Thursday, November 12, 2015


'There is nothing that lasts on this scene of forgetting, nothing stands firm and endures.  It changes its face, continually trying to draw borders and shorelines.  The river is new for each story.' - Haroldo Conti
Rivers lend themselves to linear narratives but deltas, with their tides, silt, shifting channels and networks of shallow tributories, suggest stories that will not necessarily lead anywhere, not even to the sea.  I have been reading the Argentinian writer Haroldo Conti's novel of the Paraná Delta, Southeaster (1962), recommended to me for its treatment of landscape.  I could quote here descriptions of sandbanks, shorelines and mist-shrouded islands but it would be hard to convey the cumulative effect of two hundred pages on these waters.  You can read a review by Melissa Harrison in the Financial Times which sums the book up very well.  As she says, the protagonist 'is a drifter who has worked for some time with a nameless old man, cutting reeds in the wetlands of the Paraná Delta. This is a landscape Conti knew intimately, and in his sensuous and meticulously observed descriptions of the alluvial basin and islands, the dense scrub and the humid, oppressive weather, there is a sense of a way of life unchanged for centuries — yet in the distance, if the light is right, the towers of Buenos Aires shimmer, and every so often military aircraft scream overhead. The effect is unsettling.'

There is an 'Afterword' by John King, whose excellent Modern Latin American Fiction: A Survey I read avidly at university when it seemed as if all the most interesting writers were from South America.  Three of the novels I enjoyed back then, Love in the Time of Cholera, The General In His Labyrith (both by García Márquez) and The Green House (Vargas Llosa) concerned river journeys but they were very different to Southeaster, with its slow pace, muted imagery and precise descriptions of fishing and navigation.  King mentions other pre-Boom writers admired by Conti for whom landscape was important: the Uruguayans Juan José Morosoli and Juan Carlos Onetti, the Brazilian João Guimarães Rosa, and the poet most associated with the Paraná river, Juan L. Ortiz.  He also draws parallels with Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the nineteenth century president of Argentina in whose political writings the river was a central theme.  Conti lived near Sarmiento's old home and both their houses have now become museums.  Politics only featured in Conti's last novel, Mascaro, the American Hunter, published in 1975.  A year later a new military regime came to power and Conti became one of the disappeared.

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