Juan Luis Martínez and his double

The ethics of dissapearance or writing the other's work

Scott Weintraub (right) and the other Juan Luis Martinez (left) in Santiago
Scott Weintraub (right) and the other Juan Luis Martinez (left) in Santiago

There has been some relevant news about Juan Luis Martínez’s work circulating for a while. Scott Weintraub, an academic of the University of New Hampshire, has published in Santiago, Chile, and the US two important books of essays discussing a crucial discovery concerning Martínez’s posthumous publications. During his research, Weintraub found that the initial poems of “Poemas del Otro” had been written by another poet called Juan Luis Martinez, this one from Swiss-Catalan origin. “Poemas del Otro” was published in Chile in 2003, ten years after Martínez’s death. The lyric nature of the poems included in the edition surprised the general public, mostly because they bore no resemblance to the work displayed by Martínez in his seminal work “La Nueva Novela,” but the amazement was not enough to raise suspicions. Ten years later, in 2013, “El poeta anónimo” was published in Brazil. In the middle of the book is possible to find some specific clues that led Weintraub to realize that this apparent plagiarism was more a well-plotted and complicated literary game or hoax. Find a conversation with Scott Weintraub about his fascinating discovery below. If you are not familiar with Juan Luis Martínez and his work, read a previous article here. You can also find Scott Weintraub’s full account of his literary adventure following Martínez’s clues here

You were conducting some research focused on another Chilean poet (Vicente Huidobro) when you saw La Nueva Novela for the first time. What happened to you? Why did you decide to radically change the topic of your investigation?

At the time I was editing a book on Huidobro and also revising my dissertation (on poetry and politics in Néstor Perlongher, Osvaldo Lamborghini, and Raúl Zurita), with an eye to turning it into a book. However, when I first read La nueva novela in June of 2008, like many readers of Martínez I quickly became obsessed with its labyrinthine textualities and its absurdist (yet rigorous) writing practices. I initially planned to incorporate a discussion of Martínez’s ethic of disappearance into my revised dissertation. But after realizing that there was so little engagement with his work in English, I decided, perhaps foolishly, that I would write the first English-language monograph on Martínez. Six and a half years later that book is finally finished: Juan Luis Martínez’s Philosophical Poetics was published by Bucknell University Press in December 2014.

Tell us about your discovery. How did you realize Juan Luis Martínez didn’t write Poemas del Otro? What clues did you follow and what is the importance you think this discovery has for Martinez’s work, and for the approach of current studies about him?

In October 2013 I was revising my completed manuscript on Juan Luis Martínez when I was struck by the inclusion of a review of a book titled Le Silence et sa Brisure (Silence and Its Breaking) in Martínez’s xeroxed-collage 2012 work The Anonymous Poet (or Juan Luis Martínez’s Eternal Present). The review was published in 1976 and describes a work by a Swiss-Catalan poet also named Juan Luis Martinez (with no accent mark); the following page of The Anonymous Poet is comprised of a facsimile of a card catalogue entry for Silence and Its Breaking, taken from the collection of the French-Chilean Institute of Valparaíso (which no longer exists). I subsequently used the online library database WebCat (with expanded search parameters) to find out more about this book, which was published in Paris in 1976 by the now-defunct Editions Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Out of curiosity I requested Le Silence through interlibrary loan and my surprise when I received it could not have been greater. If the initial poems had a ghostly familiarity to them, they should have: I was shocked to realize that the seventeen poems contained in Silence and Its Breaking were very nearly exact translations of the first section of the Chilean Martínez’s book The Other’s Poems, published posthumously some twenty-seven years later.

Upon recovering from my initial surprise, my first impression was that these poems must have been written in French by the Chilean poet, which meant that Poemas del otro (2003) was composed of translations to Spanish of these poems, originally published in French in 1976. Alternatively — as Chilean journalist Pedro Pablo Guerrero (of El Mercurio) suggested to me via email — I wondered if Martínez had written these poems in Spanish and sent them, clandestinely to a Chilean friend living in exile in Paris during Pinochet’s dictatorship. With nearly half of the Chilean intelligentsia residing in Paris following the bloody 1973 coup d’état, Martínez very easily could have entrusted the poems and their translation to an exiled compatriot. Or, might the Chilean Martínez have discovered the Swiss-Catalan Martinez and together they collaborated on these poems (as a kind of Situationist joke or prank)? Perhaps “Juan Luis Martinez” was an invention or avatar of Juan Luis Martínez, an orthonym that recalled Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s extensive use of heteronyms.

Only adding to the ominous nature of this find was the fact that the Swiss-Catalan Martinez’s final book was published in 1993, the same year as the Chilean poet’s death. A few years prior, Martínez had published two of these ostensibly political poems prior to the plebiscite that would put an end to Pinochet’s dictatorship. During his only travel outside of Chile — invited to Paris in 1992 as a part of a group of Chilean writers — he read the poem “Quién soy yo” (“Who I Am”) as his self-introduction, which, as I discovered, is a translation from what appears to be the original (French) text. In this way, Martínez could only self-identify by way of the other Martinez’s words, which rang true with the Chilean poet’s ethic of literary disappearance and self-erasure as an author.

I felt relatively confident that Juan Luis Martinez existed without having any hard evidence to support this assertion. After all, I knew that the Chilean Martínez read French but needed a translator when psychoanalyst and philosopher Félix Guattari visited his house in Villa Alemana in 1991. I also doubted that a well-known bande dessinée (Swiss adventure comics) author such as Daniel Ceppi — with whom Martinez collaborated on two occasions (Ceppi adapted Martinez’s short stories) — would work with a Chilean poet whose French was not up to the task. Plus I just did not see Martínez as being interested in something like bande dessinée, even as part of an elaborate, multi-decade hoax.

In the face of these uncertainties, in July 2014 I published a short book in Chile called La última broma de Juan Luis Martínez: no sólo ser otro sino escribir la obra del otro (Juan Luis Martínez’s Final Trick: Not Only Being Other but also Writing the Other’s Work), which summarized my findings and put forth the theory that the Chilean poet translated and appropriated extant works by the Swiss-Catalan Martinez. After a transcontinental search for the “other” Martinez, I was able to confirm this. It’s a long story …

Regarding the importance of my discovery for Martínez studies, the “Martínez affair,” I believe, is less important for what it highlights about either JLM; rather, it is significant for the way it speaks to the question of originality in literature, the role of translation and also the humanity of writing itself as an inhuman force. After all, where Martinez has brought out aspects of Martínez’s writing through their communication across time, languages, and national traditions — and vice versa — what brings them together becomes clearer even as the identification of the original and the copy becomes more and more problematic and uncertain. As Juan Martinez himself asserted, this relation or synchronicity implies a transcendence beyond a mere joke or trick: in what he described as “Martínez’s literary suicide” we find the radical (Chilean) poet’s reinscription as an author in the face of the impossible challenge of disappearing behind a veil of words. And this would have been “the perfect crime,” according to Juan Martínez, had The Other’s Poems and The Anonymous Poet not insisted on the poet’s necessary failure to disappear absolutely. In the end, this is the punchline of Martínez’s final trick: becoming even more Martínez in poems written by another Martinez.

Your book will be the first comprehensive study about Juan Luis Martínez in English. Despite the attention Martínez has been getting in the last years in the US, why do you think no one else took on this author before?

Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livón-Grossman, the editors of the Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, call Martínez “the best-kept secret of Chilean poetry — according to almost all present-day critics” (452). This is, in part, related to the limited circulation of his artist’s books: the 1977 edition of La nueva novela (500 copies) is only held by one library in the US, whereas the 1985 edition (1,000 copies) is held by twenty-five libraries (as of May 2014). La poesía chilena (500 copies), however, appears in the catalogues of a mere seven libraries in the US. It is also very difficult to purchase Martínez’s early work; since few copies exist on the secondary market (even in Chile), the curious reader who wishes to purchase a copy of the 1985 edition of La nueva novela must arrange to have onces (“elevenses,” which consists of tea and snacks) or coffee with Martínez’s widow, Eliana Rodríguez, in Viña del Mar or in Villa Alemana, in order to explain his or her motives for wanting to own one of the very few remaining copies of the book — which sells for the set price of $200, as established by Martínez towards the end of his life.

In a larger context, there have been few in-depth, theoretically rigorous treatments of Martínez’s writing, even in Spanish; descriptive and journalistic readings tend to predominate. As Matías Ayala suggests, “La nueva novela se presenta, entonces, como una especie de laberinto semántico: las redundancias y variaciones producen una desorientación que resiste la interpretación. Esta es una de las razones de por qué la crítica de La nueva novela suele expresar sorpresa por lo singular del libro pero, asimismo, se limita a enunmerar esas curiosidades” (“The New Novel presents, then, as a kind of semantic labyrinth: its redundancies and variations produce a disorientation that resists interpretation. This is one of the reasons why critics of The New Novel tend to express surprise about the uniqueness of the book, but at the same time limit themselves to enumerating its curiosities”); from Lugar incómodo: Poesía y sociedad en Parra, Lihn y Martínez (Uncomfortable Place: Poetry and Society in Parra, Lihn and Martínez [Santiago: Ediciones Universidad Alberto Hurtado, 2010], 166–67). This tendency towards merely summarizing the content of difficult literary works is perhaps indicative of a reluctance to engage with hermetic poetry, giving rise to criticism that “reads around” texts that otherwise demonstrate resistances to reading strategies that would seek to “master” a given text, such as hermeneutics, historicism, etc.

Roberto Bolaño once said about Martínez that he was the only Chilean writer that had “read” Duchamp properly. Juan Luis Martínez, as well as other Latin American writers/artists (such as Ulises Carrión and Guillermo Deisler) employed the same premises and materialities of conceptual writing but way before conceptualism was known. What are the tensions and dialogues you think can be established between these two?

We might say that Martínez wrote the novel that Bolaño failed to write — The New Novel (a book of collages and poems) — insofar as Bolaño, the failed poet, turned to prose as a more lucrative source of income for his family. For both poets their greatest success was their greatest failure, in a way: Bolaño would reemerge as the (bestselling) novelist hailed as the “Latin American voice of his generation” (or something like that); Martínez would realize his own poetic apotheosis — “not only being other but also writing the other’s poems” — by appropriating the other JLM’s poetry, only to reinscribe the figure of the author in his failure to completely disappear amidst a galaxy of signifiers.

It is also noteworthy that Bolaño himself pays homage to Martínez numerous times: a main character in 2666 is named (Inspector) Juan de Dios Martínez, after Bolaño called Juan Luis “una pequeña brújula perdida en el país” (“a compass lost in the wilds of Chile”) in Distant Star (trans. Chris Andrews [New York: New Directions, 2004], 48) and referred to Martínez’s work as sort of a “perfect study” of Duchamp in Between Parentheses (New York: New Directions, 2011, 96). In a recent article, Alejandra Oyarce Orrego discusses the relationship between Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives) and Martínez’s La nueva novela, and mentions several references to Martínez in other texts by Bolaño:

Bolaño reconoce, de manera explícita, la vinculación con el autor de LNN [La nueva novela] cuando destaca a Juan Luis Martínez entre los seis tigres de la poesía chilena, junto a Bertoni, Maquieira, Muñoz, Lira y a, él mismo, en el cuento “Encuentro con Enrique Lihn,” que forma parte de Putas asesinas (Bolaño, 2001, 219). Del mismo modo, en LNN vemos: “Dados dos puntos, A y B, SITUADOS A IGUAL DISTANCIA UNO DEL OTRO, ¿cómo hacer para desplazar a B sin que A lo advierta?” (Martínez, 1977, 11). Treinta años más tarde, en el texto “EL INSPECTOR” incluido en La universidad desconocida, leemos: “Tome usted la única ruta, desde el punto A hasta el punto B, y evite perderse en el vacío” (Bolaño, 2007, 171). Por último, en el texto “Unas pocas palabras para Enrique Lihn” que forma parte de Entre paréntesis, Bolaño parafrasea uno de los fragmentos incluidos en las solapas de LNN, en su afirmación “La literatura ha estado a la altura de la realidad. La famosa rea, la rea, la rea, la rea-li-dad.” (Bolaño, 2008 [2004], 202)

… Bolaño explicitly recognizes his connection to the author of The New Novel when he singles out Juan Luis Martínez as one of the six tigers of Chilean poetry, together with [Claudio] Bertoni, [Diego] Maquieira, [Gonzalo] Muñoz, [Rodrigo] Lira and himself, in the short story “Encounter with Enrique Lihn,” which appears in the book Murderous Whores (Bolaño, 2001, 219 [short stories from Putas asesinas appear in English in Last Evenings on Earth (2006) and The Return (2010)]). Similarly, in The New Novel we read: “Given two points, A and B, LOCATED AT AN EQUAL DISTANCE FROM ONE ANOTHER, how do you move B without arousing A’s awareness?” (Martínez, 1977, 11). Thirty years later, in the text “EL INSPECTOR,” included in The Unknown University, we read: “Take the only path, from point A to point B, and don’t get lost in the void” (Bolaño, 2007, 171). Finally, in the text “A Few Words for Enrique Lihn,” which can be found in Between Parentheses, Bolaño paraphrases one of the fragments included in The New Novel’s cover flaps, in his affirmation that “literature has measured up to reality. The famous re, the re, the re, the re-al-it-y

(From “Cortes estratigráficos en la crítica y en la obra de Roberto Bolaño” [“Stratographic Cuts in Criticism and Work by Roberto Bolaño”], Acta literaria 44 [I sem. 2012]: 30. My translation, save this last quote from Between Parenthesis, which can be found in Natasha Wimmer’s translation of the essay “A Few Words for Enrique Lihn” [New York: New Directions, 2011, 218].)

Finally, why is it important the English-speaking reader know about Juan Luis Martínez’s work?

Firstly, there are literary-historical motivations related to exploring the Chilean scene of writing in the 1970s and 1980s (for example, the context of writing under dictatorship, experimental and conceptual poetics in Latin America, etc.). This also includes a focus on the ludic strain of the Chilean neo-avant-garde (as Marcelo Rioseco has convincingly argued in the context of Martínez, Rodrigo Lira, and Diego Maquieira, the most direct poetic descendants of Nicanor Parra). More importantly, however, there are few artists or writers from Latin America who have so adeptly interrogated the relationship between word and image in poetry, while at the same time developing a rigorous, yet absurdist philosophical poetics (which for Martínez, was a poetic philosophy). Martínez’s poetic philosophy is exemplary among contemporary texts written under the Chilean dictatorship in its radical conceptual “uncreativity,” vis-à-vis the complex formalisms he so carefully employs. La nueva novelaLa poesía chilena, and El poeta anónimo, in particular, are intensely political in their critical self-reflexivity as Chilean books that very clearly attempt to situate themselves outside of Chilean intellectual-poetic space, through the erasure of the author as well as their radical use of appropriation, bricolage, citationality, translation, and interdisciplinarity. Martínez’s groundbreaking work is the site of a unique and unresolved encounter between the poetic (the poet) and the philosophical — in this case, both the professor of philosophy and the philosopher (as poet), to paraphrase Chilean philosopher Patricio Marchant. And as Cuban poet and essayist José Lezama Lima has argued — in the very beginning of his essay American Expression — “Only that which is difficult is stimulating.” I have found no more difficult — or stimulating — writer in the whole of contemporary Latin American literature than Juan Luis Martínez.