Published on September 14th, 2013 | by Apuntes LJ0
On Latin American Literature and Cinema
An Interview with Jorge Ruffinelli
Apuntes: Tell us about your early years growing up, formative experiences you might have had.
JR: I was born in Montevideo, Uruguay. Most Uruguayans were born in the capital city, because at least half of the country’s three million inhabitants live in Montevideo. During the military dictatorship of the 70s and 80s many Uruguayans went to live in different countries, primarily in Latin America.
My early childhood and youth were urban. My father was an agronomist. My mother was an “ama de casa,” a housewife, and she came from the countryside. So I was half country boy and half urban boy. I spent three summer months every year in the country, in Durazno, about 300 km from Montevideo. I had my own horse, which an uncle gave me. So I learned the ways of the countryside in the summers, and I studied in Montevideo the rest of the time. I did my primary, secondary, preparatory, and university studies there.
The university was very unusual, because I was in the School of Humanities, where the rule was to never finish your studies. That unwritten rule, or tradition, came from the school’s founder, Carlos Vaz Ferreira, who believed that one ought to study just for the pleasure of it, not in pursuit of a career. So if you wanted to teach secondary school, for example, you were supposed to go to another school. But the reason I did not finish my studies in the School of Humanities was the coup. [President Juan Maria Bordaberry closed parliament and imposed direct rule from a junta of military generals in June 1973]
Apuntes: In the 1960s, you worked for the literary weekly Marcha?
JR: Yes, that’s right. While I was studying, I worked as a journalist for Marcha. The director of the literary section was Angel Rama. He oversaw my work at Marcha and also had me work in his publishing house, Editorial Arca.
Apuntes: Those were the years of the Tupamaros. Did you have any links to them? [The Tupamaros National Liberation Movement was an urban guerrilla organization; the current president or Uruguay, José Mujica, was a member]
JR: I suppose I met many Tupamaros. You never knew who was a Tupamaro and who was not. It was a secret society. But of course, over time, I must have had friends who were Tupamaros, because some of them were writers; one of those writers, Mauricio Rosencof, spent over 10 years in prison. The Tupamaros had a very compartmentalized structure, but since some of the leaders were writers, I knew them. I was not aware of their affiliation with the secret society at the time. It was a very bad atmosphere we lived in.
Apuntes: And then you moved to Argentina. Any special reason for the move?
JR: While I was finishing my studies in Uruguay and working for Marcha and Editorial Arca, Angel Rama left the country, and I took over his position as director of the weekly’s literary section. I was also a teaching assistant for an Argentinian professor, Noé Jitrik. This professor asked me to assist him at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, so I moved to Argentina.
Curiously, the first time I got to teach in Uruguay was five years ago, when I gave a course on Juan Rulfo, at the same place I started studying literature.
I ended up teaching at the Universidad de Buenos Aires for less than a year. The military coup in Argentina occurred soon after the coup in Uruguay.
I had been invited to do literary research in Mexico, at the Universidad Veracruzana, so I went there with the intent of staying for a year while things stabilized back home. But as in the stories of Horacio Quiroga, who told of people who went to Misiones [Chaco, Argentina] for one week and stayed the rest of their lives, I went to Jalapa for 1 year and stayed for 13, partly because the military had issued a warrant for my arrest.
Apuntes: And then in ‘86 you came to Stanford?
JR: I was tired of writing letters of recommendation for colleagues who were applying for positions at Stanford and other universities. And during my tenure in Mexico, I had been a visiting professor at different universities, two in California and one in Madison, Wisconsin. So I said to myself, “Instead of writing so many letters of recommendation, why don’t I apply to these schools as well?” I applied to both Stanford and the University of Wisconsin. They both offered me a job, and I chose Stanford, mainly for the weather, I think.
Apuntes: Tell us about the transitions. It must have been quite different, going from Uruguay to Mexico, then from Mexico to the US.
JR: The first transition was from Montevideo to Buenos Aires. I moved from one big city to an even bigger city. Then I moved to Mexico, not to Mexico City, but to Jalapa, a small town of about 180,000 inhabitants, many of them students. Coming to Stanford was a difficult adjustment for me. I lived in San Francisco for a year but eventually moved near the university. Even though we are in a big country, the United States, Stanford has the feel of a small town.
Apuntes: Why did the Uruguayan government issue a warrant for your arrest?
JR: It was plain stupidity on the part of the military government. I had been a juror in a short story contest sponsored by Marcha. Two or three weeks before I departed for Buenos Aires we decided that the winner of the contest should be a short story titled The Bodyguard, written by Nelson Marra, a young writer. The short story was not so short, it was about 40 pages long, normally too long to publish in the weekly journal, since it would easily take 8 to 10 pages of the magazine. But in those dangerous times, for some reason, there was a lot of advertising, so the paper decided to add pages, and they needed something to fill those pages with.
I doubt that anybody other than Marra read the story. It was about the chief of police getting killed by the Tupamaros. The police and the military found it offensive because the main character in the story, the chief of police, was a homosexual, and the story had very explicit language. Even Juan Carlos Onetti, another juror (and famous writer), told me he did not like the language, finding it too explicit. But he also agreed with me that it was by far the best story and on merit should get the prize.
Apuntes: So the warrants were for literary infractions?
JR: Yes. The author, Marra, and the other jurors ended up in jail. Marra was tortured. He was asked under torture, “Who gave you the idea.” And he said, “Well my inspiration was Mario Vargas Llosa.” So the judge ordered the detention of Mario Vargas Llosa. They were so ignorant.
Apuntes: They did not know he was not a Uruguayan?
JR: No, the judge was not aware of the famous Peruvian writer, thought it was a guy in the neighborhood. And because I was away and the only one not in jail, the lawyers told the military judge that I had given Marra the subject of the short story, and assured him he was going to win the prize. Supposedly, then, I was the intellectual author of the short story. It was an absurd lie. Fortunately I was untouchable because I was in Mexico. I had to live with this warrant for ten years.
Apuntes: You are an expert on writers like Onetti, García Márquez, and Juan Rulfo?
JR: Yes, and I have met them personally.
Apuntes: We seem to coincide in our literary tastes. But tell me, what is it about their work that you find so enticing?
JR: Starting with Juan Rulfo: I met him for the first time in Chile and then saw him frequently in Mexico. I would pick him up at the Instituto Nacional Indigenista and we would have lunch. We became close friends. His literature is wonderful.
Apuntes: Did he write something else besides Pedro Páramo?
JR: He wrote many short stories in one book: El Llano en Llamas. García Márquez once said that he would give up all his own work to be the author of Pedro Páramo. He was clearly exaggerating, but that is a measure of the quality of Rulfo’s work. García Márquez was a close friend of Onetti , so when I invited Onetti to Jalapa (I brought him over from Spain), García Márquez came to Jalapa to say hello. They were very close.
Apuntes: So that’s at the personal level. At the professional level, what about their writing?
JR: Well, I never get tired of teaching García Márquez’s short stories and short novels. I like those works more than his 100 Years of Solitude. I very much like Rulfo’s writing, as well as Onetti’s short stories. These three authors are so different: they express something deep from their own countries [Colombia, Mexico, and Uruguay].
Apuntes: Let me ask your opinion of individual writers: Octavio Paz?
JR: I visited Octavio Paz at his home several times. I have never written about Octavio Paz because I felt that he was surrounded by a court, and I didn’t want to be part of that court. Also, Rulfo was in opposition, ideological opposition, to Octavio Paz. I admire Octavio Paz, and there is no question that he is an excellent poet. As an essayist he is brilliant, even if I don’t agree with him ideologically.
Apuntes: Carlos Fuentes?
JR: I have a good anecdote from when I invited Carlos Fuentes to the university in Veracruz. I had met Fuentes while working as a visiting professor in Madison, Wisconsin; he came to Madison to give a lecture. I knew that he charged something like $15,000 for a couple of days of lectures. I told him I would like him to come to Veracruz, but we would not be able to pay the kind of fees he was getting at Madison; the best we could do was pay for his hotel. He immediately asked me, “Can I give two lectures instead of one? And I won’t charge you anything.” And, of course, there was a good reason for doing that: he had received some money from the Mexican government with the stipulation that he had to give at least 10 lectures per year within Mexico. So he came to Jalapa and gave two lectures. He was wonderful, he was a wonderful guy. I like some of his novels, particularly The Death of Artemio Cruz. I didn’t like some of his larger novels. I actually did not like any of his works published in the latter part of his life.
Apuntes:Jorge Luis Borges?
JR: Borges is the writer of writers. I mean, everyone learned from Borges. I met him several times. Once I interviewed him at his home in Buenos Aires, for three full days. We had tea, five o clock tea. He was very “British.”
Apuntes: Julio Cortázar?
JR: I admire Cortázar very much. I believe that among all the writers we talked about, he was the best person. He was wonderful: he was very generous, not a showoff like many of the others. When García Márquez spoke of his “friends,” for example, he would tell you about the King of Spain, or the Pope. That was something Cortázar would never do. Cortázar came to visit me in Jalapa and passed away a few months after that. I loved his Rayuela [Hopscotch], it was like a bible for my generation, possibly for several generations.
Apuntes: Vargas Llosa?
JR: I always say they should have given Vargas Llosa his Nobel Prize 30 years ago. In the last 30 years, he has not been a very good writer. I need to read everything he writes because of my professional obligation as a teacher, but I don’t like some of his later works. But his first three or four novels were excellent. He was brilliant.
Apuntes: I understand that lately you have been focusing on cinema.
Apuntes: Tell us about Latin American cinema.
JR: Well, like everybody else, I like to go to the movies. I remember the first screen kiss I saw, when I was four years old. Over the last 20 years I have been introducing cinema into the literature classes but felt that I was missing the bibliography. So I said to myself, “I am going to write an encyclopedia of Latin American cinema.” The word encyclopedia is not the word that I would have preferred to use, but at least it is very clear: if I go to Uruguay, Argentina, or Mexico and ask the directors and the producers to give me copies of their movies for my encyclopedia of Latin American movies, they understand.
My most recent seven or eight books are on cinema. So my encyclopedia is coming out with different volumes. I am currently watching two Uruguayan movies every day, because I am writing the history of Uruguayan films, to be published this same year in Uruguay. And I am also trying to finish (I don’t know if I can do it before the end of the year), a book about films by women, women filmmakers, and the title I have chosen is, I think , very attractive: “Locas Mujeres” [“Crazy Women”].
Apuntes: Do you include Spain? Filmmakers like Almodovar?
JR: No. I have met Almodovar and I like his films. I also like the films of Bigas Luna and other Spanish directors, like Carlos Saura and Fernando León de Aranoa. Three years ago, I taught a course in Spain about 50 years of Madrid in cinema, and invited Aranoa to my class. So I thought, the Spanish already have many experts in cinema, but Latin America has only a few.
Apuntes: Tell me about your favorite movie, or movies.
JR: I have an answer to that, because three years ago, I published a book titled Latin America in 130 films. And those were only the fiction films. Last year I published Latin America in 130 Documentaries. So if you ask about my favorites, there they are, 260 of them.
Apuntes: Do you rank them, place them in some type of order?
JR: What I’ll do is send you the digital file of the books so that you can see for yourself. The actual books are very expensive. They were published in Santiago de Chile and cost around $60; but they are beautiful, include 130 color photographs each of them. They are like coffee table books.
Apuntes: Let me see if you included some of the ones I really like: Lucía?
JR: Oh yes, the Cuban movie Lucía, and also Memories of Underdevelopment, of course. They are in the fiction book.
Apuntes: La Historia Oficial? [The Official Story]
JR: Yes, La Historia Oficial , from the ’80s is included. Ask me some other ones, and maybe I can say no.
Apuntes: Among more recent films, I was very impressed with El Secreto de Sus Ojos. [The Secret of Her Eyes]
JR: Of course I included that one! Actually, I was going to have 125 films in the book, but then El Secreto de sus Ojos came out, and also La Nana, from Chile. So the publisher asked me if I wanted to raise the number to 127, and I figured I had better make it 130.
Apuntes: There is a Cuban film I saw a long time ago and nobody has heard of it, but I thought it was outstanding and wonder if you know of it. It was called El Hombre de Maisinicú. [The Man from Maisinicú]
JR: Yes, oh yes. I am very close friends with that film’s director, Manolo Perez. It is a very good film. It features Sergio Corrieri, who also starred in Memories of Underdevelopment. Sergio did not like his own performance in Memories of Underdevelopment because the character was not revolutionary enough. So he made El Hombre de Maisinicú, where he was a real “macho” hero.
América Latina en 130 documentales (Spanish Edition), by Jorge Ruffinelli (May 2013), Kindle Edition is available on Amazon.com
América Latina en 130 películas (Spanish Edition), by Jorge Ruffinelli (2010), paperback and Kindle editions are available on Amazon.com