In what must surely be among the more disarming introductions written in recent years, the Nobel Prize-winning West Indian poet, Derek Walcott, admits in "Latin American Writers at Work" to an embarrassing gap in his reading by confessing the sense of anxiety and inadequacy he felt on visiting a house in Guadalajara associated with several famous Latin American writers whose names he knew but few of whose works he had actually read:
"I couldn't imagine what life in Lima was like, Buenos Aires was shrouded in my ignorance, and the little I knew of Brazil had come through its poetry like cracks of light under a door. Now these interviews are a corridor down which door after door opens, and we sit as guests of these illuminators."
There is, as Walcott wryly notes, a certain irony in the fact that many of us nowadays first "meet" a famous writer through the medium of the printed or broadcast interview rather than through his works. Acknowledging the great disparity between the voice of any writer in conversation and the voice or voices created through his or her writings, Walcott is nonetheless able to commend the interview as a viable entryway to the intimate realm of literature, where (as Walcott so poetically puts it) authors whisper their poems and stories directly into our ears.
The interviews collected in this volume of the Paris Review's excellent "Writers at Work" series are especially enticing. There is a shared sense of community among these writers from different countries, an electric intellectual energy and a feeling of warmth and generosity that often overcome serious breaches and enmities. On both the left and the right, there is a concern for social justice and freedom and, everywhere, a real passion for literature itself.
Questioned about the antagonism between himself and the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, the Chilean poet and Communist Pablo Neruda declares "for me to fight with Borges, because everybody wants me to -- I'll never do it.
"If he thinks like a dinosaur, well that has nothing to do with my thinking.
"He understands nothing of what's going on in the contemporary world; he thinks that I understand nothing either. Therefore, we are in agreement." Elsewhere, Neruda aptly declares: "In the end, all sorts of animals fit into the literary forest."
The Mexican poet and thinker Octavio Paz touchingly recalls his reconciliation with Neruda after 20 years' estrangement: "Pablo said, 'My son,' and embraced me.... I was very moved, almost crying." Paz's own stance as a supporter of social justice and an opponent of right- and left-wing repression has often put him in an embattled position.
In one way or another, politics have played a vital part in the lives of all these writers, even those who, like Borges, see little or no role for it in their literary endeavors. Yet even the most politically engaged among them agree that when it comes to creating literature, aesthetic values trump political worthiness every time.
Mario Vargas Llosa, who ran for the presidency of his native Peru, says "a writer cannot put literature and politics on an equal footing without failing as a writer and perhaps also as a politician. We must remember that political action is rather ephemeral whereas literature is in for the duration." The Mexican writer and diplomat Carlos Fuentes speaks eloquently of the often-fruitful tension between the need to fulfill one's obligations to the collective past as a citizen and the need to insist on one's aesthetic freedom as a writer.
Argentine writer Luisa Valenzuela, who grew up in a household where Borges was a frequent guest, recalls:
"For Borges and the people around him, politics was a dirty word. You know, art for art's sake.
"So back then, I thought that you shouldn't put politics where your mind was, where your writing was. Now I know differently. Although the only way to deal with politics in literature is to avoid the message at all costs."
And, in an interview published in 1984, the year he died, the politically active Julio Cortazar reflects: "The problem for an engage writer, as they call them now, is to continue being a writer. If what he writes simply becomes literature with a political content, it can be very mediocre....
"The military in Latin America -- they're the ones who make me work harder. If they were removed, if there were a change, then I could rest a little and work on poems and stories that would be exclusively literary."