Sunday, June 26, 2016

Mario Vargas Llosa on the novel and the Inquisition

In the second of the lecture/essays collected in his 1991 book A Writer's Reality, Mario Vargas Llosa permits himself a "long parenthesis"(pages 23-25) on the early history of the novel in the western hemisphere. Here is the entirety of this marvelous digression:

As you probably know, the novel was forbidden in the Spanish colonies by the Inquisition. The Inquisitors considered this literary genre, the novel, to be as dangerous for the spiritual faith of the Indians as for the moral and political behavior of society, and, of course, they were absolutely right. We novelists must be grateful to the Spanish Inquisition for having discovered before any critic did the inevitable subversive nature of fiction. The prohibition included reading and publishing novels in the colonies. There was no way naturally to avoid a great number of novels being smuggled into our countries, and we know, for example, that the first copies of Don Quixote entered America hidden in barrels of wine. We can only dream with envy about what kind of experience it was in those times in Spanish America to read a novel--a sinful adventure in which in order to abandon yourself to an imaginary world you had to be prepared to face prison and humiliation.

Novels were not published in Spanish America until after the wars of independence. The first, El Periquillo Sarniento (The Itching Parrot), appeared in Mexico in 1816. Although for three centuries novels were abolished, the goal of the Inquisitors--a society free from the influence of fiction--was not achieved. They did not realize that the realm of fiction was larger and deeper than that of the novel. Nor could they imagine that the appetite for lies, that is, for escaping objective reality through illusions, was so powerful and so deeply rooted in the human spirit that, once the novel could not be used to satisfy it, all other disciplines and genres in which ideas could freely flow would be used as a substitute--history, religion, poetry, science, art, speeches, journalism, and the daily habits of the people. Thus by repressing and censuring the literary genre specifically invented to give the necessity of lying a place in the city, the Inquisitors achieved the exact opposite of their intentions.

We are still victims in Latin America of what we could call the revenge of the novel. We still have great difficulty in our countries in differentiating between fiction and reality. We are traditionally accustomed to mixing them in such a way that this is probably one of the reasons why we are so impractical and inept in political matters, for instance. But some good also came from this novelization of our whole life. Books like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Cortazar's short stories, and Roa Bastos's novels would not have been possible otherwise. The tradition from which this kind of literature sprang, in which we are exposed to a world totally reconstructed and subverted by fantasy, started without doubt in those chronicles of the conquest and discovery that I read and annotated under the guidance of Porras Barrenechea.

One might spend a long book--or an entire scholarly career--unpacking the many ideas Vargas Llosa crams into these three parenthetical paragraphs, ideas ranging from now-commonplace and highly arguable generalizations to provocative social-historical insights, but I find myself drawn to that wonderful image of Don Quixote, the seminal--and for some, such as Garcia Marquez, the ultimate--European novel arriving in the western hemisphere as contraband, a dangerous drug that alters people's minds. The novel arrived on our landmass the way cocaine and heroin sneak in today: smuggled in shipping containers like the Greek's smack in season two of The Wire. And in a very important way, the greatest novels have never ceased to be outlaws on our side of the world. These original literary illegal aliens have continued to break laws and blow minds, and the entire world is richer for them. All the rude, unruly bastard children of those original stowaway Quixotes are the vertebrae supporting the body of our hemispherical canon: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Moby Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, Borges' Collected Fictions, Gravity's Rainbow, Terra Nostra--fictions that tried to redefine fiction. All this from a few copies of Quixote stuffed like the Duke of Clarence into a butt of Renaissance wine. Jesus only turned water into wine; those 17th-century book smugglers turned wine into literature, a much better trick.

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