It Can’t Hurt to Try: Five Latin American Essayists

Argentine writer Fabián Casas.

Nada se pierde con vivir, ensaya.” “You lose nothing by living, try it out.” It’s no surprise that those who read Enrique Lihn (Chile, 1929-1988) in his heyday were awestruck by The Dark Room (1963), that marvel of confessional poetry, and especially by its monologues: that inimitable voice, perhaps that of a supposed father whispering to his months-old son, a father who was not yet a father but who never ceased being a father to some of his readers. In spite of this, what still moves me today, with all the perspective of the years that have passed since those verses without aging them a day, more than that prosody as aristocratic as it is ordinarily fierce - in the words of Álvaro Bisama - is that verb, “ensaya,”  which Montaigne would transform in the sixteenth century not only into a new literary genre, but also into a noun. “Writing an essay is like having the pantry full of food when wartime comes,” says Fabián Casas, appropriately, in an essay.  And if I wanted to go further, I would venture an opinion: the essay, as a supposedly transitive text, an “unpresentable” exercise if you like, is for that very reason an inherently completed work; whatever is written before or after it is something extra.

This text attempts to offer a panoramic survey of the contemporary Latin American novelists who also dedicate themselves to this task: to writing essays, or to writing what could also be indistinctly called articles, miniature chronicles, or simply texts. But this is also, secretly, an essay: an essay about the treatment of pop culture in literature and a dissection of other people’s style, but above all an essay about the inhospitable forms the essay has taken on in Latin America. I’ll talk about the generation that is currently publishing. No dead classics this time. I’ll pretend the Boom never happened, and so I’ll be obligated to analyze these five authors I have selected under natural light, without the shadows of the ancient dinosaurs. I’ll digress to discuss a certain contemporary Latin American writer whose work is mostly narrative, but who dedicates himself to the work of the essayist as a hobby: a task that, to this reader’s tastes, he achieves much more smoothly and with a more convincing style.

My relationship to the article and the chronicle - one of its derivatives - was once that of the bewildered reader, accosted at random, like someone reading the newspaper from four days ago or whatever’s in the bathroom when there’s nothing left to read. But not long ago, as an omnivorous and compulsive reader, I read with true dedication, for the first circumstantial time, an article. It was by Fabio Morábito: a Mexican writer born in Alexandria, a poet by vocation whose fame grew timidly in the Southern Cone thanks to a volume of short stories published by Tusquets, only to truly attain recognition in this part of the world with a volume compiling his best articles (or essays, as you like). In his mother tongue I heard, more than a voice, a time. The perfect timing that exists, for example, between stations of the metro of any metropolis. As an exercise, I read the essays of Idioma materno [Mother tongue] (Hueders/Sexto piso, 2014) while traveling between the metro stations of Santiago, and I understood the whole thing perfectly. They are never longer than a page and a half,  the size of a chronicle, essay, or article (at this stage the three are chemically fused), enough to leave a still photograph in the reader’s mind.

One in particular drove me crazy, an essay about the writer E.L. Doctorow entitled “El justificante perfecto” [The perfect excuse]: the American writer struggles to write a “proper” note to excuse his son from school; his wife, noticing his difficulties, takes the pencil and paper and, with a few rebellious strokes, wraps the whole thing up. For Morábito, this is the ethic of the writer: art carried out through a common social practice, a custom, and the commitment to use it in the most effective way possible, which is by no means any less beautiful. They say anyone can write, at least anyone who’s learned a little grammar and has a certain knack for putting phrases together. But Morábito reminds us that writing (and the style in which one writes, specifically) can also become an elemental custom subject to devotion, unlike, for example, blinking or walking (could we imagine “the most beautiful blink”?). Writing is a custom that can change into an art at any time. And so, the most admirable aspect of the Mexican author’s stories is their style, since their sometimes nonexistent plot gives the full impression of having disappeared.

Not so his essays, which also seem to discover an elemental parabola in its entirely, a few vivid tales, with a sensation similar to that of a Joycean epiphany. In the case of Doctorow, in which obstinacy and obsession come first, the Mexican author avoids naming him  throughout the text, for example, in a Zen attitude characterized by detaching the name in order to concentrate on the situation itself, on the sensation, on the pure happening. He couldn’t have summed it up better in a thousand pages! I discovered the story was about Doctorow after reading the story in question in his Cuentos completos [Complete stories] (2015), collected by Malpaso; any other way, I never would have known. And in that parallelism, I find the true value of this extra work, the work of the essayist. And, for my taste, the fundamental activity of Morábito.

I notice the same thing in the case of Argentine writer Pedro Mairal, a sort of double-opposite of Morábito: the tightness of the texts, also compressed into a page and a half, in his book of articles El subrayador [The underliner] (Laurel, 2014; published in 2013 in Argentina by Garrincha Club as El equilibrio [The balance]), is resolved of its own accord; the effectiveness of the message, reminiscent of some East Asian grammars, draws the texts closer to Morábito’s, but always with a clear difference: Mairal rants and raves, imprecating the reader, distancing himself from the Zen tone of his peer from Alexandria. In Mairal’s articles, the decorative and mellifluous elements of the middle class are used as narrative material; they are like anecdotes told as reflections, not always literary, but that leave behind a halo of lasting knowledge, of knowledge that is supposedly only found in high-minded books. With much more prosaic themes, but with a simple, deep style, he converts the journalistic article into a sort of propaedeutic study on boxing. 

And nonetheless, I see that this is not the case in his novels, which seek to represent the art selected by the author to fulfill the task of the artist of language. Not to be ungrateful, I could mention the case of The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra (New Vessel Press, 2013), which is an excellent novel with a touching plotline, especially thanks to the peculiar object on which it focuses: a sort of kinetic autobiographical painting, both years and kilometers in length, in which the protagonist, a mute rural man and a famous painter, the narrator’s father, hides a secret image that ends up revealing (I’ll avoid spoilers) an unknown so prosaic, so pedestrian, that the novel becomes typical of its genre: a simple story, inoffensive at times.

He adopts a very different approach as the narrator - if we can call it that - of his articles. In this role, he describes with the same emphasis not a scene of fiction like that of the son of the mute, unfaithful artist, but rather a banal image of a McDonald’s, telling how the boy at the counter forgets about his McNífica, which is already cooling down on the counter with the other finished orders. It’s interesting to pause, after reading the text, over the anaphoric side of the situation: the modern restaurant as a machine of furious production, a process that repeats again and again, industrial, Taylorian, and ultimately neurotic. Urbanism, sociology, and psychoanalysis in an ode to McDonald’s. Brief flashes of lucidity, as if the internal dialogue were ending and there were only ears available to hear its pompous prose, with the brutality of any indignant citizen who completes his duty to denounce the most trivial irritations of Capitalism: a civil prose, a “middle-class” prose.

I pass from one Argentine to another, one who definitively abandoned his country and set about working in other languages, much like J. Rodolfo Wilcock, who decided to write in Italian, publishing perhaps his best work, The Temple of Iconoclasts (1972) in that language. In this context, the case of Patricio Pron is peculiar. He moved to Germany many years ago (he currently lives in Spain), where he taught classes at the University of Göttingen in the city of the same name, which happens to be the same place where no less than C.G. Lichtenberg - now better remembered for his aphorisms than for his calculations - gave classes on physics and mathematics. If the form of Morábito and Mairal is immaculately careful, perhaps Pron is the one who raises the most objections. Due to his desire to do theory, or to forget about it, it’s as if we were in the presence of an essayist Rimbaud. A savage in an urban state, or a domesticated mystic on a television set.

The bold quantity of references he manipulates in his Libro tachado [Marked book] (Turner, Noema, 2014) is breathtaking in the way it is manipulated, so lightly, as if the information were pouring over us in currents, drowning us in those interminable footnotes that slowly eat up the page itself. Of course, this form’s long length is a joke, since it always tends toward these waves of information that enter undercover through the reader’s eyes rather than compressing its content as much as possible, or at least to suit the text. Beginning with a scene of Absalón Amet, the eighteenth-century French clockmaker, and a vivid description of the device he invents, his “universal philosophy,” a sort of machine that produces poems and maxims, the book presents itself as a reflection on the conditions of production - and, in passing, of consumption and waste - in clandestine literature. Amet never really existed, Amet is one of Wilcock’s iconoclasts; but once this imposture is committed as a prologue, Pron introduces us in earnest. We almost don’t notice ourselves in this disproportionately shaped investigation that attempts to elucidate the specific mechanisms with which fiction intervenes in reality, beginning with the historical urge to silence or destroy books, for example, or with the strange incidents of disappeared authors, or with forgotten books or books whose status and position keep struggling, alone and orphaned, long after the deaths of their creators.

I want to return to Chile, and I really wanted to save a space for Roberto Merino, who in my opinion is a chronicler with one of the most exquisite styles of all those who currently write in the Chilean media. Another mention goes to Francisco Mouat. But that doesn’t mean anything at this point. There’s another author, a little younger, Álvaro Bisama, who writes like this: “The best texts of literary criticism that I’ve read are like three-minute punk singles. Or pop songs. Or they escape in any direction, they coil around themselves, devouring themselves, revealing themselves as fragments of an autobiography, perhaps.”

The punctuation marks are the breaks to breathe. The cloistered phrases between two periods stand out, bringing the image to our mind’s eye only to stretch out the phrasing lines later, this time with sequential commas, letting the text breathe. I’m interested in how these strategies work for Bisama, especially in his composition of articles and essays. I read Ruido [Noise] (Alfaguara, 2012), his fourth novel, shortly after it was published. I never fully understood what was going on in that book. I felt like I was staring at an impressionist painting assembled out of text, with the constant coming and going of a phrasing that suddenly expanded only to withdraw into pragmatic phrases enclosed within periods. A prose with two paces.

I later rediscovered this method in a set of essays and articles that recently appeared in a collection from the Universidad Diego Portales, with a red cover and a photograph of a dazed Bisama peering out of a lost little window in the center of the cover. It’s entitled Deslizamientos [Slippings] (UDP, 2017), and in my opinion it’s not only an engaging book, but also an intelligent and illuminating one. There are moments of concealed academicism, without a doubt, but the rest of the articles, especially those dedicated to the figure of Enrique Lihn (his devotion to the poet is remarkable) and the texts on TV culture, are among the most incisive and direct that I have read. His analysis blooms from episodes of TV shows, much to our dismay, which are emblematic of creole television - like Sábado Gigante - and which are derived from the dark nucleus of conventional Chilean society, above all from the emerging middle class, which enjoys neither the benefits of state charity nor the cronyism of the well-to-do. 

Bisama demonstrates the philosophical side of the jaded present-day TV viewer, the most active archaeologist of postmodern democracy, capturing the nature of that circus of the macabre and the quantity of garbage in orbit around the figure of Don Francisco, Chile’s answer to Citizen Kane. In Ruido it is the figure of Karol Romanov, the fortune teller of Villa Alemana, once Miguel Ángel Poblete, taken advantage of to refresh the watercolor of a fading memory. Five years have passed since I read it last, and now all it evokes is a mossy atmosphere, flowing through some province that could well be Villa Alemana but that I remember being smaller, perhaps only the size of the town or neighborhood where one used to live. In his articles, which are much more concrete and sometimes more lyrical than his fiction, we read the best of Bisama, who flips through channels while lyrically commenting in his red journalist’s notebook on the sinister side of our civil history with a sense of tragedy as pleasant as it is hilarious.

I’d like to finish (hopefully not giving away my weakness for the Argentine) with Fabián Casas, perhaps because he is still, in my opinion, the writer who pushes the “genre” to its limits. What stands out, without a doubt, is his voracious style. He consumes everything, he comments on everything. Another common trait of his writing is to start on one subject and finish on another without fully concluding either: two hypotheses followed by a synthesis, we could say. For Casas, hypotheses don’t always have to fit in with each other, but they’ll always find a way to synthesize, one way or another. This shouldn’t be confused for a defect; rather, it’s a sign of freedom, of the desire to talk for talking’s sake and for excitement’s sake. Style is what matters. Needless to say, pop culture and cultural references are inevitable material in this new narrative. Television, cinema, comics. Nevertheless, there is no transgressive act here. That comes instead in the form in which pop is used, the way in which it operates in the prose and its plot.

For example, Casas manages to write about Walter Benjamin and Pink Floyd indistinctly, leaping from one reference to another without pretence, since he is not forcing himself to speak; his words are the product of an iconoclastic impulse to fit together - or contrast, if you like - distinct expressions of art, one from “high culture” and the other from “low culture” (two terms I hate to use). And so, as if in passing, Casas presents an anthology that is not only between genres but between different cosmovisions that wouldn’t have come together even in a conversation between conceptual artists on peyote. It reveals his reformist spirit, the spirit of an explorer of new territories. His enviable manner of manifesting, in prose, a light approach to the treatment of apparently evasive, hard-to-align themes confirms him as one of the most lucid and avant-garde article writers of his time. At least in terms of form.

Trayendo todo a casa [Bringing everything home] (Emecé, 2016), his most complete essay collection up to this point, is made up of four books that compile what he definitively describes as his essays, rather than “articles”: Ensayos bonsai [Bonsai essays] (2007), Breves apuntes de autoayuda [Brief notes on self-help] (2011), La supremacía de Tolstoi y otros ensayos al tuntún [The supremacy of Tolstoy and other aimless essays] (2013), and the unpublished Taller nómade [Nomad workshop]. In these books, we find an amalgamation that, given its incompatible elements, hasn’t been discovered even by accident in the kitchen of any other writer, living or dead, for the simple reason that nobody else like Casas knows how to talk literarily about reality without being seen as a specialist or, for their momentary vulgarity, as a low-class writer. It would be insufficient to argue that Casas writes like he talks.

I would say that Casas writes like someone who reads aloud something written under the eaves of ungrateful inspiration that very afternoon, only to improvise domestic anecdotes on top of this text, or to try out other grammatical substances in accordance with the vertigo and energy of what he hears at some barbecue, for example, or in the midst of his dull weekly drunkenness, trapped in a nightclub in the capital, sloppily proclaiming or even stuttering his texts. That’s what Casas writes: a semi-improvised out-loud reading. Maybe no one has heard it, maybe he composes his texts as lonely as a cloud, but it’s remarkable that they include an internal audience that laughs and sympathizes with the speaker, which makes the texts incredibly funny.

By this point, I imagine the reader - a circumstantial witness - has noticed that in this extremely personal survey of the new Latin American essay there has been no clear distinction between the article, the chronicle, and the essay, which have been handled lightly, as if on a whim. I can say, with scalpel’s-edge precision, leveling with or excusing myself, that rather than independent genres that neither touch nor intersect, I like to think of them as manifestations of a new specimen of text, the text of a new era. In simple terms, without too much theorization, that text I hold up against time and space articulates an idea, and in passing it times the idea in accordance with a specific event - what happens and where it is - whether it be historical or domestic, setting itself up as the most fertile setting for the author to dedicate himself to the fundamental part of writing: to try things out, to ensayar, one way or another, in his own way, perhaps in his own style, on this canvas of time and space. I’ll stick to this distinction, made rather randomly (or aimlessly, as Casas would prefer), to rediscover the literature that is yet to come. In the end, I can do no more than recommend reading these five storytellers, in summary: Fabio Morábito or the Zen; Pedro Mairal or the Furious; Patricio Pron or the False Encyclopedist; Álvaro Bisama or the Pop; and Fabián Casas, the Essayist.

Santiago, March 2017


Translated by Arthur Dixon


LALT No. 3
Number 3

The third issue of LALT features the debut of our permanent section devoted to Indigenous Literature with writing in languages from Mapudungun to Tzotzil, as well as remarkable short stories from Cristina Rivera Garza and Yoss, the rising star of Cuban science fiction.

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