Today (February 11) marks the anniversary of Voltaire’s 1778 return to his native Paris after more than 20 years in exile; sadly, he would die there just three months later. Outcast by the French nobility for his searing political satire and criticism of the Catholic church, the last two decades of Voltaire’s life were spent living and working in Geneva and the French border town of Ferney. Despite these difficulties, Voltaire’s output is unsurpassed; in his lifetime he produced over 2,000 publications. Few have permeated literary culture the way his writing did, but another group of writers living in exile came close.
The Latin American Boom movement, or simply “El Boom,” was a generation of writers who came to prominence in the mid-20th century working largely in exile, either self-imposed or otherwise. Like Voltaire, these five would heed the call to expose, examine and critique the social and political edicts alienating them from their home countries:
1. Carlos Fuentes
Fuentes was born into an affluent Mexican family and began writing at a young age. Much of his early work examines the political and revolutionary ideas from the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Six years after The Death of Artemio Cruz cemented him as one of the leading Latin American writers, he witnessed the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre and denounced the government of the time.
In 1975, Fuentes moved to France as a diplomat to escape political pressures. He resigned just two years later when Gustavo Días Ordaz, who had served as president of Mexico during the massacre, was appointed as a diplomat to Spain. Fuentes continued writing until his death in 2012, finishing over 20 novels as well as numerous plays, essays and screenplays.
Required Reading: The Death of Artemio Cruz
2. Octavio Paz
Winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize, Paz was another Mexican writer who railed against political corruption affecting his home country and other parts of Latin America in the mid-20th century. A true leftist, he briefly fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Afterward, while living in Paris in the '50s, Paz began to publish his poems and essays, attacking totalitarianism and the Mexican government, but also the communist ideals of Joseph Stalin and, later, Fidel Castro. He began publishing Vuelta in the 1970s, using the Spanish literary magazine to continue criticizing his country’s politics and human rights standing.
Paz was prolific, publishing more than 40 volumes of poems and essays in his lifetime. He eventually moved back to Mexico and died in Mexico City in 1998.
Required Reading: The Labyrinth of Solitude
3. Isabel Allende
Allende was born in Peru to Chilean parents, her father being first cousin of then President Salvador Allende. In 1945, when she was three, her father disappeared and the family moved back to Chile; her childhood and adolescence were also split between Bolivia and Lebanon, where her stepfather was ambassador. In her 20s, Allende became a successful news reporter and worked as a journalist for several feminist magazines. Chile’s military coup in 1973 saw her uncle executed, and Allende and her family, including her two young children, fled once more — this time to Venezuela under the rule of Augusto Pinochet, where she stayed for 13 years.
During that time, Allende began a formal literary career, experimenting with both magical realism and historical critique, and published her first novel, The House of Spirits. The novel, which started as a letter to her dying grandfather in hopes his life would continue from his need to read it, was met with critical acclaim, but later works garnered criticism for being overly commercial. She has since published more than 15 novels and numerous works of collected fiction.
Required Reading: The House of Spirits
4. José Donoso
Donoso was born and spent most of his adolescence in Chile. He moved to the U.S. to attend Princeton University and graduated with a BA in 1951. He returned to Chile and taught university literature classes while working as a journalist until the end of the 1950s.
Donoso would spend the next two decades in exile, first as a self-imposed expat teaching at the University of Iowa, and then, similar to Isabel Allende, he would flee the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, taking up residence in Spain. Considered his best novel, The Obscene Bird Night was published in 1970 and explores the darker side of identity and sexuality, placing the human psyche under unrelenting scrutiny. Donoso returned to Chile in 1981, where he worked as a writer and political activist for the rest of his life.
Required Reading: The Obscene Bird Night
5. Julio Cortázar
Born in 1914 in Brussels, Belgium, Cortázar and his Argentine parents spent most of World War I living in Switzerland with his maternal grandparents. After the war and a short stay in Barcelona, his family moved to Buenos Aires, where the writer remained until the 1950s. In 1951, at odds with what he considered Juan Peron’s dictatorship, Cortázar emigrated to France. He worked as a translator for UNESCO for many years and continued to write novels, short fiction and essays in support of socialist movements in Latin America. His novel Hopscotch is considered the definitive novel of the Boom movement.
Cortázar had several serious relationships, most notably with the Canadian artist Carol Dunlop. In 1982, Dunlop died from an unknown virus; Cortázar died two years later, succumbing to what doctors diagnosed as leukemia but is now thought by some to be AIDS. He is buried in Montparnasse, France.
Required Reading: Hopscotch
The critique of one’s own country, whether it regard government, religious ideology or social order, continues to be a catalyst for art, and while it doesn’t always lead to exile, the final product is a good litmus test for determining the birth of a movement. Who will be the next El Boom generation? Perhaps an outpouring from Russia and Ukraine will be spurred by recent political and human rights events. Wherever the location, we would benefit from recognizing the artistry within the criticism, as Voltaire's audience did, and gain from looking past the page for the reason the writing exists.
Elizabeth Karp-Evans is a New York-based freelance writer and editor. She has written for various online publications (Fader, Dish Pig) and worked as an editor on numerous fine art publications, most recently Doug Aitken: 100 YRS and Damien Hirst’s Freedom Not Genius. In her free time, she enjoys going to galleries, eating Mexican food, occasionally playing her clarinet and watching other people’s dogs play in the park.
(Image credits, from top: from Wikimedia Commons; from Wikimedia Commons user MDCarchives; from Wikimedia Commons user Jonn Leffman; from Wikimedia Commons user MDCarchives; from Flickr user Elisa Cabot; from Wikimedia Commons)
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