Alberto Fuguet is an ace sloganeer. In the tradition of artistic provocateurs from Filippo Tommaso Marinetti to Jorge Luis Borges, the 39-year-old Chilean novelist penned his manifesto in the 1996 preface to McOndo, a bold, if a bit overreaching, anthology of Latin American writers under 35. Positioning himself as patricidal son of the Magical Realists, Fuguet coined the term for his cohort, punning on "Macondo," the town in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The contributors, inhabitants of the new world of "McDonald's, Macintosh, and condos," were united in their refusal to have characters fly, consort with ghosts, or glean wisdom from talking parrots.
Unlike the co-emergent Mexican "Crack" writers, who spoke of recapturing the dignity of writers like GabrielGarcía Márquez, Octavio Paz, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Fuguet came out blasting, calling the older writing "harmful" and likening García Márquez to a software you download and cannot purge. He's since leveled his ire at Western readers and the hack industry providing gringo lit-tourists with doses of "magic." He calls his own project Latin American "Virtual Realism." It is made up of dispatches from the iPod class: bilingual, translingual, post-lingual. Post-ideological, post-Catholic. This literature's inhabitants are dislocated, cell-strapped urban surfers of fault-ridden, sprawling cities. Children of divorce, schism, and coup. They navigate rapid-cycle boom and crash, flush with the currency of U.S. pop culture. One suspects that Fuguet may be a stronger insurgent aphorist than literary stylist, but The Movies of My Life ventures nonetheless to give us a diasporic journey through disposable art. (For Fuguet's paisanos, the book is also available in a Spanish edition from publisher Rayo/HarperCollins.)
When we meet Beltrán Soler, a Chilean seismologist en route to a conference in Japan, his detachment is made ponderously clear through a meditation on earthquakes. Chile, he explains, is a fractured place, eternally shifting from below. We're privy to a phone chat with sister Manuela, setting up Beltrán's estrangement from his scattered family. After a gear-grinding setup involving a DVD-enamored fellow traveler, things pick up. Beltrán begins composing e-mails chronicling his life, organized in two-page chunks that are titled after movies he took in as a child in L.A. and as a teen in Pinochet's Santiago. Disney detritus, drive-in trash, late-night TV reruns, Spanish-language knockoffs, belated blockbusters. Showing the same brash disregard for the orthodoxy of film criticism as he does for iconic '60s novelists and Leftist post-colonial theory, Fuguet renders the way he thinks most people experience movies---as maps and reflections of their own lives.
Beltrán's life, it turns out, bears a striking resemblance to Fuguet's. A child of upper-middle-class Chilean parents who slip to working class upon emigrating to L.A., Beltrán speaks only English and plays only with the Jewish children of movie studio workers. His dad delivers Wonder Bread (that's magic and real!), and cheats on Beltrán's mom while the family hosts the relatives streaming from the chaos of Allende's Chile. Fuguet, in rebuff to his Castro-coddling literary forbears, takes pains to render the unrest and discontent. Not entirely unsympathetically, Beltrán describes his grandmother carrying a bar of soap in a stocking to swing at property-hungry communists: "When the right-wing women took to the streets to demand Allende's resignation, Mina felt the Revolution had come." She also "detested Neruda," he takes care to add.
On the flip side, cousin Tyrone Acosta Acosta holds it down for the underground. The dandy with gourmet tastes and goals of "putting a library in every Chilean home" achieves diplomatic status in the Allende government, then mysteriously disappears. (This mystery is solved later by the Rettig Report, Chile's encyclopedic reckoning with the abuses of the dictatorship years.)
When Allende has been declared dead, Beltrán's family returns to Chile, ostensibly for a summer visit. We encounter Beltrán's rich uncle, Pinochet's publicist. Beltrán puzzles, "In Encino everyone hated Nixon and called him a liar and a cheat; in Chile however, everyone seemed to love Pinochet and think of him as their savior." Everyone in his Chile, this is--the Chile of a future McOndo mouthpiece, where kids were "always surrounded by nannies" and went on school trips to Rio. Beltrán's media-savvy extended family rolls like the Royal Tenenbaums: An aunt marries Yul Brynner; a cousin's cereal-ad catchphrase about growing up healthy locks him into a luxury, on-camera trip to manhood.
Fuguet gives irreverent treatment to the films that head each chapter, mostly using them as jumping-off points for coming-of-age anecdotes and accounts of the events that happened at the theater. (One memorable night sees Beltrán's father throw his son's lippy pal through the plate-glass window.) And sometimes when exercising his rights as a citizen of the U.S. pop empire, Fuguet's references bland out. We're left, then, with a tired I Love the 70s Strikes Back installment: H.R Pufnstuf (check), Evel Knievel (check), scar-bonding in Jaws (check). Quirk helps, as when Beltrán describes masturbating to Sidney Sheldon pulp or points out that "movies with Dobermans were very popular in the early '70's." And then there's the Ice Stormy scene where Beltrán watches fireworks with his mother, now divorced and involved in an affair with a married man, while the dregs of a New Year's Eve party dissipate to strains of Suzy Quattro's "Stumblin' In."
Fuguet claims some of his pop iconoclasm arose when an Iowa Workshop gatekeeper said his writing wasn't magical real enough. But in Movies, his own forays into dreamscape find him indulging the very stylistic strategies he intended to bury. His account of waking his mother in advance of California's Sylmar earthquake (appearing, appropriately, in a chapter about The Night the World Exploded), gets so Buñuelian that he sheepishly admits to its surreality. Similarly, the 1972 proto-Ghost romance Sandcastles sparks a tale from Grandma about a dead uncle's intermittent visits. In Cali, when parrots escape from Busch Gardens, neighborhood kids tutor them in an R-rated vocabulary.
Because Fuguet defines himself so vocally as the opposite of Magical Realism, even a sweet coincidence can seem a vote for supernatural, as when a song from a flick that sparked Beltrán's earliest sexual arousal emanates from a radio switched on years later by his first love. Maybe it's all those Extra Value Meals before bedtime in the condo--or maybe Fuguet is just discovering that old, Big Mac-less García Márquez was on to something.
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