Lugar común, la muerte

Murió Tomás Eloy Martínez. Una pérdida enorme para la literatura, para el periodismo y, sobre todo, para los que no les interesa dónde empieza una cosa y termina la otra.

Le debemos, un grupo de escritores que me incluye, la mejor nota sobre "Nueva Narrativa Argentina" en tapa en ADN, y sobre todo dos horas de charla en la que él hizo hablar, repartió la pelota, nos trató como estrellas, se interesó legítimamente en todos y cada uno, compartió alguna anécdota de Puig que escuchamos como en misa. Un señor, por sobre todas las cosas.

Poco después de esa nota, me envalentoné y le pedí referencias para una novela que empezaba a escribir (y que sigo escribiendo), novela en la que robo descarada y desesperadamente a La novela de Perón. Lo bombardeé a preguntas y consultas en una charla en la que me atendió con toda la generosidad y buena voluntad del mundo, respondiendo cada una de mis pavadas, pasándome fuentes y experiencias y consejos como si él no fuera el gigante que era y yo no fuera una hormiga pigmea con enanismo, y a pesar de que (yo no lo sabía entonces) ya estaba bastante enfermo del cáncer de pulmón del que murió.

De sus libros me siguen encandilando La novela de Perón, y El cantor de tangos (no se lo menciona mucho pero para me impactó muchísimo ese libro) Lugár común, la muerte (el más tristemente adecuado para mencionar hoy: habla de las muertes de distintos personajes, o de personajes muertos, y tiene entre esas crónicas una sobre Manuel Puig inolvidable, y otra sobre Perón y López Rega que es el auténtico realismo mágico), y varios de sus artículos periodísticos todavía me retumban en a cabeza (hay un link a uno de ellos en un post de hace unos meses, sin ir más lejos). No leí aún Santa Evita, debo ser uno de los 10 en el planeta que aún no la leyeron; justo ayer tuve en las manos en una librería la reedición de La pasión según Trelew (y me terminé llevando Aire tan dulce, de Elvira Orphée, pero esa es otra historia). Tengo alguno de sus libros en la montaña de ejemplares por leer, y otros (las Conversaciones con el General, La pasión según Trelew) que seguramente voy a estar agarrando pronto.

Lo muy poco que lo traté me mostró un gran tipo, y a ese gran tipo recordaré. Los libros están ahí, vivos y más vivos que nunca, en la biblioteca. Que descanse en paz; nosotros, a seguir leyendo, a aprender, a tomar algunos de sus tantos ejemplos.


From telling the story to digging into history

A dream team of top journalists culled from the best newsrooms in years that many consider a golden age in local journalism? Check. Innovative layout? Check. An editorial mission to do quality popular journalism, with Timerman-like sophistication in the tabloid spirit of Crónica? Check. A place within the structure of urban guerrilla movement Montoneros? Check.
That was the formula of Noticias sobre todo lo que pasa en el mundo, a short-lived newspaper published between November 1973 and August 1974 as part of Montoneros’ communication strategy. What happened in the ten months between the first issue and the shutdown order issued by President Isabel Perón is the starting point for Noticias de los Montoneros, a book where Gabriela Esquivada dives deep and thorough into the story and surfaces with a chunk of history – raw, contradictory, rich in connections and tangents, and (most of all) exceptionally well told.
“I was more interested in telling the stories well than anything else: I tried to tell the stories as best as I could. The history of the newspaper was an excuse to tell the story of this group of people, and of the groups of people that were around them, and what happened to them before, and what happened to them afterwards. Also, there are so many testimonies and sources and quotes, so many other voices coming into play which even contradict each other – that’s life, that’s stories: stories never have neat endings. We never know what happened,” says Esquivada to the Herald.
It is this focus that makes the book a gripping read – as fine a piece of journalistic research as it is, full of interviews and references to a complex and far-reaching web of facts, testimonies and documents, the book stands out as a narrative work, going back and forth in time, including historical episodes that go well before and after the few months covered in Noticias’ biography, and working within a tradition of Argentine writing that puts literary devices to journalistic use (and viceversa) which includes names like Rodolfo Walsh and Tomás Eloy Martínez.
The seed of the book was the dissertation for Esquivada’s MA in Journalism, which compared Noticias to other newspapers of the times. “There’s many years of work here – but also many years of self-boycott! The dissertation got published, but (like all dissertations) it’s very heavy reading. After that, the image of the group of professionals who did Noticias lingered in my head, and every time I came to Argentina I advanced on the research. Yet, I could have finished the book three years earlier: at one point I was so embarrassed I told the publishers we should just cancel the contract, but they insisted on an extension.”
The book’s meandering narrative spans from the bombing of Plaza de Mayo in 1955 when Perón was ousted from power to the 2008 conflict between farmers and the Kirchners. This feat of research and structure puts the book in context and transforms the story into a piece of history – but it is assisted, also, by the fact that history has not truly moved forward in Argentina. When Esquivada was interviewing Montonero leader Fernando Vaca Narvaja near the garage he runs in Floresta, she was distracted by the photos of three young men stuck in the gas station cafeteria’s window: they had been shot by a police officer on December 29, 2001 after they had cursed at the TV showing images of cops charging on demonstrators at Plaza de Mayo during the December 20 marches that led to Fernando de la Rúa’s resignation. The interview, which had so far been focused on what the newspaper meant for Montoneros’ structure and Vaca Narvaja’s role in the 1972 prison break at Trelew, shifted. “When I’m in the middle of an interview with Vaca Narvaja and the story of this other murder shows up, I know it’s time to take a detour, ask about it, add it and see how that plays with what I was planning to do, because the story’s changed now. Violence in this country never stops, we are still living in El matadero!”
But not all interviews were as simple: Mario Firmenich and Roberto Perdía, the other two members of Montoneros’ Conducción Nacional, were reluctant (even confrontational) towards the project. “Firmenich was difficult, it took 2 years for him to accept meeting me and that was just because I was referred to him by someone else, and he wouldn’t let me record the meeting or take notes. Perdía talked me down, he was wary of me and the book. In the 70s they were working on other things, this was one percent of the work of Montoneros: let’s have a newspaper, but first we must take over the country – they had other priorities.”
Indeed, the position of Noticias within the guerrilla organization was uncomfortable: the leaders were at ease with El descamisado, a party magazine that was directed specifically to members and allies, but had a more difficult relationship with the staff of Noticias. “They changed the political commissar at one point: Urondo was the one with the link to Montoneros’ party line, and at one point they didn’t like him any more and replaced him with someone else. They used the revolutionary moral as an excuse, because Urondo was cheating on his partner, but the real reason was political, the newspaper was too independent for their taste. They were very critical people. Smoje, Verbitsky and Walsh had been at the CGTA’s weekly, they had too much of a political history to just accept the party line. When the newspaper was created Perón hadn’t taken power yet, anything was possible, but when the Triple A started shooting them down and bombing the newsroom the newspaper had to go in another direction. The newspaper’s leadership couldn’t make it but there was an all-too-real problem in the streets, at the Government House, at the Social Welfare Ministry, in Chile, in Uruguay... reality changed brutally. When Urondo left, he was replaced by Norberto Habegger, a first-grade political official who was not going to be overstepped so easily. When they first got the news of Father Mugica’s murder, for instance, Habegger decided to keep it a small story until they found out what the party line on that was going to be. Gelman was on call that night, and he was desperate, saying that they should change their front page and centrefold, give it more space, but they ended up replacing one of the smaller headlines... but that criticism from the newspaper’s editors didn’t go unnoticed by the Montoneros leadership.”
Some newsroom members were not even Montonero members, and were there for the journalistic project. “The stories of those who were more reticent about the project are the most interesting, because they are the most unique. Not belonging to the orga, they had a different perception of things. The most amusing was Sylvina Walger’s. She talks about how her Montonero boyfriend found her reading a bunch of Hola! Spanish gossip magazines (and she adds that she was happy because she could only read it thanks to Perón’s return, because Hola! magazine wasn’t imported before but it was Isabel Perón’s favourite magazine – which is a tongue-in-cheek but dead-accurate description of the Perón-Perón ballot), and told her ‘one magazine is OK, but a whole heap is not normal...’ That shows a certain distance from all the tragedy, that there’s hope as long as we can laugh. The story that moved me the most is Carlos Ulanovsky’s, because at the beginning of our interview he told me that for many years he did not include Noticias in his CV: he said it with such pain, and then I saw traces of that in what he told me and in his memoir of his Mexican exile (Seamos felices mientras estamos aquí), that he lived the contradictions in a very raw sense. He was not a Montonero, he was a young man interested in politics who believed that the cycles of violence and military coups followed by weak democratic administrations were finally going to end, a man who had worked for Frejuli and then saw how that project collapsed and ended up in exile. Roberto Guareschi’s view is that of a very lucid guy who, as things developed, went to Bonasso and told him ‘this is not what you signed me up for, and I have two things to say about that: a) I’m leaving, and b) think about what you’re doing here, because what you said this was going to be made sense and this newspaper is losing it.’ I also love Alicia Barrios’ story, a very young girl who worked for a living – she was not a spoilt child who decided to become a writer. She had lost a job at Revolutionary Workers’ Party PRT’s magazine, where they told her to wear a bra to work. They insisted so much that one day she brought a bra in her purse and placed it on top of her desk. She was kicked out, and found a job at Noticias. She told me how she took Martín Caparrós, the youngest, most handsome guy in the newsroom, to her place to get laid. She’s also a symbol that young people had a normal life too, that they went out, ate, fucked, went to shows, read, that they were not creating the New Man 24 hours a day.”
Still, it takes the times to make the newspaper, says Esquivada. “Today there cannot be popular journalism of the kind Noticias aimed at because there isn’t a political dimension: I don’t mean Montoneros, but the awareness that a newspaper is a political actor and not just a business unit, the notion that a reader has a right to be informed, that newspapers build an agenda which is not innocent. A newspaper like that today would be madness. This project required that country in those circumstances with those journalists.”
But it was that country and those times which doomed Noticias. “The newspaper was closed down by president Isabel Perón in late August, but in early September Montoneros went underground: how can you have a structure like that with an underground organization? It would have folded anyway.”
Esquivada’s book reads like a pageturner but keeps reminding readers that this is not magical realism, that lives were risked and lost, that violence existed. In one of the most ironic and perhaps symptomatic turns, she mentions that there are no official records of the publishing company, which suggests that it was a mere rubber stamp. Esquivada quotes an explanation from a staff member that is a sign of the times: “Patricia Walsh told me she always believed the company was a fake, but ‘anyway, we thought the revolution would come eventually and then we would settle all scores’.” But the revolution did not come, and all the scores still have to be settled.


Gabriela Esquivada started hercareer in journalism as an intern in the early days of Página/12 in 1987. She worked in the newspaper as a reporter and then sub-editor of the literary suplement. She was part of the launch team for Página’s book supplement “Radar Libros” and women’s magazines Cosmopolitan and Luna. She also worked for Veintitrés magazine before moving abroad. While she was not living in Argentina she wrote freelance for several newspapers and magazines in Argentina and other Latin American countries.
Her journalistic and academic work has been collected in anthologies, and she has edited books for the Fundación para un Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano. She has received an MA in Journalism from the University of La Plata.

A who’s who of noticias

“Noticias was a mini-bang of our contemporary culture, politics and journalism,” says Gabriela Esquivada, before going over the most salient names in the newsroom.
She starts with the living editors and section heads. “Miguel Bonasso is a Congress member and he keeps writing, he will publish a wonderful novel later this year on the figure of 19th century patriot Bernardo de Monteagudo. Horacio Verbitsky is probably the most influential political columnis in our country, and he continued with Noticias’ idea of the press as a political actor and journalists as people with clear positions. Juan Gelman won the Premio Cervantes, the highest distinction for a Spanish-language writer.”
But Noticias was also the place where many who would have remarkable careers later on started out, or participated in smaller roles than those they would later occupy. “If we look at the younger journalists, or those who were in other areas, Mario Stilman left Clarín a short time ago after working in the international desk and then back in sports. Carlos Eichelbaum, Carlos Ulanovsky, Sylvina Walger are all in print and electronic media today. Roberto Guareschi created the Clarín we know today. Ricardo Roa is still one of the top editors at Clarín. Martín Caparrós and Alicia Barrios are still influential journalists. Patricia Walsh became a Congress member and then City legislator...”
But two of the most significant names associated with the newspaper are also among those who disappeared during the 1976-83 military dictatorship: Rodolfo Walsh and Francisco “Paco” Urondo. “Nowadays there’s a fortunate revival of Francisco Urondo’s poetry and essays. Rodolfo Walsh became an unwilling patron saint of journalists thanks to Operación masacre, a fact that obliterates his amazing fiction and which has turned him into a two-dimensional person.”
The echoes of three other dead staff members reach us through their children’s work today. “The daughter of Juan Julio Roqué, aka ‘Iván,’ directed the documentary Papá Iván, trying to find out who was that man who loved her so much and wrote her some beautiful letters and left behind some beautiful memories but who disappeared from her life to do things he said would be very important to her, and ended up as a huge absence and an enigma. Roberto Carri worked in the newspaper too, and Albertina Carri’s Los rubios is an extraordinary film about his loss and the construction of the missing parents. Roberto Quieto’s son, Guido, is trying to reopen the case of his kidnapping, and also to clear his memory: Roberto Quieto was kidnapped by a parapolice group under a democratic government and was taken, probably to Campo de Mayo, to be tortured. Montoneros decided to give up the search, then accused him of treason, condemned him in absentia, sentenced him to death and allowed the death sentence to be carried out by the enemy, who was holding him prisoner in a concentration camp... Guido Quieto was six when this happened. This speaks of the change from parapolice repression to state terrorism, and also of the degree of political delusion and madness in Montoneros, blinded by a militarist perspective and losing sight of what a political group is there for, what they do for their members when they are in trouble... I don’t want to be a judge of what they did, but I think that was a clear, visible symptom of what was going on.”

(Publicado en el Buenos Aires Herald el 16/1/10)

When less is so much more

A woman is found next to a half-sunken car off a road in the middle of the country, her feet dipped into the stream of water. By the time she is discovered, the cold has put her in a state of coma. Her sister, a bike messenger in a city shrouded in a veil of fantasy, visits her at hospital and wanders around her house and the studio where she repaired fountain pens looking for clues to what happened that night. Everything is an enigma – no witnesses, no traces, and she is a 5 in the Glasgow Coma Scale (a 15-point test used to measure the conscious state, where anything below 8 is considered a severe coma).
This could be the opening to a mystery novel, some sort of detective work leading to a conspiracy involving security agencies and secret societies, or at least grubby corporate hands. But in the hands of Isabel de Gracia this premise turns into Glasgow 5/15, an infinitely subtle novel painted in watercolours: everything hangs in the air, hinted at more than narrated, with a plot that unravels almost as if by accident and thickens quite against its own will just the necessary degree of suspense to keep the pages turning, but the leading force is always pushing deeper rather than ahead. The first word that comes to mind is not one that we get to use very often to describe recent books: reticent.
Jane Austen famously wrote of “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” Glasgow 5/15 is very much a fine-brush novel that hints at a broader story (a broken geography with hints of De Gracia’s hometown of La Plata that lets a blurry but intriguing social context shine through, characters with backstories that run deep out of the reader’s sight) but chooses to focus on its two inches of ivory, understating more than saying, diving more than pushing forward. It is easy to forget, while reading it, that this is De Gracia’s first published work – but then again, this is the first novel of a 46-year-old who has had a career in other areas (law and photography), showing once more that youth and novelty in and of themselves are more a marketing ploy than a literary virtue.
The heart of the novel is the relationship between the sisters, or rather the feelings projected by the carer on the coma patient as she lies unresponsive and unblemished: there are no traces of violence, no wound, just an empty shell that may one day become a person once again, and the waiting game for those expecting their return. More than anything, the novel plays variations on the key of uncertainty and impossibility. It is impossible to describe just what is happening, what happened, what will happen; it is impossible to grasp a mourning that is not a mourning; it is impossible to know who is who and what is what; it is impossible –as T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock put it– to say just what I mean. And yet, do not be mistaken into expecting a meandering accumulation of poetic ramblings and lyrical musings. The sparse, careful prose is precise and controlled, sometimes interrupted by snatches of documents (police and court reports, technical information, broken letters) that make it even more pointed: this is not a bland meditation but a surgical examination that can often turn brutal. And yet, it all hangs in the air, packing a punch without diving for a punchline.
Despite all prejudice regularly held against the conventional taste of literary awards and the novels that win them, this novel won the second edition of the Premio de Novela Letra Sur, with a jury made up of Martín Kohan, Claudia Piñeiro and Juan Sasturain. The first edition of this award was granted to Gabriel Báñez’ La cisura de Rolando, another unusually worthy novel (whose title was also taken from medical textbooks, by the way) that would not have made it very far in other competitions. Kudos, then, to the jury for both its choices.
Kudos, also, to Editorial El Ateneo for the beautiful books they make for their Litterae collection, lovingly and thoughtfully designed. One would, however, wish to read more from this collection: besides Báñez’ and De Gracia’s novels, the only two other books in its two-year history have been Vicente Battista’s El cuaderno del ausente and a reissue of a 1990s novel by Fogwill – enough to know we can expect more good things from it, and to wish that they should come more often.
Perhaps the highest compliment I could pay to the book is mentioning the one tiny pebble that gritted against my finicky, pen-freak palate: in a memory, the fountain pen repairer tells her sister that the Parker 51 is the finest writing instrument ever built (an undeniable truth: you just haven’t written until you have tried a Parker 51, pens just don’t get any better than this) was designed by Laszlo Moholy Nagy, of Bauhaus fame. Moholy Nagy did some design work for Parker and is sometimes credited with participation in the 51, but most sources agree this work started after the model was released (Bauhaus designers did design many of Lamy’s most popular models, but that’s a different story). That is the one flaw I can find in the novel: I must have liked it a lot, then.

(Publicado en el Buenos Aires Herald el 21/1/10)


Y la obra se llama...

Acto 1: ayer llega al mail del diario una gacetilla que envían todos los días desde una agencia de prensa con el resumen del capítulo del día de una tira de "la televisión pública" que en el delirio más delirante de un blog de por sí delirado leí elogiada como la mejor tira posible de la televisión universal. Cuestión que la gacetilla vendía el capítulo del día, en letras rojas con foto alegórica y explayándose en detalle, como "el capítulo en el que dos de los personajes femeninos se besan en cámara", en medio de un sueño erótico-delirante que prometían iba a estar a mitad de camino entre Fellini y Pasolini con una cuota de Jenna Jameson.

Acto 2: Esta mañana, me siento a traducir el guión de ese mismo capítulo de esa misma tira. La escena tiene diez líneas a lo sumo, y del famoso beso el guión no menciona absolutamente nada.

Acto 3 (con efecto flashback): ¿Incluir el beso habrá sido idea del iluminado del director? ¿De la actriz indie hitting the big time que hace el protagónico? ¿De la reality girl reconvertida en vedette reconvertida en actriz que hace el personaje menor? ¿De los productores? ¿Salió así, de onda, en la filmación? ¿Quién fue el primero en decir "che, lo que le falta a este programa es capitalizar el morbo que tienen los tipos con el lesbianismo"?

Acto 4 (se ve un calendario al que se de desgranan hojas, repite efecto flashback): ¿Qué iluminado de la agencia de prensa, que por lo general repite la sinópsis de los capítulos que figura en el guión, dijo "Che, boló, sacá todas esas gansadas y poné bien grande que estas dos trolas se parten la boca"? ¿Se fue a su casa pensando "qué banana que soy, con esto me gano el ascenso"?

Si tienen título para la obra, déjenlo en los comentarios...