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The neglected art of biography

The neglected art of biographyAUTOBIOGRAPHY is “almost unknown” in Mexico, writes Jorge Castañeda, in his recently published contribution to the genre, “Amarres Perros” (the title is an untranslatable play on the name of a film that could be rendered as “Shaggy Entanglements”). The same goes for biography and for Latin America as a whole. In other regions, as Mr Castañeda writes, a life that is important, interesting or illuminating of a historical period is held to be worth telling. He reckons that his own life fits the bill sufficiently to warrant “a small break with the Mexican tradition of keeping quiet about everything or paying others to talk.”In that he is correct. For Mr Castañeda is a rara avis, a cosmopolitan Mexican who spends part of each year teaching at New York University, an intellectual who entered politics, and a protagonist in several of the most important political debates in contemporary Latin America. Possessed of a sharp mind and tongue, rare intellectual honesty and an ego as big as the pyramids of Teotihuacán, he divides opinion. But on the big questions of the day he has generally been right. That alone makes “Amarres Perros”worth reading, even if its length (622 pages) may deter non-Mexicans.The child of a Mexican diplomat who was foreign minister in 1979-82 and a Polish-Jewish mother who earned a doctorate in biochemistry at the age of 24, Mr Castañeda has a horror of Latin American nationalism and provincialism. He earned a PhD in political economy at the Sorbonne. There he fell under the spell of Louis Althusser, who attempted to make Marxism more scientifically rigorous. But what he ultimately learned from France was a Cartesian insistence on following his beliefs to their logical conclusions, wherever they led.Characteristically, Mr Castañeda ended a brief stint in the Mexican Communist Party when it refused to change its rules to allow him, a neophyte, to join its central committee. There followed a formative period as an unofficial envoy of his father to the left-wing guerrillas in Central America and their Cuban sponsors.By the time the Berlin Wall fell, Mr Castañeda had already realised that the era of armed struggle and revolution was over in Latin America. The left should embrace democracy, human rights, the market economy and social reform—and stop its obeisance to Cuba. As for Mexico, creating a modern democracy and economy meant ending the authoritarian nationalist rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. He helped do this by working with Vicente Fox, a nominally conservative businessman who was elected president in 2000.As Mr Fox’s foreign minister, Mr Castañeda could at last apply his convictions. His belief that Mexico’s interests lay in economic integration with the United States and in seeking immigration reform in el Norte led him to back the American invasion of Afghanistan (but not that of Iraq). He argued that Mexico could not proclaim its support for human rights at home and condone their violation in Cuba. That led to a spectacular bust-up with Fidel Castro. Of the Cubans, Mr Castañeda writes that “they fight with you even if you don’t fight with them”—something Barack Obama may discover as he seeks to normalise ties with Cuba.Mr Castañeda spent three years trying to become a presidential candidate in 2006. He failed: he had offended too many, and was too exotic to win the votes of the Mexican masses. Still only 61, he now claims to be content to wield influence rather than power, though that doesn’t quite ring true to form.“Amarres Perros” implicitly makes a broader case for Latin Americans to give biography its due. Mr Castañeda’s life is a denial of the Marxist belief that class conflict drives history, which still exerts a stultifying influence over the contents of the region’s non-fiction bookshelves.There are honourable exceptions. In Mexico, Enrique Krauze has penned probing biographies of his country’s presidents and of the late Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s populist leader. In Chile, Ricardo Lagos, a former president, has released the first volume of a two-part autobiography. Biography has become a fertile field in Brazil over the past two decades: studies of Elis Regina, a singer, and of Jorge Paulo Lemann, a businessman, and his associates currently rank in its bestseller charts, while a three-volume life of Getúlio Vargas, the country’s mid-20th-century nation-builder, has featured too.Political biography still faces barriers in a region with too few readers and unconnected national book markets. Its timid emergence is a hopeful sign. In fledgling democracies, not least, it is a way of holding rulers to account.

1 abril, 2015

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