The Spanish Riveter: Uriz’s List: Spain and the Latam Boom by Juan Cruz

Zaragoza, Spain, was the location of the recent passing of Francisco (Paco) Uriz, a great Spanish-language poet and implacable observer of the contributions made by Spanish and Hispanic American writers to twentieth-century and twenty-first-century world literature. He lived in Sweden for three decades and, from Stockholm, bore witness to the Swedish Academy’s growing interest in Hispanic literatures after Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude burst onto the global literary scene.

One Hundred Years of Solitude shook the reading universe, and its avid reception prompted the Swedes to pay attention to what had already been called the ‘boom’ in Latin American literature when, in the mid-1960s, Luis Harss’s formidable book of interviews with Latin American writers, Los nuestros (literally, ‘our guys’) appeared in the United States as Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin American Writers. Harss’s collection of interviews rallied interest in such names as Julio Cortázar, Juan Carlos Onetti, Juan Rulfo, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes. (Lamentably, it wasn’t deemed necessary to include women on lists of authors at the time, an omission that was to be rectified in the future.) Eventually, this interest found its way to Stockholm and culminated in García Márquez’s 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature.

When ‘Gabo’ won the Nobel, the prize had already been bestowed on one Latin American writer, who combined tradition with continental-style metaphor – the Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias. However, Pablo Neruda still hadn’t received his Nobel. By the early 1980s, a more cosmopolitan form of writing, which broke with tradition, had escaped its small circle of readers in Latin America and had begun to be accepted in locales far from the balmy lands discovered, in part, by Christopher Columbus. Of the writers Harss included in his prophetic book of interviews, García Márquez was the first to receive the Swedish Academy’s honour. Julio Cortázar, whose Hopscotch was a cult novel for Europeans, British, and Americans, never did receive such fortunate revindication, nor did Carlos Fuentes, who, when his friend Gabo received the award, already considered himself a winner.

As Harss predicted, the Boom only grew louder as Hispanic American literature produced more strong writers. This steady accumulation of talent prolonged the phenomenon (and prolongs it still) beyond that group of friends – the cuates – who were first brought together in Los nuestros. As I mentioned above, there were no women – none – on those early Boom lists, something that in contemporary life is seen as both an obvious and monumental mistake, but such was the world that omitted, until much, much later, writers like Gioconda Belli and Cristina Peri Rossi, along with many others to come as Hispanic American writing extended its global reach, among them: Isabel Allende, Margo Glantz, Selva Almada, Samanta Schweblin, Karina Sainz Borgo, Nona Fernández, Liliana Colanzi and Claudia Piñeiro. To this considerable list of names, I would like to add at least: Mariana Enríquez, Cristina Rivera Garza, Lina Meruane, Pilar Quintana and Mónica Ojeda.

Of course, in the 1960s, Harss’s list simply couldn’t have included writers of such decisive power as Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Héctor Abad Faciolince, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Roberto Bolaño, Emiliano Monge, Rodrigo Fresán and Juan Villoro, because they were just children – but, alongside the plethora of female writers, they would become a familiar presence on the peninsula, with Spanish readers and writers alert to their great quality, making a list, in this case comprised of women and men, that would be a fair match for the team initially selected for Harss’s important book. 

In Spain back in the 1980s, however, precisely when Gabo won the Nobel, the ongoing Boom, which was continuing to deliver Latin American greats, was beginning to be viewed by the locals as competition. And as a result there was the impression, corroborated by reality, that Spain was turning its back on Los nuestros and the imperious novelty of those literatures, by then no longer considered as a torrent of Latin American sighs and shouting. The bodies of writing from Hispanic America were unique literatures that really could not be lumped together, except by language, of course; yet the Spanish writers of the time couldn’t digest this competition and thus interest in Latin American writing reached an impasse that was never quite mean-spirited but rather, in my view, ignorant.

Several miracles put an end to that apathy. Among them, persistence in publishing Latin American writers on the part of the Spanish publisher Alfaguara, and subsequently other presses, which convinced those of us living in Spain that our taste for the homegrown was excessive – and exclusionary. And while it had been difficult to bring Latin American writers together in Spain – and on the opposite side of the Atlantic – the festivals changed that. The Hay Festival, was particularly important in this regard, with its British roots and Hispanic American inclinations, thanks in great part to its current director, Cristina Fuentes, who is from the Canary Islands – in other words, mediohispanicamericana. Hay drew Spanish and Hispanic American writers together and eventually turned what had been a utopian vision into a reality of trans-Atlantic exchanges, with the Spanish language now a common glue of Hispanic literatures.

The journalistic magnum opus in which Mario Vargas Llosa, the other Boom Nobel winner, collects everything he ever wrote about other writers (El fuego de la imaginación, Alfaguara), is today’s best reflection of the bounteousness first established in Los nuestros. Now ‘los nuestros’ are legion, and they come from all over; including Spain, where so many Latin Americans writers reside, their relationship to language and the imaginary by now fully hybrid, yet fortunately they are not indifferent to their own origins.

Conscious of the tendency to consider the Nobel Prizes awarded to Vargas Llosa and Gabo when evaluating the power the Boom might still exert on Swedish Academy members, I asked Paco Uriz some time ago about the potential candidacy of current Latin American names for that honour. ‘César Aira? Yes, but he isn’t that well known, I don’t think. Bolaño is dead. Fuentes wasn’t among the chosen and he died, too. The same with José Emilio Pacheco … There was a lot of talk about Bolaño, but, look, he died.’

Our friend Uriz, so insightful, so full of wisdom until the end, concluded his list with this sentence: ‘Now, don’t hold me to it, but I don’t think there is a writer or novelist on here – if we consider Vargas Llosa the benchmark – that could win the Nobel.’

But the Nobel isn’t awarded, generally speaking, before rank is consolidated. And if one regards the current talent pool, then we must recognise that the original Boom has some formidable heirs. The Boom, friends, is again among us, although the names, and the ages, have changed.

By Juan Cruz

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