And Other Stories, $15.95 (paper)
If you want to get to the islands of the Delta del Paraná north of Buenos Aires, you have to take a ferry from Tigre. Gliding north along the brown waters that continue onward from the Rio Paraná, near another river skirting the continent a few kilometersfrom where Domingo Sarmiento once lived, you’ll reach the house of Argentine writer Haroldo Conti (1925–1976). Following a varied life as a priest-in-training, primary school teacher, secondary school Latin instructor, bank employee, civil pilot, sailor, and scriptwriter, Conti ended up here, in a two-story, pitched-roof cabaña accessible via wood-planked pier. A great deal of his time was spent talking with fishermen, boat owners, and other coastal dwellers, experiences evident in his best known novel Sudeste (Southeaster). The book’s title refers to the winds that pile up water from the South Atlantic, sending it across the islands of the Delta.
In November a new translation of Southeaster will be released by the London-based press And Other Stories, one of the few presses to regularly publish contemporary foreign literature in English. The new edition of Southeaster is a good opportunity to revaluate the work of Conti, which in Argentina tends either to be dismissed as unattractively lyrical or valued only for its reflection of political concerns. At times Conti’s work can seem stylistically dated, but the possible path it outlines, away from the collective and toward a revaluation of inner life, is a highly radical one, and Southeaster is a particularly rich evocation of interiority.
The characters of the book—fishermen, vagabonds, criminals, and other solitary figures—live on the margin in a country that has failed to fulfill its hopes for development, embodying a freethinking liberty opposed to state control and indifference to a society that is in turn hostile to them. For Conti’s laconic characters, subversion consists not in the performance of an operation within a pre-existing network of social relations, but in the choice to live outside this network: in the Delta instead of the capital, or in the city as an outsider. And it is indeed a choice—not displacement or marginalization, but a commitment to solitude, seen as something not to be feared or avoided but rather embraced as necessary to the development of individuality.
Slow and visual, full of descriptions of the Delta, Southeaster uses free indirect style to channel the impressions of Boga, a fisherman who embarks on an independent life on the river after the old man he works for dies. At first Boga sets about trying to fix up a boat, but when he meets two coastal dwellers, el Hombre (the Man) and la Rubia (the Blonde), he abandons the project. The group doesn’t talk much—conversations never amount to much more than terse exchanges of "hello"—but eventually the three slide into robbery and contraband dealings. At the end of the book Boga is sprayed by bullets, but he manages to climb onboard his boat and float to sea, choosing to end his life with his beloved, violent, complicated river rather than like the old man in a state-run hospital.
In Conti’s style, all these actions are dilated by descriptive accumulation and punctuated by silence. The buildup of detail is a reminder someone is observing everything described (motors, boats, fish) with the technical eye of an expert, and the richly rendered discreteness of particular people and objects contrasts sharply with the intangible specter of collective urban anonymity. In his 1969 book El mundo de Haroldo Conti, literary critic Rodolfo Benasso divided Conti’s work into “anatomies of solitude” and “anatomies of nostalgia.” Southeaster falls into the former camp, organizing a chaos of memories, observations, thoughts, and feelings into meaningfulness.
• • •
In contemporary Buenos Aires it isn’t fashionable to read Conti’s work. Two of his novels (En vida, Alrededor de la jaula) and the complete stories (Cuentos completos) have recently been republished to commemorate the 90th anniversary of his birth. In a misguided attempt at marketable design, they feature a teal and orange color scheme, a gaudy cover quote by Gabriel García Márquez, and a font more appropriate for emails than focused reading. But even repackaged in the most elegant way imaginable, the lyricism of Conti’s writing would still run contrary to the aesthetic of the contemporary in Argentina, which strongly emphasizes what is performative, collective, and popular. At their avant-garde limit, works of local literature and art tend to mimic the Internet, pamphlet, or slogan, mirroring the polemical games of neoconceptual art in which the successful execution of an idea boiled down to a short clean paragraph or few words is privileged over spontaneous creation.
Take the work of writer Pablo Katchadjian, who a few years ago published El aleph engordado, a text expanding Borges’s Aleph from 4000 to 9600 words—a case of one ironic intelligence performing an action on the work of another. (Katchadjian’s other work includes El Martín Fierro ordenado alfabéticamente, which consists of alphabetically reordered verses of a classic national poem.) Borges’s widow María Kodama recently renewed energetic legal action against Katchadjian, accusing him of plagiarism and infringement of intellectual property, despite a print run of only 200 copies. A round table featuring César Aira was organized at the Biblioteca Nacional. Katchadjian was staunchly supported by colleagues and friends, and the whole episode became a gorgeous piece of choreography in which the context to some extent became the work.
Conti’s version of politics was always highly existential, concerned less with militant strategy than with the spiritual development of man.
But if Conti does not fit into this line, neither can he be comfortably categorized the way Argentine tradition has located him, as a writer primarily valued for his political commitments. His work has to a large extent been institutionalized: the Emecé anniversary editions were presented at the “Haroldo Conti” Centro Cultural de la Memoria at the Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada, the site of an infamous detention center. Today the cultural center serves as a tribute to the country’s "disappeared,” including Conti himself, who was kidnapped in the early hours of May 5, 1976 on his way home from an underground film screening. A double rhetoric still surrounds discussion of his work, seeking both to acknowledge the fact of this disappearance and transcend it. The back copy of the edition of En vida, written by Guillermo Saccomanno, is a case in point, flirting with context to subsequently deny its importance:
En vida was published in 1971. Although it never enjoyed the glow of the boom, it deserves to be read within that framework. Then it can affirm itself as what it is: an ascetic, independent, insular novel. Its microcosm of the isolated and obsessive description of their collapse remain relevant. In that sense, En vida can explain the militant strategy of the committed writer and his tragic fate of being kidnapped, tortured and disappeared by the last dictatorship. However, I suggest reading it beyond the museumification of its author. Its pages remain alive.
In part because his characters come from the marginalized classes, and in part because of his political activity, Conti holds a special place in the Argentine canon. He was always a writer of the establishment; every one of his four novels was given an important literary award, with his last novel Mascaró, el cazador americano winning the prestigious Casa de las Americas prize. When I went to pick up my Argentine identity card, the woman who processed my paperwork noticed I was carrying one of his books and struck up a conversation about the politics of poverty. But treating Conti solely as a political writer in the line of Rodolfo Walsh or Paco Urondo elides larger concerns present in his work.
After the fall of the first Peronism, the writer’s responsibility to social and political reality became the subject of intense debate. Magazines such as Centro, Contorno, Polémica Literaria and El grillo de papel debated Sartre’s ethics of engagement and Brecht’s and Lukács’s visions of social realism. Conti militated actively with the cultural front of the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores and Frente Antiimperialista por el Socialismo, in addition to writing regularly for the magazine Crisis. Like many others during the period he was highly impressed by the 1959 revolution in Cuba, seeing it as a possible model. Later works increasingly reflect these convictions, most notably Mascaró, which is transparently political though aesthetically arguably one of his weaker novels; it was published in 1974 when Isabel Perón assumed the presidency following her husband’s death a year after his return to power.
But Conti’s version of politics was always highly existential, and his vision for literature had less to do with “militant strategy” than with the spiritual development of man as an individual pursuing his own decisions and projects. He was not opposed to the idea of collectives, as association with others does not necessarily impinge on personal freedom and in fact often provides the raw material for individual thought. But a sense of self is a necessary condition for true connection with others, either one person (as in Alrededor de la jaula) or a self-chosen community (as in the Cuba-inspired Mascaró). This idea, however, he disentangled from the state.
Conti’s novels point to a certain fatalism or indifference inherent in the world, possibly taken from his early religious training, studies at a Salesian college followed by seven years at seminary. Before losing his vocation he became friends with the Jesuit priest Hernán Benítez, later confessor to Eva Perón, and in interviews would recall their conversations, which helped him develop his ideas of the individual. This sense of self did not entail excess solemnity; “el flaco de Chacabuco” (“the skinny guy from Chacabuco”), as friends called him, liked to incorporate conversations and first-hand descriptions into his stories, and employed an informal language saturated with humor.
Southeaster, published in 1962, was Conti’s first novel. Rereading it now, it is clear his interest in developing certain ideals of wiry strength and stoic determination precede many of his more overt militant commitments, and can exist apart from them. Here is Boga, drifting on his boat, accepting the fate he has chosen for himself:
He saw there, in the distance, in the softened evening light, the white and slender figure of a sloop out on the open sea, its spinnaker unfurled. It looked just like a giant bird in slow, majestic flight across the sleepy afternoon. The channel was behind him and the sloop was lost from sight. He tried to sit and take the oars into his hands. He managed with his good arm, but he couldn’t do a thing to stem the dark blood from his entrails. He felt a little cold now and he thought this wasn’t normal. It isn’t cold at this hour, in this season. . . . I’m going.
• • •
Between the Pajarito and the river that’s an open sea, turning sharply northwards, narrowing and narrowing at first, to almost half its size, then widening again and drawing curves toward its mouth, coiling in on itself, secluded in the first islands, is the Anguilas stream.
— first lines of Southeaster
Conti’s translator, Jon Lindsay Miles, answered my Skype call from his son’s house in Pereira, Colombia. After calming a barking dog, he told me how he came across Southeaster.“One day I went to the library and pulled down an old, not very pretty Alfaguara edition from the shelf. I blew off the dust, opened it, and began to read, and immediately was taken in by the rhythm and atmosphere of the opening lines. Conti talks about the climate of the novel being the most important thing, and everything flows from that. It’s an existential novel about a man in his skin in the world, very much about the interior life.” As Miles puts it in his translator’s note, “enchantment emerges from the understated prose, which provides the space required for readers to do their own imaginative work, and from the rhythmic nature of Conti’s voice.”
Miles, who runs a “one-man-band publishing house” called Immigrant Press out of Úbeda, Spain, immediately knew he was interested in self-publishing a translation. “I wanted to produce something as a response to reading,” he said. “My reaction to Conti comes from those first minutes after finding his book. If it weren’t personal, it would probably be a feeble text. For me translation is extremely intimate, a record and response.” Miles had previously published two self-authored books for local distribution, before spending two years on the Conti project. With no backing, he printed a short run with the title South-East in his Immigrant Press edition. Although he had “no resources to sell the things,” his idea was to look for someone who could, so he sent a copy to Stefan Tobler, whom he’d met at university. Tobler liked the book; what appeared a highly traditional style was just unusual enough, possessing some enigmatic quality that made it possible to catalogue alongside more obviously experimental fiction. Tobler proposed reprinting it with his editorial.
What helped was an excellent, informative afterword by John King of the University of Warwick, who edited the Cambridge Companion to Modern Latin American Culture and has written well-respected books on Maria Luisa Bemberg, the Instituto Di Tella, and the magazine Sur. “John did an article for the Index on Censorship about Conti, who also wrote a lot of journalism. I read it and had the temerity to ask him if he’d mind writing me an afterword,” said Miles. “Why an afterword? I’m resistant to introductions. I go immediately to the last page and write INTRO in pencil, to go back. I don’t want my reading to be distorted.”
Miles’s background is atypical for a literary translator. “I did some car body work in the 1970s, then thought I might like to be a teacher. But after four years I left the school. Education as an institution wasn’t for me. I traveled a lot and was embarrassed at my language skills, which consisted of a very moderate level of English. That’s when I became very interested in literature. I learned another language in the belief it might hold another way of thinking, and along the way got into translation. I also began writing my own novel at the time; there’s a real pleasure that comes from writing as well as reading.”
Miles ended up coming to Buenos Aires. “I went out to the Delta, and met the Contis. The fact Conti was listed among the disappeared was not the reason I was translating him, and I wanted to tell them that personally. We went over the mock-ups together. There was absolutely no reason for them to give me the rights, but they were very happy, supportive, lovely people. Haroldo had always wanted to be read in English, and his children carry that with them.”
Miles’s translation is bright, energetic, and unorthodox, calling attention to the texture of the phrase just as in the original Spanish. Reading his work reinforces his view that the difference between the “bog standard” line and "personal interpretation" merits greater attention. “There’s a creative process not considered enough, a reinscription of expression that should not go unexamined,” he said. This creative process means he has chosen to reject the rewarding but grueling life of the full-time translator. He mentions a colleague living in Buenos Aires, Ian Barnett, who brought the Argentine writer Carlos Gamerro’s The Islands and The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón into English. “Barnett is very talented; his translations are very much alive where those of others are lifeless. But I couldn’t do what he does, working under high pressure to a tight deadline when he’s on holiday with his kids. I can’t imagine ever translating a book someone else has asked me to read. I’ve only got so many years to live, and part of my project has been bringing unknown authors into English.”
Like most translated books, Southeaster will likely reach a small public without making much of a splash. Amidst the politics of nationalism, sexuality, and ethnicity, it can often seem the private sphere has been socialized to the point of dissolving particularities. This is true of translations, too. Translations from all languages into English represent such a tiny share of the U.S. market (the “three percent problem”) and are published according to such arbitrary selection criteria that “placement” assumes oversize importance, with the work itself frequently ignored. The pigeonholes are familiar and few: should a Latin American writer be treated as political, compared to Borges, or thought of in terms of Boom literature? (Never mind the last was a North American invention.)
The back cover of the And Other Stories edition rather unconvincingly invites readers to see Conti as belonging to the tradition of Twain and Hemingway. Conti did admire The Old Man and the Sea, but North Americans read Latin American writing as exotic literature, and vice versa. The best way to read Conti in context may be to take him out of context, seeing him not as the determined product of social relations but as the defender of an independent spirit and personal freedom. This is how his translator would like to read him.
“I was a nobody in the south of Spain with a dream of producing an edition independently,” said Miles. "I could do what I wanted. There’s an expression in Spanish, en mi hambre mando yo. A chance discovery at 9am in a public library in Úbeda has led to a transatlantic edition of Conti’s work. Art is about passion and the emotions; if I don’t inscribe that passion, emotion, and beauty in the translation, if it doesn’t move other people, I have failed. I think I can die in peace now. . . you know, I’m only half joking. To pay for this life I work 13.5 hours a week teaching English conversation at the university. For my son’s last birthday I bought him a dust bin, a very economical and practical gift. I’m not a wealthy man, but I am rich."