In the recent short story by Chilean author Alberto Fuguet "Mas
Estrellas Que en el Cielo" ("More Stars Than in the Sky"),
two young Chileans are holding forth in a Los Angeles coffee shop.
The pair--a photographer and a filmmaker--are part of a delegation
boosting a Chilean film that did not win an Academy Award. But they
are still high on Hollywood, and glad to be away from Chile, "which
is like kryptonite," one says. "Get near it and you lose
all your strength." In their rent-a-tuxes, they dream aloud about
the victory speech they would have made and all the sex an Oscar would
bring. In another tale, by another Latin American, this might have
been the cue for some sorceress to materialize from the Formica and
whisk them off to glory in a spritz of fairy dew. But this is Fuguet,
the latest agent provocateur of Latin American letters, and the setting
is not a house of spirits but a 24-hour Denny's. The closest this
pair will get to glory is a brief flirtation with Tinseltown groupies
who mistake them for movie-star-limo drivers.
Fuguet's story skewers not only Hollywood hype and fools in paradise
but also a fantasy called Latin America. Magical realism, it says--the
literary style that made the mundane seem marvelous and put Latin
American fiction on bookshelves everywhere--is dead. As dead as jackbooted
generalissimos, as passe as Colombian coffee's poster boy Juan Valdez
and his mule. Fuguet's message is that life's secrets are far more
likely to be revealed in a bottomless cup of bad gringo coffee than
in a burst of iridescent butterflies. Cancel the toucans; here comes
the new Latin American fiction verite .
The world has changed a lot since Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One
Hundred Years of Solitude" introduced magical realism to English
readers in 1970. That novel showcased Macondo, the steamy South American
never-never land where grandmothers levitated, dictators rotted but
never died and peasants communed with ghosts. Such images came to
influence not only two generations of writers in Latin America--and
almost everywhere else--but also the way the world imagined Latin
America. Now, thanks to Fuguet and his peers, there is a new voice
south of the Rio Grande. It is savvy, street-smart, sometimes wiseass
and un-ashamedly over the top. Fuguet calls this the voice of McOndo--a
blend of McDonald's, Macintosh computers and condos. The label is
a spoof, of course, not only on Garcia Marquez's fictitious village
but also on all the poseurs who have turned these latitudes into a
pastel tequila ad. ¡Hola! Fuguet is saying. Latin America is
The new genre was born in 1996 with a collection of short stories
by 18 authors, all under 35, called "McOndo." The book was
launched, somewhat ironically, at a party at a McDonald's in Santiago,
where Fuguet and coeditor Sergio Gomez signed copies to the sound
of Friolators. The tales are irreverent, often aggressive, scatological
riffs on contemporary urban life, told to a backbeat of sex, drugs
and pop music. The mood swings from hallucinatory to suicidal, with
a heavy emphasis on the blase.
The Hispanic literary establishment, steeped in Cervantes, was appalled.
A Chilean critic called one of Fuguet's early works, "Mala Onda"
("Bad Vibes"), "trash." Some intellectuals branded
McOndo authors as shallow and flippant, while the left decried the
movement as an apology for Yuppie alienation. The makers of "McOndo"
were a bit startled at the ruckus they'd stirred up. "Many people
thought of us as a bunch of upper-middle-class spoiled kids addicted
to pop culture," says Edmundo Paz Soldan, a Bolivian and McOndo
author who teaches literature at Cornell. So the McOndo writers turned
down the volume a bit and softened the glare. Some even drifted away
from the movement. But the spell had been broken. "McOndo slammed
the door on magical realism," says Paz Soldan.
At the same time, it opened a window on Latin America's changing
demographic. Most Latinos lived in an urban, crowded, footloose environment--not
the dreamy, exotic continent magical realism still portrayed. "The
worlds depicted in McOndo novels are closer to the Latin American
experience than is Garcia Marquez's world," says Paz Soldan.
The McOndo sensibility has also invaded pop music, in the form of
Mexican rap and Argentina's bailante dances, and film. It growls in
big, bruising movies like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Oscar-nominated
"Amores Perros" ("Love's a Bitch") and Alfonso
Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama Tambien" ("And Your Mama, Too")--both
of which are set in an unadorned Mexico, a quirky, warts-and-all landscape
without a hint of folklore. "Very McOndo," says Fuguet.
McOndo has many voices, but Fuguet remains the movement's founder
and ranking phrasemaker. At 38, behind wire-rimmed glasses and in
a black T shirt, he looks like an overgrown college kid. He has a
bobbing walk, a raspy voice and a talent for ending his thoughts in
punch lines. "Before, Latin intellectuals had to choose between
the pen and the sword," he says. "Now it's PC or Macintosh."
Born in Chile, he spent his first 12 years in California, where his
father delivered Wonder Bread. Now Fuguet lives in Santiago, and though
he is bilingual, he considers English the tongue of his muse. In conservative
Chile, "you always feel like you're saying something wrong,"
he says. "In English I feel freer, like I'm 8 years old."
In fact, McOndonians tend to feel at home anywhere. Anna Kazumi,
a novelist who lives in Argentina, has a Japanese mother and a German-American
father and was raised in Louisiana. She writes in Spanish and then
translates herself into English. Mexico's "crack generation"--including
such writers as Jorge Volpi and Ignacio Padilla--often don't write
about Latin America at all. Volpi's novel "In Search of Klingsor,"
due out this July, is about Hitler's quest to build an atom bomb.
No wonder McOndo is catching on outside Latin America. When Fuguet
won admission to the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop in the mid-'90s,
he was eager to find a U.S. publisher. But the first short story he
offered to a U.S. magazine was promptly rejected. "They said
it wasn't Latin American enough," he recalls. Translation: no
flying grandmothers. Fuguet was piqued, but he persevered; in 1997
Salon.com ran a version of his opening broadside from "McOndo,"
titled "I Am Not a Magical Realist." That same year his
1991 novel, "Mala Onda," was published in English.