Saturday, 16 August 2014

Henri Michaux: Un Certain Plume

Henri Michaux (1899-1984). The author, of German and Spanish ancestry, was born in the Belgian town of Namur. In 1922 he discovered The Songs of Maldoror and decided he wanted to be a writer. He travelled extensively (many of his books are travelogues) and must have been one of the earliest 20th century writers to describe the effect of mind-expanding substances, thanks to his collaboration for the mystical magazine Hérmes. Known and admired in the Romance languages, beginning to show up English thanks to NYRB, I first came across his books thanks to Jorge Luis Borges’ A Personal Library that gives us a glimpse into his favourite writers. Ever since I’ve searched for and read Michaux’s books in the hopes of finding A Barbarian in Asia, Borges’ choice. The funny thing is, I don’t particularly like Michaux’s writing, but since I can’t find that book I just go on reading the others to fill the vacuum. To date I’ve read Mes propriétés and Ecuador (both from 1929), two wildly different books (one is poetry, the other a travelogue), and the author’s own favourite book, Plume (1936), a collection of short-stories about a passive man called Monsieur Plume. Plume is one of several Mrs that populate literature: Mr Cogito and Mr Palomar come to mind too. (I also noticed a strong resemblance to, or influence upon, one of Gonçalo M. Tavares’ short-story collection.)

The first Plume stories were published in 1930, were called Un Certain Plume and numbered 10 stories. Gallimard republished them in 1936: four stories were added, one was excised, years later another one was added to it, and those constitute the stories of my edition, which also contains an essay by one René Micha, no doubt to stuff the book: without it the book would be 47 pages long, thanks to the essay it reaches a whopping 76 pages, meaning it’s about the size of the stories. Sometimes I have the impression it was my favourite part of the book.

The first story is called “A Peaceful Man” and is the archetypical Plume story. “Stretching his hand outside bed, Plume was startled not to find the wall. ‘Will you look at that, he thought, it’s as if ants had eaten it,’ and he went back to sleep.” This is just the beginning. His wife shakes him up to tell him the house has been stolen, not that it bothers him, since he goes back to sleep. Next a train runs over them, killing his wife and drenching him in her blood. He goes back to sleep. He’s charged with her murder and the judge sentences him to death. “‘Sorry but I didn’t follow the trial carefully,’ said Plume. And went back to sleep.” This could be Kafkaesque, but since these stories were published in 1930, it’s doubtful Michaux knew them already. It’s better to say it’s surrealistic, absurd before Beckett. The next story is about Plume in a restaurant. By mistake he asks for something that’s not on the menu. The waiter is mad and asks explanations, but Plume fumbles and the manager gets involved, then a cop whom he tries to bribe, and in the end he’s giving explanations to the secret police. Another story is about him being pushed around while travelling. “But he didn’t say anything, he didn’t complain. He thinks about the poor bastards who can’t travel at all, while he can, he travels, he’s always travelling.” In another short-story he complains about a pain in his finger and the doctor decides to cut it off. “I still have nine fingers,” he says in consolation. In a variation of the restaurant story, there’s another where he munches a horrible dish of food without complaining.

I think this is more Alfred Jarry than Franz Kafka myself, some stories are just incomprehensible, bewildering, fragmentary, or my translation just read horribly. (I also have that suspicion.) Not all stories are about his passiveness. Some have to do with his naivety. Another shows him as a mass murderer who kills a group of Bulgarians aboard a train to make room for himself; I’m not making this up. In another one he’s the Ambassador of Denmark in an unnamed kingdom and is seduced by the Queen who uses obvious ploys to get naked in bed with him, just when the King walks in; the narrative abruptly ends before we see what happens.

Others are just plain weird. Distractedly he finds himself walking on the ceiling, like, yeah, sure. In another one he accidentally pulls a person’s head off his shoulders and tries to pin it back. Ah, yes, that’s always a nuisance when it happens. In the final story Plume is a father but the child falls inside a bear cage and is mauled to death.

Plume sometimes is married, sometimes the wife is dead, sometimes he’s married again and is a father. Often he travels. He spends a lot of time in bars and restaurants. He can be passive but also murderous. He’s cowardly and naïve but also dangerous, stupid but philosophic. He’s a restless creation always foiling a sense of identity or the notion of character altogether. Micha likens Plume to early Chaplin movies, which Michaux admired, claiming that like in these movies Plume has “neither begging nor end,” he’s just a flux of adventures and movements. According to him, Plume stories are like literary versions of Chaplin movies. I can deal with that interpretation.

The stories change a lot and are not consistent in humour, clarity, tone and quality; several just went over my head. “These adventures don’t run towards the same direction, and Plume does not always perform the same task. The work’s unity, which is real, should not impede us from seeing it as a multiple movement, or even a sort of rupture,” explains Micha. I register and acknowledge this, even so I didn’t care for much of the book, which is already slipping away from my memory as a mere entertainment between better books. But it has some fabulous moments.

Meanwhile I'm going on vacations for a few days. Bye for now.

This book was read for the 2014 European Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: Yo no soy yo, evidentemente

After five novels Gonzalo Torrente Ballester begins to paint a clear picture in my mind. There are themes he returns to, namely the questioning of reality, the intersection between fact and fiction and how what we reality is just an external simulacrum of men. In La Saga/Fuga de J.B. a historian discovers that the millennial history of Castroforte is a fiction conjured by a secret society; in Fragmentos de Apocalipsis a novelist shows off his meta-fictional omnipotent powers within the dimension of the novel he’s writing; in La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados another novelist travels back in time to prove that Napoleon was conjured by a committee of statesmen; in Las Islas Extraordinarias a detective discovers that the world’s economical engine secretly runs within a small dictatorial archipelago ruled by a tyrant who doesn’t have actual power. My latest encounter with the author’s is coherent with these novels: Yo no soy yo, evidentemente, published in 1987, follows the efforts of two academics to make sense of a mysterious writer, Uxío Preto, who may or may not have existed but who claims, in a letter to a magazine, to have written three novels whose authorship are disputed by critics and scholars.

In chronological order, the names of the three novels, written since World War II and in different parts of the world, are: Aquilina y la flauta de Pan, La ciudad de los viernes incertos and La historia que se busca em los reflejos. In a letter to the Nuestra Terra magazine Preto, a possible Galician author, claims that he wrote all three novels. “Many professors have verbally elucubrated or published critical works about each one of them without it crossing their minds that they could be attributed to an unarguably unique brain: it would be a lot more tolerable if, remaining in anonymity, they had reached the conclusion, scrupulous amongst the possible logics, that no one has written them; if they had been considered spontaneous apparitions from one of those collective or perhaps abstract entities which carry the responsibility, with a generalized satisfaction that is almost general, of authoring so many important historical events, for sure more important than many literary works, although less decisive for Mankind’s fate; I mean wars or revolutions, and a few scandalous matrimonies.” After taunting the experts of literary studies, he challenges them to ascertain the truth. “There’s no other solution, dear professors, than returning to the old ignorance and formulating it precisely in the terms I propose. Are the three novels by the same author? Is it Úxio Preto? Find out. And who is, was, or will remain being, Uxío Preto? Finding out seems less easy, a task for detectives or poets.”

To confuse matters even more some time later a book called Autobiografía póstuma de Uxío Preto shows up describing, in three eclectic chapters, the genesis of each novel. This posthumous autobiography whets the interest of Mr. Sharp, chairman of the Romance Languages Department of an American university. (“Uxío Preto is one more case of those writers who are almost unknown outside universities’ language departments, save in their own countries, where they’re ignored.”) Anxious to make a name for himself with the solving of this mystery, after milking the remaining papers of his secretary and lover’s dead husband, a genius of Linguistics, that she gave him to further his academic career, he enlists the help of Ivonne, an assistant who specializes in reading books in Spanish and who published a structuralist study of “adversative and dubitative forms” in Preto’s oeuvre. Although she neglected the narrative aspect of the novels to focus on the syntax and doesn’t show particular aptitude to carry out literary biographical investigation, she’s the closest thing to an Uxío Preto expert, so she gets the job. Mr. Sharp is convinced that Preto never existed. “Did Uxío Preto die? How can he die if he wasn’t born?” he asks after reading the autobiography. To him he’s nothing but a collective invention, like a secret society that crafted an idea and then let it loose (it’s all very Borgesian).

Ivonne and her partner, Álvaro Mendoza, a brilliant Mexican teacher, set out to discover everything they can about this sketchy figure. Their main clues are in the Autobiography. Although the names used in the book apparently relate to pseudonyms, there are three specific chapters (title Gamma, Zeta and Sigma) dealing with the creation of the novels that have each an “alphabet soup” containing encoded names that refer to real people. And so the hunt begins.

This is a good moment to pause to admit that I didn’t love this novel. As I try to hold within my brain everything GTB attempted with this novel, I must applaud him for another narrative labyrinth of dazzling virtuosity that he’s gotten me used to. What bothered me about it was not the labyrinth itself but what happened outside it. After five novels I’ve also realized that GTB loves to fill novels with romance: there’s always someone in love, falling in love, anguishing over love. In previous novels this wasn’t so excessive as to contaminate my enjoyment of the more interesting elements to me: the puzzles, the flights of fancy, the careful structure of his expansive, tentacular sub-narratives. But in here it’s just too much: Mr. Sharp lives an abusive love affair with a castrating woman, Mrs. Madison, the secretary who secreted her dead husband’s papers to him in order to build his career; Ivonne worries that Mr. Sharp is using Uxío Preto to seduce her; in Spain Mendoza meets an old friend who secretly loves him and only Ivonne is perceptive enough to realize it, prompting her to do some strategic matchmaking to bring together the two lovers. That’s nice but I don’t care, I wanted more literary sleuthing scenes. I mentioned this novel has a touch of Borges, but the virtue of Borges’ stories is that he had a pure devotion to the Idea, nothing mattered outside the development and exhaustion of the Idea. Another comparison I can make is to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire: this novel operates on two levels, let’s say Kinbote’s level and the Zembla level; GTB’s novel also has two levels: the investigation and the genesis chapters. The problem is that every time we jump from the investigation to the chapters there’s a palpable sense of loss of narrative thrust, they’re just not as interesting, and I suppose it’s because they’re more mundane love stories. Nabokov kept the Zembla narrative absurd from start to finish and it’s a joy to read it, but GTB never makes Preto a memorable character capable of carrying his own sections.

In Gamma Preto, living in Spain, hangs around with a gypsy dancer called María Elena, according to him a graceful dancer and a liberated woman, who dies in the same airplane that claimed Leslie Howard’s life. He finds out she made him her heir and he receives a fortune. Later he meets a writer named Néstor Pereira (or Pereyra) who co-writes Aquilina y la flauta de Pan with him. Except Néstor may just be a figment of his imagination, even though he becomes involved with a real woman. In Zeta Uxío Preto and one Pedro Teotonio Viqueira exchange letters about what turns into La ciudad de los viernes incertos; again it’s not clear if Viqueira exists. Zigma, written as a play, has Preto, dressed up like an Inquisitor and masked by a hood, questioning a woman called Leticia about a season in Venice with one Froilán Fiz and his suicidal alter ego, Melitón Losada. Of three I enjoyed the last the most.

What, to me, redeems these sections is the way they’re dismounted by the others; after each genesis chapter there’s a chapter with Ivonne and Mendoza questioning the “alphabet soup” people, who give contradictory testimonies about them. In Spain, Mendoza, with the help of María Magdalena, meets the aging Don Bernardino, a washed up would-be writer who thinks he’s been unjustly forgotten by the younger generation. He doesn’t have kind words for Preto. “He had a grey, lifeless look. He lacked personality. He only opened his mouth to say nonsense, banalities or inconveniences. A few times we asked him to go away, but he always returned like a beat up dog. We even suspected that he was a snitch, who earned a few coins from the Police by telling them what was being told in my literary meetings.” Of María Elena he says that she was a “very mediocre dancer” and a “big whore” who had sex with anyone, including Bernardino. Informed that the British army hired her to cheer the soldiers up, only for her to die on the same airplane carrying actor Leslie Howard that was shot down by the Germans in 1943, his reaction is delicious: “That they died together proves the inexistence of God or of anything that can replace it. It can’t be understood, no, not even if we think that natural forces are blind, that death is blind. I think that if the Germans knew what a contradictory cargo the airplane carried, they would have reconsidered just because María Elena and Leslie Howard can’t be equalled in death. It’s a metaphysical injustice.”

Bernardino also claims to have written the first novel and hopes that Mendoza’s study will restore the fame he deserves. The man has a huge opinion of himself, as we can deduce from this comparison. “It’s out fate, sir. Oblivion. Federico had to die in order for the world to realize that they had killed a great Spanish poet. But the others, the ex-pats and those who remained here, we lacked that sinister propaganda. Does one have to die to achieve glory?” But the plot thickens. Mendoza checks the British registers and can’t find any woman called María Elena hired by the army or amongst those who died in the crash. Did she exist under a different name? Did Preto invent her too, and is Bernardino backing up this lie in order to carve a role for himself in the story? Is the fact that he insists he wrote the novel true? Or is he creating a new version, hoping to supplant Preto’s since he’s allegedly dead and can’t dispute it? These are the labyrinth bits that I liked! It gets better: they meet another eye-witness, Don Armando, who remembers things differently. To him “Uxío did not lack talent, but as a human being he was a true disaster, an anarchist without remission, one of those men who seem to enjoy destroying themselves with the pretext of defending their independence…” He doesn’t doubt that he wrote the novel but is not sure about the other two.

Similar contradictions crop up when Ivonne interviews Marquise Úrsula, who may have inspire a character called Ute in the second novel. And also with Virucha Portabales, the Spanish teacher who may have been the basis for Letician. Questioned about Froilán, she admits she met a man with that name, she almost loved him but refused to go with him to Venice.

It’s not only a question of whether the genesis chapter describe real events; it’s questioned whether some of the figures even existed. For instance, a woman claims to have known and loved a writer called Néstor Pereira, but Preto himself insinuates that he’s just a personality he made up. “On asking myself if Néstor Pereira possessed his own entity, I wanted first and foremost investigate if he owned a body, mere astral figure, for, as I’ve been repeating to the point of tedium, even if he used mine, it was also true that on certain occasions I had seen him, contemplated him outside myself, with his cane hitting his shoes. It could be an illusion, yes; but why haven’t I suffered from others? Was my brain ill and as such it had specialized in imagining the person of Néstor real? (I don’t say personality, because that doesn’t need a visible body for anything.)” Likewise Pedro Teotonio Viqueira, with whom he corresponds, may just be an alias or identity. “If the figure of Nestor was somewhat rigid and stable, Pedro Teotonio Viqueira was a lot more flexible and elusive, with a dash of disillusioned neglect and a bit of caprice, according to the style of painting at the time, without ever becoming extravagant.” And after Preto finished interrogating Leticia and removes his hood she says that he and Froilán are almost identical. Like I’ve said Froilán’s chapter was my favourite of the three, here he seems to be wrestling with an evil entity that is trying to destroy his relationship with Leticia. She says, “Froilán’s words were deep and seductive, enveloping like a caress; but the other spoke ill to me about my lover with my lover’s voice. Not the same, some differences. Melitón had less of a Gallician accent.” He’s like a demon, which suggests the idea of possession, cajoling his host to kill himself in order to get rid of him. To complicate matters a bit more, Leticia meets a mysterious woman called Nicole, a fierce feminist novelist, who has strange conversations with her about Froilán. “One can tell you admire him. Perhaps in excess.” Another time she asks her, “Don’t you want to be free?” When Virucha explains to Ivonne why she chose not to go with the man called Froilán, she explains she didn’t want to give up her dreams for uncertainty, “to renounce myself.” It’s as if Leticia and Nicole were an exteriorization of Virucha’s dilemma between being herself and following Froilán. Sounds kooky, sure, but I like it; it’s like a mirror. Even Froilán asks Letician if Nicole isn’t to her what Melitón is to him. It’s worth noticing that La historia que se busca em los reflejos means precisely The story where reflections are searched for, as if GTB were winking at the reader (and he probably was).

Although the novel starts with the questions, Who is Uxío Preto? What is Uxío Preto?, I think GTB is also interested in displaying the power writers have to transform reality. As I’ve written in the past, the author left to America in the 1960s, the heydays of meta-fiction and his novels since that time show that he quickly excelled at incorporating these novelties (with lots of obscure easter eggs only those initiated into his world would get. For instance, Pedro Teotonio Viqueira is named after a Portuguese ambassador called Pedro Teotonio Pereira and Miguel Viqueira, a Spanish-born Portuguese critic who knew the author. There’s even the name-dropping of Carmen Becerra, a real-life critic who’s also written extensively about him.). His fiction doesn’t presume to be realistic, he even doubts objective reality is possible; for him it’s a question of how the world is remade by the writer. The fact that the sleuths look for direct connections between fact and fiction, only to constantly find out distortions and supposed models that don’t see themselves in the finished objects, reveals how GTB conceives imagination. It’s not far from the preoccupations Philip Roth shows in The Counterlife, part of the Nathan Zuckerman saga, that cycle of novels that is exactly about the interaction of fact and fiction. As Zuckerman muses, “expecting the woman next to you, whom you suspect of cheating on her husband, to reveal herself to you as Emma Bovary, and, what’s more, in Flaubert’s French” is ridiculous, characters don’t exist fully-formed in reality, there’s always an imaginative effort behind their creation.

As the novel approaches its conclusion, is there a conclusion at all? No, there isn’t, and that’s another of its strengths. Who is Uxío Preto will remain unsolved. The last chapter, gripping and tense like a good thriller, despite its necessary anti-climax, offers a handful of solutions for the mystery without committing itself to any. We’ve had the Borgesian hypothesis (a secret society like in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), and Mendoza admits that the theory of madness is “one of the solutions, in any event a cold rational and whimsical madman,” although he prefers the possibility of a trickster. “It may be, although not necessarily, an insatiable trickster, someone who invents a problem without apparent solution to amuse himself, but who induces certain people to search it: someone who, for years, carries out a very minute operation destined almost exclusively to professors of Literature.” But GTB, in case you don’t know, is also an aficionado of Fernando Pessoa, the poet who multiplied himself into different poets, and Mendoza suggests a Pessoan-esque theory too: the trickster may be “one of those people who urgently need to become others, who can only subsist being others. Thus, this nameless man does the same Alonso Quijano did: he inhabits characters, tries to be them. He finds himself as Uxío Preto, as Nestor Pereyra, as Froilán Fiz, although these last two are already second degree invocations, multiplications of the first one. That is: X invents Uxío Preto, this one the others. And we don’t know if he does it in earnest or jokingly. I interpret the existence of Melitón Losada, not like a botch, or an excess, but like a warning that the unfolding can continue towards infinity, but also that each invented personality can keep whatever class of relationship with the one it proceeds from, that they can engender one another in theoretically endless series and always on poor terms.” In this sense, the personalities would be heteronyms that overwhelmed their maker. “I don’t discard the hypothesis that at least three of those imaginary characters imposed themselves more forcefully than the others and demanded to be realized in a manner distinct from the narrative word.”

So is it a joker or a madman, “a necessary enigma of existence, like one of those unknown stars which are talked about because of their influence on the visible stars?” Well, I’ve collated the evidence and this is what I think. We can start with what Ivonne tells the woman who was not Leticia: “Has it occurred to you, miss Portabales, that both you and me are obeying the orders Uxío Preto sends us from beyond the grave? Or in any event from nothing more than a bunch of words.” Whoever designed this mystery clearly likes games; the fact that he adds “alphabet soups” to the Autobiography alludes to that ludic side of the investigation. And in another book by GTB, a collection of essays edited by Miguel Viqueira (Sobre literatura y el arte de la novela), he asks, “Is it so hard to admit that this writing thing is nothing but a game?” So we have a writer who publicly treats literature like a game. Well, isn’t what Uxío Preto is doing, directing his sleuths beyond nothing more than a bunch of words, what every writer does with his readers? We’re all at the mercy of the author, going where he wants us to go. This novel is an allegory for the act of reading a novel. It’s not a good solution but it’s what I’ve got. Others may arrive at better interpretations. I’m not sure they’ll be substantially more rewarding. The novel’s penultimate sentence is “good luck.” I don’t think it’s written ironically.

This is my final contribution for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Once I wrote a page about what would happen if Don Quixote killed a man: Jorge Luis Borges on Don Quixote

We’re back for another episode of Osvaldo Ferrari and Jorge Luis Borges talking about literary stuff. Recently I read Don Quixote so I thought I’d soak up a bit of what Borges wrote about this great novel. He’s written essays about it and, I find out via Ferrari, even wrote poems about Miguel de Cervantes; Borges’ poetry is my Achilles’ heel. Strangely I was under the impression that he had included the novel in the Personal Library, but it’s not there.

As always, Ferrari suggests the theme. He remembers Borges that once, during a conference in an American college, he said that Alonso Quijano was his best friend (and not Adolfo Bioy Casares?). “I think Unamuno said that Don Quixote is now more real than Cervantes. Well, he is by the fact that we imagine Alonso Quijano directly and we imagine Cervantes through biographies, or outward news…” This is typical Borges, considering the books more real than the physical world…

Ferrari’s question allows Borges to digress on his lifelong fascination with this Spanish novel. One of the first things that struck him, when he first read it, was the protagonist’s fast progression into madness. “Yes, what called my attention, when I was still a boy, was it saying that he became mad without them showing the stages of madness. I thought it was possible to write a short-story – only such a short-story would be somewhat imprudent, no? – a short-story that showed the stages of madness: that showed how, for Alonso Quijano the quotidian world, that place in the dusty La Mancha region, went about becoming unreal and the world of the Matter of Britain more real. But that’s alright, we accept it; and we enter his world right in the first chapter. And maybe… maybe what matters is that a writer presents us with amenable people, and maybe that’s not so hard, because the reader tends to identify himself with the first character mentioned. That is, if we read Crime and Punishment, for instance, we identify from the start with Raskolnikov for he’s the first character we know. And that helps us be his friend, for on reading that we’re him; because reading a book is being the successive different characters of the book. Well, I mean, in the case of the novel, if that novel is any good.”

Ferrari goes on to say that the act of reading comports with identifying oneself with the author. “Yes, in a sense it’s also being the author, all of that; a series of metamorphoses, of changes, which are not painful, which are pleasant. Why, that idea by Unamuno that Don Quixote was an exemplary character seems erroneous to me because he most certainly is not; he’s more of a choleric and arbitrary lord. But since we know he’s harmless… Once I wrote a page about what would happen if Don Quixote killed a man. But that worry of mine was absurd, since you understand from the start that he can’t kill anyone, that he has to be a sympathetic character. And the writer never exposes him to that danger. And then I thought about the possible consequences of that impossible act for Don Quixote, I though what could happen, and I don’t know what possibilities I suggested. But the fact is we feel that Alonso Quijano is a friend.”

When asked about Sancho Panza, he explains that he doesn’t feel the same. “I feel he’s more of an impertinent. Since boyhood that I also think that they talked too much: I imagine it’s more natural for them to have long stretches riding together in silence. But since the reader expected the delicious dialogues, Cervantes couldn’t afford that luxury. When I read Martín Fierro I thought the same thing, I thought it was very odd that Cruz told right away his whole story to Fierro: I thought it was more natural to tell him little by little.”

Their conversation leads them to discuss the tradition of chivalric romances, how Ludovico Ariosto influenced Cervantes via Orlando Furioso and how both drank from the British, French and Roman sources of legends and myths. “Both felt, shall we say, the flavour of those three “matters:” Britain, France and Rome. And at the same time they realized it was all a bit ridiculous, a bit extravagant.” And he continues, “right in the first canto of Orlando Furioso, when he talks about Charlemagne, it’s ridiculed a bit. But at the same time it was precious to Ariosto, who understood that that was all unreal; and maybe that’s what he liked so much about it. In Cervantes that’s even stronger.”

Ferrari also mentions the similarities between Borges and Alonso Quijano, both inhabitants of a library, although Borges disagrees. “I think I wrote in a sonnet that I, unlike Alonso Quijano, had never left my library. Because even though I’ve travelled all over the world, I don’t know if indeed I’ve left the first books I read.” Ferrari says he remained loyal to the “initial library” in his father’s house. “Yes, and besides that, since I’m myopic my first memories are not, shall we say, of the neighbourhood of Palermo, not even my parents’ expensive furniture, but rather books, illustrations, maps, well, the book spines, and why not the hard covers? That is, my first recollections are those, are really recollections more of books than of people.” I think all book lovers can relate a bit to this.

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Jaime Cortesão

For several weeks now readers have no doubt wondered at the identity of the hook-shaped moustachioed dandy pictured above. In an attempt at dispelling this mystery I shall now indulge in one of my typically long articles about a writer you’ve never heard about, never read and probably never will.

His name is Jaime Cortesão; the name doesn’t mean anything to the average (and even reasonably educated) Portuguese reader anymore, at best he’s a name some glance off the cover of a very long book called História dos Descobrimentos Portugueses. But he was one of the most extraordinary individuals the country produced in the last century. He was a poet, a doctor, a deputy, a teacher, a historian, a soldier, and a revolutionary. He devoted his like to the cause of knowledge and progress. The 20th century tested him with several of its horrors. In World War I he experienced the effects of toxic gases, for the first time used in battle. He was exiled in Barcelona when the city fell into the hands of General Franco thanks to another weapon invented in the previous century: air bombings. He knew what it was to flee from a city before the unstoppable approach of the German army. In Portugal he was locked in Salazar’s jails, then lived the hardships of political exile. Indeed fate seems to have reserved for Cortesão enough adversities to break the spirit of ten men. Everybody who socialized with him, however, left us a portrait of a generous, tolerant and optimistic man. He faced all difficulties with rigour and decorum and left behind a monumental historical oeuvre and ethical example.

In 1884 Jaime Cortesão was born in Ançã, in the outskirts of Coimbra. His father was doctor, teacher and philologist. His son, after hesitating between Law and Fine Arts, followed his footsteps and enrolled in Medicine, a college course that would not determine his life. During the years at the University of Coimbra he became involved, like many young men of the time, in the republican cause, excited by the ideals and promises of a social and political renovation in Portugal. In 1907 he founded, with future philosopher Leonardo Coimbra, the Nova Sylva magazine, in which pages he published drawings and poems, a short-lived periodical with an anarchist identity that metamorphosed into a political and cultural group called Os Amigos do ABC. That same years he took part in a famous academic strike, an antecedent of the republican revolution, that pitted students against the government of João Franco, a prime-minister who had received extraordinary powers from the King to rule under a dictatorship. The strike occurred after a student who was affiliated in the Portuguese Republican Party was impeded from defending his thesis by a conclave of professors who had already agreed to flunk him on political grounds. In an act of solidarity, the students boycotted classes. This small event gained national proportions when, in response to Franco’s decision to close down the university, the students marched to Lisbon to protest, laying bare the tension between the conservative regime and the intellectual ranks of the new generation, with Europeanizing tendencies and receptive to an educational reform: Cortesão, like many at the time, thought that education in Portugal was organized in retrograde moulds that did not take into account breakthroughs in modern science and caused the nation to widen its ancient distance from the rest of the continent. By interrupting the college year the government tried to break the strike with the promise that all the students who abandoned it would automatically transition to the next year. Cortesão joined a group that became known as The Intransigents, since they rejected the obvious bribe, displaying the courage to act on their convictions, a virtue he’d continue to live by for the rest of his life. About his legendary rectitude Aquilino Ribeiro wrote one day: “There are two ways of triumphing in the world: harbouring ambitions and having no character. Jaime Cortesão harboured ambitions, as an artist, as a patriot, as the catalyser of ideals that he was. He had however the serious flaw of which many get rid when they decide to make a fortune, if they’re not already born without it: character. Character, that is, respect for his being and the being of others according to the same standard, respect for a certain ethical principle he acquired, and respect for what is social and human. Unforgivable fault in our time!”

As we shall see this inflexible ethical sense would cause him considerable problems in life, but in the years following the implementation of the Republic (1910) life was joyful, easy and full of possibilities. After the strike he intensified his role in the republican movement, performing crucial function inside it, so that by 1908 he was the liaison between republicans from North and South. In the year of the Republic he revealed new facets: he published his first book of poems, A Morte da Águia. As a poet he received admiration from the greatest of his peers. Fernando Pessoa even considered him “the finest of the poets of the newest generation” that had achieved its maturity within the 20th century. He also completed his Medical degree successfully defending a thesis that refuted the at the time accepted view that poet Antero de Quental suffered from “degeneration.” The thesis received praised from poet Teixeira de Pascoes (he had already read his poems in Nova Sylva) and the two men became friends until Pascoaes died in 1952. He was in fact invited to become his daughter’s godfather, and the inventor of the literary movement Saudosismo chose for his goddaughter the name of Maria da Saudade. Considering these poetic circumstances, she seemed to be fulfilling a destiny when she married Brazilian poet Murillo Mendes and became a known poet in her own right.

In 1912, in the aftermath of the Republic, Cortesão created the movement Renascença Portuguesa, with the sole purpose of “giving a renewing and fertile content to the republican revolution,” and wrote for its official periodical, A Águia. The same year he abandoned his medical career to try out a position as high school History teacher. Believing in the necessity of bringing people and culture together, he taught at the Popular Universities, a progressive institution that sought to fight the worrying problems of education that afflicted the working classes. In tandem with his pedagogical career he developed a political one and in 1915 was elected deputy for the city of Porto. But it’d be quickly interrupted, never to be resumed, for two years later he volunteered as soldier to take part in the war that was ravaging Europe. Since 1914 he had been directing a newspaper called O Norte, whose goal was to promote Portugal’s intervention in the war, an unpopular position since a century later historians still contend that Portugal had no responsibilities in a foreign conflict that killed 10,000 of its soldiers.  Be that as it may, once again he proved that actions should follow words and parted to Flanders as a medic with the rank of captain.

Originally assigned to the rear, far from the bloodbaths, he requested transference to the front where he fought alongside other notable Portuguese soldiers like playwright André Brun and the poet Augusto Casimiro. He took part in the horrifying Battle of the Lys, where thousands of Portuguese soldiers died in one fell swoop, and was distinguished with a war cross for his bravery. His memoir, Memórias da Grande Guerra (1919), describes without romanticism the horrors of chemical warfare, still a novelty at the time, with gases that burned the eyes and destroyed lungs. Exposed to them several times, for he loaned his mask to soldiers who had lost theirs, his health never fully recovered. In fact when he returned to Portugal he was temporarily blind. But instead of resting, he was jailed in the Coimbra Penitentiary, for three months, during the transient dictatorial government of Sidónio Pais. It was in his cell that he received news that the war had ended, as he disappointedly wrote in his memoirs: “We – those who had returned to Portugal and shared the victory of that hour – were almost all of us in jail. The others – those who had opposed our going – received the honours and glories of triumph.” Here starts his disillusionment with politics. “A nation that endures, without great protestation, such an outrage, no doubt suffers some serious spinal disease. The table of values has been inverted; that’s the only way of explaining that generous acts of sacrifice in the name of the people deserve such a vile prize.” He never returned to active politics, disappointed with partisan bickering and the governments of the 1st Republic, but without ever losing heart over the ideals that sustained it, instead seeking new means of intervening in society and being useful.

Those means he acquired when he accepted the role of director of the National Library of Lisbon; it was 1919, a crucial year in his life. It was when he met David Ferreira, a loyal friend and his future biographer. It was also the year the monarchist supporters temporarily reinstated the monarchy in Porto, encouraging a part of the army in Lisbon to overthrow the democratic government. Ferreira, as he later described it, first met Cortesão during the republican defence to foil this coup: “Belonging to the first group, still rather small, that, committed to the defence of the Republic, ran to the grounds of Parque Eduardo VII, by then already under bombing from the rebel artillery, I had, a few moments after my arrival, the joy of seeing turn up an assortment of civilians and soldiers, from amongst whom stood out the imposing figure of Jaime Cortesão, dressed as a medical captain.” With the monarchist counter-revolution defeated, Cortesão took control of the National Library and Ferreira worked as his secretary for four years. (He later distinguished himself as a historian in his own right, authoring the 1973 História Política da Primeira República Portuguesa. A curious fact: his more famous son, the poet and novelist David Mourão-Ferreira, wrote the preface for a 1961 selection of Cortesões’ poems.)

The twenties saw him representing Portugal in several international cultural events and acting as a nexus for intellectual groups that sought to give new life to the nation’s political and social aspects. From his cabinet in the library Cortesão organized gatherings of writers, artists, historians, scientists and others. From this activity resulted, in 1921, the magazine Seara Nova (co-founded with Raul Proença, another important thinker), an instrument of reflexion and criticism. (During Cortesão’s exile in Brazil, many of his writings continued to be published in Portugal via its pages.) In 1922, after accompanying President António José de Almeida to Brazil, in order to celebrate that country’s first centennial of its independence, he wrote a history book called A Expedição de Pedro Álvares Cabral e o Descobrimento do Brasil, about the man who discovered Brazil, initiating a magnificent careers as historian which revolutionised what was known about the Age of the Portuguese Discoveries. In 1924 he travelled with poet Augusto Gil to Italy to negotiate the purchase of the Cancioneiro Colocci-Brancuti, a classic repository of medieval Galician-Portuguese poems and songs, with which he enriched the country’s literary history. In 1926 he represented Portugal in the 22nd International Congress of Americanists, contributing with writings about the Treaty of Tordesillas and the discovery of America.

This intense and rich period of activity ceased in 1926 with the overthrow of the Republic. In 1927 he once again served the causes of freedom and democracy via armed resistance. An important character in the February Revolt, the first to challenge the dictatorship, he was designated Porto’s civil governor by the revolutionary committee while the city remained behind barricades. It was in these circumstances that a young Adolfo Casais Monteiro, not yet the director of the Presença magazine, not yet one of the men who’d “discover” the greatness of Fernando Pessoa, a mere student anxious to defend freedom, met him, a moment that marked him for life. “Victorious in one part of the nation,” he’d later write in O País do Absurdo, “the uprising ended up being dominated, but in Porto it resisted while it was possible, until the siege imposed a surrender; and it’s from that brief period that I keep my first image of Jaime Cortesão, in the revolutionaries’ headquarters, where some students had gone to offer to fight on their side. It was the first time I saw him and many years went by before the 17-year-old student could meet his exemplary hero – precisely to remind him the episode, and to tell him what his figure and example meant, during all those years, to our resistance to tyranny.” Casais Monteiro, like his idol, would also flee to Brazil in order to avoid political persecution.

With the uprising suppressed, Cortesão and his family escaped to Spain and then France, where he worked in the Paris Library and the National Archives, continuing his method of writing history, basing himself on the meticulous study of documents, spending hours in the archives looking for material ignored by other historians, untangling myths and rebuilding received ideas. With the proclamation of the republic in Spain (1931) he moved there, teaching and writing more history books on the Discoveries, making use of Seville’s General Archive of the Indies, a vast archive containing personal documents from figures such as Fernão de Magalhães, Hernán Cortés, and Christopher Columbus. But the Spanish Civil War put an end to this idyll: Cortesão was in Barcelona when Franco’s air force bombed it, forcing him to flee to France across the Pyrenees, losing considerable part of his documental archive. But his sojourn in France was brief too since soon the German army was marching in its direction to invade it. Since Lisbon constituted the only open port for those who wanted to abandon Europe, in 1940 he returned to the homeland, aware of the dangers that awaited him and soon became reality. Detained, he was incarcerated in Peniche, where he gave history lessons to his cellmates; then he was transferred to Lisbon. With the category of “banned” on his passport, he was allowed to leave for Brazil. During this chaotic period of moving from one country to another while Europe slowly succumbed to fascism, he found the time to write Os Factores Democráticos na Formação de Portugal (1930), a history book about the role democracy played in the construction of Portugal, a rebuttal to those who, in the footsteps of Maurras’ integral nationalism, justified the dictatorship on the grounds that Portugal was not historically prepared to be a democracy.

A man of inexhaustible resources, Cortesão reinvented himself in Brazil, or better yet, he consolidated his ancient interests in history. Since 1922 that his historical researched focused on the history of Brazil. There he gave new breath to that vast theme: he researched, discovered, published and interpreted unknown documents; he travelled across Brazil in search of the original landmarks left by the bandeirantes, the men who explored Brazil and enlarged its territories by occupying and settling new regions; through geographical and orographical studies he deepened the study of the formation of Brazil, and revolutionized what it knew about itself, receiving for his efforts several official honours and the admiration of the Brazilian people in his lifetime. He also worked for the government: at the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs he created a course that taught history, geography, cartography and national formation to Brazilian diplomats. In 1952 he was invited by the city of São Paulo to organize the Historical Exhibition, integrated in the celebrations of its 400 years, an event that was an astounding success. Provided with a diplomatic passport he travelled to Europe to collect new material for the exhibition, taking the occasion to make a stop in Portugal to see old friends, including Teixeira de Pascoaes, who’d pass away shortly after their reencounter. As a historian, his exile was no doubt the most fertile and productive period of his life and he never forgot his debt to the Brazilian people. In the book A Fundação de São Paulo he went so far as to claim that “loving and serving Brazil is one of the finest ways of being Portuguese.” He certainly demonstrated that. And the Brazilian repaid that love: in 1957 he was decorated with the title of São Paulo’s Honorary Citizen. That same year he returned to Portugal.

As for the Portuguese dictatorship, it honoured him the only way it knew how, with its unmistakable spitefulness and pettiness. At the age of 74 Cortesão was arrested, alongside António Sérgio (one of Portugal’s greatest essayists and comrade in arms in the February Revolution), Azevedo Gomes e Vieira de Almeida, in the Caxias fortress. When the Brazilian press got wind of this it set up an aggressive campaign to have him released, and Salazar capitulated. The regime, at this time, was committed to courting Brazil, trying to fall in its good graces and strengthen their ties, in order to find valediction in the eyes of Western democracies and international organizations. Reading the texts by Adolfo Casais Monteiro (Artigos de O Estado de São Paulo; O País do Absurdo) or by Jorge de Sena (América, América, the letters to Sophia de Mello Breyner), one gets the impression that Brazilians did not hold Portugal in high regard, for good reasons: a backwards, dictatorial country, with a gagged press, exporting an official culture that interested no one, that died with the regime that created it, while its true artists lived in the margins, struggling to be heard and known, the nation could only deserve condescending glances from Brazil. So Cortesão (and the other exiles) also represented, even if unofficially, the best of Portugal for almost two decades, counterpoising, with his erudition, generosity and nobility of spirit, the ignoble image Salazar was exporting.

In Cortesãos’ final years he continued to participate in cultural activities and to be a mentor for the opposition. He remained loyal to his repulsion for active police: in the 1958 elections (from time to time Salazar liked to pretend he believed in democracy by orchestrating “free” elections that never came to anything) he turned down the invitation to run for president. That year he became a president, but of the Portuguese Society of Writers, receiving unanimous votes and replacing his old friend Aquilino Ribeiro. When he passed away in 1960 he had achieved a moral stature that made him one of the most admired men of his country by his peers. Nowadays he’s almost unknown; his most persistent work is História dos Descobrimentos Portugueses (1960-1962), which continues to be published. But the rest is either out of print or published so obscurely it’s rare to see him mentioned anymore. That in spite of what his books can teach, especially to his countrymen, about history, the creation of the modern world and themselves. But it’s not surprising: his generation and the one immediately afterwards – David Ferreira and his son, Adolfo Casais Monteiro, Raul Proença, Aquilino Ribeiro and António Sérgio – is also somewhat depreciated. Somewhere poet Eugénio de Andrade wrote that “it’s sad to live in a country without memory.” That is the natural order of things around here. But I like to remember things, to read what others don’t want, to expand my databanks of useless knowledge, so I have immense sympathy and patience for all these forgotten figures and try to give their oblivion short breaks.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Borges on Woolf

Recently I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s The Complete Shorter Fiction, a book I started reading something like a decade ago. Instead of writing about it, I realized I could use my time on the more urgent, more essential, more advantageous matter of what Jorge Luis Borges thought about the famous English novelist.

As my readers should know by now, in the mid-eighties, poet Osvaldo Ferrari and Borges met once a week to chat on national radio about whatever they felt like it. Usually Ferrari introduced the theme and asked his partner to elaborate on it. One day he brought up Virginia Woolf since Borges was known for having translated her twice.

“… I thought I did not like Virginia Woolf,” Borges commences, “or, to put it better, she didn’t interest me; but Sur magazine ordered a translation of Orlando from me. I accepted to translate it, and, as I translated it, I read it and, amazingly to me, I grew interested by it.”

The novel, the novel that he feared would be an “unreadable book,” has a “curious theme,” says Borges, namely the Sackville-West family, “that family as a platonic archetype; like a universal form – which is what scholars call archetypes. And so, to achieve that end, Virginia Woolf imagines an individual who lives in the 18th century and then reaches our own.” As always, with his usual pedantic bookishness, he downplays the originality of the concept. “This artifice had been already accomplished by Wells in one of his novels – I don’t remember which one – wherein individuals, for the novelist’s ease, to historically situate them in several epochs, live three hundred years. And Bernard Shaw also played with this idea of immortality.” And no doubt he knew that Wells, one of his favourite writers, was despised by Woolf, so it must have given tremendous pleasure to insinuate that Woolf pilfered techniques from him.

The mention of Shaw leads Ferrari to refer to Back to Methuselah, which leads Borges to one of his usual self-deprecating jokes. “Yes, except that there some individuals are long-lived and others live normally… well, at the moment I run the risk of being one of those long-lived ones, for it’s dangerous to have reached 85 years; I can reach 86 at any moment. But let’s hope not, let’s hope not to be one of those privileged or smashed by time, by lots of time, by too much time.”

Next Ferrari alludes to a second translation into Spanish: A Room of One’s Own. “Yes, now I’m going to reveal to you, since we’re alone, a secret; the book was actually translated by my mother. I revised the translation a bit, the same way she revised my translation of Orlando. The truth is we worked together; yes, A Room of One’s Own, which grabbed me less… well, the theme is, so to speak, a simple text in defence of women and of feminism. But since I’m a feminist I don’t need those texts to convince me, for I’m convinced already. Why, Virginia Woolf turned herself into a missionary of that objective, but since I share that objective I can do without missionaries. Nevertheless the book Orlando is really an admirable book.” But not without its flaws; he quickly notes that “it’s a shame that in its final pages it crumbles down; but that tends to happen in books. For instance in One Hundred Years of Solitude” (According to Alberto Manguel, Borges disliked Gabo); “it seems that solitude should not live one hundred years but eighty, no? But from the title it was necessary one hundred years of solitude.” Wait, what, Borges, what the hell are you talking about? “The author gets tired and the reader feels that tiredness… and shares it. And at the end of Orlando it seems to me there’s something, I don’t know, that I vaguely connect to diamonds, but those diamonds are a bit lost in forgetfulness; I only see the sparkle… but it’s a very, very beautiful book, and I remember a chapter, a page where Shakespeare shows up but his name isn’t said. But there isn’t a reader who doesn’t realize it’s Shakespeare. It’s a man who is watching a party in order to think about something else in the middle of a party: thinking about parties in a comedy or, perhaps, in a tragedy. But you realize it’s Shakespeare. And if she had said his name it would have ruined everything, for allusion can be more efficient than expression.” In other words, Virginia Woolf gets good marks on his chess riddle.

Then he moves on to her essays (oh, he definitely knew she didn’t like his god Wells). “I like Virginia Woolf’s books of criticism less. Referring to writers of a certain generation, she used as an example Arnold Bennett [who happens to be included in Borges’s list of favourite writers]… and it’s strange that she chose Arnold Bennett, when she could have chosen two men of genius like Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells [except she didn’t consider Wells genius, on the contrary]. I think Virginia Woolf said that Bennet had failed in what she thought was essential in a novelist, which is the creation of a character. But I think that that applied to Bennet is false, and I’m also not sure that the creation of character is the essential in a novelist. Well, I don’t know if that remark is exact, but let us consider that, after all, Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Mouse, and Laurel and Hardy are characters. So I don’t think it’s that hard to create characters, isn’t that so?, they’re constantly created; a penciller can create a character.”

Then we move on to the Ocampo sisters, Victoria and Silvina, members of Borges’ intimate circle, and their devotion to Woolf. “Victoria knew her personally, but perhaps in a rather subaltern way; because I remember that Victorian told me about a number of Sur devoted to English literature. So we put together, with Bioy Casares, a series of texts and then Victorian went about publishing a selection made by Victoria Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf in England. I didn’t want to publish many of these poems because I didn’t like them, but she said no, the number was ready, and it came out like that. Then I continued publishing in Sur the texts we had chosen, texts that had been arbitrarily excluded by Virginia Woolf and by Victorian Sackville-West. I think these two writers wanted to showcase writers from their group. I, in turn, had thought of an anthology that encompassed the whole of contemporary English literature.”

He apparently admired her father more, who was the editor of something called the English Men of Letters. “Some of the biographies of the collection he directed were admirable; for instance one of Harold Nicholson, of Swinburne, another on Edward Fitzgerald, then a study of Priestley about Meredith, which was extraordinary.”

The best part of the dialogue for me is a possible, discernible subtext that Borges couldn’t care less about Woolf. All the time Ferrari tries to get Borges into a conversation about feminism and he just shoos him away. “Of course; and before I read her I already thought the same thing,” he says when the other argues that Ocampo and Woolf promoted the struggle for the rights of women. Ferrari insists and mentions a letter Victoria Ocampo wrote to Woolf about the oppression women suffered at the time. “Yes, well, now it seems we’re all entitled to the right of oppression and asphyxiation, isn’t that true? Men also; unfortunately we can know that melancholy privilege that used to be exclusive to women.” That’s a great riposte for a man whose country had just come out of a dictatorship.

But here’s the punchline. “I remember Victoria Ocampo told Virginia Woolf that she originated from the Argentinean Republic, and so Virginia Woolf replied that she thought she could imagine that country; and imagined a scene of people in a garden or in a prairie, drinking refreshments, at night, in a place with trees and fireflies. And Victoria courteously said to her that that indeed corresponded to the Argentinean Republic.”

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza & Gabriel García Márquez: The Fragrance of Guava

Not long before he received the Nobel Prize, Gabriel García Márquez agreed to sit down with his long-time friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, who had worked in journalism with him since their early adulthood, for the interview to end all interviews. García Márquez did not like renown but One Hundred Years of Solitude had made him world famous and he was constantly pestered about giving interviews and talking to journalists, reporters and academics. A French editor, who was initiating a collection of book-length interviews with famous writers, approached Apuleyo Mendoza to convinced his old friend to join in. When he probed the great novelist, he liked the idea. “That’s a terrific idea. Don’t you see, that way we could get my interviews over and done with for ever.” The book was called The Fragrance of Guava and came out the same year the Swedish Academy gave him the Nobel Prize. If he thought he’d never have to worry about interviews again, he was dead wrong.

By the time García Márquez passed away, earlier this year, I had already read all his essential fiction: Strange Pilgrims and all the stories in Collected Stories, Leaf Storm, No One Writes to the Colonel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Memories of my Melancholy Whores, In Evil Hour, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch, Love in the Time of Cholera, The General in his Labyrinth and Of Love and other Demons. There was a time in my reading life, back in high school, when the curricular books were (and are) unbearable to me, when García Márquez was the greatest writer in the world and One Hundred Years of Solitude the greatest novel ever written. I don’t think that anymore but for a young reader, slowly discovering literature, it was a miraculous floating piece of wood come to rescue me amidst the hostile sea of humourless solemnity and cult of pain that is and has always been, with few exceptions, Portuguese letters. Even now the saga of Macondo, with its mixture of fantasy and realism, its ghosts, magical artefacts and apparitions, its non-linear structure and baroque language, constrains my conception of what literature should be.

Gabo’s photograph has adorned my blog for months now until I had an occasion to write something in his memory. The Spanish Literature Month finally gives me that occasion. The Fragrance of Guava is a carefree book put together by two friends who felt like chatting informally about everything: memories, childhood, family, books, love, politics, fame, superstition, books, a book brimming with humanity and good disposition. I sense Gabo’s immense trust in Apuleyo Mendoza as he opened himself up to him, a friend who had been with him since the worst periods of his life and whose friendship continued through the good ones.

This book of evocations begins in Arataca, in a house full of relatives: his grandmother who told him stories full of ghosts and mysteries in a deadpan, serious tone, without astonishment or surprise; his grandfather, a retired colonel of many civil wars against conservative forces who filled Gabo’s young mind with war stories and showed him his war wounds, the reason why civil wars show up so often in his fiction; his mother, who as she grew older came to resemble the legendary Úrsula more and more; and his father, a conservative telegraph operator, for that reason despised by the liberal colonel, who courted his daughter so obstinately that he gave in. Family and friends were important to him and he himself liked being a family man. He met Mercedes, his future wife, when she was 13 and he straight away proposed to marry her. But they had to wait another decade. Together they had two children and Gabo claims that “my true vocation is to be a dad: I like being one, the most wonderful experience in my love was to help raise my two children, and I think that the best thing I did in my life are not my books but rather my children.” Mercedes managed his life while he shut himself for almost two years to write One Hundred Years of Solitude, she was the one who provided him with everything he needed to continue his work unmolested, going so far as to sell her car for money. When he finished the novel and mailed the manuscript, she asked, “What if the novel isn’t any good after all?” Fortunately it would be the greatest success of his life. Gabo never forgets the people he loves in his books. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, for instance, is narrated by him and his mother shows up in it under her real name. And Mercedes shows up in One Hundred Years of Solitude. His family and friends are present in his books, “signs to my most intimate friends, signs only they can discover” and that elude the critics, a pontificating class of people he has no patience for. Uh-oh…

Arataca, until the death of his grandfather when he was 8, was the joyous period of his life. Then he was taken to the capital, where he pursued and abandoned a Law degree and found a career in journalism, moving around Colombia, living in Cartagena and then in a small town called Barranquilla. As a young man he lived a bohemian, dissolute life: heavy drinking, chain smoking, literary meetings at bars, visits to brothels; as a journalist he had the “same schedules as prostitutes” and rented a cheap room in a whorehouse to live in. His first years as a writer were hard because success was slow to come, because of his political sympathies and because of the wide social divides in Colombian society; he came from the wrong background, had the wrong name, dressed the wrong way to make an impression on the elite that controlled the country, an elite that lived in ignorance of the actual country it ruled. In order to attest this disparity, Apuleyo Mendoza tells that when Gabo accepted the Nobel Prize, he wore the traditional Colombian liqui liqui costume. His friend was asked by “elegant ladies from Bogota” why the author had “suited up like a cook” to receive it.

His first book, Leaf Storm (1955) was written in the early hours of the morning, in the newspaper’s newsroom, after finishing his shift. Sometimes he was so poor that in order to get credit in the brothels he entrusted the manuscript to the bouncer, who knew how precious those pages were to him. Before he became a novelist, Gabo wanted to become a poet and read lots of poetry: Rimbaud and the poets who revolutionized Spanish-language poetry like Rubén Darío and Pablo Neruda. Then he changed to novels: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, Flaubert, Joyce, Woolf, Hemingway, Graham Greene, Faulkner and Kafka, who showed him a non-rationalistic way of writing. He discusses at length magical realism. During childhood he tethered between the supernatural world of his grandmother and the rationality of the colonel. Fascinated by her stories, they nevertheless filled him with dread too. “My grandfather, in turn, was for me the absolute safety inside my grandmother’s uncertain world. Only with him did my anguish disappear and did I feel with my feet on the ground and well installed in the life. What’s strange, thinking about it now, is that I wanted to be like my grandfather – realistic, tough, safe – but I couldn’t resist the constant temptation of getting closer to my grandmother’s world.” Kafka, especially The Metamorphosis (translated into Spanish by Borges), introduced him to a way of writing that was similar to the way his grandmother told stories and that showed him how he wanted to write. Even so, to my surprise he claims to detest “fantasy.” “Because I believe that imagination is just an instrument for elaborating reality. But the source of creation, in the end, is always reality. And fantasy, that is, plain and simple invention, a la Walt Disney, without any basis on reality, is the most detestable thing.” For this reason he credits journalism (and I suppose Hemingway) with “teaching me resources to give validity to my stories.” According to him, his flights of fancy are realistic because women need bed sheets to fly into the air and men need cups of chocolate to levitate 10 centimeters off the ground; “the rigour of a journalist,” he says. Hm. Even weirder is when he claims that “In my novels there isn’t one line that isn’t based on reality.” Hm-mm. Inspiration for him merely means “a reconciliation with the theme on the strength of tenacity and mastery.” In other words, hard work; now that’s sensible talk. At the time he kept a rigid schedule, writing from 9 to 15 every day and carefully editing each sentence in order to be perfect, so that it could be ready to be given to an editor without mistakes or corrections.

Gabo reveals a lot about his creative process and the specific process of writing certain of his novels. For instance, in order to overcome the structural difficulty posed by Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which he wanted to end with the minute description of the crime, he claims that he simply inserted himself in the book in order to “walk at his leisure back and forth in the novel’s structural time. I mean, at the end of thirty years I discovered something that we, novelists, many times forget: that the best literary form is always the truth.” His books always start with a visual image; the one for One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance, started with the image of colonel taking Gabo to go see ice when he was a little boy. That became the novel’s first sentence. Although this was the novel that catapulted his name onto the world stage, he accuses it of “almost ruining my life. After published, nothing was the same again” because “fame disturbs the sense of reality, perhaps as much as power, and besides it’s a constant threat to private life.” He was wary of fame. “It bothers me, the worst thing that can happen to a man who doesn’t have a vocation for literary success, in a continent unprepared to have successful writers, is to have his books sell like hot dogs. I detest transforming myself into a public spectacle. I detest television, congresses, conferences, round tables…” During the ceremony in Sweden, Gabo whispered to Apuleyo Mendoza, standing next to him, “Shit, this is like watching your own funeral!”

In the 2005 preface he wrote for the Portuguese edition, Apuleyo Mendoza reveals that although at the time of the interviews Gabo’s considered The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) his best book, his preference later changed to Love in the Time of Cholera. He was not overly fond of One Hundred Years of Solitude, calling it even “superficial” and believing he could surpass it. To him he did just that with The Autumn of the Patriarch. “Literarily speaking, my most important work, the one that can save me from oblivion, is The Autumn of the Patriarch,” because it’s the novel “I always wanted to write, and besides it’s the one where I took further my personal confessions.” His main drive to write this spectacular novel, which he conceived as a “poem on the solitude of power,” was because no one had yet written “Latin American dictator novel.” Although Miguel Ángel Asturia’s The President had been published in 1946, both are quick to decry it, which validates my own negative impression when I read it. Originally he wanted to write the novel as a long monologue by the dictator sentenced to death, but scraped that idea. “First of all, it was anti-historical: dictators either died of old age in their beds, or were killed, or ran away. But they weren’t tried. Secondly, the monologue would have restricted me to the dictator’s single point of view and to his own language.” Interesting, what Roa Bastos would have to say about this? In this novel he mixed times (a sunken US war ship shares the sea next to Columbus’ caravels) and geographies, going for a synthesis of reality rather than an accurate depiction of one regime. But although he wanted to write the Latin American dictator novel, he was conscious that simultaneously a series of novels on the same topic had come out creating a subgenre: Roa Bastos’ I, the Supreme (1974), Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State (1974) and Arturo Uslar Pietri’s Oficio de difuntos (1976). About this coincidence he says: “I don’t think it was a sudden interest. The theme has been a constant in Latin-American literature since its origins, and I suppose it’ll continue to be. That’s understandable because the dictator is the only mythological personality created by Latin America, and his historical cycle is far from being concluded.”

Sadly the book can’t delve into Love in the Time of Cholera, his last great book. I cherry-picked what I imagined would be the most interesting facts for book lovers, so I’m not going to include his meetings with politicians, his personal politics, or his take on superstitions. But I have to make an exception for his friendship with Fidel Castro, a voracious reader, a lover of literature, and his proofreader. He was in Cuba when he published The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor and Castro “went to my hotel just to tell me that there was a miscalculation on the boat’s speed,” which turned out to be true. Castro has a keen mind and a great culture and is capable of spotting these little mistakes with hawk-like precision. “So that before I published Chronicle of a Death Foretold, I took the manuscript to him and he pointed out a mistake on the details of hunting rifles.” There you have it, his books were proofread by Castro himself. How can this man continue to surprise and amuse after he's left us?

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.