Lost In Translation

How an Obscure Northwestern University Magazine (Barely) Introduced the U.S. to Modern Latin American Literature

If you were a book nerd in the 1960s, odds are good you would have heard—in between catching dispatches from Vietnam and the civil-rights struggle–that something was happening in Latin American letters.

The one-two gaucho thrust of Labyrinths and Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges hit the States in 1962. Elizabeth Bishop was translating stories by Clarice Lispector. Michelangelo Antonioni put a significantly reimagined Julio Cortazar short story on the silver screen with Blow-Up. The 1967 Nobel Prize for Literature went to Guatemala’s Miguel Angel Asturias.

Amid this backdrop, TriQuarterly, a savvy literary journal based on Northwestern University’s leafy campus, hired Chilean novelist Jose Donoso as a guide to chart the literary tumult running from the Rio Grande to the Tierra del Fuego.

The collaboration made sense on paper. Under the leadership of editor Charles Newman, TriQuarterly had gone from running Eliot-esque pastiches of undergraduate life (“June is the cruelest month, breeding/Bachelor’s degrees out of the dead campus”) to providing an early platform to Joyce Carol Oates and Louise Glück and publishing an authoritative look at Eastern European literature. Donoso was a celebrated novelist teaching creative writing at the University of Iowa, and he was “Pepe” to Carlos Fuentes and other leading lights. A worldly magazine. A writer who bridged two worlds. What could go wrong?

As captured in correspondence housed in the Northwestern University Archives: plenty. Blown deadlines, insults and recriminations were routine as a magazine staff that didn’t understand the territory (it’s not clear whether any were remotely fluent in Spanish) butted with a novelist who had better things to do. But out of that collaboration came a comprehensive look at the literary eruption that would come to be known as “The Boom,” all at a time when most American readers hadn’t even heard of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Living Authors Instead of Dead Ones

 

William Henkin, TriQuarterly’s managing editor, reached out to Donoso on April 18, 1967. His opening letter captures the ambition and ignorance informing the mission.

I thought you might know of someone who could do a good literary translation of a Cortazar story—I’m particularly interest (sic) in the story from which Antonioni’s Blow-Up was taken. And…I wondered if you might be able to put me in touch with other Latin American writers, both established–such as Borges and Paz—and lesser-known, or, indeed, unknown.

They met in Iowa City (“if the dinner was somewhat less than a culinary masterpiece, no one could possibly complain about lack of picturesqueness,” Donoso drolled), and Donoso signed on as co-editor for $400. Henkin wanted to publish in the spring or “perhaps as late” as the fall of 1968. Donoso warned he’d have to delay work as he was off to Europe. But not to worry: most Latin American literati were on the continent, anyway. “I’ll be spending part of the summer with Carlos Fuentes in Venice,” he added.

With Donoso traveling, Henkin reached out to translators, writers and other literateurs. Ben Belitt provided a translation of Juan Jose Arreola’s The Switchman. A complimentary Gregory Rabassa, just coming off a heroic translation of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, suggested stories by the Brazilians Dalton Trevisan and Nelida Pinon. Translator Ronald Christ pushed an essay on Borges by one Maria Vasquez. Poet Margaret Randall agreed to compile mini-anthologies of Cuban and Mexican poetry.

Cranky poet Clayton Eshleman blasted Henkin for having the gall to balk at his translations of poet Cesar Vallejo. “You want ‘living’ authors instead of ‘dead’ ones—have you ever read Vallejo?” went on his typically convivial post. “He died in 1938, as it were, and is one of the most alive yet unread men of the century.” (Henkin gave in.) Mario Vargas Llosa—whose 1962 novel The Time of the Hero won Spain’s prestigious Bilblioteca Breve Prize and signaled something was happening in the New World—was pumped to submit something for $75 “upon acceptance.” Julio Cortazar’s translator Paul Blackburn was game as well, noting that “Julio needs dollars.”

Donoso, meanwhile, was less productive than advertised. “Portugal has been hell,” he reported in a July 10 letter. Donoso, known to history as a hypochondriac, vividly recounted his bout with dysentery before conceding “I’ve done no work at all for you.”  Big boss Newman was than sympathetic, scribbling at the bottom of the letter, “Bill—this guy needs a push and I don’t mean in the ass.”

Who The Hell Is Maria Vasquez?

With no more meaningful updates from Spain, Henkin made his push on October 16. “The issue is shaping up very well,” Henkin wrote, rattling off the authors he’d lined up. “Hope something’s happening in Europe.”

That got a response.

“Your letter came as a nasty surprise,” Donoso fired back on October 21. “You seem to be doing things on your own which I don’t think I can approve of.” He then went on to roast Henkin’s curatorial choices. “Why Vallejo?” “I can’t see why we should include Arreola, who’s as dead as a doornail at this point.” “Who the hell is Maria Vasquez?”

Pablo Neruda photographed by Jill Krementz in Paris, 1972.

“I was desperate to get a rise out of you,” Henkin admitted six days later. But the provocation did get Donoso grinding. “OK,” he replied on Nov. 1, “Then let’s get a few points straightened out before actually getting things done.” He broke down the working canon that should be included, running from “the living classics” (Borges, Neruda) to “the new greats” (Paz, Cortazar) to, in an apparent typo, another set of “new greats” (Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, Garcia Marques, himself) and finally “the young people” (younger Mexican prose writers). And over the subsequent months he acted as the guide Henkin expected, making recommendations, passing along the work of writers and even trying to make a big score, the first English translation of Vargas Llosa’s novella “Los Cachorros” (“The Cubs”).

He also offered some dish. Donoso was skeptical of Vasquez’s essay on Borges because “Borges has a bevy of women admirers and in return for admiring him, he “admires” their work.” (In fact, Borges and Vasquez had once been engaged and the two would later collaborate.)  He wrung his hands over Juan Rulfo, author of Pedro Paramo, who “drank himself almost dead” had “left drinking [and] everyone hopes he’ll write again, but most people say he won’t.” (They were right.) He tried to reach out to the Nobel-winning Asturias but, alas, “once a good friend […] he’s all but forgotten me.” (In “The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History” Donoso would say Asturias “felt the moss of time” when he dissed Boom authors.)

Donoso also was one of several correspondents talking up Garcia Marquez’s Cien Años de Soledad, which was a breakthrough hit in the Spanish-speaking world. “No TriQuarterly sans Garcia Marquez, whose novel has been the wildest and most wonderful success since HOPSCOTCH.” (Adding: “Garcia Marquez lives in Barcelona and is a good and faithful friend.”)

Their luck didn’t last, though. Fuentes backed out of doing a political essay. Harper & Rowe ixnayed them excerpting Cien Años. Los Cachorros got hung up in publisher machinations. But the issue was shaping up, Donoso kept chugging along, and Henkin was feeling good, writing on Feb. 28, 1968, “Thank you for keeping me posted as excellently you have of late.”

The Editor In His Labyrinth

This, of course, was a jinx. Donoso’s correspondence immediately tailed off. Of the three letters arrived from Spain from April to June, one included this confidence-building admission: “Please tell me what I sent you in my last envelope, as I was on pills then, and not in my right mind.” Donoso came clean on July 8, saying he’d suffered “a real honest to goodness nervous breakdown from excess work (wrote 700 new pp. in 3 months) and isolation,” adding, “headshrinker ‘says’ easy on work.” Despite medical advice, he was back to suggesting more writers (“there’s a man called Gorostiza in Mexico who only wrote one poem, but reputedly it’s the best poem in Mexico”) and added in the margins “I MUST SEE EVERYTHING IN ISSUE IN ENGLISH.”

But while the rejuvenated Donoso was ready to ramp up, Henkin was ready to put things to bed, setting a final deadline of September 1. He also was ready to spend August on holiday in New York. Donoso flipped. “I’m really mad,” he wrote on August 23. “You can’t be serious…Don’t be fussy if my answers aren’t too prompt.”

And so they resumed their old dance. Henkin laid out the hows and whys of the production calendar and noted past blown deadlines while Donoso alternated between chiding him (“If I failed you at the beginning, you know you’ve failed me now, at then end”) and trying to paper things over (“Let’s kiss and make up.”). They might have reached their old equanimity had Henkin not sent a letter intended for his boss, Newman, to Donoso. A letter in which Henkin said he was going to spike some authors’ work Donoso had forwarded because they were “simply inferior.” “Jose’s reaction is going to be negative, but I’m not terribly concerned.”

This didn’t go over well, and Donoso went directly to Newman. But with the end in sight, Henkin no longer cared about his collaborator’s feelings and unloaded in three single-spaced pages. “We proceeded with the issue on the allegation that you could and would obtain material from the people you claimed to know, as well as from other major Latin American literary figures,” he wrote. But “I procured all the Borges and Neruda in the issue; I procured the Cortazar from his translator…I obtained the Marquez.” He concluded: “I mean, you’re a fine writer, Jose, and I’m terribly sorry to have been instrumental in involving you in something which called for other talents and understanding.”

Newman reached out to placate Donoso. Donoso, in a reply he shared with Henkin, took credit for getting most of the issue’s prose pieces and proved his capacity for riposte. “As Bill himself said in a letter of some time ago, this is going to be ‘the best anthology—by far—of L.A. lit to come out in this country,’ so I don’t see what we’re quarreling about.”

“Best” is of course subjective. But when the 505-page issue hit in early 1969 it made a mark. While it regrettably excluded some writers (Alejo Carpentier, G. Cabrera Infante, Clarice Lispector and Manuel Puig for starters), it did introduce readers to the big names of the Boom and put them in context.

Many of the story selections would become became anthology mainstays. Cranky Eshleman would later win the National Book Award and other prizes for his Vallejo translations. The opening mediations from Octavio Paz and Rodriguez Monegal on this literary moment would wend their way in the the lecture notes of of many a future Latin American fiction professor. E.P. Dutton republished much of the issue (as well as stories that spilled into the next issue) as a book. And The New York Times namechecked TriQuarterly in an April 1969 article predicting that the looming winter publication of 100 Years of Solitude would make Latin American writers the hottest import since gloomy French existentialists.

As for co-editor Donoso, he got paid. The novel that broke him turned out to be his masterpiece, The Obscene Bird of Paradise. And he kept moving. In May 1969 he was in a new town, recuperating from an operation. As he healed, only his frenemy Henkin sent him flowers. It wasn’t necessarily magical, but it was real.

“I was SO happy to get your flowers, my only flowers in this operation done 14 days after our arrival in this new town where we were so alone and so sick,” he wrote in May 1969. “I’ll never forget it dear Bill and I can’t even start for not writing before, for the many explanations are not enough, it was such a kind and thoughtful gesture, and I appreciated it. Thank you Bill, thank you so very much.”

Jim Arndorfer

Jim Arndorfer is a writer in Milwaukee.

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