“This novel arose out of loneliness and despair,” he said. Christian Alarcon, new winner of the XXV Alfaguara Novel Award for the third paradise, a work that navigates between essay, chronicle, autobiography, socio-political history and botany. Both the jury, chaired by Fernando Aramburu, like the author and journalist awarded with 175 thousand dollars and a sculpture by Martín Chirino, defined the book as a hybrid story that crosses the borders of genres. Written in two years, during the confinement imposed by the pandemic, it will hit bookstores in the Hispanic market starting March 24.
Recognized for “its narrative vigor and a dual structure, set in various places in Argentina and Chile”, according to the jury’s decision, the novel was one of the seven finalists among 899 unpublished Latin American works. “It is a novel of hope, where beauty, the pleasure of the senses, the possibility of finding a personal refuge are postulated,” Aramburu read at the event in Madrid.
“That they say that my novel is hopeful gives me hives”Alarcón said from Buenos Aires at one point during the conference held by Zoom. In dialogue with LA NACION, the author born in Chile in 1970, who has lived in Argentina since childhood, later expanded the meaning of the phrase: “It is not true that the book generates hope. I don’t want to give anyone hope; just the opposite. In this world there is no hope. We are at the gates of extinction. No government gives us hope, not even the populist movements in Latin America. It is very difficult not to be cynical in this situation. What do we do to avoid cynicism? At first, we laugh at ourselves and at our friends.”
The jury, made up of Olga Merino; Ray Loriga; Marisol Schulz Manaut, director of the Guadalajara Book Fair; Pilar Reyes, director of the Literary Division of Penguin Random House; and Paula Vázquez, director of Cultural Affairs of the Argentine Foreign Ministry, unanimously chose the novel. The ruling highlights: “The protagonist reconstructs the history of his ancestors while delving into his passion for cultivating a garden in search of a personal paradise. The novel opens a door to the hope of finding a refuge from collective tragedies in the small. As the author says: «Beauty begins in the wonder of flowers, as beautiful as finalists in which we will always see the destiny that cannot be resolved»”.
“It was a work entirely written in pandemic, in a retreat that I was forced to do in the south of Chile trying to survive one of the most fearsome strains of Covid,” Alarcón said. “I had the privilege of being able to stop the vertigo of the journalistic task, I decided to give myself to the fabrication of a Latin American family history and this chosen suburban experience. I reconnected with my ancestors and the deep relationship that many and many of us need with nature, to a resurgence of the botanical and of life beyond our emergencies. Without the pandemic, this novel would not have existed,” added the author of When I die I want them to play cumbia for me Y If you love me, love me, two nonfiction books that explore suburban culture, music, pagan worship, and drug dealing.
Founder and director of the magazine Anfibia, from the National University of San Martín, and from the website Red Harvest, Alarcón has been working for a long time at the intersection of literary genres. “Journalism and literature are not opposing fields. I think that border is old. I have been fighting it for years. My work aims to disarm binary borders: that of fiction / non-fiction or journalism versus literature”.
It was precisely this breaking of literary borders that made him think that he was not going to win the prize. “I did not expect that. When I got the call at six in the morning, I first thought they were friends from Colombia. And later, when I saw that he was from Spain, I thought they would make me wait for the official announcement. So it really was a strong, devastating surprise. I’m still processing it,” he revealed while Max, his “non-binary” dog walked through the living room of his apartment in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of San Cristóbal.
That is why, as he acknowledged excitedly in his talk with LA NACION, there is nothing that matters more to him about the award than his mother’s tears when he told him the news. “Perhaps it sounds a bit corny, but sharing the emotion with her, with my father, with my son does not compare to anything,” he says. “My mother’s reaction to the revelation that the path we have traveled together has made some sense was a unique experience. We are exiled migrants, dark-haired from Patagonia. Everything else (good or bad reviews) doesn’t matter.”
The jury highlighted the delicate work of the author to create the structure of the novel. “The structure is like an atom, it comes and goes. It has a lot of real life. It was an exercise in deep introspection, linked to the vital. I had to abandon the voice of the chronicler, which honors my great teachers, as Ryszard Kapuściński, and move away from the concept of ‘truth’. But I really don’t know if it’s a novel, it has a lot of essays, chronicles, family stories. Experimenting with language continues to be a space of freedom”, assured the author.
Alarcón recognizes himself in the voice of the narrator and in the exiled boy who appears in the plot. “Before everything, before I was a fag, a man and the father of Juan Pablo, to whom I dedicate the book, I was a migrant. When writing, two trajectories converge: the vital and the reader. We are made of reading experiences.”
Submitted to the competition under the pseudonym Daniel Vitulich, the novel brings together the daily life of a character and the collective tragedies that complicate our lives. Confined to the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the protagonist begins to cultivate a garden with plants and flowers. “His love for nature leads him to investigate the formation of scientific thought, the birth of botany and the great adventure of the European expeditions of the 18th century. At the same time, he recalls the history of his family, which was uprooted from its roots in Daglipulli, Chile, by the Pinochet dictatorship,” reports the press kit.
In the story appears the memory of the dahlias that Grandma Alba planted and the exuberance of the Amazon jungle that she found Alexander von Humboldt in 1799. “I did not go to the documents, I only read about the life of botanists. The title is a tribute to Giles Clément and his book the third landscape, which is what is left out of the hand of man”, said the journalist, who in 2014 received the Konex Award in the Chronicles and Testimonies category. Full professor at the Faculty of Journalism and Social Communication at the University of La Plata, he directs the Master’s Degree in Narrative Journalism at the School of Humanities at the National University of San Martín.
-In the announcement you said that the third paradise It arose out of loneliness and despair. Was the cause the pandemic and uncertainty or something else in your personal life?
-As a lonely child, loneliness terrifies me. And, despite twenty-two years of psychoanalysis, it still terrifies me. Therefore, the pandemic for me was facing that monster for the first time in the face of the real impossibility of being surrounded by my affections. What I didn’t imagine was that I was going to reconcile myself with a place where solitude was going to be the ideal space to start a dialogue with myself.
–Did you immerse yourself in writing as if it were your own anti-Covid bubble?
-Yes, I managed to close myself in the field to develop these characters, to reinvent them. And, at the same time, loneliness led me to that dialogue with myself, which I didn’t like at first, and then it happened with the plants. The world of plants was configured for me as the possibility of recreating my extreme sociability in relation to these natural codes that taught me so much: the historical and genealogical search of botany in order to understand it.
–So dedicating yourself to plants was another refuge.
-Yes, because in the countryside, loneliness is lived looking at the plants. When you get up, the first thing you do is go out to the garden to see what happened, what bloomed, what grew, where the plague is, how to fight the ants.
-But is it an activity that you did before confinement?
-No. As a child, I have the memory of being next to my grandmother in the peasant village where we lived in southern Chile; I especially remember the flower harvest. In summer, the dahlias were at their peak; the daisies, the gladioli, everything she sold for the parishioners of the village who went to the cemetery on weekends. My greatest fascination was cutting them and putting together the bouquet that presided over the table. There was no vase: it was a pitcher. I assembled the bouquet and that was the delicate childish sissy activity that was allowed to me. Combining colors, shapes, was the aesthetic and artistic experience that implies the relationship with nature.
-It was a return to childhood in memories and experiences.
-Absolutely, there is something of the order of the experience that I lived throughout the novel as a way to escape from that urban egoism. A drift, which I had been working on at a psychoanalytic level, of an overwhelming personality, exaggerated, to go to the minimum. Gardening requires concentration, respect, care. It forces you to understand a non-binary logic in which the effect of circulation of the vital is multiple, diverse, random. You have to understand the logic of the system, which is what prompted me to read about botany. This novel is an experience of knowledge. I couldn’t garden and get my dahlias to bud without knowing everything I needed to know to build the genealogy of botany.
–The writing process took you two years, much less than your previous books. Could it be because you had this story in your head forever?
-Exactly. Since I was very young, my mother used to tell me stories that today have become novels. He made me the repository of unspeakable truths at too young an age and once apologized for it. She had always fantasized about the moment when I would write the family novel. And I swore to myself as a chronicler that I was never going to do it.
“You broke your own oath, then.
Yes, with the idea of being younger. There is no healthier way to rejuvenate than to break one’s oaths.
– Was there an image, an idea, an anecdote that triggered the creative process?
–I have a psychoanalytic experience and a spiritual search that nobody imagines in me because I am a worldly subject and a city person. In the last twenty years I did spiritual inquiries and in the deepest ceremonies I was able to have visions: all that appeared were always flowers. The way was revealed to me. I didn’t know it on a conscious level. Literature arrived and I didn’t think too much about it. At one point I knew that this was the only possible path, of course conditioned by the pandemic and the confinement.
–What do you think of the definitions “hybrid” and “amphibious” that the jury gave about your novel?
-I think we are moving towards a field of culture where the logic of the masculine/feminine is abandoned and that will have an impact, sooner or later, in other areas of culture. What is happening is that borders no longer make sense. It is part of a process that occurs in the narratives of the new, but that has not yet made a dent in the social root. I have a 19-year-old son who teaches me a subtle way to live without screwing up anyone’s life. There is a fall of prejudices that confronts your identity without the need for you to consider yourself part of it.
–I pointed out that, in the attempt not to label or open borders, a cultural product like your book ends up being cataloged with words that are still new labels.
I think we have made progress. Until recently my book When I die I want them to play cumbia for me it was on the Sociology shelf of bookstores.
–But do you feel comfortable with those definitions or would you define it with other terms?
-I would feel more comfortable if they said that my novel is a gardening course.