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The best books on The Rise of Latin America

recommended by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera

The author and academic says the global financial meltdown has shattered the apparently sophisticated, but in fact conceptually hollow, foundations upon which "self-regulated" markets were built

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Before we start I would like to say that all these books are related to the idea that Latin America will take the North into the next century. There is this idea of the dream of the Indians or, as the French Nobel prize-winner J M C Le Clezio would say, the interrupted thought of American people – that is to say the very notion that the earth should be considered as a common treasury.

That is the one key idea that unites these five books and this is why they are so relevant. They also had a huge influence on me when I was writing my own book, What if Latin America Ruled the World? My selection of authors includes South American novelists and economists, a Dominican-American Pulitzer prize-winner, two historians of the Caribbean (one American, the other British) and a Jamaican-American philosopher and black intellectual.

Can you tell me about your first book, The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vasquez?

This is my first choice because it is one of the most beautiful novels written in Latin America in recent years. It deals with the same theme as my book: the nature of history and of the writing of history. None other than Mario Vargas Llosa has called the author one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature, and there are good reasons for that. The novel is set in London in 1903 via Panama and Colombia. It tells the story of two men destined to clash. The first is Colombian Jose Altamirano; the second is British novelist Joseph Conrad.

Conrad is having problems with his latest novel and upon meeting Altamirano and hearing about his life story he pretty much steals Jose’s soul as well as his story. This is a very meaningful metaphor for the relationship between Britain and Latin America during the 19th and early 20th centuries: Latin America’s spiritual lack, articulated as will to universal freedom, became the other side – the darker and anxious side – of the rise to global hegemony of English-speaking cultures. And, just as the history of the pre-Columbian and Latin peoples of the Americas story will become the unacknowledged frame of the history of English-speaking peoples going ‘global’ – and be articulated as ‘lack’ of history, the story of Altamirano becomes central to Conrad’s novel Nostromo. So, in a way, this book is an answer to Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, but also a response to (from within and against) the idea of the solitude of Latin America.

But it isn’t written from a nostalgic standpoint; by the time of the novel the tragedy of the peoples of the Americas has already become a farce. Laughter replaces bitterness or resentment. This is ‘history as farce’ taken seriously. Correspondingly, the novel is hugely funny but also incredibly rigorous in its exploration of the links between an individual and the more universal intricacies of time and memory.

This book became particularly important to me for at least two reasons. First, because both Juan Gabriel’s novel and my book What if Latin America Ruled the World? share a similar source. This is a short story written by Jose Luis Borges called Guayaquil which deals with the nature of history and history writing. Guayaquil is the city in Ecuador where both the liberators of the Americas, Simon Bolivar and Jose San Martin, met during the campaign of the 19th century – Latin Americans are celebrating the bicentennial of these wars of liberation right now. What is beautiful about that encounter is that no one knows what actually went on, except that San Martin went back to Argentina and let Simon Bolivar continue his campaign. In Borges’s short story two contemporary historians meet one another on the occasion of a letter apparently revealing what happened during that first meeting, and, in fact, their conversation actually repeats the encounter between Simon Bolivar and San Martin; the question of repetition in history is exactly what interests me about this short story and Vasquez’s novel.

And the second reason I like Juan Gabriel’s novel is because it features one of the most intriguing characters in recent fiction – a character aptly named ‘the Angel of History’. It so happens that a poem of the same name – inspired by Walter Benjamin – was going to be the entry point of my book. When I spoke to Juan Gabriel about his novel we both discovered that we were sharing this particular interest for the nature of history and that he was exploring that from fiction. He actually blends both history and fiction and I do something similar but start from the side of non-fiction and sometimes use some of the elements that fiction-writers use, like dramatising facts and events rather than merely offering an index of them and passing that discourse as ‘scientific’. What we both discovered is that there are other writers of our same generation doing similar things. One of them is Junot Diaz.

And Junot Diaz’s book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is actually the second choice on your list. 

Yes, this is a hugely original work of fiction; personal and yet panoramic in its view. It is a retelling of the history of the Dominican Republic and of the meaning of being a migrant, while at the same time being a personal story of the lives of Latinos in the United States. This resonates with one of the main themes that I am interested in, which is the idea that the United States is slowly but surely becoming the next Latin American country.

The novel tells the story of a character named Oscar, a Latino living in a Jersey ghetto who dreams of becoming the next JRR Tolkien. But thanks to Fuku, the ancient curse that fell upon the Americas the day Christopher Columbus cracked open a nightmare door in the Caribbean, he may never get what he wants. This book is something like Mario Vargas Llosa meeting the Marvel Universe meeting John Steinbeck, Juan Filloy, Amos Tutuola and David Foster Wallace. It is a dazzling and funny melange; most of all, it’s epic, particularly in its interest in exploring playfully but rigorously the stuff history is made of and how we write about it. Once again, although fated by tragedy, Oscar’s story (and Diaz’s people’s history) is just farcical.

Tell me about your next book, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh.

This is a proper historical essay, written in the best Anglo-American tradition of historians like Eric Hobsbawm or E P Thompson. Marcus Rediker is an American and Peter Linebaugh is a British historian. I think these two historians represent the best of history-writing in English right now, together with other historians like Joanna Bourke. What they do sharply contrasts with the more mainstream and media-friendly revisionism of people like Niall Ferguson, so ‘embedded’ with power it provides the reader no critical distance whatsoever. On the contrary, Rediker and Linebaugh present the reader with another world, not a possible world, but one that was already; the taking place of that world – in the Caribbean, in between Britain and the Americas – constitutes a memory that is being recognised today by the grassroots movements and peoples I speak of in my book, who are trying to lead the world in a different, more humane, direction.

Linebaugh was called by historian Robin Kelley ‘the most important historian living today’. I tend to agree with him and you can see why in this book. Marcus, on the other hand, is an equally skilled historian who has broken a new path in the writing of the history of modernity by concentrating his penetrating gaze and archive-research skill on the high seas; that is the story they tell in this book. It is all about the dominion over the seas. Globalisation and world power meant that from the very outset of modernisation, liberty and freedom could only be understood in the context of and through the lives of those crossing the seas. These were slaves, sailors, women and displaced commoners forced to migrate from Britain and Africa to the Caribbean. There, they encountered the interrupted thought of Amerindians, and went through a process of ‘inner conversion’ that culminated in the invention of the language that we now know as ‘human rights’, a justification of revolt, and an inter-cultural view of the world, and of nature, that changed the world forever during the cycle of revolutions and struggles for independence in the Americas that started in 1741 and came to an incomplete end between 1801 and the 1830s. The American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution and the independence of the Americas are a direct result of the lives and deeds of these peoples, as they invoked the memories of the past in order to project into the future a prophetic vision of freedom and equality.

The book argues that the long history of resistance to globalism has been unjustly ignored. Linebaugh and Rediker take a second look at key episodes of that history.

Many of the characters that Rediker and Linebaugh speak of parade throughout my book. And their intention of finding these characters who care less about their identity over national particularity and much more about what makes us human illuminates my own writing; it is also a theme of the next book.

Of Divine Warning: Reading Disaster in the Modern Age by Jane Anna and Lewis R Gordon.

Lewis is a Jamaican-American black existentialist philosopher who teaches in the United States. He has been called one of the most dangerous writers and intellectuals working in the US, which immediately attracts my attention, and should attract that of anybody with a taste for truth rather than opinion. Think Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon fused in the same person, but as well acquainted with the literary and philosophical tradition of Africans in the Americas and the Caribbean, as with the long memory of Jewish theology and European philosophy. Plus, like Alejo Carpentier, he’s also a musician and a musicologist, unafraid of using the codes of jazz and funk in his writing. That makes his books an amazing read. Jane Anna is a political scientist, and an expert on ‘creolisation’, the process by means of which different cultural strands are deconstructed and re-composed in totally new ways. She’s a woman with a mission: to find out about ‘newness’ in history, and creolisation is the key. ‘Creolisation’ is what happened when reggae, blues and rock ’n’ roll came together with nuyorican funk in New York in the 70s and punk was the result. Creolisation is the truth of globalisation, but one that refuses the worst consequences of homogenising globalism. It is the very spirit of history.

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Lewis and Jane Anna have written this beautiful and amazing book about the way we deal with and ‘read’ catastrophes in the modern era. First, they teach us that we read not only books and papers, but also historical events, in much the same way our ancestors read the skies for signs of things to come among the stars. But that activity is now mostly done by ‘experts’ using fake scientific and mathematical models, announcing catastrophes in order to avert them. They read those signs as either fate or as external threats provoked by ‘monstrous’ foreign peoples. In doing so, these ‘experts’, mainly politicians as well as economic analysts, become that archetypical character of tragedy and literature who, in announcing a coming catastrophe to avert it (and in the process unifying the will of the people in themselves, as ‘protectors’ quickly becoming tyrants) end up bringing about precisely the very awful events they tried to stop, like Oedipus or those American crazy-cons in Fox News. Second, they teach us that ‘reading’ historical events and coming up with images of the future is a worthy endeavour characteristic of what makes us human. We need not invent monstrous peoples or figures of absolute necessity when moving towards the future. And we cannot do so blindly, for we have the power to create one.

As such, the book argues, by looking at theology, literature and history, we find examples of what the authors call the ‘suspension’ of some of our more mainstream, but also mistaken, ethical and ontological assumptions. Chief among them, the notion that ‘everything happens for a reason’, and that we need to invent ‘monstrous’ peoples threatening our way of life, unable to communicate and reason with us, in order to make them responsible for all sorts of ills and catastrophes. Actually, not everything happens for a reason. There’re things that happen for no reason and cannot be justified, like 9/11 or Haiti’s earthquake. This is why the American pastor Pat Robertson was so wrong when he attempted to find a ‘reason’ for Haiti’s disaster in the rebellious character of the Haitians and their struggles against white domination. This is also why we need to take responsibility for the creation of future environments for all; because there’s no reason to assume that what works today will also work tomorrow. It won’t. The corollary is the fragility of everything that exists, and a renewed sense of collective responsibility. That, by the way, was the basis of the interrupted thought of the Amerindians and the maxim guiding the ‘new dispensation’ brought about by Latin Americans today.

Lewis and Jane feel that studies such as these reveal that we must reject a particular assumption about people and reality. They feel that we must abandon the idea that similarity and unity must be a condition of ethical obligation and coexistence. On the contrary, in their book they argue that something like the fight against racism does not require the elimination of race or difference, but rather, it requires us to respect the humanity of all peoples and the wider significance that non-human environments have for the people who exemplify racial differences.

Something else that I found very important about their book is the way they write about ideas. This particular book is written as a series of short chapters that at times take the form of existential vignettes. They’re carefully written but there’s nothing particularly ‘highbrow’ or obscure about their language. It isn’t simple, but it is written in a way that communicates directly with our everyday experience. This is something that people here in Europe were used to and read widely in the 1970s, for instance in the writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre or Samuel Beckett. That tradition has long roots in the Americas in the testimonial literature of former African slaves, in the chronicles and in poetry. It is unfortunate that this tradition was lost, particularly in Europe and in North America, when philosophical writing became the prisoner of academic convention. Nowadays critics find this form of writing existential vignettes as purely anecdotal, which means that they find our daily experience irrelevant! But I think that a very important way of understanding what is most important about reality, history and life is through the stories we tell about the daily events of our lives.

Your final book is Time for a Visible Hand: Lessons From the 2008 World Financial Crisis by Stephany Griffiths-Jones, Jose Antonio Ocampo & Joseph Stiglitz.

This book is the best account of what we now know to be true but still refuse to learn after the 2008 economic crisis. It is written by three of the most interesting and maverick economists alive. What they are proposing isn’t post-recession conventional wisdom but something truly radical, and yet viable and realistic. They want to move away from the economic dogma that has dominated the entire world during the last three decades – the idea that we should leave economic matters to a so-called ‘invisible hand’. As they suggest, this notion assumes that the market is self-healing and self-controlling, and that ‘failures’ are often external to the actual operations of the market, due to foreign factors like lack of proper regulation (or, more often, too much regulation) or alleged characteristics of human nature such as greed. That assumption is wrong. Not just because it throws us back to some pre-Keynesian conception of economics. But also, as one of the protagonists of my book, Raul Prebisch, demonstrated long ago (he was Latin America’s answer to J M Keynes), because it disavows the embedded nature of economic systems in time and space. In doing so, this view ends up caring little or nothing about the long-term or the specificity of place. It assumes that the future will be just the same (which is why mathematical models have no place for ‘outliers’) and that place is irrelevant. The history of trade-relations is of little relevance in this view, as well as the memory of peoples and their expectations about the future. This is why it is dogmatic. But the authors argue against that. They want a completely different system, a transformation of capitalism that we are witnessing but that many still reject.

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It is based on the simple idea that over-exploitation and eternal indebtedness cannot continue to be the way we access common goods such as housing, education or health. Instead, we’re coming to see that we can access those things as a common social right. In the latest part of my book I take inspiration from them and others, and tell the story of the economic tradition which grew out of the experiences of the United States and of Latin America after the 1930s recession but also the way in which the world financial meltdown has shattered into pieces the apparently sophisticated but, in fact, conceptually hollow premises upon which ‘self-regulated’ markets have been built.

August 19, 2010

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Oscar Guardiola-Rivera

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera lectures on international law and human rights at Birkbeck College, University of London. He works with the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and is the author of What if Latin America Ruled the Word? and Being Against the World: Rebellion and Constitution. The think-tank he founded in Colombia advances the causes of human rights, international relations and cutting-edge social thought in South America.

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera lectures on international law and human rights at Birkbeck College, University of London. He works with the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and is the author of What if Latin America Ruled the Word? and Being Against the World: Rebellion and Constitution. The think-tank he founded in Colombia advances the causes of human rights, international relations and cutting-edge social thought in South America.