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Reading Into Film : With his UCI students, visiting professor Josa Agustin is examining the problems of translating one artistic language to another, literature to cinema. As a Mexican screenwriter and author, he's uniquely qualified to lead the study, his first book in English.

October 25, 1995|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He's considered one of the leading Latin American writers of the late 20th Century.

Once dubbed "L'enfant terrible" of contemporary Mexican letters, Josa Agustin published two novels and his autobiography by age 22. Three decades later, the award-winning author has written 11 more fiction and nonfiction books that address the political, social and ethnic problems of Mexico.

So what's Agustin doing teaching a class on Mexican cinema at UC Irvine?

Agustin, in fact, not only studied film at the National University of Mexico in the 1960s, but he has more than a dozen screenplays to his credit, many of which were turned into well-known Mexican movies. He has even directed experimental films and one theatrical release.

As a distinguished visiting professor in UCI's Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Agustin is tapping his expertise to teach a graduate course on Mexican literature and cinema this quarter.

And his grad students, who are analyzing the translation of nine books into films, have an extra incentive for doing well in the course. Their best essays will be included in a book, "Literature and Cinema in Mexico," to be published next year in the United States by the University of California Press and in Mexico by Editorial Planeta.

As part of his appointment at UCI, Agustin is editing the students' work and writing an introduction to the book (his first written in English).

"We found out that there are not many books, if any, on the problems of translation from one artistic language to the other," explains Agustin, 51.

In his introduction, Agustin will "discuss the main differences between the artistic languages: which books can be done [on film], which can't, and why." Or put another way, he says: "Sometimes literature wins, and sometimes cinema wins.

"I think that the books which have more literary density--works that are dealing with a lot of reflections, with very specific literary metaphors, with word play, etcetera--are always more difficult to adapt."

Agustin says Mexico has a long tradition of translating novels into film, dating back to the earliest days of sound.

The course is not dealing with films that have had wide distribution in the United States, such as "Like Water for Chocolate," but rather popular Mexican films produced between the '30s and '90s.

Among the titles his students are examining is "Vamonos con Pancho Villa" ("Let's Go With Pancho Villa"), Rafael Munoz's 1931 novel about the Mexican revolution, which was made into a film directed by Fernando de Fuentes in 1935.

"It's a classic," Agustin says. "In fact, the film is much better than the novel."

Another, "Ensayo de un crimen" ("Rehearsal of a Crime"), is a 1944 novel by Rodolfo Usigli that was made into a 1955 film directed by Luis Bunuel.

The film, Agustin says, was freely adapted from the novel. "It's a great book and a great film. It shows what a very creative director can do when they are not too close to the book."

Agustin, who lives in Cuautla, a small town 60 miles south of Mexico City, is winding up a two-quarter appointment at UCI, which began last spring when he taught two classes: "Recent Literature in Mexico" (from 1968 to the present) and "Literature and Counterculture in Mexico."

He has taught occasional classes at the University of Denver, the University of Iowa, the University of New Mexico and UCLA, but Agustin rarely teaches in Mexico. When he's home, he says, he spends most of his time writing.

Earlier this month, Agustin's sixth and most recent novel, "Dos horas de sol" ("Two Hours of Sunshine"), won France's prestigious Two Oceans Prize, which is given to outstanding works of literature in foreign countries. In addition to $6,000 in prize money, the recipient's book is published in France.

Agustin says "Two Hours of Sunshine" tells the story of two old friends who are journalists on assignment in Acapulco: "They plan to enjoy the sun, the night life and women, but as soon as they get there, a terrible hurricane falls in town and completely disrupts their plans, and they have to face several important questions about themselves, principally the problem of aging."

The novel, which was published in Mexico last December, has been bought by a Mexico City film company and, says Agustin, a screenplay is being written. Although Agustin sold several of his books to the movies in the '60s and '70s, none were produced.

The language, drug use or politically sensitive material in the novels ran afoul of strict governmental censorship of movies in Mexico. But, he says, censorship has since softened under pressure from the creative community, and he has high hopes that "Dos horas de sol" will make it to the screen.

*

The son of an airline pilot, Agustin grew up in a middle-class family in Acapulco. He began writing when he was 11. At 12, he was studying theater and at 14 he joined his first literary workshop.

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