Monday, December 13, 2010

From Guillermo Cabrera Infante to Mario Vargas Llosa: The Language of our Childhood

There are probably few periods of time in our lives as indelible as the years we spend with a group of friends, siblings, cousins, a group of original beings about the same age, whose speech is unique, and with whom we share a language created and understood only by ourselves. If we are fortunate, we can look upon that time with a kind of proud nostalgia for the features that defined our identity and gave us refuge from the larger world.

In Latin American literature, writers such as Cabrera Infante, Donoso, Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, to name a few, captured a time in their respective countries when their generation played a role in defining popular culture by portraying these memories. They and other writers portrayed the shadings of class, as did Manuel Rojas-- in the late 20s, with El delincuente, and Hijo de ladrón, and much later, the cruel language of dictatorships, as Luisa Valenzuela in the 70s with Los censores, and Cambio de armas. If it weren't for writers who see themselves as part of a unique generation and want to express somehow, the subtleties of their collective youth, and eventually growing into adulthood, perhaps we would not have these sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant portraits today.

It is widely agreed that in his novel, Tres Tristes Tigres, Guillermo Cabrera Infante attempted to capture the speech and the consciousness of a Cuba that was disappearing. Set on the eve of Castro's victory in Havana, the language shared by a group of friends represents the blending of the Cuban vernacular which was Afro-Cuban, with a sprinkling of American and waning European influence. The wordplay that twists and reshapes meaning until something new emerges, was later translated by the author along with Donald Gerdner and Suzanne Jill Levine, in 1971. But this book, retitled Three Trapped Tigers became, of necessity, a new book-- translation becomes transformation.

Mario Vargas Llosa, meanwhile, far more prolific if less experimental, displayed the agility of his prose in scenes with a great number of people interacting, often speaking to the narrator as well as to each other, creating the effect of documentary film at times-- but with a tight plot. In the early short story, "The Challenge," from Los Jefes (1959), and later The Green House (1966), the motif of the fight that cannot be stopped and ends with somebody's death is observed as it develops through the particular speech of the characters. In the 1962 novel, La ciudad y los perros, the young men from a rising middle class also function in an environment of violence and machismo, using their own coded language to denote power and hierarchy. The result in each instance is sometimes a dizzying cacophony, always rich and fascinating.

In the Latin American literature course I taught this fall semester at the JSM Institute for Labor Studies/CUNY (from the present, beginning with Coelho and Bolaño and going backwards to excerpts from the Popol Vuh) I assigned a special task to my class: to write a brief piece about a remembered event from youth or childhood, in a realist-fictionalized style, that would show the way they and their contemporaries used language and communicated in their own, unique way.

People came through with fantastic pieces of writing, energetic, evocative, conscious of having lived in a particular culture-- whether African American, Caribbean, South Asian or Latin American in the U.S. What follows, in the page titled "Student Writing: The Literary Style of Reminiscence," is an experiment in teaching Latin American literature in English. The individual authors are credited with bylines above each piece, and can be contacted through this blog. Please make comments, and enjoy!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Julio Cortázar: Narrador y protagonista - or, Actor/Director?

La noche boca arriba (The Night Face Up) [Seix Barral, 1983] is one of Cortázar's best-loved short stories. The majority of his short fictions are so well known, in fact, that one could have a conversation with friends fondly recalling plots and characters as if reminiscing about a friend's exploits during his wilder days (...remember the man who was murdered by his own sweater? And the guy who burped up bunny rabbits in the elevator?). So often does Cortázar's voice tickle the consciousness of the reader with his inimitable humor that this tonal commentary carries over from story to story. It is the author's tone of voice as narrator that at times colors the protagonist's, and at the same time one could never fault his writing for breaking the contract between writer and reader so that one might abruptly stop reading and, disenchanted, back up to find the thread of the story again.
In "Final del juego," (End of the Game) the 1st person narrator is an unnamed adolescent girl who, with her sister and cousin, Holanda and Leticia, play an intricate game of statues and attitudes by the train tracks in Argentina's countryside. All three girls are smitten with Ariel, a schoolboy who rides the train and is captivated by their imaginary theater. But it is Leticia, who suffers from a debilitating illness, who captures his heart in the end. Cortázar's wit and imagination completely inhabit the perspective of the narrator girl, and she is as insightful and real as Horacio in Rayuela (Hopscotch). Cortázar's essence is always in conversation with the reader, whether he is a rare Mexican salamander in an aquarium in "Axolotl" or the criminal narrator in "Los amigos," a man about to shoot an old mafia friend, in one of his shortest and most compact stories. By creating fiction with characters that hopped worlds and planes of existence, the writer was free to transgress the boundaries of control-- characters could direct, authors could be actors, and readers were invited even more effusively than in Borges' world, to participate, to share in the irony of writing, and still walk away amused.
This is the relevance of teaching his work today, to students of literature who are not necessarily writers, or who may be taking such a course in order to fulfill a curriculum requirement, yet still want to read something meaningful to them. (For writers, I think the key is to revel in the paradox he offered with that irony; one has to drop the self-importance of writing before writing anything meaningful.)
Cortázar's restlessness in his fiction portrayed classic shifts in perception that today are the basis for contemporary narratives in literature as well as film. Consider the motorcyclist who crashes his bike in Paris and straddles the reality of the man running away from ritual Aztec sacrifice, in "La noche boca arriba." This story is so tightly written one looks for the seams in every line-- it is the same story of Jacob's Ladder, forty years later and in another language. The photographer in "Las babas del diablo" whose chilling darkroom discoveries did, in fact, become film in Antonioni's Blow-Up. Many years later, the formal hopscotch of Rayuela, with his directions to hop around from chapter to chapter, is echoed by Ana Castillo in The Mixquiahuala Letters. And, so, the quintessential Latin American male writer who once alienated 51% of readers by referring to "passive" readers as-- lectores hembra (female readers)(!)-- learns his lesson (he did apologize). His fiction has gone viral.