Bolivian Literature

The Bolivian Literary scene of today is a product of the long, rich, often dark, and very formative saga that is the history of Bolivia, and the Americas as whole.

In a country that has undergone such a tumultuous passage of political development, where traditionalism still struggles next to colonialism and post colonialism in all walks of life, from architecture to cuisine, and the population is divided by the lasting legacies of indigenous language traditions and Bolivian Spanish, it is very easy to see how any picture of Bolivian literature, its character and history, is one wracked by the impossible task of reconciling all these various strands of influence.

After a long period of colonial conquest across the Americas, Bolivia was established as a Spanish daughter state, and it’s from the advent of Spanish administration that it’s possible to begin charting the course of Bolivian literature as it has come to be known today, as a tradition distinct from the ancient discourses of the indigenous populations – the Incas and various tribal groups that existed in the Bolivian hinterlands. These were largely oral societies by nature, and accordingly left very few traces of a written literary tradition.

That said, it’s still true that even with the advent of Spanish colonialism in the region, the birth of a characteristically Bolivian literary tradition is a difficult date to pin point. Not only was the country in the grip of constant warring political divisions, between both the indigenous peoples and colonial Spaniards, but the victorious invading government administration also soon ran into difficulty when its own seat of government – at home in Spain – came under attack in the early 19th century from Napoleon’s invading armies and imperialist goals on the continent. All of this to the backdrop of a geographically difficult nation, land locked and a veritable hodgepodge of mountains and low lands, jungles and forests, that serve to split the people even more.

What emerges from the period is a land divided, where the failure of unified Spanish conquest still meant the languages of indigenous peoples were dominant in many facets of the country’s more geographically isolated enclaves. There is perhaps no place more difficult to chart the progress of a literary tradition. But, the Bolivians are hardy folk, and from the 19th century onwards a few leading figures that are representative of a very Bolivian, very Latin American traditions are easy to spot on the scene. Let’s take a look at a few, and see if it’s possible to understand the influences that led to the establishment of a characteristic style.

In 1879, one of Bolivia’s most famous and grass roots writers was born. His name was Alcides Arguedas, and he came from the western city of La Paz, near the Peruvian border. After reading courses in political science in the city he went to Europe, where he studied sociology, after which he immediately attended political office, on a number of diplomatic and representative missions for his country. His experience of Europe and his vision of the post-colonial powers in the early 20th century was probably one of the most influential aspects of his early life. Later, it would inform his literary message, one that championed a Western social system and governmental structure - one that had shaken the hindrance of indigenous traditions and values.

His major social commentary Pueblo Enfermo, went a long way to popularising this idea in many of Bolivia’s cities, but it also put him at odds with many of his contemporaries on the Bolivian literary scene – one’s that were more conservative in their outlook, and wary of a rich historical tradition existing outside of Bolivia’s new (or relatively new) colonial vestige.

Later in the century, as the political turmoil that has characterised modern Bolivia set in, a new class of writers emerged. Their creed is characterised by a dogged determinism not to give in to Bolivia’s dictatorial tendencies, and a rejection of censorship on all levels. Consequently many of this period’s major literary figures wrote in exile, and their message was difficult to popularise at home.

For example, Víctor Montoya, was a writer who depicted the raw realities of every-day life in Bolivia. He was quickly arrested for his often scathing critiques of the Bolivian government, but was released following the success of a campaign by Amnesty in 1977. Similarly, the writer Tristán Marof, was overtly political in his output, championing a socialist revolution in the treatment of Bolivia’s indigenous populations and colonial peoples. He also was forced into exile for much of his working life.

This image of Bolivian Literature as a hap hazard tradition emerging from a tumultuous national history is absolutely spot on. It enjoys none of the healthy and voluminous output of the country’s Latin American neighbours. It is though perhaps in this very struggle that Bolivian literature finds its strength; it’s the cause that provides the passion if you will.