Fiction and Journalism in Latin America

A review of Novelando en el periódico y reporteando en la novela de América Latina, by Néfer Muñoz Solano.

Néfer Muñoz Solano’s dissertation analyzes one of the most fundamental historical tensions in Latin American writing: the interplay of journalistic and novelistic discourses. Ambitiously spanning nearly one hundred years—beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and ending in 1970—Muñoz’s study offers an especially concrete and often intimate account of the challenges faced by three “periodistas escritores” who published works in serial form and blurred conventional divisions between literature and the newspaper: Afonso de Lima Barreto of Brazil, José Marín Cañas of Costa Rica, and Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia. As Muñoz is himself a journalist and a literary critic, he uses his dissertation not just to study the past as an artifact, but also to mindfully put it in dialogue with the present. This expertise, combined with rigorous archival work, allows him to shed light on a neglected aspect of these great writers’ production with a degree of color and acuity that would be difficult for other critics to achieve.

Muñoz makes good use of his introductory chapter to present some of the key analytical tools and terminology that mark his analysis. Prominent among these are the slippery definitions that the terms “journalism” and “journalist” elicit, which involve “dos dimensiones que se imbrican, la intelectual y la comercial” (p. 2), as well as a zigzagging between the public and the private, that together characterized the “periodista escritor” (p. 4). Muñoz highlights the journalist writer’s discursive liminality as symptomatic of the public colonial letrado’s historical shift toward more private spheres like the commercial newspaper. Furthermore, he reminds us of the prominence of this role—and of the urgent turn-of-the-century debate surrounding it—by noting the abundance of famous journalist writers, among them José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, José Martí, Rubén Darío, Roberto Arlt, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and others.

One compelling aspect of nineteenth- and twentieth-century journalism that Muñoz emphasizes is its “periodicity,” or the way it is a routine-driven ceremony not just for the consumer, but also for the writer, who had the freedom to use gaps in his work schedule to write novels. Muñoz observes that the presence of regular deadlines in print media is attenuated, if not altogether lost in the digital age, further muddying the contiguous waters of journalism and novel writing. As such, reacting against the persistent, reductive perception—visible in both newspapers and journalism schools alike—that journalism stands in contrast to literature, Muñoz places his research in line with important voices like Aníbal González, Julio Ramos, Susana Rotker, Ana María Amar Sánchez, and Viviane Mahieux. He distinguishes his work from theirs, however, by not focusing solely on the crónica, and choosing instead to focus on how his selected “periodistas escritores novelan dentro de los periódicos y reportean a la hora de escribir novelas” (p. 16).

The first author that Muñoz examines is Afonso de Lima Barreto, who lived in Rio de Janeiro at the turn of the twentieth century and struggled with his identity as a writer from early on. Although his job with the Correio da Manhã placed him firmly within the limits of the “Lettered City,” the fact that his successful 1909 novel Recordações do escrivão Isaías Caminha was read as a scathing reproach of the racism and corruption of local elites meant the mestizo author was permanently marginalized in what Muñoz terms a “Favela de las Letras” (p. 36). Muñoz argues that the novel’s description of a journalist’s rise through a newspaper and the powerful people he encounters felt so recognizably “true” that contemporary readers believed the novel simply could not be fiction.

While Isaías Caminha is an example of ostensible fiction taken for fact, Lima Barreto’s series of reports in the Correio da Manhã, O Subterrâneo do Morro do Castelo (1905), were presented as fact and made liberal use of fiction. These texts stirred up reader interest in buried treasure purportedly located under a favela—the Morro do Castelo—that was being moved to make room for the city’s new Avenida Central (since Rio was being remodeled after Paris). While Muñoz explains the series was published anonymously, and neither the existence of the treasure nor the actual “search” for it were ever confirmed, the columns gave Lima Barreto the freedom to remind his readers of the community’s historical importance. For instance, it is ultimately revealed that the treasure belonged to an Italian countess and her chosen lover, a mestizo pirate, until he was murdered by a jealous Jesuit, of—significantly—French origin. For Muñoz, these crónicas, in which melodrama masquerades as news, achieve a “mestizaje entre información, entretenimiento, historia y mensaje de resistencia subterránea” that draws attention to a loss that otherwise might have gone unnoticed by the reading public (p. 103). Taken together, Lima Barreto’s texts consciously embrace marginality, “favelización” (p. 67), mestizaje, or the writer-journalist tightrope, for the advantages they afford when one needs to communicate a message obliquely.

Muñoz’s second chapter analyzes the tensions between literature and journalism in the Costa Rican José Marín Cañas’s El infierno verde (1935). This text was first published in La Hora and claimed to present the testimony of a Paraguayan soldier on the front lines of the Chaco War, when in truth Marín Cañas was the sole author. Beyond its advertisement as nonfiction, Muñoz notes how El infierno verde riveted readers and achieved the effects of verisimilitude through sheer distance: how could a Costa Rican who had never traveled to the region possibly invent such a harrowing tale? Even so, despite this geographic displacement, Muñoz shows how the work dealt with political questions that were distinctly Costa Rican. The horrors of war in El infierno verde shocked its readers at a time when the idea of abolishing the country’s army was beginning to gain traction. Muñoz describes how Marín Cañas appeared to pursue an association with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and went to great lengths to pass his fiction off as “authentic” by including photographs from the actual conflict.

In addition to analyzing key passages in the novel and foregrounding the past/present dialogism between novels and newspapers, this chapter is notable because of Muñoz’s access to the Marín Cañas family files. This allows him to give a detailed account of the journalist’s creative process, as well as of the scandal that erupted when his true role was revealed, eventually contributing to his retirement from writing. Furthermore, readers may appreciate Muñoz’s detailed description of the novel’s impact not just in Costa Rica (its popularity contributed greatly to the creation of a mass readership), but also abroad, since it sparked a literary boom of works about the Chaco War.

As in the previous two chapters, the third presents a writer who chose to mask his authorship and populate his serial publications with techniques more conventionally associated with literature. Here the texts analyzed are by Gabriel García Márquez during the 1940s and 1950s, among them Relato de un náufrago (1954). Muñoz develops the notion of “diarismo mágico” in these writings, which he defines as a strategy that uses “hipérbole detallada para contar una historia, […] provocando una acumulación y hacinamiento de datos fácticos que, en relación directa con el sensacionalismo, pretende no solamente captar la atención de los lectores sino también informar y entretener” (p. 221). Diarismo mágico allows the writer to modulate hyperbole so as to pass through both the filters of newspaper editors and his reader’s standards of verisimilitude. This leads Muñoz to explore the challenges of newspaper editing and curating, and to emphasize how happenstance or concrete limitations of print media play as large a role as form or grand authorial design in determining a text’s meaning. Channeling Roland Barthes, Muñoz describes the “bastardeo” (p. 231), or mixing of newspaper and novelistic discourses, that appear in a 1950 column called La Jirafa, published in Barranquilla’s El Heraldo. In “Un cuento misterioso,” for instance, the character of an extravagant “marquesa” visits García Márquez’s pseudonym, Septimus, to claim that she is real and not imaginary. In this meeting—where overlap in names mirrors the overlap of truth and fiction—the marquess speaks in such detail about her life that the columnist becomes convinced she is real, showing that hyperbole that is detailed in nature and found in the pages of a newspaper can allay doubts about its own absurdity.

Muñoz closes his final chapter by analyzing this “dosificación” of hyperbole in Relato de un náufrago (p. 268). García Márquez’s stylistic approach, he explains, was shaped in part by Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), where statistics add credibility to an account that is as much a retelling as a first-hand report. Muñoz first presents the background of Relato de un náufrago, in which eight crew members from the Colombian naval destroyer Caldas were lost at sea in 1955 with only one survivor, Luis Alejandro Velasco. García Márquez’s serial report was published after interviewing Velasco, and it disputed the Rojas Pinilla dictatorship’s official story by revealing the accident occurred because the destroyer was carrying contraband: appliances from the United States. While hyperbole exists in Relato de un náufrago, Muñoz shows how unlike the column about the marquess, the hyperbole is now framed by realist description, and in subsequent editions photographs are included. He reads this as a strategy to smuggle “un segundo contrabando”: the journalist’s report passed off as Velasco’s first-hand testimony in resistance of the dictatorship (p. 278). The insight Muñoz offers into the background of the relato’s publication is of special interest here, and he outlines the “problema literario” that García Márquez paradoxically faced in his “reporting” (p. 288). Beyond the text’s shared authorship, its overlap of genre is also notable. It can be linked to the relaciones de Indias for the wonderment they inspired, as well as to the recurring shipwreck theme in Latin American literature. Moreover, Muñoz shows how the imagery can feel cinematographic and is comparable to the fait divers for its universal accessibility and reliance on inexplicable coincidences (characteristics that tie into magical realism). Muñoz points out that this text also deals with the theme of self-destructive heroism: Velasco’s, since he loses his official status after selling his story to the newspaper, and García Márquez’s since he similarly tries to abdicate the legitimizing power of individuation that Foucault identified in writing when he conceded the rights to the text to the sailor (p. 298). The nobility of these sacrifices, in conjunction with the heated legal battle over those same rights when García Márquez and Velasco’s relationship soured, further cloud questions of authorship and genre.

Muñoz concludes that the works he has studied share a heightened tension between audience and author. He stresses, furthermore, that tracing the sources of meanings that emerge from this shifting dialogism is not easy. Their discourses, journalistic or literary, realist or hyperbolic, are dosed so as to create an ambivalent mix of truth and fiction where further questions about genre and register must arise. Muñoz argues that in their roles as journalists, this allows the writers he studies to mask their political opinions and, in their roles as novelists, to connect readers with compelling news items and increase awareness. He closes by reminding the reader that journalist novelists are not alone in dealing in verisimilitude. Lima Barreto, Marín Cañas, and García Márquez are merely showing readers how the right combination of truth and fiction can make a text both more enjoyable and credible, a tendency already identified by powers like “las élites, la modernización (desigual), dictaduras e imperialismo, entre otros. Estos mismos poderes son los que pueden generar procesos de verosimilización” (p. 309).

Just as Hayden White has shown how writing about ostensibly objective facts is riddled with conventions proper to fiction, Muñoz’s study goes to great lengths to show how the opposite is also true. The traces of “hechos fácticos”, as well as the conventions of historical writing, should not be dismissed when assessing the power of great novels (p. 22). While Muñoz unravels the “literary” dimensions of these texts, he refuses to privilege them as if they were inherently more praiseworthy or disinterested than the “reporting.” The careful way Muñoz lingers over these journalists writers’ day jobs, along with his nuanced grasp of the ethical dilemmas they faced when presenting historical referents, constitute an important pivot in this field that will be of great interest to readers and publishers alike.

Paul E. Politte
Department of Foreign Languages
Wake Technical Community College
pepolitte@waketech.edu 

Primary Sources

José Marín Cañas family albums
Archives of El Espectador 

Dissertation Information

Harvard University, 2013. 336 pp. Primary Advisor: Diana Sorensen.

 

Image: Museum of Printing Press, Photo by Author.

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