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new internationalist
issue 250 - December 1993

The place where I live
and what I am

Five years an activist with Greenpeace, sailing their ships around the world, Chilean writer Luis Sepúlveda is now part of a new wave of Latin American fiction that leaves magic realism behind and tackles fresh ground between politics, ecology and story-telling. David Ransom talked to him in London.

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories. ‘Chileans discovered during the years of dictatorship that something had changed their lives. It wasn’t only the misery, the dictatorship, the terror. It was the climate. Chile is one of the main victims of the hole in the ozone layer. Across a large swathe of Chilean territory, in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, most of the animals are now blind. You have to go out with sun glasses during the day because of the intensity of ultraviolet light. All the southern forests between Santiago and Puerto Montt – that’s 1,000 kilometres – were disappearing. The Japanese had taken the wood for the paper industry. The desert was growing and Chileans wondered why. The Left had no answer. They just said: “First we must take power, and then we’ll do this, that or the other”. But many people demanded an answer.

I belong to a generation of Latin Americans that has suffered many political reverses and so has had to mature a little, to reach some new understanding. We never wanted to admit there was a problem with the environment, even though it was there in front of our eyes. We thought dogmatically, with a fundamentalist interpretation of Marxism, which prevented us from seeing anything else.

Then we came to know the experience of exile. We had the chance to visit the socialist countries and to discover that they were a complete farce, a cockup from beginning to end. The first thing you noticed was the terrible, incredible degradation of the environment – East Germany, Czechoslovakia, even Cuba, all the same.

This made me think. I became preoccupied with what I call the recovery of ecological dignity. I began to say: “I seek, as a citizen of any country, Colombia, Chile or Peru, to establish at least a minimal harmony between the place where I live and what I am”.

Now in countries like Argentina, Uruguay and Chile ecological movements are small but strong. Until the 1970s we remained completely ignorant of indigenous peoples. We assumed that the entire continent spoke Spanish. To the north was the United States, and in between... well there were a few Indians, but they didn’t matter. We didn’t have the faintest idea that the majority of the people of Latin America are indigenous peoples. They couldn’t associate with “communism” because they lived it already, practised it every day. A view through the lens of ecology transformed our way of seeing the world.

But my books do not carry an ecological “message”. My preoccupations are literary. Here I speak not just for myself but for a current of new Latin American writers. We feel that readers around the world have become a bit tired of the so-called magic realist “boom” (with Gabriel Garciá Marquez at its head) and its offspring. There’s a new generation of writers who curiously enough all began to write very young, then abandoned writing in the 1970s because of political repression, prison, exile. We took up writing again in the 1980s and began to publish towards the end of the decade. We’re now read quite widely in Latin America and almost every European country.

We’re not a “tendency”. We just found we were writing about much the same things. We started to tell stories that revive a particularly American tradition that comes through Faulkner and Hemingway. It is, above all, the well-told, interesting and short story that matters to us. Nearly all our books are short, between 120 and 200 pages long. And we’ve stopped selling that familiar “Exotic Continent”. We want readers to discover that there’s more to Latin America than papaya y salsa.

Magic realism fabricates an exotic world that doesn’t exist. We try to tell stories in which magic and reality become part one of the other. We write not just about things we understand, but about what we know. Our aim is to write stories, very much like Hemingway, that are plausible without being “realist”. We try not to fall back on that easy option, the baroque, which you can fill up with just about anything. It sounds very pretty, but it’s done a great deal of damage to Latin American literature. .

The old man* condenses many personal experiences, but it’s fiction, not autobiography. I spent seven months in the Amazon rainforest. All the anthropological or scientific details are strictly correct. I wanted to show that the forest is not a paradise, but a cruel, hard, violent world – and has to be so.

The story is not some kind of display by an author who wants to show that he can play like a magician with language, reality and situations. It is an invitation to get to know an unknown world through the world of the imagination. Something similar is suggested by all the new generation of Latin American writers.

There is an old house in Quito where you pay a few pennies to sit on tiny wooden stools and listen to old people telling stories. I used to go there quite often. There was one time – I could hardly believe it as I heard it – when one of the stories began: ‘Once upon a time there was a prince...’ It was Hamlet! They were telling the story of Hamlet, correct in every respect, in their own words. Where did they know it from? Like the environment, stories have no national boundaries.’

Luis Sepúlveda’s work includes The old man who read love stories* (Souvenir Press, 1992). He recently moved to Paris.

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New Internationalist issue 250 magazine cover This article is from the December 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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