Friday Takeaway by Ilan Stavans: Are We Trapped in a Telenovela?

For Hampshire Life
Published: 1/10/2020 9:46:13 AM
Modified: 1/10/2020 9:45:34 AM

My father, who was a Mexican telenovela star, passed away in March. To deal with the grief, I have written a one-man play. It is based on, and takes its title from, a column I wrote at the time of his death: Kaddish for My Father. (Key lines from the Kaddish were interspersed in the column.) I have added a subtitle: “Why We Lie.” It will premier in June at The Academy of Music.

It is about a father-son relationship and about the lies a family keeps. The argument of the play, as the protagonist posits it, is that “we tell stories in order to live and we live in order to tell stories. But we are also trapped in stories.”

Often during my childhood, my father would take me to his TV studio, where I would watch him during a shoot. What stunned me was the use of what in Spanish is known as el aparato. All actors in a telenovela use hearing devises through which an apuntador, a line reader, tell them exactly what to say a second or two before they open their mouth on camera. I once tried it; it’s extraordinarily difficult.

I discovered during those outings that I was going to be a life-long friend of words. As a writer, no one utters them in my ear, yet I know exactly which I need. Anyway, my father looked so natural on the set. Truth is, there’s nothing natural in the making of telenovelas. Scripts are overwrought; they push emotions over the edge.

This semester, after months of traveling, I’m returning to the classroom. One of the courses I’m teaching is “Telenovelas.” I’ve decided to delve in full, without apologizes, into the history of this artistic tradition — where it comes from, what it says about the societies that shape it and how it evolved into such a phenomenon. Along with soccer, they are the opium of the masses. The first telenovelas, called either comedias or novelas, date back to the 1940s.

Every respectable country has its industry. Some are more developed than others: Mexico, Brazil and Colombia. Viewers in Russia, Asia and the Middle East are attuned to these cultural artifacts from the Spanish-speaking world. When he died, the headlines lamented the passing of my father as an icon who made people laugh and cry everywhere.

At home, my father also made me laugh and cry. While there weren’t any lights or music to accentuate an overreaction on my part toward a statement he might have made, they might as well have been there. Kaddish for My Father is about this loss of borders. The play is at the rehearsal stage.

Are some world cultures more prone toward oversentimentality than others? No doubt it’s dangerous to suggest it; that’s how stereotypes are made. Yet coolness is required when understanding telenovelas. There’s genuine art in them, if not often neatly processed. The fact that they are a byproduct of a particular region means that its climatic conditions have helped foster it.

We, Latinos, are joyful, affectionate, engaged and whatever other adjective you might want to add to the list. We also have a penchant for melodrama.

It’s in the classroom where, in my eyes, things ought to look proportionate to their actual size, away from extremes. Studying telenovelas, country by country, period by period, will draw light onto the past, present and future importance of telenovelas. In Cuba, comedias have been used as propagandistic tools to reinforce people’s Marxist views. Likewise, Argentina’s government has been known to reschedule its sessions for politicians to watch a particular series. Their argument is simple, sort of: politicians need to know what their constituents want.

In spite of their astounding popularity (my father regularly complained of the incessant need strangers on the street had to let him know exactly what they thought of this or that character he was playing), and even though telenovelas are as democratic and pluralistic a genre as possible when one considers that everyone — rich and poor, male and female, in urban centers and rural areas — watches them (even though most actors are white), there is, bizarrely, a condescending attitude toward them in Latin America. Novelas are like the secret pill you take at night to sleep without telling anyone.

My father was equally ambivalent. While he made about 30 or 40, as an actor he felt constrained in them. It was theater that he loved the most. Yet as any working actor knew, he needed to “whore” himself, otherwise nobody would come to his plays.

For me, there is magic, and even a bit of comedy, in sorting out, by means of theater — I love it, too! — the mechanics of the father-son relationship he and I had, while also reflecting on his incapacity to distinguish between what is real and what is performed, all through the prism of Jewishness. In an already complicated habitat, being Mexican and Jewish, saying Kaddish makes you believe you’re exotic.

And there’s magic in using the classroom as a lab to explore why, as we sadly move further and further away from literature as a means of entertainment and philosophical exploration to embrace TV binge-watching as a surrogate of life, these “over-the-toppers” about love and revenge and everything in between (I realize I keep using the prefix over-) are “a window into the collective soul,” which is what Anton Chekhov called theater in the second half of the 19th century. The Spanish-speaking world has more than a handful of lessons to teach.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.




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