News Latin America Gonzalo Celorio: “My teacher was the Spanish exile”

Gonzalo Celorio: “My teacher was the Spanish exile”

The first thing Gonzalo Celorio (74 years old) sees when he wakes up is the immense night of Mexico City at his feet. By the time the sun begins to rise over the capital, he has already been writing for a couple of hours, settled in the office of his house on the slopes of Ajusco. “I love to see the sunrise from my window”, he concedes one August morning, with a thin and scratchy voice, the collateral damage of a cancer that he has just overcome. He prepares a espresso in an Italian cafeteria, he does some exercise and at half past nine he begins to work on “institutional issues”: responsibilities of the Mexican Academy of Language, which he chairs, or his literature classes at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) . The afternoons, he says, are for reading, sheltered by a library with more than 12,000 volumes that lines the walls of his living room.

With that Soviet discipline, it is not surprising that he has written a handful of novels and essays, that he has directed the Fondo de Cultura Economica, and that he has been a professor of literature for 50 years. His last book gossips of memory (Tusquets, 2022), has just seen the light: a kind of autobiography based on stories, memories and anecdotes with the great Hispanic-American authors who marked his life, personalities such as Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Juan Rulfo.

The writer and academic Gonzalo Celorio, in the two-story library of his house, with more than 12,000 volumes. Inaki Malvid

Ask. You hold a chair at UNAM on “Masters of Spanish Republican exile.”

Response. If you ask me who my teacher was, I would say the Spanish exile, notable personalities such as Ramon Xirau, Adolfo Sanchez Vazquez, Luis Rius, Arturo Souto, Gloria Caballero… A plethora of great humanists who contributed a lot to the formation of my generation and previous generations. Through the faculty I saw parading personalities like Leon Felipe or Wenceslao Roces, nothing less than the translator of Marx and Hegel into Spanish.

P. You come from an Asturian family.

R. My paternal grandfather was Asturian, from Llanes, from a very small town called Rebano. He was a Spanish emigrant from the second half of the 19th century. My father was already born in Mexico. My maternal grandmother was born in Cuba, but when she was still part of the Spanish Empire. My maternal grandfather was Aragonese. My father was a Mexican diplomat stationed in Havana, there he met my mother, they got married there and the three oldest of my brothers were born there. I am from a very large family: the eleventh of 12 siblings.

P. He has reviewed his family history in several novels. gossips of memory It has a more autobiographical touch. Are you worried that there will come a time when you will run out of material in your life to write about?

R. No, mostly because I’m not young anymore. I’m much more worried about running out of life than running out of material. There is a strong autobiographical charge in my literary work and in gossips of memory there is a very personal transcript. But I think that in this book there is a very curious autobiography because the author is not the protagonist. That doesn’t happen in any autobiography that I know of. The protagonists are the writers and I am a kind of witness nothing more. The works of these authors whom I have read, studied or loved, with whom I have had the opportunity in some cases to relate, sometimes very closely, sometimes discipling. It is a book made up of personal memories, but it is also touched by fiction, essays and literary criticism.

P. Jane Goodall studied primates all her life and published a book called my life with chimpanzees. His would be rather My life among great geniuses of literature.

R. Yes, that has been a great fortune and a great privilege for me, but these great personalities would not interest me if they were not writers. I’m not so interested in the writer’s life as the writer’s work.

P. But the book also has a point almost literary gossip, morbid.

R. Well, yes, since I had the opportunity to get to know some writers very closely, I also talk about some aspects of their personal life, but not exactly with the intention of being infidel or gossipy. It seems to me that this is a book of tributes. A true love is always critical because otherwise it is not a tribute, it is a flattery. There is also a kind of great veneration, tenderness and understanding.

Gonzalo Celorio shows a first edition of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude', the novel by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Gonzalo Celorio shows a first edition of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, the novel by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Inaki Malvid

P. Most of the stories he tells are over 20 years old. Some are even from the 70s. Why have you returned to them now?

R. It is an exercise of memory and recapitulation. I have reached an age where one prefers rereading to reading. Some authors had an imprint on me in literary terms, in cultural terms. But there are others, like Cortazar, who not only changed my conception of literature, but also my behavior, my scale of values, my vision of the world. I think that’s important, talking about those literary works that influenced the shaping of your personality because you read them at a young age. It seems to me an act of recognition and justice to talk about them.

P. This book, at 74 years old, does it have one more intention of revisiting the work of these authors or your own life? Her youth or the literature that shaped her?

R. In this case, it was to revisit literature, although I did not set out to write this book with a previous idea. I remember a phrase by a great French writer named Maurice Blanchot, who said that writing a novel was like jumping into the sea without wax in your ears and being willing to listen to the song of the sirens. In other words, one knows where to start from, but one does not necessarily know where one is going to end up. Suddenly he goes down unexpected paths, which he had not planned. It is my story through my reading of writers from the second half of the 20th century. But now I’m working on a memoir that will have a poem by Borges as its title, a definition of memory that seems portentous to me: that pile of broken mirrors. You don’t remember things in an order, with a chronology, you remember them in a fragmented way. Distorted like a mirror.

Throughout my literary career I have done a kind of striptease. I have undressed in literature. And now I feel with the possibility at this stage of the match to tell intimate things and overlap them to give an idea of ​​my own life and my context, which can be important as a cultural contribution. Passing through the institutions has also given me a richness that is not just anecdotal, but historical, to be able to talk about a series of circumstances, events, and problems. That’s what I’ve been writing for a long time. I already have a long way to go, but one doesn’t know when it can end because books are not finished, they are abandoned.

A photograph of Gonzalo Celorio's salon, along with personalities from Mexican literature such as Juan Villoro or Carlos Fuentes.
A photograph of Gonzalo Celorio’s salon, along with personalities from Mexican literature such as Juan Villoro or Carlos Fuentes. Inaki Malvid

P. He has repeated ad nauseam that Cortazar changed his life. What is so special about it?

R. There are several things. In the first place, that he is a writer who divests himself of the solemnity that Latin American letters had always had. As Cortazar said, Hispanic-American writers can have a great sense of humor when they are in the bar or at the gathering, but they write serious and solemn. Cortazar returns to language a naturalness that literature, out of solemnity, had subtracted from it. He is a writer with a great sense of humor. And he has something else that did not exist in Latin American literature either, which is tenderness.

P. It is striking that the book has 20 chapters, but only one and a half are dedicated to female authors (Dulce Maria Loynaz and Marie-Pierre Colle Corcuera).

R. That’s what I realized. The problem is not with my book, it is with history, which has not given women the recognition they should have had. It happens to me in my History of Literature courses. Some students say: ‘But how is it possible that there are so few women in this class?’ I answer that the problem is not with the course. In the history of literature, no matter how important some women may have been, they were not recognized, valued, or sufficiently disseminated in their time and, consequently, they did not have the presence, significance, and transcendence they deserved. Now I have just given a course on contemporary Latin American narrative where Rosa Beltran, Veronica Murguia, Luisa Valenzuela, Maria Fernanda Ampuero and Mariana Enriquez are present.

The writer and academic Gonzalo Celorio reflected in the display case of his library, with more than 12,000 volumes.
The writer and academic Gonzalo Celorio reflected in the display case of his library, with more than 12,000 volumes. Inaki Malvid

P. But there were great authors in the 20th century. Only in Mexico, Rosario Castellanos, Elena Garro, Elena Poniatowska, Pita Amor…

R. Yes, yes, but I am totally against quotas. I would not like to have to put the same number of women as men, because then it would be like saying that so-and-so is worth it for being a woman instead of having other types of merits. Obviously, I am totally against any sign of discrimination. I had direct contact mainly with male writers, but I am a great admirer of many female writers. Perhaps now in the last course I taught there were more women than men, although I did not count them.

P. Beyond quotas, it is hard to believe that all the authors mentioned in the book are better than other writers of the same time.

R. No, but I didn’t choose them because they were better, but because they had an influence on me or because I knew them. I have had no dealings with Elena Poniatowska. I didn’t know Pita Amor. I dedicated my undergraduate thesis to Remedios Varo, to give an example. I hope you put that so that I don’t end up as a misogynist. In that book I make a comparison between the painting of Remedios Varo and the character Remedios la Bella, from One hundred years of solitude. There are very important women, but this is not a book about the history of Mexican literature in the second half of the 20th century. I am recounting my personal relationships with some writers who coincidentally, or I don’t know if coincidentally, were men.

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