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A Game of Shifting mirrors : the New Latin American Narrative and the North American Novel"
Extraído de Proceedings of the Seventh Congress of the ICLA [International
Comparative Literature Association] (1973). – Stuttgart: Kunst und Wissen/Erich Bieber, 1979.– vol. 1, p. 269-275

Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

"The impact of the new Latin American narrative on today's literature is still an unresearched subject. Despite the fact that there have been many articles and a few academic courses devoted to it, only a handful of these have been based on a close reading of both Latin American and North American writers. In this paper I would like to present a summary of the most important links between the fiction produced in both Americas. One part of this paper -the longest- deals with the influence of North American narrative on Latin American narrative and is based on research in which I have been engaged since the early 40s. The concluding part of the paper is a record of some of the most obvious reactions in the North American fiction of today to the relatively recent translations of Latin American fiction into English.

One last word of warning: when I speak of influence or impact here, I am very much aware that any writer is an "original"; that is: a unique person dedicated to the production of literature. But at the same time, I am aware that all literature is made of literature, that all writers are readers and that the question of influence or impact must always be placed in a very specific literary context. Each particular text belongs to a more general, all-encompassing text which belongs to literature and not to any individual author. Once Valéry made an interesting observation on this matter; Borges developed it in one of his articles. I quote from his text:

Around 1938 Paul Valéry wrote that the history of literature should not be the history of the authors and the accidents of their careers or of the career of their works but rather the history of the Spirit as the producer or consumer of literature. He added that such a history could be written without the mention of a single writer. It was not the first time that the Spirit had made such an observation. In 1844 one of its amanuensis in Concord had noted: "I am very much struck in literature by the appearance that one person wrote all the books; ... there is such equality and identity both of judgment and point of view in the narrative that it is plainly the work of one all-seeing, all-hearing gentleman" (Emerson, Essays: Second Series, "Nominalist and Realist," 1844). Twenty years earlier Shelley expressed the opinion that all the poems of the past, present and future were episodes or fragments of a single infinite poem, written by all the poets on earth."

(Other Inquisitions, New York: Clarion Books, 1968, p. 10)

With Borges' caveat in mind we may proceed.

The world-wide impact of contemporary North American fiction, especially after the First World War, has been widely recognized. There have been important studies of its influence on French and Italian literature, three of which are worth mentioning: L'Âge du roman américain (1949), a highly enthusiastic and pioneering kind of work by Mme. Claude-Edmonde Magny, and two other more scholarly books: Trans-Atlantic Migration: The Contemporary American Novel in France (1955), by Thelma M. Smith and Ward L. Miner; and America in Modern Italian Literature (1964), by Donald Heiney. The permanent presence of North American fiction in European literature also contributed to its diffusion in Latin America. In many cases, through the indirect media of French translations or Italian imitations, North American novelists and story tellers have been introduced into Latin American letters. Thus, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929) was already available to Latin Americans, who could not read the complex and even forbidding original, in Maurice Edgar Coindreau's very scholarly and more accessible French translation: Le Bruit et la fureur (1938). Through French translations and imitations many Faulknerian devices and even his own peculiarly dark vision, came to influence Latin American authors. The Brazilian writer, João Guimarães Rosa told me once that he disliked Faulkner, that he reacted very strongly to his "unpleasant obsession with violence, murder and sex". When I suggested to him that there were many aspects of his novel, Grande Sertão: Veredas (English translation: The Devil to Pay in the Backlands), that reminded me of Faulkner's vision and even style, together we concluded that perhaps it was through such French writers as Sartre and Camus (once strongly influenced by Faulkner) that Rosa had caught the Faulknerian germ.

The fact that both France and Italy were inundated during the 20s and 30s with translations and criticism of North American fiction helped to establish a triangular system of communications between the literature of the USA, Europe and Latin America. And it is this triangularity that it is essential to any serious consideration of the subject. The reading of North American fiction was decisive for both European and Latin American writers after the First World War. In a very eloquent article, published in the USA after the Liberation of France, Jean-Paul Sartre acknowledges his and other French writers' debt to that body of fiction. Similar pieces were then written by Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini in Italy. The Cold War, however, put an end to this type of tribute.

It is not difficult to understand why North American contemporary narrative -like North American movies- was so attractive to Latin American writers. It presented a mirror of a dynamic, ever changing and conflictive society; a mirror that reflected a world both brutal and sophisticated, harshly critical of itself but proud, polemical and propagandistic at the same time; a mirror that criticized reality with the same ferocity with which it praised and exalted it. The political engagement of the chief North American fiction writers was perhaps even more plain to Latin American eyes than to the North American readers. Thus, Dos Passos' fiction -a contemporary counterpart to the muckraking "realists" such as Dreiser, Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair- gave the Latin American writers a clue for their own presentation of some of the turbulent recently urbanized Latin American societies. William Faulkner's somber and symbolical presentation of the Deep South functioned as a blue-print for all the young Latin American writers who wanted to show both the surface and the underlying myths of their own feudal countries. In Ernest Hemingway's fiction, Latin Americans discovered a stylist who could also be passionately interested in the contemporary scene and could approach its topical subject with a journalist's eye.

The general impact of these writers -independent of their degree, or type, of influence- must be considered in a larger context. Many other North American writers were then being translated, read and praised. People such as John Steinbeck (particularly after the success of The Grapes of Wrath), or Erskine Caldwell, James M. Cain or Richard Wright, also had followers. Many 19th Century North American novelists, and even some turn of the Century ones, were also being translated and discovered (or rediscovered) by an increasingly wider Latin American audience. Hawthorne and Melville, Mark Twain and Henry James, Stephen Crane and Sherwood Anderson -all of whom had practically no influence outside the Anglo-Saxon world before 1920- were being studied by the new Latin American writers.

In the case of Henry James, both Jorge Luis Borges and Eduardo Mallea were instrumental in having some of his novels and short stories translated into Spanish in Argentina. In 1945, Borges wrote a very revealing preface to one of his short stories, "The Abasement of the Northmores". The story, with Borges' preface, was published in a booklet. In his presentation, Borges states:

I have frequented a part of Eastern literature and several Western literatures; I have compiled an anthology of fantastic literature; I have translated Kafka and Melville, Swedenborg and Bloy: I do not know of a stranger work than that of James. The writers I have mentioned are, from the very beginning, astonishing; the worlds they introduce in their works are almost professionally unreal; James, before revealing what he is, a benevolent and resigned inhabitant of Hell, dares to present himself as a mundane novelist, slightly less colourful than the majority.

The whole of James'art -a certain way of presenting the real, of obliquely introducing a glimpse of the world's most perverse sides, of improving through craft and style on reality's ambiguities- left an enduring mark on some of the most original Argentine writers of today. José Bianco, for instance, who impeccably translated into Spanish some of James' short stories and The Turn of the Screw, has written three novels -Las ratas (The Rats), Sombras suele vestir (With Clothes He Disguises Shadows), and La pérdida del reino (The Loss of the Kingdom), in which James' elaborate point of view technique and his use of different and basically unreliable "narrators" is carried to its most exasperating consequences. The madness of each of the novels' protagonists is carefully concealed but finally revealed in an ambiguous way by a constantly evasive narrative. Bianco's works also belong to a very French tradition, illustrated in this century both by André Gide's and Roger Martin du Gard's novels: the analysis of a religions crisis set in an agnostic milieu. But in following Gide's ambiguous fiction, Bianco is again back in James' world. A different side of the inexhaustible James is visible in two works by younger Latin American novelists. Both in Coronación (Coronation), by the Chilean José Donoso, and in Aura, by the Mexican Carlos Fuentes, it is impossible not to recognize the presence of James' The Aspern Papers. Julianna Bordereau dying in her crumbling Venetian palace is the source of inspiration for the two Latin American witches Donoso and Fuentes have created. The same close, claustrophobic, decadent world built around the immortal, malevolent idol in James' novel can be recognized in the younger Latin American versions.

The influence of North American fiction on Latin American writers has been neither uniform nor consistent. Important novelists such as Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe or Nathanael West have failed to produce any impact. Even a widely read writer like Ernest Hemingway did not have as a novelist the kind of influence one might expect. Some aspects of his writing -his craftsmanship, the intensity of his dialogue and situations, the carefully observed surface of reality, and a kind of pessimistic defiance- have impressed Latin American novelists in the way they have impressed European writers. But, then the Hemingway manner is more suited to the short story than to the novel, and his influence in that genre is considerable. Hemingway's story-telling technique is as visible, for example, in Borges' "La espera" ("The Waiting"), a story about a gangster hunted by former associates, as it is in the Uruguayan Mario Benedetti's "Tan amigos" ("Such Good Friends"), a very hemingwayesque dialogue between a gangster and an informer. The remote source of both stories is, of course, "The Killers". But Borges developed in his own fashion only the last situation: the unbearable hellish waiting for the killers to come; while Benedetti followed more closely the first part of Hemingway's story in his otherwise topical recreation.

Another important Latin American storyteller who had attended Hemingway's school is the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez. While in his first collection of short stories, Los funerales de la Mamá Grande (Big Mamma's Funerals) there are several stories very much in the style of Hemingway, the core of Hemingway's pathetic vision of the world and of man -the undefeated defeated, the indomitable old man- is even more visible in García Márquez' short novel, El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel, which also includes the abovementioned short stories). Of course, some of Hemingway's subjects or preoccupations are alien to the Latin American writers, particularly the schoolboy's myth of the champion, so prevalent in some of his weakest fiction. Also Hemingway's appetite for Hispanic "color" (four of his novels are located in the Hispanic world) which reflects a sympathetic visitor, rather than a native.

Dos Passos' influence is of a different kind. In the first place, he was the son of a Portuguese immigrant and had an easy access to Iberian culture; his Spanish was fluent. Besides, when writing about Spain or Mexico, he avoided any "inside" presentation and stuck to his own point of view. Thus, the real impact of his fictional world had nothing to do with his links with Iberian culture; rather it was confined to his skillful presentation of North American reality through the use of a sophisticated narrative as in Manhattan Transfer (translated into Spanish in the early 30s) or through such reporting techniques as the "Newsreel" and the "Camera Eye" of the USA trilogy. (The first volume was already translated in Buenos Aires in 1938.) Dos Passos' mixture of joumalistic devices and the more literary techniques of the experimental novel, such as the interior monologue, impressed Latin American writers almost as much as they impressed Sartre who wrote in the 30s the most extravagant eulogy of Dos Passos ever conceived by a human mind. Furthermore, the political engagement of Dos Passos' novels and the fact that he was then the most successful of North American left-wing novelists, helped enormously the diffusion of his works throughout Latin America. To some of our young writers, Dos Passos offered a ready-made formula to cope, both at a political and creative level, with the problem of a narrative presentation of contemporary Latin American reality. It is possible to recognize his influence in novels written in the extremes of the Latin American continent by writers spanning two decades. Both the Uruguayan Juan Carlos Onetti with his second novel, Tierra de nadie (No Man's Land, 1941), and Carlos Fuentes with his first, La región más transparente (Where the Air is Clear, 1958), had attempted a kaleidoscopic vision of Buenos Aires and Mexico City respectively, which followed Dos Passos' blueprint. The fact that after the New Deal, Dos Passos' fiction lost its bite and ceased to have any impact in the USA, did not affect the dissemination of his early work in Latin America. In a certain sense, he is perhaps more important for the contemporary Latin American and European novel than for the North American one.

But the most durable and important influence is, of course, that of William Faulkner. The French were the first to acknowledge Faulkner as one of the masters of contemporary fiction. At a time when very few North American critics seemed to have read him at all, such influential French critics as Malraux, Valéry Larbaud and the young Sartre were writing rave accounts of his novels, and were translating or prefacing some of his most important works. Even Sanctuary, dismissed then in the USA as cheap novelette, was hailed by Malraux, in a now famous piece, as the "intromission of Greek tragedy into the detective story". As early as 1934, there was a Spanish translation of this novel done by the Cuban writer, Lino Novás Calvo, who twenty-odd years later was also to translate Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. His translation of Sanctuary (a rather faithful rendering although some of the most erotic passages were toned down by the Spanish publishers), was included, along with books on the Soviet Union and revolutionary China, in a collection called "Social Facts". Faulkner's Southern gothic tale was taken as a literal rendering of reality. Later, Sur (the leading Argentine avant-garde review of the time) published several Faulkner's stories. In 1940, Borges translated The Wild Palms in a carefully edited Spanish prose which some critics prefer to the original.

His own opinion of Faulkner's fiction is worth quoting. It may be found in several short pieces he wrote for the Argentine magazine, El Hogar (Home). In the first piece he discusses Absalom, Absalom and observes that Faulkner is linked to two different literary traditions: that of writers who are deeply interested in the verbal world, and of those interested in the passions and pains of men. According to Borges, both Shakespeare and Conrad are valid examples of writers concerned with the two traditions; so is Faulkner. In his reading of Absalom, Absalom, Borges insists on the "dark, infinite carnality" of the book, on "the almost intolerable intensity" of it, and he concludes that it can be favorably compared to The Sound and the Fury. Later, in reviewing The Unvanquished, Borges again insists on the carnality of the Faulknerian world:

These are books that touch us physically, like the closeness of the sea or the morning. This one is, for me, of that kind.

Finally, in reviewing The Wild Palms, he criticizes the book for the unnecessary and exasperating techniques, and of the two stories the book tells, he obviously prefers the second, "Old Man". He concludes his review:

Perhaps William Faulkner is the first novelist of today. To get acquainted with him, The Wild Palms is not the most adequate of his works but includes (like all of his books) pages of such intensity that they exceed manifestly the possibilities of any other writer.

At the time Borges wrote this review he did not suspect that a few months later Victoria Ocampo was going to ask him to translate that same imperfect book.

The Faulkner cult had firm roots in Latin America, and in the River Plate area especially. The first translation into any Romance Language of the highly complex Absalom, Absalom -perhaps Faulkner's masterpiece- came out in Buenos Aires in 1950. (Not until three years later there was a French translation; it was not published in Italy until 1954.) Within about fifteen years -from 1934 to 1950- Faulkner had become the most influential of 'all North American novelists. There are many reasons which explain why Faulkner succeeded when other novelists had failed. There is an evident similarity between the society he describes -the Deep South with its decadent families, the rotting feudal system, the problem of miscegenation, the omnipresent sexual tensions and violence, the backwardness of an economy still ruled from the outside- and the societies the Latin American writers have been confronted with. His was also a Caribbean world. The roots of some of his families (as Absalom, Absalom proves) can be found in our Mediterranean. Faulkner's hypnotic style, his blatant mannerisms, the intricacies of his almost Melvillian style, were also elements that had an appeal for the Latin American writers, always attracted by any form of the Baroque. Besides, in spite of Faulkner's regionalism, his works were in the mainstream of the experimental novel of this century. His handling of the interior monologue, his long and subtle manipulation of Time and Space, placed him close to James, Proust and Joyce. By his exacting technical devices, Faulkner forced his reader to become as involved in his texts as were the character themselves. His application of the Balzacian formula of interrelated novels -located in his case in a mythical county- was to influence some of the most important Latin American novelists, like Juan Carlos Onetti and the Mexican Carlos Fuentes. His imprint is visible in novels as diverse as El astillero (The Shipyard), by Onetti, or Pedro Páramo, by the Mexican Juan Rulfo; as well as in García Márquez' La hojarasca (Leaf Storm), La mala hora (The Evil Hour), and even in Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude); in Carlos Fuentes' La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz), or in José Donoso's masterpiece, El obsceno pájaro de la noche (The Obscene Bird of Night).

Not all of Faulkner's books had equal impact on Latin American fiction. After Intruder in the Dust (1948), Faulkner's fiction became quite parochial and, thus, in a sense, of more exclusive interest to North Americans. But the production of his truly creative years -from As I Lay Dying to Absalom- continued to interest the Latin Americans. In those somber and tragic books, suddenly overcome by the most grotesque kind of humor, Latin American writers discovered a complete, challenging, fictional world. His influence on the course of Latin American narrative may be compared to that of Edgar Poe on the French symbolists and on the Latin American Modernist poets and prose writers. It is also similar to Walt Whitman's tantalizing presence in the post-Modernist poets, and especially in Borges' and Pablo Neruda's poetry. But it was on the contemporary fiction that his influence was, like that of Zola and Dostoyevski in earlier times, all pervading.

After Faulkner, no other North American writer had so great an effect on Latin American fiction. Although some of the most important contemporary North American novelists and storytellers have been translated and widely read, only a few have been really decisive. Perhaps Henry Miller and William Burroughs are the two most successful from this point of view. In the case of Miller, the above mentioned triangular link (USA/Europe/Latin America) again comes into play. The fact that his long banned autobiographical Tropics were originally published in Paris, helped their promotion in Latin America. Both books were translated in Buenos Aires in the early 60s. What Miller did for Latin American fiction of the day was similar to what D. H. Lawrence and Hemingway had done in earlier times: he helped to free some writers from the restrictions their basically Catholic education had imposed on them. In the Argentine Julio Cortázar's Los premios (The Winners) and Rayuela (Hopscotch) it is possible to recognize a freer handling of sex which is not only linked to a well-known French tradition (from Sade to Bataille to Genet) but also to the enthusiastic and comic preachings of Henry Miller. Long before Cortázar, Juan Carlos Onetti had also explored sex with an unconventional eye, but his somber vision came closer to that of Céline in Voyage au bout de la nuit, or to Faulkner's dark and tragic one.

Burroughs' influence is quite recent. It can be easily detected in some of the Cuban Severo Sarduy's novels, especially in Cobra, his most recent one. The drug and homosexual experience, carried to the limits of human endurance and conveyed in an explosively metaphorical style by Burroughs, is metamorphosed by the gentler Sarduy into a highly provocative Baroque exercise. Góngora, the French structuralists and Burroughs come together in the space of his wildly poetic texts. With a stylistic prankishness that reminds us of Borges' Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy), Sarduy makes his text into a purely "literary" experience, one of the most exhilarating products of today's fiction.

Some other North American writers have also made an impression in a less obvious way. Both Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were discovered by Latin Americans long before they became fashionable again in Paris and London. In the 40s and 50s some of their best novels were translated into Spanish, following their success in film adaptations. Hammett's impeccable narrative and Chandler's imagination for dialogue left traces in Onetti's fiction (blended, of course, with Faulkner's more lurid prose). And, in Zona sagrada (Holy Place), Fuentes applies to the campy world of Mexican cinema the kind of cynical-and-sentimental eye Chandler had for the West coast scene. The fact that both Hammett and Chandler presented a totally corrupted world, in which the detective played the part of an incongruously lone knight, had an appeal to the social and political conscience of Latin American novelists. They read those detective stories not as fables or entertainment but as violent allegories of a political hell. Red Harvest or The Big Sleep became in this reading as explosive as any book Dreiser or Dos Passos could have dreamt about.

The recent wave of English translations of Latin American fiction is beginning to produce some impact in North American letters, and white it is still too soon now to chart a complete and reliable map, it is already possible to indicate some of the most obvious links. Borges is, of course, the key figure in this case. Since he won the 1961 Formentor Prize given by a group of international avant-garde publishers (ex-aequo with Samuel Beckett), Borges' fiction has been translated and widely read in the USA. At least six volumes have been completed and published: Ficciones, Labyrinths (an anthology), The Book of Imaginary Beings, The Aleph and Other Stories (another anthology), Dr. Brodie's Report, A Universal History of Infamy. Borges' name has become a familiar one in literary circles. His books have been reviewed and applauded by John Barth and John Updike, as well as by Alfred Kazin and John Simon. Even Nabokov once (only once, alas) praised him, although he played ironically with Borges' name in his Ada. Of even greater importance is the fact that Borges's style and vision is now clearly evident in the works of young North American writers. Most notable among these writers are Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon. In Barthelme's highly sophisticated fiction one finds such Borgesian elements as an irrepressibly prankish humour; the parodic mode of narrative; the constant deflection of the reader's expectations, an imaginative use of false quotations; the apparatus of an apocryphal and generally hilarious scholarship; and the use of a "magical" causality to explode the normal reality. Of course, Barthelme is not only younger but also more chic and modish than Borges. He is a second, or even third, generation surrealist while Borges was (for a short time, a very short one) a first-generation one. But these differences actually serve to highlight what they have in common: the basic conception of fiction as fiction, of parody as a means to enrich texture, of the imagination as the final test of a writer's vision.

Pynchon's links with Borges are less evident but perhaps of a more enduring quality. It is obvious that Pynchon knows Spanish and has read widely if erratically Spanish American authors. The Crying of Lot 49 is full of allusions (both straight and parodical) to a culture Pynchon is familiar with. The novel's plot and point of view is very similar to the one used in Borges' "El acercamiento a Almotásim" ("The Approach to Al Mu'tasim"). Both texts parody a mystical progression, both also stop at the threshold of some everlasting revelation, or epiphany. The main difference is in the textual surface and in the basic structure. While Pynchon writes a complete although short novel, Borges writes what looks like a book review of a non-existent Hindu detective novel. And if Borges reduces his prankishness to the format of a short-story disguised as a book review (a minimal reduction of two structures to one), Pynchon avoids any play with the novel's structure but loads his text with the most outrageous puns -in a vein similar to that used later in the English translation of Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Tres tristes tigres (Three Trapped Tigers).

Pynchon's other two novels -V., and the recent Gravity's Rainbow- have also a distinctive Borgesian flavor. In V., the structural complexities -it is, really, a roman à tiroirs, with a main narrative line regularly interrupted by short stories which illustrate the main subject, the pursuit of V.- are reminiscent of the novels Borges has sketched in some of his tales but (perhaps mercifully) never actually wrote: that imaginary and infinite Chinese novel he discusses in "El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan" ("The Garden of Forking Paths"), or the one attributed to the non-existent English writer, in the supposedly necrological notice called, "Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain" ("An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain"). The notion of the false infinite, and the incessant quest are, as is well-known, deeply rooted in Borges' fiction. They are also an essential element in Pynchon's fiction. Gravity's Rainbow moves forward in that same direction and includes in its all-encompassing text not only references to two Argentine writers who have influenced Borges (José Hernández, the author of the gauchesco poem, Martín Fierro, and the Modernist Leopoldo Lugones) but also a parody of one of Borges' poems, in the best tradition of the Argentine writer. According to one of Pynchon's critics, Borges' presence is all-pervading in Gravity's Rainbow. The book (he says) is "a cosmic brick, the cruelest and most extensive incarnation of Borges" in North American fiction.

I think that it is now evident that the assumption, made until quite recently, that communications between North American and Latin American fiction would always travel a one-way route, is no longer true. In the last six or ten years, a small but not inconsiderable number of North American writers have begun to read Latin American fiction with the care they used to bestow on French or German authors. It is perhaps too soon to talk about a real change of direction, but at least the new Latin American novel is being read here, and now it seems less unbelievable that in the near future -when more and better readers will discover Guimarães Rosa and Lezama Lima, Onetti and Cortázar, García Márquez and Cabrera Infante, Manuel Puig and Severo Sarduy- a two-way system will start functioning normally. Let us hope. "



L. Block de Behar

A. Rodríguez Peixoto

S. Sánchez Castro


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