Last semester, Fall 2010, when I taught Latin American Literature at the JSM Institute/CUNY, I reviewed my syllabus for this course very carefully, as it is one I love to teach. I love it because the span of growth of LatinAm Lit swells in late 19th and 20th centuries, and encompasses my favorite writers, my favorite books. Every generation has their formative canon, and this was mine– Machado de Assis, Guimaraes Rosa, Huidobro, Mistral, Neruda, Parra, Borges, Cortázar, and then Brunet, Valenzuela, Pizarnik, Castellanos, Rulfo, all the women poets, GGM, and eventually, Bolaño… but among the older ones there was Sábato. Ernesto Sábato, the Argentine writer who died this year at the age of 99, and who is best known for two books- El túnel and Sobre héroes y tumbas.
I debated whether to include an excerpt of his novel, On Heroes And Tombs this time around. We are in the 21st century; I happen to teach this course in English. How relevant is Sábato to my students in New York City today?
This time I chose shorter excerpts overall, mostly poems and short stories, in order to travel back in time to understand how the character of LatinAm Lit developed. We read “The Doll Queen” by Fuentes instead of Aura and The Death of Artemio Cruz, and “Housekeeping,” by Rosario Castellanos instead of Balún Canán, although I did translate a few pages of it in the end. Every time I chose a short piece over a complete novel, it meant we would not spend a comfortably long sojourn with an author, getting to know her or him. We would blaze past and get only a taste. On the other hand, we would be able to talk about influences, currents, and how one cadence engendered a school of thought, and one certainty gave rise to a desperate challenge– to be the “antipoet,” and write “antipoems,” as Nicanor Parra did. Would we have Junot Díaz today without Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Tres tristes tigres? or Roberto Bolaño’s Estrella distante without Luisa Valenzuela’s El gato eficaz or Strange Things Happen Here? (I realize I code-switch between Spanish and English on the titles of books. That’s because some titles will be familiar and easily understood– with a little effort– even if the reader speaks only English or only Spanish… at least that’s what I hope. That we get used to gliding from one language to another to catch the best of each one without resistance, and therefore, broaden our horizons.)
But Ernesto Sábato tried to tell a story of the birth of Latin American identity, a very weird thing for a novelist to do, and then in the middle of bleeding heroes and the tombs of the fathers of his nation (any nation), he wrote the most scary and the most classic piece of urban paranoia ever written: “Report On The Blind.”
This section of the book is a stand-alone piece, that can indeed be viewed as a short story in itself, and needs little connection to the rest of the novel. Although the plot follows the lives of Martín and Alexandra and their tragic, star-crossed love, there is a foreboding sense that it is Alexandra and her father– who represent the old families of Argentina– who inhabit a dark past, a guilty past, that comes to haunt Martín in the present. But Martín has his own obsession, which is a fear, a paranoia, of the sightless people of Buenos Aires who, he believes, are involved in a secret society.
I remember reading this book in the early 1970s, when I studied Latin American literature at the University of Connecticut. It had only been about six years since I’d arrived as an immigrant from Chile with my family in the U.S., and while I’d become proficient enough in English to go unnoticed in the xenophobic New England of those days, I often felt the alienation of the outsider. The decidedly pastoral UConn campus was a welcome refuge in Spring; plenty of lilac and magnolia along the paths, Swan Lake and Mirror Lake, the two ponds, created lovely spots to sit and read by their grassy banks. I walked into the Humanities building with great anticipation, however, because I would be going to my favorite classes with Dr. Luis Eyzaguirre, and for an hour and 15 minutes, speak Spanish and listen to his analysis of books and authors who were all the rage– we were smack in the middle of the Latin American literary Boom phenomenon.
Sábato’s book wasn’t my favorite. The yellowing pages and the small print of my Colección Piragua paperback made it a chore to read (the book cost $3.09 then!), as I followed the tortuous story of Juán Lavalle intertwined with that of Martín and Alexandra. Sábato blended his narrative with newspaper accounts and historical details of the colonial Latin American era and its independence from Spain. As a 19-year-old I was obtuse and too lazy to consider the significance of those old war heroes I detested studying as a child, to the contemporary character of our nations– Argentina, Chile, Bolivia. Why should argentinos, peruanos, colombianos, etc., in 1972, care what happened in 1810? The early 19th century was the time of the próceres, a blend of revolutionary heroes and founding fathers whose images stared mutely behind the dusty glass of a frame that hung over our chalkboards in grammar school. Their stories had built Latin America. Their vision, when they were 24 or 25, is what defined each nation in the Americas south of the United States and each country guarded their próceres jealously. Argentina had San Martín, Chile had O’Higgins and Manuel Rodríguez, Venezuela had Simón Bolívar. But Juán Lavalle’s story was one I had never heard before, because he didn’t live to become minister, president, or ambassador in the aftermath of the wars of independence– he was caught up in the power struggles that followed and killed in battle in 1841 by an army who didn’t know who he was. The subsequent ordeal to rescue his body and then what sadly remained of his remains, makes an ironic and gruesome story. Sábato rescued his name from oblivion, and by juxtaposing it with the plot of a 20th century narrative created a strange interstice of Latin American literature in order to ask– who are we? Who are Latin Americans, and what are our countries made of? Do we have anything in common with those idealistic young men, or with the elite, wealthy families that supported them?
And then, Sábato’s book halts in mid narrative to take us into Part III: Informe sobre ciegos.
“Report on the Blind” is a fascinating story. I remember being repelled and captivated, but much more entertained by this part than by the rest of the book. It was more like a story by Donoso, Cortázar, or even Borges, with its opening poem and the allusion to the narrator’s death toying with our sense of time, and then a game of logic to prove that God does not exist:
“1.God does not exist.
2.God exists, and is a louse.
3.God exists, but sometimes sleeps…”
Of course, we had to read at least this excerpt in my Latin American Literature course. “Report on the Blind” finds Martín late at night in Buenos Aires, in the summer of 1947, and as he tells us, at “the beginnings of my systematic investigation” of how the blind survive in the streets and underground maze of Buenos Aires, as part of a secret society. Unlike the magical environment of Fuentes or García Márquez which delights my students from the start, this story infuses the reader with a gradual descent into a desperate time. The city no longer belongs to them who think they know it, who think they own it. The pragmatic mid-twentieth century with its certainty of the modern and its self-sufficient distance from the baroque mess of its collective history, in this story of madness, fails the citizens. Gradually, the cosmopolitan Latin American loses grasp of reality and begins to recognize that the blind people are more aware of him than he is of them; that they can survive in the underbelly of any city a lot better than he, and that in fact it is they who are following him, they who control the money by selling trinkets on buses, they who are writing a report on the sighted rather than the other way around. Sábato makes the hair on our arms stand on end. Yes, we recognize that the narrator is mad, that he is paranoid, and while there is some relief as we disentangle and get some distance from the narrative, the effect is indelible. If we can be roped in by a story as nonsensical as this, if we can be dragged by a paranoid narrator as he tries to construct his own proof for the existence or absence of a god in the universe, then, what do we know about our own historical beginnings? Who are we, who founded our nations, what do we have in common with each other?
(And for non-Latin Americans this may make somewhat less sense, but there is the disquieting fact of history that tells us that most of the próceres never did come home after the wars. We know that San Martín refused to get off the ship to walk on American soil again, and went back to Europe, to exile. We know that O’Higgings abdicated and left Chile to live the rest of his life in Perú, and that Manuel Rodríguez was betrayed by his friends who saw him as a rival for the power they sought in government.)
People did rather hound Juán Rulfo for years after he published Pedro Páramo, because they wanted another novel and he had already written the one he needed to write. Something similar happened to Sábato because his novel opened perhaps too big a can of worms about Latin America, even if it isn’t a lyrical wonder like Pedro Páramo, or a feat of magic like One Hundred Years of Solitude, GGM’s masterpiece. But Sábato, unlike the less vain Juán Rulfo, kept trying to write a better book– he just couldn’t put the lid back on the last one.
In 1973, on the 11th of September, I did have a chance to ask why I had been so disturbed by Sábato’s strange novel. Watching the news on a black & white TV set in rural Connecticut, I learned that the first bloody battle had broken out in Chile since colonial times and my countrymen were imprisoned in a state of siege. Whatever united us was deep in our bones. The pain of alienation had become exile, and it hurt far into the soul, more than I had ever imagined. I was still young and knew very little, but some of the perspectives one learns from books in the quiet moments that shape our lives, teach us how to see for the rest of the life we’ve got.
For whatever that’s worth, I wanted to share as many strange and wonderful ways of seeing the world with my students.