May 13 2009

Beyond Bolaño

Chad W. Post


Macedonio Fernández


The spread of Bolañomania last year, after the release of 2666, was amazing to witness. I never thought I’d see a complex and disturbing nine-hundred-page novel, translated from Spanish and written by an author who passed away a few years ago, show up on the New York Times best-seller list. As a lover of Latin American literature, I found it especially encouraging, because Bolaño’s books don’t include talking iguanas or mystical recipes. Bolaño finally shattered the magic-realist stereotype that has plagued Spanish writers for the past few decades. Great news for the dozens of Latin American novels translated into English—including the eight below—that explore altogether different worlds.

Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Carolina De Robertis

Zambra, a young writer from Chile, has a distinctive, bare-bones writing style, which, for all its directness, also has a touch of metafictional self-awareness. Rather than try to trick the reader, he announces in the opening paragraph that Julio and Emilia are going to fall in and out of love and that she’s going to die (so much for suspense). But the plot is unimportant—what keeps the reader engaged is Zambra’s skill in creating a melancholy, poetic world.

Montano’s Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Jonathan Dunne

Barcelona’s Vila-Matas is one of the absolute best at playing metafictional games. Montano’s Malady is a series of novels within a novel; each section undermines the previous one, and they all revolve around a writer obsessed with the idea that modern man is killing the art of writing. Littered with references to great authors of the twentieth century (including a certain Roberto Bolaño), Montano’s Malady pays homage to the masters, yet also illustrates fresh possibilities for fiction.

The Absent City by Ricardo Piglia, translated by Sergio Waisman

Part noir, part sci-fi, Piglia’s is the second book on the list (along with Bonsai) that contains an explicit reference to Macedonio Fernandez, the grandfather of Argentinean literature. Set in a future Buenos Aires, The Absent City features a machine that contains the memory of a woman named Elena and that endlessly spins stories about real government-instigated atrocities, causing the authorities to try to silence it. An Argentinean Finnegans Wake, the novel has baffled some readers, but its momentum keeps them interested; as Robert Coover noted in a review, the book is a “mock thriller that lures its reader on, not with the question, ‘What happens next?’ but with ‘What was it that just happened?’”

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel: The First Good Novel by Macedonio Fernández, translated by Margaret Schwartz

Fernández, Borges’s mentor, is considered one of the greatest Argentinean writers of all time, despite the fact that his two major books—The Museum of Eterna’s Novel: The First Good Novel and Adriana Buenos Aires: The Last Bad Novel—weren’t published until after his death. But his exploits—trying to start a utopia, campaigning for president by simply leaving “Macedonio” calling cards on café tables, and always being photographed with a guitar he never played—had earned him a place in the hearts and minds of the Argentinean literati. Way ahead of its time, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel opens with dozens of prefaces: about literature, about “skip around readers,” about a nonexistent character who is also the most important one in the novel. When the story finally starts, readers finds themselves in an estancia called “the novel” with characters who know they are fictional.

The Celebration by Ivan Ângelo, translated by Thomas Colchie

This book may be translated from the Brazilian Portuguese, not Spanish, but it’s an incredibly playful novel that takes the conceits of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch one step further. Split into two sections—“Before the Celebration” and “After the Celebration”—the novel reconstructs the night of March 31, 1970, through a series of short stories that link a birthday party for a rich young artist, and a riot that occurs when authorities try to force a train of poor migrants to return to the rural northeast. The tales in the “Before” section are mesmerizing, but it’s the “After” section that’s pure genius. Serving as a kind of appendix, “After” fills in details about characters who appear earlier in the book, such as “God. Page 66: Not the same god as on Page 23. A different, terrifying one who frightened little children . . .”

Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda, translated by Josep Miquel Sobrer

Rodoreda is considered by many to be the greatest female Spanish writer of the past century. The Time of the Doves is her most beloved book, but Broken Mirror—and her posthumous novel, Death in Spring—is more imaginative, daring, and haunting. Broken Mirror is a family saga with prose that follows an aesthetic progression, from a proper Victorian beginning, to a modernist middle, to a poetically fragmented finale. Though brief, this novel packs in an amazing amount of family history and emotion and does so with an artistic sensibility that’s unrivaled.

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine

Bioy Casares wrote some stunning short novels during his lifetime, but the best known and most perfectly constructed is The Invention of Morel. (Borges compared it to Kafka’s The Trial and James’s The Turn of the Screw as an ideal example of the genre.) Morel’s protagonist is a fugitive trapped on an island that has two suns, two moons, and a strange group of unapproachable tourists, including a woman he falls in love with. Is it any wonder this book showed up on Lost?

The Event by Juan José Saer, translated by Helen Lane

Saer—who passed away in 2005—was the author of a dozen underrated novels, many of which involve the same setting and characters—a sort of Latin-American Yoknapatawpha County. His style can be Faulknerian (is there any great Latin American writer of the past century who wasn’t influenced by Faulkner?), though he also drew on the examples of the Nouveau Roman and European detective novels. The Event’s protagonist, A. Bianco, now known as Burton, is a famous magician who is exposed as a fake and forced to flee Europe for Argentina’s lush pampas. In typical Saer fashion, Burton’s fraudulence may not be what it seems, and he works to regain his mojo against this spacious, mysterious landscape.

Chad W. Post is the director of Open Letter Books, a press at the University of Rochester that specializes in international literature, and the host of the literary weblog Three Percent.

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