Argentina | 2012
Edgardo Cozarinsky was born in Buenos Aires in 1939. He is an Argentine writer and filmmaker. A late starter, the first book he acknowledges today as is own is Vudú urbano (Urban Voodoo, 1985), with prologues by Susan Sontag and the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. In 1974, in the turmoil of political agitation and imminent repression, he left Buenos Aires for Paris, where he shot several films most of which blur the line between fiction and documentary – La Guerre d’un seul homme (One Man’s War, 1981), based on the journals of Ernst Jünger, being the best known. Since the late 80s, he started returning to Argentina, first for brief spells, later to spend most of his time in Buenos Aires, a city he recreates constantly in his novels and films. He is the author of several books of fiction and essays. In 2001 he published the prize-winning book of short stories La novia de Odessa (The Bride from Odessa). Lejos de dónde, 2010 (Far from Where, in Italian Ultimo Incontro a Dresda), has been his most acclaimed novel. His most recent is Dinero para fantasmas (Money for Ghosts), published by Tusquets Editores in 2012.
I arrived in Santa Maddalena with five pages of notes for a novel. I left with seventy pages of the novel.
Being a city animal, I arrived in Santa Maddalena with a certain fear of nature, of isolation, even of being unable to socialize with the fellow writers I would be sharing my stay with. In less than a day all misgivings were dispelled. As there are haunted houses, a category should be created for places where benevolent presences linger – places where they did creative work, places on which they left an imprint. Such is the case of Gregor von Rezzori in Santa Maddalena. And I wonder if his presence would be felt so strongly and happily if Beatrice Monti della Corte were not the priestess in charge.
Beatrice announced that I would be staying in “Bruce Chatwin’s apartment” in the tower – an imposing XIII-century stone building some distance from the main house. I had an early inkling of the bond I would develop with the place and with Beatrice when I noticed the engraved plates on the tower wall, mementos of her mother and maternal grand parents whose remains were laid to rest in the surrounding field. The mention of Constantinople made me alert. I was to learn that Beatrice’s maternal family had been Armenians from the Ottoman empire – something that awoke the curiosity of a writer like myself, who had created his own imaginary Near and Middle East, out of an appreciation for the cosmopolitan world that vanished since 1918.
And what better guide to that world, in his case that of a Mitteleuropa active in European literary imagination (witness Danilo Kis and Claudio Magris and Aleksander Hemon) long after the demise of the empire that gave it shape, that Gregor von Rezzori. His exploration of that territory is devoid of all sentimentality, sharp and illuminating in its humor and awareness of paradox. I had first read him in English, some twenty years ago – The Snows of Yesteryear and Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. Reading his Sur mes traces and Une Hermine à Chernopol during my stay in Santa Maddalena gave me a new perspective on his work. I could feel exactly why Beatrice and “Grischa”, as she calls him and I dare quote her, had to meet and live together many fruitful years.
The tower was an unexpected haven, a retreat only a short walk from the friendly society of the main house. I learned quickly to feel at home among the olive trees, even to recognize the quince trees by the tower entrance. Very often I spent the morning writing in the apartment studio and the afternoons reading, seated on some bench I would discover while exploring the slopes and nooks of what appeared to be a boundless garden. And my windows looked upon the most glorious sunsets I remember.
“Friendly society” I said. I soon discovered my capacity for discarding all shyness when getting to know my fellow residents Teju Cole and María José Ramírez. Intelligent conversation and also two different, particular senses of humour, made me look forward to our meals together, and our long after dinner conversations. Conviviality was also made a daily renewed pleasure by Javier Montes, whom I had met previously in Madrid but only briefly; at Santa Maddalena I had the chance to develop a budding friendship with this author of captivating, intriguing novels, who is also an art connoisseur. And of course there were the dogs – Paride with the melancholy eyes, the endearing Carlotta, tirelessly yapping at my feet, the distinguished Miss Rosine and the sulky Giulietta, each with a distinct personality and their own ways of relating to the guests.
But it was Beatrice who fascinated me with her unfailing sense of the unexpected but right comment on a historical character or an author, her ironical take on the current observance of the politically correct and her natural, unassuming elegance of behavior and speech. (It may be said of elegance what Cocteau said about love: “Il n’y a pas d’Amour, il n’y a que des preuves d’amour”.) Visiting Florence and Arezzo in her company brought to light aspects of these cities that had previously eluded me. She generously introduced us to her friends. Max Rabino led us in an erudite tour of Tuscan villas, regaling us with historical and artistic comments. Tonino Pieri questioned me about Latin American literature, displaying an infrequent familiarity with some of its less fashionable authors – Felisberto Hernández, for instance.
I write these lines in Buenos Aires. My novel proceeds at a slower pace than during the weeks spent at Santa Maddalena. I feel, however, the unnamed presences of Beatrice and Grischa keeping me company on every page.