Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Novelists and the Dictators

Ilan Stavans on Latin American novels with dictators.
Does the current crop of left-wing caudillos in Latin America, like Hugo Chávez, inspire the type of animosity their military counterparts once did? And will its members be turned into larger-than-life dictators in novels, as they were in Gabriel García Márquez's 1975 The Autumn of the Patriarch? Or have the literary intelligentsia finally given up the foolish practice of using fiction to pretend to force tyrants from their throne?

Those aren't rhetorical questions. For centuries, literature in the former Spanish colonies on this side of the Atlantic has sought to define itself, in part, as resistance to autocratic rulers, as if what justifies writing is fighting oppression and totalitarianism. There is a plethora of novelas del dictador, narratives, mostly gargantuan in scope, in which a narcissist tyrant serves as protagonist and, at times, as narrator: El Caudillo (1921), by Jorge Borges, father of Jorge Luis Borges (the younger Borges was apolitical, or in any case conservative, so that link to the tradition was broken); Miguel Ángel Asturias's El señor presidente (1946); Alejo Carpentier's Reasons of State (1974); Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat (2000).

The key to success has been to find a worthy foe, an avatar of evil—arrogant, dogmatic, overbearing, if possible misogynistic, maybe even a voodoo practitioner if you're writing about the Caribbean. God knows, there has been no scarcity of dictators. Pick your choice: Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, François "Papa Doc" and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc," Duvalier in Haiti, Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda in Paraguay, Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Juan Vicente Gómez in Venezuela, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, José María Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador. ...
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1 comment:

  1. I agree with the writer that it's good to see Latin American authors take on topics outside of the country. As to why that's happening, I think the answer might connect with the main question motivating the piece: why don't leaders on the left have novels written about them? Is it possible that the authors from the 60s felt there was not enough freedom for intellectuals to worry about anything else but their current sitations? Whereas the present generation of writers under leftist leaders (with the exception of Castro and to a certan degree, Chavez) feel their people are more free and more able to look past their own borders, so they do the same?

    A more interesting question (I believe) that ties into this is a question of style. Why is it that contemportary authors (like the Macondo movement) are all so against the approach of Magical Realism? In general, theirs is a much more ironic way of looking at the world (and arguably, a more facile, more consumerist approach) that I am not sure is as artistically rich. This is not to say that Latin American authors should all write in the Garcia Marquez way, but it is worth wondering why many of our contemporary authors are dismissive of the approach taken on by older writers.