The Novelists and the Dictators

Ilan Stavans, professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College and general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (due out in September), has published an article today in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the Latin American novel’s portrayal of dictators. Here are the parts that specifically address Caribbean literature. For a link to the full text follow the link below.

Does the current crop of left-wing caudillos in Latin America, like Hugo Chávez, inspire the type of animosity their military counterparts once did? And will its members be turned into larger-than-life dictators in novels, as they were in Gabriel García Márquez’s 1975 The Autumn of the Patriarch? Or have the literary intelligentsia finally given up the foolish practice of using fiction to pretend to force tyrants from their throne?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions. For centuries, literature in the former Spanish colonies on this side of the Atlantic has sought to define itself, in part, as resistance to autocratic rulers, as if what justifies writing is fighting oppression and totalitarianism. There is a plethora of novelas del dictador, narratives, mostly gargantuan in scope, in which a narcissist tyrant serves as protagonist and, at times, as narrator: El Caudillo (1921), by Jorge Borges, father of Jorge Luis Borges (the younger Borges was apolitical, or in any case conservative, so that link to the tradition was broken); Miguel Ángel Asturias’s El señor presidente (1946); Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State (1974); Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (2000).

The key to success has been to find a worthy foe, an avatar of evil—arrogant, dogmatic, overbearing, if possible misogynistic, maybe even a voodoo practitioner if you’re writing about the Caribbean. God knows, there has been no scarcity of dictators. Pick your choice: Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, François “Papa Doc” and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc,” Duvalier in Haiti, Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda in Paraguay, Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Juan Vicente Gómez in Venezuela, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, José María Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador. …

The novela del dictador is testosterone-filled: Not only are the despised protagonists almost all male (the main exception is the domineering Isabelita—Isabel Martínez de Perón, that dictator’s third wife, known as presidenta from 1974 to 1976), but so are the authors. Two exceptions among them are Luisa Valenzuela and Marta Traba, both of whom have written on terror in Argentina. Among Latinos in the United States, Julia Alvarez carries the torch with In the Time of Butterflies (1994), a novel set during Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, with a strong feminist undertone almost completely absent in the South American tradition. Machismo, personified in the tyrant or author, is deeply embedded in the culture.

Shouldn’t Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez be center stage in that tradition? He has the three I’s: He is irritating, impulsive, and intolerant. How about Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega? Or Bolivia’s Evo Morales? . . .

Is it that they don’t usually torture and kill adversaries? That their regimes aren’t controlled by vengeful police forces? That they have been democratically (more or less) elected? Perhaps. But in important ways, they are caudillos. They rewrite constitutions to perpetuate themselves as supreme leaders. They embrace a populist oratory that condemns materialism and ridicules individuality (thereby fostering an environment where freedom is often a casualty). They promote an anti-imperialist (often synonymous with anti-American) message that brooks no disagreement. Their rhetoric embraces the downtrodden but creates fear among all who disagree with them.

. . .

The facile communist hurrah that was pervasive in the 60s was in part a response to the Cuban revolution. Indeed, the one left-wing dictator who has inspired more than his share of fiction is Fidel Castro, although none of the (usually positive) fiction about him ever achieved much literary stature. And the embrace of Castro became indefensible as his government became crueler. As time went by, he became a protagonist in the more conventional novela del dictador—for instance, Norberto Fuentes’s The Autobiography of Fidel Castro (2004), a colossal fictionalized life story about El Comandante’s oversized ego.

Still, in some literary quarters, Castro continues to be defended today, as if the censorship he condoned and the dissidents and homosexuals he incarcerated could be ignored because of his mandate to make health care available to every Cuban. In regard to communist tyrants, Latin American writers often se hacen de la vista gorda, as the Spanish expression goes: They see what they want to see.

So is it leftist sympathy that keeps writers from turning Hugo Chávez into a novelistic ogre? Yes, but there’s another reason as well. . .

Once it was “the duty” of intellectuals to focus on their immediate surroundings, in order to allow people elsewhere to see the sorrowful state of things at home. In the 90s, young stars, part of the movement known as McOndo—which rejected magical realism and supported the kind of urban realism spread by the Internet—and of El Crack—a movement in Mexican literature that shook up the nationalist premises of earlier generations—did not accept that responsibility. Why couldn’t their books be about making the atomic bomb or the end of the Soviet Union? . . . In short, the reason the novela del dictador doesn’t ridicule left-wing caudillos isn’t only, or even mainly, because of sympathy for those politicos (although writers from the region do have a longtime softness for the left). It is more that Latin American literature has, thankfully, ceased to be mindlessly virile and become more cosmopolitan.

Of course, on a continent where democracy doesn’t have deep roots, the history of tyranny is never over, nor the kind of literature that opposes it. Elected caudillos, too, require literary portraits. But let us hope those yet to be written will adjure facile ideology.

For the full article go to

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