“They say there is a lot of Gumucio and little Parra in its pages,” Rafael Gumucio tells me on WhatsApp when we start talking about his oblique biography Nicanor Parra, rey y mendigo. And he adds, “I don’t agree, but oh well.” And it’s true: it’s not the first time Gumucio has been accused of egocentrically focusing his books on himself. Critics, and academics, have said this basically since he published his insurmountable first book Memorias prematuras, in which he narrates his parents’ exile in France, his pre-adolescence during Pinochet’s dictatorship, and his adolescence and premature adulthood during the transition to democracy in nineteen-nineties Chile.
Today Gumucio lives in Santiago and teaches at the Universidad Diego Portales, but he spends as much time as possible in New York, where his daughters live. Those trips to New York, additionally, have aided him with his new literary project; one that he recounts in this conversation, in which he also speaks about his biography of the Chilean anti-poet Nicanor Parra, which has two different versions: one in Spain with Penguin, and another in Chile with the Universidad Diego Portales press.
“I finished the rough draft. It’s currently being edited,” he says precisely with respect to his next book: a biography, also in the “Gumucio” style, about the artist Roberto Matta. “It’s a story about his life in New York in the forties. It’s not an oral biography, but rather a more conventional story, although it also jumps all over the place, into art history, the story of his son Gordon Matta Clark, the relationship between Europe and the United States, and my own relationship with New York. In this sense, it follows the method I followed with Parra, but it’s based more on the book and a lot less on the conversations. At any rate, I must confess I had a very good time writing it.”
Antonio Díaz Oliva: Matta and Parra resemble one another, don’t they? It makes sense that you wrote about one and are now exploring the life of the other.
Rafael Gumucio: Well, basically, they have the same name. They’re the same vowels with a repeated consonant in the middle and two different consonants at the beginning. Both of their family names have an agricultural resonance: one means bush, the other vine. A series of engravings were done in which Parra added an “aqua fortis” to Matta, a few phrases. There was a certain mutual admiration, although they met late in life (Matta was closer to Gonzalo Rojas), but above all they have a shared sense of humor, an enormous “negative capacity” in them both. A negative capacity that is, as Parra would say (following Keats), an understanding of contradiction without conflict. In other words, taking up all the causes and being sort of a communist, right-wing Shakespeare, an environmentalist and a carnivore, a Christian and an atheist. All at the same time, encompassing the same base in all the opposites. In both cases, this was expressed in an unhinging of language through humor, a way of reformulating the logic of things, until their apparent limits give way in the search, in both cases seeing the verb to see again.
A.D.O.: Why an epigraph from Neruda at the opening of a book about Nicanor Parra? Is this a provocation?
R.G.: Of course, it was obviously a provocation. I knew that if Parra were alive, this would have bothered him immensely, although he would also understand. He would know right from the beginning that that biography was a game and a provocation, a debate with this shadow. It was also the recognition of an undeniable truth: Parra built himself around Neruda to a large degree. First as part of his closest group, later as an oppositional accomplice, and later as a sort of anti-Neruda. The presence of Neruda was felt in all the phases of his life and in his essential work. Few knew as well as he the real importance of Neruda, his worth as creator of the new Latin American rhetoric. But, beyond Neruda’s poetry, which he appreciated like none other, Neruda was the creator of a way of being a poet that in Chile became “the way” of being a poet. Parra is the other way, the opposite way, but an opposition that can only be understood entirely through Neruda. Although Neruda can also be read through Parra, because it is evident that from Extravagaria, and even from the Elementary Odes, Parra is in his head, or there is a consciousness of the questions that Parra left floating in the air. The poem I put in the epigraph demonstrates this: that Neruda not only had read Parra, but that he had understood him as few had, that the complicit rivalry between the two of them was complete and mutual.
A.D.O.: Somehow, there are two editions of this book, the Chilean cut that was edited by Leila Guerriero and the “director’s cut,” which is the Spanish edition, where Leila does not figure on the cover. What happened between one edition and the other? And why change the book?
R.G.: A year went by between one version and the other. It was the year of Parra’s death, which revealed a lot of hidden or scattered information, and it suddenly came to light. I wanted to put that new information in the book and correct a lot of things that were wrong or were imprecise and which were left in the original version. I wrote the first version, under Leila’s editorship and care, pressured by wanting to be the first to write a biography that (I imagined) everyone wanted to write (to my surprise, no one else has done so). I was also dealing with the shock of his death and his burial in a complete state of frenzy and paranoia. I was under the impression that my task was enormous and unique and that I had to do it justice and settle the score. I think that gave me the necessary energy to finish the book, but I felt that when it came to re-editing it, I could do it with greater freedom, sort of improvising in a jazzy way on my own text. I felt I could be freer and approach the book more like a novel (it will be published by Penguin’s imprint Literatura Random House, in other words, a publisher of novels and short stories). That’s what I did. I turned it into something more syncopated, faster even, freer, I think, perhaps too free. It was without a doubt a pleasure to write my same book twice. I like both of them for different reasons.
A.D.O.: Is it an oblique biography? Is it an anti-biography? I imagine in order to write about the life of an anti-poet you have to employ an anti-genre.
R.G.: That was the crux of the problem: how to write a biography about someone who looks down on biographies? How to write normal prose, with a subject and a predicate, with anecdotes and a chronology, about someone who his entire life had been opposed to all those things? The solution would have been for me to use his method and also write anti-poetry. I could have approached the topic like he does with Huidobro and Luis Oyarzún in After-Dinner Declarations, through digressions, jokes, speeches, quotations, and reflections in hendecasyllable blank verse. But doing that would have been a poor imitation of Parra. I preferred to take part of his method and jump from one thing to another, mixing critical reflection, memoir, and novelized pieces, and focusing like Shakespeare on the characters’ voice, on their way of narrating themselves, on their way of understanding themselves through language, of relating to the writer. In some sense, between the possibility of writing a canonical biography and one à la Parra, I settled on an intermediate solution: writing a biography of Parra from my I, from my way of thinking and writing, putting him in dialogue and tension with Parra himself. In some way, this is the book, Parra debating against my way of narrating his life. A way of answering one of Parra’s typical questions: can you say I? And it can be done, under the condition that the I is also a you.
A.D.O.: One of the times I was with Parra was when you brought him to the Universidad Diego Portales. I believe it was in 2006, for his workshop on humor. What was it like being alone with Parra? Taking him to meet students? I also believe, that time at the Universidad Diego Portales, Colombina, his daughter, was the chaperone.
R.G.: He was a difficult character, full of obsessions, always abrupt, always sarcastic, but at the same time loving and polite. I mean to say that in the old temperament and sometimes bad temper, there was a professor from the University of Chile who understood to perfection the obligations of a practical life and with whom you could speak on that level. That is to say, he was generally a genius who always thought backwards, but also someone who bought and sold houses, who drove his own car, and knew where his things were. That made it possible to reach agreements with him about concrete things. It was difficult to get him to commit to teaching at the Universidad Diego Portales, as you saw, but once he committed, it was very probable that he would be there. When he came, he showed me the green tie he was wearing and said to me, “Academic, right?” It was his way of saying that he saw this as part of his duties at the Universidad Diego Portales. That’s to say, it was a way of saying that he understood my task and function there, that it was the same one he had for more than fifty years at the former School of Education and in the Department of Humanities at the University of Chile.
A.D.O.: Neruda, De Rokha, Parra, Donoso, Bolaño, Diamela Eltit… Chileans very much grab onto one sole literary figure. And I think Parra was conscious of that. As a matter of fact, your book is almost more about the Parra clan (Matías Rivas, Alejandro Zambra, Patricio Fernández) than about Parra himself, no?
R.G.: Parra taught me that literature is the least solitary profession. That’s to say, writers write surrounded by their readers, critics, friends, and competitors, and this has a lot to do with the quality—or lack thereof—of what is written. This, which can seem tragic for the lovers of the Romantic poet alone in his room, seemed like a party to me. The fact that literature is not the work of an illustrated individual, but rather the fruit of a dialogue with the world, is something that seems to me to enlarge literature itself.
A.D.O.: As a matter of fact, this book is, additionally, a history of twentieth-century Chilean poetry.
R.G.: Yes. A poetry—Chilean poetry—that has a quota of geniuses and unique characters well above the average. A poetry that relates on an equal footing with the vanguard of the century and invents a new way of naming Latin American subjects that will give birth to the Boom. I thought Parra was perfect for narrating all that he saw and played a leading role in.
A.D.O.: “One sentence was enough to justify your entrance into his kingdom,” like you say in this book. “He was entirely conscious of his egocentrism.” Tell me about Parra’s total consciousness of his ego. You explore it in your book.
R.G.: It was his kindest quality. He was entirely aware of his egocentrism, which made him less egocentric than he came across. That’s to say, for him the other existed. He needed that in order to exert his powers of seduction over that other, but he also needed it in order to get information, energy, ideas, or simply in order to not be alone and have a laugh. In that sense, he was a social egomaniac, like some people who are social alcoholics. He was egocentric with company, an egocentric who listened (that’s why his progressive deafness was tragic for him). Parra thought a lot about himself, but he was also Violeta, his brother Roberto Bolaño, Shakespeare and King Lear, and the most diverse people who visited him. So, knowing Parra was knowing a world. His egocentrism opened doors instead of closing them. I am grateful to him.
A.D.O.: A year before his death, you visited Parra for the last time and he called you “Bernardo.” “I knew that was the end of something,” you wrote. Tell me a little bit more about that moment. Back then a lot of us thought Parra was something eternal, like the Chilean landscape.
R.G.: Yes. I believe my book has, among other themes, the theme best expressed as: how does an immortal die? It’s also the theme of another one of my books, Mi abuela Marta Rivas. How does someone who has lived their entire life as if death didn’t exist die? Someone who has survived everything, someone who above all has used the tool of immortality called literature their entire life. What does the owner of words that don’t die die of? If writers die, or in my grandmother’s case, readers, does literature also die? Up to what point is the covenant between literature and immortality secure and reliable, if the body and above all the mind, in both of these cases, begins to fail? With Parra, like with my grandmother, I narrate my incapacity to put up with this abdication, my fear before the loss of someone else’s memory, which is the fear of being forgotten forever.
A.D.O.: Towards the end, the scene that prevailed on January 25 in Las Cruces is described: “The burial of a lunatic where everyone looked at each other unpleasantly, fought, rivaled, and didn’t know what to do.” Very Chilean, no? An anti-funeral. While Neruda’s funeral, I think, was a place of coming together in the middle of a dictatorship, Parra’s was a place of disagreement in the middle of a democracy.
R.G.: It was a scene on a par with Nicanor, who was always a great saboteur of all things solemn. I think now that he staged it perfectly and that all the powers he handed out and spread about had as their motive creating that scene. In some way, it also was, like with Neruda, the funeral of an age. In Parra’s case, the funeral of the years of transition, of their prosperity, their eclecticism (there really were all sorts of things at the burial), of their confusion, their celebration, their consensus, and their delirium. Shortly thereafter, the social uprising occurred, making it impossible to have a funeral like that one nowadays. With Parra’s death, the happy phase of Chilean postmodernity came to an end. And then the tragic phase began.
A.D.O.: Let’s wrap up with that, let’s talk a little about Chilean literature after Nicanor Parra. I don’t know how you see it, but I believe that after this reductionist article in El País, the idea took hold that in order to obtain the blessing of the academy and “foreign” media, one single model has to be followed; writing about the dictatorship following only one parameter, which the academy demarcated around the phrase “the literature of the children.” If that type of literature, although it is still prized outside the country, little by little is being left behind, then what comes next? Have you read anything that gets away from socio-progressive realism? In other words, does Chilean literature have a future?
R.G.: I believe we’re going through a particularly infertile moment in Chilean literature. I feel that “convictions,” the “unionization” of writers, the fear of “being canceled” or incomprehension has weakened to the max that “negative capacity” I was speaking to you about before. There is no literature without paradoxes. There is no literature without questions. There is no literature without discomfort. There is no literature without contradiction. All of that, faced with the fear of standing out, is impossible. People with feminist, vegan convictions, sexual and gender dissents, convictions that I fear aren’t even sincere, can’t do anything more than write manifestos, but they don’t even write that. A few years ago, I made one of my usual screwups, speaking ill of middle class literature that feels complacent within its own class. I believe I was violent and least of all subtle, but I was right. In the end, literature that feels comfortable with itself, that “Ñuñoa” neighborhood masturbation, has led the brightest minds in literature into literary paralysis. Some of them have opted for more interesting genres, such as sessions on OnlyFans or literary memes on Instagram.
Translated by Luis Guzmán Valerio