Asturias: Nobel Lecture, 12 December 1967

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Asturias: Nobel Lecture, 12 December 1967

The Latin American Novel: Testimony of an Epoch
(Translation by The Swedish Trade Council Language Services)

I would have preferred this meeting to have been called a colloquium instead of lecture—a dialogue of doubts and assertions on the subject that concerns us. Let us start by analysing the antecedents of Latin American literature in general, focusing our attention on those aspects that have most connection with the novel. Let us follow the sources back to the millenarian origins of indigenous literature in its three great moments: Maya, Aztec and Inca.

The following question arises: Was there something resembling the novel among the indigenous peoples? I believe there was. The history of the original cultures of Latin America has more of what we in the western world call the novel than of history. It is necessary to bear in mind that the books of their history—their novels we would now say—were painted by the Aztecs and Mayas and preserved in a figurative form which we still do not understand by the Incas. This assumes the use of pictograms in which the voice of the reader—the indigenous do not distinguish between reading and reciting since for them it is the same thing-recited the text to the listeners in song form.

The reader, reciting stories or “great language,” the only person who understood what the pictograms meant, carried out an interpretation, re-creating them for the enlightenment of those who listened. Later, these painted stories become fixed in the memory of the listeners and pass in oral form from generation to generation until the alphabet brought by the Spanish fixes them in their native tongues with Latin characters or directly in Spanish. In this way indigenous texts come to our knowledge with very little exposure to European corruption. The reading of these documents is what has allowed us to affirm that, among the native Americans, history has more of the characteristics of the novel than of history. They are accounts in which reality is dissolved in fable, legend, the trappings of beauty and in which the imagination, by dint of describing all the reality that it contains, ends up re-creating a reality that we might call surrealist.

This characteristic of the annulment of reality through imagination and the re-creation of a more transcendental reality is combined with a constant annulment of time and space as well as something more significant: the use and abuse of parallel expressions, i.e. the parallel use of different words to designate the same object, to convey the same idea and express the same feelings. I wish to draw attention to this point—the parallelism in the indigenous texts allows an exercise of nuances that we find hard to appreciate but which undoubtedly permitted a poetic gradation destined to induce certain states of consciousness which were taken to be magic.

If we return to the theme of the origin of a literary genre, similar to the novel, among the pre-Colombian peoples it is necessary to link the birth of this novel form with the epic. The heroic legend, exceeding the possibilities of historical fiction, was sung by the rhapsodists—the great voices of the tribes or “cuicanimes” who toured the cities reciting the texts in order that the beauty of their songs would be disseminated among the peoples like the golden blood of their gods.

These epic songs that are so abundant in pre-Columbian literature, and so little known, possess what we call “fictional plot” and what the Spanish friars and missionaries termed “tricks.”

These fictional tales were originally the testimony of past epochs; the memory and fame of high deeds that others on hearing would desire to emulate, this literature of reality and fable is broken in the instant of servitude and remains as one of the many broken vessels of those great civilisations. Other narratives will follow—in this same documentary form—recounting not the evidence of greatness but of misery, not the testimony of liberty but of slavery, no longer the statements of the masters but those of the subjects and a new, emerging American literature attempting to fill the empty silences of an epoch.

However, the literary genres that flourished in the Iberian peninsulas—the realistic novel and the theatre-were not to put down roots here. On the contrary, it is the indigenous effervescence, the sap and the blood, river, sea and mirage that affects the first Spaniard to write the first great American “novel,” for the “True Story of the Events of the Conquest of New Spain” written by Bernal Diaz del Castillo deserves to be called no less. Is it not rather bold to describe as a “novel” what that soldier called not history but “true history”? But are not novels frequently the true history? I repeat the question: is it really boldness to describe as a novel the work of this illustrious chronicler?

To those who might call me daring in my description I would invite them to enter the cadenced and panting prose of this versatile foot soldier and they will notice how—on entering into it—they gradually forget that what happened was reality and it will seem to them increasingly a work of pure imagination. Indeed, even Bernal himself says no less, next to the very walls of Tenochtitlan: “this seemed to be the work of enchantment that is recounted in the book of Amadis!” But this is the work of a Spaniard—it will be said—although the only thing Spanish about it is its having been written by a “peninsular” resident in Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala—where that glorious manuscript is kept—and its having been composed in the old language of Castile although it partakes of that masquerade characteristic of indigenous literature. To Don Marcelino Menendez y Pelayo—this expert in classic Spanish literature—the taste of this prose is strange and the fact that it has been written by a soldier he finds surprising. It escapes this eminent writer that Bernal, at the age of eighty, had not only heard many texts of indigenous literature being recited, being influenced by it, but through osmosis had absorbed America and had already become American.

But there is another more impressive parenthesis. In their last sorrowful cantos the indigenous peoples—now subjugated—call for justice and Bernal Diaz Castillo expresses his deepest feelings in a chronicle which is a howl of protest at the oblivion into which they fell after being “fought and conquered.”

As from this moment, all Latin American literature, in song and novel, not only becomes a testimony for each epoch but also, as stated by the Venezuelan writer Arturo Uslar Pietri, an “instrument of struggle.” All the great literature is one of testimony and vindication, but far from being a cold dossier these are moving pages written by one conscious of his power to impress and convince.

Will the south give us a mestizo? The mestizo par excellence since—in order for nothing to be lacking—he was the first American exile: Inca Garcilaso. This Creole exile follows the indigenous voices already extinguished in his denunciation of the oppressors of Peru. The Inca offers us in his magnificent prose not only the native American—nor only the Spanish—but the mixture materialised in the fusion of the bloods, and in the same demand for life and justice.

To start with nobody discerns the “message” in the prose of Inca. This will be clarified during the struggle for independence. Inca will then appear with the dignity of the Indian that knew how to make fun of the empire of “the two knives”—that is to say civil and ecclesiastical censorship. The Spanish authorities, slow to fathom the message containing so much spirit, imagination and melancholy, wisely order the confiscation of the story of Inca Garcilaso where the Indians have “learned so many dangerous things.”

Not only poetry and works of fiction bear witness. The least expected authors such as Francisco Javier Clavijero, Francisco Javier Alegre, Andres Calvo, Manuel Fabri, Andres de Guevara gave birth to a literature of exiles which is—and will continue to be—a testimony of its epoch.

Even the Guatemalan poet Rafael Landívar has his form of rebellion. His protest is silence—he calls the Spanish “Hispani” without qualifying the adjective. We refer to Landívar because, despite being the least known, he should be considered the standard bearer of American literature as the authentic expression of our lands, our people and landscapes. According to Pedro Henriquez-Urena, “among the poets of the Spanish colonies he is the first master of landscape, the first to break definitively with the conventions of the Renaissance and discover the characteristic features of nature in the New World—its flora and fauna, its countryside and mountains, its lakes and waterfalls. In his descriptions of customs, of the crafts and the games there is an amusing vivacity and—throughout the poem—a deep sympathy and understanding of the survival of the original cultures.”

In 1781 in Modena, Italy, there appeared under the title of Rusticatio Mexicana a poetic work of 3,425 Latin hexameters, in 10 cantos, written by Rafael Landívar. One year later in Bologna the second edition appeared. The poet called by Menendez y Pelayo “the Virgil of the modern age” proclaimed to the Europeans the excellence of the land, the life and the peoples of America. He was concerned for the people of the Old World to know that El Jorullo, a Mexican volcano, could rival Vesuvius and Etna, that the waterfalls and caves of San Pedro Martir in Guatemala were the equals of the famous fountains of Castalia and Aretusa and referring to the cenzontle—the bird whose song has 400 tones—he elevated it above the realm of the nightingale.

He sings the praises of the countryside, of the gold and silver that was filling the world with valuable coins and the sugar loaves offered at royal tables.

His poem is not short of statistics concerning the riches of America. He cites the droves of cattle, the flocks of sheep, the herds of goats and pigs, the sources of medicinal waters, the popular games—some unknown in Europe—and he does not hide the glory of the cocoa and chocolate of Guatemala. But there is something that we should be aware of in the song of Landívar; namely his love of the indigenous. The Indian, for Landívar, is the race that succeeds in everything, he describes the marvels of the floating gardens created by the Indians, he holds them up as examples of charm and skill without forgetting their great sufferings. In this way he imparts poetic substance—in naturalistic poetry far from symbolism—to a fact that has always been denied: the superiority of the American Indian as farmer, as craftsman and worker.

To the image of the bad Indian, lazy and immoral that was so widely propagated in Europe and accepted in America by those who exploit it Landívar opposes the picture of the Indian on whose shoulders has weighed—and continues to weigh—the burden of labour in America. And he does not do it by simply stating it— in which case we would have the right or not of believing it. In his poem we see the Indian on board his charming canoe, transporting his goods or travelling and we admire him extracting the purple and scarlet, laying out the snowy worms that produce the silk, holding on stubbornly to the rocks in order to remove the beautiful shellfish, patiently and doggedly ploughing, cultivating the indigo plant, extracting the silver from his native mines, exhausting the golden veins. … The Rusticatio of Landívar confirms what we have said of the great American literature—it cannot accept a passive role while on our soil a famished people live in these abundant lands. In its content it is a form of novel in verse.

Fifty years later, Andres Bello was to renovate the American adventure in his famous “Silva,” an immortal and perfect work in which the nature of the New World appears again with maize the leader—as haughty chief of the corn tribe—the cacao in “coral urns,” the coffee plants, the banana, the tropics in all their vegetable and animal power, contrasting the impoverished inhabitant with this grandiose vision “of the rich soil.”

Bello recalls Inca Garcilaso in his role as an exile, he is of the American lineage of Landívar, both represent the brilliant start of the great American odyssey in world literature. As from this moment the image of nature in the New World will awake in Europe an interest but it will never attain the incandescent fidelity that is achieved in the work of Landívar and Bello. A distorted vision of the marvels is offered us by Chateaubriand in “Atala” and “Les Natchez.”

For the Europeans nature is a background without the gravitational force achieved by Creole romanticism. The romantics give nature a permanent presence in the creations of poets and novelists of the epoch. This is exemplified by José Maria de Heredia singing of the Niagara Falls and Estaban Echeverria describing the desert in “La Cautiva” to mention just two.

Latin American romanticism was not only a literary school but a patriotic flag. Poets, historians and novelists divide their days and nights between political activities and dreaming their creations. Never has it been more beautiful to be a poet in America! Amongst the poets influenced by the Patria converted in Muse are José Mármol, author of one of the most widely read novels in Latin AmericaAmalia. The pages of this book have been turned by our febrile and sweaty fingers when we suffered in our very bones the dictatorships that have plagued Central America. The critics, when referring to the novel of Mármol, point out inconsistencies and carelessness without realising that a work of this type is written with a madly beating heart—pulsations that leave in the sentence, in the paragraph, on the page that abnormal heartbeat reflecting the distortion of the life force that troubled the entire country. We are in the presence of one of the most passionate examples of the American novel. Despite the years Amalia—the imprecations of José Mármol—continue to move readers to such an extent as to represent an act of faith.

It is at this very moment that the voice of Sarmiento is heard posing his famous dilemma at the threshold of the century: “civilisation or barbarism.” Indeed, Sarmiento himself will be startled when he becomes aware that “Facundo” turns his arms against him and against everyone, declaring himself to be the authentic representative of Creole America, of the America that refuses to die and attempts to break—with a breast already hardened—the antithetical scheme of civilisation and barbarism in order to find between these two extremes the point where the American peoples are able to find their authentic personality with their own essential values.

In the middle of the last century another romantic, no less passionate, appears in Guatemala: José Batres Montúfar. In the midst of tales of festive character the reader feels that he should forget the fiesta to listen to the poetry. The immortal José Batres Montúfar, with abundant charm tinged with bitterness, was able to get to the core of issues that already—in the middle of the past century—were highly charged.

Another voice was to ring out from north to south, that of José Martí. His presence was felt, whether as an exile or in his beloved Cuba, the fire of his speech as poet or journalist being combined with the example of his sacrifice.

The 20th century is full of poets, poets that have nothing more to say with very few exceptions. Among the latter stand out the immortal Rubén Darío and Juan Ramón Molina from Honduras. The poets flee from reality, maybe because this is one of the ways of being a poet. But there is nothing living in much of their work which instead tend towards garrulity.

They are ignorant of the clear lesson of the native rhapsodists, they are forgetful of the colonial craftsmen of our great literature, satisfied with the bloodless imitation of the poetry of other latitudes and ridicule those who sang the bold gestures of the liberation struggle, considering them dazzled by a local patriotism.

It is only when the First World War is passed that a handful of men—men and artists—embark on the reconquest of their own tradition. In their encounter with the indigenous peoples they drop anchor in their Spanish home port and return with the message that they have to deliver to the future.

Latin American literature will be reborn under other signs—no longer that of verse. Now the prose is tactile, plural and irreverent in its attitude to conventions—to serve the purpose of this new crusade whose first move was to plunge into reality not so as to objectify but rather to penetrate the facts in order to identify fully with the problems of humanity. Nothing human-nothing which is real—will be foreign to this literature inspired by contact with America. And this is the case of the Latin American novel. Nobody doubts that the Latin American novel is at the leading edge of its genre in the world. It is cultivated in all our countries, by writers of different tendencies, which means that in the novel everything is forged from American material—the human witness of our historic moment.

We, the Latin American novelists of today, working within the tradition of engagement with our peoples which has enabled our great literature to develop—our poetry of substance—also have to reclaim lands for our dispossessed, mines for our exploited workers, to raise demands in favour of the masses who perish in the plantations, who are scorched by the sun in the banana fields, who turn into human bagasse in the sugar refineries. It is for this reason that—for me—the authentic Latin American novel is the call for all these things, it is the cry that echoes down the centuries and is pronounced in thousands of pages. A novel that is genuinely ours; determined and loyal—in its pages—to the cause of the human spirit, to the fists of our workers, to the sweat of our rural peasants, to the pain for our undernourished children; calling for the blood and the sap of our vast lands to run once more towards the seas to enrich our burgeoning new cities.

This novel shares—consciously or unconsciously— the characteristics of the indigenous texts; their freshness and power, the numismatic anguish in the eyes of the Creoles who awaited the dawn in the colonial night, more luminous however than this night that threatens us now. Above all, it is the affirmation of the optimism of those writers that defied the Inquisition, opening a breach in the conscience of the people for the march of the Liberators.

The Latin American novel, our novel, cannot betray the great spirit that has shaped—and continues to shape—all our great literature. If you write novels merely to entertain—then burn them! This might be the message delivered with evangelical fervour since if you do not burn them they will anyway be erased from the memory of the people where a poet or novelist should aspire to remain. Just consider how many writers there have been who—down the ages—have written novels to entertain! And who remembers them now? On the other hand, how easy it is to repeat the names of those amongst us who have written to bear witness.

To bear witness. The novelist bears witness like the apostle. Like Paul trying to escape, the writer is confronted with the pathetic reality of the world that surrounds him—the stark reality of our countries that overwhelms and blinds us and, throwing us to our knees, forces us to shout out: WHY DO YOU PERSECUTE ME? Yes, we are persecuted by this reality that we cannot deny, which is lived in the flesh by the people of the Mexican revolution, embodied in persons such as Mariano Azuela, Agustin Yanez and Juan Rulfo whose convictions are as sharp as a knife; those who share with Jorge Icaza, Ciro Alegría, Jesús Lara the shout of protest against the exploitation and abandonment of the Indian; those who with Romulo Gallegos in “Done Bábara” create for us our Prometheus. Here is Horacio Quiroga who frees us from the nightmare of the tropics, a nightmare that is as peculiar to him as his style is American. “Los ros profundos” of José María Arguedas, the “Rio oscuro” of the Argentinian Alfredo Varela, “Hijo de hombre” of the Paraguayan Roa Bastos and “La ciudad y los perros” of the Peruvian Vargas Llosa make us see how the life-blood of the working people is drained in our lands.

Mancisidor takes us to the oil fields to which are drawn—leaving their homes—the inhabitants of “Cases muertas” of Miguel Otero Silva. … David Vinas confronts us with the tragic Patagonia, Enrique Wernicke sweeps us along with the waters that overwhelm whole communities while Verbitsky and María de Jesús lead us to the miserable shanty towns, the Dantesque and subhuman quarters of our great cities. …

Teitelboim in “El hijo del salitre” tells us of the gruelling work in the saltpetre mines while Nicomedes Guzman makes us share in the lives of the children in the Chilean working class districts. We feel the countryside of El Salvador in “Jaragua” by Napoleón Rodríguez Ruiz and our small villages in “Cenizas del Izalco” by Flakol and Clarivel Alegria. We cannot think of the pampas without speaking of “Don Segundo Sombra” by Guiraldes nor speak of the jungle without “La voragine” of Eustasio Rivera, nor of the Negroes: without Jorge Amado, nor of the Brazilian plains without the “Gran Sertao” of Guimaraes Rosa, nor of the plains of Venezuela without Rámon Díaz Sánchez.

Our books do not search for a sensationalist or horrifying effect in order to secure a place for us in the republic of letters. We are human beings linked by blood, geography and life to those hundreds, thousands, millions of Latin Americans that suffer misery in our opulent and rich American continent. Our novels attempt to mobilise across the world the moral forces that have to help us defend those people. The mestizo process was already advanced in our literature and in rediscovering America it lent a human dimension to the grandiose nature of the continent. But this is a nature neither for the gods as in the texts of the Indians, nor a nature for heroes as in the writings of the romantics, but a nature for men and women in which the human problems will be addressed again with vigour and audacity.

As true Latin Americans the beauty of expression excites us and—for this reason—each one of our novels is a verbal feat. Alchemy is at work. We know it. It is no easy task to understand in the executed work all the effort and determination invested in the materials used—the words.

Yes, I say words—but by what laws and rules they have been transformed! They have been set as the pulse of worlds in formation. They ring like wood, like metals. This is onomatopoeia. In the adventure of our language the first aspect that demands attention is onomatopoeia. How many echoes—composed or disintegrated—of our landscape, our nature are to be found in our words, our sentences. The novelist embarks on a verbal adventure, an instinctive use of words. One is guided along by sounds. One listens, listens to the characters.

Our best novels do not seem to have been written but spoken. There is verbal dynamics in the poetry enclosed in the very word itself and that is revealed first as sound and afterwards as concept.

This is why the great Spanish American novels are vibrantly musical in the convulsion of the birth of all the things that are born with them.

The adventure continues in the confluence of the languages. Amongst the languages spoken by the people, in which the Indian languages are represented, there is an admixture of the European and Oriental languages brought by the immigrants to America.

Another language is going to rain its sparkle over sounds and words. The language of images. Our novels seem to be written not only with words but with images. Quite a few people when reading our novels see them cinematically. And this is not because they pursue a dramatic statement of independence but because our novelists are engaged in universalising the voice of their peoples with a language rich in sounds, rich in fable and rich in images.

This is not a language artificially created to provide scope for the play of the imagination or so-called poetic prose; it is a vivid language that preserves in its popular speech all the lyricism, the imagination, the grace, the high-spiritedness that characterise the language of the Latin American novel.

The poetic language which nourishes our novelistic literature is more or less its breath of life. Novels with lungs of poetry, lungs of foliage, lungs of rich vegetation. I believe that what most attracts non-American readers is what our novels have achieved by means of a colourful, brilliant language without falling into the merely picturesque, the spell of onomatopoeia cast by representing the music of the countryside and sometimes the sounds of the indigenous languages, the ancestral smack of those languages that flourish unconsciously in the prose that is used. There is also the importance of the word as absolute entity, as symbol. Our prose is distinguished from Castilian syntax because the word—in our novels—has a value of its own, just as it had in the indigenous languages. Word, concept, sound; a rich fascinating transposition. Nobody can understand our literature, our poetry if the power of enchantment is removed from the word.

Word and language enable the reader to participate in the life of our novelistic creations. Unsettling, disturbing, forcing the attention of the reader who—forgetting his daily life—will enter into the situations and personalities of a novel tradition that retains intact its humanistic values. Nothing is used to detract from mankind but rather to perfect it and this is perhaps what wins over and unsettles the reader, that which transforms our novel into a vehicle of ideas, an interpreter of peoples using as instrument a language with a literary dimension, with imponderable magical value and profound human projection.

[© The Nobel Foundation, 1967. Miguel Ángel Asturias is the sole author of the text.]