"Chronicle of our times must be written one and a thousand times"
Fernando Butazzoni was a militant of the Tupamaros guerrilla organization and already in exile he participated as an international volunteer to the Sandinista Front who succeeded in defeating Somoza's dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979.
Fernando Butazzoni was born in Montevideo in 1953. He was a militant of the Tupamaros guerrilla organization and already in exile he participated as an international volunteer to the Sandinista Front who succeeded in defeating Somoza's dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979.
His literary career begins in this same year with the Prize awarded by Casa de las Americas of Cuba. In 2014 he won Uruguay's National Literature Award, Bortolomé Hidalgo, for his monumental historical novel, Las Cenizas del Condor, (Condor's Ashes). He currently resides in his hometown.
How were your childhood and youth?
I was born in Montevideo, at a time when this city was a big village, elegant and European, but still a village. My maternal grandfather was a vegetable seller and I remember going with him around the main streets of the capital. This memory could be a good summary of my childhood, a time full of material poverty, diversion and adventures. It was a wonderful time. As for my youth, the fact is that I was arrested when I was 16 years old for attending a student demonstration. Beatings, tear gas, and jail. This made me see how things worked. I worked during the day and I was studying at night. I saw the injustices and I was a restless boy.
What were you reading back then?
When I was seven I became ill of hepatitis. At home we did not have a television - I don’t even think there was one in the rest of Uruguay! - so I was given magazines and books for children. Here's how it started, with one of the books in the Robin Hood collection. I was quick: I read Defoe, Dickens, Hope. And then there was "Bomba, the Jungle Boy," which was a series of adventure books written by such a Roy Rockwood, who was actually the pseudonym of a publisher who was devoting himself to writing children's books. In this way, since I was a child, I also learned something about editorial business. But I'm grateful to this publisher, because from that moment on I never stopped reading and I think reading is one of the best occupations the human being can have.
Let's move forward to the years of your militancy, first in Tupamaros.
My joining the MLN came in the middle of a climate of great political agitation in Uruguay, with repression on the streets, political prisoners, persecuted opponents, and in many cases murdered, and a government that listened only to itself. I was a kid and this government accused all of us of being a minority and being part of an international conspiracy to overthrow it, obviously with foreign aid and money. It was all false, but that was the environment. Pacheco Areco was not technically a dictator, he was a despotic, an authoritarian who manipulated the Constitution to his liking and pleasure. This is the origin of my tupamara militancy, which ended on March 15, 1985, the day when the last political prisoners of the dictatorship came out of prison.
And in Nicaragua, during the Sandinist Revolution?
Nicaragua has to do with a more mature and more responsible solidarity commitment. Nicaraguan tyranny was not only the oldest in America, but it was also the fiercest. It was something almost gothic: isolation cells, tortures, people thrown to lions. And let it be clear that it's not a metaphor: I've seen lions holes in El Chipote, the human bones. To overthrow this dictatorship, institutionalize this country again and convene general elections seemed to me a good fight manifesto.
What is the value of militancy today, in the broadest sense of the term?
The value of truth. This is one of the great problems we have had with militancy. It was the source of conflicts, divisions and struggles. There is no debate because there is no self-criticism. It happened among the European communist militants and is happening today among the Left militants in general in Latin America. There is no quality debate because there is no genuine collective approach to possible truths. There are analysis of reality, but truth is another thing. In many languages reality and truth are synonymous, but they should not be. The truth of facts is not Aristotelian. Nietzsche wrote in one of his letters that "there are no facts but interpretations". He exaggerated, however, it is a statement that serves to show that not everything is born and dies in Aristotle. Likewise not everything is born and dies in Marx. A communist society is an utopia because it is anti-dialectical: its coming would entail a freezing, an elimination of the conflict and social antagonisms that are the true engines of human history, just as Marx teaches.
Managua, July 19, 1979: The Sandinists take the capital. What do you remember about those days?
I remember the people's eyes, free and without fear. It was exciting to see all those people celebrating in the streets dancing and singing without fear. The city was devastated. There were still corpses on the streets, smoking barricades. There was no electricity or food. They had been four or five days of nightmare, but at the same time of great happiness. In the air, what you were breathing was freedom. It's an unmistakable perfume, I remember it perfectly.
How do you assess the current situation in the region?
I assess it very critically. The project of the lefts is going nowhere different from where the project of the right went: capitalism, more or less wild or civil, more or less democratic, more or less humanitarian. In many cases, among other things, there are political processes and leaders who consider themselves to the leftwing, but who remind me very much of Jorge Pacheco Areco, who was far right. The Latin American left almost does not think. More than ideas what circulate are attempts, or a rather primary anti-imperialism, as enthusiastic as infantile.
The left seems incapable of producing real alternatives to a capitalism in structural crisis but still fierce...
I have a problem: I have always been left but dysfunctional, atypical, heterodox. In 1990 I strongly criticized the government of Cuba and the turn the Revolution had taken, which brought me some kind of condemnation from some part of the left. In 2003, when those who condemned me fired against Fidel Castro, I supported Cuba and this caused many right-wing intellectuals to attack me. Now, it's been years that I say that neither Ortega is Sandinist, nor in Venezuela there is a revolution. Everyone looks at me in a weird way. But yes, I believe that the left has not generated valid alternatives to capitalism. The Soviet project failed, the Cuban project failed, the only thing left to us is to rebuild an alternative, but this will take decades and will be the work of future generations, which we hope will learn from our mistakes.
When and why did you start writing?
I could not do anything else. I was exiled, in a sort of double exile: exiled in Cuba and, inside Cuba, I was "exiled" to Holguin, some 800 kilometers from Havana, where most of my fellow fighters were. So I told myself: let’s begin to tell a few stories. I wrote some stories, I sent them to the Casa de las Americas Prize and won the lottery! I was awarded the Prize in 1979. Shortly afterward, I went to Nicaragua for the final offensive in the Southern Front.
What do you consider to be your cultural influences in general?
Casa de las Americas, in the first place. I was fortunate enough to work there for a couple of years in the early 1980s. It was like a bag of high cultural studies. There I met the cream of Latin American culture, I had a close relationship with many of the most important creators of that time, from Julio Le Parc to Cortazar. And I was very close to Fernandez Retamar, who was a source of teaching and permanent diversion. There were also books, novels that marked me and then ballet. I was, and I’m, a great ballet fan, and from classical dance I learned a simple and strong thing that helped me a lot in my writing: beauty is a consequence of the proper functioning of a certain artistic mechanism. It is not the cause, but the consequence. Literature is the same: Borges' poetry is beautiful because it works perfectly. The same is true of “Hundred Years of Solitude” or "The Old Man and the Sea". On the other hand, I am also a deeply admirer of the founders of what was later called "New Journalism". These founders were Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Vasetti and Carlos Maria Gutierrez. The others, Capote, for example, came after. The real inventors of this mix between journalistic reportage and narrative fiction were those three.
How do you write?
Basically, everything that happens in my life between seven o'clock in the morning and five in the afternoon is work, even when I have some meetings or I go for a walk with my older grandchildren, or converse with Lucy, my wife, about this and that. This means that all that happens, in one way or another, ends up in the ”pot", and is part of the soup. Then comes the writing that, fortunately, is a process I don’t know exactly how is produced. I never wanted to disassemble this apparatus, for fear of not being able to put it back together.
What are the most important elements in your writing?
Everything is related to everything. When a story does not work is because there is something that does not fit well in the mechanism. The story and the characters are almost two faces of the same coin: there is no one without the others. Then there is the tone, the palette with which you work. And the approach, which for me is very important. To put it in cinematic language, where do you have to put the camera? Accordingly, certain things will appear in the picture and others will not be seen. In a good story, almost nothing is described. It's there but is not told. It's the old Hemingway’s iceberg theory. I don’t like to confuse the reader with "various cameras". If there is a frame that works, fine. This is the one that stays. Clearly everything is literature, that is, words. You have to choose the words carefully, because every word is sacred and has an extraordinary value. Books are ruined because the author has poorly chosen a few words. I always remember the phrase "presumptuous mice" in one of Faulkner's first novels. For god sake! It was Faulkner. Of course I read it after he had already been converted into a magnificent writer, and Nobel Prize. But in any case... a sentence like that ruins a story. Presumptuous mice? Who can think of writing such a terrible thing? Well, William Faulkner.
Do you feel part of a literary generation?
Yes, yes. But I don’t know which one. It is not a matter of nationality or geography. There is a little bit of this, more a rebel spirit, more a feeling of belonging to the Latin American universe, more a way of conceiving literature, not just as a wonderful entertainment but also as a way of seeing and explaining the world we live in. It is a complicated generation to define and delimit, but it has to exist, no doubt.
How do you consider Uruguayan contemporary literature?
Younger people excite me. There are many good women writers and some good men writers among young people. One of the problems that Uruguayan literature has is its endogamy. In this regard, I think we are a bit closed and we end up creating products with a series of tare that are the result of this endogamy: I read you and you read me. As Gelman wrote: "My god / how beautiful we were."
Let's talk about Las Cenizas del Cóndor (The Condor’s Ashes). How does the idea of the book came about?
Just as I say in the book. I led and directed one of the most important journalistic programs of that time in Uruguay. Let's say I was a sort of a "star" of journalism. One day, a boy asked me for help. He told me he thought he was the son of desaparecidos. My only literary merit was journalistic: looking for and pulling the bundle with patience until I broke these twigs, which were in fact two. Because the boy who asked me for help at the end was not what he believed to be. Everything was different or even more messy. More amazing and more painful.
Ten years of work...
Yes because my sources took their time before accepting me, trusting and telling me their stories. Then I had to corroborate if what they had told me was true, and to do so I had to refer to another source, then to another and another. And the icing on the cake has been fitting in Katia Liejman's character in this story. It was not just about tracking it but also giving it plausibility, because, even to me, Katia's story, a KGB analyst missing in Buenos Aires, seemed unrealistic. But it was not.
This book presents an entire era, that of the Plan Cóndor, the connections between dictatorships. Why is it important to rebuild this period so hard and violent?
The memory, the chronicle of our times must be written one and a thousand times. It has to be revised and written again. Every day new documents appear and this not only sheds light on some things, but also changes the approach. Let’s say that until recently we were enlightened by the reality of the facts. Now we can cross this reality with the light of truth.
In the book there is an "Italian part", which has to do with Neo-fascism, with Gladio, with Borghese. How did you approach this Italian connection?
Licio Gelli, the Italian factotum of Gladio, had many connections with Uruguay. Let’s say they were intimate relationships. One of these relations points to one: Umberto Ortolani, his favorite banker, who lived in Uruguay. Gelli's son, among other things, is today Ambassador of Nicaragua to Uruguay... What do you think? And then there are the facts, the truth of the facts: Valerio Borghese met with Pinochet, Delle Chiaie was in Chile and Buenos Aires at that time. They were Gladio. I must point out that there is a lot of very important information on this, especially acts and resolutions of the Italian Parliament, the Belgian Parliament, and the justice of Rome. I had to read all of this material, flatly, also because the French is not my language. This is another reason why it took me so long to write the book: the resolutions. I must have read something like twelve or fourteen thousand pages of resolution. Now I've everything scanned and digitalised, otherwise Lucy kills me...
A book that is a novel and at the same time a detailed analysis and inquiry that manages to keep a constant tension…
We return to the three wonderful monsters: Garcia Marquez, Masetti and Gutierrez. Investigative journalism is, or can be, literature and this offers some possibilities in terms of narrative. Already in 1984, when the first version of "El tigre y la neve" was done, you could see this idea. The journalist and fiction writer are the same person. They asked me: is this fiction? Is it a reportage? And the answer I feel to give is this: what does it matter? I love the novel label, but labels generally serve for little, except to avoid taking the wrong medicine.
Do you think there is a selective oblivion of that period? To what extent was justice served?
Selective oblivion is a natural tendency of society and people. In our case this tendency has been strengthened by a repeated sermon that for years intended to infuse fear. In any case, societies are not just governments, not just military, or just political parties. There are many factors that interact. In Uruguay we had two plebiscites to derogate from laws that provided impunity to human rights violators. Both times we lost. Justice has come down drop by drop, like reconciliation. There are hate professionals everywhere and they do not want any justice nor any reconciliation. But the lack of progress in justice is the responsibility of all Uruguayan society. It is very convenient to blame "the military," when in reality all of us, one way or the other, must assume our responsibilities, action, omission, indolence or cowardice.
In this sense, Colombia is currently in the process of implementing a peace process where the concept of "reconciliation" is one of the crucial milestones for its success. To what extent would this process be different from those experienced in the south of the continent?
The key thing is that many years have passed. Colombians face the experiences of Argentina, Uruguay, Chile ... Of the whole continent, almost. Every process is particular and I do not know in detail the Colombian one. But I, who fought in a war, I think peace is the most praiseworthy goal of all.
In a world where identity seems to be in a deep crisis, how to reclaim and redefine this concept? What is identity for you?
Identity is the ability and the possibility to be aware of who I am, wherever I find myself. It is a concept intimately related to freedom. Being free is to have identity. And having identity basically is to be free. I find every day more irrational the attempts to limit people's individual freedoms. This is my identity: freedom.
What do you feel about the current armed conflicts that seem to emphasize the destruction of cultures and the annihilation of minorities?
Well, my answer will necessarily be dysfunctional, because as I said, that’s the way I am. An example is the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is true that Palestinians have full rights to build a state, their state. At the same time it is true that Jews are a minority in the Middle East and have for decades faced wars of higher or lesser intensity whose declared goal is to erase them from the map. Personally I think the Jewish minority is entitled to exist and that we cannot allow Jewish culture to be persecuted or eliminated by a large majority of Muslim believers. It's just an example, but it shows the need to defend the weakest. It is clear that the present government of Israel is the worst thing that could happen to this area. Netanyahu is going around with a bucket of gas in the middle of a fire. But governments come and go (or at least, so it should be). Peoples, such as the Palestinians, Israelis, Syrians or Iraqis, are the ones who suffer the hegemonic demise. Defending minorities is to defend hood and sword all the different, not just those of my side. Defend sexually, intellectually different, those who say no, those who think differently.
What role can culture play in resolving conflicts?
I think it can play a role in conflict prevention. Culture is relation. It drives people close and united. Ignorance, isolation, lack of relations, get people bitter and make it violent and worried. Culture is useful to the extent that it makes us think, something very rare nowadays. Just see the presidents we have: Trump, Putin, Rajoy, Maduro, Ortega... it seems the cast for "The Planet of the Monkeys". This list, which could be extended, is composed of presidents who in any case have been elected by citizens. It doesn’t speak very well of us, voters and citizens.