latin american literature boom
Myth and Boom
Though the Latin American boom has in many ways cemented its history in myths and legends, when a literary movement is represented in myth, it can become frozen, stultified, and, most dangerously, irrelevant.
The boom ended with a punch. The year was 1976. Gabriel García Márquez, already an established literary celebrity across Latin America who had recently published The Autumn of the Patriarch, his first book after One Hundred Years of Solitude, was hanging around in the foyer of Mexico City’s grand Palacio de Bellas Artes. He was attending the inaugural screening of La odisea de los Andes, a movie written by his close friend and fellow boom author, Mario Vargas Llosa. Though the specific details of this extraordinary moment are lost to time, I imagine García Márquez, ever-buoyant, greeting friend after literary friend, walking across the marble lobby, likely packed with animated moviegoers commenting on the release. From a distance, he spots Vargas Llosa, the man of the hour, whom he hasn’t seen in some time.
García Márquez and his warm, mustached face approached the lanky, lizard-like Vargas Llosa, arms spread wide to offer his friend a celebratory embrace. When Vargas Llosa saw García Márquez coming toward him, he clenched his prominent jaw, narrowed his lacertilian eyes, and, in an instant, launched forth first his fist, then arm, shoulder.
The punch landed squarely on García Márquez’s left eye, and the impact tumbled the Colombian to the ground. The fallen man was scooped up by his wife and promptly shepherded into a bright green Volkswagen beetle—the characteristic Mexico City taxi. The two writers—who used to live blocks apart in Barcelona, shared a literary agent, traveled together, and shared ideas about craft and style at countless meals and events among Latin American intelligentsia—never spoke again.
The Latin American boom ran between 1960 and 1980, during which time numerous Latin American authors “exploded” onto the global literary scene. But as much as the boom was about a new regional literary language and the stories it told, captured within books that circulated at an unprecedented volume around the world, it was also about stories outside of the books, stories about their creators. These stories, overwhelmingly, took the shape of myth.
Rather than allowing others to convey the history of their literary movement, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Donoso, and Gabriel García Márquez, among many of their peers, took matters into their own hands and related in manifestos, early (if not premature) memoirs, speeches, and interviews what it was like to be in the inner circle, writing the novels that came to define a region. They never just relayed the facts; their accounts were deeply embedded in aureate archetypes that captured the imagination of their newly minted reading public, both in Latin America and across the world. Extending the ornate neo-baroque and magical realist styles that had defined their fiction and their lives, they wrote of agents with licenses to kill, manuscripts whose second halves were never delivered, magicians writing in closets, cannibalistic mothers, and those same mothers covered in tears. The writers of the boom made themselves, their realities, into fantastic, magnificent myths.
The punch that ended the boom falls squarely into this myth-making tradition that has defined the boom since its inception. Although it was a real event, almost fifty years after it occurred, it has taken on epic proportions in the re-telling. Take my own account as an example. Rather than simply relaying the known facts, I didn’t hold back in casting each writer in their respective archetype. While writing, every nerve in my body wanted to frame this punch in Biblical proportions.
Joseph Campbell identifies multiple purposes for myth in human society—ethical, mystical, pedagogical. Traditionally, they have been most valued for their ability to answer questions to which we don’t have answers. In literature, as in other forms of cultural creation, myths are often used to explain “genius.” How did this great piece of work come to be? Who produced this literary artifact? How did they develop the talent to do so?
In the myths of the boom, for example, the idea for One Hundred Years of Solitude came to García Márquez as he was driving from Mexico City to Acapulco. Rather than the road, before him he saw unfolding a novel he had been trying to write for ten years. Like any good artist, García Márquez stopped abruptly, turned the car around, and drove back home where he wrote, uninterrupted, for a year and a half as his wife pawned their possessions to feed the family. In the myths of the boom, Gabriel García Márquez was not a writer, but a solitary magician in a small closet, smoking cigarette after cigarette as he meticulously crafted the world of Macondo.
The public, their readers, and, most of all, the media, gobbled up the stories boom writers shared about their lives, and cemented powerful myths around these men that continue to circulate almost sixty years on. Through these myths, what was otherwise a tale of a lowly group of writers sitting in their rooms writing stories became the quest of lost boys crafting a new language, bringing international recognition to their region, and becoming literary and intellectual celebrities in the process.
But while the spiritual, pedagogical, and ethical dimensions of myth continue to be important, to ignore the political consequences of myth-making on literary history is to fall, head first, for this form’s trap. Myth does a lot of damage to literary history (and history more broadly). Although myths do provide attractive answers for abstract, unanswerable questions and even act as an extension of a literary work, these same myths injure literary history by de-politicizing it.
In his classic analysis of modern cultural mythology, Roland Barthes describes myth as a stultifying, stiffening tool that makes the contingent appear eternal. Typically used by the bourgeoisie to clutch on to power, myth freezes, making history appear “natural,” as if it were meant to be. Myths flatten history by cloaking what actually happened with grand stories of what we wish had happened. Most dangerously, although the answers myth gives us are merely half-answers, in their vagueness, they satiate our appetite to understand the past more deeply. When García Márquez is described as Melquíades, hiding away in a closet creating the land of Macondo, the nuts and bolts of writing become uninteresting, and the work of writing is effaced, literally hidden behind a door. To obscure labor is to make man, as Barthes explains, unable to re-invent himself.
In Ascent to Glory, Alvaro Santana-Acuña unpacks how One Hundred Years of Solitude became a classic by arguing against the myth of the author as a “solitary genius.” Santana-Acuña provocatively redefines genius as a “hyper socialized person” and posits that One Hundred Years of Solitude was the creation of “networked creativity.” Instead of a magician, Santana-Acuña shows our jovial Colombian writer as a man with deep insecurities who drew on the guidance of many dozens of friends and collaborators to write. Nowhere near a prisoner of his craft, during the year and a half that he dedicated to writing the novel, García Márquez spent hours on the phone with his friends, or at dinner parties, reading chapters aloud, asking for the listeners’ reactions and suggestions. He would task others with small research projects, to study the sinking of a gold-filled ship off the coast of Cartagena, for example, so that he could incorporate their findings into his novel. One Hundred Years of Solitude, understood as a product of “networked creativity” becomes, in short, a much more political act of creative collaboration.
Santana-Acuña’s book is one in a recent lineage of studies writing against the myths that have come to define the Latin American boom. Through many years of the same stories told by the same people holding ground as the central historical source of the boom, a handful of scholars, such as Alejandro Herrero-Olaizola, for example, have quietly pushed back against the myths and archetypes that overwhelm these analyses, trying to render more fact-based histories of the literary movement. It’s been a slow revindication of the archive, but more importantly, it’s also been a steady attempt to re-politicize the history of the boom.
At the height of its international popularity, the Latin American boom represented a multi-faceted moment of cultural revolution. First, there was the forging of a regional consciousness. In colloquiums, conferences, and dinner parties across Paris, Mexico City, and Barcelona, writers from Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, saw beyond their differences and began to understand themselves as sharing a Latin American identity. At the same time, Latin America forged an important connection with its former colonial power, Spain, which sought to support, but also dictate, this important cultural moment. The movement of people, ideas, and goods across the Atlantic soared as both sides saw opportunities in the other. Finally, there was the literary revolution, which was both critically and commercially acclaimed. The boom brought bigger books, with a new style that broke with past costumbrista literary traditions, and these efforts by writers from the Global South were celebrated not only by market forces, but also by the literary institutions of the center. Most notably, between 1967 and 1971, two Latin American authors, Miguel Ángel Asturias and Pablo Neruda were awarded Nobel Prizes for literature, followed by García Márquez in 1982.
The literary revolution, however, coincided with a global political revolution. As the boom novels circulated across oceans, the Cold War raged on, making Latin American countries, and their writers, take sides. In the early years of the revolution, boom authors supported, and even befriended, the Cuban Revolution, which buzzed in the background of the parties and dinners the authors attended on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, the writers of the boom were, for the most part, deeply committed to socialism, the great battle of their days. The specific conditions of their writing aside, the boom was nothing close to apolitical.
In a year-end op-ed, writer Viet Than Nguyen preached the importance of remembering the lessons of 2020, to ensure that our literature becomes truly political, even revolutionary. But to make literature political, efforts to unwrite, override, the myths that have taken over the specific literary history of the boom, though valiant and necessary, are insufficient. In order to rescue literature from the mythological abyss, we need to make literature political again. And again, and again. We all fret about de-politicized art, but the real question here isn’t, how do we create revolutionary literature, but rather, how do we create a consistently revolutionary art? How can we ensure our culture can consistently fight back against the myths that will inevitably chase it down?
The final, possibly most dangerous, quality of myth is that myth is incredibly sticky. Like a parasite, myth adapts to its host to propagate its existence. Certain conditions in the host will make the parasite more likely to succeed. In the case of myth, as a tool of the bourgeoisie, any specter of bourgeois traits will feed myth heartily, allowing it to propagate. The Latin American boom, though initially a revolutionary literary movement, became bogged down by myth because it was never truly revolutionary. While the boom opened up the global canon to voices from Latin America, the Global South, the voices which it allowed in were overwhelmingly (and unsurprisingly) white and male. These men, moreover, grew out of their young political energy, eventually even denouncing the Cuban Revolution after the Padilla Affair, and began to focus on their writing, awards, and speaking engagements.
A consistently political literature will never be attained if the same people always control our stories. It is a cycle: myth maintains power, and power maintains myth. One way to topple myth, perhaps, is to oust those in power. In literature, this is challenging, but not impossible. We can start by listening to voices stemming from outside the traditional centers of power, at a global level. This doesn’t mean only listening to the elite of the Global South, but learning to push beyond the stories we want to hear—the ones that feel familiar—and instead seek writers challenging us with a truly global, anti-hegemonic literature.
There may be other things that comprise a consistently political literature—new genres, the expansion of authorship—but we need to start by spreading the aperture of who can create literature, and specifically pushing away from the United States. The United States has, for far too long, held center stage in literary production industry-wide. Translation, rather than the work of hobbyists and unstable small presses, should be seen as central to any literary endeavor.
A punch didn’t end the boom; a lack of new voices, a failure to continue to engage with politics, and, most of all, conformity, ended Latin America’s moment of literary fame. The day we make our literature truly international and thereby consistently revolutionary will be the day that a petty, ego-driven brawl on the most narcissistic stage of one’s own film debut is nothing more than an amusing chapter in some literary biography, perhaps even a tabloid article. Literature isn’t dead, as some curmudgeons like to claim. Literature is alive and well, but we’re looking for it in the dusty, cob-web-ridden graves of old masters.
New York City