Sunday, April 17, 2011

Against the Current: Remembering Hernando Téllez

tatiana de la tierra

Who is your favorite author? I don’t believe in favorite authors, favorite movies, favorite books, favorite songs or favorite anything. I have too many “favorites” yet I forget them all the moment someone throws me that awful question. So I have trained myself to respond: My favorite author is Hernando Téllez. Because I do like him and was enthralled to discover him and learned a thing or two from his writing.

Hernando Téllez (1908-1966) was a Colombian journalist, politician, literary critic and creative writer. Among his writings are “bagatelas”—musings and observations of everyday life, little creative nonfiction pieces. His short story collection “Cenizas al viento” put the spotlight on him as a writer. Meticulously crafted, these tales take place during Colombia’s civil war, “La Violencia”. They are exemplary short stories. I recently read them again and am still in awe of his tight structure and surprise endings. While doing my MFA in creative writing I experimented and modeled one of my short stories, “Blood on the Roses” on his “Sangre en los jazmines.”

In 1937-1939 while in Marseille, France as a Colombian diplomat, Téllez immersed himself in French literature. Proust, Flaubert and Stendhal became his literary passions. He later wrote, “Marcel Proust is my greatest literary influence. Without doubt, his is the most extraordinary work of this century; he discovered a continent, a submerged Atlantis.” I discover a little something every time I read some Téllez.

I pulled one of his books off my shelf today: Nadar contra la corriente: Escritos sobre literatura. It was published in 1995, twenty-nine years after he left the planet. Here are 444 pages of philosophical musings on writing and literature. I’ll take just one paragraph to share. It’s from a chapter on the creative process, “La creación artística” where Téllez is having an imaginary conversation with someone, explaining to them the difference between a writer and a non-writer.

Here is my (admittedly rough) English translation, followed by the original text Spanish.

The writer moves about the world convinced that everything that happens, all the phenomenon, all the evil and the acts of kindness and insanity, all the hideousness and the beauty that cross his path, are all susceptible of becoming, of transforming into artistically usable “material.” This attitude toward the happenings in life and toward other beings is in itself an act of potential artistic creation. The single or most evident difference between yourself and a writer, between yourself and an artist, is what I have just noted. You and millions more are deaf and blind as you move through the circle of affection and hostility, of hatred and love, of scenery and music. You wear a blindfold over your eyes and a muffle over your heart. You’re limited in your capacity to experience wonder. For you, the world was made all once; for a writer, for an artist, the world is born every day. And in the mysterious bosom of an hour of love or cruelty, it’s possible to birth a universe complete with its own planetary system of feelings, reactions, doubts, poverty, and the greatness of awareness.


El escritor transita por el mundo, por entre los seres, con el convencimiento de que todos los hechos, todos los fenómenos, todas las maldades, todos los actos de bondad y de locura, toda la fealdad y toda la belleza con que tropieza el curso de su peregrinación vital, son susceptibles de convertirse, de transformarse en “material” artísticamente utilizable. Esa actitud ante los hechos de la vida y ante el espectáculo de los seres y de la naturaleza, es ya en si misma, un acto potencial de creación intelectual. Probablemente la diferencia, la única o la más evidente entre usted y un escritor, entre usted y un artista, es la que acabo de anotarle. Usted y muchos millones más de seres, avanzan entre el círculo de los afectos y de la hostilidad, del odio y del amor, entre los paisajes y la música, un poco ciegos y sordos. Llevan sobre los ojos una imperceptible venda y sobre el corazón un instrumento apaciguador. La capacidad de sorpresa de que son dueños, no alcanza a evolucionar más allá de unos límites estrechos y determinados. Y en la sensibilidad no resuena tan larga, tan despedidamente, la voz del dolor y de la angustia, la voz de la belleza que alienta en casi todas las cosas. En rigor, el mundo, para ustedes, ha sido hecho una sola vez y de una vez por todas; para el escritor, para el artista, el nacimiento del mundo ocurre todos los días, y en el misterioso seno de una hora de amor o crueldad, es posible que brote un universo completo con todo su sistema planetario para los afectos, las reacciones, los sentimientos, los escrúpulos, las miserias y las grandezas de la conciencia.

--Nadar contra la corriente: Escritos sobre literatura, Ariel, Bogotá, 1995

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