like some vaccines that make use of the same neutralized bacteria of the
disease itself, stories have tamed History onto a sheet of printed paper..."
Rio de Janeiro, winter 1982. Average temperature 32° centigrade. The beaches are still crowded with bodies lying in the sun. Inflation rises on average 20% per month. A monetary chaos which produces anxiety as well as absurd and ridiculous situations. "The price of beer will double after midnight" the waiter says. A few minutes later numerous glasses of beer accumulate under the eyes of the resigned and overflowing customers. The last general-president, Figueiredo, is preparing to go out of power by the back door of the Planalto Palace. Behind his emblematic sunglasses the dictator asks the nation to forget him. His request will be accepted with pleasure. No-one will write to the general again. As the noise of the democratic squabble rises an improvident few will remain deaf for ever. And fear, like a tight cork, freed of its wire cage, explodes in a shower of sweet froth.
Bairro de Ipanema. 32, Paul Redfern Street, Professor Afrânio Coutinho, an almost blind eighty year-old man, gropes his way to the front door of his house or, better, his former house. He has kept only the library on the third floor for himself – the most complete private literary library in the country, worthy of the founder of modern Brazilian criticism – in the same 1982, he himself had transformed the other two floors in classrooms, video-rooms, reading rooms, office and new toilets.
Now the old professor is climbing the stairs with difficulty, testing the ground with his walking stick before each step. He gets to the top floor. It is late and he is alone and tired as he stands there in the midst of so many books... he opens the folding bed and puts it in the space between two overflowing bookshelves and lies down – like Peter Kien, the alienated sinologist of Auto da fè by Canetti – in the territory that his wise man's body is forced to steal from his books. And there he sleeps. Shortly afterwards, on the floors beneath, his creation would begin to work: the Afrânio Coutinho Literary Workshop. The first of its kind in Brazil. An old project that had cost him his house and which worked while its mentor was sleeping.
As the workshop's coordinator, the professor had called a twenty-seven year old writer who had just come back to Brazil to begin a new life in that new unexplored climate of freedom, and who had brought with him, from the United States, his experience in "Creative Writing Workshops". That young writer was me. My unrestrainable enthusiasm was faced with a new question which went beyond the intense heat, the ever rising price of beer and the general-president who preferred horse to human beings. It was a question that the old professor, be it due to tedium or tiredness, had delegated me, his young and trusty squire, to answer: "After all, what is a Creative Writing Workshop for?". And, after many years, it is still this question that I am insistently asked in this turn of the century consumistic multimedia Italy. And just like a prophet of the obvious, I will try to answer yet again. First, however, I must answer another question: "What is fiction for?".
It is like asking ourselves what human beings are for, since we are mingled with the narrative act, which is the founder of humanity and which is, like us, an end in itself, not just a means or an instrument. The necessity to narrate is a vital part of our biology. In fact, there isn't a nation on earth that doesn't have its own literature. Stories and songs are everywhere. They are embellishments that are present anywhere a cultural fact takes root. Ezra Pound justly reminds us, that writers maintain language efficient. In other words they preserve its accuracy and clarity. For this reason, if a nation's literature is in decline, the nation itself weakens and declines. To be clear, everything depends on language. We live in a world of symbols and images.
I come from a continent where the question of literature's role has long since exceeded rhetoric and aesthetics and has become freshly dramatic with an historical decisive mission. During the years in which the ghost of tyranny terrorized our countries, writers were the ethical reserve of our society. In their stories, novel and poetry, they did not allow the humanitarian principles and values of civilization to wither under the programmed banalization of torture, censorship and disappearances. In that, still so recent, era, literature was the only possible antidote against the widespread horror among the Brazilians and the Hispano-Americans. Fortunately, the antidote was stronger than the disease. Ernesto Sabato is a good example of this mission.
After the years of terrorism, Argentina had set up a court to judge the military accused of the terrible atrocities committed against their opponents. But no-one amongst the countries political personalities was considered super partes enough or of adequate moral stature to preside over such an important tribunal. No priest, no politician, no magistrate could rouse enough respect or consent for such an office. No-one except the old novelist, who, in fact received the visit, at his home, of a committee which comprised all the country's political currents, spanning the entire political spectrum: they had come to invite Sabato to accept the presidency of the tribunal.
Literature is the art par excellence, because it is built upon another art, that which creates the words which give things a name. It is the matrix, the sower of humanity. Therefore why shouldn't literature deserve the care in preparation, the educative environment, the nucleus of development on which theatre, music, dance, cinema and other plastic arts have always been able to count on? Why should authors in the making be left to their destiny, to bitter and confused self-teaching, as if they were tortoise eggs on a deserted beach waiting to hatch in the sun?
In any case, workshops are not only incubators for talent, they are also a privileged place where experiences are passed on and exchanged, where the creative process, with its blockages and whims, is investigated right from its origins, where an exuberant tradition of construction of characters, plots, styles, narrative points of view, genres and forceful ideas is laid bare and explained. And most important, it is the place where the young writer meets a special reader, an expert who is interested in his expressive resources and his potential. A reader-teacher, a revealing mirror, who will hand back to the student a careful analysis of his process, and an awareness that the blurring caused by his emotional and intellectual involvement with himself prevents him from acquiring on his own.
Furthermore, which other place is more appropriate than this for discussing literature's tendencies? Emerging and vague questions like that or postmodernism, the question of lucidity, of delirium and insanity, of the infinite forms of the subconscious, our dream factory which never ceases to produce wonders. The question regarding the mass-media, the lowering level of ideas, the imposition of false necessities, the continuous drone of publicity and phantasmagoria of images without a sense or distorted by the commentary with which they are adorned. The question of solitude and isolation, be it compulsive or voluntary. The question of the growing dissolution of artistic genres in a polymorphous chaos of expressiveness where, who knows, techniques and genres will be recreated for each work or, perhaps, works will no longer exist, but only moments of insight of the spirit which will materialize in infinite and unforeseeable forms, abolishing forever the frontier between life and work, being and saying, essence and speech, which is already less evident.
What can be the outcome of all this preparation? Future writers, or at least the more talented ones, will carry out one of art's primeval functions, that of formulating a question in a time that maybe the conditions for it to be answered do not exist; in this way they will let utopias mature and they will exorcise the dangers of the future, supported by a level of professionalism which in no way reminds us of the stereo-type of the fragile artist still a long way from taking important decisions. The phenomenon of creation will contain everything necessary to become one of the most noble and socially appreciated products of the next century.
In the same way, intellectuals will probably be called to idealize and bring to extreme consequences the political pressure to correct the perverse social order in which they have their origin. Just as in the old fairy-tale, art, "The Ugly Duckling" of the technological world, will rapidly transform itself into the "swan" of the world of information. A wild swan, we hope, and not just an ornamental animal.
So, in seeing the future stealing into the present, I cannot help admiring the succession of the decades and their plots and fantasies and remembering 1982 which is marked by two unforgettable images: the clear, even if dry, eyes of the old professor and the unfathomable dark glasses of the dictator.