virus challenge

Adriana Maciel (Reviews Journal)
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By ARIEL DORFMAN*

Writers of 2020 are also faced with a world suddenly unrecognizable, they also feel that the orderly rituals of their previous existence have been demolished.

It is paradoxical, if not surprising, that some of our most illustrious literary works were born in times of extreme turbulence. It is natural that authors, always dedicated to giving form and meaning to their pain and confusion, have sought to create something lasting and beautiful amidst the ruins of their time, feeding almost perversely on the catastrophes that afflicted their contemporaries, the natural calamities and calamities wrought by human beings, chains of wars and revolutions, civil conflicts and political disturbances.

Will it be like this in our times of pandemic, impunity and distress?

Even if it is not possible to predict the exact contours that the literature of the future will assume, some of the contrasting experiences – be it exile or confinement – ​​with which the men and women of previous centuries faced their own disasters could perhaps be used to inspire and guide current writers.

We would do well to learn from authors who left their homelands behind, either because they were persecuted in their homeland or in order to seek new opportunities and perspectives abroad. A minimal list would include Dante, Voltaire, Nabokov, Conrad, Yourcenar, Duras, Ovidio, Hemingway, Mahmoud Darwish, Doris Lessing, Thomas Mann, Gertrude Stein, and Marina Tsveteva; and our contemporaries Wole Soyinka, Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, Colum McCann, Michael Ondaatje, Assia Djebar, Amin Maalouf and Gao Xingjian. I add, from my Latin America natal, Mistral, Neruda, Cortázar, Poniatowska, Benedetti, Fuentes, Roa Bastos, García Márquez and Vargas Llosa, as well as many Spaniards, such as Alberti and Semprún, Max Aub, Rosa Chacel and, of course, Juan Goytisolo.

What unites all these dissimilar figures, from different nations and eras, is how they turned the curse of distance into a blessing, responding to the need to perceive the world with fresh eyes. It is a lesson for those who wish to express the ravages of a pandemic like ours, which has fiercely destroyed the networks and relationships of everyday life. Writers of 2020 are also faced with a world suddenly unrecognizable, they also feel that the orderly rituals of their previous existence have been demolished.

This breakdown of customs and certainties is similar to the loss of everyday familiarity that uprooted writers permanently suffer, a loss that spurred them to create, as compensation, unprecedented and transcendent visions. The men and women who, at this very moment, across the planet, are looking for the words with which to excavate the terrifying uncertainty of what we are living through, can seek encouragement from their expatriate brothers and sisters who, in other equally alienating and arduous times, already followed similar paths.

It is true that these exiles carried out their literary exploits precisely because of the removal from their native homes, while contemporary authors, for the most part, are unable to travel due to the virus, suffering a retreat that is often suffocating. How to imitate the example of exiled writers who used the new horizons that opened up to establish new works of art, if we are condemned to confine ourselves in a small circumscribed space? Or could this restriction eventually lead to greater creativity as well? If we feel trapped and constrained, isn't it encouraging the example of other authors who have explored alternate worlds of the mind and heart in circumstances far more dire than our own?

Some of the most moving testimonies of the human condition were generated in prison. Instead of falling into a state of absolute desolation, even though there was no lack of reasons to despair, many writers survived the nights of terror and captivity by immersing themselves more deeply in the darkness and dawn of themselves, transcribing words that, however, remain with us. move. My own favourites, in a catalog that could be considerably wider, are Boethius, Dostoyevsky, Genet, Wilde, Solzhenitsyn, Gramsci, Breytenbach, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Nawal El Saadawi, León Felipe, Malcolm X, the Marquis de Sade and Ezra Pound.

Obviously, being cloistered or in self-isolation today, with purchases delivered regularly and the internet within reach (if fortune smiles on us), is a far cry from the prolonged detention and cruelty to which those prisoners who feared the lash and the vigilance of his guards. Yet these writers exemplify how enforced solitude and limitations on our right to roam freely can lead to self-discovery rather than paralysis. These extreme conditions were at one time – and now there is no reason to be different – ​​a spur to assert the value of each word snatched from silence, each syllable like a stone that a river refines and polishes, again and again until it approaches. if of perfection.

As for the kind of fiction, poetry, memoirs, theater and essays that could emerge from this unwanted quarantine, many will feel the immediate need to respond to the urgency and desolation of the moment. No doubt we can expect a series of reactions to the plague and the inequality it revealed, as well as hymns to those who heroically resisted this assault on our dignity, who sacrificed so much to deliver us nourishment and keep us safe.

And yet, allow me to invoke Miguel de Cervantes who was unjustly imprisoned for many months in Seville at the end of the XNUMXth century. It was then, and in this ill-fated place, that he began to write – it is supposed – Don Quixote de la Mancha, a process I chronicled in Captives [New York, OR Books, 2020], a novel that I have just published in English in the United States, and which is still waiting for its edition in the Spanish in which I conceived it. Who could have predicted, in this disconcerting and dangerous Spain, that Cervantes' contribution to the world's letters – without a doubt the most influential novel in history – would be written against the grain of everything that was popular in those days? It wasn't the books of chivalry, nor the novels full of pastoral swoons and picaresque adventures, nor the wonderful theatrical works of Lope, Tirso, Calderón, that would change literature forever, but this unlucky and unforeseen fictional character who "engendered himself in a prison, where every nuisance has its seat and where every sad noise makes its dwelling.”

So I have faith that in this era of multiple confinements, sad noises and all sorts of annoyances, there is someone – and more than one person – who is working right now on a vision of life that will help us to imagine who we are and who we can become in these times of pandemic, injustice and hope.

* Ariel Dorfman, essayist and novelist, is professor of literature and Latin American studies at Duke University (USA). Author, among other books, of A life in transit (Objective).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published in the Argentine newspaper Page12, on June 14, 2020.

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