- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 8, 2002

For those who believe no one wrote literary criticism worth reading after Matthew Arnold take note: You may be right judging from the stuff that pours out of academic presses these days.

Jean Franco's "The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City," a lengthy treatise on Latin American writing of the last generation, seems to fit into that category. Here all the buzz words of the left neoliberalism, globalization are the leading concerns. There are too the usual swipes against the United States and its waging of the Cold War employing writers in a surreptitious fashion against the Red Menace. Though it should be mentioned that despite the book's subtitle, the Cold War does not get much attention after the early chapters. Still, the leftist mode persists. Che Guevara is still referred to as a "secular saint" an honorific even the Argentine malcontent would have eschewed.

But wait, that's not quite it either. For those curious about Latin American literature and there must be quite a few judging from the U.S. sales of novels by Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others the book does provide glimpses of a literature that still is poorly understood outside Latin America, while many of the writers discussed are hardly known at home either.

The jargon often doesn't help, but there are stretches of description and analysis written in plain English instead of the Aesopian verbiage of the academic scribbler read only by dutiful graduate students and untenured professors.

The author apparently has little use for the term "magical realism," which is something also positive to say about her taste in fact, the term was first used in the 1920s in Europe and then and now conveys very little. But magical realism says a lot about what's wrong with the region's literature, meaning it remains derivative mostly from Europe where Latin America's writers still take their cues.

Then there is the author's take on Ernesto Cardenal, Nicaraguan poet, priest, former Sandinista minister of culture and general nuisance. For years, until the thuggish Somoza government broke it up, Mr. Cardenal ran a kind of campesino commune called Solentiname where he labored to produce a simple, folkloric style of writing from his beloved masses even though, as the author rightly points out, the masses were not particularly interested since they took delight in intricate wordplay.

The side shots against this kind of rearguard collectivist approach to literature, however, are many too few. The author remains a woman of the left with all the baggage of the 1960s and the 1970s even the '50s firmly in place. Yes, she acknowledges the failure of the utopian aspects of the left in Latin America and elsewhere, but that's only a dodge. She gives a pass to Rigoberta Menchu, a self-styled spokeswoman for Guatemala's oppressed Indians. Unfortunately, she also is a documented liar, but the left has it that she was merely speaking in symbolic language. Piffle.

The author gives another pass to Guevara and never considers the totalitarian aspects of his desire to create a new socialist man. Ditto for Chile's Salvador Allende who is portrayed as simply a victim of the country's ruthless military. Argentina's military gets the usual rake-over for its part in the guerra sucia (dirty war), but no mention is made of the civilian government preceding the coup that carried out equally despicable and illegal acts against supposed rebels. The real rebels the violent men of the left get a pass as well.

There are, in short, too many passes. And that raises the broader question of the utter failure of the left in the region. It wasn't merely a failure of the utopian vision; the left in Latin America has been a disaster for the region's economies, its politics, its peace of mind. The author's apparent belief that Latin America's many ills can now be pinned on neoliberalism invites a robust raspberry. The same with the evils of consumerism and globalization. I doubt few in Argentina's suddenly impoverished middle class and the marginals of every republic south of the Rio Bravo are much concerned with consumerism when they are not sure where their next meal is coming from.

As for globalization, to insist that North American feminism, among other totems, should be part of the Latin American artistic effort is a kind of weird globalization that could well stand a critique of its own.

Will it happen? Not likely.


Roger Fontaine served on the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.


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