Costa Rica is shaking off its image as a paradise of stability where there is nothing to write about, argues journalist and author Óscar Núñez Olivas, who recently launched his latest novel Cadence of the Moon, (originally published in Spanish as En clave de luna). A new generation of Costa Rican writers – and publishers – are now hungry to compete with all comers, he says
“WHAT CAN you write about in Costa Rica? That is, what can be said about a country in which there is nothing to write about? What can be written about in a country in which nothing has happened since the Big Bang?”
This startling set of questions introduces “La gran novela perdida” (“The Great Lost Novel”), a fictional essay by the Costa Rican writer Carlos Cortes. Of course, the question is fundamentally rhetorical and provocative. It is loaded with a large dose of black humour, but leaves us in no doubt that beneath its recreational aim is hidden a scathing observation about contemporary Costa Rican literary history.
In the 1980s, all the Central American countries – with the exception of Costa Rica – were enduring a calvary of civil wars and insurrections, crimes against humanity (disappearances, torture, massacres), border conflicts and foreign interventions. It was said – and still is – that our little isthmus was the last theatre of the East-West confrontation. Such a concept minimises and even erases the importance of the internal factors of war, but in turn describes the magnitude of the convulsions we lived – and, above all, died – in during that era.
And despite everything, these tremors were nothing more than a chapter in a long history of dictatorships, military mutinies, peasant uprisings, genocides and revolutions that were the milestones of 20th-century history in Central America.
It is easily understandable that, in such a context, Central American literature in the last few decades has blossomed with such force, bequeathing to the world work full of dramatic force and deep humanistic meaning, although we have to concede with justifiable disappointment that a large part of the world has not become aware of this.
I am think about published works so abundant and of such marked quality as those of Guatemala. I am thinking of names such as Augusto Monterroso, Adolfo Méndez Vides, Arturo Arias, Javier Mosquera, Marco Antonio Flores. Or in El Salvador: Manlio Argueta, José Roberto Cea, Horacio Castellanos, Roberto Armijo and Roque Dalton. Or Nicaragua: Sergio Ramírez and the country’s Pleiades of dazzling poets in the style of Ernesto Cardenal and Carlos Martínez Rivas.
These are just the notable examples, among many others who could be equally notable among the great authors of the region who have imprinted a solid personality on Central American writing in the last three decades.
For a large part of this period, Costa Rica lived a very different reality. Lacking a professional army, which has been constitutionally prohibited since 1948, a large part of the resources that would have been devoted to military spending were used in strengthening education and healthcare, and reducing poverty levels.
It’s not that social conflicts did not exist, but that they did not have the devastating character of those in other countries on the isthmus, and the war of the ’80s only arrived in an anecdotal manner in Costa Rica due to the presence on its territory of insurgent groups, or arms traffickers.
Costa Rican literature of the ’70s and ’80s enjoyed a honeymoon with the political system. In some way, the welfare state of a social-democratic kind that developed in Costa Rica in the first half of the 20th century included within its great paternal embrace artists and, among these, writers.
Some of the most notable authors in the country found themselves entrenched in Editorial Costa Rica, a state company that at that time benefited from ample resources with which to publish books, but that confronted many limitations in ensuring adequate promotion of the works and even more so in stimulating, in terms of quantity and quality, the growth of local authors.
These circumstances, together with the absence, as we have already seen, of the great politico-ideological conflicts, produced a species of conformism that was reflected in the themes of Costa Rican narrative, in a style still not totally divorced from the currents of costumbrismo and social realism from which it came.
There is, however, a moment of rupture with this tradition, that can be marked very clearly in the year 1992 with the appearance of two works of singular importance.
Tatiana Lobo, born in Chile but Costa Rican by choice for many years, publishes Asalto al paraíso, a novel based on the story of the indigenous leader Pablo Presbere, who in 1709 led a rebellion against Spanish control in the indomitable mountains of Talamanca, on the southern Caribbean of Costa Rica, and who was tried by the colonial authorities and sentenced to death by quartering.
Here one is dealing with an historic work that de-constructs – as it is fashionable to say – many of the myths that form what we could call “Costa Rican ideology”, in the sense of that complex of false ideas with which peoples often represent themselves.
Asalto al paraíso subverts the concept of a pious colonisation that assimilated into European culture the few Indians inhabiting the territory, where there were neither massacres nor violent collisions between colonisers and first peoples. It also subverts the idea of a Costa Rica without slavery and the idea of a Costa Rica of whites, in which the ethnic minorities of indigenous people and blacks are limited to the Caribbean georgraphical area.
In this sense, Lobo’s work represents the beginning of the end of the honeymoon between literature and the political system, the sustainer and reproducer of that ideology.
The second work of rupture is La loca de Gandoca, a novel by Ana Cristina Rossi that for the first time assumes the defence of the environment in a militant way. It’s a short story that had a big impact, because it reveals how the country’s natural riches are destroyed or handed over to foreign interests. It denounces grave symptoms of corruption associated with the expansion of the tourist and property trade in coastal zones.
In summary, Tatiana Lobo and Ana Cristina Rossi revive the critical spirit, that of non-condescencion to power, in Costa Rican literature. And I say revive because before the ’70s and ’80s there existed a generation of writers subscribing to the current of social realism who left a deep imprint in our country. I am referring, of course, to Carlos Luis Fallas, author of Mamita Yunai, a work that travelled the world in who knows how many languages, and Joaquín Gutiérrez y Fabián Dobles, among others.
Undoubtedly, this tradition feeds in many ways the narrative that is inaugurated, in my judgment, by Lobo and Rossi. They sow two new themes: counter-history or, if you prefer, the exposure of the myths of official history; and ecologism, that would come to have a particular relevance in Costa Rica from 1992 onwards.
A year later, 1993, Unica mirando al mar by Fernando Contreras is published, an unexpected story situated on the very edge of social marginality: there, in the garbage dumps of the cities, where hundreds of human beings rummage daily to find something with which to keep themselves and their families alive.
In 1995, Alfonso Chase – an author belonging to the previous generation and one of the most prolific in Costa Rica – publishes El pavorreal y la mariposa, an historical novel based on a popular insurrection that took place in 1889 against an attempt at dictatorship by the then government and that ended with the triumph of the democratic ideals of the Costa Rican people.
Then come other important storytellers such as Carlos Cortés, Rodrigo Soto, Uriel Quesada, José Ricardo Chaves, Alexander Obando, Myriam Bustos, Dorelia Barahona, Rodolfo Arias…
We could continue taking stock of Costa Rican literary production of the last 15 years and we would have to spend several hours doing so, which would ensure that we lose our audience and probably some good friends.
Suffice to say that Costa Rican literature in this period is characterised by an abundance of production, the conscious and serious search for new themes and styles, and an attitude that is much more independent of the political and economic powers.
Contributing to these changes is the appearance of a series of private publishing houses that, although small now, demonstrate a legitimate interest in developing the book market. In as much as their future depends on this, these companies have become concerned and preoccupied with the quality of the works that they publish, the formal aspects of their labours and how the distribution networks that have developed around their work function.
All these phenomena – the appearance of new authors, new themes, new publishers, of a new reading public – constitute symptoms of a country that is changing. From the country in which nothing had happened since the Big Bang, according to Carlos Cortes, of the democracy that sleeps in the arms of the welfare state, Costa Rica suddenly heads towards the model of liberal democracy that dominates in the West, for all the good or bad that this implies.
At least with respect to our literature, I believe that globalisation has favoured it in many ways. Our writers have felt challenged by the torrent of books coming from Spain, Mexico and Argentina that inundates the shelves of our bookshops leaving very little space for local authors. Some of us believe we can compete, that there is sufficient talent to do so, although we are fully aware that we have to work hard and with professionalism, because – resorting to a very common phrase – literary creation is a subject that has little to do with inspiration, but much to do with perspiration.
Óscar Núñez Olivas is a Costa Rican journalist and author whose latest work, En clave de luna, has just been published in English as Cadence of the Moon by Aflame Books. His first two novels were El teatro circular (1996), which won the Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana’s best Latin American novel prize and Costa Rica’s National Novel Prize, and Los Gallos de San Esteban (2000). This essay was delivered at a round table on Central American literature at Canning House in London on 12 November 2007.