June 2011

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Looking for the Absolute: Rojas, Sabato and Macho Man

Obits have strength in numbers. One famous person dies, and we become extra-sensitive to the next to go. If Hulk Hogan were to go right after Macho Man wouldn´t we expect something from Big Show? Any more than that and we would begin to sense cosmic conspiracy. (I think this works for tornadoes, floods and earthquakes too.)

April was like that. First, the Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas died. Then two weeks later, Argentine author Ernesto Sábato went. Did this have something to do with all the book fairs in Madrid, Buenos Aires, Bogota? Had publishers been secretly awaiting their deaths, putting the last touches on their posthumous works, their unpublished letters? Well, if they had been, they must have been doing so for quite a while with both writers edging their existence close to the one hundred year mark.

A hundred years in literature. The way I can remember Charles in Charge episodes, a nonagenarian man of letters might remember reading Apollinaire’s “The Zone” for the first time. For those that live for literature, dying with it seems like something admirable, like we're supposed to continue on in the afterlife; as a friend some sixty years my senior once asked, “Do I want to go to heaven? Are there good books there?”  

For Gonzalo Rojas’s sake I hope there is poetry after death. Although he was remembered as the last living member of the Chilean literary movement, Mandragora, he spent more time being Gonzalo Rojas than anything else. When asked about surrealism, he often said that the only Chilean surrealist was the painter Robert Matta, and other real surrealist in Latin America was Mexican Octavio Paz.

Rojas wanted to be a poet where that was like being a jazz musician in New Orleans.

Her had Vincente Huidobro as professor. Huidobro had set the bar for Chilean poets rather high in terms of European recognition -- having published a poem in the magazine Nord-Sud from which the term surreal would derive (something I discovered in Mark Polizzotto’s biography Revolution of the Mind). He also wrote the first truly avante book of poetry in the continent, Arctic Express in 1918. But there were plenty of other, younger, admirable poets. Gabriela Mistral, to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1945, had already published a few collections of verse. Pablo Neruda -- whose Twenty Love Poems Rojas encountered when he was fifteen -- was no less daunting: already with ins with the poetes of Paris and stakes in the Spanish Civil War. Where would Rojas find Rojas in all of this?

In an interview not long before his death Rojas remembered 1938 in Chile as a epoch when ideology, theory and the letters were tied together: from Mandragora, to the Aguirristas (the "broke artists"), to more marginal groups like Chilean Falangistas who supported a Fascist Spain. Rojas began writing poems at the height of the isms and never seem to succumb to any. Isms are used like curse words in his literary essays. Even after meeting Breton in the early 1950s -- thanks to Octavio Paz -- Rojas never adhered to any of the Surrealist Pope’s dogmatism.

Throughout his long life he remained an uncompromising experimenter. For a while he thought of poetic gatherings as a sort of literary intervention, organizing among others, the literary festival in Concepción, Chile that would unite Nicanor Parra with the somewhat like-minded Beats, along with other divisive figures in Latin America (among them Ernesto Sabato). Carlos Fuentes has even suggested these literary festivals was the beginning of the "boom," uniting authors that although wrote in the same language, where divided by great distances. However, that international network quickly ruptured when Rojas was forced into exile after the Augosto Pinochet’s coup.

Despite some tours in the United States he was never nearly as widely read as his peers. John Oliver Simon translated the only anthology of his poetry in English for Green Integer some years ago. Simon wrote about his time with Rojas in Chile on his blog:

We drive through forest and vineyard toward the rock and snow of the Chilean cordillera. Here, by the cabin he named El Torreón del Renegado, the Tower of the Renegade, Don Gonzalo is haunted by the death of his wife Hilda. She built this wooden table that overlooks the river. They sat side by side here on these rocks when she told him about the cancer. It was a lung cancer, virulently fast; she had never smoked. “She was very brave,” he says. “She only cried the one time. She was a ballerina.”

Rojas, like Neruda, found great inspiration in women; like the Loud Reed song says, Rojas liked women: noses, feet, thighs, teeth. He once told a Spanish journalist he was a physiological poet, not a metaphysical one. But it’s not Rojas's eroticism that I find intriguing; I’m much more interested in his understanding of language. See, Rojas stuttered when he was young, an experience he cited in his understanding of words in their relationship to breath. Unlike say Huidobro who axed the comma along with rhyme, Rojas’s commas are like oral life-savers for a suffocated reader. This is most obvious in his poem, “Respiratory Exercise” (crudely rendered here)

By chance

stuttered are the lines from the Iliad
in which the entire world is written, with
a stutter and a lisp and
asphyxia, and the rocking
of the boats demands rhythm, Homer
saw God.

The same sort of view is at work in “Word,” which likewise presents language as vocal presence. The poem is practically untranslatable because the “word” is “aire,” or air in English, with sans the r-color vowel, plus the dip-thong, is basically the mouth widening to release air unhindered by fricatives.

“Air” also breathes in Rojas' poem “Against Death” (trans. John Oliver Smith):

They talk to me of God or talk of History. I laugh
that it’s so far to seek the explanation of the hunger
that devours me, the hunger to live like the sun
in the grace of air, eternally.

Of course, the period after “eternally” casts some doubt as to how eternal such verbal presence is.

While Rojas met with Mandragora, Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato was at the Les Deux Magots in Paris. Naturally, Sabato, a novelist, was more famous; his death made front page news in Latin America. Sabato was a bit too early for the “boom” writers, studying physics in Europe until the early days of Existentialism.  His only book translated to English still in print is his novella The Tunnel, something like Knut Hamsun's Hunger with a talkative but embittered protagonist, Juan Pablo Castel, a Modernist painter. No one seems to get his work except for the women he loves, Maria who he seduces, marries -- and then murders.

Sure, it´s got Dostoevsky written all over it. In fact there´s a whole conversation about the difficulties reading Russian literature in translation. "There are lots of ways to pronounce Russian names," says Juan Pablo. "I guess that´s why I read a Spanish edition that spelled Tolstoy with an umlaut," someone responds. The Parisians begin to complain about the way editors handle words appropriated from French. Then Juan Pablo starts to complain that the Parisians pronounce the names of Russian authors as though they were French. International pedantry at its best. Camus liked the book and wished Sabato the best for its future, and supported its translation in French. That of course helped with sales in Argentina: as Sabato wrote in a forward to Witold Gomrbowicz’s Ferdydurke, no one in Argentina got it because it wasn’t French.

Most of Sabato’s other books deal with Argentina, which is probably why they never had much of an audience outside of the Hispanophone world (that or because he mostly wrote nonfiction). He often seems to pertain to that species of writers common in Latin America: more public intellectual -- prolific essayist and critic -- than innovator; and there's plenty to be said for such stately men of letters, only that their work hardly survives in foreign waters.

When I heard these authors' last interviews, I was struck by how old age had humanized them. Despite their fame and triumphant moments of erudition, their pregnant and pensive pauses, one senses that for both of them the real glory was always on the page. That can’t be coincidental. Sabato remembers meeting E.M. Cioran -- in his memoir written shortly before his death -- and cites something the Romanian philosopher once said: “Everything can suffocate man, except for the necessity of the Absolute.”