Book Review | The Alphabets of Latin America by Abhay K

The spirit of Latin America is to be found in the pages of this book

By Jorge Heine

A measure of the interest this inspired poetry collection has aroused, is the fact that it has already been translated and published into Italian, and Spanish and Bengali versions of this book will be forthcoming, to be launched next February at the International Kolkata Book Fair. In 2004, having been in post as ambassador of Chile to India for only a couple of months, I had the opportunity to give an opening address at the International Kolkata Book Fair. Chile was the focal country of the Fair because of the centennial of Pablo Neruda, Chile´s Nobel Prize-winning poet, and an event that led to year-long celebrations, fresh translations into half a dozen Indian languages, and several seminars across India. On the occasion, we had a noted Chilean poet, Raúl Zurita, in attendance, with him playing a prominent role in the Fair.

In those pleasant days of February of 2004, my wife Norma went shopping for the famous cotton fabrics for which Kolkata is so well known. She was in the company of the daughter of Chile’s Honorary Consul in Kolkata, Mr Jougal Saraff. Upon entering a store, Vandana Saraff introduced Norma to the shop clerk as the wife of the Chilean ambassador to India. The young man’s eyes lit up, and he said: “Chile, Chile—the land of Pablo Neruda” and asked my wife: “May I recite a poem?” My wife said, “Of course”. And he proceeded to recite, in perfect English, one of Neruda’s poems from Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair.

Only in Kolkata can this happen,—a shop clerk knowing Pablo Neruda’s poetry by heart– a young man who told my wife he had discovered Neruda in a local library as a child, and never looked back. In that same vein, whenever I would visit Kolkata during my posting in India, I would call on then-Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, a scholar and a gentleman in the best sense of those words, in the Writers´ Building, the West Bengal’s government quarters, and we would talk at length on politics and literature. Some say that Bengalis, with their love of literature, of left-wing politics and of football, are the Latin Americans of India, and there is something to that.

Much like Ambassador Abhay, Neruda was also a poet-diplomat, as was our other Literature Nobel Prize winner from Chile, Gabriela Mistral. Harold Nicolson, the noted British diplomat and author of one of the standard texts on statecraft, Diplomacy, published in 1939, but still used today, referred to diplomacy as a written art form. Not surprisingly, there is a whole slew of writer-diplomats around the world, including, of course, in India. But the number of poet-diplomats is a much smaller subgroup of this larger universe, a subgroup in which Chile is well represented. As some of you may know, after serving as ambassador in India, I served as ambassador of Chile in China. As it happens, both our first ambassador to China, Armando Uribe, and his cultural attaché, Gonzalo Rojas, were noted poets who went on to win Chile’s National Prize of Literature. I sometimes wonder whether they communicated in verse at staff meetings.

Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel Prize winner, is in that category as well. Both Paz and Neruda (who are on the cover of The Alphabets of Latin America) had a strong connection with India, and Paz’s book, In Light of India, is an extended meditation on Indian civilization. Neruda and Paz are in fact joined at the hip in the Indian imagination, so much so that a good friend of mine in Delhi once told me that he “recalled” the days in which both Paz and Neruda served as ambassadors to India. This, of course, never happened. Paz did serve as ambassador to India in the sixties, but Neruda never did—the closest he came to that was as consul of Chile in Colombo, as far back as the 1920s, though he visited four times, including a famously unhappy encounter with PM Jawaharlal Nehru in 1950 in Mumbai, which led to his poem, “India, 1950”. But both Neruda and Paz wrote about India in prose and in verse, expressing their love for and fascination with Mother India in different ways.

Ambassador Abhay steps into that distinguished tradition of poet-diplomats, conveying his sharp observations about Latin America—from Bahia to Belmopan. In a few lines he conveys so much about what makes the lands of magical realism tick—its geography, its cities, its literature, its politicians and even its drinks. I have been to most if not all the places he writes about— even to Belmopan, the newly-built capital of Belize, a country that has come a long way from when it was known as British Honduras, and Graham Greene called it “the armpit of the British Empire”. And I was struck by the accuracy of Abhay’s observations, his writer’s eye, and his knack for capturing the essence of a place in a few lines.

How do you convey the sheer, overwhelming, numbing diversity of “nuestra América “ as José Martí used to say, or “la América morena”, the term I prefer, in a short book of poems? Abhay’s solution was brilliant: by means of the alphabet, using it for countries, politicians, and writers, and take it from there.

Latin America has a dramatic geography, with some of the highest mountains and longest rivers in the world, and Abhay’s poems capture that perfectly. On the Andes, “The green breasts/ of Earth/ rise to quench the thirst/ of insatiable humanity”; or on the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world, “in the vastness of the desert/ the road merely a line/ snowcapped Andes/ sibylline as ever”; or his poem on the Amazon, “The anaconda was missing/ so they offered us piranha fishing/ in consolation/and bathing with pink dolphins/ in the black river”.

Yet, the majority of Latin Americans live in cities, and the eagle’s eye with which these poems capture city scenes is breath-taking—in “Avenida Paulista”, “the destitute squat on the sidewalk/ as installations of modern art”; the poem on the Carnival in Rio, one of the longest, and most powerful; or life in Bogotá, with its huge bookstores, restaurants, the Gold Museum and Botero; as well as on the sad decadence of Valparaiso, once one of the great seven ports of the world, and now , “streets stale/ reeking of decay/ ageing and death”; on Manaus, “where rivers meet/ bearing different colors/ and an opera is heard/ in the middle of the jungle”; on Santiago, “guarded by the Andes/ wearing a veil of smoke”; or on Cartagena de Indias, where “an orange flame/ burns in the sky / the city squirms/ then revels/ inhaling the smell”.

Latin America is nothing if not sensuality, and these verses show an uncanny ability to convey it. Much as Neruda had an ode to red wine, Abhay has a poem on caipirinha, Brazil’s national drink, with another line that says it all, “Brazil is body, caipirinha its soul”.

Abhay was based in Brazil, and Brazil is very much at the center of this book, as is in many ways Rio de Janeiro, the old capital, “ciudade maravilhosa”, as the song says. Thus, poems on the statue of Christ the Redeemer; on the Itamaraty Palace (the former headquarters of Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, “Anaesthetized, clinical, green/ ready to build the scalpel/ of words—to slash, to heal”); on its revelry, and on its glorious beaches, Ipanema and Copacabana. “I have heard Copacabana is full of beauties/… I have seen them lying in the sand/ wearing nothing but a book in their hand”… Bahia, and Porto Alegre also make cameo appearances.

Many, though obviously not all, of Latin America’s most striking urban landscapes found their way to these pages. It includes one poem about what may be the most imposing bookstore in the world, the Ateneo, located in a former theater, only possible in a world city like Buenos Aires, that also features prominently in the book, with la Boca, Borges, Recoleta, and tango. I take it our poet has not been to Cuba, and I would have loved to see his verses on the Malecón in Havana; much as I would some lines for El Morro and La Fortaleza in Old San Juan, or the colonial quarter in Quito. These are cities that have preserved much of that striking Spanish colonial architecture and urban design, and retain that special magic that modern cities often lack. No doubt our poet, still intimidatingly young, will find the occasion to visit these places, and have his poetic imagination fired up with those pastel colors, cobblestoned streets and wooden balconies that speak of another era, yet make for a unique contemporary urban fabric.

Yet, there is no doubt that the spirit of Latin America is to be found in the pages of this book. Without missing a beat, these lines recreate the colors, the rhythms, the cadences and the pre-Columbian roots of a region of vast, empty spaces that ache to be filled with words, as Neruda used to say. Abhay has done so with verve, gusto and brio, displaying a sensibility both ancient and post-modern. This slim but meaty collection of poems regales us both with elegant poetry and a splendid, panoramic introduction to many facets of the mestizo continent.

Bloomsbury India, 2020, Pages-138, ISBN 978-9389867909

(The book reviewer is a research professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, and a former Chilean ambassador to India. He is the author of La Nueva India (El Mercurio/Aguilar, 2012. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online).

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