Booktrotting Log: So Long, South America

At last; after four months and five novels, the first leg of my Booktrotting World Tour has come to end on the shores of Argentina. Since September I’ve run with gangland drug barons in Jamaica, cooked in a magic kitchen in Mexico, lived under the cloud of civil war in Colombia, prowled with guerrilla fighters along Brazil’s Araguaia River, and learnt what it is to grow up in an impoverished Argentine village.

Willem Jansz. Blaeu, 1630
Willem Jansz. Blaeu, 1630

Starting my journey in Latin America was a bit of a happy accident. Had I not already been partway through Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings when I decided to undertake this project, I probably would have started on more familiar European or US territory. And even then, once I finished with Jamaica I was still planning on hopping as and where I liked between countries, until I thought there might be a more cohesive bigger picture to be seen if I moved logically through each continent, as if this were a real globetrotting road trip.

But although I’d never originally planned to move southwards from Jamaica to Argentina, I’m glad I did so in the end. For starters, it meant beginning with a whole list of books and authors I’d never heard of before, and from countries I knew next to nothing about, which is of course what this project is all about.

But I also noticed pretty quickly that my hunch about the bigger picture was rather spot on. Spread out and on their own, these five novels would still have provided an interesting new perspective on their authors’ home countries, but together they also form a very consistent and very revealing picture of Latin America as a whole.

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Diego Gutiérrez, 1562

One of the most obvious themes to keep emerging from these novels was violence. Whether it came in the form of revolutionary- or civil-war, bloody gangland violence, or smaller but equally-potent episodes of domestic cruelty, violence has been one of my most constant travel companions on the road through Latin America.

That wasn’t something I was expecting when I went into this—I knew Marlon James had quite the reputation as a bloodthirsty author and that Evelio Rosero’s The Armies would inevitably feature Colombia’s ongoing civil war on centre stage, but as for the others I had no idea they would be so similar in that regard.

But even more surprising for me was how this superficial theme of violence was tied up with the idea of identity and change.

Whether by an act of providence or by sheer dumb luck, the five books I chose for this particular region each centre on an episode of historic change or upheaval for their respective countries. They show Marlon James’ Jamaica caught in the crossfire between two opposing political fronts; revolution in Laura Esquivel’s Mexico and Adriana Lisboa’s Brazil; Evelio Rosero’s Colombia losing itself in the shadow of civil war; and finally, in Manuel Puig’s Argentina, they show traditional society being shaken to its core, in the years prior to the ousting of Juan Perón in the Revolución Libertadora.revolucionarios_tabasquen%cc%83os

For each one of these periods of change, conflict is almost an integral part, either because of the nature of revolution or because such events are so inflammatory. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether the violence is a means for change or just a symptom of it. Rosero’s The Armies seemed the only exception—in that violence itself through the Colombian Conflict was the thing that needed changing—although it still shared with its peers the idea that the people needed to be stirred up and inflamed if they were going to make any difference.

And this also filters down to the smaller questions of identity in these novels, the personal journeys undertaken by the characters. Again and again, violence, tragedy and hardship seem to be the catalysts needed to set characters in motion—Tita in Like Water for Chocolate and Toto in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth are both motivated by the oppression of their families and tradition; Crow Blue‘s Vanja only goes in search of her father after the sudden death of her mother; and for Ismail in The Armies, his sense of self begins to unravel when his town is attacked and his wife is kidnapped by paramilitaries.

But thinking about it with a little hindsight, I shouldn’t have been too surprised to see conflict playing such a role in both national politics and individual lives. After all, much of the Latin America we know today was forged by conflict, thanks to the good Christian missions of sixteenth century conquistadors like Cortés and Pizarro; and when the bloody conquest of an indigenous people forms such a key foundation in a region’s past, it’s almost inevitable that violence and its capacity to bring change will endure in the national psyche. You don’t even have to add in the volatile nature of the pre-conquest tribal societies, or the numerous wars that have scarred the continent since, to wonder why bloodshed doesn’t feature even more than it already does in Latin American literature.

Pedro Lira, Fudacion de Santiago, 1888
Fudación de Santiago, Pedro Lira, 1888

In fact, it’s a little annoying that I’ve still got five more continents to Booktrot through—I’ve enjoyed this first portion so much, I’d happily spend the rest of the year reading Latin American literature and exploring further the links between violence, identity and change.

But even though I’m continuing on to Oceania now, I’ve got a few Latin American books to keep me going on the side. Obviously, Gabriel García Márquez is going to be my next port of call in Colombia, and I’m itching to have a look at Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector, who has been promisingly described to me as Brazil’s answer to Virginia Woolf. And of course, there are still nine South American countries I haven’t touched on this trip, so I shall have to dip into each of them before long—with that in mind, I guess I best get a move on.

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