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Political or Apolitical World Literature?

In How to Read World Literature (2009) David Damrosch advocates reading the foundational and classic texts of World Literature across time, across cultures, and in a translation matrix that appreciates both commonalities and differences. This is essentially genre-based reading, for Damrosch writes that in contemporary World Literature, the authors’ “literary assumptions and cultural references will be understood abroad on the basis of readers’ familiarity with earlier classics in their traditions.”111 But who, aside from graduate students of World Literature, has the time or cultural capital to do this? In fact, a work begins to lose cultural reference and historicity the minute it is translated.

As we examine the gatekeepers of reception, we will see that although Cien Anos was written in a key I have characterized as the political peasant cinematic, a major part of its success was its translation and reception as an ahistorical novel. In Latin American literary history it falls into the genre of dictator novels, and it is about the history of Colombia—a satire on its politics. This genre has its roots in the Argentine novel Facundo (1845), by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, which was a critique of the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas. Literary critic Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria writes that the dictator genre is “the most clearly indigenous thematic tradition in Latin American literature.”112 It has been updated recently by Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), a novel with copious historic footnotes on the Trujillo regime. But little of Colombia’s history is explained in Cien Anos, or in its translation, even though Rabassa teaches classes on the genre.113 Context could be supplied in footnotes or an introduction, not uncommon in translations of this type; for an example, see Amadou Kourouma’s Allah nest pas oblige. In the Spanish original, the genre was “already understood” by readers, and thus the writer could beg the historic facts, subsuming them to a folkloric tradition of hyperbole and mythologizing, while aiming to uncover the real nature of power and those who seek it.

The difference in the reception of its politics becomes clear if we compare the popular interpretations of Cien Anos in Spanish and English, such as those on Wikipedia.114 In Spanish there are only 203 words on the history behind the novel, which treats the “massacre” of the banana workers as a fact that does not require explanation: “El trato inhumano a los trabajadores obligo a organizar una huelga en noviembre de 1928 que desencadeno los acontecimientos conocidos como la Masacre de las Bananeras, narrada con gran belleza en la novella” [“the inhuman treatment of the workers obliged them to organize a strike in November 1928 that developed into the events known as the Massacre of the Banana Workers, narrated with great beauty in the novel”].

In the English Wikipedia account there are 1,179 words on the “History,” giving a post-colonial political interpretation to the banana massacre, tying it to the FARC and later wars of the 1960s and 1970s: “the novel points out that the current state of Latin America is the result of the inability to obtain the confidence required to construct a meaningful sense of direction and progress. The tragedy of Latin America is that it lacks a meaningful and solid identity, causing a lack of self-preservation. This can be attributed to a past highlighted by five hundred years of colonization.” What had been an “already understood” political context in Spanish has become an overdetermined remediation in English.

If we recall Garcia Marquez and Apuleyo Mendoza on April 9, 1948, hearing the news of the Bogotazo, twenty years after the banana massacre, we understand their sense that the two events were linked—but it was a messy connection, hence Gabo’s need for myth and narrative streamlining.115 As Martin points out, Garcia Marquez’ grandfather was a tax collector for United Fruit Company and the author’s memory somewhat faulty.116 In fact a recent book by Marcelo Bucheli argues that he got the whole strike wrong. In Bananas and Business Bucheli, Stanford PhD in economic history, says that the strike was an attempt to reform the labor contracting system, eliminating Colombian middle-men called ajusteros who employed sub-contractors to hire the actual workers.117 Garcia Marquez himself was later ambivalent, pointing out that he had written a fiction, not a report:

It was a problem for me . . . when I discovered it wasn’t a spectacular slaughter. In a book where many things are magnified, like One Hundred Years of

Solitude . . . I needed to fill a whole railway with corpses. I couldn’t stick to historical reality. I couldn’t say there were three, or seven, or seventeen deaths. They wouldn’t even fill a tiny wagon. So I decided on three thousand dead because that fitted the dimension of the book I was writing. The legend has now been adopted as history.118

The novel’s imaginary of history is, of course, more interesting, a tragi-comic turn that elevates the mundane. To include such incidents, as Junot Diaz did in Oscar Wao, is the author’s choice, depending in large part on whether or not they are an understood part of the genre for the initial audience. Shearing off the political and social context, however, made Cien Anos easier to read as “World Literature” and portended a future of decontextualized masterpieces.

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