Panama Canal Zone, 2050. After years of growing tensions, the armies of the Southern Alliance (a confederation of all South American nations) and the North American Union (formed by Mexico, Canada and the U.S.) clash in what comes to be known as the Seven-Day War. Hostilities cease when the Southern Alliance president is removed from office by a coup. Renewed contacts between the two blocs lead to gradual integration. In 2110, the climax comes with the promulgation of the Constitution of the United States of the Americas—a Pan-Continental federal country.
Is this a political forecast, fantasy literature or science fiction? Jorge Volpi’s prize-winning El insomnio de Bolívar: Cuatro consideraciones intempestivas sobre América Latina en el siglo XXI (Bolivar’s Insomnia: Four Untimely Considerations on Latin America in the XXI Century) contains all three possibilities. And that is both the strength and the weakness of this engrossing book.
Born in 1968 in Mexico City, Volpi is the author of six published novels and six non-fiction books. He has been awarded some of the most prestigious prizes in Spanish-language literature such as the Biblioteca Breve, and, for his latest book, he won the Debate-Casa de América 2009 prize.
Among the questions left unanswered by El insomnio de Bolívar is which literary genre it belongs to. The book explores the meaning of Latin America through analyzing its past, present and future. Although on one level it is an imaginative work of futuristic fiction, it may also be classified as a political essay. The book covers, among other topics, the history, governance systems and economic woes of Latin America.
The difficulty in pinning down a specific genre is not necessarily an argument against the book. As the author himself might argue, sticking to a single genre would leave important areas uncovered. Had Volpi decided to write a purely fictional work, readers might have missed the serious political commentary he felt was important to his presentation. And a formal academic work would have constrained his exquisite style, which provides captivating portraits of Latin American cities, places and people. The only label that really fits this book is a simple one: a meditation.
Actually, the book is composed of meditations on four topics: the disappearance of the traditional concept of Latin America; the region’s perennial struggle with political and economic pains; the new frontiers of Latin American literature; and the future. Each offers a different perspective and a unique style. Nevertheless, the transitions between sections are awkward. They fail to smoothly tie the overall book together.
The book’s brightest sections are its portraits of Latin America’s cities and people. Volpi’s writing talent is demonstrated when he describes a snobbish literary festival in the Colombian city of Cartagena where Gabriel García Márquez is scheduled to speak. “Only at the Vatican, and nowadays not even there, such an intense air of sanctity can be perceived, such a fervent devotion, an admiration that borders with ecstasy,” Volpi writes with barely concealed irony.
Toward the end of the book, however, his tone changes from sarcastic to professorial, when he offers a dull, long and exhaustive description of current literary trends in Latin America.
Volpi’s book underlines his stature as one of the region’s shrewdest observers. As an analyst, he defies tradition and refuses to blame external agents and causes—such as imperialism and the United States—for Latin America’s suffering. As a critic, Volpi risks isolation from fellow intellectuals by refusing to join the utopian thinking that has seduced and corrupted so many Latin American minds.
But oddly enough, Volpi seems to drop his critical abilities when analyzing Latin America’s political and economic problems. Ignoring sound academic methodology, he opts for generalizations that do not explore the causes or relevant case studies when looking at the region’s evolution. Since politics and economic development represent a substantial part of the book—and are crucial to Volpi’s arguments—this unfortunate slip into superficiality, cliché and extravagant assertions is a fatal weakness of El insomnio de Bolívar. Volpi’s determination to reach general conclusions about Latin America forces him to ignore differences and nu nuances among countries.
Nowhere is this more visible than in his analysis of Latin American politics. His extremely simplistic account is that of an “imaginary democracy,” where elections, individual rights and division of powers are a mask for domination by caudillos, parties or interest groups. This is hardly an accurate portrayal of the variety of governments operating in Latin America today, ranging from an authoritarian Venezuela, a post-Partido Revolucionario Institucional Mexico and a strictly-constitutional Colombia.
Even weaker is Volpi’s depiction of the region’s economic woes. Disappointingly, the author naively blames “neoliberal prescriptions” for Latin America’s problems. He fails to differentiate between country-specific situations and between various economic policies. Each policy (trade liberalization, fiscal discipline, privatization, etc.) has produced unique effects within countries. His failure to offer a complex analysis is frustrating for any reader that seeks greater insight into the region’s future destiny.
In the end, Volpi’s writing skills cannot conceal the fact that his futuristic fantasy of Pan-American war and Pan-American union relies on a shallow treatment of politics and economics. El insomnio de Bolívar (a title that shows a shallow understanding of Bolívar’s conquest for Latin American unity, which never sought to achieve the utopian dream of a perfect society) is an intense and exquisite read, but it’s also a missed opportunity. Volpi misses the chance to go beyond the standard set by most Latin American literary intellectuals, who are fond of generalities and unwilling to dig deeper, with a book that could have carefully untangled the region’s complex problems.