Latin American Trends

Chad W. Post is the publisher of Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester. This is a publishing house that deals exclusively with works in translation. Its mission is: "to increase access to world literature for English readers." He also manages the Three Percent website, and is the author of The Three Percent Problem. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Bookforum, the WSJ Culture Blog, Rolling Stone, and Quarterly Conversation.

Cortázar is responsible for a significant portion of the books published by Open Letter, the publishing company I run at the University of Rochester. Not that he’s personally responsible—obviously—but his influence can be seen in a lot of the authors that we've either published or are considering. On a more personal note, Cortázar is the writer who got me hooked on Latin American literature . . .

Back in one of my college Spanish classes, we were assigned Cortázar's "Continuity of Parks," a story of a man reading a story about a man like him reading a story—recursive loops! Reading this in Spanish, I was convinced of two things: that my Spanish was totally whack and that I knew less than I thought I did, and that I must get a hold of more books by Cortázar. After reading Hopscotch in Gregory Rabassa's excellent translation (trying that in Spanish would have literally blown my mind), I went on to read all of his other books, books by authors who cited him as a mentor, books that seemed to have something Cortázarian about them, etc. He's still one of my favorite authors today, and the first place I visited in Buenos Aires was Plazoleta Cortázar.

One of the frustrations for anyone interested in international literature is the fact that the books from another culture you want to read far, far outstrip the number of titles published in English translation. This is frequently referred to as the "3% Problem"—the fact that less than 3% of all books published in America (approx. 250,000/year) are originally written in a language other than English. It's this particular statistic that led to the naming of Open Letter's blog/review site (http://www.rochester.edu/threepercent), which, while acknowledging that it can't alter the overall percentage of books published in translation on an annual basis, it can help bring attention to the ones that do come out here, most of which are published by small, independent, nonprofit presses like Open Letter, that don't always receive the mainstream review coverage that they deserve.

To accomplish this, a few years back, I created the Translation Database for Three Percent—a database containing information about all works of fiction and poetry in translation being published in the U.S. for the first time. (We don't track reprints or new translations of existing classics.) As a result, Three Percent has become the source for statistics on how many titles are being translated, from where, and by which publishers. In many ways, for a translation aficionado, digging into this website is an act of sadomasochism that reveals just how parochial the U.S. publishing industry has become. For example, there were only 369 works of fiction and poetry published for the first time last year—49 of which were translated from Spanish. On the one hand, that seems kind of pathetic considering just how many great works are being written throughout the Spanish-speaking world; on the other hand, there were only 12 works from the Chinese, 1 from Hindi, and 0 from Latvian. For me, it's depressing to be aware of just how much is not available.

But this isn't a time to gloom—it's much more exciting to focus on the positives. Like the fact that there were 49 works from Spanish that came out, and that it looks like that number could be increasing over the next few years. There are many reasons for this, including the success of Roberto Bolaño's works and two recent anthologies: Granta's special issue on the "Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists" and Diego Trelles Paz's The Future Is Not Ours (published by Open Letter). Both of these highlight the works of the next generation of writers from the Spanish-speaking world—especially Latin America.

For the past century or more, Latin America has been the source of some of the greatest literary thinkers in the world. Obviously, there's Jorge Luis Borges and his myriad ideas about art, translation, time, memory, and life; there's Macedonio Fernandez, who was Borges's mentor, but was just introduced to American readers a couple years ago in Margaret Schwartz's rendition of The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel); there's the aforementioned Julio Cortázar; Juan Jose Saer, another Argentine author that Open Letter has breathed new life into through the publication of The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, Scars, and the forthcoming La Grande; all of the writers of the so-called "Boom Generation," such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Jose Donoso, and Mario Vargas Llosa; not to overlook Juan Rulfo and Juan Filloy and Silvia Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares, all of which would take at least a book to name.

That said, over the past couple decades or so, American publishers turned their collective back on the more edgy and innovative Latin American writers in favor of a market-approved tried-and-true sort of watered down "magical realism," creating the impression that the more experimental vein of writing coming from south of our border had sort of dried up. What's really exciting to me about the aforementioned anthologies and the list of books below, is that it seems like there's a new interest in Latin American writing that revels in its own complicated forms (like the work of Jorge Volpi, Eloy Urroz, Ignacio Padilla, and the rest of the "Crack" movement) its sensibilities informed not just by the "Boom" authors, but by a wide range of international influences, both literary and not, such as film, hip-hop culture, and the like (such as the work of Samanta Schweblin, Carlos Labbé, Daniel Alarcón, Tryno Maldonado, etc.).

Just in the past couple years, there have been a number of very thought-provoking, aesthetically interesting books from Latin American authors that have come out here in the U.S. I don't have space to highlight all of them (nor to rave about the brilliant new works of established Spanish authors like Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marias, or the interesting works of Portuguese author Gonçalo Tavares), so I've picked out a few highlights that have caught my eye and made me hopeful that we're on the cusp of a great new moment in Latin American writing.

First up is Necropolis (Europa Editions) by Colombian writer Santiago Gamboa, a hefty book that won the La Otra Orilla Literary Award in 2009. The novel is a sort of conference-based Canterbury Tales, in which the author is invited to speak at the International Conference on Biography and Memory in Jerusalem. While there he meets a wide array of slightly off-kilter characters, including an Italian porn star, and quirky Icelandic journalist, and a convict-turned priest, who dies mysteriously on the first day of the gathering. Filled with warmth and a slew of intriguing, vividly rendered voices, it’s obvious why this book has garnered Gamboa so many comparisons to fellow countryman Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Sticking with English-language debuts, Andres Neuman’s Traveler of the Century (FSG) was one of this year’s most anticipated novels. Neuman is only 35 years old, yet has already won the Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize—two of the most prestigious awards handed out to Spanish writers. In addition, he was included in the special issue of Granta mentioned above and was named to the Bogota-39 list—a list of 39 of the most promising Latin American authors under the age of 39. Traveler of the Century is an epic novel about Hans, a traveler who finds himself stuck in Wandernburg debating identity and other philosophical ideas with an organ grinder. Having received the highest of praise from Roberto Bolaño (“The literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman . . .”), and with more books of his forthcoming, it’s likely that Neuman will be a household name in the not-too-distant future.

Alejandro Zambra didn’t have a book come out in 2012, but the Chilean author is worth mentioning for a number of reasons, not least of which is the success of the film version of Bonsai, his first novel, which was published by Melville House in 2008, was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award, and defined his idiosyncratic writing style, which is simultaneously unadorned and extremely intricate. This was followed by The Private Lives of Trees (Open Letter), and his third novel—Ways of Going Home—will be available in 2013.

One of the most exciting Argentine writers working today has to be Sergio Chejfec. The author of more than a dozen works, he wasn’t introduced to English readers until 2011 when My Two Worlds (Open Letter) was released. This novel is essentially a series of mediations about life, memory, and walking by an author at a book conference in Brazil (there’s a bit of a trend here in “conference books”) who is wandering around the city looking for a park. Its drifting nature, and sort of “geography of memory” ambiance led many critics to lump Chejfec together with W.G. Sebald. There are a lot of similarities, although Chejfec’s two ensuing publications—The Planets (2012) and The Dark (2013)—demonstrate that he has a voice all his own.

Finally, the book that I’m most excited about is Jose Manuel Prieto’s Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia. Prieto’s earlier books—Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire (2000) and Rex (2009)—are the most Nabokovian works of literature I’ve ever read. Rex in particular is a dense, tricksy book about a tutor obsessed with Proust and a fake-diamond scam. His forthcoming book, which is structured as a series of alphabetically-ordered entries, promises to be one of the Latin American highlights of 2013.

So although I may wish there were 149 works of Spanish literature being published in English translation every year instead of 49, there are still more than enough excellent books worth checking out for their stories, their exposure to new cultures, and their unique ways of representing the human experience. And based on this wave of excellent Latin American authors, I truly believe we’re about to witness a new Latin American Literary Renaissance—and what could be more exciting than that?