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LITERATURE Letters From Latin America

Review of fiction by Argentinean writer Sergio Chejfec and Chilean Benjamin Labatut and poetry by Argentinean Alejandra Pizarnik and Chilean Vicente Huidobro

THE ARGENTINE Sergio Chejfec is one of those rare writers who defy categorisation and his essay Notes Toward a Pamphlet (Ugly Duckling Press, £8), skilfully translated by Whitney DeVos, is a good example of why.

Part essay, part short story, as well as a kind of philosophical treaty on poetry, this short text explores with wit and originality the life and creative process of Argentine poet Samich, who often travels by train from the provinces to the working-class outskirts of Buenos Aires.

There he lives in a humble house with a small garden with two trees, under which he often sits to compose his never-published verses. A poet-guru with a cult following, he puts into question the very act of writing, turning the quietness of his suburban life into a work of art.

The text is a profound meditation on the life and work of an introverted and intellectually agile poet very much rooted in the Conurbano — that vast expanse of working-class neighbourhoods that encircle the most affluent areas of Buenos Aires.

Chejfec, who has published numerous works of fiction, poetry and essays, has managed to create a little gem of a book. Filled with wonderful “notes” — luminous ideas and sharp reflections — it’s a memorable pamphlet from a Latin American poet.

When We Cease to Understand the World (Pushkin Press, £14.99) by Chilean writer Benjamin Labatut is a collection of short stories that deals with the limits of science and what lies beyond those limits.

From the story of Fritz Haber, the German chemist and Nobel laureate who co-invented the process to secure food production for a large part of the global population and yet became responsible for the use of poison gas in WWI that killed thousands of people, to that of French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, a leading figure in the creation of modern algebraic geometry but who later withdrew completely from public life, these fast-paced stories are a wonderful reminder of the troubled minds behind some of the most profound scientific explorations.
 
The book, part scientific exposition, part fiction, helps to understand the inner lives of people who made unparalleled discoveries in the 20th century, at the same time revealing that fine line between progress and destruction, genius and madness, order and total chaos.

Labatut’s brilliant fiction allows the reader to grasp some of the most complex and abstract debates in mathematics and modern physics which, the author explained in a recent interview, “allows you to have an intuitive understanding of their meaning.”

A captivating book, full of discoveries and scientific revelations, this marvellous work is very difficult to put down.

Very few poetry books have had so much influence and inspired so many young poets in Latin America as Diana’s Tree (Shearsman Books, £10.95) by Argentinean poet Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972).

The collection, written by Pizarnik in 1962 while she was living in Paris, comprises 38 exquisite and powerful short poems which are some of her most loved and better known, now beautifully translated from the Spanish by Anna Morales.

A child of Russian Jews who emigrated to Buenos Aires, Pizarnik spoke Yiddish at home and was a proficient translator in French, allowing her to permeate her dreamy and often dark poems with a sense of strangeness and displacement.

Another Latin American poet who has left a remarkable legacy in 20th-century Hispanic poetry is Chilean Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948). Paris 1925: Ordinary Autumn & All of a Sudden (Shearsman Books, £12.95) is a compendium of two collections Huidobro wrote in Spanish and French while living in France.

These are poems that can be read as the seeds that later will develop into some of the most beautiful avant-garde poems ever written in Spanish. Translated by Tony Frazer with great care and love, this book reveals the deep influence Dada, surrealism and the visual language of modern painting had on the poet’s mind.

Among my favourites is Funeral Poem, dedicated by Huidobro to his fellow poet Guillaume Apollinaire, one of the most impassioned defenders of cubism and a forefather of surrealism.

“In the midst of this celestial humming/Everywhere you meet your aged hours/The wind is black and there are stalactites in my voice/Tell me Guillaume/Have you lost the key to infinity/An impatient star was about to say it was cold/The sharp rain begins stitching the night.”

 

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