Those Latins again!
"Latin Rebels Down Plane" is the headline on a short item in today's NYT (p. A1). It turns out they are referring to a guerrilla squad of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional or National Liberation Army of Colombia, which shot down an American plane (piloted by a Costa Rican) that was said to be "dusting clandestine coca plantations with herbicide" in the Catatumbo region of northeast Colombia.

The Latins, as you know, were a tribe of Northern Italy, best known for founding Rome and bestowing (or imposing) their language on the entire Mediterranean world and beyond. Then the word came to be used for anyone who spoke one of the languages derived from Latin, and now the US press uses it mainly to refer to any "Latin" Americans (the French these days might be called "frogs" but not "Latins," the Rumanians and Portuguese are simply Rumanians and Portuguese, and the Italians, the original Latins, may be called many things but seldom "Latins"). It was not "guerrillas," or even "Colombians" who downed the plane, but undifferentiated Latins -- like it's all one big country down there, and who can tell them apart anyway?

I suppose we should be grateful that there was no NYT headline, "Boer wins Nobel Prize in Literature."
The Nobel
You will be relieved to learn that I am abandoning my campaign for the Nobel Prize in Literature. I have not yet decided whether to refuse it if offered (the $1.3 million would be tempting), but I shall not continue actively to pursue it.

It is not that I disapprove of the selections the committee has made. J. M. Coetzee is no doubt as deserving, from some points of view, as any of the candidates I might have chosen. (Mario Vargas Llosa, for example, was on my personal short list.) It is simply that I have decided that pursuit of any such prize -- Pulitzer, National Book Award, or whatever -- will constrain my art. I don't want to feel that I have to intuit and then meet the criteria for excellence of some committee. I did that once (for my Ph.D. dissertation), and I know the work suffered.

I am aware that my withdrawal leaves the way open to any of the others of you who may be contenders. And if that's your aim, I wish you the best of luck! As for me, I am just going to write whatever pleases me, or confronts my own demons (as Ernesto Sabato calls them), and any of those committees can just take it or leave it.


False alarm: Gabo is still with us
Someone began circulating on the Internet a letter, supposedly by Gabriel García Márquez, as his "Farewell" because he is, according to the message, dying of lymphatic cancer. It's a very nice letter, but it's not Gabo's, and he says his cancer is in remission. Why do people do these things? Go here to read the counterfeit letter, and about Gabo's response.


Venezuela: Serious land reform
Encouraging news reported in an article in the Baltimore Sun Journal. The Venezuelan government's land refore is a tepid measure, leaving alone vast latifundios, but even so, a big advance for thousands of small farmers.


Blogging and journalism
OK, no more bold faced names. I don't really want to model my weblog on a gossip column. What I'd like it to be is more like the space Sandra Russo occupies on the back page, or contratapa, of Buenos Aires' most consistently interesting daily, Página/12. She has collected a couple of dozen of those from December 2000 to April 2003 in a book called, simply, Contratapas (Buenos Aires: Astralib,2003). In a very personal voice, she tries to make sense of the confusing events of these tumultuous years, especially since the crisis of December 2001, to unmask the the charlatans and political criminals responsible, and especially to celebrate those acts of solidarity -- some very painful and ending tragically -- that give signs that a new, healthier Argentina can still emerge.

When in Argentina, I like to read Clarín for news and Página/12 for analysis -- and if I lived there and had a little more time for reading than one can manage on a hurried trip, I'd try to read parts of both daily. That week of exposure to the Buenos Aires press made me painfully aware of the limitations of my own hometown paper, The New York Times. The picture of goofy Laura Bush dully thrilled to have her hand kissed by Chirac on that paper's frontpage today, in Página/12 would have raised editorial guffaws and cutting caricatures, but the solemn NYT remains the Gray Lady (even though she now has color tints in her photos), and refrains from hooting at the truly hootable. Montevideo's La República, a quirky but comprehensive daily representing the conservative-liberal-nationalist amalgam called the Blanco party (now in opposition to the ruling Colorados, representing pro-globalizing business interests), seemed to me to be editorially closer to the NYT.

One of the essays in Sandra Russo's book is especially focused on a case of press distortion. "Propiedad privada" (2002 June 28) analyzes the way the conservative Buenos Aires daily, La Nación, covered the deaths from police bullets of two piqueteros, who are street protesters, many from the slums, who have been organizing to demand jobs, schools, and basic services, sometimes by blocking roads. The wording of the headline and of the lead paragraphs clearly implies that the protesters were at fault, because they were attacking "private property" (some cars and store windows were smashed by angry and hungry piqueteros). The reporting is an example of "[t]he dripping of the authoritarian discourse that again drives our home-grown liberals to schizophrenia."

"Liberal" is here used in its traditional sense: pro-free trade, free markets, and against state intervention. "They [the schizophrenic liberals who read and write for La Nación] speak of the piqueteros as though of a human subspecies, they speak of blockades of streets and bridges as something inexcusable, whereas death is excusable. There were those yesterday who spoke more about the broken windows of the shops than of the deaths of the two young piqueteros. They ignore the fact that life is also a private property."
Back from Buenos Aires
Eleven-hour flight from Ezeiza international airport to JFK, arriving Sunday morning; sleep to catch up on, nearly 400 e-mails (some of them important), so no blog up till now. Here I'll summarize a few highlights of the trip.

First, spirits were generally much better in Argentina than on my last visit, 2 1/2 years ago -- the crisis of December 2001 (devaluation, sequestering of everybody's bank accounts, plummeting of the economy in all areas) was the absolute pits, and now, even though violent crime is still rampant, unemployment high, and thousands try to scrape together a living by going out at night to gather recyclables from the garbage, people seemed generally to believe that they're going to get through this and that Argentina will become a normal, self-sufficient country once again.

Some people: The artist Catalina Chervin, whose painstaking drawings (see URL below) concentrate and focus cataracts of pain and somehow help her, and viewers like me, to cope with them, opened her house (a multifloor apartment in Palermo, with a terrace on which she has constructed a well-lit studio) to us and our and her friends for a welcoming party.

Among them was her partner, the elegant Isidoro Polonsky, sociologist, psychoanalyst and cattle rancher (it's hard to live from psychoanalysis alone in today's Argentina). We're grateful to Isidoro for lending us his apartment near the U.S. embassy while he camped with Catalina.

Among the old friends were Carlota Gershanik, who practically grew up with my accomplice Susana, and Carlota's husband Mario Vacchino, recently retired from his job as a CEPAL executive and now devoting himself to more useful pursuits, like cooking -- as we discovered later, when we had a meal at their house. Mario is really a culinary artist. Carlota -- a former mathematics professor -- has invented a new career for herself. She founded and directs an efficient little company that provides Internet drafting services worldwide (I don't have the URL handy; contact me if you're looking for exquisitely careful work at Argentine prices).

Other old friends included Norma and Mederico Faivre, co-adventurers with Susana on their first foray into the US back in 1967, when none of them spoke much English and America was in its drug-enhanced pro- and anti-war fervor. These very young architects on generous fellowships were bouncing from Greenwich Village to Haight-Ashbury and trying to look at buildings, but the American counterculture kept getting in the way. The story is too funny for me to tell here -- either they will write it down themselves or I will, but it would take too long for now. Norma and Mederico are busy building all over Buenos Aires, and Mederico also teaches at the relatively small, prestigious Universidad Nacional de Quilmes (UNQ). Mederico is an exuberant talker and probably a gifted teacher. Their kids, Pablo Mederico and Florencia, are becoming famous as makers of animated videos (look 'em up on Google).

In the next days (it's too late to go on writing) I'll tell you about another professor at UNQ, Adrián Gorelik, an architect and historian whose writings have helped me understand Buenos Aires. And more. Please stay tuned.

Some drawings of Catalina Chervin
Mederico Faivre (foto & datos)