‘Tungsten,’ ‘wolframium,’ ‘galvanoplastic’

Juan Diego Incardona's literary world is industrial, suburban, Peronist and fantastic

Go on Google Earth and search for Ciudad Evita, in the suburbs of BA City. Zoom out until you can see the full neighbourhood on your screen. Start rotating the image, and have a good look at the shape of the neighbourhood. Yes, that’s right: it’s a profile of Eva Perón.
El campito, Juan Diego Incardona’s second novel, takes that fact and blows it up into the premise for a fully-fledged fantasy world: behind Juan Domingo Perón’s back, Evita ordered the union umbrella group CGT to build a network of hidden "Barrios Bustos" (Bust-shaped neighbourhoods), each in the shape of a Peronist historical figure (Juan José Valle, Pascual Pérez, Ramón Castillo, Domingo Mercante, etc.), each inhabited by members of the Peronist resistance specialized on some particular field of labour. Because the Riachuelo and Matanza rivers run through these neighbourhoods, chemical pollution is an everyday thing: pollution has brought mutations in the human, vegetable and animal life forms, including giants, dwarves, mythological creatures, galvanized flowers, rivers of fire... But the gorila oligarchy is launching an attack on the Barrios Bustos, and Carlitos, a hobo, turns up in the streets of Villa Celina to tell a young Juan Diego (and later his friends, and little by little the entire neighbourhood) the story of how they will defend themselves and fight back.
In a much-welcome innovation to the local literary field, Incardona spins his yarn within the tradition of fantasy, that mongrel of a genre that most people associate with Tolkien fandom in elvish costumes (even in the paratext: at the back of the book is a map and glossary of the novel’s world). Yet, this fantasy brings to life a Peronist mythology – while it paints a lovingly realistic picture of life in Villa Celina, Incardona’s home neighbourhood, and builds a powerful and multifaceted metaphor of Peronism and the social forces it unleashes.
"I work with highly referential and contemporary material: even though it’s fantasy, I start from elements I know, load the writing up with my life experience. There is a vast tradition of the fantastic, and a lot of it in Latin American literature – yet, there is a lot of weight and critical approval behind a clear, direct link with reality, at least in recent times. I want to connect to reality –in fact, I always use maps and toponymies–, but this genre also allows me to connect to the imagination and move towards the fantastic, which lets you condense much bigger meanings that provide more accurate accounts of certain aspects of the reality I want to explore. It is a personal journey, too, like walking into a dream. In Villa Celina (his 2008 collection of short stories) I was trying to be true to my memory of what had happened to me, even the fantastic elements like the hombre gato were real-life memories, people actually spent whole nights chasing this fantastical creature (reality trumps fiction). Out of elements like the hombre gato I developed the world of El campito, where the plants and wildlife are distorted by pollution. The things I invented are connected to the world I knew (landfills, the polluted river, etc.), and there were elements in this kind of literature that fit like a glove," says Juan Diego Incardona to the Herald.
Even though he chooses a well-defined genre and squeezes the last drop of literary potential out of it, Incardona steers clear of all cliches – both of fantasy and realism – by rooting his writing deep in his own background, casting a literary look on elements that are rarely a part of Argentine literature – if only because most writers don’t come from the district of La Matanza, haven’t been to a technical school, haven’t worked steel or made a living selling their own hand-made jewellry before getting their Literature degree. And, perhaps, because not many are as good, free and conscientious at their game as he is.
Villa Celina (or rather, how he has ellaborated his life there) shapes his literary world, in more ways than one. "I come from La Matanza, I lived there 29 years: I cannot write about La Matanza without Peronism, it's an indivisible part of its cultural makeup. La Matanza has a different life, institutions work differently. The Church is historically an aristocratic institution, the historical enemy of Peronism, but in Villa Celina we had a third-world parish with Peronist priests. The first time I sang the Marcha Peronista was at a Via Crucis procession. It was more social than religious, a place to hang out. When I was a kid and we played at landfills or by the Matanza river, it never crossed our minds that the place was dangerous. It was our polluted Mississippi, a happy place, a land of adventure.
"I am interested in the national, and when I think of nation I think of Latin America – but that's too vast a universe to approach with literature, how do you even start? You can write sociology, political essays, but I write fiction. So, I go to the smallest possible part, to the atom of sense and sound. A blood sample will tell you how many red cells there are in the entire body: if you take a blood sample of the country pricking the arm of Villa Celina you’ll get stories of workers who lost their jobs with Menemism, the story of Juanita the immigrant clerk, all of Argentina’s history is in the barrios. The barrio can tell you the history of the country, but it doesn’t work the other way around – the country cannot tell the barrio. So, when you’re working with the barrio, that story is not just the present – the story includes the past, playing even with meanings that you yourself don’t understand and which are haphazard connections, anything goes in that world."
Even the language he chooses is steeped in that experience. "I am interested in technical language, anything that is not literary language, that does not have a literary history. ‘Moon,’ ‘sea,’ ‘melancholy,’ these words have been written to death. But ‘tungsten,’ ‘wolframium,,’ ‘galvanoplastic,’ the name of a Peronist figure – that's virgin literary territory."
And this territory is fertile ground for his writing, which has roots in Daniel Santoro’s mythical Peronist iconography. "Santoro has been building that bonaerense world, El campito’s story happens in Santoro’s paintings."
This opens up layers of interpretation that escape more straightforward approaches to a theme – not an analysis of Peronism, but its mythology. "Many readings are possible because this mythologization of Peronism in an oneiric context with condensed creatures works like a dream, it's a past that comes back in a chaotic, out-of-control form... Peronism is mythology, it is perfect fuel for fiction – full of conjectures, stories, anecdotes."
At 39, Juan Diego Incardona has done what many writers can never achieve: he has built a rich literary world that follows its own rules and speaks powerfully to reality. That alone makes El campito a must-read.

(Publicado en el Buenos Aires Herald el 10 de octubre de 2009)

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