Chile by Ariel Dorfman
If you haven't had enough of Neruda, then you can discover him again as a character in Antonio Skármeta's masterful "The Postman" (1985), where the illustrious bard befriends the eponymous postman of the title and teaches him how to woo an elusive damsel with metaphors and a pinch of politics. This novel not only will enchant and entertain readers (I like it more than the 1994 film, "Il Postino," that it inspired) but also will offer a glimpse of Chileans' peculiar sense of humor, corrosive and light, self-deprecating and ferocious.
That sense of humor is also present in "Chile: A Traveler's Literary Companion" (2003), though what distinguishes this excellent anthology of short fiction edited by Katherine Silver is that each selection by many stalwarts of Chilean literature opens a vista onto a distinctive zone of Chile: Read Francisco Coloane, for instance, on the seas off Patagonia (where Herman Melville set Ahab's quest for Moby-Dick) or Hernan Rivera Letelier and Roberto Ampuero on the haunted inhabitants of the northern deserts. Or Marta Brunet's terrifying "Black Bird" and its suggestion that Chilean nature is not always as benevolent or glorious as I have implied.
Indeed, every country has its dark side, and no voyager, real or imaginary, should ignore what lurks under the welcoming surface. And there is probably no better guide to that ominous undertow than Chile's preeminent 20th century narrator, José Donoso. More accessible than his labyrinthine masterpiece, "Obscene Bird of Night" (1973) (where, among other niceties, a child's eyes and ears and other orifices are being sewn shut by witches), is "A House in the Country" (1984). Through a sprawling family saga of masters and servants and rebellious daughters, Donoso weaves a secret history of Chile's turbulent past and uncovers the sources of my country's recent violence, the dictatorship for which we have become sadly notorious. Read more
Mexico by Ilan Stavans
Katherine Anne Porter, known for having a persona larger than the person who hosted it, spent years in Mexico, working as a translator, screenwriter, lecturer and reporter. Her 1930 book "Flowering Judas and Other Stories" includes excellent tales about Mexican peasant life that ought to be read alongside more idiosyncratic -- and nativistic -- portraits such as Juan Rulfo's 1968 classic "The Burning Plain," a collection of stories told from the peasant viewpoint. His characters don't just suffer their misery, they act it out for us with bravado.
Finally, no literary tour should ignore Harriet Doerr's debut novel, "Stones for Ibarra," for which she won the National Book Award in 1984 at the age of 73. The book focuses on an aging Anglo couple who move to a Mexican mining town, hoping to return to a copper mine the husband's family once owned. But he soon falls sick, and the wife's odyssey ultimately revolves around her interaction with the villagers. She learns that Ibarrans go about "their individual dooms" with resignation, recognizing "as inevitable the hail on the ripe corn, the vultures at the heart of the starved cow, the stillborn child." Doerr said of her work: "I found I'm quite happy working on a sentence for an hour or more, searching for the right phrase, the right word. I compare it to the work of a stone cutter -- chipping away at the raw material until it's just right, or as right as you can get it." The narrative makes you believe she's patiently sculpting each of the town's dwellers, their wrinkled faces, their longing souls, in stone.
For those ready to unearth Mexico's treasures from within, I recommend Octavio Paz's "The Labyrinth of Solitude," a 1950 study that will help, even today, elucidate the ways people in Mexico live. In his essays, Paz proves the extent to which the whole civilization approaches life as a cosmic performance. His prose is cosmopolitan, and he makes insightful connections between psychology and faith, literature and technology. Sadly, his iconoclastic poetry is less enticing. In its stead, I suggest un paseo, a rendezvous through one of the most lucid and emblematic of all Mexican poets, the 17th century nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Her superb book "Poems, Protest, and a Dream" covers the treacherous path women walk in a society ruled by machismo. Finally, people interested in Mexico's tumultuous past may want to look at Mariano Azuela's "The Underdogs" (1915), a short novel about how the Mexican revolution of 1910 ended up betraying its own objectives. It follows the paths of a series of characters in search of a mission and explains how political corruption became the law of the land. Read more
Havana by Tony D'Souza
"Three Trapped Tigers," G. Cabrera Infante's 1958 masterpiece, captures Havana as it was, a place of Santeria and frantic drinking, of mystical black women and handsome young men in their best outfits with not much to do under the oppressive shadow of politics. Half a century later, not much has changed. The things the thugs in power on both sides of the strait can't control continue to be the starry Havana nights, the hectic energy of the Habaneras, the rum, and the brassy music that sets everything off once the sun goes down. Infante, who at first embraced the Revolution, but later died in exile, knew that love is possible at every turn in Havana, especially if it's only for one night. This novel, the best the city has ever produced, is an anatomy of the fecund Havana we dream of finding, and if we possess the bravery to go there in these times, we still do.
But of course Habaneros are more than just their parties. Race and struggle define the Cuban soul. Ada Ferrer's "Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898" details the essence of the Cuban Revolution from 60 years before it happened. Soon after "discovery" in 1492, Columbus' ruthless enslavement of the indigenous Taíno set the stage for the sugar cane factory that chewed up imported African slaves like a juicing machine, which Cuba quickly became. There's a reason why Castro's Revolution, which at one point was only himself, and as he famously quotes, "one other guy," hiding in the Sierra Maestra, went on to defeat the U.S.-trained and -equipped forces of Batista. Ferrer reveals the secret: Cuba has always been a minority white privileged class and a majority of disenfranchised blacks. Ever wonder why the angry exiles in Miami who influence so much of American policy are all white? Ferrer explains it.
Castro is no hero either, though it's hard to find a Habanera who will admit this in public (just as it's nearly impossible to find a Habanera who won't say that José Martí, Cuba's national poet, is really just a jingoist). Reinaldo Arenas, though, had the bravery to, and he paid the price with decades of police harassment, and a constant ban on his works. The gay boys who look for love in the shadows of Plaza Don Quixote all know his name, and his novel "Farewell to the Sea" tells us why. On display here is a human heart, tender and longing, trapped by a political system that won't let it be what it is, and the strained marriage it forces that heart into. Arenas' own tragic demise reflects the one his narrator can't escape in this poetic requiem. Read more
Argentina by Benjamin Kunkel
Since Borges' long life (1899-1986) coincided with Argentina's rise to fantastic wealth and long, wracking decline, Williamson's biography can also function as a history book. Not by itself, however: Williamson somehow refers to the Dirty War prosecuted by the ruling junta between 1976 and 1983 as "the war against the guerillas." There were perhaps 400 leftist guerrillas at the time of the coup; the remainder of the 20,000 or 30,000 people tortured and killed by their government were unionists, factory workers, campesinos, teachers, student council leaders, psychologists and their inconvenient spouses and children. Marguerite Feitlowitz's "A Lexicon of Terror" (1998) offers an appalling anatomy of one of the most sordid regimes in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Reading it, one is yet more intrigued by the nightmare Borges reported having had on April 10, 1977. In his poem "The Leaves of the Cypress," Borges dreams of being kidnapped in the middle of the night by a man intent on murder, just as no doubt happened in the waking lives of some of his neighbors as he slept.
Borges (who later chose to die in Geneva at least partly for political reasons) never wrote anything approaching a novel in length. The best-known Argentine novels are "Hopscotch" by Julio Cortázar (who died in exile in Paris), and "The Kiss of the Spider Woman" by Manuel Puig (who died in exile in New York). "Hopscotch" (1966) has not aged gracefully: With its rhapsodic conversations, allegedly jazzlike prose and bohemian cast of characters, it seems like the work of a sort of superior Kerouac. "The Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1974) is something else. Two Argentine cellmates, the one guilty of homosexuality, the other of Marxism, talk about movies and revolution, and, between sessions of torture at the hands of the police, fall in love. In its combination of political commitment and pop-cultural dizziness, in the terrible pain that it describes and the great pleasure that it gives, this is the novel that half the writers living in Brooklyn, N.Y., today have always longed to write.
Juan José Saer (who died last year in Paris) is not as well-known as Cortázar or Puig, but he deserves to be mentioned in their company. His fine novel "The Event" (1988) concerns the efforts of an Italian immigrant -- a rancher and magician -- to do two things: make a fortune on the pampas, and prove the truth of his metaphysical conviction that mind can command matter, that the visible world is the least and flimsiest aspect of reality. The force of the novel is to show how this conviction is done in by obdurate Argentina, especially the implacable landscape of the pampas. In a magnificent passage, Saer describes "the precarious settlements that were forming on the flat surface of the oldest land in the world, covered by the sediment of continents and of extinct species and pulverized by time and harsh weather, that unreal and empty space that the conquistadors took special care to avoid but that, the Indians first, then later cows and horses, and shortly thereafter adventurers, soldiers and landowners, and then later still the disinherited of the whole world who had arrived in overcrowded ships, stubbornly persisted in crossing again and again, gray, hallucinated figures, leaving fleeting traces that the strong winds and the rain undertook almost immediately to efface." Read more
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