They came in all shapes, sizes and ages to hear the two Latin American novelists talk about the intersection of politics and literature. The crowd was casual and chatty. Several people sipped wine as they waited, and the lady to my right sat in a shoeless half-lotus pose for the whole discussion.
The talk, too, was surprisingly light, with moderator Diego Creimer initially asking the writers to describe their worst teenaged poetry. Carol Zardetto obliged by confessing to having plagiarized a love letter from a book, while the avuncular Ramirez deadpanned that he never wanted to be a poet. It quickly became evident that the two novelists share a dozen lifetimes worth of experience between them. Sergio Ramirez, a once-avid supporter of the Sandinista revolution and former vice-president of Nicaragua, has published twenty-four novels. Carol Zardetto is a Guatemalan lawyer and former government official whose work has challenged traditional Guatemalan values, including gender roles.
Amid laughter, there were moments of stunning insight. Under Creimer’s skilful questioning, both novelists, while revealing few details, confessed to discovering an insurmountable tension between art and politics. Zardetto declared that a “writer must be independent”, while Ramirez said, with brilliant poignancy, that the “best thing for a writer is to be out of power, always.” Both writers recounted experiences of censorship, and emphasized the importance of political commitment, if not public office. Zardetto asked: “What can a country do if its intellectuals are indifferent?”
It’s not a question anyone I know asks. What can intellectuals do if their country is indifferent? At the end of the discussion, I felt grateful and envious at the same time.