Monday, October 27, 2008


The late Osvaldo Soriano is one of Argentina’s most celebrated contemporary writers. This is the story of how, oddly enough, our paths never crossed in the exciting and violent Buenos Aires of the 1970s or later on when democracy returned. But it’s also about how I got to know him all the same.

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 Buenos Aires from the Argentine interior and I from abroad.

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 Buenos Aires from European exile, where he had written for such noted publications as Le Monde, Libération and Il Manifesto. Some people go into journalism because they have a passion for the news. Others because they like telling people’s stories. These others are the ones people talk about when they say they never met a journalist who wasn’t writing a novel. In Soriano’s case it paid off big-time. From what I know about him — I became a huge fan of his from the very outset — I figure his enormous popularity surprised no one as much as himself. His novels have sold into the millions of copies (you can even buy them at Wal-Mart!) and have been translated into over a dozen languages. (And still the more asinine among critics are wont to discuss whether he was, in fact, a “good writer”).

Anyway, at about the time that Soriano was writing for Jacobo Timerman at La Opinión, I was sub-editing and writing for Editor Robert Cox at the Buenos Aires Herald. Our editorial departments were more or less around the corner from each other in the then-red light district, in the vicinity of 25 de Mayo and Tucumán and both of our papers printed at Alemann & Compañía, which was handy and one of the biggest printers of the day. It was a location that was a stone’s throw from the SAFICO Building on Corrientes and San Martín, where major international news agencies and correspondents had their offices, a few short blocks from the local agency Noticias Argentinas, and walking distance from the press offices of all major municipal and federal government offices. It was hard to go into any of the bars or cafés in that district without meeting up with a colleague or two. So you would have thought that we would have been almost bound to run into each other. But, as fate would have it, we didn’t. It was hard not to run into novelist, journalist, one-time radical Peronist and later fat-cat diplomat Jorge Asís, for instance, who was a sort of politically aggressive omnipresence on that circuit. But Soriano was a somewhat retiring, if friendly sort, from what I hear, and I was never really much of a joiner myself. I suppose we both spent a lot more time in front of a typewriter than some, even in the days before computers made it easier still to become a functional hermit.

I stayed on at the Herald and worked as a stringer for papers and magazines in the United States and Britain as well, and thus started building a career of sorts. It wasn’t on purpose. I mean, the ultimate goal was to become a novelist. It was just that, in the meantime, I was limited to the Herald if I wanted to write in my own language, and besides, once the military junta shut down La Opinión and locked up Timerman, there was basically no other place but the Herald to write a semblance of truth about what was happening in Argentina. The times grew frighteningly interesting and one year just kind of led to the next.

Soriano, for his part, graced the editorial departments of not only La Opinión, but also Primera Plana, Noticias, Confirmado and Panorama with his inimitable prose. But his leftist bent and his uncompromising objectivity made it dangerous for him to remain in Argentina after the 1976 coup d’état, and he made a decision to live in exile until the military returned to their barracks in 1983. He was off to Belgium and would later gravitate to Paris, where he would co-found Sin Censura with venerated exile Julio Cortázar. At the Herald, our news editor and my immediate boss, Andrew Graham-Yooll, made a similar decision at about that same time and was off to London practically overnight. I got bumped up the ladder to the news editor’s post and James Neilson was brought in as associate editor under Cox.

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 America (especially South America). But in English, it’s like: Say what? Anyway, as a title for what was to be an incredibly succinct and immortal synthesis of something as Argentine as the phenomenon of Peronism in the 1970s, it could not have been more fitting.

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 Argentina in the ‘70s becomes graphically crystal-clear, with never a mention of any of the major players, except, of course, for the all-pervading, omnipresent name of Perón.

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 Buenos Aires with a brilliant journalist and writer by the name of Claudio Iván Remeseira. We did a lot of talking, mostly about fiction and writing, when we should have been working (for a living) and in the course of those conversations, Soriano’s name came up. I ended up telling Claudio the story about how Soriano’s work first came into my hands. He thought it was a great story and that a guy like Soriano would probably like to hear it. I said that chasing after a big name like Soriano (he was indeed big by then) seemed so sophomoric and unprofessional. He would surely think I was a jerk.

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 Buenos Aires I would give the best-selling author a call. I did, repeatedly, always getting an answering machine with the voice of his French-born wife on it. Some time later, I met up with Remeseira in Buenos Aires and casually mentioned over drinks that I tried Soriano on numerous occasions and none of my calls had been returned.

“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 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

Sunday, October 19, 2008

When a Fiction Is Not a Lie

One day I was in the computer store here in town buying some new gadget or other for my system and in walks this guy I know called Pedro. His name isn’t really Pedro but if I used his real name some of you might recognize him and this is a story about truth, not accuracy.

So anyway, in walks Pedro. Now, I don’t know Pedro from here. I know him from Buenos Aires, where we both worked in the newspaper business for many years. It seems that at a certain point in our careers, both of us made a similar decision, to leave that crazy 24-hour-a-day, up-to-the-minute life behind and seek a happier, healthier, more contemplative life in this mountain community. So we met up here once by accident, when I first came here fifteen years ago, and had coffee together and talked about old times, and talked about maybe doing something together some time, and that was that, as far as any relationship went. We’d bump into each other now and again on the main drag (Calle Mitre) or on the only other main street in town (Calle Moreno) and nod or shake hands and say hello, but nothing more.

But on this particular day, Pedro came into the computer store where I was sitting talking to the owner’s wife, Laura, and was all but effusive in greeting me. So much and so uncharacteristically so that I stood to shake hands with him but then sat back down, thinking he would walk on by to go down to the repair shop to see Laura’s husband, Toto, because that’s whom he had asked for when he came in. But instead, he hovered there beside my chair, trying to make conversation so that I finally felt a little uncomfortable to remain seated and stood up. It seemed odd to me, because, as I say, it wasn't like we had ever been close or anything. But it was like he had something on his mind.

Finally I realized what it was when he said, “So, are you writing, Dan?”

“Always trying, Pedrocito,” I said. “You?” There’s a saying that it’s hard to find journalist that isn't a frustrated novelist and we had talked, that time over coffee, about our aspirations in that direction.

“Yes,” he said with a sigh. “I’m a novel.”

“Great! What’s it about?”

He looked a little apologetic and said, “Well, I don’t exactly know yet.”

I didn’t say anything but gave him a look like...huh???

“See, the thing is,” he went on, “I’ve started it several times and never seem to get to the end.”

“What’s wrong,” I asked, “don’t you have it worked out in your head?”

“Not that, exactly,” he said slowly, pondering the question. “See, it’s more like I know what my theme is and I know the scenes I want in the story, but mostly what I want to do is write a good piece of juicy fiction that’s exciting and fun to read. I mean, the kind of novel I like to read.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Well, I’m not sure I can make it convincing?”

“Why’s that?”

“It's like, after so many years of journalism, I can't lie.”

My eyes opened up wide as saucers and I looked at him like asking what the heck he was talking about, but bit my tongue instead.

“I mean, don’t you feel like that?” he asked.

“How do you mean?”

“I mean, I don’t know if I can be convincing because, after all, you have to lie when you write fiction. I just can’t seem to do it convincingly.”

I couldn’t take it anymore and said, “Whoa, wait, stop right there. Didn’t you work for a major mass circulation daily?” He nodded. “And didn’t you often have to write from the angle the editor told you to write?” He flushed a little and nodded again. “And were you always in agreement with that angle.”

“Well, uh, yes, I was. That's why I worked for that paper.”

I rolled my eyes and looked at him dubiously.

“Well, maybe not always in complete agreement.”

“And writing what you weren’t in agreement with, wasn’t that lying?”

“Well...I mean not really lying...”

“Come on, Pedro...and how about when you worked in that politician’s press office?”

“Oh I agreed with that guy.”



“So you mostly didn’t lie when you wrote his press releases.”

Pedro got redder but I think it was because he was repressing a desire to bust me one in the nose.

“So what’s your point?” he asked.

“The point is,” I said, “that fiction isn’t lying.”

“But it's all made up.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t make it a lie. In fact, fiction, good fiction, speaks to the very heart of truth. Nowhere should you lie less than when you’re in complete control of the content of what you say and in fiction, good fiction, there are no intermediaries. It's just you and the blank page. And if what you put down there doesn’t convince you, of all people, then the only person you’re lying to is yourself. See what I mean?”

“I suppose, but still...”

“Look, Pedro,” I went on, “I got out of mainstream journalism because I was tire of lying. Or at least of not telling the whole truth, of telling stories that were conditioned to the medium, to the editor, to the publisher, to the readership. Fiction is the only place where I can tell a reasonable facsimile of 'the whole truth', if such a thing exists.”

“Interesting,” he said. “But hey, look at the time! I’ve got to run. Laura, okay if I nip down and see Toto? Good! Here, Dan, here’s my card. Let’s get together and talk more about this over coffee some day.” And with that he hustled past and down to the shop in the basement of the store, as if he were fleeing from a dread disease.

He hasn’t called. Neither have I. I doubt he really has any interest in talking any more about this. You either get it or you don't.