Osvaldo Lamborghini and His Work

The first publication of Osvaldo Lamborghini (Buenos Aires 1940 – Barcelona 1985), shortly after his thirtieth birthday, was El fiord; it appeared in 1969, but had been written several years before. It was a thin book, and for a long time it was sold in a single bookstore in Buenos Aires via the discreet method of asking for it from the salesperson. Though it was never republished, it traveled over a long road and fulfilled the mission of great books: that of inaugurating a myth.

It proposed, and continues to propose, something extraordinarily new. It anticipated the whole of the political literature of the seventies, but transcended it, rendering it useless. It incorporated the entirety of the Argentine literary tradition, but gave it a new and very distinct nuance. It seemed to bridge two puerilities: one that combined the childish half-language of the gauchesco—the literature of the gauchos—and the officious, cardboard character of our grand men of letters, and another composed of perpetually naïve revolutionary outbursts. Soon we discovered that even Borges, very much in the English vein, had limited himself to literature "for young people." The only antecedents worth mentioning were Arlt and Gombrowicz. But unlike them, Osvaldo did not take up the problem of immaturity; he seemed to have been born adult. Secret, but not ignored (nobody could ignore him), the author knew glory without ever having the least glimmer of fame. From the very beginning, he was read like a master.

In 1973, his second book appeared, Sebregondi retrocede, a novel that had originally been a book of poems. The cover had the same emblem as that of El fiord: a finger pointing upward, part phallic, part typographical. It sold a thousand-odd copies, and Osvaldo commented philosophically: "Aftereffects of the boom. Borges sold sixty-four copies of his first book."

Shortly afterward, he joined the editorial staff of an avant-garde journal, Literal, where he published a number of poems and critical texts. For some reason, his poems made a more emphatic impression of genius than his prose.

For the remainder of the decade, his publications were happenstance when not truly outlandish (his two great poems, "Los Tadeys" and "Die Verneinung" appeared in journals in North America). A few stories, the odd poem, and scant manuscripts passed around among his numerous admirers. Then he spent several years outside of Buenos Aires, in Mar de Plata or in Pringles. In 1980, Poemas, his third and last book, appeared. Soon after that he left for Barcelona, returning, ill, in 1982. Convalescing in Mar de Plata, he wrote a novel, Las hijas de Hegel, without bothering about its publication (he didn't even take the trouble to type it). And he went back to Barcelona, where he died in 1985 at forty-five years of age.

Those last three years, which he passed in almost complete reclusion, were remarkably fecund. Something those of us who were his friends did not expect, as we had only received from him the manuscript of a single novelette, La causa justa. Ransacked, it revealed a wide-ranging and surprising work that culminates in the cycle Tadeys (three novels, the last cut short, and a voluminous dossier of notes and unrelated stories) and the seven books of Teatro proletario de cámara, a poetic-narrative-graphic experience that he was working on at the time of his death.


The first and last question that arises before his pages, before any of them, is: how can a person write so well? I believe there is an outer reach of aesthetic quality—past the simulacrum of perfection—that may shine through in good prose. In Osvaldo there is allusion to true perfection, which eludes labor. It is rather facility, a kind of automatic writing. Amid his papers, there is not a single rough draft, there are no corrected versions; in fact, hardly anything is crossed out. Everything came out right from the beginning. There were no birth pangs. Or there must have been, but they no longer remained in evidence. I have tried to explain it to myself, working from the posthumous discovery of the verse original of Sebregondi retrocede, as an oscillation-translation. That veneer of perfection so very his could be explained perhaps as the effect of a virtual translation: neither prose nor verse, nor a combination of the two, but rather a passage. There is a poetic archeology in the prose, and vice-versa; a double inversion, the trace of which is to be found in what many have seen as the most characteristic aspect of Osvaldo's style: the punctuation. But then, he himself has said: "As far as a poet, bam! A novelist."

Insofar as Sebregondi retrocede actually passed through this translation, it shows the proceedings with particular clarity. We see denuded here the exquisitely limpid mechanism of the phrases; we attend the birth of the words. (Who had really noticed, for example, the hidden word "all" before reading the phrase " . . . A Sebregondi with money is a Sobregondi with-al.") But, and here is the most peculiar paradox of this writing, that birth has something of the definitive about it. Fluidity and fixity combine, and they do so shimmeringly.

All of Osvaldo's writing is dominated by the sign of the liquid; less by water than by alcohol, whose sheen and fluency pass into the mind, and from there transform the world; and at the same time produce the repetitive fixity of habit.


On a certain occasion Osvaldo was working in a bookstore, and commented with astonishment on the a priori respect shown by people handling very large books. He would never benefit, he said, from that superstition: "my work," and he pointed at a few emaciated sheaves of papers, "will consist of two or three of those, and nothing more." But his brevity was not a mere bibliographical accident. As is to be expected, it had a false bottom.

I remember something he told me after a period he had spent in his parents' house. He had taken up and read again the books from his childhood, Dickens among them. David Copperfield he had liked as much as before, but with an exception (an exception that he had already made note of in his first reading, thirty years before): there was a passage in which David accompanies his maid Peggotty to feed the hens; she throws them grains and the birds peck . . . But the boy is looking at the freckled arms of the woman and he marvels that they don't prefer to peck there. That passage enchanted him. Moreover, he found that the novel was made redundant by that scene alone. He didn't regret that Dickens had written it, of course. It was good that it existed, it couldn't be otherwise; but on its own, it was like the countless grains thrown to the hens so that they could reach (or not reach, it makes no difference) the epiphany that would lead them to go peck at the true point, at the representation. He was no Dickens.

What Osvaldo was is difficult to say. He had a theory about long novels: he said they yielded one phrase, one little "very pretty" phrase. He gave as an example Crime and Punishment: "To demonstrate that he is Napoleon, a student should murder an old usurer." He savored that phrase, repeated it. He conveyed that what mattered to him was that phrase, without the novel itself.

But what was at stake was not the result, but the very matter of the novel as such. He insisted that all of the great novels were run through with a slight melody, a "little jingle." The novel was made up of phrases charged with meaning; but in its own way, the sentence, to be such, should be a pure music ("music just because, music in vain," the sentence from that famous sonnet that he so often repeated). It is the paradoxical passage from verse to prose. It is probably to this then, in Sebregondi retrocede, that we can attribute the inclusion of Porchia, who serves an enchanting function: an old retired worker, whose work (The Voices) is composed exclusively of Zen phrases of the type: "Before I walked my path, I was my path." Fine then: Porchia was crazy.

I remember, incidentally, Osvaldo had a method for writing when, for some reason, "he couldn't write": it consisted of writing one small, unremarkable phrase, and then another, and then another, until he had filled a number of pages. Some of his best texts (like "La mañana") are written that way; and it is conceivable that everything may have been written that way.

El fiord, like Leibniz's monad, reflects the entire Lamborghinian universe; the same can be said for any other of his works. I suppose he insisted on the monadic aspects of this germinal text for comfort's sake, because it happened to be the first.

And perhaps for other reasons as well. The interpretations that have been woven around El fiord (for example, the one that considers it a "fractal object" and then applies that idea to the rest of his work as lineal fragmentation, the infinite periphery of a sense, the "illusion of the perfect bigthing [sic]" with which Sebregondi retrocede begins) do nothing more than highlight its literary density, its indecipherable character. But the keys to interpretation are highly visible, almost too much so. There are those initials that punctuate the narration: the CGT that gives rise to ATV, Augusto Timoteo Vandor, the syndicalist leader who rebelled against Perón . . . But this last one seemed to be "the Mad Rodríguez" and here the initials correspond to nothing, and on the other hand, Sebastián (Sebas) alludes to the "bases" by another linguistic procedure . . .

El fiord is an allegory, but much more than that, it is the solution to the literary enigma that allegory poses, one that intrigued Borges. The solution Osvaldo offers, subtle as it is—for me, at least, it is nearly ungraspable—consists of dislodging allegorical meaning from its vertical, paradigmatic position and prolonging it throughout a continuum in which it ceases to be the same (this is the case of meaning, all meaning, of the abandonment of one term for another) and afterwards returns to such, indefinitely.

The mise-en-scène of this continuum, of which the passage from verse to prose forms a part, as well as transsexuality and, I would say, everything in the work of Osvaldo, are all literature itself. His work as a cartoonist, by including the linear image, is part of the same, and it is accentuated in his graphic work from the last years, in the artisanal books he crafted (though they pertain as well to an idea very intimate to him, that of "publication first and writing after") and especially in the Teatro proletario de la cámara. He was tireless in the invention of continua; I remember one, by chance, in the story "Matinales," which he himself would tell with great laughter (he considered it a trouvaille): the boy who, in order to go crazy, makes a gesture that commonly represents insanity, that of screwing his finger into the side of his head. All of Sebregondi can be considered a treatise on the continuum.

Naturally the same can be said of Las hijas de Hegel, in which new elements appear as well. The novella is a curious Aufhebung in process. The first and third parts, dated around the seventeenth of October, central ephemeral moments for the Argentine working class, are written each in its own notebook; the second, dated a bit earlier and written with the phrase-by-phrase procedure, in a small pocket journal. Here the continuum is resolved in simultaneity (but of what? Of writing? of writing and reading? of literature and history?), in ritual, or in fatality.

If a hundred people he knew were asked, ninety-nine would define Osvaldo by his love for women. There, and only there, did he seem to transcend literature. Not that he was a feminist (he joked about this in a lapidary declaration of principles: he looked for "true women, not the stupid truth of women"). His love for women shined with the same light as his intelligence; one blended almost entirely into the other.

Of course, he was sincere about that, and his biography is the most authoritative testimony. And yet . . . the continuum imposed itself as well on his sincerity, on the truth, I put them in the same line with everything else.

Quite unlike Hegel, Osvaldo felt that reality reached its culmination in women and in the working class. But there, on that summit, representation began. And that representation had a name: Argentina. For this reason, Argentina was "Albania! Albania!" or "Alemania! Alemania!" Argentina mattered only for "its great power of representation." It is worth recollecting the circumstances in which I heard this repeated one time. Faced with a traveler singing the praises of the shameless and perfect beauty of Brazilian women, Osvaldo offered his maxim, "But Argentina has a great power of representation." And he explained himself thus: "Over there, a woman is nothing more than a woman, but here, she is a worker taking the road to the factory . . . " And the political argument went on:
" . . . because Peronism gave dignity to the Argentine working class, etc., etc., etc." This resort to the political was one of his constants, and at times it appeared so out-of-place that it led people to detect something cynical in it. I, though, believe it corresponded to his complex formal system.

Lamborghini's Argentina is the country of representation. Peronism was the historical emergence of representation. Peronist Argentina is literature. The worker is the man who creates his own literature when he allows himself to be represented by the syndicalist. Hence the recurrence of the figure of Vandor (in whose death he saw, with utter coherence, "the symbolic murder of the Argentine working class") from his earliest to his last writings.

But in the same movement in which the worker becomes a syndicalist, man becomes a woman. This is the extreme avatar of Lamborghinian transsexuality. "I would like to be a female textile worker, but to get there
. . . to secretary of the union."

The system was at once very difficult and very easy to grasp. It was, like all style, a gravitational field you fell into.

I remember one night we were walking downtown, and we came across one of the prostitutes that back then, twenty years ago, could still be seen in Buenos Aires: painted like a figurehead, festooned with cheap jewelry, in garish clothing, fat, old. Osvaldo said pensively, "Why is it that hookers seem to be creatures of the past?" I heard him wrong and answered: "Not so fast. Take a look at Mao Tse Tung." He stopped, stupefied, and gave me a strange look. For an instant, our misunderstanding encompassed the whole of literature, and more. So many years must have passed, and so many things, as well, for me to be able to read in that glance, or in the past itself, what he was trying to say to me: "Finally, you understood something."

One more remembrance, to finish off. Osvaldo knew Hegel primarily through Kojève, whose interpretation he clung to while not taking it so seriously (he had the same ambivalence about Sartre, in whose books he found, who knows why, an inexhaustible quarry of jokes). But he had read Hegel, too, and the last time I saw him, the day he left for Barcelona the second time, he was holding Lectures on the Philosophy of History; he had chosen it to read on the airplane, a matter he explained to me in this way: he had opened it at random in a bookstore and noticed that on that accidental page Hegel spoke of . . . Afghanistan. (Afghanistan, Afghanistan!) That was enough for him.

In the past few years legend has made of Osvaldo one of the "accursed," but the justification for this does not go beyond a certain irregularity in his customs, hardly the gravest of which was how frequently he changed residence. According to very strict norms, he could be seen as marginal, but never, not in the least, as the grotesque grandstander a credulous reader might conclude he was.

Osvaldo was a handsome man, refined, with aristocratic manners, somewhat haughty but also very affable. His conversation invariably glimmered. No one who met him—even for just a few minutes—could fail to remember forever a certain irony, a perfect riposte, a portrait of insuperable mintage; it was not only in this that he resembled Borges: he also had something of the antiquated gentleman, with slightly cunning aspects, of the gaucho, but burnished with austere courtesy. Moreover, he had read everything, and his intelligence was marvelous, overwhelming. He was venerated by his friends, loved (with a constancy that seems no longer to exist) by women, and generally respected as the greatest of Argentine writers.


He lived surrounded by admiration, affection, respect, and good books, something he was never shy of. He was the object neither of repudiation nor ostracism; he simply stayed at the sidelines of official culture, and missed out on very little by doing so.

translated from the Spanish by Adrian West