The Literature of EngagementnMario Vargas Llosa: Aunt Julia and thenScriptwriter; Farrar, Straus & Giroux;nNew York.nMaria Luisa Bombal: New Islands andnOther Stories; Farrar, Straus & Giroux;nNew York.nManuel Puig: Eternal Curse on thenReader of These Pages; RandomnHouse; New York.nby Stephen L. TannernNorth America knows Latin Americanimperfectly. Many Americans condescendinglynview Central and SouthnAmerica as a collection of nearly indistinguishablenunderdeveloped banana republics.nThey wonder why those peoplendown there are so backward. Didn’t theynhave the same opportunities as we did tondevelop the New World? And why thendevil don’t they have a stable democraticngovernment like ours? This condescensionntoward Latin American economicsnand politics has unfortunately strangledninterest in Latin American culture.nCarlos Fuentes insists that Latin Americannculture has maintained an uninterruptednline contrasting violently with thenatrocious balkanization of its politicalnlife. In the United States, we know considerablynmore about the volatile and oppressivenpolitics than about the line ofnculture.nEven our knowledge of the geographynis sketchy. When I returned from livingnin Brazil for two years, a number of presumablyneducated people asked if I hadnlearned Spanish and eaten lots of tortillas.nThey were surprised when 1 toldnthem that one out of three LatinnAmericans is a Brazilian who speaks Portuguesenand that although I had discoverednmany German, French, Italian,nJapanese, Chinese, and Lebanese restau-nProfessor Tanner is a frequent contributornto these pages.nSSHMHHHM^nChronicles of Culturenrants, I had never encountered a Mexicannone. They were equally surprised when Intold them that Brazil is larger than thencontinental United States and paradednbefore them those usual geographicalnstatistics calculated to produce mildnastonishment.nAnd if North Americans know littlenabout Latin American geography, theynknow even less about Latin Americannliterature. But this situation is graduallynchanging, largely because of a frequentlynmentioned “boom” in Latin Americannliterature. This “boom” (a word coinednby the Latin American writers themselves)nis due in part, according to onenscholar of Latin American writing, ton”the dramatic increase in publishingnsince World War 11, a greatly increasednreadership (population, literacy andneducational advances), intensified nationalismnand continentalism, and betterncommunications.” It manifestednitself in Latin America more than andecade ago, but because of translationnlag has only recently registered itself innthe United States. Now an increasingnnumber of English translations are appearing,nmany in paperback. CertainnLatin American authors have beennenergetic in seeing to it that their worksnarc translated and made available to thenUnited States. Moreover, the recentnawarding of the Nobel Prize to the ColombiannGabriel Garcia Marquez is likelynto stimulate even more interest in LatinnAmerican literature.nxhe Peruvian Vargas Llosa has becomeninternationally famous as one ofnthe major authors of the boom in SpanishnAmerican fiction. Both as novelistnand critic he has gained worldwide recognition.nIn a 1977 University of Oklahomanconference devoted to his work, henprovided an illuminating analysis of thenLatin American writer’ s situation. In thatnanalysis, he describes a moral impositionnimpelling Latin American writers tonsocial and political commitment. To be annnwriter in the United States or WesternnEurope, he says, means to assume thenpersonal responsibility of producingnliterature that through artistic values andnoriginality enriches the language andnculture of one’s country. In most LatinnAmerican countries, on the contrary,nbeing a writer means, at the same time,nto assume social responsibility. In additionnto developing a personal literarynwork, the writer must, in writings and actions,ncontribute actively in the solutionnof economic, political, and culturalnproblems of his society. The extremenconditions of underdeveloped and politicallynunstable or oppressive countriesngenerate this demand. “To be an artist,nonly an artist, can become, in our countries,n” he says, “a kind of moral crime, anpolitical sin.” All Latin Americannliterature is marked by this situation, heninsists, and it must be taken into considerationnif one is to understand thendistinctive nature of that literature.nIn Latin American countries, accordingnto Vargas Uosa, the press, TV, radio,nand even in some cases universitiesndeliberately turn away from what is actuallynhappening in society. This createsna vacuum that has been filled by literature.nAnd this is not a recent phenomenon.nFrom its beginnings, Latin Americannliterature has been a substitute fornsocial science. The most representativenand genuine description of the real problemsnof Latin America is to be found innits literature. Social concern and goodnsentiments do not, of course, guaranteengood literature. In fact, as Vargas Llosanpoints out, the contrary is true in manyncases. Novels or poems written in thenheat of a current situation, in militantnpassion, in denunciation of a social evilnoften lack what he feels are essential in anwork of art: richness of expression andntechnical originality. Many LatinnAmerican writers with a strong sense ofnsocial responsibility sacrifice their vocationnon the altar of politics.nEven writers who do not begin with an