My father, early on, lit the touch-paper of South America for me by trying to make short work of my disappointment that Colonel P H Fawcett, who wrote Exploration Fawcett and then disappeared in the Mato Grosso in 1925 while looking for El Dorado, was not a direct relation. I even ended up glad he wasn’t because it unburdened me (my father was relieved to hear) of any self-dramatisingly imagined family duty to go out there and, probably singlehandedly, unearth what was left of him.
Instead, I had been captivated by the whole idea of South America itself. It doesn’t matter how South America first gets you. By the hook or crook of Amazon or Inca, it will. I already had the Galapagos in my stamp collection, various sepia portraits of the leaders of Bolivia and Peru, perforated views of the Andes. All very containable. Then Conan Doyle opened up what felt like that whole prophetic, committing wonderment again: his The Lost World heightened at a stroke the sense of South America as a barely resistible Magnetic South, an ever-alluring theatre of life whose evolving and time-standing-still dramas had forever been played out across vast distances of tropical rainforest, mountain range, highland, plateau and river basin. South America, like a hived-off world hung between oceans, seemed to exist on a spectacularly and exotically perilous edge of time (just as many of its populated areas hug the coast) stretching from an alarmingly perpetuated pre-history through the Conquistadores to a Naissance in Latin American poetry on the threshold of the century.
With the sensation unleashed in 1970 by the great Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s publication in English of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the balloon of our English ignorance really went up. Marquez had just added the prospect of a continent in which magical realism not only existed but was ‘normal’. Once Marquez had arrived, the whole South American landmass demanded to be read closely – yes, for the first time by most of us – alongside his book.
Then, for me, came a one-to-one moment in the guard’s van of a crowded commuter train speeding towards Florence in September 1973 when I opened Corriere Della Sera and read of the death of Pablo Neruda within earshot of the explosions which rocked the presidential palace in Santiago as Pinochet deposed Allende. I was hooked all over again. I hadn’t read a line of Neruda then, but knew his name as synonymous with poetry. He had won the Nobel Prize for Literature two years before. Neruda would be followed into the laureateship in 1990 by Mexico’s Octavio Paz, born, like Peru’s great César Vallejo, of Indian and Spanish descent.
For the remit of this Spring’s Reading the South Americans day, I see Mexico, Cuba, and the countries of Central America like Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama as part of the South American (or Latin American) poetry story, united on the page by Spanish, and therefore the inheritors of, as well as declarers of independence from, the inevitable legacy of the poetry of Spain, and indeed of Europe.
Reading the South Americans will aim to touch down in at least some of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela, giving a deeper grasp of what it was like for these poets to have inherited such a history as theirs, and be writing in the midst of such a geography, when the national literatures were so young that they had to fight for an identity under the influence of Europe and what Neruda called ‘all the –isms floating above our heads’. We who love to read poems are more likely to learn about South America from their poetry than their history books.
In particular, the new ‘takes’ these South American poets created make for riveting reading. Reading the poets of South America is like reading someone else’s letters from the bedroom, the barricade, the eagle’s-eye view, often all at once. Only in South America, it seemed, as though it were a feat of magical realism off the printed page, could Nicaragua’s liberation theologian poet Father Ernesto Cardenal become Minister of Culture as he did in 1979.
The transatlantic phenomenon of Surrealism soon read like home-grown transplants, with Pablo Neruda a virtuoso of the genre. Neruda is par excellence the poet of the sea, not least because he travelled so much of it as a Chilean diplomat, but the bard of the continent’s dramatic hinterland sings all of its rivers and reaches the summit of his art in Heights of Machu Picchu, a 12-poem sequence in homage to the fifteenth-century Inca site not only completely – and very symbolically – undiscovered by the Spanish invader but unsuspected by anyone else either until the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham stumbled on it in 1911. Neruda was the poet of Chile’s and the whole continent’s history, a young poet of love who kept that flame going as he took on the hair-shirt mantle of politics as a poet, a senator, and an outlaw.
As Neruda the Inca, so Octavio Paz echoed the legendary history of Mexico’s Maya civilisation; he too was a love poet and, in Spain for the Civil War, he too reported it in verse like a war artist. The voice is characteristically uncensored. Paz’s poetico-political fluency reminds you of someone like Amichai in Israel and Akhmatova in Russia but of poets of bygone ages in England. Then there’s César Vallejo, Peru’s John Clare, but also her Lorca. And perhaps no poet drew South America in prose and verse more graphically and with such a playful sense of possibility than Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges.
So the comparisons with Europe are there to be made, but these South American poetries have emerged in and from their native cultures, transcending the attentions of the Iberian motherlands and creating galleries of writing which are both national and continental. I still haven’t been, but I’m taking the reading eye and ear there on March 22nd.
Love to know more about the Latin American greats? Then book your place on Reading the South Americans with Graham Fawcett today. All are welcome. Generous hand-outs provided, with good translations, so no knowledge of Spanish or Portuguese needed.