In a recent interview with El Universo, which you can read here
, Chilean writer and filmmaker Alberto Fuguet discusses the often strained relationship that current Latin American writers have with their literary parents, who became internationally known for the "boom" in the genre known as magical realism.
(For English-only readers, you can read up on the movement here
, and here
A few years ago, I gave a talk at the Northeast Modern Language Associaion on this very issue. My paper was titled You Can Choose Your Friends, But You Can’t Choose Your Family: Alberto Fuguet and Gabriel García Márquez
and, after reading the El Universo article this past weekend, I thought I'd repost it here on my blog.
Please enjoy, and if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. After completing my undergraduate degree
in the spring of 2000, I spent a few months in the fairly common 20-something practice of backpacking through foreign lands, in my case, Central America. And I found Guatemala to be particularly intriguing, if for somewhat unexpected reasons. For example, a popular Chichicastenango rock club became a regular hangout, and each night we were bombarded with as much Outkast and Radiohead as we were Control Machete. I remember nursing a shot of rum one night until a young Guatemalteco approached me. “You shouldn’t drink that,” he told me. Not because it’s alcoholic effects would leave me feeling as weightless as a Macondo grandmother, but rather because “esa mierda will rot you liver.” He bought me a pint of Guinness instead.
Scenes such as this--which Alberto Fuguet might describe as exemplifying a new sort of inter-American, FTAA sensibility--have become more and more commonplace throughout the hemisphere, and it should come as little surprise, then, that Fuguet and other writers of his ilk would create new works of literature steeped in this modern, urban, and grittily real sensibility. Fuguet’s works have made him a literary celebrity, but the controversial perception that they constitute a pointed, intentional challenge to the prevailing tradition of Gabriel García Márquez and the rest of the so-called Boom generation made him infamous. He’s certainly not trying to become the next great magical realist, but neither is he the “patricidal leader of a fundamentalist movement,” as some critics have branded him. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.
But let’s backtrack just a bit and establish some of Fuguet’s relevant biography. Though born in Santiago de Chile in the 1964, he spent his first formative decade in suburban Los Angeles, California. After the fall of President Salvador Allende, his pro-Pinochet parents--fearing the influences of the sex, drugs, and rock & roll of mid-1970s America--moved back to Santiago, where young Alberto--who did not speak Spanish--experieced what surely must have been one of the harshest culture shocks imaginable.
In 1982, Fuguet was eighteen, and still struggling to chart a clear course through life. He’d decided that he wanted to be a journalist, but sub-par grades had kept him from being accepted into any of the requisite journalism schools. To remedy this situation, he enrolled in some prep courses, and spent his free time reading. His Spanish skills had developed enough to allow him to grasp the language of the Latin American masters, and he particularly identified with Mario Vargas Llosa and Manuel Puig. To be sure, however, a writer is defined not only by what he reads, but also by what he doesn’t read, and because Fuguet was not, at the time, even considering a literary vocation, he admittedly skipped the novels of Cortázar, Borges, and García Márquez. One book he didn’t skip, though, was Crónicas y reportajes
. Fuguet was immediately taken with how GGM would opine and invent in the middle of a journalistic piece, and he began to look at writing in a whole new light. So much so, in fact, that he began to imitate GGM’s creative technique in his classes, much to the dismay of his professors. To put it another way, Fuguet--who would later be accused of literary patricide--was so impressed with GGM’s journalistic style that he was willing to jeopardize his own young career, and when he read a La Segunda headline announcing GGM as the winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, he even felt a slight twinge of pride in the man whose dog-eared and underlined copy of Crónicas y reportajes
he carried with him in his backpack.
Of course, the relationship between the famous journalist and the young imitator didn’t remain on such amicable terms for long. Everthing changed the following summer, when Fuguet read One Hundred Years of Solitude
while backpacking up and down Chile with a friend. Here’s how he describes his reaction to that seminal novel: “(it) seemed to me to be formidable, trememdous, and fantastic...but at no point did it seem to be about me, my family, or my country. That rambling novel was about a distant, fascinating land.” Apparently there were some Latin Americans--especially young, urban ones like Fuguet--for whom Macondo was just as foreign and exotic as it was to the North American readers who had encountered it in translation. And that shouldn’t, I think, be any huge revelation: after all, I’ve never felt thatThe Grapes of Wrath
wholly describes my own experience here in the United States, but Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude
hits a lot closer to home.
Gradually, Fuguet began to separate himself from GGM and his distant, fascinating lands in search of a literary terrain that he could more closely identify with. The definitive move--if we can point to one--would come in the form of a 1994 residency at the University of Iowa’s International Writers Program. The young Fuguet was understandably excited about the opportunity, hoping that soon he would be translated and published here in the United States, the land where he’d once lived and from which he’d absorbed many influences over the course of his life. However, this dream soon proved to be more magic than real. The young Chileno who’d already published three novels in Spanish might not be what the Gringos were expecting, and a meeting with a fellow student left him with little doubt about the hurdles he was facing. As he describes it:
She served me some nachos with salsa and put on a tape of a pro-Castro Cuban troubador in an effort to make me feel “at home.” She began our work session with her opinion: she really enjoyed my work, but somehow, she felt, it lacked “magical realism.” We worked on it, but the flying abuelitas and the obsessively constructed genealogies didn’t seem to fit in my work. Weeks later, the Iowa Review rejected the first story I submitted to them. In a polite letter, I was gently told that it wasn’t what they were looking for. In fact, the story I had written could easily have taken place right here, in America.
Fuguet got the message: he wasn’t following the formula laid out by previous Latin American authors, and that was a problem for a lot of people on both continents.
But not for everybody. Two years after his discouraging experience in Iowa, Fuguet--along with another Chilean writer by the name of Sergio Gómez--edited and published an anthology of short fiction by 18 writers all under the age of 35 which bore the now-infamous title of McOndo, a satirical pun on GGM’s magical and mythical town which simultaneously refers to McDonald’s restaurants, Macintosh computers, and condominiums. But what, exactly, does this term refer to? Earlier I briefly described Fuguet’s writing as “inter-American” and “modern, urban, and grittily real,” but Fuguet himself has offered a much more pointed and detailed explanation:
McOndo is no more and no less than a sensibility, a certain way of looking at life, or--better yet--of understanding Latin America (make that America, for it is clear that the United States is getting more Latin American every day). In the beginning, it was a literary sensibility, but now, I suppose, it encompases much more. McOndo is a global, mixed, diverse, urban, 21st century Latin America, bursting on TV and apparent in music, art, fashion, film, and journalism, hectic and unmanageable. Latin America is quite literary, yes, almost a work of fiction, but it’s not a folk tale. It is a volatile place where the 19th century mingles with the 21st. More than magical, this place is weird. Magical realism reduces a much too complex situation and just makes it cute. Latin America is not cute.
This vision didn’t sit well with a lot of people, and criticism of Fuguet began to fly fast and furious...and it was a lot less polite than what he’d endured while at Iowa. For example, William Kennedy--who famously wrote in the New York Times Book Review that One Hundred Years of Solitude
was “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race” wrote a defiant, almost personal defense of magical realism, and ultimately suggested that “any McOndonian insister should check his pulse.” Fuguet and his cohorts have also been described as Gen X kids sold out on American culture whose “unintelligible” writing makes a “caricature” out of Latin American literature’s rich tradition.
To a certain degree, Fuguet set himself up for such attacks. Referring to Rodrigo García--director of the Hollywood film Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her
and son of GGM himself--he wrote that “the enemy’s offspring was a friend, indeed.” But facetious statements like this need to be taken with a grain of salt, not a gallon of bile. For the single most important fact of their contentious relationship is this: ALBERTO FUGUET ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT DISDAIN GGM’S WORK. All of the drama and intrigue stirred up between the publication of McOndo
and the critics’ generally hostile response only obscured a more subtle analysis: namely, that IT’S NOT THE ORIGINAL BOOM WRITERS THAT HE FOUND PROBLEMATIC. It’s the legions of imitators who came after them, who felt (perhaps rightly) that the only thing readers wanted was more levitation and eternal rain, and who took magic realism--which certainly describes some of the century’s most imaginative and original literature--and repeated it to an exhausting degree. To young urban writers, three decades of novels depicting gypsies, jungles, and guerrilla wars became a bit much. As Fuguet’s partner-in-crime, Edmundo Paz-Soldán, once said,
We felt that magical realism was starting to exoticize Latin America, “the continent where the extraordinary is part of daily life.” We did not want to contribute to that... We don’t want to deny the importance of magical realism; rather, we just want to say that fortunately Latin American literature encompasses diverse regiters. There is a place for magical realism, and there should be a place for McOndo.
All good farmers know that you have to rotate your crops from season to season. If you don’t, even the richest, most fertile soil will eventually become stripped of its nutrients and yield a less appealing harvest. Fuguet, Paz-Soldán, and the rest of the McOndo generation represent that new and varied crop.
Fuguet has said that he sometimes senses bits of GGM’s DNA in his blood. Certainly, they are related: after all, to state the obvious, without Macondo there is no McOndo. And it wouldn’t be an entirely inappropriate metaphor to think of him as his son. But he’s certainly not a patricidal one. In fact, in a 2002 article that he was asked to contribute to GGM’s own journal CAMBIO, Fuguet wrote that “People learn a lot from their parents. They learn how to live, but they also learn what they want to do differently with their lives. GGM helped me to become a writer but, more importantly I think, he allowed me...to write in my own way.”
A nice sentiment to be sure--one both honest and true--but I’m going to conclude here with what is, I think, a more subtle tribute to the magical old man in the guayabera. Fuguet once spoke of a notecard he had affixed to his workspace during the writing of his last novel The Movies of My Life
. On it he had written his self-prescribed task: “Write The House of the Spritis
without the spirits.” More recently, in a review he wrote of GGM’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale, he described it as “la prueba fechaciente que se puede escribir La casa de los espíritus
sin recurrir a los espíritus.”