Juan Gelman and Argentina’s Troubled 20th Century

This image is taken from the Presidency of the Nation of Argentina website, in accordance with the copyright licensing.

This image is taken from the Presidency of the Nation of Argentina website, in accordance with the copyright licensing.

The great Argentinean poet Juan Gelman passed away on January 14th at the age of 83. He received the Cervantes Prize, the most important Spanish literary award, in 2007, and many of his peers and followers argue that he was the first writer to create a truly Argentinean form of poetry. Certainly, his life and work were inextricably connected to the troubled history of his home country.  A prominent journalist and left-wing political activist as well as a poet, like many of his fellow countrymen and artists he was forced into exile following the 1976 coup. He never again lived in Argentina, and exile was a prominent theme throughout much of his later writing – dealt with in works such as Bajo la lluvia ajena from Interrupciones (classmark: 9007.c.6796-6797) and, with reference to his Jewish parents’ own exile from Russia, Dibaxu (classmark: 2002.8.1688).

Separation from his home country was far from the only pain that Gelman experienced as a result of Argentina’s dictatorship. His mother died while he was in exile (and he was unable to return to the country to attend her funeral) and, most devastatingly of all, in 1976 his son and pregnant daughter-in-law were amongst Argentina’s 30,000 desaparecidos. Gelman was not even able to return and identify his son’s remains until 1990, and after years of searching, he finally traced his surviving granddaughter to Uruguay in 2000. He wrote about the horrors of these kidnappings and murders in Ni el flaco perdón de Dios : hijos de desaparecidos (classmark: 676:2.c.95.536), and the theme of grief throughout his work is discussed in Geneviève Fabry’s  Las formas del vacío : la escritura del duelo en la poesía de Juan Gelman (classmark: 743:4.c.200.96).

Some other texts that deal with the themes of dictatorship, exile and memory in Juan Gelman’s work (often published in France, where he is held in extremely high regard) include: Juan Gelman : poética y gramática contra el olvido / Aníbal Salazar Anglada (classmark: 743:4.c.201.6); Memoria y desencanto en Juan Gelman y Roberto Bolaño / ed. Jacqueline Bel (classmark: C203.c.4686); Ecritures des dictatures, écriture de la mémoire : Roberto Bolaño et Juan Gelman / ed. Carmen Vásquez, Ernesto Mächler Tobar and Porfirio Mamani Macedo (classmark: 743:14.c.200.234); Juan Gelman : écriture, mémoire et politique / ed.  Norah Giraldi-dei Cas and Michèle Guillemont (classmark: 743:4.c.200.33); Territoires de mémoire : l’écriture poétique à l’épreuve de la violence historique / Lucie Taïeb (classmark: 701:15.c.201.508).

Of course, there is much more to Gelman’s extensive body of work than these themes alone. Some of the seminal early poetry that established his reputation includes Gotán (classmark: C201.c.7416) and Los poemas de Sidney West (classmark: C204.c.2378). Cambridge University Library also holds a number of anthologies of his work, including his two volume Poesía reunida (classmark: C209.c.3261-3262), Oficio ardiente / ed. Ma. Angeles Pérez López (classmark: C201.d.1649) and, in English translation by Joan Lindgren, Unthinkable tenderness : selected poems (classmark: 9005.c.5149).

Christopher Greenberg

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