Southern Cone (South America)

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Southern Cone (South America)

Kelly Austin

Southern Cone narratives have captured the attention of readers around the world partly because of supremely talented writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, José Donoso, Augusto Roa Bastos, Juan Carlos Onetti, and, more recently, Manuel Puig, Diamela Eltit, Luisa Valenzuela, Cristina Peri Rossi, and Roberto Bolaño. Then there is the unique notoriety of the region that inspires musicals, movies, documentaries, and histories about political upheaval. Critics, too, have accorded the Southern Cone novel greater attention than other novels in Latin America, with the exception of the Mexican novel. Popularity has shaped the region's narrative production, and critics have seen to it that these narratives receive special care and scrutiny.

Academic critics often stress the vicissitudes of the Southern Cone's novelistic production in terms of national and regional histories, especially political histories: for example, the nineteenth-century revolutionary struggles, the nineteenth-century dictatorship of Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, his enforcement of the official use of Guaraní in Paraguay, Perón's populism in Argentina, the struggle of the “common man,” the rise of the Left, the Pinochet and Perón dictatorships, the disappearance of tens of thousands of people, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, as well as the trials and triumphs of redemocratization. Academics write often of narratives of nation formation, dictatorship novels, and the novels of exile in the Southern Cone, although these genres are not peculiar to the region. Even as it is certain that Southern Cone novels respond to and are embedded in political histories, correlating the developments of these novels too closely with the geography and events of the nations that comprise the region—Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay—can easily obscure the intellectual and artistic independence of their extraordinary novelists. Exile, international travel, libraries filled with world literature, and cosmopolitan creativity—to name but a few—have contributed to Southern Cone novels of enormous import, just as political forces, local culture, and border-bounded intellectual arguments—to name but a few elements of the lives of Southern Cone novelists—have also contributed to Southern Cone novels of enormous import. Neither an aesthetic nor a political history alone can do justice to the developments of Southern Cone fiction. One might say, for purposes of introduction, that a history of the narratives spun in Southern Cone novels leads directly to questions concerning the literature and literary culture of newly forming (and constantly generated) nation-states.

This much may seem obvious, but the aesthetic positions taken by novelists and critics swirl, reverse, and rotate all around the eddies of individual national histories and of global intellectual priorities and preoccupations. To tie the novels of the Southern Cone closely to a unified history or even to differentiated histories of each nation would be as misleading as it would be to ignore the role of these histories in the founding of such a potent genre as the Southern Cone novel. What one wants is a way to see the political and social significance of these novels without attributing to such forces the very great artistic merit of individual novels.

From the mid-nineteenth century to the present, politics and art have been closely intertwined in the Southern Cone. In the 1840s, while Domingo Faustino Sarmiento was in exile, enforced by the Argentine Federalist government he criticized, he participated in what became a fundamental debate with Andrés Bello and José Victorino Lastarria about the formation and generation of language and literature in then-fledgling Latin American nations. As Efraín Kristal concludes:

they set up the terms in which discussions about cultural emancipation of Hispanic America have been framed ever since: whether to apply the positive elements of Hispanic America's cultural and historical heritage in an original way (which is Bello's project), or to try to make a clean slate of the Hispanic cultural and historical heritage, viewed as a barrier to modernity (which is Sarmiento's position). (68)

Bello holds to the preservation of a common language as a foundation for and sign of shared human heritage across vast geographical spaces. Sarmiento envisions language as positively malleable: it expresses distinct ideas in locally established forms, and also exercises the freedom to alter and invent forms to encourage the development of a distinct art in Latin America. These arguments urge that the theoretical commitments that drive our choices about language use go far to determine the nature of civilization in the New World. The conflict between preservation and change resurfaces in later debates regarding the status of indigenous languages in relation to colonial language. For our purposes in describing the rise of the Southern Cone novel, it is important to highlight the fact that these thinkers' concern over a future Latin America and literature of the Americas reflects the notion that intellectual foundations should arise from open, public debate among persuasive individuals.

Sarmiento's highly influential Facundo (1845) in many ways sets ideological patterns that shape the development of the novel in the Southern Cone (especially in Argentina), although critics have argued whether and to what extent they should place this eclectic work within the literary genre of the novel. To understand Sarmiento's role in the literary history of the Southern Cone, one must remember that he was not only a prose writer but a head of state. First, in response to the political divisions between the Federalists and the Unitarians that then dominated Argentina, Sarmiento creates a narrative that establishes Buenos Aires as a civilized center opposed to the barbaric lands to the west, the Pampa. Second, he helps to construct and entrench a prehistory for the nation by artfully elaborating an account—from the eastern city, Buenos Aires—of the life of the Gauchos in the west. Between the city center of Arts and Letters and the unthinkable threat of the Indigenous or the Pampas as Wilderness, the Gaucho represents a middleman who adheres to neither pole but is necessary to enable civilization: to build society, to facilitate progress, and, eventually, to serve his passing part in founding a nation with boundaries worthy of its visionaries. Eventually, during Sarmiento's own presidency, he sought to realize the settlement of the Pampas, the extension of the railroad and telegraph westward, and the extermination of the Indigenous populations. His extermination policy was, in large part, an horrendous consequence of his understanding of the U.S. as a model for modern progress.

Nineteenth-Century Romanticism, Realism, and Naturalism

Critics on the whole agree that in the Southern Cone three modes of prose fiction take hold in the nineteenth century: Romanticism, Realism, and Naturalism. Doris Sommer has argued, based in part on representative samples from these three modes, that the romantic love plots in Latin America often signify, obliquely or forthrightly, the desires for unified countries and the resolution of social conflict. Among the novels she treats in Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America is the first novel published by an Argentine, Amalia (1855), written in exile from the Rosas government while its author, José Mármol, was in Montevideo. This novel blends the influences of Romanticism with polemics against the Rosas government. Daniel and Amalia pursue impossible love within a plot filled with intrigue, political violence, and dissidence. The failure of their relationship mirrors what Mármol sees as the national failures of the country to progress within the chaos engendered by a Federalist Argentina. Since Amalia fails to protect the life of pro-Unitarian Daniel from the Federalists who seek to murder him, under the Federalist government the doomed romance of Daniel and Amalia in this pro-Unitarian novel names violence as one of the main reasons that Argentina is unable to resolve intranational differences.

The rise of Realism in the Southern Cone does not, as often is the case in literary history, shake free of its Romantic precursors. Martín Rivas (1862), the most critically recognized novel by Chilean Alberto Blest Gana, is written on the heels of a decade of civil discord. It emphasizes national unity, consensus despite conflict between classes and regions in Chile. Set in Antofagasta, it portrays the social conditions brought about by class difference, social rank, and political division, yet a love is ultimately realized between Martín and Leonor, a woman of a social class above Martín's own. The optimistic union of Romanticism and Realism in this novel turns a socially blocked love to one that can represent reconciliation. Blest Gana consciously attempts to apply the Realist techniques of European authors such as Honoré de Balzac, whom he read during his four years in France, to fictional themes germane to Chilean history. His later work Durante la reconquista (1897, During the Reconquest), although remaining close to Realist roots, incorporates the methods of Naturalism more boldly to critique a squandering upper-class society.

Years earlier, Argentine Eugenio Cambaceres wrote the novel critics claim comes closest to Naturalism in Spanish America, Sin Rumbo (1885, Without Direction), and charts this familiar theme of upper-class decadence. The novel centers rather relentlessly on the nausée of a landed Argentine who, as the title implies, represents a man who appears to have been born without sufficient fortitude and stability to take seriously his responsibilities as a landowner, a representative of his class, or, ultimately, as an exemplar of the ideals of manhood. When the tide seems to turn as he takes on the care of his illegitimate daughter, her death proves too much for him, and he commits a gruesome suicide. His character leads to his own destruction, but Cambaceres points to the more general danger of carelessness in “the man of a certain class” that may lead to widespread financial destruction and moral corruptness in the nation as a whole.

Early Twentieth-Century Modernismo and Vanguardia

The Southern Cone novel placed a premium on subjective experience, metaphysical questions, and aesthetic experimentation in its modernista and vanguardia incarnations. When Rubén Darío praises Francisco Contreras for his patriotism and cosmopolitanism in the prologue to La piedad sentimental: Novela rimada (1911, Sentimental Pity: A Rhymed Novel), Contreras's novel composed of poetry and prosaic verse advertises its ties with modernismo. Contreras follows the thoughts of the influential Uruguayan essayist José Enrique Rodó, who values both avant-garde experimentation and the maintenance of regional and local culture. Both are worthy of the aims of literature not only because innovation has at its foundation artifice rather than utility, but also because they encourage the enrichment of cultures along local lines. This is of special import to Rodó since he sees the pragmatism of the U.S. as encroaching on, and even threatening to, the diversity of Latin American habits. This similarity is striking since Contreras moved to and lived his entire life in Paris from 1905 onward. He shared this exile with a community of Latin American writers and intellectuals who hailed from such diverse places as Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, and Argentina: Rubén Darío; Enrique Gómez Carrillo; Amado Nervo; Ventura, Francisco, and José García Calderón; Rufino Blanco Fombano; and Enrique Larreta. In fact, Contreras became a part of French intellectual life as the contributor to the Mercure de France of a column called “Lettres hispano-américaines” (Hispano-American Letters) for over twenty years (Weiss, 8—9). Although at a great distance physically from Latin America, in Contreras's El pueblo maravilloso (1927, The Wonderful Town), published first in French in 1924 as La ville merveilleuse, he named a movement that proclaimed its subject to be based in community and history, focusing on land, tradition, and the people that would, like all superior literature, be interpreted by writers to reinforce through difference what he viewed as a shared primordial universality: mundonovismo.

Argentine Macedonio Fernández was a precursor of the ultraísta movement of the 1920s. His Papeles de recienvenido (1929, Papers of the recently arrived), although some would not strictly categorize it as a novel, later influenced the development of the novel in the 1960s and 1970s. The story consists in an accident in the street that leads a first-person narrator to a chain of apparently free associations that emphasize the absurdity, irrationality, humor, chanciness, and paradoxes of social and personal experience. Some of his most striking work was published posthumously: Adriana Buenos Aires (Última novela mala) (1974, Adriana Buenos Aires: The Last Bad Novel) and Museo de la novela de la Eterna (Primera novela buena) (1967, The Museum of Eterna's Novel: The First Good Novel). Only recently, seventeen years' worth of his correspondence with Jorge Luis Borges was published by Corrigedor. It reveals a meaningful literary bond of long mentorship and friendship that some critics believe inspired, developed, and refined Borges's opinions about issues many had previously believed to be largely particular to him (although Borges himself would likely disagree). The letters point especially to their shared preoccupation with how metaphysics (for example, the notion that our lives may be dreams) bears upon literary production.

It is widely known that Adolfo Bioy Casares collaborated closely with Borges. He began his career writing short fiction, and in 1937 he published his most significant work, La invención de Morel (The Invention of Morel). Borges wrote the introduction to this novel that incorporates Modernist and Surrealist aesthetic models. He draws upon avant-garde movements and cinematic technology to write a highly fragmented narrative that mimics filmic montage. It both undermines the notion of film's privileged relationship to reality and questions the ontological status of a novel. Further, he creates a protagonist who is also the narrator of the diary that largely comprises the text. Bioy Casares capitalizes on opportunities to destabilize the novel's referential truth value. For example, when the protagonist describes the island he fled to from Venezuela, he believes it is Villings, located in the archipelago Las Ellice (Ellis Islands). Bioy Casares turns editorial convention against itself by inventing an editor, N. del E., who writes his first footnote explaining that the identification is unlikely, since the island does not have the common characteristics of the islands of Las Ellice (Casares, 17). Bioy Casares innovates in order to turn the predominant literary themes of nation and local color toward cosmopolitanism.

Borges, it might be said, never penned a novel, yet in his own literary universe he just might have done so through translation. Borges fondly revised the fantastic, the detective genre, and the Gauchesque genre because of his faith and pleasure in human imagination and infinite libraries; he expressed gratitude for the accumulated art of the word, a glorious consolation for the writer who believes there is nothing new under the sun. In essays such as “Pierre Menard, el autor del Quixote” (1939, “Pierre Menard, the author of Quixote”), he reveals the ways that history creates readership. His ideas later appealed to the Boom writers, even though they would distance themselves from him politically. (The actions in question: Borges resigned from his position as the director of the Argentine National Library in 1973 when Perón was reelected, and he accepted an award from Augusto Pinochet, then dictator of Chile.)

In the first half of the twentieth century, Chilean María Luisa Bombal wrote two highly influential and beautiful narratives, La amortajada (1938, The shrouded woman) and La última niebla (1935, House of mist), that critique the national romance narrative in multiple ways. Her prose moves away from the dominant movements of the nineteenth century and toward more imaginative and experimental modes of writing: narrating a funeral from the point of view of an omniscient narrator and also from the perspectives of multiple characters in La amortajada, including that of the deceased woman. Bombal's French education, as well as her residence in Chile, Argentina, and the U.S., afforded her unique opportunities for contact with leading writers of the time, such as Borges and Pablo Neruda. Her unconventional aesthetic achievements were revisionary and forward-thinking, especially because she opened the category of gender to more varied representation than nineteenth-century national romance narratives had allowed.

Roberto Arlt, an Argentine, reoriented narrative on themes of the city, in his case Buenos Aires, with his first novel, El juguete rabioso (1926, Mad Toy), but with a difference. He turns away from the perils of social problems and policies and toward absurd characters. His character Silvio Astier not only feels degraded by the danger of the city (as Naturalism's characters regularly do), but contributes to his own degradation. He is a man who perpetrates random wrongdoing, yet remains impotent on the periphery of societal norms. He has not the full agency of a wicked person and thus is not held personally responsible for his offenses. Arlt's story hinges on both the senselessness of Astier's character and of his surroundings. This work influences Boom and post-Boom narratives, even as it reaches back to the concerns of Naturalist representation.

Mid-Twentieth-Century Realism

Writers indeed took a backward glance as the Southern Cone novel developed in the mid-century. Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, a Realist mode reemerged in order to express social protest. In Argentina and Paraguay, several works responded directly to living conditions during the Perón regime (1946—55) and the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954—89). Argentine Bernardo Verbitsky found fame as a Socialist-Realist novelist. His Un noviazgo (1956, An Engagement) tells of working-class suffering during political upheaval in the 1930s and 1940s. Paraguayan Gabriel Casaccia wrote La llaga (1964, The Sore) and Los exiliados (1966, The Exiled) in part to denounce Stroessner's militarized strategies of political repression. Yet La llaga interprets an attempted coup of the government by using the intimacy of interior monologue; the thoughts of some characters, among them Atilio and his mother Constancia, open the public protest novel to personal stories of psychological complexity and sexual perversion. The Chilean generation of 1938 declared as their aims political and social reform in urban settings. Among these writers, the most critically recognized are Carlos Droguett and Fernando Alegría. Droguett's historical novel Eloy (1960) fictionally relates the last hours of the outlaw Eliodoro Hernández Astudillo's life from his own perspective, one that includes consciousness of his inevitable death. Droguett's Patas de perro (1965, Dog's Paws), on the other hand, pursues an unrealistic premise—a man born with dog's paws (Bobi)—to explore, through interior monologue and free indirect speech, the psychological and social consequences of an unwilled transgression of society's norms. Alegría's Los días contados (1968, The Counted Days) uses similar novelistic techniques as he reveals in the life of a boxer the range and depth of human experience in Santiago's slums. In the final chapter, Alegría takes advantage of the literal meaning of his name when he writes himself as narrator and/or author into the plot. In the end, he implies that a character told him the story of his novel. She says, symbolically, “Adiós Alegría” (literally, “Goodbye Happiness”), and he replies, “Adiós Anita,” ending his book with a melancholy metatextual flourish. Although Chilean Marta Brunet shares concerns and methods with Drogett and Alegría, her extensive body of work was considered controversial when it first appeared. Her most ambitious and appreciated novel, Humo hacia el sur (1946, Smoke toward the South), focuses on women's lives in a boom town in southern Chile in 1905. She explores how the individual is shaped by social dynamics, especially the forces of gender and class norms. The pressure of daily life in the mid-century was so great that even very talented writers reached back in the history of the novel to produce an art sufficiently rich in the representation of social life to express the political moment.

Mid-Twentieth-Century Modernisms

There was also a rejuvenation of Modernist aesthetics in mid-century. One sees plainly in a number of novels the main literary and intellectual currents of Europe moving through the literary culture in the Southern Cone. Leopoldo Marechal, Felisberto Hernández, and Ernesto Sábato all drew from and contributed to what is known as World Literature. Marechal's most important work was Adán Buenosayres (1948). He claimed a forefather in James Joyce's Ulysses that he adapted to his native Buenos Aires; instead of Homer, Genesis was his intertext. Its eponymous hero makes his way through the city as Bloom did, in a mixture of modes, languages, and moods. Catholic and Peronist, Marechal thumbed his nose at what he saw as the liberal literary establishment.

The great Modernist lessons seemed to authorize some novelists' freedom from the political and social commitments of the preceding generation of intellectuals. For example, Uruguayan Hernández focuses his narrative works on unusual, surrealistic (not representative) scenes. He was admired by Julio Cortázar and known as a precursor of the neo-fantastic. Perhaps his most famous work, Las hortensias (1945, The Daisy Dolls), represents the power of a subject's psyche to animate empirical objects. Hernández creates a story of a man's obsession with dolls that borders on fetishism and pornography. And yet the narrative fosters sympathy by portraying the dolls as objects of love. The novella creates just enough narrative distance to make a reader feel complicit in these fantasies and to hold her at bay with the omission of crucial details.

Ernesto Sábato in particular is an Argentine artist to be reckoned with in post-WWII circles. His involvement with the canonical Argentine literary magazine, Sur, helped him to make an early mark. His novels Sobre heroes y tumbas (1961, On Heroes and Tombs) and Abaddón, el exterminador (1974, Abaddon, the Exterminator) are widely considered major works. Yet Sábato's El túnel (1948, The Tunnel) is perhaps one of the most popular Latin American novels that center on both city life and existentialist agency. The protagonist's perspective, that of Juan Pablo Castel (whose first names he shares with Jean-Paul Sartre), puts weight on the choices of the individual in this novel. The narration of his story from jail only heightens the sense that each of us is alone; Castel's misunderstanding of his lover and subsequent murder of her reveals the ways that accidents and disorder set limits on reason vis-à-vis deliberative choice. Mid-century writers in the Southern Cone, then, resourcefully developed literary precedents within their own traditions as well as the literary and philosophical life of Europe and the U.S. at the time.

Latter Twentieth-Century Skepticism and the Boom

A general intellectual courage seemed accessible not to any one party or school of thought, but to several novelists in the 1950s. One sees in Southern Cone novels, then, a development of independent skepticism. Argentine David Viñas, for instance, was among those who questioned not only Perón populism, but the nation's institutions generally and its people of influence. His work reflects a neorealism, an effort to represent social life as it was actually experienced, rather than as it had been imagined. Although Los años despiadados (1956, The Ruthless Years) takes aim at a society virtually contemporary with its writing, Viñas was especially concerned with historical accuracy when he told this story about the friendship of a middle-class boy and a proletarian boy who is associated with peronismo. In one of his most critically acclaimed novels, Cayó sobre su rostro (1955, He Fell on His Face), Viñas layers multiple viewpoints in order to revise radically the official history of one of Argentina's acclaimed heroes: General and later President Julio A. Roca, the “Conqueror of the Desert.” Roca's 1879 military attacks on the Indigenous in Patagonia are exposed in the novel as having been devastatingly violent and fraudulently rationalized.

Juan Carlos Onetti, who lived in Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and Paris, is considered the most important Urugayan novelist in the twentieth century; his work reflects an impressive intellectual integrity. His skeptical search for meaning through existentialist philosophies brought his novels to the attention of writers in the decade preceding the Boom of the 1960s. He deftly adapted European and American Modernist aesthetics in his major novels: La vida breve (1950, A Brief Life), Los adioses (1951, The Goodbyes), and El astillero (1961, The Shipyards). In these novels he employs doppelgängers, a narrator with multiple versions of the story, and a continual sense of alienation in his invented city of Santa María (placing him between the Yoknapatawpha County of Faulkner and the MacOndo of García Márquez). In his final novel, Dejemos hablar al viento (1979, Let the Wind Speak), his skepticism moves as close as one may, while still writing, to nihilism. Medina, the protagonist of many Onetti novels, loses his battle to create a world for himself in Santa María. Many of the bases on which individuals and collectives may create meaning and value—capitalist success, romantic love, religion, psychoanalytic cures, and utopian politics—come to nothing in the novel; a reader inevitably arrives at the dark sense that all these means to satisfaction are equally empty. In 1980 Onetti received the Miguel de Cervantes literary prize.

Augusto Roa Bastos is the preeminent Paraguayan novelist, but this does not take one far in assessing his literary achievement. His 1959 Hijo de hombre (Son of Man) combines the use of the indigenous language Guaraní, virtually independent chapters, and highly metaphorical writing in a Modernist-inspired style that revises official histories of both the colonial period and the 1930s Chaco War. In his masterpiece, Yo, el supremo (1974, I, the Supreme), Roa Bastos offers a fictional autobiography and metafictional account of the nineteenth-century Paraguayan dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia. Written under the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, this novel is often read as a veiled attack on Stroessner's regime. The novel has achieved preeminence among dictatorship novels and New Historical novels, and has become one of the most comprehensive metatextual manuals since Don Quixote. As John King writes:

It is impossible to summarize this extraordinary novel in a few lines. It incorporates the latest developments in linguistic theory and practice, talks of the arbitrariness and unreliability of language that purports to describe reality, rereads and comments upon the various histories and travelers' accounts of Paraguay, ranges across the breadth of Latin American history, implicitly condemning Stroessner and debating with Fidel Castro, and exploring once again the gap between writer and reader. (291—98)

The dictator and his secretary exemplify the Chinese boxes of interest in written and voiced multilingualism; the dictator pronounces and the secretary records truth and lies as autobiography is framed within the novel. Thus the aesthetic method creates and resists the novel as auto-verifiable.

Julio Cortázar—Argentine short-story writer, novelist, and translator—plays a central role in Latin American letters in the twentieth century, even though after 1951 he lived in exile in Paris. In addition to his highly influential collections of short stories (1951, Bestiario, Bestiary; 1956, Final del juego, End of the Game; 1962, Historias de cronopios y de famas, Cronopios and Famas; 1965, Las armas secretas, The Secret Weapons; and 1966, Todos los fuegos el fuego, All Fires the Fire), Cortázar wrote one of the most seminal and lauded novels of Latin America: Rayuela (1963, Hopscotch), a book as hip as its readers, and just as likely to send them up as itself. As his lector cómplice (complicit reader) we are free to read the novel chronologically, page after page, or in another order suggested by the text, even as this alternative reading leads us to an endless back-and-forth between two chapters. In this alternative reading, the progress of the text relies finally on the reader's effort, paralleled by that of the narrator, Morelli, an emblem of the novelist's desire for an active reader. On the other hand, La Maga advocates for a lector hembra or lector pasivo (passive reader), a position that is as easily defensible in the textual world of Rayuela, a turn as much toward happenstance as toward order. The novel establishes a dialectic of the narrated life of Horacio Oliveira between Paris and Buenos Aires, destinations of order and the annihilation of order: sex, alcohol, mate, and jazz. Between the narrator and his character lie the perils of existential freedom and literary liberation from tradition. One should recognize that the general literary success of the Southern Cone novel has, in some part, depended on translation. Cortázar in particular has been very well served by his collaborators. His 62; modelo para armar (1968, 62; A Model Kit) and Libro de Manuel (1972, A Manual for Manuel) have also attracted wide attention among literary critics, thanks partly to their masterful translation into English by Gregory Rabassa.

Chilean José Donoso became an integral part of the Boom, though he has been less recognized outside of Latin America. Unlike his Boom contemporaries, Donoso shied away from grand, explicitly historical novels about Latin America. An elite education at the Grange School led him to meet Carlos Fuentes, a lifelong friend, and to begin his practice as a writer. He eventually studied at Princeton, encountering R. P. Blackmur and Allen Tate. During the 1950s Donoso was stylistically bound neither to the Realist aesthetics of his contemporaries nor to those of the Modernists. He then wrote psychologically driven novels, such as Coronación (1957, Coronation). The criticism this book expressed of the Chilean oligarchy was amplified in his novel Este domingo (1966, This Sunday). This stylistic tendency continued into what many consider his masterpiece, El obsceno pájaro de la noche (1970, The Obscene Bird of Night). Donoso concerned himself with creating surreal dreamlike states, the psychological and emotional conditions of characters who lie, for some reason or another, on the margins of society. The narrator Mudito, Humberto Peñalosa—a frustrated or aspiring writer—along with Jerónimo and Inés Azcoitía and their deformed son, whom they conceal on their estate, La Rinconada, may be the main players in El obsceno pájaro. Yet, the fact that the novel never settles on a consistent narrator, or on a main character, or even on a plot heightens the purposefully dizzying metadiscursive experiments of the novel. Donoso undermines the notion of a safe vantage point from which to construct stable hierarchies. Casa de campo (1978, A House in the Country) creates two worlds that exist simultaneously but cannot both be true. On the paradox of the adults of the Ventura y Ventura family enjoying a pleasant picnic day away from the manor while the children simultaneously endure the onslaughts of nature, attacks by the indigenous, political schisms, and more over the course of a year in the country manor, Donoso creates a novel that critiques the Pinochet dictatorship, the entire history of Chile, and various artistic and literary codes. For example, the famous entrance of the author as a character in the novel speaks to an awareness of reading models and expectations that heighten a reader's suspicion of his or her own practices. Donoso is also well known for other works: El lugar sin límites (1966, Place without Limits), Historia personal del “boom” (1972, The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History), and El jardín de al lado (1981, The Garden Next Door).

The Late Twentieth-century Post-Boom

Argentine Manuel Puig's La traición de Rita Hayworth (1968, The Betrayal of Rita Hayworth) forthrightly shifts the art of the novel. He subtly uses popular culture, especially film, and employs a vertiginous narrative technique of multiple narrators and dialogue to disperse narrative authority. The absence of a controlling narrator undermines the stability of a world that shuns Toto's burgeoning sexuality. Puig especially trains a critical light on unjust principles that undergird the popular and the elite in equal measure. The novel that won Puig world acclaim was El beso de la mujer araña (1976, Kiss of the Spider Woman), which both undermines and recuperates mainstream gender and genre thoughts and practices. By layering low and high cultural elements in the context of a relationship between one man imprisoned for his politics and another for an affair with a young man, Puig constructs a critical perspective on civic and private autonomy in the 1970s.

The famous first words of Argentine Ricardo Piglia's Respiración artificial (1979, Artificial Respiration), “¿Hay una historia?” (Is there a history, a story?; historia means both history and story), indicate the multiple ambitions of this novel: to negotiate the strictures of official history imposed by political regimes and institutionalized narratives, the poststructuralist assault on the referential value of language, literature's capacity to intervene in social life, the ability of narratives to capture the heart, and, most of all, singularity. The novel is divided into two parts. The first concerns Emilio Renzi's collaboration with his uncle in telling the story of Juan Manuel Rosas and his private secretary, Enrique Ossorio. In the second, a Pole named Vladimir Tardewski, who lives in Argentina, narrates a conversation of some twenty hours' length about Argentine political and cultural history. Taken together, the two parts of Piglia's novel forefront the collaborative construction of national histories and language.

Critics group Chilean Diamela Eltit with Piglia as prominent postmodern writers in Latin America. Their work reflects the influence of recent literary and political theory, and the alignment of the novel with the intellectuality of the academic sector. Because she remained in Chile throughout the Pinochet dictatorship, Eltit holds the status of an artist of “inner exile.” Her first book, Lumpérica (1981), is a morbidly fascinating, ethically troubling book about the body, language, capitalism, commodities, public pressure, public display, exposure, and power—subjects well known to academic intellectuals. Her prose frames a multiply named woman vagabond as if through the lens of a camera. Through analysis of the sacred and the profane Eltit critiques a country under revised and, often, disorienting codes regarding the traditions of both in Chile. In truth, the most compelling hold her writing has over its reader comes from its density. The novel's title, perhaps the least example of its poetic prowess, provides an amazing neologism combining lumpen with américa where Eltit reaches for a wide audience for a subject below social boundaries and polite discourse. Some of her other acclaimed works are Por la patria (1986, For the Mother Country) and Vaca sagrada (1991, Sacred Cow).

Argentine Luisa Valenzuela writes one of the most complexly surreal and simultaneously allegorical and realist novels in all of Latin American history about the Dirty War in her homeland: La cola de lagartija (1983, Lizard's Tail). El Brujo, the protagonist of her novel, stands in for José López Rega, a Rasputin figure who became the Minister of Social Wellbeing when Isabela Perón was the regime's figurehead. Valenzuela's use of the doppelgänger, signifying fictional and real accounts, emancipates the confusing emotions of those living under the regime's control. When it is most important to distinguish the real from the fictional, beyond all poststructuralist accounts, she writes a provocative narrative about what one might believe as real and true. Her magnificent play with the acronym for the Alianza Anticomunista Argentina (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance), AAA; the attempts by La Bruja to auto-impregnate himself with his third testicle, Estrella, as a vesicle; and her devastating accounts of the rivers of blood all reveal amazing control of language, especially in the second part. She signs her name to the first part, announcing her authorial effort to transform the novel into a meta-testimonial account of her search for her missing lover. In the juxtaposition of the radically different discursive parts of the novel Valenzuela may make her most important intervention into the dictatorship novel, realizing in one book the power and persuasiveness for both oppressor and oppressed of diverse novelistic strategies. Her most striking novels include Aquí pasan cosas raras (1975, Strange Things Happen Here) and Cambio de armas (1982, Other Weapons).

For political reasons, Cristina Peri Rossi left Uruguay for Spain in 1972 and eventually became a citizen there. Her novel Nave de los locos (1984, The Ship of Fools) uses multiple narrators and an avant-garde pastiche travel narrative to explore the plight of exile, migration, and estrangement. The protagonist, Equis, points to her engagement with Foucault and other theorists (as the title suggests an allusion to Madness and Civilization). Not only does the ship of fools refer to the stories of medieval practices of exclusion, but also, in this novel, to a busload of pregnant women on their way from Spain to an abortion clinic in London and elusive concentration camps. One's inability to locate precisely the concentration camps makes the horror extend, through displacement, across the world. She creates situations that push an openly universal agenda where the horror takes place in many locales, not only in the local one. These ethical dilemmas inevitably hit home. The final scene in the final chapter of the novel famously complicates performativity by portraying Equis finding Lucía (previously disappeared) in a transvestite club, in an act where she is dressed as a man, impersonating Charlotte Rampling, impersonating Helmut Berger, impersonating Marlene Dietrich in drag, dancing with a partner who wishes to be someone she desires to be, and who seems to be Dolores del Río (Kantaris, 74). Peri Rossi is thus a part of a wave of post-Boom writers who examine and engage contemporary philosophies of identity, language, and place.

Turn-of-the-Century Trends

Indeed, since the late 1990s the Southern Cone narrative has engaged increasingly global themes and audiences. Chilean Isabel Allende is one of the most commercially successful writers to emerge from the Southern Cone. Her first novel, Casa de los espíritus (1982, The House of the Spirits), is widely recognized as a rewriting of Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad (1967, One Hundred Years of Solitude). Set in Chile, it blends historical fact with extravagant invention; Allende made a critical incursion into the genre of magical realism. She stays relatively true to the magical realist style as she chronicles four generations of the Trueba-del-Valle family, even as she focuses especially on the matrilineal: Nívea, Clara, Blanca, and Alba. Her most significant turn from the Boom is an alternative ethical gesture implied by the temporality of the final chapter. Although Allende's novel can be read as circular, since the last words echo the first, it proposes that telling and retelling are ethically progressive in combating forgetting. The worst injustice from this point of view is a life condemned to oblivion. Moreover, Alba's narration in the final chapter points to forgiveness rather than vengeance as a proper reaction to the atrocities of the military coup of 1973. Allende's second most acclaimed book about Chile is De amor y de sombra (1985, Of Love and Shadows), and she continues to write prolifically in the U.S.

Chilean Alberto Fuguet has written a series of novels in the wake of being among those who founded the influential literary group McOndo in 1996. His most widely read and acclaimed novel, Mala onda (1991, Bad Vibes), portrays the lives of teenagers in Santiago de Chile caught up in a globalized and fast-paced world unknown to previous generations. Its abundant use of slang and countercultural references explore youth culture alongside an increasingly open discontent with the Pinochet dictatorship in the early 1980s.

Roberto Bolaño became the darling and talented enfant terrible of many recent accounts of the Southern Cone novel. He was born in Chile but spent much of his life wandering through France, Mexico, and El Salvador, and he finally settled in Spain. Stories of his “vagabond” or “beatnik” life have fascinated contemporary critical accounts: was he actually detained by the forces of the 1973 Chilean coup? Was he truly a recovered heroin addict? One wonders whether these conjectures derive from a sensationalist journalist looking for the Romantic in the modern writer, or the author's efforts to show how stories and representations, even of the self, both reveal and conceal. Bolaño's career as a novelist is astonishingly dense in the ten years before his death in 2003: La pista de hielo (1993, The Skating Rink), Literatura nazi en América (1996, Nazi Literature in the Americas), Estrella distante (1996, Distant Star), Los detectives salvajes (1998, The Savage Detectives), Amuleto (1999), Monsieur Pain (1999), Nocturno de Chile (2000, By Night in Chile), and Amberes (2002, Antwerp). The most highly acclaimed novel published during his lifetime was Los detectives salvajes. In this postmodern detective novel, the array of voices describing the literary and adventurous ramblings of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano lets the reader know she is on unstable ground. In the opening and final section, Juan García Madero describes his involvement with Ulises and Arturo, ever-promising writers who lead a literary group that espouses radical and erratic literary doctrine. In the end, the group is whittled down to these same three characters and a prostitute they are attempting to protect as they quixotically attempt to find a nearly forgotten poet of the 1920s avant-garde. Their only evidence of her work is a sheet of indecipherable writing. In the middle, various voices narrate the destinies of Ulises and Arturo. Contradictions and coincidences entice the reader to attempt to weave together the story of their lives while making it impossible to connect the warp and weft of their tapestry. The novel 2666 (2004) was unfinished and published posthumously, but critics concur that its dense allusions and postmodern devices identify ethical dilemmas of literature confronted by the world's horrors.


The push and pull between local and cosmopolitan communities needed thoughtful answers as Southern Cone political beliefs and national literatures evolved. Each novelist was called upon to write according to his conscience and to develop the gifts of Spanish in the Americas. The growth of the Southern Cone novel relied, like most literature, upon an individual mustering his widest resources to confront the most important dilemmas at hand.


1. Bioy Casares, A. (1983), Invención de Morel.

2. Kantaris, E.G., (1995), Subversive Psyche.

3. King, J. (1987), “Augusto Roa Bastos,” in Modern Latin American Fiction.

4. Kristal, E. (1993), “Dialogues and Polemics,” in Sarmiento and His Argentina, ed. J.T. Criscenti.

5. Weiss, J. (2002), Lights of Home.