This is my most recent #20BooksofSummer read (No. 12 in actual fact), but I am somersaulting over the earlier ones I read and placing it at No. 10, so that I can have at least one review this week for #SpanishLitMonth initiated by Stu Jallen (which is not just literature from Spain but literature in the Spanish language).
Liliana Colanzi is a Bolivian writer, considered one of the most promising young voices in Latin America today, but so far Our Dead World is her only book that has been translated into English (by Jessica Sequeira and published by Dalkey Archive Press). I heard Colanzi speak at the Hay Festival two years ago, as part of the Bogota39 initiative, and bought her book then and there (and of course got it signed). The stories are unusual, surreal, captivating and show a great deal of courage, in the sense of not worrying about making the reader feel comfortable or of fitting under one convenient genre or label.
The first story The Eye, for example, could be described as a more realistic, coming-of-age type story, with a girl in her first year of college struggling with her feelings for a male classmate, who lets her down by buggering off with another girl at the last minute while working on a group project for class. Her mother is deeply religious and traditional, her professor chides her for not being brave enough to think for herself, and she compensates for all of her disappointments by cutting herself. So far, so conventional, you might think, but then the story and the language takes on a surreal turn, as we follow the protagonist into something like a nervous breakdown (or illumination?).
And that is the hallmark of Colanzi’s style: taking the mundane and well-trodden set-ups and then twisting them completely beyond recognition. You sit and read breathlessly and wonder how the author will manage to conclude the story and exit from the impossible situation in which she has placed herself and her characters. Usually, this is done through altered states, which the author is very good at conveying through repetitive, mesmerising language, which is often like watching a film playing at double the speed in someone’s head.
Each story (bar one) has a different but realistic setting – a Bolivian village preparing for a funeral, an East Coast college campus, a Paris hotel, a photographic studio, a house hidden in a sugar-cane plantation. But then a curveball gets thrown into the apparently familiar set-up: a family starts quarreling as they remember past frustrations while having their portrait taken, a meteorite is ready to hit the earth, a mysterious wave-type weather pattern drives students to suicide, a cannibal is on the loose, the corpse at a funeral seems to start breathing, you stumble across a place in the jungle where indigenous slavery still exists. There are hints at secret traumas and a side serving of horror in most of these tales.
The story which is the exception has more of a sci-fi premise: it’s set on Mars. A young woman has joined the colonising workforce on Mars but still yearns for the life and man she loved on Earth. While she and her fellow workers are doomed to either go mad or die of cancer, she becomes obsessed by the idea of life perpetuating itself even in the most hostile of environments.
These are the kind of stories which pack so much into their tiny frame that I’m not sure I’ve completely understood them. I also like the way in which Colanzi alludes to her cultural background but is not limited by it. I want to reread and analyse these stories – but above all, they give me permission to go forth and be bolder and more experimental in my own writing.
What could be more suitable for #TranslationThurs than a report on the panels on translated fiction which I attended at Hay Festival this past weekend? I had heard of the Bogota39 initiative and planned to attend one panel on it, but perhaps the Caetano Veloso CD I listened to on the way to the festival knew something that I didn’t, because I ended up attending three panels on Spanish-speaking literature, most of it Latin American (and yes, sadly, there were no Brazilians among them that I could practise my three phrases of Brazilian Portuguese on). As it happens, all the three panels I attended were moderated by Daniel Hahn, translator and cross-cultural promoter, whom I’d also met at the London Book Fair last year, and who must slowly be starting to wonder if I’m stalking him…
Bogota39 is a Hay Festival initiative to make the work of young writers from Latin America (under the age of 40) visible to the English-speaking world. The first edition back in 2005/6 was hugely successful, with many of the writers going on to become international stars. This current crop are just a small selection of the many, many talented and vibrant writers working in or stemming from Latin American countries today. There is a freedom to experiment with fiction that perhaps few writers elsewhere have – because the language feels younger and more adventurous than the more literary Spanish from Spain, but most of all because there are no Creative Writing courses that ‘teach’ people to write in a certain way, and there are no advances or royalties (not much money in publishing), so editors are not so focussed on commercial success and writers can write pretty much whatever they like.
The first panel included Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia, short stories), Felipe Restrepo Pombo (Mexico, non-fiction) and Carlos Fonseca (Costa Rica, novelist). The second featured Peruvian author Claudia Ulloa and two more Mexicans (yes, they do dominate a bit): Laia Jufresa and Emiliano Monge. Of these six, only three have been translated into English at present (just one book in most cases), so I hope events such as these will make publishers more keen to gamble on them. They certainly have the brains, wit and English to be very personable guests (which shouldn’t matter, but we all know it does).
The two panels had many common themes, so I’ll discuss them together. For instance, although the previous generation of writers might have felt that they were living in the shadow of the Boom generation of Latin American writers (Marquez, Cortazar, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa – the giants of the 1960s and 70s – which coincided with the rise of Latin jazz), this generation does not feel intimidated by them. Nor do they think that they have been influenced by them as much as by other writers, many of them from abroad. As Emiliano Monge put it: ‘We have the same territory and the same guns as the Boom writers, but we are hunting different animals.’
Although they recognise the limitations of the Bogota39 initiative (somewhat arbitrary and subjective inclusion of authors, only a small fragment included which barely gives a flavour), they are also aware that it provides a calling card for UK and US publishers and that it extends the concept of Latin American literature beyond the same obvious names. Hopefully, it also extends the idea of the topics that Latin American literature can cover, beyond the obvious violence, memory, heritage.
What surprised me most was the lack of a continent-wide distribution system despite most of the continent being monolingual. Each Latin American country has its own small publisher and they only bother to distribute to the other countries for the big successes. Sometimes Spain would step in as a mediator, but since the 2008 crash, Spanish publishers have been somewhat bankrupt. So this anthology also helps to introduce these writers to each other.
What, if anything, did this disparate band of brothers and sisters have in common, other than the fact that they didn’t consider themselves ‘Latin American’ until they went abroad and were put in that category? Well, they all love playing around with language, structure and stories; they have quite an ironic tone; most of them are no longer overtly political, but feel that choice of form is a political act in itself.
Another communality is that many of these writers are now living and working abroad. In most cases, it’s this actual physical distance from their home country which also gave them the necessary mental distance in order to be able to write about it. While Valeria Luiselli might be on the cusp of starting to write in English, all of the panellists felt that they wouldn’t write in anything else but Spanish. As Claudia Ulloa memorably put it: ‘I learnt to breathe in Spanish, and writing is like breathing, very physical.’
If you would like to explore any of these authors further, Laia Jufresa’s Umami, Carlos Fonseca’s Colonel Lagrimas and Liliana Colanzi’s short story collection Our Dead World have been translated (the latter two were published in the US only).
The third panel I attended consisted of two current giants of Spanish-language literature – Juan Gabriel Vasquez from Colombia and Javier Cercas from Spain. They’ve had more of their novels translated into English and were presenting their latest hardbacks, The Shape of the Ruins and The Impostor respectively. I haven’t read those yet (they both sound extremely interesting, but are slightly expensive, so I’m waiting for the paperback), but I have read earlier books by them and even included him in the Crime Fiction Lover article on Latin American crime novels. At first glance, they seemed to agree on many things, not least that Don Quixote contains within it all the possibilities of the novel and proves that you don’t have to follow the rules.
They talked about how their novels were based on certain true facts and their own personal reactions to those facts at the time. Cercas writes about the infamous case of a Spanish man who pretended to be a resistance fighter and Nazi camp survivor, while Vasquez met a doctor who had a vertebra and a piece of skull from the two most famous assassinations in Colombian history. Both of their novels feature a protagonist called the same name as the author, but which apparently is not the author. And both of them are sceptical about calling their novels ‘historical fiction’, because actually they are about how history impacts upon us in the present. Although the past seems remote and alien, it has repercussions and long echos in the present, for generations. What can we do with our bad inheritance (and this applies not just to Latin America or Spain, but to the British Empire and most other countries in fact)? Who gets to control the narrative of the past? And if it’s usually the victors, those in power, then the mission of the novel is to provide alternative possible versions of the story. The novel makes history more democratic, by giving voice to marginalised, forgotten people, by providing a side door to the edifice that is textbook history.
Perhaps the most uplifting moment came at the very end, when someone in the audience asked if the novel has a future. At which all three (including Daniel Hahn) pointed out that the very name ‘novel’ indicates that it is something constantly renewing itself, that it’s an omnivorous monster devouring other genres and influences, and that it constantly mutates and comes out on top.
Finally, a very personal observation: that although it is false to think of ‘Latin America’ as a monolith, I did instantly feel at home with the ‘thinking out loud’ both on the page and on the panels, the chatty replies, the warmth and humour, the serious yet also deeply ironic way of looking at things, which reminded me so much of my own culture. Another reminder that I need to read more of their literature.