Links to student blogs on “Bad Latin American Literature.” Well worth browsing:

Alexia Ana Anthony Ashea Blake Darja Dave Elena Emilio Emily Francesca Genny Gillian Jaime Jennifer Laura Laure Letty Lynanne Marina Marjory Mikael Niall Rhiannon Shelby Stefanie Valentyna


desertThe guiding metaphor and plot device for Coelho’s The Alchemist is the journey or quest. Shepherd boy Santiago is told he has to voyage to the Egyptian pyramids in pursuit of his Personal Legend and to discover a treasure that awaits him there. But at the same time, this journey is a red herring: upon finally arriving at the Pyramids he realizes that in fact the treasure is to be found right back where he started, buried underneath the ruined church in southern Spain in which we first found him.

Of course, there’s a touch here of Eliot’s sentiments in the Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

But I think there’s more to it than that, something specifically associated with the pleasures of the middlebrow.

Because I’m struck also by how many of those who report to have liked The Alchemist associate it with travel. Take Ashea’s account, for instance:

The first time I read it was in a hammock, in the rainforest in Guatemala with an overfed Spider monkey in my lap (long story but I assure you its true) and the second time while backpacking through Cambodia

and Gillian’s response: “That’s cool that you read it while you were also travelling, I bet that would totally make a difference.” And I’m sure it would, not merely because this is “beach” literature. Rather because this is a literature of transport.

Jan Radway in A Feeling for Books outlines the system of evaluation for middlebrow literature precisely in these terms: a book is valued if it provides “a feeling of transport and betweenness, a feeling of being suspended between the self and the world, a state where the one flowed imperceptibly into the other, a place where clear boundaries and limits were obscured” (117). Surely sitting in a hammock with a monkey in your lap is also a pretty good approximation of precisely this same suspension between self and world. The exoticism of Coelho’s frankly Orientalist vision is a good fit with the common desire of backpackers to find themselves by losing themselves a little bit, by resituating themselves (ourselves) in a slightly overwhelming, slightly intoxicating environment of (more or less) manageable difference.

Yet this desire to lose yourself or be carried away by literature is very different from the instincts inculcated in academic and professional analysis. As Radway points out, however much recent theory has celebrated the “pleasure of the text”, still “academic professionals tend to construe the reading process as one marked explicitly by labor” (108); the “standard practice in English [but, I’d add, not only English] education seem[s] to dictate disapproval of this sort of readerly absorption in supposedly bad books” (121).

Radway describes the middlebrow (exemplified for her by the Book of the Month club) as caught between these twin desires, as a search for “hybrid books” that combine both “education and sensual pleasure” (113). And surely The Alchemist sets out to be hybrid in precisely this way: providing both the pleasure of the quest, an absorption in difference and transport to different worlds, and also a claim to educate, to facilitate self-help.

More generally, Bad Latin American literature (which I’m increasingly tempted to suggest is almost all Latin American literature in translation) finds its niche in this precarious middlebrow compromise between delight and instruction. Is it to be condemned for never quite living up to its literary pretensions, or to be praised for providing both pleasures (the sensual and the intellectual), if always in attenuated form?


Como agua para chocolate coverLaura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) presents itself as a fusion of cookbook and novel. Each of its twelve chapters opens with a list of ingredients and the instructions for making a given dish: Tortas de navidad, Pastel Chabela, Codornices en pétalos de rosas, and so on. But it’s hard to tell how seriously these recipes are to be taken, and soon enough the cookbook discourse is replaced by a novelistic account of the lives and loves of a Mexican family in the early twentieth century.

To use the appropriate culinary metaphor, the brief snippets of recipe are mere stylistic garnish; they provide the decorative fiction that this book is in fact (as its narrator suggests in its closing pages) a cookbook that has been handed down from great-aunt to great-niece, and that contains “this love story embedded in it” (247).

Yet the relationship between food and life, food and love, is central to the novel. Tita, the protagonist, is born and brought up in the kitchen, and it’s to cooking that she turns when she seeks solace or refuge, or to express herself and vent her emotions. Hence the food that she serves, and the recipes that the book contains, are an extension of her personality and her primary means of relating with the world, with often dramatic effects.

For Tita has been prohibited other social outlets. By family tradition, the last-born daughter is condemned to remain at home, and is to dedicate herself to serving the widowed mother in all her whims and demands. Tita is therefore unable to wed her sweetheart, Pedro, who promptly decides that the next best thing is to take up with his beloved’s elder sister, Rosaura. Insult added to injury, Pedro’s marriage to Rosaura leaves Tita feeling “like the quail” that she herself is cooking: “broken in body and soul” (48).

The book’s dominant trope consists in such comparisons: on hearing of her sister’s marriage, Tita’s cheeks burn red “like the color of the apples in front of her” on the kitchen table (13); seeing Pedro, she “understood exactly what the dough for a doughnut must feel on its contact with the boiling oil” (15); later, “like the saying goes, her skin turned to goose bumps” (24); she feels as abandoned as “a chile en nogada left behind on a tray after a banquet” (57); put to looking after her nephew, she ensures he is “wrapped up like a taco” (74); she leaves home but without words “to express what was cooking inside her” (108); on her mother’s death, she feels “fresh like a lettuce” (137); and when Pedro does embrace her, “her body shook like jelly” (140).

Indeed, it’s a simile that gives the book its title. We’re told that, angry at the prospect that her niece will have to bear a similar burden of looking after her own mother, “Tita was literally ‘like water for chocolate'” (151).

Tita’s not, of course, literally “like water for chocolate” (a Mexican expression meaning “at boiling point”). But there’s something revealing about this mistake: Esquivel’s book consistently literalizes the figurative comparisons upon which it depends. Its drive is to join cooking and life so completely that there should be no distance between the two. And it’s this fear of figuration that subtends Esquivel’s brand of magical realism.

So it’s not good enough to suggest that Tita is so embroiled in the world of the kitchen that it’s as though she had been born there: she has to be literally born among the pots and pans, “among the vapours of a noodle soup that was on the boil” (4). And as a premonition of the obstacles that her life will face, it’s not sufficient that the tears that attend her birth should be metaphorical: they have to be an “overwhelming torrent [. . .] that washed over the table and the kitchen floor” (4). And so on for another 250 pages.

Como agua para chocolate proceeds by means of a stubborn literalization of emotion. If a dinner is made “with love,” it has to be literally infused by the blood of the enamoured, and then to produce immediately physical symptoms in those who consume it. Passion has to make itself evident in lights, sounds, and smells. Arguments must be literally to the death, as characters die of flatulence, their disgust made flesh.

This is a cartoon world in which nothing can go without saying; everything has to be spelled out and embodied, made sensual and tactile. All of which is well and good in some ways. But doesn’t it show a basic misunderstanding of the ways in which literature works? And isn’t it an irony that a genre celebrated for its creativity turns in the end on an inability to leave anything to the imagination?


The AlchemistBy all rights, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist should have single-handedly delivered a knock-out blow to any popular conception that Latin American literature is “good” literature. The novel is, simply put, execrable tripe.

At the very least (as I commented earlier), Coelho should have changed our idea of what it is to be a Latin American author: his work is global in almost every sense of the term, from its international success (his website, itself available in sixteen languages, tells us that he “has sold a total of 85 million copies” of his books, 30 million copies of The Alchemist alone, and that he’s been translated into 62 languages and published in more than 150 countries) to its settings and themes, which usually have very little to do with Coelho’s native Brazil.

But perhaps this is precisely why The Alchemist seems so distinct from any specifically Latin American literary tradition. Though Coelho claims Borges (another global writer, if of another calibre) to be one of his inspirations, The Alchemist has more in common with, say, Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince or (even more so) Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull than with, say, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” let alone A Hundred Years of Solitude.

Moreover, I’d wager that the market for Coelho and the market for García Márquez, vast as they both are, are also almost entirely distinct: i.e. that those who read the former hardly ever read the latter, or vice versa.

Yet The Alchemist must do something for someone–perhaps even for 85 million someones. Though the moral peddled by this fable of a shepherd boy’s voyage to find a treasure he dreams awaits him (be true to your dream, listen to your heart) and even the story’s dénouement (the treasure turns out to have been right where the boy started out from all along) are both trite and surely familiar, perhaps they help the book’s readers make it through somehow. Coelho’s blog invites us to become Warriors of Light as we Walk the Path with him in pursuit of our own “Personal Legends.” And as with countless other New Age movements (and this is surely New Age however much it’s inflected through Coelho’s own Catholicism), such a sense of pilgrimage, both communal and highly individualistic, no doubt compensates for some generalized sense of social anomie.

Indeed, it’s striking how much the “Reader’s Guide” appended to the HarperCollins edition of the book encourages us to view The Alchemist almost as a devotional text: “questions for discussion” include “can you define your Personal Legend?” and “Having read The Alchemist do you know what inner resources you need to continue the journey?” (173, 174).

In short, we’re enjoined to read the fable as “truth” rather than “fiction,” perhaps even as anti-literature. And it’s tempting to agree that Coelho’s work is (in a rather different sense) indeed anti-literary, supremely non-literary. But surely the first premise of any critical account would be to insist on its literary quality: to emphasize that this is indeed literature; bad literature, no doubt, but literature none the less.


Mayan jungle sceneThis from Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, as quoted in Stephen Hart’s “Cultural Hybridity, Magical Realism, and the Language of Magic in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist” (Romance Quarterly 51.4 [Fall 2004]: 304-312):

A quota system is to be introduced on fiction set in South America. The intention is to curb the spread of package-tour baroque and heavy irony. Ah, the propinquity of cheap life and expensive principles, of religion and banditry, or surprising honour and random cruelty. Ah, the daquiri bird which incubates its eggs on the wing: ah the fredonna tree whose roots grow at the tips of its branches, and whose fibres assist the hunchback to impregnate by telepathy the haughty wife of the hacienda owner; ah, the opera house now overgrown by jungle. (104)

Hart wants to revindicate both magical realism and (surprisingly) Paulo Coelho. However, one would have thought that tying Coelho to the magical real would sound that style’s death knell.

Still, it’s interesting to see a continuity between (what I think Niall rightly identifies as) the kitsch Orientalism of Allende’s Eva Luna with the still more portentious fable provided by The Alchemist.

Yet beyond the tired and derivative stylistic quirks that Barnes identifies in magical realism, perhaps at least Coelho has come up with a new way for Latin American literature to be bad.


Isabel AllendeIsabel Allende’s Eva Luna is perhaps not a terrible book; but nor is it a very good one.

It particularly goes off the rails towards the end as the various narrative strands–the story of eponymous Eva’s success as a writer; the long-awaited consummation of her romance with film-maker Rolf Carlé; and her abandonment of previous love interests guerrilla Huberto Naranjo and General Tomoleo Rodríguez–come to an end more or less abruptly and unconvincingly. In this light, Allende’s decision to give us two possible conclusions, in one of which Eva and Rolf’s love eventually dissipates whereas in the other they live happily ever after, is less a sign of metafictional play than a signal that the book itself has ground to an unceremonious halt.

All this in a book that sets out to celebrate the power of the word, and of story-telling in particular, yet in which (as our narrator tells us) “when all was said and done, everything came down to the elemental fact that I had found my man” (285). All the gestures towards politics, whether feminist or socialist, half-hearted at the best of times, are sacrificed for the sake of a romantic dénouement that even Eva Luna herself finds vaguely unsatisfying.

This sense of dissatisfaction permeates the novel, not least when it comes to the various stories within stories that it presents. Eva Luna gains an audience among her friends by reworking the stories provided her by mass culture: “They’d ask me to tell them what would happen next in the soap opera of the day, and I’d improvise a dramatic conclusion that never coincided with the way things turned out on the radio, but they didn’t mind” (121). Yet it emerges that the book we are reading is itself the basis of Eva Luna’s own soap opera, one which goes by the title of Bolero; perhaps she’s challenging us to come up with a more fitting end to her characters’ serial adventures and (mis)fortunes.

If Eva Luna is some kind of doppelganger for Allende herself, it’s notable that she is a writer unashamedly oriented towards the market. Throughout, she offers her stories in exchange for some kind of benefit; and as she suggests in the self-reflexive terms of the only story told within the novel itself, “she traveled all over touting her merchandise, adventure stories, mysteries, tales of horror or vice, all at a reasonable price” (262). She makes no grand claims for her fiction, only that in the face of an unknowable and chaotic reality she tries “to put a bit of order to so much chaos, to makes existence more tolerable. When I write, I picture life the way I’d like it to be” (280).

Is it too severe to characterize such sentimental escapism as “bad” literature? Perhaps, though it’s notable how deficient it is when Allende (or Eva) comes to account for violence or any other unpleasantness: describing a torture scene, for instance, our narrator tells us “The officer lifted his hand, brought his arm back, and punched me. I don’t remember anything else. I awoke in the same room, tied to the chair, alone, they’d taken my dress off. [. . .] I tried to move, but my entire body hurt, above all the cigarette burns on my legs” (183). No wonder Luna’s response to another character’s bloody suicide has been to clean things up and tell her corpse a story as though (almost) nothing had happened.

And it’s an irony if Allende’s readership comes to her work looking either for creative imagination or for some kind of political commitment, when all they get are these gestures.


There’s quite a lot you can judge a book by its cover. A book’s cover is a very visible means by which publishers seek to sell their product to readers: indicating what kind of book they’re selling, establishing associations to point to a particular market niche.

Isabel Allende’s own website has a page featuring all her covers, at least of English translations. There are a variety of designs, though most of them feature cover art that bleeds to the edges. The design for Paula is the simplest, with prominent text imitating handwriting either side of a very small central image. Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia have covers more suitable to a classic: subdued, neither too busy nor too colourful.

Eva Luna, on the other hand, has a cover dominated by a quasi-modernist painting of a woman’s head in close up, in warm but also slightly menacing orange (in which the forehead and background merge), over which the book’s title is superimposed in rather clashing green. There seems to be no other text and the overall effect is decidedly garish.

Eva Luna, SpanishHarperCollins (via its Spanish-language imprint Rayo) sells the book in Spanish in the US and Canada with an early twentieth-century sepia photograph and a crescent moon set against a dark brown ground and with a prominent recommendation from the Village Voice right alongside the title itself. Allende’s name is more prominent than the title, but only marginally so; beneath is the reminder that she is also the author of La casa de los espíritus This cover is simpler and more tasteful, right down to the use of a lower case sans serif font.

Eva Luna, EnglishIt’s Bantam (a mass market division of Random House) that sells the current North American English translation, whose cover depicts a woman writing against a colourful floral background. The type face is more elaborate, reminiscent of art deco, while the artwork itself is fairly interesting: faces lurk in the background; and on the desk at which a woman is writing (though she’s looking straight at the viewer) can be found both a sepia photograph of what seems to be an Edwardian woman with parasol, and also a hand grenade. Again, there’s something menacing about this cover, especially the woman’s somewhat odd gaze, but here perhaps this disconcerting effect is deliberate, rather than accidental.

The Penguin (UK) cover picks up on the military theme, but takes it to some extreme: no longer the romantic image or woman’s portrait, but an abstract study in camouflage, with a blurb from the Evening Standard placed aslant between title and author’s name. I can’t but think this is a strange and possibly counter-productive way to sell Allende’s work. Maybe the idea is to position her more as an avant-gardist, and to remove all traces of femininity from her image.

Perhaps this is a tension for her publishers: whether to sell her as Virginia Woolf or as Gabriel García Márquez. Likewise, if on a different axis, there seems to be a tension between positioning her as a modernist, experimental writer or as an author of romances (albeit romances with an exotic and politicized edge). Where exactly does she lie on the scale that leads from Barbara Cartland to James Joyce? The truth is, as in so many other things, she’s quite squarely in the middle.

Meanwhile, here is the book in some other languages: Dutch, Czech, and Italian. The Dutch have gone for a fairly plain cover, with a childlike drawing; the Czechs have decided that sultriness is what will sell the story for them. It’s not clear what exactly the Italians were thinking.

Eva, DutchEva, CzechEva, Italian

Again, Allende’s own website has a page dedicated to covers of translations in a still wider range of languages, from Turkish to Japanese.


Here’s material for a meme, no doubt: what was the worst book you ever read, and why?

A quick search around the web, however, turns up several lists of notoriously bad films (e.g. Wikipedia’s “Films considered the worst ever”), and indeed there’s an annual award for bad films, the Razzies, but I can’t immediately find anything similar for fiction.

There is the Bad Sex in Fiction Award; and also the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, “wretched writers welcome.” But nothing for entire books, so far as I can see.

[Update: I now see that The Observer started such a discussion a couple of years ago, though even in starting the debate Stephanie Merrick (who picks Wuthering Heights) notes that “if favourite books are subjective, nominating the ‘worst’ books is even more so”. The ensuing comments, over 1100 of them, can be found here.]

Of course, a document such as the Vatican’s Index librorum prohibitorum tried to establish some theologically-validated consensus on what makes a bad book. But not only is the question of moral danger rather different (if not altogether so) than the issue of aesthetic failure; also even the Vatican eventually gave up any attempt to distinguish between bad and good when it comes to literature.

Perhaps that’s because there are just so many more books–and therefore so many more bad books than bad films. There are too many contenders. But perhaps it’s because there’s much less unanimity on what makes for a bad book than on what makes for a bad film.

Here’s my contender for at least one of the worst books I’ve ever read… and what makes it even worse is that it’s a trilogy.

Many years ago a co-worker and friend lent me Robertson Davies‘s The Cornish Trilogy (which consists of The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred In The Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus), telling me I must read them. And read them, I did; every word. Perhaps my effort to continue through these three thick tomes indicates some kind of masochism. Because almost every sentence I found ponderous, overwrought, and yet strangely banal.

I’m really not sure why I persevered in the effort. Maybe I thought that at some point Davies simply must turn the corner, that things had to improve. But no: the oh so slow trainwreck of language and plot continued inexorably, each sentence and each page as poor as the previous one. The trilogy was long; it was tedious; it was pretentious. And it gave no pay-off whatsoever.

Fortunately, I have repressed almost all memory of the books themselves. I only have the memory of the execrable experience I spent reading them. An experience I would be loath to repeat.

Meanwhile, I now find myself in a land in which Robertson Davies is a literary hero. The Canadian Encyclopedia declares that he is “acknowledged as an outstanding essayist and brilliant novelist”. And I should admit that a couple of my other contenders for worst books also emanate from the Great White North–not least Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, though that at least has the benefit of a decent title and a commendable brevity.

But I should assure my Canuck hosts that there’s no Canada-bashing here: I love the novels of Leonard Cohen and Michael Ondaatje, for instance. But Robertson Davies? Forget about it.

Crossposted to Long Sunday.