Haroldo Conti wrote Southeaster in 1962 and went on to write more novels which led to Gabriel García Márquez describing the author as one of the great Argentinian writers. Conti knew the Paraná Delta of which he writes in this book and knew the way a south-easterly wind could pile up the waters in the delta, flooding the low-lying islands. The translator, Jon Lindsay Miles has worked hard to try and convey the rhythmic pulse of the original Spanish and, working from English only, I feel he has achieved a great deal.
The story is of Boga, a lone sailor, fisherman and odd-job man who makes the death of his long-time reed-cutting boss, an event conveyed in powerful yet simple language, the trigger for his own ambition to become a vagabond of the delta, living mainly on and near his boat and subsisting on the fish he catches and trades for essentials. The prose evokes the flat landscapes, the minor tributaries and the man-made canals, the thick mud and the tall reeds with the water constantly ebbing and flooding, making the work of sailing, rowing and fishing just that much harder and more complicated. Conti revered Ernest Hemingway’s work and it is not surprising that several critics have drawn parallels between their writing; not least Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and this novel, Southeaster, as evidenced by this passage.
You can’t say the river changes one way in the winter and another in the summer. The river simply changes. The islands, on the other hand, seem different each season. Not just for the striking green of summer, but far more subtle things. In winter, from the open sea, they vanish in a distant mist. They’re there, and then they’re not. You come to doubt the river and believe you’ll never reach them, despite the faint uneasiness that cuts you off and rocks you and in a way distresses you. These shores may prove illusory, a shadow out towards the west, swayed by the horizon. And if at last you draw near, they come to seem remoter still, colonised by loneliness, by silence and a sadness past repair.
Being less than twenty miles from Argentina’s capital, the town of Tigre and the wide Paraná delta beyond are, nowadays, a major tourist attraction with excursion boats as well as canal barges, luxury hotels as well as rowing and sailing clubs extending many miles up the river. But, in the time of which Conti writes, these developments were well into the future and the economy was not flourishing. Tigre was an industrial town.
Conti deserves to be better known, beyond those who specialise in Latin American literature and, once more, the enterprising publisher & Other Stories deserves credit for bringing us this book. Alas, they cannot bring us Conti. He was one of the thousands of victims of Argentina’s Dirty War, being numbered among the ‘disappeared’, arrested in his apartment in 1976 and never seen again.
This book is one to be read at a leisurely pace, being carried along by the prose just as Boga’s boat is carried along by the waters of the delta. Highly recommended.