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A conversation with Jorge Edwards.

The following exchange took place over email in February and March 2009.


Your new book--La Casa de Dostoievsky--seems to me a book about the consequences of different forms of commitment. But it is also the story of a generation, told through the life of an unnamed man known as "the Poet," beginning with a vivid portrait of Santiago's literary scene in the early 1950s. I'd like to discuss that generation because it is also your own: you published your first book in Santiago in 1952. You and your contemporaries were known as the generation of the "boom" in Latin American literature, considerably more international both in your influences and in your sales than your predecessors. Can you give me a sense of what kind of changes were taking place in Spanish-language literary culture at the time, and who you were reading?

My generation, which began to publish in the first years of the 1950s, was known in Chile as the "generation of 1950" before the notion of the "boom" appeared in the Latin American literary world. Some of those authors became known later in Latin America and Spain: Jose Donoso, Enrique Lihn, myself. It seems to me that we went from the experience of being local writers, from our own corners of the world, to one of recognition in the whole Spanish-speaking world. It's a change that we lived through in my generation. When we began writing, Spain, under the dictatorship of Franco, didn't have a strong literary life: it was not a center of publishing or of projecting our literature toward the rest of the world. But in the sixties, and with the appearance of the Seix Barral publishing house in Barcelona, that began to change. The Biblioteca Breve prize, won by La ciudad y los perros, Mario Vargas Llosa's first novel, was an extraordinary signal of that change. When we were taking our first steps in literature we read Andre Gide, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann. Toward the beginning of the sixties Latin American novelists, essayists, and poets came onto our horizon. From Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sabato, Joao Guimaraes Rosa, to Carlos Fuentes, Jose Donoso, Vargas Llosa and an extended et cetera. Not to mention poets like Pablo Neruda, Nicanor Parra, Octavio Paz, Cesar Vallejo. The Cuban Revolution, in its first years, was a great amplifier for this new literature in Spanish.

The role of the Cuban Revolution in the boom seems to me to contain a double irony. Through the literary magazine and prizes sponsored by the revolutionary government, it had a significant role in gathering an array of international talent and helping develop and promote it. The first irony is that it soon enough subjected many Cuban writers to persecution. But the second is that the boom was in great part a phenomenon of the international capitalist marketplace in literature discovering a new source of sales, owing a great deal to increased attention on Latin American literature due to wide-ranging enthusiasm for the anti-capitalist Cuban Revolution.

The Cuban Revolution seemed different from the "socialist realisms" of that era. Many of the intellectuals of those years, in Europe and the Americas, were at the same time anti-Soviet and pro-Castro. One of the dramatic moments of change was the speech in which Fidel Castro, a bit after August 1968, approved of the intervention in Czechoslovakia by Russian tanks and the Warsaw Pact (a scenario which I narrate in my latest novel).

In the beginning, the predominant idea, or perhaps illusion, was that the Cuban Revolution would build a form of socialism with happiness and all manner of liberties. Signs pointing to the contrary began to multiply very quickly, culminating with the closing of Lunes de Revolucion, with the prohibition of the documentary "P.M." and the fall into disgrace in Cuba and subsequent exile of Guillermo Cabrera Infante. I think that in the limited universe of left-wing intellectuals at that time, many preferred not to see those signs and draw the proper conclusions.

In that environment, European intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Leiris and many others traveled to Cuba and, in some ways, discovered Latin America in Cuba. Cortazar, who had escaped Argentina and Peronism and had been transformed in Paris into a perfect writer a la Europea, also discovered Latin America, with its rhythm, its cha-cha-cha, its tropical ambience, when he arrived for the first time in Havana. There was a two-fold situation that lent itself to all sorts of paradoxes and imaginable ironies. The vogue of the Cuban Revolution in the Western world, reflected in all sorts of emblems, objects, adornments of Castro and Che, helped make Latin American literature fashionable (and to silence the best Cuban writers: Lezama Lima, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Heberto Padilla, etc.). But the "boom," as its name indicates, was, in addition to a collection of good books, a phenomenon of capitalist marketing.

In your first answer, you mentioned Enrique Lihn, whose life served as a rough model for the life of the protagonist of La Casa de Dostoievsky. He's not well known in the United States but has been quite influential in Chile. Can you tell us something of what he meant to you and why he seemed like an appropriate core for Casa?

Enrique Lihn was one of the first people that I met, when I was 19 or 20 years old, in the small world of Chilean letters. He was a remarkable poet with sparks of genius, a man of ideas, a sharp critical conscience. For some years he was a militant of the extreme left, living in Paris during the sixties, in Cuba in '68 and '69, and in the Chile of the Popular Unity government and under the dictatorship. He was a close friend of Heberto Padilla and his Cuban friends. In his final years, at the height of the Pinochet dictatorship, he wrote a play that could be called a protest play and participated in underground poetry actions. I was loosely inspired by Lihn in inventing "the Poet" of La Casa de Dostoievsky, but that poet, clearly, is not the real Enrique Lihn nor does he have that name in my book. He's a character who spans the whole twentieth century and who always looks at it from the perspective of a free intellectual. In other words, he is a child of the twentieth century.

You decline to name the protagonist in Casa, instead referring to him either as "el Poeta" or with a series of ever-shifting names that get close but rarely get it right ("Ernesto," "Armando" "Eulalio"). At other times you narrate "Some versions have it that the Poet. ... "As I read the novel, it seemed to me that you had placed the author of the text in an interesting space somewhere between (unreliable) history and (imperfect) memory. What went into your decision to use this voice?

Like so many other narrators in the history of the novel, the narrator of Casa has an imperfect memory. He is an elusive, indirect, and joking narrator. In classic novels, the names of the characters play a special role. Charles Swann could not be called by any other name. In novels after Proust, the solid security of the name begins to be lost. A good example is Kafka with his "Mr. K." My character is "the Poet," not "Mr. Poet," and the narrator of the novel (who isn't me) has the foolish tendency to attribute to him probable, approximate names.

Jorge Luis Borges is well-known for having written "fiction as non-fiction": short stories that read like essays. It seems to me that much of your writing takes the opposite approach. Your books of memoir, Persona non grata and Adios, poeta ... spin fact into novelistic forms; even a novel like Casa is full of vivid historical detail. How do you approach writing non-fiction as fiction?

I believe that all quality narrative text can also be read as an essay: narration and reflection about that which it narrates. And memoirs, however faithful they may be to personal or collective history, are also narrative text. I recommend reading the essay by Roland Barthes, "The Discourse of History." Barthes cites Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that history doesn't exist in an unprocessed form. The historian is the person who introduces coherence, by means of writing, into the chaos of the past. So fiction and history intermingle and become confused with each other.

Changing the subject a bit: in the United States, some who volunteered for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s were branded as "premature anti-fascists" when they returned--a sign of excessive leftist zeal. I mention this because the response to your book, Persona non grata, seems to have changed over the years. Marifeli Perez-Stable, who has a written a very balanced account of the Cuban Revolution, reviewed it on the release of the English-language edition in 1993, writing: "I remember my reaction at the time [of its first publication in Spanish]: Edwards is an arrogant Southern Coner who does not understand the complexities of a revolution at the doorstep of the United States. Then I buried the concerns his account raised. ..." She acknowledges the complex emotions that re-reading your book rekindled for her, and seems to be saying that she wishes to remember that period as a time of hope, even though your warnings of a "tropical Stalinism" were subsequently vindicated. All of which is to ask: do you think that you were received as "prematurely anti-Castro"?

Of course, I was accused of being right-wing or of telling the truth prematurely. My friend Javier Pradera from Madrid, who has always been a man of the left, was asked a few years ago about his opinion of Persona non grata and he answered with the following question: "Are you asking me for my first or second reading?" That raises another question: Why did I write that book? Since the first days of its publication until today, I have always given more or less the same answer: if I had not been Chilean, if I had not arrived in Cuba from a country where part of the governing coalition believed that Cuba was the formula to be imitated, the panacea, the true response to the country's problems, I would not have written that book. In some measure, my writing of that text was an enormously committed and risky warning. I wanted to say: careful, this is not the way.

Your friend, the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, who had become a critic of the Cuban Revolution, made a degrading self-criticism in 1971, which became notorious as the "Padilla affair," signaling to many that the Cuban Revolution was not on the freer and more libertarian path that many of its supporters, both foreign and domestic, had hoped. At the same time, you were writing the manuscript for Persona non grata, where you faced pressures of censorship and self-censorship. Censorship because it would be published in Franco's Spain and (by the time it was complete) Pinochet's Chile, and self censorship because of warnings from your friend Pablo Neruda that it would be a poor time to publish something so critical of the Cuban Revolution. How did you manage the burdens of these expectations, and how do you think the book changed as a result?

I felt all of those pressures, of course, but I also felt the need to write this testimony that I mentioned earlier. The first readers of the manuscripts were Carlos Barral, head of Barral publishers, and Mario Vargas Llosa. I abstained, I think sensibly, from giving it to Neruda. I always had a strong and clear private feeling: I had to write and publish that book in order to continue writing. Before, I had been a writer-diplomat. After Persona non grata I could finally be a true writer. It was liberating in the widest sense of the word.

La Casa de Dostoievsky narrates a trajectory of disenchantment similar to that described in Persona non grata. Do you see the positive reception for Casa as some kind of signal that, apart from its literary qualities, the political consensus among artists has shifted towards the views you expressed thirty-five years ago? How does this speak to the role that politics plays in the judgment of writers and their works?

It's true that I returned to the Cuban theme in part of La Casa de Dostoievsky and that there was not even a hint of censure or intellectual and political scandal as there was 35 years ago. But 35 years is a long time. The classic figure of the leftist intellectual of the sixties is now in the museums, even though there still remains one here and there, as was demonstrated by the recent trip of a Chilean delegation to the Havana Book Fair. (1) But there is no doubt that political prejudice and even political mythology strongly influence literary judgment. That has haunted me since I published Persona non grata and I think it still haunts me.

And it has also created for me some very strong friendships. One of the best critics of La Casa de Dostoievsky, the young Bolivian novelist and essayist Edmundo Paz Soldan, holds that the Cuban chapters are the best of the novel. It's another vision: the Cuba of the night, the sea, the singers, the mulatas. The political Cuba is seen from afar, with the distance that it was still possible to have in the early seventies.

I also found the Cuban chapters of Casa particularly compelling, but not only because of the distance that you suggest. In the midst of the non-political parts of life, there is a very sharp portrait of Padilla. There's a kind of madness in his dedication to confrontation with the regime, a sense that his persecution is a fait accompli. You knew Padilla: how do you see his legacy? Even his self-criticism was informed by the history of the "genre"--was he thinking about the impact that his case would have?

Emir Rodriguez Monegal, the late Uruguayan critic, wrote that the Padilla of Persona non grata is like a tropical Stavrogin (from Dostoyevsky's novel Demons). I don't know if a character like that can leave us a legacy. He leaves us, to be sure, an image and a lesson: an authentic poet that has fallen in a trap from which he can't escape. It is a pathetic form of repression, one of the worst. Describing his self-criticism as a classic of the genre was pure gallows humor.

You have written of the corrosive effects of dictatorship on thought and on universities. I understand the point but I confess that it puzzles me. Perhaps this is a North American affliction, but I have a difficult time imagining the thoughts of intellectuals as particularly influential or threatening. But since dictatorships so frequently take action to suppress dissident opinion, I have to confront the possibility that I'm wrong. Perhaps at least under dictatorship intellectuals can take on a symbolic meaning: they can incarnate the absence of freedom that others feel but cannot express. But then the successful struggle against dictatorship, undertaken by an intellectual, appears to be a quest for irrelevance.

Dictatorships always end up combating intellectual dissidence, for a reason that seems to me very clear: when political opposition is suppressed, writers and intellectuals and artists end up as the only possible opposition. And their language, even if indirect, metaphorical, is rapidly understood by others. Let me give an example. During the dictatorship of Pinochet I attended a poetry reading by Nicanor Parra in a plaza in downtown Santiago. At one point during the reading Parra announced the following title: "Censured poem." And then he stayed silent during the time that would take to read fourteen lines of eleven syllables. When it was over there was an extraordinary ovation.

In those days we spoke of a "parliament of the columnists." They were the people, many of them writers, who wrote columns in the daily press. The real parliament, as is known, had been closed, but many of the opinion columnists carried on strong criticism of the regime. It was necessary to practice self-censorship and to know how to measure our words, but many things were said. From the beginning of the political transition and when public freedoms were recovered, the voice of intellectuals began to be heard less. But once in a while people listen to it again.

The "committed intellectual" was an important figure of the twentieth century, and one which I now think is seen with some degree of disenchantment. The Poet, in Casa, loses his sense of radical commitment as a consequence of his experiences in Cuba, and even feels that poetry is useless to have the effect on the world he had hoped that it would. At the end of his life his "commitments" to his friends are the most meaningful. With benefit of hindsight, do you think that some people got the balance between artistic independence and political commitment basically "right"?

I re-read Sartre recently. His notion of the committed writer is developed in depth in his great essay "What is literature?" In my reading, he still seems to me an extraordinary writer and a not-always-convincing thinker. The distinction between poetry and the novel that he makes in that essay is artificial. The best pages of his novel Nausea refute that very distinction: they are pure poetry, philosophical poetry. The case of my character demonstrates that the balance between artistic independence and political and social commitment is practically impossible.

Do you think writers and intellectuals should think about their responsibilities to society, or are such questions better left unasked?

They should commit themselves to their art and thought, to their intellectual work (which isn't trivial). If that helps society think a bit better, to reflect about itself, that wouldn't be a bad thing.

Patrick Iber would like to thank Kelly Austin for her role in making this interview possible and Carlos Bravo Regidor for his assistance with translation.

(1) The 2009 Havana Book Fair was dedicated to Chile, which sent a delegation of more than one hundred writers, publishers and musicians. No works by critics of Cuban Revolution were featured by any of the publishers in attendance, though the Chilean government insists that Cuba exercised no veto over which works would be included.
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Author:Iber, Patrick
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:3CHIL
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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