April 9, May 14, and June 11
6pm - 8:30 pm
The Past Seeps into the Present:
Join Allen Wells, the Roger Howell, Jr. Professor of History at Bowdoin College, as he leads you in a lively exploration of three prize-winning works of Latin American historical fiction.
“More so than in the United States, Latin American writers traditionally have played the role of public intellectuals. Most contribute op eds and essays to newspapers and magazines that not infrequently critique the repressive societies they inhabit. As a result, these writers often have experienced censorship, imprisonment and exile. Keenly aware of their region’s past and how that history has shaped its present, these writers have crafted compelling narratives that overtly and covertly have used the past to comment on the present.”
The Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967 for this dark, brooding novel based on the rule of the repressive dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920). As a student, Asturias was involved in efforts to depose a dictator who had raised surveillance into an art form. His principled opposition to dictatorship meant that Asturias spent much of his adult life in exile. For instance, he lived in Paris during the 1920s and early 1930s, where he took courses at the Sorbonne, worked as a journalist, communed with like-minded expatriates plotting to overthrow tyrants in their own countries, and came under the influence of Surrealists, like André Breton. Asturias then returned home only to find his country under the thumb of another tyrant, Jorge Ubico (1931-1944). He would write El Señor Presidente during Ubico’s rule, but government censors precluded its publication. His masterwork would not appear in print until 1946 during a brief democratic interlude. It is the first of the great (Latin American) dictator novels.
This rich, complex novel by José Gabriel Vásquez, Colombia’s best novelist since Gabriel García Márquez, unlocks a forgotten chapter of his country’s past, a time when Central European Jews fleeing Hitler settle in Colombia. As paranoia against Axis subversion sets in during the early 1940s, vulnerable, stateless exiles are scapegoated; in some cases, authorities go so far as to turn the refugees over to the United States government because they are thought to be potential Fifth Columnists (internal enemies) working for the Third Reich. During this time of heightened fear, Colombians resort to informing on each other. Besides describing a repressive era in the country’s past, the author draws arresting parallels to the (1990s) present, a time when Colombia is ravaged by drug cartels, paramilitaries and guerrilla insurgency.
At first glance, Junot Díaz’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel appears to be a coming-of-age story about an overweight, nerdy Dominican-American adolescent obsessed with science fiction while growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. But a closer examination of this effervescent novel not only shows how Dominican immigrants navigate shifting identities in two very different worlds—the island and the U.S.—but it sheds light on how Dominicans, wherever they choose to live, have been affected in ways large and incidental, by the ruthless dictatorship of General Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961). Oscar Wao’s irreverent and amusing tone is very different from the first two novels in the series and Díaz’ deployment of a peculiarly Dominican Spanglish is just breathtaking.