The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History
Jose Donoso
Colombia University Press

At Harvard in the late fifties, I took a course entitled “Masterpieces of Spanish American Literature.” With some honorable, even sensational exceptions, there weren’t many masterpieces on the reading list, though I was moved by the passion and determination of the teacher, the late and unforgettable Edward Glaser. At graduate school (Columbia), the same thing. Many weak novels were acclaimed as masterpieces from Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, and so on. I thought it odd that in an age of Proust, Joyce, and Mann, students of Spanish American literature would be handed works that could best be described as examples of literary regionalism, sometimes with a glossary at the end so that the particular national character inherent in the work would be revealed by means of words unique to the region.

But it was not just the vocabulary that was irritating: it was the moving force that could at times be felt behind the texts themselves – Zolaesque documentation, noble populism, the idea of literature as a weapon. with which to pummel the Wall Street jackals. So while my classmates in Comp. Lit were delving into Gide, Proust, Joyce, Mann, Kafka, and the then reigning John Hawkes, we dutiful majors in Span. Am. Lit. were trying to cope with Mariano Axuela’s The Underdogs, Jose Eustacio Rivera’s The Vortex, Enrique Larreta’s Golywynesque historical novel entitled The Glory of Don Ramiro, Ciro Alegrik’s passionate denunciation of Indian oppression in Peru entitled Broad and Alien Is the World. I noted with some unease that these works belonged at best to the histories of the national literatures of Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, or whatever, and that they were examples of a well-intentioned but derivative literature of a continent whose literary consciousness was just being born. Nonetheless, these were the standard “masterpieces” that were taught at major universities as the best that the continent could offer.

And this went on well into the sixties. Judging from many of the syllabi and course descriptions that I have seen lately, things have not changed radically in the seventies. These works have not lost their hoary power over an older generation of teachers of Spanish American literature. The key words to describe this suffocating brand of literary localism are criollismo and social protest. No one knows more about these pestiferous genres than the gifted Chilean novelist Jose Donoso. He says:

With their entomologist’s magnifying glasses, the criollistas were cataloguing the flora andmproverbs which were unmistakably ours.A novel was considered good if it loyally reproduced these autochthonous worlds, all that which specifically makes us different–which separates us–from other areas and other countries of the continent, a type of foolproof , chauvinistic machismo . . . . Along with the criollistas, social realism also attempted to raise isolating barriers: the novel of protest, preoccupied with national concerns, with the “important social problems” which urgently needed to be solved, imposing a lasting and deceptive criterion: in addition to being unmistakably ours, as the criollistas wanted, the novel should be, above all else, “important…… serious,” an instrument which would be directly useful to social progress. Any attitude which might be accused of leaving the bad taste of something that might be labelled “Aestheticism” was anathema. Formal experimentation was prohibited,”

For me, one of the more depressing yet illuminating matters revealed in this literary memoir is the fact that the books that were driving me crazy as a Spanish major at Harvard in the late fifties were precisely the same books that were driving one Josi Donoso crazy at the same time in Santiago de Chile, as he was beginning his literary career as a novelist and short story writer. Donoso’s aid- memoire shows with luxuriant detail how a conspiracy of silence reigned over any Spanish American work which did not conform to the broad tokens of mimesis, xenophobia, chauvinism, and local color. The only exception that perforce must be made is the literary hothouse that was and is Buenos Aires. As Donoso and Carlos Fuentes have mentioned on various occasions, the Babel of cultures that makes up Buenos Aires was the window out onto Europe, the bridge to literary freedom. Argentina’s literature, too, is hardly free of criollismo, but a good portion of the literature and criticism shows considerable independence from excessively nationalistic currents. Argentineans are born comparatists: Borges, Bioy Casares, Cortazar, Jose Bianco, Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, Enrique Anderson-Imbert.

Nonetheless, what we are talking about is an atmosphere reigning over a whole epoch before the sixties–a particular brand of ether that remained impervious to the literature of North America and Europe for decades. European literature of the twentieth century made no effect upon the criollistas; they made no effect upon a European reader. The criollistas were happy with their local triumphs, while Europe dismissed the literature of whole continent with the back of its collective hand. This atmosphere is at the heart of Donoso’s eloquent rage against what might have been his literary forebearers: “A defensive and arrogant Olympus of writers whom we who were younger found unsatisfactory, even though their pressure–more than their influence–weighed on us and on our first novels: these were in most cases the fruits ofthe struggle between a nationalistic asceticism and the great tides which brought more complex ideas from abroad. We were orphans. . . .” The atmosphere hanging over this minor Olympus is really worth talking about, since it, is born of two historical and cultural manias in Spanish America: terror of cultures and literatures beyond one’s own frontiers (cultural machismo)and some degree of colonial attitudes expressed by Spanish Americans of a certain generation toward. themselves and their own cultures.

The following examples having to do with these matters come from two distinguished criollistas, Ciro Alegria and Miguel Angel Asturias.” Let me begin with Alegria, in the prologue to his Broad and Alien Is the World:

I consider that international influence of literary schools and the emigration of new forms are cultural phenomena of all times. But it so happens that many Latin American writers not only ally themselves to these schools and blindly imitate the styles and techniques of Yankee[sic] and European writers; unfortunately, they also imitate the sensibility, the philosophy, and the attitudes toward life. They think that in that way they will be right up front. Consequently, according to the latest fads, we count upon many Sartres, Faulkners, Hemingways, Kafkas, etc., in miniature. What importance can this have? I think that, without rejecting useful innovations, we should work with them, adapting them to our needs and without losing our American personality.

This is a precious text of the “what is ours” (lo nuestro) variety. After all, we are speaking of an author who won a major North American prize in 1941 with the above-mentioned novel. The preface I have translated is dated 1960, and to me it is an example of someone who felt the ground slipping out from under him, but who still was going to defend something “ours,” i.e., “lo americano, ” against international and cosmopolitan contaminations.” By the way, the runner-up in the competition (sponsored by the then Farrar and Rinehart) was the Uruguayan writer Juan Carlos Onetti, one of the secretive directors of the literature some people call the literature of the Boom.

On the matter of cultural colonialism practiced by Latin Americans upon themselves, this topic is best expressed by Miguel Angel Asturias, the Guatemalan Nobel Prize winner. Read the following and consider the implications (from Rita Guibert’s SevenVoices, Knopf, p. 151):

Our Latin American literature has always been a committed, a responsible literature . . . the great works of our countries have been written in response to a vital need, a need of the people, and therefore almost all our literature is committed. Only as an exception do some of our writers isolate themselves and become uninterested in what is happening around them; such writers are concerned with psychological or egocentric subjects and the problems of a personality out of contact with surrounding reality. . . . To believe that we Latin Americans are going to teach Europeans to reflect, to philosophize, to write egocentric or psychological novels, to believe that we are already a mature enough society to produce a Proust or a Goethe – that would be daydreaming and self-deception. We are living in an epoch of creative literature, but it is a fighting literature, sowing for tomorrow that sense of responsibility which will make future authors follow in the steps of great Latin American writers and write responsible works of their own. (Italics mine)

That last sentence has something of an ominous threat to it–Latin American literature has always been “responsible,” he seems to say, therefore new generations must also “be responsible” in the future, and forget about experimentation, the ivory tower, the “psychological” novel. In other words, forget about any European or North American novel published in the twentieth century. That literature is not “ours,” it is not “responsive” to our needs. Instead, break out your tired copies of The Grapes of Wrath, Gladkov’s Cement, Sholokhov, and so forth.

As unsettling as the above-quoted statements may seem, I wish to remind readers that Alegria has always been considered to occupy a first position among Peruvian novelists, and this was certified by Farrar and Rinehart’s first prize in 1941. The same for Miguel Angel Asturias of Guatemala, as certified by the Nobel Prize in 1967. This atmosphere is dramatized effectively in Donoso’s lethal book about his own creative development and that of his generation. They were effectively orphans ‘ in their own respective countries, because they simply found the “great figures” unreadable.

What strikes me as I review the matters contained in Donoso’s memoir is the following fact: fine works of contemporary fiction had of course been written and published in Spanish America and in Brazil. but simply got nowhere among the flood of more “relevant” works. All of Borges’s major works were written by 1950, to take a convenient date – I refer to Ficciones, El Aleph, The Garden of the Forking Paths, Universal History of Infamy. Juan Rulfo’s somber masterpiece Pedro Paramo was published in 1953. Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of this World dates from 1949, his The Lost Steps from 1953, Ouimarges Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands from 1956. But the “grandes figuras” dominated the minds and hearts of all teachers above and below the Rio Grande, and so this conspiracy of silence:

“Borges, Carpentier, Onetti were practically unknown in Chile before the 1960s. The exemplary isolation of Onetti delayed the dissemination of his works. The metaphysics and Europeanism of Borges and the excessive language of Carpenfier caused them to be labelled, if they were known at all, as aesthetes, as writers of useless literature, and they were set aside.”

It might be said that the same thing applied to the reception of this new literature in the United States. Someone like Borges was just not “Latin” enough, was too cosmopolitan, too egocentric, and worst of all too “difficult” . . . why go on?

In point of fact, the fortunes of Borges here in the United States are a good example of how powerful were thesecriollistas, these regionalistas, these purveyors of social protest, both in academe and in the publishing world. Alfred Knopf was one of the few houses that took any interest in Latin American literature during the forties, fifties, and the sixties. But they rejected Ficciones of Borges, Hopscotch of Julio Corbizar, and at first rejected Donoso’s relatively traditional but still slightly experimental novel, Coronation. The gray eminence behind these rejections was the translator and literary consultant Harriet de Onts, whose letter to Donoso about the negative decision explains perfectly well why Knopf often missed the best of contemporary Spanish American fiction, while Grove Press, Harper and Row, Pantheon, and New Directions published the Knopf rejects and did well. In this letter, de Onil explains the rejection of Donoso’s Jarnesian Coronation by saying that “it is not clear on whose side the author is; whom he admires and whom he condemns.” In other words, the work was ambiguous, i.e., modern, and, thus, was not acceptable. I emphasize the fact that this letter was written in 1960, not 1935.

I have dwelt on these matters rather excessively, I know, but they are part of the fabric of the times in which talents of the caliber of Donoso himself, Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante were writing their first books, attempting to get out from under this domination by the elders. And too, there are other more mundane elements to Donoso’s story. For instance, it is a fact that books in Spanish America did not and do not circulate freely among the various nations of the continent. Chilean books were generally not available in other countries and here in the United States. Most books arrived in Santiago de Chile only through the medium of a friendly suitcase, Argentinean and Mexican books have better luck, but the fact remains that Donoso, as a fledging writer in Santiago, desirous of reading anything new in Spanish American literature of quality, got the books of Borges, Carpentier, Fuentes, Rulfo, and Vargas Hosa through friends such as musicians or painters that brought the books from the place of publication to Santiago. Not one of the major books commented upon by Donoso was bought by him; all were passed from hand to hand.

Such were the restrictions of currency exchange and customs. And too, in Latin America there were relatively few writers who could say that they were living from the income derived from their fiction alone. Donoso is a classic case, among hundreds, of a writer who began ex nihilo with a book of short stories paid for by a subscription collected from among ten friends, and who then sold the book himself on Santiago streetcorners and trolleys. Almost the same for his fine first novel, the above-mentioned Coronation. As he remembers it, “I recall my good-natured father seated at the entrance to the Union Club in a chair covered in Genoan velvet with a stack of yellow volumes at his side, selling them there to his follow members with their canes, or later at the card table.”

In spite of a liberating two years at Princeton University, Donoso was still a blocked writer. As he saw it, the destructive element in his early fiction was an excessive degree of false simplicity in his fictional discourse. The catalyst that was to begin the process toward a new kind of vision and diction was the reading of Fuentes’s Where the Air Is Clear. As he puts it, “the Chilean dogma of the need for a transparent and pure language that . . . embodies our irony was the first thing that fell apart as I read Carlos Fuentes’s novel…. Reading it was a cataclysm for me. Until then, I had been governed by a paralyzing good taste, and for me, the politics and forces giving shape to our history were matter of hometown gossip on the level of friendly phone calls, never on the level of myths, invasions, or idolatries. . . . This awareness that someone in my world and of my generation had written a novel of such formal freedom that it had exploded all my laws was the first real stimulus that I, as a writer, received from another writer.”

Fuentes, a dashing and alluring figure, is really the psychic axis of Donoso’s book. After all, it was Fuentes who got Knopf to reconsider the first novel, it was Fuentes who carried Donoso forth out of the embattled provincialism of Chile and brought him to the attention of the other authors of the Boom, that novelistic efflorescence of the fifties and the sixties that brought Spanish American literature to the level of critical consideration previously accorded to a Nabokov or a Gunter Grass. As the reader might have already inferred, the Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges is the commanding older figure among this Boom generation–he and his compatriot Adolfo Bioy Casares carried on from the twenties on a lonely campaign against low mimesis and high propaganda in fiction. It took a while, but they won–both Garcia Marquez and Fuentes are unthinkable without the liberation that Borges’s work signified for the whole continent.

“Boom” is a term that should have died long ago, because it is such an ugly word. But the word has kept bouncing around in critical journals, mostly because of the jealous detractors who have kept it going. But there are a few things about the Boom that can be said with some accuracy and equanimity. The authors involved are resolutely engaged in a transfiguration of Latin American reality, from localism to a kind of heightened, imaginative view of what is real–a universality gained by the most intense and luminous kind of locality. That is what Garcia Marquez, Rulfo, Donoso, and Fuentes have done, among others. These are the eternal lessons of authors as disparate as Jane Austen, Faulkner, and Thomas Mann. The boom novel is never reportage, it is never blatant political protest, it is never “responsible,” in the suffocating sense. And too, the Boom announced a cultural hegemony and unity out of disparity that would have been unthinkable some twenty or thirty years ago. Some elements that aided in this newly forged continental consciousness are such disparate facts and events as the cultural impulse given to Latin America by the Cuban Revolution, and in particular the Review of the House of the Americas, the most distinguished cultural organ of the Castro revolution; the existence of the distinguished Ford Foundation-financed literary review Mundo Nuevo, which, although it only lasted some two years under the formidable editorship of Emir Rodriguez Monegal, managed to introduce most of the authors of the new wave, those of whom we are now speaking. And of course it is significant that Borges enjoyed a retainer from The New Yorker, and that the same magazine, under the aegis of William Shawn and Alastair Reid, has begun a comprehensive search for new texts from Latin America, to be translated expressly for the magazine. And no one is surprised when a Cortazar short story is transformed into a film by Antonioni (Blow-up), or short stories by Borges undergo brilliant radical surgery by such filmmakers as Bertolucci (The Spider’s Stratagem) or Nichohs Roeg (Performance). These are details, of course, but these details are indicative of a change of atmosphere, and that is everything. Nothing like this would have occurred in the forties or the early fifties. Latin American literature has gained an enormous readership just in the past twenty years.

The Boom in Spanish American Literature:A Personal History is a breezy exercise in literary parricide–the old boys are ejected from the pantheon, the local gods are outraged, the whippersnappers take over, a whole new profile for Latin American culture gradually takes form. Jose Donoso is not only a witness to it, he is a fundamental part of this literary process. His memoir should not be missed by anyone who cares literature. It is a unique and discerning document, done with equal amounts of black bile and good humor. Thankfully, he has been eloquently served by his nimble translator, Gregory Kolovakos. By the way, for those interested in a lucid overview of the whole movement, with an abundance of useful factual material, I recommend Emir Rodriguez Monegal’s El Boom de la Novela Latinoamericana (Caracus: Editorial Tiempo Nuevo, 1972).

Originally published in the Fall 1977 issue of Boston Review