Monday, July 9, 2018


William Herrick

Fifty years ago, in March 1939, the city of Madrid, capital of republican Spain, surrendered to Generalissimo Francisco Franco, and his complete victory in Spain soon followed. The pain still lingers, especially for Ramon Sender Barayon. It was this pain that sent him on a quest to find the truth about his mother, Amparo, who died when he was but a toddler, and also to find her murderer. ''A Death in Zamora'' is like Nicholas Gage's memorable ''Eleni.'' Mr. Gage's mother was murdered by a Communist firing squad during the civil war in Greece; Amparo Barayon was murdered by a fascist executioner in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War - the extreme right and the extreme left joined in efforts to murder the decent and the sane, each for its particular ''good cause.''

Mr. Sender Barayon was raised in New York State by Julia Davis, a generous writer, after his father had brought him and his younger sister, Andrea, to this country in 1939. For many years he and Andrea, who was a baby when their mother died, kept asking their father about what had happened to their mother. Their father, Ramon J. Sender, the great Spanish novelist, for reasons unknown, perhaps wanting to spare his children the tragic details, always responded evasively.

Ramon Sender had only one peer among Spanish writers of the 20th century, the Basque novelist Pio Baroja. Sender was given almost every literary prize his compatriots had to offer, even those awarded during Franco's brutal dictatorship, though Sender refused to return to Spain during that reign. He did, however, return when Franco lay on his deathbed, and he was greeted by enthusiastic crowds and hailed in headlines. He also received death threats from both the far left and the far right, and bodyguards were needed to protect him. What better measure of a man's worth?

Sender had been sympathetic to revolutionary anarcho-syndicalism, and became friendly with the Communists shortly before and early in the civil war. Then, confronted by the murderous power moves of the Communists, he became stubbornly and outspokenly anti-Communist from a pro-working class point of view, and remained so the rest of his life. He died in January 1982 in San Diego, leaving two sons by two different mothers, a daughter, several women who loved him and 80 works in print, among which is at least one masterpiece, ''Seven Red Sundays,'' a story about a revolutionary uprising in Madrid. This magnificent novel, now out of print in this country, would do honor to any publisher who reissued it.

In July 1936, Sender and his wife, along with their two small children, were on vacation in San Rafael with some of Sender's relatives. Hearing of the nationalist uprising against the young democratic republic, Sender and several other people left San Rafael, walking over the mountains to join the militia fighting against the mutinous army. Before leaving, he told his wife to destroy any papers he had brought with him and to take the children to Zamora, her native town.

It turned out to be a tragic blunder. (Was it guilt for this blunder that later muted Sender's tongue about these events?) It reminds one of the similar mistake made at the time by Spain's great poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was in Madrid when the war broke out and decided to return to Granada, his native city, where he would be among family and friends. What could happen to him there? The same thing that happened to Amparo Barayon, who was murdered in a cemetery where there was no place to hide from trigger-happy Falangist killers except in unmarked graves.

At the outbreak of the civil war, republicans, anarchists, socialists and Communists - caught in enclaves controlled by the extreme right - were murdered by the tens of thousands. On the other hand, nuns, priests, conservatives and extreme right-wingers in enclaves controlled by the extreme left were also murdered by the tens of thousands. The exact number of unarmed victims has never been certified.

It was after his father died that Mr. Sender Barayon decided to search for his mother and her murderer. First he reread several of his father's books; he had been told that his mother was the prototype for one or another character in them. The search then took him to Spain - to Barcelona, Madrid, San Rafael, Zamora. He met aunts from his father's and mother's families, and cousins as well. Two of his mother's brothers, he learned, had also been killed by extreme-right executioners. He found childhood friends of his mother, learned that she had been an excellent pianist and met people who had worked with her for the telephone company in Zamora and later in Madrid.

It was in Madrid that she met Ramon Sender, already a famous man, and lived with him in free love, as it was then called. She later married him in a civil ceremony, not in a Catholic church, and that counted against her when she was marked for execution: her priest and confessor refused her absolution before she was shot. Her betrayer, her brother-in-law Miguel Sevilla, later said it was at her confession that she invoked her own death penalty. But a contemporary journal wondered ''whether the secret of confession was so devaluated in those days, or whether Sevilla only pretended to know to excuse himself for not having moved a finger to save his sister-in-law.''

The most poignant narrative in the book is that of an old woman named Pilar, who, with her daughter, was in prison when Amparo Barayon was brought there with her baby, Andrea. Before she was taken away to die, Amparo gave Pilar a note for Ramon Sender (later torn up and eaten by Pilar out of fear). She also secreted a note in her baby's clothing. It was eventually found by agents of the International Red Cross when they were delivering the baby and her brother to their father, who had escaped into France as the Falangists took control of Spain.

On Oct. 11, 1936, in the cemetery of Zamora, Amparo was shot by one Segundo Viloria, a former suitor whom she had rejected, a trigger man on a Falangist execution squad during the war. It was not unusual during the Spanish Civil War for killing squads of the right and left to murder their victims in cemeteries - it was more convenient that way. Viloria eventually died insane in a government institution. Amparo's betrayer, Miguel Sevilla, had to leave his native village and died a pariah; the priest who had refused Amparo absolution before she was shot was later sent away from the town in disgrace by his church superiors.

''A Death in Zamora'' is not well organized. At times it is even confusing; which of its conclusions are verifiable and which are assumptions is not always clear. But it is a very moving document. Ramon Sender Barayon, about whom we learn too little, in the end discovers who his mother was: a lovely, independent woman, who lived with passion, who was devoted to her children and who had married a famous revolutionary writer. For all that she was murdered.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 1989 in The New York Times.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

"I Don’t Know" by Wislawa Szymborska

They say that the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one’s behind me. But I have a feeling that the sentences to come—the third, the sixth, the tenth, and so on, up to the final line—will be just as hard, since I’m supposed to talk about poetry. I’ve said very little on the subject—next to nothing, in fact. And whenever I have said anything, I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that I’m not very good at it. This is why my lecture will be rather short. Imperfection is easier to tolerate in small doses.

Contemporary poets are skeptical and suspicious even, or perhaps especially, about themselves. They confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it. But in our clamorous times it’s much easier to acknowledge your faults, at least if they’re attractively packaged, than to recognize your merits, since these are hidden deeper and you never quite believe in them yourself. When they fill out questionnaires or chat with strangers—that is, when they can’t avoid revealing their profession—poets prefer to use the general term “writer,” or to replace “poet” with the name of whatever job they do in addition to writing. Bureaucrats and bus passengers respond with a touch of incredulity and alarm when they discover that they’re dealing with a poet. I suppose philosophers meet with a similar reaction. Still, they are in a better position, since as often as not they can embellish their calling with some kind of scholarly title. Professor of philosophy: now that sounds much more respectable.

But there are no professors of poetry. That would mean, after all, that poetry is an occupation requiring specialized study, regular examinations, theoretical articles with bibliographies and footnotes attached and, finally, ceremoniously conferred diplomas. And this would mean, in turn, that it’s not enough to cover pages with even the most exquisite poems in order to become a poet. The crucial element is some slip of paper bearing an official stamp. Let us recall that the pride of Russian poetry, the future Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, was once sentenced to internal exile precisely on such grounds. They called him a “parasite,” since he lacked official certification granting him the right to be a poet.

Several years ago, I had the honor and the pleasure of meeting Brodsky in person. And I noticed that, of all the poets I’ve known, he was the only one who enjoyed calling himself a poet. He pronounced the word without inhibitions. Just the opposite: he spoke it with defiant freedom. This must have been, it seems to me, because he recalled the brutal humiliations that he experienced in his youth.

In more fortunate countries, where human dignity isn’t assaulted so readily, poets yearn, of course, to be published, read and understood, but they do little, if anything, to set themselves above the common herd and the daily grind. It wasn’t so long ago, in this century’s first decades, that poets strove to shock us with their extravagant dress and their eccentric behavior. But all this was merely for the sake of public display. The moment always came when poets had to close the doors behind them, strip off their mantles, fripperies and other poetic paraphernalia and confront—silently, patiently awaiting their own selves—the still-white sheet of paper. For finally this is what really counts.

It’s not accidental that film biographies of great scientists and artists are produced in droves. The more ambitious directors seek to reproduce convincingly the creative process that led to important scientific discoveries or to the emergence of masterpieces. And one can depict certain kinds of scientific labor with some success. Laboratories, sundry instruments, elaborate machinery brought to life: such scenes may hold an audience’s interest for a while. And those moments of uncertainty—will the experiment, conducted for the thousandth time with some tiny modification, finally yield the desired result?--can be quite dramatic. Films about painters can be spectacular, as they go about recreating every stage of a famous painting’s evolution, from the first penciled line to the final brush stroke. And music swells in films about composers: the first bars of the melody that rings in the musician’s ears finally emerge as a mature work in symphonic form. Of course this is all quite naive and doesn’t explain the strange mental state popularly known as inspiration, but at least there’s something to look at and to listen to.

But poets are the worst. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down several lines, only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens. Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?

I’ve mentioned inspiration. Contemporary poets answer evasively when asked what it is, and if it actually exists. It’s not that they’ve never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It’s just not easy to explain to someone else what you don’t understand yourself. When I’m asked about this on occasion, I hedge, too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists. There is, there has been, there will always be, a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners—I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem that they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.” There aren’t many such people. Most of the earth’s inhabitants work to get by. They work because they have to. They didn’t pick this or that kind of job out of passion; the circumstances of their lives did the choosing for them. Loveless work, boring work, work valued only because others haven’t even got that much—this is one of the harshest human miseries. And there’s no sign that the coming centuries will produce any changes for the better as far as this goes.

And so, though I deny poets their monopoly on inspiration, I still place them in a select group of Fortune’s darlings.

THIS IS WHY I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include spaces within us as well as the outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones, and, at best, he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know,” she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and have ended her days performing that perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement; but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, absolutely inadequate. So poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paper clip by literary historians and called their “oeuvres.”

I sometimes dream of a situation that can’t possibly come true. I audaciously imagine that I have a chance to chat with Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavors. I bow very deeply before him, because he is one of the greatest poets, for me at least. Then I grab his hand. “There’s nothing new under the sun”: that’s what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn’t read your poem. And that cypress under which you’re sitting hasn’t been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same.

And Ecclesiastes, I’d also like to ask: What new thing under the sun are you planning to work on now? A further supplement to thoughts that you’ve already expressed? Or maybe you’re tempted to contradict some of them? In your earlier work you mentioned joy—so what if it’s fleeting? So maybe your new-under-the-sun poem will be about joy? Have you taken notes yet, do you have drafts? I doubt that you’ll say, “I’ve written everything down, I’ve got nothing left to add.” There’s no poet in the world who can say this, least of all a great poet like yourself.

The world—whatever we might think when we’re terrified by its vastness and our impotence, embittered by its indifference to the individual suffering of people, animals and perhaps even plants (for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain?); whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets that we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead, still dead, we just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world—it is astonishing.

But “astonishing” is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We’re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness to which we’ve grown accustomed. But the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and it isn’t based on a comparison with something else.

Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases such as “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events.” But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighted, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.

It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.

-Translated from Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
© The Nobel Foundation, 1996.

Credits: The New Republic

Wednesday, June 27, 2018



AWAKE! For Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.


Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
"Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry."


And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted – "Open then the Door!
You know how little while we have to stay,
And once departed, may return no more."


Now the New Year reviving old Desires,
The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires,
Where the WHITE HAND OF MOSES on the bough
Puts out, and Jesus from the Ground suspires.


Iram indeed is gone with all its Rose,
And Jamshyd's Sev'n-ring'd Cup where no-one knows;
But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields,
And still a Garden by the Water blows.


And David's Lips are lock't; but in divine
High piping Pehlevi, with "Wine! Wine! Wine! Red Wine!" —
the Nightingale cries to the Rose
That yellow Cheek of her's to incarnadine.


Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way To fly —
and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.


Whether at Naishapur or Babylon
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop;
The Leaves of Life keep dropping One by One.


And look — a thousand Blossoms with the Day Woke —
and a thousand scatter'd into Clay:
And this first Summer Month that brings the Rose
Shall take Jamshyd and Kaikobad away.


Well let it take them, what have we to do
With Kaikobad and Kaikhosru?
Let Zal and Rustum thunder as they will
Or Hatim call to supper — heed not you.


With me along some Strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of slave and Sultan scarce is known,
And pity Mahmud on his golden Throne.


Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and
Thou Beside me singing in the wilderness —
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.


"How sweet is mortal Sovranty!" – think some:
Others – "How blest the Paradise to come!"
Ah, take the Cash and let the Credit go
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!


Were it not Folly, Spider-like to spin
The Thread of present Life away to win
What? For ourselves who know not if we shall
Breathe out the very Breath we now breathe in!


Look to the Rose that blows about us –
"Lo, Laughing," she says, "into the
World I blow: At once the silken Tassel of my
Purse Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw."


The Worldly Hope men set their
Hearts upon Turns Ashes – or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert's dusty
Face Lighting a little Hour or two – is gone.


And those who husbanded the Golden Grain,
And those who flung it to the Winds like Rain,
Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn'd
As, buried once, Men want dug up again.


Think, in this batter'd Caravanserai
Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp Abode his
Hour or two, and went his way.


They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep;
And Bahram, that great Hunter – the Wild Ass
Stamps o'er his head, but cannot break his Sleep.


I sometimes think that never blows so red
The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;
That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Dropt in its Lap from some once lovely Head.


And this delightful Herb whose tender Green Fledges
the River's Lip on which we lean —
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!


Ah, my Beloved, fill the cup that clears
TO-DAY of past Regrets and future Fears —
Tomorrow? — Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n Thousand Years


For some we loved, the loveliest and the best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest.


And we, that now make merry in the Room
They left, and Summer dresses in new Bloom,
Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth
Descend, ourselves to make a Couch – for whom?


Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and — sans End!


Alike for those who for TO-DAY prepare,
And those that after a TO-MORROW stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries "Fools!
Your reward is neither Here nor There!"


Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss'd
Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter'd, and their mouths are stopt with Dust.


Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the
Wise To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.


Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great
Argument About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door where in I went.


With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hand labour’d it to grow:
And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd —
"I came like Water, and like Wind I go."

Credits:  Translation by Edward Fitzgerald.  This entire poem (adapted for performance) can be found at The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Marginalia (André Breton)

Kathryn A. Kopple

Surrealism as art verbal or otherwise may be adored or despised--and perhaps the latter was a perverse measure of success for practitioners who rejected acceptance in any form and on any terms. Nevertheless, you always risk becoming what you devour, and setting yourself up as the enemy of a life lived most comfortably has yet affected the demand for, say, sofas, timetables, and fruit salad. The bourgeoisie consume these products, in addition to great quantities of stuff Surrealism tried desperately to expunge from daily life. But, alas, fashion, Hollywood, and advertising made (some might say, easy) commerce out of the likes Cocteau,  Miró, Man Ray, and Dalí.

In 2007, London's Victoria & Albert Museum put on "Surreal Things," an exhibition that explored the relation between art and commerce; the exhibition was less about relations and more about marriage. Somewhere along the line, Surrealism married itself to consumerism. Divorce, at this stage, is unlikely. For those who dislike Surrealism (or the avant-garde), you can easily get revenge by purchasing--say--a poster of "The Gift;" to do so is as if you were hammering another nail in the coffin that contains the scandalous origins of the Surrealist movement (and there is no doubt that coffin is also up for sale).

In 1924, André Breton penned "The Surrealist Manifesto." The "Manifesto" is full of pronouncements: "Christopher Columbus should have set out to discover America with a boatload of madmen."; "Paul Valéry who, some time ago, speaking of novels, assured me that, so far as he was concerned, he would continue to refrain from writing: 'The Marquise went out at five.'”; "Hugo is Surrealist when he isn't stupid." A boatload of madmen bound for the Indies? Some would call that history, not surrealism--unless you happen to be Breton. He is often quoted as referring to Mexico as  the most surrealist country in the world. (Apparently, he had trouble finding his way around).

Perhaps one of the greatest scandals committed by Breton was his foray into politics.  He joined the French Communist Party in 1927 (and was expelled in 1933).  Always a determined renegade, Breton warded off anything remotely doctrinaire by exploring revolutionary politics through mythology and occultism. In 1848, Karl Marx in "The Communist Manifesto" warned of a "specter" haunting Europe; seventy-eight years later, Breton responded with trances and seances.

Breton was a singular champion of the imagination. He wished to unfetter thought and un-cage the mind. He detested mechanization and rationality, both of which represented for him an assault on imagination and fantasy. 'To reduce the imagination to a state of slavery – even though it would mean the elimination of what is commonly called happiness – is to betray all sense of absolute justice within oneself," Breton writes in his manifesto. Society forces people into this condition of slavery over a period of time and with age:  the innocence of childhood is put in a lock box; play is outlawed; reverie is vilified.  The result is a society of sick individuals in dire need of a cure.  Fantasy is that cure.

Breton's fascination with fantasy and dreams is regularly attributed to Sigmund Freud, and with reason; in his manifesto, he applauds Freud's recognition of the importance of dreams, and yet this admiration for Freud is willful.  Freud was focused on the dreamer (patient) whereas Breton was interested dreams for their own sake.  This subversive approach to Freud speaks to the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Breton.  According to Tanguy L’Aminot:

Rôle capital de Jean-Jacques donc dans la formation de la pensée d’André Breton et dans la genèse du surréalisme. Et pas de n’importe quel Jean-Jacques ! En indiquant les deux textes politiques de Rousseau les plus discutés à cette époque, Breton marque la rupture et revendique cet auteur sous sa forme la plus révolutionnaire.

For Breton (for L'Aminot), only children know what it means to harbor secret wishes and celebrate their dreams. Hence it is Rousseau, author of Emile, who aids and abets Breton in his argument that the un-imaginative, grown-up life is hardly worth living. 

The surrealist politics of psychic and sexual transgression continue as inspiration and dismay.  Some decry what they describe as the surrealist hangover; others (many others) have found aesthetic purpose in dreams, magic, occultism,  and mythology.  These days, however, it is as though one becomes a surrealist by default.  Surrealism has lost a good deal of its association with Breton's ideas and tends to be used as short hand for whatever is deemed exotic.  

And then there is the Surrealist contradiction with respect to freedom of expression.  Weirdly,  for a movement devoted to freedom of expression, the methods of the Surrealists are very much rule-bound. From free association to ink blot drawings to cut-outs, much of what passes as spontaneous is in fact manufactured--and not by design.  Breton wished more than anything to find new avenues of creativity; it is just that the avenues have stop lights, street signs and apartment numbers. Surrealism is full of instructions and imperatives.  There is a great deal of structure and logic to the madness.

It's hardly surprising that some of the most famous Surrealists adored the game of chess.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Rulfo: Immortal Scribe of the Dead

Ariel Dorfman

How to explain that the centenary of the man who was arguably Mexico’s greatest writer passed last year with barely a notice in the United States?

Juan Rulfo (1917–1986), rightly revered in Mexico and outside, is regarded as one of the most influential Latin American writers of all time. In the United States, too, he has been hailed, in The New York Times Book Review, as one of the “immortals,” and acclaimed by Susan Sontag as a “master storyteller” responsible for “one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century world literature.”

One reason for the surprising neglect of Rulfo today may be that his reputation rested on a slender harvest of work, essentially on two books that appeared in the 1950s. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that with the magnificent short stories of El Llano en Llamas (1953) and, above all, with his 1955 novel Pedro Páramo, set in the fictional town of Comala, Rulfo changed the course of Latin American fiction. Though his entire published work did not amount to much more than three hundred pages, “those are almost as many, and I believe as durable,” Gabriel García Márquez said, “as the pages that have come down to us from Sophocles.” Without Rulfo’s groundbreaking work, which blended the regional realism and social critique then in vogue with high-modernist experimentation, it is hard to imagine that Márquez could have composed One Hundred Years of Solitude. Nor, probably, would we possess the marvels created by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rosario Castellanos, José María Arguedas, Elena Poniatowska, Juan Carlos Onetti, Sergio Ramírez, Antonio di Benedetto, or younger writers such as Roberto Bolaño, Carmen Boullosa, Juan Villoro, or Juan Gabriel Vásquez, among others.

What beguiled all these authors was Rulfo’s uncanny ability to give a lyrical majesty and distinct rhythm to the terse colloquial speech of the poorest Mexican peasants. That achievement may also explain why Rulfo is less esteemed in North America today, for it led to a literary style that was, alas, difficult to translate; the English versions of his work rarely preserve the magic of the Spanish original.

Another reason for Rulfo’s being overlooked may have been his own reticence and publicity-shyness, a refusal to play the celebrity game. Rulfo cultivated silence to a degree that became legendary. My friend Antonio Skármeta, the renowned author of Il Postino, told me that when he was about to be interviewed for a TV show one day in Buenos Aires, he saw Jorge Luis Borges and Rulfo coming out of the studio. “How did it go, maestro?” Skármeta asked Borges. “Very well indeed,” Borges replied. “I talked and talked and once in a while Rulfo intervened with a moment of silence.” Rulfo himself simply nodded at this account of his conduct, confirming the discomfort he felt at putting himself on display.

In the few interviews he gave, Rulfo attributed his reluctance to speak to the customs and reserve of the inhabitants of Jalisco, where he grew up—though other factors, such as the unresolved traumas of the author’s childhood, cannot be discounted. Jalisco, a vast region in western Mexico, has been the scene of an almost endless series of clashes and uprisings. Rulfo would carry with him all his life images of the carnage that followed the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Between 1926 and 1929, the young Juan witnessed the abiding fratricidal violence of his country, specifically of La Cristíada, the Cristero War. That popular revolt, an insurrection of the rural masses that was aided by the Catholic Church, began after the revolutionary government decided to secularize the country and persecute priests. (Readers may recall these events as the setting for Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.) Jalisco was at the very center of the conflict, and the frequent military raids, volleys of shots, and screams kept the young Rulfo shut inside his family’s house for days at a time. Outside, men without shoes were dragged before firing squads, prisoners were strung up and hanged, neighbors were abducted, and the smell of burning ranches singed the air.

The terror was compounded when Rulfo’s own father, like the father of Pedro in Pedro Páramo, was murdered over a land dispute. A grandfather, several uncles, and distant relatives were also killed. Then Rulfo’s mother died, supposedly of a broken heart. In the midst of this mayhem, the future author found solace in books. When the local priest went off to join the Cristero rebels, he left his library—full of books the Catholic Index had forbidden—with the Rulfo family, paradoxically providing a vocation for a boy who would grow up to write about characters who felt abandoned by God, whose faith had been betrayed. Rulfo must have understood, somehow, during those years of dread, that reading—and perhaps, someday, writing—could be a form of salvation. Inspired by the ways that Knut Hamsun, Selma Lagerlöf, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, and William Faulkner had given expression to the people of the marginalized backwaters of their homelands, he found the means to describe the terror he had endured in the stories collected in El Llano en Llamas.

In these gems of fiction that English-language readers can enjoy in a recent, vivid translation by Ilan Stavans with Harold Augenbraum, Rulfo immortalized the derelict campesinos whom the Mexican revolution had promised to liberate but whose lives remained dismally unchanged. The men and women he described have been wedged into my memory for decades. Who could forget that group of peasants trekking through the desert to a useless plot of land the government had granted them? Or that bragging, drunken, fornicating functionary whose visit bankrupts an already starving pueblo? Or the idiot Macario, who kills frogs in order to eat them? Or the father who carries his dying son on his back, all the while reproaching him for the crimes by which the son has dishonored his lineage?

Crimes haunt most of these characters. A bandolero is tracked down for hour after hour along a dry riverbed by unknown pursuers. A prisoner pleads for his life, unaware that the colonel who commands the firing squad is the son of a man whom the prisoner killed forty years earlier. An old curandero (or healer) is corralled by a coven of women in black, bent on forcing him to confess to his many sexual transgressions against them. But, as always in Rulfo, the greatest crime of all is the destruction of hope, the orphaning of communities like the forsaken town of Luvina:

People in Luvina say dreams rise out of those ravines; but the only thing I ever saw rise up from there was the wind, whirling, as if it had been imprisoned down below in reed pipes. A wind that doesn’t even let the bittersweet grow: those sad little plants can barely live, holding on for all they’re worth to the side of the cliffs in those hills, as if they were smeared onto the earth. Only at times, where there’s a little shade, hidden among the rocks, can the chicalote bloom with its white poppies. But the chicalote soon withers. Then one hears it scratching the air with its thorny branches, making a noise like a knife on a whetstone.

This description not only gives us a distant taste of Rulfo’s style, but is also a metaphor for how he envisions his invented creatures: smears on the earth, hidden among the rocks, scratching the air in the hope that they will be heard—though it is only a remote, timid writer who listens and affords them the brief dignity of expression before they vanish forever. The bleak world depicted in Rulfo’s stories was on the verge of disappearing in the mid-1950s, with the migration of peasants to the cities and, from there, on to El Norte—victims and protagonists in a global trend that John Berger, for one, so movingly explored in his novels and essays. To read Rulfo in our times, when so many refugees pour out of Central America fleeing violence and thousands of lives are lost in Mexico’s ongoing drug wars, is to become painfully aware of the kind of conditions from which those people are escaping. Migrants who leave their own infernal Comala behind still carry inside its memories and dreams, its whispers and rancors, as they cross borders and settle into new streets. Rulfo’s fiction reminds us of why El Día de los Muertos, Mexico’s Day of the Dead, is more important today than ever as a link to the ancestors who keep demanding a scrap of voicehood among the living.

My own immersion in the hallucinatory world of Pedro Páramo and its evocation of the realm of the dead may illustrate how strongly Rulfo’s fiction affected Latin Americans and, particularly, the continent’s intellectuals. I first read Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo in 1961, when I was nineteen and studying comparative literature at the University of Chile; I was so mesmerized by it that, as soon as I finished, I started to read it over again. Years later, during a lunch with García Márquez at his house in Barcelona, he related that his encounter with Rulfo had been similar to mine. He had devoured Pedro Páramo, reading it twice during one long, enraptured night in Mexico City.

From its opening lines, the novel takes the reader on a mythical quest: its narrator, Juan Preciado, has promised his dying mother that he will travel to his birthplace, Comala, and find his father, “a man named Pedro Páramo,” who had sent the mother and her newborn child away and must now be made to pay for that betrayal. That journey, related in concise, poetic fragments, turns out to be even more disquieting than expected. Abundio, the muleteer who guides Juan down into the valley of Comala, acts strangely, suggesting that nobody has visited this place in a long time and that he, too, is a son of Pedro Páramo. The town itself, far from being the lush paradise of greenery that “smells like spilled honey” evoked by Juan’s mother, is miserable and mostly deserted. The only resident is an old woman, who gives the traveler lodging. Although nobody else appears in those parched streets, Juan hears voices that ebb and flow in the oppressive heat of a tormented night, phantom murmurs so stifling that they kill him.

As Juan descends into an eternal realm populated with the ghosts that suffocated him, the reader pieces together the parallel story of his father: how Pedro Páramo rose from the dust of a disadvantaged, backward childhood to become a caudillo whose toxic power destroys his own offspring and the woman he loves, finally turning the town he dominates into a burial ground swarming with vengeful specters. Juan himself, we gradually realize, has been dead from the start of his narration of these events. He is telling his tale from a coffin he shares with the woman who used to be his nanny and wanted to be his mother; we are struck with the petrifying knowledge that they will lie there forever in that morbid embrace, alongside the corpses of others whose lives have been snuffed out by this demonic caudillo.

Pedro Páramo realized as a child, after his own father was murdered, that you are either “somebody” in that valley, or it is as though you have never existed. If he was to thrive in turbulent times, he had to deny breath and joy to everyone else. We meet his victims: the many women he bedded and abandoned, the sons he scattered like stones in the desert, the priest he corrupted, the rivals he killed and whose land he stole, the revolutionaries and bandits he bought off and manipulated. Of particular significance are a couple, a brother and sister living in incestuous sin, their inability to conceive a child symbolizing the sterility to which Pedro Páramo has condemned Comala. Unlike Telemachus in The Odyssey, Juan is never reunited with his father, only finding the inferno that his father, like a fiendish demiurge, has created and ruined, a world made with such cruelty and mercilessness that there is only room for one person to thrive.

Behind Pedro’s ascendancy there is more than merely greed and a will to power. He has accumulated money and land and henchmen so that he may, like a Satanic Gatsby, some day possess Susana San Juan, the girl he dreamed of when he was a boy with no prospects. But Susana, now a grown woman, has gone mad, and her erotic delusions have carried her beyond Pedro’s reach. The reader, along with the ghosts of the town, have access to her voice, but not the husband who has sold his soul to make her his bride. Nor can Pedro control the destiny of the only other human being he loves: Juan’s half-brother, Miguel Páramo, the spitting image of his progenitor, callous toward men and abusive of women, who is thrown from his horse while jumping over the walls his father erected to protect his land from poachers. Instead of inheriting Pedro’s domains, Miguel joins the souls who wander the earth in search of an absolution that never arrives. Pedro himself is killed by his illegitimate child, Abundio. The novel ends with the death of the despot, who “collapses like a pile of rocks.”

Pedro Páramo is a cautionary tale, one that should resonate in our own era of brutal strongmen and rapacious billionaires. According to the wishful fantasies in Rulfo’s imagination, all the power and wealth that the predators of his day have accumulated cannot save them from the plagues of loneliness and sorrow. Many Latin American authors later emulated Rulfo’s vision of the domineering macho figure who terrorizes and corrupts nations. Faced with the seeming impossibility of changing the destiny of their unfortunate countries, writers at least could vicariously punish the tormentors of their people in what became known as “novels of the dictator.”

What made Rulfo exceptional, a fountainhead for so much literature that was to follow, was his realization that to tell this tale of chaos, devastation, and solitude, traditional narrative forms were insufficient, that it was necessary to shake the foundations of story-telling itself. Though modernity was denied to his characters, isolated from progress by the tyrant of his tale, Rulfo expressed the plight through an aesthetic shaped by the avant-garde art of the first half of the twentieth century. This twisting of categories and structure was indispensable for him to express how a Comala that dreamed of beauty and justice, a place pregnant with hope, could be transformed into a bitter, confusing graveyard. What other way was there to portray the disorder of death? Linear, chronological time does not exist in death, nor in the deranged psyches of those who live as if they had already died. From the perspective of the afterlife, everything is simultaneous, everything has already happened, everything will happen perpetually in the restless minds of the ghosts. Rulfo’s technique of scrambling time and place, this and that voice, his characters’ inner and outer landscapes, imposes on the reader a feeling of helpless anxiety akin to the anomie the specters themselves suffer.

Today, we live in a world where the version of an encounter with the dead that confronts us occurs in a very different form than the one that Rulfo described in his work. Last year’s hit Pixar movie, Coco, celebrated the cultural heritage of the Mexican tradition of El Día de los Muertos with humor and a heartwarming message. In Pedro Páramo, the young man who ventures into the Land of the Dead in search of his origins does not return, as Miguel Rivera does in the Disney film, with a song of optimism and redemption. The purveyors of mass entertainment are certainly aware that most audiences would rather not be fed tales of anguish and despondency. Who can blame moviegoers for preferring happy endings instead of terrifying ghosts murmuring from their tombs that there is no hope?

But life is not a movie, and life always ends in death. Rulfo posed vital questions about the dead and how we can grasp their departure without succumbing to despair. When Latin Americans first read the novel, they were enthralled by it. While each wisp of a scene is presented with the minute implacability of matter-of-fact realism, like a series of images captured by a camera, the cumulative effect is to give a tortured, transcendent, trance-like allegory of a country, of a continent, of the human condition. Such an extraordinary feat of the imagination would be impossible had it not been for Rulfo’s remarkable prose, incantatory yet restrained. Against the grain of the baroque, overwrought style that had seemed to define Latin American literature, each word emerges as if extracted from the soil, leaving readers to apprehend what is held back, to divine the vast unspoken world of extinction, the final silence that awaits us all. Juan Rulfo spoke so eloquently not just for the dead, but for those among us who never really had the chance to live.

Credits:  This article was originally published in The New York Review of Books.

Monday, June 18, 2018

An Unconventional Life of His Mind : A biography of Andre Breton in turn becomes a biography of a culture in turmoil

Peter Gay

For most Americans, the name Andre Breton, if they know it at all, stirs some uncertain if intriguing memories. Didn't he invent surrealism? Didn't he go in for automatic writing? Wasn't he a Communist for a while? Didn't he interview Freud? Mark Polizzotti answers all these questions--with "yes"--and dozens more in this exhaustive biography, a volume that tells everything anyone would want to know about Breton, perhaps more.

Yet, for all its devotion to the smallest detail, its patient tracing of Breton's life almost day by day, the book remains consistently absorbing. This is so in part because it clearly sets out the kind of gossip inseparable from so defiantly unconventional a life--Breton's sordid love affairs with unstable women, his emotional ventures into French radical politics, his dramatic oscillations between needy dependence and bossy authoritarianism--in part, too, because Polizzotti never loses the thread of his story. A few stylistic lapses apart, he writes convincingly and with insight. And he has done his homework: He has had access to unpublished materials and knows his way around the published materials.

What is more, Breton is simply an interesting man; while a far from admirable character, impulsive and self-centered, he met nearly everyone on the French literary scene and modern painters including De Chirico and Picasso and quarreled with most of them; his list of acquaintances reads like a Who's Who, mainly of the French Left, in the first half of the 20th Century, so that this biography becomes almost incidentally a collective biography of a culture in turmoil.

Andre Breton was born in 1896 in a small town in Normandy to a genial father, insistent only on a single topic, anti-clericalism, and to a severe, unloving mother whose main purpose seems to have been to terrorize her son and to make him respectable, an assignment in which she conspicuously failed. If Breton later idealized childhood, it was a childhood he never had. Unenthusiastically, he let himself be pushed into studying medicine--he would serve in World War I as a medical auxiliary--but soon found his vocation: He would be a poet. In his voracious reading and interminable debates with like-minded friends, he developed powerful enthusiasms, almost infatuations--for the French romantics Mallarme, Valery, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Lautreamont; French psychiatrists; Freud--who worked for him like substitute fathers to point the way to his lifelong search: the irrational sources of the mind as they erupt in his poetry and the raucous public happenings he organized.

Breton's grand quest derived its energy as much from his adversaries as from his allies: conventional literature, middle-class tastes, liberal icons like Anatole France were ideal targets for his unsurpassed gift for invective and noisy demonstrations. Except for a vague anarchist ideal of freedom and an unconquerable distaste for propriety, often expressed with explosive, obscene gestures, Breton and his little band had no program. Order was the enemy, order and the bourgeoisie. In his denunciations of the latter, Breton went far beyond the greatest French hater of the bourgeoisie, Gustave Flaubert, an ancestor whom he does not cite yet whom he resembles in his overpowering sense of revulsion at the spectacle of that much-maligned class, its hypocrisy and its piety.

It was in the midst of war, in 1916, that Breton discovered Dada, just launched in Zurich, and took important impulses from that tiny but articulated band. Disgusted with a rationalist culture that had caused an insane war, and endowed with a superb gift for publicity, it proudly and ominously announced, "Dada does not mean anything." The author of this slogan and leading spirit of this self-declared destructive movement, Tristan Tzara, became for a time, after he turned up in Paris, Breton's close associate.

The roots of surrealism in Dada's conscious absurdities and nonsense poems were plain, but several intervening experiments were needed before Breton was ready to proclaim surrealism as a full-fledged and self-conscious challenge to bourgeois civilization. One of these steps was automatic writing, which Breton and his closest friends practiced in 1919, jotting down free associations that abandoned any of the rational controls, any censorship of style, that was the indispensable tool of saner writers. Then came Breton's disillusionment with the Dadaists working in Paris, one of many, finally followed by his confident establishment of a group ready to follow him into new territory. The surrealist manifesto of 1924, written by Breton, stated its program and traced its lineage. Surrealism, as he defined it, is "Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express--verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner--the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from an aesthetic or moral concern."

This uncompromising definition also implicitly defines Breton's conduct as the undisputed leader of the surrealist pack: He purged those who deviated from his strict line or had "sold out" by writing for the respectable press, and, translating depressions over amorous catastrophes into ideological questions, banished from his presence friends who had not sufficiently sympathized with him during love affairs or, in the late 1920s, a messy divorce. In the eyes of Polizzotti, clearly fascinated by his subject but distant enough to be objective about him, Breton was indomitable in opposition and intolerable in power.

Early in 1927, after painful and prolonged discussions in the inner circle, Breton applied for membership in the Communist Party. It proved a calamitous move, but from his point of view probably predictable. True, surrealists claimed to value artistic independence above all and a number of them found the very idea of submitting to strict political discipline, especially as dictated from abroad, too detestable to contemplate. But with their contempt for the bourgeoisie and the widespread politicization of art and literature in the hectic 1920s, other surrealists, Breton among them, saw the Communists as their natural allies. Some of Breton's closest associates, notably Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, the most prominent writers in the group, joined him, and Aragon in particular became Moscow's faithful, shrill servant. Still, Breton kept on writing in his own way; in 1928, he published his best-known book, "Nadia," which in his characteristic unconventional way tells the story of an affair with a near-psychotic young woman and of her breakdown. Indiscretion was the surrealist Breton's strong suit as a matter of principles; he would faithfully report his infatuations and his sexual triumphs to his long-suffering wife Simone until she could take no more and divorced him. His private life remained as chaotic as ever; he kept discovering dazzling women and being discovered by others. In 1934, he married again, hoping for some stability.

But the world would not let him alone. History overtook Breton, as it would so many other literary folk arrogantly making political pronouncements on the slightest acquaintance with the issues. No one except a true hermit could ignore the Great Depression and the elevation of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship of Germany in 1933, and for some time, Breton remained loyal to the French Communist Party. Even as he dissented from the prescribed party line, he tried to maintain cordial relations with the Party. But, unlike Aragon, he was unwilling to surrender his autonomy or his admiration for Trotsky, whom he visited not long before his assassination, and decisively broke with Moscow. In 1941, after the defeat of France by the Nazis, he moved to the United States with his second wife and young daughter. He was safe, but otherwise life remained vintage Breton. He would not learn English but found French refugees with whom he could speak his beloved native language. He enjoyed a certain resonance among American collectors and museum directors. He separated from his wife and found a third one.

In 1946, he returned to France. His old enemies, most of them his former friends, were still there, some of them more powerful than ever, and he spent most of his remaining years rallying the troops that remained, inducting a new generation into surrealism, and refusing lucrative prizes although he needed the money. He was the Founder, and let no one forget it. When he died in 1966, just before turning 70, more than a thousand mourners went to the cemetery to say farewell to the Pope of Surrealism.

What remains? Mainly some memorable art--ready-mades by Marcel Duchamp, perhaps the only person before whom Breton was, shyly, reduced to silent adoration; the early paintings of Giorgio de Chirico; the collages of Max Ernst; the work of Joan Miro and of Rene Magritte, an impressive body of work that still attracts our attention. The poetry and the fiction have become more a sign of the times than a body of literature to which we turn with pleasure, or even great curiosity. There are some remarkable parallels between surrealism and psychoanalysis, but the differences loom far larger. The aim of psychoanalysis, as Polizzotti puts it, is to replace as much id as humanly possible with ego--the aim of surrealism was to celebrate the id without any concessions to the ego. Viewed by the surrealists as a liberation of the deepest human passions, their program now seems more frightening than admirable. But as a historical movement, it retains its interest. Polizzotti's full guide to Breton's life will not need to be redone for a long time.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in the LA Times.

The Leaving Year, A Novel by Kathryn A. Kopple, Audio Excerpt, Chapter Five

The Leaving Year, A Novel, by Kathryn A. Kopple, Audio Excerpt, Chapter Five ...