A young man follows the bloody trail of his CIA father, through Paraguayan torture chambers and the sites of Andean massacres. An Ecuadorian artist fantasizes about running a scalpel through the tongue of her mute twin. In a Buenos Aires cemetery, teenage fans devour a rock star’s rotting remains.
These grisly scenes – and many more like them – populate the pages of Latin America’s recent bestselling fiction. From the Andes to the Amazon and to the urban sprawl of some of the world’s biggest cities, a ghoulish shadow has been cast over Latin American literature.
It’s a dark departure for a region often synonymous with magical realism. Since the 1967 publication of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude the region’s writers have often lived in the shadow of Macondo, the novel’s tropical and fantastical Colombian town, decrying the expectation – usually from western editors – that they deploy the “magical realist algorithm” in their work.
Now, a new generation of writers are striking a much darker tone. They take their inspiration from the dictatorships and terrorism of the late 20th century, the poverty and violence of the region’s modern cities and the most sinister elements of the region’s rich but neglected folklore. Macondo has turned macabre.
“When I read García Márquez he seems like a writer from another time,” said Mariana Enriquez, an Argentinian author whose short story collection, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, was shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker prize. “The continent had another mood. We were young countries and despite decades of poverty and conflict, there was hope, the future seemed bright. I wonder if that optimism’s gone now.”
Even before Latin America became the region hardest hit by the coronavirus, the continent was gripped by a deep malaise. A decade of stunted growth, ecological disasters, rising crime and a return of authoritarian governments of both left and right has fueled major protest movements across the region.
There are many echoes of the 1980s, a formative decade for many of the authors finding success today.
“I remember a sense of dread, a sense of fear,” said Enriquez, who grew up during Argentina’s dictatorship. “We kids knew that the adults weren’t telling us things.”
The betrayal of children by their parents and the complex emotional response towards the families of the disappeared are common themes in her writing. Her latest prize-winning novel Our Part of the Night (due in its English translation in 2022) centers on the relationship of a father and son who are exploited as mediums by an occult sect which takes its victims under the cover provided by the junta’s disappearances.
With the return to democracy, the crimes of the period were laid bare in newspapers. “These were my first horror narratives. A generation of children were fed with this kind of narrative once the secret was out,” said Enriquez.
The current mood represents a resurgence – rather than an emergence – of horror fiction in a region long steeped in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft, said the Peruvian novelist Gustavo Faverón Patriau.
“Poe was incredibly influential in Latin America, but the renaissance of the gothic in Peru started with [leftist rebel group] the Shining Path in the 1990s. The guerrillas and the military response generated so many bloody and cruel stories that many writers felt they had to return to the language of the gothic to tell them.”
His claustrophobic, gory novel Vivir Abajo is an often subterranean voyage across South America, taking in Maoist massacres, CIA torture squads, Nazi scientists and the maddening production of Werner Herzog’s 1982 Peruvian epic Fitzcarraldo.
“While the writers of the Boom often covered dark topics, there was always a utopian impulse behind them,” he said of the generation of Latin American writers who rose to prominence in the 1960s. “Today all that remains is a clear understanding of the idea of human rights. That’s a positive impulse, but – given Latin America’s recent history – it doesn’t help create optimistic novels.”
And terror has increasingly become the favored genre with which to allegorize the region’s myriad of seemingly intractable social problems. Fever Dream, a novella by the Argentinian author Samantha Schweblin, tackles the ecological hazards of monoculture soya plantations, but it does so with slow-acting poison and soul-swapping rituals.
A more daily terror, that of modern city life, is evident in the writing of Monica Ojeda, who grew up in the Ecuadorian coastal city of Guayaquil. Her fiction touches topics such as domestic violence, body dysmorphia, incest and femicide.
“The violence that affected me was the everyday violence of the city,” she said. “Of not being able to go out for fear of being raped or killed. Of having to accompany my friends to clandestine abortion clinics, of not getting taxis for fear of being kidnapped, of not drinking for fear of having something in my drink.” Her latest novel, Jawbone, features a teenage student at an Opus Dei college and a fan of “creepy pasta” internet memes held hostage by her literature teacher.
As with Enriquez, her work often fuses indigenous mythology with the terrors of the modern world, urban myths and the dark web. “I find it fascinating how the ancestral meets with the rabidly modern in our cities and in the Andean páramos [moorland],” she said.
“I was born in a wild city which floods every year bringing in crocodiles, frogs and serpents. A city which receives the ashes of active volcanoes. I’ve survived eruptions and earthquakes, and that’s why I like to say my writing [has a] cardiac [quality].”