14 March 2013
Running a chocolate factory would seem the perfect job—especially when it involves dating a rugged co-director and quality-testing truffles. But the life of hard-working, elegant blonde Victoria Bandi, star of the Argentine telenovela ‘Dulce Amor’, isn’t all sweet. The man she’s engaged to is secretly attempting to undermine the business, and family issues like paternity uncertainty and a demanding sister from Los Angeles make the likelihood of tranquility thinner than a Chocolina wafer.
Meanwhile, a variety of other characters pepper the screen. There’s the attractive and extremely muscular chauffeur, an ex-race car driver, who’s so nice he’ll give a choripán sandwich to a guy on the street for no reason. There’s the butler who looks uncannily like Borges, and the mother who, with her spiky blonde hair and self conscious mannerisms, is the spitting image of modern conceptual artist Marta Minujín. There are the lower-middle class women who wear bright clothing, talk in rapid-fire slang, and sell make-up on consignment in order to live. And there’s Pepe at the kiosco, who has secrets in his past, probably involving women. (If you know what they are, don’t tell—I haven’t gotten there yet!)
‘Dulce Amor’ can be viewed for free on Youtube through the Telefe channel; it started airing 23 January 2012, and has seen approximately 742903712 episodes since. Even if you do manage to finish, however, thousands of other telenovelas exist to vie for your attention. I once met a philosopher in Brazil who told me that he watched Hollywood films to illuminate truths about the human condition, an idea that on first hearing seemed unbearably saccharine. But recently I’ve started to question whether I do the same in reverse. I’ve mostly ceased to ask questions about the ‘human condition’—that’s too hard a nut to crack—but the cultural question has taken on an a great importance. And it’s my small beer contention that few things get culture across better than the telenovela.
Serialised television dramas don’t just pull millions of native-speaking viewers around the world. They’re also a secondary-school staple for Spanish-language learners, which I unfortunately missed out on. (I elected to take French instead: though watching the serial ‘French in Action’ series, hosted by silver fox Pierre Capretz, was excellent consolation.) The logic seems to be that subjunctive fill-ins can only get you so far; once you’ve mastered the structural stage of a language, the giant bulwark of culture remains: hence the novela.
The cultural richness of the telenovela also means that the programs can also be wildly popular in countries where Spanish isn’t even spoken. Quite a few telenovelas are exported to Spain, of course—at the moment the strange situation is that the Spanish literary publishing industry is essentially supported by Latin American readers, while what interests the Spanish about Latin America is primarily its TV programming. But telenovelas are so entertaining, and such a cultural change of pace, that language ceases to be of first importance. Russians are oddly into Brazilian novelas; Kenyans are obsessed with Mexican intrigue; Colombia’s Betty la fea was adapted in the United States as Ugly Betty. A thriving sub-industry of voice dubbers exists to facilitate these border-crossings.
Even within Latin America, tastes, styles, and themes vary immensely by country. I’ve tried to avoid using the word telenovela as if it’s a monolith media phenomonon, because a big part of why a Peruvian can such pleasure from an Argentine telenovela (or viceversa) is that the culture reflected is substantially different. Each country has its preferred set-up and themes. Brazil’s enormous media network Rede Globo, which owns 122 of the country’s television stations, divides up its air-time into family-friendly novelas das seis, experimental and sexy novelas das sete, and conventional novelas das oito. (Brazilian culture was once jokingly explained to me in this way: ‘Give a brasileiro the choice between a television and anything practical, and he’ll always choose Insensato Coração.) Mexican novelas have traditionally leaned towards wedding and prison narratives, but modern issues like women in the workplace and immigration have become increasingly popular. Colombian dramas, perhaps the most frequently exported, have seen a boom in the ‘narco-novela’.
My intention had been to discuss how brilliant telenovelas can be genre-wise, if only because they don’t respect conventions at all: a program can spin together romantic intrigue (e.g. businesswoman falls in love with driver), thriller (e.g. secuestro followed by car-chase), and historical themes (e.g. political strikes). It’s the kind of category mash-up would make your run of the mill literary theorist turn cartwheels. But instead I’ll close here. A cup of freshly-prepared Colombian coffee is steaming on the table, and an episode of ‘Dulce Amor’ is cued up. The intro sequence, by Buenos Aires band Puentes, is immensely cheesy (the lyrics start: ‘Sweet love, how marvellous it can be’) but hearing those first piano keys stirs the blood with anticipation. What will happen to the Bandi corporation and its gorgeous director today? The show comes in 15 minute segments, but it’s hard not to watch several in a row, like eating several chocolates successively.
If ever pressed to philosophically justify any of this, I suppose I can plead that it has indeed given me a worthy chestnut about the ‘human condition’. The telenovela knows well that good and bad are nebulous contepts, that the unexpected can happen at any moment, and that most things in life are faintly ridiculous—and that the best thing to do is revel in it all.