All about context

Stephen Hart’s companion to Latin American literature explains the historical background to literary production as well as what it says


A Companion to Latin American Literature
Stephen M. Hart
2007, Tamesis
336 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

NEWSPAPERS have much to answer for, particularly in the developing world, but as the crucible of so much Latin American literature – the common denominator, according to Stephen Hart, binding together the complex and variable relationship between the writer, reader and state – it has served as a concealed patron denied due recognition for its services to culture.

Hart’s comprehensive companion to Latin America draws attention to this catalyst in the evolution of Hispanic and Portuguese writing as part of the broader development and expansion of the printing press and technology, which meant that, by the end of the 19th century, many writers were able to live off their pens as journalists and serial novelists, thus setting the scene for the later explosion of the 20th century.

By doing so, the author highlights the importance of patronage to the literary gene pool, from the era when the Church or Crown was a scribe’s only hope of feeding himself (or herself) through the period of state patronage with a nationalist objective, to the times of plenty provided by an ever-expanding readership purchasing in a free market that writers fed by journalistic labour now occupy.

It is this historical backdrop Hart provides in A Companion to Latin American Literature that makes its such a valuable addition to a student’s library, ensuring the context of publication is considered alongside the content of literary production itself. The author, professor of Hispanic Studies at University College, London, is probably the UK’s foremost expert in the field.

Concealed patron

This monthly review has often drawn attention to the role journalism has played in the formation of so many contemporary Latin American writers, both as a rich source of material and school for honing their skills, but also as that concealed patron allowing them to build a career writing in economies that often demand innovative survival strategies of creative people that tend to prise them away from their work.

A Companion to Latin American Literature examines the development of Latin American literature in the main genres of poetry, prose, the novel, drama and essays from the letters of discovery written by Christopher Columbus and Vaz de Caminha, through the colonial and then republican eras, into the twentieth century and, ultimately the Boom and post-Boom periods.

At all times the author’s careful attention to detail and context – as well as his passion for the subject – is evident. He is careful to identify the distinctions, as well as the common features, of the Spanish and Portuguese canons. Hart writes:

“Analysing the evolution of Latin American literature in its Portuguese- as well as Spanish-language manifestations is often like watching a three-legged race – two individuals more or less moving in the same direction but often tugging against each other.” [p. 289]

While the essential substrate of those two principal strands in the Conquest era are examined, later chapters on late twentieth-century and post-modern writing will be of particular interest to many readers. In particular, the author explores key developments reflecting the prominence of the social issues that have come to the fore: women’s post-Boom writing, testimonios, Latino, Latina and Brazuca work, gay and lesbian writing and the growing corpus of Afro-Hispanic and Afro-Brazilian literature.

It is a field that moves so fast and, each year, has so many new entrants that it is simply not possible to stay on top of the most recent developments in a work of this kind. Hart compensates for this by skilfully identifying the direction of these and other key strands of Latin American literature – providing that all-important trajectory for subsequent study. In so doing – and like much of his work – he has made a unique contribution to the discipline and how it is taught.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books