The Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, New York: Harper & Row/Avon, 251 pages, $13.45/$4.50
Pen, Sword, Camisole: A Fable to Kindle Hope, by Jorge Amado, Boston: Godine, 274 pages, $15.95
And Still the Earth, by Ignacio deLoyola Brandao, translated by Ellen Watson, New York: Avon, 374 pages, $6.50 (paper)
I the Supreme, by Augusto Roa Bastos, translated by Helen R. Lane, New York: Knopf. 433 pages, $18.95
The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Alfred MacAdam, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 310 pages, $16.95/$6.95
Who Killed Palomino Molero?, by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Alfred MacAdam, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 151 pages, $14.95
In the lobby of a building across from the New York Public Library, there used to be a large, woodblock map posted on the wall. Put there by the human rights organization Freedom House, its purpose was to give a broad view of the state of liberty around the globe. Totalitarian countries were painted black; authoritarian were gray; democracies, white. I walked through that lobby often in the early 1980s, and I remember watching with some skepticism as the Latin American portion of the map began turning from grey to white. Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia—they all joined up with the democratic swathe cut by countries such as Colombia and Ecuador.
My thought back then was that the folks at Freedom House might want to wait a few months, and perhaps save themselves the trouble of a paint job. Since at least the last century, the countries of Latin America have struggled toward freedom so many times, only to collapse back into the grey embrace of a Stroessner, a Peron, a Somoza, or one of that long line of forgotten caudillos who march into presidential palaces, issue edicts, and are in turn deposed.
For a part of the world that looks toward Western Europe as its spiritual home, this is more than awful. It is absurd. Latin Americans have the culture, the education, the desire, to piece together democratic governments. "Ever since independence, despite military coups and dictatorships, democracy has been regarded as the only constitutional legality of Latin American nations," writes the Mexican poet and essayist Octavia Paz in his 1985 book, One Earth, Four of Five Worlds. Yet some essential glue seems always to be missing. Democracy in Latin America flies apart, it winds down, it rots away.
If there's any comfort to be found here, it is that such bad politics has inspired outstanding fiction. Unlike the lapdog artists of the New York writers' workshops, the novelists of Latin America need not grope for big ideas. With every eccentric shift of government, they get a reminder that freedom cannot be taken for granted. Theirs is a world in which the political thermostat is broken, and the extremes of the human character can easily boil over. And always there is the outraged sense that somehow, by right, it should be otherwise.
This is not to say that Latin American writers always understand the nature of freedom. The most famous of the lot, for example—Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez—is an ardent admirer of Fidel Castro. For all his musings on corrupt power, Garcia Marquez fails to grasp the special horror of Marxist government and the black shadow it now throws across Cuba and Nicaragua. But then, good fiction does not always depend on astute politics. In his novel The Autumn of the Patriarch, the tale of a dictator caught in his own decaying realm of shadows, Garcia Marquez brings us such wonderful scenes as a group of "nostalgic former dictators," all holed up together in exile. In a house on a reef, they sit playing dominoes, hoping that someday they might be begged to return to their various countries. Meantime, they live as the pathetic creatures they really are: "They would shut themselves up in their rooms to eat so that the others would not see they were living off leftovers."
The Autumn of the Patriarch, first translated into English 11 years ago, has become one of the best-known novels to emerge from the unreal world of Latin American politics. For anyone who seeks an introduction to the genre, it's a good place to start. While Garcia Marquez's writing tends to be long on episode and short on plot—as in his most famous work, One Hundred Years of Solitude—the details of his style are eerie and often beautiful. Garcia Marquez also has a dry, humorous touch. For example, the narrator tells us that on one embarrassing day, late in the Patriarch's disordered and interminable life, a cow wandered out onto the balcony of the presidential palace and stood there looking at the sunset: "Just imagine, a cow on the balcony of the nation, what an awful thing, what a shitty country."
The works of Garcia Marquez are only one vein of a motherlode that has split wide open to an American audience in recent years. One of the most invigorating of these novels is Pen, Sword, Camisole, by a Brazilian writer, Jorge Amado. Subtitled "A Fable to Kindle Hope," that's what this book does.
The pen, sword, and camisole of the title refer to the three weapons taken up in this tale to vanquish the forces of dictatorship, Nazism, and totalitarianism. The story is set in Rio de Janeiro during World War II, when the Brazilian dictatorship of the time chose to side with Germany and Japan. The battle in question is fought not in the trenches but in the Brazilian Academy of Letters—the country's most prestigious institution of scholarship and the arts. On the day the Germans march into Paris, a great Brazilian love poet suffers a heart attack in Rio—brought on by grief for the fallen French city. Three months later he suffers a second heart attack and dies.
With his death, a seat on the Academy falls vacant. It should be filled by someone who shares the dead poet's deep love of women, art, and liberty. Instead, a strutting fascist colonel wants the post. With his long political reach, he seems certain to get it. But two elderly Academy members, Mestre Afranio Portela and Evandro Nuñes dos Santos, set out to defeat the colonel. After all, argues Afranio, the war that has claimed Paris is being fought everywhere. "We are all involved in it,…the battlefield has no limits of any sort, either geographical or military; any weapon is useful and appropriate, and the least victory kindles hope."
Our heroes recruit their own one-man army of sorts. To contest the seat against the colonel, they nominate a general. He is not a worthy poet, but at least he is no Nazi.
Once the utterly evil colonel's aspirations are stymied, however, our two heroes are appalled that their candidate, the general, might actually fill the poet's seat. What transpires is a classic case of Latin American politics. The military man brought in to fix an intolerable problem soon becomes a new problem himself, and it takes courage and political skill for the forces of light to prevail. Amado's characters seem like stock types, but then, this is a fable—told with wit, charm, and a conviction that in some battles there must be no surrender.
For a completely different vision of Brazil, politics, and human nature, there's the futuristic novel And Still the Earth, by another Brazilian writer, Ignacio deLoyola Brandao. This time the hero is hardly a man of passionate beliefs. He is a São Paulo bureaucrat, named Souza, who lives in a world so synthetic, depraved, and hideous that when the tale begins he has been numb with horror for years. The enemy is no single military man. Rather, it's an entire society that is demolishing itself. Brazil has been laid waste during Souza's lifetime. The vast Amazon rain forest has been cut down. A blazing desert has replaced the jungle. Almost no natural food can grow in this wrecked nation. People live on synthetic rations manufactured by the state. Refugees, starving and maimed, roam vast garbage heaps that surround the city. And things are getting worse.
This is a scary book. It takes the ills of modern Brazil—the crime, the huge slums, the lumbering state apparatus—and carries them to their grotesque extremes. Souza's adventures amount to a savage critique of modern Brazil—of its government and of the strange meeting of modern technology and desperate poverty in cities such as Rio and São Paulo. But the author goes astray in his basic understanding of the problem. For instance, Souza wonders if perhaps "life as mere survival will lead us to a new sense of life, newly human. Our essence reconquered. Wipe out having in favor of being. Destroy 'I have,' and suddenly 'I exist.' Oh my utopian dreams."
Neither Souza nor his creator will get far on this tack. Apart from the numerous failures this century to remake human nature, what Brazil needs right now is a lot more "I have," which is to say, a sharper notion of the value of respecting property rights, which would go a long way toward solving that Amazon deforestation problem that seems to so distress deLoyola Brandao. Nonetheless, this book is interesting for its bitterly and sometimes brilliantly imaginative excursion through some of the nightmares of the developing world.
Stranger still is I the Supreme, a meditation on the nature of power, by a Paraguayan writer, Augusto Roa Bastos. To follow I the Supreme, it helps to have some grounding in the slagheap of Paraguayan political history. Paraguay broke away from its rulers in nearby Buenos Aires and announced independence in 1811. One member of the five-man junta chosen to rule the country declared that the province of Paraguay was "now completely free." This man, Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, then went on in 1814 to assume full power and rule as dictator until he died 26 years later. During his reign, he virtually closed off his country from the rest of the world and became known at home as "El Supremo," the epithet from which the book takes its title. Since the death of Dr. Francia, Paraguay has suffered a string of other dictators and misfortunes.
Against this background, Roa Bastos has written a complicated memoir of the life and times of Dr. Francia, couched sometimes in the voice of the Supreme himself, sometimes in the voice of the scribe to whom the Supreme dictates his thoughts. Fragments of historical documents and events surface in the tale, as the author recreates the ravings of this isolated dictator.
The book begins with an edict found nailed to the door of the national cathedral. It is a proclamation in which the anti-hero, "I the Supreme Dictator of the Republic," decrees that after his death his head should be placed on a pike in the main plaza and all his government servants should be hanged. But this decree does not really come from the dictator. It is a lampoon written by an impostor. So begins the blurring of identities in a country where the dictator claims to represent the general will, or rather the lack of will. "Power has weakness as its foundation," muses the Supreme—or his scribe—at one point. Thus the lampoon nailed to the cathedral door cannot be tolerated. "Bah!" says the dictator. "They're daring to parody my supreme decrees now." The frustration of this madman is that he cannot outlive himself, he cannot stop his own history from falling into the hands of men he will someday no longer rule. Even in his own lifetime, the world is spinning out of control.
Ultimately, this book is a meditation not only on dictatorship but on the nature of the mind itself, the supreme "I." But always the tale comes back to the dark chaos of a country that has become one man's solipsistic world. I the Supreme is heavy going. It provokes thought, but it does not much entertain.
Two far more accessible books have come out recently in English translation from the original Spanish of one of the world's best living writers—Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru. Vargas Llosa is concerned neither with fable nor with nightmare nor with philosophical meditation but with the comic and sad ambiguities of life in a country he clearly loves. Like its neighbors, Peru has wound its way in Vargas Llosa's lifetime through a series of dictatorships and weak democratic presidents to reach its current state of near-combustion under the mismanagement of President Alan Garcia—who was democratically elected on a left-wing ticket in 1985.
Readers who have not yet had the pleasure of discovering Vargas Llosa's fiction might do best to start with Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. This marvelous, funny, semi-autobiographical tale recounts the adventures of a young radio journalist in Lima who falls in love with an older woman, Julia. Their romance proceeds amid a flurry of soap opera scripts turned out by a crazed Bolivian radio writer who for a time befriends the couple.
For a more serious taste of Vargas Llosa's abilities, another good beginning would be Conversation in the Cathedral. Near the start of this novel comes a line that sets the stage for much of Vargas Llosa's other works, as well. As the hero strolls out of his office and into the "gray midday" of Lima's perpetual mist, he wonders, "At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?"
That there's no easy answer to this question is clear in Vargas Llosa's 1984 novel, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. In this tale, the narrator, a contemporary writer like Vargas Llosa himself, sets out to track down the real story of a revolutionary. The object of his investigation is the Alejandro Mayta of the title, a character who we are told tried to spark a revolutionary uprising in Peru in the 1950s. Mayta's aim, the narrator believes at the outset, was to overthrow the dictatorship of the day and see the people of Peru found a Marxist state.
To this end Mayta and a few of his revolutionary colleagues organized an assault on a small Peruvian town in the Andes. Mayta was quickly captured and sent to prison, after which he passed into obscurity.
The narrator visits Mayta's old haunts, talks to people who once knew him, and eventually, at the end, meets Mayta himself. As the investigations get underway, the narrator believes he is on the trail of someone who understood and deeply loved his country, who was determined to ease the miseries of its people no matter what the cost to himself. But during the investigation the initial vision of Mayta as a heroic revolutionary shrinks into a dismal vision of a pathetic, lonely, and inept outcast.
At the last, what's left is the narrator looking out from his house, and speaking—as he did on the first page of the book—of the trash that spills down the nearby cliffs to the sea, "The garbage that's invading every neighborhood in Peru." As an indictment of Latin America's romance with Marxist revolution, this novel is subtle, powerful, and clear. Its insights are underscored by the continuing carnage today of Peru's Shining Path revolutionary movement—which has so far claimed an estimated 10,000 lives and threatens the increasingly frail government of President Garcia.
Finally, there is Vargas Llosa's Who Killed Palomino Molero? In this slim murder mystery, two small-town Peruvian detectives take on the nebulous forces of a crooked government apparatus, against which they cannot possibly prevail. A brutal murder has been committed. Young Palomino Molero has been strung up, impaled on a tree, as well as having been slashed, bruised, and burned to death. The book's hero, a junior policeman named Lituma, sees the corpse in the opening scene, and for the rest of the story he is obsessed with horror. "Sons of bitches," he says. And the investigation begins.
Lituma's boss and mentor, Lieutenant Silva, has obsessions of his own as they follow clues in the case. Silva is itching to seduce the plump, elderly Doña Adriana, who works at a local restaurant. Doña Adriana isn't interested. But side by side Lituma and Silva pursue their obsessions; one to find the killers, the other to take Doña Adriana to bed. Soon the murder investigation leads to the nearby air force base. The clues keep leading toward an officialdom where—practically speaking—our heroes have no jurisdiction.
Eventually each man gets what he's been looking for—more or less. But neither gets the satisfying resolution he'd hoped to find. At the end they have both lost their way: Lituma in the heavy draperies of Peruvian provincial politics, Silva in the bewildering veils that fall across human relationships. The real question of this mystery is not who killed Palomino Molero, but what can you do even when you think you know who killed him? As in Alejandro Mayta, Vargas Llosa rounds off his tale by picking up a phrase from the first scene; in this case, "Sons of bitches."
With that line we are back to the essential difficulty that so inspires the writers of Latin America. The strange afflictions of their political world are all around them. Yet, somehow, they are impossible to track down and expunge. "We Latin Americans are not happy with ourselves, with what we are," writes Venezuelan essayist Carlos Rangel, in The Latin Americans: Their Love-Hate Relationship with the United States. But, asks Rangel, "What are we?" Here, Vargas Llosa has offered a fine answer. He gave it at a conference of PEN, the international society of Poets, Essayists, Editors and Novelists, in New York City last year.
Asked at the conference about relations between the writer and the state, a good many of the world's better-known literary artists had declared that the state has no place at all in the life of a writer. Vargas Llosa disagreed. The state is a necessary means of keeping order, he said. The trick is to see that it does not overstep those bounds. "Man is an angel," said Vargas Llosa, "but he is also a demon." It's with that demon, explained Vargas Llosa, that art enters the picture. The role of fiction is to give free play to that demon so that he does not wreak havoc on civilization.
In Latin America the demon has long been on the loose. If Freedom House is still touching up its map back in New York, it's a close call for many of those countries whether the cartographers of liberty should lay in extra stores of white or grey or—for some parts of Central America—black. But if Vargas Llosa is correct, the extraordinary flowering of Latin American literature may signal a mighty exorcism in the making.
Claudia Rosett is the editorial page editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal based in Hong Kong.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Exorcising Demons".