Like every intelligent poet, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada is a good narrator—a truth the inverse of which is false and which does not hold for the mysterious poets that can forego intelligence. He is a writer of splendid bitterness. I’ll say more: of the most burning and difficult bitterness, that which gets along with passion and even with affection.
I begin with a quote that, except for certain perspectives, both of the writer in question and of the writer of this text, in different times would have been applicable to Murena. It is significant—that is to say, it is my reason for choosing the quote—that both Martínez Estrada and Borges were in their time adored and then rejected, for different and arbitrary reasons, by Héctor Murena; and that once these expurgatory operations of the soul were over, the quote may sustain and express, through maestro Estrada, the principal characteristics of the disciple Murena. Let us try to elucidate this paradox, now that Murena has come out of the long silence to which the experts in execution subjected him.
When societies become polarized, all social expressions can end up in either one of two ways: either they take refuge in a formal or expressive purism, the cultivation of which demands (having been its origin) keeping to the margins of the existing trenches; or, on the contrary, said expressions manifest themselves as superficial, trivial, taking up only the most obvious aspects of things, constructing an innocuous thinking. In the first case, polarization is avoided: this, in the Argentina of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, could simply mean saving your life, by way of mysticism, from the false profoundness that emanates from a difficult and cultured text. If this profoundness of form is taken up without complications, the outcome is a Borges or an Alberto Girri, magnificent writers who declare themselves to be “apolitical” or “non-progressive,” in order to dedicate themselves to their work from a perspective it would not be petty of me to describe as “reactionary.” Although abhorred by both sides, in general, respect from the authorized public rescues them from the dangers of being lynched and a more or less impressionable criticism. Uniting under a reverential fear of the cultured makes society tolerate them, albeit as strange entities. That is to say, when it comes to them, Leviathan does not bother with extermination.
In the second case, superficiality is manifested by idiolect, by apostatized thinking, by naïve or parodic interpretations of a reality that escapes thought, because the thought began by escaping reality, by abusing pseudo-concepts, with unsubstantial generalizations. In some way they will try—and the success of this enterprise cannot yet be assessed—to fulfill that Nietzschean challenge of thinking without concepts.
In general, these cases stand alone, each one producing its own great figures. Héctor Murena, for a long time practically forgotten and today recovered almost arbitrarily by critics and curious readers, constitutes a notable exception: he does not combine both attitudes in different works, but rather this duality is present in all this work. Far from generating an insurmountable contradiction, his exclusionary perspectives make up for themselves and lend each other a hand; they produce an oeuvre that is not only one of the most original in Argentina and in our language, but also of a human sensibility that was able to survive where others perished, be it by the force of the stupidity of the violent or because of the resounding glory of the cowardly.
Murena was an author who covered all genres (essay, prose, and verse): El pecado original de América (1948), Primer testamento (1946), El coronel de caballería y otros cuentos (1971), La cárcel de la mente (1971, a selection of essays edited by Murena himself), Caína muerte (1971), La metáfora y lo sagrado (1973), a poetry anthology gathered from La vida nueva (1951), El escándalo y el fuego (1959), Relámpago de la duración (1962) and El demonio de la armonía (1964). These are some of the titles I recall or that I have reread recently, a negligible part of his oeuvre. To dwell on the adjectives that have been applied to him since he stopped being an ignored author would be foolhardy. The bibliography on Murena grows slowly but consistently as of late, and perhaps there is no corner from which his work has not been studied after being neglected for so many years. Suffice it to confirm, or repeat, that the language is magnificent; his prose, as in the case of Borges, is well above his already delicate poetry. Perhaps Murena, along with Martínez Estrada, Borges, and some others, is one of the greatest Argentine writers. To sing his praises would be in vain, given the army of writers of prologues who make up universities and of moderately cultured readers who are always on the lookout for a not-so-popular hero. I am going to limit myself, therefore, to some considerations of subjects that will not appear in literary encyclopedias any time soon.
There is no room to consider his extensive poetry or his exquisite prose, other than to insist on its quality, perhaps on its unique and irreproducible traits. Suffice it to recall an excerpt from Polispuercón that, we believe, justifies all the exaggerations that journalists and dust jacket writers are capable of:
There were, for example, there, in the same house belonging to my aunt and uncle where I lived, the elderly and the children, who, always on all fours, could be found in any corner. They were brought in, rented or bought directly from the province our family was from, and it was possible to use them not only to rest our legs upon when we were sitting down, but for small errands as well, to go fetch the paper, let’s say, which they transported between their teeth without getting it wet, or to open the doors or to serve as a convenient step when someone wanted to get into a vehicle (…) from my point of view at the time they constituted a symbol of the country’s greatness: everything here is so marvelous, I believed, that we could give ourselves the luxury of not having any function that could not be satisfied by human beings.
Several poems or short story excerpts could be quoted and the result would be just as shocking, captivating, perhaps meaningful, like when a child reared in the city observes the starlit sky of the plains or the high seas and sees the stars for the first time.
However, it is neither in his narrative work nor in his poetry where our author’s greatest uniqueness resides. We are sure that critics, whether just or unjust, whether they praise him or condemn him, will begin with established canons, shared prejudices, common spaces; so common, sadly, that there is no great difference between them. It suffices to know the affiliations of any given critic to guess their opinion on Murena’s creative work, in the same way that it is just as easy to reverse that opinion and obtain its opposite. When all is said and done, it is about a game of permutations.
It is his essays, however, that pose the greatest challenges: not only because of their originality, or because of their controversial nature (from his early book Reflexiones sobre el pecado original de América, including his more esoteric texts, or whatever you want to call them, such as La metáfora y lo sagrado), but rather because of something more profound than a grouping of ideas that are accepted or rejected, and certainly, because of something much more profound than his style. Barthes’ ingenuous division between “authors” and “scriptors,” an extraordinary pretext in order to hide the falsification of an idea, is not relevant when thinking about the essay, as has been substantiated previously. If there is a style and if there is “content,” and a tension between the two—in the classic sense of the terms, and that is what defines the soul of a work—in few authors is it more visible than in Murena.
Indeed, seldom do we find ourselves with an oeuvre that avails itself of a superb style, a brilliant language, in order to express, in the same essay, sometimes in the same paragraph, the most profound, original ideas, connected with (or followed by) the most superficial appraisals that sometimes border on vulgarity. It is important to say it: this is not about whether Murena “evolved” from subtle ideas towards trivial concepts or the opposite. The two poles coexist through time and crisscross his entire reflective work, escaping the rigor of a lucid examination and the obsessions of a hunter of the incoherent.
What made possible this stratification of levels of seriousness in a work that, formally, is irreproachable? What is the cause, if there is one, that guides a lucid mind through the paths of superficiality and genius, simultaneously? It believe, as I warned at the beginning, that Murena was one of the many victims of a perverse social polarization—a partition, a break in Argentine society—that perhaps has existed since that country became a nation, but that was manifested with greater virulence beginning in the 40s and reached its zenith in the 70s, two dates which delineate the itinerary of Murena’s writing.
Argentina, its literature, and its history are not easy to decipher. In Venezuela it is possible to admire Uslar or Otero Silva, independently of our political opinions. One can admire the figure of Bolívar and that of Páez, regardless of the judgment that any one figure may inspire in us. In Argentina, there are series of writers, affiliations, and schools, not in the aesthetic sense, but rather in the sense of attachment, just as there are for historical figures, national heroes, and politicians. These series correspond, in some measure, to the degree of separation that the society is experiencing at a given time. Sometimes they crisscross and intersect on some points; at others, in times of grave danger, they overlap like two parallel lines. In this way, whoever admires Rosas will hate Sarmiento and whoever reads Sábato will perhaps not like Borges. If this description seems like a caricature, it is because it corresponds to a cartoonish situation, and because, deep down, it is a simplification, one of those that try to bring us closer to a reality.
Murena belongs to that exiguous minority of writers who do not fit into any of the categories I have arbitrarily cited. As a translator of some of the most important Marxist thinkers—and influenced, without a doubt, by some of them—he is considered by many to be a right-wing man. Radical in his appreciations of capitalism, he is equally irreverent about communism, socialism, or even democracy. Are these not, simply, the characteristics of an independent man? This being the case, he would be a gray and inconsequential character, like Fernando Savater is today. However, Murena has been for many years a troublesome character, criticized by Tyrians and Trojans, adored and hated at the same time. Something in his radical posture inspires attraction and mistrust, a spell and a sense of defection.
In his book of essays, La cárcel de la mente, for example, we find very lucid and profound assessments about ancient and modern cities, along with totally banal considerations about psychoanalysis or about Marxism that are on the same level as a comment in a cheap magazine. Accusing Freud of pansexuality or Marx of proposing a “dictatorship of equality” is so ingenuous that it would not merit commenting in the least, if it were not because these judgments are uttered in the context of profound social and political considerations.
The fissure in the imaginary we were discussing before has been placed between Murena’s pages and has impregnated his reasonings, the convolutions of his argumentative strategies, the examples, the references. If Borges, an author who is auscultated pornographically, can be read with pleasure and with the forethought of an anticipated coherence, with a rigor that is never out of balance, with lines that run in perfect perspective towards a central—albeit imaginary— point in “Borges’s thought,” like that, in quotes; if Sábato can exhibit, if not a similar rigor, at least “a thought,” an attitude that is expressed in his work, in Murena’s case we find that rigor only exists in the form and not in what he expresses, which is always irresolute and vacillating.
These faults in Murena’s essays do not prevent us from admiring him or enjoying him. Reading him means forgetting for a bit that he was the precursor of a para-poetic logic of pseudo-realizations and false problems. I cannot find a better way to end these impetuous considerations than with this text that for years has been following me (taken from La metáfora y lo sagrado) and, I believe, I have used somewhere else:
The universe is a book (…): every book contains the universe. We must remember, however, that the black streak of every word becomes understandable in the book thanks to the white of the page (…). The quality of any writing depends on how it transmits the mystery, that silence that is not the writing. Its splendor is an enriching abdication of itself. And this is evident in the type of reading that permits and demands.
The type of reading that permits and demands.