By Michael E. Miller
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Chilean novelist Alberto Fuguet leaped to the forefront of contemporary Latin American literature as an editor of McOndo, a 1996 anthology of short stories from a new generation of South American writers, all under the age of 35. He has been vilified by traditionalists and compared to rapper Eminem, in part for turning a critical eye on magical realism, the venerable literary style most prominently associated with Gabriel García Márquez. To the 39-year-old Fuguet (pronounced foo-GET) and his contemporaries, magical realism is simply irrelevant to the world they inhabit.
The new writers have irreverently discarded García Márquez's Macondo, the mythical village in One Hundred Years of Solitude, in favor of McOndo, the frenetic realm of the here and now, in which modern life is influenced not by gypsy soothsayers or flying grandmothers but by computers, global networks, rapid economic development, and American enterprise -- McDonald's-style.
Fuguet discussed the Free Trade Area of the Americas from an office in a Manhattan skyscraper, just before launching a promotional tour for his second novel to be published in English, The Movies of My Life. Despite the antiglobalization rhetoric and fears of transnational corporate greed invoked by the FTAA, Fuguet reminds us that nothing is more powerful than culture. And you can get it to go from a drive-thru window.
New Times: Explain McOndo and its genesis.
Alberto Fuguet: It started as a joke, but it was actually an ironic commentary on the way the European and American "first world" visualizes Latin America. That is to say, everybody thinks we live in a magical-realist, García Márquez world. I'm not sure if that exists. I'm not sure it ever existed. And even if it did, that's not the world I'm living in. If there is a Macondo today, it's a McOndo full of McDonald's, Macintoshes, and condominiums. You only see people flying when you're high on drugs. McOndo is basically a sort of rebellion. It is urban Latin America. It's a sign of the times, as Prince would say.
And the part about the Americanization of your culture?
I have no problem with bastardizations. I prefer heterogeneous things over homogenous things. After all, I come from a continent where everybody is basically mixed. I come from a continent where the Spanish fucked the Indians and killed them and made them speak Spanish. So I never feel that where I come from is a beautiful paradise where people ran around naked. Once Columbus arrived, we've always been heterogeneous. The ousted president of Bolivia didn't even speak Spanish. He was a whitey. I mean, Jeb Bush speaks better Spanish than the president of Bolivia. So I'm not buying that we're so closed in and so pure.
What's your role as a McOndoist writer in the FTAA discussion?
I don't think I have a role. I'm not a stupid person, but I don't think that the artist has to have a role. In the past, the artist in Latin America had to speak out and denounce and sometimes run for president. I would never even run for mayor.
In your essay "Magical Neoliberalism" you say the FTAA will bring a "new creative fusion, a way of mixing influences without leaving the dough full of lumps." Could you elaborate?
People are so afraid the house is going to burn down. When these new cultural trends appear, people think that the way it was [in the past] is going to end. Personally I have no problem with that, because in Latin America things have never been so great from the start. So to burn down the house of Latin America could be a good idea. How do you solve Colombia without refounding it? There are so many mistakes -- from the constitution on up. I try to look on the positive side. In a cultural way, Chile, just like Bogotá, was very closed-minded, very parochial, very provincial.
That's not Bogotá today.
Because neoliberalism is sort of perverse; it says that you have to open doors. People like bankers, who are just into the investment, say, "This sounds interesting." But they never thought about ideas also traveling freely. And with globalization, you can't control it. So you begin to have homosexuality, pornography, ideas like people not getting married, things that people thought would one day really bring down the house. But in the end you realize it's not a big deal, and people rapidly get accustomed.
It sounds like you favor it.
Totally. There's a cultural explosion. I think there's more fresh air. Latin America has always been influenced by other cultures, but now the public decides. Before, it was just the intellectuals. There are going to be new problems and different role players. For example, the Indians in Bolivia didn't even exist as voters, and they just brought down the president. Those ideas probably came from watching American TV. If you're a white guy in La Paz, maybe you're not happy with it, but everybody involved in society should be participating. And that is a very American way.
No, and I don't think I will. I'd rather live it and see it and capture what I see in the streets.
What do you make of these meetings, culturally speaking?
The only thing I can say is that culture is much further ahead. And by culture I mean not only artistic creation but the way people dress and the way they eat. All that is free trade. I'm like Darwin: I believe that life is stronger, people's wills are stronger. I think these agreements end up putting on paper what is already on the street.
We're expecting protesters in Miami. Among their concerns is that cultures are being overrun by North American influences. Are these concerns legitimate?
Protest is a liberation of energy, and there's nothing so global as protest. It's a legit concern, but I think they're overreacting. I truly believe that American culture isn't as strong as we think it is. You think McDonald's sucks or you think maybe Hooters is horrible, but don't confuse that with the brainwashing of everybody else. Where there's liberty, I think things are always going to change. I'm more preoccupied with the extreme radicalism that's going on in Bolivia. I think that is a real danger, not that of America. If America were so strong, there would be no protests in Bolivia.
You've been called a sellout to American culture, a spoiled product of globalization, an irresponsible countryman. How do you respond?
It depends who said it. If you're talking from the far radical left, it's totally understandable. If you feel you're a weakling, America is the enemy. That's one of the things I admire about Mexico. Over there it's "fucking Americans." But I don't think they really hate Americans, because in the end they're going to be partners and they're going to live with Americans.
Is that selling out?
Selling out would mean if they gave you money. I think more than a sellout it's shaking hands. It's saying, "I'm not scared of you." Economically, I agree the U.S. can really destroy us. Militarily also. But there are ways to go around it. In the end, we're partners, and the force of Latin culture is pretty strong -- so strong that it has remade American culture.
You note that even the Yanomami Indians have VCRs. Is there such a thing today as an intact indigenous culture?
I guess there are very few. But you should ask them. Who am I to protect somebody? Do they want protection? If they want it and somebody is able to give it to them, they should. But we're talking about human beings. We're not talking about gorillas that are being shot in the jungle, or endangered species. I don't think any Indian tribe is less cultured than I am. Maybe they don't have the Internet but that doesn't necessarily prove anything. I believe all cultures have to be challenged. All this purism in Latin American countries or this provincial way of thinking was once a way of life. It was challenged, and it lost. And some people are crying, but most people are celebrating.
In Brazil McDonald's sells a McIndia chicken sandwich made with curry sauce. Have you tried one?
No. But I was in Dubayy when the McArabia was launched. It's made with pita bread, and instead of hamburger it has a sort of falafel. In Chile, McDonald's decided to put green pepper as a side order and avocado, because we really like mashed avocado.
What does this tell us?
That the locals also have something to say, and if you don't adapt, the competition is going to eat you. Chileans or Mexicans or Brazilians are not stupid. Arby's was kicked out of Chile and Eddie Murphy bombs there. Not all things American "work" in Chile or Brazil. Chile is one of the biggest Richard Linklater countries of the world. Faith No More is the biggest band in Brazil. I love those weird glitches nobody can explain.