In a perfect world, we would’ve stopped comparing every contemporary Latin American author to Gabriel García Márquez three decades ago. But such was his spell: a vision so beautiful and complete it was that perfect world—and why bother looking for another? What I’d love is for this to be the last review with the dreaded Magical Realism Preface. We don’t need a perfect world when there are countless others to choose from. But, for old time’s sake:
In the 1960s, the English language literary market began saturating itself with imports from Latin America. Following Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union in 1959, the United States—in what is now a familiar panic—began supporting and sometimes installing brutal dictatorships throughout the Western Hemisphere. The novels written during this turmoil—à la One Hundred Years of Solitude, Cortázar’s Hopscotch, or Vargas Llosa’s The Time of the Hero—invented new histories and realities; a distraught imagination is left with no alternative. The magic and beauty borne from this suffering reached near fetishization in the United States, where everything south of the Rio Grande remains to this day a romance of palm leaves, muddy rivers, and hot, lazy villages where flowers rain from the sky. Americans quickly lost interest in Spanish-language authors, instead turning to homegrown novels about money, instruction manuals on making more of it, and compilations of inspirational quotes to help us feel good about wanting it. The dictators and the poverty remained.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of reading Valeria Luiselli’s debut novel, Faces in the Crowd. Luiselli’s work is a far cry from the novels of the Latin American Boom. With its short, unadorned sentences, cruel and indifferent surroundings, myriad references to real literary figures, and hopelessly irreconcilable loneliness, Faces is aligned with the generation from which it derives its title: Pound, Eliot, Kafka, Pessoa, even as late as Beckett and Borges—writers caught in the mid-century Sisyphean struggle against existence itself. She’s among the best of a new wave of translations from Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and Spain that began in 2003 with Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile. To this day, Bolaño remains—if not, as Susan Sontag said in the Los Angeles Times, “The most influential and admired novelist of his generation”—certainly the most popular. During his lifetime, Bolaño raged against the world’s one-dimensional vision of Latin America. Instead of flying carpets and oversized virilia, his novels are full of angry young men, Borgesian puzzles, veiled politics, and poetry. It’s an oeuvre that’s intrigued Anglophone readers, and—in addition to every Bolaño novel, story, essay, quote, and grocery list—has spawned translations of other Spanish-language writers, whose books, it turns out, aren’t so easy to dismiss as ornaments of “the other.” Instead they position themselves, sometimes aggressively, in the real world.
Often, they do this via art. Their novels are frequently about or related to art, artists, or the pursuit of art. Bolaño’s protagonists and narrators tend to be writers. Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd is a nested doll of literary narrators—a novelist, a translator, a dead poet. In Pedro Mairal’s recently-translated novel, The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, art here is literally art: enormous murals painted on individual canvases by the narrator’s father. Unknown at the time of his death, the Argentinian painter Salvatierra leaves no instructions regarding his work. His sons, Miguel and Luis, don’t press the issue: “It seemed as though what was more important to him was having painted it, nothing more. Whatever we decided to do was fine by him.” Their mother dies shortly after, leaving the property—including the shed full of canvases—to Miguel and Luis. Unsure of their father’s value as an artist, they decide to appraise and, if possible, sell his life’s work. “It was only now that we were confronted with the entire work,” Miguel observes when they open up the shed, “its colors, its secrets, and all its years. I think we were both very curious, but also felt intimidated as we calculated the immensity of the task before us.” In Mairal’s novel—as in many other novels of this new generation—art has replaced magic as the immense, central presence. It’s become the thing we can’t ignore.
Immense, when it comes to Salvatierra’s work, is too weak a word. Each canvas is rolled and stored on a network of pulleys. Even the smallest are measured in meters—no surprise when we learn that each “painting” represents a year of his life, read left to right as a mural. Miguel’s descriptions of his father’s art make up the most evocative passages in Mairal’s short, terse novel: “He wanted his paintings to encapsulate the fluidity of a river, of dreams, the way in which they can transform things in a completely natural way without the change seeming absurd but entirely inevitable.” In a single paragraph, Miguel unravels a small segment of canvas dated February 1975: a slow, sweeping landscape of an outdoor celebration that fades, inch by inch—almost imperceptibly—to unimaginable violence. From this perspective, it’s easy for readers to gauge “the immensity of the task,” before Miguel, if not the sheer immensity of the work itself when it reflects nearly sixty years of one man’s life. But so too does its beauty suggest why a person would choose, at all, to make art: in February of 1975, acting president Ítalo Lúder issued what is now known as Argentina’s “annihilation decree,” authorizing military force—including kidnappings, torture, and concentration camps—against the People’s Revolutionary Army. In Salvatierra’s work, as in all true art, this tangle of reality is distilled into an experience; Mairal gives us the experience of that experience.
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What I propose, from now on, is an alternate preface—something more general, daresay universal: Who doesn’t squirm in the shadow of one’s forebears? After Proust, for example, there was Virginia Woolf’s famous swoon of despair: “Well—what remains to be written after that?” To escape Joyce’s shadow, Beckett fled to a foreign language. Writers are never lacking in neuroses; the struggle against one’s literary parents can be embarrassingly Freudian.
In a 2007 essay for the New Yorker, Daniel Zalewski details Bolaño’s “fury toward the literary mainstream—deeply felt and bordering on puerile.” Before and after his own fame, Bolaño spoke out against García Márquez like an abused stepson. However, much like Beckett’s stripped-down French and Woolf’s Proustian paralysis, Bolaño’s “gratuitous attacks” (as he called them) weren’t for nothing: “He helped liberate Latin-American writing from the debased imitations of magic realism that followed the global conquest of García Márquez’s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude—all those clairvoyant señoritas and intercourse-inspiring moles.” No shoes, then, are too large to fill; no literary father immortal or invulnerable.
The literature of García Márquez and his contemporaries is monolithic. Its shadow still drifts in pieces over the continent, no longer so stifling but to this day obscuring the world’s view of Latin America. Out of frustration, disgust, and sorrow these novelists created a separate, imaginary Latin America—one that grew so large it dwarfed the real thing. How can any young novelist expect to carve herself a piece of this imaginary landscape? How can she compete with her own version of the world? As Bolaño figured out, you don’t: you pierce it full of holes.
More so than most literary generations, today’s Spanish-language novelists are defined by what they’re not. In 2007, the Los Angeles Times announced a new Bolaño translation with the headline, “Way Beyond Magical Realism.” Last April, after the publication of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novel, The Sound of Things Falling, the editors at Wired welcomed the end of magical realism, cataloguing the writers “who've dared to question whether Latin America has much magic to offer.” The Guardian, in May of this year, observed how Luiselli’s “downbeat supernaturalism feels quite different from the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez.” In his essay on The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, Patrick Nathan opened with . . . et cetera, ad infinitum. But what slips through the holes these novels create are Latin Americas so numerous, so distinct, it’s impossible to ignore the truth: that Gabo’s Macondo is only one version, and—just as there are countless imaginations—there are countless versions.
Of course, not all versions feel complete. As Miguel and Luis take inventory of their father’s work, they quickly discover that a single canvas—1961, in terms of chronology—is absent. “Compared to the work as a whole,” Miguel says, “this fragment was almost nothing, and yet I wanted to find it because that gap disturbed me, the jump in a continuous flow.” The search for the missing year leads Miguel first to extended family, then to his father’s friends, afterward his father’s enemies. Meanwhile a museum in Holland has expressed interest in the work and has initiated proceedings to acquire and transport it, creating a deadline. In true noir fashion, he pursues his father’s secrets to the rough part of town—“neglected, run down, with no sign of any new housing”—and, of course, the shadow of the man he knew changes shape into a man he never did. Unfortunately, despite Miguel’s adventures—death threats from a senile octogenarian, gunshots from a band of mischievous children, breaking into an abandoned villa—it’s this treasure hunt that takes the wind out of the novel’s sails.
Though written with a refreshing, straightforward realism (the narrator doesn’t over-soliloquize or lead us elaborately astray, the scrolls of canvas don’t scuttle about on their own, etc.), The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is still a novel of ideas and metaphor. He says, of his father’s work:
The canvas was one long open-air procession where beings could vanish and return some time later. Something similar often happens in music, when certain themes reappear with variations . . . Because of this sense of the limitless flow of nature that the canvas had, I find it hard to call it a painting, because that suggests a frame, a border that surrounds certain things, and that’s precisely what Salvatierra wanted to avoid. He was fascinated by the lack of a limit, of a boundary, by the way different spaces communicated with one another. Boundaries are suppressed in his work: each being is at the mercy of all the others, trapped within the cruelty of nature.
The missing canvas of 1961 opens up a hole, an interruption in an observable narrative. Stitched together, the canvases are a massive roman à clef, or even a diary. Miguel is disturbed by the missing segment—perhaps a year his father is ashamed to have painted, ergo ashamed to have lived. At the same time, it allows the novel its obvious narrative momentum. Miguel now has a way to probe his father’s secrets. And there are secrets. In this lens, Salvatierra is disappointingly ordinary, utilizing the simplest of fictions to express lofty ideas of continuity, identity, art vs. life, family, fatherhood. It gives the novel an air of contrivance. Is it a surprise that Miguel has a son of his own? That their relationship isn’t an ideal one? The story itself almost feels an afterthought. It’s hard not to feel the terrible absence of imagination—not on behalf of Mairal himself but his narrator, Miguel. Even Philip Roth allowed Nate Zuckerman, with only a few details, to imagine the suffering of his admired Seymour “the Swede” Levov. Where is Miguel’s unquenched thirst to know who his father was and how he lived? Where is, in other words, his imagination? It’s disappointing to think that one is obligated, as a twenty-first-century novelist, to scaffold one’s obsession with a lonely artist in a halfheartedly engineered detective story; especially when writers like Lydia Davis, Gerald Murnane, Julian Barnes, and myriad others have shown that the imagined solution, the imagined narrative, can be equally if not far more compelling. But Mairal plays it safe, and we’re left to sneak what peeks we can at the structure beneath—the breathtaking concept of Salvatierra’s life’s work, Miguel’s translation of that work to the page, and the desire to know that we want Miguel to have had. Everything else is just beams and girders.
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Of course there’s always the Big Preface, the capital-A Art Preface in which the work in question is positioned on the massive, timeless pinwheel of capital-H Humanity. A novelist is an artist, after all—and, as Sontag pointed out in 1965—“the new sensibility understands art as the extension of life.” Who better to consult than the art critic?
In his 1952 essay, “The American Action Painters,” Harold Rosenberg defined what he saw as the new relationship artists had taken with their work:
A painting that is an act is inseparable from the biography of the artist. The painting itself is a "moment" in the adulterated mixture of his life—whether "moment" means the actual minutes taken up with spotting the canvas or the entire duration of a lucid drama conducted in sign language. The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist's existence. The new painting has broken down every distinction between art and life.
Though far from the Abstract Expressionism and Happenings of Rosenberg’s New York art world, Mairal’s daunting Salvatierra would’ve been the critic’s ideal Latin American Action Painter. What is his work but an act?—indeed, a biography? That the lost canvas is a synecdoche for an entire year of his life—that the eponymous “missing year” can be taken as both the canvas he painted in 1961 and the 1961 he actually lived—makes it hard to cleave Salvatierra from his four kilometers of canvas. It’s equally hard to cleave the sickly shut-in Marcel Proust from the sickly shut-in “Marcel” (mentioned by name only once) who narrates In Search of Lost Time, not to mention the monolithic García Márquez from the Macondo he loved. In a way, these artists lived their art. They could not step out it. Over time, art and artist fused together; the doppelgänger became the real persona, whatever “real,” in this instance, might mean.
Shortly after the novel’s translation into English (which was brilliantly done by Nick Caistor), Mairal confided his inspiration for the artist at the heart of his novel. As he told Tweed’s Magazine:
The first idea for The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra appeared when I was watching a documentary on Jackson Pollock, and they said after he was placed on a pedestal as the best artist in America, with his photo on the cover of Life Magazine, he couldn’t paint anymore. I thought about the opposite, a painter who paints every single day, unknown, and who goes forward no matter what, and paints an endless canvas.
Fame aside—and with Rosenberg’s critique of the “Jack the Dripper” America had read about in 1949—Mairal’s construction of an alternate Pollock seems quite sound. Salvatierra indeed could be the doppelgänger of a Pollock that was never discovered, never lauded. Each is a colossus. Each presents a new, and seemingly complete, version of mingling with his art—Pollock’s bypassing of the easel and brush, instead hurling himself at his canvas; Salvatierra’s seamless sixty years of life, nothing omitted and nothing forgotten. Seen through Mairal’s novel, it’s a way of making art that no longer seems to exist. In fact, Salvatierra seems deliberate in its refutation of monolithic art and artists. Miguel’s Argentina is not the Argentina his father recorded on canvas. Instead it seems disheartening and ordinary: his commutes from Buenos Aires to his native Barrancales; the tedious paperwork required by bureaucratic arts organizations; his banal desire to connect with his surly, twentysomething son. In a global and twenty-first century, the singular, unique visions of artists like his father no longer seem complete, nor encompassing, nor even credible. They seem quaint and allegorical, their stories nothing but make-believe. Despite its lack of ambition, The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra has done what novels must do—in this fragmented, amalgamated modernity—to be novels: it has shattered the contained, “perfect” world of its fathers and revealed our messy, uncontainable, inescapable world. Art, in our novels, is a longing for the perfection in which we can no longer even believe.
Patrick Nathan's fiction and essays have appeared in Boulevard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, dislocate, Revolver, Full Stop, and elsewhere. He lives in Minneapolis.