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Writing is ‘like breathing’ for Argentine author

By Daniela Montalvo

Mempo Giardinelli
Mempo Giardinelli

“ ... A man who’s about to turn fifty and who feels complete in the sense that he’s done everything he’s ever wanted to do and could, and who finds himself trapped between boredom and restlessness, has only two alternatives: either he begins to prepare for old age, satisfied with what he’s done or frustrated by all the things he didn’t manage to do; or else he fires off his last round and goes for all-or-nothing. I chose the second option. And Gris put me up to it. Reckless, that’s what she is. ... ”

Excerpt, above, from “The Tenth Circle,”
Mempo Giardinelli’s latest novel; below, a detail of the bookcover.

Mempo Giardinelli is not a writer by choice. The Argentine novelist says he writes because there is no alternative.

“I don’t write to be happy or to receive any sort of satisfaction, I write because I have to, because for me writing is like breathing,” said Giardinelli, a visiting professor at U.Va. last semester in the Latin American Studies department.

Although he is back in Argentina now, Giardinelli is sure to return. He has had a relationship with the University since 1984, when he visited to give his first lecture and conference. Since then, he has been a visiting professor three times (1987, 1997 and 2002) and has given a number of conferences at U.Va.

He comes to U.Va. about once a year, he said during an interview last fall. “I have a personal romance with this University. I have fallen in love with it.

“I am proud to form part of this faculty with such amazing colleagues. Much of my daily life is influenced by the people at U.Va., so naturally, some of my work is influenced, directly or indirectly, by my relationship with U.Va. because it has been an important part of my life for the past 18 years.”

In addition to novels, Giardinelli has written essays and short stories in Spanish. He recently shared his talent for literature with both graduate and undergraduate students.

One of Giardinelli’s great concerns is the poverty in his native province of Chaco. He has established a foundation to help set up education programs and provide food for various schools in the Chaco area, where he continues to live.

“Giardinelli could live any place he wants, but instead chooses to remain in this region of Argentina because of his commitment and love for his country,” said Fernando Operé, a professor in U.Va.’s Spanish department and one of Giardinelli’s friends.

The Tenth  CircleThe renowned author was born in Chaco’s capital, Resistencia, in 1947. His writing career began when he was a teenager. “In high school, I would write short little stories, or poems, but it wasn’t until I was studying law that I realized I was a writer. I chose not to graduate with a law degree because I came to realize writing was my life. I didn’t choose to become a writer, the writing chose me.

“When I was 20 years old, I was serving in the military and was impacted by one of the novels I was reading by Julio Cortázar. That was the time when I realized that my life was literature and that I never wanted it to stop.”

His goal in writing, he said, is not fame or fortune, but simply to produce work that can stand on a par with other literature.

“Occasionally, I write to render homage to my mentors, but for the most part I don’t write with any goal in mind.”

His career has not progressed without hardship. Like many Latin American authors of his time, Giardinelli has dealt with the obstacles of a repressive government. In 1976, he and his family fled Argentina because the government banned publication of his first novel, “¿Por qué prohibieron el circo?”

Exile was the hardest time of his life, he said. He moved to Mexico, where he lived without legal papers and, as a result, had trouble finding work.

“These were very hard years,” he said, “My life was literature, but my career was stopped before it was born.”

For details about the Mempo Giardinelli Foundation — which Giardinelli created to help set up education programs and provide food for various schools in the impoverished Chaco area, where he grew up and lives still — visit these Web sites:

Writing itself proved a hardship at times. “Santo oficio de la memoria,” winner of the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos award in 1993, took him nine years to finish. “I finished it in Argentina and worked on some of it while I was at U.Va.”

One of Giardinelli’s books actually chronicles his journey with Operé through Patagonia.

Operé describes Giardinelli as “affable, simple, honest and very committed to his country. He is not a person preoccupied with fame or awards, but instead is a person with a passion for writing.

“If he doesn’t write, he isn’t the same person, which makes you realize what a true writer is.”


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