Poesía de las Américas
Every literary school endures a little squabbling and the occasional feud, but poets in the Latin American schools faced a full-blown oedipal rivalry. Specifically, some considered Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda a patriarch of the previous generation, while others saw him as a hypocritical Stalinist who peddled empty rhetoric. Is it part of the artistic temperament to disrespect one’s elders? Or did a century of solitude and political upheaval make this group more mercurial than most?
In the beginning, there was Azul….
Published in 1888, Azul… is Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío’s first collection, a work of poetry and prose inspired by the afternoon sky and the “color of daydreams.” The book is praised for its restrained elegance, metric variety and wide subject matter. It celebrates the seasons, meditates on Darío’s stint as a customs inspector and simultaneously attacks the Latin American bourgeoisie. With this work, Darío, or “the Liberator,” as Jorge Luis Borges called him, launched the modernismo literary movement that revitalized Spanish-language literature and finally gave the Latin American colonies some cultural capital in the fin-de-siècle international arts community.
Modernistas include the celebrated Chilean poet and political figure Pablo Neruda, who, like Darío, revered American poet Walt Whitman and the French symbolist movement of art for art’s sake, practitioners of which included Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé. Nobody was more of an influence on Neruda than Darío, however. As Neruda once said, “Without [Darío] we would not speak our own tongue,...we would still be talking a hardened, pasteboard, tasteless language.”
Although Gabriel García Márquez called his mentor and friend Pablo Neruda “the greatest poet of the 20th century, in any language,” Neruda’s enduring fame owes almost as much to García Márquez, or Gabo, as he was known among friends and followers. Márquez was commander-in-chief of El Boom, the explosion of Latin American literature in the 1960s and 1970s. El Boom put a new spotlight on the modernismo and vanguardista literary movements, both of which were dominated by Neruda.
Neruda helped Gabo early on in the junior writer’s career, chumming around with him in Paris and Barcelona and even writing a poem titled “García Márquez.” The poem praises Gabo’s groundbreaking magical-realist novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), which, ironically, ended Latin American solitude for good—at least for literary figures like Neruda and García Márquez who went on to achieve international renown. Solitude was the breakout novel for García Márquez and the continent, but many are now more familiar with Gabo’s post-Boom book, Love in the Time of Cholera, thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement, a film starring Javier Bardem (2007) and its cameo on the long-running Fox animated sitcom The Simpsons as Love in the Time of Scurvy.
One might expect Roberto Bolaño to have revered Pablo Neruda. Both were, after all, Chilean. Both supported President Salvador Allende in the 1970s. Bolaño’s mother read Neruda’s poetry to him when he was a child, and his postmodern fiction borrows from the vanguardista school, of which Neruda was an integral part.
But Bolaño didn’t play well with others—especially not his colleagues who dominated El Boom, such as Gabriel García Márquez, whom he described as “a man thrilled to have known so many presidents and archbishops.” To Bolaño, the Boom generation was clichéd, politically naive and guilty of peddling Latin American stereotypes to the rest of the world. Nor did Bolaño spare Neruda’s “empty” poetry. He characterized reading Neruda as a “phase,” saying, “I never liked Neruda. At any rate, I would never call him one of my precursors. Anyone who was capable of writing odes to Stalin while shutting his eyes to the Stalinist terror doesn’t deserve my respect.” Bolaño expressed his contempt and disappointment for the Boom writers in his novel By Night in Chile (2000), which includes a fictionalized version of Neruda and savages hypocritical literati who continue to produce art even as their country falls apart.
The first thing a reader may ask is, “Why 2666?” Good question. And one that won’t get answered in Roberto Bolaño’s 900-page opus, the posthumously published 2666, which contains no references to the eponymous number whatsoever. (For that we must look to his 1998 novel, The Savage Detectives.) But this isn’t the only mystery surrounding Bolaño and his writing. Controversies abound: Is his depiction of a heroin addict in the short story “Beach” autobiographical? Was he, as he claimed, imprisoned under the oppressive regime of Chilean president Augusto Pinochet? Some allege he wasn’t even in Chile at the time, although the experience supposedly inspired his novel By Night in Chile (2000). Bolaño died of liver failure after wrestling with 2666, which many consider his masterwork, so we can’t interrogate him for the answers.
But now, post-posthumously, we can expect the eventual release of the “lost book” of 2666—part six of what was, as originally published, a five-part book. In 2009 two new manuscripts were discovered among Bolaño’s papers in Spain: the recently published novel Third Reich and, apparently, the real ending of 2666. We can only speculate about which mysteries will be solved—or, more likely, deepened.
Debauched French symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire may be better remembered for his love of opium, alcohol and prostitutes than his literary innovations. But Baudelaire is credited with reviving Romanticism and coining the term modernity to express “the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent” in art. His Flowers of Evil became a seminal critique of the transitory fragmentation of modern life. Not that modernity was all bad. “The Swan” (“Le Cygne”), dedicated to French author Victor Hugo, is simultaneously a lament and a promise of something new. An exiled swan is juxtaposed with a changing Paris to symbolize Baudelaire’s mythology of a new, thrilling literature.
Rubén Darío—born in 1867, the same year Baudelaire died—picked up where Baudelaire and later French symbolists left off, with poems written in a similar style and likewise designed to shock the bourgeoisie. Additionally, Darío took up Baudelaire’s theme of poets in exile, as well as his sense of tragic despair, and wrote obsessively of the swan, returning to it as an enduring symbol of eroticism and purity. Baudelaire may have been the first to articulate the fragmentation of modernity, but Darío immortalized its expression in the foundational text of the modernismo Latin literary movement, Azul….
The modernismo movement is most strongly associated with Rubén Darío and is in part a reaction against realism, as well as an assertion of South and Central America’s interest in and ability to play on the world stage. Darío is one of the few literary patriarchs of Latin America whose position seems essentially unchallenged: Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez and Roberto Bolaño alike praise and revere him, and even ornery Jorge Luis Borges acknowledges that “Darío’s place is central. It is not a live influence but a reference point: a point of arrival and a point of departure, a limit that has to be reached or surpassed.”
Borges appears to have surpassed the limit set by Darío with his notorious love of unreality. Through his poems, fables and labyrinthine fictions, Borges added new dimensions to modernismo and presaged both magical realism and Latin American postmodernism, of the kind Bolaño later practiced. Borges is uncharacteristically generous with the sacred cow that is Darío, saying, “I disbelieve in literary schools…but if I were forced to say from where my poems derive, I would say from…Darío.”
Rubén Darío may have spoken reverently about Charles Baudelaire, but Darío’s successor Jorge Luis Borges was less kind. Borges thought Baudelaire’s book of poetry The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal; 1857) was overrated. Of Baudelaire’s signal poem “The Swan” (“Le Cygne”), Borges said the “original failed to live up to the translation.”
Not that Borges didn’t appreciate French symbolist poetry, which had such cultural significance and resonance in the Latin literary scene. But Borges thought the old-guard French literati, such as Victor Hugo, were more talented than Baudelaire. Of the younger disciples, Borges judged Paul Verlaine to be Baudelaire’s better. And when Borges took a dislike to someone, he didn’t pull any punches. “It is ridiculous to fill literature with cushions and furniture and show evil in a positive light,” wrote Borges. “Baudelaire helps one gauge whether a person understands anything at all about poetry, whether he is an imbecile or not: Anyone who admires Baudelaire is an imbecile.”