Friday, April 27, 2007

Latin Literary Rock Stars

Yesterday, another panel of the PEN international writers festival, this time with 4 young writers from Latin America. The panel was called "Gritty Realism", as opposed to "Magical Realism", something that at this point we are all exhausted of. We want to get off the literary merry-go-round that seems to imply that anything ever written in Spanish has flying grandmothers and people who eat butterflies. So now we have writers who write about the world that surrounds them: a world in which the absurd is a daily occurrence, but as Jorge Franco (Rosario Tijeras), from Colombia, said, reality in our countries is exaggerated enough, the writer doesn't need to embellish.
Just for clarification, the greatest, and to my mind the only worthy example of magical realism is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and he has always been far more soundly on the side of the real than on the side of the magical. This is something his countless cheap imitators have never been able to grasp. So they come up with people who fly or eat mole with rose petals or see crabs in the sky for no reason.
Guillermo Arriaga, from Mexico, was there. He has written screenplays (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) and novels. Although his movies are highly melodramatic, he counts himself on the side of reality and action. A very charismatic guy, with a big personality. Rather macho.
Daniel Alarcón, a very young US writer who grew up in Peru, impressed me with his coherent, intelligent and terse comments and his refreshing lack of ego. I bought his novel, Lost City Radio, because he seems so smart.
One interesting thing of seeing panels of writers is that the transparency of the writer's ego is intense in person. Writers are a needy bunch and very few of them know how to be truly self-effacing.
Thus, Patricia Melo, a writer from Brazil, for some inexplicable reason, decided to give a lengthy prepared lecture on the source material for her novels, seemingly impervious to the fact that there were other three writers with things to say and that this was supposed to be a plural conversation.
Had invaluable pearls of wisdom come out of her, it was still completely inappropriate and sadly counterproductive. Instead of coming across as an interesting writer, she seemed full of herself. Poor Francisco Goldman, the moderator, didn't know whether to interrupt, which would have been dramatic, but called for. Luckily, after the hostages were freed, the conversation was able to begin. It was interesting but labored. It didn't flow easily. I don't know if this is because in Latin America everything is always very formal, or because this woman effectively killed the mood and the tempo. Also, and this is not the first time, the translator provided for Jorge Franco was a disaster. She interrupted him every second word, and added freely of herself, with a touch of hysteria. He was frustrated, but by Jove, all of us Latin Americans are very well brought up people: he suffered her with great dignity. Still, Jorge Franco, Daniel Alarcón and Arriaga were relatively spontaneous and natural in their responses.
Alarcón told a wonderful anecdote about Peru, that pretty much sums up the tenor of life south of the border:
Apparently the government of Lima decided to enforce a seatbelt law. Peruvians were bitterly unhappy about having to wear seatbelts. So some enterprising guy sold t-shirts that had a black diagonal band printed across the chest. You could wear this t-shirt to protest the seatbelt law, and even better, you could wear it to fool the cops.
And that in a nutshell is Latin America for you.

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