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Latin American Literature

Alejo Carpentier, surrealism and the birth of magical realism

Heading towards the jungle. Somewhere between Cusco and Ollantaytambo, Peru. January 2020

Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.

Arthur C. Clark

Alejo Carpentier is described, in The Penguin History of Latin America, as one of the originators of the literary genre magic realism, although for him, it was less of the magic and more of the marvellous. The novel of his which I’ve recently finished, The lost steps, is chock-a-block full of the marvellous. Although it doesn’t exactly have magical happenings infiltrating its reality, the perception of the characters is swayed by a sense of the magical spirit originating in indigenous culture. As the protagonist goes from the hustle and bustle of his North American city routine to the Latin American jungle, he feels like he’s travelling backwards through time. The author explores the contrast of pace, the emphasis of the moment, and plays with the history of humankind. He’s writing from experience. The dramatic but often florid descriptions of jungle fauna come straight from the author’s own journeys in the Venezuelan wilderness, up the Orinoco river.

While living in Paris, two novelists who had previously written on nativist themes, the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias and the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, came into contact with surrealism and saw how the use of primitive myths and beliefs could evoke a sense of the marvellous in fiction while also serving to represent the heterogeneous cultural reality of Latin America.

The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson (pg 542)

Magical Realism is a genre I initially associated with Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende and, at the other side of the world, Haruki Murakami. It’s not fantasy, because it keeps a tight grip on reality, but nor is it literary realism – it’s often coarse realism is softened with magic. I want to say that Gabriel García Márquez met Alejo Carpentier in Cuba, but I gained this belief through listening to Solitude and Company: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez Told with Help from His Friends, Family, Fans, Arguers, Fellow Pranksters, Drunks, and a Few Respectable Souls by Silvana Paternostro and because it’s an audiobook I can’t locate the reference.

I hadn’t considered surrealism’s impact on literature before

It’s interesting to reflect upon The lost steps from the perception of surrealism because surrealism has at its heart an exploration of the unconscious and a desire to unite the unconscious with the conscious. In a European sense, perhaps this primarily focuses on the dream world versus the world of the awake. You can imagine Picasso and Dalí at this point. It’s heavily influenced by Freud. Yet, moving to the society of the indigenous peoples of Venezuela and other similar places, where an attitude of let us measure it, analyse it and give it a label has a lesser grip, you can see the difference between conscious and unconscious might not be so black and white. The influence of earth on man (and the respect of earth by man) leaves room for everyday marvels, even with both eyes open and the mind awake. I was reminded of meeting an indigenous lady in the Atacama Desert who read the oncoming storm painted in the skies and marvelled at how we couldn’t.

I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.

André Breton, The Surrealist Manifesto

Carpentier… presented the pursuit of a unified consciousness as a problem. … His entire work, therefore, represents a search for a point of synthesis between reason and instinct, matter and spirit.

The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson (pg 545)

In the book we slip between the analytical and the instinctual, time trundles backwards, the head argues, the heart pulls, yet at the end of the novel, the protagonist who has floundered within his own uncertainty has to face that his reality is disjoint from the marvellous journey he’s experienced. He isn’t Odysseus. He is, whether he accepts it or not, of his own time and culture.

It was as though I had been hit over the head. My skin felt as though a thousand cold needles were coming through it. With an immense effort I reached for the bottle, and the touch of it seemed to burn me. I slowly filled my glass, poured the liquor into a throat that could no longer swallow, and broke into an agonizing cough. When I recovered my breath, I looked at myself in a mirror, black with fly specks, in the rear of the room, and what I saw was a body sitting at a table, looking hollow, empty. I was not sure that it would move and walk if I ordered it too. But the being that moaned within me, lacerated, flayed, its wounds filled with salt, finally dragged itself to my throat, and I began a stuttering protest. … the Greek looked at me in surprise that turned to pity.

The lost steps, Alejo Carpentier (pg 276)

The language also played the same game

I read it in English, and my gut feeling was that the translation was rather Latin focused, or perhaps merely enthusiastically literary, but that at times, a shuffle from the Latin to the Germanic might have brought some of the descriptions down from the treetops and made it easier to follow. The dense descriptions were solidly from the protagonist’s mouth, rather than some omniscient narrator, and so made him harder to empathize with. There were many words I skipped, often adjectives or specific references to some Venezuelan fauna or flora… such as lepiosiren (which is a South American lungfish – a fish with lungs). Lepiosiren perhaps sounds more fittingly Homeric; the novel plays a game of cat and mouse with the Odyssey, assuming its reader is well acquainted with the classical text.

However, I think it’s worth acknowledging the book’s translator

Illinois-born Harriet de Onís was the sort of woman who accepted, and could afford to accept, being paid in literature. They gave her books. She translated out of love, and belief in, the importance of Latin American literature. She was lucky in that she could afford to do so. We are lucky that had such a compulsion.

The novel is furthermore weighed down by musical jargon

Carpentier’s protagonist is a pianist, like Carpentier himself, and left me with no doubt that if the writing life didn’t quite work out for him, Carpentier could have busied himself teaching music theory. He clearly knew it. With its reference to music theory jargon, the text reminded me of Jan Morris’ Spain, which I had struggled with due to the heavy littering of architectural terms. I normally mark vocabulary that I don’t know, but in this case, there was no point underlining the words I didn’t know, because, like the construction of catholic churches, music theory makes no sense to me. I don’t understand the dictionary definitions.

That said, if you are a lover of music theory, this might be a good book for you. There must be something interesting about all those chapters dedicated to writing about music which I was much too ignorant to appreciate. If I were taking a stab at it, I’d say that I think Carpentier contrasts modern attitudes to technical composition with the indigenous connection to nature through sound, and mocks the naïve way in which modern society, in labelling indigenous customs, fails to comprehend them.

Moving onto Carpentier’s ‘lost’ protagonist

Lost is an adjective which fits. He is, undoubtedly, male character number one: the self-centred soul who falls into a deep infatuation with a woman he doesn’t know how to have an honest conversation with, generally spends most of his time being rude to the people around him, and who could have saved himself a lot of bother by at any point in the novel thinking of anyone but himself. He’s deeply intellectual, has a unique creative gift and yet is (or feels himself to be) deeply misunderstood. Likewise, he’s the same character as Julio Cortázar’s jazz-loving Horacio Olivera in Hopscotch (Rayuela) or, if my memory serves me correctly, William Stoner in John Williams’ Stoner. Women fall for him because he is aloof and mysterious; he makes a terrible partner and won’t wash the dishes because he is too busy having an existential crisis.

I don’t dislike this type of character on principle, but I do feel that he ought to occasionally feel embarrassed or nervous and that sometimes the writer would convey a more believable character by being willing to step closer to some of those tricky to write emotions. In this case though, I did dislike the actual protagonist in the novel because he is the exemplar of that insidious machismo attitude that is so grating to the modern woman.

Overall, it’s a book I’m glad to have read

It was worth the slow start and occasionally confusing language. Despite its extensive descriptions, it managed to maintain a pace which made it quite a quick read, and although I’m not going to be immediately hunting out another book by the author, I’m not averse to reading one. It did however prompt me to reflect on the impossibility of letting go of your own time and culture and how interactions between cultures always have to be a compromise. In my own life, acknowledging this is essential.


Reading list:

The lost steps, Alejo Carpentier (1953)

The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson, revised edition (2009)

The Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton (1924)

A biographical article on Harriet de Onís by Victoria Livingstone

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

Don’t ever pray for love and health, Mother said. Or money. If G-d hears what you really want he will not give it to you. Guaranteed. When my father left my mother said, get down on your knees and pray for spoons.

Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement

Say a prayer for spoons…

This is a book about young girls being stolen from their families by drug cartels and then sold on to the highest bidder. It’s not a true story, in the individual sense, but it’s based on true stories. These girls, like Paula in the book, really do exist. They are systematically kidnapped, but they never come back. They are voiceless.

After reading the book, I read in an interview a line where Jennifer Clement states, “I know if cars were being stolen there would be greater outrage.” She points out how single dramatic events hit the news, but the everyday silent plight of these women fails to gain attention. These girls come from poor, vulnerable communities with limited educational resources and may only speak their indigenous language, not Spanish. Clement has decided to speak on their behalf, through a young Mexican girl with the unlikely name of Ladydi (Lady Di).

Say a prayer for ladders…

I bought the book because I’m making an effort to read more by Latin American women, but then I left it on the bookshelf for a while as its content seemed rather frightening. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a novel, even a 222-page short novel, about systematic sex-abuse. It seemed unlikely to be a comfortable read and I doubted that it would make me laugh. On the laughter part, I was wrong.

Say a prayer for punctuation…

The book is the work of Jennifer Clement whose life has been split over the two sides of that troublesome border of Mexico’s north. Her book is set entirely in Mexico where she lives, but was written in English with an English sense of style. This is noticeable as the paragraphs and sentences are super short. It stands in contrast to the other books I’ve been reading by Latin American authors. Paragraphing is out of fashion in Latin America.

However, like many Latin American authors, Clement doesn’t use quotation marks to frame speech. Previously, if you’d asked me if quotation marks were important, I’d have said yes. However, since reading a few books without them, I’ve come to think of them as a stylistic choice. Your pedants might complain, but it doesn’t interrupt the flow. You seem to know when someone is speaking.

Based on my wider reading and a conversation with a fellow book lover, it seems that these punctuational deviations stem from the pen of James Joyce. Read a little around the topic of Latin American literature and you’ll stumble over Ulysses.

Say a prayer for mockingbirds…

Prayers for the Stolen reminded me of reading To Kill A Mockingbird in school. Ladydi reminded me of Scout and I found myself reflecting on the choice of a child protagonist. How do you persuade the reader that the narrator is a child, without the writing itself being simplistic? Clement does this particularly well. Her sentences are often simply structured, and you can read a few paragraphs without coming to a comma, not because she’s missing out commas, but because her structures don’t require them. She’s generous with the simple words like ‘and’ and ‘but’ and so creates an easy flowing text, but with surprising quirks that keep you alert. Ladydi’s voice is naive and uneducated, but never boring: child-like, but never childish.

The very next morning Julio, the gardener, walked through the front door and I fell in love.

He walked right into my body.

He climbed up my ribs and into me. I thought to myself, Say a prayer for ladders.

I wanted to smell his neck and place my mouth on his mouth and taste him and hold him. I wanted to smell the smell of garden and grass and palm tree, smell of rose and leaf and lemon flower. I fell in love with the gardener and his name was Julio.

Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement

Say a prayer for shelves…

You know instinctively that Clement reads and writes poetry. This childlike voice of Ladydi reminded me of The God of Small Things and how Arundhati Roy also creates the innocence of childhood linguistics with playful rewriting of the dictionary and a throwaway tumbling of images, metaphors crammed into adjectives.

Though you couldn’t see the river from the house anymore, like a seashell always has a sea-sense, the Ayemenem house still had a river-sense.

A rushing, rolling, fishswimming sense.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

Because I loved Julio, the cars and trucks outside on the street sounded like rivers. … Cement walls became mirrors. My small ugly hands turned into starfish.

Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement

And it’s this innocence, this flavour of pictures, this childlike perspective which makes the book so readable. In an interview, Clement said:

Even in doing the research for Prayers for the Stolen, I was also always looking for the poetic experience and how the divine coexists with the profane or beauty with ugliness. I also wanted the novel to have enchantment.

And she succeeded.

Say a prayer for magazines

Before writing the book, Clement spent a decade researching. She interviewed women in hiding: the wives, daughters and girlfriends of drugs traffickers. And she interviewed women from Mexico City’s Santa Martha Acatitla Prison during art therapy sessions. The inmates used collage as a way of giving voice to their own stories – a scene enacted towards the end of the novel.

So, although I picked it off my shelf, out of curiosity – I’d been thinking about punctuation – I must have forgotten my intention… I sat down on the bed below my shelf and kept reading until I was halfway through. It was the style that kept me there, the rhythm of Ladydi’s tale flowed and despite the context, I didn’t find myself recoiling and turning away (as I had in Laura Restrepo’s Delirium a few weeks earlier).

Pray for the stolen…

I loved how Jennifer Clement reaches out her gentle hands in a gesture of humanity to sections of society typically treated so inhumanely. Her characters weren’t playing at being likeable, some were drug traffickers or murders, some were painfully naive and others criminally deluded, and yet… although they’d all broken the law, you couldn’t help but find your heart aching for them.

It’s a true skill, I think, to maintain such tenderness.


Further reading and listening:

Open Book – Jennifer Clement – BBC Sounds

Pitt Chronicle interview

Deutshe Welle interview

The Guardian also has a review, however it’s inaccurate, thus I’d avoid reading it.

An investigation into women in the history of Latin American fiction

Llamas near Cusco, Peru. January 2020.

When reading about literature I’m sensitive to the author’s gender, particularly because I’m aware of how my reading is disproportionately written by men… men with degrees from either Britain or the USA. Writing isn’t the easiest vocation because it requires a certain amount of self-imposed solitude, therefore I’m impressed by anyone who gets their bum on the seat long enough to create – it’s hard work even if you’re born with a whole silver dinner service in your mouth – yet the disparity on my bookshelf makes me wonder if I need to make some sort of effort to tackle the systematic bias.

Most of the women mentioned here I had never heard of before reading The Penguin History of Latin America. At which point I began to investigate. My ignorance stems from how the English language canon dominates the reading of my British born friends who, for much of my life, have been my dominant source of book recommendations. In reading Hispanic literature, I’m also limited by my Spanish comprehension, although this is improving.

I’m focusing on the twentieth century, and mostly the latter half

If we look back to the older stuff, it was predominantly written by men, only some lucky men had the education and freedom to sit and write. The first woman mentioned in the history text was not a novelist – well-to-do Victoria Ocampo owned a literary magazine in Argentina in the 1930s. But writing at a similar time was a Brazilian novelist called Raquel or Rachel de Quieros. Unfortunately, I haven’t found anything by her translated into English and I don’t have any knowledge of Portuguese.

The next female novelist mentioned – Clarice Lispector – was also Brazilian

However, it isn’t until we reach the section on the decline of the patriarchy in the 1980s that we get into more detail about her. Even here, in the section on literature tackling the Latin American patriarchy, we begin with the men: Mario Vargas Llosa, Augusto Roa Bastos, Mario Benedetti, David Viñas, Eduardo Galeno and seven more until we reach…

Our first Hispanic female novelist, Marta Traba

Marta Traba and Luisa Valenzuela both wrote about the consequences of Peron and those who followed his ‘Peronist’ political movement. This was part of a trend for Argentinian writers to make fiction focused on reality with a documentary character. I admit, when I read that these writers moved away from writing in a complex James Joyce influenced style to ‘novels with an accessible story’ I was relieved.

Another common theme in Latin American literature is magic or marvellous realism. Valenzuela incorporates the magical into the real in her book The Lizard’s Tail. Sorcery and witchcraft appear in the novel set during Isabel Peron’s leadership of Argentina.

Both Traba and Valenzuela stepped onto my to-read list. And maybe reading them will give this British lass a version of Peron and his legacy that differs from his character in the film Evita.

Moving on to Mexico and Elena Poniatowska

She’s a journalist and novelist, who also wrote with a desire to document something real: massacres and earthquakes, inequality and poverty.

From a literary perspective, it seems that her choice to write against the patriarchy wasn’t surprising; many male authors of the 70s and 80s were also embracing an anti-patriarchal stance. What’s surprising is that as a French-born Mexican journalist of royal Polish descent she embraced a socialist outlook and has spent her life fighting inequality. Looks like I’m going to have to read her work, although it may be uncomfortable.

Now for two books which I have read

Isabelle Allende is in the history text, for The House of The Spirits, and Lispector’s The Hour of the Star is mentioned. I’ve read both.

The Hour of the Star is an interesting read not only because of the quirks of Lispector’s style, but because it’s modern. She makes me think that I ought to learn to read Portuguese. The theme of loneliness in the face of a competitive, consumerist society is no less relevant now than when the book was first published in 1977.

Lispector’s style was considered revolutionary

She plays with philosophy and writes a story within a story. There’s a link here to Borges, but this is not the moment to explore that. Lispector breaks rules and yet I find her readable. Her novel is depressing but delightful – a tricky combination to pull off. The history text declares The Hour of the Star ‘explored the reactions of a poor country girl from the north-east to the consumer society of São Paulo’. This is true, but misses the point. This isn’t simply a woman writing about a woman’s experience, if you read the book you might be surprised to find that the narrator is a misogynous fellow called Rodrigo.

Here he is talking about the poor country girl whose story he is trying to tell.

…nobody would miss her. Moreover — I realize now — nobody would miss me either. And even what I’m writing somebody else could write. A male writer, that is, because a woman would make it all weepy and maudlin.

The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector, translated by Benjamin Moser.

So what we have is Lispector playing with perspectives, male and female, with Rodrigo in his attempt to write a story exploring the reactions of a poor country girl from the north-east. The same part of north-east Brazil that Lispector’s family originally emigrated to from what is today part of Ukraine.

Nélida Piñón is another Brazilian author tackling the fickle topic of identity

The only one of her works translated into English is The Republic of Dreams which is from the point of view of two characters, grandfather and granddaughter, and through the generations tells the tale of a Galician immigrant family like her own. Another one for the to-read list.

Which links us back to Chilean lass Isabel Allende

Allende’s book, The House of The Spirits, also a cross-generational novel, started as a letter to her grandfather when she was living in exile. I think Allende sometimes gets unfairly criticised for writing readable work. She’s mainstream and you can find her work in your local bookshop, but she’s also compelling and can hit you hard.

Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay on The Argentine Writer and Tradition (originally a lecture), wrote that compared to English or French literature, Spanish literature requires a ‘special apprenticeship’. He doesn’t explain why, much to my frustration, but the line did get me wondering if cross-culture reading benefits from an apprenticeship read – something that will ease you in. Allende perhaps fulfils such a role for Latin American literature which often seems to have grown out of James Joyce’s shadow. Allende’s writing, for example, accepts conventions like paragraphs and speech marks.

When I have proposed to my friends the reading of Spanish works, I have evidenced that it was difficult for them to find pleasure in these books without special apprenticeship; for that reason, I believe the fact that certain Argentines write like Spaniards is less the testimony of an inherited capacity than it is proof of Argentine versatility.

 ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ in Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby

Anyway, Allende is already on the to-read list. She’s been there ever since I did my initial search into Chilean literature. She was the first Chilean author whom I read. The non-fiction My Invented Country was my first book and my first introduction to Chile. On my bookshelf you can find La Casa de los Espiritus ready for when I’ve finished my current Spanish-language read. I shall read more.

Here my investigation gets a little confused

The history book suggests that, like Allende, the Uruguayan Cristina Peri Rossi wrote ‘illuminating political issues with fantasy’ in the magic realist genre. The thing is, I can’t find any mention of magic in the descriptions of her novels. Certainly, she appears to have been experimental and creative in her tales, but no mention of magic realism. Peri Rossi has quite a few books translated into English and an accessible tiny fiction titled Rumours. What the history book doesn’t mention is that her novels dominant theme is to question masculinity and sexuality, which may be worth knowing.

We then backtrack. The success of 1980s women to publish made people wonder what had come before.

Such as the Argentinian Ocampo sisters

Victoria Ocampo was a literary critic and writer, but not it seems of fiction. You can read her collections of letters, such as those between herself and Virginia Woolf, which I can only assume would be intriguing to read (what language were they written in, French?), and her magazine, Sur, gave other writers a platform to share their work. She does, however, also have a short autobiography in English. Her sister Silvina wrote short stories which are described as ‘disturbing’ and ‘cruel’. I am less drawn to the sound of them.

And, finally, Rosario Castellanos

A Mexican writer, publishing in the late 50s to early 70s. She wrote of the failure for different ethnic groups to communicate with one another, particularly bringing attention to indigenous peoples. This inability for people to communicate with each other, and particularly listen and understand one another, hasn’t gone away. Conflicts between indigenous groups and those in power remain. She’s added to the to-read list.

Here I conclude this foray into women in the history of Latin American fiction

What do you notice from the list? Brazil and Mexico, the most populous countries are represented, as is Argentina. But in total, including Chile and Uruguay, the list only represents five different Latin American countries. Therefore as all good research does, I hereby propose a further investigation to expand upon the original…

However, as I now have quite a few new books to buy, I’m calling this initial research a success.


What I’ve read and mentioned:

The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson 2009

The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector 1977 (translated by Benjamin Moser 2011)

The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende 1985 (translated by Magda Bogin)

My Invented Country, Isabel Allende 2003 (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)

Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges 1962, translated by James E. Irby

Rumours, Cristina Peri Rossi, https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/rumors/