I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I first met Jaime Manrique roughly 30 years ago, and we’ve been friends ever since. I’m not sure I remember the precise circumstances. I think we both attended a poetry workshop run by Enrique Lihn, the late Chilean poet, at the Americas Society, though Jaime remembers our meeting as we danced to salsa at somebody’s party. Regardless, I was attracted by Jaime’s good-natured charm, sharp intelligence, and poetic talent, and after all these years, I still find those qualities extremely appealing.
He was always very kind to my son, Matt, who was a little boy when Jaime and I became friends and has always adored him. As a matter of fact, Matt met Terry Marks, the woman he eventually married, at a party given for Jaime by his late partner, Bill Sullivan. I’ve always cherished that connection between my son and a dear friend.
Our friendship has not been exclusively sentimental. I’ve also had the professional pleasure of translating a good number of his poems. An aspect of his poetic writing that I admire very much is his use of ordinary, colloquial language to create images of great beauty. An example is his short memory poem called “Mambo,” in which he remembers his aunts dancing the mambo “wearing their spike-heeled shoes, / lowcut dresses and wide swirling skirts; / their long obsidian hairdos / in the style of the time.” I’d venture to say that this quality may well be the effect of a profound and on-going North American influence on his poetry. One thinks immediately of William Carlos Williams, for example, or even Jaime’s beloved Emily Dickinson. Of course there are colloquial, imagistic poets in Spanish—Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda immediately come to mind—but it occurs to me that this may be an area that reveals the significant effect of the English language on Jaime’s work, even though he normally composes his poems in Spanish.
His novels, however, are written in English, and tend to have a larger historical focus, while his poetry narrows the point of view to a deeply personal one. Jaime’s fiction is meticulously researched and wonderfully revelatory of persons and events. His latest, Cervantes Street , explores the world of the man who despised Miguel de Cervantes and wrote a “continuation” of part one of Don Quixote before Cervantes could publish part two. A lucky misfortune, since the existence of what is known as “the false Quixote ” allows Cervantes to explore the relationship between fiction and reality in the authentic part two in a way that is positively mind-boggling.
I enjoyed the interview with my old friend, especially the chance to talk to him at length about literature in general and his writing in particular.
— Edith Grossman
Edith Grossman When did you decide that you were going to be a writer? Was this decision sparked by a book or series of books?
Jaime Manrique I came to writing through my love of books. I was asthmatic as a child. Colombian television was in its infancy then, and therefore primitive, so I read—voraciously—everything I could get my hands on. Everything except the textbooks for school, that is. By the time I was 14 years old, I had read the two volumes of Vanity Fair in a couple of days and Wuthering Heights 18 times. I slept with a copy of Crime and Punishment under my pillow. Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy, George Eliot, and Dickens were my favorites. I used to cross the streets of Barranquilla while reading; my mother’s alarmed friends would call to tell her I was going to end up being killed by a bus. The rest of the time I spent at the movies. As a child, and as an adolescent, I lived in a world of fantasy that, by comparison, made life very boring and the people I knew unexciting. Family members would say, “If you don’t stop reading all the time, you’re going to end up going mad like Don Quixote.” When we read excerpts from Don Quixote in the ninth grade, unlike everyone else in class (the teacher included), I thought Don Quixote was saner than anyone I knew. Besides, I could not understand what was so great about living in reality.
I began to scribble poems in my early teens. In school several teachers would call me Jorge, instead of Jaime. I didn’t get it at first. Then one day in Spanish class we read Jorge Manrique’s medieval epic poem, “Couplets on the Death of His Father,” and I understood the joke. Anyway, all those teachers did me a great favor. Jorge Manrique’s magnificent poem became a pivotal point in my development as a person and as a writer. His somber and melancholic view that no matter what we do and who we are, death is the greatest equalizer made me even more morbid than I already was. Manrique believed that vanity makes us deluded, that all glory is passing, that eventually the rich and the poor, the mighty and the humble, all end up in the sea of death. This view of life affected me deeply. As with so much Spanish literature and philosophy, the poem celebrates death and the fleeting transience of all things on earth. After reading Jorge Manrique I understood that poetry can express philosophical ideas. At some point, I heard (from my mother? or was it my father?) that in Colombian history there were several Manriques who were writers. There’s no question that my last name made me feel entitled.
EG You started to write at a time when the authors of the Latin American Boom entered the mainstream of Western literature with a bang. What influence did these authors have on you? What was it like to want to become a writer when the greatest Latin American novelist, Gabriel García Márquez, was also from Colombia?
JM By the time I was 14, I had already written a play that was performed in Barranquilla, and I had also published short stories, poems, and even movie reviews in the school periodical and in local newspapers. All I wanted to do was to write. I had lost all interest in school.
The 1960s were a period of political, intellectual, and creative ferment in Colombia. A group of writers called the Nadaístas emerged; as their name implies (nada means “nothing”), the Nadaístas were nihilists, a cross between the French existentialists and the Beats in the United States. They were novelists, poets, and playwrights who wore long hair and beards, were anticlerical, sought to outrage the conformist Colombian society, and smoked pot in public. The Nadaístas anticipated Roberto Bolaño’s Infrarrealistas by almost a decade. Whereas the Infrarrealistas’ main target was Octavio Paz, the Nadaístas wanted to annihilate the entire Colombian cultural establishment—and deservedly so. Many Colombian writers had not yet entered the 20th century and were still writing flowery poems to butterflies and statues of the heroes of Colombian independence. A lot of what the Nadaístas wrote has not aged well, but at the time I fell in love with them and began to write texts that were an imitation of Fanny Buitrago, a Nadaísta fiction writer and playwright from Barranquilla. Many years later, Allen Ginsberg told me he was a fan of Jaime Jaramillo Escobar, a superb Nadaísta poet. My Nadaísta period was short-lived, but their movement had led me to Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Under their influence, I wrote my first novel, El vacío (The void), when I was 15. When I read in The Myth of Sisyphus that suicide was the only legitimate philosophical question (or at least that’s what I thought Camus was saying), I attempted suicide twice. In retrospect I can see that in my first long work of fiction, I tried to exorcise the acute despair I had felt in Barranquilla growing up as an intellectual, and painfully misunderstood, boy who was gay.
After the existentialists, I read Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, which included the awesome short story “The Bear.” I also read some Hemingway (he was such a handsome bear, I had a crush on him), Nabokov’s Lolita, Françoise Sagan’s novels, and The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell—which blew the top of my head off.
In the tenth grade, a stimulating literature teacher required us to read Gabriel García Márquez’s In Evil Hour. Here was something completely new in Colombian literature; from that moment on, I looked forward to reading Gabo’s other novels. However, the first book by a Latin American writer whose work showed me that there was another kind of writing that was not realistic, that was about literature itself and not about life, and that in a few sentences could open up a whole world, was El hacedor (The Maker) by Jorge Luis Borges. My uncle Chelo gave it to me for my 15th birthday (I had asked for it). Overnight, it was as if my brain had been scrambled and was thereafter trying desperately, and unsuccessfully, to rearrange itself. Most of what I had read before was in the realist tradition, but Borges wrote texts that were about maps, tigers, mathematical problems, tango, the pampas, hourglasses, and medieval European and Asian philosophers—many of whom were invented by him. I had no idea it was possible to write about such things. Reading that little volume, which included poems and thrilling and brilliant very short short stories that were like little essays (I guess he was inventing flash fiction, among other things), was like being swept ashore in an unknown country, without a map or a compass and with just a name as a reference point: Borges. The man became my hero.
In 1966, when I was 17 years old, my mother, my sister, and I immigrated to Florida. My mother had separated from her lover. She was uneducated and her most prominent asset had always been her beauty, but she was, by then, almost 40 years old. She was aging and had no visible way of supporting my sister and me, so she decided to come to the United States and find work. It was in the Tampa public library (which had a section in Spanish—the city had a very large Spanish-speaking community) that I read the Boom writers for the first time: Carpentier, Cortázar, Sábato, Donoso, Cabrera Infante, Vargas Llosa, and Puig, who became my favorite among them.
Then, in the summer of 1970, I read the book that everyone was raving about in Latin America—One Hundred Years of Solitude. I began reading it around 6 PM, when Tampa’s scorching summer sun was still blazing, and finished it in the coolness of dawn. I walked in a daze for weeks. The next time I felt that high was when I took my first LSD trip. For the next couple of years nobody could shut me up on the subject of García Márquez. I must add that I felt the book told the story of my family. My father, who was a banana baron, lived with my mother for ten years on one of his banana plantations not far from Aracataca—where Gabo was born. As a child, I had bathed in the gin-clear icy rivers that ran from the Sierra Nevada, and I sunned myself on the riverbanks’ white rocks that looked like prehistoric eggs. Furthermore, the Ardilas, my mother’s side of the family, were like the Buendías. Every year, during three-month-long school breaks, I would visit my grandparents’ home in El Banco, a town on the shore of the Magdalena River in between the Atlantic coast and the interior of the country. So I grew up in that world, too. My grandfather, José Ardila, a Mason, must have fathered some 25 children with several women; the first name of all of the males was José, and the first name of all of his daughters was María. He was a prototype of the Latin American patriarch—a kind of Pedro Páramo. Some nights, he would entertain the family with stories about his supernatural powers. People said he had a deal with the devil. As you can see, that world was pure Macondo, undiluted magic realism. To this day, Gabo remains my favorite living author. Very early on, though, I made the conscious decision not to imitate him, and not to be a magic realist. I remember thinking: I will probably not be as great a writer as he is, but nobody will ever accuse me of being an imitator of García Márquez. Not to borrow the style he had made his own would be my way of showing my respect and deepest admiration.
EG You have been interested in history from the beginning of your writing career. There’s the long poem about Christopher Columbus (which I translated) that you wrote over 30 years ago, when you were in your twenties. Then, more recently, in the novel Our Lives Are the Rivers, the main character is Manuela Sáenz, the heroine of South American independence from Spain. Now with your new novel, Cervantes Street, you have chosen another historical figure. Where does this interest in history come from? Is there a connection among the historical figures that you choose to write about?
JM The three people you mention were centuries ahead of their times—visionaries. Columbus and Cervantes need no introduction. Manuela Sáenz was the great love of Simón Bolívar, the liberator of South America from Spain. She was a precursor of feminism. Manuela left her husband, and her position as one of the wealthiest women of Lima, to follow Bolívar and the revolutionaries; she fought in battles and saved Bolívar’s life on more than one occasion; she was anticlerical and thought marriage was an institution created to enslave women. She shared Bolívar’s idea of a nation made up of what is today five countries: Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. She is the most heroic female in Latin American history. Columbus, Cervantes, and Sáenz are quixotic people who fought against incredible odds. Even though they were finally broken by life, adverse circumstances, and the shortsightedness of the times in which they lived, what they did changed all of us forever. They were vilified when they were alive, but now we cannot stop honoring them.
Maybe my interest in history stems from the notion that if we don’t understand our past we are fated to relive our mistakes. I suppose the fascination with looking back to history is that, from our vantage point, we understand the forces that buffeted the people who lived back then, and we can see plainly how these people did not fully grasp the circumstances shaping their destinies.
I love reading history. My late friend and companion, Bill Sullivan, shared that interest with me. For over three decades I was lucky to be close to somebody whose enthusiasm for history was even greater than mine.
EG Why is history so important to Latin American writers?
JM Could it be because our history is so disastrous? At the time of the arrival of Columbus, the Aztecs and the Incas were thriving, important, and organized civilizations. With the arrival of the conquistadores their cultures were almost entirely crushed. It is a testament to their complexity, and extraordinary achievements, that they could not be entirely erased and that enough of their riches survived. I’m not going to put all the blame on the Spaniards. I don’t think we would have fared much better under any of the imperialist nations of that time. The tragedy of imperialism is that its dehumanizing machinery disrupts the cultures of the colonized. That’s why after imperial powers conquer a nation it sometimes takes centuries for the conquered to create cohesive civilizations again and to regain their identity.
What was—and still is—so immeasurably magnificent about the Boom is that for the first time since the conquest, Latin American nations again had a culture that was not entirely borrowed or imposed. It probably all began in Mexico in the 1930s, when the country had great visual artists like the muralists and painters Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros who influenced artists all over the world and bold intellectuals of the first rank such as the philosopher Vasconcelos and essayists like Alfonso Reyes. In our time, despite many setbacks and grave problems, there’s no question that Latin America has found its voice—the exhilarating voice of the mestizaje. In fact, I believe history is being rewritten in Latin America as we speak. The emergence of Indian cultures in that region, as they gain political influence in Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia and fight for the survival of their cultures and traditions and against the destruction of their natural habitats, will be one of the important political movements of the 21st century. Of all Latin American peoples, the Indians remain the most oppressed and voiceless.
EG Let’s talk now about your most recent novel. Every writer in Spanish—probably every novelist in the Western tradition—owes a debt to Cervantes. Weren’t you intimidated to tackle this legendary figure in Cervantes Street when countless writers, scholars, and readers have a proprietary feeling toward him? After all, both Faulkner and Fuentes claimed they read Don Quixote once a year.
JM Fortunately, Cervantes is such an immense sun that lots of eminent people can claim him, and there is still plenty of room left for a deracinated writer like me to approach him as a subject. Cervantes was very antihierarchical. That becomes immediately apparent to anyone who has read or, in your case, translated (masterfully) Don Quixote. Cervantes has become an institution. When artists become statues in a park, figures of worship in the academy, or have millionaire literary prizes named after them, their lives are sanitized and perfumed. How conveniently we forget that Cervantes lived five and a half years as a slave in Algiers, wearing shackles on his feet; that he was imprisoned in Spain twice; that he loved the bawdy, picaresque, so-called common people of the Iberian peninsula; and that the humble citizenry of Spain, the oppressed, were always portrayed in his works with the warmest empathy. For most of his life, he lived in the world of actors (before actors became respectable in the eyes of society), gamblers, and Gypsies, and he was considered a shady character. And let’s not forget, either, though this is still a controversial subject, his Jewish ancestry, the so-called impurity of his blood—the stain (la mancha)—which made many things harder for him. He was certainly an outsider. Not an ambassador writer, or a pompous stuffed shirt. As I embarked on my project, an imagining of the life of Cervantes (about whom little is known), I understood there was the risk of upsetting Cervantean fundamentalists. I wanted, for example, to explore Cervantes’s Jewish ancestry, which to this day is a taboo subject in Spain. So far no one has threatened to stone me to death (knock on wood!). But I knew that, to quote John Ashbery, “the purists” might “object.” This awareness emboldened me. I like to think of my books as literary Molotov cocktails. There’s too much pomposity and shallowness being masked as depth in the literary world. What Columbus, Manuela Sáenz, and Cervantes have in common is that they were people who questioned the established order and were willing to give up everything, if necessary, for their convictions. The Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas said that it is our duty to live “in the impossible.”
EG Why did you decide to write a novel about the relationship between Cervantes and Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, the author of The Second Volume of the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha?
JM I have read the entire Don Quixote several times, beginning when I was 21 years old and still in college. I’ve sat in classes about the novel taught by colleagues of mine. But it was when I taught it for the first time in a graduate seminar in the writing program at Columbia that I paid serious attention to how Avellaneda’s sequel to Cervantes’s Don Quixote part one had affected Cervantes’s writing of his own part two. There are many theories, but to this day nobody knows for sure who hid behind the pseudonym of “El Licenciado” Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda. As you know, it was common at that time in Europe for a novel to have one or many sequels written by authors who were not the birth parents of the original. It was only when I began to read Avellaneda’s faux Quixote that I realized that he had written a sequel to Cervantes’s part one because he despised Cervantes. In the prologue of his work, Avellaneda depicts Cervantes as a quarrelsome, unpleasant old man without friends, an ex-convict, and the author of a novel that should have been censored because of its dubious morality. What struck me the most was Avellaneda’s assertion that he had written a sequel to Cervantes’s work because he wanted to prevent Cervantes from receiving royalties in case he ever wrote his forever-announced part two. To write a book to deprive another man of his livelihood (especially when that man is poor—and Cervantes was poor) seems to me an act of unforgivable, inhuman cruelty. Who was this hater, I asked myself? Many writers are afflicted with extreme poisonous envy (didn’t Gore Vidal say that every time a writer succeeds he feels he dies a little?), but to go the extent of writing a whole novel to destroy a fellow author is a monstrous act. As I read Avellaneda’s novel, I was surprised to find out that it is not all terrible: his prose has momentum, it avoids the worst excesses of the baroque, and he wields a malicious, bitchily entertaining, wit. What is clear right away is that Avellaneda is not a genius, like Cervantes. Could it be that Avellaneda hated Cervantes so much for having the genius that he, a cultivated and well-educated man, lacked? I decided to invent a relationship between the two of them, and the fact that nothing was known about Avellaneda gave me a heady freedom to create a character that is a cross between Iago and Othello. I ended up modeling Avellaneda on the envious, snobbish, and ungenerous writers I know. Yet, to my utter amazement, the character refused to become a caricature or just a bad guy.
EG You write fiction in English and your poetry in Spanish. That’s unusual. Can you talk about this?
JM The simplest way I can put it is that English (fiction) is my public language and Spanish (poetry) is my private language. I began to write fiction in English in 1980 when I thought I would never go back to Colombia for political reasons. Colombian spoken Spanish changes very quickly (especially on the Atlantic coast—where I come from), and I was no longer sure I knew what a typical conversation on the street might sound like. On the other hand, the intimacy I strive for in my poetry, I’m not sure I could achieve it in English—a learned language. The language of my heart is Spanish; I heard it before I learned it. Perhaps it’s no surprise that readers in Colombia prefer my poems to my fiction.
EG You’ve lived longer in this country than in Colombia. So I imagine American writers have influenced you. Can you talk about your favorite North American authors?
JM There are so many. Among poets Emily Dickinson is número uno. She’s a genius without parallel. I love Walt Whitman, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Ashbery. My favorite American essayists are Pauline Kael, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag (who is the only American intellectual I revere), and E. B. White, and I always look forward to new essays by Arthur Krystal. Then among fiction writers, I love Henry James, Herman Melville, Melville a thousand times. (He is the most original and profound novelist I know. He feels closer to Dante and Blake than to other fiction writers. He’s also the most ferociously political critic of the destructive madness of North American imperialism.) Also Willa Cather (for her balanced view of the dichotomy of human beings and the mystery of life), Scott Fitzgerald (the creator of powerful poetic myths, and who wrote the only perfect novel ever published—The Great Gatsby), Eudora Welty (for her deceptive subtlety), the short fiction by Katherine Anne Porter (especially her trilogy of masterful novellas), the stories of Flannery O’Connor (for their savagery, the blackest sense of humor, and how close she comes to visions). Among our contemporaries, I admire Jumpha Lahiri’s work, especially Unaccustomed Earth, which makes her the heiress to Henry James. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is as beautifully crafted and complex as A Passage to India, but Adichie is writing about native characters from the inside out. And I am also crazy about Lorrie Moore’s lyrical, jaundiced, and comic-tragic view of life. She is like a cross between Samuel Beckett and Joan Rivers. I’m in awe of the hilarious, refreshing—and fresh!—way in which Junot Díaz is renovating the English language.
EG How difficult has it been for you to be a writer in an English-speaking country?
JM Writing in English has been a huge but exciting challenge. I don’t have English in my ear. I find its syntax perplexing. I continue to learn it all the time. I’ll never be done learning it. I only intuit what is possible to say in English when I read masterful stylists of the language. But I wouldn’t have begun writing in English if I hadn’t fallen madly in love with its suppleness. It is the language of one of the two writers I worship above all others—Shakespeare. The other one, of course, is Cervantes. Furthermore, English is the language of the art form that touches me most deeply: the blues! I feel at home in the blues. Their melancholy, broken-winged quality suits me just fine. There is nothing more heartbreaking and beautiful and deeply felt than Billie Holliday’s singing. To create so much beauty out of so much despair and sorrow and injustice seems a miracle to me.
Originally published in
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee