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The Astonishing New Novels of Two of Latin America's Most Gifted Writers

MARGARITA, ESTA LINDA LA MAR;\o7 By Sergio Ramirez; (Santillana USA: 376 pp., $11.95 paper)\f7

CARACOL BEACH;\o7 By Eliseo Alberto; (Santillana USA: 368 pp., $11.95 paper)\f7

March 14, 1999|CARLOS FUENTES | Carlos Fuentes is the author of numerous novels including, most recently, "The Crystal Frontier: A Novel in Nine Stories." "Caracol Beach" will be published by Alfred A. Knopf; "Margarita, esta linda la mar" does not yet have an English-language publisher

"The novel is dead." This article of faith has been repeated over and over since Marshall McLuhan, in the '60s, decreed the end of the Gutenberg Era and its substitution by an audiovisual universe in which what is important is not what is said, but what says it.

Gutenberg's wake, paradoxically, perhaps gave literature a new lease on life. If the medium was the message, what would become of the message? McLuhan made us think, in other words, about all that could not be communicated by the media. We were forced to rethink literature as all that could not be said by the message of the media.

It proved to be a very great deal indeed. The evidence is there. Never has the art of the novel occupied such vast and extensive territories. From Japan to Nigeria and from Puerto Rico to Australia, novels are today being published, more unexpected, diverse and indicative of the existence of times and spaces--vast times and spaces--left unexplored by the media.

It suffices, for example, to read "A Book of Memories" by the Hungarian Peter Nadas--praised by Susan Sontag as "the greatest novel written in our time"--or the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk's "The Black Book"--regarded by Juan Goytisolo as the herald of a whole new cultural identity for the coming century--to reveal the deceit of an information era that seeks to convince us that because we receive such a mass of information, we are consequently supremely well-informed.

A good novel shatters this illusion. It reveals the pretense of an information machine that is powerful because information is power and power is information. We live in an age that subjects us to abundant information that is at the same time insignificant while concealing information that might be considered elitist, controversial or, sin of sins, intellectually stimulating.

The importance of the Contest of Spanish Language Novels convoked by the Alfaguara publishing house in Spain last year has, for all of these reasons, three dimensions: The first is the sheer number of unpublished manuscripts received from all corners of the Spanish-speaking world: more than 600. Each one of them, apart from its quality, is proof of a striking faith in the very act of writing. All of them were motivated by the need to say something that could not be said in any other way. I believe that this will to write the world is what gives intrinsic value to each of the works sent to the contest.

The task of reading so many manuscripts and filtering them according to norms--admittedly relative--of excellence, fell on selection committees established in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Spain. They selected 20 finalists, 10 of them considered the best, and sent them to the jury on which I was privileged to serve. We had the freedom to consider any other manuscripts as well. I myself read many novels that had not passed the tall gates of the selection committees.

The second dimension of the contest was the quality of the novels sent to the jury. I had the good fortune of presiding over an insuperable jury: Chilean novelist Marcela Serrano, Argentine novelist Tomas Eloy Martinez, Spanish novelist and editor Juan Cruz, Mexican author and publisher Sealtiel Alatriste, Spanish screenwriter Rafael Azcona, and the secretary of the jury, my incomparable friend, the Catalonian writer Rosa Regas, whom Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I have always greeted, since the joyful days of our youthful times in Barcelona, with the resounding cry, "Rosa Regas, que buena estas!"

You might think that with a jury of this quality, it was difficult to err. And err we did not. But we did suffer a great deal. The sheer quality of the novels selected was our first challenge. But when we finally voted, our anguish was even greater. We were unable to choose between two novels of equally great merit which each and every one of us came to love, not as if we ourselves had written them but because we had read them as if they had been written especially for all of us.

Thus the unusual decision of duplicating the prize. Not Solomonically dividing it but actually giving two authors the complete prize, $175,000 each, $350,000 total. Needless to say, we did not have the power or the means to throw around the publisher's money. So we had to make our case: None of us would have a good night's sleep again if we chose only one of the two novels we all loved.

Let me praise the generosity and the temerity of Jesus and Isabel Polanco, Alfaguara's owners, in accepting our reasons, sympathizing with our agonies and, of course, signing the checks.

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