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The river is immense: a review of Southeaster by Haroldo Conti

By Iain Robinson.

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‘The river is immense. It is impossible to know of all the things the river does.’

Many visitors to Buenos Aires would be unaware of the Lower Paraná Delta which sits not far from the northern reaches of the city. In my ten visits to Buenos Aires I can confess to only having been to the delta once, and then only as far as Tigre, taken by the little coastal railway. Those who have a more nebulous mental image of Buenos Aires and its environs might also be unaware that the River Plate becomes as wide as a little sea, its brownish waters ploughed by container ships and ferry boats, as it broadens out from the delta towards the Atlantic ocean.

Sudeste by Haroldo Conti is a novel set in the margins, on the mouth of the delta, a landscape of channels, canals, sandbanks, islands, and reeds, and it tells the story of Boga and his restless movement through this habitat. This is a world of light and water, reeds and birds, fish and currents, boats and tides, sky and wind, guns and knives, life and death. Boga is described as having the ‘big eyes of a dying fish’ a description which marks him as a liminal character, an amphibian of sorts, poised between elements, between life and death, his journey taking him in and out of water and mud as he drifts with the river, a part of its ebb and flow. First published in 1962, Sudeste has waited a long time to be translated into English.  Jon Lindsay Miles’s translation was first published in a limited edition as South-East in 2013, by his Immigrant Press. Since then And Other Stories have decided to republish this translation as Southeaster, a title which perhaps better connotes in English the weather phenomenon to which it refers, bringing Conti’s writing to the attention of a wider readership.

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The catalyst for Boga’s journey is the death of the old man who Boga has lodged and worked with, assisting him with the harvesting of reeds. Their lives appear lonely, elemental, remote, existences eked out in ‘this green and humming solitude’. Yet civilisation is never far away. It comes with the ‘droning of aeroplanes’, or more dramatically with appearance of low flying fighter jets, or with the ‘Sunday sailors’ whose boats appear ‘white and frail and silent, like a flock of doves along the shore’, and in the spectre of the city itself, ‘towards the south, like a lattice, the planes of grey and white of the highest towers’. Boga takes a leaking row-boat in search of good fishing, up towards the north, fixing it up as he goes. Then, as the seasons change, he rigs the boat up with a mast and a sail, as if in parody of the weekend yachtsmen, and sails around the mouth of the delta until his mast snaps.

Boga’s perspective is Conti’s perspective, that of the outsider looking in at Buenos Aires, a place in the distance, his world one of fish and boats, water and light. The delta is a place where time and distance melt, the passing of time described as ‘a constant and deliberate moving of the light.’ Time and distance are experienced on the river’s terms, as rise and fall, as current, as movement, as constant change. It is a liminality that comes further to the fore in the descriptions of Boga’s voyages in his boat, so that as Boga sails into a sunrise, the water is described as disappearing, replaced by ‘a hard metallic framing that reduced him to  blindness’, or on a winter’s day, ‘the river and sky were one, a grey and muddy wall’.

There is an attention in Conti’s prose to the reconstruction of perception, for as much as he is concerned with the precise terminology and names of boats, aeroplanes, and wildlife, this is a novel that feels modernist in its approach to mimesis. There is often something breathtakingly daring in the way he trusts the reader to be able to reconstruct an action, in this case the discarding of a cigarette-end, which is depicted only in its after-effects:

Then he lit a cigarette  and looked out at the night, with that faint little blinking somewhere just before his face. And then this brilliant little point drew a longer line before it sank back  in the darkness and left there behind it just the briefest reddish wake.

It can been seen in the care he shows in reconstructing sound, light, and movement:

The river mouth and open sea were now one and the same, a water that had been stirred up, and folded in a million points in steady movement. And then the water’s sighing and the water itself appeared to separate with all connection broken. The sound was here around his head, a hundred thousand swarming bees, and then there was the water with its movement like a strange machine, a dislocated image.

It is a testament to Jon Lindsay Miles’s abilities as a translator that Conti’s prose style is one that feels fresh and invigorating in English, intensely lyrical at times, and seemingly responsive to the rhythms of the environment it seeks to represent.

Porteños, the residents of Buenos Aires, have a habit of referring to anywhere beyond the coastal reaches their country as “the interior”.  Conti is just one of many writers who have articulated a vision of Argentine experience beyond the sometimes insular bustle of  Capital Federal.  Buenos Aires is after all a port, and contrary to what porteños like to claim has its face to the river and the Atlantic beyond, and its back to the country. This tension between the city and the country, between  visions of Argentine nationalism rooted in either a European past or a regional identity, is one with deep political resonances that extend from the nineteenth century civil wars between the Unitarians and Federalists to the present day tensions between the populist Kirchnerista movement, which has actively promoted a more Latin American national identity, and middle-class urbanites. John King’s informative ‘Afterword’ included in this edition details something of Conti’s biography, literary influences,  and the political situations under which his novels were written and received. Conti’s narrator refers on several occasions to people who have disappeared in the delta in an almost uncanny precognition of the way so many would perish in the extra-judicial killings during the decades that followed, their bodies never to be found, including Haroldo Conti himself in 1976. Southeaster is not an overtly political novel and yet the political context in which it was written in 1962, and the tensions that existed between the populist but divided Peronists, who were banned from political expression and representation, the centrist Radicals, who led a fragile administration, and the military, who increasingly favoured martial rule, never seem far away, so that the sudden violence which eventually manifests itself in the novel, feels a part of the strong currents of the river. Boga’s journey is one which navigates and negotiates these currents of a river whose spirit is described as ‘sly, savage, pitiless’ so that he becomes ‘aware of something bad inhabiting the river’. Boga’s liminality lies partly in this, the idea that the river has hardened him, made him ‘brutish’ so that when he finally realises this malevolent force is ‘in the river and all its things’, including him, he knows that it will ‘drag him with it’ towards something bad.

Despite the obvious romance of the delta, of Conti’s strange, distorting setting, this is not a novel which romanticizes the lives of those who live in it. It leaves the reader with a savage beauty to contemplate, something contradictory, tense, and ultimately self-destructive in a way that seems to correspond with so much of Argentina’s recent history.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Iain Robinson teaches in the School of Literature, Drama, and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. He writes fiction, essays, and literary criticism. His writing has appeared in Litro Magazine, C21 Literature, and The Missing Slate. His novel The Buyer was published in 2014. He is also a prose editor for Lighthouse Journal. He lives in Norwich with his family.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 7th, 2015.