The Astonishing New Novels of Two of Latin America’s Most Gifted Writers
“The novel is dead.” This article of faith has been repeated over and over since Marshall McLuhan, in the ‘60s, decreed the end of the Gutenberg Era and its substitution by an audiovisual universe in which what is important is not what is said, but what says it.
Gutenberg’s wake, paradoxically, perhaps gave literature a new lease on life. If the medium was the message, what would become of the message? McLuhan made us think, in other words, about all that could not be communicated by the media. We were forced to rethink literature as all that could not be said by the message of the media.
It proved to be a very great deal indeed. The evidence is there. Never has the art of the novel occupied such vast and extensive territories. From Japan to Nigeria and from Puerto Rico to Australia, novels are today being published, more unexpected, diverse and indicative of the existence of times and spaces--vast times and spaces--left unexplored by the media.
It suffices, for example, to read “A Book of Memories” by the Hungarian Peter Nadas--praised by Susan Sontag as “the greatest novel written in our time”--or the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s “The Black Book”--regarded by Juan Goytisolo as the herald of a whole new cultural identity for the coming century--to reveal the deceit of an information era that seeks to convince us that because we receive such a mass of information, we are consequently supremely well-informed.
A good novel shatters this illusion. It reveals the pretense of an information machine that is powerful because information is power and power is information. We live in an age that subjects us to abundant information that is at the same time insignificant while concealing information that might be considered elitist, controversial or, sin of sins, intellectually stimulating.
The importance of the Contest of Spanish Language Novels convoked by the Alfaguara publishing house in Spain last year has, for all of these reasons, three dimensions: The first is the sheer number of unpublished manuscripts received from all corners of the Spanish-speaking world: more than 600. Each one of them, apart from its quality, is proof of a striking faith in the very act of writing. All of them were motivated by the need to say something that could not be said in any other way. I believe that this will to write the world is what gives intrinsic value to each of the works sent to the contest.
The task of reading so many manuscripts and filtering them according to norms--admittedly relative--of excellence, fell on selection committees established in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Spain. They selected 20 finalists, 10 of them considered the best, and sent them to the jury on which I was privileged to serve. We had the freedom to consider any other manuscripts as well. I myself read many novels that had not passed the tall gates of the selection committees.
The second dimension of the contest was the quality of the novels sent to the jury. I had the good fortune of presiding over an insuperable jury: Chilean novelist Marcela Serrano, Argentine novelist Tomas Eloy Martinez, Spanish novelist and editor Juan Cruz, Mexican author and publisher Sealtiel Alatriste, Spanish screenwriter Rafael Azcona, and the secretary of the jury, my incomparable friend, the Catalonian writer Rosa Regas, whom Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I have always greeted, since the joyful days of our youthful times in Barcelona, with the resounding cry, “Rosa Regas, que buena estas!”
You might think that with a jury of this quality, it was difficult to err. And err we did not. But we did suffer a great deal. The sheer quality of the novels selected was our first challenge. But when we finally voted, our anguish was even greater. We were unable to choose between two novels of equally great merit which each and every one of us came to love, not as if we ourselves had written them but because we had read them as if they had been written especially for all of us.
Thus the unusual decision of duplicating the prize. Not Solomonically dividing it but actually giving two authors the complete prize, $175,000 each, $350,000 total. Needless to say, we did not have the power or the means to throw around the publisher’s money. So we had to make our case: None of us would have a good night’s sleep again if we chose only one of the two novels we all loved.
Let me praise the generosity and the temerity of Jesus and Isabel Polanco, Alfaguara’s owners, in accepting our reasons, sympathizing with our agonies and, of course, signing the checks.
Sergio Ramirez and Eliseo Alberto: Two writers, both from the Caribbean region, which is the cradle of culture in the Americas. Ramirez from Nicaragua and Central America, that “slender waist of suffering,” as Pablo Neruda called it. Alberto from Cuba. Both rebels, independent men, unsatisfied Latin Americans fighting for real freedom, for real democracy, not a return to a somber past but a rush to a better future--without hatred, without rancor, with open arms and open minds: Nicaragua and Cuba.
So we have given birth to twins.
Two novels of equal excellence but of very different subject matter. Ramirez, in “Margarita, esta linda la mar,” recalls the triumphal return to his native Nicaragua from years in the Europe of Ruben Dario, “the Pontiff of Spanish Letters,” “The Swan of Latin American Poetry,” the first Spanish-American poet to determine the future course of poetry in Spain.
Received as a hero in a land that has many poets but far more illiterate workers, Dario is hailed, fe^ted, assailed by society in his native city of Leon, where he signs autographs like a modern pop idol, including a poem inscribed on the fan of a 9-year-old girl, Margarita de Beyle, a Nicaraguan descendant of Marie-Henri Beyle (Stendhal):
“Margarita, esta linda la mar.” Fifty years later, that child, now a grown woman, accompanies her sister Salvadorita, who has married the Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza, to a public event in Leon. But this time, instead of poems, there are bullets. Somoza is killed by a group of conspirators fed up with the 25-year-old dictatorship of the man who murdered Sandino and grabbed power for himself, his family and his cronies.
The poet and the tyrant: the two faces of Latin America.
Easily said. But Ramirez is an artist who will not renounce the humanity of his characters, glorious or despicable as they may seem.
Dario the superb poet is also a superb drunkard--messy, debt-ridden--who travels in steerage, sharing his cabin with strangers, dying to crash the first-class parties--shades of Leonardo DiCaprio--and debasing himself by appearing soused at public functions, until his brain explodes. Extracted, examined and exposed, Dario’s brain is proclaimed “the intimate vessel of the muses” and, of course, the largest cerebellum in history. Needless to say, it gets bandied about like a football by jealous partisans of the muse and is, ultimately, misplaced.
Somoza, the terrible tyrant, is also a Latin charmer, a lady-killer as well as a killer of men, a simpatico dancer of mambos and spinner of tales, a fat, wily skunk who has risen from toilet cleaner through ruse and violence and a wealthy wife and the support of the U.S. Marines--or as FDR put it, “Somoza is a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Let us recall, to compound the farce, that Somoza’s royal reception in Washington, D.C., in 1939 turned out to be but the dress rehearsal for a far more serious celebration: the arrival the following week of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England. So it goes: A Latin American tyrant is but the curtain raiser for a European monarch.
The poet and the tyrant: surrounded by ladies who fancy having their fans inscribed by writers and their fannies caressed by generals, surrounded by dizzy plotters whose antics resemble the Marx Brothers and who succeed by sheer comic accident; surrounded, the poet and the tyrant, by hired killers and bodyguards uncertain of who is protecting or betraying whom, by little girls employed in brothels from which clients return with no tell-tale odors, except the smell of curdled milk. A world of beggar boys born in fireworks factories who wish the world would blow to bits.
Ramirez’s novel is one more painful and absurdist look at Latin America’s orphan modernity--la modernidad: ni mother ni dad.
But it also makes us understand that the poet is there to reclaim the true present of Latin America, the place of memory and desire we call literature--whereas the president’s present is as old as the yellowed pages of yesterday’s newspaper.
Ramirez is a novelist and a politician. As a novelist, he is always lucky. As a politician, he is sometimes unlucky. I hope that he utterly fails in politics so that he can go on writing his marvelous novels, which have won him, as well, last year’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger in Paris.
Anyone can be president of Nicaragua. Only Sergio Ramirez could write “Margarita.”
“There is no greater pain than the pain of being alive,” wrote Ruben Dario. This could be the epigraph for the other great novel that received the Alfaguara Prize: “Caracol Beach” by Eliseo Alberto.
If Ramirez’s novel narrates a Latin American past in order to make it a living present, Alberto’s book narrates a Latin American future only to deliver a dead present. Perhaps Juan Cruz is right when he states that “novels are histories we tell so that we can forget other histories.”
“Caracol Beach” is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying something. Beto Milanes is a mad veteran of the Cuban wars in Angola who wants to forget the terrible past by substituting it for a different present. The rub is that he achieves only a future even more terrible than the past he is fleeing.
From an automobile cemetery somewhere in Florida rises this terrifying former soldier, pursued by the shadow of a tiger that he cannot shake off, in spite of himself, unless he confers it--for it is the shadow of death--on the innocent bystander, the casual encounter. From war and pain and fear of a pursuing tiger, Milanes emerges to crash fatefully with the BMW of the young princess of the global empire of wealth and ostentation.
“Caracol Beach” offers the classic structure of tragic drama. It tells us that there is no perfect link between cause and effect. No one can expect the rewards corresponding to his or her values, and values, including the value of freedom, can be vanquished by destiny and a chance encounter--that is, by freedom in another guise.
There are fewer pages more terrible and terrifying in modern Latin American literature than these: A tragedy in salsa, a black psalmody by the seaside, in a world not futuristic but cheerfully denying itself a future so that luxury high-rises on the beach can quickly be substituted by new constructions. The supermarkets, the superhighways, the super Muzak, all the paraphernalia of a cheerful world, a world destined to be happy forever if its possessions--including fame--last no longer than Warhol’s classic 15 minutes.
Sophocles with a surfboard. Condorcet with Coca-Cola. The Enlightenment with neon lights. Once more, the orphan modernity of Latin America: “Caracol Beach” from the baroque to the barrocanroll.
This is the happy world destroyed by the straying incarnations of madness, chance, remorse, revolutionary frustration, a pulverized tradition, the will to death, the hunger for suicide, the tragic misfortune.
Knit with the blood and nerves of Latin America, these two novels share, above or below the themes of crime, madness and the uses and abuses of power, an immense passion for the dignity of their characters, their endless search for love, the price to be paid when necessity meets chance and fortune--fortuna--becomes fatalidad--fatality.
Cuba and Florida, Nicaragua and Central America? No; much, much more. The territory of these two novels is the territory of La Mancha, the fictional land of Don Quixote. We have chosen two novels in Spanish, twins descended from Cervantes, two stained works bearing la mancha, the blot of the mestizo world of Spain and Latin America, whose profound roots are virtually demonstrated by their dramatic displacement in search of the skin, the touch, the identity, of each other.
And this is the third dimension of Alfaguara’s twin prizes.
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