Argentina's Curious Battle Over the Legacy of Gombrowicz
Witold Gombrowicz was one of Poland’s most prolific writers, and perhaps one of the most exceptional writers in the history of literature. His texts – full of wordplay and astonishing constructs – grapple with Polish tradition, history and identity. One month before the outbreak of World War II, Gombrowicz boarded a ship to Argentina, and the South American country has never fully recovered since…
A Gombrowicz conspiracy
In 2014, a small group of Argentineans, tired of Witold Gombrowicz being usurped by writers, intellectuals and a very selective handful of readers, decided to take his work out in the streets. Argentinian writers were not particularly pleased with their idea of things. Writer Juan Guinot is recorded as saying:
I don’t know anything about this. A writer’s conspiracy? We don’t even talk to each other! I know nothing. You are wrong!
On the other hand, other Argentinian authors, such as Hernan Casciari, seemed convinced that making Gombrowicz more popular would lead to his work being devalued in some way. Casciari is recorded as saying:
We have to stop these people! Gombrowicz is ours!
Argentina & Gombrowicz: a love story
This all started when a small group got together to organise the first international congress about Witold Gombrowicz in Argentina – exactly 75 years after the author of Ferdydurke arrived on the transatlantic ship Chrobry. The congress included speeches, exhibitions, panels and even a tour of Buenos Aires in Gombrowicz’s footsteps.
At first, they expected it to be a small, albeit substantive, event: just a group of experts getting together to talk about Gombrowicz and his role in Argentinian and world literature. Or so they thought. It turned out to be 60 panelists from up to 16 different countries including Germany, Japan, Mexico, as well as over a thousand participants over 4 days of activities.
To Nicolás Hochman, one of the organisers of the congress and part of Grupo Heterónimos cultural centre, the author of Cosmos’s surname is considered to be something akin to a password. He has said:
If two people discover they both have read Gombrowicz, those two people will discover they have much more in common than they thought.
In a recent (and disputable) statement, writer Ricardo Piglia called Gombrowicz ‘the best Argentinean author of the 20th century’. What is absolutely indisputable is that Gombrowicz has long been an inspiration for numerous writers: the main character of the highly-praised Respiracion Artificial (Artificial Breath) Tardowski is considered to be a literary incarnation of Gombrowicz himself or Néstor Tirri’s La Piedra Madre (The Mother Stone) in which Gombrowicz is simply a name of one of its characters.
Not to mention his influence on other writers such as Ernesto Sabato, Manuel Gálves or even Julio Cortazar, who quoted Ferdydurke in his canonic book Rayuela. Sabato and Gálves later shared their stories with Gombrowicz’s wife, Rita, who compiled them in her book Gombrowicz in Argentina.
In the introduction of a recent publication called El Fantasma de Gombrowicz Recorre la Argentina (Gombrowicz’s Ghost Travels through Argentina), Hochman writes that very few people from the so-called Southern Cone have heard of him:
Very few have read him and surely only a handful have actually enjoyed his writing.
In the same spirit, he argues there are those who claim they have read him, those who have actually read him, and those that truly like his writing, which can often be quite… uncomfortable.
Hochman knows what he's talking about – he wrote his PhD thesis on Gombrowicz’s time in exile. Just as Gombrowicz, who very often criticised the elitist approach of art, he thought it was time for Gombrowicz to stop belonging to only the ‘elite’.
Bringing Gombrowicz to the people
Along with other Gombrowicz aficionados, Hochman organised the first ever Gombrowicz congress in 2014. A year later, they invited well-known writers, including Martín Kohan, Guillermo Martínez, Andrés Neuman, Jorge Consiglio, to read one-minute fragments of his work in a ‘Gombrowicz marathon’.
The marathon was illustrated with pictures which were previously shown during the congress. Forty artists were asked to design or illustrate their own interpretations of Gombrowicz’s work. The pictures were collected in an album entitled Esto No Es Una Nariz: Witold Gombrowicz Según Cuarenta Ilustradores (This is Not a Nose: Witold Gombrowicz According to Forty Illustrators) and included works by artists such as Pablo Bernasconi, José Villamayor and Horacio Petre.
The marathon also consisted of street performances based on fragments from his books as well as panels about Gombrowicz in the city of Córdoba. After that, the streets of Córdoba were miraculously decorated with Gombrowiczesque street art.
In 2015, two instigators of the Gombrowicz revival barged into the classrooms of the University of Buenos Aires, to perform certain provocative pieces by Gombrowicz regarding education.
It is sad that each year universities produce thousands of morons …students that only know what’s put in their heads… insensitive to the arts, ignorant about life… It is not we who speak words, it is the words which speak us… The more intelligent one becomes, the more stupid one is. Stupid! Why do you allow history to impose the poets to you? It is you who have to create them, them and history!
Some professors let them continue and even applauded when they finished, while others interrupted them and asked them to leave.
Against the writers
In 2016, Grupo Heterónimos went even further. They organised what they advertised as a TV show called #ContraLosEscritores (Against the Writers). Famous football players, journalists and TV personalities were invited to read or act out parts of Gombrowicz’s literature live in front of a studio audience. People clamoured to take part in the show at Teatro Globo. Not only were they going to get a chance to see their favourite stars up close, but they were going to be able to do it for free. Most of them had no idea who Gombrowicz was, let alone had read any of his work.
The name of the event, Against the Writers, was purely a marketing strategy. Grupo Heterónimos created the campaign on the premise that writers in Argentina did not want to share Gombrowicz with others, allowing them to continue being considered elite. This prank helped them raise enough money to offer free admission to the public. Along with crowd funding, the organisers also prepared and sold special ‘Gombro-gadgets’: three kinds of socks; posters of ‘Witold Simpson’, a Simpsons-version of Witold Gombrowicz; posters with a picture of Gombrowicz and the words ‘Gombro or death’; and a poster with a design by Verónica Escalante.
It is worth noting that the show was never actually going to be on television. The date of the show, however, was significant in that it was the day El Fantasma de Gombrowicz Recorre la Argentina was published. It is now available online in Spanish, free of charge. Either way, this was surely Grupo Heterónimos’ biggest feat yet. Celebrities reading Gombrowicz and crowds loving it? Not bad at all.
Written by Alexis Angulo, edited by NR, 16 Feb 2017
Sources: La Nacion, Gombrowicz in Argentina by Rita Gombrowicz, Panal de ideas, El fantasma de Gombrowicz recorre la Argentina, Interview with Nicolás Hochman