Fantasmas del saber (Lo que queda de la lectura). Noé Jitrik. Buenos Aires: Ampersand. 2018. 112 pages.
All reading leaves within the reader a remnant upon which a knowledge, an image, or a print mark is projected. The erosion of time in turn produces a sort of sedimentation of that residual charge that is activated with a delay, inopportunely, usually triggered by events of a diverse nature. For this reason, even wild, eagerly absorbed readings that are as common in the vertigo of training as in the respite of the moments of distraction (and which sometimes seem to go by without leaving much at all), live on in the reader like “ghosts of knowledge” and work surreptitiously over the course of their life and through subsequent readings.
In his recent “reader biography,” published by Ampersand in the extraordinary collection “Lectores” (directed by Graciela Batticuore), Noé Jitrik seems to confirm this conjecture. The first book that the prestigious Argentine critic attributes with a decisive influence in his development as a reader is The Work of Fire, Maurice Blanchot’s text which he bought on the advice of his friend León Rozitchner, and which “changed his thinking,” to the point where, after the effort represented by his reading, the young critic had “the blinding impression” that it had changed his way of understanding the “literary act.” His Horacio Quiroga, una obra de experiencia y riesgo [Horacio Quiroga, a work of experience and risk] is without a doubt a tangible symptom of that dazzling encounter. Not so much because of the rhetoric of the literary model, but more due to the loyalty of its ethical foundation: just like the Blanchot that was a reader of Char and Kafka, the Jitrik of this quite singular book writes from a place of conviction that literature will awaken in the reader “the desire to come close to that which is behind what ‘is said,’ to the secret of the literature.”
It’s worth remembering: in the Argentina of 1959, when the publication of this book occurred, “that which is behind what ‘is said’” was not exactly the same for everyone. Not even within that circle which quickly and simplifying called itself “the Contorno group,” that—upon examination—was rather more of a space where literary perspectives in the making converged (sometimes in open tension), incarnated by young authors who shared more weariness for the official literary models than explicit theoretical affinities. The fact that this strange and delicate book by Jitrik appeared almost at the same time as Martinez Estrada, A Futile Rebellion by Juan José Sebreli, and against the backdrop of agitation and bewilderment produced by the Cuban Revolution, is already irrefutable proof that the fellowship of Contorno was stimulating, precisely because it still existed in a state of tension between the desire for literature and the will for political transformation.
In Fantasmas del saber [Ghosts of knowledge], and unlike what it may have represented for other names of that generation (like the Viñas brothers or even the young Masotta), the name Jean-Paul Sartre appears, marking a somewhat willful parenthesis, where “commitment” and “taking a side” drive the critic to “leave behind what he had felt before,” in the moment of his initiation: “that if the reading does not change the reader, reinventing him, it isn’t reading but affirmation, perhaps a document, put to the test, usually poorly.” But it also appears praising a literary model: the still unformalized Sartrean “progressive-regressive method,” which diverged from the literary work “to find in the person who produced the source, the existential nucleus that gave way to the imaginary action,” which in Jitrik, fed, not the illusion, but rather the “sensation” that the critical reading would acquire the bodily density of a political action and at the same time provided the opportunity to give an effective answer to the “challenge of writing something that wasn’t a simple bibliographical commentary or academic exposition.”
But if there is something that this new Jitrik book adds and sustains as an indeclinable principle, it is that reading is not a labor that a subject (reader) carries out over an object (text), rather an ascetic experience and transformation of the self, mediated by the encounter with the text of the other. Jitrik has been insisting on this point for some time now. It’s no coincidence that, throughout this entire book, he underlines with special emphasis the defining nature of his encounter with the work of Augusto Roa Bastos: in his illuminating essay I, the Supreme written in 1990, he categorically affirmed that “there truly is no reading if the relationship with the text does not provoke a suspension of disbelief.” This phrase pinpoints an ethical principle that Fantasmas del saber arrives simply to confirm when it states, “if reading does not confound, with the share of strangeness and discomfort that it at times entails, it isn’t truly reading, [because] all reading proposes, suggests, or imposes some kind of change.”
The fact that these readings have been the cause for labor demands or institutional rationale does not prevent them from producing a silent transformation in their readers. The ad hoc readings of Rubén Darío, and the Diaries of Columbus, Roa Bastos, and García Márquez continue immersing Jitrik in the dimension of Latin America, while paradoxically, his personal itinerary sent him from Argentina to France, and from France to Mexico. The readings and now more systematized rereadings of texts by Neruda, José Emiliano Pacheco, Carpentier, Onetti, Arlt, Cortázar, Arguedas, Marechal, Donoso, Bioy Casares, and Di Benedetto caused him to suspect that the idea of “national literature”, rather than strengthening it, instead constrained the political horizon of reading and left out a series of relationships and linkages between literature and life that generally tend to be undervalued. Jitrik demonstrates his acknowledgement when he affirms that Latin America opened up before his eyes in Mexico, “because of its people, its landscapes, and for the purpose of this book, [because of] its literature,” to the extent that it forever marked his destiny. From there he read and reread Rulfo, Alfonso Reyes, Nicanor Parra, Augusto Monterroso, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Lezama Lima, and José Vasconcelos as if they were projected over the map of Latin American experience; but above all it was there that he struck up a relationship with the voice, the texts, and the contagious readings of Margo Glantz, which in turn brought him to books by Manuel Payno, Julieta Campos, José Luis González, Vicente Riva Palacio, and Justo Sierra O’Reilly, among others.
Without a doubt restlessness predominated in these strong Latin American readings, not only because they called into question the order of knowledge that was thought to be established, but because they forced him to take on a new disposition. Jitrik read and taught (himself) to read amidst the tension in which he pens his readings to this day: “moved by an intention for critique and distancing,” but without discounting the emotive dimension of reading. Reading that corpus, which contains advances and retreats, heroic feats and base trickery, upheavals and abdications, has turned into his way of experiencing a concrete world by way of a literature. Latin America was already his territory: the space, at once intellectual and poetic, political and affective, in which reading exerts its enchantment and its power of transformation.
Translated by Whitni Battle
The Middlebury Institute of International Studies