Our old friend Jeff Waxman of University of Chicago Press and Seminary Co-op up in Chicago turned our attention to this little gem of an article the other day from Publishing Perspectives written by Maggie Hivnor, the Paperback Editor at “U. of Chicago Press, about how Doña Barbara by Rómulo Gallegos, which had been out of print for decades, came to her attention via her foreign rights manager, Inés ter Horst. Inspired in part by a telenovela ad on the side of a bus, Venezuelan political history, and a lot of helpful folks in Cuba and Venezuela, Hivnor recounts the arduous process she and Ines went through to see Gallegos’ masterwork, the “national book of Venezuela,” see the light of day again after years and years of being out of print, forgotten in English.
Of the Latin American writers I most admire—Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Roberto Bolaño—all were recipients of an award named after Rómulo Gallegos. A teacher, writer, and one of the founders of Acción Democrática—an important political party in the early years of Venezuelan democracy—Gallegos became the first democratically elected president of Venezuela in 1947. But in 1929, he was forced to flee the country after publishing a novel critical of the regime of Juan Vicente Gómez. That novel was Doña Barbara.
. . . The story pits an educated, principled land-owner against a beautiful and tyrannical cattle-rustler, Doña Barbara, rumored to be a witch. One of the first examples of “magical realism,” it is an epic, a love poem to Venezuela: the land, its peoples and their legends. It’s also a romance, a political parable, a story of cowboys, spirits and hustlers, and the strange magic of history.
From the first page, I was wowed by Robert Malloy’s beautiful, poetic translation of Gallegos’s language: an eerie description of the river and the sense of danger hovering over the young Santos Luzardo. By the time I’d gotten through visions of dawn on the prairie, with “the smell of mint and cattle” and encountered Pajarote’s stories of vampires and ghosts, and the legal/political shenanigans of the gringo bully “Sr. Danger,” I was ready to gallop out onto the Venezuelan llanos myself and lasso the rights. But we still had no leads on whom to contact.
So it was Inés who ventured to Venezuela, via the Guadalajara book fair, where she left a hand-written note inquiring after the English language rights at the Cuban-Venezuelan stand. A month later, an e-mail from the Cuban Ministry of Culture landed in Inés’s inbox, suggesting she get in touch with the CELARG, in Caracas, Venezuela (Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Rómulo Gallegos). After several days of phone calls, she finally reached the head of Publications, who referred her to Rómulo Gallegos’s daughter. (He had a daughter! We had a phone number!) Encouraged, Inés kept phoning and writing Venezuela until she managed to negotiate the rights. She even recruited relatives to help us resurrect this Venezuelan masterpiece: her father hand-delivered the license agreement to Rómulo Gallegos’s daughter, and Ines’s uncle, who happened to be in Venezuela at the time for business, transported the signed agreement back to The University of Chicago Press for its countersignature. After almost six months, we had a deal.”
Of course, the book being Venezuelan, the political plays an integral part of this story, as Ines relates to Maggie:
“When your country struggles for democracy and you watch it sink from afar, your only hope is to raise consciousness in the people around you about what is really happening. I think it’s essential that English-speaking readers discover this literary gem now, so they can draw parallels between the conflicts described by Gallegos and Venezuela’s current situation—where frequent clashes between civilization and barbarism are experienced on a daily basis. Doña Barbara is a parable of how Venezuela could be saved from a corrupt and backward-thinking regime. Venezuelans saw that in 1929; that’s why the book caused such a sensation and made them want to elect Gallegos as their president. If the book could do that then, maybe it can help, in some way, now.”
Like Jeff so rightly told us, this is the type of backstory we all love to hear, both as readers and as people in the business of books. It’s a lot of work, but sometimes the payoff is so rewarding we can get a little misty-eyed…even cowboys cry.
Today is PEN’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer.
On November 15 each year International PEN stages the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. PEN members do what they can to “raise public awareness of the plight of their colleagues worldwide,” writing protest appeals, staging events, and calling attention to imprisoned writers around the globe. Five writers in particular are selected “to represent the global spread of the problems as well as to illustrate the types of attacks.”
This year, the five writers are: Zargana (Myanmar/Burma), Normando Hernández González (Cuba), Fatou Jaw Manneh (Gambia), Yaghoub Yadali (Iran), and Dzamshid Karimov (Uzbekistan).
Here’s a short piece on Amir Valle, who has been forced out of Cuba and now lives in exile in Germany.
The 17-year-old son of his wife Berta is now living alone in the flat in Centro Habana, because Amir Valle has been a persona non grata in Cuba since July 2005. That’s when the writer and his wife travelled to the Spanish town of Gijon, as they had done the year before, to participate in the Semana Negra crime fiction festival. But the couple were denied permission to return to Havana, explains Valle in his flat in Berlin with a glum look. The flat was part of a stipend offered him by the German PEN centre. Since August 2006 Valle has been a “writer in exile,” and the small signs with the German words taped to all the objects in the apartment show he doesn’t expect to go home soon. His name is cursed in Havanna, he says, just as those of Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Reinaldo Arenas were cursed in the past.
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .