When you think 20th century Latin American history the first thing that comes to mind is dictators. Tons of them. There might even be one hiding next to your oil field (Chavez, we’re looking at you) or under your gold mine, or even on your island. While this puts Latin America low on the democratic governments record, it puts us in a prime position to celebrate Banned Books Week (September 24th-October 1st) during which geeks and idealists worldwide celebrate the freedom to read anything, anywhere, anytime. What with all the texts censured by each of our dictators, we have stellar reading material to last us t the rest of our lives. Here’s where to start.
La Revolución Argentina was not a fan of many books. Some, it hated only in certain parts of the country, others – think Che Guevara’s Diary – couldn’t be so much as spoken about in public. Among the titles it tried to keep out of sight, out of mind, is this poetic, rather intense novel by Uruguayan literary papichulo Mario Benedetti. The novel explores the relationship between Ramón Budiño and his father Edmundo, whom Benedetti uses to examine past Uruguayan rulers who’ve had excessive power and few scruples.
This work is hard to classify, and several dictators banned it rather than investing the time to understand this polemical re-interpretation of Latin American history. Galeano divides the book into two self-explanatory sections: “La pobreza del hombre como resultado de la riqueza de la tierra” and “El desarrollo es un viaje con más náufragos que navegantes.” Banned in Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile because of its leftist leanings, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is responsible for popularizing the novel. After he gave a copy to Barack Obama in 2009, the book went from 54,295th most popular book on Amazon to the 2nd most purchased novel on the site in one day. Talk about an explosive marketing campaign.
Mario Vargas Llosa’s first novel already exhibited the masterful narrative techniques that would eventually earn the Peruvian writer the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. A coming of age story that puts even Harry Potter to shame – sorry, but it’s true – La ciudad y los perros explores race, masculinity and power in Peruvian society through the microcosm of Leoncio Prado military academy. No one can understand how The Time of the Hero was chosen as the English title, yet the book, in any language, remains banned at the Colegio Militar Leoncio Prado, which Vargas Llosa attended in his youth. Upon its publication, the academy burned 1000 copies and and condemned the book as a plan by Ecuador to denigrate Peru. As far as we know, Ecuador has yet to invade. Up until a couple years back, Mario Vargas Llosa was listed as “el cadete mas odiado” on Leoncio Prado’s homepage.
This work is a ballsy move by former Cuban revolutionary Norberto Fuentes. Initially a member of Fidel’s inner circle, he was with the Cuban leader through many of the most trying episodes in La Revolucion’s history. But when the regime started turning against its oldest camaradas in the 90’s, Fuentes became a prime target. He escaped a death sentence and wrote La autobiografía in exile, adopting Fidel’s own arrogant and seductive language to write a satirical “autobiography” that goes into Fidel’s early sexual exploits in Biran, his true feelings towards el Che, and many other juicy topics. Though two volumes long, the work is a worthy, brilliant read.
Though which country and which “president” (dictator) remains unspecified throughout this Nobel Prize Winner’s novel, it is clear that the inspiration was Manuel Estrada Cabrera’s two decade rule of Guatemala. A favorite of your’s truly, this surrealist pot of gold was published years after its completion, because Guatemalan dictator Jorge Ubico y Castañeda believed the book threatened him even if it was based on his predecessor’s rule. Indeed, many have noted that the work could as easily have been about him…
So many books, only one week
Here are some notable mentions.
Surprisingly enough, the most targeted genre during the Argentinian military junta’s rule was children’s book. This site includes a list of banned picture books, so you can celebrate banned books week with your kids, or at all if you don’t want to pick up two volumes of satire.
- Did you know that in Venezuela, you could go to jail for 15 months for reading or owning Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses?
- Lysistrata, traditionally performed naked, is a Greek classic during which women collectively decide to withhold sex until their husbands’ give up war. World peace, anyone?
- Pablo Neruda. Banned in Argentina. Read anything by Neruda.