Issue 160, Winter 2001
Luisa Valenzuela, the oldest daughter of a prominent Argentine writer, Luisa Mercedes Levinson, was born in Buenos Aires in 1938. The Levinson home was a gathering place for Argentina’s literary community—Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, among others, were frequent guests—and Valenzuela, an omnivorous reader, started writing at an early age. She published her first story, “Ese canto,” in 1958.
Later that year, having married a French sailor, Valenzuela moved to Paris, where she worked as a correspondent for the Argentine newspaper El Mundo. Her daughter, Anna Lisa Marjek, was born in France. In 1961, Valenzuela returned to Buenos Aires and went to work at another Argentine newspaper, La Nación. She penned a regular feature on the provinces, “Images for the Argentine Interior,” for the paper, and continued to write fiction—her first novel, Hay que sonreír, was published in 1966 and a collection of stories, Los Heréticos, appeared the next year. The two books were translated into English and published as Clara: Thirteen Short Stories and a Novel in 1976.
Having been awarded a Fulbright grant to participate in the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa, Valenzuela left Argentina again in 1969. While in the program, she wrote El Gato eficaz—portions of that novel have been published in the States as Cat-O-Nine Deaths. After Iowa, she spent a year in Mexico and a year in Barcelona. “I am traveling everywhere. I am too much a gypsy,” the author has said. She returned to Buenos Aires in 1974—the year of Juan Perón’s death and Isabel Perón’s ascent to power—and published a second collection of stories, Aquí pasan cosas raras (Strange Things Happen Here), in 1975. With the 1976 military coup, the political situation deteriorated further—repression became more pervasive, and Valenzuela, whose work until then had escaped the ire of the military, found her next novel, Como en la guerra (He Who Searches), censored.
Valenzuela moved to New York City in 1978, but her fiction continued to be informed by Argentina and the political turmoil of the 1970s. She lived in the city for the next decade teaching at Columbia and New York universities. Cambio de armas (Other Weapons), which includes the autobiographical novella “Fourth Version,” was published in 1982. In 1981 she started work on Cola de lagartija (The Lizard’s Tail), a roman à clef based on the life of Perón’s minister of social welfare, José López Rega, who appears in the novel as the Sorcerer, a man with three testicles. The novel was published in 1983, and was met with immediate and fervent praise.
Valenzuela settled in Argentina again in 1989, and currently lives in the Belgrano neighborhood where she grew up. Her living room is open and warm, its ochre walls adorned with numerous paintings by Puppo, Raul Alonso, Batteplanos, and Lea Lubins. In the background, the patio—overgrown with tangles of vines, roses, and ficus—looks out onto looming skyscrapers. Off of the living room is Valenzuela’s study, where she does all her writing when in Buenos Aires. Two walls of the study are lined with books—written in Spanish, English and French. Another wall is covered with masks, which Valenzuela has collected over her years of travel. Her desk occupies the heart of the room, and seems almost alive with the words and images encased under the glass cover. A computer, as well as piles of open books and letters, sit on top of the desk.
This interview took place over several meetings during the past year. Valenzuela has a beautiful, expressive face, which is framed by dark, unruly hair; she speaks slowly and deliberately, with an unmistakable Argentine accent marked with both sophistication and grit. The first conversation was conducted last September in Wisconsin, when Valenzuela was the guest lecturer at the Midamerican Conference. (A multimedia performance based on her story “Other Weapons” premiered there.) Additional conversations took place during Valenzuela’s frequent visits to New York City: at a restaurant in Soho, over several glasses of sake; at a Chinese restaurant in midtown; and over a brief breakfast in the East Village this September, when she came to the city to write about the World Trade Center attacks for La Nación. In between the meetings, occasional e-mails were exchanged, some in English and some in Spanish, all of them signed abrazos—hugs.
When did you start writing?
I dictated my first poem to my mother at age six. It was about death. Funny I would connect so early with the one unavoidable subject. The poem describes a beautiful woman with all the obvious metaphors of the time; then a bird comes to her window and says, Hacia ti viene la muerte (“death comes toward you”). It came to me just like that—influenced by Poe, no doubt—and my mother wrote it down. My older sister used to read scary stories aloud to make me eat, so maybe that’s where I got the inspiration. In my early years I never thought I would become a writer. Maybe those tales of terror made me decide to write—after all, it’s always better to be on this side of the production line.
I published my first story at age twenty—which was also about death. Death is the ultimate mystery, which, alas, love isn’t, so it’s more enticing as subject matter. We are always trying to have the last word over what will finally have the last word over us.
Your mother was a well-known Argentine writer. What was it like to grow up surrounded by literary figures?
One time my mother and Borges composed a story together. I remember the laughter coming from the room they were working in. The story, “La Hermana de Eloisa,” was published in 1955, but neither one of them liked that story much after a certain time, and it was never reprinted in a book. My mother said that the experience taught her how to edit. Borges would come out of the dining room where they were writing and laughing, and say, Today we made significant progress—we wrote one full line. Now I am grateful for that experience—they were so happy writing the story that it impressed upon me that writing is a joyous activity. And it is, for the most part.
What was Borges like?
He was a walking system of thought. You could see the way his mind worked, since he was offering it so generously—also in a self-centered way, because he didn’t care to listen much. He monologued in the most splendid and humorous fashion—he seemed so serious, but was full of wit and naughty humor.
I remember the last days we spent in New York with him. Daniel Halpern would be driving us back and forth from NYU to Columbia, and Borges would be posing impossible questions: In what version of what year of this poem did Auden change such-and-such word for another? Things like that. We took care of the frail old man, protecting him from the students, and then in the evenings his future wife, María Kodama, would call and say, Borges wants to go listen to some jazz, or, Borges wants to take a ride in the park. By the end of the stay we were exhausted.
As a child, were you aware of his greatness?
Not then. The people who surrounded him—the group that visited our home during those years—were all great. Borges didn’t stand out among the rest; he was so shy. What I do remember are his lectures. I went to every one of them. At times, there would be sudden and long silences; the public suffered, thinking he had lost the thread, but he was simply searching. The minute he opened his mouth again, the exact term emerged like a gem.
His talks were on literature?
Yes. Those were Peronist times, and Perón felt threatened by intellectuals. Borges was transferred from his obscure job at a municipal library to inspector of poultry in municipal markets. And since intellectuals do need to earn a living—in spite of the common belief—an organization called Pro Arte organized lectures and courses in private homes such as my mother’s. The feeling was great in spite of the fear—everybody felt like conspirators, keeping all the windows closed, the meetings secret.
Could you say a little more about the Pro Arte movement?
Things here get lost so easily. There is virtually no trace now of Pro Arte, an association born—honoring the name—to help the artist. Pro Arte started by organizing exhibits, concerts, and lectures in public spaces in the forties. During Perón’s regime, they had to go underground, or at least into the private domain. Many of the great writers were involved—Borges, Ernesto Sábato, Eduardo Mallea, Manuel Peyrou, Conrado Nalé Roxlo, the poets Amelia Biaggioni, María Emilia Lahitte and Eduardo González Lanuza. Also the émigrés from the Spanish Civil War—Arturo Cuadrado, the publisher of Botella al Mar; Clemente Cimorra; Amparo Arbajal. I was very young at the time, but remember them vividly. It was a moveable, motley crowd. They were an impressive lot.
At least once a week they would get together, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. Empanadas, sandwiches and red wine was the usual fare. I remember the ongoing arguments between Borges and Sábato—around politics, around the value of the short story versus the novel. I remember at some point (because of politics and, perhaps, a secret literary rivalry) the situation got out of hand. Pipina Diehl offered a splendid peacemaking dinner, at the end of which she urged Georgie (Borges was called by his nickname while his mother was alive) to apologize. I wasn’t aware that we had quarreled, he answered for everyone to hear, and went on sipping his soup.
How would you compare contemporary literary life in Argentina to literary life back then?
Literary life then was passionate. Literature was really alive; it was something to be taken into account, both in the media and the public sphere. Now we run with the times. Individualism is rampant among the writers, and the media pays much more attention to politicians, starlets and comedians—one and the same—than to intellectuals.