Francisco Goldman by Esther Allen

BOMB 88 Summer 2004
088 Summer 2004 1024X1024
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Francisco Goldman. Photo by Marion Ettlinger. Courtesy of the photographer.

A Cuban American friend who grew up in Philadelphia used to make regular trips to New York City as a child. Her family would always go to see some cousins who had a jewelry shop on Canal Street, then pay a ritual visit to the imposing equestrian statue of José Martí on Central Park South at the end of the Avenue of the Americas, which depicts the great poet, essayist, journalist, orator and leader of the Cuban revolution of independence against Spain as he falls from his horse at the moment of his death in a skirmish with Spanish forces in 1895. When my friend moved to New York as an adult, she went through a period of bewilderment and disorientation, for in her mind’s eye the Martí statue was a major feature of the Manhattan cityscape, and it stood very close to Canal Street.

More than a century after his death, José Martí still exerts a magnetic force strong enough to make Canal Street intersect Central Park South. It’s a phenomenon I can fully understand because I, too, have experienced its power. Martí, who lived in New York for 16 years and is one of the greatest chroniclers of life in the United States during the late nineteenth century, drew me to spend a long period of my life on an anthology of his work that was published by Penguin Classics in 2002. He also, as if in gratitude, kindly contrived to introduce me to one of the contemporary American novelists I admire most. One day not long before the anthology was published, I got an email, out of the blue, from Francisco Goldman, whose journalism I’d been following for years, and whose novels The Long Night of White Chickens and The Ordinary Seaman are two of the best books ever about Latin America and the United States. Goldman, too, it turned out, had fallen under Martí’s spell. He was working on a novel that involved Martí and had emailed me because he’d heard I’d become a martiana (which in Spanish can mean a devotee of Martí, or a Martian). Could we get together and talk Martí?

We’ve been getting together and talking Martí ever since. In honor of the publication of The Divine Husband, the extraordinarily beautiful new novel that he’s been working on for many years, which is coming out from Grove in August, we decided to talk about something else for a change—Goldman’s work in general, and the new novel in particular—though we still couldn’t get away from Martí entirely because he is the elusive presence, the “infinite possibility” around which the new novel revolves.

Esther Allen How did the new novel, The Divine Husband, originate?

Francisco Goldman Many years ago I was sitting at a bar in Guatemala City, and a guy sat down beside me, and it turned out he was from my hometown in Massachusetts. That was already coincidence enough. Then he said, “My parents always worked at the Tillotson Rubber Factory.” That was this enormous red brick monstrosity, with towering smokestacks, that I grew up some hundred yards away from. It was the landscape of my childhood. In the swamp behind the factory we used to ice skate and play around in the winter; the ice would be tinged odd colors from all the dyes leaking out. We’d go behind the factory and dip our sneakers into the puddles of dye, making them psychedelic. Anyway, the guy says, “My parents told me, ‘Whenever you get down in life and need a hand up, go and look for Mr. Tillotson in Guatemala.’”

It was like a joke of fate: my partly Guatemalan family lived a hundred yards away from this place, and its owner lived in Guatemala and I’d never known that. At that point, the idea for The Divine Husband first lodged in my brain. I didn’t care about the real Tillotson family, I wanted to make up my own family. Though the Tillotsons really were balloon pioneers—one invented the first specialty balloon, a balloon in the shape of a cat’s head. They had rubber plantations in Guatemala. In Colombia last year I went to the most important balloon factory in all of South America, and they get all their natural latex from Guatemala.

That kind of perhaps strange, peripatetic research maybe isn’t necessary, but when I write a novel it seems to become this obsession that goes on for years and years: you’re constantly strategizing like that, living your life in sync with the book, doing all kinds of things you really don’t need to do. Maybe it’s a way of burning off energy.

So running into that guy in the bar just gave me the idea: “Ah, I’m going to invent a family with roots in the nineteenth century that unites New England to Guatemala.” But here’s what was most crucial in that whole process. Around that time I’d really been immersed in the wars of Central America, for years and years, as a journalist, as a writer, as a human being, as a person who lived with this sense of obligation, and so forth. But that wasn’t necessarily what I had ever foreseen for myself when I first started writing. When I got out of college I thought my own strengths as a writer were different from the kind of strengths that were maybe brought out by engaging so directly in a war, in such a political and human tragedy, like that of Central America in the ’80s.

EA What did you think your strengths would be?

FG I thought of myself as a sort of postmodern fantasist or fabulist—like a Calvino. No kidding. And I wanted to write anti-realism, as opposed to, say, even a magical realism. I was dreaming of going hunting for that strange beast of a novel that’s like none we’ve ever seen before. Borges came to give a talk when I was at the University of Michigan, and one thing he said was that you never end up writing like the writer you imagine yourself to be. He said, “I always imagined myself writing like Conrad, Kipling or James.” After my junior year I left school and went to New York, where I mostly worked in restaurants. Then, for a bunch of reasons, I went down to Guatemala City, where I could live cheaply—I ended up living in my uncle’s house—and write the stories I needed for MFA applications. That was 1979, probably the most violent year in the history of that city. Esquire accepted one of those stories for publication, and they gave me the chance to write journalism, and so I went right back to Guatemala. And all that pushed me in a certain direction. Whatever else those first two novels were—and they’re not journalistic novels—they came directly out of all that, the wars in Central America, my own divided family between Guatemala and the United States. And so there I was after more than a decade of balancing fiction and journalism and I was finally beginning to burn out and get weary of that and to feel it was costing me a lot in my heart and spirit.

When you’re a novelist, you’re in charge of your fictional reality. Nobody has as much control over it as you do. But when you’re involved in politics and journalism, no matter how sure you might be of what really happened in a particular circumstance, other people, out of their own convictions, or ideological motivations, or just mediocrity, or even malice, might say the opposite. And then you find out that they have as much or more credibility than you do. You have no control over the world you’re writing about—it’s not the imagined world of fiction.

Anyway, I kind of withdrew into this hole, finally, and it turned into one of the most wonderful periods of my life. I remember it was a very rainy period in Guatemala City; it literally rained for 28 straight days. I spent every day in the archives. I was just beginning to pursue this novel. All I knew was that it was going to be set in the nineteenth century, and that there was this poem called “La niña de Guatemala,” written by José Martí, the Cuban poet and hero and martyr, who’d spent a fair amount of time in Guatemala City when he was young. It’s about a girl there who died of love for him. It isn’t a particularly great poem, though it’s Martí’s most famous, but it fascinated me. As you well know, Martí was a much better prose writer than poet.

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Bronze statue of José Martí­, 1959. Central Park, New York. Sculptor: Anna Vaughn Hyatt. Gift of the artist to the Cuban government for presentation to the people of New York. Photo by Janis Lewin. Courtesy of the photographer.

EA Had you learned the poem as a kid?

FG Yes, everyone did. Everyone in Guatemala knows that poem. So I said, “Let’s find out about that poem, what really happened? What was that world like?” And for those 28 days while it rained every day I went through Guatemala City newspapers in that incredible place, the archives of the library there. There were no light bulbs. You had to sit by a window to read. Who knows how they catalogued things! I just said, “Bring me newspapers from such and such a year.” In that dampness, breathing in century-old dust, I got mold in my lungs and had asthma for the first time in my life. It finally went away when I moved to Mexico City. That chemical air scoured whatever it was out of my lungs, I think.

I filled notebooks and notebooks with all these details about life in Guatemala City a century before. I didn’t know it then, but it was something like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project: just filling up these notebooks with every kind of strange little detail. The most wonderfully useless stuff. Paris, which Benjamin was taking notes about, was important, but Guatemala City in the nineteenth century? It was information that seemed completely useless for anything but a novel.

Then I carried the research up to the U.S. because I found out a marvelous story about the dictator at the time that Martí was in Guatemala: Justo Rufino Barrios, who fell in love with an 11-year-old girl when he was about 40. Again, a coincidence there, because the father of María García Granados, the niña de Guatemala of Martí’s poem, was the first leader of the Guatemalan Liberal Revolution, a colorful aristocratic bohemian with whom Martí later played chess every day. He was replaced in power by Justo Rufino, the Liberal Revolution’s real muscle-man and Jacobin, incredibly corrupt and murderous. The contemporary Guatemalan state is the fruit of Justo Rufino’s brutality. So he falls in love with this little girl, the family freaks and hides her in a convent, and when he takes power three years later, he flushes her out by closing down all the convents and expelling all the nuns. Her name was Francisca Aparicio—familiarly, Panchita. Though in my novel she’s called Paquita—a signal to the handful of people on earth who know about the historical Panchita that my Paquita is fictional.

Justo Rufino married her, and when he died in battle 10 years later, she fled to New York with their seven children. There are no histories, no written evidence that can tell you anything at all about how she experienced any of this. Though my friend, the historian Greg Grandin, found a wonderful snippet in the Guatemalan archives, and it was the spark that brought her alive for me: she’s about to board the train taking her out of the country and she shakes out her dress and says, “See, not even any of this country’s dust am I taking with me!” and this observer scribbled, “Not the dirt, but all our money, yes!”

In New York, Francisca Aparicio turns up in one of Martí’s crónicas, the extraordinary articles about life in the U.S. that Martí wrote for Latin American newspapers. She was a well-known figure in high society, had a mansion on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, right around the corner from her friend General Grant. The stallion her husband was riding when he was killed in battle, she had brought up to New York, and she used to ride it in Central Park. It was like the world of One Hundred Years of Solitude coming to the world of Edith Wharton!

So I had all this stuff, it was overwhelming, and I still had so much more to learn. And just as I was beginning to follow up on all these connections, everything in my life fell apart, and I moved to Mexico and wrote The Ordinary Seaman in about two years, really quickly for me.

EA So you wrote the whole beginning of The Divine Husband before you wrote The Ordinary Seaman?

FG No, but I’d filled notebooks with the raw data. Not just what I’d collected in Guatemala, but also in the U.S. and even in London, in the diplomatic archives. When The Ordinary Seamanwas done, I took it up again. Now what was in those notebooks didn’t seem so much like research anymore, but like my own distant memories of a certain place: nineteenth-century Guatemala City, which is where the book begins. And then I was at it for seven years. The question comes up, obviously: why did it take me so long to write this book?

One reason is that if I’d known at the beginning what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have even tried to write it. I didn’t know what an inexhaustible subject the life and writing of José Martí was going to be. Years later there I was buried up to my neck in the 29 volumes of his collected works, entering into this hornet’s nest of eternal back and forth about who he really was, and these obsessions, and the way many have made him into this immortal religious figure, and all these taboos and distortions, all these things you’re not supposed to talk about.

It took me years to figure out how to approach his private life. Because I am not of the school that says, “Say anything; it’s fiction.” I have a rule: you try to find out everything you can and try to get as good a sense of what happened as even the most expert people might have. And then you look for the blanks, you identify the gaps where people don’t know, and you know they don’t know—and that’s where you really feel free to set your imagination loose. You don’t want someone coming along and saying, “It absolutely didn’t happen that way,” and proving it, and destroying the credibility of your fictional illusion. You find the areas where people just don’t know. Obviously, one of the things people don’t know everything about is Martí’s private life.

But in order to get a sense of it, you need to really learn him, his inflections, his nuances, the difference between the things he says in his correspondence and the way he addresses things in his private notebook, and what credibility to give to things other people claim they heard him say.

EA When it comes to Martí, people think they know. They know that Martí was a prototype right-wing Republican who admired the United States above all else, or that he was a radical communist revolutionary who loathed the United States and wanted to abolish private property, or that he was gay, or that he was a religious icon second only to Jesus Christ, or—

FG And he was a genius, in constant intense dialogue with himself, who never has just one opinion about the United States. Some of the gay business comes from applying a contemporary ear to very nineteenth-century ways of saying things—Martí’s way of writing about male friendships. But I do think he was sexually tormented. He was like a monk. Instead of religion, his creed was honor and duty and fidelity versus his own desires and inabilities to resist, the soul versus the body. You can see in his writing the attraction he felt for women and his need to return the attraction women obviously felt for him. So he’d fall, and then, in his notebooks, verbally flay and exhort himself—some people tune out everything but the moralistic exhortations.

And he endlessly lamented the damage men do by preying on the hearts of women. It made him sick in his heart to think of himself doing the same. I think that’s one reason for his fantastic remorse over María García Granados. Once you learn to really read him, you can follow the different coded ways in which that obsession with María García Granados keeps resurfacing—and why? Well, wasn’t she the perfect woman for him? Daughter of a revolutionary. Her aunt was Central America’s greatest female poet. Beautiful, educated, with an extraordinary sensibility, she’d grown up in probably the most literary household there. She was perfect, and he knew it. The problem, of course, was that he was engaged to be married to a Cuban woman waiting for him in Mexico, a woman who was never going to understand him at all. And as the years went on and he never found anyone else like María García Granados, he developed this morbid fixation with this girl whose death he felt responsible for. That was in some ways a remorseful fiction, and in some ways maybe not. She died of tuberculosis or pneumonia. But everyone knew that after Martí married Carmen Zayas, María García Granados fell into a deep depression, and depression weakens your immune system, and so on.

EA The morbid fixation may also have something to do with the fact that it’s a commonplace of nineteenth-century literature to fall in love with a beautiful woman who dies.

FG Sure. But María García Granados was never just a literary conceit—not to him. Of that, there’s plenty of evidence. Martí’s hagiographers are always claiming he never did a thing with María García Granados, that he never let down his high moral standards… . Of course, now no one can ever know what really happened. But in Guatemala City, a friend told me that at a dinner his friend, the Guatemalan writer Mario Montefiore Toledo, who was almost 90, had talked about his grandmother’s memories of Martí. I went to his house. That was the first time I’d ever met anybody with that direct a connection to Martí. He told me about his abuela’s memories. When Martí was in Guatemala that year, 1877, the women had never met anyone like him! Guatemalans tend to be a stiff and repressed lot. Spanish Indian—a heavy culture. Martí was this wind from the sensuous Caribbean: the most charming, educated man and the best talker anyone there had ever met. The women fell madly in love with him. And Martí had had a love affair with his grandmother’s best friend, who was married—that was the story Montefiore Toledo told. He was just recounting something he’d known all his life. That opened a window, because it was so completely at odds with everything you read in the Martí biographies. It was an illustration of the complete difference in the way the United States and Latin America tell the stories of their great men’s lives.

EA But doesn’t it have to do with the quasi-religious stature of Martí? He had a vision for the future of Cuba and of Latin America that ended with his death; he represents a perfect reality that never was. And so he has to be perfect.

FG Yes. But beneath the official version, there were different versions—and nobody considered those stories, in some cases their own memories, relevant to the story of who Martí was supposed to be.

EA Having done a lot of time in the Martí archive myself, I have to say that the most amazing thing about your novel is that Martí doesn’t run away with it. You went into that archive and spent years there: you lived, breathed, ate, drank Martí. But you wrote a novel about a fictional character named María de las Nieves. You made Martí an important facet of her biography and life and emotional universe, but he doesn’t run away with the novel. After all the research you’d done, that must have been hard!

FG It was a problem. But eventually the book took on its own momentum, through the character of María de las Nieves. It’s really her story, and I had to follow that, which made it easier to keep Martí in perspective. Although I remember when I was writing the last fifth of the book, I thought, “Oh, I’ve got to get all this Martí stuff, everything I haven’t used, in there.” But then I went back and took it all out.

EA You couldn’t have found a better perspective on Martí. That’s who he is in relation to Cuba: the lost love who could have given you everything. I love the moment when Martí and María de las Nieves kiss, and the narrative talks about how he will become a statue, and because she loves him so much, part of María de las Nieves will also become a statue. That is very true of the emotional reality of this character, but it’s also the history of Cuba!

FG One of the ways the Martí myth happened was through the silence of people who had known and even loved him. Everything about Martí is somehow inaccessible or else impossible, including the political ideas he had for Cuba, which now seem so unrealizable.

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Francisco Goldman. Photo by Marion Ettlinger. Courtesy of the photographer.

EA But to get back to your story of the inception of this novel: we’ve got balloons, we’ve got Martí, we’ve got his poem about María García Granados, we’ve got Justo Rufino, the lovelorn dictator. But where did María de las Nieves come from?

FG I knew I didn’t want to do a strictly historical novel. I’m completely in the Henry James camp that the historical novel is humbug, that it’s ridiculous to pretend that you’re actually giving a realistic depiction of how things were. To me, the past is pure fiction. You weren’t there. You don’t really know any of it, you have to imagine everything. I knew I didn’t want to do a faux realistic portrait of an era. The way I built this nineteenth-century reality was synthetic: certain objects and images, for example, from my old notebooks, which had begun to seem like a part of my own memory, and had taken on a kind of poetry, and secret lives of their own. And María de las Nieves is so wound up in that. She came out of the same raw matter that the book took shape from.

EA The chronology of this novel is constantly spiraling. In almost every passage, María de las Nieves is shown both at a far more advanced stage reflecting back on who she was and at the moment of the narrative. All the phases of her life seem to be compressed into the ongoing present moment. How did you arrive at that structure?

FG The way you finally arrive at that is, I think, the heart and soul of novel writing. Flaubert said something like “The right structure only comes along when the illusion of the subject becomes an obsession.” It grows organically out of your utter submersion and belief in what you’re writing about. You follow the story that’s emerging, and eventually, in a very slow-motion kaleidoscope, the form begins to take shape.

While I was writing The Divine Husband, this eventually dawned on me: formally, it’s really just a story about who the father of María de las Nieves’s child, Mathilde, is. That’s what the narrator is trying to do, find out and tell the truth, because so many people have asked, Who is the father of the child? Is it José Martí? Is it the mysterious muchacho? Is it Mr. Gastreel? Is it Wellesley Bludyar? Is it Mack Chinchilla? Who is the father? María de las Nieves ends up being quite proud of the fact that this question follows her everywhere for the rest of her life.

EA A couple of months ago you mentioned that one of the books you read as a way into writing this novel was Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. What other books helped you with this one?

FG I read Kim some years ago, when I was trying to learn how to hear and handle nineteenth-century voices. Conrad is another. His strenuous but musical language helped me have a sense of how to invent my own nineteenth-century English. And it was helpful to read things that were set in the tropics.

I was fascinated too by the inaccessibility of the past. In a lot of historical novels, you lose that sense of the past’s utter strangeness. Nobody has ever conveyed that strangeness better than Sebald. I was well into the book by the first time I read Sebald. My project is very different, but I felt confirmed in my own sense of the past when I read him.

EA In your novel there’s a moment when María de las Nieves is looking at old newspapers, taking in all the endless details and trying to imagine a whole reality. You put her in exactly the situation you were in.

FG In an old Guatemalan newspaper I read that they had just remodeled a park in Guatemala City, in imitation of a Parisian park. They put in four kiosks, and one was to be a reading room that would have newspapers and books. They were so proud of that kiosk, but the reality turned out to be that only once in a blue moon would a foreign newspaper make its way there. But María de las Nieves would go every day to see what might have turned up, because she was very romantic about newspapers, which were an extraordinary phenomenon at that time, shrinking the world the way the Internet does now. With the transoceanic cables, suddenly you could get news from Europe in mere hours, and not weeks, even in a little backwater like Guatemala City.

One day when I was in Guatemala looking at an old newspaper, I found a little notice that said “At the Academia de Niñas de Centroamérica, the recently arrived Cuban professor and poet José Martí will be conducting free evening classes in literary composition, that art which so elevates a woman’s merit.” And that was maybe the most thrilling moment of my research: coming across that little ad. A lot of the story coalesced around it. María de las Nieves enrolls in that course.

EA Your work has created, and occupies, an extraordinarily resonant space of interaction between English and Spanish. Most writers in English have used Spanish in a rather arch way, throwing in a phrase here or there for local color, whereas your sentences shimmer back and forth between Spanish and English on a much deeper level. Do you refuse to use italics as a way of sending the message that this is, in some way, all one language?

FG I don’t use italics in spoken dialogue. I’m trying to re-create how people speak, and so I like to use italics for emphasis, not just to say watch out, here’s a foreign word! If I were to italicize words in Spanish and italicize the occasional word I want to emphasize, I’d risk creating confusion.

EA Even if you didn’t deliberately intend to minimize the foreignness of the Spanish words, the technique has the effect of creating a continuum between the languages.

FG It’s one of the peculiarities of my literary space, and it’s not at all an ideal situation. Obviously I’d much prefer to write in the language that my characters are speaking! Often I have to create an English that sounds like Spanish. In The Ordinary Seaman I used a spoken language that was a combination of Spanish and English. Here I do less of that. It’s the nineteenth century, and these aren’t people who are going to be using Spanglish. The reader knows the book is being written in English, by a researcher who lives in Massachusetts and has been hired to write the book by Mathilde. Once I’d decided on that, it was no longer artificial for the book to be written in English.

But you wonder how long you can keep making those kinds of negotiations with yourself as a writer.

EA It’s quite extraordinary, given the way Latin American novelists have ransacked their history for subject matter, that no Latin American has ever written a Martí novel. You mentioned that when you saw Álvaro Mutis and Gabriel García Márquez this summer they were very worried that you had done this. Why is that?

FG García Márquez’s son Gonzalo told me later that they thought there was no way I could get away with it. But they probably thought I was going to have Martí as the protagonist, like Bolívar in García Márquez’s The General in his Labyrinth. That probably would’ve been disastrous.

It was intimidating, taking on the great Cuban icon. One reason I allowed myself to do it was the Guatemala-New York connection. Martí spent a year and a half in Guatemala, and then spent the next 16 years of his life in New York. So some of his places are my places. I felt I had a right to take Martí on in that way. I approached him through the prism of Guatemala and New York. In his life he became, as you know so well, one of the great New Yorkers.

EA: The great unknown New Yorker.

FG Once Walt Whitman moved to Jersey, Martí was clearly the most historically significant figure and greatest writer living in New York from 1880 to 1895. And his continued obscurity says a lot about our own culture in this country and how impossible it was for anyone writing in Spanish in the nineteenth century to be recognized as a great New Yorker. Nobody, absolutely nobody, wrote more brilliantly and evocatively about New York at that time. Now is a good time to bring him into the English-speaking American world—as you’ve done so magnificently, Esther, with your anthology.

It’s clear that most people’s ideas of Americans, and who they are, are only based on Europe, and that the whole Spanish American heritage of the United States really doesn’t mean anything to them. I wanted to create a novel that would be about the common territory of the two Americas, in a way that hasn’t really been done much before. I had to go back in time in order to take that vision into the twenty-first century.

EA That’s one of the primary distinctions of your work. You refuse to see yourself and other Latinos defined as a minority culture within the United States. Your work has never been about that. It’s about the entire American hemisphere.

FG Well, that’s always been my reality. My mother’s family is as Guatemalan as can be—you know, stretching all the way back to the pyramids in the jungle. She never let us forget that, and from childhood on, I’ve spent my life between here and Latin America.

EA Can we talk about the gorgeousness, the extreme beauty of the prose in this novel? How did you manage to let yourself yield so completely to this kind of beauty?

FG My first novels, in different ways, drew on hard contemporary realities. This novel was the first time I had a chance to inhabit for so many years a world that really felt as if it existed only in my imagination.

It was a time in my life when maybe I should’ve been going faster; some people suggested that I was taking too long, that readers were going to forget who I was and so on. And yet I worked seven years on this thing, you know, and never felt any panic or any stress; I felt strangely peaceful about it the whole time. I loved living in that parallel reality. I thought, if this is oblivion, well, it’s really not so bad. (I did start writing Central American journalism again too.) Then, as I got to the last hundred pages of the book, it dawned on me that I had never thought about how it was supposed to end. I did panic a little then: how can you work so many years on a book and not even think about how it’s supposed to end? What if it all falls apart now!

EA People will tell you that they don’t want a book they’re reading to end, but you had that same feeling about writing this book?

FG I just had to calm down and let the book show me how it wanted to end. You see, it was the first time I had the experience of seeing not just how a book changes over the years, but how the characters change too. I was living their lives, imagining their lives, and the book covers the years when María de las Nieves grows from a girl into a woman. The changes and surprises just blew me away. You always hear writers saying things like that, but I really found myself thinking, “Look! My little girl, she’s growing up!”

La niña de Guatemala

Quiero, a la sombra de un ala,
Contrar este cuento en flor:
La niña de Guatemala,
La que se murió de amor.

Eran de lirios los ramos;
Y las orlas de reseda
Y de jazmín; la enterramos
En una caja de seda.

… Ella dio al desmemoriado
Una almohadilla de olor:
El volvió, volvió casado:
Ella se murió de amor.

Iban cargándola en andas
Obispos y embajadores:
Detrás iba el pueblo en tandas,
Todo cargado de flores.

… Ella, por volverlo a ver,
Salió a verlo al mirador:
El volvió con su mujer:
Ella se murió de amor.

Como de bronce candente,
Al beso de despedida,
¡Era su frente—la frente
Que más he amado en mi vida!

… Se entró de tarde en el río,
La sacó muerta el doctor:
Dicen que murió de frío:
Yo sé que murió de amor.

Allí, en la bóveda helada,
La pusieron en dos bancos:
Besé su mano afilada,
Besé sus zapatos blancos.

Callado, al oscurecer,
Me llamó el enterrador:
Nunca más he vuelto a ver
A la que murió de amor.

—José Martí

La niña de Guatemala

I tell the following tale
With a sheltering wing above
“La niña de Guatemala”*
The one who died of love.

Clusters of iris adorned her
And fringes of mignonette
Her body adorned with jasmine
In a silk-lined bier was set.

She gave him a fragrant pillow
Her own devotion to prove
He returned a married man
And “la niña” died of love.

Honored by town and church
Her body was borne on high
Simple folk followed rank
Bearing flowers to say good-bye.

She had looked to see him again
From her window high above,
He came back a married man
And “la niña” died of love.

Her brow was a dazzling bronze
At the kiss of my farewell call,
Her forehead—the forehead, I think,
I have loved the most of all!

She threw herself in the river
In a tragic, deathward shove:
They say that she died of cold
But I know that she died of love.

There in the frozen vault
She was placed for the final views.
I kissed her thin-drawn hand
And I kissed her ivory shoes.

At nightfall, the vault was closed;
They insisted that I depart.
And I’ve never returned to the one
Who died of a broken heart.


Niña in Spanish means more than simply young girl. It also implies familiarity and affection and I have retained its use to convey this feeling.


Translated from the Spanish by Anne Fountain.

—Esther Allen is the translator and editor of numerous books from Spanish and French, including Dark Back of Time by Javier Marías (New Directions, 2001) and The Selected Writings of José Martí (Penguin Classics, 2002), which was listed as one of the most notable books of the year by the Los Angeles Times Book Review and is now in its third printing. The chair of the PEN Translation Committee, Allen is also the translator of Alma Guillermoprieto’s memoir, Dancing with Cuba, which was published in February by Pantheon.

Álvaro Enrigue by Scott Esposito
Enrigue Bomb 01

“A writer worried about reception is cooking a dead book. A writer’s job is to produce the best possible book in absolute freedom, so the category ‘acceptable’ does not play in the process at all.”

César Aira by María Moreno
Aira 01

César Aira’s body of work is a perfect machine for invention—he writes without necessity or any apparent forebears, always as if for the first time. 

Cristina Peri Rossi by Carmen Boullosa
Perirossi 3 Body

Crazy people tend to have lots of talent. It must be a sort of compensation.

Originally published in

BOMB 88, Summer 2004

Featuring interviews with Olafur Eliasson, Ellen Phelan, Percival Everett, Francisco Goldman and Esther Allen, Ben Katchor and Alexaner Theroux, Jorgen Leth and Ann Mette Lundtofte, Michael Bell, and Mauricio Kagel. 

Read the issue
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