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!
- 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.
- The Unknown University, Roberto Bolaño. Poetry and lyrical fragments, especially poignant and raw in the first half of the English translation.
- The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, Bruno Schulz.
- Murakami vs Bolaño: competing visions of the global novel, article 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.