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Next Generation Latin American Fiction

What happens when the dictators are gone?

Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

Defiance of a tradition easily evolves into one of its own. In Latin America, the famed Boom generation, which in the early ’60s catapulted the continent’s literature into the global consciousness, has spawned a legacy of resistance. Sometimes it was a coordinated effort, complete with a manifesto: the ’90s witnessed the Crack and McOndo movements, both of which asserted their independence from magical realism and other Boom-era legacies. Other times, the resistance established itself through one author’s originality, as was the case with the sui generis Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño. Now, a few younger writers have begun exploring something newly distinct: how memories of traumatic periods can shape the perspectives of a generation.1

That this type of novel has emerged in the past few years is hardly surprising given the demographics: There is now a generation of novelists who witnessed the last years of a dictatorship at the beginning of their political consciousness. They were the children of the adults whose lives were significantly altered, and their teenage years came after the violence subsided. They’ve lived longer without a dictator than they ever did with one, which means that their memories are likely to be more formative than anything that actually happened during that period.

Three works from this younger generation come out in translation this year: Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, released in January; Patricio Pron’s My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain, which appeared this month; and The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, which will be published in August. All roughly the same age, these three novelists represent different parts of the continent: Both Pron, an Argentine, and Zambra, who is Chilean, were born in 1975; Vásquez, born in 1973, hails from Colombia. Each writer grew up during the end of a calamitous era in their country’s past: For Pron and Zambra, it was a military dictatorship, while for Vásquez, it was a drug lord’s dictator-like presence.

Similarities extend into the works themselves in their treatment of memory, the distinct experiences of parents and children, and the use of the first person. But where Pron and Zambra rely on metafiction for a more intellectual and less captivating investigation of remembrance, Vásquez creates characters whose memories resonate powerfully across an ingeniously interlocking structure. While all three novels register a shift in thematic emphasis for Latin American fiction, only Vásquez creates a compelling literary work—one where an engaging narrative envelops poignant memories of a fraught historical period.

Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, his third novel, resembles his other two, Bonsai and The Private Lives of Trees.2 All focus on a writer dividing his time between melancholy and nostalgia, the vicissitudes of a romantic relationship, and some sort of metafictional experimentation. But Zambra’s true hallmark is conciseness: Ways of Going Home, the longest of the three, runs only 139 pages. The structure of the novel (which echoes the one found in Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter), alternates between the content of a novel-in-progress and the life of the novelist character. Going from one section to another means seeing either slight fictionalizations of events or even explicit re-workings of them: Eme, the novelist character’s lover, emerges with the lightest of fictional touches as Claudia in his novel; a late-night conversation between mother and son in the novel repeats, almost verbatim—although the fictional one extends, allowing for a different resolution.

Placing the novel-in-progress adjacent to the life of the novelist can create some confusion—a nice reminder of the perils of our own process of remembering. But ultimately the opportunity to create interesting tension between fiction and what we remember is relatively unexplored. Zambra employs a historical backdrop to inject depth into his customary metafiction instead of using metafictional techniques to probe history. That’s not to say he doesn’t offer any insight into the historical circumstances; it’s just that he does not use the novel’s most salient feature to do so.

Elsewhere, however, there are flashes of elegance as Zambra reckons with the past and his partial understanding of it. “Although we might want to tell other people's stories,” the narrator of the novel-in-progress muses, “we always end up telling our own.” This is a bridge between sections, but it’s also a comment on Zambra’s own position as a novelist: He’s only able to tell the story of a time when he likely failed to comprehend all that was going on. Another quote, this time from the section relating the novelist’s life, makes this point even clearer: “While the adults killed or were killed, we drew pictures in the corner. While the country was falling to pieces, we were learning to talk, to walk, to fold napkins in the shape of boats, of airplanes. While the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing.” These are the novel’s best lines. They also seem to better explain what Zambra tries to capture with his metafictional technique: the difficulties of understanding and explaining the omnipresent effects of a past you barely recall. One of the novel’s four sections is labeled “Literature of the Parents,” while another is “Literature of the Children”; these few lines not only display Zambra’s poetic sensibilities but also sum up the intergenerational differences in a more concise and affecting way than his metafiction ever does.

The relationship between parents and children also motivates much of Patricio Pron’s My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain.3 “No one in my generation had fought; something or someone had already inflicted defeat on us and we drank or took pills or wasted time in a thousand and one ways as a mode of hastening an end,” the narrator explains. Later, he sketches the differences in starker terms: “I understood for the first time that all the children of young Argentines in the 1970s were going to have to solve our parents' past, like detectives, and what we would find out was going to seem like a mystery novel we wished we'd never bought.”

But this mystery novel suffers from a lack of subtlety. The son, who narrates the novel and whose unreliable memory Pron hastens to establish, suggests how children “try to impose some order” on their parents’ stories. The son returns to Argentina from abroad to see his ailing father, a former newspaperman, in the hospital. While in his father’s study, the son discovers a file of newspaper clippings and photographs that, taken together, appear to recount the recent disappearance of a man whose sister also disappeared during the dictatorship—a sister, the son has reason to believe, his father likely knew. The story then becomes, as Pron reminds us too often, one of multiple searches that create a satisfying symmetry.

What most distinguishes Pron’s novel from both Zambra’s and Vásquez’s is its resemblance to the truth.4 Pron drew so heavily on his parents’ own past that he agreed to their request for veto power over its publication in Argentina, although they didn’t exercise their prerogative. This information about the novel’s autobiographical content comes only in the epilogue, which means the reader suffers through 200 pages strewn with unremarkable ruminations on how to craft a narrative that’s actually largely true.5 Reflections on the process of assembling the narrative have the potential to be interesting, but the novel’s strange allegiance to the confusing and complex truth causes it to sag.

If Pron and Zambra try too cleverly to complicate their storytelling with clunky metafiction, Vásquez proves himself to be one of its master craftsmen. Instead of juxtaposing contemplations of the past alongside the present, Vásquez intertwines historical storylines and the present day, which allows characters to reflect on their memories and the arc of their history.6 Taken together, the six tightly plotted sections of The Sound of Things Falling cover nearly four decades of Colombian history.

The novel’s principal narrative follows Antonio, a young law professor living in Bogotá who befriends a man named Ricardo Laverde. After a traumatic incident, Antonio meets Ricardo’s estranged daughter, Maya, who explains to him how Ricardo inadvertently paved the way for the rise of the notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. During the course of a weekend, as they exchange stories about different parts of Ricardo’s life, Antonio and Maya realize how much Escobar’s reign—“the difficult decade”—affected them. As Antonio describes it, theirs is the generation “that was born with planes, with the flights full of bags and the bags of marijuana, the generation that was born with the War on Drugs and later experienced the consequences.”

Toward the novel’s end, Antonio remarks that “people of my generation” ask each other about events from the ’80s, “which defined or diverted [our lives] before we knew what was happening to us.” He continues: “I’ve always believed that in this way, verifying that we're not the only ones, we neutralize the consequences of having grown up in that decade, or we mitigate the feeling of vulnerability that has always accompanied us.” These lines capture a generation’s struggle with an unpleasant past, and, more importantly, they acquire their affective power because they’re spoken by an “I” who’s earned our sympathy—not by one caught in the middle of a metafiction.

In the middle of 1991, over two years before he would be killed on a rooftop in Medellín, Escobar turned himself in—only to go to a prison he built for himself and from which he later escaped.7 Throughout his novel, Vásquez doesn’t just suggest the way a younger generation also had a prison built for it by the same drug lord; he also demonstrates how that generation tries to escape it.

In the end, Pron and Zambra expose their narrative structure too explicitly—not an innately unworthy goal but one that does not make for breezy reading. Yet Vásquez, without metafictional ornament, achieves a similar narrative honesty with expertly portrayed characters and lean, interwoven plots. (Perhaps it’s not surprising that his protagonist, unlike those in Zambra’s and Pron’s novels, isn’t a writer.) Vásquez examines what Colombians tell each other about their past; Pron and Zambra end up telling us more about themselves.

Despite some shortcomings, Pron and Zambra display clear talent in their works: With the former, it’s usually a fine phrase newly describing something like a recognizable stage of a relationship; with the latter, his understanding of narrative rhythm often outweighs his heavy-handedness and distracting fondness for simile. Zambra’s next work will almost certainly appear in English, and some publisher should introduce more of Pron’s stories to an American audience. But the most interesting works to come out of the continent in the next few years—at least concerning memory and its influence—might not come from Pron, Vásquez, or Zambra but from Mexican novelists beginning to address the drug violence currently plaguing their country and the mark it will leave.

  1. Boom-era novelists were too close—temporally speaking—to the dictators of their own time or too distant from historical ones to grapple with them. Perhaps the closest they came to depicting the dictators of their day was an unfinished project coordinated by Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, who, in the late ’60s, invited a dozen Latin American authors—among them Julio Cortázar, García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier, and José Donoso—to each write a 50-page novella “on their favorite national tyrant” that would later be collected into a single volume. Even Bolaño, who decades after the Boom wrote novels (Distant Star and By Night in Chile) that dealt with the Chilean dictator, still focused his works more on history.

  2. This trailer for the recent film adaptation of Bonsai does well in capturing, in cinematic form, the general ambience of Zambra’s novels.

  3. Unfortunately, one of the first things to note about this novel is its inelegant English title. Gone is the musical quality of the repeated “u” sound in the original—El espíritu de mis padres sigue subiendo en la lluvia. It’s hard to even see why “padres,” which would usually be translated as “parents,” is here rendered as the more awkward “fathers.’”

  4. In the epilogue, he writes that “While the events told in this book are mostly true, some are the result of the demands of fiction, whose rules are different from the rules of such genres as testimony or autobiography.”

  5. Pron even begins one section with an anecdote about how the narrator once proudly showed a completed jigsaw puzzle to his father who, unimpressed, proceeded to take his jigsaw and cut the puzzle into even more pieces. “As I closed my father’s file,” the narrator later remarks, “I began to think he’d created yet another puzzle for me.”

  6. Vásquez’s evident ease with this novel likely stems from practice with a similar narrative. The Informers, which came out in Spanish in 2004 and in English in 2009, has both an innovative structure and an emphasis on memory. The last 80 pages are the narrator’s postscript to a 265-page work that makes up the first part of the novel. It’s not hard to see how it’s a natural precursor to The Sound of Things Falling—and perhaps even some of Pron’s and Zambra’s metafictional techniques.

  7. It might be hard to believe, but it’s true. As part of a strategy to avoid extradition to the United States, where he would have likely received a harsh sentence, Escobar surrendered to the Colombian government, only to head to “the Cathedral,” a prison he had designed himself.