Literature and Revolution

-by Fernando Alegria-

translated by D. Ohmans
(c) copyright 1997

Text imprint - Mexico City, Fondo de Cultura Economica, (c1970)

                           Table of Contents

       I.    Literature and Revolution
       II.   Portrait and Self portrait:
             The Hispano-american Novel Confronted with Society
       III.  "Der Zauberberg" in the Literature of Latin America
       IV.   Miguel Angel Asturias, Novelist of the Old and the
             New Worlds
       V.    Alejo Carpentier: Magic Realism
       VI.   Rayuela: or, Order out of Chaos
       VII.  Cesar Vallejo: The Mestizo Masks
       VIII. Parra anti Parra
       IX.   Anti-literature
       X.    Antipoetry

Chapter 1 - Literature and Revolution

     Each time with greater insistence, and suggesting a certain aggressiveness
of tone, I have heard at university forums and in meetings of writers,
questions that seek to establish the authenticity of experimentation,
innovation and the revolutionary dynamism of existing Hispano-american
narrative. Of these questions I remain with the simplest and, for me, most
directly revelatory: who among the vanguard novelists of today are those who
open roads, who are genuinely revolutionary and representative of a new style?
This question, to my way of thinking, assumes a series of key premises already
present, directly or indirectly, in the taste of those students and critics who
are reluctant to entertain cats as tigers. Such premises are:
     1) During a period of our social history in which profound revolutionary
changes are imposed with axiomatic necessity, we have seen that some forms of
artistic expression, in a process of reaction when confronted by bourgeois
reality, entered into crisis when they attempted to create the image of a new
     2) The exponents of these forms to which I refer used with abundance,
efficiency and boldness, technical instruments already tested, in the
conviction that if they had been useful in the midst of a social crisis fifty
years ago, they could be so again if astutely manipulated.
     3) It is evident that, by themselves, the technical instruments of the
great cultural renovation at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of
the 20th do not suffice to create a revolutionary art after 1950.
     4) It is entirely possible for a writer to appear today bearing advanced
techniques and be a retrained, decadent reactionary.
     5) Revolutionary techniques in art are the product of a revolutionary
conception of the world. They exist and prove their worth solely in the measure
that they affect and change society and the artist in their most intimate and
authentic reality.
     Naturally, I depart from the premise that the writers alluded to in my
initial question are revolutionaries in political terms who believe in
depicting in some manner our era of social changes through their literary work.
If one of them were to confess himself interested exclusively in the interior
play of his aesthetic adventure, to the exclusion of all social connotation,
kept in orbit by the ingenuity of its own mechanism and the equilibrium of its
air currents, our discussion would not touch him and he could look at us very
remotely with the silent and obscure comfort that the infinite space offers. On
the other hand, a writer who lives the revolution from inside will not be able
to avoid, if he is sincere, asking himself how his work operates in the new
social organization and what is expected from him within the dynamism of the
     And now, if this writer represents an old art in the service of the
revolution I imagine that he puts his work beneath a searchlight and examines
it carefully; he dismantles notebooks, detaches pages, isolates sentences; he
strikes words and makes them ring like coins; he looks at his hands; he remains
a long time silent; he shows his anguish, now that no one observes it. He asks,
what have I created? Then, the searchlight turns into a mirror and, in front of
it, the writer begins to undress. It is a cruel "strip-tease." It will be part
of a public chronicle. Because our hero has stepped onto the stage. One sees
the inner tubes of lard that hang from his chest like three or four large
rings, vast, buoyant, expanding from the navel and surmounting, like a soft
informal coat, some loose and insecure legs. He raises his arms in a gesture of
modesty, but his arms have forgotten this gesture and, instead, blot the sky
with a dense and grotesque gelatin. He turns with authority. He makes a full
turn on his little axis of white feet, without callouses. A glance at his back
reminds one of an ancient photo of some tropical volcano among the clouds. He
has been a dance step of another era; now he is rigid, graceless, sick.
Nevertheless, in its bottomless fattiness that the mirror reflects, this body
unfolds, or multiplies; at no point is it nothing or limited, nor is it
composed solely of forms - in addition, colors and sounds are added, such that,
in an instant, the image takes control of its own disordered liberty, dominates
it and easily breaks from the orbit that would have contained it. The writer
then takes his notebook and performs a thorough self-criticism, a splendid,
turbulent and bloody operation that serves to redeem a generation, a bath in
the good liquid for the baptism of bullets. In this self-questioning he feels
and knows that he is not alone; in novels, essays, poems and theatre pieces he
and his companions wash themselves, refresh themselves, fumigate themselves,
burn their clothing and expose their flesh to the waiting examination of the
absolutists and impatients who constitute their public.
     Traditional impressionist criticism retires ashamed and disconcerted
before this process of self-recrimination. It does not understand the
superimposed images, the multiple expositions, the from the confessional
echoes of voices that emerge. It yields to a deviation from that structuralism
which, to get to the root of the passions, separates, orders, classifies,
focuses and projects the constitutive elements of the mechanical apparatus of
the literary work, in the hope that the author, like God, will be present in
each part of his creation and, if he will not allow being photographed, at
least will allow his breath to be felt among the fingers of the critic.
     For a work closed into its own particularistic system of images, symbols
and voices, nothing is better than a custodial manipulator of keys, but not of
fantasies, a wise night watchman who patrols familiar corridors, upstairs and
down, jealously noting the hour so as to prove that, despite all the
provocations, he never left the building, always respected his contract.
     Thus, a work that attains to no other reality than that of its content,
that activates itself of itself and for itself, finds acceptance in a critique
that is aware of its alienation as an essential condition of the work's
existence and, perhaps, of its future existence. Nor does it presume
originality, either. On the contrary, it hopes to represent in an historical
development the layered planes of Kafka, shall we say for example, or the
hermetic current of Joyce, the simultaneity of Faulkner, and on to the chaotic
particularism of Gombrowicz. Not to do these things would be its perdition. To
do them in excess clarifies the road. And from there to the affection of this
critical system for the authors who handle literature like a barrage of
combining forces, hitherto invisible.
     Another type of creator, one who through the translucence of his work
wants to see how he has touched the world, will view these observations with
sadness. He will consider the effort to discover the programming of a novel
with one's disdain towards an adult who insists on participating in the play of
a child. But he will abandon this pampered insanity without remorse. Rejecting
it, he himself will look for his own keys, or will wait for another creator to
illuminate them. Therefore when structuralism bears critical fruit in Latin
American literature it will be because it has come to a halt, by its own weight
and according to its own flight, at the hands of novelists or poets.
     The super-technicians of the existing Hispano-american novel are seen to
be each time more aligned with an advanced critique, aggressive and implacable,
that recognizes no sanctity in the play of rhetoric. They are obliged to defend
themselves and this they do with brilliance in their labyrinthine plaza of
combat; throwing on the scales the extent to which literature has served in
past confrontations between decadence and revolution; emptying the mausoleums
of their classical antiquity and recharging their batteries from the statues;
pasturing with gluttony at the mangers of the medieval stable, of Victorian
realism, of the leafleteers and Gothic romanticism; sacking with a passion now
Melville, now Joyce, now Kafka, now Faulkner, now Hesse, now Gombrowicz, now
Camus, now Lowry, now Nabokov, now Grass and, when the reserves are used up,
Mailer and Burroughs. In this desperate attempt to swallow everything for
self-actualization the fibers tighten and, literally speaking, forces of
laziness are expelled; they fill their receptacles, load their catapults, amass
silver and defiantly resist the frontal attack that is already on its way.
Nevertheless, the contest is unequal. The receptacle is a dish of sand; the
catapult is a boomerang; the silver is only paper money. Their days are
     But we see another case: that of the artist who in his work has defined a
style of life and, socially, has identified with it; for whom the act of
creation is a transmutation of life to the transcendent order of aesthetic
reality, and who in this act tries to give an image of the decisive conflict
which has been his confrontation with the world. He knows that recourse to
technique, and the overall richness of tradition, are no more than tools and
marvelous keys with which he goes along opening doors known and unknown, and
when these keys no longer work he forges others in keeping with his anxiety and
urgency of discovery. This man puts his artist's destiny on the balance which
will weigh the greatness of his adventure in the world which wishes to judge,
change, dissolve; in the splendor of the unique image where there burns,
perhaps, the tragic nobility of his fiasco. Confronting society this man
reflects, fights, creates. Suddenly, in a university salon a voice is raised
and, unmistakably, shouts to him:

     "The revolution isn't made with poems."

     Neruda, for example, answers saying that Commander Guevara, making the
revolution in Bolivia, in addition to rifle, bullets, machete, medicine and
technical books, carried with him some poems from Canto General which he had
copied by hand, and other original poems of his own.
     I have thought about this reply, in its deceptive simplicity, in the
complex of personal factors that it hides. One could believe that it redeems
Guevara, but does not justify Neruda; nevertheless, in 1970, at age 66, when
all the world venerates him and heap honors at his feet, and his "Isla Negra"
softens and settles and shines with the effulgence of a monument, Neruda does
not hesitate to accept the mandate of his party, the Communist, that proclaims
him the candidate for the Presidency of the Republic; he leaves on campaign,
traverses Chile, enters political battle with vigor, in a disciplined and total
presentation. Yes, I already know, an election struggle is not the same as a
guerrilla. But then, the shout at the university was badly conceived and
expressed. It should have stated: "Revolution is not made with elections."
Because with poetry, it is accomplished. Neruda, among others, proves this.
What is essential are not the activities of devotion or protest, but the
undeniable fact that those activities are the immediate and obvious expression
of a genuinely revolutionary poetry. A poem such as that which Neruda dedicates
to the United Fruit Company, for example, is not an exclamation, it is an
integral element of a work of art that, through the years, has gone stripping
man, moving barriers, discovering cities, reshaping history, lighting secret
passages, uncovering bodies, dethroning myths, disinterring, arming,
approaching, causing to touch, wound and conceal unities which, at last, give
us a sense of who we were, are and can be in our american reality.
     Neruda's poetry functions within a revolutionary conception of the world;
that is why it responds to political circumstance with the same fire and the
same power as to a supreme historical occasion; the exclamation is, in truth, a
vision, in which the elements of a philosophical conception and of an aesthetic
expression, are unified, realized and harmonized.
     Otherwise, I think upon the political activities of writers such as Bosch,
Sabato, Roa Bastos, Vinas and Revueltas, and think that they represent very
much the value as exclamation of an aesthetic position. The importance of their
action should be underlined according to its two motives: first, because if we
were to believe the criticisms fruitlessly associated with the narrative
movement of the last years, there does not exist a revolutionary tradition (in
the sense of experimental, innovative, transcendent) in the Latin American
novel; second, because if we accept the relevance of this tradition already in
the generations of the twenties and of the forties the position of the writers
of today who do represent a true change in our literature, not only is
insufficient to return them to their ascendancy, but also enriches and
debilitates them. Let us try, then, to respond to the basic question of this
essay interesting ourselves in that of essence and permanence that the Latin
American novel shows in its revolutionary suggestions, clarifying from the
beginning that we are not considering an ascendant movement, nor do we posit a
criterion of "super-effect," but attempting simply to test the ebb and flow
within the reality of a world in crisis and the literary forms that attempt to
express it.
     On an immediate plane the differences between a novelist of regionalism of
the first half of the 20th century and a novelist of mid-century are evident.
Nevertheless, beyond the initial impression, those differences begin to lose in
significance. Fine points aside, the student should be warned that many factors
have changed in name, but not intent; their function, at bottom, is the same,
even if the mobility of the real environment imposes upon them a continual
adaptation, it is worth adding, of useful diversification. Which could be,
then, the distinctive factors for establishing with some precision the line of
creatively revolutionary development in the Latin American novel of the 20th
century? I refer to factors that, at first sight, differentiate but which,
judged thoroughly, unite. Among various I choose three: technique, language and
stance of the narrator.
     To consider the first of these factors let us focus upon the work of two
novelists separated by more than forty years of age: Romulo Gallegos and Mario
Vargas Llosa. If anyone tells us with a certain truth that it is impossible to
conceive the plains and the city of Vargas Llosa without the plains and the
city of Gallegos, we could express our agreement, but adding immediately: they
are the same, and they are not. Obviously, Gallegos' realism (that of his
generation) is direct and descriptive; it is formulative. Its expression
acquires historical grandeur in the perfection of a pictorial technique: that
of tile fresco mural. The realism of Vargas Llosa (and that of his generation
as well) is indirect: with him one approaches reality by its interstices, not
by its panoramic surface; one looks for the sense and the aesthetic order
throughout the chaos that surrounds us. To the reality through the action,
could be the motto of a technique such as that of Vargas Llosa. I have here a
novelist who eliminates the motivation of the word and the explicative
transition; he uses, instead, a technique that is characteristic of the film.
But, while the film traditionally validated itself with clever symbols to
allude to reality (the leaves of a calendar fly off indicating the passage of
time; a train is used and goes through diverse cities to suggest space), in the
technique of Vargas Llosa, whose antecedents are found in Joyce and Faulkner,
one scene is not followed by another; the scenes are simultaneous, the product
of a photo montage, of double, triple and multiple exposition.
     The reality of a novelist like Gallegos stands in front of the reader;
that of Vargas Llosa unfolds. The difference is not one of authenticity, but or
technique in their presentation. The documentary worth of both is equally
     It is necessary to add the following to the novelists of the Mexican
Revolution, as to those of the Russian Revolution or the Spanish Civil War (and
didn't the same occur to the chroniclers of the Conquest?) the urgency of
testifying impelled them to a technique that applies today to the documentary-
novel, that is to say and following the cinematographic terminology, they used
the form of the "documentary of large horizon." Their reality, to not be
episodic ceases to be specific, personal, novelistic. Of interest to note is
that the direct forerunners of Gallegos, and those of Azuela, had efficacy as
much literary as social precisely because of their indifference to
     From a literary point of view, it is even more fascinating to consider how
techniques such as simultaneity of scenes with its verbal counterpart, the
interior monologue, were already used in novels such as El satiro by Vicente
Huidobro and, some years later in narratives by Onetti, Asturias and
Carpentier. These and other novelists of the decades of the twenties and the
thirties developed what is called the open novel which in Spain, furthermore
had its proponents in Azorin and Baroja.
     If by examining the use of techniques one can ascertain an evolutionary
line, accepting some instances as non-characteristic anticipations, by
examining language, the second distinctive factor, this line is difficult to
identify. There is no room for doubt that the use of language is the factor
most profoundly specific to the contemporary Latin American narrative: the act
of creation has again become a magical use of the word; to name, not to
describe, once again constitutes the power that gives life.
     The language of realism of the 19th century and of regionalism of the 20th
fulfilled its function to the extent that it reconstructed in the literary work
a world that it offered through typical forms, of concrete, immediate
signification and of predicted duration. The cities in this realism had,
additionally, an animating meaning and a social connotation over and above the
overall human relation of the passive individual. Neither the man nor the part
of the world was what gave significance to a novel of Naturalism, for example,
but rather the total problematic and its characteristic social mark. Between
the language, the problematic and that milieu there existed a geometrical
dependence. Certain passions demanded certain words, just like certain kinds of
passages required certain kinds of exclamations; in Latin America the result
was an eloquent rhetoric of the country and of the city, a type of realistic
epic of high graphic power, but of scant interior dynamism; a very limited
viaduct for torrents of uncontrollable force.
     For another thing, this essentially descriptive language was paradoxically
the basic condition of a serious distortion of reality: because words such as
prairie, mountain, river, plain, acquired a fixed conceptual value within a
rhetoric which, backhandedly, assigned them a human meaning in accord with what
they considered the Latin American problem. Such that, for years, one could see
in those syllables nothing but forces of a supernatural machine inimical to
man; or spaces where hibernated images of a tradition which should have
recanted for social ends. A use of language destined to show us a real world,
ended in covering and mooting this world beneath an unreal decoration.
     The spoken language of the regionalist novel at once converted --perhaps
at its inception--into a literary recourse that was to function harmoniously
with the descriptive rhetoric: it was necessary to establish categories and
cause the cleric, the owner, the "campesino," the indian and the worker to
speak in typical, pure idioms that were the phonetic remedy of a speech whose
reality no longer is supplied in fixed molds and whose essence is change. The
primary mission of the anti-rhetorical narrator was, then, to try to re-create
the living language, to re-discover the primary usages and meanings, to
drastically reduce the slackness of this language that, as Cortazar says in
Rayuela (1), arrives to us already falsified and ruined by its ignoble coupling
with a reality which is also false; it was to search out this intimate,
unmanageable relation, with the world that surrounds us, as Vallejo had already
done, completely, arduously, tragically, in his poetry of brief affirmations.
To call things by their name so that they return to life and again have the
sense of our reality.(2)
     When language was given over into this basic condition of truth an
unawaited effect was produced: what was real vibrated poetically, a new tension
appeared in the Latin American novel, set intrinsically in the language; a
tension that we had been used to recognizing in certain poetry (Huidobro,
Neruda, Vallejo, De Rokha, Paz) but not in prose; high tension that expands in
power to a narrative torrent and maintains the pressure in its tumultuous
movement; a tension which conditions the pellucid, "Brief on the Blind" of
Ernesto Sabato, and is the key to the mythologizing in the stories end novels
of Rulfo and Arguedas, and that transmutes into magic the class consciousness
and objectivity of Garcia Marquez.
     Nevertheless, one who tries to simulate this tension by filling his
language with metaphors and lyrical explosions, runs an enormous danger;
because it is not the result of an outside pressure, but of an intimate,
indivisible unity, in which language and action exchange their dynamic power,
in their upsetting movement beneath the deceiving surface. There is a poetic
density which seems to be an essential condition of the tension to which I
refer and which is not a product of the voice only, but also of the meaning in
it and its genius of communication.
     However in the most specific functional plane--that of concretion--,
narrative speech changed its orientation, its structure and its power of
symbolic progression. Since then, it applies to reality neither as a mold which
should condition it to make it recognizable, nor as a metaphoric charge which
must artificially move reality from outside. The language, like reality itself,
exists within the action. It does not try to pursue a story by loading it with
the meanings that traditionally functioned in accord with a preconceived
chronology; nor does it try to bring in this story marginally. Act and word, in
whatever plane of time they occur, co-exist in all the simultaneity, the
imprecision, the anachronistic quality, the visionary revelation, of our
knowledge and our experience of reality. This is the kind of language that
already in Huidobro (El satiro, Tres inmensas novelas, Cagliostro), Asturias
(Hombres de maiz), Carpentier (Los pasos perdidos, El reino de este mundo, El
acoso), established a complex of multiple meanings within the most objective
reality, inducing the critic to speak of a Latin American magic realism. It is
the liberated language that allows Lezama Lima to create a baroque personal
world on the inside of another baroque historical world, It is the language of
the psychological ambiguity laden with passion of Onetti; the language of
measured, bourgeois absurdism of Juan Emar; that of the national amalgam and
metaphysical contrast of Marechal; that of the existential crisis and the
romantic vision of Sabato.
     In no other Latin American narrative work does that language perform a
miracle of communication so subtle yet, at the same time, so complex, as in
that of Rulfo and Garcia Marquez. In one case, that of Rulfo, the most simple,
precise and ordinary language, without dilation nor obvious transitions, nor a
visible transmutation, transports reality, with all its beings and all its
things, to a level of absolute mystery. In the other, that of Garcia Marquez,
the magical unreality of an historical vision is identified to such a degree
with the classical form of narrative discourse, that madness and fantasy
become filled with order while order shines with the lights of chaos. Their use
of language has made of Rulfo and Garcia Marquez supreme creators of myths.
     It remains to be said, in conclusion, that while it is difficult to
ascertain a precise line of evolution in the new narrative language, for this
line sometimes advances by leaps, that poetic tension was already present in
Huidobro, as was mythic power in Asturias and Carpentier, and creative
dissolution in Juan Emar. Furthermore, tragic prophecy is the counterpart of
the objectification in Onetti, and action as a symbol of the last and desperate
effort at communication, is the true expression of Sabato.
     We will examine, finally, the activity of the narrator. The attention of
the readers, particularly if they are young and militant, is called to the
apoliticism that is signaled in the narrative of authors like Cortazar, Garcia
Marquez or Vargas Llosa. Confronted with the strong and obvious social realism
of the writers of the thirties and the forties--I am thinking of Icaza,
Aguilera Malta, Nicomedes Guzman, Jose Revueltas--, in the new novel one notes
a resistance to politically allusive literature, a shrinking before its
programs, a mistrust of accusations and messages. By contrast, then, the
present narrative seems aesthetic, where the other was political; transcendent,
and the other episodic. In this impression there is, we would say, a simple
optical illusion. Neither was the realism of the thirties and forties
superficial and ephemeral, nor is today's novel marginal to the social. Beneath
the symbolic structure of the indianist novel, for example, hides a genuine
human drama, a silent and bitter struggle; its unfolding is the classic assault
on the barriers which delimit man within a society stripped of supernatural
     The narrative of today breaks the barriers; by examining them, the
novelist goes deeper: he violates the social structure, observes the fall of
ethical values of individuals who act beneath the weight of an existential
anguish; he does not judge, but inquires; he leaves a testimony laden with
sentiments of piety and toughness; or well enough, in the face of desperation,
closes his own door. He re-activates the omniscience of the ancient narrator,
but without assuming the role of a mirror which reflects all men and the entire
reality. On the contrary, he knows that he is one mirror among infinite
mirrors. The image that he seeks is hidden in his own stupor.
     The novelist multiplies his person, not only his point of view. He has no
need to coincide with the narrator, nor is it necessary that he make his own
the rational material of his story. He is not a manipulator of personages
orchestrated to express his ideas; he is an individual among innumerable beings
and things that ask something of him. He imagines them, then, to give them
form, inserted in them, suspecting that in the process he also gives form to
himself and that the sense of this form, is the sense of his life and of his
comprehension of reality. Thus the contradictions of Sabato are explained and
the negotiations of Borges, the distance of Garcia Marquez and the tragic
alienation of Arguedas are to be understood.
     For another part, perhaps there is no message in contemporary Latin
American literature of greater social significance than the narrative without
time, without slogans, without programs, of Juan Rulfo. In his work, like in
that of Roa Bastos and that of the above Arguedas, a profound social conscience
manifests itself beyond the poor divisions invented by the political
efficients. They see man among men, and identify him with nature in its
historical pilgrimage. They never fall into the trap of easy abstraction: the
more real, plain and direct the image of those men of Mexico, of Paraguay or of
Peru, the more profound and complex is the resulting symbolic projection of
their drama.
     We return to our original assumptions and draw some conclusions.
     In the first place, I think it is absurd to deny the existence of an
evolutionary line in the Latin American novel, even considering those of its
elements most characteristic of the periods of experimentation. The great
novelists of regionalism and of neo-regionalism skilfully used the
techniques that certain criticism pretends to "discover" in the work of recent
     Secondly, it is evident that the use of such techniques has validity and
aesthetic transcendence only when it responds to a genuine individual
expressive need. The novel that depends for its existence totally upon its
technical apparatus commits a fundamental mistake; it appears already muted in
its organs of creation, its inhumanity makes it sterile, its brilliance is a
reflection of itself only and, in this isolation, it will not tarry in
extinguishing itself.
     Thirdly, I insist that certain forms of expression perfectly valid in the
anti-rhetorical and anti-bourgeois movement of the 192O's, are less trenchant
now and, far from being useful to the Latin American narrative, vitiate it and
tend to enclose it as one would a precious dry cow; it is not by artificial
respiration applied to Surrealism, nor by a forced restoration of the baroque,
nor with shots of English to american Spanish, nor by the adaptation of the
cinematographic libretto to the novel, that our prose narrative has begun to
put its mark on contemporary literature. Writers such as Arguedas, Rulfo,
Arreola, Sabato, Roa Bastos, Garcia Marquez and others attest to the fact that
with a language which is tense, direct, magical, of a popular root and
aggressively anti-rhetorical, plus the ideological field of the period of
crisis that we live, and with the desperate action of the individual looking or
among statues, shadows, affidavits and obvious ruins the image which could have
been his and that they took from him, patiently repeating the tale in a
continual process of error and correction, with partial identification and
intending a total vision, while the "criollo" bourgeoisie move our people on
the narrow concourse of sub-development with the illusion, the harmonic and the
compass of the advanced powers, and we surprise the world with our intense and
fulsome march around our own selves, open or closed, with laughter or at pains,
pacified or wild, white, indian or mixed, argument aside, it is possible to
write new narrative and move and occupy a humanity disconcerted by our long
     In the fourth place, we should respond with sincerity to the direct
questions that are asked the writer about his function in the Latin American
revolution. It does not suffice to turn one's shoulders from the impatient
activists who affirm, "the writer will have to leave his pen and take up the
rifle." We shall have to record for them, for example that Commander Guevara
leaves testimony in his diary of having expelled from the guerrillas those whom
he saw as not soldier material, but did feel would serve the revolution on
other fronts. Does not the writer create the revolution when he writes, if he
lives in the world he conceives? Should he also participate as a militant in
the daily political activities? Is it possible that the revolution would have
to put art and science temporarily in suspense while the years of armed combat
occur? No, undoubtedly not. These questions are from a puerile absolutism, as
are too the exertions of fanatic activism. We all know the ongoing value to the
Cuban revolution that the loyalties of Sartre, Genet, Graham Green, Matta, Jean
Luc Godard, Susan Sontag and Cortazar has had. This does not treat individuals
who have abandoned art for the guerrillas. In each one of them one appreciates
an act of conscience, the public acceptance of a political responsibility,
without diminishment whatever of the aesthetic integrity of their creative
work, The revolution benefits more from the greatness of their works than from
all the declarations, manifestos and proclamations of the functionaries of
     Up to now we refer to cases which do not admit argument; this deals with
writers and artists of firm and clear revolutionary activity. Different is the
problem of the intimate relation which exists between a writer's revolutionary
work and his position, apolitical or frankly bourgeois or even conservatively
reactionary. We discard the case of those who changed strategically throughout
the years: a John dos Passos or a John Steinbeck in the United States. Nor are
there further mysteries in the rightism of a Borges who dedicates the first
sample of his translation of Whitman to Richard Nixon and writes a poem to
celebrate Texan patriotism at "El Alamo"; neither in his great work nor in his
pathetic life does he forget for an instant the fundamental unreality of his
place in the world. The problem is aggravated if one tries to understand the
duality of writers who have been blessed souls in an upper or middle class
purgatory and in their work were sowers of anarchism, inspirers of violence,
inciters to open revolt in the dominion of art. I already mentioned two
illustrious visionaries in the renovation of the Spanish novel: Baroja, the
quiet, rugged, wintry shepherd or baker, and Azorin, wax and porcelain
old-timer among the flowers of his Iberian villa. They and Valle-Inclan plant
their incredible time-bomb and do not even await the result; it suffices them
to know that there is in the future earth a hot springs for them to warm their
feet. What is to be done with then, the revolutionary analyst will ask? What is
to be done with the landlord poets, the minister-and ambassador-novelists, and
the extremist clerks who guarantee the literature of barbarism and of
     Can one write the revolution while he lives the status quo?
Unquestionably, one can live very well and write very badly. Is not this,
rather the contrary: to live very badly and write very well; to live a
contradiction, a renunciation, a moral and material misery, according to custom
and, in some secret manner which intrigues and perhaps offends, to venture
afloat in works where not only the individual is redeemed, although burdened,
but also too humanity. It is possible that Genet is repugnant to certain
people, yet they do not resist the temptation to touch him, forgetting that the
admonition of Whitman (He who touches this book, touches me) had a symbolic
sense only. So then, if we speak of styles of literature which are, in truth,
styles of life, we would do well to realize that, the more a life is identified
with a creative work, the greater will be the possibility that both will
reflect something limited about man: his ambition to know and to do, and the
tragic awareness of his finiteness; his inexplicable grandeur in the midst of
his paltry insignificance.
     The ideological coincidence of a vital activity end an aesthetic creation
always will be an object of admiration, perhaps because of the dramatic
difficulties that it entails. In the United States there is actually a strange,
mute, end bloody civil war being fought. I think that the literature of the
patriarchs of the Beat generation, Kerouac and Ginsberg especially, like that
of the Black militants, Le Roy Jones and Eldridge Cleaver, and that of Chicano
youth such as Victor Hernandez Cruz, expresses this civil war in its political
and racial problematic and, conferring artistic beauty upon it, is the
authentic literature of a revolution. What can we in Latin America offer as an
expression of the existing social crisis? In its militant aspect and with an
aesthetic significance still to be determined, it could be the new anti-poetry
which explodes--one cannot use another term for it--today in El Salvador and
tomorrow in Argentina or Peru or Colombia or Chile; it could be a form of total
narrative which centers in Mexico, Cuba or Venezuela or an essay form in which
criticism is managed within a violently autobiographic sense, or university
theatre ferocious against the bourgeois and absurd with brilliance. Whatever it
be, it is of full importance not to sustain that literature only as an
enchanted lantern in hand; behind, above, and beneath its shadows and its
lights, are manifested other shadows and other lights. To recognize them is a
decisive act for obtaining the true local composition of contemporary Latin
American literature.
     We say, therefore, that the genuine revolutionary writers seem united atop
schools and literary epochs due to a condition common to them: they all have
given an image or transcendent vision in their works of the reality they knew
and that touched them, not a mere fragment of it, and in that image or in that
appearance resides their concept of the world as much as testimony of their
intent to affect that reality in turn. This their condition, to my judgment,
assists in discerning the true and the false among revolutionary literature; at
last it permits discarding the bold but sterile technical wizardry, aids in
recognizing the pathetic archivist of an old art that turns circles in the air
knowing it is destined for loss, and finally guides us upon an art of the
harmonization activity of use of necessary technique, the instrument of
language expressed in action and the creative function that promises the, for
him, supreme use of the word. In that task of distinguishing I see little part
for the engines of militancy, authentic as they are. They shall have their
denotation in the social conduct of the writer, yet do not have the truth of
his work's attainments.
     The writer whom interests us makes his own revolution and he does this in
his artwork, with his work, i.e. with his life.(3)

1 Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1963, p.500.
2 Cf. Posdata, Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1970, where Octavlo Paz says: Whenever a
society corrodes, the first to become infected is the language. The critique
of society, in consequence, commences with grammar and with the re-establishment
of meanings. The new literature, poetry as much as the novel, began with being
simultaneously a reflection upon the language and an attempt to invent another
language: A system of transparencies to provoke the appearance of reality. To
realize this proposition it was indispensable to clean the language and
extirpate the accretion of official rhetoric... (pp. 76 + 77).
3 Cortazar says: "one of the most acute Latin American problems is that more
than ever we are in need of the Che Guevaras of the language, the
revolutionaries of literature, more than the literati of the revolution."
("Nuevos aires" 2, 1970, p.36).