Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, Edited by John Freeman

New wave of continental drifters

Anthologies often depend on bold propositions. This Granta makes much of the idea that a new generation of Spanish-language novelists (born after 1975) has not experienced the repression of Franco or the Latin American dictators, and so writes more of the personal than the political. This oversimplifies the previous generations, of Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and also ignores the intensely political work of the finest young Peruvian writers, such as Daniel Alarcó* and Santiago Roncagliolo.

However, Granta does have a point. One huge influence hangs over this generation, and not necessarily a benign one: the late Robert Bolaño. In novels like The Savage Detectives, Bolaño made a virtue of an autobiographical approach – his life in a Latin American bohemian world. In the hands of a master this is all very well; but when played out in infinite variations by disciples, it can become introverted and dull.

The best of these short stories are, to use one of Borges's favourite words, nítido, "lucid and intense", as "viscerally real" as Bolaño wanted South American literature to become. One striking reminder that the anthology provides is how much Latin American writing is done in often self-imposed exile. Few of the writers still live in their home countries, a habit they have inherited from their forebears.

There are plenty of fractured travelling lives portrayed here, behind which lies a toughness and a sense that the writing vocation is a hard one. The story by Antonio Ortuño (the only Mexican contribution) takes this to a haunting extreme. His writer is imprisoned – but his duty is still to try to write. Patricio Pron of Argentina compares the gestation of writers to "The Life Cycle of Frogs". The young writer comes to the capital and takes menial jobs while trying to climb the literary slagheap, then returns defeated to his provincial town.

What is notable is the lack of women writers. Surely the next wave of Latin American writing will see far more from the likes of the accomplished Lucía Puenzo. Her story revolves around an encounter with a dream-like Márquez, who tells her writing class that to succeed they must provide "a big idea". Perhaps this is the anxiety dream from which all her contemporaries suffer.