• November 26, 2014

The Novelists and the Dictators

The Novelists and the Dictators 1

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle Review

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Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle Review

Does the current crop of left-wing caudillos in Latin America, like Hugo Chávez, inspire the type of animosity their military counterparts once did? And will its members be turned into larger-than-life dictators in novels, as they were in Gabriel García Márquez's 1975 The Autumn of the Patriarch? Or have the literary intelligentsia finally given up the foolish practice of using fiction to pretend to force tyrants from their throne?

Those aren't rhetorical questions. For centuries, literature in the former Spanish colonies on this side of the Atlantic has sought to define itself, in part, as resistance to autocratic rulers, as if what justifies writing is fighting oppression and totalitarianism. There is a plethora of novelas del dictador, narratives, mostly gargantuan in scope, in which a narcissist tyrant serves as protagonist and, at times, as narrator: El Caudillo (1921), by Jorge Borges, father of Jorge Luis Borges (the younger Borges was apolitical, or in any case conservative, so that link to the tradition was broken); Miguel Ángel Asturias's El señor presidente (1946); Alejo Carpentier's Reasons of State (1974); Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat (2000).

The key to success has been to find a worthy foe, an avatar of evil—arrogant, dogmatic, overbearing, if possible misogynistic, maybe even a voodoo practitioner if you're writing about the Caribbean. God knows, there has been no scarcity of dictators. Pick your choice: Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, François "Papa Doc" and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc," Duvalier in Haiti, Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda in Paraguay, Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Juan Vicente Gómez in Venezuela, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, José María Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador. ...

Of course, fashion is ephemeral. García Márquez once promised never to write again until Augusto Pinochet renounced power in Chile. For a while, the stance helped sell his earlier books. But Pinochet couldn't have cared less. And García Márquez wasn't really serious about interrupting his illustrious career. In the end, it was the writer who gave in to pressure.

And the genre is varied. Some items on the bookshelf are closer in length to novellas, for instance Esteban Echeverría's The Slaughterhouse (1838), an attack on Juan Manuel de Rosas, who mercilessly imposed himself on Argentina from 1835 to 1852. Elena Poniatowska's Massacre in Mexico (1971) is neither a novel nor about a dictator, but—in its journalistic quest to uncover the motives that led to the massacre of students on Mexico's Tlatelolco Square, in 1968—denounces the despotic regime of then-president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz.

The tradition might be said to have established itself with Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, whose Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845), written to oppose Rosas while the author was in exile in Chile, is part biography and part essayistic pastiche about the perils of repression. Facundo rallied public opinion against Rosas, and Sarmiento eventually became president of Argentina, thus modeling the paradigm of the intellectual whose fight against absolutism brings democratic change.

Sarmiento's odyssey summons the polarities at stake in the novela del dictador: the dinosaurs versus the freethinkers, the forces of tyranny against those of liberty. Life was never that simple, but for artistic purposes, it's always safe to oppose the good guys and the bad. And totalitarianism, after all, is a system of government with little patience for the novel, which represents liberalism, openness to intellectual exploration.

The Latin American novelas del dictador that have stood out don't attack a clear and present danger; instead they build their structure historically, as in Augusto Roa Bastos's I, the Supreme (1974), about José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who dominated Paraguay for 36 years in the first half of the 19th century, soon after its independence from Spain. It's safer to deal with the past than with the present, inviting readers to draw the inferences.

The novela del dictador is testosterone-filled: Not only are the despised protagonists almost all male (the main exception is the domineering Isabelita—Isabel Martínez de Perón, that dictator's third wife, known as presidenta from 1974 to 1976), but so are the authors. Two exceptions among them are Luisa Valenzuela and Marta Traba, both of whom have written on terror in Argentina. Among Latinos in the United States, Julia Alvarez carries the torch with In the Time of Butterflies (1994), a novel set during Trujillo's dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, with a strong feminist undertone almost completely absent in the South American tradition. Machismo, personified in the tyrant or author, is deeply embedded in the culture.

Shouldn't Venezuela's Hugo Chávez be center stage in that tradition? He has the three I's: He is irritating, impulsive, and intolerant. How about Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega? Or Bolivia's Evo Morales? Why haven't the larger-than-life left-wing strongmen that populate the Latin American political stage today inspired novelistic silhouettes?

More than a few academic books on Chávez have been released. They are of varying quality, some biographical, others about his role in Latin American history. In 2005 the French journalist Maurice Lemoine wrote a "docunovel," Chávez, Presidente!, about the failed coup in Caracas in 2002. In Venezuela, where Chávez has polarized the nation's population, the literati, too, take opposing views on the leader, some adoring, others vilifying him in newspaper columns and books. Yet to the best of my knowledge, no significant novela del dictador has been published with him as protagonist. To a lesser extent, Ortega and Morales have similarly inspired scholarly reflections but little by way of mesmerizing fiction.

Is it that they don't usually torture and kill adversaries? That their regimes aren't controlled by vengeful police forces? That they have been democratically (more or less) elected? Perhaps. But in important ways, they are caudillos. They rewrite constitutions to perpetuate themselves as supreme leaders. They embrace a populist oratory that condemns materialism and ridicules individuality (thereby fostering an environment where freedom is often a casualty). They promote an anti-imperialist (often synonymous with anti-American) message that brooks no disagreement. Their rhetoric embraces the downtrodden but creates fear among all who disagree with them.

To answer why writers have not taken on the left-wing strongmen, it is important to remember that the Latin American intelligentsia in the 20th century, particularly from the 1930s through the 70s, habitually embraced communism. To be a novelist was tantamount to being anti-establishment. As opposed to writers in North America, you didn't need to be a bohemian to be considered serious. You needed to believe that power corrupts, and that excess power corrupts excessively. And you needed to see Latin America as the victim of colonialism and capitalism.

The road to the region's redemption lay in rejecting foreign ideologies—except those of communism. Communism was viewed as representative of collective goodness, a utopianism that would magically retrieve what was best in the pre-Columbian past, as if the indigenous population before the arrival of the Europeans had always lived in harmony. Communism became a vindication of the Indian past.

The majority of writers came from middle-class, upper-middle-class, and upper-class backgrounds, but on the road to self-definition (and out of peer pressure), they categorically rejected their class origins. To shake Pinochet's hand, as Borges did in 1976 when he visited Chile, was a heresy, and he paid dearly for it—perhaps, as has been rumored, by losing the Nobel Prize. As a rule, the more vocal an author against a tyrant, the greater the accolades. Borges was among a handful of exceptions to the norm. The disdain for those exceptions can be seen in the statement by the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño a couple of years before he died, in 2005: "The best lesson Vargas Llosa ever offered," Bolaño said, "was to go out jogging every morning." (Vargas Llosa was by then a neoliberal, post-Reaganite thinker, having renounced, in no tentative terms, his loyalty to the Cuban revolution.)

The facile communist hurrah that was pervasive in the 60s was in part a response to the Cuban revolution. Indeed, the one left-wing dictator who has inspired more than his share of fiction is Fidel Castro, although none of the (usually positive) fiction about him ever achieved much literary stature. And the embrace of Castro became indefensible as his government became crueler. As time went by, he became a protagonist in the more conventional novela del dictador—for instance, Norberto Fuentes's The Autobiography of Fidel Castro (2004), a colossal fictionalized life story about El Comandante's oversized ego.

Still, in some literary quarters, Castro continues to be defended today, as if the censorship he condoned and the dissidents and homosexuals he incarcerated could be ignored because of his mandate to make health care available to every Cuban. In regard to communist tyrants, Latin American writers often se hacen de la vista gorda, as the Spanish expression goes: They see what they want to see.

So is it leftist sympathy that keeps writers from turning Hugo Chávez into a novelistic ogre? Yes, but there's another reason as well.

Latin American writers no longer command the kind of attention they did in the so-called Age of Revolution. During that time, in the 1960s and 70s, El Boom—as the rejuvenating aesthetic movement that brought Julio Cortázar, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and others to the attention of international audiences was known—writers symbolized the collective spirit. They were the voice of the voiceless. But the voiceless are now anesthetized through TV, soccer, and other forms of consumerism. Literature has become inconsequential. And when the oppressed aren't interested in literature, writers aren't as likely to take on a political role defending them.

What's more, many Latin American writers have given up on Latin America. That is not an unhealthy move. Once it was "the duty" of intellectuals to focus on their immediate surroundings, in order to allow people elsewhere to see the sorrowful state of things at home. In the 90s, young stars, part of the movement known as McOndo—which rejected magical realism and supported the kind of urban realism spread by the Internet—and of El Crack—a movement in Mexican literature that shook up the nationalist premises of earlier generations—did not accept that responsibility. Why couldn't their books be about making the atomic bomb or the end of the Soviet Union? There has been a de-Latin Americanization of the Latin American writer: Taking a position about Latin American politics is out. The escritor de moda, the fashionable auteur, meets his or her fans at Starbucks, spends hours at the gym, vacations in the Bahamas, and teaches at American universities.

In short, the reason the novela del dictador doesn't ridicule left-wing caudillos isn't only, or even mainly, because of sympathy for those politicos (although writers from the region do have a longtime softness for the left). It is more that Latin American literature has, thankfully, ceased to be mindlessly virile and become more cosmopolitan.

Of course, on a continent where democracy doesn't have deep roots, the history of tyranny is never over, nor the kind of literature that opposes it. Elected caudillos, too, require literary portraits. But let us hope those yet to be written will abjure facile ideology.

Ilan Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His latest book is Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years (Palgrave Macmillan). He is general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, due out in September.

Comments

1. jaschulz - June 06, 2010 at 06:12 am

Don't you mean "abjure"?

2. rickinchina09 - June 07, 2010 at 08:25 am

Without so much as reading the first sentence of the article, permit me to suggest a reason. By and large, novelists sympathize with Leftist causes and are therefore inclined to shy away from subject matter involving criticism thereof. Most if not all have an aversion to anything emanating from the military. As for the American military, most have little or no knowledge of it as a subculture and are more comfortable perpetuating Hollywood distortions.

Please carry on now with pertinent discussion.

3. arg11 - June 07, 2010 at 10:02 am

Maybe the leader actually has to be oppressive for people to write nasty things about him. Castro had thousands shot in the national stadium. Chavez has done no such thing. And Morales' people are the ones being shot, not vice versa.

4. honore - June 07, 2010 at 10:04 am

Ilan, Let me add to your insightful treatise the following...
Historically, the job of the “latin american” writer of any genre has always been an incredibly simple one...keep licking the face of those whose lap s/he inhabits or risk death, exile or becoming one of the intellectually or artistically "disappeareds" from the salons of Manhattan or Madrid literati --- a price many of these writers are not too willing to pay in today's consumer-driven world.

And I think even the fiercest critic-of-the-current-politica-de-moda in Latin America has finally realized that there is a world out there that has grown very weary reading of the faux-hemian oppression they suffer from the comfort of a 1st Class seat to JFK while shopping on-line from the J Crew catalog at 35,000 feet.

I think you answer your own question, when you write:
“The escritor de moda, the fashionable auteur, meets his or her fans at Starbucks, spends hours at the gym, vacations in the Bahamas, and teaches at American universities".

Hmmmmm, sound like anyone you know? My own memory synapses are sparking with memories as I write.

Could it be that these contemporary counter parts of past authors, choose no longer to write hysterically-comic, parody-rich political-orgies-de-jour and have finally grown their proverbial short hairs AND have come to realize that the rest of the planet has given up reading about bloated, syphilitic, viagara'd “leaders” who spend more time reading the Wall Street Journal, getting plastic surgery and less time chasing pale, anorexic Moroccan scarfed writers through the jungles of their mind?

Let's hope contemporary writers from Latin America (NOTE: I do NOT use the politically compromised and prostituted term of “latino”) have given up writing about the politics of their pathetically and chronically corrupt environments because 500 years of history has finally taught them that nothing is going to change an epidemic social dynamic irrevocably based on race and class and the power that comes with white pigment and electrified barb-wire fences in countries where the middle class grows smaller by the nano-second, the upper class gets richer and the lowest social class just gets poorer, sicker and even more dispensable.

And let's also not forget that this current crop of writers has grown up NOT in isolated, austere Catholic prep schools in the Andes, but in posh academies in San Juan, PR or in French language Ecoles in the Swiss Alps. And these educational experiences were only interrupted for non-stop flights to Disney World followed by shopping sprees on 5th Avenue, while all-the-while texting other “oppressed” compatriots in Miami, Martha's Vineyard or Madison, Wisconsin. Not much political or intellectual mileage found in those frequent flyer clubs.

Ilan, don't fret too much about the passing of the forsaken Latin American “rebel” writer of the past, all but naive American college freshmen have grown weary of unwashed, tattered “el Che” T-shirts anyway. And in the USA, there is STILL a very receptive market to literature filled with “latino” cliches or contemporary Zorros in camouflage-painted Hummers speeding over mountainous “latino” terrains to protect their coca plantations.

And so what, if they have all gone on to teach faux- “latino” studies in the States or occupy endowed chairs accompanied by endless campus committee memberships decrying the oppression of campus “latinos”, where there is still market cache for their thinly veneered “oppression”.

They are just getting over and after all, restoring that precious stone farmhouse in Vermont with the help of a Cambridge-based architect does cost a lot of money even at oppression-priced pesos.

Viva la opresion tan dulce y aun monos se quedan...your comrade in “latino” recovery. Looking forward to your next televised book review.

Don't forget the ball-fringed sombrero though, Americans like their “latinos” predictable and non-threatening.

5. arg11 - June 07, 2010 at 10:06 am

"Is it that they don't usually torture and kill adversaries? That their regimes aren't controlled by vengeful police forces? That they have been democratically (more or less) elected? Perhaps. But in important ways, they are caudillos."

Sigh.

6. vricard - June 07, 2010 at 10:48 am

Left-wing strongmen in Latin America don't inspire THE SAME larger-than-life treatment in novels THAT their military counterparts did??? Don't you mean THE SAME AS? (Surely not I.S.'s mistake.)

7. rippleview80 - June 07, 2010 at 12:03 pm

The key to the virtual inexistence of LA literature criticizing left-wing dictators is rather simple: Right-wing dictators favor the few over the many; left-wing dictators purport to favor the many over the few. Therefore, almost no LA novelist would risk appearing to side with the oligarchy, the US, and the Church against left-wing caudillos.

8. authentic - June 07, 2010 at 05:43 pm

The reason is obvious the clever sillies of the left think in terms of abstract philosophy and forget common sense.

9. jnavarro13 - June 09, 2010 at 03:16 am

@honore: I couldn't tell if you were talking about the U.S. or Latin America here:

Let's hope contemporary writers from Latin America (NOTE: I do NOT use the politically compromised and prostituted term of “latino”) have given up writing about the politics of their pathetically and chronically corrupt environments because 500 years of history has finally taught them that nothing is going to change an epidemic social dynamic irrevocably based on race and class and the power that comes with white pigment and electrified barb-wire fences in countries where the middle class grows smaller by the nano-second, the upper class gets richer and the lowest social class just gets poorer, sicker and even more dispensable.

But, more importantly, the Venezolanos voted on and changed a law that is incredibly similar to the term limits current U.S. senators enjoy (but Stavans describes such a law as these leaders trying to "rewrite constitutions to perpetuate themselves as supreme leaders." And, most of the poor/working class in Venezuela support Chávez. I've been there. Stavans, you should visit. The trouble with your criticism and your discourse is that you seem to challenge the legitimacy of a democracy when you disagree with the politics or the outcome of the vote.

Nonetheless, the bigger irony is that Stavans is critizing presumably leftist intellectuals of Latin America for coming from the middle- and upper-middle class but he teaches at Amhearst--where, I'm sure, he receives a handsome salary.

Stavans, you're so disconnected from the realities of Latin America that you have to depend on the leftist (middle class) intellectual for any criticism. Still, the fact that you have to depend (as an intellectual) on other leftist intellectuals is telling of the kinds of conversations you need to have and the types of people with which you have them.

10. pete0006 - June 09, 2010 at 06:54 am

Leftist sympathy for Chavez? Maybe.

But can I suggest an alternative reason? The military dictatorships of the past enjoyed such support from the US that the ONLY source of criticism was people like the novelists you mention.

Chavez, on the other hand, has had a concentrated propaganda campaign directed against him from day one. Those who try to redistribute wealth always do. Conservative media in Venezuela and the US go after him, and go after him hard. What need is there for novelists to? They'd just be echoing an already hegemonic discourse. It's a barren field for a political intervention.

So I would suggest the operative factor is the qualitative difference in the levels, and sources, of criticism faced by your "left-wing" caudillos, as opposed to the ones funded by the CIA.

11. meshabob - June 11, 2010 at 09:14 am

Shouldn't Venezuela's Hugo Chávez be center stage in that tradition? He has the three I's: He is irritating, impulsive, and intolerant.

---

Did you ever stop and think about how the Chronicle is morphing into a neoconservative outlet? Fascinating, really. One day you have the latest serving of Carlin Romano's Islamophobic tripe. Another day you have a round of Chavez-bashing. And on every day, you can always take a stroll over to Denis Dutton's aggregation of batty libertarian/neocon links, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chronicle. Shouldn't Frances Stoner Saunders look into this?

12. emmag - June 11, 2010 at 06:21 pm

In my reading of Facundo, the point was precisely that such dichotomy is unstable, a social imaginary that simply could not hold on the ground.

"To shake Pinochet's hand, as Borges did in 1976 when he visited Chile, was a heresy"

Is the right word to use here "heresy"? Is that what critics in the literary and other circles thought/think? I doubt it was about condemning someone for not believing what they believed, and instead more about either Borges not being critical enough to have understood the political significance of that gesture, or Borges' sympathy for someone like Pinochet, particularly problematic within the perspective of the dirty war in Argentina.

There are so many problems with this article, that they are impossible to address in a comment, so let me just say that for someone who is critical of machismo, your piece is suspiciously patronizing and reductionistic. I am pretty sure that someone like Cortázar understood better the shades of gray that you appear to here.

13. d_taoist - June 13, 2010 at 01:18 pm

I agree with the writer that it's good to see Latin American authors take on topics outside of the country. As to why that's happening, I think the answer might connect with the main question motivating the piece: why don't leaders on the left have novels written about them? Is it possible that the authors from the 60s felt there was not enough freedom for intellectuals to worry about anything else but their current sitations? Whereas the present generation of writers under leftist leaders (with the exception of Castro and to a certan degree, Chavez) feel their people are more free and more able to look past their own borders, so they do the same?

A more interesting question (I believe) that ties into this is a question of style. Why is it that contemportary authors (like the Macondo movement) are all so against the approach of Magical Realism? In general, theirs is a much more ironic way of looking at the world (and arguably, a more facile, more consumerist approach) that I am not sure is as artistically rich. This is not to say that Latin American authors should all write in the Garcia Marquez way, but it is worth wondering why many of our contemporary authors are dismissive of the approach taken on by older writers.

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