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The PEN World Voices Festival as It Happened: “Beyond Borges: Argentina’s Unsung Literary Greats”

By Alessandra Bautze

The “Beyond Borges” panel at the 2018 PEN World Voices Festival occurred on April 18 at Book Culture in New York City. Cosponsored by Words Without Borders, the panel featured Sergio Chejfec, Esther Allen, Heather Cleary, Charlotte Whittle, and Edwin Frank in conversation with Eric M. B. Becker.

Most people are familiar with Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, but the “Beyond Borges” panel at PEN World Voices introduced readers to writers from Argentina with whom they may not be familiar. On the lower level of Book Culture’s pristine, newly opened location in Long Island City, a group of writers, translators, and editors gathered for a discussion sponsored by Words Without Borders, which is spotlighting Argentine literature in its April 2018 issue.

The event, moderated by WWB’s Eric M. B. Becker, kicked off with a reading of Argentine writer Sergio Chefjec’s short story “A Trip to the Cemetery,” in which a novelist, essayist, musician, and theologian make a pilgrimage to the grave of Juan José Saer (1937–2005), a mid-century Argentine writer who moved to Paris in 1968. Chefjec read the story in Spanish, and then Heather Cleary, the founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review and translator of Chefjec’s The Planets and The Dark (Open Letter Books), read her English translation. This format allowed the audience to focus not only on the content of the story itself but on the cadence of the prose. As a non-Spanish speaker, I found myself enjoying the rhythm of Chefjec’s words even before I knew what they meant. “I love this story for the humanity and vulnerability of the characters,” said Cleary. Speaking about what made Saer so unique, Cleary referenced his “precise and quiet language.” For Chejfec, Saer was a “very important writer for my formation as a reader and writer.” And yes, Chefjec has actually visited Saer’s tomb.

Next, Charlotte Whittle read from her forthcoming translation of People in the Room, the third novel written by Norah Lange (1905–72), an Argentine whose work has been largely overlooked since the 1950s. Though her works were compiled in 2015, only her memoir has remained in constant circulation since its publication. Lange was overshadowed by her male counterparts, who included Borges himself. Lange and her siblings had a cousin in common with Borges. Since, as Whittle put it, she was already “ensconced in their milieu,” she became “known for her connections to these towering male figures” rather than for her writing itself. As a result, it has been said that Lange was a “victim of her own legendary status.” Whittle’s translation, forthcoming with And Other Stories, will be the first book-length English translation of Lange’s work. In People in the Room, a young woman living in a wealthy neighborhood in Buenos Aires becomes obsessed with the three sisters who live across from her. Lange was a writer of domestic spaces, which Whittle argued actually made her more subversive than other women who went into male spaces. Lange was in a league of her own and her work coming out of the shadows will be a gift to those who may never have heard of this remarkable woman.

Image: Sergio Chejfec, Eric M. B. Becker, Heather Cleary, Charlotte Whittle, and Esther Allen. Photo by Karen Phillips.

The discussion then turned to Argentine writer Antonio di Benedetto (1922–86). Chejfec met Di Benedetto at a neighborhood pizzeria in Buenos Aires in 1984 and he told the audience that, at the time, the writer was overcome with a feeling of failure. Di Benedetto’s interests were wide-ranging: he was a journalist and a novelist, as well as a visual writer who was involved in the film world and wrote screenplays. But he was a man haunted by his past. His newspaper covered the atrocities perpetuated by the regime of military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla and, in 1976, he spent eighteen months in prison as a result. Brought before a firing squad on four separate occasions, he was told he was going to die. But his book Zama (published in 1956) was a best seller in Germany and renowned West German novelist Heinrich Böll was able to secure his release. Still, he could not escape the psychological trauma of his ordeal. “After an experience like that, how can you really survive?” asked Esther Allen. His next book was called, appropriately, Absurdos (Absurdities).

Despite the fact that a bookstore in Spain was named after Zama, Di Benedetto’s works languished in obscurity in English. But everything changed in 2009 when Zama came to the attention of Edwin Frank, editor of the New York Review Books Classics Series, and Esther Allen, a translator and cofounder of PEN World Voices. The editor-translator team shared their experience acquiring the book and bringing it to the Anglophone world. Edwin Frank acquired Zama after visiting Buenos Aires in 2009 to “see the local product,” so to speak. The English translation was released in 2016, but Frank insists that this was not a seven-year process, but rather a sixty-year one! It is important that Di Benedetto’s work is finally available in English because he clearly made an impact in Latin America, particularly among writers. In fact, the titular character in renowned Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s story “Sensini” is based on Antonio di Benedetto. In Edwin Frank’s words, Di Benedetto was a “writer’s writer,” someone with whom writers are obsessed but who remains relatively unknown outside of that world. But due to the partnership of Frank and Allen, Di Benedetto will no longer be unknown to American readers.

Concluding with a recitation of the poem “Song” by Silvina Ocampo (1903–1994), Frank remarked that a theme of Argentine literature could be “living death.” But the room was very much alive as the words of these lesser-known voices echoed throughout Book Culture, and the audience came away with a better understanding of the vibrant careers of Argentine writers who were previously relegated to the margins.


Read more dispatches from the 2018 PEN World Voices Festival

Published Apr 30, 2018   Copyright 2018 Alessandra Bautze

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