When was the novel born in Latin America and how did it develop? footnote＊
It’s difficult for Europeans to understand the development of the novel in Latin America for a very simple reason: they are used to thinking in terms of the Romantic period which began at the end of the eighteenth century and flourished prodigiously in the nineteenth. In Europe the novel is a presence, something which exists in your culture and is continually proliferating. In Latin American countries, on the other hand, where Spanish and Portuguese were imposed in the sixteenth century, the process was initially much slower. Our literature followed the movement of others, beginning with epic poetry, going on to lyric verse, then developing into short stories and folk tales. The novel has always been a mature genre. There are countries in Africa and Asia which have an age-old tradition of poetry but have barely begun to produce novels. Out literature in Spanish and Portuguese is several centuries behind that of other romance languages. Before the discovery of
Let me tell you an anecdote which illustrates this poetic tradition in Latin America. More than twenty years ago, when I was living in Venezuela, my wife and I went to stay in a small fishing village on the Caribbean coast called Turiamo. There were no hotels, no bars, and you got there by crossing kilometres and kilometres of virgin forest. All the inhabitants of the village were black, there were no schools and almost everyone was illiterate. We soon got to know the village people and they often told us about the Poet, a person who enjoyed a great deal of prestige there. He hadn’t been to the village for about two months and the people missed him. One day he reappeared, bringing news from other areas. He was a colossal negro, illiterate and poorly dressed. I told him I’d like to hear his poetry. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Tonight, by the sea.’
And that night all the village people, children, old folk, everyone, gathered on the beach to wait for the Poet. He took off his hat with a ritual gesture and, looking out to sea, with his deep, somewhat monotonous voice, began in quite acceptable octosyllables to recite the wonderful story of Charlemagne in a version similar to that of the Song of Roland.
That day I understood perhaps for the first time that in our America, wrongly named Latin, where an illiterate black descendant of Yorubas or Bantus could recreate the Song of Roland—in a language richer than Spanish, full of distinctive inflections, accents, expressions and syntax—where wonderful Nahuatl poetry existed long before Christopher Columbus was born, even before Alfonso the Wise and San Isidoro’s Etymologies, in our America there were a culture and a theatrical disposition which gave poetry an importance long lost in many countries in Europe.
It is hard to imagine in the streets of Paris, London, Rome, or even Madrid, the kind of ‘poetry vendors’ you find in Caracas selling poems by Rubén Dario, César Vallejo, García Lorca, Pablo Neruda and Nicolás Guillén for a few pence. That is why the poet commands such enormous respect in our countries—except, that is, when he is hated by a dictator, any old Pinochet who actually fears poets.
And less respected when he lends his talent and prestige to bolster a dictator, as Rubén Dario among others did.