OXFORD HAS FOUND GOLD IN LATIN AMERICA!So begins an emphatic letter sent out by Oxford University Press to reviewers, alerting them to a new series of classic Latin American texts that it is launching this fall. To hear Oxford tell it, every book south of the Mexican border was slowly crumbling to dust until the white-knight publisher came along. The result is a purported boon not just to Argentines, Chileans, and Brazilians--who had neglected their heritage to such a degree that it was "quite literally rotting on the shelves"--but to restless U.S. readers ready for something new. According to Oxford, the series is a literary event equivalent to what would happen "if Pushkin, or Chekhov, or Rousseau, or Goethe, or Flaubert were being translated for the first time into English."

The series's general editor, Jean Franco, professor emerita at Columbia University, is not so comfortable with these grand claims. "Oh, that's ridiculous!" she said when she learned how the Library of Latin America is being presented. "That's horrendous! I'm going to have to phone them and tell them to stop it." Franco said that she (along with Richard Graham of the University of Texas at Austin, who handled translations of Brazilian texts) had more modest goals. First, the proj-ect brought academics together across national boundaries: Most of the new translations will be accompanied by essays from a U.S. specialist and a counterpart in the country where the book was written. Second, they wanted to correct the impression among U.S. readers that Latin American literature sprang up out of nowhere in the 1960s.

Americans who read books are familiar with Borges and Neruda and García Márquez, for instance, but they tend not to know about Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, a mulatto grandson of slaves (he was also myopic, epileptic, and an orphan) who wrote some of the most deliriously adventurous fiction of the nineteenth century. Machado has appeared in English before, and Susan Sontag, among others, has set him a place at the table of great writers. But he has yet to grab a wide U.S. readership. The Library of Latin America will give us four chances to see what we've been missing, beginning with The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, a novel (beautifully translated by Gregory Rabassa) that is told from the point of view of a wealthy--and, when the story begins, already dead--bachelor. Among its many witty twists are a brief chapter called "Transition," which commands the reader to "watch the skill, the art with which I make the greatest transition in this book," and a chapter called "The Old Dialogue of Adam and Eve," which contains no words--only ellipses, question marks, and exclamation points. Machado's novel also parodies the bourgeois French culture that so influenced nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro and compares itself favorably to great classics of world literature, including the Bible.

Machado is less a precursor of magic realism than proof that Latin America produced playful, imaginative fiction long before Gabriel García Márquez began chronicling the town of Macondo, with its residents who sprout tails and ascend to heaven. Still, much of the nineteenth-century Latin American canon consists of nonfiction--by essayists, philosophers, and historians trying to give shape to young and fragile nations. One of the first such books that Oxford will publish is the selected writings of the Venezuelan Andrés Bello, a friend and tutor to Simon Bolívar, who was exiled in London and ended up in Chile, where he wrote the civil code, founded the university, and campaigned for national literacy. Bello was a polymath who wrote on such scattered topics as Roman law and the history of the alphabet. Another important nonfiction work is Chapters in Brazil's Colonial History by João Capistrano de Abreu. According to the introduction, Abreu's thinking on the settling of the Brazilian frontier is comparable to that of the American Frederick Jackson Turner, and his identification of racial archetypes--the "taciturn" Portuguese, the "melancholy" Indian, and the "good-natured" African--were incredibly influential. On the downside, Abreu was apparently a little lazy, a chain-smoker who talked more than he wrote, and did his best historical musing while reclining in a hammock.

Such books may interest a narrower audience of academic specialists. But the Oxford series can afford to be eclectic, because the project isn't strictly a moneymaking venture. A good deal of the funding has been supplied by a mysterious, low-profile organization called the Lampadia Foundation, which usually works in South America but is incorporated in Liechtenstein. Its money comes from a tin-mining fortune made by a handful of industrious Central European Jewish refugees; in the words of a rather floridly written Lampadia report, the men typically landed in South America carrying nothing more than "a suitcase of imitation leather that contained a clean collar, a change of underwear, and a set of Goethe bound in genuine morocco." In fact, the entire Oxford series is the brainchild of the current president of the Lampadia Foundation, an intriguing (and, when asked about the project, rather grumpy) figure named Robert Glynn, who is not an editor or professor or translator but a partner in the Manhattan law firm of Becker, Glynn, Melamed, and Muffly.

Where did Glynn get the idea for the Library of Latin America? He says he was talking to a Brazilian friend about the number of books that had helped Brazil to form a sense of itself but were now out of print. He got to thinking that there should be some kind of library, a mix of greatest hits, like Machado, with nonfiction works that may not be on the tip of everyone's tongue but are still decisive in the history of Latin American thought--something along the lines of the U.S.'s Library of America. He got the Andrew Mellon Foundation to pitch in and decided to go with English translations first, because U.S. publishers were better equipped to put out lasting, high-quality editions. But he says that down the line Oxford promises to translate Spanish originals into Portuguese, and vice versa.

Talking to Glynn, one gets the sense that he considers introducing U.S. readers to Latin American literature a fine goal but that English-speaking readers are not as high a priority for him as South American ones. Alas, one also gets the sense that, outside of the specialists who worked directly on the project, Glynn has not been overly impressed by American academia, with its unfortunate combination of arrogance and a desperate need for financial support. Lampadia's flexible charter allows it to skirt the rules that govern many foundations: For instance, while the Andrew Mellon Foundation only gives money to institutions, Lampadia can help out individuals. And as word spreads about the Library of Latin America, Glynn dreads the prospect of both individuals and institutions lining up outside his door. "I don't need the publicity," he says. "Don't you know the way universities work? They touch it, they steal some of the money. Universities are awful."


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