Novelists in Latin America have long occupied a privileged position in society. During the foundation of the Latin American republics, in the 19th century, writers helped draft constitutions, laws, even new grammars. Many participated actively in politics. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, whose 1845 classic, Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism, was read as a blueprint for Latin America -- either civilize like the Europeans or become "barbarians" like the continent's remaining indigenous societies -- became president of Argentina in 1868. Well into the 20th century, authors from Venezuela's Rómulo Gallegos to Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa had such stature that they were serious presidential candidates in their countries.
But ever since Latin America's literary boom of the 1960s, the notion of the novelist as a larger-than-life figure, able and willing to intervene in national and continental politics, has appeared to fade. Earlier authors, most famously Gabriel García Márquez, ushered in an era of magical realism, depicting the extraordinary as commonplace. In reaction, the Latin American novelists of subsequent years became more modest and introspective -- more interested in depicting private lives than crafting allegories for their nations. Today, the novel in Latin America has lost the privileged space it once occupied, and writers are simply not seen as the monumental figures they used to be.
But this is not to say that they have abandoned political themes or that readers should abandon the Latin American novel as a gateway into the region's politics. The violence currently gripping Mexico, for instance, has been perfectly represented by a Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño, in his posthumous 2004 masterpiece 2666. And Tomás Eloy Martínez's 1991 novel, Santa Evita, tells us much about the passion play that has become the Argentina of the Kirchners -- Néstor, who ruled from 2003 to 2007, and his wife, Cristina, who has been president since 2007. Even magical realism, after all, is a partially "realist" genre, and García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch, though published in 1975, offers striking insights into the politics of contemporary Cuba. To understand today's Latin America, literature is as good a guide as any number of think-tank reports -- and perhaps better.
2666, Roberto Bolaño
Before settling in Spain, Bolaño lived for several years in Mexico, the setting for some of his best works, including both 2666 and 1998's The Savage Detectives. 2666 is a monumental, 1,000-page novel divided into five parts, the fourth of which, "The Part of the Crimes," deals with the femicides that have plagued the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez -- the model for the fictional city of Santa Teresa, in which the novel is set. In his descriptions of more than 100 fictional homicides, Bolaño's use of clinical details -- he notes exactly where the women are killed and even what they are wearing -- makes the novel's resemblance to reality all the more apparent. Some critics and readers have taken issue with the specificity of these violent scenes, but this is precisely Bolaño's point. He finds a way to represent the repetition of violence and the impunity of its perpetrators -- the lack of solutions to these crimes. In Santa Teresa, the pathological public sphere ends up normalizing something that is truly abnormal: compulsive, repetitive murders.