Books that go BOOM

It is now a well-worn cliché time-honored tradition to include at least one reference to Jorge Luis Borges in all Pterodactilo blog posts.

Far be it from me to break from tradition.

In fact, I’m thinking a lot about Borges this week because I’ve been asked to give a guest lecture about him for the Plan II Reading and Composition in World Literature course at the University of Texas. It probably won’t surprise anyone to discover that Borges is the only representative of Latin America on the entire, year-long syllabus. What’s more surprising, however, is how completely Borges has been incorporated into our concept of World Literature since the early 1960s, when he won the Prix International and was subsequently translated into English on a massive scale.

The completeness of this conversion was brought home to me last month when I attended a lecture by Pakistani novelist and journalist Mohammad Hanif. In the midst of reading from an essay about moving apartments in Karachi, he says:

Your new flat was owned by a poet who died young. The place is nothing but books… Here your housemates are Borges, Calvino and Mohammad Khalid Akhter.

In this small passage, Borges is recruited as part of an elite unit that stands in for all modern, international literature. Moreover, his appearance, and what it seems to imply about the centrality of Latin American literature, is anything but an accident in Hanif’s work. In the acknowledgements of his debut novel, which concerns the plane explosion that killed Pakistani dictator Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Hanif makes clear that he was directly inspired by Crónica de una muerte anunciada by Gabriel García Márquez and La fiesta del chivo by Mario Vargas Llosa.

That’s weird, right?

Ok, maybe it’s not “weird” given that Latin American literature is popular in English translation in the rest of the world, even somewhere as seemingly random as Pakistan. What piques my interest, though, is the way that Hanif’s Latin American sources point to two international circuits at once: the 1960s Boom that made successive generations of Latin American literature available to him, and the contemporary Boom in Anglophone fiction from South Asia that have made his own books international bestsellers. One of these Booms has been the subject of academic criticism for decades; the other remains severely under-theorized, even though its effects have been obvious for more than twenty years. Ironically, even though Latin American literature has become a major source for South Asian novelists, the same cannot be said of scholarship. Instead of looking to the wealth of  scholarship about the Latin American Boom, critics of South Asian literature are stuck reinventing the wheel when they try to talk about the impact of international prizes, First World aesthetics and political interests on the global circulation of the novels they study.

As a protest against the redundancy of that effort, I want to spend the rest of this post thinking concretely about the consequences of this newly-minted “World Literature” status for both regions. The adaptability of Latin American novels to the South Asian milieu speaks to two contradictory impulses in the way we think about World Literature: the impulse toward the abstract and universal, and the impulse toward the exotic and particular.

In the case of Crónica de una muerte anunciada, Hanif happily borrows García Márquez’s stylistic  innovations without any awareness of the broader crónica genre and its relationship to Latin American culture. For him Crónica merely offers an abstract narrative schema that is formally interesting and has proven commercially viable on an international scale.

On the other hand, La fiesta del chivo seems to have attracted Hanif for the opposite reason. The context of Vargas Llosa’s novel about the plot to assassinate Trujillo in a drive-by shootout—with its dictators, coups, inside plots, and the threat of constant, casual violence—is exotic to many international readers, but intimately  familiar to residents of Pakistan. In my best moments, I like to think that Hanif’s choice to adapt the plot of La Fiesta del chivo to the assassination of Zia ul Haq  speaks to the shared experience of these two regions, and the potential for solidarity among their inhabitants. In my less generous moments, I wonder if he simply recognized that this representation of Third World countries sells to First World audiences.

It is heartening to see that Latin American literature has attained such a “worldly” status that it can impact the direction of Pakistani prose. Yet it is telling that while describing the novel that inspired A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Hanif mis-remembers the central figure of Vargas Llosa’s text:

The Feast of the Goat is about the assassination of …(pause)…some South American dictator.

I can already imagine the same scenario playing out in the minds of Hanif’s own international readers. The name and national origin of Zia ul Haq quickly blur, until he becomes just «some Muslim dictator.»  What I wonder now — what I didn’t have the guts to ask at the time —  is whether Hanif thinks it matters. So what if international readers  only remember Zia and Trujillo as the occasions for a good (assassination) plot? So what if Pakistan and the Dominican Republic are only interesting to those readers because they are places where planes explode, cars erupt in gunfire, in short, where books go BOOM?

Would he be alright with that? Are we?

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