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Enrique Lihn: El arte de la palabra [The Way of Speaking]

Note this work is not the same as the English-language book by Lihn called Ways of Speaking, which is a collection of some of his poems.

This novel is a satire on literary conferences, though it is more than that, as it is also something of a satire on Latin American governments and institutions. It was published during the Pinochet regime, and the island of Miranda, where the action takes place, has been compared to Chile as well as to Cuba. Though we see many of the conference participants, the main focus is on Gerardo de Pompier. Gerardo is an interesting writer, not least because he has never published anything. Indeed, part of the satire is to mock B- (and possibly C-) list writers, who really are not very important. The book is not a straightforward account of the conference but takes various forms. We start with Gerardo’s diary but we also get letters between various of the participants, descriptions of Miranda, speeches and commentary by the author, presumably Lihn himself.

Miranda is a quasi-island offshore of Central/South America. However, it is not an island nor a peninsula, but a territory separated from the mainland by a mighty river, the Amauroto. It is named Miranda not after the Venezuelan general but after Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Few people Gerardo included, know where it is, even once they get there. Is it to the West or East of the continental mass? Gerardo is not sure. What we do know is that it has an unusual fauna and flora. There are giant mosquitoes and lizards, for example, as well as huge trees, all presumably produced because of the physical separation from the mainland. It seems to rain all the time, and rain heavily. (Gerardo has a detailed exchange of letters prior to the conference with his friend, Roberto Albornoz, who is both a writer and a geologist, on these topics. We later learn that Albornoz is a surrealist and was involved with the early days of Surrealism in France.) Politically, it seems to resemble Cuba somewhat, in that, though there is a government, it appears to be a dictatorship, led by a man who is called The Protector. They even had a football war, with neighbouring Guanahani, over a Harmony of America Cup match which, of course, recalls the real Football War. The capital of Miranda is called Miranda. Like much else in the country all is not what it seems. Many establishments duplicate functions. The funeral parlour, for example, which looks like a funeral parlour, is also a billiard hall, while the Post Office looks like the Alhambra Palace in Granada. Many other buildings also seem to have not obvious duplicative functions. Because it is remote, it is also a very expensive city to live in.

The Hotel Cosmos, where the conference takes place, is the Encanta-Flor district, a district for rich businessmen and their lawyers. The participants are scattered in different wings of the hotel, which is massive – far too big for such a small country. The reason for this dispersion is apparently so that the security services can spy on all the participants, which they seem to do. The country seems repressive. A key issue is when Gerardo has his shoes are stolen The police quickly apprehend the culprit and a trail of his blood is visible through the hotel and not cleaned up for a while. One feature of the area where the hotel is located, is that foreign hippies seem to congregate in the area. No-one is sure why.

There is a rich array of second-rate writers and it is these that Lihn mocks. Gerardo himself, as mentioned, has not published anything. When asked What is the basis of your fame?, in an interview with a local Mirandan magazine, he replies my silence. He does eventually write something for publication – a terrible poem on the shoe theft incident. He sends it to a local literary magazine but is politely rebuffed. Right at the end of the book, we learn that an obscure literary magazine does publish a few fragments of his work, well after the conference. As well as Gerardo and Albornoz, the two oldest participants, there are a host of other writers. There is Bonificio Negrus del Carril who has been a promising young Argentinian writer for the past thirty years. (I wondered if this was an oblique reference to Julio Cortázar.) There is Urbana Concha de de Andrade (the de de is not a typo), the Paraguayan poet and widow of the famous folklorist, who is pursued by Albornoz and who pursues Gerardo. Rigoberto Cebollas and Juan Meka spend much of their time in the local brothel. Juan Meka, who has Chilean nationality, but seems to live abroad, will not, according to the narrator, get any protection from his government if he is arrested. Indeed he is arrested towards the end of the book. When Gerardo protests to the minister, he is firmly rebuked, told to back off and not given any idea why Meka has been arrested. Last but not least there is Otto Federico Hitler, a man who fled the Nazis but was interned in a Soviet camp. He escaped from there to turn up in Latin America. He is a giant of a man but very taciturn, so much so that when he disappears, no-one notices till he reappears.

The conference does produce a paper, called, of course El arte de la palabra [The Way of Speaking], which is a mishmash of Saussurean linguistics and says nothing new. Indeed, it is clear that Lihn is mocking the sort of people who produce this sort of paper. The Protector, when he speaks to the conference near the end, is highly critical of them and what the conference has produced, so much so that some of them, Gerardo in particular, take offence. However, the fact that the Protector praises Senator Joe McCarthy does not go very much in his favour.

It is certainly an enjoyable read, recalling La disciplina de la vanidad [The Discipline of Vanity], though Thays is more respectful of his fellow writers, and undoubtedly has references that the in-crowd may get but we ordinary mortals do not. Of course, it has not been translated into English and is unlikely to be translated.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1978 by Pomaire
No English translation