Book talk: Argentine writer finds few Spanish-language readers

GIJON, Spain (Reuters Life!) - Guillermo Saccomanno has just won the Premio Hammett prize for the best crime novel in Spanish, yet he is almost unknown outside his native Argentina despite writing in a major world language.

Saccomanno was awarded the 2008 Hammett, named after legendary U.S. crime writer Dashiell Hammett, on Friday for his novel “77” at the annual Semana Negra crime writing festival in northern Spain.

He dedicated the prize to his granddaughter and recalled that one of her great-uncles was one of the tens of thousands forcibly disappeared in Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship.

Saccomanno, 61, spoke to Reuters shortly after receiving the Premio Hammett, which is prestigious but comes with no financial award.

Q: As far as I am aware, your book is published in Argentina, period. Is that so?

A: It is published in Argentina by (Spanish publisher) Planeta, but has not been distributed in the rest of Latin America.

This is a policy that we writers in Latin America suffer, the novel isn’t even published in neighboring countries, so what happens is that we have to circulate the books through friends in Mexico or Venezuela.

This isn’t just Planeta’s policy, but also (Spanish publisher) Alfaguara’s or Random House’s, despite our publishing in the same language.

This is nothing new. Globalisation, like imperialism, has the same “divide and rule” strategy.

Q: Will the prize help matters?

A: The prize will open doors to translation in other countries, for example France, Italy, maybe into English.

Q: And to be distributed in Mexico or Spain?

A: I will talk to my agent about that, but it’s a curious situation. I’ve won a prize for a phantom novel.

Q: Tell us a little about the novel. Why the title?

A: It alludes to 1977, which was the most brutal, bloody and somber year of the military dictatorship. It was a real massacre.

The main character is a literature teacher who has everything against him. I chose him to be a black sheep, to be homosexual, to be politically incorrect because of his sympathies with Peron, apart from the fact that he is fascinated by English literature.

What I wanted to deal with was civilian complicity, because the military dictatorship came about with the complicity of business and labor groups, and political parties - let’s not forget it came just before elections were to be held.

There is a lot of documentation in Argentina, a lot of testimony, a lot of biography, a lot of work has been done on the dictatorship, but not on civilian complicity. The support of the middle class and small business has never been sufficiently exposed.

Q: Is this issue best tackled by fiction?

A: Fiction has the advantage of using a hypothesis to go beyond journalism. That doesn’t mean that I don’t practice journalism, because I believe that journalism is also literature, plus we are living in times of hybrids, of fusion between literary genres.

Reporting by Martin Roberts, editing by Paul Casciato