Al fin me encuentro
con mi destino sudamericano.
— Jorge Luis Borges,
“Poema conjetural” (1943)
A SEISMIC CHANGE took place in Latin American culture in the 1960s: under the banner of “El Boom,” a movement characterized by the aesthetics of what came to be known — and often contested — as Magical Realism (lo real maravilloso), the region’s literary tradition, hitherto obscure and even provincial, suddenly went global by means of quick, accomplished translations of steamy, exotic, politically engaged novels.
Led by authors from an assortment of countries, from Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez to Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, Argentina’s Julio Cortázar, Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes, Brazil’s Jorge Amado, and Chile’s José Donoso, the movement made a deep and far-reaching impact. It created a shared continental history and identity, or at least the mirage of it. It brought global attention to urgent topics affecting the Latin American people, including military repression, sexual subjugation, and economic hopelessness. And it fostered an atmosphere of cultural transaction that made movies, theater, music, and folklore from the region bankable everywhere. In short, El Boom made Latin America marketable in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the United States, bringing its people up to speed with the rest of the world.
To understand this radical transformation, it is crucial to have a picture of Latin American culture before the 1960s. After the rampant wars of independence of the 19th century, the lineup of newly autonomous countries, from Argentina to Mexico, sought to define their national identities by stressing indigenous myths. What they understood by “indigenous” was, obviously, open to debate. In Argentina, the country’s identity coalesced around Gaucho lore, prominently represented by the literature of Hilario Ascasubi, Benito Lynch, Estanislao del Campo, Ricardo Güiraldes, and, especially, José Hernández’s epic poem The Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872). There is an ongoing debate, dating back to the mid-1800s, about the difference between Gaucho and Gauchesco literature. The former is a product of the Gauchos themselves, rural cowboys with their idiosyncratic manner of speech and view of the world, whereas the latter is an appropriation of the Gaucho style by city-dwellers. Hernández’s poem, in spite of its national status, is Gauchesco; he was not one of the Gauchos, and his celebration of their bucolic life is derivative, an imitation and not an authentic testimony.
Similarly, in Mexico, national identity was built around the idealized view of the mestizo, as showcased in the works of José Rosas Moreno, Ignacio Manuel Altamirano, and, most prominently, José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi’s novel The Mangy Parrot (1816). The mestizo is a half-breed: part aboriginal and part European. The war of independence from Spain, which forced Mexicans to confront and take pride in their “mixed” origin, fed the notion that Mexico’s identity was defined by that half-breed. By the beginning of the 20th century, José Vasconcelos’s The Cosmic Race (1925) outlined an essentialist philosophy on the premise that mestizaje would ultimately define not only Mexican civilization but the entire world population.
These efforts were, for the most part, local. What was manufactured at home stayed at home, because Latin America didn’t register as an engine of cultural exports. Indeed, up until World War I, the region’s literature was made exclusively for internal consumption. Given the enormous geographical spread and limited resources for book production, literary distribution across the continent presented massive difficulties, which meant that national literatures often did not even aspire to communicate with their immediate neighbors. The first generation of writers to break this pattern, to be read outside the confines of their own countries, were the Modernistas. Between 1885 and 1915, this cadre of authors from various countries built a distinct regional literature, with its own ethos. Nicaragua’s Rubén Darío and Cuba’s José Martí were read in newspapers and magazines — and, to a lesser degree, in books — not only as Nicaraguan and Cuban poets but, surprisingly, as Latin Americans.
A continental audience coalesced around the Modernistas, and they were also embraced in Spain, where intellectuals like Miguel de Unamuno and Juan Ramón Jiménez applauded the fact that the former colonies were finally finding their voices. Yet most of Europe and the United States remained deaf to these voices, despite the fact that Martí lived in exile in Florida and New York. What kept these authors at bay was the lack of translations. The Modernistas themselves were infatuated with their French and American contemporaries: Darío championed the work of Paul Verlaine and Victor Hugo, Cuba’s José María Heredia translated William Cullen Bryant, and Martí praised Whitman. But it took decades for their admiration to be reciprocated.
Something dramatic took place on the global stage in the 1950s, allowing writers from various parts of Latin America to transform themselves into international celebrities. After World War II, the European novel appeared to have reached a dead end. The atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s exhausted the continent. All of a sudden, mainstream fiction seemed no longer to invite the public to escape, to dream of other universes, but to feel suffocated, trapped. It was then that the so-called Third World emerged as a fertile alternative. From Africa to the Caribbean, from Asia to Latin America, new novels offered fresh vistas.
This is the vortex from which El Boom emerged. It cannot truly be described as a generation, for its members were born in the span of more than two decades, between 1914 and 1936. To some extent, it shouldn’t be described as an exclusively autochthonous phenomenon either, because it was in Barcelona, in the offices of literary agent Carmen Balcells, where the enterprise took shape. It was Balcells who shrewdly recognized the artistic talent of about half a dozen writers and orchestrated the release of their books through Spanish publishers eager to find new audiences across the Atlantic. Indeed, El Boom — the name is an English-language loan word that calls to mine the transnational bonanza of companies like Exxon and United Fruit, which made a fortune in Latin America in the first half of the 20th century — was as much an editorial phenomenon as an outburst of talent. Spain finally realized a way to make the books of the boomistas available to a middle class eager to define itself within, and beyond, national borders.
Defined as much from abroad as domestically, El Boom poses a provocative question: What, exactly, is Latin American culture? Might El Boom be the literary manifestation of Simón Bolívar’s elusive political dream of a unified continent? The label’s malleability is telling. At first, El Boom was associated almost exclusively with figures from the Spanish-speaking world. Even Jorge Amado, the Brazilian author of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1966), said he didn’t quite fit in it. In fact, it was only when El Boom became a successful marketing tool abroad that he and other Brazilians like João Guimarães Rosa, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, and Nélida Piñon were included in the list. Their books were said to have exotic elements that made them part of the same aesthetic. But this came as an afterthought, motivated by commercial concerns.
The writers of El Boom, mostly of urban middle- and upper-middle-class origin, were, at the time, left-leaning in their politics. Two generations before, the Latin American intelligentsia had been pushed to define its views in reaction to the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the emergence of the United States as a global power. Figures like Darío and Martí openly railed against empire, first targeting Spain, then the United States. To a large extent, their successors took the same position. They fought for self-determination and against foreign intervention, and expressed their views in countless manifestos, interviews, and media appearances. In the 1950s and ’60s, most nations in the region were under dictatorial regimes, a model that would largely remain in place until the ’80s. These regimes often imposed strict censorship mechanisms. Being censored, of course, was also good publicity: that which was forbidden became instantly alluring. Ironically, then, the authors’ leftist politics contributed to their success in the capitalist marketplace outside Latin America.
A number of boomistas had found themselves in Paris in the 1950s. There, in Spain, and in their travels across Latin America, they not only became acquainted with each other but also shaped, however loosely, a common aesthetic and ideological mission. The first novel to become a global phenomenon was Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1963). An experimental artifact inspired by Eastern religions, which asks the reader to take an active role in shaping the narrative arc of the story, it dealt with an exile, Horacio Oliveira, stranded in Paris. Originally published in Buenos Aires, it was quickly embraced by a young generation of readers. In spite of its hefty size, it sold thousands of copies within weeks of its release. At the time, Cortázar was a dilettante with almost no interest in politics. Yet his novel was seen as rejection of Peronismo in Argentina, which often ridiculed Europeanized ideas.
Hopscotch was followed, in quick succession, by the groundbreaking novels of Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Augusto Roa Bastos, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and José Donoso. They received prizes and accolades. But nothing could match the success of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), which took as its subject the whole history of Latin America, transfigured in a dreamlike fashion into the saga of a single family. García Márquez was a relatively unknown journalist in exile in Europe because of his confrontation with Colombia’s dictatorial regime. His book, also published in Buenos Aires, became an instant best seller, and the author’s face graced the covers of magazines across the continent.
The term Magical Realism derives from Alejo Carpentier’s concept of lo real maravilloso, which is how he described the life of Haiti and, by extension, all of Latin America, in the prologue to his novel The Kingdom of This World (1949). At the time, Surrealism was the fashionable literary mode in French circles. In Carpentier’s view, Haitian life was more primally and authentically surreal than the affectations of European Surrealism. The strangeness of Latin America’s geography and the extremity of its people’s experiences made it almost impossible for any observer to disentangle fantasy from reality. After the success of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Magical Realism became, in the opinion of critics in Europe and the United States, the sine qua non of Latin American culture.
There is, of course, a famous forerunner to El Boom: Jorge Luis Borges. Up until the late 1950s, Borges was the property of a small group of devoted readers. His poems, stories, and essays had begun to be translated, mostly into French, yet he was still a local author. It wasn’t until 1961, when he received the Prix International, that the author of Ficciones (1944) became an international phenomenon — a canonical voice defining not only Latin American literature but postmodern letters in general. Several boomistas discovered him in the pages of the magazine Sur.
It is nearly impossible to conceive of writers like John Barth, Italo Calvino, and Danilo Kiš, not to mention the boomistas, without Borges. Yet he wasn’t the only precursor to El Boom. Another important voice, whose influence extended beyond Latin America, is Juan Rulfo, author of The Plain in Flames (1953). Unlike the cosmopolitan Borges, Rulfo came from a poor family in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which had been devastated by the revolution of 1910. His stories are about deprivation, about the pride of people who lack the very the basic needs. Through his fiction (Rulfo also wrote the novel Pedro Páramo ), he reached Chinese, Brazilian, and African readers, showcasing an aspect of Latin America — its rural life, bared to the bone — that elicited empathy and a sense of shared suffering. Both Borges’s ingenious fantasies and Rulfo’s unflinching realism prepared the global audience for El Boom.
The other crucial factor that enabled El Boom was translation. García Márquez often said that for a Colombian writer to be applauded in Bogotá, he first needed to be read in New York. Indeed, it was thanks to translation that, as Octavio Paz once put it, “Latin Americans were invited to the banquet of Western civilization.” The torchbearer among translators into English was Gregory Rabassa, an American of Portuguese descent. Soon after One Hundred Years of Solitude appeared in Buenos Aires, Harper & Row offered Rabassa the novel. He worked closely with García Márquez when preparing the English text, and his rendition was enthusiastically received by American readers. Even the author himself said the translation was superior to the original. It has sold millions of copies and has become not only a regional classic, but also a staple of the world’s literary canon. Rabassa also translated Cortázar’s Hopscotch, among other El Boom masterpieces.
Rabassa was soon joined by a team of translators gathered by American publishers eager to capitalize on El Boom. Unlike the translators of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, who, until the 1950s, were primarily British and male, almost all those working on the fashionable young Latin Americans were from the United States, and a considerable number were women: Edith Grossman, Margaret Sayers Peden, Helen Lane, Suzanne Jill Levine, Alfred Mac Adam, et al. In some cases, it was they who brought the novels to the attention of publishers. The reception of these books in the English-speaking world gave them the validation they needed to enter other languages, including French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, and Hebrew. As a result, the boomistas were frequently invited to lecture at universities and write op-ed pieces for newspapers like The New York Times, and the film rights to their novels were acquired by Hollywood and many European producers. In 1966, Cortázar’s short story “Blow Up” was turned into a landmark movie by Michelangelo Antonioni.
Success in translation was bound to impact the authors’ work. When an author knows that her work will automatically be translated into other languages — and perhaps even appear in one of those other languages before the original is published — her target reader is no longer a fellow Argentine or Columbia, but a global citizen. Translation pushed the boomistas to think of themselves in less parochial, more ambitious terms. In analyzing the careers of boomistas like García Márquez and Vargas Llosa, it is possible to state with precision the moment they went global, but one can discern the change. In the case of the former, this transition took place in the 1980s, after the publication of Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981) and his receipt of the Nobel Prize. From that moment on, his work no longer seems destined exclusively for a Spanish-language public. In the case of the latter, it happens around the time of The War of the End of the World (1981), in which he ventures outside his native Peru and focuses on an uprising in 19th-century Brazil that tests the question of what it means to be Brazilian. Their stratagems made the Latin American novel a commodity for export. Covers tended to use pastel colors (green, yellow, orange, and red), showcasing voluptuous bodies and exotic fauna.
At the same time, a group of Latin American women authors was actively refashioning the aesthetics of El Boom. Their success, in terms of copies sold, often outpaced that of their male counterparts. They included Isabel Allende, the author of The House of the Spirits (1982), a family saga that resembles that of García Márquez’s breakout novel, and Laura Esquivel, whose novel Like Water for Chocolate (1989) used the setting of a kitchen on the US-Mexican border to mix the steamy ingredients of sex and magic. These women joined the fray of El Boom rather late due to a variety of factors, including the slow consolidation of feminism in metropolitan centers like Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Santiago, and Bogotá in the 1970s, as well as slow growth of appetites in the global market for a more nuanced, multifaceted depiction of gender relations in the region.
In recent decades, another crop of authors has emerged in Latin America, one whose profile is heavily defined by El Boom. Members of this generation — including Horacio Castellanos Moya, Andrés Neuman, Ignacio Padilla, Valeria Luiselli, Edmundo Paz Soldán, Juan Villoro, and Jorge Volpi, among others — have struggled to distance themselves from a type of literature that, in their view, simplifies the region rather than making it complex. They have rejected Magical Realism in favor of hyperrealism, emphasizing drugs, music, video games, and other excesses of modern urban existence. Sometimes they have abandoned Latin American themes altogether, setting their novels in, say, Europe during World War II (Volpi’s In Search of Klingsor ).
Arguably the most interesting — as well as the most polemical — post-Boom author is Roberto Bolaño, who died in 2003, at the age of 50. Although he was born in Chile, he lived in Mexico and Spain and digested Argentine literature to such a degree that his oeuvre is truly international. He is best known for the novel The Savage Detectives (1998), which isn’t only set in Mexico but also uses a very dialectic Mexican Spanish. This use of language is, in itself, a challenge to the international flavor of El Boom. In his novella By Night in Chile (2000), Bolaño also upsets El Boom orthodoxy by suggesting that the Pinochet elite created an aesthetics that even the left wholeheartedly embraced. These and other heresies made Bolaño an enfant terrible. Ironically, they also turned him into an instant success in Europe and the United States, where his books, in translation, are now the subjects of festivals and staples of Creative Writing programs. Throughout his oeuvre, Bolaño critiques El Boom in both explicit and subtle ways: he accuses the movement of turning Latin America into a factory of kitsch, complete with clairvoyant prostitutes, forgotten colonels, and epidemics of insomnia. His argument is that, in seeking internationalization, the members of that generation sold their soul to the devil. Yet Bolaño himself courted the “devil” of international success, and is now one of the devil’s favorites. The contradictions, compromises, and brilliance of El Boom still haunt lo real maravilloso of Latin American letters.