I run along la Rambla as the sun is setting. Past people holding fishing lines, waiting for the hook to catch on something far down below in the pale green-grey Atlantic sea. They’re talking, smiling, chuckling at each other’s quiet stories. The sea wall has become a long park bench where couples sit, sipping mate (mah-tay) through their stylised metal straws. The drink is an infusion of a bitter leaf and an acquired taste, a plant somehow related to the holly, but the Uruguayans drink it with a frequency reminiscent of how the English drink milky black tea. And like tea, it’s a caffeinated drink. Although perhaps they sip when we gulp.
And English tea is drunk when seated, whereas the Uruguayans drink mate while standing at the bus stop or crossing the road. Glance down at any passer-by’s hands, and they’ll be carrying a flask and their cup, perhaps in a special mate bag (these are so popular you can buy then in the corner shop).
I pass a park where a couple of young men are doing exercises with the outside gym equipment. They look like they work out very frequently. Two dogs bound back and forth, barking playfully. Children run around chasing each other while parents and grandparents lounge nearby. A car drives past with white and blue balloons floating in its wake. The police officer pulls up at the petrol station to fill up his car. A guy doing interval sprints overtakes me, then I overtake him, and then he powers past.
I am in Montevideo. It takes me by surprise to wake up here. I’m living, albeit temporarily, in the beautiful Palacio Salvo, a 1920s hotel on Plaza Independencia. If you do an image search for London, you get Big Ben. If you do the same for Montevideo, you get the Palacio Salvo.
But I wake up here, teach a class, wander down to the café on the square, or café idoneo which is my current favourite – the food is good, and the staff look like they enjoy their work – and I have a cappuccino or splash out on a second breakfast while reading with my fountain pen cocked in my hand. I cross the square, pass José Artigas’ mausoleum, and sometimes pause to read a chapter of my book while sitting on a bench. I return home, teach some classes and cook some food. Sometimes I head out for a run. Sometimes I wander through the city and see couples dancing on the street.
I am in Montevideo by myself, which, even ignoring the complications of the pandemic, is no small achievement. It’s a fact that I was reminded of recently when a friend said that he hadn’t needed to be told to know that I’d fought a battle. He said that it showed through the bravery of my lifestyle, though this attitude to life. From my perspective, I’m cautious, focused on my safety, classifying as tiny moments, such as when I ask the waitress the difference between a media luna and a croissant, as courageous acts. I receive a thousand messages about my safety in Latin America, but not living is also a danger, not seeing, not experiencing. And I say this less naive than I would like to be.
I’ve sculpted a life that follows my whims, unconstrained, curious of the world, introspective and calm, but full of delights. Not so long ago, this felt impossible. So, every time I pause, look out at the sky and see the sun settling down beneath the horizon, out on some great sea, when my cheeks are rosy and my mind alert, I am beyond grateful.
Children are in the dustbins across the street from the café where I am drinking my coffee. The sun is warm, it’s summer, so the kids presumably don’t have school. I’m conscious of how easy it would be for my skin to burn, but the avenues are shaded by big old trees, trees whose roots have pushed up the pavements, crumpled the paths. I feel someone planned this city, planned streets wide enough for cars to park, planned broad pavements to place café chairs and heavy green dustbins. I like this corner, where I return to drink coffee most mornings and quite frequently indulge in a croissant. Today I planned to come, to sit here at the crossroads, drink my coffee and read. Yet I am distracted from my reading by the children in the dustbins.
I’m supposed to be reading Tim Park’s book The Novel, A Survival Skill. This is part of my chosen reading for my master’s degree. But it’s not my first book by Tim Parks, a long time ago I read Italian Neighbours, an account of his life in Verona. An account which probably mentioned dustbins. I can imagine Parks writing about waste disposal. I’ve never read his novels, but I’ve been delighted by The Novel, which isn’t about how to write a book, but why people write the books they do. And, it explains why I don’t get on with Borges.
Or that’s not fair. It’s not that I don’t get on with Borges, I feel a polite acquaintance with him and a lack of curiosity in his work, yet despite this, a vexation, a sense that I ought to see something which I can’t, that I ought to be impressed when I’m not, and that it ought to generate meaning for me, it doesn’t. I’m bemused as to why his oh-so-clever labyrinths are so adored.
Tim Parks talks about how writers, whether they intend it or not, write, and rewrite, what feel to them to be the essential conflicts of their lives, particularly those initial childhood family conflicts, which I think fundamentally comes down to self-identity. The same goes for readers. Readers read, reread and recommend those books which have touched on these inner conflicts. Hence, Tim Parks likes to read books with tense moral dilemmas because of his intensely religious and somewhat whacky family. Similarly, he writes novels where morality is played with, tossed around and torn apart. He’s trying to resolve his own unease about being good and being bad through the words he puts on the page.
As for me, your literary likes and dislikes are part of the wider pattern of your relationships, and not unconnected with the kind of family you have, the kind of life you lead.
The Novel: A Survival Guide by Tim Parks
I think a certain intellectual swaggering turns me off. What I want in a book is a glimpse into humanity, I want to see the human condition from a fresh perspective, but I want to see up close. I read from my heart, not my over-trained brain.
While I want to like clever books, at the end of the day, my favourites are those that made me cry, like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Carla Guelfenbein’s The Rest is Silence. Books which use language in a clever way, but do not swagger.
But I’m not reading, I’m too busy watching the children in the dustbins. They are scavenging for sheets of cardboard and plastic bottles. I am alarmed by this. One of them wears a baseball cap, the other has had his hair highlighted, maybe imitating some footballer? One wears pumps on his feet, the other plastic flip-flops. I imagine this boy’s feet, there in the bin, coming into contact with… No, I don’t want to think about it. Yet, despite my worries, these teenage boys look healthy. They’re nimble, lithe, coordinated and industrious.
When I later mention this to Latin American friends, they accept my astounded account without alarm. A kind of ‘so what?’. I can see their point. It is a fact that children climb into these dustbins – I later see adults doing the same – and this is part of life. I’m unsettled by the discomfort this brings. Even as a young child, I was aware that I was better off than my peers. Yet I also know that there is nothing I am going to do about it, unless we count my various conversations on the matter or this small piece of writing. To these boys, I too am irrelevant. Just another tourist.
Climate change. Recycling. Children in dustbins.
The boys toss the bottles from the bins, the bottles bounce and scatter across the pavement. Like children in a playground, the boys vault over the lip of the bin, out, back onto the street. One grabs a plastic bag and pops the bottles in, while his friend folds the cardboard flat. Beside them, on the road, beside the bins, is a docile pony and cart. The cardboard is laid in the cart and the bottles are put in a huge green bag tied on the back, the size of a small tent. Maybe there are hundreds of bottles already inside.
The younger generation cleaning up after the old.
My fear for these boys is joined by admiration.
Would Tim Parks be analysing the moral conundrum of this situation? If he were in this coffee shop with me, would he be criticizing this world for having children scavenging in dustbins. Would he be, like me, panicking about the health consequences? Would his thoughts be broken glass and disused needles? Would he notice that these boys are children, barely old enough for a paper-round? Might he shrug it off as just part of how things are here. Would he note that their skin is darker than most of the people who walk past, people who pay no attention to these children, as if children climbing in dustbins were normal? Would he link this to Spanish conquest, ancient caste systems, political dysfunction and the consequent immigration?
And would Parks, like a friend of mine, ask whether the children looked fed? Fundamental survival question. They looked fed, I explained, and showered, and their clothes looked like they’ve been washed. Would the contradiction sit as uneasily with him as it does with me? We might think of such boys as the victims of the system, but they hardly appear like victims. Would it reassure him that this is the school holiday and so maybe they do this for pocket money? Perhaps, when the new semester begins, they’ll be holding pens and writing.
I find myself thinking how if they study with the same attitude as they collect bottles, they’ll deserve to go to good universities.
For the novelist the text is absolutely integrated in his life and circumstances; what he writes comes out and rebounds back on his mental life, his private life, his professional life.
The Novel: A Survival Guide by Tim Parks
Am I admiring them for the display of self-sufficiency and independence? Inevitably, since I am reading Parks’ book, I find myself wondering at my own intrigue. Am I drawn to the situation because it reflects an internal conflict of my own? Do I admire them for their independence, self-sufficiency and hard work because these were values drilled into me as a child?
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/