Although it hasn’t been covered in the U.S. papers (at least to the best of my knowledge), Argentine author Rodolfo Fogwill passed away at the end of last month. He published a ton of stuff in Argentina—around 20 books—but only one—Malvinas Requiem—has been published in English translation. Typical situation, but this really blows. Malvinas Requiem is a really incredible book . . . Didn’t get much play here in the States (again, typical; again, really blows), but you can read my review of it here.
Anyway, the Guardian has a great piece on Fogwill written by Nick Caistor, who, along with Amanda Hopkinson, translated Los Pichiciegos into English. Whole obituary is worth checking out, but here are a few awesome highlights. (Which will likely make at least some of you want to read more about Fogwill):
Loud-mouthed, provocative, often downright rude, the writer Rodolfo Fogwill was a legendary figure in recent Argentinian literature. Fogwill, who has died aged 69, from pulmonary emphysema, probably exacerbated by his inveterate chain-smoking, quarrelled with everybody, was intolerant of any writing or behaviour that in his view smacked of political correctness or pretension, and yet wrote some of the most resonant short stories and novels in Argentina of the past 30 years.
The story surrounding the way he wrote one of his most important novels, Los Pichiciegos (1983), is typical. The book was a protest at the horror of the war fought between Britain and Argentina over the Malvinas/Falkland islands in the South Atlantic, and at the stupidity of war in general. Fogwill claimed to have written the book in six days during June 1982, while the war was still going on, keeping himself going with vast amounts of cocaine and whisky. [. . .]
Born in Bernal, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Fogwill tried to convince me his surname was English, claiming he had ancestors in Fox Hill, in Sussex. An only child, he studied medicine and sociology at the University of Buenos Aires. He began teaching there, but fell foul of the military regime that took power in 1966. “I was sacked for being a communist, the worst insult imaginable for the Trotskyist I was at the time.”
This reversal took him into the world of advertising, where, he claimed, he made and lost several fortunes. His work again caused him problems during the military dictatorship at the end of the 1970s, when the authorities accused him of sending a subliminal message to a banned leftwing group in a TV commercial he had produced. The authorities closed his bank accounts and arrested him for “economic subversion”. Thrown into jail, he could not pay his debts, and so eventually was tried for fraud.
Which led him to become a writer! And a brilliant one at that.
His pronouncements on literature were always trenchant: “To write seems to me easier than trying to avoid the feeling of meaninglessness that not writing brings”; or “Literature doesn’t tell stories, but ways to tell stories”.
I can’t figure out why Malvinas Requiem isn’t listed on the Serpent’s Tail site . . . I think it’s still in print (came out like two years ago, so one would hope), and it’s definitely worth checking out.
In selling literature in translation, there’s always a joke/fear that readers won’t pick up a book by an author whose name they can’t pronounce. Or if they do, that they’ll struggle dealing with names and places that are unfamiliar, with too many consonants, that are obviously foreign.
Rodolfo Fogwill’s Malvinas Requiem has a similar, yet different problem—my guess is that most U.S. readers have no idea what “Malvinas” might signify, and although “Falkland Islands” might help clarify, the Falkland War is not something frequently studied in our not-very-top-notch public school system.
Which is a shame, since Fogwill’s book is quite remarkable, deserving of the Catch-22 comparison in the jacket copy, and a very interesting, literary “war book” that is both localized and universal in its themes.
Just to refresh everyone’s memory, the Falklands War was fought in 1982 between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the disputed Falkland (or Malvinas) Islands. Argentina invaded in March, lost the war in June. About 250 Brits died in the war, and about 650 Argentines. What’s also worth noting—at least in regards to Argentina—is that this war fueled the growing protests against the Argentine military government, leading to its collapse.
Against this backdrop, Fogwill tells the story of the “dillos” (short for armadillo), a group of Argentine deserters who are living inside a cave, trading goods with both the British and Argentine armies, trying to survive the conflict.
Each newcomer was told: the Kings are in charge here, they’re the ones who started everything. The Sergeant started it all. The Sergeant had got together the Turk, Quique and Viterbo, when they began to dig the trenches. He had lined them up in front of him, grabbed them by the lapels, gave them a shaking, and asked:
‘Are you arseholes or what?’
‘No! You lot aren’t arseholes, you lot are the smart ones. Are you smart?’ he’d screeched.
‘Yessir. Yes, Sergeant,’ the three replied.
‘Well then,’ the Sergeant said to them. ‘Here’s what you do. Go further up,’ he pointed at the mountain, ‘and dig there.’
He explained that the trenches were useless. Headquarters had designed them, drawn them on a map. He said that when it rained those trenches would flood, and that everyone would either drown or freeze like idiots, and that the smart ones should go and start digging in the mountainside, without a word to anyone.
The dillos, firmly established in their Warren, with a pack of smokes a day for everyone, and plenty of food (from giving away strategic info to the Brits), joke, talk politics, and create a livable community. But the war is always raging on in the background, and Fogwill has a tremendous ability for switching from more light, casual writing to something more jarring and violent. The use of the second-person in this passage works particularly well to disrupt the reader’s sense of comfort.
On the islands the sheep run and jump about more than the dogs do. They leap over a wire fence as if it were nothing to them: just raise their forelegs and jump. Now the human observes the sheep from a way off and thinks: ‘What a fucking stupid animal: the best it can manage is to run off!’ He carries on observing her for a while, having nothing better to do, while waiting for real night to close in, so he can return to the Warren. All of a sudden there’s a flash of light: boom! Beneath the sheep’s hooves lay a mine and when she trod on it, there was a blinding flash of fire as through the sun had suddenly risen. You could see the whole sheep suspended in mid-air. She pulls in her legs, turns her head, and looks backwards, twisting her head as if she had the neck of a giraffe. She’s flying through the air, and it’s only then that the human, at the very same instant, hears the sound of a mine exploding, blown apart by the sheep.
And expanding from an individual act of random destruction is the group chaos:
When the other sheep—if there are any—hear this, and see what happened to their mate, they stampede in the opposite direction. Instead of remaining quietly on their own, they herd together, before all rushing off as one. That’s the big mistake, because as soon as the next flash of light occurs—meaning another landmine has gone off—another sheep flies into the air like a toy animal then disintegrates, and the ten or twelve other stupid sheep around her also jump and, too far from the explosion to be blown apart, still drop down dead with their muzzles flat on the ground, after struggling in vain to get up again.
In many ways, this is a nasty, disturbing book. The reader’s comfort is constantly provoked, building up to a rather horrifying conclusion. This is much more than a war novel though, and the construction of the novel is quite interesting. As the reader finds out towards the end, the author of the book is writing it based on tapes of conversations with the dillos. Which leads to an interesting artistic question—this novel first came out 1983 and was written right after the war, when there wasn’t a lot of widespread information about what had actually happened on the islands, yet according to others, Fogwill’s descriptions are remarkably accurate, and insightful, which is one of the reasons this book is credited with helping fan the anti-military fires in Argentina.
And today, twenty-five years later, the book is definitely still work reading. The translation is fantastic—Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson always do a wonderful job—and the book is interesting on so many levels, even if you have no idea where the Falkland Islands are located.
I first heard about Fogwill from Javier Molea at McNally Robinson, who insisted that I read him. (I think the phrase Javier kept repeating was “mind-blowing.”) It was a great coincidence to find that Serpent’s Tail had just published Malvinas Requiem (Los Pichiciegos), and an even greater coincidence to find out that the fantastic Michael Gaeb is Fogwill’s agent . . .
Anyway, E.J. referenced this earlier, but I’m planning on reviewing this remarkable book later this week. What really struck me about the Guardian article though was it’s cultural specificity re: the Falklands conflict. It’s a truism to state that jacket copy is written with a specific audience in mind, but it’s really interesting to compare the Serpent’s Tail copy to that of the agent. . . .
First, Serpent’s Tail:
June 1982, The Falklands/Malvinas.
Twenty-four young Argentine soldiers who have deserted the army spend the last weeks of the conflict hiding out in a cave. Inside their refuge they listen to the radio, stockpile supplies and exchange stories; outside, under cover of night, they trade with the Argentine Quartermaster and with the British. Looking out over the bleak landscape, after weeks of grey skies and horizontal snow, one of them remarks that ‘you’d have to be English to want this’.
Catch-22 meets Dispatches in the Falkland Islands—Malvinas Requiem is a shocking, subtle and superbly written commentary on the utter futility of war. Darkly comic and deeply affecting, the book contributed to the defeat of the military junta in Argentina and, 25 years after its first publication, still continues to make waves.
And Michael Gaeb’s description:
Los Pichiciegos is an astonishing tale derived from the Falklands/Malvinas conflict in 1982. The Pichis are a group of Argentine deserters, who have established a subterranean settlement. They are maroons who trade with both sides (British and Argentinean) as they seek the kerosene, sugar, cigarettes, and so on that they need to survive. In this work Fogwill shows the dissolution of virtues in a world where only survival counts and the loss of national identity in the face of war. He intentionally didn’t write a story of heroes or a reflection on war or pacifism but an unsympathetic depiction of the harsh conditions of survival. In the tradition of Bioy Casares’ novel La invención de Morel, Fogwill creates a narrative universe between reality and fantasy.
Here in America, the Falklands War doesn’t hold the same fascination as it obviously does in Great Britain, but it’s interesting to me how much more Falklands specific the first description sounds in comparison to the second. To me, Michael’s copy plays up the literary side of things (and the sort of absurdity) rather than emphasizing the specificity of the book.
(As a big Bioy Casares fan—which all Lost addicts should be—it’s that reference that caught my eye.)
It’s not as if these descriptions are incongruent or anything, it’s just curious to me from a marketing perspective to see these cultural differences play themselves out.
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