When Kurt Met Jose

vonnegutDonoso hand resting

“Maybe I will come to Chile, but not before I learn Spanish. There is a Chile, Indiana, incidentally, not far from my birthplace. The locals pronounce it Shy-lie, and have no idea why some people smile at that.”

–from a letter by Kurt Vonnegut to Jose Donoso dated May 26, 1973

They met at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1965 and began a friendship that would span decades. Jose Donoso was one of Chile’s best-known writers, part of Latin America’s late 20th century literary boom, and his novel, Coronation, had been published in English and received the William Faulkner Foundation Prize. All but one of Vonnegut’s books were now out of print and he was struggling to support his family while working on what he called “the Dresden novel” about his experiences as a prisoner of war during the Allied bombing of the German city in 1945. While Vonnegut agonized over the future Slaughterhouse Five manuscript, Donoso was trying to write the novel considered to be his masterpiece, The Obscene Bird of Night. The two writers shared an appreciation for the absurd, and social satire was a common element in their work.  Their wives, Jane and Maria Pilar, became close friends, and decades later Maria Pilar would be at Jane’s bedside when she passed away.

Suzanne McConnell, who studied under both writers, recalled a party at the Vonneguts’ home, which happened to be next  door to where she lived. Vonnegut was dancing with Maria Pilar and seemed enthralled by her graceful moves. Vonnegut was casual and down-to-earth in his demeanor, while Donoso was much more formal and serious.

This blogger once met Jose Donoso at a reception held at the British Embassy in Santiago. I told him how much I had enjoyed his work, Sueños de mala muerte, (which translates roughly as “miserable dreams”) a play about the frustrated lives of residents in a Santiago boarding house.  He thanked me in unaccented American English and I asked him about something I had read in one of Kurt Vonnegut’s essays:  when the two of them were at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and met Nelson Algren, author of The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren blurted out, “I think it would be nice to come from a country so long and narrow.”  Donoso smiled at me and nodded, but would not divulge anything else about his fellow writers.

A collection of letters from Vonnegut to his Chilean friend archived at the Princeton University library reveals a deep and supportive literary friendship.  In a letter dated October 22, 1967, Vonnegut writes from Helsinki, a stop on a multi-city tour of Europe he undertook as research for Slaughterhouse-Five.  He is accompanied by an army buddy who had been with Vonnegut in Dresden, but the trip had not gone very well and the two had been been “royally hosed by a communist travel agency.”  The travel agency had sold them train tickets and hotel accommodation for a six-day trip from Berlin to Warsaw to Leningrad, but when the two men attempted to board a train, the travel vouchers proved to be worthless.

We tried to get our money back, and they laughed and told us to take a flying f— at the moon,” Vonnegut wrote. “Which we more or less did.” He and his army buddy then took flights to Hamburg and then to Helsinki, a possible entry point for Russia.

“English doesn’t work here.  Neither does French or German,” he wrote to Donoso. but Vonnegut’s  travel frustrations were not weighing on his mind as much as the fact that Donoso had written to say he was giving up trying to finish The Obscene Bird of Night, the novel he had been struggling with for ten years.

“I find this intolerable and absurd: Donoso should not abandon Donoso. Why despise yourself ten years ago?  I am certain that man was a charming writer, too, as much entitled to a hearing as you are.

I will ask a crude question: Do you need an ending?  If so, let’s make one up, immediately as a crass favour to the man you used to be.   Let us be his literary executors. Has he said enough in the thousand pages (great God!) to permit us to end in the middle of a sentence? You simply must have an outsider read what you have done.” Donoso must have taken his friend’s words to heart, for the novel was finally published in 1970, the year after Slaughterhouse-Five, bringing both authors critical acclaim. An English translation of The Obscene Bird of Night was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1973, and included in literary critic Harold Bloom’s The Western Cannon, a survey of major works of literature.

The book’s title comes from  Henry James, who wrote in a letter:  “The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.”  The novel is the hallucinatory tale of a man born with deformities, the last surviving member of an old Chilean aristocratic family, who is housed with others like him.  The text draws upon folk traditions from Chiloe Island, off the southern coast of Chile. The New York Times described it as a “monstrous, miraculous novel.”

Another letter in the Princeton archive was written a few weeks after Chile’s brutal 1973 military coup.  Vonnegut said he thought “how much the death of democracy must have hurt you and Maria Pilar.  You must have lost friends.”  His son-in-law, journalist Geraldo Rivera, had just come back from Santiago with smuggled films.

“There were bodies to be seen, shot during curfew, apparently, and left lying where they fell when the sun came up. Curiously, or maybe not so curiously, he interviewed several university students, who told him that the overthrow was a very good thing.  They could scarcely say anything else. I guess. And Geraldo himself, a fierce democrat and closet Marxist, has concluded that the elected government was out of control, was a disaster in its own right. I am persuaded that it is now impossible to govern well almost anywhere, and that national tragedies come and go of their own will, like thunderstorms. This makes endurance the most useful human skill.”

 Vonnegut’s divorce from his wife may have complicated their relationship, but the friendship endured.  Donoso and Maria Pilar attended Jane Vonnegut’s funeral in 1987 and in a subsequent letter Vonnegut mentioned the good conversations he had had with both of them during this visit. “At least we did not waste time talking about lightweight things.”

Donoso died in Santiago in 1997  and Vonnegut a decade later. Sadly, Vonnegut never managed to get to Chile.

 

The price of books in Chile

Chile, as most anyone who knows the country will tell you, has two Nobel Prize winning writers, poets Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. But the cost of buying a book is prohibitive for most Chileans: some 40 years ago the Pinochet dictatorship imposed a value added tax (VAT) of 19 percent on books sold in the country, the highest in the region and effectively pricing them out of reach for many Chileans. And until now, no one has managed to get the tax eliminated or even reduced.

But a 17-year old Chilean student, Fernanda Moya, started a petition on Change.org  urging the country’s Ministry of Culture to eliminate the tax and has already gotten over 19,000 signatures.

“It’s hard to imagine that in a country like Chile, where the average price of a book is equal to 5 % of the minimum wage, how parents can bring books into their homes to motivate their children to read,” she told El Mostrador.

Stay tuned.

 

 

Wonder-Makers

tapalibromaravilladoraspoesia

A group of six women from Spanish-speaking countries, including two Chileans, have just published Wonder-Makers: Navigators of the Thames, a bilingual volume of poems whose themes deal with exile, migration, loss and memory. The book was printed in Chile and launched this month at London’s Instituto Cervantes, and will be followed by a collection of the same authors’ short fiction later this year. Here’s a link to a video of the event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBwOE6thlP4 and an excerpt:

Houses

I built a stone house

“Nobody will destroy it,” I thought.

Water took it away,

Now it’s in the bottom of the ocean.

Neptune inhabits it.

 

I lived in a shanty dwelling of crystal

“Nobody will steal it,“ I thought.

One morning on waking up

I was alone under the sky

The government had seized it.

They made it into a national monument.

 

I came up with a mansion of straw.

“Nobody will take it away,” I thought.

But my neighbour’s cows

ate it one afternoon.

 

Now I live with the sky and the sea.

I know that no one can occupy my dreams.

Marijo Alba-Sanchez

Another book review

It’s been four years since publication, but this blogger’s second book, The General’s Slow Retreat: Chile after Pinochet, has gotten a rather favorable review in Cambridge University’s journal, The Americas: A Quarterly Review of Latin American History. An excerpt:

In The General’s Slow Retreat, Mary Helen Spooner reconstructs the private world of conflict, negotiation, and insecurity that marked the Chilean transition. Spooner takes her readers beyond the narratives produced for public consumption into the private meetings of military and civilian leaders, where deals were struck and positions that profoundly shaped the way forward for Chilean democracy were devised. Drawing on published interviews, news accounts, and memoirs as well as her remarkable access to dozens of key players—including presidents, senators, ministers, and military officials—Spooner has crafted a detailed and sophisticated account of Chile’s fragile transition, focusing with unfailing acuity on questions of Pinochet’s influence and the legacy of human rights abuses after the 1988 plebiscite.

https://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/the_americas/v072/72.3.hutchison.html

Orwell in Chile

Grafitti on a wall in Santiago provided the cover picture for the Chilean edition of 1984.

Grafitti on a wall in Santiago provided the cover picture for the Chilean edition of 1984.

This month marks the 65th anniversary of George Orwell’s death, and here’s one of the lesser-known stories of the great writer’s legacy, courtesy of the Pinochet regime in Chile.

It was 1983, the military dictatorship had been in power nearly ten years and the first stirrings of protest on a national level were about to explode into demonstrations up and down the length of Chile’s narrow territory. Three young journalists—two Chilean, one American—began an afterhours project to translate and publish Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, 1984.

There were plenty of copies of Animal Farm, Orwell’s bitter satire of Stalinism, on offer in Chilean bookstores, but 1984 seemed conspicuous by its absence.  A search around Santiago turned up a Spanish language copy in the British Council Library, an edition translated in Spain under Franco which had cut out the course language and sexual scenes in some of the passages, as well as the Newspeak appendix at the end of the book. Newer editions were unavailable, and if the dictatorship had not officially censored 1984, the implied threat of confiscation, along with high sales taxes, were enough to discourage most booksellers from importing any newer editions of the book.

So the three friends decided to produce a Chilean version of 1984, meeting several evenings a week and working on a typewriter. A  curfew was in effect, which meant they often held all-night translating sessions. Over eight long months the team debated how to best to translate the text. A reference to one character’s “thick negroid lips” made them pause, but if they softened the racist language in their Spanish translation, wouldn’t they be guilty of Newspeak as well?  They opted for a direct translation: gruesos labios negroides. About halfway through they decided that Big Brother should not be translated as Hermano Mayor (which could mean “older brother”) but Gran Hermano. This meant a time-consuming task of going over each typewritten page, using Wite-Out correction fluid.

My friend and colleague Lezak Shallat was one of the translators. “We had this romantic idea of samizdat circulation, underground,” she recalled. “But halfway through, the prior censorship restriction was lifted and publishing became feasible. Sammy (Samuel Silva, another friend and colleague) contacted some publisher who agreed to it, but only if we paid for it, which we did. I remember that my share was US $400, a huge investment for me at the time.”

The translators--Fernando, Lezak and Sammy.

The translators–Fernando, Lezak and Sammy.

In addition to paying for the publication, the trio had to produce their own publicity, a tricky undertaking under a dictatorship. They decided the publicity should consist solely of grafitti on walls around Santiago, and they drove through the city looking for walls to paint—a rather risky operation in itself. The grafitti idea was later adopted as the cover of the book. And the Chilean edition of 1984 eventually rose to the bestseller list of El Mercurio, the country’s largest newspaper, whose editorial policies supported the Pinochet regime.

A Chilean “beachhead” in landlocked Bolivia

Now this is interesting. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published a blog post on the case of Raúl Peñaranda, a Chilean-born reporter who has lived in Bolivia since he was a baby and whose book, Control Remoto, documents efforts by government authorities to control independent media outlets. These efforts include advertising boycotts, labor inspections, tax audits and the sale of newspapers and television stations to business owners sympathetic to the government of Evo Morales.

Earlier this year Bolivian Communications Minister Amanda Davila called a news conference to denounce Peñaranda, saying he represented a dangerous “beachhead” for Chilean interests in the country. Chile and Bolivia have diplomatic relations at the consular level, and the sea outlet lost during the War of the Pacific remains a major issue between the two countries.

But it appears that the real issue was Peñaranda’s book, which was due to appear a few days later. “The government was very upset with me and the only way they could try to discredit me was to say I was pro-Chilean,” he told CPJ.

To read more:

https://cpj.org/blog/2014/09/critical-journalist-investigates-bolivias-silent-c.php

From Calama to Oklahoma

Nostalgia_for_the_Light (2)

The University of Oklahoma’s Center for Social Justice has honored Chile’s Association of Relatives of Executed and Missing Political Prisoners of Calama with an award named in memory of Clyde Snow, a forensic anthropologist who helped identify victims of political violence in Argentina, Guatemala and other countries. The award committee said that the Calama group “embodies the spirit of the award, to recognize the efforts of those who strive to restore the humanity and dignity of communities that have suffered human rights violations.” http://csj.ou.edu/clyde-snow-social-justice-award/

Here’s a link to an earlier post on the case, which was the subject of a book by my friend and colleague Paula Allen: https://notesontheamericas.wordpress.com/2013/05/30/grief-in-the-atacama-desert/