In North American publishing history, 1988 will likely rank as the Year of the Latins. Led by Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, writers from virtually every South American country are appearing on publishers’ lists in unprecedented numbers. “It’s the most exciting thing happening in publishing,” Garcia Márquez’s American editor, Lee Goerner of Alfred A. Knopf in New York, said. Since appearing late last month García Márquez’s new novel, Love in the Time of Cholera (translated by Edith Grossman,
Random House, $26.75), has rocketed to second place on The New York Times best-seller list while going into a fourth printing of 175,000 copies. The novel-first published in Spanish in 1985—is a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection and may eventually be made into a movie.
But other authors are also in the front ranks of the new Latin invasion. Among them is Brazilian Jorge Amado, whose latest novel, Showdown ($23.95), was published earlier this year by Bantam, in an English translation from Gregory Rabassa. Two years earlier Bantam had paid $250,000 for the rights to the book—a figure widely reported as the largest ever paid by an American publisher for rights to a foreign-language novel. And New York’s Avon Books, hoping to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Showdown, is reissuing 13 Amado titles, including such classics as Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. Meanwhile, the year’s bumper crop of works by Latin Americans also includes newly published titles from Brazil’s Moacyr Scliar and Uruguay’s Eduardo Galeano, as well as novels by Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa and Mexican Carlos Fuentes due later this year.
There have been surges before in the popularity of Latin American fiction, but Goerner says that the authors now have a firm hold on the imagination of North American readers. He and other
observers cite the flowering of Central and South American writing during the past 20 years, which they say recalls the golden age of the novel in 19th-century England, Russia and France.
Colombia-born García Márquez,
whose 1970 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude has sold more than 1.4 million paperback copies in North America alone, demonstrates in his new work that his talent is still in full bloom. Love in the Time of Cholera, unlike his earlier novels, which feature
a surrealistic blend of the fantastic and the mundane, is written in a traditional narrative form. But it is far from conventional in its depiction of love. It describes the obsessive passion of Florentino Ariza, a telegrapher and dabbler in poetry, for the beautiful adolescent Fermina Daza, whom he first meets at the turn of the century. The first hint that the course of love will not run smoothly emerges when Florentino proffers Fermina a love letter in a park. As she holds out an embroidery ring for him to place it on, a bird’s dropping makes a direct hit.
Fermina is expelled from school when further love letters are discovered. Then, her father sends her out of town, hoping to make her forget Florentino. When she returns at age 17 and encounters her suitor, she dismisses their innocent intrigues as “nothing more than an illusion.” Fifty-one years, nine months and four days later—at the funeral of Fermina’s husband, a respected doctor—Florentino attempts to woo her again and is again rebuffed. “Don’t show your face again for the years of life that are left to you,” she tells him.
But Florentino is not to be denied. And it is a measure of García Márquez’s storytelling skills that Florentine's eventual success—which first appears unlikely and, later, impossible—finally seems inevitable when the hero and Fermina are past 70. But it is the sustained emotion of the narrative—the author’s tender, humorous regard for his characters—that makes Love in the Time of Cholera a triumphant work of art.
Memorable characters were the strength of previous books by Jorge Amado, now 75. But the only figure of any interest in Amado’s much-anticipated Showdown is Natário da Fonseca—a gunfighter whose Indian blood has given him psychic powers—and even he is no more than a stereotypical avenger. The book’s real central character is the town of Tocaia Grande (Big Ambush). Its populace of squatters and whores work hard, fornicate without shame and, as often as is humanly possible, look after one other in adversity. Amado contrasts those characters with untrustworthy city people who, in his view, care only about money. The story ends when the
region begins to prosper and the urban bad guys take it aver through institutionally sanctioned violence. When he was at the peak of his powers, Amado would have made getting to the showdown much more fun.
Of the current crop of Latin American books, The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes by the Brazilian physician Moacyr Scliar (translated by Eloah F. Giacomelli, Crown, $26.95) does most to uphold the tradition of the fabulous and fantastical in Latin American literature. It contains what may be literature’s first seduction in the belly of a whale. The person seduced is none other than Jonah, one of the ancestors of the book’s central character, Rafael Mendes. Sorting through documents compiled by his father, an amateur genealogist, Rafael discovers that his own name turns up throughout history. One Rafael Mendes was shipwrecked on a Brazilian beach, where he was revived by an Indian who greeted him in Hebrew.
His father’s papers turn up mysteriously at a time when Rafael’s world is collapsing: his business partner, his mistress and his daughter have all betrayed him. Immersing himself in the family history, Rafael comes to see himself as representing all of humankind and, finally, he achieves a kind of spiritual release. Wordy, often chaotic, but unfailingly humorous, The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes is a book for those who value originality over a conventional narrative.
Also disdaining conventional forms, Eduardo Galeano of Uruguay has set down his personal vision of the entire history of the hemisphere in his trilogy Memory of Fire. Galeano’s scathing commentaries on actual events depict the continent’s past and present as driven by the exploitation of land and people. The newly published third volume, Century of the Wind (translated by Cedric Beifrage, Random House, $32.50), covers 1900 to 1984. Typical of Galeano’s point of view is a passage strongly implying that U.S. policy in Central America in the 1950s was drawn up by senior members of the Dwight Eisenhower administration who had direct links to the powerful United Fruit Co. and who were bent on serving that company’s interests in Guatemala. Bitterly ironic, it gives fresh insight into the term banana republic.
On its own, the book is a shocker, with a jolt of some kind of violence on virtually every page. It is also a useful companion piece to other Latin American books, serving as a kind of idiosyncratic guide through the thickets of Latin American history—and an evocation of the climate that has produced such fertile literary imaginations.
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