Brooklyn, Buenos Aires panel, at the Blue Metropolis Festival, May 3rd
The late Mordecai Richler’s spicy rants on Quebec politics may have been flavoured inadvertently by his apparent inability to learn more than a smattering of French, Quebec’s majority language. He never lost sight, however, of the importance to a novelist of having familiar places and situations from which to draw inspiration. Though he might well have been more comfortable living in Toronto, he knew that Montreal provided essential colour for his novels.
Eduardo Lago, a Spanish novelist and translator who has made Brooklyn his home, and Argentine writer Iosi Havilio were to give a round table on the cities that they live in and that provide settings for their books, but they seemed more intent on discussing other topics.
Speaking in Spanish, Havilio opened with an entertaining but nebulous anecdote about explaining to a child the concept of open doors in connection with an Argentinean city which is a psychiatric colony. (OpenDoor – this is the title in Spanish – is perhaps his best known work and is available translated in English). But Buenos Aires was scarcely mentioned.
Lago came a little closer to topic, praising Brooklyn as a haven for writers, though he did not delve into how this has influenced his writing. He did refer to the importance of structure. Just as a city must have structure, so must a novel.
Lago spoke of Montreal as somewhere with a sense of place. He also praised the late Nova Scotia novelist Alastair MacLeod as someone whose Cape Breton roots come through clearly.
Although the role of two cities in the event’s name faded into the background, both panellists talked about the writing process. Havilio spoke of sculpting a novel in much the same way Rodin sculpted physical material. Lago mentioned how hard it can be to know where the flow of narrative will lead, as if to place it on a map. Both agreed that it is essential to keep an eye on who is doing the talking.
For those wanting to get a flavour of Buenos Aires or Brooklyn described by Spanish writers, they would be disappointed. But those who wanted a view into these authors’ literary processes, they would have been quite satisfied.
The Blue Metropolis Festival runs until May 4th. Consult their website for more information.
Eric Hamovitch is a Montréal translator. He is an author of travel guides to Latin America and former correspondent from Mexico City.
-photo: Jonathan Lewis, Wikimedia Commons.