Big Bang Boom: A Brief History of the World’s Longest Explosion

by Gustavo Faverón Patriau
translated by Lucas Lyndes
This article first appeared in Spanish in Issue 3 of Buensalvaje magazine. It is translated here with permission.

The history of the Boom is common knowledge. In 1962, Mario Vargas Llosa won the Biblioteca Breve Prize with his first novel, provisionally titled The Abode of the Hero , but which would be known thereafter as The City and the Dogs (translated into English as The Time of the Hero – ed.). That same year, Gabriel García Márquez published No One Writes to the Colonel, and Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz. Only a few months separated the appearance of these books and the most popular of Argentine novels, Hopscotch, by Julio Cortázar. The confluence of their works resulted in these four authors being perceived as members of a single generation. Of course, this was a case of some historical license-taking: Vargas Llosa had just turned twenty-five; Cortázar was nearly twice that; Fuentes and García Márquez, born in 1928 and 1927, were contemporaries, but not the same age as either of the others: a decade older than Vargas Llosa and a decade and a half younger than Cortázar. In 1966, Vargas Llosa published The Green House, and Cortázar, All Fires the Fire, which contained some of his most memorable stories: “The Southern Thruway,” “The Health of the Sick,” “The Island at Noon.” In 1967, Vargas Llosa sent The Cubs to the printer, and García Márquez turned in One Hundred Years of Solitude. In the span of five years, Latin American fiction had rocketed (particularly in the eyes of European and North American readers) from partial anonymity to shining stardom.

It is said that the Chilean journalist Luis Harrs was the one who used the word “Boom” for the first time in reference to something which others, such as Carlos Fuentes himself, had called at that time, in the second half of the 1960s, the new Latin American novel, a label that was more descriptive but less sonorous (and much more ideologically loaded). Vargas Llosa maintains that this attribution is erroneous, because the term appears nowhere in Our Guys, Harrs’ book on the young authors of the time. Adding a dash of irony to this confusion, Harrs claims that he was in fact the one to baptize the Boom, but regrets having done so. The reasons he offers are the same ones any contemporary literary historian would point to: “Boom” is a seemingly empty name that says nothing specific about the object it designates; even worse, what little it does seem to say is highly misleading.

What the name “Boom” suggests, with its onomatopoeic sonority and its roar of sudden cannon fire, is that there was a moment in the history of Latin American literature that was marked by the sudden appearance of something new, unheard of, unexpected and surprising, something which not only wasn’t rooted in previous literary history, but which bellicosely broke with it: “Boom” is a name like a parricidal gunshot, rebellious and emphatic. The fact that the majority of authors associated with it (particularly its four highest deities) were leftists, had some connection to the Cuban Revolution, gave off the collective impression of merry subversion, and, in the beginning, featured a youthful sparkle in their eyes that no one associated with the canonical literature of Latin America from years previous, all helped to guarantee the success of this baptism. The cosmopolitanism of their writing also had something to do with why they were perceived as different, compared to the traditional image of indigenist and regionalist authors, the novelists “of the land,” the old realists obsessed with social Darwinism and the soul of the races, writers like Gallegos, Asturias, Guiraldes, Icaza, Alegría, who suddenly seemed so remote and ancient, remnants of a bygone era whom the novels of the Boom seemed to convert into archaeological curiosities devoid of any greater aesthetic value (which, in some cases, was the truth). But that impression wasn’t just an involuntary byproduct of the contrast between the “old” and the “new”: the writers of the Boom—some more than others—actively promoted the idea that what they were doing was a reinvigoration, a rupture, the coming of an unsuspected modernity to the region. The Boom, in the words of Carlos Fuentes, proclaimed that the new Latin American novel “was not derived, did not come and was not constructed” from any previous local tradition, that Latin America’s literary modernity began with books like Where the Air is Clear, The Green House, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. When they were asked about the roots of their own works, the writers of the Boom were varied and all-encompassing in their answers: García Márquez mentioned Rabelais, the great tomes of knights’ adventures from the early Renaissance, and authors such as Hemingway and Faulkner, who also formed part of the list given by Vargas Llosa, together with Joanot Martorell, Cervantes, Sartre, Camus, Malraux, Dostoyevsky. Fuentes added Henry James and shared with Cortázar an interest in decadentism, symbolism, surrealism, the avant-garde, Joyce, etc. There was no lack, on the other hand, of explicit rejections of the past: Cortázar, for example, accused José María Arguedas of archaism, an argument which would reappear, in a much more subtle and nuanced form—no longer from a progressive stance but rather that of neoliberalism—in the essays of Vargas Llosa several decades later.

But that description of history is not especially comprehensive. Between 1962 and 1967, other notable books appeared in Latin America. In 1963, Mexican writer Rosario Castellanos published The Book of Lamentations, and the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, his crucial Explosion in a Cathedral. The year 1964 saw the appearance of Body Snatcher, by the Uruguayan master Juan Carlos Onetti. In 1965, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, by the most widely-read author in the history of Brazil, Jorge Amado. In 1966, the crown jewel of the Cuban Baroque was published: Paradiso, by José Lezama Lima. What is interesting here is the simple verification of a fact that should be obvious, but which was apparently rendered invisible to a certain extent by the flash of the Boom: all of these authors had already established prodigious careers years before the big bang of 1962. Castellanos had published her best book of stories, City of Kings, in 1960, and three novels between 1950 and 1957, including the cornerstone of her oeuvre in that final year: Balún Canán (The Nine Guardians). Alejo Carpentier had spent thirty years producing superlative literature, from his novel Praised Be the Lord! (1933) on through to Manhunt (1958), as well as his stories in Journey Back to the Source (1944) and The War of Time (1956), and two masterpieces of the novel form: The Kingdom of This World (1949) and The Lost Steps (1953). By that time, Onetti’s bibliography was almost as long as Carpentier’s. Between 1939 and the “official” start of the Boom, he had published seven full-length works and three story collections, and his backlist was not short on essential books: The Pit dates from 1939; A Brief Life, from 1950; Goodbyes, from 1954; The Shipyard, from 1961; and Hell Most Feared and Other Stories, also from 1961. Paradiso, in turn, was Lezama Lima’s fourteenth book; he inaugurated his career in 1937 with the now-canonical poem Death of Narcissus (Lezama, born in 1910, was barely four years older than Cortázar).

A quick glance at the history of the Latin American narrative works of the first half of the twentieth century gives us, of course, other major names and titles: all of Borges’ most important work had already been published, as well as the complete works of Juan Rulfo, Roberto Arlt, Macedonio Fernández, Juan Emar, Pablo Palacio, Horacio Quiroga, Felisberto Hernández, and most of that of Juan José Arreola, Ernesto Sábato, João Guimaraes Rosa, and José María Arguedas. When Fuentes proclaimed the Boom as a new kind of fiction that came from no previous Latin American literature, unparalleled and incomparable in our history up to that point, in practice he was obliterating two things: all the antecedents I’ve just mentioned, and specifically, the relationship between those antecedents and the works of the Boom authors. He cut off any possible genetic link between us and them.

It is here that it becomes necessary to ask whether it is truly possible to understand the Boom as an instance in which the zeal of cosmopolitan influence, of European and North American influence, that anxiety of influence spoken of by Harold Bloom, was materialized and conquered to such point that Fuentes’ claims can be backed. Let me rephrase the question in simpler terms: Is it possible to reach a historical understanding of the place occupied by the García Márquez of the 1960s without paying heed to what Alejo Carpentier wrote and published thirty years prior? Can we conceive of Cortázar without thinking of Borges, the very same Borges whom Cortázar rewrote, reelaborated and silently quoted and paraphrased, beating a dead horse and then resurrecting it in the best of his stories? (How can we understand “The Night Face Up” if we do not place it beside “The South”? What can be compared to Johnny Carter’s temporal labyrinth in Cortázar’s “The Chaser” if not the linear labyrinth of Borges’ “Death and the Compass”?) Even in the case of Carlos Fuentes, is there any legitimate way of reading him without catching glimpses of Rulfo?

Obviously, one of the ways in which critics have answered these questions is to reconcile the idea of the Boom with the notion of the historical process, repositioning the antecedents, the links, the shared origins in their places: situating Fuentes in the same family tree as Rulfo and Fernando del Paso, for example; reevaluating García Márquez’s magical realism in confluence with Carpentier’s “marvelous real,” but also, once again, with Rulfo, with the Paraguayans Gabriel Casaccia and Augusto Roa Bastos, and even with Arguedas; rereading Cortázar through Borges and José Bianco and prolonging the arc right through Alfredo Bryce and Roberto Bolaño. And, based on these exercises, the most curious result, I think, has been the slow verification of a fact that not all critics are willing to accept, more out of inertia than anything: because it is more difficult to radically subvert the understanding of the Boom as an aesthetic and literary phenomenon than it is to look at it as an exceptional event. The thing is, it’s harder to compare Vargas Llosa with García Márquez, Fuentes with Cortázar, García Márquez with Donoso, Donoso with Cabrera Infante (these latter two being the first names to pop up on the list of Boomers when the roll call gets extended a bit), than to compare each Boom author with previous and subsequent Latin American authors: for example, in terms of aesthetics, ideological plotting, models of representation, and motifs, it is infinitely more illustrative to compare Cortázar with the fantastic literature written in Buenos Aires and Montevideo during the first half of the twentieth century, searching there for his origins and obsessions, than it is to find similarities between his oeuvre and the magical realism of García Márquez, the mythical methods of Fuentes, or the urban realism and historicist inspiration of Vargas Llosa. And something similar happens when we take any of the other authors of the Boom as the starting point for such a comparison. The mushroom cloud dissipates and the logic of history returns: the Boom authors were, of course, cosmopolitan authors who effected a profound transformation in the methods and aspirations of the Latin American novel, but they weren’t the first, and they weren’t born in a vacuum. It is perhaps even more relevant to note that, although they all shared an inclusive, comprehensive tendency, an inclination toward the novel as a great piece of comprehensive machinery (Vargas Llosa’s “total novel”) and an experimental impulse, the most renowned writers of the Boom constructed dissimilar devices and ideological projects, they viewed the world in contradictory ways, and they proposed imaginary portraits of reality with barely a single concomitant point.

It is commonplace to assume that, just as it was born without local parents or grandparents, the Boom far surpassed the artistic glow of the Latin American novels that came before it. It is practically heresy to suppose that this isn’t so and it would doubtlessly be unheard of to suggest that the Boom authors may have been less brilliant than the generation that preceded them. And yet, let us consider its four crucial authors as figureheads of the four literary aspects that the Boom helped to consolidate in Latin America from the 1960s onward: the narrative of the magical and the marvelous (García Márquez); fantastic fiction (Cortázar); the historical-mythical novel (Fuentes); and the new realism (Vargas Llosa). And then let us ask ourselves a few things: Bearing in mind writers like Carpentier, is García Márquez necessarily the high water mark in the history of magical realist narrative in Latin America? What happens if we pit Cortázar against Borges in the field of fantastic fiction? Did Fuentes go further than Rulfo? Was he more observant, more incisive, more radical, more ambitious? At the risk of sounding polemical, I think that after all these years, only one aesthetic lineage of those which were juxtaposed in the Boom turned out to be a notable qualitative leap with regard to the antecedents of its genre in Hispano-American literature: Vargas-Llosian realism, infinitely more complex than all previous attempts at realist narrative in the region. It is possible to claim that Vargas Llosa was the only one who actually wrote like Fuentes said all the Boom authors wrote: without much local genealogy, without the region’s weight on his shoulders, creating his own space with elements brought in from elsewhere. This doesn’t mean that Vargas Llosa was disconnected from the history of Latin American literature; on the contrary, his oeuvre is partially defined by his ideological oppositions: by the often tacit and sometimes explicit intergenerational debate with Arguedas, for example. Fuentes, for his part, was more abstruse and superficially more sophisticated than Rulfo, but he wasn’t more sensitive to the reality of his fictions. Cortázar drifted from Borgesian exercises toward a focus on form that became less interesting the further it strayed from its origins. García Márquez achieved, in two extraordinary works—One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch—something like the exhaustion of an aesthetic that later produced an infinity of spurious sons and daughters, but which he himself would abandon a decade later.

Melquíades, the gypsy wizard and diviner of One Hundred Years of Solitude, orbited and intertwined with the development of a small, enchanted town whose history he himself, an outsider, had written and foretold one hundred years before. In general, the narrators of the Boom, iconoclasts with regard to Latin American literary tradition, felt the peremptory urge to record the history of their own nations through their fiction, but they did so vicariously through characters who were travelers, adventurous outsiders, peerless pioneers who entered Latin America as if it were a desert, a haunted house, or a foreign and belligerent jungle (think of the myopic journalist of The War of the End of the World or the young translator in Aura, children, both of them, of the “Adelantado” from Carpentier’s The Lost Steps, who founds civilization in a clearing in the middle of the jungle). The rupture that the Boom left us with was the idea that Latin America had a millennia-old history but a newborn literature. Up until the appearance of authors such as Bolaño and his compatriot Diamela Eltit or the Argentine Ricardo Piglia, the effect of the rupture defended by the Boom was that of disseminating the conceptual error that contemporary Latin American literature has no pending dialogue with previous Latin American literature, because that was merely a prehistory filled with amateur attempts and disputes, an involuntary pastiche of European belles-lettres, pamphlets and propaganda, forms of aesthetic innocence which found in narration a temporary instrument.

By declaring themselves free of a local genealogy, the authors of the Boom claimed to be operating at that radical extreme of fictional creation which Eric Hobsbawm calls “the invention of tradition.” They knit together a voluntary genealogy, European and North American, of elective affinities. Rather than a postcolonial historical reality, they implemented an intellectual superstructure whose past did not correspond to them. And this resulted in a paradox: “the invention of tradition” is the elemental mechanics of nationalism, the narrative conjuration of a past that is not previous, but which begins to exist together with the word that pronounces it. Suddenly, the “new Latin American narrative” broke with Castellanos, Palacio, Quiroga, Arlt, Arguedas, Lugones, and cancelled out anything that such authors may have constructed upon their own traditions. Ironically, by refusing to recognize national traditions and substituting them with the announcement of a regional movement, sprung from the continent as a whole, the Boom invented the Latin American writer, and it invented him, if not as a pariah, then at least as voluntarily dispossessed. Sometimes it seems as if that rupture between social history and literary tradition was the most lasting legacy of the Boom. But the truth is that the Boom’s greatest legacy continues to be the two dozen unrepeatable, complex, ambitious, masterful books without which our history would be much less rich, much less understandable, precisely because those books are inseparable from it, because they not only arose from it but because that history sprouted forth from inside them.

Gustavo Faverón Patriau (Lima, 1966) is a journalist, essayist, editor, and associate professor at Bowdoin College in Maine. He has published, among other things, two books of essays, two anthologies, and a novel, El anticuario (The Antiquarian).