The masters who influenced the Latin American Boom

Vargas Llosa and García Márquez took cues from Faulkner

James Joyce.
James Joyce.

For some time now I have been planning to give a course on William Faulkner's influence on the on the so-called Boom in Latin American writing that began in the 1960s. The course would begin with Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who said that this American writer was the first novelist he read with pencil and paper at hand, trying to "rationally" reconstruct the architecture of his novels, see the workings of the complex play of chronology and point of view.

Faulknerian techniques are obvious in Vargas Llosa's first novels: the ambiguity of perspectives in The Time of the Hero; the skillful handing of time in what the Peruvian critic Efraín Kristal calls "concentric circles," where the same plot refers extensively to a criminal investigation, owes much to Light in August. There are scenes in Vargas Llosa's The Green House that seem to have their starting point in scenes from Absalom, Absalom! To this same Faulkner novel Vargas Llosa also owes the central theme of Conversation in the Cathedral, an investigation into the moral faults of society.

The Peruvian novelist wrote that in his student years he learned more from Yoknapatawpha - the fictional county where Faulkner's novels take place - than from his classes. However it was not Vargas Llosa, but García Márquez who decided to create his own Yoknapatawpha. Macondo is a microcosm into which the Colombian writer poured, among other things, his reading of Faulkner: the defeated but proud society of The Sound and the Fury - a world that wants the future but cannot leave the past behind; the melancholy colonels who live on long-past glories and are ready for new battles, though these only happen in dreams.

Faulkner is the tutelary figure of the boom, but there are other important names, prevalent among them being writers of "high modernism" such as Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka and James Joyce. García Márquez learned particularly from the first two: from Woolf, the manner in which the conscience of her personalities shifted in time, delving into the past but also projecting themselves into the future (a lesson assimilated in One Hundred Years of Solitude). As for Kafka, The Metamorphosis was the catalyst that led the then-law student to decide that, if this was literature, he too wanted to be a writer. The wordplay in Joyce's Ulysses was fundamental inspiration for the Tres Tristes Tigres of Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

He got more from Yoknapatawpha than from his university classes

More authors: Carlos Fuentes' Where The Air is Clear is hard to understand without John Dos Passos. José Donoso owes much to Henry James, and the French surrealists are latent in the work of Julio Cortázar.

Not all is the 20th century. In Vargas Llosa you find the novels of chivalry (Tirant lo Blanc) and Flaubert. Cortázar owes much to the tales of Edgar Allen Poe; in García Márquez the Bible jostles with the Crónicas de Indias; in Fuentes you can perceive Cervantes; in Cabrera Infante, the ludicrous example of Sterne's Tristram Shandy. And though what proceeds from abroad is more, and though there was a confessed disdain for their local forerunners, the writers of the Boom also leaned somewhat on other Latin Americans. The magic realism of García Márquez has a forerunner in the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier's concept of "wondrous reality," embodied in a couple of essays and in his novel The Kingdom of This World. Fuentes assimilated the lessons of the novelists of the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath (Yañez, Revueltas and Rulfo); though the ethos could not be more different, Borges is present in Cortázar.

To produce something original, the writers of the Boom learned from the best masters; to renew the existing forms, they combined the classics with the innovators. This is how we now read them: as the innovative classics they are.

Edmundo Paz Soldán is the author of the short-story collection Billie Ruth and the novel Norte, and is a professor of Latin American literature at Cornell University.


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