Left Fails Latin America; Little Literary Merit in Franco's Lengthy treatise.(OPED)(POLITICAL BOOKS)

Article excerpt

Byline: Roger Fontaine, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

For those who believe no one wrote literary criticism worth reading after Matthew Arnold take note: You may be right judging from the stuff that pours out of academic presses these days.

Jean Franco's "The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City," a lengthy treatise on Latin American writing of the last generation, seems to fit into that category. Here all the buzz words of the left - neoliberalism, globalization are the leading concerns. There are too the usual swipes against the United States and its waging of the Cold War employing writers in a surreptitious fashion against the Red Menace. Though it should be mentioned that despite the book's subtitle, the Cold War does not get much attention after the early chapters. Still, the leftist mode persists. Che Guevara is still referred to as a "secular saint" - an honorific even the Argentine malcontent would have eschewed.

But wait, that's not quite it either. For those curious about Latin American literature - and there must be quite a few judging from the U.S. sales of novels by Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others - the book does provide glimpses of a literature that still is poorly understood outside Latin America, while many of the writers discussed are hardly known at home either.

The jargon often doesn't help, but there are stretches of description and analysis written in plain English instead of the Aesopian verbiage of the academic scribbler read only by dutiful graduate students and untenured professors.

The author apparently has little use for the term "magical realism," which is something also positive to say about her taste - in fact, the term was first used in the 1920s in Europe and then and now conveys very little. But magical realism says a lot about what's wrong with the region's literature, meaning it remains derivative - mostly from Europe where Latin America's writers still take their cues.

Then there is the author's take on Ernesto Cardenal, Nicaraguan poet, priest, former Sandinista minister of culture and general nuisance. For years, until the thuggish Somoza government broke it up, Mr. Cardenal ran a kind of campesino commune called Solentiname where he labored to produce a simple, folkloric style of writing from his beloved masses even though, as the author rightly points out, the masses were not particularly interested since they took delight in intricate wordplay. …