Juan Gelman, the celebrated Argentine poet, died in Mexico City on January 14, 2014. He was 83 years old and had lived in the Mexican capital since 1988. In addition to his poetry, he wrote a weekly column for the Buenos Aires daily Página 12.
Gelman, a prolific poet since childhood, published his first poem at the age of 11 in an anarchist journal (Rojo y Negro—Red and Black). He died a supporter of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her faction of the bourgeois Peronist party.
Between those two bookends was a lifetime of literary and political activism. Gelman was considered one of the most important Spanish-language poets, as well as a fighter against the Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s.
Gelman came from a family of Ukrainian immigrants. His father, José, who had participated in the 1905 Revolution in Russia, first arrived in Buenos Aires in 1912. Following the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, José, a railroad worker, returned to the Soviet Union. He left again, in 1928. (In 1957, Gelman learned that his father had been profoundly disillusioned by the expulsion of Leon Trotsky from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and his forced exile). Gelman’s brother, Boris, introduced him to the poetry of Alexander Pushkin and triggered the future author’s commitment to poetry and journalism.
He spent his youth during the years of oppressive military regimes known in Argentina as the “infamous decade,” the period between the bourgeois-radical regime of Hipólito Yrigoyen, overthrown in 1930, and the military coup of 1943. These were years characterized by class polarization and powerful strike movements of the working class.
Gelman was 13 at the time of the June 1943 coup that three years later brought Juan Domingo Peron to the presidency.
The Second World War spurred the growth of industry in Argentina. The industrial suburbs of Buenos Aires, along with Córdoba, attracted immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, as well as workers from the nation’s interior. This phenomenon was accompanied by the growth of an urban middle class, on which the Peronist regime based itself.
In 1945, notwithstanding his father’s anecdotal sympathy for Trotsky, Gelman, a 15-year-old student in the elite high school Colegio Nacional Buenos Aires, joined the Stalinist Federación Juvenil Comunista (FJC, Communist Youth Federation).
Gelman continued to write and in the 1950s became part of the “Dry Bread” (Pan Duro) poetry group, a literary collective made up of Communist Party youth. In 1954, he became editor of the Communist Party newspaper La Hora and a correspondent for the Xinhua Chinese news agency. He published his first volume of poems, Violín, in 1956. In 1959, he published a second volume, El juego que andamos.
These volumes were followed by many others, including Los poemas de Sydney West, Bajo la lluvia ajena and Hacia el Sur.
Under the impact of the Cuban Revolution and Che Guevara’s guerrilla ideology, a split from the FJC formed the Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, FAR), which Gelman joined in 1967. Initially set up as an adjunct to Guevara’s ill-fated guerrilla operation in Bolivia, the FAR modeled itself after 1967 on Uruguay’s Tupamaro urban guerrillas. In 1973, it merged with the Montoneros, its Peronist counterpart.
It was against the FAR that the Argentine government in 1971, with the assistance of the Peronist union bureaucracy, unleashed the CIA-backed wave of kidnappings, torture and extra-judicial killings, with horrifying consequences for Argentina’s youth and working class. The disappearances escalated under Peron’s second government, and that of Isabel Peron (1972-1976), and finally during the military dictatorship that replaced it in 1976. Tens of thousands died in the repression.
In 1975, the Montoneros sent Gelman to Rome as part of a campaign to denounce the disappearances and other violations of human rights. A year later, in August 1976, Gelman’s 19-year-old daughter, Nora Eva, his 20-year-old son, Marcelo Ariel, and his daughter-in-law, María Claudia, also 19, were kidnapped by the regime. María Claudia, seven months pregnant, was sent to Uruguay, and kept alive until she gave birth. Nora Eva was freed. Marcelo was killed. María Claudia’s body was never found.
Gelman’s granddaughter was one of the scores of babies born to “disappeared” mothers and then handed over to families of security force members; the poet searched for her for many years until she was found in 2000.
The abductions would transform Gelman’s life. He campaigned to bring his son’s executioners to justice and searched for his missing grandchild. In 1979, he broke with the Montonero organization. In a rambling article published in 2001 in Página 12 (“Ajá”), he repudiated Montonero leader Mario Firmenich, for “suicidal policies” both before and after the 1976 military coup.
By breaking with what he called a “militarist delirium” in 1979, Gelman considered that he himself had prevented even more deaths. In this declaration, Gelman also indicted some of the Montonero leaders who went on later to become high officials in the right-wing Peronist government of Carlos Menem (1989-1999).
Sadly, Gelman did finally make his peace with Peronism and the bourgeois order. He became an enthusiastic supporter of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s government. “This is the best government we could have,” said Gelman in a 2012 television interview.
Upon his death, the Argentine government declared three days of official mourning.
Gelman’s extensive body of poetry brings together European and Latin American influences. He also published verse in the Sephardic Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) language. He was a wordsmith, who took pride in modifying grammar, gender and usage in his poems.
Many of his later poems suggest a romantic tenderness and nostalgia, like this one invoking the disappeared—including his own children—who were thrown from planes into the sea or buried in unmarked graves:
If the waves sweetly lapped over your head...
If the waves sweetly lapped over your head
of the one that leapt into the sea / what about the brothers
that they buried? / do their fingers sprout little leaves? / trees? / autumns
that defoliate them as if voiceless? / in silence
brothers recall the time
they were two three fingers from death / they smile
remembering / relieved still
as if they had not died / as if
Paco could still shine and Rodolfo still gaze
over everything forgotten that he used to drag
on his shoulder / with Harold examining his bitterness (always)
bringing out the ace of spades / his mouth to the wind /
aspired life / lives / his eyes gazed upon the terrible one /
now they are talking about when
luck was on their side / no one did kill / no one was killed / the enemy
was mocked and a little of the general humiliation
was retrieved / with bravery / with dreams / on the ground
with all the comrades / in silence /
melting into the January night /
still at last / totally alone / with no kisses
[Si dulcemente por tu cabeza pasaban las olas...
si dulcemente por tu cabeza pasaban las olas
del que se tiró al mar / ¿qué pasa con los hermanitos
que entierraron? / ¿hojitas les crecen de los dedos? / ¿arbolitos / otoños
que los deshojan como mudos? / en silencio
los hermanitos hablan de la vez
que estuvieron a dostres dedos de la muerte / sonríen
recordando / aquel alivio sienten todavía
como si no hubieran morido / como si
paco brillara y rodolfo mirase
toda la olvidadera que solía arrastrar
colgándole del hombro / o haroldo hurgando su amargura (siempre)
sacase el as de espadas / puso su boca contra el viento /
aspiró vida / vidas / con sus ojos miró la terrible /
pero ahora están hablando de cuando
operaron con suerte / nadie mató / nadie fue muerto / el enemigo
fue burlado y un poco de la humillación general
se rescató / con corajes / con sueños / tendidos
en todo eso los compañeros / mudos /
deshuesándose en la noche de enero /
quietos por fin / solísimos / sin besos]
Gelman was honored with numerous awards in Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Spain. He received Argentina’s National Poetry Prize in 1997, and he was the recipient in 2007 of the prestigious Cervantes Prize, awarded by the Ministry of Culture in Spain for lifetime achievement by a writer in the Spanish language.