Redeemers, by Enrique Krauze

If you are interested in Latin American intellectual, literary, and political history (categories that intersect more in Latin America than in the U.S., for some reason), Enrique Krauze's new book, Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America (Harpers 2011, $18.80 on Amazon) is a must-read. Krauze, a Mexican historian, who has also written for a number of U.S. publications, covers an amazing amount of territory in the book. It begins with the "four Jose's" (Marti (Cuba), Rodo (Uruguay), Vasconcelos (Mexico), and Mariategui (Peru)) whose influence transcended national boundaries in Latin America. In the process of describing these "prophets," as Krauze calls them, the book reveals some of the foundational elements of Latin American thought, especially its sense of cultural distinctiveness from (and even superiority to) North America, as well as its tendency towards hero worship and, as a result, caudillismo.

The middle parts of the book are dedicated to descriptions, or more properly, interpretations, of contrasting pairs of political and literary figures: Eva Peron and Che Guevara, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz and Subcomandante Marcos. The longest chapters are dedicated to a comprehensive account of the intellectual development of Mexican nobel-prize-winning poet Octavio Paz, for whom Krauze clearly has a special affection and admiration. The book ends with an interpretation of Hugo Chavez as a "postmodern caudillo" who embodies many of pathologies (although also a few of the virtues) that run through the earlier chapters. As you can tell from this description, the book is incredibly wide ranging and impressively erudite. Translated into English by Hank Heifetz and Natasha Wimmer, it is written in an engaging style. Although it clocks in at nearly 600 pages, I found it almost impossible to put down and managed to get through it on flights to and from the West Coast. While appealingly nonideological, Krauze's analysis leans slightly more to the right than the left. This comes through pretty clearly in the discussion of the trajectory of Octavio Paz's thought from committed Marxist-Leninist to (almost) liberal-democrat, but even more clearly in the pairing of Garcia Marquez and Vargas Lllosa.Krauze correctly takes Garcia Marquez to task for his obsequious relationship to Fidel Castro. One particularly damning passage included a description of the sumptuous dinners of lobster and cod that the novelist and the dictator enjoy in Havana, which Krauze contrasts with the meager monthly ration "enjoyed" by normal Cubans (which, needless to say, does not include any lobster). Krauze also pillories Garcia Marquez for his steadfast failure to criticize the Cuban government for its denial of political freedoms. Krauze pulls no punches:

Eventually, history makes both aesthetica and moral judgments. Aesthetically speaking, it is a little premature to say-- as Martin does -- that Garcia Marquez is the "new Cervantes." But in moral terms, certainly, there is no comparison. A hero in the war against the Turks, wounded and maimed in battle, castaway and prisoner in Algeria for five years, Cervantes lived his ideals, his tribulations, and his poverty with Quixote-like integrity, and enjoyed the supreme freedom of accepting his defeats with humor. One does not see such greatness of spirit in Garcia Marquez, who has avidly collaborated with oppression and dictatorship.

More broadly, Krauze consistently (and correctly) insists that the Latin American (Marxist) left has failed to place enough value on the value of political freedom, both as an intrinsic good and as an instrument for achieving social justice. On the other hand, if the left in Latin America has tended to err by over-emphasizing economic equality relative to formal freedoms, Latin American liberals have arguably made a similar mistake in the other direction. But Vargas Lllosa's classical liberal prescriptions, which downplay the difficulty of building democratic institutions on the racially and economically stratified societies of Latin America (some of the most unequal societies on the planet) merit only a passing criticism from Krauze. That said, I found myself sharing Krauze's clear preference -- on a personal level -- for Vargas Llosa over the hopelessly compromised and morally bankrupt Garcia Marquez. (As an aside, one of my favorite passages in the book was Jorge Luis Borges's quip about One Hundred Years of Solitude -- that it was fine, but it would have been even better if it were twenty or thirty years shorter.)Finally, it was interesting that the two Latin American thinkers (Jose Marti and Octavio Paz) who seemed least prone to the vices of the left that Krauze identifies spent significant parts of their lives outside of Latin America. Krauze does not make much of this, but the book made me think that, perhaps as a result of their dual cultural citizenship, Latinos in the United States have a great deal to offer not only to their cousins in Latin America, but also to the United States. U.S. Latinos seem uniquely positioned to bridge the cultural gap between Latin America and North America, a gap captured so starkly in Rodo's famous essay, Ariel.

Eduardo M. Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. The views expressed in the piece are his own, and should not be attributed to Cornell University or Cornell Law School.

Also by this author
Abortion and Murder

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads