By Jason Wilson.
Jorge Luis Borges once said that English literature was infinite. The same can be said of Argentinian literature of the last hundred and fifty years. An Emeritus Professor of King’s College London introduces us to the truly tragic story of a name in Latin America poetry unknown to many non Argentinian readers
Graciela Maturo, a friendly critic, who wrote the first and still useful introduction to surrealism in Argentina under the name Graciela de Sol dropped by at Aldo Pellegrini’s bookshop accompanied by a poet called Miguel Ángel Bustos. Bustos was slight, with long black hair, was scruffy, without a tie. He had an old craggy face but was in his late 30s. Legends circulated around this poet, painter and journalist. He was asthmatic, an ex-heroin addict, an epileptic who had spent a year in the Borda where he befriended Jacobo Fijman. He had twice tried to kill himself, and had a bullet still lodged near his heart. He had hitched around Bolivia and Peru and was shocked at the suffering of the Latin American Indians. That was the gossip about him.
As we walked out of the bookshop, he complained about the noise in the city centre of Buenos Aires and his struggle to earn a pittance. But walking was a good way of thinking, ‘the German Romantics were all great walkers’, he added, without changing his tone of voice. We reached his flat in Belgrano. Inside it seemed as if he had just moved in, boxes everywhere. There were two high desks, and books were in neat piles. Both he and his wife Iris Alba are artists; and earns their money from illustrating books. The furniture was painted glaringly in crimson. He was obsessed with cats. I remembered Octavio Paz mocked a photo of the Chilean writer José Donoso in his book lined studio, with a cat on his lap. ‘The Baudelairian cat’, said Paz, ‘totem for the poet, such a cliché’. But Bustos had books on cats and revered his dead cat Atail-Ichim. He showed me his neat desk. Pinned to the wall above it were clippings and photos of his favourite writers, Artaud, Strindberg, Holderlin and Blake. Just below, the complete works of Artaud in French. He studied poets like himself. Artaud was a tough nut to crack, and I only half understood him, though I had wanted to translate his extraordinary journey to the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico..
We sipped black coffees and chatted about surrealism, his dreams, his poems and surrealist drawings. He pulled out folders of hallucinatory doodles of Michaux and Max Ernst ilk (Aldo Pellegrini would write the catalogue when he exhibited them). He said that he had spent almost ten years studying pre-Columbian myths; that he had travelled all over South America, seeing what remains of that civilization, developing a South American consciousness, which he couldn’t have done had he stayed in Buenos Aires.
‘Did I know about Quetzalcoatl’ he asked me, ‘yes’, I answered, ‘I know my D. H. Lawrence, Octavio Paz and Laurette Séjournée’, but for Bustos, Quetzalcoatl was the great mythic hero for Latin Americans. He was on a spiritual journey, what he called a purification. He looked up at me and asked, ‘wasn’t Cortés really ugly?’ I was surprised and said that I hadn’t thought of linking faces to destinies.
Bustos had been interned in the Borda because of his epileptic fits, ‘do you know about that aura just before the fit when you are really part of the cosmos, when waking and dreaming are identical?’ But he didn’t wait for an answer and went on about a system that he was working on, a book of poems, where evil was knowledge and good was Arjuna’s vision, but in truth, I couldn’t follow him and was out of my depth. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince this gringo that he was genuine or whether his obsessive way of telling his own story was simply the real thing. I couldn’t imagine him in the hard, speedy world of journalists. The one topic we didn’t address was politics.
Why was Bustos disappeared with at least 10,000 other Argentines? Was he a left-wing Peronist? It’s hard to pin Peronism down as it is both a radical, working-class movement and an authoritarian one and had a left and a right wing. Graciela Maturo was equally involved, but Perón at the time of my meeting with Bustos was still outlawed. In exile in Madrid, Perón plotted clandestinely to return to Argentina. Did Bustos share the Montonero blend of radical Catholicism and guerrilla dreams? What drove him to approve of violent action? I couldn’t tell. Bustos dedicated a copy of a book to me on ‘my Odyssey’. I pondered the way he elevated my research trip to an odyssey and what was the point of meeting so many quasi surrealists.
Bustos’s link with surrealism was through the French poets of Le grand Jeu, and René Daumal, whose key work was an unfinished and posthumous prose allegory of initiation into wisdom and despair, the dark night of his soul, Le Mont Analogue, 1952. Bustos researched into esoteric writings, with his trust in Tarot cards, astrology and Flamel and the occultist tradition. Even automatic writing has occultist origins, as W. B. Yeats confirmed through his wife’s mediumistic hand’s messages from the beyond. Bustos, in his 1970 Himalayan poems, viewed himself as a seeker of immortal gold, the alchemist’s quest, with his Jungian gloss on this tradition.
Bustos’s second book, Corazón de piel afuera (Heart with its skin outside), 1959, came with a prologue by the Montonero poet Juan Gelman. The title was about transparency, wear your heart on your sleeve, and suffering. The poems hung down the pages and spoke in baby talk, close in tone and combativity to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. They were songs in the Lorca tradition, lullabies, attempts at pure lyricism. Bustos’s persona was the child. ‘Today’, he wrote, ‘I’m scared of the mad song that rises from my guts. Today, I’m scared of silence’.
Bustos was a Latin Americanist, opposed to Argentina’s emulation of Europe. During his field trip through America, he was surrounded by fellow Latin Americans on the road and in the fields. He spent three years on the bread line, hitching and studying around South America. In Guatemala, he discovered his destiny. He found a hollow bird’s bone and inside it something written on a tablet in a strange language that he understood, and it told him how to be a poet. I’m not sure I believed him, but his next two books suggested a spiritual journey, with capitalised nouns echoing underworld explorations. I see Bustos walking slowly with me in a dream city, as if in terrible pain, and talking of matters beyond my understanding.
The last book Bustos published before being ‘disappeared’, El Himalaya o la moral de los pájaros (Himalaya or the moral of birds),1970, was profusely illustrated by his own hallucinatory line drawings of Aztec deities. The book spoke through pre-Columbian deities, in prose. The journey was one of self-transformation and an imperative to become the new man. He alluded to texts like Alice in Wonderland, padre Sahagún, the Yu Chan, with a Mallarmé quotation at the end, in French. His ‘descent into hell’ merged Quetzalcoatl with Rimbaud around the basic question: quién soy yo, who am I? He had written a pilgrim’s progress lost in a labyrinthine city, Madrid, then found himself in Cuzco, as if in a madhouse. After leaving the city, the pilgrim reached the sea. The poet listened to Marina who as Malinche had become Cortés’s mistress, betrayed her people, and then was dumped by Cortés.
This book was a long parable about inner war, defeat, and possible awakening. Maybe Bustos had reached a dead-end, and he turned to revolutionary action as his way forward. Just before being ‘disappeared’, he had written a review about Che Guevara, an act sufficient for the brutes to make this erudite and spiritual man ‘disappear’. What did the military do with this vulnerable poet? And why wasn’t his name inscribed on the wall in the Parque de la Memoria on the river front with the thousands of disappeareds? That Juan Gelman wrote a prologue to his poems suggested a political filiation. He wanted to transform himself into the Guevaran New Man and impetuously, against all his book erudition, hurled himself into action and self-destruction.
A postscript: Bustos’s body was identified by the Equipo Argentino de Antropología, with 11 other nameless corpses in the Avellaneda cemetery in 2014. He had two bullet holes in his skull.
Jason Wilson is an Emeritus Professor at University College, London. He has published numerous books, including Octavio Paz. A study of his Poetics (CUP, 1979, into Spanish in 1980, reprinted in 2009) and Octavio Paz (Twayne, 1986), Jorge Luis Borges (Reaktion Books and Chicago University Press, 2006, translated into Portuguese 2009, Chinese, 2011 and Turkish 2011), A Companion to Pablo Neruda. Evaluating the Poetry (Tamesis, 2008 and paperback, 2014), He has edited and translated Alexandre von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent (Penguin Classics, 1995), His most recent publication is Living in the Sound of the Wind. A Personal Quest for W. H. Hudson, Naturalist and Writer from the River Plate (Constable, 2015, paperback 2016, into French 2018 and into Spanish, 2023, with Ateneo). He spends his time between London and Buenos Aires. He is currently writing on how he became a hispanist. This is his second article for Perro Negro