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 9 - Anti-Literature

     The anti-literature to which I refer is a revolt against a lie accepted
socially and venerated instead of reality. This anti-literature has to do with
modes of action and not solely with modes of writing. The creator who is seen
in the act of creation self-analyzes and self-criticizes: discards the false,
that which would bring him to perjure the true human condition. He makes a
novel and, within it, unmakes it, makes a poem that negates itself, makes drama
and does away with the theatre. That is to say, destroys the false idea which
man has made of literature. To return it to vitality, before all else language
must be re-created. The word is converted to an act. The same word that had
become a sign of artifice, a mask of daily dying.
     Consequently, anti-literature begins by demolishing forms, erasing the
frontiers between the genres and dealing sincerely with the burden of absurdity
which is our inheritance. Blasphemy, like irreverence, insult and even
obscenity, are ways of clarifying to man the mirror where his image lies. More
than means of protest, they are acts of commiseration and solidarity amidst
     The anti-literature of the 20th century is, then, a statement against
falsification in art and an attempt to make from this a reason for surviving,
living and resolving the absurdity of the human condition, accepting it to the
     Two results can be deduced from this formulation: first, anti-literature
presents an image of the contemporary world as a chaos and of man as a victim
of reason; second, the fruits of this image constitute an act of interior and
exterior violence.
     "How can one hope to find order in the chaos comprised by this infinite
and variable datum: man?"
     This question was put by Tristan Tzara in his "Dada Manifesto" of 1918, to
give voice to a dogma: chaos is the reason of existence. Such that the first
aspect of the anti-literature dichotomy acquires its accelerated movement
within a closed orbit. The Dada protest is not revolutionary. At least, it is
not so in the political sense that the "Second Surrealist Manifesto" of Andre
Breton will be. Tzara accepts chaos as a reality within which the work of art
functions without regard to its social effects. He says:

     "There is a literature that does not reach to the hungry masses. It is
the work of creators, resulting from a true necessity within the author and
produced for himself. It expresses the knowledge of a supreme egoism, in which
the rules wither away. Each page should flower with style, poetic frenzy, the
new, the eternal, the brilliant joke, enthusiasm for principles, be it by means
of a profound and weighty seriousness, or by the way they are captured. On one
side a world swaying in escape, sweetheart to the chimes of hell, on the other:
new men. Bold, leaping, riding in arenas. Behind them an invalid world and
literary charlatans with the mania of progress. I tell you: there is no
standard and we do not tremble; we are not sentimental. We are a furious
wind, destroying the dirty traces of clouds in the ponds, preparing the grand
spectacle of the disaster, of fire and decomposition. We will do away with
mourning and replace the tears with sirens howling from one continent to
another. From pavilions of intense happiness to widows with poisonous sorrow.
Dada is the signboard of abstraction; its classifieds and business deals are
also elements of the poetry.
     "Proclamation: there is a great negative work to be completed. We must
sweep and clean. Affirm the cleanliness of the individual against the state of
madness, complete and aggressive madness of an abandoned world in the hands of
bandits who dismember each other and destroy generations. Without pattern or
design, without organization: indomitable madness, decomposition. Those who are
strong in words or in action survive because they are quick at defense; the
agility of their limbs and of their feelings radiates from every angle of their
     "Morality has defined charity and piety, two clumps of grease that have
grown like elephants, like planets, which are called good. They are nothing
good. The good is the lucid, the clear and decisive, without piety for
compromise or the politic. Morality is a shot of chocolate in men's veins. It
is a chore ordained not by a supernatural force, but by a business trust of
ideas and hungry academics. Sentimentalism: seeing a group of men who were
bored by fighting, so they invented the calendar and medical wisdom. The
battle of the philosophers began with conflicting etiquettes (mercantilism,
balance, cheap and meticulous measures) and by now it is understood that piety
is a waste sentiment stemming from the disgust that destroys the health, a
preliminary stench of bodies in decomposition which darken the sun. I proclaim
the opposition of all the cosmic faculties to this disease of a corrupted sun,
which developed from the fabric of philosophical thought...." (1)

     The surrealists, for their part, give to anti-literature a theoretical
base and an analytical method. They do not destroy one art form in order to
replace it with a single other. Breton opens a compartment in the rationalist
conception of artistic creation and from this compartment emerges, with the
force of a sea flood, the contents of a collective memory and a subconscious
creator. It is important to underline this function of the Surrealist
Manifesto: they are a force for liberation; they untie the bonds of the human
globe and discard its sandbags; they free its interlocutors; they give the
language a single continuous action emancipating the powers of the night, and
they assault the institutions, that is, implanting magic in the functional
place of reality within dreams.
     So considered, the Surrealist Manifestos help to explain the later
evolution of anti-literature. One could say that if Breton took one step
toward the depths of man, anti-literature took another step towards the surface
of reality, and removed from Surrealism the ritual apparatus and its dogmatic
insistences, liberated it, in turn, and identified its tone as disorder at once
luminous and violent.
     In what does the "anti" of Brecht's theatre, of Genet's prose, or
Prevert's poetry, consist? A revolt against a manner of speaking against an
attitude and a mode of acting? The "anti" is a revolution against a type of
society that speaks in lies, that dissimulates an ethics, that kills to
survive. On a literary plane this revolution revives words, restoring their
primary meaning and their original emotive charge. But this is not truly
essential (just as dynamiting the governor's palace is not everything in a
revolution). The revolutionary artist proceeds to rip out the seams of
institutionalized art not because he must follow a program, but instead out of
personal necessity. In the process they see and they judge, save or condemn:
in their own revolution.
     Criticism which observes the aesthetic act will notice certain coordinates
and will play with them; will examine a novel conception of time and apply it
rationally as much to the development of a novelistic chronicle as to a theatre
happening; will seek symbolic projections, will return to belief in romantic
irony and will posit principles for a reinterpretation of the epic and of the
romance, as too of the comic novel; will create capricious designs of space and
time so as to explain how the tale envelops man and moves the round world. All
this gives origin to a critical superstructure which, in the best of cases,
that of the fortunate critics, appears to us like an ingenious floating mobile
upon a literature that supports its contemplation.
     This criticism lacks immediate relevance to the functioning of
anti-literature in the middle of our century. The narrative of Burroughs, let
us say, like Arrabal's theatre or Ginsberg's poetry, presents a chaotic action,
not simply a chaotic enumeration, and with a "sui generis" concept of
structure. The same could be said of Juan Emar's prose, of the theatre of
Jorge Diaz, Alexandro Jodorovski's cinema, and Parra's "artifacts."
     Latin American anti-literature, nevertheless, produces a kind of
self-critique that well could be considered to be on the edge of the phenomenon
I allude to: I refer to the literary work that carries within itself its
self-negation, its well-armed time bomb. This is the case with "Rayuela," the
anti-novel by Julio Cortazar. Of importance here is that, in addition to the
anti-literary phenomenon, we are given the theoretical speculation that defines
and justifies it. Precisely the case of "Rayuela." What does Cortazar rebel
against, what does he propose as his novelistic prototype? He rebels
fundamentally against two things: first, against a form of narrating which
corresponds to a false conception of reality...and second, against language
which, chewed and ruminated into excrement, ends by devaluing the literary
expression. Cortazar proposes an "open" novel made from fragments which, in
their simultaneity, will convey an authentic image of reality.(2) The irony in
this presentation, that which transforms "Rayuela" into a negation of its
affirmation, that is, into an anti-novel, lies in the fact that the spokesman
is not Cortazar but a character, Morelli, who submits it to close critical
scrutiny. The self-critique is, in reality, the reverse of a novel to which
Cortazar, like an eccentric malefactor, leaves clues everywhere: Gide,
Gombrowicz, Borges, in plain sight; Joyce, Kafka, Pound, in less obvious
places; Sabato, by suggestion.
     "Rayuela" satisfies as much the Spanish traditional narrative, as Latin
American regionalist or nativistic writing. We might have included as well the
"poetic" novel that, in a sense, represents the culmination of descriptive and
illusionist rhetoric. In another connection, one must notice the abyss that
separates "Rayuela," the anti-novel, from the so-called magical realism of
Carpentier and from the indigenous surrealism of Asturias. One must notice, I
say, because it helps to discriminate among the roots of the Latin American
anti- narrative. At first sight we could think that we find in Asturias and
Carpentier certain constants of the anti- novel, given that neither one nor the
other is a novelist in the traditional sense of the word.
     Alejo Carpentier, who began his fictional work as a folklorist
("Ecue-Yamba-O," 1933), later discovered a vehicle that would accommodate his
hallucinatory vision of reality: historical adventure beyond all chronology
and wrapped in baroque language. The "transcendence" and "universality" so
appealing to the novelists of mid- century, was obtained by the use of
symbolism, particularly in "Los Pasos Perdidos" and "El Siglo de las Luces."
To the extent that Carpentier departed from immediate reality, experimented
with the concept of time and dared try lyrical monologues, he seemed to
coincide with some in the vanguard of anti-literature. For example, with the
Spaniard Ramon Sender ("La Esfera"). Nevertheless, Carpentier does not
dynamite the building of his baroque structure. On the contrary, he seems to
stylize it more each time, and in stories such as "El Acoso" and "Viaje a la
Semilla" his preoccupation with creating designs of indirect yet functional
purpose increases.
     Miguel Angel Asturias, on the other hand, uses a chaotic movement in his
indigenous narrative while at the same time disdaining the "prepared"
mechanisms of the regional novel. Still, the presentation of Asturias is
"literary" and obeys an order imposed by his ritual acceptance of Mayan
mythology. There is nothing in his prose which, once set, is released; nothing
that loses its meaning within a primitivist conception of the world, and
nothing that contradicts, suddenly, his social intention.
     It is requisite, therefore, to seek other parents for Cortazar: narrators
who may have discovered the opening in a story through which time flows freely,
that is, through the pores of an amorphous reality in the process of
accumulating its disorder. I think of a Chilean narrator whom few, very few,
know: Juan Emar (he was called Pilo Yanez, but that seemed better than the
French). His books, Un ano (1934), Ayer (1935), Miltin (1935), are a
scandalous ridicule of the novel of realism and conventionalism. The
novelistic material is surrealistic, heroic and comical; the language
represents the routine mechanics of the Chilean petty bourgeoisie and their
scatological ejaculations; furthermore it is based upon the strategic use of
the "leitmotif." It adorns the language to thereupon knock it over into
itself. The story is told, but never within the plot. On the contrary, Juan
Emar speaks the way one cannot speak for a novel. The humor is insulting,
eccentric, in no way symbolic. Nevertheless, Juan Emar, so alive,
sophisticated, cruel and fearsome is, in truth, a primitive. An anti-novelist
with very little language. A swordsman without a sword. He would fight with the
pen holder and a battered piece of steel. Better endowed with words, he might
have been an heir of Stern. Juan Emar had the certainty to analyze the
aesthetic basis of his disorder and to throw himself with a thrust against the
most eminent Chilean critics of his era: Solo. He failed in that thrust. But it
is the intention to which I refer, not the act of blood he did not consummate.
     Juan Emar, with his self-destructive instinct and his anthropomorphic
sympathy for his characters, without saying anything of his cubist
approximation to the patriotic customs of his co-nationals, and his knowledge
of the world as an apple, whose frames in a universal frame (an image lucidly
interpreted in the illustrations of Gabriela Emar) preceded beautifully the
lesser chapters of "Rayuela." But he was not the only one.
     Leopoldo Marechal may have understood the play of Juan Emar and, sensing
there an insufficiency, may have set himself to reflect in the revolving mirror
of his age to obtain that simultaneity of space, time and action that is the
mark of "Adan Buenosayres" (1948). The comic novel, that is, the novel as a
mask of the man who has gotten lost in his contradictions and continually falls
into traps of his choosing, is for Marechal a pre-conceived form, while for
Juan Emar it was a way of living day to day which never stopped surprising him.
It cannot be said that Marechal breaks open the novel, nor that he puts it into
reverse (as happens in "Ayer"), but, instead, he converts it into mobile images
of a satire and a romantic epic (cf. "El banquete de Severo Arcangelo, 1965).
     The narrative of Juan Carlos Onetti, for its part, constitutes a
fascinating instance of the anti-novel because it breaks open in profundity,
not in extension, as is true of "Rayuela." The action in the novels of Onetti
are produced in intermediate space between immediate reality and an emotional
and intellectual super-reality. He prefers the invisible corridor in which the
characters know each other through divination, inclination or rebuke, although
the places where people simulate understanding also form part of the world of
his creation. If it is possible to conceive a type of novel in which the
heroes interweave without seeing each other or observing sideways, without
touching and far less confessing or displaying oneself, in which nothing is
done which, nevertheless, provokes a catastrophe with drowning in an indefinite
and irrevocable perdition, that would be the anti-novel of Onetti. It
distinguishes itself from Marechal and Cortazar in that he does not play. He
knows the rules of the game, but he prefers to involve himself in them, and
goes trampling and seeking the mortal resource that they hide, the reason of
their falsity and sinister power.
     "Paradiso" (1966) by Jose Lezama Lima also gives the impression of opening
into profundity. I believe, however, that it is only an impression. In his
hands the novel loses its bearings. It simply falls of its own weight. I do not
see in "Paradiso" a literary mechanism, nor a narrative system, nor a
linguistic arrangement. I see, instead, a slow explosion, with much dust and
things and beings in the air, something like a monumental circus tent that
begins to collapse and they cut cables, trapezes, fences and stairs, chairs
fall and magicians, animals, ropers and equestrian princesses, clowns from the
islands, familiar musicians, cooks and slave-drivers, a play of the century
and, after the slow fall, there moves beneath the amorphous tent a collective
beast, nameless, disposed to enjoy with an appetite of obscure origin this
sawdust finale. "Paradiso" is an open novel in the sense in which a ball is
open, that is, on the outside, floating in the universe that creates the words
that sound, prolong themselves and remain in the man as things of a useless and
beautiful time. A sexual time and a womb that thinks, an empty eye that reviews
the past, examines the striving of mankind to eternalize themselves in papers
and in stone, a mouth that ceaselessly consumes the skin of god and serves and
serves again the linen of the family and the rings that they are losing, the
friendships of the dance and poetry, all this, thus narrated, the anti-novel.
Sung, it would be opera.
     It can be concluded, then, and taking very much into account anti-novels
like "Three Sad Tigers" by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, "Jose Trigo" by Fernando
del Paso, "The Hook" by Vicente Lenero, and "Los Ninos se despiden de la
Miseria" by Pablo Armando Fernandez, that the Latin American anti-novel is an
attempt to disarm the narrative so that it matches the disorder of reality. It
is also a critical insight into that attempt and a heroic affirmation,
therefore comical, of the absurdity of this and all metaphysical attempts to
which mankind sets their hand.
     When that anarchy and its surrounding chaos are transformed into pure
action, with neither speculations nor justifications, nor reservations or
condescensions of any sort, with speak no longer of an anti-narrative yet
instead, as the critics say, of the theatre of the absurd, of the anti-theater,
of the "happening." I shall repeat something I said in this respect:

     In that complex world of contradictions, rebellions,
     anguish, triumph and fiascoes, in which our young
     writers move, they plant more questions than answers
     and they give as many blows as they receive. They
     attack falsity and bourgeois conventionality with
     the weapon they deserve: the absurd and the
     irrational. They respond to civil regimentation
     with the image of the ruin, of the abuse, of the
     cruel destruction of innocence, which are the marks
     of our contemporary pseudo- culture. There is a
     great lethal dance among the scenarios of the modern
     world and that dance does not wait for the final
     Judgment to merge the passed on and the living; it
     leaves the platforms, exceeds the cordons, invades
     the pit and leaves for the plazas to visit the
     shames of mankind, to make light of his false
     dignity, to reveal the secret enclaves in which the
     garments of vice, treason and hate are fashioned.
     The public is going to applaud their nightmares, to
     ask an encore of the artist who insults them; it
     doesn't mean a catharsis, but rather the
     multiplication of the anguish at the recognition of
     dishonor, that is to say, the feigned enactment of
     the end.(3)

     This it seems to me may be applied to the frontal attack that is directed
today against the armchair authors like Virgilio Pinera in Cuba, Osvaldo
Dragun, Dalmiro Saenz and Abelardo Castillo in Argentina, Menen Desleal in El
Salvador, Alexandro Jodorovski in Mexico, Jorge Diaz, Jaime Silva and Raul Ruiz
in Chile.
     This theatre is the most resistant flower of Dada. It coincides with the
anti-novel in its desire to negate forms and to directly compromise the student
or spectator. It coincides with anti-poetry in its skill at projecting
violence. We have here an art that always has been governed by rules and
formulas, directly or tacitly accepted. Today they have erased the borders
between actor and spectator. The theatre became round, it left the mother,
hung movie screens, made its people run through the orchestra, the balcony, the
gallery and the front wall; they have liquidated unities and the curious idea
of a "reality illusion"; they discarded the story, the nude came apart, the
resolution spiraled into the infinite; the directors and counselors inform
their parents that they have fallen outside of the framework. Dance, concert,
natural demise, crime, orgasm, projectiles, are the significant elements of an
action that can lead to the destruction or the regeneration of the story.
     Anti-theatre is an individual act. It is only collective if the spectator
is transmuted, is drugged and moves on the same plane as the creators who form
the company. Anti-theatre, in consequence, is a mortal combat, that is to say,
a forum without temporal limitation. Which more, which to a lesser extent,
contributes to liquidating the last vestiges of the former art which pretended
to be a copy of the living. Opera is sung anti-theatre. Anti-theatre did away
with the tragedy, the drama and the comedy, replacing them in classical
proportions with the absurd, the lowly and the violent. Anti-theatre, like the
anti-novel and anti-poetry, is comical, controls the moods by means of drugs
and plants and utilizes the backstage so that the heroes jump to their doom
through the window. Said another way, they do not control the moods, except
that they convert them to acts, incite the man to violence or, if you like, to
laughter. It has no principles nor needs special halls. The anti-theatre is the
great theatre of the world. It provokes revolutions.

1 Dada Manifesto (Paris, 1918).
2 Rayuela (Buenos Aires: Ed. Sudamerica, 1963), pp.452,500.
3 Chilean Literature of the 20th Century (Santiago: Zig Zag, 2d ed.,
1967) pp.117-18.