Juan Gelman, Argentinean poet of love and pain, dies aged 83

The writer won unanimous recognition in the world of Spanish letters

Juan Gelman, pictured in his home last April.
Juan Gelman, pictured in his home last April.pradip j. Phanse

At 4.30pm on Tuesday, in his home in Mexico City’s Colonia Condesa, the Argentinean poet Juan Gelman passed away quietly in the company of his closest relatives, family sources confirmed.

Aged 83, Gelman had been battling disease for some time, but acted like a man who still appreciated life but was not afraid of death.

“I don’t think I will live to be 100,” he once said. “And even though I want to see my grandchildren get married and have great-grandchildren, I think that God, if he exists, must be terribly bored with his eternity.”

The EFE news agency reported that Gelman died from myelodysplastic syndrome, which affects the bone marrow.

Born in Buenos Aires to Ukrainian immigrants, Gelman fell in love with poetry through Aleksandr Pushkin, whose verses Juan’s brother used to recite in Russian. He dedicated his first poems to his neighborhood sweethearts in Buenos Aires, where he was born in 1930. Gelman no longer remembered those early verses of his — he always tried to forget everything as a rule — but he did remember one thing: “Her name was Ana.”

I think that God, if he exists, must be terribly bored with his eternity”

Shortly after that he decided to become a poet, against the wishes of his mother, who told him he would never make a living that way. But she was wrong. Through volumes such as Violín y otras cuestiones, El juego en que andamos, Velorio del solo, Gotán, Sefiní, Cólera Buey, Mundar, or his last work, Hoy, Gelman gained unanimous recognition in the world of Spanish letters, going on to win major awards, including the Cervantes Prize.

A master at writing verses that speak of love, death and pain, he combined his poetic work with political activism and the defense of human rights. Yet he rejected the concept of “politically committed poetry.”

His fight against the Argentinean dictatorship, the effects of which he suffered personally, deeply marked his life and his work. He was part of the Montoneros, a left-wing guerrilla group, and lived in exile from 1976. Following a public protest by several prominent writers, including Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, the arrest warrant against him was revoked in 1988, and a year later he was pardoned by the government of Carlos Menem. But Gelman chose to remain in Mexico City, where he had settled down a year earlier.

But the worst scars of the dictatorship did not originate in his exile. His son and daughter-in-law, who was pregnant at the time, were abducted by the military regime and were never seen again. It was 23 years before the poet found his grand-daughter. Gelman often said that the pain of losing a child never ends. Yet he decided not to write from a feeling of hatred, “which is hurtful to us,” but from a feeling of loss instead. He even adopted a conciliatory tone with people who, like the writer Jorge Luis Borges, once supported the dictatorship. “There is no need to digest their ideas, just to understand them,” he said.

In later years his disease undermined some of the passion that had fueled his work, although he remained warm and cordial in his personal relations. He went for walks, he smoked, he read. He supported his country’s government, though with a critical eye, and until just a few months ago he was still writing a weekly column for the Argentinean daily Página 12.

Gelman openly supported protest movements, such as the Indignados in Spain or the 132 in Mexico, but in private he despaired at the advance of global financial institutions’ power over politics, and at people’s resignation. “An entire system has been put in place to trim back our spirits,” he concluded in the last interview he ever gave this newspaper.

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