Charged With Eternity: Quirks and Perks

On the beauty of twentieth century Latin American literature (in English translation).


Quote: The car came to a halt by the side of the road. I opened the door and got out. It wasn’t yet completely dark, but it was no longer day. The land all around us and the hills into which the highway went winding were a deep, intense shade of yellow that I have never seen anywhere else. As if the light (though it seemed to me not so much light as pure colour) were charged with something, I didn’t know what, but it could well have been eternity.

— Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews)

Such colloquial equivocating in that final sentence of the Quote, such seemingly disinterested prose until the final word, where—of all things that could have charged the light—Bolaño sees eternity. It is as natural in Bolaño’s prose, as it would be in another writer’s poetry.

Were I bold, I would claim that this unobtrusive slipping of the mundane into the magical and the universal (for are not the two closely related?) is a ubiquitous property of all good twentieth-century Latin American prose, starting with the well-known Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Jorge Luis Borges (who I have read), and Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa (who I have not), to the lesser known Roberto Bolaño, Augusto Monterroso, Felisaberto Hernández, and Martín Adán (who I am slowly discovering).

But I am not bold; I am out of my depth. I remain at the stage of mumbling about “Latin American magical realism”, about how if you want a European equivalent you could try the Polish author Bruno Schulz, who was killed by a German soldier in 1942 while walking back to the ghetto with a loaf of bread. I struggle with the knowledge that many of the Latin American authors were great language stylists in their native Spanish (I itch to study their figures of speech!), and I am limited to reading translations that have inevitably dissipated swathes of their author’s linguistic poise.

Not all is lost, however, as the Quote shows: an expression of beauty and truth transcends any individual language, and can be rendered skilfully in each one so as to capture the sensibilities of the audience.

If there are any Latin American literature aficionados amongst my readers, do come forth and tell me about your favourite novels!

Reading Recommendations

  1. Last Evenings on Earth, Roberto Bolaño. Collection of short stories. If you have never read anything by Latin American authors, perhaps Hernández’s Piano Stories is a better place to start.
  2. The Unknown University, Roberto Bolaño. Poetry and lyrical fragments, especially poignant and raw in the first half of the English translation. 
  3.  The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, Bruno Schulz.
  4. Murakami vs Bolaño: competing visions of the global novelarticle on Literary Hub. It looks at Murakami’s IQ84 and Bolaño’s 2666, and is a good introduction to the issues faced by novels in translation. 


Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

23 thoughts on “Charged With Eternity: Quirks and Perks”

  1. Great post! I am a huge fan of contemporary Latin American fiction and poetry. If you are looking for recommendations, in addition to some of the names mentioned above, like Borges, Cortazar, and Garcia Marquez, I would suggest Alejo Carpentier, Elena Garro, Octavio Paz, Severo Sarduy, and Elena Poniatowska.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m sure I will.

        There are few well-written books that I actively do not enjoy, but even then I suspect it’s because I read them in the wrong mood or with the wrong motivation. Mood makes it easier to identify with the writing; motivation (read: a strain of curiosity) makes the journey worthwhile.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, City of the Beasts by Isabelle Allende. It’s common in children’s literature, and some agents are actively looking for it. It’s hard to pin down exactly what is considered magical realism and what is fantasy. Some people are recasting older fantasy books as MR, like Narnia, Indian in the Cupboard, etc. Is Harry Potter MR or Fantasy? Anyway, I love a dash of magic in any book. The example you quoted was subtler than some kids lit, but part and parcel of the trend.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for the titles! I looked them up, and selected “Like Water for Chocolate” 🙂

        I agree the boundaries aren’t clear and it’s a matter of taste and opinion. I think of magical realism as being decidedly realistic with only tinges of (intangible) magic.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I’ve seen it defined as a story with one magical element in an otherwise realistic world setting. I’m writing a YA right now with more of a Fantasy/SF world, so I’m going whole hog. But I’m trying to plot a magical realism book, too. As for the tinges of intangible magic, that is more subtle perhaps than the books I listed. I’m more all-in. Yet, it makes a book more mysterious and spiritual, rather than a tinge of fantasy. Fascinating area of literature.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. It really is a continuum, with hard-eyed realism on one end and all-out magic on the other. And then there are the various other axes along which you could measure a book … (I like the definition of story without one magical element—sums it up well!)

        Good luck with the book, and do share the blurb (if and when you feel like it) 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Before I read your comments I was about to say I think it is something that Spanish writers seem to do more than others. I have read Fuentes in translation and a collection of South American short stories as well. Maybe the Spanish don’t see as much distinction between the mundane and the magical. Or maybe we Anglos have become jaded and see little magical in what is all around us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, possible. But it’s not like they haven’t had reason to become jaded too … One day I’ll come across some secondary lit that explains this, or I’ll construct a more informed opinion myself.

      (Random aside: I have an impression of heat radiating from their stories. Not Californian heat, not African or Asian heat, not even Mediterranean heat. It’s very specific and maybe, in some convoluted way, connected to their vision of how magic creeps into life …)


    1. Yay!

      (It is an acquired taste if you haven’t already read that kind of style, but the free sample on the kindle should give you a good approximation.)

      Hope you enjoy it and if you get a chance let me know how you found it — I’d be curious to hear your impressions! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You know I love Latin American fiction, though I join you in wishing I could read the works in their original language. From time to time I reread One Hundred Years of Solitude; lately I have a desire to once again reread the collection of Borges stories. Borges is my absolute favorite. Top five for me, across all literature, languages and time periods.

    Liked by 1 person

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