Below is the text of the speech that Carlos Gamerro gave earlier in the week on the history of Argentine literature. I found this really interesting, and am very glad that Carlos is allowing us to publish it here.
See the bottom of the article for a list of all the authors and books mentioned in the speech.
There were no prominent Argentine women writers in the 19th Century, for approximately the same reasons Virginia Woolf gives, in A Room of One’s Own, for their absence in the English 18th. The first generation of Argentine women writers are more or less contemporaries of Borges and belong to the same aristocratic milieu: Victoria Ocampo, the great lady of Argentine letters, was the founder of Sur magazine and an ardent advocate for the constant updating of invigorating foreign influences: as a publishing house Sur was responsible for the first translations of Faulkner’s Light in August, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Orlando, and Nabokov’s Lolita. Her sister Silvina, lifelong wife of Bioy Casares, is one of our best short story writers and specially apt in the difficult art of portraying the world view of children—Cortázar’s predecessor and only rival in this respect. In the words of her elder sister, her work is remarkable for “an atmosphere of its own, where the most incongruous and unlikely things are close to each other and walk hand in hand, as in dreams”. Women novelists include the remarkable Sara Gallardo; Beatriz Guido, whose claims to fame lie more in the scripts she wrote for her husband Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, the greatest of Argentine film directors so far (his are the film versions of such classics as Martín Fierro, Los siete locos, Boquitas pintadas and Borges’ “Emma Zunz”) than for her schmaltzy novels; and the angry and opinionated Silvina Bullrich, who unselfishly devoted her life to the heroic task of creating the Argentine best seller. If in the mainstream narrative genres the position of women is somewhat subsidiary, they occupy a very prominent position in poetry—with names such as Alfonsina Storni and Alejandra Pizarnik—in drama—Griselda Gambaro—and in generic narrative such as Science Fiction—Angélica Gorodischer. Argentine women writers have, as a whole, had to deal with a particular monster of their own—the as yet not fully challenged predominance of male writers and a masculine oriented tradition in Argentine mainstream narrative, of which this lecture might be, unfortunately, another example.Read More...
That’s the phrase that attendees of the Guadalajara Book Fair scream when they can’t get into overbooked events . . . Having attended Guadalajara a couple of times, I can attest to the passion for literature among those who go to the book fair. It’s pretty amazing to witness, and completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the States. I simply can’t imagine a pissed off crowd outside of a reading screaming “you’re blocking the culture!” . . .
Argentina was similar in that respect. The portenos we met with over the past week were truly passionate about their country’s literature. Despite the fact that a lot of books (any imported from Spain, the U.S., elsewhere) are quite expensive, the people of Argentina love to read.
One interesting example of this was the Estancia Los Talas that we visited on Friday. This was an opportunity to get out of the city, visit the pampas, and eat tons and tons of the best meat I’ve ever had. It was an incredibly relaxing and enjoyable time (if I haven’t mentioned this enough times yet, everyone on the trip was incredibly wonderful—smart, funny, kind, interesting), and we had a chance to see Jorge Furt’s library.
Here’s a description from Lugares Magazine:
A second house, dating from 1860, holds original opalines that hang from the high ceilings, daguerreotypes, an old piano and delicate porcelain. A library with 40 thousand volumes; a collection of historic letters: 7,200 sent to Juan Bautista Alberdi between 1824 and 1884, bought by Jorge Furt back in 1946, having to mortgage a farm for this purpose, to prevent the documents from leaving the country; 22 written by Mitre; 4.3 by Sarmiento; and 106 by Máximo Terrero, Manuelita Rosas’ husband; the complete collection of Nosotros Magazine; and a variety of Argentine, French, Cennan, Greek and Latin authors; apart from the first hook of Alcalá de Henares, dated 1502; three long corridors, ten metres long each, filled from floor to ceiling.
It was really incredible, but we weren’t allowed to take any pictures, otherwise I’d post some here.
Following this day in the pampas, we went to a milonga, which was also pretty amazing. I could write paragraph upon paragraph about the tango—everyone I’ve talked to since I got back has had to suffer through this already.
The tango is quite beautiful, and insanely complicated. Each couple functions as it they’re in their own little universe, somehow linked together, knowing exactly when to start dancing, where to step next, how to shift and circle in a way that they avoid all of the other dancers also operating in their own world. (It reminded me of the scene in Crying of Lot 49 with the blind—or deaf?—people waltzing and somehow avoiding one another.)
Beyond the dancing though was the mysterious process of how a man picked up the woman he was going to dance with. It was all done with a glance—the only time a couple conversed was when the woman was denying her suitor—but so subtly and quietly that it was almost impossible to fathom.
Patrizia and I were obsessed with a gorgeous woman in a trenchcoat, who seemed either pissed that no one was approaching her, or incredibly selective. We were sitting pretty close to her table, so we were able to keep tabs on her for quite some time, trying to figure out her story, while watching a couple of guys prowl in a sharklike fashion around the outside of the dancefloor. A guy we hadn’t even noticed walked up behind her, and as he approached her side she suddenly she stood up, flung off her coat, and they went off to dance without hardly exchanging a glance. . . . This made it clear to me that I would never fully understand the tango, and that I would’ve had a hell of a time picking up a girl in Argentina . . .
(It was interested to contrast the sort of restrained elegance and sensuality of the tango with the sort of exuberant sexuality and fervor of a club in the U.S.)
Tangoing aside, this was one of the best editors trips I’ve ever been on. The people on the trip, the people we met with, the people who organized it were all absolutely wonderful. And the rich literary history sure didn’t hurt.
One thing that Nick Caistor and I talked about a bit that was a bit disturbing was the proliferation of authors who sounded like imitations of the neo-realistic, “language of the common person” novels prevalent in American and England these days. It’s always struck me as weird when foreign publishers promote one of their authors as being the Ian McEwan of Spain, or the Jonathan Franzen of Italy. It’s as if they believe that since these particular authors sell really well, than imitations of these authors will also sell very well. Which is rarely ever true. And who wants an imitation of an author if you can have the real thing? And even if you’re all for this neo-realist sort of aesthetic (and I’m not), it still should seem a bit disturbing that authors from a country like Argentina are abandoning the lengthy tradition of writers like Borges and Cortazar and Saer and Piglia (all of who experimented with language in form in ways that advanced the possibility of what a short story/novel could be and do) to imitate mediocre, yet popular foreign authors. As if English writers are colonizing the world’s literature. This is the bad side of globalization . . .
And that’s why I think the story of the Guadalajara attendees is so fitting. One of the best things about publishing literature in translation is providing access to the unique aspects of another culture. I hope that all of the people who were able to go on this trip find interesting, unique authors to translate and promote in their countries—I’m sure that I did.
Below is the text of the speech that Carlos Gamerro gave earlier in the week on the history of Argentine literature. I found this really interesting, and am very glad that Carlos is allowing us to publish it here. Tomorrow we’ll publish part 2, which includes a list of all the authors and books mentioned in the speech.
The quality of Argentine literature has always depended on the quality of its monsters. This might help explain why Argentine literature was off to a good start and a bad start almost simultaneously, and both at the hands of the same writer: Esteban Echeverría.
In La cautiva, a long narrative poem published in 1837, the enemies are the native inhabitants, “the indian” as they were invariably called, and the heroine, a white woman abducted by them – a topic later to recur in William Henry Hudson’s “Marta Riquelme” and in Borges’ “Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva”. Echeverría’s poem is wordy, bathetic, unsufferably Romantic, and one would be tempted to set it forth as an example that a justification – however oblique – of genocide can never aspire to aesthetic greatness, if the second part of Martín Fierro, as we will see, would later offer much of the same fare but this time in powerful and authentic verse.
El matadero, on the other hand, is perhaps – even by today’s standards – one of the best pieces Argentine short prose has to show. The setting is as Argentinian as can be: a slaughterhosue for cattle in our first period of bloody tyranny, that of the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas, who ruled the country from 1829 to 1852. The slaughter of the animals metaphorically stands (as later in Eisenstein’s Strike) for that of political dissenters, one of which, a young unitario, is eventually dragged to the slaughterhouse and publicly tortured, and is only spared from further humiliation (rape, if not mentioned, is implied) by what seems to be a timely heart attack.
Why is La cautiva so bad and El matadero, written more or less at the same time, so good? In part because “the indian”, seen as a terrible menace by the white men of the time, was really a victim, and a doomed victim at that. Rosas and his gangs of killers, known as the Mazorca, were on the other hand a formidable and terrifying enemy – and for twenty years writing was the only effective weapon to be mobilized against them. For his opposers, Rosas’ dictatorship represented the triumph of the primitive, barbaric and rural America of the past over the modern and cosmopolitan civilization they heralded. For this reason, artists and intellectuals were, as a block, united against him. One could say that Rosas scared the Argentine intelligentsia into art, thus inaugurating two lasting traditions: that of turning to literature when politics offers no outlet, and that of the artist-or-intellectual-in-exile. Rosas also supplied our cultural unconscious with one of its first icons of horror: that of the severed heads of the opposers lined upon the cart of a melon vendor – throat-cutting and beheading were emblematic of Rosas’ reign of terror just as ‘the disappeared’ have been emblematic of that of the recent military juntas. The anti-Rosas sentiment fuelled the birth of the Argentine novel (Amalia, by José Mármol) and, more significantly (since Amalia, as a novel, is rather bad), of a mixed genre we could term the narrative essay, noticeably in the writings of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.
His Facundo: civilización y barbarie is a biographical interpretation of the figure of the rural caudillo (a semi-Feudal type of warlord) Facundo Quiroga. In Sarmiento’s view there were two Argentinas: one represented by cities and written culture, which was modern, civilized, cosmopolitan; the other represented by the rural hinterland: backward, savage, cruel. All the enemies of civilization – Rosas, the gaucho and the indian – are conflated by Sarmiento into one (notwithstanding the fact that Rosas conducted the first large-scale campaign against the natives, and the gauchos were its executors). In Sarmiento’s view the two Argentinas cannot be united or reconciled: one must triumph over the other and absorb it. This helps to understand why the civil war that raged before, during and after Rosas’ rule was basically a war between Buenos Aires and the provinces.Read More...
This city is exhausting. Way more so than New York. Even more than Barcelona. Dinner starts so late, and it’s the perfect setting to linger over a glass of wine chatting for hours . . . Then suddenly it’s two in the morning and the next round of meetings starts in just seven hours . . .
Anyway, the past two days have been incredibly interesting. I’ve learned more about contemporary Argentine writing in the past few days than I thought was possible. On Tuesday, we had a series of publishers (Norma, Adriana Hidalgo, Interzona, Sudamericana, Planeta, and Aflaguara) come and present us with information about their titles.
This may come out wrong, but of all the various editors trips I’ve been on, this group of presenters was by far the best at judging their audience, making the presentations exciting and relevant, and providing the editors with solid recommendations that may really lead to publication. (One of the things that’s really cool about being on such an international trip is the fact that all of us could conceivably publish the same book . . . Aside from the two German and Italian publishers, no one is in “competition” with each other.)
Interzona was probably my favorite. Very cool publisher doing a lot of young, experimental writers including Luis Chitarroni, whose Peripecias del no: Diario de una novela inconclusa sounds like a Pessoa-esque novel that’s “untranslatable.” Interzona also does a few Fogwill books (like En otro orden de cosas), which sound fascinating as well.
Norma was also really good. Their books look almost exactly like Archipelago’s, and are very high quality. Carlos Gamerro—whose essay on the history of Argentine lit I’ll post tomorrow—is published by Norma, and his book Las Islas sounds wild and amazing. According to the publisher, this is a book that contains “everything big and small.” It’s about the Malvinas war, and about how the war is actually still going on ten years later . . . It’s long, ambitious, and contains several different styles.
Oliverio Coelho is another author that came up several times of the past few days, along with Iosi Havilio, whose Opendoor I think we should publish just for the symmetry of names. (Actually, a lot of people I’ve come to trust recommended this book. It’s a first novel published by Editorial Entropia.) In terms of older authors, Juan Jose de Soiza Reilly was apparently Roberto Arlt’s teacher, and has a few novels that sound really amazing. And speaking of influences, we managed to sign on Macedonio Fernandez’s Museo de la Novela de la Eterna (Primera novela buena) today. Macedonio was Borges’s mentor and led a fucking incredible life. (He ran for president of Argentina—twice—with his entire campaign consisting of going around leaving slips of paper with “Macedonio” written on them at various cafes and bars. That way his name would infiltrate the consciousness of voters . . . ) I’ll be writing a lot more about this in the near future, but seriously, this is a book that fans of Flann O’Brien, Roberto Bolano, and Borges will absolutely love.
On the cultural front, my Spanish is improving in leaps and bounds. (Which is making it a bitch to write in English, actually.) I did have two odd encounters in the taxi last night though . . . I went out to San Telmo to meet Scott Esposito and his girlfriend Beth (oddly enough, this was the first time we ever met in person) for dinner and drinks. On the way, I was all bad-ass chatting with the taxi driver in Spanish about New York, publishing, etc. At some point he mentioned the beautiful women of Buenos Aires. I replied —in Spanish—by agreeing that the women of Buenos Aires sure are beautiful. (They totally are.) And he replied by asking if I want “sexo” . . . Which seemed like an odd response. What was even stranger was that the exact same thing happened during the taxi ride back to my hotel. I’m starting to suspect that all the time I spent during my Spanish classes figuring out how to swear has led me astray . . .
There’s a lot more to write about—like about one publisher I met who was a German who moved here in 1948 and now publishes kids books and erotica—but I think I’ll end here for now. Supposedly “the smoke” is supposed to be back tomorrow, which totally terrifies me . . . I guess some island is burning and when the wind shifts, it infiltrates Buenos Aires and smells fricking horrible. (There was a bit of it today, but last Saturday the city was apparently hazy with “the smoke.”)
Today was our first real day of meetings about Argentine literature. Essentially today we were given a history of modern and contemporary Argentine literature. And, of course, today was the first day I realized just how shitty my Spanish really is.
Things started pleasant enough—we got a walking tour of literary Buenos Aires. We wandered some of the “labyrinths” off the main street (and saw beautiful buildings for sale) and the “mirror” street that Borges wrote about, where both sides are identical to one another (and beautiful buildings were for sale) and visited a café that was in some way connected to Juan Carlos Onetti . . . although it was, um, too noisy for me to pick up what this connection actually was. (Seriously, there was a lot of extraneous noise, but at some point early on—possibly when I was asking the German translator for the third time to fill me in, while insisting that I “understand” Spanish, I realized that I should keep coming up with new excuses for my failings.)
Anyway, it was an interesting tour that included readings of short pieces by Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Arlt, and Juan Carlos Onetti—a pretty awesome triumvirate of writers. (And we saw an insane watch shop that reminded me of a Cortazar story about how the worst gift you can give/get is a watch . . . )
In the afternoon, we visited Victoria Ocampo’s house and heard three speeches on Argentine literature. (And in case you’re wondering, Victoria Ocampo was the publisher of Sur which was the first magazine to publish translations of Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. And she was sister to Silvinia, one of the best Argentine short story writers and wife of Bioy Casares.) Author Carlos Gamerro gave the first overview of essentially modernist Argentine writing (we’ll publish the entire speech sometime in the near future) hitting on some of the highlights: Jose Hernandez’s Martin Fierros (which is name checked in Gravity’s Rainbow), Horacio Quiroga, Roberto Arlt (one of the first real Argentine writers to make a living at it), Leopoldo Marcechal (who wrote the Argentine Ulysses), Jorge Luis Borges (Gamerro had a great Borges bit—he said that Argentine writers, to this day, are trying to escape from Borges’s shadow, and that whenever he writes a essay, he does an uncensored draft followed by one in which he cuts out all of the Borges quotes . . .), Julio Cortazar, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvinia Ocampo, Alejandra Pizarnik, Ernesto Sabato, Manuel Puig, Rudolfo Walsh, Juan Jose Saer, Haroldo Conti, Copi, Nestor Perlongher, Osvaldo Lamborhini, and Ricardo Piglia (who is obsessed with Macedonio, who is ironically missing from this list).
The speech was really interesting—using the two Argentine trends of writing literature when politics is impossible, and exile as the organizing ideas—but rather than comment, I’ll just post the whole thing as soon as possible.
Then we had two talks about contemporary Argentine writing. By this time, my grasp of Spanish had devolved into nonsense. Both speakers were eloquent, but, you know, it was too dark in the room to really focus, so I missed a lot. (Honestly, they spoke really fast. Really fast.) One of the speakers is sending me her speech, so hopefully I’ll post that soon as well. The other had a fascinating bit about control and taste, arguing the critics and academics (one and the same in Argentina) essentially tell everyone what’s good, what’s bad, and the viewpoint of authors themselves is often overlooked. He recommended a few writers (full list of names to come), including Juan Forn.
Afterwards, there was a nice reception where Fundacion TyPA announced the winner(s) of the translation subsidy. This subsidy was supposed to go to pay for the translation of one title published by one of the editors who had been on this Semana de Editores viejo. In a positive twist, the government gave the Fundacion extra money and they ended up giving out three awards instead of one. I don’t remember the last two (I believe one was for a German publisher, the other, maybe Brazilian?), but the first winner announced was Chris Andrews for his translation of Aira’s Las Fantomas which is published by New Directions. (Barbara Epler attended last year.)
One of the fun things about trips of this sort are the great people you meet. I could go on and on about Claudia Stein from Buchergilde (Germany), Cristiane Costa from Nova Fronteira (Brazil), Marco Cassini from Minimum Fax (Italy), and Patrizia van Daalen from Shanghai 99 (China, but who is half German and Italian, and in addition to those two languages speaks English, Spanish, and Chinese—my god), and I probably will, but one of my favorite stories so far is from Antje Kunstmann of Kunstmann Verlag (Germany), who is the German publisher of Bolano. She said that when they brought him to Germany for a reading tour, he didn’t want to talk with the critics or answer any of their questions—instead all he wanted to do was watch and talk about Big Brother. Perfect.
Thankfully, tomorrow I’ll have a British girl interpreting for me, so hopefully my notes will be more comprehensive . . .
I really like overnight flights within the same hemisphere. So much more civilized to eat dinner, fall asleep, and wake up in another country, without suffering from jet lag at all. (Buenos Aires is one hour ahead of New York . . .)
Buenos Aires is a pretty amazing city. Reminds me a bit of Barcelona—although not nearly as gentrified. And Palermo Viejo is sort of like Brooklyn—although not nearly as crowded. The wine is very good, the beef even better, and it’s one of the only places left on earth where the dollar is still worth something. (Which is very unfortunate for portenos, but good for tourists. Especially for me, since I’m planning on buying a new suit while I’m here . . . If anyone out there knows of any shops I should visit, please e-mail me. It’s all a bit overwhelming.)
The Fundacion TyPa (which stands for “Teoria y Practica de Las Artes”) people are rather amazing. We had our first “get to know each other” meeting and dinner tonight, which was very interesting and very pleasant. This is, by far, the most international editors’ trip I’ve ever been on. I went to Poland a few years ago with a few other Americans (Lorin Stein, Jill Schoolman, Laurie Callahan) and a few Brits. I’m the only American on this trip, and translator Nick Caistor the only Brit. The other eight people hail from Germany (2 of the participants), Brazil, China, France, Israel, and Italy (2).
And, as I was warned in advance, everything is conducted in Spanish. Which is a bit of a struggle. I can understand about 70% of what’s going on, but I’m terrified to try and speak. This may well turn into the quietest week of my life . . .
Our schedule is packed—starting tomorrow morning at 9:30, we have meetings from 10am till 7pm (or later) every day of the week. And no scheduled tango dancing—all literary meetings. I can already tell that in addition to the great experience of learning about Argentine literature, this trip will result in publishing contacts that will last for years.
Since I got in at 8am, I had plenty of time to wander the city taking pictures and hanging out in the 80 degree weather, rereading Cortazar’s Hopscotch. (It’s been probably 12 years since I first read this, and there’s no better place that the Plazoleta Cortazar—which is at the end of Jorge Luis Borges street, but, to be honest, is a bit disappointing for a Plazoleta—to reread one of the greatest novels ever written.) I have lots of pictures to post, but no USB cord . . .
One of the best places I stumbled upon was the Jardin Botanico Carlos Thays, which was an extremely pleasant botanical garden, where people could hang out and read (seems like everyone here is always reading) and pet the tons of essentially domesticated cats that hang out there. The cat thing was really sort of amazing to see. They just wander around, chilling in the sun, not at all afraid of people stooping down to pet them. Very calming and natural . . .
Of course the first place I went was Ateneo Grand Splendid, which is every bit as awesome as the picture we uncovered a few months back. It is grand, almost overblown with its four floors, balconies, and restaurant on the old stage. The Argentine literature section was pretty fantastic—complete works of a number of authors who have yet to find an English audience, such as Roberto Arlt and Silvina Ocampo.
I’m really looking forward to gleaning as much as I can from tomorrow’s lectures on literary Buenos Aires, the history of Argentine literature, and contemporary Argentine lit.
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