A book launch at the Americas Society, on Park Avenue, has a sort of Old World gravitas to it. With its ornate cornices, vaulted ceilings and sparkling chandeliers, the space exerts an Oz-like pull on authors from across the Spanish-speaking world. Or at least that’s what Carlos Franz, the Chilean writer now based in Madrid (see Jonathan Blitzer’s “Our Man in Madrid” series), was given to believe. “I remember as a young writer in Chile, my maestro, Jose Donoso, told me that to be taken seriously as a writer I must first be translated into English. And then to truly make it, I must come and launch my book at the Americas Society in New York,” Franz laughed the other night, as he did, indeed, introduce his new novel, The Absent Sea (his first to be translated into English), to an overflow crowd in the Society’s august lecture hall as part of the PEN World Voices festival.
Translated by Leland Chambers and published by the Kingston, New York-based publishers McPherson & Company, The Absent Sea is a dense and multi-layered examination of Chile’s recent past, an examination of historical memory and the complicities (and atrocities) of the Pinochet dictatorship that Mario Vargas Llosa has called “an investigation into the depths of both human cruelty and compassion” and “one of the most original novels that modern Latin American literature has produced.” The book focuses on Laura Larco, a Chilean exile and former judge, who returns from Berlin to Pampa Hundida, Franz’s fictional town in the Atacama Desert, to confront her past and answer her grown daughter’s probing question: “Where were you, Mamá, when all those horrible things were happening in your city?”
Fittingly enough, one of the first questions from the audience after Franz’s reading was, Where exactly was he, as a fourteen-year-old boy, on the day of Pinochet’s coup on September 11, 1973. “Hiding under my bed,” Franz replied, “listening to the planes flying overhead bombing the presidential palace, which was very near to our house.” He went on to explain that this was a subject that he had been waiting to write about his entire career. “I’ve been wanting to write about this period probably from the very beginning. The dictatorship, for us young writers, was not only a real trauma, it was everything we knew, it was part of our coming-of-age. To think about the political regime that pervaded every aspect of our lives meant to think about ourselves, our human condition. For years, critics had been asking our generation, ‘When will you write about the dictatorship?’ In the end, it took me six long years to write about it, to get it out and done with. And it was a very difficult, drawn-out process, for the most part uphill and often depressing.”
But despite the years of anguished work on the book when, as Franz said, he had trouble seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, there were nevertheless bright spots—the support and encouragement of his wife and daughter, who were both in attendance at the launch, as well as the fruitful collaboration with publisher Bruce McPherson and translator Leland Chambers. “It takes guts,” Franz insisted, “to publish fiction in translation today. And Bruce has enormous guts!” As for Chambers, who has also translated several other Spanish-language titles for McPherson & Company, including Nicaraguan author Sergio Ramírez’s A Thousand Deaths Plus One, Franz gushed: “He actually made it a better book in English. Even the title is better—The Absent Sea is so much richer than the original, The Desert.” The rugged but patrician-looking Chambers, who recalls Kirk Douglas with the voice of Ronald Reagan, later explained some of the process behind the new title: “We felt that since there was already a recent French novel out called The Desert [by Nobel Laureate J. M. G. Le Clezio], it might be confusing. And the idea of a vanished, evaporated sea that once existed beneath the desert seemed to be an image that resonated with many of the themes of Laura’s life as well—questions of history and justice, religious myth and faith.”
The Atacama Desert region in the north of Chile became an object of interest to the audience in its own right. Did Franz have personal roots there himself, someone asked? “No, actually I don’t,” the author admitted. “I prefer to write about places that are foreign to me, so that I can come to own them much more imaginatively. I am drawn to extreme landscapes—deserts, jungles, cities—that are somehow emotionally-charged as well. In fact, I am now writing a historical novel set in the Andes Mountains, a story about lovers isolated during an awful snow storm . . .”
And with that—and the promise, perhaps, of another future book launch in that very room—the audience began to filter out of the hall and into the book-lined parlor next door for a more intimate reception with the evening’s distinguished visiting author. Yes, Carlos Franz had arrived.