The late Osvaldo Soriano is one of
Funny thing, I’ve often thought, how Osvaldo Soriano and I never met. We were colleagues, contemporaries pretty much (he was born six years before me), and we haunted some of the same environments in the bad old days leading up to the 1976 military coup in Argentina — streets where hookers, sailors, printers and newsmen were about the only people stirring long into the wee hours of the night. And we started hanging out in those places in the same era, he having come to
I suspect we both got into journalism for the same reason, as a way of writing every day and earning a living at it. He did it all his life, despite his fame as a novelist, having been one of the founders of the controversial daily, Página 12, when he returned to
Anyway, at about the time that Soriano was writing for Jacobo Timerman at
I stayed on at the Herald and worked as a stringer for papers and magazines in the
Soriano, for his part, graced the editorial departments of not only
It was in this editorial management post that I started to get a chance to write regularly under a by-line and thus to become mildly well-known in certain circles. And so it was too that I got to know Soriano for the first time, without ever actually meeting him.
It happened one midnight (dreary) in 1978, as I was sitting at my desk, struggling with the first lines of an op-ed piece while waiting for the press to roll in our new installations on Calle Azopardo. Momentarily stymied, I decided to go through the day’s mail that was still piled untouched on the corner of my desk. I found the usual readers’ letters (which I dutifully separated and filed for future publication), some magazines, a few brochures (from merchants who wanted some free hype and which I put in the out tray for the advertising department), a couple of formal invitations to lunch and cocktails and, finally, a small rectangular package, the size of a book. It was addressed to my name in black marker, postmarked from Spain, had no return address and was wrapped in plain brown paper, as if to conceal some pornographic content.
Justifiably paranoid as I was in those days, given the constant threats the newspaper received, I sniffed the package, flexed it, shook it, picked at it, and tweaked it a bit, before finally deciding it was probably harmless. When I opened it, what I found was a rather thin little paperback book with a title as Argentine as tango itself: No habrá más penas ni olvido. So Argentine is that phrase from the classic tango, Mi Buenos Aires querido, that it is almost impossible to translate it correctly. I mean, one could try, say, No More Sorrow or Forgetfulness, but what the devil does that mean in English. It is only within the context of porteño lore — of immigrants far from home, of families separated by destiny and longing to be together once more, of perennial hope against a backdrop of barely veiled despair, of terminal melancholy turned outwardly to false cheer, of romantic abandon and unrequited love, of vengeance and remorse, of arrivals and departures, of European Americans with heartstrings stretched taut between continents — that those words make sense, even in Spanish. They would probably make sense in Italian…if they were spoken in
I scanned the first few paragraphs and was immediately, irretrievably hooked. I kept telling myself, “One more page and back to the op-ed piece…One more page and I’ll go down to put the paper to bed…One more page and I’ll put this thing down! But it was impossible. It wasn’t until I felt the rotary press shaking the floor of my office like a small, benign earth tremor that I tore myself away from the plot and characters that peopled the story to go down and do my duty, plucking a copy of the latest edition of the Herald from the downstream end of the press and having a quick general look to make sure everything was okay before bidding the press crew good night over the din of the machinery.
Before I went to sleep only shortly before dawn, I had read half of the book and before I went in to work the next day, I had finished it. I was spellbound. Political analysts of all colors and nationalities were straining their intellects to the point of mental hernia to try and paint a clear if complex picture of the Argentine phenomenon. They were seeking some even vaguely objective definition of Peronism, attempting to explain in some feasible way what had gone so horrendously wrong that the country had stumbled headlong into total chaos, only to fall into the gnashing jaws of unbridled repression and ironclad authoritarianism. And by and large, they had failed miserably. But here was Osvaldo Soriano, high school drop-out, street-beat newsman and natural genius, who created the perfect allegory. He didn’t try to tell the story from the standpoint of the big picture, where cloak and dagger political intrigue made it next to impossible to get to the core of truth. Instead he took the demise of Peronism to a tiny town in Buenos Aires Province, where everybody knew everybody else, injected the poison of political avarice, added the catalyst of petty jealousy, sowed the seeds of gossip and doubt, and fanned the flames of a witch-hunt that would turn a quaint and even comic village into a tragic nightmare of civil strife, torture and murder. And so the question of what happened in
But even though the story could not have been more Argentine in every sense, it was, I realized, also brilliantly universal. As universal, say, as Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Huxley’s Brave New World, or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was an allegory on politics gone awry, a regime’s running rampant, movements placing themselves above the people in whose name they acted. It was about an ideal turned caricature, a political thought gone psychotic. It was about human foible — complacence playing into the hands of dictatorial design, rebellion providing an excuse for free-wheeling repression and about what happens when two extremes come full circle and see each other in near mirror image. It was about how no one wins, but how power is retained, at least for a time, by whoever swings the biggest club. But it was also about how moral victory can only belong to those who maintain their principles at all costs, even at the cost of their very lives.
The next day I told a fellow in the shop about the book. He was what one might call a closet Peronist revolutionary. He had been, rumor had it, a leftist activist before the 1976 coup. He and I often discussed politics while putting the paper to bed. He had read a lot and I asked if he had ever read anything by Soriano, since this was my first encounter with the author. He said he didn’t think so. Would I lend him the book to read?
“Sure,” I said, “but I want it back.”
“Tomorrow,” he said. “I’m a fast reader.”
The next night when I went down to the shop and said hello to him, he grunted, glanced over both shoulders to see if anybody was watching, reached into a dark little cupboard, where he also hid his little brown bottle of Bols Ginebra and retrieved the book from the darkest recesses. I couldn’t help laughing aloud when I saw that he had very carefully covered it in heavy black plastic sheeting, obviously to keep the title from showing through.
“Here, chief,” he said. “Get it out of here.”
“You didn’t like it?” I laughed.
“It was great,” he whispered, “but not worth dying for.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked.
“You know the security guy at the front desk? He said that if I didn’t want the milicos to give me a ride in their truck, I’d better get that subversive book under wraps, because the author was a terrorist and the book was banned.”
I lost that copy of No habrá más penas ni olvido in a move some time back, but for all of the years that it remained in my library, right up to the beginning of the ‘90s, it wore that black shroud. That cover, like the book itself, was a symbol of those times and of the exile from which Soriano so aptly described them.
In the early 1990s, several years after I quit my post as managing editor of the Herald and went free-lance, I had the honor and pleasure of sharing an office in
Years later, when I had already moved from Buenos Aires to Patagonia, and when Remeseira was about to pursue his own brand of self-imposed exile in New York, he again approached me on the subject, saying he had told my story to a guy who sort of knew Soriano and the fellow had said he was sure Osvaldo would be delighted to hear it. I said I’d think about it, because to me, hermit that I tend to be, it just seemed like an extroverted, off-the-wall thing to do. Remeseira managed to get me Soriano’s home phone number and I promised that the next time I was in
“Haven’t you heard?” he asked. “Soriano’s got lung cancer. He’s only seeing a few close friends. They don’t think he’s going to make it.”
Even this seemed like another of his universal images, a passage from his last book, Piratas, fantasmas y dinosaurios (Pirates, Ghosts and Dinosaurs), the book’s first image, in fact, where he writes: “Every New Year’s Eve, I remember, if only for an instant, the last one my father lived. He was wrapped up in a threadbare robe, on the doorstep of the house he rented in Santo Tomé. There was still a butt between his lips, but by now it was killing him. He raised his arm to wave good-bye to me as firecrackers and colorful roman candles burst around him. We had quarreled, I think, because I hated the holiday season as much as he did and couldn’t figure out what stupid custom made us get together to toast one another and wish each other things in which neither of us believed...”
It seems to me a universal portrait. His father’s. My own father’s, some years later when he was dying of that same disease and I couldn’t help hating myself for having quarreled with him so often. Perhaps it’s every man’s father’s image and every man’s son’s. In the end, a self-portrait as well.
An early version of this article was first published in Spanish and English on the website of Aleph Translations www.alephtranslations.com. A second Spanish translation was published in the Summer 2006 Edition of the Argentine literary magazine, Lilith (Yr. 2 No. 5). All rights reserved by Dan Newland
- Photo Caption - Osvaldo Soriano