Famous for its unique combination of mysticism and politicism, especially after the so-called “Latin American Boom” of the mid-20th century, the Latin American literary tradition is one with a reputation for imagination. Latin American fiction writers and poets such as Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez have had so much global influence that their names are recognized internationally. Here Panoramas takes a look at a few of those influential names, the lives they led, and the works they created.
Gabriela Mistral (Chile, 1889-1957): The first Latin American to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature, Gabriela Mistral was an admired poet as well as an educator and social activist. Born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, Mistral used various pen names in order to separate her career as a respected administrator in education and her career as a writer. Originally a schoolteacher in a small village, Mistral gained recognition for her passionate poetry on love and death after the suicide of her fiancé. Love remained a constant in her poetry from then onward, playing a part in the themes of romance, maternity, family, and spirituality that dominated her work. Spirituality drove not just her writing but also much of her altruistic and social work. She participated in the League of Nations by serving on cultural committees, was the Chilean consul in multiple European cities, and played an important role in developing the educational systems of both Chile and Mexico.
Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina, 1899-1986): The short stories of Jorge Luis Borges are known as the first of their kind in Latin America, paving the way for later magical realism greats who would expand and develop his conceptual, metaphysical, ironic, and, above all, daring creative ventures. Also a poet and essayist, Borges studied in Europe during World War II and when he returned to Buenos Aires in 1921, he brought the Ultraist movement with him to Latin America. Ultraism (which Borges later left behind), a rejection of the established meter, form, and content, attracted poets such as Pablo Neruda. Borges moved forward with the tendency towards experimentation that was inherent in Ultraism. He blended genres, dealt deftly in abstract concepts such as infinity and time, employed non-traditional symbols of labyrinths and mirrors. Paradoxes became a hallmark of his fiction.
In 1938 Borges suffered a head injury and severe blood poisoning, almost killing him. Critics argue that this experience led him to write his best work, a series of short stories that six years later were assembled in Ficciones, arguably his most famous collection of work. Borges later went completely blind, forcing him to dictate text to others, at which point his writing began to blur the line between prose and poetry. Borges’ form-bending and genre-twisting have influenced multitudes of Latin American writer that came after him.
Pablo Neruda (Chile, 1904-1973): The pen name (and legal name towards the end of his life) of Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto is a household name across continents and cultures. Prolific as he was famous, Neruda was a published poet by age 13 and wrote dozens of books of poetry, which were recognized in 1971 with a Nobel Prize in Literature. While Neruda is best known to the general public for his openly sensual love poems, he was also fiercely political in his writing. When he had become an established poet in Chile but was still a young man, he was sent abroad as a consul to several countries in Asia and was faced for the first time with poverty and isolation. During this time he wrote Residence on Earth, a collection of poetry that constituted his international breakthrough and one of his most acclaimed works. However, Neruda himself came to regard it harshly due to its despairing existentialism, and the works that came afterward were comparatively upbeat—for example, he often likened women to nature, celebrated the common people of Chile, or reflected at length on the beauty he saw in everyday objects. The Spanish Civil War and in particular the execution of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca affected Neruda greatly, however, and in the following years his writing became increasingly politically- and socially-oriented. He was elected a senator and in 1971 was nominated for president by the Communist Party of Chile, but withdrew upon reaching an agreement with Socialist nominee Salvador Allende. Neruda died just days after Allende was killed in the right-wing military coup in 1973.
Alejo Carpentier (Cuba, 1904-1980): While there is controversy over whether Alejo Carpentier was truly Cuban-born as he claimed or whether he was brought from Switzerland to Cuba as a baby and raised in Havana, there is no question that he took on Cuban issues as his own, both in the realms of literature and politics. Active in the Afro-Cuban cultural movement of the 1920s, he studied and wrote music with African influences before his literary career began. By the time he published his first book 1933, he had already fled Cuba after being imprisoned by Machado’s regime. He did not return until 1959, and thereafter was a faithful supporter of Fidel Castro’s Revolution. Carpentier is considered a master of surrealism, which he applied to the storytelling of moments in Caribbean history, such as slaves rebelling in the Haitian Revolution in The Kingdom of This World (1950) or Cuban orphans navigating a world shaken by the French Revolution in Explosion in a Cathedral (1962). His works also had a great influence on the magical realist writers that would come after him.
Jorge Amado (Brazil, 1912-2001): Jorge Amado was a novelist and journalist as well as a militant communist and leader of the Communist Party of Brazil until it was banned in the Cold War. His leftist activities got him imprisoned and later exiled, but he continued to write about controversial political and social issues throughout his life, including racism and classism. His books are known for their accessibility, for members of lower classes in particular: his protagonists include immigrants, fishermen, prostitutes, and children who live on the street; he uses colloquial language and spins dramatic, sensual, action-filled plots. Because of this he was not recognized as a serious writer by Brazilian academics for some time. However, Amado is now regarded as one of the Brazil’s most important novelists. He is remembered for his lively and authentic portrayal of the people of his home state, Bahia, and for highlighting parts of Brazilian culture that the upper classes preferred to gloss over.
Julio Cortázar (Argentina, 1914-1984): One of the first short stories that Julio Cortázar wrote was published in 1946 in a magazine whose editor was Jorge Luis Borges. There’s no doubt that like other Latin American writers, Cortázar, who has been called the modern master of the short story, was heavily influenced by the writings of Borges. The games that Borges played with irony and illogic were, however, taken to an existential level by Cortázar through experimental forms and techniques. His fiction explores the individual’s place in the world, often drawing on his own experiences as a translator and interpreter in Paris, where he lived much of his life as a dual citizen of France and Argentina. While he was often unwelcome in his home of Buenos Aires because of his leftist views, he is now one of Argentina’s most treasured cultural figures, most well-known perhaps for his novel Hopscotch (1963) which was the first of the magical realism “Boom” novels to bring international attention to Latin America’s literary scene.
Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia, 1927-2014): Gabriel García Márquez, often known by the nickname “Gabo,” is widely credited with leading the popularization of magical realism as a genre. His writing was largely inspired by his family, such as the conflicts in political ideology between his father and grandfather, or the love between his father and mother that became the basis for Love in the Time of Cholera. He also drew heavily on Colombian history, as in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It may be the real-life foundations of Márquez’s novels that make it so inimitably authentic even amid the surreal and supernatural elements that mark it as magical realism. Though Márquez has pointed out magical realist writers who came before him, he himself is sometimes considered the most successful writer of the genre—One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, sold out in record time in Latin America and also became an instant bestseller abroad, selling millions (some sources say as many as 50 million) of copies. Even so, Márquez was as much a journalist as a novelist, and even told the Paris Review, “I’ve always been convinced that my true profession is that of a journalist.” He used his prestige as a fiction writer to discuss politics, addressing corruption and freedom of speech in South America. In 1982 Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, cementing his reputation as a renowned author and ensuring that his novels would go down in history as classics.
Carlos Fuentes (Mexico, 1928-2012): Another of the most important members of the vanguard of the “Boom,” Carlos Fuentes was arguably Mexico’s most significant modern writer. The son of a Mexican diplomat who moved regularly throughout his childhood from embassy to embassy in South America, Fuentes always had a strong ideological sensibility that he voiced through literature rather than directly through politics. His fiction ambitiously portray swaths of modern Mexican history, discussing subjects such as the Mexican Revolution and the grip of drug gangs on the country. Satire and political commentary collided with themes of romance and death in his work, a combination that marked his writing and brought him wide popularity and acclaim in the United States and overseas.
Throughout his life, Fuentes was engaged in a tense relationship with friend and rival Octavio Paz—another of Mexico’s most distinguished writers of the 20th century. Both men’s writings engaged with questions of Mexican identity and culture, but much of their careers were spent competing with one another for international attention. While Fuentes won a number of celebrated international awards in his life, including the Cervantes Prize in 1987, he was never awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which poet Paz won in 1990. In the latter half of the 20th century the men became friends and worked together on a number of literary projects, but by the late 1980s, Fuentes’ support of the leftist Sandinistas of Nicaragua sparked a dispute with the conservative Paz, and a public feud followed that lasted the rest of their lives. Regardless, both writers are integral to Mexico’s modern cultural history and Fuentes as a figure remains internationally representative of Mexican intellectualism.
Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru, 1936-): Another key pioneer of the “Boom,” Mario Vargas Llosa was a writer whose personal experiences were as inextricably intertwined with the politics of Peru as both were with his work. He grew up under the severe hand of an authoritarian father as well as the strict dictatorship of Manuel Odría, during which time he developed a strong resistance to control and a desire to pursue individual freedom. He also became heavily involved in minority rights activism after spending time in the Amazon as a young man and witnessing the way Peru’s indigenous were mistreated. These early experiences are the basis for many of his novels, including the celebrated The Time of the Hero (1963). In 1987 Vargas Llosa fairly dove into politics himself, organizing massive protests against a seemingly power-grabbing move by the Peruvian president to nationalize the banking industry. The protests became the Freedom Movement, which a few years later evolved again into a political party, the Democratic Front. Today Vargas Llosa continues to discuss his ideas on politics, literature and culture in a biweekly column in the Spanish newspaper El País.
Isabel Allende (Chile, 1942-): Before the Pinochet military dictatorship began in 1973, Isabel Allende was well into a successful journalism career. But when her cousin, Chilean president Salvador Allende, was killed in the coup, Allende and her family fled to Venezuela, where it was much harder for her to find work. It was during this time that Allende began writing her first book The House of the Spirits (1982), a novel inspired by the conflict in Chile that gained extensive popularity in Europe. Allende continued to use political testimony along with elements of magical realism in her fiction, also writing books for children and young adults as well as a series of intensely personal memoirs that delved into the death of her daughter. Allende’s deep feminist convictions are also expressed in her work, which has won numerous awards including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom of 2014.
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