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Pablo Urbanyi: An Argentine-Canadian Writer

 

Hugh Hazelton

 

Though he currently lives in Ottawa, Pablo Urbanyi is one of the most active writers of satirical fiction in Argentina today.  Since the appearance of his first collection of short stories, Noche de revolucionarios [Night of the revolutionaries], in Buenos Aires in 1972, he has written a total of ten  works — seven novels and three collections collection of short stories — two of which have been published in Ottawa and the rest in Buenos Aires.  Urbanyi's work has achieved considerable acclaim in Argentina: his work is regularly and enthusiastically reviewed in the Argentine press, and his novel Silver, a satirical fantasy based on the memoirs of a preternaturally intelligent gorilla raised in California, was runner-up for the prestigious Planeta award in Argentina in 1993.  Throughout his literary production, which has included portraits of drawing-room revolutionaries, bumbling detectives, obsessive academics, unscrupulous physicians, pathological philanthropists, fascistic entertainers, and other characters, Urbanyi has retained a remarkably consistent satirical style and ability to touch on basic societal and existential problems in a comical way.  Within Argentine literature, his work is part of a long satirical tradition that began in the gauchesca era with authors such as Estanislao del Campo, and in the twentieth century has included Leopoldo Lugones, Leopoldo Marechal, and Julio Cortázar.

 

Excerpts from Pablo Urbanyi’s work

The Law is the Law - translated by Nigel Dennis


Pelyhecskék

 

Pablo was born in Hungary in 1939 and lived there throughout World War II, during which time his father fought in the Hungarian resistance movement.  After the war, the family wanted to emigrate, and had the choice between Argentina, Australia, or Canada.  His father, thinking that English would be difficult to learn, opted for Argentina, and in 1949 the family settled in Longchamps, a town in the pampas just south of Buenos Aires, where his father eventually set up a toy factory.  Although he continued to speak Hungarian with his parents, Pablo has always felt himself to be thoroughly Argentinian.  He has maintained his contacts with Hungary, however, and several of his works have been translated into Hungarian and published there.

Irony has always been part of Urbanyi's life.  The Hungarian village where he was born was ceded to Czechoslovakia after the war, so his first years of schooling were in the Czech and Slovak languages. In Argentina, despite once being thrown out of school for misbehaviour, he became interested in literature and started writing stories in sixth grade.  The poet Roberto Juarroz, who was the librarian at his high school, encouraged him in his reading of a variety of authors, from the French encyclopédistes (Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau) and existentialists (Sarte, Camus, Genet, and Girardot) to the Russian classics (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Andreyev) and writers of modern Buenos Aires (Roberto Arlt).  He attended the University of Buenos Aires for five years, enrolling in medicine, psychology, and physics, but finally dropped out to get married and become a carpet salesman and desultory writer of fiction.

 

In the mid-1960's Urbanyi and his family moved to the mountain resort town of Bariloche, in the Argentine Andes, where Pablo worked as a wool merchant and travel agent before opening up a small nightclub.  They later returned to Buenos Aires, where he continued with odd jobs of various sorts and gave up writing altogether, all the while devoting himself to reading voluminously in world literature.  The "Boom" in Latin American literature was on, and Pablo read the works of Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel García Márquez, as well as the darkly humorous Polish-Argentine writer Witold Gombrowicz.  In Spanish classical literature, he was drawn especially to Don Quixote (which he says he has read and reread at least ten times), Lazarillo de Tormes (the anonymously written picaresque adventures of a young boy who serves as a blind man's guide through the cities of imperial Spain), and in world literature to the works of Swift, Balzac, Gogol, Poe, Prévert, Jaroslav Hasek (The Good Soldier Schweik), and Faulkner.  Urbanyi, like many Argentines, was also interested in science fiction, particularly in the novels of Olaf Stapleton, Philip Dick, and Ray Bradbury.

 

Following his early successes as a writer, Urbanyi was hired as an editor for the cultural supplement of La Opinión, at the time the leading centre-left newspaper in Buenos Aires.  After the military coup against Isabel Perón in 1976, however, the paper was placed under government control.  A few years later its editor, Jacobo Timerman, was kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured by an anonymous paramilitary death squad and the newspaper was closed.  Urbanyi, however, did not wait for Timerman's disappearance: in 1977 he and his family left for Canada, the only country in which his wife, a pharmacologist, could find work, and settled in Ottawa.

 

Emigration to Canada was a shock to Urbanyi: now nearing forty, increasingly successful as a journalist, and already popular as a writer, he found himself parachuting down into a country that was virtually unknown to him and to which, if not for the political chaos in Argentina, he had never dreamed of immigrating.  Given the vast cultural and linguistic differences between Buenos Aires and Ottawa, he decided to forgo his journalism career and make a living teaching Spanish; within a year he was on the part-time faculty at the University of Ottawa.  He also plunged ahead with his writing, undeterred by the isolation of working alone in Spanish in Canada; as time has gone by, in fact, his relative detachment from his surroundings has in some ways left him freer to focus more intensively on his literary vocation.

 

Many of the short stories of his collections De todo un poco, de nada mucho and Nacer de nuevo are set in Canada, as are two of his novels: En ninguna parte, published in 1981 and later translated into both English and French, and Una epopeya de nuestros tiempos, which was published in 2004.  Urbanyi brings the same acerbic wit and unyielding satirical eye to his adopted country that he uses in work set in his native Argentina.  En ninguna parte is a brilliantly humorous send-up of Canadian academic life, while Una epopea and many of his short stories contrast the antiseptic, consumer-obsessed world of Canada with the more human, individually oriented reality of Latin America.  Canada is also present is several other works of Urbanyi, often as a place of exile, retreat, or refuge after turbulent events in other parts of the world.

 

Urbanyi continues to devote himself almost exclusively to his writing.  He has abandoned his teaching at the University of Ottawa in favour of less time-consuming and demanding teaching in language schools, and returns to Argentina on a regular basis.  Curiously, with the exception of the late Spanish author Antonio Risco, whom he met at Laval University before he abandoned a master's degree there, Urbanyi does not feel a great affinity with other Latino-Canadian writers, though he does participate occasionally in the public readings organized by Jorge Etcheverry and Luciano Díaz in Ottawa.  Nor has Urbanyi had much contact with English Canadian or Quebec writers; indeed, he continues to read almost exclusively in Spanish, though his interests span world literature.  He has published, however, in literary reviews in both English Canada and in Quebec, including Canadian Fiction Magazine, Possibilitis, and Ruptures, has done all he can to further the translation and diffusion of his works both in English and French, and has received grants from the Canada Council and the ministries of Multiculturalism and External Affairs.  His work is known and respected by both English- and French-language publishers in Canada, where his mordant wit and assured, professional style have made him one of the most published and widely appreciated Hispanic-Canadian writers.  Three of his novels have appeared in English and four into French, making him the most frequently translated Latino-Canadian author in the country.  Yet Urbanyi continues to be an author in exile, writing and publishing in another language, enjoying a continuing success in his native land, but still not a familiar figure to the reading public in his adoptive country.  Certainly there are parallels between his situation and that of W.H. Hudson, the subject of the doctoral thesis by the narrator of En ninguna parte, whose most memorable works about Argentina, such as Far Away and Long Ago and The Ombú, were written and published in English while he was living in Britain.  Yet Hudson, in translation, has become part of the pantheon of Argentine letters.  Urbanyi's work is increasingly translated into both French and English, and perhaps eventually this talented and versatile writer will become as well-known to readers in Canada as he is to those in Argentina.

 

Principal Works of Pablo Urbanyi

 

2058, en la corte de Eutopía. Buenos Aires: Catálogos, 1999.

De todo un poco, de nada mucho. Buenos Aires: Legasa, 1987.
- "Curso superior de español moderno" and "Las terrazas de Ottawa y la literatura latinoamericana" in A hagyaték [The legacy], trans. Eva Dobos, 7-83, 87-113. Budapest: Z, 1992.

El zoológico de Dios. Buenos Aires: Catálogos, 2006.

En ninguna parte. Buenos Aires: Belgrano, 1981.
- The Nowhere Idea. Trans. Nigel Dennis. Toronto: Williams-Wallace, 1982.
- L'idée fixe. Trans. Jean Potvin. Montreal: VLB, 1988.

Nacer de nuevo. Ottawa: Girol, 1992.
- "El legado" in A hagyaték [The legacy]. Trans. Eva Dobos, 117-125. Budapest: Z, 1992.

Noche de revolucionarios. Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1972.

Puesta de sol. Ottawa: Girol, 1997.
- Sunset. Trans. Hugh Hazelton. Fredericton, N.B.: Broken Jaw Press, 2003.
- La vérité de Pinocchio. Trans. Danièle Marcoux. Montreal: Québec-Amérique, 2004.

Silver. Buenos Aires: Atlántida, 1994.
- Silver. Trans. Danièle Marcoux. Montreal and París: Balzac-Le Griot, 1999.
- Silver. Trans. Hugh Hazelton. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic, 2005.

Un revólver para Mack. Buenos Aires: Corregidor, 1974.
- Un révolver pour Mack. Trans. Jean Potvin. Montreal: VLB, 1992.

Una epopeya de nuestros tiempos. Buenos Aires: Catálogos, 2004.

Several of the works listed here have also been translated into Hungarian and published in Hungary.  Most recent among these is El  Zoologico de Dios .  Isten Allatkartje which was launched during the recent International Book Fair in Budapest -  See the invitation to the Book Launch !

 

Excerpts from Pablo Urbanyi’s work

 

The Law is the Law - translated by Nigel Dennis


Pelyhecskék

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