Cracks in the monolith


Alicia Kennedy reads Zoetrope: All-Story’s Latin American issue and discovers that it breaks new ground in a bid to introduce readers to the region’s talent

Zoetrope: All-Story: The Latin American Issue, Spring 2009
Edited by Daniel Alarcón and Diego Trelles Paz
Guest Designer Guillermo del Toro
2009, American Zoetrope

Reviewed by Alicia Kennedy

LATIN AMERICAN literature is not a monolith but the diverse region has come to be defined in the non-Spanish-speaking literary imagination by one seminal text, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude – yet it is giving birth to some of the most imaginative fiction being written today.

But where do we find the new voices? They have been collected in the Spanish-language anthology El futuro no es nuestro, edited by Diego Trelles Paz; Dalkey Archive’s recent bilingual anthology of short stories, The Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction; and, undoubtedly, elsewhere.

However, the least daunting introduction to the region’s new fiction is Zoetrope: All-Story’s Spring 2009 edition, astutely dubbed “The Latin American Issue”. It was edited by the celebrated author Daniel Alarcón (Lost City Radio) and the aforementioned Trelles Paz. In this issue, they’ve collected 10 short stories from authors located across the continent, all born after the 1967 publication of Marquez’s classic text.

The editors’ introduction is titled “Enter the Post-Post Boom” and in it they argue that ignorance of Latin American literature beyond Márquez fosters an inequitable and dangerous relationship between the region and the English-speaking world. They hope that the recent success of Roberto Bolaño has opened up a new interest in Latin American fiction, and conclude by noting that they “simply selected stories [they] like” in lieu of attempting to make a sweeping, grand statement about what the region’s literature is doing as a whole. By taking this approach, they are actively breaking down the essentialist understanding of Latin American letters as a homogeneous force steeped in the tradition of magical realism.

The issue’s design is also key, and representative of the region’s art: filmmaker Guillermo del Toro acted as guest designer and his sketches are scattered throughout. They are often gruesome and distinctly biological, as well as thoroughly Latin American, especially in two dark depictions of Catholic imagery. Although there is no common theme that threads through the contributions, the persistent presence of Del Toro’s vision lends the issue an aesthetic coherence and gives the works an eerie tinge they might otherwise lack.

The only writer included who has been previously translated into English is the Chilean Alejandro Zambra, whose novella Bonsai was named one of 2008’s Top Ten Translated Books by Three Percent. Before being released as a novella by Melville House Publishing, it was published in its entirety in the Winter 2008 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review, which has in the past dedicated an issue to Latin America. Zambra seems to be following in the footsteps of other Latin American writers who are lauded and appreciated outside their region. His contribution to All-Story, “Fantasy”, is about delicate relations between three lost people, each attempting to escape by creating a community with each other that ultimately proves fragile in the face of the world’s demands. It depicts concisely the flawed hopes of sympathetic characters, making it clear why he has already achieved some success in translation.

Ronaldo Menéndez

The Caribbean is represented by the Cuban Ronaldo Menéndez in his bleakly humorous and agonising tale “Insular Menu”. It is only in this story that notions of place and home play a significant role – although the country is never named – and it begins when rationing is imposed by the socialist government. A subsequent food shortage forces the residents of a village to resort to eating strange animals, like a beloved ostrich, bathtub-reared pigs and garbage-fed crocodiles. To Menéndez, the food consumed is the measure of a people’s dignity in the face of restriction, and the story culminates in a glorious imagining of the island’s actual culinary possibilities: shrimp are being caught in the surrounding sea, a formerly censored cook is back on TV to teach the people “easy-to-make recipes for the whole neighborhood”, and boys are drinking milk at 12 despite the law that it cannot be consumed past the age of 11. The formerly journalistic tone of the narrator is overcome, and he laments poetically what has been lost by connecting memory to taste.

Two of the issue’s best stories explore the life and role of the writer and, in doing so, provide context for this project by giving voice to a group so often taken for granted. The writing process and the pretensions of writerly life are explored and sympathetically mocked in “An Open Secret” by the late Aura Estrada, which was translated by her husband, fellow writer Francisco Goldman (The Long Night of the White Chickens). Antonio Ungar’s “Hypothetically” looks at the ever-looming threat of perpetual mediocrity and the alienation of the writer from the drama of reality. His character Pierre is a permanent observer – a point accentuated by his career as a film critic – who longs for excitement while watching uneducated neighbours have the most explosive night of their lives, but ultimately decides to remain in his unsatisfying position.

Zoetrope: All-Story’s Latin American issue is only a taste of what is on offer if the project of translating more than three percent of the world’s literature into English is taken seriously. Latin American literature cannot be understood in the English-speaking world only through the works of Márquez and Bolaño, and the notion that it can has been dealt a strong blow with this publication.

But much work is left to be done. Aside from BOMB Magazine’s regular Americas Issue, which they have been publishing annually since 1999, literature in translation isn’t a focus for magazines and journals. With this beautifully designed issue, All-Story has created a model that shows that contemporary Latin American fiction is exceptional and valuable, and can no longer be ignored.

Alicia Kennedy is a writer and editor based on Long Island

Zoetrope: All-Story

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