“Nothing worries the people in power, nothing threatens them, like the freedom that lies at the end of what we can put into words,” states one of the central figures in María Negroni’s The Annunciation, translated from Spanish by Michelle Gil-Montero and published by Action Books in 2019 (45). In this deeply philosophical, semi-autobiographical novel, acclaimed Argentine poet Negroni explores a question that has figured in her writing for decades: the relationship between the aesthetic and the ethical, the poetic and the political.
Writers have long positioned themselves either as servants of the state or its chief detractors, sometimes sneakily playing both roles at once. In a European context, poets of the Romantic Period – Goethe, Byron, Keats, Mickiewicz and others – believed that, when combined with action, their words might truly change the world. The horrors of the twentieth century, however, brought a challenge to this idea. In an essay from his 1949 publication Cultural Criticism and Society, Theodor Adorno (translated into English by Samuel Weber) states, “Cultural criticism finds itself today faced with the final state of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” While the meaning of this oft-quoted statement remains up for debate, many readers see it as a condemnation of art. How can we seek to create beauty after the absolute ugliness and inhumanity of the Holocaust? Others have taken it as a question of representation: how can anyone expect human language to reflect and reveal the total reification of human lives wrought by genocide? Does it even make sense to try?
The answer to this question for so many twentieth-century poets – from Joseph Brodsky to Wisława Szymborska to Mahmoud Darwish – is an indisputable “yes.” In the Latin American context, where the second half of the twentieth century saw much of the Western Hemisphere suffering under US-backed right-wing dictatorships, this struggle can be seen everywhere from Nicaragua to Colombia to Argentina. From Rigoberta Menchú’s iconic testimony of the genocide against indigenous peoples in Guatemala during the 1980s to Juan Gelman’s poetic representations of the 1976-1983 Argentine dictatorship, during which thousands of people were illegally kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured, and disappeared, these texts speak truth to power and bear witness to the most horrific moments of human history. Written with wit, lyricism and great erudition, Negroni’s novel offers a new approach to writing of witness.
With playfulness and humor as well as vehement rage and deep pathos, with an astounding array of intertextual references, this novel does not make for light reading. Laynie Browne has commented on the phenomenon of “the poet’s novel,” a phrase that might denote either a novel written by a poet or one beloved by poets (such as Melville’s Moby Dick or Woolf’s The Waves). Describing the genre, Browne states,
A poet’s novel is less accommodating [than a conventional one]. The writer of a poet’s novel is less concerned about whether or not a reader feels invited. Narrative becomes a looming question or an undomesticated animal, in the sense that there is no expectation for neatness, action, linear movement or conclusion. Plot is not a motto affixed as a beacon or held aloft as ideal. One does not know what a squirrel, climbing in through your window and under your bed, will do. Instead, a reader listens.
Most novels are either plot-driven or character-driven; this one is language-driven. As such, its translation is no small feat. Michelle Gil-Montero, a poet in her own right and the translator of several books of Latin American poetry by Negroni, Valerie Mejer and others, spent four years rendering into English The Annunciation, which was originally published in 2006. Her passionate translation captures the exquisite nature of the book’s language, its many powerful aphorisms (“A poem is something that never has been and never can be,” 187) and its moments of unexpected humor.
Negroni is primarily a poet, and this novel is in many ways a 239-page poem, a meditation on the intersection between individual subjectivity and historical trauma. The first-person narrator is a young Argentine woman directly involved in the struggle for justice; with the coming of the 1976 coup she flees into exile in Italy. Rome, the Eternal City, offers an unassuming backdrop to the tumult of the narrator’s consciousness as she processes the unspeakable reality of friends and companions brutalized by the state. The novel’s characters hover at the border between reality, memory and imagination. These figures include Humboldt, the main character’s lover and companion in revolutionary struggle, from whom she is estranged by exile and whose fate remains unclear; Emma, a painter whose compulsion to paint scenes of the Annunciation – the moment when the Biblical Mary is told by an angel that she will be the mother of Christ – lends the book its title; and El Bose, an upper-class young man who has joined the revolutionary struggle. These are joined by host of minor characters with such delightful names as Longing, Emperor Très Noir, The Wasp, The Word House, My Private Life, Nobody, The Soul, and The Unknown. Late in the novel, a poet named Huidobro (perhaps, but not definitively, the avant-garde Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro) makes an unexpected appearance. These both honor and parody revolutionary organizations’ practice of using code names while representing the shape-shifting, conflicting aspects of the narrator’s subjectivity.
In the acknowledgments the translator briefly thanks her Argentine father, Guillermo Higinio Gil Montero, for helping her to understand some of the slang and time-specific language used in the text. Admittedly, I am curious about his input and indeed several of Gil-Montero’s decisions, such as when one among the revolutionary group states, “We need to give this flash mob a political direction.” This is a hilarious choice, as to me “flash mob” is a decidedly twenty-first century term. I’d like to know more about how Gil-Montero came to this and other decisions. As an avid reader of Spanish-language poetry in translation, I am partial to page-facing bilingual editions that allow readers to examine the translator’s choices closely, drawing attention to the art of translation rather than obscuring it. Obviously, for practical reasons, such an edition is not possible with a novel of this length. Nevertheless, I would have liked this edition to include a translator’s note allowing Gil-Montero the opportunity to discuss her translation process, challenges and choices.
Ultimately, I highly recommend this novel to any reader willing to engage in an inquiry into the role of art in lived political reality. One motif that runs through the novel is the color blue, which according to art historian Carol Mavor in her 2013 essay collection Blue Mythologies carries a wide range of ambiguous, contradictory meanings: “Blue is the purity of the Virgin Mary, yet blue names a movie as obscene.” The other recurring image is that of the Annunciation painting itself. While Negroni was largely inspired by Filippo Lippi’s rendering of one of Christianity’s foundational moments, the protagonist’s friend Emma paints a series of these scenes as a way of revealing that which cannot be revealed: “At that moment, eternity enters time, immensity enters measure, the Creator enters the created, the unrepresentable enters representation, the unspeakable enters speech, the inexplicable enters words, glory enters confusion, just as in the preaching of Bernardino de Siena. Isn’t that marvelous?” (231). It is indeed.
For me, this book holds a personal resonance, as Negroni was the undergraduate Spanish professor who ignited my interest in Latin American studies and set me on the path toward becoming a translator. In the 2002-2003 academic year, I took a year-long course with her entitled “Art and Politics: View of Latin America through Literature and Film,” in which we studied revolutionary movements and political oppression throughout the continent. We read everything from Gioconda Belli to Carmen Ollé to Gabriel García Márquez; in class we watched films like La historia oficial and Missing, and we took an outing to Manhattan to see The Pinochet Case on the big screen. Against the backdrop of the George W. Bush presidency and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – wars that I never could imagine would still be practically ongoing two decades later – Negroni’s course served as a wake-up call to the role of U.S. foreign policy around the world in collaborating with oppressive forces. Most resonant, however, was Negroni’s unshakable faith in the power of art to resist that oppression. Though poignant and pained, that faith stands firm throughout the novel. As one of the minor characters – the Unknown – declares, “Art is also, above all, the confused, magnificent, impossible relationship between Truth and Beauty” (177).
Negroni, María. The Annunciation. Translated by Michelle Gil-Montero. Action Books, 2019.
Jeannine M. Pitas’s most recent translations are Marosa di Giorgio’s Carnation and Tenebrae Candle (Cardboard House Press, 2020) and Selva Casal’s We Do Not Live In Vain (Veliz Books, 2020). She lives in Iowa and teaches at the University of Dubuque.
 Theodor Adorno. Prisms. Translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber. MIT Press 1997 , 34.