Friday, August 31, 2018

Exile's (Partial) Return: Edgardo Cozarinsky's Urban Voodoo

Argentine filmmaker/writer Edgardo Cozarinsky’s Urban Voodoo(Vudú urbano, 1985) for a moment seemed a poor choice for Richard and Stu’s annual Spanish & Portuguese Lit Months; on the final page, the author reveals that he wrote the book in English. However, he quickly adds that it was “a foreigner’s English” which he then translated into Spanish “so that the original itself becomes translation.”

Such linguistic operations seem fitting for a work concerning the sudden uprooting that can land one in a strange land with a strange language. Combining fiction, non-fiction and autobiography, Urban Voodoo is an oddity, a collection of “postcards,” two to four pages each, prefaced by a piece describing Cozarinsky’s return (or imagined return), after a long absence, to his hometown of Buenos Aires, where he’d been a member of the literary circle that included Jorge Luis Borges, Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo. Like another member of this group, J. Rodolfo Wilcock, Cozarinsky fled to Europe - Paris in his case - leaving behind the military dictatorship and “Dirty War” that engulfed Argentina in the mid 1970’s.

Cozarinsky’s introductory piece, “The Sentimental Journey,” sets the stage with a hallucinatory blurring of the author’s old and new homelands. Writing of himself in third person, Cozarinsky describes his unsuccessful attempt to obtain a refund on the return portion of the round-trip ticket he’d bought from Buenos Aires to Paris a year before. Burning the ticket and flushing away the flaming debris, he decides to take a break from his work on a translation of Michael Leiris and head out to a café: 

The place looked renovated, for sure, in a style of shiny formica and indirect lighting. But it also seemed familiar, in some way he could not put his finger on. Something suggested a clue: the lighted sign over the door no longer advertised Stella Artois, Queen of Beers, but Alabama Coffee and Teas…Behind the neon, you could still make out, across four green leaves of a painted-over emblem, the words El Trébol.  

“Struck by disbelief,” Cozarinsky finds himself mysteriously transported from Paris to Buenos Aires, where he’s immediately whisked off by old friends, a former lover, and an ingratiating government informer “always on the winning side.” He is embraced, disparaged, encouraged, insulted, invited to return and produce his books and films, told to get lost, made to feel the terrible weight of the time he’s missed, of friends now missing, of the rumors of desaparecidos, “the electric prod, the iron bar, shot off fingers, drugged bodies dumped from airplanes at night.” This is hardly a reassuring homecoming, even if only in the imagination. 

The thirteen “postcards” that follow, dated between 1975 and 1980, report experiences and reflections of Cozarinsky’s “visit.” Though the section is entitled “The Postcard Album of the Journey,” it’s unclear whether the cards are mailed from Buenos Aires to Paris or vice-versa, or even from any actual place to another. They read like missives sent into the night, appeals to strangers, assertions or confirmations of Cozarinsky’s existence meant to be hauled in by passing readers like messages in a bottle. In a brief conclusion, Cozarinsky notes how postcards “seize and reproduce the most typical aspect of a landscape, a monument, a face,” adding that his texts “would like to manufacture common, public images, a déjà vu that would dilute whatever is too subjective in an individual’s sensibility and experience” – a protective distancing from the atrocities of the dirty war and from guilt at having gotten away. The cards’ subjects, interwoven with memories of Cozarinsky’s “carefree, squandered, irretrievable youth,” vary widely: his project to make a film about Eva Perón; reflections on a demolished Buenos Aires cinema; a discussion of fast food; the daring and amusing methods of shoplifters the author knew; a recollection of his first cocktail, a Cuba Libre, at age 14. Each piece is headed by one or more epigraphs from the likes of Karl Marx, C. P. Cavafy, Ross Macdonald, Karl Klaus, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno, Andrei Biely, Kris Kristofferson, Roland Barthes, Christopher Isherwood, Caetano Veloso. Cozarinsky integrates these quotations into his literary montage as “residues of reading, a habit I find less and less fundamentally different from writing.” As an experiment in form, Urban Voodoo is unabashed in its borrowing and creates an intriguing blueprint for how a writer might present experience; one could even imagine the book printed as a set of postcards in a box.

Though no dominating theme links the cards, they accumulate to give a cinematic impression touching on nostalgia, voyeurism, the compulsion to create and, of course, the pain of exile. Cozarinsky wanders about, exploring and observing, salting his texts with memories; projects imagined or accomplished; meditations on time, memory and separation; and thoughts on the fascist regime, entrenched power, globalism and even the peculiar ability of palm trees to define the sky behind them. The book’s deliberately internationalist perspective echoes the tension Cozarinsky feels at being riven between two worlds and displays his fascination with literature and media from around the globe, as evident in the cities he references: Buenos Aires, Paris, Shanghai, Istanbul, Stockholm, Manaus, Berlin, Malacca, Bahia, to name but a few – a catalogue that suggests a craving for an elsewhere as well as a conflicted desire for the reassuring commonalities to be found in contemporary urban experience. Numerous literary references also figure into Cozarinsky’s searching attempt to contextualize himself in time and place as well as in fiction. Engaging in a performance of and struggle with “some urban voodoo,” the author tries to arrive at scraps of meaning in a globalized urban culture that can produce such a simultaneously antagonistic and entwined sense of displacement and familiarity, of regret and relief, of the immediacy of the past’s hold on the present. Susan Sontag, writing in a forward to the book, highlights the personal necessity of this dialectical ceremony: “by conjuring up the past, to heighten unappeased desires and also to exorcise them.” 

Though Urban Voodoo may not be a book I’ll rush about pressing into others’ hands, it has a strange tenacity, balanced on the edge where exile meets exile’s return. Like Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, with its similarly disruptive narrative, incorporation of cinematic elements and meditations on loss and exile, Urban Voodoo expresses the perturbations of identity that accompany one’s seeking to be an artist while escaping an oppressive homeland and having one’s cultural allegiances splintered. For anyone who’s ever been divided between two continents or cultures – even a division not fraught with the terrible burdens of dictatorship and war – this spare book may offer plenty of resonance. If nothing else, the work’s memorable title furnishes an apt name for those psychological and emotional exertions in which so many dislocated persons must engage in their attempt to reconcile an irretrievable past with a new and unfamiliar future. 

Edgardo Cozarinsky


  1. What an interesting find, Scott! I really like the idea of these literary 'postcards' - and I love your description of how they read, 'like missives sent into the night, appeals to strangers, assertions or confirmations of Cozarinsky’s existence meant to be hauled in by passing readers like messages in a bottle'. That's wonderful.

    It sounds distinctly Latin American in style. Reading your review, I'm reminded a little of some of Valeria Luiselli's essays in Sidewalks. Short pieces and reflections on spaces, places and one or two literary figures along the way.

    1. Thanks Jacqui. I thought the postcard conceit worked really well here, accentuating the sense of distance, both physical and emotional, that Cozarinsky must have felt - a compact way of communicating to someone, anyone.

      I haven't read Luiselli yet (though I have two of her books) - will try to rectify that soon!