The New Novel of Latin America

As a 20-year-old undergraduate at the University of Liverpool, Philip Swanson happened to read a novel by the emerging Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. The novel, The Time of the Hero, was "unlike anything I had ever read before," recalls Swanson, now in his 30s. It ultimately influenced his decision to become a scholar of modern Latin American literature. "It seemed very unusual at the time. It had a fragmented style that required me to be more actively involved. To me, it was terribly exciting — remember, I’m a native of England and had been brought up on Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. The images in this novel were of Coca Cola, violence, the big city, cultural mixes."

The Time of the Hero — about the efforts of a group of teen-aged boys to survive the rigors of a military academy in Lima, Peru — was one of the so-called "new novels" to emerge from Latin America. As a group, they represented a major departure from the traditional realism that had defined modern Latin American fiction in the past. The "new novel" trend climaxed during the 1960s in a literary phenomenon known as the "Boom."

Swanson, who joined the University’s Department of Hispanic and Italian Studies last fall from the University of London, has since become one of the leading authorities on the "new novel" in Latin America and has written extensively about it. In his latest book, The New Novel in Latin America: Politics and Popular Culture after the Boom, Swanson questions many of the critical assumptions and generalizations that have grown up around the "new novel" and makes the case that there are more contradictions than consistencies about the genre. Most Latin American literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries, he explains, is characterized by "conventional realism" — writing which attempts to document faithfully social conditions and concerns using formal, stylistic patterns.

"The ‘new novel’ has its roots in a rejection of the assumptions about reality that underlie realism and tends to use techniques such as structural fragmentation, multiple viewpoints, disruption of the linear time line, fantasy, and complexity and ambiguity," he said. Understandably, the reader tends to be confused by these unorthodox techniques, at least at first. But they are also the very qualities that make the "new novel" so fascinating and the reading experience so close to real life.

Philip Swanson

"In the ‘new novel,’ readers are more involved, play a more active role in the story, and get closer to the modern world as they struggle to make sense of a different and complex experience," said Swanson, who earned his doctorate Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, where he wrote his thesis on the Chilean novelist José Donoso. Beyond that, however, Swanson believes it is difficult to make generalizations about the "new novel." He questions the distinctions that many critics have made between the so-called traditional fiction and modern fiction of Latin America, and argues that, while their style and form may be different, the concerns of the "new novel" are similar to the concerns of traditional fiction. And while he believes that the "new novels" are an important cultural development, he does not view them as offering a fundamentally "new" political perspective. "The concept of the ‘new novel’ is a sort of critical fabrication, invented by the critical establishment and as a convenient marketing tool, and as such is simply a series of novels characterized by inconsistencies, rather than sharing any real set of ideals or values," he said. "Indeed, the critical confusion of literary revolution and revolutionary literature may merely give the middle-class reader the sense of being politically engaged while sitting in an armchair reading."

What all of this leads to, Swanson believes, is "the creation of a sort of middle-class, bourgeois commodity which, on the one hand, deflects attention away from other significant Latin American writing — political literature and committed or testimonial writing of one kind or another — while, on the other, drawing the opprobrium of left-wing critics opposed to the cultural internationalization of Latin American literature."

The new novel’s Boom occurred during the 1960s, when Spanish publishers started marketing such books in Europe. But Swanson traces its origins back to the 1940s and even earlier. During the 1970s and ’80s, the English-speaking world became aware of the "new novel," and it became a true international literary event. Latin American fiction produced since then, during the "post-Boom" period, he said, has featured slicker, more readily marketable writing by established authors, as well as a return to social realism and revolutionary literature. The so-called "Big Four" authors associated with the "new novel" — Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Julio Cortázar — all come under Swanson’s scrutiny in his new book, published late last year. Other authors whose works Swanson examines include Manuel Puig, Gustavo Sainz, Clarice Lispector, Isabel Allende, Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Donoso.

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