New Straits Times, 28 Aug 1991: "Seven of the best from Argentina."

Raul Galvez: From the Ashen Land of the Virgin: Conversations with Bioy Casares, Borges, Deveni, Etchecopar, Ocampo, Orozco, Sabato in Argentina. Mosaic Press, Oakville, Ontario. 207 pages. $???

Review by Otto Steinmayer.

On the cover of this book is a photograph of a half-opened door in the blank facade of a house. Worn steps lead up from an empty street. Light from a low sun spills out in square patches. A corridor leads...where?

    I took this photograph as an emblem of the great generation of Argentine fantastic writers. At first their stories seem frightening and strange, like the half-open door that is the entrance to a labyrinth, or the mirror at midnight in a darkened hall that is the glass frontier of another world.

    Fascinated, we enter. And we find, as we certainly find a sunlit patio beyond this door in Buenos Aires, that human emotions people the fantastic setting, emotions perhaps tragic, but often warm and welcoming.

    Bioy Casares, Borges and their friends write more sympathetically for the reader than almost any other modern authors I can name. They invite the reader to share in their fantasies, which they invent like small children who for their own amusement put monsters in the attic and see secret things in the tendrils of the grape-arbor, places they play every day. The wonderful and the terrible appear in the midst of familiar things.

    Jorge Luis Borges died not long ago in Geneva, far away from South America. Borges was the most famous of Argentine writers. His Labyrinths and other collections of stories and poems are familiar to anyone who reads serious modern fiction.

    Bioy Casares, Marco Deveni, Dolores Etchelcopar, Silvina Ocampo, Olga Orozco, and Ernesto Sabato are writers almost completely unknown outside of their own country. It is a sad fact that in the mega-business of international publishing the celebrity of a few big names eclipses the worth of many other writers who have not had equal distribution. Too much of marketing is awe. As Sabato writes in a story about the neighbors see one character: "How can he be a genius if he lives around the corner?"

    Gabriel Garcia Marquez's books become best sellers. But besides Borges, I found only one work by one of Galvez' authors, a fine novella by Deveni, Secret Ceremony, in the university library.

    Raul Galvez is himself an Argentinian who now lives in Toronto. He returned to his country to arrange a series of interviews with leading writers for Canadian radio, which he later published. A good interviewer is something of a "straight man" and Galvez plays his role very well. He is informed, sensitive, and has no other program than to let his writers talk freely about what most concerns them.

    Bioy Casares, Borges, and the rest must have felt relaxed in Galvez' company. Each interview reads like an intimate talk. These Argentine writers come across as the most charming and approachable of people. Ernesto Sabato, I was impressed to see, is president of the committee to investigate the fate of those who "disappeared" in the late Dirty War, a post of grave responsibility for a humane man.

    I had the honor to hear Borges talk not long before he died. A old blind man by that time, he seemed on stage suspiciously slow and senile, a false impression that was readily dispelled as he began to speak, in the deliberate manner of an ancient oral poet. Though in his stories Borges toys with vastly obscure learning (some of it made up by himself), as he spoke he did not show off or condescend to his hearers, but addressed them naturally, unaffectedly, as an old friend, and with the greatest respect and courtesy.

    An undergraduate critic that night eager to prove a point for his thesis questioned Borges on his knowledge of one author. "No," Borges replied, "I hadn't heard of that writer before now; it is impossible that he could have influenced me." The audience laughed and the boy sat down red-faced, but Borges spoke with no wish to play the author one-up on the critic, a chance lesser writers would relish.

    There is a story that when Franz Kafka read his Metamorphosis (in which the unfortunate Gregor Samsa wakes up as a beetle) to his friend Max Brod, Kafka broke down in laughter after the first paragraph and could get no further.
Kafka's reputation as a creator of a dismal, sinisterly bureaucratic world has prevailed so strongly that few people have noticed that he can be often be extremely funny. Like Kafka, Borges and his friends are very funny, and like Kafka, very warm. Even a world without labyrinths or Minotaurs, without insane and empty cities like that in Borges' The Immortals is still inscrutable and forbidding. Life is a strange thing. To have a companion, even in a book, willing to share the strangeness and to play with it helps us pass through life.

    Galvez' stylish translations from the Spanish preserve the flavour of each writer's manner of speech. Some phrases remain, quite admirably, not exactly English: the Spanishness, in justice to them, has not been polished out. It is a pity that errors of proofreading hold up the reader's eye, and make nonsense of one passage on p. 41, where "units" appear when Bioy Casares meant the "unities" of classical drama.

    Galvez has compiled a brief life, a short character sketch from his personal view, and a full bibliography for each of his writers. A bibliography is of the greatest use when books are difficult to get.

    In an age that approaches fiction with the glummest seriousness, it's a pleasure to read the conversation of writers bubbling with delight in the practice of their art. Galvez gets Bioy Casares onto the subject of happiness as the cause of boring endings. Casares replies:

    "I have a clash with readers and analysts. They believe: Heavens! You must have been very sad to write that kind of ending....

    "Many times we write a story to get to an ending; but many times not. We depart from a situation. And we don't know what ending we are going to put in. And we feel miserable because we don't find it. And when we do find it, and perhaps it's a terrible tragic one, that day we are happy, we eat with appetite, we talk about it with other writer friends who are going to celebrate this. And then, in comes the reader who cries at that moment and thinks: how sad, how depressed Bioy must have been to write this. Well...No!!...(laughs) It was a moment of great vitality and joy! (laughs)."

    That may be one good way to feel as we pass our time here in this world that is stranger than fiction.