Went to hear José David Saldívar speak last night about Sandra Cisneros's novel Caramelo (2002), a book I like very much, even when I get impatient with it. One of the things he noticed about the novel was Cisneros's affinity for a range of Latin American popular forms, via television, screen and magazines extending to fiction (high & low). He saw it as written through an American filter explicitly attuned to influences from the south (Borges and García Márquez were cited during the questions afterwards). Caramelo would be a pleasure to teach partly because of its rich use of formal attributes in its desire to be a self-aware novel. How much of it translates beyond Mexican-American/Chicano discourse? Most of it. He especially praised her "anthro-poetic" central narrator, who acknowledges the reader immediately, the book composed of a shifting-floor series of episodes.
My distraction from Cisneros begins when I consider Roberto Bolaño's ambitious and readable novels Los detectives salvajes and 2666, with their epic forms for the sake of minute particulars, confluences often invisible to the reader. Cisneros and Bolaño have very different projects, but each spent a considerable portion of the late 1990s writing long, intricate novels. Saldívar talked about Cisneros's use of a dishevelled form for her novel's motif (a threaded family rebozo, handed down over generations, one of the narrators alludes to its cloth). Saldívar also discussed how Cisneros's epigraph and prologue begin a dialogue with the reader, an opening to questions of veracity. Caramelo taking its unwieldy structure from a repetition of short episodes threaded together, the texture in versions of what she cites as "puro cuento." The implications of Caramelo being published simultaneously in the English (or Spanglish) original in New York and a Spanish translation in Mexico City ("How do you translate Spanglish into Spanish?").
One reason I reach for Bolaño's version of the epic is his appropriation from pulp fiction, a meta-detective series (Borges again), with interlocking characters, reverberations in the 5 books of 2666 accruing narrative disjunctions. Reading Los detectives salvajes as a prelude, meant to outline the posthumous novel's ambitions. For instance, the newspaper-sequencing of the penultimate book of 2666, narrating the Ciudad Juárez murders somewhere in the bleak 1990s. An allegory for apocalyptic events, terror tinged with absurdity in the Charles Baudelaire verses of the epigraph for 2666 (books using epigraphs as an introductory irony, I think of recent examples from Danzy Senna, Zadie Smith, Edwidge Danticat and Junot Díaz). An awareness of the weight of forms, their inhibiting stages. So an ellision is built with simultaneous threads invoking epic lives, especially when they seem minor. How are landscapes in Mexico, Latin America and Europe mapped out within historical afflictions by an explicitly post-Latin American poetics?