Raúl Zurita “We won’t only die from biology, the lies of the system will also kill us”

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For over 40 years the poet and winner of the National Prize for Literature has used the written word as a weapon in the struggle against oppression and suffering, and today the poems that he wrote in the sky in 1982, as well as the poetry actions he undertook with the CADA, are deeply relevant. “The struggle for language is still fundamental”, he says.

By Denisse Espinoza A.

When he was 23 years old Raúl Zurita Canessa’s life changed forever. He was young, but he already had two children with the artist Victoria Martínez –sister of the poet Juan Luis Martínez– and was in his sixth year studying civil engineering at the Universidad Técnico Federico Santa María. He also published fragments of poems in a variety of literary reviews. As a militant communist, on the day before the military coup in 1973 he had gone on a protest; on the 11th, the day of the coup, he was arrested and taken to the cargo ship Maipo along with 800 other prisoners. Those were nerve-wracking days but Zurita survived. He left Valparaíso and returned to Santiago to his mother’s house, the Italian Ana Canessa Pessolo, where he started putting his life back together.

The poet and winner of the 2000 National Prize for Literature, Raúl Zurita. Photo credit: Pepe Torres.

“Locked up on the ship I had a feeling that this was the only reality that there was, that there had never been a world before, that everything had only been an illusion and that the only thing that was real was that you were being beaten to death. At that moment I realised how important poetry was for me and that it was only through words and poems that I would fight my own despair and the collective despair,” says the poet, who in 2000 won the National Prize for Literature, and in 2016 the Ibero-American Pablo Neruda Prize for Literature.

Zurita is in quarantine with his partner, the writer Paulina Wendt, and is giving this interview by videoconference. From those distant days of the dictatorship he keeps his belief in the power of words as a weapon to denounce and fight oppression, in the spirit of the words he wrote in the Atacama desert and which persist: “Neither sadness nor fear”, are the words he used for the title of his latest volume of poetry and critical commentaries on his works that has just been released in Italian bookshops. At 70 years old, the poet is confirming his international importance: El País recently placed him on the list of favourites for the Nobel Prize, among other Spanish-language authors such as Javier Marías, the Cuban Leonardo Paduro and the Colombian Fernando Vallejos. Zurita is currently preparing a virtual poetry workshop with the Insituto Cervantes de Madrid. And of course he’s still writing, while recovering from two major surgeries in which they literally opened his head and his heart. “2019 was my year of operations,” he laughs, without a trace of the Parkinson’s Disease that has afflicted him for over 20 years.

-How have you been feeling, after everything that you went through in 2019, and now that this pandemic means we all have to stay locked up?

My wife and I are fine, and just saying that makes me aware again of how privileged we are. You look around at the world, at the horror of the situation, at the uncertainty, at the death. I’ve been in quarantine since March 2nd, I’d just arrived back from Italy and my wife and I decided to go into quarantine, and we can, you know? And that situation is slightly embarrassing, being able to lock yourself away today is a luxury that so many people don’t have. It’s stupid to feel guilty about something that I have no control over, but I do; I don’t feel good being in this position.

In 2019 you underwent surgery to reduce the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. How was that for you?

It was hard, there are so many people here in Chile who have the same disease I do, but the operation is impossibly expensive here, it hasn’t been performed for long, and there’s not the same expertise. In Italy it’s available in the public health system, and completely free. The operation lasted 7 hours, with the brain open, and I feel fine, because with Parkinson’s I could barely walk, I couldn’t get through a door on my own, lots of things like that. But two months on, here in Chile, I had open-heart surgery that lasted 9 hours and well, here we are! I’m fine, for the moment at least, and that’s really a miracle, because Parkinson’s is incurable, and it’s still advancing, but I’ll only say very quietly how well I feel, because if the Gods hear you they punish your arrogance.

-Weren’t you afraid?

No, I’m more afraid now, and not of death, because it’s foolish to fear the inevitable, it’s almost frivolous to say it, because we know that death is the final end for all of us, but what we’re seeing now is a death stripped of all illusions. A death completely in silence, isolated, with no final kisses; a death without a hand to hold is infinitely sad. You realise that even dying can be something that you have hopes about: dying in a certain way, and worse than death is loneliness, infinite loneliness. That’s a blow to humanity.

The pandemic has revealed the solitude that many people live in, as well as other symptoms of inequality that are highlighted by the social unrest of last year. What are your thoughts on that period?

The virus brought everything to light, it showed the rot of a shameful economic system; there are no words to describe it, it’s unconscionable and always has been. First there were the social protests, but now with Coronavirus the most brutal aspects of the system have been revealed because the real virus is the society that we’ve constructed. A good society, with good education and a fair system, can defend itself, but here we’re left almost defenceless, and the real poverty reveals itself. It was so obvious that this would happen, because in Chile the middle class is a class that takes on any kind of work and can fall into poverty at the drop of a hat. So when Mañalich (ex-Minister of Health) says that he now understands what poverty is, it’s risible. The hunger is terrible but it’s also tragi-comic, when the government is worried about erasing the word “Hunger” from phrase a that the Delight Lab projected onto the Telefónica building, as though it were the word that were important and not the fact of the hunger itself. So they erased the word as though they were erasing what was happening. It’s in times like these that the worst injustices become apparent, but also the best of humanity, the solidarity, the fact that there are so many wonderful people. Clapping for the incredible and solidary health workers, people organising community kitchens… It’s deeply moving.

“Neither sadness nor fear”, the geoglyph with the line by Zurita, in the Atacama Desert, 1993. Photo credit: Guy Wenborne.

Between 1979 and 1985 Raúl Zurita was part of CADA, the Colectivo Acciones de Arte that included Zurita and his partner of the time Diamela Eltit, the artists Lotty Rosenfeld and Juan Castillo, and the sociologist Fernando Balcells. The collective organised a series of urban poetry interventions to counteract the horrors of the dictatorship.  One of these interventions was Para no morir de hambre en el arte (“To Not Die of Hunger in Art”) in October 1979 in which, through a series of actions they highlighted the issue of extreme poverty, imbuing milk with the symbolic power of representing a political system that was un-representable. They distributed 100 litres of milk in ½ litre bags to the inhabits of the La Granja neighbourhood, and arranged for a truck from the dairy company Soprole to be parked outside the Museo de Bellas Artes whose entrance they had closed off with a white sheet, declaring that the art was outside the building and not inside it; they published a poem in one of the pages of the magazine Hoy, and placed in front of the Cepal building copies of the text No es una aldea with reflections such as “When hunger or fear shape the natural space in which the village wakes up, then we know that we’re not a village, that life isn’t a village, that our minds aren’t a village; we also know that hunger and pain signify in us all the debates of the world”.

That same year Zurita published Purgatorio his first book and a sort of artistic manifesto in which he invokes poetry as an artistic and life project. Three years later, on June 2nd 1982, he organised 5 airplanes to write in white smoke in the sky above the Queens neighbourhood of New York 15 verses of his poem La vida nueva, an action recorded by the artist Juan Downey. “My God is hunger / My God is snow / My God is pampa / My God is no / My God is disillusionment / My God is putrefaction / My God is paradise”.

-There’s a rare lucidity and validity in your work and that of CADA. What do you think of those works now?

For me being part of CADA was like writing a poem in a different way, a collective poem. It was us five and we tried everything. It was no more and no less than that. But there is a discussion about when CADA closed. For me it came to an end in 1983 when the large-scale protests began. CADA’s last action was the graffiti painted onto every wall in Chile with the sign No+, which ended in the triumph of “No” at the plebiscite. Afterwards the girls wanted to do something else, and they did, under the name “Viudas” (“Widows”), but it was small-scale compared to the other actions, it was only graphic and it had lost its strength and impetus, but if they wanted to say it was done as CADA, then let them, it really doesn’t bother me. I finished a book about CADA, a profile interspersed with biography. I feel it was something of great beauty, but an extreme beauty – hard and strong. Its ultimate theme is death and the resurrection of love. It’s called Tu que fuiste desmembrado (“You, Who Were Dismembered”). As Juan González says, it’s shameful that those works, those songs and poems are still relevant. The great poem should be one that has never been written, in a country without missing people.

But those songs and poems also help us fight against fear. How can words and language continue to save us?

During the dictatorship the meaning of the word was whatever the military wanted to impose on us, which is singing the glories of military triumph, the military marches, all the language laden with fascism with which they wanted to destroy the language of Chile, the language that the country’s poets had constructed, including Violetta Parra, Victor Jara, Neruda and Mistral. So the struggle was for the meaning of the word, to preserve its profound signification, to save phrases such as Allende’s “the great avenues will open up”, and ensure that they move into the present, because if we lose the battle to save that meaning, the dictatorship would have defeated us entirely. Think of the advertisement “Metrogas, human warmth, natural warmth”, which has neither human nor natural warmth, so today words don’t mean what they say they mean; sentences don’t say what they say they do; images don’t show what they show. It’s the language of capitalism characterised by stripping words of their real substance in order to construct an illusory world that promises happiness, but hides how dark that happiness is. To revert this is a profound work that the artists in this world have to do, along with the poets, with the people – it is creative power. The struggle for language is still fundamental, and it’s taking place on the edge of an abyss. It’s obvious that we’re not only going to die for biological reasons but that the lies served up by the system will also kill us.

Zurita began his poetic adventure as a devotee of the Gospels, which he still admires, declaring himself to be an “atheist Christian”. He’s also still a member of the Communist Party, although he briefly broke with the party during the 2000s when he decided to support Ricardo Lagos’ candidacy for President. “I supported him because it looked like Lavín was about to win and so it was pretty obvious to me where I had to be. I’ve never been far from the CP, which is a party I respect, of people I love, which has never participated in a military or coup-related riot, a party that has been betrayed but has never betrayed, that supported Salvador Allende to the last instant and that struggled heroically during the dictatorship. It’s a party that has been constantly punished, whose militants don’t have to show off or dress up as revolutionaries because they are revolutionaries. My militancy is free and embraces all my contradictions,” he says.

Do you think that art should be political?

I think that art is much more than politics. Art is political but it’s an art of love, an art of the intimate space. A political poem also has to be a love poem, a social poem, a non-religious poem. Personally I’m interested in art situated in the world and poets who talk about this world, and don’t speculate about fantasies that maybe don’t exist anywhere in this world.

Do you think that artists should be inspired to create by what they’re living today?

It’s inevitable to write and create, but we’re not journalists, we’re not reporters. You might not talk about the pandemic, because memory is a strange thing, but memory sometimes affects you with minimal, insignificant things, changing you, like when you wake up in the night and remember with a jolt something that you’d forgotten. Paulo de Jolly died recently; he was a marvellous poet, very solitary and extraordinary, who dedicated poems to King Louis XIV and lived stuck in the 17th century, a real eccentric, he lived in another present, and nobody could blame him for it. Poetry, in a way, leaves behind time in order to reveal all times to us, present and past. If an image is profound it is profound for all humanity, not just for you.

These are difficult times to be an artist. Do you think that the government and the state should provide more support to the arts in these times of crisis?

I completely distrust any help this government gives to art and culture, I don’t think they’re in the position to do so nor that they know how to. How can Piñera support the arts, he doesn’t care about them at all! For Piñera the arts are another of his enemies. I profoundly understand poverty because I lived it and have suffered from it, I know what it’s like to have absolutely no support or help, but that makes me certain that we don’t depend on that. An artist either is stronger than the circumstances they are in, or isn’t an artist. But if they are, then they’ll do their work whatever, with or without financing.

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