"Emir Rodríguez Monegal: The Boom:
Interview by Alfred J. Mac Adam
En: Review, nº 33, enero 1984, p. 30-34.
Versión en pdf
"Emir, if you had to define the phenomenon
we call the Boom, how would you do it? And if you think that it
can be defined, can we then conclude that it is in fact over, that
we are definitely "after the Boom"?
Let me answer those questions one at a time or, as we say in the
Río de la Plata, pian piano si va lontano. As I see it, the
Boom was a publishing phenomenon, the result of an industry's decision
to market a product it thought it could sell, namely, the new prose
fiction of Latin America. The other genres, poetry or theater, for
example, are not really part of it. Furthermore, the Boom was limited
to a few writers and did not encompass all the authors of the period.
As a phenomenon in Latin American literary history, the Boom had
more to do with the publication and selling -or marketing if you
like- of those few authors than it did with anything like a cultural
renaissance. Historically speaking, the Boom started in the sixties
and ended -yes, it's definitely over- in the seventies. It coincided
with the expansion of the publishing industry in Latin America which
also began in the mid-sixties and ended in the seventies, when the
publishing industry went into a decline. The Boom declined along
Was the Boom the first period in Latin American
history when writers were sold as "properties," as we
think of them in the United States?
Yes. Treating writers as commodities was something that had been
practiced in the United States and Europe but had just never taken
place in Latin America, where writers tended to deal directly with
Then it would also seem logical that the Boom
saw the birth of the literary agent in Latin America.
Right. Carlos Fuentes was the first Latin American writer I can
think of to have an agent, and an American one at that. Now everybody
does. The economic factor, again, is paramount: When writers could
not make a living by their writings, as was the case before the
Boom, there was no need for agents. But now, although this applies
only to a few people, books by Latin American writers sell throughout
Latin America and around the world, so agents are a necessity.
This distinction between the Boom and the post-Boom
makes me think about the pre-Boom writers of the 1940s, especially
the writers in the Río de la Plata. Their writerly vocation
seems so ironic, although some were, l suppose, helped by the Boom.
I assume you are thinking about people like Adolfo Bioy Casares,
Juan Carlos Onetti and, of course, Borges himself. Well, it's true
that there was something ironic in the act of writing in the forties
and even the fifties because those writers must have wondered if
they would ever have readers. Nevertheless, they were paving the
way for the Boom. These pre-Boom writers, and we could add Felisberto
Hernández and José Bianco to the list, really began
the process of creating a readership for Latin American literature,
a cadre of devoted and highly sophisticated readers who were convinced
that Latin America could produce great literature.
Fortune has not been kind to all of them.
Not at all. After 1961, the year he shared the Formentor Prize
with Samuel Beckett, Borges was recognized everywhere as a master.
Bioy Casares, on the other hand, demands great devotion from his
readers and is all too easily dismissed as a minor talent. Onetti
is a superb writer, but his tortured characters tend to repel readers.
Bianco and Felisberto Hernández are also usually thought
of as minor writers, although their contribution to the shaping
of a literary tradition was considerable.
I find the case of Onetti the most pathetic of
Let's not give up hope. After all, when Faulkner won the Nobel
Prize most of his books were out of print. And when American readers
realized that Faulkner was more than a regional writer -it took
people like Sartre to convince them- they began to take him seriously.
I'm not saying Onetti is going to get a Nobel, but there is still
a chance that with proper handling and good translation Onetti may
find the wider international audience he deserves.
Speaking of "wider international audiences,"
did you ever imagine you would end up us a professor of Latin American
literature at an American university? Isn't this your fifteenth
year at Yale?
It is my fifteenth year, but while the Boom may be over, I hope
you don't think I'm "ending up." I began teaching in Uruguay,
back in 1945. I started as a secondary-school teacher and finished
as a university lecturer -a 20-year stint. So I have been teaching
all my life. The only surprise is that I find myself here in the
How is your life teaching here in the United
States different from what it was in Montevideo?
In Montevideo I participated in many more aspects of cultural life
than I do here. I translated plays for theater groups and saw them
put on, I was a film critic (a friend and I actually wrote a book
on Ingmar Bergman in 1964) and I was deeply involved with literature.
I started working on the literary section of a newspaper, Marcha,
in 1943 and two years later took over the job of literary editor,
which Juan Carlos Onetti had held until he went to Buenos Aires.
I worked on Marcha until 1960. And in the meantime, I edited
my own magazine, Número, from 1949 until 1955 (and
again between 1962 and 1963). I wrote a good deal on the Generation
of 1945, which includes Mario Benedetti, and did lots of biographical
work on José Enrique Rodó, Horacio Quiroga, and Andrés
Bello. Rodó and Quiroga are important River Plate figures:
Rodó was one of the first Latin American intellectuals to
speak out against U. S. domination (at the time of the Spanish-American
War), and Quiroga is one of our great short-story writers as well
as a tortured soul. I was fascinated by Bello (a Venezuelan) because
of my interest in Romanticism. So you see I was a busy man and enjoying
it, but that is not the kind of life you lead as an academic in
the United States, where you tend to limit yourself to your own
area of research.
I can see why you were an ideal candidate for
being editor of Mundo Nuevo. How did you happen to get that
The Ford Foundation decided it wanted to publish a Latin American
literary magazine, and even though I have never driven a car, I
still think it was the best of Ford's "better ideas."
They approached me, and I suggested that the magazine be published
in Paris -my only real demand.
Do you remember Walter Benjamin's essay "Paris: Capital of
the Nineteenth Century"? Well, Paris is really the international
capital of Latin America even today. It has lost some ground to
New York, but it has the advantage of being a great city where you
can still live cheaply. Latin American writers, especially during
the sixties, always made their sentimental journey to Paris, and
I knew that I could always find talent just outside the door. Besides,
if you publish a magazine in any Latin American city, it inevitably
takes on a local air. This was just what I wanted to avoid. And
the French postal service enabled us to reach the entire New World.
I can remember when you published an article
of mine how fantastic it felt to imagine that it would be read all
over Latin America. Mundo Nuevo was ubiquitous, at least
during your tenure.
And being published in Paris helped us achieve that ubiquity. Our
aim was simple: to publish the best literary material we could find
and to assemble the best staff we could muster. We intended the
magazine to be a guide for anyone seriously interested in following
the development of the latest Latin American literature. And not
only the prose fiction writers of the Boom: anything that was interesting,
from poetry to essay, regardless of political inclination.
The last point would seem to be the main difference
between Mundo Nuevo and the Cuban magazine Casa de las
The magazines could not have been more different. Mundo Nuevo
set out to introduce the latest literature of Latin America, while
Casa de las Américas tried to present the unified
views of the Latin American left. Which it did until the time of
the Padilla affair (1971). Of course, I had left Mundo Nuevo
long before then -the last issue I directed was the twenty-fifth
Emir, you know that at the time you left Mundo
Nuevo there were many rumors circulating about the magazine
and the CIA. Could you clear up the matter of your departure, once
and for all?
Let me warn you first: It's a long story. You have to remember
that Mundo Nuevo was launched at the hottest moment of the
Cold War, the period immortalized in the early (and better) James
Bond movies. Fidel Castro's success had raised Latin American hopes
that the long domination of the United States over our continent
had come to an end. At the same time, you have to remember that
politics was such a part of Latin American intellectual life that
the predominant mode of literary criticism was also political. I
personally had very little use for that approach, probably because
my own politics allowed me to pursue nonpolitical interpretations
Just what were your politics?
I was a socialist and had been one for many years -but a socialist
of the English Labour Party type, a socialist in the Scandinavian
tradition or in the style of François Mitterand. I had nothing
to do with what they call socialism in the Soviet Union. I'll tell
you why. My ancestors came from Spain, so I followed the tragedy
of the Spanish Civil War quite closely: I was 15 when it broke out,
and those three years shook me to my very core. One of the consequences
of my vicarious but deeply felt participation in the Civil War was
that I always distrusted Stalin and the Stalinists.
Why should that experience, which you shared
with so many Latin Americans, have influenced your vision of Fidel
When Fidel took over, I (along with millions of other Latin Americans)
applauded. I even signed an open letter to President Kennedy at
the time of the Bay of Pigs fiasco in which we begged him, respectfully
but firmly, to leave Cuba alone. That letter was printed in Marcha
and echoed the doctrine of nonintervention the OAS was trumpeting
at the time. Problems arose because of Fidel's devotion to the Soviet
cause, which in turn fostered a neo-Stalinism among left-wing intellectuals
both in and out of Cuba. I felt I had to take an independent course.
By 1963, if I was not anti-Fidel, I was certainly not emphatically
How did your independence affect your editorship
of Mundo Nuevo?
When I discussed Mundo Nuevo with the Ford Foundation, I
demanded and got full editorial control of the magazine. That meant
that I had to okay everything, even advertising copy. I conceived
Mundo Nuevo as an open forum and invited writers of all political
persuasions to contribute to it. Only the Cubans refused, in one
of their typical collective statements. Before printing a line,
I visited all the major Latin American capitals, but for some reason
I just could not get a visa to enter Cuba. For all I know my application
may still be gathering dust in some corner of the Cuban consulate
And did this cold-shoulder technique continue
even after the magazine came out?
Actually the shoulder became quite hot even before the first issue
appeared: The Cubans circulated a manifesto boycotting it. I was
ready for that because I had learned years before in Montevideo
that sectarians cannot tolerate independent minds. Fortunately,
the boycott did not work, and right in the first year I was able
to publish very well known left-wing writers such as Pablo Neruda,
Nicanor Parra, García Márquez, and Carlos Fuentes.
I also published critical analyses of the Vietnam War, of President
Johnson's occupation of Santo Domingo, of Latin American guerrilla
movements, of military takeovers in Brazil and Argentina, and of
the decadence of Spanish culture under Franco. Because I published
uncensored material, the magazine was banned in Brazil, Argentina,
Spain, and, of course, Cuba. At the same time, Mundo Nuevo
was barraged by anonymous poison-pen letters from the anti-Castro
exiles in Miami.
It's wonderful to be popular. Did you ever try
to answer your critics?
Yes. In 1966, I took part (as editor-in-chief of Mundo Nuevo)
in the Pen Club Congress in New York. I chaired a Latin American
round table discussion in which Neruda, Parra, Mario Vargas Llosa,
Carlos Fuentes, Haroldo de Campos and Victoria Ocampo all spoke.
(The text is in the November 1966 issue of Mundo Nuevo).
Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban novelist, had promised to attend, but
at the very last minute the Cubans boycotted the meeting because
they were trying to "isolate" the United States culturally.
In any case, any Latin American who visited the United States in
the sixties was immediately branded a traitor. In an "Open
Letter to Pablo Neruda," dutifully signed by some 30 Cuban
writers. Neruda was denounced as a traitor to the cause. Carlos
Fuentes and I also caught some flak. So I published an article in
the November 1966 issue called "The Pen Club Against the Cold
War" in which I attempted to set the record straight. It was
useless. The Cubans and their associates just went on with they
boycott and called anyone who disagreed with them a traitor.
Were you distressed by these attacks?
I didn't mind them very much because they were so hysterical. Besides,
the anti-Castro crowd was just as hysterical. But in 1967, things
got really nasty. I was putting the finishing touches on the July
issue -we printed two months in advance to compensate for slow mail
delivery to and in Latin America- when the New York Times (April
27) exposed connections between the Congress for Cultural Freedom
(CFF) and the CIA. Even though at the time Mundo Nuevo was launched
the CCF had severed its ties with the CIA and was being funded exclusively
by the Ford Foundation, Mundo Nuevo was attacked because of its
association with the Instituto Latinoamericano de Relaciones Internacionales
(ILARI). You see, the Ford foundation money came to us through ILARI
and ILARI was linked to the CCF.
What could you do about scotching those rumors?
I immediately wrote an editorial for the July issue in which I
denounced the CIA in the strongest possible terms. Here is a quotation
from the last two paragraphs:
Mundo Nuevo condemns this action most energetically. It is not
only that the CIA has tricked so many independent writers, but
that it has tricked precisely those who have shown their independence
in the face of fascism and Stalinism in times when it seemed almost
impossible to utter a word. People like Silone, Spender, Malraux,
or Oppenheimer, who have rejected the seduction of one dogma have
been the involuntary victims of the maneuvers of the other.
These revelations are painful, and they merely confirm the obvious:
how difficult it is to win and keep your independence. The situation
of the independent intellectual in the modern world is fraught
with risk and misery. The writer or artist unwilling to say Amen
or Heil, to sign where, when, and what he is told, to recite the
catechism or the latest party line, is for that very reason exposed
to the cruelest hoaxes. On one hand he is the victim of calumnies
of the organized reactionaries -McCarthyite or Stalinist; on the
other he is tricked by the CIA. Fortunately, while lies or dirty
tricks can shape current opinion of a work of art or someone's
behavior, this is an ephemeral victory, because calumny cannot
alter the quality and independence of the work of art itself.
The CIA or the corruptors from other groups can pay independent
intellectuals as long as the intellectuals don't know about it.
What they can never do is buy them outright.
In the August 1967 issue, I published a 20-page article, "The
CIA and the Intellectuals," in which I quoted all the published
documents relevant to the case. The article condemns the CIA and
exonerates Mundo Nuevo of any connection
Any results this time?
My statement did not amuse the Congress for Cultural Freedom or
the Instituto Latinoamericano de Relaciones Internacionales. We
had a confrontation, ugly words were exchanged (mine, I suppose,
the ugliest because I seem to have inherited the Spanish gift for
abuse), and it was decided that I was free to ask the Ford Foundation
for a direct grant to finance Mundo Nuevo. From then on,
I decided not to discuss the magazine's future with either of those
two groups. But the Ford Foundation had another "better idea"
that ruined the magazine.
What was that?
They were against giving money directly to an individual and suggested
that instead of disengaging Mundo Nuevo from ILARI, we move
the editorship to a Latin American country. I was opposed to the
idea for two reasons: first, it was a bit like the cuckolded husband
who sells the sofa he finds his wife making love on instead of dealing
directly with her -a cosmetic change that didn't alter the basic
situation; second, to edit the magazine anywhere in Latin America
after the CIA rumors would only have made matters worse. I resigned
and severed all connections with ILARI.
Is that when you moved to Yale?
Unfortunately, I could not leave immediately because I had signed
a five-year contract to edit the magazine. I had to stay in Paris
for a few more months editing the magazine while they searched for
a new editor. They found one, and my resignation went through. In
the last issue I edited (July 1968), I reproduced an interview I
had given to France Presse about my resignation and wrote a farewell
editorial in which I declared that I had accomplished my task as
editor. Then I went back to Montevideo before going to Yale. ILARI
published Mundo Nuevo in Buenos Aires, where it became just
one more anti-Communist journal. It died of exhaustion in the early
seventies. Oddly enough, the Cubans stopped attacking it as soon
as I left -I guess because they only objected to it as long as it
was independent. I took that as a kind of involuntary homage to
We sorely miss Mundo Nuevo today. Why
is it that despite the fact that there are several high-quality
magazines being published in Latin America today there is no Mundo
Conditions have changed so radically that to publish such a magazine
today would cost a fortune. We never made any money with Mundo
Nuevo, but at least we recouped some of our costs through our
Latin American subscribers. We had to charge just to break even,
while a government-subsidized magazine like Casa de las Américas
was distributed free.
Wasnt there some advertising in Mundo
Yes, but never enough to make us into a profitable enterprise.
The whole thing was really one of the Ford Foundation's great adventures.
The mission of the magazine was to introduce
new writers. This would explain why so many Boom novels became best-sellers:
You published chapters in Mundo Nuevo and whetted the appetites
of readers all over the New World. Even Garcia Márquez's
One Hundred Years of Solitude made its first public appearance
in Mundo Nuevo, isn't that so?
Yes, we published two chapters of the novel and Luis Harsss
long interview with García Márquez, which later appeared
in his book Into the Mainstream. After all, at the time very
few readers knew anything about García Márquez, except
in Mexico. His short stories, Big Mamas Funeral, had
been published by the University of Vera Cruz press, and two short
novels, Nobody Writes to the Colonel and In Evil Hour
were published by a company in Mexico City, Era, which at that time
was still quite small. His first books, published in Colombia, were
printed in small editions and did not circulate at all. In the second
issue of Mundo Nuevo, in 1966, I published a chapter of One
Hundred Years of Solitude, and in the same year I published
Harss's interview. Then I published another chapter. I wanted to
prepare the ground for the book, which came out in 1967. Mind you,
García Márquez was no special case in this regard,
because this was what I had been doing for other writers, Reinaldo
Arenas, Manuel Puig, Severo Sarduy, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante
This all stopped after you left Mundo Nuevo.
Not exactly. When I came to the United States, I became involved
with the Center for Inter-American Relations because of its promotion
of Latin American Literature and was the first editor of Review.
The magazine was originally a yearly collection of reviews on Latin
American writers. I did the first issue; the second was done by
Alexander Coleman. By the third issue, Review had become
more of a magazine and was directed by Ronald Christ. I remained
as an advisor for several years. Review continued certain
aspects of Mundo Nuevo but was directed to an English-speaking
Was there any time when you were running Mundo
Nuevo that you were tempted to become a publisher yourself?
I had toyed with the idea even before I took over Mundo Nuevo,
way back when I edited Número, in Uruguay. At that
time we did publish a few books, among them a collection of Onetti's
short stories and an essay by Borges on poesía gauchesca
that later became quite famous. But the very quality of the books
we published made me realize just how hard it is to keep a publishing
company going. My grandfather had a publishing company and a small
newspaper in my home-town, so I guess I was born with printer's
ink in my veins, but I never thought of myself as a book publisher.
Instead of talking about imaginary books, let's
talk about one of yours. I refer to your book, The Boom of the
Latin American Novel, published by Tiempo Nuevo in Caracas (1972).
What made you decide to publish that book at that time?
First I should say that the book began as a series of articles
in Octavio Paz's magazine Plural. I don't remember now if
Octavio asked me to write the articles or if I suggested the idea
to him; the point is that it seemed a good moment for a settling
of accounts with the Boom. The decline I mentioned before in the
Latin American publishing industry as well as the political turmoil
that is still with us had already slowed the Boom down. So I decided
to take the bull by the horns: I wrote four articles, added a fifth
and published the lot as a book. My main point in the book was to
demonstrate that the Boom was a publicity venture more than a literary
event, but that despite the publicity, the Boom was based on a literary
event, which I called the "new novel." I tried to point
out that the origins of the new novel could be found in the 1940s,
in the essays and stories of Borges and in the novels of Adolfo
Bioy Casares, particularly his The Invention of Morel, which
came out in 1940 with an important preface by Borges. So the book
is really more about the new novel than about this publishing phenomenon
called the Boom.
And yet the book is dotted with the word boom, with all the meanings
it has ever had in English.
One of my attempts at irony. You see, I have never liked the word
boom, which comes out "boun" when pronounced by
Spanish speakers, so I thought I would be playful and quote choice
morsels from the 0xford English Dictionary. These jokes invariably
backfire: People thought I was defending the Boom when all I wanted
to do was bury it. So for some I was eulogizing the Boom, while
for myself I was execrating it. This confusion may have arisen from
my having published so many Boom writers in Mundo Nuevo.
You know, I have even been accused of inventing the Boom. No one
invented the Boom, and, as far as I know, the first person to use
the word in a Latin American context was Luis Harss in an Argentine
magazine, Primera Plana. I suppose this proves that people
in Latin America, and elsewhere, read the titles of books but penetrate
no further. My book is, to dispel all doubts, about the new novel.
So you would say that now, in 1984, we are definitely
"after the Boom."
Absolutely. The Boom faded quickly and was killed totally by politics,
the series of military coups that destroyed the entire Southern
Cone -Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile- and put Brazil in jeopardy.
But the economic depression created by the 1973 oil crisis left
very little money in those economies for the promotion of literature.
This depression has engulfed the publishing industries of all the
major world economies: publishers are hard-pressed to go on with
their work. I was recently in Italy, where I was shocked to learn
that Rizzoli has disappeared, and similar things have happened in
Spain. I think it is clear now just how much a function of the publishing
industry the Boom was and how much of a vacuum the collapse of that
industry has created in the literary world.
Do you find that this collapse has changed the
way the writers we associate with the Boom-García Márquez,
Cortázar or Donoso, for example- write?
Exile is even more important than the decline of the publishing
industry as far as a writer's style is concerned. Before, lets
say, 1973, if a Latin American writer wanted to go to Europe or
the United States, he did so because he was unhappy with his life
in his homeland -this would include people like Fernando Alegría,
who came to the United States in the forties, Mario Benedetti, who
went to Paris in the sixties, or Julio Cortázar, who went
to work for UNESCO in 1952. They were not exiles then. But with
the collapse of Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil many writers
were forced to leave, and they did not have any time to adjust to
a new reality. They had to write to live, but for whom were they
writing? They could not pretend they were writing for their usual
What about the audience?
A tremendous paradox. The writers escaped, but the audience was
kept hostage. Don't forget, novelists, especially those of the new
novel, use the language of their milieu, where they live, the language
of their readers. The possibility of dialogue with the reader or
critic ceases to exist. You mentioned Donoso before. He left Chile
in the sixties, long before Pinochet seized power: First he went
to Mexico, then to Spain, all in order to find a wider audience,
and then he returned despite the Chilean military regime. García
Márquez was exiled for political and economic reasons long
before the current crises and now lives in Mexico. Fuentes left
Mexico and now lives mainly in the United States. These three writers,
Donoso, García Márquez and Fuentes, have had the time
to adapt themselves to new situations. Fuentes chose to live in
the United States and make regular visits to Mexico. Donoso and
García Márquez chose to live in Spanish-speaking countries,
which if not their native lands at least speak their native tongue.
What about Cabrera Infante living in London? When asked how he maintains
contact with Cuban Spanish, he points to his wife and says, "Miriam
Gómez is my Cuban language."
But not all the writers of the new novel use
the spoken language.
Quite right. García Márquez for example writes only
about the past in a language that is quite artificial and that has
grown even more artificial over the years. Donoso is a different
case: His characters speak the language of Chile, and by going back
he has recovered that Chilean language. The really dramatic case
is Manuel Puig. He had to leave Argentina because of the Peronists:
He went to Mexico, but couldn't work there, then to New York, where
he again couldn't work, and then on to Rio de Janeiro, where he
lives today. But he is far from his native soil. His Spanish has
become quite artificial, which is not bad in literature, but it
has meant quite a change for a writer who always reproduced the
way people spoke in Argentina.
So the difference between the expatriate and
the exile is critical in the case of the writers of the new novel.
Absolutely. I remember when I was a young man in Uruguay, talking
to the Spaniards who were exiles from Franco's Spain. They were
always complaining: The food was different, the wine, the air-everything.
I always thought they were complaining too much. Now I see that
what they were missing was something undefinable, something the
prose writer in particular needs.
Emir, given the hideous reality of exile, the
economic collapse of Latin America we see written up every day in
the newspaper, is there any reason why we should be optimistic about
the future of Latin American culture?
Well, cultures are very sturdy. Things will change no doubt, but
unless we are all wiped out by the bomb, cultures will survive.
But what is disappearing rapidly is the kind of literature we got
used to with the new novel. That writing was possible because there
was an understanding, a kind of contract, between writers, readers
and critics. This invisible contract allowed writers to go as far
as they liked with their writing. Even though that community, which
came into existence during the forties, was small compared to the
total population, it was quite strong. And since that readership
existed throughout Latin America, it provided an audience which
for ten years justified a most complex literature. But with the
exile of writers and the eradication of some cultures by military
coups, the kind of writing we associate with the new novel is simply
no longer possible. This does not mean we won't have either literature
or culture but that it will be different.
So the Boom was viable as a business venture
because there existed in Latin American a highly sophisticated group
of writers and a highly sophisticated readership.
And the existence of that community is at risk in many countries.
In Argentina and Brazil it's coming back; in Mexico its strong;
but in Uruguay or Chile, it's gone. When the military men dismantled
the university system, they also dismantled the culture. It happened
in Cuba too, lets not be naive. Education there has been redirected
to the elementary level, while the higher levels have been sacrificed
Not a very encouraging picture. But what about
you, Emir? Despite the fact that you are cut off from Latin American
culture as a day-to-day experience, do you think you have a future
as an active critic of Latin American culture?
I'm not as active as I used to be in my Montevideo or Mundo
Nuevo days because I don't have a place where I can publish
regularly. I try to keep up-to-date, but over the last eight or
so years I have been writing more books and devoting more time to
lecturing or teaching. One thing I have done with regard to Latin
American culture is an anthology I published with Knopf. I tried
to make it more than a collection of excerpts, because I wanted
to articulate a vision of Latin American literature. I present it
as an ongoing enterprise instead of a collection of museum pieces.
I also include Brazilian literature because I want to show Latin
American culture as a diversity and not as a homogeneous structure.
The anthology seems like the concrete reflection
of a theory. Are you going to publish a theory of Latin American
Yes, that is a project I certainly have in mind. It wouldn't be
a history but a critical essay on Latin American culture as a plurality.
I want to show not only the divergency between nations but also
within nations -elite versus popular culture, the culture of power
versus the culture of the oppressed. Culture as a patchwork quilt
and not a seamless cloth.
What about your work as a biographer? After all,
you have written a considerable number of biographies, which in
it self is unusual because Latin America, like Spain, does not have
a great tradition in biography.
I have always been fascinated by biography -perhaps because as
a boy I was an avid student both of geography and history. I must
know the circumstances in which a literary work was produced: The
text always leads me back to the author and his milieu. I can't
say I set out to write a series of biographies -I'm not Lytton Strachey,
just one of his admirers. I wrote on Rodó first because I
wanted to provide a detailed biographical sketch for the edition
of his works that I edited. I worked on Andrés Bello in order
to trace the process by which Romanticism came into Spanish America
in the nineteenth century, research I had begun at Cambridge University
in the early fifties. I wrote about Horacio Quiroga to see if there
was a relationship between his works and his tormented life. In
the case of Neruda, I did not set out to write a biography. I was
asked to write about his poetry, but I found as I studied it carefully
that it was deeply autobiographical. The Borges biography was again
a different matter. I had written extensively on his work before
I came to the United States, but I had never written on his life
as such. As I wrote Borges's literary biography I realized there
is something novelistic in the composition of a biography -that
we biographers compete with fiction writers. Borges became my character,
almost my creation.
I would like to write a biography of Octavio Paz, but even though
I have written quite a bit on him already I still look on the project
with fear and trembling because of the complexity of Octavio's mind.
In any case, I look on my own career as an unfinished project: It
has taken on so many twists and turns since my birth in the border
town of Melo that I sometimes think of myself as a bizarre combination
of spectator and actor looking at a play in which I am simultaneously
a performer and a critic."