Boomers and Crackers

In the middle of the 20th century, Latin American literature experienced a huge awakening that captured the attention of the world and influenced countless writers everywhere. This is what's called the Boom.

Boom writers include Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), Julio Cortazar (Argentina), Carlos Fuentes (Mexico) and others. They wrote fiction in a variety of styles, but much of it was fable-like, mixing the mundane with the supernatural, harsh realities with fantasies of the imagination, and employing language that was graceful and poetic.

This fiction earned the label "magical realism" and soon became a commercial success, introducing readers everywhere to a region suddenly considered colorful and exotic.

A new generation of Latino writers, part of what's referred to as the post-Boom, rode the magical realism wave.

One movement led to another, including McOndo (a play on the name of Garcia Marquez' imaginary village in "One Hundred Years of Solitude").

McOndo writers disliked the reductionist portrayal of Latin America as an exotic or idealized land, a Banana Republic, a mythical locale. They were interested in asserting urban attitudes of multiculturalism and shining a light on poverty, crime and other aspects of modern life.

Then Eloy Urroz and friends Jorge Volpi, Pedro Angel Palou, Ignacio Padilla and others came along, determined to sweep away the formulas of the post-Boom writers and replace them with complicated (and realistic) portrayals of human behavior and psychology.

This group of novelists were part of the Crack Movement, which broke away from the magical realism.

Tomas Regalado, a professor of Spanish-language literature at James Madison University, and a friend and former colleague of Urroz, explains it this way:

" 'Crack' suggested a return to a fiction characterized by attention to style, technical experimentation, self-centered narrative, awareness of the genre's traditional structure and, in an allusion to the Boom tradition, the request for active participation of the readers in deciphering the text."

Crack writers, Regalado said, are like the Boomers: academic, informed about the history of literature, cosmopolitan, well-traveled, anti-nationalistic and averse to provincialism.

Today, students write dissertations on the Crack Movement.

Adam Parker

Eloy Urroz sure does bounce around.

The big trampoline in his backyard might serve as a symbol for his life and writing career. He jumps on it, leaning this way or that, rising above the accumulated acorns that mimic his moves in miniature, following him across the elastic surface like kernels of thoughts that won't let go.

Urroz hates symbols. He meticulously avoids them in his fiction. He knows that life is messy, that its trajectory is never certain, that its rewards and disappointments are difficult to predict. He knows that human relationships form the main substance of experience.

So that's what he writes about: complicated, contradictory things. None of his eight novels are symbolic or allegorical. None of them contain what Latin American literature is most famous for: magical realism. They are instead reworkings of real life, explorations of the psyche, inquiries into human behavior.

Still, the trampoline functions well as a literary surrogate for Urroz's career and outlook: He wanders back and forth (in both the landscape of his imagination and the geography of the planet); he examines his subjects from all angles, including from above; he's not afraid to step on a nut, or take a tumble, or fall on his face; he likes a sweeping vista but mostly focuses on the details and textures of the earthbound. The trampoline affords Urroz an ever-changing, 360-degree perspective.

It keeps him in motion.

Since he was a child growing up in Mexico City, Urroz has been a voracious reader, consuming the world's classics and Latin America's "Boom" authors of the 1950s and '60s as if they were the fuel on which his passion and determination depend.

He has no permanent work space, preferring to write all over the house. He sits with his laptop in the backyard of his Mount Pleasant home, in his office, at the kitchen table, in the den, in the bedroom, in the bathroom. He will not write in coffee shops, but on days when he doesn't teach, he will lounge in one to read while his two children, 13-year-old Milena and 9-year-old Nicolas, are in school and his wife, Leticia, attends classes in psychology at the College of Charleston.

Urroz jumps between his house near Palmetto Island County Park and The Citadel where he is tenured faculty teaching Spanish language and literature. His career as a student and writer has prompted several relocations, a cross-border pattern he inherited from his parents and grandparents.

Family history

Urroz was born in New York City, where his father, the elder Eloy, worked as an environmental engineer. His mother, Margot Kanan, was the daughter of Syrian Jews who emigrated from Aleppo to Mexico City in the early part of the last century, when the capital was a flourishing hive of artistic and intellectual activity. That was the era of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, of heated political debates and extravagant parties.

Urroz does not know everything about his father, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2008, but there are enough clues to construct a scenario. He dated a girl, the niece of a future Mexican president, got her pregnant, then walked away. Three months after he met Margot, the couple married, then moved to New York where Urroz was born.

Perhaps his father didn't want to make the same mistake twice, Urroz said.

Soon, the family was in Austin, Texas, where the elder Eloy earned a master's degree. When Urroz was 2 years old, and his mother was pregnant again, they moved to Mexico to be closer to family. About a decade ago, Urroz met his half-sister. Naturally, this family intrigue has found its way into his fiction.

"I have extraordinary memories of the 1970s and '80s in Mexico City," Urroz said. "You had everything there: the best restaurants, culture, museums, music. At the same time, it was a safe place to live."

Not like now. Today, the "drug war" has fostered gangs that represent an existential threat to the country. The brutal violence is only the most obvious of woes. Political corruption runs deep. And a once-promising economy has faltered badly.

Urroz blames policymakers in both Mexico and the U.S. who insist on sustaining the so-called war on drugs when better alternatives are evident. And he is not altogether happy about the way drug trafficking has led to a whole new literary genre: narcoliterature. Like magical realism, narcoliterature tends to pigeonhole Latin American fiction. Urroz's friend and fellow writer, Jorge Volpi, calls narcoliterature "a new stereotype."

"The problem is that an urgent theme is becoming, thanks once again to the need for exoticism in the West, an obligation," Volpi wrote in a essay published earlier this year in the journal "Review."

Keen on the Boom

In middle school, a music teacher would catch Urroz reading fat European novels during class. The teenager's appetite for books was large and growing.

Volpi, Urroz and fellow writer Ignacio Padilla met at the prestigious Marist Brothers high school in Mexico City. The all-male Catholic school was run by teachers who, while members of a religious order, were politically liberal, academically open-minded and not afraid to utter bad words and talk honestly about sex, Urroz said.

While students there, the three friends discovered the Boom writers: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes and others who gained worldwide fame and changed the perception of Latin America.

"We wanted to be like them," Urroz said.

In the late 1980s, the friends banded together with another young man of letters, Alejandro Estivill, and wrote a book called "Variations on a Theme by Faulkner" (Faulkner was an enormous influence on Latin American Boom writers, Urroz said).

It was a struggle. They disagreed on everything, from plot to adjective, but shouldered through the process, producing a series of related stories, saved on a floppy disk.

For 10 years the book went missing until Padilla found it packed away somewhere and sent copies to his co-authors. Revisiting the stories, they disagreed again. The book was good. It was bad. It succeeded in demonstrating the goals of the new generation. It was but an experimental vanity project run amok.

The novel's protagonist is a writer who pens short stories, Urroz explained. "He becomes crazy and the stories become his life."

Urroz printed a copy, stuffed it in an envelope and sent it off under a pseudonym to a Mexican literary contest. Then he and the others forgot about it again.

It won the prestigious Premio Nacional de Cuento San Luis Potosi in 1990.

Crack Movement

It took a while to get the book published. When it finally appeared in 2004, the volume included the "Crack Manifesto" (originally authored by his group of writers in 1996), a repudiation of the formulas, commercialism and sentimentality of the post-Boom writers.

"We wanted to challenge the reader again," Urroz said.

The Boomers had rediscovered the power of the comprehensive 19th-century European novel, which contained a whole world of experience and ideas, a giant cast of characters and, often, a sweeping sense of history. In Latin America, this approach was called "novela totalizadora."

The Crack authors wanted to restore the total novel, and to show how two dimensions, the real world of the reader and the multilayered fictional world of the novel, can intertwine, Urroz said.

"At first, the Crack Movement was regarded with suspicion by Mexican critics and writers, but in the 21st century, it has become a well-known phenomenon," said Tomas Regalado, a professor of Spanish-language literature at James Madison University, and a friend and former colleague of Urroz. "The Crack group wanted to return to a Spanish-American tradition of the 'escritura' novel, an autonomous literary text that questions reality instead of portraying it," Regalado said.

Teaching

Urroz, whose favorite writers include D.H. Lawrence and Alberto Moravia, started writing poetry and short stories when he was 12. He earned a bachelor's degree in Hispanic literature from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in 1994 (focusing on another of his favorite writers, Vargas Llosa), then pursued masters and doctorate degrees at UCLA.

In 1999, he landed a teaching post at Mesa State College in Colorado, where his daughter Milena was born. A year later, he was at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., working with Regalado.

"I had just graduated from college and I was planning to write a doctoral dissertation about Spanish narrative, but Eloy convinced me to write about 'his friends,' " Regalado said. "Soon afterwards, 'his friends' - and Eloy himself - were referential writers within the Latin American field."

While in Virginia, Urroz's son Nicolas was born.

In 2006, he moved to Mount Pleasant and assumed his professorship at The Citadel, earning tenure two years later.

Katya Skow-Obenaus, a professor of German at The Citadel, said the foreign language requirement at the school keeps Urroz busy (he teaches four courses a semester). Many students are not aware of their teacher's literary fame, Skow-Obenaus said.

"I mentioned to a student recently that he was a famous novelist," she said. "He was very, very shocked."

But his colleagues know, she said.

"We're proud of him. He doesn't just write fiction. He puts out a large amount of scholarly writing as well. ... Eloy writes fiction because he's driven to write fiction; he writes scholarly articles because he really, really loves taking apart literature."

Even during lunch, when professors assemble after a long morning in the classroom, Urroz wants to talk about something he's just read, she said. Such discussions, whether in the lunchroom or at someone's home, tend to be intense, Skow-Obenaus said.

"It's a lot of fun. He's quite erudite, and very, very well read, and enthusiastic about what he reads."

Across time

He even listens to music intensely, classical music mostly, but also some rock and roll.

Currently, Urroz is reading Maynard Solomon's biography of Beethoven. So he's decided to enhance the literary experience with an aural one by listening to all of Beethoven's compositions, in conjunction with the book.

Occasionally, he might bounce between Beethoven and Sibelius or Bach, or The Beatles, or Band of Horses, or Mumford and Sons. But mostly he'll journey through the musical imagination of "The Big Deaf One."

Great music, like literature, demands something of its consumer. It requires a melding of sensibilities and experience, an interpretation that takes into account not only what the composer did but what the listener knows. It is this magical phenomenon, this constant refreshment, that keeps musical and literary masterworks alive forever.

Urroz noted that this collaboration between artist and audience is reciprocal: just as a reader actively plumbs a writer's intentions, so does the writer question the people who comprise his readership, even across time.

"I like to see into people's souls and minds," he said.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.