Granta 113: Best Young Spanish Language Novelists
Anthologies often depend on bold propositions and the editors of this Granta make much of the idea that this new generation of Spanish language novelists (i.e. born after 1975) have not experienced the repression of Franco or the Latin American dictators, so write more of the personal than the political. This perhaps oversimplifies the work of previous generations – like Vargas Llosa and Márquez – and also ignores the work of some of the finest young Peruvian writers like Daniel Alarcón (Lost City Radio) and Santiago Roncagliolo (Red April) which is intensely political.
However, they do have a point as one huge influence hangs over this generation and not necessarily a benign one: the late Robert Bolaño, who was been canonised by the literary world since his untimely death. In novels like The Savage Detectives, Bolaño made a virtue of an autobiographical approach – his life as a writer in a Latin American bohemian world of casual sex and drugs – which in the hands of a master is all very well, but played out in infinite variations by disciples can become introverted and dull. Writers have affairs and literary rivalries — fine. Yet it doesn’t quite match Macondo or The War At The End Of The World for scale and vision. Both Alarcón and Roncagliolo provide that in their novels above, as do some of the others here; the best of the short stories on display are, to use one of Borges’s favourite words, nítido, ‘lucid and intense’, as ‘viscerally real’ as Bolaño wanted South American literature to become. Granta are also to be commended for commissioning a set of excellent translations – some by Alarcón, who writes in English.
One striking reminder that the anthology provides is how much Latin American writing is done in often self-imposed exile. Few of the writers featured still live in their home countries, a habit they have inherited from their forbears: Vallejo, Neruda, Vargas Llosa and Márquez were all restless travellers, and a similar anthology of short stories published by Penguin thirty years ago at the height of the ‘Magic Realism’ boom was also noticeable for a sense of dislocation. Vargas Llosa’s long voluntary exile in Europe after losing the Presidency drew attention to the phenomenon and one recent Peruvian literary periodical consisted of nothing but replies by leading Peruvian artists and writers to one simple question: “Why have you left Peru?” The answer was rarely a political one – repression of intellectuals had never occurred in Peru in the same way as it had earlier in Argentina and Chile – but seemed born more of a febrile dissatisfaction.
There are plenty of fractured travelling lives portrayed here – lonely sexual encounters in hotel bedrooms, lost friendships on American highways – behind which lies a residual toughness and a sense that the writing vocation is a hard one. The story by Antonio Ortuño (oddly the only Mexican contribution from a country busting out with films and literature at the moment ) takes this to a haunting extreme: his writer is imprisoned for reasons that remain unclear – but his duty is still to try to write, despite daily beatings and subtle humiliations that include being forced to wear little boy shorts and having a toilet “in a state of indefinite repair”.
Patricio Pron of Argentina compares the gestation of writers to ‘The Life Cycle Of Frogs’: in his story of the same name, the young provincial writer comes to the capital, takes menial jobs while trying to climb the literary slagheap and sleep with the right influential people, then returns defeated to his provincial town where he forms a writing group and sends more young spawn to the capital to repeat the cycle. In the process he contributes to “one of those anthologies whose table of contents one rereads 10 years after its publication and feels fear and sadness”.
The editors of this anthology would presumably like ‘prescience and pleasure’ to be added to the list of emotions. What is notable in their own table of contents is the lack of women writers. All six of those reading at the issue’s recent launch in London were men. And only a quarter of the total published list are women. This is not the fault of Granta, who have rightly selected on the grounds of merit and availability, not political correctness. But surely the next wave of Latin American writing will see far more published from the likes of the remarkably accomplished Lucía Puenzo, who is both a filmmaker and writer: her story revolves around an encounter with a dream-like Gabriel García Márquez, who wears a different coloured tracksuit each day and tells her writing class that to succeed they must provide ‘a big idea’ – perhaps the anxiety dream that all her contemporaries suffer from.
A shortened version of this review was published by the Independent