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Two Books on Latin America

ISSUE:  Summer 1943

The Epic of Latin-American Literature. By Arturo Torres-Rioseco. Oxford University Press. $3.00. An Anthology of Contemporary Latin-American Poetry. Edited by Dudley Fitts. New Directions. $3.50.

There has been, these last few years, no dearth of publications on things Latin-American. Everybody in North America who was anybody, in no matter what field of endeavor, felt that he was losing prestige, apparently, if he didn’t perpetrate some effusion about South America. Our official agency of good neighborliness and the newspaper syndicates shipped plane-loads of professional and amateur good neighbors—”movie” actresses, band leaders, gossip columnists, actors, roving reporters, feature writers, et cetera—to “observe” and “interpret” the long-suffering and good-natured inhabitants of the countries south of the Rio Grande. These new literary Columbuses rediscovered South America, and the Conquistadores of journalism and the cinema, pen in one hand, camera in the other, set out on the march, scenting the gold there is in “them thar hills” of the new Eldorado. And of the languages, the mores, the civilization, the background of the continent which they are “interpreting,” they have just as much knowledge as did the original Conquistadores.

It is, therefore, refreshing to come upon two genuinely good books upon some aspect of Latin-American civilization, written by people who know whereof they speak. Professor Torres-Rioseco entitles his book “The Epic of Latin-American Literature.” This eminent professor of SpanishAmerican literature has done more than write simply a chronological history of Latin-American letters. Starting with the writers of the colonial period, he traces the growth and development, by trends, of Spanish-American literature, through Romanticism, “Modernism,” and Regionalism, up to its present status. He has a separate chapter, following the same general lines, for Brazilian literature. This chapter, incidentally, while still good, is the weakest in the whole work.

The title “Epic” is happily chosen. Professor Torres-Rioseco shows the purely Spanish strain in the origins of South American literature, then the widening cultural influences, European in general and French in particular, although a few great Americans like Poe and Whitman have at times been imitated, and the mingling of these streams with the various native elements to produce at last a genuinely national literature.

Professor Torres-Rioseco was confronted at the outset with an exceedingly delicate and difficult piece of work. When we consider that the literature of Latin America embraces some four hundred years of fecund activity in over twenty different countries, we may appreciate the magnitude of his task in the matter of selection, analysis, and organization so as to present a comprehensive and comprehensible picture of the material in a relatively restricted compass. A less discriminating mind would have loaded us down with a catalogue of names, dates, titles, and left us with only a confused idea of the main currents of the literary development. Professor Torres-Rioseco has manifested a fine sense of intuition, fruit of his profound grasp of the subject, in selecting from the great mass of writers, books, and movements only the significant. His book thus gains in two ways: it is readable and it is teachable, two qualities which profit by being in each other’s company, and are only too rarely so.

We have only two criticisms to make of this excellent, this sorely needed book. The first is rather trivial: we gained the impression that Professor Torres-Rioseco was overliberal in his use of superlative, particularly “first” and “greatest.” For example, he says in one place, “The Iberian Peninsula was just arriving at the period of the greatest literary splendor that any country has ever known.” This is a thesis that would be extremely difficult to sustain.

The other is more serious. Nowhere in the work will you find reference to the theatre or theatrical productions. Professor Torres-Rioseco is concerned exclusively, except for the early chronicles and narrative or epic material, with lyric poetry and prose fiction. It is true that these are by far the most important and significant; it is equally true that inclusion of the drama would have lengthened somewhat the desired scope; but at the same time no work on Latin-American literature can be considered quite complete without some discussion of the drama. In spite of this lacuna, however, his is an outstanding work, and one which should be read by every North American who wishes to learn and to appreciate the spirit, the idealism, the psychology, the inner strivings of our South American neighbors.

Of much interest also to North Americans will be the “Anthology of Contemporary Latin-American Poetry,” edited by Dudley Fitts, with the aid of a number of other competent critics and translators.

The arrangement of this bulky volume of 670 pages makes it useful to the general public, whatever language capacity that public may have. On the left-hand side of the page one finds the poem in its original language of composition (Spanish, Portuguese, or French), and on the right-hand side the English translation. Thus the reader who knows the language can confine himself to the original, the student who has some grasp of the idiom can use the translation for a quick help on difficult passages or rare words, and the tyro has a faithful English rendition at hand. Indeed, the translation is almost literal, and yet not unpoetic, although no attempt has been made to “poetize” it.

The selections range from the sublimely tragic to the primitivistic puerile. As a matter of fact, one wonders if the anthology could not have been accomplished in a smaller compass. No work before 1910 is included, and yet we have selections from ninety-five different poets. To me, who make no pretensions of critical ability in things poetic, it appears that a number of items might well have been omitted. For instance, the peasant’s declaration of love on page 489:

High-yellow of my heart, with breasts like tangerines, you taste better to me than eggplant stuifed with crab, you are the tripe in my pepper-pot,

the dumpling in my peas, my tea of aromatic herbs. You are the corned beef whose customhouse is my heart, my mush with syrup that trickles down the throat. You are a steaming dish, mushroom cooked with rice, crisp potato fries, and little fish fried brown . . . My hankering for love follows you wherever you go. Your bum is a gorgeous basket brimming with fruits and meat.

This is lushly, lustily, gastronomic, but is it art, or even love?

The very abundance of the material, however, and the excellence of the translation serve to give a favorable picture of the nature and richness of contemporary Latin-American poetry.


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