February 2010

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

The Paul Auster Effect in Colombia

Being a reader of English, like being a resident of the United States -- even at dire moments -- means things are still usually better than the most of the world has it. For starters, most translators in English dedicate themselves first and foremost to translating. They’re professionals, and we’ve got more of them than anywhere I can think of. It makes sense: there are a lot of English speakers, and most of them, in global terms, have the money to purchase books. As a result, reading English is like having an American passport -- it can get you most any place in the world. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, the countries from where the books are being translated are keeping an eye out on who is being chosen. The same way we might reconsider an ignored author after winning a prize in France, translation often translates to a reappraisal. It’s the Paul Auster effect: fame in a country on a higher shelf in the cultural bookcase brings praise at home (in Auster´s case, it was France).

When the Rest gets word that one of their own has made it somewhere in the upper echelons of the cultural bookshelf, they get curious, and the media is forced to take notice. When I used to buy copies of Bolaño novels in Spain, my friends there asked me why I was buying novels by this mediocre Mexican poet. They told me I should have bought some Javier Marias, instead. "Now there's an author," they’d say. I doubt very much they would have the same reaction now, after Bolaño became the next Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the English speaking world. One of the world’s most famous authors (and from where I write, Colombia, the most famous author) experienced the Paul Auster effect as well.

How did he feel when he came back to Barranquilla after the global success of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and cabbies were making in-jokes about his novel? When he left the country, he was another Alvaro Mutis, maybe; another Hernando Tellez, at best; or just another hack journalist publishing novels that five people read. Gabo’s biographer goes as far as to say that if he hadn’t left Colombia, he may have never met fame. His homecoming, as Gerard Martin paints it in Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, was a real red carpet affair. I should add that Martin’s quite good at depicting the author's life. In fact, the biography is just as fantastic as everyone says. It’s not too bogged down with details, as literary biographies can be, nor does it make silly conjectures about his work; it’s simply the story of Gabo and his novels, and his wife Mercedes (in that order). I don’t know what the Gabo scholars will say, or if that such a scholar even exists, because I don’t know enough about his life to comment about its accuracy. I will say that the biography is captivating. It was a book I thought I would never read, you know, the book that you find at every single shop display, and in an act of bibliorebellion decide you won’t read it. But then I picked it up at my job and after skimming the index, read a sentence or two, then decided to leave work early, go home and read it in my hammock, where I remained for hours. I still haven’t finished it. It’s a long book, and I started yesterday, but I urgently must finish. (In a very odd coincidence, I met one of Gabo’s best friends and journalist mentioned in the biography, Plinio Mendoza, the day after I began it.)

I guess I should say forewarn you that I can't be all that objective. Reading it here feels like I’m reading the “the true story” behind Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey, only that it’s not just the Boss, but the whole E-Street band, even that one who acted in The Sopranos. He seemingly knows everyone from Milan Kundera to Kawabata. Martin cites an account by Jose Donoso (the Chilean fifth musketeer of the boom) of a party in Barcelona of which the attendees include Gabo, Vargas Llosa, Jorge Edwards, Manuel Vasquez Montalbán, Juan Goytisolo and Juan Marsé. (I guess Borges couldn’t make it.)  And that’s just one meeting. The boom authors romp around the entire book: bickering, being bohemian, but mostly being cool and writing. There’s Gabo drinking with Vargas Llosa. There’s Vargas Llosa writing a book about Gabo. There’s Vargas Llosa holding back its publication for thirty years, after he changes his mind. Then, there’s Gabo getting popped in the mouth by Vargas Llosa. I almost can’t believe it really happened. For writer who talks often like a wrestler -- and let’s face it, Gabo has said some pretty crazy things -- he’s still managed to keep his myth very real, while hiding his not-so-superhero-like bitterness and confusion. Martin’s description of Gabo’s relationship with Miguel Angel Asturias, considered Gabo’s predecessor, the first novelist in Latin America to win the Nobel and considered to be a major influence on Marquez’s magic, exemplifies this other side of Gabo. While praising Asturias in public, he badmouths him behind his back, which in turn leads Asturias to claim that the Colombian ripped of Balzac’s The Quest of the Absolute. It’s fantastic.

Martin is right: Gabo is a Warhol era figure, a cult of personality. Maybe that’s what him led him to have said “I’m fucked,” to his wife, Mercedes, after hearing he was getting the Nobel Prize, knowing full well media storm that awaited him, and maybe guessing what that would turn him into in his native Colombia. In other words, he already knew about the Paul Auster effect. Gabo’s prize starts such uproar in DF that his compatriot, painter Gabriel Obregon, on his way to Gabo’s house, sees police surrounding the building, and says, “Shit, Gabo’s dead.”  The British biographer does well to capitalize on Gabo’s knack for the anecdote, which is what makes this book fun. Of course, he tells it much better that I do. I bet Gabo tells it much, much better.

Gabo’s Paul Auster effect on Colombia has been tremendous. You can still feel it twenty years later. Just ask novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez, who has written extensively about Gabo. Some fifty years Gabo’s younger, the expat writer has re-interpreted One Hundred Years of Solitude to be a work of historical fiction, whose “magic” has been misunderstood. He makes a good case, which is probably why it was published in nearly every literary magazine in Spanish.

Vásquez's novel The Informers, as you might guess, is also a work of historical fiction, about the internment of Germans in Colombia, told in large part by protagonist Gabriel Santoro, a journalist in the gloomy Bogota of the '90s, who has just published a book describing the persecution of German immigrants. Thanks to an American initiative led by the FBI, Colombia begins blacklisting recent German arrivals. While the interviewee tells her tale, Santoro uncovers that his father, a prestigious law professor, is also an infamous womanizer. His father, an Oedipal ogre, hacks his book to pieces in a review, and then avoids the topic. What Gabriel then uncovers from Sara Guterman, his source for the internment book, is that his father has devious reasons to give him a bad review. As the novel runs mostly on plot, I don’t want to ruin it. Basically, the story is at once a literary mystery, a son’s discovery of his father, and a coming to terms with the horrendous violence that Colombia experienced in the 1990s (also the topic of Evelio Rosero’s The Armies).

No historical juxtapositions, no father-son stuff, in The Armies we watch the simple, terrifying downward spiral of an unspecified small town in Colombia (generically named San Jose), narrated by a retired and aging professor, Ismael Pasos. We begin in a garden, the type you might expect from a work of magical realism, complete with parrots, flowers, mango trees, even the bronzed girl next door, who likes to spend her mornings naked on the balcony. Ismael finds himself with “the incipient but enthralling desire to look at her without her knowing… all of her a face in profile, her eyes as if absolved, steeped in who knows what dreams, then the calves, the round knees, the whole legs, just the thighs, and if he’s lucky, beyond, up into the depths.” In fact, the professor can hardly gawk subtly; now everyone knows, even her husband, the Brazilian. Eventually, the professor’s wife, Otilia, confronts him while they lie in bed. For a while the narrator’s conflict is that of the dirty old man.

Befuddled by his own horny behavior, Prof, as many call him, waddles around town on his cane, having the casual conversations you tend to find in small towns. At every doorstep someone tells him that Otilia, his wife, has just come by, looking for him. In these seemingly mundane moments, we find glimpses of war. In passing, a couple separated by kidnapping is mentioned. Later we hear about neighboring towns where the conditions are much worse. Even the priest, Ismael’s former pupil, who has an illicit wife and child, is afraid that the paramilitaries will torture and mutilate him before killing him, as they have done to a colleague in El Tablón. The narrator muses, “I’m grateful for my age, half a step from the grave, and I feel sorry for the children, who have a hard road ahead of them, with all this death they’re inheriting, and through no fault of their own.” Just then, an army attacks. What appeared to be the problem of the next generation is now his own. Also, what seemed like a novel about shame becomes something much more gruesome.

During the assault, Ismael continues to make his rounds, only now he’s looking for Otilia. Chatting with his neighbors, he finds out about the dead and the kidnapped, among them his neighbor, the Brazilian. Somehow, we discover, almost all of the characters are being persecuted by one armed group or another, from the doctor to the bread-maker.

Some cases are particularly tragic. The Brazilian, very much in love with his wife -- the same beauty that Ismael spied on -- tried paying both armed groups, and following the conflict’s logic, should not have been taken; still, they kidnapped him. Or in the case of the doctor: “This time he tried to hide in the refrigerator where they keep the medicine, and they found him: they riddled the fridge with bullets, with him inside.” On one occasion, the townspeople recall the story of the bread-maker, who was kidnapped once, then released, only to have his wife and kids killed in front of him. He drifts like a ghost, blaming himself. Although Ismael recognizes this psychological fallacy, he too blames himself for what appears to be the disappearance of his wife.

Others cases border on the absurd. For instance, Hortensia Galindo, who everyone suspects takes pleasure in her husband’s absence, abandons the town with some friendly soldiers in a helicopter. In the distant capital Bogotá (the only safe place, which everyone dreams of escaping to), they’ve televised the kidnapping of a dog, Dundi.

The combination of tragic massacre with goofy gruesomeness only becomes more horrifying when you consider that little, if any, of The Armies is made up. The most horrid details, including mutilation of priests, kidnapping of dogs, and necrophilia, were reported during the conflict’s bloody peak in the 1990s, and even now, almost ten years later, atrocities by all sides are regularly reported.

The book’s seemingly general title reflects the anonymous nature of the military maelstrom that is the Colombian civil conflict (in which the U.S. has had direct involvement for over a decade). There is no difference between the guerillas, or the paramilitaries, or the military in San Jose. One military commander shoots citizens. Guerillas (who can only be distinguished from other armed groups by their galoshes) throw a grenade at an elderly professor. Having once been on a road in rural Colombia where I suddenly found myself confronting uniformed men with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns, I can attest to the visual similarities between the armed groups (luckily, they were not wearing galoshes). Also luckily, it was the right group -- and I get to read Gabo´s biography tonight.

Both of these talented authors, although published in Colombia and praised to some extent, were not considered the Big Names until they were recognized abroad. When Evelio Rosero (and his translator) won the Guardian´s Foreign Fiction Award last year, his face appeared on Colombian magazine covers. The rave reviews of The Informers in English, as well as his nomination for the Guardian award, made cultural headlines here. And justice was served. Before them, writers Mario Mendoza (who got a write up in The New York Times about ten years ago) and Jorge Franco, aside from spectacular sales and accompanying movies, thought they were the Big Names. The same could also be said of the once-new voice of Latin America, Chilean novelist Alberto Fuguet, whose books, post-Bolaño, seem sophomoric and gimmicky.

Both of these novels address Colombian violence in the '90s, but their similarities end there. Vásquez pertains to the New Old School. He admires Flaubert, Nabokov, Bellow. As such, characterization is Vásquez’s focus, along with plot, which can leave his sentences rather bare (in both languages), and I found myself bored, skipping ahead to find out what would happen. Rosero is the opposite. While he does a fantastic job characterizing and leading us into his inferno, his sentences are brilliant, and often call for further examination. It’s worth mentioning that Rosero’s sense of narrative timing is impeccable, so in the end you feel affected by the conflict. If there´s anything I´ve read like him, it´s Coetzee. Aside from the intellectual pervert geezer protagonist, Rosero also has Coetzee’s gift for gruesome understatement. Ah, Coetzee. Now there's an author.