Three recent novels show the varied history and literary style of Latin America

By Héctor Abad
Translated by Anne McLean
468 p. Archipelago. Paper, $ 20.

Based on his well-received memoir, “Oblivion”, on the murder of his father by paramilitaries, Colombian writer Abad tells a family story in “The Farm”, a novel that unfolds the tragic events of history of his country as a backdrop. La Oculta is the title farm, a property in rural northwest Colombia where the Ángel family have lived since the mid-19th century. When Ana, the matriarch, dies, her three children must decide what to do with them: Eva, occupied almost exclusively by her loves, wants to sell the land; Pilar, the older sister, wants to hang on to it, as does Antonio, a violinist living in New York with her husband.

The urge to filter national history through a family story is not uncommon in Latin American fiction. “The Farm,” told by each brother in alternate chapters, is steeped in Colombian history, especially in the sections featuring Antonio, the family archivist; it explains the origins of the property, which date back to the colonization of the territory south of the Cauca river at the end of the wars of independence. There, the 19th century project of a Colombian Arcadia ended up collapsing under pressure from La Violencia (as the clash between liberals and conservatives was called) and the arrival of guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug trafficking. , illegal mining and, finally, real estate. speculation.

Abad takes a moral look at these facts through his characters. Among them, Pilar stands out for his delicate and memorable turns of phrase. Nonetheless, her narration, like that of her siblings, is weighed down with repetitions, lengthy descriptions and digressions – on food, mostly – and a sickening sensibility that may alienate some readers.

By Carla Guelfenbein
Translated by John Cullen
407 pp. Other Press. Paper, $ 17.95.

“In the Distance With You”, the fifth novel by Chilean author Guelfenbein, is loosely based on the life of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Its protagonist, Vera Sigall, is a lonely 84-year-old writer who falls down the stairs of her house, triggering a series of events. Daniel Estévez, neighbor and confidant of Sigall, stays by his bed in the hospital, convinced that the fall was not accidental. Emilia Husson, a French student studying Sigall’s work at the time of his accident, goes to the hospital and ends up falling in love with Estévez despite being married and being engaged to an astronomer mountaineer back in France. Horacio Infante, Chilean poet and former lover of Sigall, whom Husson knows socially, writes him a long letter in which he confesses his affair with the legendary writer and reveals other secrets to him.

Guelfenbein tells this complex intrigue in chapters which rotate between Estévez, Husson and Infante. Estévez’s chapters are the most daring, stylistically, because they are narrated in the second person: he addresses Sigall in prose whose emphasis on the “you” is meant to be poetic. As in the rest of the book, however, the effect is stereotypical and sentimental. Readers never have a clue of Sigall’s literary success, despite the fragments of his work strewn all over the place, and the characters are two-dimensional. The universe of “In the Distance With You”, which won the prestigious Alfaguara Prize in 2015, is that of mansions, champagne, private clubs, crystal lamps and Debussy, spread across glamorous cities like Grenoble , Paris and New York. At one point, Husson feels like “doing crazy things, like jumping, like throwing a ball high in the sky, like dancing.” It would be nice if this novel caused similar desires in readers, but all they can want to do is put the book aside as soon as they can.

By César Aira
Translated by Chris Andrews
92 pages. New directions. Paper, $ 13.95.

Aira’s novel “The Linden Tree” offers a different approach to historical events. Its narrator, an unnamed writer, remembers his childhood – which resembles that of the author – in a small town during the early years of Peronism, the mass movement that transformed Argentina. Daily life is marked by political division and anxiety, which the narrator’s father, an insomniac electrician, faces while drinking tea made from linden flowers. In the narrator’s childish imagination, the tensions between adults take on an exaggerated and surreal aspect – a characteristic technique of Aira. Novel after novel (he has published more than 70), Aira has specialized in what he calls “Dadaist fairy tales”, which are based less on fantastic invention than on the distorted perceptions of his characters and a style bordering on allegory.

In “The Linden Tree,” a boy who climbs a tree during the coup that overthrew the democratic government of Juan Domingo Perón becomes the reason the tree is cut; political opponents of Peronism, commonly called “gorillas”, become real animals; a dark-skinned father is literally a “black” man; and his union with a physically deformed white woman becomes a metaphor for Peronism itself – a seemingly banal arrangement that results in a monstrous reality. Thus, Peronism figures here as a childish stage in Argentine history, and Aira’s deceptively transparent fiction testifies to her ability to transform childish fear into art.

Aira’s work is varied and extensive, but “The Linden Tree” may be one of her best entry points, asserting the existence of a Latin American literature that refuses to conform to conventions and stereotypes. magical realism, social realism or other clichés on fiction from this part of the globe. Let it be, as Aira’s narrator says, “our little world, our refuge and our secret.”

Ann G. Starbuck