Monday, May 05, 2008

The Savage Detectives

St. Patrick's Day evolved as a day for expat Irish to celebrate their Irishness - it was never much of a holiday in Ireland. And giant beer companies like Guinness saw the fabulous marketing opportunity and have helped push the day forward in the public mind. Cinco de Mayo (the Fifth of May) is evolving the same way. It began as an unheralded Mexican holiday, celebrating the Mexican victory over the French army in the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862. But Americans of Mexican heritage began using Cinco de Mayo to express pride in Latino heritage. Nowadays the day is a mainstream American holiday, celebrated by many non-Latinos, and certainly co-opted and encouraged by food and beverage corporations (the start of the summer beer-selling season!).

But one needn't drink mojitos or Corona beer to get in on the fun. There are many, many excellent, entertaining novels by Latino writers available. [Edit.: Don't have fun and imbibe pitchers of caipirinhas? Read a book? Okay, perhaps too grimly Marion the librarian. Have the tequila, sing "La Cucaracha", then on May 6 crack open the novels. Alright?] Oprah helped kick Gabriel Garcia Marquez to another level of popularity, choosing his 1967 masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude for her Book Club. But it has been a "must read" for many years. Novelist William Kennedy wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "One Hundred Years of Solitude is the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race....Mr. García Márquez has done nothing less than to create in the reader a sense of all that is profound, meaningful, and meaningless in life. To boil a complex novel down absurdly: the story is the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondom, as shown through the history of the Buendía family.

Recently there seems to have been a renaissance in Latino writing, with several writers taking on the challenge of Marquez as Important Hispanic Novelist. Chilean-born novelist Roberto Bolaño was one of the greatest Spanish-language writers before his early death in 2003. His 1998 novel, The Savage Detectives, was translated into English and published to wide acclaim in 2007. The novel follows the lives and loves of two Mexican poets from Mexico around the globe, from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Junot Díaz is a young American writer, born in the Dominican Republic, who grew up in New Jersey. He comes out of the academic creative-writing stream, with a MFA degree from Cornell University. But his writing is a tumultuous stew of salty street slang, big thoughts and "eggheaded urban eloquence" (Jabari Asim, Washington Post). His 2007 novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is described as "darkly funny and at times heartbreaking", a novel that mixes "Díaz's unlikely hero (an obese Dominican Trekkie terrified of dying a virgin) with a rich narrative voice that compels sympathy over pity as the inner workings of both Oscar and his native Dominican Republic are laid bare." (Ann J., And the mantle of VIP novelist was handed to Díaz when he won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.


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