The title and content of this book emphasize the point of view that Latin America traditionally honors the creative writer and artist more than is our custom in the United States. Several well known Latin American writers have become presidents of their countries, dozens of others have been subsidized by their governments, and frequently writers who have probed astutely into current problems have become ministers without portfolio because of their extraordinary influence nationally. Rodman’s book gives a good rundown on this aspect of Latin American fife where becoming a recognized poet, novelist, or artist is the one sure way a person of lowly station may cross the rigid caste barriers.
However, Rodman’s encounters with the writers he discusses appear haphazardly arranged and are, in the main, haphazardly reported. His conversations with several of them (Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Amado, and Nicanor Parra, for example) sometimes take on a tone of obtrusive familiarity. Rodman’s notes were not very carefully culled, and many questions and remarks that are recorded are casual and even silly.
Yet there are fascinating pages in this book. Fernando Belaunde Terry’s pathetic downfall in Peru is well told in the chapter “Poet as President.” Jorge Amado speaks movingly of what has been going on in Brazil in “Brazil in Five Cantos.” Pablo Neruda, recent Nobel Prize winner, dominates the chapter on Chile. Jorge Luis Borges of Argentina wryly suggests (pp. 20-21) that Latin America might be a lot better off if it were all conquered and taken over by the United States. Borges also cuts down to size the overly exalted Argentine novelist, Julio Cortázar: “He is trying so hard on every page of his novels and stories to be original that it becomes a tiresome battle of wits, no?” Many readers will heartily agree with that statement.
The political opinions of most of the writers interviewed are presented fairly, and the various gradations of leftist views are made clear. Concerning the widely acclaimed Colombian novelist, Gabriel García Márquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude has been called by many Latin America’s greatest novel, Rodman has several fascinating pages. He did not interview García Márquez himself, but did visit his home town and talked at some length to his parents and to several members of his family. The novelist’s father affirmed that the novel is mainly about the bloody strike in 1928 in which many Colombian banana workers were killed, a strike “which my son remembers in every detail though he was only two at the time” (p. 198). Rodman comments that Latin Americans see in this novel a kind of Quixote-like spirit “that embodies all their frustrations, fantasies, guilts, and hopes for identity” (p. 183). Closer to the truth would be to see it as a magnificent hodgepodge, much like Latin America itself, lacking in both form and focus.
This reviewer hoped and expected that Rodman’s book would emulate the excellent Into the Mainstream. (conversations with ten Latin American writers) by the Chilean Luis Harss and his wife, Barbara Dohmann. Unfortunately, it didn’t.