From Nazis to Supermarkets

A REVIEW BY MANUEL AZUAJE-ALAMO

Beyond Bolaño: The Global Latin American Novel,
By Héctor Hoyos 
Columbia University Press, 2015

I often wonder what life  would have held for the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño if he had not passed away due to liver complications more than a decade ago. This year he would have turned 62 years old and very likely could have become the foremost literary heavyweight of contemporary Latin American letters. He might  have won the Nobel Prize for literature—or at the very least he could have been a perennial runner-up for the prize, much like the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. 

The comparison above with Murakami is not whimsical. I am writing this review in Beijing, China, where in the foreign books section of local bookstores the English translations of the works of the Chilean writer stand next to those of the Japanese, as do Mexican and Turkish novels. Chinese writers are not far away—all these global writers’ book appear side by side, playing, at least in principle, in the same literary league. The question then becomes: how does the Latin American novel play—or is expected to play—in this global league?

Beyond Bolaño: The Global Latin American Novel  by Héctor Hoyos, assistant professor of Latin American literature at Stanford University, joins a growing number of books from the field of Latin American literature aiming to answer this question and its usual counterpart: if the world reacts to novels from Latin America, how do Latin American novels react to, and portray, this new globalized world? 

Hoyos’ book looks at this question from several approaches, focusing on contemporary Latin American writers working in Spanish and Portuguese. The book is a call to readers to consider contemporary Latin American literature “beyond Bolaño,” and the dimensions of its analyses are not only aesthetic and academic, but also political. 

In the book’s introduction, Hoyos seeks to explain the blend of two academic traditions that his monograph embodies. The first tradition is that of world literature studies, a burgeoning field of academic research that originated from an ongoing conversation within the discipline of Comparative Literature since the turn of the 21st century. It seeks to define the current cultural concept of “the world” and to clarify the role that the process of reading literature from all over the world plays in the mind of the local (and at times global) individual. The second tradition is Hoyos’ own, that of Latin American literature research as conducted in the U.S. university, a site of discourse about Latin American culture in which exile, translation and transculturation are common. The position from which Hoyos writes the book is problematic but not insurmountable; as Hoyos comments, it is an “unstable site of enunciation, but it is also one I [Hoyos] embrace” (9). The book immensely benefits from this recognition of its own instability. Fortunately, Hoyos—a Colombian who holds degrees from the Universidad de los Andes and from Cornell University—is up to the task. 

The first chapter fittingly deals with a novel by the writer whose name is on the cover, namely Roberto Bolaño’s breakthrough novel Nazi Literature in the Americas, which presents itself as an encyclopedia of an underground tradition in Latin American letters: that of Nazi fiction and poetry. Scholars tend to study the novel in two ways. One involves its relationship to the stories by the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, whose narratives took the form of encyclopedia articles. The other approach views Bolaño’s novel as a critique-through-parody of the Latin American ideological missteps that led to the spread of military dictatorships during the 20th century. Hoyos brings to the discussion an interesting, if perhaps underdeveloped, concept from, of all things, the realm of American pop culture: the concept of the “bizarro world” of the Superman comics. The ideological differences and the inversion of values in the bizarre world of Superman provides Hoyos with a framework within which to describe the operation of this novel whose “characters think in reverse” (40).

The second chapter deals with a novel by a Brazilian superstar: Chico Buarque’s border-crossing novel Budapest (2003). In terms of the text and the context of the work, this might be the most important chapter for readers who want to find out what issues are in play when we talk about the global Latin American novel. This is because the context surrounding the actual novel is so interesting: Chico Buarque, the Brazilian legendary bossa nova singer and songwriter, wrote this novel, set in an exotic peripheral city of Eastern Europe, at the turn of the century, and some years later a movie version, jointly made with Brazilian and Hungarian capital, was produced, featuring stunning shots of Rio de Janeiro and Budapest, as well as a cameo by Chico Buarque himself.

 In this way, just the creation and circulation process of this novel illustrates many of the processes and issues of the contemporary Latin American novel: the importance—and at the same time the ironical invisibility—of the process of translation in today’s so-called global world, the emergence of travel and tourism between peripheries in a capitalist world, the emergence of Brazil as a member of a global power. All of these themes already would have made for a great reading, yet Hoyos also provides a formidable close reading of the text to illustrate how it links language to sex, capital and dominance, and hence represents a continuation of the conservative male-centered discourse of Latin America, in a novel which putatively wants to be read as a progressive narrative. 

The book’s third chapter opens with a re-consideration of the supermarket as a kind of modern day universal space that is at the same time, embedded in a specific place and staffed by local people. In Hoyos’ reading, global capital makes it possible to have chains of supermarkets displaying and offering similar goods all over the word, and yet their staff provide a local point of view from which narratives can develop. He opens up new creative research possibilities by arguing that scholars might consider supermarket narratives as a valid fictional genre deserving of academic study.

In the fourth chapter, Hoyos deals with a key issue in today’s study of Latin American literature: crime narratives of the drug trade. Is this a case of the global predetermining what becomes known of what is written by the local? Or, is it in fact the opposite, a Latin American critique of the economic and legal system by which global demand—ever willing to consume the same drugs that they criminalize—wreaks havoc in the Latin American continent? The genre of narconovelas—novels dealing with the various facets of the underground of organized drug crime in Latin America—has at least a three-decades long history, but especially in this century it has taken a central position in the literary canon of Latin American literature. Whereas in the past magical realism was the main literary export of Latin America, nowadays works that touch on the violence, or the aftermath, of the drug trade prevail. Hoyos centers his analysis on the 1994 Colombian modern classic Our Lady of the Assassins, by Colombian writer Fernando Vallejo, exiled in Mexico. Hoyos provides the reader with a poignant reading of the narconovela genre in relation to its use of religious imagery. The legendary pantheon of the kingpins of the drug trade—the late Colombian capo Pablo Escobar taking pride of place among them—combines with local popular and religious belief to give the genre its allure, as Hoyos astutely quips rephrasing Marx’s famous dictum: in this genre, “it appears that opium—or cocaine, rather—is the people’s new religion” (127). 

The fifth and last chapter is a look back at the French avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp and his artistic practice of repurposing everyday objects, and its distant cousins (or, more correctly, descendants) in Latin America. The focus is on the Mexican writer Mario Bellatin and the Argentinian César Aira, two of the most famous contemporary writers in Latin American writing in what one could call a post-modern mode. Their novels very frequently play less with the plot and character development than with the medium itself. They are, Hoyos argues, novels as ready-mades, written with the understanding that it is their dislocation in regards to their genre’s usual rules and expectations that make them interesting. This kind of experimental avant-gardism can be difficult, “if it [Latin American literature] does not enjoy a standing in world literature as a source of theoretical reflection” (187). Thus, if the work of these experimental authors transcends the purely national, their success or failure as authors of experimental fiction in the eyes of the global readership becomes instead a kind of litmus test for the validity of Latin American as an equal player in the sourcing of world literature.

Hoyos’ book is an excellent guide for casual readers of Latin American literature wondering what lies beyond the traditional canon of Borges, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and even of the more recent Bolaño. By tying the narrative of the continent to its history, it will also interest readers curious about trends in contemporary Latin American culture. Finally, to specialists it will be of special interest as it develops new angles from which to think of the local and the global as it pertains to Latin American literature. These are some interesting points that perhaps could have benefited from a lengthier development, but the fact that I was left yearning for more length is a testament to the power and creativity of Hoyos’ arguments. 

Manuel Azuaje-Alamo holds an M.A. from the University of Tokyo and from Harvard University. He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Comparative Literature of Harvard University, and is writing his dissertation in Beijing.

See also: Book Talk