by Pola Oloixarac for The Telegraph
My first read by Mario Vargas Llosa was Pantaleón y las visitadoras (in English translation, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service). I was twelve, mostly enamoured with Edgar Allan Poe, and I had no idea that books could be so utterly hilarious and sexy -and this, by way of making a political critique to the military! I have consistently devoured every Vargas Llosa since. When he won the Nobel Prize, the divisions among his wide Latinamerican fan-base, stirred by Vargas Llosa’s move to the libertarian right in the nineties, appeased. Everybody was entitled to love him in the open again.
Prizes and controversy feed the lives of world-stage writers: but it's a well known fact that nothing looks as good in your CV as death. Life’s tableau seems thus complete, a work of art in itself. It was certainly the case with Roberto Bolaño, one of the most exciting authors in Spanish language in recent times, who died in 2003, before his work became widely translated. In one of those nights toasting to Vargas Llosa’s Nobel across the Americas, Horacio Castellanos Moyá told me: “Had he lived longer, the tone would have been quite different... because Roberto wouldn’t shut up. If something was ugly, he would speak up.” An acclaimed novelist from El Salvador, Castellanos Moyá had been a long time friend to Bolaño.
Roberto Bolaño is also an author whose literary life speaks volumes of the globalized Spanish-language world. Chilean by birth, Bolaño chose Mexico City as his emigré home and dreamland for his fiction, while taking the language of Argentine masters Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar to re-imagine the epic dream of the Latinamerican Novel; he passed away in his home in the little town of Blanes, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. And it wasn't just his prose that broke with tradition. It was the first time a Latinamerican writer was not first fêted in Paris. Actually, Bolaño had been pretty much left alone at his booth at the Salon du Livre in Paris -the myth has him sitting bored at an empty signing-, whereas it took a few years (a supernova for publishing eons) to see his name blowing away the English-speaking market. Rumours of a new state of publishing arose. The French had missed it -and if they missed a talent like Bolaño’s, how many others where they missing?
A coup was now in the works between the Western titans of the spoken tongues, English and Spanish.
In a time when a great deal of new writing has grown institutionalized through university-taught Writing Programs, a figure like Bolaño’s kept the charm of old-time bohemia intact. “Sometimes, the aspiring writers moon about some guy tortured in Soviet Rusia, and kind of wish they had been there too, to write more vividly”, I was told by Daniel Castro, an American-born Cuban writer with a fellowship at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. Who, but Bolaño, had such a great story to sell about himself -a story nearly as good as his prose?
Across Latinamerica, the guerrilla-time characters had dandyfied themselves along with the gentrification of their cities; theirs was the less glamorous tale of neoliberalism and nostalgia. As the key writers of the Boom wound down and the old formula collided with fact -García Márquez’s support of the Castro regime despite the violations to the human rights should ring a bell-, other movements, like The Crack, in Mexico, attempted to write off a new identity for urban Latinamerica. None of these writers gained as much momentum as the former generation, nor became as endearing with the international public. Only Bolaño remained poetic enough to the marketing muses.
In the 21st century, the renewal of the Spanish novel came strong, as if, after all the attempted parricides and movements, literature was, again, a matter of individual creation. One feels that Mario Bellatin, exquisite experimental writer from Peru, has done much more on his own to contribute to the renovation of the funhouse of the Spanish language, as is the case of towering novelist and critic Ricardo Piglia, whose work continues to inspire the younger generations. Cult writers like Edgardo Cozarinsky, Margo Glantz and the late Fogwill have joined the ranks of authors published by independent houses, who offer a first home to new writing talent across the Spanish-speaking world: Almadía (México), Estruendomudo (Perú), Editorial Hum (Uruguay), Mansalva (Argentina), to name a few.
New places for imagination seem open, as writers thrive in the midst of a burgeoning literary scene, in the land of undead, beautiful ghosts.