By JS Tennant
The Argentine PEN Centre was established in April 1930, making it the second oldest in Latin America after PEN Mexico (1924). Manuel Gálvez and Eduardo Mallea were its founding members, and very soon the Centre became an important forum for the discussion of international writing and issues. One historic moment was a dinner Argentine PEN hosted for Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda at the Hotel Plaza in October 1933: sitting at opposite ends of the table they read a text in honor of the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, alternating lines and stanzas between them.
Another moment was the 14th annual PEN Congress hosted by Argentine PEN in September 1936 whose chief convenor was the editor and writer Victoria Ocampo (described by Jorge Luis Borges as, ‘La mujer más argentina – the most Argentine woman’). Stefan Zweig was one of the two delegates sent by Austrian PEN, with other leading representatives including Henri Michaux (Belgian PEN), Jules Romains and Jules Supervielle (French PEN), future Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness (Icelandic PEN), Alfonso Reyes (PEN Mexico), José Ortega y Gasset (Spanish PEN) and F.T. Marinetti and Giuseppe Ungaretti from Italian PEN. The minutes from the Congress read like a microcosm of world history, with the issue of the day being, of course, the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism. The assembly expressed solidarity with Yiddish PEN’s plea on behalf of persecuted Jewish writers, in spite of vociferous dissension from Marinetti: the fascistic poet and founder of Futurism. (Two years later, at the Prague Congress, Marinetti was expelled from PEN for reading a poem praising the bombardment of Abyssinia – although why it took this long is anyone’s guess.) Much later, both Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares were active in the Centre.
Unfortunately, however, a long or illustrious history does not guarantee a strong PEN Centre in the present day. In the last few years Argentine PEN has been suffering from low membership levels, with few current members from among the rising generation of Argentine writers and journalists. It was for this reason that we travelled to Buenos Aires earlier this month with John Ralston Saul, President of PEN International (the umbrella organization for PEN Centers worldwide), to meet local writers and hold an event on the history of PEN during the Buenos Aires International Book Fair. Saul gave an overview of PEN’s work around the world, and writers Luisa Valenzuela, Martín Kohan, Pola Oloixarac, Carlos Gamerro discussed their own work and ethical issues facing today’s writer in Latin America.
In the 1970s, during his tenure as International President, Mario Vargas Llosa did his best to galvanize PEN Centers across the region, but the fruits of his efforts didn’t prove lasting. In the last few days, after our event in the book fair and extensive press coverage, over 50 writers have expressed interest in joining Argentine PEN for the first time, which is hopeful. “I will certainly be joining Argentine PEN,” says Bogotá39 author Gonzalo Garcés. “If it takes root it will be an important addition to our literary culture. The problem Argentine PEN faces is Argentina’s anti-humanist tradition, its historic tendency to reject the very concept of country or community; the idea that literature has a social role to play never ran deep here. To paraphrase Borges, this country’s literary community suffers from unreality.”
Given the supposed political allegiances of the two main writers’ organisations in Argentina – the Argentine Writers Association (SADE) and the Society of Argentine Writers (SEA) – a renewed Argentine PEN should provide a space for debate on an international level that includes, but is also more than, national politics and concerns. Leading novelist Luisa Valenzuela, Argentine PEN´s newest member and a former member of PEN American Center´s Freedom to Write Committee, said, “The efforts made by PEN International here should be enough to pull PEN Argentina out of its long lethargy. There’s still some way to go, but at least the seed has been well planted and Argentine intellectuals have learnt that PEN is above and goes beyond the factions and political squabbles that always divide us.”
Andrew Graham-Yooll, the Anglo-Argentine journalist who worked at (and later edited) the Buenos Aires Herald at the start of Argentina’s Dirty War and wrote the classic A State of Fear: Memories of Argentina´s Nightmare (1985) commented, “PEN has been a bit of a class thing here, favoring belles-lettres over strong statements. The ‘club’ mentality existed in the sixties and continued through the seventies under the military dictatorships, during which time the name of Argentine PEN became tainted. When I was in exile in London I worked for both English PEN and PEN International – Mario [Vargas Llosa] succeeded in reviving some of the Latin American Centres, but I don’t know how long it lasted. In recent times the Argentine Centre hasn’t been known for its openness – it has to cater to the needs of literature and society today.”
James Tennant is the Literary Manager, PEN International and is poetry editor of The White Review.