EL BOOM

Fidel Castro, a giant influence in Latin American literature, once edited Gabriel García Márquez

Fidel Castro, remembered since his death Nov. 25 as a revolutionary, dictator, and 20th century icon, was also Gabriel García Márquez’s editor.

Not his main editor, to be sure—el comandante reviewed the Nobel Prize winner’s texts as a friend, said García Márquez during a 1996 interview. But he did spot some factual errors, for example, in the caliber of weapons mentioned in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, one of the Colombian authors’ most famous works.

“He’s such a good reader, that before publishing a book I bring him the original manuscripts,” said García Márquez at the time.

That anecdote represents just a fragment of the much broader influence that Castro cast over Latin America’s literary scene. His revolution initially made him a darling of some of the biggest names in literature, including Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, another Nobel laureate, Mexican Carlos Fuentes, and Julio Cortázar, from Argentina. That subsequently changed, however, if not for all of them, for many, due to Castro’s repressive tactics against anyone who disagreed with him. Those same policies forced some of the Cuban writers of that era to leave the island, and later informed a whole new generation of Cuban writers in exile.

Regardless, Castro’s death keeps coming up at the biggest literary gathering in the Spanish-speaking world, the International Book Fair taking place this week in Guadalajara, Mexico. “It’s not that Fidel influenced literature directly, but what the Cuban revolution and Fidel as its head did generate was a different Latin American identity,” said Enrique Graue, president of Mexico’s National Autonomous University in an interview (Spanish) at the sidelines of fair. “There was a form of Latin American pride that allowed the flourishing of literature.”

El Boom

The Latin American literary “boom,” represented by García Márquez, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, et al, put the region’s writings on the world scene in a way it had never been before. Many of its authors had leftist leanings and had produced works before Castro and his revolutionaries chased dictator Fulgencio Batista out of Cuba in 1959. But they only coalesced as a movement after the Cuban Revolution—the term “boom” refers to the explosion in production and interest in these authors.

They shared an interest in experimental writing, Latin America, and their support for the Cuban revolution. “The triumph of the revolution filled them with enthusiasm,” said Rafael Rojas, a professor at Mexico’s research institute CIDE. “They traveled to Cuba, and almost all of them came into personal contact with Fidel Castro.”

In a continent mired with dictators and kleptocrats who profited at the expense of destitute masses, a people’s revolution had real seductive power. It was also a source of empowerment for a region that had long lived under the shadow of the US.

Like “the boom,” the revolution was international in its aspirations. “Cuba, for one, is no longer just a little island. It’s actually the site of some really important historical events,” said Roberto Ignacio Diaz, a literature professor at University of Southern California. And the boom literature is “not simply what people ‘down there’ write, it’s actually one of the most important bodies of literature at the time.”

Inspiration aside, Castro’s ascent to power also drew world attention to a largely forgotten corner of the world. The day’s leading intellectuals, including France’s Jean Paul Sartre and American Susan Sontag sided with the Cuban revolutionary experiment. Anti-communists also took notice. In the US, for example, the government started sponsoring cultural exchanges and collaborations with the region.

The boom’s authors benefited from the spotlight. American Universities, including Columbia, invited some of them for teaching gigs in the US, and translators started tackling their works, writes Deborah Cohn, in her book The Latin American Literary Boom and U.S. Nationalism During the Cold War.

“The revolution was very much a catalyst for both the content of the writers’ work and for the publicity that was given to the writers,” said Cohn, a professor at Indiana University.

Casa de las Américas

Castro’s regime also funded the spread of the boom. Just months after a triumphant Castro entered Havana, the state-sponsored Casa de las Américas, or House of the Americas, opened its doors. A physical space, publishing house and literary publication, Casa quickly turned into a mecca (Spanish, pdf) for writers from the region and beyond.

This pan-American exchange was not happening exclusively in Cuba. Some of the authors met and were published in Europe as well. Brett Levinson, a comparative literature professor at Binghamton University, also points out that hardly any of the boom’s most famous works are directly about the Cuban Revolution. But the political movement left a deep impression on the writers. Fuentes, for example, wrote one of his seminal novels, The Death of Artemio Cruz, in Cuba. Although it’s mostly about the failure of the Mexican revolution, the Cuban revolution is mentioned as a counter point.

Vargas Llosa, a member of Casa magazine’s editorial board, wrote in 1967 that the record of Cuba’s revolution in cultural matters was “overwhelmingly positive, a profoundly moving balance of realizations and victories” that even the most “maniacally critical spirit” would have trouble challenging (Spanish, pdf.) Julio Cortázar, who was a juror in a literary prize awarded by Casa, also had high praise (Spanish, pdf) telling a colleague in a letter that “once you arrive to Cuba, you don’t want to leave.”

Aside from talented writers, Cuba also attracted one of the boom’s most noted editors, Carlos Barral, of Spain’s Seix Barral. He visited Cuba to sell books and to meet new authors, according to an essay (Spanish) published in criticism magazine Ciberletras. His connection to the boom proved to be a profitable investment for his publishing house.

Fidel and Gabo

Unlike others writers, who plunged into the revolution head first, Gabriel García Márquez kept his distance in the first few years. After working for Cuba’s news agency Prensa Latina—and leaving after the publication was taken over by a hardliner faction (Spanish) of Cuba’s revolutionary regime, according to his biographer Gerald Martin—he moved to Mexico and wrote his most famous work “A Hundred Years of Solitude.” It was published in 1967.

But years later he sought to get close to Fidel, and became a lifelong friend. He even served as a diplomat of sorts for the dictator, carrying his messages to US president Bill Clinton (Spanish.) García Márquez never broke with him, like some of his boom colleagues, who abandoned Cuba’s revolutionary cause after Castro’s regime started brutally persecuting dissidents. He instead quietly used his influence to help some of them (Spanish) get out of the island, he told Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper.

The breakup

Castro’s tolerance for free thinkers started to wear thin a few years into the revolution. In 1961, he famously gave intellectuals guidance (Spanish) on what was kosher in the new Cuba: “Within the revolution everything, against the revolution, nothing.” That dictum reached a breaking point for Fidel admirers with the case of Heberto Padilla, a poet who was jailed and forced to confess professing anti-revolutionary sentiments in 1971. In a scathing letter (Spanish, pdf) to Castro, they said they were ashamed and enraged at the poet’s treatment, comparing it to the kind of punishment doled under Stalinism.

Among its many signatories were Fuentes and Vargas Llosa. Others, including Cortázar, stood by Fidel. That fracture among Latin America’s intellectuals exists to this day, and has been visible at the Guadalajara fair, where the dictator’s death has been discussed, said CIDE’s Rojas, who’s attending.

“History will make a balance of these 55 years that end with the death of the Cuban dictator,” Vargas Llosa, who was also there, told newspaper El País (Spanish) on Saturday. “I am sure that history won’t absolve Fidel.”

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