It’s tempting to generalize after reading three recent books from the southern tip of Latin America. What do they tell us about the continent and its literature today? Yet what is most interesting is what the books tell us about themselves: that the era of military dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, in the ’70s and ’80s, imbues them with an unforgettable sense of melancholy and loss, nostalgia and rage; that the spirit of Borges, more than García Márquez, hovers over these haunted tales of bloody pasts.
In The Tango Singer, the latest novel by Tomás Eloy Martínez, author of Santa Evita and The Peron Novel, Borges is everywhere. The book moves at a feverish, thriller-like pace, yet it is also riddled with false turns and fictions, mazes and puzzles. Bruno Cadogan, an American grad student researching Borges’s essays on the tango, arrives in Argentina just in time to watch the twin towers collapse on TV while the city around him descends into chaos and the economy crumbles. Staying at a lodging house rumored to be the setting for Borges’s famous story “The Aleph,” Cadogan tries vainly to make sense of Buenos Aires, a palimpsest where each corner, each building, conceals a secret history. But as Cadogan follows the trail of Julio Martel, an ailing, enigmatic tango singer who only appears at random locations around town, he begins to see Buenos Aires in a different light.
Martel’s performances, in fact, are exorcisms that map out a sinister subterranean universe, where “the smell of human sorrow” still clings to the land. From Club Atlético, the grisly “pit of torment” during the years of dictatorship, to Las Heras park and the tunnel beneath the obelisk at Plaza de la República, these are sites where citizens were murdered and tortured, abducted and “disappeared.” The soulful tangos, like the aleph of Borges’s story, somehow encompass the essence of the city. “This voice eluded any description because it was itself the tale of the past and future of Buenos Aires,” writes Eloy Martínez.
Roberto Bolaño, the author of 10 novels and two story collections, was something of a medium too. (He died in 2003.) His stories channel the turbulent history of Chile and, especially, the scattering of its “failed generation” of radicals and idealists after the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende. Last Evenings on Earth contains some of the most achingly dark stories you’ll read for a long time—farewell letters from a drowning generation and a dying man. Here, we travel out from Chile to Mexico City and Barcelona and beyond, following the autobiographical trajectory of Bolaño himself. And what a bedraggled lot of characters we cross: second-rate writers, fringe poets and revolutionaries, aging adventurers, insomniacs, recluses, and vagabonds.
But their grainy, wayward existences don’t mean they’re out of focus: Bolaño has a laser eye and a frank, confessional first-person voice as relentless as it is irresistible. His “infra-realism” sears through the book’s world-weary characters. “That night when he went back to his hotel, he wept for his dead children and all the other castrated boys,” Bolaño writes in “Mauricio (‘The Eye’) Silva,” “for his own lost youth, for those who were young no longer and those who died young, for those who fought for Salvador Allende and those who were too scared to fight.” This is vintage Bolaño: Just behind the nervy, deadpan narrative a total breakdown perpetually looms.
If Bolaño’s writing, like Martel’s singing, is an incantation—against horror, against defeat, against oblivion—Eduardo Galeano’s is a bittersweet affirmation. The Uruguayan author’s vignettes stitch together tales of wonder and terror, love and war, and just about everything in between. Are these koans, fables, experiences, or testimonials? And why is a passage about Diego Maradona shimmying up next to ones about Rigoberta Menchú, Sebastião Salgado, José Saramago’s grandfather, and an anonymous tango singer? Because Galeano, author of the groundbreaking “Memory of Fire” trilogy, is a collector of stories, a clairvoyant reared in the cafés of Montevideo who, like Bolaño, carries with him a multitude.
He, too, sings of the dead, the tortured, the brutalized; like Bolaño, he resuscitates an endless array of friends, comrades, and fellow travelers. He recounts epic soccer matches, his wife’s dreams, small acts of defiance, and great migrations of people across the world. (Some pieces have the epic sweep of a Salgado photo; others echo the miniature doodles of Cortázar.) And Galeano isn’t afraid to preach: He rails against dictators, the power-drunk, the international syndicate of banks that feeds off of global inequality and poverty. But he also chuckles at the henpecked husband, the well-endowed ant, and the silent advice of trees, wind, cats, and the moon. His vision is pan-Latin, pan-species—the centuries run through him like an electric current. Read these three books and you’ll see history pass before your eyes too, as if at a séance. Here, indeed, are “the voices of time.” If anything, they tell us that Latin American literature is once again booming.