One of the most exciting developments of the past decade has been the steady increase of curiosity among English-speakers in literature by Latin American writers. Much of the world over has been taken by Roberto Bolaño, and with him – as these things often happen – has come a resurgence – a trend, some may say – of interest in writing from, among other countries, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Below, I will highlight five writers from Latin America who have been of particular importance to me.
Roberto Bolaño seems primed to overcome the troublingly myopic codification of a writer by his or her nationality. Only several "Third World" writers have escaped this – V.S. Naipaul, for example, or Chinua Achebe –, and the vast majority of those who have done so – of those who have become "nationality-less" or "international" writers – have written in English; it is quite uncommon to come across a writer from a developing or Third World country who, writing in a language native to their birth country, evades distinction first and foremost as a product and representation primarily of its distinct culture. This is an extraordinarily complex and charged issue; some take this distinction as a source of pride, others as a slight, an implicitly condescending mark of exclusionary exoticism by the domineering Western influence over modern literature. But Bolaño, who takes his various countries of residence – among them Chile and Mexico – as the settings for his novels and short stories, has, in tremendously little time, become not only a figure of international renown but a writer whose work is of what might – lazily, perhaps – be termed "international interest": his work is concerned with the human, not the geographic. Why it is that he, in particular, has become subject to this "internationalizing" treatment is quite debatable: many other extraordinary and celebrated writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, seem still to perennially have their nationalities adjectivally fixed upon their names and work. Bolaño put much thought into what the nation and nationality mean, and he very much considered himself a writer not defined by where he was born or where he had lived. Increasingly, the reading public, too, is seeing his work on its own terms, and not as a product or representation of any discrete and foreign location.
Clarice Lispector is hardly a new name to, at the very least, certain English-speaking literary circles, but even among them she is not nearly recognized enough for her stunning output and contributions to literature. Her name seems pestilently attached to translator Gregory Rabassa's remark that she "looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf," for which the glib connotations of the former comparison seems almost intended to override the flattery of the former. But worse still is that she didn't write like Virginia Woolf; trite and predictable as the rest of this sentence may prove, it is true: she didn't write like anyone else. Perhaps it is the interior thrust of her work that made Rabassa compare her to Woolf, but hers is of a far more disquieting, even threatening sort: she leaves no more room for the reader than her characters leave for themselves; her work seems more akin, perhaps, to Beckett or Artaud in this way: the reader is not absolved from implication in her work, but becomes implicitly involved in it. Benjamin Moser's Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector has brought her some wider attention and renewed acclaim, and it is certainly to be hoped that more of her work will be translated into English soon, and that those already translated may receive new and obtainable editions.
César Aira had been championed by Roberto Bolaño, and this no doubt has contributed greatly to the recent notice paid his work in the United States; three of his short novels are available in English translation by the redoubtable Chris Andrews, who is also responsible for all of the English-language translations of Bolaño's work except The Savage Detectives and 2666. New Directions – which published all of Andrews' Bolaño translations – is a terrific source of works by authors from Latin America, and Aira seems to be the author many are treating as the "new" Bolaño. He is nothing like Bolaño, but much of his work – and there is much of it – is terrific: elusive, alternately playful and terrifying in a manner – but not at all a style – reminiscent of fairy tales. He seeks to provoke the reader in a way that is similar in its disquieting effect to Lispector's work but entirely distinct in its tactics for doing so: he dislocates the reader from the events of the novel, often disrupting his narratives precisely in order to challenge the possibility that any discrete "events" may even be occurring.
Only one of Horacio Castellanos Moya's novels has been translated into English: it is the extraordinary Senselessness, which, perhaps with Bolaño's By Night in Chile, is the book that affected me most among the works I've read by the writers mentioned herein. Another work of his, The She-Devil in the Mirror, will be released in a matter of days, and I can't wait to read it. Senselessness, like By Night in Chile, seems most remarkable to me in its fearless adoption of what may be called an "artless" tone: there are no postmodern winks at the audience – as Bolaño does quite frequently in The Savage Detectives and 2666 – nor is there a traditional arc of any sort, even with its fable-like undertones and moral thrust; rather, Castellanos Moya is most interested in creating an experience for the reader that he or she must sort out without the benefit of any knowledge of authorial intent. The effect is unnerving: it was uncomfortable and, in many ways, disappointing for me to realize how much I often depend upon the comfort of knowing that an author intends to be doing whatever his or her work seems to be doing. Senselessness offers no such comfort.
It seems that it's only through this relatively new and wide interest among English-speakers in writers from Latin America – it is market-bread, to be sure; but we are no less better off for it, and I see no reason to be cynical when so many wonderful things are coming from it – that the very young Alejandro Zambra could already have become such a literary darling in the United States. His short first novel Bonsai was released by Melville House; it is his only work to be translated into English, and to my knowledge he has only written one other book. Bonsai is wonderful: it is a tremendously winning text that, through a subtle and difficult alchemy of immense readability and trenchant and fluid prose, prods its indelible way into the mind of its readers long after they may believe they've stopped thinking about it.