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 2 - Portrait and Self portrait:The Hispano-american Novel
Confronted with Society

Sir Jose Joaquin Hernandez de Lizardi (1776-1827)(1) posited one of the
root marks that for many years has served to define the Hispano-american
novelistic creation when, not allowed to attack the colonial government of
Mexico in columns and leaflets, he felt obligated to fall back on the
picaresque and endearing in her, as self-defense against censure. So say,
then, that his novelistic work filled a social function. Lizardi took in his
hands the novel as one takes a gauntlet, and gave out pointers with knuckles,
enthusiasm, tact and pedagogy. It may seem curious to some that, in
criticizing that which the Saxons call the establishment, i.e. the ordering
circle that would not open its doors to him, or more properly closed them on
his fingers, on their nerves, Lizardi should not think of the theatre, nor of
poetry nor of fantasy. These modes of expression would have seemed to him
direct allusions, and he looked for defenses and allegories. And what defenses
could the novel lend him in the beginning years of the 19th century? Let us
say first that if he had chosen the theatre the scene would have been filled
for him by functionaries and female functionaries with masks whereupon, on
removing them, they proceed to discover their skeletal role; if he had found
himself a poet, no one's hearing might have reached him, which is why the poets
of the Independence shouted and with such a babel of voices - until
their listeners preferred to have them in cages.
     Lizardi, then, used the picaresque and attempted to base himself upon his
new patent; he assumed what to him seemed to be a legitimate function. He
wanted to orient the society of his epoch corralling them with the help of his
fictitious chronologies. The aesthetic matters are on a secondary plane; he is
resigned not to entertain so much as educate. And it worked for him as
picaresque vehicle of social criticism because it was an established and
appreciated form; it had come along the roads of Salamanca, and Flanders,
Coimbra, Lisbon, Asuncion and Mexico City, with side trips in France and
England,(2) voice of moralists who corrected and denounced the bad ways,
laughing, lacking the moral for salvation but censuring kings, princes,
prelates, friends and teachers with their wrath and divine grace, predicting
their ruin when the water already reached their necks, calling to their swan
song those who already had their requests.
     A double game, perhaps, politically inoffensive, socially unclear.
Although it appears interesting, it is nevertheless not the political
deviation that concerns me in this case, but instead the lack of social focus,
because there one can recognize another characteristic root mark of an
important phase of the Hispano-american novel. In that in his picaresque
Lizardi translates a Spanish decadence to a Mexican ambit, and with his magic
lantern projects the brotherhood and servants of the peninsular court onto the
streets of Mexico, and the illusion is so good that those streets and those
towns and those universities and bazaars and the prisons and the barber shops
seem Spanish until the colonial authority shatters the resemblance but fills
the panorama with repugnance. There begins a novelistic period in which one
social reality lands atop of another and our cities begin a buried life beneath
other more exotic cities, and the people who read of it, like those who thought
of it, become confused.
     I refer, as I say, to a visual phenomenon: to the point of view which a
novelist adopts when he spends his time in one place but in reality lives
somewhere essentially distinct. The realists and naturalists according to the
19th century could prove the existence of certain social complexes in the
examination and evaluation of which they enjoyed defining themselves,
manipulating formulas apparently valid for Europe and Americas. Social
structure is the insignia of a government as of a family or a lost one;
display, the high banks, the military, commerce, the Church, embryonic
industry, the teller, accountant, the housewife; the painfulness is in the
convent, in the hallway, the cabana, the hospital and the school. This life
that proceeds badly, this decadence that surrounds the body with the obstinacy
and the satiety of system, has its milestones marked. Change the names of the
streets from "Santa," "Fruto vedado" or "La Bolsa," and if you give them French
names the people in them will not display major differences.
     It could be said that not every Hispano-american novel of the 19th
century conveys a social image which is a reflection of Europe. This may be
true. As well as there being novelists who could change souls like clothes,
there was also the one-suited writer, he who went or did not go to Europe, and
whether or not he went would not change his god-given apparel an item; he
would go on being indian or mestizo in Paris, Madrid, London, or anywhere.
Such a one wrote, "La Rumba".(3) With such as them, the literary formula never
transformed into a condition of life. In their works they may change the
names, but not the parameters and not the social crux. The servant described
by "Micros" has only one place in the world; he could look like another or be
the product of adjacent things, but if you transfer him he leaves off working;
this is no merry-go-round, but is the arena invented by we Hispano-americans at
a moment in our history to confuse ourselves mutually. Those who wish to
re-unite us at the full lode are welcomed. There are sites for each.
     The phenomenon I suggest means in either case that the novelist clarifies
his epoch, describes its peculiarities, recognizes in it his own locales in the
world, and presents it as he can: narrating, detailing, positing
conversations, predicating, inventing a little, mimicking or individualizing.
With or without formulas there is the attempt to secure a niche in the
contemporary world. Which does not surprise us entirely because it takes the
lead and loses us. The two are prettily tied, as the song says: me and the
society, me and the ills of society, me and the characters in my society, with
colors, odors and sounds; and a good romance. Always two: something
confronting another something. Gamboa and prostitution, Micros and the purse,
Blest Gana and the uprooted, Carrasquilla and those who never go, Orrego Luco
and the conjugal scandal.
     But things change and the moment arrives in which this duality loses its
rights and the door turns into a single page and, like the faces of those who
enter and those who exit, what hides and what is excluded become confused. I
refer to the fact that in the urgency and the drama of the social
disorganization of Latin America the novelist begins to delineate his world
from an unforeseen angle and to verify that those things that confront him in
disorder are, seemingly, his image and resemblance and, therefore, he
understands that when Sarmiento and other writers spoke of malevolent forces
which stalked the earth provoking the intellectuals, what bothered them was the
malevolence within, that which the nation was putting on their faces from
looking so much at them, the writer-ministers. This discomfited the most
serious, but still left the aesthetes indifferent.
     It will be understood that I am not trying to say that the modernists, for
example, now in the 20th century with its wars, its revolutions and its bombs,
went on living in the Pension Francesa or climbing up and down the Mirador and
the Tower of Sighs. I have always thought, and I continue to believe, that in
certain books basic to Modernism the acute observer of social phenomena can
find very useful keys for understanding that sense of perdition which the Latin
American faces between 1900 and 1930 at the sudden coming undone of the
spiritualism- materialism equilibrium. They are books in which someone becomes
conscious of the economic and social crises that contradict that reality.
Books such as where there still gallops a "gaucho" in fields with neither
tractors nor agrarian reform, in which priests doubt, not near disposal
machines nor provocation experiments, instead at a being who wants to condemn
and identify another, books in which the image aloft on wings of confusion
approaches over-zealously the divine reaches. Heavy books: handsome, pure,
strong, where above all we guess that the affairs of the stomach are not going
well either and perhaps are going worse than the affairs of the soul, but books
in which on looks awe-struck to one side or upwards, and to us that profile of
renouncement of our reality leaves the illustrious portrait of a renunciation.
Books, as would be said in academic language, in which a reality is stylized,
or rather, in which one sees according to the measurements of the glasses we
use to correct our vision.(5)
     Instead, to narrate, describe and make dialogue become for the novelist
almost necessities of effectuating reality and of organizing it and even
creating it, not jokingly as with the constructionists and the ultra-radicals,
but seriously as with the novelists of the Mexican Revolution, the indianists
of Ecuador and of Peru, the sociologists of the prairies and the plains.
Mariano Azuela, for example, is a people's doctor who sees and knows the great
wound of his country; the picture that he paints of the society of his time
has the solidity, the hardness, the contrast of white and black by which the
medical workers record the sicknesses of the slum. He is not carried away by
enthusiasm; one treats, disinfects, transmits, cuts in a minimum of time. Let
others mix and stir. They explode; the account is drawn up afterwards. And
when that is not enough, Jorge Icaza throws himself against his students,
sacrifices with the will to convince, his condition. They are two extreme
     In those years, when the managers throw themselves through skyscraper
windows in New York and the Depression echoes in Latin American like a cry to
our face, and Steinbeck denounces the exploitation of the Oakies and Richard
Wright that of the Blacks and James Farrel that of whites in the U.S., and
Andre Gide returns to the Soviet Union and Henry Barbusse and Romain Rolland
emerge, and when the novel of the masses, that of Gladkov and of Sokolov, is
discussed, and the proletarian novel and the socialist realist, among ourselves
Gregorio Lopez y Fuentes produces novels with nameless characters and sees
society as an historical abstraction following the strict movements of the
time; Jose E. Rivera initiates a probe to uncover the conditions of the
laborers, a probe that is transmuted into epic novel; Ciro Alegria describes an
exodus of indians that becomes an instance of communal property; Miguel Angel
Asturias unfolds an exalted prose to denounce the cliques of the Central
American dictators and the initiatives of the low clowns of United Fruit. And
Carlos Luis Fallas, and Jose Revueltas, and Gil Gilbert and Mario Monteforte
     For 20 years--a generation and a half--the novelist is an aerial
photograph of that violent lie which passes for social institution. He
pictures the misery and the illnesses in the cities and the country, accuses
the bargained and bargaining politician, criticizes the church, asks for a
redistribution of wealth and the expulsion of the imperialist. Denounces,
leaves his testimony: an epic human document. What is serious is that the
more he insists upon the injustice and the chaos of the capitalist system, the
less are the errors and the contradictions corrected. The society of
inequality hears but does not listen, as they get so far as to decorate its
accusers. What does all this mean? Irresponsibility, blindness, fear,
compromise? No, not entirely. It reflects, more properly, a situation
accepted as an axiom within the Hispano-american social organism: the novelist
may be a leader, but a leader from whom action and solutions are not expected.
Only seedlings, more or less clear or confused, stimuli, provocations in
short.(8) It is said that the student of our economic and social problems
learns more concerning the syndicalist movement's history, and political
thought, and of the imperialist invasion and its appropriation of the
sub-surface, the fields and the industry, in the novels of the decades of the
thirties and of the forties than from monographs or historical essays by
academic specialists. It should be added that the basis of that lesson (why
does it happen and how do they think and why do they begin to doubt and when
does the process transform into a revolutionary act) should be sought between
the lines and with assists from outside: with statistics, slogans, and
documentaries of the violence.
     The novelists of the thirties and forties, then, accumulate historical
detail and revive the rationale for a social revolution. Generalizations annoy
me, especially if they are unjust and arbitrary. To deny that when some of the
great novelists of that period handed over their image of Latin American
society they also included an anxiety-ridden examination of conscience would be
absurd. Still, we read and admire the regionalist epic and respect the
oldsters who fell with weapons in hand.(9)
     Those narrators who gave a geographic image and often, a social one to our
Continent in the first half of the 20th century accepted the role of
commentator or reporter not without suffering an intellectual debasement that
conducted the novel toward essay forms. They argued and speculated about
a society that was weak in its foundations. As a group they narrated the
corruption of the public power as much as the crisis in the family. The saga
of the great agricultural family of America was perpetuated in cyclical novels
which examine its progressive disintegration and its re-adaptation as
cooperativism and "business"; the surgery against the indigenous community; the
exodus of the worker from the country to the city; and finally, the ruin of the
oligarchic clan, the loss of its social and economic identity and its gradual
incorporation into the middle class, first as disgrace, then in a conscious and
deliberate manner. The narrator would feel compromised not by the crisis of
conscience, but in programmed causes. From there to the acceptance of a social
function and, in certain cases, of a militant vocation. For all this the
novelist ascertained his direct ties with the earth, affirming with his feet
his proclamation of a speculative nationalism more intense and exclusivist the
less secure the bases supporting it. The intellectual downfall became
passionate and the novelist looked for national essences in the conduct of the
native, in the caste tradition, to oppose to the metaphysical terror of
deracination. The profound meaning of this speculation is more graphic,
extensive and dense in the Chilean and Argentinean novel, for example, than in
the Mexican, Guatemalan or Venezuelan.(10)
     But it occurs that the process of the Latin American social revolution
accelerates and the fields are defined, the role that is to be played by the
intellectual turns precise. The novelist rebels against the limitations of the
social photograph, and chides them; he discards as false the point of view
toward pure objectives. Given that in the realty of bourgeois life he finds
falsities, hypocrisies, irremediable renouncements, as a contrast he searches
in the literary testimony for the imprints, the direct, anti-rhetorical and
legitimate imprints, of the extant reality. And such reality turns its back.
The schemes do not seem to work. The things are not governed by any principle.
The frontiers are portable. The men to a man lost the clock and wrecked the
calendars. They also lost the rock of the law and there are commandments that,
well looked at, turn out to be ambiguous. The fantasy imposes its inventions
and the myths establish themselves and they move with ease making do with their
native and original condition. The mirror that used to walk by the highways,
gilded, sure, omnipresent, walks now put upon, shaped, dirt-bespattered,
picaresque and distortionist.
     To simplify my thesis I would say that, as a novelistic form, the portrait
lost sense and cogency and that what we see today in a splendid chaos and in
magnificent simultaneity and relativity, is a self- portrait of
Hispano-american society on the respective plane, the face of the novelist.
Face of dryness, reeling abyss, burned rostrum, mask of elastic. Self-
portrait. There are those who would cut off an ear for a self-portrait and who
see their face as in a muddy well, or on a bubble of tar, or in a cup, or in a
festival-mirror or at a cut; or who portray selves with one's head put in a
nylon stocking, or covered with flies.
     I mean to say, hypothetically, that not only were the distances between
observer and society shortened: they were annulled, they disappeared. There
is neither an observer nor a narrator clearly defined, nor a precise object of
narration. The novel is a thing inside another thing inside another thing. In
movement. I think, therefore, that Miguel Angel Asturias' works are
bottomless. Scratch them yourself and there emerges, not "Popol-Vuh" which is
a book, but the dead emerge from their lake, the coyotes from their dead, the
rabbits from their coyotes, the witches out of their caucuses. Without saying
anything about the pine cones from their hyenas and the hyenas from their
foreigners. Look too at Juan de Rulfo. And at Gabriel Garcia Marquez! And at
Jose Maria Arguedas and at Augusto Roa Bastos! From afar Carpentier, surprised
at what is happening himself, speaks of spirits, of that magic that is active
part of the secretive life of our peoples. Ernesto Sabato practices it with a
fury. His novels demonstrate the profundity and the complexity insofar as
offered in the visages of those who portray themselves: society's face, swept
up these days in a process of plastic surgery.(11)
     Explicating a little more: identified with a society in a state of
revolution, the novelists revolt. "The primordial duty of every revolutionary
is creating the revolution." Agreed. Their revolution. The novelist makes
his revolution and the painter his and the musician his and the scientist his.
And if you yet cannot make your revolution, become for the moment a guerrilla,
as Matta said. Unpalatable and inevitable act.
     If the novelist succeeds at his revolution the perspectives that it opens
are marvelous: they are the perspectives of the living Latin American novel.
Revolution does not mean patchwork or sleight of hand. It is a direct,
absolute and basic confrontation with our conscience, which is the being
conscious of the point of origin and the final destination, and the evaluation
of the means which carry us there. I think that great novels that are written
today in Latin America represent a crisis of conscience. That explains the
lack of limits, the slightly vertiginous vastness in which they move, their
rigor and their power. Unities of time do not exist in that examination and
the spaces are open. The story is of the men without names who do not quit
living and want peace, those who talk and answer without very precise personal
pronouns, with the living's round despair and the dead's wailing wall.
     Who narrates? Who is that talking? And that protagonist? The professor
passing his gaze over the conscience of humanity
asks. Why does that outlaw live in Paris or in London or in Madrid or in San
Francisco and in New York? The witches make echo and ask: why in Buenos Aires
or in Lima and in Mexico City? Why not in Havana? The immediate, easy
conclusion: the novelist lives anywhere, literally; that society which is his
is with him, it seems, in whatever place, and binds him the same, like knots in
the string with which he ties his pants. So then, the world entered the Latin
American novel, the one that always had been inside of the novelists. It
remained to bring it afloat, with a very wide net, as Mario Vargas Llosa puts
it, while thinking of novels of elegance; from everywhere, from every time, so
that there will come into the netting the fat fish who knows us and,
eventually, greets us. And the novelist would have established his truth.
     Consequently, these novels, magical, real, vast, whether they advocate
armament or disarmament, and that Cortazar writes in Paris, and Sabato in
Buenos Aires and Arguedas around Cuzco and Garcia Marquez in Barcelona and
other members of the chorus in as many other capitals and courts of the world,
self-portray a society that is the same for all in its critical, operative,
changing and decisive aspects, and they portray it with the eye that knows how
to see, the crucial one that suffers and marvels, that which is closed to
terror and defeat, that which shall be looking for some years without

1 There are three novels by Lizardi that interest us in
this respect: "El Periquillo Sarniento" (1816), "La Quijotita y su Prima"
(1818, 1819), and "Don Catrin de la Fachenda" (1819).
2 A line of descent exists as evident in the passage of the picaresque to the
Americas and in this line one begins with "El Lazarillo de Tormes" and from
the Spanish
picaresque, and through the picaresque of Lesage, Voltaire, Defoe, Fielding,
3 A short novel by Angel de Campo (1868-1908), a Mexican writer who used the
pseudonym, "Micros."
4 Nor should the historical testimonies be forgotten in which the terrain and
the atmosphere represent a distinct revolutionary ideology, such as "El
Matadero" by Esteban Echeverria (1803-1851) and "Tomochic!" by Heriberto Frias
(1870-1925). The Hispano-american novel form has dealt directly with political
and economic problems derived from the imperialist expansion in basic zones
such as petroleum, minerals, public services, agriculture, banking, and so on,
as well as with the resultant social problems. For names of authors, and
titles, consult my "Historia de la Novela Hispanoamericana", 3rd ed., Ediciones
De Andrea, Mexico City, 1966.
5 Some titles appropriate to remember in this regard: "Don Segundo Sombra" by
Ricardo Guiraldes (1886-1927); "El Hermano Asno" by Eduardo Barrios
(1884-1963); "Alsino" by Pedro Prado (1886-1952).
6 Other characteristic names: Martin Luis Guzman, Jose Ruben Romero, Jose
Mancisidor, Rafael F. Munoz, Mauricio Magdaleno, in Mexico; Demetrio Aguilera
Malta and Alfredo Pareja in the Ecuadorian; Enrique Amorin in Uruguay; Ciro
Alegria in Peru.
7 By Lopez y Fuentes see "Los Peregrinos Inmoviles"; by Rivera, "La Voragine";
by Asturias, "El Senor Presidente"; by Alegria, "El Mundo es Ancho y Ajeno";
by Fallas, "Mamita Yunai"; by Revueltas, "El Luto Humano"; by Gilbert,
"Nuestro Pan"; by Monteforte, "Una Manera de Morir".
8 Consider the destiny of those novelists who, upon becoming politically active
eventually become Presidents: Romulo Gallegos and Juan Bosch. Arturo Uslar
Pietri, not having reached a presidency, has avoided that fate....
9 We do not forget about Romulo Gallegos, Martin Luis Guzman and Manuel Rojas,
among others.
10 See the cycle written by Eduardo Mallea comprising: "Las Aguilas" to "La
Torre", and "Gran Senor y Rajadiablos" by Eduardo Barrios.
11 Some of the key novels for the putting-together of this self-portrait of
contemporary Hispano-american society, in my judgment, are: "Los Pasos
Perdidos" by Alejo Carpentier; "Al Filo del Agua" by Augustin Yanez; "El
Senor Presidente" by Asturias; "Hijo de Ladron" by Manuel Rojas; "El
Astillero" by Onetti; "Pedro Paramo" by Juan Rulfo; "Sobre Heroes y Tumbas"
by Sabato; "Rayuela" by Julio Cortazar; "Hijo de Hombre" by Augusto Roa Bastos;
"Los Rios Profundos" by Jose Maria Arguedas; "La Muerte de Artemio Cruz" by
Carlos Fuentes; "La Casa Verde" by Mario Vargas Llosa.