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Posted January 4, 2003
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New Era Succeeds Years of Solitude



Latin American Writers

Of a Younger Generation

Turn to Big Mac Culture



Alberto Fuguet's latest novel has no metaphysical butterflies, no levitating grandmothers, no flying carpets — indeed, none of the fantastic imagery that is most commonly associated with Latin American literature.

Instead, Mr. Fuguet's book, tentatively titled "The Movies of My Life," to be released by Rayo/HarperCollins this fall, is about a character who is equally at home in Encino, Calif., and Santiago, Chile, and whose life is told through American movies. Advertisement

To many in the Latin American literary establishment, for whom writing is a means of addressing nationalism, postcolonialism and history, Mr. Fuguet's irreverence to his homeland in both tone and setting is a betrayal. He has been called a sellout to American culture, a spoiled product of globalization, an irresponsible countryman.

"Fuguet makes a caricature out of Latin American literature, which is very rich and complex and which comes from a very painful literary process," said Ricardo Cuadros, a Chilean novelist and critic. "As writers, we don't have the right to forget the last 30 or 40 years.

Mr. Fuguet (the name is pronounced foo-GET) is not the only young Latin American writer to come under such criticism. Over the last several years a new generation has come of age, and their short stories and novels reflect the world in which they've grown up: urban settings where cyber cafes sidle up to slums and where a Friday night probably involves watching an American rerun on television. They do not mention politics or history, nor do they make reference to where anyone has come from. The only dictators that appear are in their characters' dreams. Many of their stories take place, quite unapologetically, in the United States.

"Latin America has changed," Mr. Fuguet, 38, said recently by telephone from Santiago, where he lives. "I never felt that Latin America was the way it was portrayed in the books we had to read." "I never related to the canon," he continued, referring to writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortázar, part of a group of Latin American authors called El Boom, who captured world attention in the 1960's with their skill, fantastical imagination and political sensitivity.

Almost half a century later, he said, there are different issues and a different landscape, largely because the line between North and South America has become increasingly blurred. Many of the new wave of Latin American writers, like Mr. Fuguet, are geographical and cultural hybrids, themselves the products of globalization. Ernesto Mestre-Reed, who contributed to a recent Latin fiction anthology, "A Whistler in the Nightworld" (Plume), was born in Cuba but was educated at Tulane University. Another contributor, Anna Kazumi Stahl, is a Louisiana native who seven years ago emigratedto Buenos Aires, where she teaches at a university and writes in Spanish.

As for Mr. Fuguet, he was reared in Southern California and moved back to Chile when he was 11. He did a brief stint at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he was told his work wasn't Latin American enough. In his 1997 novel, "Bad Vibes," for example, one character looks dumbly at a Che Guevara T-shirt and wonders who the guy in the beret is.

The novel made Mr. Fuguet into an Eminem-like celebrity in Chile — inspiring one high school class to revolt against its literature curriculum. Mr. Fuguet's boldest move was in 1996, with the publication of "McOndo," an anthology of fiction by Latin American writers under 35. Mr. Fuguet edited the book and came up with its title, which is a pun on Macondo, the fictional town in Mr. García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," the 1967 novel that famously put magical realism in the literary lexicon.

The point of "McOndo," which is available only in Spanish, was to unseat magical realism, at least as it relates to Latin America. The McDonald's and condos alluded to in the McOndo name (along with a whiff of Macintosh), Mr. Fuguet argues, are more representative of his continent than folksy villages where everyone suffers from insomnia.



Urban realities like beeping cellphones

replace flying generals


"I'm a really big fan of Márquez, but what I really hate is the software he created that other people use," Mr. Fuguet said. "They turn it into more of an aesthetic instead of an ideology. Anybody who begins to copy `One Hundred Years' turns it into kitsch."

"McOndo" had its publication party in a McDonald's in Santiago, where a crowd of unknown writers made Coca-Cola toasts in honor of nuts-and-bolts prose that celebrates real life, even when that life gets a little boring. In one story in the book, a pair of Latin American filmmakers bemoan their Oscar-less Academy Awards night over coffee at a Denny's in Los Angeles. In another, the Greyhound bus is exchanged for a rental car along Route 66.

Edmundo Paz-Soldán, a Bolivian writer and professor at Cornell University who contributed to "McOndo," said: "I think we made a strong connection with readers, but the critics, especially the old guard, said that we sold out and that we were a Latin American version of Generation X. They said we used too many references to American pop culture and that we were too obsessed with the depiction of urban reality."

He continued: "You can call us alienated kids who are sold out on American pop culture, but it's the truth of our times. We grew up watching `The Simpsons' and `The X-Files,' and this comes out in our writing."

Many Latin American critics were not impressed. Ignacio Valente, a professor of the University of the Andes, in Chile, complained in an interview that " `McOndo' wasn't about expression or commentary on Chilean life, but was an imitation of American culture." 

Last summer, an article by the Bolivian critic Centa Reck in El Juguete Rabioso, a La Paz weekly, despaired that "McOndo" was "replacing the mountains and animals with a wild jungle of cellphones, McDonald's, malls, drugs and an unintelligible slang."

But others contend that a new generation of writers are simply finding their own voice and message.

"An easy way to see `McOndo' is as a literary expression of globalization in Latin America," said Ricardo Gutiérrez Mouat, a professor at Emory University who teaches a course called "From Macondo to `McOndo' " "It replaced magical realism with virtual realism."

René Alegría, editorial director of Rayo, a bilingual imprint of HarperCollins, thinks more people can relate to `McOndo.' "These writers are making it a little bit more accessible, which is a good thing."

Thomas Colchie, the editor of the "Whistler in the Nightworld" anthology, agrees. "I find they have a sort of darker vision that's more urban and has a lot more sense of humor," he said. "It's different from the facile magic realism, where on every other page you have an amorous iguana or a flying dictator. A lot of younger Latin American writers coming from an overly intellectual tradition say: `Enough of that stuff. Let's have some fun.' "

Some say it's just a matter of freedom of expression. "The `McOndo' writers reject the idea that Latin American writers need to ascribe to certain topics or ways of being," said Verónica Cortínez, who teaches Latin American literature at the University of California at Los Angeles. "They feel a need to find their own voices and not repeat formulas they believe are very worn."

Even the literary lions themselves are not necessarily critical. Last fall, in celebration of the Spanish publication of the first volume of Mr. García Márquez's memoirs, Mr. Fuguet was asked to contribute an essay to Cambio, the Colombian magazine that Mr. García Márquez owns.

And despite his status as one of the patriarchs of El Boom, the Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes, 74, is an enthusiastic champion of the new guard. He remarked with a chuckle that he belongs to "the prehistoric age," and that he enjoys watching successions of writers give El Boom a run for its money.

"I really support what they're doing," Mr. Fuentes said, "which is eschewing nationalistic themes and writing openly about what interests them in the world."

Mr. Fuentes is a particular fan of the Crack group (Crack is a playful, albeit ambivalent, jab at Boom), a group of Mexican writers who include Jorge Volpi and Ignacio Padilla and who look beyond the Americas for novelistic fodder, finding it more in European intellectualism.

Mr. Volpi, who lives in Paris and whose novel "In Search of Klingsor" was published in July by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, summarized the Crack manifesto by saying: "We don't search for our national or Latin American identity in literature. We use literature as a base for expression."

Indeed, Mr. Volpi's novel, a historical spy thriller set in Nazi Germany, barely makes a passing reference to Mexico or any place near it.

To Mr. Fuentes, the criticism that the new wave of writers are too taken with American culture is off the mark. "No one received more influence from the United States than we did," he said. "We're the ones who were reading Faulkner and Hemingway."

*Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company. This scholarly-based text appeared in The New York Times of January 4, 2003 - ARTS & IDEAS., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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