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The Need To Read: South America

By Noah Shieldlower

Argentina: Argentinian literature oftentimes connects characters to ongoing conflicts like the Dirty War in the 1970s or to geography, especially the Gaucho culture of the Pampas region or the vastness of Patagonia. The most famous author from Argentina, Jorge Luis Borges, reflected upon his life in Argentina in his short story collection Ficciones, pioneering the magical realist movement that placed a major emphasis on modern philosophy alongside themes of knowledge and endlessness. Borges’s stories such as The Library of Babel and The Garden of Forking Paths highlight Borges’s motifs of endless labyrinths that characters try to understand. Author Julio Cortazar also founded a literary movement of his own, the Latin American Boom, which united Latin American writers yet preserved the cultural and national identity of each writer. Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch uniquely allows the reader to read chapters in different sequences, depicting the protagonist’s chaotic life in the midst of several successes and failures, a reflection of Argentinian life in the mid-1900s. His short story Axolotl ties directly into the country’s geography by describing the protagonist’s transition into this highly-respected animal. Other writers like Jose Hernandez wrote about the life of gauchos, Argentinian cowboys in the Pampas who enter conflicts with other gauchos in an attempt to find their true identities.

Brazil: Brazilian literature is a surprisingly unknown and undiscovered genre among American readers; given that Brazil ranks as the fifth largest country worldwide, one would think that Brazilian literature would have a larger impact on global affairs. Despite this, popular Brazilian writers have achieved what Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz set out to do: document the home country’s transition from traditional to modern. Influential author Jorge Amado’s novel Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon captures the life of Gabriela, an impoverished migrant worker living during the rise of corrupt cacao plantation owners, and her push towards the modern era with her lover Nacib Saad. Machado de Assis, first President of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, depicted similar changes in his novel Don Casmurro, which features the protagonist Bento Santiago and his transition from spoiled by his family to isolated from society, illustrating Brazil’s shift towards a darker future. Lesser known author Clarice Lispector further developed the idea of writing from experience in her novel The Hour of the Star, which depicts the protagonist’s desire to be rich and marry her lover despite her “disoriented” past in Rio de Janeiro during economic deterioration, her idealism foreshadowing her death.

Chile: Chilean literature arguably has had the largest impact on United States literary culture of all South American countries. Chilean authors led the South American poetry movement in which authors like Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral melodically described their love interests and their sorrow. Neruda, a Chilean politician as well as a poet, depicted his yearning for love and an escape from political persecution in his collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. His long poem Canto General drew from his position as a Communist Chilean senator, writing about man’s for justice since New World expansion. Mistral released her famous poetry collection Desolacion which emphasized her role as a mother and a moral person in the midst of sorrow. Novelist Isabel Allende, niece of dictator Salvador Allende, also drew from current events to write her novel The House of the Spirits, which depicts the Trueba family during post-colonial social and political upheavals in Chile such as the tyrannical dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Continuing the motifs of sorrow and mourning, Allende’s novel Paula painfully describes her life struggling with a daughter with severe brain damage, serving as both a memorial for her daughter and a sign of empowerment that Chilean literature overall emphasizes.

Colombia: Colombian literature has had little impact on much of the world with the exception of novelist and short story writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez whose novels Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude have consistently ranked within the top 100 most influential novels of all time. One Hundred Years of Solitude, which follows the Buendia family’s struggle to cope with the central town’s failing, warns of how dependence and underdevelopment in Colombia lead to alienation and failing social conditions, fictionalizing events like automobile and railroad strikes, military massacres of protesting workers during the Thousand Days’ War, and the unjust dominance of the United Fruit Company. His other novel Love in the Time of Cholera equates lovesickness to an illness, detailing the isolation and ultimately the amorous attraction between characters Florentino and Fermina despite the social strife and warfare serving as a backdrop for the story.

Peru: Similar to Colombia, Peruvian literature features one author whose writings influenced Latin American cultures significantly more than any other: Mario Vargas Llosa. Vargas Llosa, writer and politician, focused much of his writings on his time in the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, igniting a political spark in him to reform Peruvian politics and overall nationalism. Vargas Llosa’s novel The Time of the Hero blasphemed the Academy, exposing the corrupt nature of the institution to other countries. His bitter novel Conversation in the Cathedral warns of the dangers of how tyrannical dictatorships control and destroy lives like that of Zavala whose government minister father murdered a notorious Peruvian man. His novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which earned a Nobel Prize for Literature, illustrates the life of Marito, a news reporter for the local radio station who acts as a confidant for the insane scriptwriter Pedro Camacho while having an affair with his aunt Julia. Later in his career, however, Vargas Llosa shifted towards a more historical angle while focusing less on his Peruvian heritage, accurately portraying the War of Canudos within Brazil in The War of the End of the World and the assassination of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in The Feast of the Goat, all the while tying together the various cultures and historical backgrounds of Latin American peoples.

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