The Chronicle Review

The Novelists and the Dictators

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle Review

June 06, 2010

Does the current crop of left-wing caudillos in Latin America, like Hugo Chávez, inspire the type of animosity their military counterparts once did? And will its members be turned into larger-than-life dictators in novels, as they were in Gabriel García Márquez's 1975 The Autumn of the Patriarch? Or have the literary intelligentsia finally given up the foolish practice of using fiction to pretend to force tyrants from their throne?

Those aren't rhetorical questions. For centuries, literature in the former Spanish colonies on this side of the Atlantic has sought to define itself, in part, as resistance to autocratic rulers, as if what justifies writing is fighting oppression and totalitarianism. There is a plethora of novelas del dictador, narratives, mostly gargantuan in scope, in which a narcissist tyrant serves as protagonist and, at times, as narrator: El Caudillo (1921), by Jorge Borges, father of Jorge Luis Borges (the younger Borges was apolitical, or in any case conservative, so that link to the tradition was broken); Miguel Ángel Asturias's El señor presidente (1946); Alejo Carpentier's Reasons of State (1974); Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat (2000).

The key to success has been to find a worthy foe, an avatar of evil—arrogant, dogmatic, overbearing, if possible misogynistic, maybe even a voodoo practitioner if you're writing about the Caribbean. God knows, there has been no scarcity of dictators. Pick your choice: Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, François "Papa Doc" and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc," Duvalier in Haiti, Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda in Paraguay, Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Juan Vicente Gómez in Venezuela, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, José María Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador. ...

Of course, fashion is ephemeral. García Márquez once promised never to write again until Augusto Pinochet renounced power in Chile. For a while, the stance helped sell his earlier books. But Pinochet couldn't have cared less. And García Márquez wasn't really serious about interrupting his illustrious career. In the end, it was the writer who gave in to pressure.

And the genre is varied. Some items on the bookshelf are closer in length to novellas, for instance Esteban Echeverría's The Slaughterhouse (1838), an attack on Juan Manuel de Rosas, who mercilessly imposed himself on Argentina from 1835 to 1852. Elena Poniatowska's Massacre in Mexico (1971) is neither a novel nor about a dictator, but—in its journalistic quest to uncover the motives that led to the massacre of students on Mexico's Tlatelolco Square, in 1968—denounces the despotic regime of then-president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz.

The tradition might be said to have established itself with Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, whose Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845), written to oppose Rosas while the author was in exile in Chile, is part biography and part essayistic pastiche about the perils of repression. Facundo rallied public opinion against Rosas, and Sarmiento eventually became president of Argentina, thus modeling the paradigm of the intellectual whose fight against absolutism brings democratic change.

Sarmiento's odyssey summons the polarities at stake in the novela del dictador: the dinosaurs versus the freethinkers, the forces of tyranny against those of liberty. Life was never that simple, but for artistic purposes, it's always safe to oppose the good guys and the bad. And totalitarianism, after all, is a system of government with little patience for the novel, which represents liberalism, openness to intellectual exploration.

The Latin American novelas del dictador that have stood out don't attack a clear and present danger; instead they build their structure historically, as in Augusto Roa Bastos's I, the Supreme (1974), about José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who dominated Paraguay for 36 years in the first half of the 19th century, soon after its independence from Spain. It's safer to deal with the past than with the present, inviting readers to draw the inferences.

The novela del dictador is testosterone-filled: Not only are the despised protagonists almost all male (the main exception is the domineering Isabelita—Isabel Martínez de Perón, that dictator's third wife, known as presidenta from 1974 to 1976), but so are the authors. Two exceptions among them are Luisa Valenzuela and Marta Traba, both of whom have written on terror in Argentina. Among Latinos in the United States, Julia Alvarez carries the torch with In the Time of Butterflies (1994), a novel set during Trujillo's dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, with a strong feminist undertone almost completely absent in the South American tradition. Machismo, personified in the tyrant or author, is deeply embedded in the culture.

Shouldn't Venezuela's Hugo Chávez be center stage in that tradition? He has the three I's: He is irritating, impulsive, and intolerant. How about Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega? Or Bolivia's Evo Morales? Why haven't the larger-than-life left-wing strongmen that populate the Latin American political stage today inspired novelistic silhouettes?

More than a few academic books on Chávez have been released. They are of varying quality, some biographical, others about his role in Latin American history. In 2005 the French journalist Maurice Lemoine wrote a "docunovel," Chávez, Presidente!, about the failed coup in Caracas in 2002. In Venezuela, where Chávez has polarized the nation's population, the literati, too, take opposing views on the leader, some adoring, others vilifying him in newspaper columns and books. Yet to the best of my knowledge, no significant novela del dictador has been published with him as protagonist. To a lesser extent, Ortega and Morales have similarly inspired scholarly reflections but little by way of mesmerizing fiction.

Is it that they don't usually torture and kill adversaries? That their regimes aren't controlled by vengeful police forces? That they have been democratically (more or less) elected? Perhaps. But in important ways, they are caudillos. They rewrite constitutions to perpetuate themselves as supreme leaders. They embrace a populist oratory that condemns materialism and ridicules individuality (thereby fostering an environment where freedom is often a casualty). They promote an anti-imperialist (often synonymous with anti-American) message that brooks no disagreement. Their rhetoric embraces the downtrodden but creates fear among all who disagree with them.

To answer why writers have not taken on the left-wing strongmen, it is important to remember that the Latin American intelligentsia in the 20th century, particularly from the 1930s through the 70s, habitually embraced communism. To be a novelist was tantamount to being anti-establishment. As opposed to writers in North America, you didn't need to be a bohemian to be considered serious. You needed to believe that power corrupts, and that excess power corrupts excessively. And you needed to see Latin America as the victim of colonialism and capitalism.

The road to the region's redemption lay in rejecting foreign ideologies—except those of communism. Communism was viewed as representative of collective goodness, a utopianism that would magically retrieve what was best in the pre-Columbian past, as if the indigenous population before the arrival of the Europeans had always lived in harmony. Communism became a vindication of the Indian past.

The majority of writers came from middle-class, upper-middle-class, and upper-class backgrounds, but on the road to self-definition (and out of peer pressure), they categorically rejected their class origins. To shake Pinochet's hand, as Borges did in 1976 when he visited Chile, was a heresy, and he paid dearly for it—perhaps, as has been rumored, by losing the Nobel Prize. As a rule, the more vocal an author against a tyrant, the greater the accolades. Borges was among a handful of exceptions to the norm. The disdain for those exceptions can be seen in the statement by the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño a couple of years before he died, in 2005: "The best lesson Vargas Llosa ever offered," Bolaño said, "was to go out jogging every morning." (Vargas Llosa was by then a neoliberal, post-Reaganite thinker, having renounced, in no tentative terms, his loyalty to the Cuban revolution.)

The facile communist hurrah that was pervasive in the 60s was in part a response to the Cuban revolution. Indeed, the one left-wing dictator who has inspired more than his share of fiction is Fidel Castro, although none of the (usually positive) fiction about him ever achieved much literary stature. And the embrace of Castro became indefensible as his government became crueler. As time went by, he became a protagonist in the more conventional novela del dictador—for instance, Norberto Fuentes's The Autobiography of Fidel Castro (2004), a colossal fictionalized life story about El Comandante's oversized ego.

Still, in some literary quarters, Castro continues to be defended today, as if the censorship he condoned and the dissidents and homosexuals he incarcerated could be ignored because of his mandate to make health care available to every Cuban. In regard to communist tyrants, Latin American writers often se hacen de la vista gorda, as the Spanish expression goes: They see what they want to see.

So is it leftist sympathy that keeps writers from turning Hugo Chávez into a novelistic ogre? Yes, but there's another reason as well.

Latin American writers no longer command the kind of attention they did in the so-called Age of Revolution. During that time, in the 1960s and 70s, El Boom—as the rejuvenating aesthetic movement that brought Julio Cortázar, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and others to the attention of international audiences was known—writers symbolized the collective spirit. They were the voice of the voiceless. But the voiceless are now anesthetized through TV, soccer, and other forms of consumerism. Literature has become inconsequential. And when the oppressed aren't interested in literature, writers aren't as likely to take on a political role defending them.

What's more, many Latin American writers have given up on Latin America. That is not an unhealthy move. Once it was "the duty" of intellectuals to focus on their immediate surroundings, in order to allow people elsewhere to see the sorrowful state of things at home. In the 90s, young stars, part of the movement known as McOndo—which rejected magical realism and supported the kind of urban realism spread by the Internet—and of El Crack—a movement in Mexican literature that shook up the nationalist premises of earlier generations—did not accept that responsibility. Why couldn't their books be about making the atomic bomb or the end of the Soviet Union? There has been a de-Latin Americanization of the Latin American writer: Taking a position about Latin American politics is out. The escritor de moda, the fashionable auteur, meets his or her fans at Starbucks, spends hours at the gym, vacations in the Bahamas, and teaches at American universities.

In short, the reason the novela del dictador doesn't ridicule left-wing caudillos isn't only, or even mainly, because of sympathy for those politicos (although writers from the region do have a longtime softness for the left). It is more that Latin American literature has, thankfully, ceased to be mindlessly virile and become more cosmopolitan.

Of course, on a continent where democracy doesn't have deep roots, the history of tyranny is never over, nor the kind of literature that opposes it. Elected caudillos, too, require literary portraits. But let us hope those yet to be written will abjure facile ideology.

Ilan Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His latest book is Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years (Palgrave Macmillan). He is general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, due out in September.