Claiming the Future
Edited by Diego Trelles Paz, Translated by Janet Hendrickson
Open Letter, 2012
Though the recent attention given to such writers as Roberto Bolaño and Clarice Lispector has helped to broaden our perspective on the important contribution of Latin American fiction to postwar world literature, it’s likely that most readers continue to associate that contribution with the writers of the so-called “Boom”: Garcia Marquez, Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, etc. One could imagine this legacy might seem to younger Latin American writers both a blessing and a curse, as it continues to give writers from this region a more receptive audience than they might otherwise have, but also leads to expectations these writers don’t necessarily want to fulfill. It is tempting to think we could approach an anthology of “new” fiction from such writers by putting aside expectations based on our previous experiences reading “Latin American fiction” as published in the United States, that we could immediately begin to appreciate this fiction on its own merits without further reflection. It is a temptation better resisted.
In an early review of The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction, John Freeman advises to “skip over the anthology’s churlish introduction” by editor Diego Trelles Paz. This would be a mistake, however. Not only does this introduction actually avoid being “churlish,” but it provides the stories collected in the anthology with important context we need to fully account for some of the stories’ formal features as well as their subjects. Because the stories are presented in simple alphabetical order by author’s nationality, the guidance offered by Paz in his “Prologue” helps the reader assimilate them more fully than would be possible without it.
Most immediately, Paz informs us of the origins of this anthology in an online project (from which this book offers a selection) initiated by writers “who use electronic means . . . to fight the internal editorial isolation in which the region is submerged.” As Paz puts it, the original anthology “was made by writers in search of readers.” He describes a situation that has long prevailed in Latin America, in which writers (and readers) from one part of the region have trouble getting access to books from other parts, so that “Latin American” writers are to an extent left unaware of each other. Yet for a long time now new fiction from Latin American has been marketed, especially in the United States, as if this fiction was all of a piece, “a bastardized version of magical realism that combines magic, folklore, and miraculous cooking to go.” This version of Latin American fiction is “exoticism on-demand for foreign consumers and American and European Spanish departments.” Perhaps this sounds “churlish” to readers who have blithely accepted such bastardized magical realism as somehow the essence of Latin American fiction, but Paz’s insistence that the writers included in The Future Is Not Ours be distinguished both from the “Boom” writers and from each other is important for readers to keep in mind as they sample the stories in this book.
Paz thus mostly avoids making broad generalizations about the styles or the assumptions that might link the writers in The Future Is Not Ours, except for the shared presumption of futility reflected in the title. The future is bleak, and for reasons that aren’t confined to Latin America, as we all now inhabit “a time catastrophic in terms of equality and social justice, sinister with respect to human rights, apocalyptic for the ecological health of the planet, cynical toward those least favored by the neoliberal fundamentalism of a marked currently in free fall.” However much these conditions might be even more destructive in Latin America, where social injustice and more widespread poverty make it even more susceptible to the depredations of oligarchy and global capital, these intimations of a dystopian future would resonate fully enough with American and European readers facing their own version of such a future. In this way, Paz proposes, most stories in the book address concerns beyond “national boundaries” without succumbing to the lazy realism that contents itself with depicting the ubiquitous influence of American culture on all countries.
While Paz does want to insist that “one of our greatest strengths as a group is that, above all, our fractures are internal,” he nevertheless also provides a taxonomy of the “core motives and concerns” to be found in The Future Is Not Ours. In some ways this guide to the shared thematic and formal concerns of the included writers offers a better way to organize a reading of the book than the fairly arbitrary arrangement of the table of contents. Paz suggests three categories: First is the treatment of “differing manifestations of violence.” In Fifteen Flowers,” by Argentine Federico Falco, the violence emerges from personal conflicts, although the story portrays these conflicts among characters growing up in an environment in which they clearly have little to look forward to. Daniel Alarcon’s “Lima, Peru, July 28, 1979” shifts the focus to violence as an explicitly social and political phenomenon, as it portrays the beginnings of a revolutionary group (probably the Shining Path guerillas) and the casual brutality implicit in its mission. (The group’s first “revolutionary act” as described by the narrator: “We strung up dogs from all the street lamps, covered them with terse and angry slogans, Die, Capitalist Dogs and such; leaving the beasts there for the people to see how fanatical we could be.”) Guatemalan writer Ronald Flores’s “Any Old Story” focuses not on the explicit violence that arises from conditions of deprivation and despair, but on the spiritual violence those conditions visit on ordinary people, in a story of a young girl defeated in her attempt to “improve herself” by migrating from the provinces to “the capital.” Similarly, Alejandro Zambra’s “34” addresses the dehumanizing political violence in Pinochet’s Chile, but obliquely, in a story about students at the National Institute, “the most prestigious secondary school in Chile,” who are known only by their assigned numbers. The final line is especially chilling as a portent of what awaits these students, as the narrator (number 45) tells us about number 34: “Little by little, we lost track of him.”
Most of these stories are subtle, engaging the theme of violence without belaboring their social and political ramifications (and therefore making them all the more powerful as we come to fully recognize the implications). Puerto Rican writer Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro’s “Pillage” relates its narrator’s horrific experience witnessing two men rape and murder a ten year-old girl, although it also seems to link this violent act to ongoing political circumstances, but again obliquely, through the narrator’s sudden awareness of the girl’s screams beneath the sounds of the “rallying at the campaign closings of the usual politicians” and in his confession he had secured his job through a connection with the ruling party, a connection “that didn’t seem likely to be renewed.” Even more obliquely, he informs us that “no one else would hire me with my record, knowing my secret.” The narrator watches the girl being brutally beaten without intervening, and we are left to wonder what resonance this scene might have, if any, with the political context so elliptically introduced.
Other stories in the book, Paz points out, focus on “eroticism,” although, as “Pillage” illustrates, sex “isn’t far removed from the matrix of violence.” One of the most disturbing stories, “Sun-Woo” by Argentine Oliverio Coelho (also the first story in the book) follows a Latin American writer who finds himself in South Korea (immediately demonstrating that these writers are indeed willing to extend themselves beyond “national boundaries”) and involved sexually with the title character, whose sexual appetite proves dangerous, to say the least. Chilean Lina Meruane’s “Razor Blades” is a simultaneously creepy and buoyant story about a group of schoolgirls whose sexual awakening is manifested in a frenzy of depilation. Beginning with the armpits, soon enough they are “running the razor blade down our arms and up our calves and thighs.” The story culminates in the forced shaving of a new girl, Pilar. After reaching her “black, swollen pubis,” the narrator tells us, “we threw our razor blades onto the floor and kissed that mouth and then each other with our tongues, crazed by the ecstasy of our discovery.” The most disturbing story in the book may be by another Chilean, Andrea Jeftanovic’s “Family Tree,” in which a father is seduced by his daughter into an incestuous relationship. The daughter, who has been abandoned by her mother, is clearly attempting to ensure her father doesn’t also leave her (she spies on him when he is entertaining women in the wake of his wife’s departure), although he is apparently unable to see this. At the end of the story the daughter is pregnant and the two are preparing to “settle down”—unless the story is actually the unfolding fantasy of the father/narrator (which might just make the story even more disturbing.)
The third category Paz describes does not unite the stories thematically but instead directs us to see the “aesthetic diversity” in the collection. Unfortunately, these are generally among the weaker stories in The Future Is Not Ours. Some, such as Ena Lucia Portela’s “Hurricane,” are conventionally realistic, if more extended, narratives with political overtones, while others, such as Santiago Nazarian’s “Fish Spine” or Carlos Wynter Melo’s “Boxer,” are briefer but still realistic sketches that evoke pathos in a way that borders on sentimentality. Samanta Schweblin’s “On the Steppe” is a surrealist work that creates an enigmatic situation (an odd outbreak of infertility, it would seem) that never really becomes anything other than enigmatic, its effect depending on the withholding of information that if provided would likely make the story a fairly tepid entry in the postapocalyptic genre. “Wolf to Man,” by Ines Bortegaray, and “Love Belongs to Another Part,” by Slavko Zupcic, are the most “postmodern” stories in the book, each of them focused metafictionally on writers and writing: the former depicts a journalism student preparing a report on a former revolutionary who is on his deathbed; the latter shows a novelist working on a story
incorporating letters written by his presumptive father, whom he has never met. The postmodernism of both stories doesn’t really go much beyond such perfunctory self-reflexivity, although “Wolf to Man” does also include annotations a la David Foster Wallace. Moreover, the underlying narratives framed by these metafictional devices are finally not very interesting.
If there is disappointment in reading The Future Is Not Ours, it is disappointment in its relative lack of aesthetic diversity. On the one hand, it is gratifying to see Latin American writers moving on from magical realism (without necessarily dismissing its achievement), but there is more departure from the “magical” side of this once provocative pairing than from “realism.” Stories such as “Lima, Peru” and “Pillage” use the methods of realism very skillfully (in these cases, something like the “slice-of-life” strategy), but there is little suggestion from this book that the way forward from magical realism might involve formal innovation, or at least some re-appraisal of the role of storytelling in fiction. Paz does point out the greater willingness of these writers to include elements of genre fiction, but while this might make Latin American fiction potentially more attractive to a wider international audience, it doesn’t really encourage fresh approaches to narrative practice, since if anything genre fiction tends to rely even more reflexively on conventional modes of storytelling than mainstream literary fiction.
Arguably this aesthetic conservatism is an unavoidable function of the shared worldview evinced in the book’s title. Writers of formally or stylistically adventurous fiction implicitly think there is a future—at least for literature—and it belongs to them and to all other writers attempting to replenish the resources of literature with freshly conceived strategies, techniques, tropes. One would not begrudge the writers in The Future Is Not Ours their pessimism, of course, which provides an underlying perspective that makes many of the stories here so emotionally bracing. Even readers reluctant to share in that pessimism will surely find the book (or at least parts of it) compelling in this way, but if it does present a broader overview of this generation of Latin American writers—as it does, inevitably—it is one that shows them somewhat in retreat from the more audacious practices and commodious vision of Borges, Cortázar, and Garcia Marquez, the writers who first brought Latin American fiction widespread attention beyond the borders of Central and South America. These stories are still well worth reading, and perhaps, given current circumstances in Latin America, they represent precisely the kind of fiction we should expect to encounter, but one might still hope that writers from this part of the world conclude that the future is theirs after all, and that they begin to discover new or surprising ways to extend the future of fiction without attenuating their engagement with the realities of life as it is lived there.
Daniel Green is a critic and writer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications and who maintains the literary weblog, The Reading Experience.