With Nadine Gordimer's death, few if any writers are left whose work intertwine with their nations' soul. Marquez, who died earlier this year, also wrote books that beat with his nation's pulse, his work its conscience and very essence. Solzhenitsyn achieved that kind of national stature.
Who today can claim such a national voice? Salman Rushdie's stature has declined. Putin's Russia, with its gangster capitalism, no longer produces writers such as Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. Great Britain has a number of strong, interesting writers, yet none of them defines the nation's cultural essence like a Shakespeare or Dickens.
Writers such as Gordimer and Marquez rose in oppressed colonial cultures, but that era is over. These writers rose in opposition to the post-colonial totalitarian rule that blighted their countries. Yet, their work reflects deep, rooted local cultures that survived and resisted mass rule.
Africa continues to produce wonderful writers such as Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie and Zadie Smith. Their work, though, shows the dislocations of the new age of international mobility and cultural change, a freedom ironically more devastasting and disruptive than the old totalitarian abuses. The vibrant local cultures that once energized books are now beset by global forces of consumerism, entertainment and immigration.
The Mideast and Africa are now shaken by Islamic fundamentalism and other forms of a new totalitarianism. Will they produce writers like Gordimer? Will Putin's Russia and the pirate capitalist China give birth to writers like Solzhenitsyn?
The United States can't claim a national writer like Gordimer, Solzhenitsyn or Marquez. We have great writers like Hemingway, Twain, Faulkner and Roth. Because of our country's pluralism and diversity, our great writers represent a variety of cultures, not one overriding national voice. With Roth's giving up his pen, and writers like John Updike dead, a new generation battles for prevalence among a shattered literary culture. Today's young writers display self-absorped interest in personal concerns rather than the soaring ambition once reflected in the old shibboleth, "the great American novel." Don DeLillo displayed that kind of ambition in "Underworld" and other novels, but now has narrowed his focus. DeLillo and Roth themselves have decried the novel's decline as a major cultural vehicle.
Children keep arriving at our borders from Central American countries. They don't flee a fixed totalitarian state, which would have been all but impossible, but a new random criminal violence resulting from the absence of social control.
Some want to send these courageous young immigrants back to their native countries. We should welcome them here. Among them lie new voices that will give witness to the late 21st century, whether through written language, film, music or new forms not yet imagined. Their rootlessness, though, will pervade their work more than the deep culture that inspired Marquez.