When she was recovering from an accident, well over the age of 60, Cristina Peri Rossi, the new Cervantes prizewinner, discovered video games.
“I spent three months in bed / with my right leg up / playing on the Playstation.”
She had been run over by a car in Barcelona, where she has lived since the start of the Uruguayan dictatorship, more than four decades ago. That exile has marked her work, which is a way of saying that the wound opened by a forced flight had shaken her life:
“I have a pain here / on the side of my homeland.”
However there are barely any traces of regret in the poems of this astute and desolate, fun and direct writer. The dramas in her books are diffused with irony, which allows her to stand at a distance and stamp on victimism and political correctness to the point of controversy:
“On 11 September 2001 / while the Twin Towers were falling / I was making love.” And it continues: “The apocalyptics predicted a holy war / But I was fornicating to death / - if you have to die, let it be of exaltation -”
Her political commitment led to her persecution by the military government of her home country after the coup of 1973. But the horizon was not much brighter in her new destination, Spain, despite the Franco regime being in its final throes.
Both dictatorships collaborated to reject the authorisation of Peri Rossi’s passport, at which point writer Julio Cortázar helped her move to Paris. They had an “amorous friendship”, a profound relationship of complicity where the was no room for carnal passion due to the sexual orientation of the Uruguayan poet, who was at times unfairly reduced to the muse of the author of Rayuela, to whom she dedicated some of her most famous poems.
“I don’t think I love you / that I only want impossibility / so obvious of loving you / like a left hand / in love with that glove / that lives on the right.”
When she was 25, she hung up a sign that she’d written herself: “I have no prejudice against heterosexuals nor do I discriminate against them"
She said nothing until 30 years after the death of Cortázar, when she published the sentimental story of that mutual devotion, merely a redemption for not having gone to his funeral: “I refused to accept that Julio was mortal, and I preferred to remember him alive, eternally young, healthy, a traveller, at times a little melancholic and always fun.”
Then the distance between Uruguay and Spain, where she settled for good after 1975, had forced her to get used to accepting the death of her loved ones from frustration and distance, suffering, thousands of kilometres away: “Exile is to have a franc in your pocket / and the telephone swallows your coin / and doesn’t give it back / -no coin, no call- / at the exact moment that we realise / that the booth doesn’t work.” Exiled, Peri Rossi sees her condition as a foreigner perpetuated. Both words in Spanish, exile (exilio) and foreigner (extranjero) start with the same prefix of what is no longer, a lost identity.
That’s how her novel The Ship of Fools starts: “Foreigner. Ex. Banishment. Outside the womb of the earth. Uprooted: born again.”
She has published more than 20 books of poetry, as well as essays and stories, a vast work where erotism and metaphysics, loss and pleasure are ever-present, from the electric beginnings of desire (“Tonight / when we met / I felt again the dark animal / that lives in me”) to the darkness of oblivion: “And we said goodbye with the vague feeling / of having survived / though we don’t know what for”.
Capable of laughing and bleeding to death almost at the same time, her titles often contain that duality.
That is the case in That Night, published in 1996, where there are poems as different as Ode to the Penis (“It’s not possible to have a good opinion / of a membranous organ / which folds and unfolds / without bearing in mind / the will of its owner”) and Story of a Love: “So that I could love you / I had to flee the city where I was born by boat / and you to fight Franco. / For us to love each other, in the end / everything in this world happened / and since we haven’t loved each other / there has only been great disarray”.
She still recalls that, when she was 25, she hung up a sign that she’d written herself: “I have no prejudice against heterosexuals nor do I discriminate against them.” This layer of naturalness, transferred to her free verse, put a mirror opposite the narrow outlook of whoever was surprised, or even criticised, that she lived and wrote outside the closet.
With Playstation she became in 2008 the first woman to win the Loewe Prize in 20 years. With that brave work, which denounces “how some councils launder money by organising poetry recitals” and questions social conventions with sarcasm (“I liked that woman a lot / but she proposed we start a family”), Peri Rossi settles scores with history. Before she had published essential books such as State of Exile and Strategies of Desire. Now as she reaches her 80th birthday and any emotion “might be the last”, the poet remains convinced that literature is “the only stronghold against the banality of these times”. And she warns: “I will live beyond my years / in your memory of a nocturnal woman.”
(The translations of poetry in this article are not official.)
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