Latin America was as much a Dark Continent as Africa—its inhabitants preoccuppied by magic and mystery, its European invaders preoccuppied by gold and conquest, and its lands impenetrable by any but the most brave and the most strong. Even now, the jungles of Peru, Brazil and Mexico are punctuated by lost temples, abandoned cities, and still-standing pyramids.
The first known work of native literature originated in Guatemala sometime after the initial Portuguese conquest: a hodgepodge of myths about creation and the greatest of all Mayan heroes, the twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, called the Popol Vuh. Written in the Mayan tongue using Latin characters, it attempts to bring together stories previously only contained in carved-stone codices and oral tradition.
As the Popol Vuh makes clear, the Mayans had a death-fascination from the beginning. What we know of the Aztecs and Incas supports the image of a network of cultures dedicated more to death than to life, entranced by the end of things and destruction. Human sacrifice was an integral part of worship in all these communities, and even kings were expected to undergo ritual torture.
Yet from the death always sprang life. The Latin American indigenous people weren't a bunch of mopey natives intent on destroying the landscape and themselves. Resurrection and new birth were natural and necessary corollaries of passing, the end of death and the beginning of the cycle of existence all over again. In many ways, it was the European invaders who were more consumed with death as an idea.
They certainly brought death with them. They brought disease, guns, and fire from the Old World to the New, taking what they wanted from the native population and giving what was uneeded and unwanted in return. They took gold with them, and slaves, and the stains of their wanton appetites, and as often as not they did it in the name of God.
That's not to say all European visitors were evil or godless. Many among the second wave were priests and missionaries, devoted to God's work and to evangelism, and it was these who taught the tribes to read and write. Unfortunately, the Christian faith was often syncretized, meaning that it was absorbed into the existing animistic religious system.
From these disparate origins came Latin American literature, a body of work at once full of wonder and oppressed with a too-vivid picture of the present, the unpleasantnesses to which humans subject each other. Probably the most important contribution Latino writers have made is the magic realist genre, one which existed before Latin American literature came into its own, but which writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Bioy Casares, Rudolfo Anaya, and Jorge Luis Borges have perfected.
Magic realist stories take place in a recognizable world with recognizable people, but below the exterior lie all the hidden things Westerners don't believe in. Magic happens, Time and Death take human forms, and the earth itself is a key player. But these aren't children's stories—they're meant simply to invoke the most powerful images to stress the most important facts of life.
In many ways, Latin American literature didn't really come to prominence until relatively late in the 20th century, but it didn't take long for the world to become entranced with what its chief proponents produced, or for everyone to realize just how good writers like Borges, Isabel Allende, and Pablo Neruda actually were. As novelists like Paulo Coelho and poets like Andres Morales continue the tradition of their author forebears, we can only await with anticipation the continuing legacy of Latin American literature.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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