boom novelists (besides Cortazar, who died in 1984), Vargas Llosa continues to write and his style is constantly evolving.

One of the most significant factors in the development of Latin American fiction is the growing presence of women writers. Although several notable women writers were born prior to 1930 - for example, the Mexicans Elena Garro, Rosario Castellanos and Josefina Hernandez, the Chileans Maria Luisa Bombal and Marta Brunet, the Argentine Silvina Ocampo, and the Brazilians Clarice Lispector and Lygia Fagundes Telles - the past two decades have produced a veritable plethroa of literature written by women. While some of these writers focus on the traditional themes of family and children, many explore other realms, such as fantasy or politics. Although no consensus exists regarding the existence of a distinctly feminine literary voice, it is certainly true that the recent generation of female writers has created a new awareness of problems facing women - among them, sexual abuse, abandonment, oppressive marriages, and the pressure of new-found independence.

The writers included here represent a variety of generations, styles, and outlooks. The oldest is the Dominican Juan Bosch, who was born in 1909, a decade after Borges. Bosch's first stories appeared In Cuban and Dominican magazines and newspapers. He established his reputation as a writer in 1933 with the publications of Camino real, a collection of seventeen stories. Although Bosch is often included among the social realists because of his graphic depiction of Latin American society and his ardent defense of the under-privileged, many of his stories include elements of fantasy. Bosch's censure of the upper class is usually indirect or else advanced so artfully that its ferocity is muffled. In "La bella alma de don Damian" ("The Beautiful Soul of Don Damian"), Bosch exposes the materialism and hypocrisy of the upper classes through a humorous conceit in which he personifies the soul of the defunct millionaire. Don Damian. While Don Damian's survivors lament with troubling predictability the passing of his "beautiful soul," the soul examines herself with a critical eye and reaches her own conclusions about her "beauty."

The daughter of a French-Polish emigre and his Mexican wife, Elena Poniatowska, born in 1933, is considered one of Mexico's best writers. She has cultivated the documentary narrative, a genre that, while reminiscent of social realism, is far more intense and complex. Hasta no verte Jesus mio (Until We Meet Again) (1969) depicts the experiences of a working-class woman. La noche de Tlatelolco (Massacre in Mexico) (1971) records the 1968 massacre in which 300 to 400 students, workers, and others died, among them, the Poniatowska's brother. Nada, nadie (Nothing, No One) (1988) is a graphic depiction of the 1986 earthquake. The documentary narrative, in which the characters speak for themselves, lends itself to the kind of perspectivism and ambiguity cultivated by contemporary authors.

In many of her stories, Poniatowska captures the same poignant subjectivity as in her novels. In "El recado" ("The Message"), the narrator evokes a powerful masculine image, although Martin never appears in the story and the relationship between him and the young girl who waits for him is never defined. Are they lovers? Friends? Does she know him at all? Does she linger by his door day after day writing letters that will never be delivered? What emerges from this carefully constructed interior monologue is the pain and solitude of youth, with its "imperious, implacable need to relate everything to love."

The Puerto Rican Rosario Ferre is among the best known authors of the generation that emerged around 1960. Between 1972 and 1975 she directed the magazine Zona de Carga y Descarga (Loading and Unloading Zone), which published stories by Ferre and other young authors who would win acclaim in the following decade. Her books include El medio pollo: Siete cuentos infantiles (The Half Chicken: Seven Children's Stories) (1976), Los cuentos de Juan Bobo (Tales of Juan the Dolt) (1981), Maldito amor (Damned Love) (1986), Sonatinas (1989) and El arbol y sus sombras (The Tree and its shadows) (1989)

Ferre couches mordant social criticism in narratives which combine elements of fantasy and reality in a fairy-tale format. But the framework is deceptive, for these are not really tales for children. Like Bosch, Ferre condemns the upper classes, exposing their greed, insensitivity, ambition and hypocrisy. In "La muneca menor" ("The Youngest Doll"), a young woman is bitten by a river prawn that lodges in her calf. Instead of removing it, a mendacious doctor exploits her condition. Immobilized, the maiden devotes her life to creating beautiful dolls for her nieces, filling the last doll she makes for each girl with honey. The doctor's son, who is as uncaring and acquisitive as his father, pays the price of his selfishness in the end when his beautiful wife seems to turn into the cold, stiff doll who is filled with water instead of honey and who harbors inside destructive, menacing river prawns.

Ferre gives her tale the dimensions of a myth by creating nameless, archetypical characters. Through deliberate ambiguity - we are never sure who is the doll and who is the girl - she generates an atmosphere of mystery and foreboding. The appearance of the prawns at the end creates a closed, escape-proof circle. As in all fairy tales, providence guides the action and wickedness is punished. And yet, we are left with nagging questions: What exactly happened to the youngest niece and who is the youngest doll?

The Brazilian writer Nelida Pinon is best known for her novel A Republica dos sonhos (The Republic of Dreams) (1984), a long family saga and historical narrative. The granddaughter of immigrants from Galicia, Pinon explores questions of Brazilian identify through the examination of her own family's experience. In "Eu Amo meu marido" ("I Love My Husband") she exposes a society governed by appearances and captures the frustration of "privileged" women who are trapped in unfulfilling marriages that rob them of their identities, their dreams, and even their bodies.

Through her novels and stories, Luisa Valenzuela, currently living in New York, explores the violence of the seventies and early eighties in her native Argentina. Because of her surrealistic images and her subjective use of time, she has often been compared with Julio Cortazar.

Her collection of stories, Cambio de armas (Other Weapons) (written in 1977 but published in 1982) examines male-female relationships against a backdrop of repression and terror. Like Cortazar, Valenzuela often questions her practice of writing about the horrors of military repression from her safe vantage point in exile. In Novela negra con argentinos (Black Novel with Argentines) (1990), she examines her character's abhorrence of violence and, at the same time, her disturbing fascination with it.

In "De noche soy tu caballo" ("I'm Your Horse in the Night"), from Cambio de armas, Valenzuela recreates the atmosphere of hysteria that prevailed during the 70s. Lovers meet but cannot speak each other's names for fear of being heard. He cannot tell her where he has been, but she can surmise from the gifts he brings as he comes and goes. Sex becomes the strongest bond between lovers when no project can be shared, no plans can be made. And when violence rips the lovers apart, separating them forever, the only refuges is fantasy.

Poet, fiction writer, and translator, Alastair Reid has been an important conduit for Latin American writers into the North American literary scene. Through his translations and articles, he has done much to familiarize North American readers with the Boom. Reid has translated into English the works of numerous Latin American writers, including Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Heberto Padilla, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Mario Vargas Llosa. A contributor to The New Yorker since 1951, Reid is author of over twenty books of prose and poetry and is currently working on a long piece on Columbus. Born in Scotland, Reid now spends most of his time on his fruit farm in the Dominican Republic.

In his own fiction, Reid incorporates many themes and techniques associated with the "new narrative." In "In Memoriam Amada," he plays with a device popular since Cervantes: the unreliable narrator. First asserting that he heard the story told in Spain about Juan Ramon Jimenez, he throws the reader off balance by saying that he has put it in the mouth of the Costa Rican Judas Roquin. But, he says, he may have altered it, he "cannot be sure." What matters, then, is not where the story came from or who it is really about, but the story itself, as he will tell it. All of this serves to set up the reader for an open-ended finale that throws into doubt the very notion "realistic" fiction. The story-teller is, by nature and by definition, an inventor, and every listener who retells a tale will reinvent it. So how close to truth can the writer get? Like Vargas Llosa, Reid suggests that it is not the writer's task to reproduce reality exactly, but to extract its essence and to elaboration on it, thereby creating a new, equally authentic reality.

Over the centuries there have been many instances in which periods of great creativity have been followed by a dearth of artistic activity. Some intellectuals feared that after the Boom Latin America would see a decline in the production of top-quality narrative. This has not happened. Latin American writers-and North Americans who have been influenced by them-continue to produce an abundance of exciting new fiction, an auspicious trend that, hopefully, will carry into the twenty-first century.

Barbara Mujica is a novelist, short story writer and essayist whose most recent books are a novel, The Deaths of Don Bernardo and two critical anthologies, Antologia de la literatura espanola, Vols. I and II and Texto y vida: Introduccion a la literatura hispanoamericana. Dr. Mujica is a professor of Spanish at Georgetown University, where she directs El Retablo, a Spanish-language theater group.
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Title Annotation:introduction to short fiction supplement
Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:In memoriam, Amada.
Next Article:Copan: an excursion into artistry.

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