Thursday, May 14, 2009
The Case of the Missing Communism
photo by Tina Modotti
Lately I've been reading a Mexican writer by the name of José Revueltas, and it's got me thinking, again, about The Case of the Missing Communism. Revueltas was a big time Marxist, to the extent that he was held to be one of the main people responsible for 1968 in Mexico, and jailed accordingly. I recently read his novella El Apando and right now I'm about halfway through a novel called Los Días Terrenales. Not surprisingly both books are pretty heavy on the Marxism, and both are extremely good.
Simply put, Revueltas could write his ass off. He was the exact contemporary of the big Latin American "Boom" writers (Cortázar, García Marquez, etc.) and easily as talented as the best of them. A serious prose stylist; page after page of beautiful prose. Yet not one of his books has ever been translated into English. You have to ask: why is that? The answer, of course, is that he was a big time Marxist.
Revueltas is only one of a long list of Latin American writers whose politics has kept them under- or untranslated. The Stridentists (Mexico), Hora Zero (Peru), the Infrarealists (Mexico), the Nothingists (Colombia), Techo de la Ballena (Venezuela), the neobaroque writers (mostly Argentina), I could go on and on with this list: all of them serious writers, serious leftists and seriously unknown in this country for that very reason.
Even Julio Cortázar had problems with this. He's known in this country mostly for his stories and for Hopscotch, but his work from the mid-60's on is really hard to find in English. Not coincidentally, it was then Julio became very seriously committed, politically. Almost all his work after Hopscotch is in some way shaped by his political ideas, such as his novel Libro de Manuel, which was actually published here in Gregory Rabassa's translation and immediately went out of print, where it remains. Other work, such as his book about Nicaragua, never appeared here at all.
My first thought on this was, Well there's never really been much of a market here for Marxism. Then I looked at my bookshelf, which is full of English translations of Russian and German and Italian and French Marxists. It would seem that European Marxists have little to no problem finding publishers, but Latin Americans do. I find this interesting, to say the least.
Of course, we've spent a lot of time and money down there in the last 50 or 60 years killing Marxists and people who might maybe sort of be sympathetic to Marxists, so it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to be gunning them down with one hand and selling their books with the other. Then there's the unspoken fact that very few people in this country think that Latin America is on the same level, intellectually, as Europe. Somehow anything in Latin America that resembles anything in Europe is considered to be a copy, an imitation, as opposed to original and/or equal.
There's a lot of quasi-orientalism directed towards Latin America, for a reason I simply can't understand. Example: Alma Guillermoprieto put out a book of her reporting from around Latin America. The title of Spanish edition translates as I'm Writing You From the Foot of a Volcano, which is a much better title than that of the English edition, The Heart That Bleeds.
Our view of the cultures and countries that make up the region is extremely reductive and more or less imperialistic. And it's the so-called "cultured" people here, the "liberals" who are largely responsible for it. We don't have a problem just omitting a huge part of their culture because it happens to be inconvenient for us, which is what happened to that missing Communism.
This is exactly why Bolaño seemed to come out of nowhere to a lot of people here, who weren't even aware there were realists in Latin America, let alone the four or five generations of Leftist realists Roberto was drawing on. Cesár Aira is another guy who suffers from this information gap, though slightly less so due to the nature of his work.
All of this ultimately means nothing except that we screw ourselves out of a lot of great writing and a lot of interesting ideas, for reasons that can't stand up to even minor scrutiny. When the Nobel Committee says we're "isolationist" this is the kind of thing they're talking about, to some extent.
Don't look for this to change anytime soon, though. Most publishers would consider a book by a guy like José Revueltas as simply too old to bother with, in addition to being more or less irrelevant. And with the economy still in flames they're getting more and more cautious and conservative. Though if anybody wanted to read some interesting stuff, I might be able to tell them where to find it if they got a hold of me...