Portuguese and South American fiction


Portuguese and South American fiction

JOAN HAMBIDGE considers the ways in which great writers keep readers fixated.



In 1998, José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature. Harold Bloom singled him out as a writer with a particular vision. His novel Blindness (1995) has the following title in Portuguese: Ensaio sobre a cegueira.

A story about blindness affecting an unknown city. Only the ophthalmologist's wife escapes it. The story is set in an establishment and the panic of the characters is superbly described. It's an allegorical tale with soldiers guarding the hospital and a government denying the pandemic. Inside is placed opposite outside and suddenly the blindness “disappears" and everyone can see again … Strange, symbolic names like The old man with the black eye patch and The boy with the squint alert the reader to the fact that something more is happening here than a mere literal narrative. I lent my copy to someone and unfortunately can't find it anywhere. How much do we really grasp of this country's literature?

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The same applies to South American novels.

Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, with whom Gabriel García Márquez had a fistfight over a pretty woman, and Julio Cortázar's fanciful novels are excellent. As are Jorge Luis Borges' short stories.

During a visit to Colombia (December 2017-January 2018), this reader thoroughly realised that One Hundred Years of Solitude is essentially a loaded allegorical and political novel. Here's how this text begins:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time, Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

Aracataca is the village where Márquez grew up with his grandmother and grandfather, who told him fanciful stories. His parents had to look for work elsewhere and he stayed with Grandma Mina and Grandpa Papelo. (Sound familiar?)

However, attempts to change the village's name to Macondo were unsuccessful.

Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. (Clockwise starting top left)
Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. (Clockwise starting top left)


To what extent can we transfer a concept such as magical realism to our literature? After all, this understanding was established within a Catholic tradition with a belief that the Unseen is visible.

Books transport us to strange spaces. Time and again, it's tied to what we think we know and what we invent, as we experience the strange landscape via the book. And if we are lucky, also in reality.

During my trip through Colombia, my travel guide placed certain aspects of the grandiose novel One Hundreds Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad) within a strong political context.

José Arcadio Buendía's dream of a city of mirrors also refers to the uprisings of workers (and the army's entry), the so-called Banana Massacre in 1928. Only one person survives and no one wants to believe his story about the massacre.

You can read about it in my blog

Although “Gabo" is honoured with flags of his face in almost every village where he was as a child or student, there is also an ambivalent relationship towards him. He left the country, extremely frustrated by the violence and corruption. Like the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who is similarly critical of his country of origin.

Saramago uses allegory to cover up his criticism. Márquez works with fantasy. Vargas Llosa, from Peru, is also a literary critic and essayist, and the author of The War of the End of the World (La guerra del fin del mundo).

Bloom highly rated this novel, a fictionalisation of the conflict in late 19th-century Brazil.

Great writers use different techniques to shake us awake.

♦ VWB ♦ 

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