José Donoso’s Historia personal del “boom” presents itself as an insider’s account of the phenomenal success suddenly achieved by Latin American writers in the 1960s. Yet Donoso is never fully an insider, as he himself notes. He mentions the great Uruguayan critic Angel Rama’s pronouncement that the Boom had four fixed members about whom there was no dispute: Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes. But there seemed to be one more place open in the group, and little agreement as to who occupied it: perhaps Ernesto Sábato, perhaps Donoso himself (217). At other times, there have been other claimants and other nominees to this fifth, strangely mobile and uncertain, place in the Boom pantheon: Severo Sarduy or Augusto Roa Bastos, for instance. In this company, Donoso has a good a claim as any and better then most, not least because he was friends with many of the key players and travelled the same circuit of conferences, festivals, openings, and parties. As his wife’s own account, “El ‘boom’ doméstico,” relates, there was even a time when their families, living in Spain and France, would converge on Barcelona to celebrate Christmas together. But stylistic differences and (crucially) somewhat lesser commercial success prevent Donoso from being fully part of the gang. Like Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe, or Brian Epstein and George Martin, he will perhaps eternally be simply one of many contenders to the status of “fifth Beatle” alongside the fab four.
The main point Donoso makes is that the Boom was about more than marketing. Indeed, he’s keen to point out that almost all the key texts he read in the heady days of the early 1960s came to him informally, as gifts or by personal recommendation, carried in the luggage of friends who formed a network that he compares to the ancient Inca system of long-distance messengers known as “chasquis.” It was these informal exchanges, nourished by occasional events such as the 1962 Congress of Intellectuals in Concepción, Chile, that made the Boom possible. Individual writers were inspired to believe that they could go beyond the costumbrismo and social realism of their immediate forbears, whose concern was to construct or consolidate images of national identity. So while young authors were trying to overcome or bypass national borders and boundaries, they felt hamstrung by the insistence on the part of their elders that what mattered was difference and distinction, specificity and particularity. But by invoking an Inca model to explain the workings of an incipient informal cultural globalization, Donoso is also implicitly challenging standard historical narratives: the true Latin American, he suggests, prefers openness and fluidity to the hermetic closures of the nationalist tradition. If the Boom authors refused to recognize literary parentage, declaring themselves (as here) “orphans” (28), perhaps this was because the preceding generation had, in their turn, already betrayed a more hybrid and cosmopolitan version of Latin American identity.
Donoso does, however, recognize the risks that these young, ambitious authors ran. The Boom begins and ends, he suggests, with a party. The first of these takes place in Fuentes’s Mexico City house in 1965; full of “chaos and hullaballoo,” it is the culmination of a “dazzling Mexican carnival” (112). Writers mix with film stars, and the atmosphere is excitement and vivacity. But there’s also a menacing and grotesque note sounded, as “tarantulas” form that sweep even the most timid of party-goers into the mix of “bodies captive to the rhythmic rattle in which the beautiful people shed one item of clothing after another.” Donoso goes looking to introduce himself to García Márquez, only to be approached by “a man with a black moustache who asked if I was Pepe Donoso. We embraced like Latin Americans and were swallowed up by the frenzied tarantula as it passed by” (113). Five years later, Donoso tells us, the Boom finally fizzles out in another party, this time in Juan Goytisolo’s house in Barcelona, to celebrate the New Year of 1970. Here, the dancing is less chaotic and more predictable, the acting out of national stereotype: the Vargas Llosas perform to a Peruvian waltz before the García Márquezes come out to a tropical merengue. In the middle of it all, lounging on a couch, is famed Catalan literary agent Carmen Balcells: “She seemed to hold in her hands the strings to make us all dance like puppets” (124). The ecstatic frenzy of the New World has become Old World decadence and grand guignol, spontaneity replaced by stage management and exploitation.
Perhaps the writers protest too much. Several times we hear from García Márquez that “all editors are rich and all writers are poor” (72), but this quip starts to ring hollow after a while, not least from the best-selling Boom author of them all. If there was exploitation between writers and agents, publishers and publicists, it no doubt went both ways. And if the very concept of the Boom was, as Donoso argues, the creation of its detractors, product of “hysteria, envy, and paranoia” (11), those it described, and even many of those caught up in its coat-tails, still did quite well from this upsurge of interest in Latin America and its literature. For good or ill, the Boom transformed the way in which we think about the region, and continues to frame many of our (pre)conceptions and assumptions. And by “we” I mean not just outsiders–Europeans and North Americans. As Donoso himself attests, the Boom also challenged and reconfigured the ways in which Latin American writers saw their vocation and its possibilities. The Boom itself may have fizzled or dissipated all too soon, and Donoso and his wife both write with some nostalgia and regret about the brief moment that camaraderie and friendship accompanied shared literary success. But in the end neither friendship nor success were the Boom’s lasting legacy, rather a new network of associations and a new set of habits and expectations.