The Latin American literary canon is hugely diverse and includes writers of various styles, genres and political persuasions. However, several iconic figures hold sway over this literary world, who, through their pre-eminence and influence, have come to define Latin American literature both within the Americas and beyond. They are Latin America’s most famous literary exports: Mario Vargas Llosa, Pablo Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez.
Attempting an all-encompassing definition of Latin American literature is as reductive as trying to do so for African, Asianor European literature, and will necessarily lead to as vigorous a debate. Nonetheless the mythology of the ‘Latin American Boom’ and its concomitant genre ‘magical realism’ still dominate discussions of literary publishing throughout the South American content. This is largely down to three writers who, by the sheer profundity and renown of their work, defined literary production on the continent in the latter half of the 20th century. These were Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez, Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa and Chile’s Pablo Neruda, all of whom have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and who both collectively and individually are South America’s greatest literary exports. For better or worse their exploits have largely defined Latin American literature, and novelists and poets from throughout South America must now write in their lingering shadows.
The profound influence of Gabriel García Márquez‘s career on contemporary literature is reflected in the extent to which he is personally credited for the ‘magical realism’ genre, which has dominated literature across the South American continent for decades, and continues to do so. Whilst Márquez’s works vary in tone and style, they do continually return to the furrow of ‘magical realism’ in their ‘realist’ depiction of an amorphous, ephemeral but characteristically South American territory in which the fantastic and the magical regularly intrude. Márquez’s fiction is based very much on his own experiences of life in rural Colombia, but it is simultaneously an exploration of the fantastical qualities of fiction, which can blur the boundaries between the real and the unreal, and can bend time, nature and geography to its will. In Márquez’s wistful tales, eruptions of the fantastic are regular occurrences and everyday life is conducted in a type of dreamlike abstraction or reverie. Nature is also transformed in Márquez’s fictional South America and the lush and verdant world he creates becomes an embodiment for the nostalgic longing that defines his works. His South America is a correlative of his own melancholic reverence for the past, and is entwined in the tumultuous history of Colombia. The fictional town of Macondo, which recurs in his works, is based on the culture and geography of his own home town of Aracataca. This fictional township is contorted through the prism of Márquez’s world view, and becomes a land of tradition, wonder and solitude, as well as a lingering resignation with the inevitable corruption of politics.
Márquez’s greatest work, and the novel which established his reputation internationally is One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), an epic tale of generational strife and political intrigue in which the town of Macondo is transformed by the desires of the patriarchal protagonist from the Buendía family. The malleability of history, mythology and family are all primary themes of this work, which seems at times to be constructing a founding mythology for South America itself. Cited as a metaphor for the origins of Colombia, the novel did much to spark off the ‘Latin American Boom’ and to reveal new readers to the wonders of the literature from the continent. Márquez went on to great success over the course of the next few decades, although he perhaps never again reached the heights of One Hundred Years of Solitude. His turbulent relationship with his native Colombia was revealed when he settled in Mexico, in what was essentially a self-imposed exile. He nonetheless remains highly acclaimed throughout the continent, where his influence on literature is tangible, and where he is known affectionately as ‘Gabo’.
Hailed by Gabriel Garcia Márquez as ‘the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language’, Pablo Neruda is a defining influence on Latin American literature, and is a symbol of its engagement in the complex political and nationalist scene in much of the South American continent. Despite becoming an icon of left wing politics who was hailed as a Communist leader in the midst of the upheavals of the mid-20th century, Neruda is most remembered now for his sensual, passionate poetry, which reverberates with a personal and national loss of innocence. His output was hugely prolific and he poured everything he had into his poetry, creating a unique and deeply profound body of work, through which the drama of his own life, and the tragic tale of his place in Chilean politics, can be traced. His extensive travels, both privately and as a diplomat, also deeply informed his poetry. However he was nonetheless a national poet, who constructed an image of Chile in his works which was both idealistic and melancholy, which looked forward towards a socialist future, and romanticized a long forgotten and indistinct past.
Born in 1904 in Parral, he began writing poems as a teenager and took on the name Neruda as a homage to the Czech poet Jan Neruda. His talent as a poet was recognized early in his life, but he was nevertheless forced to take on work in the Chilean diplomatic service to sustain himself. He therefore spent much of his twenties traveling across Asia: to Burma, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Singapore, as part of the Chilean consulship. He was posted to Spain during the Spanish Civil War, during which time he met writers such as Rafael Alberti, Federico García Lorca and César Vallejo, and began to develop a political consciousness which was to define his later life. He returned to Chile a committed Communist, and following periods of exile was an early supporter of Salvador Allende, the first Socialist to be elected head of state in 1971.
By this time Neruda had an established reputation as one of the greatest poets of his age, and played a part in the new administration in both a political and a poetic sense. However his hopes for his country were to be dashed as he witnessed the ferocity of Allende’s downfall and the oppression of the Pinochet regime as it forced its way into power. Neruda died shortly after, and was immediately canonized as a martyr for the Socialist cause, his funeral attended by thousands as a protest against Pinochet. Neruda’s tumultuous life story informed the mythology of the inextricable connection between literary endeavor and politics in South America, a paradigm which he embodied and which still holds sway in this most politically conscious region. However his legacy will remain the works: sorrowful, ruminative and elegiac recordings of his love, affections and regrets which retain a lyrical beauty that transcends the political conflicts in which he was embroiled.
A towering presence in both Latin American literature, and in Peruvian political and social circles, Mario Vargas Llosa has been the most prominent of this triumvirate of Latin American icons in recent decades, but has also been the most difficult to pin down. His career was founded on confessional interrogations of his own, with his occasionally lurid personal and sexual life which also implicitly attacked the machismo cultural of the leading echelons of Peruvian society. His early works were informed by the Modernist styles of early 20th century European fiction, but he relocated them to a uniquely South American context. Works such as The Time of the Hero (1966) and The Green House (1968) are restless excavations of Vargas Llosa’s personal life, and the psychological repressions and social tyrannies of Peruvian society. He would expand his canvas with works such as Conversation in the Cathedral (1975) and Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1978) which brought him to the attention of a wider audience and escalated him to the forefront of the ‘Latin American Boom’, of which he would later be hailed as a leading member. Conversation in the Cathedral in particularly marked his acceptance as a major writer on the South American scene, and one who was not afraid to speak truth to power, or to unflinchingly portray the murkier aspects of his own country’s society.
These works are profoundly informed by the political despotism of Peruvian dictator Manuel A. Odría, and attempt to reveal the depth of corruption in mid-century Peru through a methodical portrayal of each echelon of society, revealing the extent to which the rot had set in. Vargas Llosa would try to personally rectify this situation when he ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990 as a candidate of the FREDEMO coalition and only narrowly lost out to Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori would later face trial for corruption and human rights abuses, perhaps confirming Vargas Llosa’s views on the toxicity of the political spectrum in Peru. In the last decade of the 20th century and the first of the 21st, Vargas Llosa would return to writing and release two works which many consider his masterpieces; 1993’s Death in the Andes and 2001’s The Feast of the Goat. Death in the Andes is an amalgamation of magical realism, mythology and murder mystery which saw Vargas Llosa fictionalize the conflict with the Senderistas, the guerrillas of the Shining Path, whilst Feast of the Goat took the assassination of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo as its subject and returns to Vargas Llosa’s themes of the intertwined nature of power and sexuality.
These three writers each inhabit a unique place in the Latin American canon, and have led three very different lives, each engaging in their own way with the complex spectrum of politics and culture in their countries. Their personal relations were limited, with Vargas Llosa famously punching Garcia Márquez to put an end to an early friendship. However, the power of their literary creations means that the three are united at the forefront of the Latin American literary canon, and remain iconic writers, who have done more than anyone to define the literature of South America.