Tag Archives: María Rosa Lojo

On the definition, worth, and “public purposes” of the arts and humanities

Roberto M. Ortiz

I have been reading, on and off for most of the summer, a book that I bought used in Buenos Aires when I was down that way in 2005: Ortiz: Reportaje a la Argentina Opulenta [Reporting on Opulent Argentina], by Félix Luna. I picked it up now, in my lingering post-Inaugural funk, in search of some insight—some mirrored reflection, perhaps, from WWII-era Argentina’s oligarchic society and presidential politics—into our parallel, if by no means identical, predicament in the latter years of this 21st century’s second decade.

Who knew that, at the book’s most climactic and poignant moment, I would happen upon an answer to conservative columnist George Will’s recent complaint in the National Review (in the context of the current president’s intention of fulfilling the long-nurtured dream of certain Republicans of eliminating all funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities) about the stubborn undefinability and dubious practicality of those suspect domains?

This from Ted Genoway’s “Mixed Media” report in the September/October issue of Mother Jones: “‘We subsidize soybean production,’ [Will] wrote, ‘but at least we can say what soybeans are. Are NEA enthusiasts serene about government stipulating, as it must, art’s public purposes that justify public funding?’” In a passage that might shed some light on the psychology behind Wills’s complaint, Genoway also cites novelist Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s statement about the president’s motives: “‘The NEA and NEH are in Trump’s sights because they promote the expression of the messy, complex American spirit,’ she wrote for Quartz. ‘Art is not tractable, containable, or even easily defined. That makes it the very opposite of what autocrats want: propaganda.’”

Félix Luna

Be that as it may, last night, as I finished reading the suspect pages in Félix Luna’s artful and innovative 1978 history of the brief, tragic presidency of Roberto M. Ortiz, I knew that I had the material for today’s essay.

A little background before I cut to the nitty-gritty:

I knew nothing of Ortiz when I stumbled on the brittle paperback. I had forgotten the little that I had read about him, decades ago, in Robert Crassweller’s Perón and the Enigmas of Argentina (1987), which consisted of little more than the fact that his strong-arm predecessor, Agustín P. Justo, who had assured Ortiz’s victory in the ridiculously fraudulent 1937 elections, “was doubtless surprised when Ortiz emerged as a throwback to Roque Sáenz Peña [famous for his electoral reforms of 1912] and established his administration squarely on the base of honest elections. But fate took a hand, and not for the better. Ortiz had advanced diabetes when he came to office and soon became almost blind. By 1940 he had to step aside while the vice-president took over in all but name.”

The mostly loose pages of my brittle copy of Ortiz, in any case, after having suffered the tender abuse of my scribbled marginalia and a spilled glass of water, have lost their spine and are held together by a rubber band. What drew me to the book was the author’s name. Félix Luna (1925-2009), a journalist, historian, and poet, was known to me as lyricist to a song that was the original inspiration for my novella, A Bride Called Freedom, and which I knew from the great folk singer Mercedes Sosa’s rendition of it.

Mercedes Sosa with composer, Ariel Ramírez, at the piano, and lyricist, Félix Luna, at work on their album Mujeres Argentinas [Argentine Women]. Among its songs was “Dorotea, la cautiva” [Dorotea, the Captive], which inspired the novella A Bride Called Freedom.

Luna also wrote the very useful A Short History of the Argentinians, which I purchased in its English translation during that same trip twelve years ago, and in whose pages I had also read (and then forgot) that particular man, Ortiz, who did not immediately stand out among the parade of more broadly known and less ephemeral characters.

Another point of reference is to María Rosa Lojo’s novel Las libres del Sur [Free Women of the South], with its allusion to the name of its subject, Victoria Ocampo’s famed literary magazine Sur [South], which, aside from the Ocampo sisters, Victoria and Silvina, and essayist and fiction writer María Rosa Oliver, boasted such male luminaries as the Argentine stylist, Jorge Luis Borges; the Spaniards, José Ortega y Gasset and Federico García Lorca; and, among many others, the North American Waldo Frank, author of the Ortiz book’s suspect passage with its prescient answer to George Will’s question about the definition and worth of the arts and humanities.

Of equal pertinence, if less directly, is Lojo’s latest novel, Todos éramos hijos [in my yet-unpublished translation: All of Us Were Children], which focuses on Argentina of the early-to-mid 70’s, in another parallel historical moment before, during, and immediately after Juan Perón’s brief return, after nearly two decades in exile, to the nation’s presidency.

In all three of these parallel universes—Argentina, on the verge of Perón’s first decade in power; and again, three decades later, on the verge of the generals’ infamous and brutal dictatorship, with its tens of thousands of murdered and “disappeared” citizens; and our own America of the Obama-Trump era—lies the specter of a rising authoritarianism that either is itself or closely resembles fascism. If any proofs of that association remain necessary, after the recent spectacle of enraged white-supremacist nationalism in Charlottesville, I recall the witness (reported by some media sources during the run-up to the 2016 election) of one or two Holocaust survivors, elderly women who said that the present mood in the United States was eerily reminiscent of Germany’s in the 1930’s. I would think that, if anyone knew, it would be they who had been present.

Spanish original of Luna’s Short History of the Argentinians

But, back to Luna’s Ortiz. Its subject, if I may elaborate a bit on the above-cited sentences from Crassweller’s book, was the son of Spanish immigrants, born in Buenos Aires, who, with a combination of political acumen and a reputation for knowledgeable, intelligent accomplishment and what we would call bipartisanship, became the compromise candidate for the winning coalition of conservative and associated parties in the 1937 election. His presidential inauguration in February 1938 came at a time—after the 1930 coup that had ended a decades-long period of constitutional governance and orderly elections—of blatant electoral fraud and political violence. The outgoing strong-arm president, who by law could serve more than one term, but not consecutively, fully expected that Ortiz would carry on with the old program and turn the reins over to him again in six years.

But Ortiz, hardly a fiery revolutionary but a convinced and genuine small-d democrat, located on a scale somewhere around Aristotle’s “golden mean,” instead began a determined campaign of electoral reform and accountability that quickly won him a strong popular support and love that would in little time, after his inevitable downfall, be transferred to the only-superficially democratic Perón (or “democratic” by a more authoritarian definition) and his charismatic wife, Evita. Aside from that, given the remarkable political skills that made him so resilient to all the dirty tricks his opposition threw at him, for a brief moment he seemed almost invincible.

By the climactic moment in this virtually Shakespearean tragedy—all that remains, after last night’s reading, is Ortiz’s resignation and immediate death and Luna’s closing synthesis of elements and conclusions—Ortiz is functionally blind and hoping for a surgical fix that might restore enough vision so that he could return to office. Meanwhile, in a pattern eerily similar to our current president’s feverish dismantling of Barack Obama’s nominally progressive legacy, the vice-president whom political expediency had forced on Ortiz has been busy dismantling all of his strategic victories. While in his personal life, aside from the political and medical travails that dogged him, and the dark, menacing backdrop of the European war that conspired against the whole democratic program, Ortiz was overwhelmed with grief over the unexpected death of his beloved wife, constant companion and confidante.

It was as if the painstakingly constructed walls of his public and private existence were falling in around him. Only an unwavering faith in that grand civic project and an indomitable commitment to carrying out, to the best of his ability, the people’s business, could have sustained him through the sinsabores, as he reportedly confided to a friend after abandoning the presidential abode for good: “Ay, Miguel! The presidency has given me many satisfactions, to be sure, but … so many tribulations!”

Finally, at the climactic moment of this tale of a virtuous power exercised and brought to ruin, after the tardy revelation by a visiting surgeon of the irremediable severity of his condition, feeling betrayed, then, by the local doctors to whom he had entrusted the honest accounting that, for whatever reasons, they withheld from him, Ortiz immediately steps down on the basis of this new clarity. He turns the reins over to his political successor with a quiet dignity and without drama. He takes his farewell from an adoring public with frankness and sorrow, but without a hint of self-pity or incrimination. So that for him, as Luna writes, “the episode is finished. More than finished. Because now, indeed, everything had collapsed around him.”

So it is here that I must pause on a note about the poet-historian’s narrative style. This has to do with the “disconnected, even absurd” fragments—actual texts from the national media of the day: newspapers and magazines, radio broadcasts, and so forth; the crass ingenuousness of its advertisements, the pretentiousness of its society pages, the celebrity gossip and reviews of theater and cinema, the spectacles of sports, crime, politics, science—that he inserted at the end of each chapter.

“The explanation,” Luna writes, “is that I have not found another artifice more capable of carrying the reader, intuitively, with the magical contact of flower against skin, to the surface of Ortiz’s country, of that Argentina still innocent, sentimental, and credulous, attached to conventionalities, words, and rites” from a traditional, local society on the verge of international significance and transformation. It is a literary device designed to give a more complete picture, than the personal and political drama itself can deliver, of this newly prosperous Argentina in transition, this nation with its increasingly confident working class and a critically dysfunctional political class (with its “miopic, egotistical leaders” who, out of pride and the love of power, would not make a single concession to the people’s apparent will and Ortiz’s visionary reform) and the oligarchy it represents.

Waldo Frank, mentioned above as a contributor to the literary journal Sur, is an important figure in this “novel about Victoria Ocampo.”

Each selection—and, together they serve as a sort of mirror held up to a whole society—is neatly designed to complement the political story that has been unwinding in the preceding pages. And it is thus that we come to the following “suspect” passage, the literary portrait that perfectly accentuates the pathos and the tragedy of this singular politician in his moment of overwhelming defeat (and which must be understood, in this context, along with the more brief transcriptions from the Spanish above, as merely the rough draft of a potential translation):

“SUR turns ten years old. The new barbarians, provisioned with technologies that they have inherited from European culture, are destroying Europe’s freedom and, as these lines are being written, hurling tons of explosives on the English populace, while all the world’s material resources and many of its intellectual resources are being employed on the perfecting of the means of destruction.

“I just wrote two sentences: one brief and the other long,” the essayist continues….

I wish to demonstrate that they are related. SUR represents a creative effort of the human spirit: it is a cultural organ in which all Americans should take legitimate pride, since it directs and projects the traditions of literature and art toward the needs and experiences of the present. Its origin is the great tradition of the Western world that began in the Mediterranean, and its life bears our dreams and our plans, our love, toward the future. The disastrous fact that I have consigned to my second sentence—the new barbarians’ war against the human spirit—also has an origin in the Western world’s past. It is not a coincidental horror. It is an inevitable fruit of the errors and immaturity of that world, in the same way that SUR is a consequence of the more-or-less fulfilled aspirations and endeavors of that world.

The springs, today, are more tense than ever. Paris, beneath Hitler’s obscene boot; London, a solitary battle field; Madrid, prisoner of the betrayers of Spain and of Jesus. It is difficult to continue thinking that we face a crisis of truth [or: true crisis?] and not a result of what has for ages been the world’s typical condition. But that knowledge is essential if we are to transcend said typical condition. And there lies SUR’s function. An entity like SUR never openly governs: it does its work secretively and obliquely in the hearts of men. But its work is the Word of human freedom and dignity.

There is no other literary organ in the Americas today whose devotion to these values is more intelligent than that of SUR. And Europe’s twilight confers on SUR a worldwide preeminence. Therefore, SUR is not a simple local celebration; it has worldwide importance in the vast American world to which history provides, in this moment, a decisive hour.

Waldo Frank, in Sur, Year X, December 1940.

Picasso’s Guernica was inspired by the bombing by General Franco’s forces, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), of the town by that name in Spain’s northern Basque region.

Leaving aside any modernist or romantic excess of the impassioned chronicler—we may, after all, learn as much or more about humane and democratic living from the Indigenous peoples of the earth, whom we have tended to rather thoughtlessly dismiss as barbarians or savages—the statement is good in its articulation of a practical and moral justification of the literary and other arts as they exist alongside governance and commerce.

What good are the arts and humanities, our civilization’s resurgent barbarians want to know? Oh, nothing much: it is just, given their origins within the spiritual aspirations and nascent religions, philosophies, and sciences of our species, that they are the basis of our humanity, the formation and nourishment of our conscience; in the eloquently utilitarian words of 20th-century rhetorician Kenneth Burke, “equipment for living”; they do not dictate, they do not propagandize (except, as Burke has also pointed out, in the pure sense of reasoned and impassioned persuasion), but reveal in all their nuance the complex and ambiguous realities that face us, from a virtually limitless variety of perspectives, in our own voices and in the voices of others, through our own eyes and through the eyes of others; so that, standing against the peddlers of division and fear, of hatred and endless warfare, we may learn the arts of tolerance and a common citizenship, even a universal citizenship (citizens of the world, as Borges would say)—maybe even in time to save ourselves and a livable habitat from the false determinism of a nature exclusively red in tooth and claw.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, windmillBut there I go again, tilting at windmills like Luna’s poor, noble, pathetic Roberto Ortiz, like Cervantes’s idealistic and lucid lunatic, Don Quixote, dreaming “impossible dreams” that might or might never be realized.

And yet, don’t those humane visions nourish our spirits much more than the deadly, broken logic of warmongers and the punitive masters of fear and austerity? Doesn’t noble Don Quixote—sprung from Cervantes’s imagination like Athena from Zeus’s head—still live in the human heart with the clarity of humankind’s most obstinate, enduring hopes? Doesn’t Ortiz’s failed but virtuous quest inspire beyond the apparent futility of death—and bear fruit in the labor of later generations?

Other dawns have followed other dusks, in Argentine as well as American history. Surely it is never too late to appeal to the better angels of our human nature. And even though we fail, who knows what bedraggled, wised-up phoenix might still be born from the ashes of our faith, our folly, and our love in action? For perhaps the coming apocalypse, if not wholly averted, might preserve a remnant capable of imagining a better civilization than this primitive one we left in tatters.

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Reconciling Contraries

Revista Letra Urbana #33

Mural art: cover of Revista Letra Urbana, #33

With some excitement I announce the appearance, in Revista Letra Urbana, an online Spanish-language journal based in Miami (“a digital magazine of culture, science, and thought”), my first essay written for publication in Spanish. Undoubtedly the kind editors helped me to knock off a few rough edges, but on the whole it was a stimulating and enjoyable process and flowed rather more smoothly than I had anticipated. The essay, “Sobre la reconciliación de contrarios,” pays homage to the lives of three great literary artists on this 400th (or 30th) anniversary of their deaths: Cervantes and Shakespeare (d. 1616) and Borges (d. 1986) while addressing, through their literary work, what I believe to be a single literary/rhetorical project that they all shared in common: the reconciling of contraries.

Another invited essay, forthcoming in Hourglass Literary Magazine (which will appear in my original English and translated into the common language of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro), speaks to the same concern in a different and more personal way. Also, recently published in the local Perry County News, is a more strictly political attempt to counter Candidate Trump’s divisive rhetoric and to rehabilitate Hillary Clinton as not quite the rabid, corrupt liar as her enemies—and her own foibles—have made her, in the perception of so many voters.

Early responses, from the usual local suspects, have been predictably hostile, but one must accept that some opinions have already been etched in stone and will not be moved. I was directing myself to those whose views still might. The entire comment, in any case, published under the heading “Presidential Politics and Donald Trump,” can be read here:

http://www.perrycountynews.com/content/presidential-politics-and-donald-trump.

The core of my argument, as expressed in the second-to-last paragraph of the newspaper column, goes as follows:

What this country needs is not to move toward an empty, depraved rhetoric of raw force and bluster. It is to move, instead, even if we never fully attain it, toward what one practical philosopher has called a “rhetoric of assent”; by which he means, not the empty eloquence of deceivers, but a kind of humane politics by which people of competing ideas and beliefs—deliberately and in cooperation with each other—seek a more complete understanding of the issues that face us; and labor, then, toward reasonable (if imperfect) solutions that move us as far as immediately possible in that direction.

From the Hourglass essay, “Small Graces,” I draw this brief provocation to thought:

 What might happen, if in our civic conversation, we were actually to explore the unspoken nuance that hangs between our competing arguments? Might extended dialogue of this sort actually bring people of good will on either side of an argument to a new consciousness of what we do or might come to agree on?

Cervantes

Cervantes

And from Letra Urbana—hastily translated, excerpted, and recombined from the Spanish—the following, in the context of a proposed rhetoric of the subjunctive mood (what otherwise might be called “the Quixotic principle”):

 

an attitude and a rhetoric that considers, with a certain humility, the possibility of multiple realities or perspectives. It is to be hoped that this concept, this attitude of the subjunctive, might come to be a new rhetoric for all people, whose world is at risk of disintegrating by means of the collision of absolutes charged with so much violence: destructive illusions on the planes of politics, religion, and everything else. The antidote that I propose to those apocalyptic ideologies is the perspectivism, the subtle and majestic Quixotism, of Cervantes.

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My recent reading has included two books that, along with my recently completed translation of María Rosa Lojo’s novel Todos éramos hijos (All of Us Were Children), could contribute a great deal to the discussion of what the United States under an authoritarian leader like Donald Trump might look like. Certainly it would have a different face and a divergent reality from those of Argentina’s “dirty war” and Franco’s post-Civil War Spain. Yet, as the Bible tells us, in a sense there is nothing new under the sun; so any valid comparison could be, for any of us, words to the wise.

In my search for an English-language publisher for María Rosa’s novel—about Argentina in the first half of the 1970s, through the eyes of a group of young adults on the brink of an uncertain future—I have come on these two recent translations from the Canadian press Biblioasis: The End of the Story, by Liliana Heker, translated by Andrea G. Labinger; and Black Bread, by Emili Teixidor, translated from the Catalán by Peter Bush.

Liliana Heker

Liliana Heker

The End of the Story is a complex and disorienting book, as must have been the experience of being alive in Buenos Aires at the time, while some beloved other or others have been “disappeared” without a trace; but, bit by bit, the pieces of the life of the young revolutionary woman whose life the narrator is struggling to evoke are revealed more clearly. Though to say that, in the end, the novel achieves a perfect clarity would be to ignore the unknowable, the unanswerable, within the narrative itself and in the existential questions that are left provocatively hanging.

But if what we seek is the illusion of unambiguous, absolute certitude within a world of competing absolutes, we can only end up with something resembling (or approaching) the torturer’s logic in Heker’s novel, here compressed from a longer tirade (warning: this passage does include a lightning bolt of upsetting images, though with no gruesome elaboration of them):

 “There’s only one truth. What happens is that some people don’t even realize that they’re wrong. We have to wipe them out anyway; we have to wipe out all the garbage that piled up in Argentina as soon as possible, so it’ll go back to what it was. It’s like a serious illness: you have to operate, with or without anesthesia, in order to save the organism. I’m not about to put up with disrespect from some Commie traitor to the Fatherland. But I don’t do it for pleasure; I do it out of duty. I tell myself, this is a mission you have to fulfill, Sharkey, this vagina, these nipples, are your target; you have to rip these nails off because if you don’t, the Fatherland will fall into foreign hands. Those are the real enemies, because those people think they own the truth. You’ve got to eliminate them without being disgusted. And without hatred. This isn’t pleasant work. Necessary, yes, but not pleasant” (pp. 122-123).

The End of the Story, Biblioasis edition

El fin de la historia, Biblioasis International Translation Series edition

I will leave the reader to contemplate the speaker’s unintended ironies and faulty reasoning. True logic, in any case, as Heker writes, is not “applicable in times of official lunacy” (p. 70); in this official absence of reason we come up with formulations like this: “[The poem] talks about torture. Spells it right out: t-o-r-t-u-r-e. It’s forbidden to write about, understand. It’s immoral. It’s subversive” (p. 103)—but of course, by inference, it is neither immoral nor subversive to inflict it on our perceived enemy; let’s not get carried away with ourselves, fellow bleeding-hearts!

But perhaps most chilling, if we cannot conceive of this happening to ourselves, good and law-abiding citizens such as we are, is what happens to the ordinary man or woman who, looking out of a café window (for instance) and then rushing out to greet someone in the street—without paying, though with notebook and purse still on the table—might lead so perilously close to the torture chamber (as a random traffic stop, to a law-abiding and courteous black man in the U.S., is many times more likely to end in death than for a white man in a comparable position):

“This is what’s changed, she thinks as she leaves: death lying in wait, floating over the minutiae of daily life. To unravel the meaning of these trivial, apparently unhistorical, actions, which nonetheless intercept History, diverting its course in unforeseeable ways” (p. 57); and, reflecting further on the same instance: “Civilized people. And yet one suspicious move on her part would be enough to make the man point her out with his finger” (p. 65).

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Emili Teixidor

Emili Teixidor

Black Bread, which has been made into an Oscar-nominated film from Spain, reminded me of another film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which I have particularly loved. The common bond is the emotionally sustaining bread of imagination and of lush fantasy—in the former, the source is the grandmother’s store of fancy and lore, which must be suppressed if our boy protagonist is to make it in the cruel adult world he is to be educated for; and likewise, in the latter, the fairy tales that the mother (widow of one of the Civil War’s losers; now consigned to a loveless marriage with a cruel, misogynistic military victor) no longer wants the girl protagonist to read or to believe in, if she too is going to survive the new enforced reality.

In Teixidor’s novel, his more traditional narrative with its peaceful pastoral setting—not exempt, nonetheless, from the violent inroads made by the victors in their campaign to purify the land of any trace of liberal ideas—is an easier read than Heker’s; which is not to say that its secrets are any more easily obtained.

It is narrated, presumably, by an adult Andreu looking back on the effective end of that childhood, though entirely through the more ingenuous eyes of that younger Andreu’s at the time. This is a perceptive boy in his evolving notions of the adult world he cannot avoid entering, though continually perplexed by its secrets that he and his younger cousin, Núria (or Cry-Baby) must unlock on their own.

The hardest chapters for me to read, the hardest to emotionally bear up under, involve the boy’s journey with his mother to visit his ailing father in one of Franco’s prisons—a hellhole if ever there was one; and a testament to human cruelty and indifference to the sufferings of real or perceived enemies and their families—and, then, after the father’s death, the mother’s emotional breakdown and confrontation with the local leaders who could hardly be bothered to let her bury her husband.

Still, I would not give up the experience of having read them; for, of what worth is the literature of suffering that does not, in some degree, break our hearts?

This is not just a sad book, in any case, but a sad book laced with moments of intense joy and grace, of life and of beauty that are no less overwhelming than the horror of human violence and malice. In Andreu’s grandmother’s storytelling, for instance, hid a power “that could transform cruelty into happiness, laughter and hope. Death, into life” (p. 233)—which is undoubtedly true of the folk tales or fairytales recorded by the Brothers Grimm, or the literary folk- (or fairy-) tales of Hans Christian Andersen; and all the more so in their unsanitized originals, from which (perhaps unwisely) we try to shield our children.

As for the vitality of that fantasy world as developed so richly in Black Bread (likewise in Pan’s Labyrinth), it is not nor has it ever been enough for the world’s realists to pronounce that realm superfluous to the merely visible one we inhabit. For we must account for the world of beauty, of mystery, of imagination that sustains us and makes our spirits soar—and is the source of the slow advances and refinements that do take place, from time to time, even in the harsh yet necessary political realm.

Andreu suggests something of this, I think, in the following passage, which proceeds from a critique of the Church—religious leaders in league with the military occupiers—and the absence, within that victorious society that the Church implicitly blessed, of any thread of mercy or forgiveness:

[The adults] all knew mercy and forgiveness didn’t exist in this world and that everything priests said was like Grandmother’s fireside fairytales, pleasant, cheery chatter to pass the time, entertainment for our leisure time, but not totally nonexistent.

In fact, that was the source of the intangible beauty and virtue of Grandmother’s imaginary characters that were as evanescent as a dream (p. 227).

Pa Negre, Biblioasis International Translation Series edition

Pa Negre, Biblioasis International Translation Series edition

The personal and collective tragedy, within the thematic structure of Teixidor’s novel, is in the child’s anguished understanding that, in order to survive in the world of these conquerors, he will have to become a little more like them and live strictly in that real world, a world destructive of any true spiritual dimension that might come to us through worlds of imagination and tolerance; or, by a logical extension, through the risk involved in loving and confiding in any one person or relationship. Because, as Grandma Mercè puts it in one of her darker moments:

“War rots everything, that’s what Father Tafalla says, and he’s right. Blasted war spares nothing, saves nobody, simply kills…and…everbody scattered to the four corners…brother and sisters, sons and daughters, grandchildren…flung all over the shop, like thunder, lightning and hail that leaves not one plant standing” (p. 321).

A parallel tragedy, however, in pursuit of those spiritual intangibles that offer us sustenance, is a descent into the false certitudes of absolutist doctrines both political and religious, which are a frightful aspect of the false security of authoritarian regimes like those of the generals in Argentina and Franco’s decades-long Spanish reign.

We must become more comfortable as a people, it seems to me, with the inescapable facts of uncertainty, of difference, of ambiguity, of perpetual change that inevitably exists in any world we might inhabit. For, that golden age we hearken back to while latching onto slogans like “Make America Great Again” was never as golden as nostalgia paints it for us. And certainly not for the invisible sufferings of all those whom the relatively comfortable have almost always failed to take into account.

It is the search for absolute certitude and security, in other words, not the imaginative embrace of mystery and ambiguity or liberality, that leads almost inevitably to the destruction of all we hold dear.

And the politics or religion that cannot allow contraries (people or ideas) to live in harmony and tolerance—whether it be radical Islam or radical Christianity; the most extreme expressions of reactionary American Republicanism or of the radical Liberal or Progressive, or Democrat, or Socialist—is a politics or a religion necessarily at odds with an ever-evolving, flexible Constitution that seeks to reconcile the secular with the religious so that no individual or group be subject to “the tyranny of the majority”—a phrase variously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams; and made popular by Alexis de Toqueville in Democracy in America.

Lord Acton offers this clarifying definition of the term: “The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather, of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds by force or fraud, in carrying elections.”

The problem, then, a thorough discussion of which I must put aside for another occasion, is how to discern among competing claims on the status of most-tyrannized. And that is just one of the prickly subjects of contention that will have to be surmounted, if we are ever to truly be a nation of engaged citizens whose members can take part in civil discourse with each other.

Who can participate, in other words, in an ever-ongoing national reconciliation of contraries.

We Are Humanity (Every Last One of Us!)

Todos-somos-Whitman-350x550[1]Today’s title and theme reflect the English-language titles of my translations of María Rosa Lojo’s most recent novel and of the Arte Público Press’s newly published bilingual edition of Luis Alberto Ambroggio’s poetic response to Walt Whitman. The Whitman book is available here: https://artepublicopress.com/product/todos-somos-whitman-we-are-all-whitman/.

Luis’s book, from the Spanish title Todos somos Whitman, becomes in my version We Are All Whitman; while María Rosa’s, Todos éramos hijos, becomes All of Us Were Children (instead of, as might have been expected, We Were All Children). Why? Because the parallel being sought here is not to Ambroggio’s book but to Arthur Miller’s 1947 play All My Sons, which is a central motif that runs through María Rosa’s novel; which, in its Spanish title (Todos eran mis hijos, or, They Were All / All of Them Were My Sons, more closely parallels her own novel’s.

True, either English version would have included Miller’s word All, but it seemed to me that placing it at the beginning would echo that antecedent more effectively. Such are some of the seemingly trivial concerns that the literary translator faces on a daily basis. The translator of more technical texts—from the legal or medical professions, for instance—might not stop to ponder such fine points. Which is why they tend to work faster than we do.

images0HJCF060Like Whitman, in any case, Ambroggio writes about universal themes such as identity, love, and life; death, nature, and physical pleasure. But he does so from a distinctly Latin American perspective. Which is only logical, considering the degree to which Whitman has long been venerated by the people and poets of our Spanish-speaking neighbors.

Indeed, while Whitman’s subject is the people of this American nation in particular, his is an expansive and inclusive view of humanity. Drawing as he does on the experience and energy of all the people of this immigrant country, he writes of them in all their ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity. The “Myself” of Whitman’s title is really a plurality, then, all the people embraced within the poet’s charismatic verse. It is not the merely egocentric musings of a single man, though he does speak like one of immense self-confidence; nor does it exclude the people of other lands—from which our various selves have originated, and who might also fall under his spell; as we, potentially, under the spell of José Martí or Pablo Neruda.

Ambroggio’s Hispanic or Latin American perspective is of particular value today for the light it sheds on what otherwise has long been our rancorous and often fact-free national “debate” on immigration: as in these United States, now again in Europe as we seek to contain the seemingly unending flow of refugees from a Middle Eastern inferno that our nations are at least in part responsible for creating.

Ambroggio illuminates the subject by attaching a more humane and human face to the voice of the immigrant Other, who contributes to our nations’ health in ways all too easy to ignore. He addresses this issue directly, in a passage that opens with one of Whitman’s most famous lines:

I am large, I contain multitudes.

They will not manage to deny me or ignore me or declare me undocumented:

I am written in you, in all,

as all are in me,

in clay and in the breeze’s gentle sky,

in the delightful meaning of your body.

images2T8B1O1VMy personal epiphany on this subject came when I was about twelve years old and my Vacation Bible School leaders took us to visit a migrant labor camp somewhere in south-central Indiana. The insight may not have approached the sophistication of my present understanding, but it was real and powerful and has been with me for all these forty-some years.

It was my impression, as I looked around at the poverty the migrant families lived in, and as I ran with the children to play by a nearby creek, that they were people just like me; so, why did they have so little and I so much? And I understood immediately that it was not because I, or my parents, or anyone else, was in any moral sense better than they. That something, which has haunted me forever after, was wrong in the world.

Those people who are so eager to run them off or keep them out should try to imagine how we would feel if we were in their situation and they, ours. But it is a difficult concept to get a hold on, I gather, and the best those of us who get it can do is probably to just keep keepin’ on in the struggle for basic rights for all human creatures; knowing that, if we can’t ever reach that utopian place of universally shared bliss, at least we can create—and fight to maintain—a little more of it for our fellow beings.

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imagesFUTEWQ01In All of Us Were Children, María Rosa writes of what were troubled times in Argentina: from 1971, as political and social chaos reigned and Juan Perón was maneuvering his way back from exile to the presidency, to 1975 or ’76 as the generals’ dictatorship began to rain an unprecedented level of violence (a “dirty war”) on its populace. Unlike other treatments of the subject, we are allowed to see all of this from the perspective of an idealistic group of young students in their transition from their final year at a rigorous Catholic high school into university studies and other activities.

Arthur Miller comes into the picture because of this group’s performance, at the end of that academic year, of All My Sons. The priest and the young woman who chose that play, both of them teachers, did so because it spoke to their own national situation from the safe distance of space and time. It was an opportunity to address important issues like integrity and responsibility, as well as the far-reaching and unanticipated consequences of war and of the race to get to and keep one’s place at the top in a capitalistic society.

At center of the tale Miller weaves is Joe Keller, a successful businessman and provider, with one son at home and the older one, before his plane had vanished, flying missions over Hitler’s Europe. The crisis comes because of a faulty batch of airplane parts that he allows to be superficially fixed and shipped off to the European campaign. Everything comes to a head when we learn that his son—whose body was never found and, so, the mother continues to await him—deliberately crashed his plane, committing suicide; at shame over what his father had done and which had caused the deaths of other young men, and for which Joe Keller had sent his partner in business away to prison, for his own unacknowledged betrayal of all those sons.

And what is “so terrible” about Joe Keller’s personal tragedy, the one teacher comments to her female students at the end of a day’s discussion, is that he “is not a conspirator, a spy, or even a monster. Aside from that, until then he has been an admired citizen. Someone who has made himself with hard work, audacity, and a bit of luck. A model that everyone wanted to imitate. The conclusion, then, is that any other man like him could act that way under similar circumstances, perhaps because the evil is not just within himself, but in the society he lives in. A society whose greatest values are success, power, money, and which for that reason generates people who fail. Like the defective parts.”

We have all heard that banal truism that says capitalism is the worst of economic systems, except for all the other ones. But that is at best a diversion, one that lulls the most comfortably situated of us into complacency and discourages the rest of us from embracing the truly radical change—whether we come to it in four to eight years or over decades—that might actually make radical progress at lifting all boats. And at ceasing to discard people like defective parts, then blaming and shaming them for their misfortune.

It seems clear to me, in any case, that if we do not begin to shake the old ideological myth that exalts selfish and homogenous individualism over the common effort of an engaged and diverse citizenry—a citizenry at once tolerant of religious and cultural difference, but also fiercely determined to engage each other in informed inquiry rather than the ideological free-for-all that we have come to call political debate—until then, if I may wax colloquial, we scarcely have a snowball’s chance in hell of resolving the array of urgent problems that confront us.

Don Quixote conjuring his beautiful Dulcinea

Don Quixote conjuring his beautiful Dulcinea

There does, indeed, need to be something on the order of a revolution in all of our public discourse. If the present political season has not already been enough to convince us of this, I despair of knowing what will. Being an essentially Quixotic spirit, though, despite the melancholic streak that almost continually wrestles me toward darkest despair, I will continue as best I can to cultivate hope.

And if, as that good knight says, we are children of the things (good or ill) that we do, then why shouldn’t our extravagant and impossible dreaming bear some good fruit? We needn’t create Utopia in order to create a significantly better and more humane society. That the United States is not Denmark does not mean that we cannot (like Denmark) find a way to feed and house all our people, make their children’s education free or radically more affordable, and provide for their medical needs.

And just maybe, as long as we’re dreaming big, become a superpower in the arts of diplomacy instead of destruction, peacemaking instead of perpetual war, and environmental sanity instead of apocalyptic madness.

If we cannot produce any substantive progress in these vitally existential areas, then what good is our much-touted American exceptionaism and ingenuity?

It is, as the Seventies’ rock group used to sing, “dust in the wind.”

María Rosa knew from a young age that she was a writer: the Magi also knew and brought her this first writing desk.

María Rosa knew from a young age that she was a writer: the Magi also knew and brought her this first writing desk.

Attractions of Barbarity: New/Forthcoming Publications and an Award

Old Palermo, Buenos Aires, 2015

Old Palermo, Buenos Aires, 2005

Update: the new issue of JewishFiction.net is up! (9/2/15, 3:00 Central)

When Roderick Clark phoned me up this afternoon, he told me that he had some good news and some bad news. Rod is the editor of Rosebud (“The Biggest Little Magazine in the World”), and while we have developed a warm professional relationship over the years, we had previously only spoken by phone when he wanted to publish one of my translations. So I suspected that the news couldn’t be so bad; and almost certainly had something to do with the essay I had sent in a while back for the X. J. Kennedy Award for Non-Fiction.

And indeed, the bad news was that I didn’t win the top prize, but on the other hand (good news!) it might have been a really close call: it was, if not “the winner,” one of five finalists (out of hundreds of submissions) and as such still worthy of a modest cash award and publication. It will appear, with the other runners-up and winner, in issue #60 which is due out by the end of the year.

Naturally, I felt rather satisfied with that mixed report, which was essentially music to my ears. Sure, to win the top prize and the extra cash would have been fabulous, but what are the odds of that? When I put the essay in the mail I did believe that, at the least, it was not un-deserving of an award, perhaps even the first. But such competitions are inevitably tough, extremely tough, so I can only be immensely pleased with this result. And to think I almost hadn’t entered!

Lucio V. Mansilla as a young man

Lucio V. Mansilla as a young man

“Attractions of Barbarity” is the essay’s title, anyway. It relates the central narrative of my yet unpublished book-length memoir Journeys and Digressions and is based on my 2005 return trip to Argentina. I was invited, specifically, to read from the Spanish-language translation of my historical/literary novella A Bride Called Freedom (2003) at a conference on the historical figures of Eduarda and her brother Lucio Mansilla. Lucio is a character in my novella, and at the time I was also working on the translation of a novel by María Rosa Lojo (Passionate Nomads, 2011) in which – escaped from a questionable Paradise and transported to 1990s-era Buenos Aires – he is the star. Readers of Rosebud may remember Mansilla as “The Gentleman in the Willow” (issue #51), a short excerpt from that novel.

Mansilla’s primary claim to fame is having written a seminal account of his 1870 excursion into the lands of the Ranquel Indians, with the ostensible purpose of achieving a treaty between those Indians and the Argentine government. But the book became much more than a frontier military commander’s report and travelogue. Its lasting value, aside from the writing itself, lies in the remarkably comprehensive and comprehending view he brought us of those people, whom nearly everyone else dismissed as savages. Mansilla, instead, turns the whole concept of civilization and barbarity on its head, revealing to us the humanity of a people who, like our own Indians up here in the North, were being hounded into near extinction.

images[6]The immediate impetus for this long-contemplated essay, the turn of fate that compelled me at last to get to it, was a chance mass mailing from editor Clark reminding contributors and subscribers like me of the contest deadline and encouraging further submissions. What I had to do, then, was extract from the larger memoir the parts that spoke most directly to the particular literary journey at center and re-mold them into a more compressed format. Then trim it down to size; and while doing so preserve the most significant and memorable evidences of the original’s deceptively simple, leisurely, digressive style – which deliberately reflects Mansilla’s own epistolary style.

I owe some thanks to my friends from the Southern Indiana Writers – I am a recent new member of the group – for helpful criticism and suggestions after a read-through of the first draft.

A reminder, too, for those who may be interested: excerpts from both A Bride Called Freedom and Passionate Nomads can be found on this Website under Publishing History.

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In other news, a couple of recent publications and one forthcoming:

1) In the Spring 2015 edition of the Cosumnes River Journal (Vol. 9), a single prose poem/mini-fiction from María Rosa’s Stories from Heaven, as yet unpublished in English translation. This modest but attractive journal from Cosumnes River College (part of the Los Rios Community College District) in Sacramento, California offers a nice range of writing and art from the undergraduate level to professional work by the likes of American Book Award winner Maria Espinosa.

2) A set of poems from that same collection in The Cincinnati Review’s incredible Summer 2015 edition. Thanks to an NEA grant, the editors have been able to concentrate on longer forms of fiction and poetry as well as additional translation. In this case that translates to more than 300 pages of remarkable fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Regular features include a selection of work (in color) by an artist, a short music feature (a previous contributor’s poetry set to music), and book reviews. In an original twist, one book (This Is the Water, by Yannick Murphy) is reviewed, from different angles, by three separate reviewers.

Tenement house, or conventillo, in early 20th century Buenos Aires

Tenement house, or conventillo, in early 20th century Buenos Aires

3) And finally, forthcoming at almost any moment online at JewishFiction.net, a somewhat abbreviated version of my translation of María Gabriela Mizraje’s rich, multi-layered story “Land of Promise.” Set primarily in the years between the two world wars, it is the generally upbeat story of a Turkish-immigrant family in a poor working-class neighborhood of Buenos Aires. In particular it chronicles the relationship between the charming and hardworking patriarch, Narciso, a shoemender by trade and a champion swimmer in the Old World, and his son, Elías, who works in his father’s shop, plays the piano, and loves to swim through the air (as a parachutist) more than water. As abridged, we do have Elías dreaming of flight, while his father introduces him to the river, but we lose the longer stream-of-consciousness account of his actual jump from a plane. The primary story is there, however, and well worth the read. If you are up for a beautifully nuanced tale, as universal as any of our own American immigration stories, I urge you to visit the site. (I’ll plan to add an update when it’s up.)

On Literature, Memory, and Travel

Machu Picchu: Perú

Machu Picchu: Perú

First of all, a shout-out to my young Canadian friend and fellow literary translator Liam Walke (not Liam Walker, the soccer star) of Montreal: I have just read the most recent installment of his travel journal from Perú, and I can’t state enough how much I am enjoying his sensitive and nuanced treatment of place, people, culture. Rather than quote him let me just send you directly to the source: http://westofthespine.wordpress.com/home/; scroll to the bottom of the page for recent postings, and I would recommend reading more than one to get a good sense of what he is doing. The site, which is actually called loves, leaves, lines, is being added to my links.

On second thought, let me give you a small taste (though it may seem such a small thing) of what touched me in this posting: “On Thursday, I went up to Racchi, a small village about thirty minutes outside of Cusco, to help a friend with her environmental education and art project for primary school kids. I’ve met a lot of children, and I can say that it is a different kid who grows up in an adobe house their father built; a different kid who wanders through their yard and down the hot dirt road to school past scavenging pigs and donkeys feeding on the grass above; a different child entirely who understands the cycles of the potato harvest; a different type of child whose first language is not Spanish but Quechua.”

He also has a passage about the political terror of past years, the vile and indiscriminate terrorism of the Maoist “Shining Path” and the perhaps equally vile and indiscriminate reprisals from the military (and then there’s always that chicken and egg question: which came first, the one oppressor or the other?).

Sam Baker

Sam Baker

I am reminded of the musician Sam Baker, whose music I came to know some years ago through my son Jonathan. Baker had the particular misfortune of being on a train to the ancient Inca site of Machu Picchu when a Shining Path bomb exploded, killing many passengers and taking away full use of one hand and a good portion of his hearing. Still he has managed to make some very affecting music, not just out of that experience but also a full American life richly lived and observed – a music at once “beautiful and broken,” as the NPR reviewer of his new CD Say Grace puts it. Click here for a taste of that music:

http://www.npr.org/2013/08/27/216176074/sam-bakers-say-grace-is-at-once-beautiful-and-broken.

As for the Peruvian children Liam speaks of, living in a rural county in southern Indiana I have read numerous compositions by students who might understand the cycles of (if not the potato) the corn crop, and who have written with varying degrees of eloquence about their relationships with horses, dogs, cows, and the experience of growing up on a family farm. Still, there is little comparison between rural southern Indiana and rural Perú. My own experience between 1978 and 1980, in the poorer neighborhoods in both rural and urban Argentina, was quite startling to me in that respect. On my return to the country in June and July of 2005, my contact with its poor children was pretty much limited to subway stations.

None of which is to say that there is not a very real and increasing problem with poverty in the United States, not least of all in my own Perry County. The problem of growing inequality in this land of the free – and the deeper the inequality, the less the real practical freedom that one enjoys – is a source of frequent concern to me.

(I have written, by the way, a literary journal of that last visit to Argentina; bits of it appeared a while back in a pair of no-longer-publishing e-journals, and I still hold out some hope of having the whole thing available to the largest possible reading public sometime before the end of this decade. I gather, unfortunately, that the market for slow-moving, meditative literary journals of the sort are not in high demand in today’s crassly materialistic market. Mine is modeled after the epistolary style of Lucio V. Mansilla, to whom I address the “letters”: about whom see the pair of reviews of Passionate Nomads announced in my January blog. I may share some passages from it in a future posting.)

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images[9]Recently I saw Argentine director Benjamín Ávila’s critically-acclaimed film Infancia clandestina (Clandestine Childhood), which is based on his own coming-of-age experience of early adolescence with an assumed identity and two committed revolutionary parents. It is at once a beautiful and harrowing film. While Ávila’s attitude is unapologetically revolutionary (as is made plain by a dedicatory note that precedes the final credits), it is unsparingly clear as well about the folly of the parents’ expectation that their son’s own revolutionary commitment should be stronger than the yearnings of first love. The scenes between that boy and the precious little girl he falls in love with (and she with him) are among the sweetest that I hope to ever see on small or big screen.

An elderly Argentine gentleman who was watching the film with me became rather agitated afterwards, not without reason given his own experience as the victim of multiple bombings in the period of the pre-military dictatorship. He resented any effort to make the perpetrators of those acts of violence, whose victims ended up being the very public that they rather stupidly thought would thus be inspired to rise up with them and overthrow the regime, should be portrayed with any degree of sympathy. Those “Communists,” he complained, were the reason for whatever excesses the military coup brought with it. And now the whole government is made up of “those people,” those leftists.

The historical reality is surely more complicated than that; correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t quite believe that, by virtue of the present government’s having been of the left all those years ago, it follows that they were all running around setting off bombs in hotels and other public places. Nor do I believe that anywhere near a majority of the “disappeared ones” of the military’s “dirty war” were guilty of the violences perpetrated by the red-eyed parents of our young and future filmmaker.

As I commented very respectfully to the gentleman, after his rant had run its course, while by virtue of experience he certainly has more right to speak of such things than I do, I would direct his attention to the contrary experience and testimony of credible others. Among them my friend María Rosa, two of whose progressive but nonviolent teachers – both of them nuns of the Sacred Heart – were disappeared during that time.

imagesSZY0CK5MAnd also, among others, the remarkable witness of Jacobo Timerman, a Jewish newspaperman whose memoir Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number recounts the torture and lengthy imprisonment he endured for daring to publish inconvenient truths about the abuses of both left and right. And more particularly, as made evident by the line of questioning he endured, for being a Jew and part (of course) of that infamous worldwide conspiracy and all. In the end, he barely escaped the country with his life. (Went on, I believe, to critiquing the misadventures of the Israeli right and left.)

In any case, while Ávila’s filmmaking did allow me to feel some human sympathy for the deluded and idealistic parents, I felt it mostly for the kids; and the film itself has the definite virtue of not white-washing anything: the feeling of human sympathy does not preclude evidence and judgment.

In any case, as always, there would seem to be plenty of guilt to go around. And as far as memory goes, it can be highly colored by our fears and our emotions. Sometimes one is too close to the center of things to see the larger picture.

Essays on Memory and Human Rights in the AmericasThis is pertinent to the subject of Marjorie Agosín’s anthology Inhabiting Memory: Essays on Memory and Human Rights in the Americas, published by Wings Press in San Antonio, Texas in 2011 and containing my translation of María Rosa’s “Minimal Autobiography of an Exiled Daughter.” I blogged about it on November 5, 2011 and in the process quoted from that essay and another by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. This anthology, Agosín writes in her introduction, deals with such questions as “how we can inhabit memories and live within them” (p. xii). More specifically: “The primary purpose of this collection is to express how memory is articulated after the authoritarianism that governed the entire region and to explore the themes of torture, complicity and silence. It also addresses the problematic legacies of learning about memory – how to live with it, how to inhabit it, how to recover one’s identity as a human being.”

Chile and Argentina, with their similar yet divergent histories of dictatorship and democracy, are amply represented in these pages, but other essays range over geographies from Uruguay to Ecuador and Guatemala to the U. S. Mexican border – even, in the context of bearing witness to and remembering the victims of AIDS, a not specifically Latin American setting.

A common thread is the inherent instability of memory, the necessity to look at opposing memories and to examine both oral and written sources, to build or re-build collective memory by the very acts of investigation and witnessing. I will limit myself here to some general observations of Peter Winn’s in his essay “The Past is Present: Memory and History in Post-Pinochet Chile.”

“Human memory,”  he writes, “is both miraculous and mysterious. Why do we remember what we remember and forget what we forget? Why does some passing random encounter stimulate memories that we had not thought of for ages? Moreover, these memory cues vary so much from person to person. For Marcel Proust, it was the smell of the madeleine, a pastry from his childhood, that opened the door to remembrances of things past. For Alejandro, a Chilean-American student of mine, it was the posters on his parents’ walls that ‘reminded’ him of the Chile of the Allende years that he had never known, a Chile they had told him of as a child, a Chile that now only existed in those posters.

“For me,” Winn continues, “it is the Chilean music of that same era – the songs of Victor Jara or the Andean flutes of Inti Illimani – which I experienced as a young man, that is most likely to open the floodgates of memory, taking me back to a time when it did not seem utopian to think that we could change the world. In my memory, I walk again through streets filled with peasants celebrating a land reform that gave them the lands that their forefathers had worked for others, through suburban shantytowns filled with squatters confident that they would build a better future. I hear again the life stories of workers telling me how they were realizing their dreams. I taste again the empanadas (meat pies) that we shared and the rough red wine, and know deep down that I would do it all over again, that it was the time of my life when I felt most fully alive. These memories match that experience; they are vivid and strong, as if it were just yesterday.

Our memories are markers of who we are, where we have come from and what road we have followed to get here. They have a truth value that we take for granted. If we are sure of anything in this world, it is the truth of what we remember. After all they are our memories,” he writes, “something only we can validate, something no one can take away.

“Yet, oral historians and memory scholars have learned that even the seemingly surest individual memory may be unreliable, particularly if it is a memory of trauma” (pp. 52-3).

He goes on to talk about the “power of collective memory to reshape individual memories (pro and con)”: “Individual memories are shaped – and reshaped – by the dominant collective memory, which validates some while denying legitimacy to others …” (p. 53)

I am reminded of an essay I once read about the competing narratives of Jews and Palestinians in the contested Holy Land; the gist of the essayist’s conclusion was that until each side can listen to the other side’s historical narratives – each of which contains its validity – and experience empathy for the suffering of those others, there will not be nor can there be peace in the Middle East. That is a rough paraphrase, and certainly imperfect in its remembering.

imagesXU2Z72DJIn Winn’s opening sentence he refers to “that other traumatic September 11th in 1973” (p. 51) when, with at least the advice and counsel and perhaps military equipment from our own CIA, the duly elected democratic-socialist president Salvador Allende was overthrown by the dictator-to-be Augusto Pinochet. My own “memory” of that event is highly colored by my reading of Allende’s niece Isabel Allende’s La casa de los espíritus (The House of Spirits) which, while being a novel, contains an even-handed treatment of the history of a family divided by conservative and liberal politics and presents what I think is a pretty accurate reflection of what was happening on the ground during the days leading up to and subsequent to that military coup – at least it holds up pretty well, as far as memory allows me to attest, to the historical accounts I have read since then.

I know that the critically-acclaimed Chilean / Mexican writer Roberto Bolaño (born in Chile, but living and writing in and of Mexico) looks down on Isabel Allende as a second-rate literary imitator of the magical-realist school most famously represented by Gabriel García Márquez. Bolaño, though he died young, represents a younger generation writing distinctly not in the magical-realist tradition. I like Bolaño, and I don’t feel qualified to really judge the literary achievement of Isabel Allende, but if he is right and she is merely an imitator, I have to say nonetheless that it is a remarkable and delightfully readable imitation. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys historically-grounded fiction and would like to get a sense of the competing memories of what happened in Chile during the last century. I continue to think of it as a more than reasonable facsimile (correct me if I am wrong) and am a firm believer in the principle that fiction can be infinitely more true than much of what passes as “nonfiction.”

Eva Gillies: An Interpreter at Large

51EitcgLwIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Last time I wrote I told you some about Eva Gillies, whose translation of Lucio V. Mansilla’s Una excursión a los indios ranqueles (A Visit to the Ranquel Indians, University of Nebraska Press, 1997) Lucina Schell recently reviewed in the context of my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s La pasión de los nómades (Passionate Nomads, Aliform Publishing, 2011). I introduced myself to Eva in the year 2000, by snail mail (via her publisher), and we enjoyed a fruitful relationship between then and her death in January 2011. It was she who introduced me to María Rosa, whom she said had a book that she thought she might want me to translate.

So naturally I was excited to sit down with Eva’s posthumously published memoir, An Interpreter at Large (Great Britain: YouCaxton Publications, 2013: http://www.amazon.com/The-Memoirs-Eva-Gillies-Interpreter/dp/1909644137), which I had seen previously in manuscript form. Glancing back just now at that manuscript copy I see that the finished version contains an additional essay (“On Anthropology and Anthropologists”) to complement two others (“On Interpreting, and Interpreters” and “On Language: Pidgins, Creoles, Dialects”) which serve as “Interludes” between sections of the narrative of her life story. An additional Interlude in the published text contains photographs from the family collection, including the charming cover photo of her in native dress in Nigeria where she was doing field work in her second profession as an anthropologist.

Eva lived a fascinating life. She was born in 1930 in Germany to a Jewish-German-Argentine mother and a “gut anti-Nazi” German father who, when he determined that there was no chance of a popular uprising against Hitler, left the country for Argentina where Eva spent her childhood. Part One of her memoir describes that Argentine Childhood, starting with her memory of arriving in Buenos Aires at the end of 1933. Part Two focuses on her undergraduate years at Oxford and Part Three, after the Interlude on Interpreting, on her years on the international interpreting circuit – most notably her work for the Armistice Commission in Hanoi. Then, after the Interlude on Language, Part Four covers her transition from interpreting to anthropology and her first introduction to Africa, and Part Five, after the Interlude on Anthropology, focuses in-depth on her field work in Nigeria. Finally, Part Six deals with, among other things, her time in The Gambia (Africa) with her entomologist husband Mick Gillies, who was working on the problem of mosquitoes and malaria, and on her work from home in Hamsey (East Sussex) on such projects as abridging the seminal anthropological work of one of her Oxford professors and translating Mansilla.

Eva opens the Interlude on Interpreting with a perfect definition and distinction between translating and interpreting: “… while translation deals with written documents, interpreting is purely oral, and tends to happen mainly at conferences…. The two professions do appeal to two very different personalities: a translator” [and this is me, beyond any doubt] “is somebody who has to get things exactly right, sometimes taking a long time to do so. An interpreter has to produce his or her oral version fast; must therefore be rather quick on the uptake, and not too fussy about getting things totally accurate. It also helps to be a bit of a show-off! I am, by temperament, very much an interpreter. I can and do translate when required,” [I, with the greatest difficulty, and generally not all that well, have interpreted very occasionally], “but don’t enjoy it as much” (p. 87).

The following comment on language seems to speak very well for me too: “I don’t believe myself to have ‘a talent for languages,’ only a feeling for language as such” (p. 142): she had extreme difficulty, for instance, with tonal languages such as Vietnamese and some African languages. For my part I remember decades ago, as a freshman at Indiana University, having a terrible struggle with Russian, and I have essentially forgotten the little bit that I did learn of it. Otherwise, without paying much attention to the terminology of grammatical structures, (I have learned them much better, in both English and Spanish, through the practice of teaching), I have approached composition a good deal by an instinct, first of all, for the cadences of the language as well as through the medium of literature rather than grammar and morphology and such. I am a poor linguist, as I learned for certain in the Fall semester of 1985 while at the same time I was excelling in the study of the original Spanish Don Quijote, I was only just scraping by in Spanish Linguistics (I think Professor Quilter, who taught both classes, was being generous when he gave me a B in that one).

As for Anthropology, I enjoyed Eva’s take on Margaret Mead, who in person she found to be rather obnoxious and arrogant; also, as was beginning to be thoroughly documented at the time, not really very competent at her chosen vocation: “… the locals [in the Pacific islands] had told M. M. exactly what they thought she wanted to hear,” according to another anthropologist who was just then getting to know about it, “thereby invalidating not just her ethnography but the world-shaking conclusions that had impressed so many people, including my father [a psychologist].” She added, a bit spitefully: “I was delighted” (p. 189).

399247[1]On the other hand, some positive stories about two big names I’m vaguely familiar with: Professor E. E. Evans-Pritchard, under whom she worked at Oxford (and later abridged his seminal book Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande), and the French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom she met once and babysat for his extremely rambunctious son: he gave her, in recompense, a £10 note (“quite a lot of money in 1964”) and a signed copy of his book La pensée sauvage: in the dedication hoping “that a few hours with un exotique petit sauvage would not have put me off ‘field work’ (the one English phrase he used)” (p. 195).

One section I particularly enjoyed were the chapters on Vietnam, in particular the northern city of Hanoi where she interpreted (from French to English) for the Armistice Commission in 1954: pre-U.S. involvement (though she did comment that signs of a U.S. presence were beginning to be seen). Her appreciation of the food, the people, the culture, and the scenery is an excellent antidote to our national prejudices. She neither condemns nor idealizes the socialist / communist North; in fact, she tells about her efforts to help a woman emigrate to the South; but she does a lot to counteract our tendency to demonize and caricaturize. She speaks eloquently, for instance, of the elegance of Vietnamese women in particular, comparing Western tourists unfavorably in that respect: “We were surrounded by people who treat their overfed bodies as display areas for bad t-shirt jokes,” she writes. “I felt ashamed of my own culture” (p. 125).

Similarly, the sections on Africa – particularly of her field work in Ogori, in Nigeria – are wonderful. She demonstrates a deep sympathy for the local customs and remnants of “pagan” religion, and much as Lucio Mansilla does in his Excursión, offers repeated instances of hidden resemblances between their customs and ours. This could be an excellent primer for Westerners – particularly English-speakers – who plan to travel: how sad when the only thing our tourists bring back from those trips is “how lucky and blessed we are” back here in civilization.

Of course, I did enjoy the section on Eva’s work on Mansilla’s book. I am not named but am present nonetheless: his book has, she writes, “brought me a number of friends”; and she refers thereafter to her “new Mansilla-fan friends” (p. 288) – mentioning, more particularly, María Rosa and Martín Villagrán who were significant fellow travelers in the preparation of that translation which would later bring me to her – and thereby to María Rosa. I would later meet Villagrán at a Mansilla conference in Córdoba, Argentina in 2005, where I was invited to read from the Spanish-language translation of my novella A Bride Called Freedom in which Mansilla is a character.

Lucio V. Mansilla as a young man

Lucio V. Mansilla as a young man

In the spirit of Eva’s earlier remarks on appreciation for pagan customs and even religion, I like this that she wrote about why she came to feel so close to the figure of Mansilla himself: “… he remains, as far as I know, the only white man in the Americas, north or south, to have written and published, in 1870, that he felt shame at what his society was doing to the native inhabitants of the lands” (p. 289). Those are my feelings precisely, and are also pertinent to what we did, in the name of anti-Communism, to the North Vietnamese who after all might have had as much right to self-determination as we claim for ourselves.

I could go on, of course, in my appreciation for this book – I also, for instance, enjoy some anecdotes about her anti-Nazi German father; as well as a detailed account of a forebear who was a missionary in Africa during the first half of the 19th century but whose main success came as a remarkably accomplished linguist, author of a Swahili-English dictionary that was in use as late as 1965 – but I suppose this will do. It is nice, in any case, to have had Eva’s presence with me again as I read these pages.

An extraordinary new review and contextualization of Passionate Nomads

Passionate NomadsThis has been an uncommonly good week for my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s La pasión de los nómades (Passionate Nomads, Aliform Publications, 2011). First Janek Pytalski’s generous and passionate review for Three Percent, the Open Letters Books blog for translation reviews (1/23/14 posting); and now Lucina Schell’s remarkably thorough, nuanced, and well-researched review at her Reading in Translation blog. Click on the following link to read what she wrote:   http://readingintranslation.com/2014/01/27/passionate-nomads-by-maria-rosa-lojo-translated-by-brett-alan-sanders/

One delight in reading Lucina’s review is her contextualization of the novel in relation to Eva Gillies’s translation of Lucio V. Mansilla’s Una excursión a los indios ranqueles (A Visit to the Ranquel Indians, University of Nebraska Press, 1997). Her close reading of María Rosa’s text in my translation and of Mansilla’s in Eva’s translation allow her to point out how pertinent both of those Argentine books are to our own sad history of conquest and genocide in these United States of America. That is a point that perhaps I have not made well enough myself, and I am indebted to Lucina for making it so well for me.

ProductImageHandler[1]It was Eva Gillies, incidentally (I wrote to her after encountering her remarkable translation of Mansilla’s work, which I had been working at translating myself), who put me in touch with María Rosa, telling me that she had a book in need of a translator. This was around the year 2000; some other time, perhaps, I will share my essay “In Search of Dorotea Bazán” (published previously online in New Works Review and later in River Walk Journal, at its editor’s invitation) which relates this story in more detail. But the short of it is that I did translate María Rosa’s Mansillan novel, among other of her work, and that both she and Eva helped me critique and refine my own Mansillan novella called, in the version that was eventually published, A Bride Called Freedom (Ediciones Nuevo Espacio, 2003; in a bilingual edition with Sebastián Bekes’s Spanish-language translation).

Eva, who died two years ago this month, became a close friend and mentor and I owe to her much of my early progress as a literary translator. It must have been around August of 2002 or 2003 that she visited me and Anita in Tell City, Indiana. The new school year had just started and she was my guest in my high-school English and Spanish classes, where she spoke about her experience in Asia and Africa as both an anthropologist and an interpreter. And about her Buenos Aires childhood: she was the daughter of a German man and a Jewish-Argentine mother; born in Germany in 1930 and left there with her parents when her father determined that Hitler was not going to go away any time soon; then, during the Perón years in Argentina, went to study in England where she ended up spending much of her adult life.

Eva Gillies in Córdoba, Argentina, July 2005

Eva Gillies in Córdoba, Argentina, July 2005

On Saturday after her classroom visit, my wife Anita and I traveled with her to neighboring New Harmony, Indiana where in the 19th century two different utopian communities flourished, one religious and the other not so much. Later, at the end of June and beginning of July 2005, we met up again with María Rosa in the city and province of Córdoba, Argentina. There the two of them were keynote speakers at a historical conference on Lucio Mansilla and his sister Eduarda, and I was invited to read a passage from Sebastián’s translation of my novella. Before that weekend I was fortunate to spend time with Sebastián and his family in Concordia, Entre Ríos and also with María Rosa and her charming family in the suburban Buenos Aires neighborhood of Castelar. (It was also in Córdoba that I met María Gabriela Mizraje, who gave a brilliant presentation on Mansilla and whose fiction I recently published in The Antigonish Review.)

51EitcgLwIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Just recently I received word that Eva’s book The Memoirs of Eva Gillies: An Interpreter at Large, is now on sale at amazon.com. I was privileged, before her death, to read and help proofread her draft manuscript. I have ordered my copy of the finished product, which after I read it again will go on my shelf beside her husband Mick Gillies’s memoir (Mayfly on the Stream of Time); he had recently died when I initially wrote to Eva to compliment her Mansilla translation, to share a copy of my little chapbook Quixotics, and to ask her to read 411l+0KHR2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]my own Mansillan manuscript. One of the most important letters I ever wrote. (Mick Gillies, by the way, was an entomologist who spent a fair amount of his time in Africa working on the problem of mosquitoes and malaria. His charming memoir includes an account of his trip with Eva to Argentina in the 1990s. The picture at right is a later edition of his book – with a new subtitle – from the edition that presently rests on my shelf.)

To return to the subject of Lucina’s review of Passionate Nomads (and, tangentiallly, of Eva’s translation of Mansilla, who plays the male lead in María Rosa’s novel), I couldn’t have asked for a better or more thorough critique. I hope that you, my readers, will enjoy reading it and that it will move you, if you haven’t already, to purchase a copy of the book and read it too. It is a book that, as Janek and Lucina help make the case in their different ways, richly deserves a much wider readership in the English language. Thank you for any efforts you might make to further spread the word.