Saturday, May 30, 2009

'Cold Polenta'

Una manzana entera pero en mitá del campo/ 
expuesta a las auroras y lluvias y suestadas./
La manzana pareja que persiste en mi barrio:
Guatemala, Serrano, Paraguay y Gurruchaga.
--Jorge Luis Borges

Alberto Diaz pauses to inhale his fifth Marlboro of the hour, and the smoke filters up through the Friday afternoon light, hovering around his salt and pepper hair that experience has rendered more salt than pepper. His office walls are a clean eggshell, bare, save for a towering bookshelf filled with Emecé’s latest titles and five framed black and white portraits. His hawk-like eyes, red around the rims from fatigue, become animated as he identifies the photographs, standing up to point to each as he goes—Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo next to a few of the Argentine greats: Ricardo Piglia, Manuel Puig, Jorge Luis Borges, and his dearest friend, writer Juan Saer (or Juanito, as he affectionately calls him).

Diaz returns to his chair and puts out the cigarette. “Juanito was asthmatic. And he wrote like an asthmatic… still, he could write like a god.” He smiles to himself and continues. “Juani used to call me from Paris and complain that he missed Buenos Aires. And I would say to him, Juani, its not like you’re in Asunción. You’re in Paris! I would even mail him mate. He loved his mate… He was quite a character, constantly arguing with Beatriz. She thought he was coarse.” I realize that the Beatriz to which he refers is Beatriz Sarlo— Argentine essayist and literary critic— and it becomes clear that the man in front of me won 2009’s Editor of the Year for a reason.

Dressed in a navy v-neck sweater over a white collared shirt, dark slacks, sensible shoes, the Alberto Diaz seated in front of me looks the part of Editing Director of Emecé & Seix Barral, a branch of the mega media conglomerate Grupo Planeta. Yet after an hour of conversation, a curious trait of Alberto’s becomes distracting. One wonders if his excessive blinking, a tick of sorts, betrays a more layered man beneath his professional title, one who can never quite relax. Perhaps the tick comes from the six years he spent in political exile due to his editing of Leftist and Marxist literature with Siglo XXI in 1976. Maybe it harks back to his university days, a time where he idolized Che Guevara and was actively involved with the Partido Socialista de Vanguardia in Argentina. Or, equally probable, the culprit is dry eyes. Either way history will attest, Alberto Diaz has lived more than one life.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1944 into self-described “humble origins,” Alberto is a Porteño to the core: his father, a Gallego, immigrated to Buenos Aires at age 14; his mother, the more chic of the two, was Italian. While his father labored at the family bakery, twice a week he and his mother would steal away to the movies. As a boy he devoured crime novels and as a university student (his degree is in History from the school of Filosofía y Letras at the U.B.A.), he watched Bergman films and delved into Marxist literature.

Early one Friday evening in April of ’76, Alberto sat at a café with a friend from their publishing group Siglo XXI, sipping beers and picking at empanadas. It was the second year of the International Book Fair in Buenos Aires and they discussed the lecturing authors, immersed in conversation. Suddenly a group of marines, arms heavy with machine guns, surrounded the café and arrested Alberto and his colleague. For a month and half Alberto was illegally detained in a 2 x 1 meter cell without windows, where he subsisted on two daily meals of polenta. Cold polenta for lunch, hot polenta for dinner. “I often encountered little bugs crawling out from the cold polenta,” he recalls with a shudder, but then shrugs as if to say that’s how it was.

Diaz’s wife Maria Ester, a petite woman with almond brown hair, dimples, kind eyes, and who like Diaz, is never without a cigarette, remembers the day Alberto was detained with such precision and detail, one would think it occurred this past April and not more than thirty years before. “I was six months pregnant with Laurita at the time, and had left my son with my mother for the day. The afternoon Alberto disappeared we were supposed to meet to have a session of couple’s therapy. We had been fighting constantly, and when he didn’t show up to the session, I was furious. I waited and waited and thought to myself, that’s it!” Maria Ester lowers her raspy voice conspiratorially and explains that Alberto is and always has been a work-a-holic. “He never misses work. Ever. It’s like a sickness.”

Her girlish face darkens as she floats back to the repression of 1976, recalling the sensations of pure terror that consumed her when Alberto was there one morning, and simply gone in the afternoon. “We had no idea where he was. Everyday in the newspapers there would be reports of dead bodies of men dressed in suits found on the street in San Telmo, near Siglo XXI’s offices and Alberto has always dressed nicely, jacket, tie. My heart was paralyzed with fear, with the possibility that my husband was dead on the street.” Longtime friend of Diaz, Susan Mailer explains, “Maria Ester once told me about what it was like when he disappeared. She went crazy. Nobody knew what was going to happen to him.” While in jail Alberto was physically abused and interrogated throughout the nights, though his reason for detainment was never clear. Such was the “dirty war” in Argentina, a series of military juntas that resulted in the disappearance of between 10,000 and 30,000 people from 1976-1983.

Maria Ester rubs her palms back and forth over her thighs, nervously, and continues, “I spent weeks looking for him, but no one would tell me anything. There were ships that were used as detention centers. I went once by myself, thinking stupidly that being pregnant would keep me safe. I went to ESMA, [a clandestine detention center in Buenos Aires] and still couldn’t find out a thing. I was desperate. And my heart literally broke thinking about my son Carlitos, who was so close to his dad. Every night that Alberto was gone, Carlitos would sleep in his crib clutching a picture of Alberto that he had found.”

While Diaz prefers not to discuss his detention, Maria Ester remembers stories he had told her after his release. “While he was in isolation he would hear other prisoners being tortured during the night, screaming. But it wasn’t all so awful. Alberto has a great sense of humor and he used to tell jokes to the other prisoners when he was briefly moved into the group room. He would make them laugh and laugh. And they all became friends. There was a Swiss in the jail, and his embassy sent him bon bons. Can you imagine? Bon bons. He shared them with the others.”

When Alberto was finally released, he went right back to work at the editorial. “I told him he was crazy!” Maria Ester remarks, “he was skinny and had grown a beard and wanted to go back to the post that got him imprisoned in the first place.” By the summer, the death toll and the number of disappeared in Buenos Aires had only increased and escape seemed to be the only sensible recourse. “It was going to be a massacre,” Maria Esters explains. The pair waited until Laura was born and in august of ’76, they fled to Colombia. As a political exile the family found a community with the other Argentines, Chileans and Uruguayans who had left their respective countries to escape persecution for their radical politics. Mailer first met Alberto and Maria Ester through her husband, Chilean Marco Colodro. Colodro, who at the time was vice president of the Banco Central de Chile under Allende had been forced to leave Santiago when Pinochet’s regime took power. Mailer recalls, “My earliest memories [of Alberto] are him taking care of his kids. He always looked stressed and worried about them. He smoked a lot, even more so then now. Very political when we met him— leftist.”

In Colombia Alberto was able to continue working as an editor. He says, “In that time I was very americanista. I had the option of working in Spain, but I chose to stay in Latin America. First in Colombia. But I was briefly detained again by the Colombian military so we ended up moving to Mexico where most of the Montoneros has gone. Not the same place as them, but near by. But that’s another story.” For Alberto and Maria Ester, Bogotá proved to be an inferno of repression and discontentment. They felt unsafe walking through the streets, and when 3-month-old Laura fell deathly ill from contaminated milk formula (produced in Colombia), Alberto had had enough and they uprooted to Mexico.

Finally in D.F. the family found respite. Alberto and Maria Ester started a “group for socialist discussion” recalls Alberto, in which the last Friday of every month, the pair and 40 friends would gather, make a meal, and chat about politics and culture. They distributed Sarlo’s Punto de Vista magazine in Mexico and got involved with human rights work. “When we returned to Argentina,” he reflects, “We had become more socialist democrats. We had softened our political beliefs.” Since his militant revolutionary days, according to Mailer, “Alberto has changed a lot. He’s much more moderate now. More relaxed, and he seems happier,” she explains, “like he’s grown into himself.” One finds other changes in Alberto that are less pronounced, like the crows feet stamped neatly in the corners of his eyes, or the fact that he has not touched polenta since 1976.

After six years of waiting out the political storms, suffocating uncertainty and marital turmoil, in October of ‘83, Alberto and his family were able to return to their home in Buenos Aires without threat of illegal imprisonment. Today the clean-cut editor is indispensable to Emecé/ Seix Barral. Alberto believes his six years of exile actually strengthened his career, for he was able to acquaint himself the nuances of other markets in Latin America and establish personal relationships with a wider breadth of writers. He is easily drawn to and eager to share his knowledge on any subject in the literary world.

Even Alberto’s Palermo apartment reflects his irrefutable connection to literature, with its location on the very corner in which Jorge Luis Borges, in his poem titled ‘Fundación mítica de Buenos Aires,’ contemplates Buenos Aires’ origins. When not in his office at Grupo Planeta, Alberto may be found lingering on his block, cigarette poised at the lips, at the crossing of the streets Guatemala and Serrano.

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