Raúl Zurita, born in Santiago in 1950, has published more than 20 books of poetry and received countless honors and prizes including Chile’s National Literature Prize in 2000. When he was two years old, his father died, leaving him and his infant sister in the care of their mother and maternal grandparents, who immigrated to Chile from Italy. The morning of Zurita’s father’s funeral, his grandfather died of a heart attack. His mother worked long days as a secretary while his grandmother looked after him and his sister. She spoke to her grandchildren about Genova and the Rapallo Sea, the Italian painters and musicians she admired, and, most of all, The Divine Comedy. In a recent interview in Uruguay’s El País with Ilan Stavans, Zurita says, “Instead of stories, [our grandmother] told us passages from the Inferno, which both terrorized and fascinated us.”
Zurita’s first book of poems Purgatorio was published in 1979 during the early years of the Pinochet dictatorship. An engineering student at the University of Federico Santa María in Valparaíso when the coup took place in 1973, Zurita was arrested, detained, and tortured. He spent six weeks incarcerated aboard a military ship holding 800 prisoners cramped into a space with the capacity for 100. As told to Daniel Borzutzky in a 2009 Poetry Foundation interview, Zurita was carrying a file, the poems that would become the book Purgatorio, when he was arrested the morning of September 11, 1973, and the arresting officers suspected his papers might include coded messages. The senior military officer who made the final decision about Zurita’s potentially subversive writings threw the poems into the sea. The book begins with these lines:
my friends think
I’m a sick woman
because I burned my cheek
And a few pages later:
My name is Rachel
I’ve been in the same
business for many
years. I’m in the
middle of my life.
I lost my way.–
(translated by Anna Deeny)
Jeremy Jacobson’s 1985 translation of Purgatorio, published by the Latin American Literary Review Press, introduced Zurita to English language readers as “the most important young poet writing in Chile today,” and included an essay by Scott Jackson on “the union of mathematics and poetry” in Zurita’s work. The University of California Press issued a fantastic new translation of Purgatorio in 2009, at the hands of the poet and Latin American literature scholar Anna Deeny. C.D. Wright gives the following assessment in the new translation’s foreword: “with a mysterious admixture of logic and logos, Christian symbols, brain scans, graphics, and a medical report, Zurita expanded the formal repertoire of his language, of poetic materials, pushing back against the ugly vapidity of rule by force.”
Purgatorio is the first in a three-book sequence, including Anteparaíso (1982), and La Vida Nueva (1994), where post-1973 Chile appears in a Dante-esque frame. Zurita’s oeuvre extends beyond the page through his interventions in physical landscapes: the poet documents the burning of his own face in Purgatorio, Anteparaíso includes photographs of 15 lines of poetry written across the New York City skyline in 1982, and La Vida Nueva features sky drawings enhanced with handwriting, as well as a photograph of the 3-kilometer-long phrase composed in the Atacama desert in 1993, which is only legible from the sky: “ni pena ni miedo” (neither pain nor fear).
Once the millennium turned, Zurita published Poemas Militantes (2000), INRI (2003), Los Países Muertos (2006), and In Memoriam (2007), among others. Zurita (2011), an almost 750-page volume, unfolds from the evening of September 10 to the morning of September 11, 1973, and includes excerpts from the poet’s other books, for example: three pages of the electroencephalogram (EEG) embedded with text that closes Purgatorio, a few photographs of the New York City skywriting that appeared in Anteparaíso, and a middle section (starting on page 358 of Zurita) from his 1985 book Canto a Su Amor Desaparecido, translated in 2010 by Daniel Borzutzky as Song for His Disappeared Love. Zurita holds space, represented by the blocks of text arranged like the niches in a columbarium wall, for the disappeared during Chile’s Pinochet regime, as well as those lost during political upheaval in other countries and regions including Argentina, the Amazon, Haiti, Nicaragua, the United States, Cuba, and El Salvador. The first of the United States-related blocks of text reads as follows:
USA Niche. Found in Barracks 12. Northern countries and
dispatched to eat themselves up thanks to their dreams
of special shields, of murderers of blacks, of domina-
tion. They descended the sky and they called Hiroshi-
ma the country that blazed; Central countries, valleys
and Chilean gluttons. The graves are nights and every-
thing is night in the American grave. They rest in peace like
the bison. It was a Navajo phrase. As it was written, Amen.
(translated by Daniel Borzutzky)
Zurita is a rewriting, an epic translation, of the poet’s complete oeuvre. The book includes a handful of excerpts from previously published work alongside the new poems, all echoing each other. The disappeared and missing people of Chile and the Americas are at the core of Zurita, and the surrounding sequences reveal the searching and dreams of those reflecting on humanity’s failures all over the world, including Thomas Mann, Kurosawa, and Pink Floyd. Zurita’s mandate is that we must keep saying it (writing it, publishing it, reading it), over and over, so that we do not forget the horror of the past. Our past is with us in the present, and we will carry it forward, either as memory or repetition.
The closing pages of Zurita include a sequence of photographs from his latest project involving an intervention in the physical landscape, titled “Your Life Breaking.” The photographs of the sea cliffs in northern Chile have phrases typed out across them to show the kind of poetry installation Zurita would like to achieve there. The phrases, which correspond to the subsections in the table of contents of Zurita, include: “You Will See Soldiers at Dawn,” “You Will See the Snows of the End,” “You Will See Cities of Water,” “You Will See What Goes,” “You Will See Not Seeing,” and “And You Will Weep.” The final lines of the book are a short poem titled “Sky Below:”
The sun is rising and I am leaving, papá. Deep
is the well of time. The mountains remain
covered and perhaps it will rain at last. Can you imagine
the breakers crashing again on
these stones, papá? You never tell me anything, papá.
(translated by Magdalena Edwards)
At the moment, Zurita says he has nothing left to say or write by way of poetry. He is steadily at work on a translation of Dante’s Inferno, and he has decided to preserve the terza rima form in Spanish, which makes the project slow going. The first stanza goes (gorgeously) like this: “A mitad del camino de esta vida, / me encontraba en una selva oscura / pues la recta vía estaba perdida.” Zurita also recently translated Hamlet into Spanish for a stage production under the direction of Gustavo Meza that was such a hit in Santiago when it debuted in late 2012, a second production went up in mid-2013. He explained to me by email that while he is not writing original poems, “translation frees me from anguish.”
Zurita has two fascinating new books out this year, both collaborations with fellow poets, one a bilingual selection of poems from Latin America, and the other a conversation about death and life.
Pinholes in the Night: Essential Poems from Latin America (Copper Canyon Press 2014), with Forrest Gander at the helm as editor, is a bilingual selection of 18 20th-century Spanish-language poems. The volume takes its title from Alejandra Pizarnik’s “Diana’s Tree:” “a pinhole in the night / invaded suddenly by an angel.” The 15-century Nahuatl poem “Nezahualcóyotl” opens the collection, a choice that highlights the problematic nature of Spanish as one of the imposed languages of Latin America, as Zurita explains in his introduction. What moves me most about Pinholes — more than the wonderful translation choices by Gander, including California poet Jen Hofer for Nicanor Parra’s “Soliloquy of the Individual” and Ernesto Cardenal’s “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe,” and Anna Deeny for Idea Vilariño’s “Not Anymore,” and more than Zurita’s exhilarating introduction, “written in a fever-dream between serious surgeries,” where he debates the impossible choice of one poem each by Mistral, Vallejo, and Neruda, notes which poems he would have chosen from the Portuguese (no doubt Ferreira Gullar’s “Poema Sujo”), and discusses why he includes Juan Rulfo’s short story “You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking” — is that the book is precisely not a poetry anthology. Pinholes in the Night is not exhaustively encyclopedic, but rather deeply personal and thus imperfectly brilliant, a light that helps us understand Zurita and his worldview, the lyrical landscape he treads, a little better.
Saber Morir: Conversaciones (Universidad Diego Portales 2014) is a book-length conversation about knowing how to die and how to live undertaken by Raúl Zurita and Ilan Stavans, the Mexican poet and translator who edited The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry (FSG 2011) (it bears noting that the FSG Book, a representative anthology of Latin America poetry, attempts to do everything Pinholes in the Night does not attempt, and vice versa, such that Pinholes and The FSG Book are fruitful companions). Saber Morir, which has not been translated into English yet, is intimate and rambling and covers life experience, books, music, film, history, and philosophy. We learn that both Zurita and Stavans have trepidations about closing their eyes when they go to sleep at night, as well as feel terrorized by the possibility of dying in a hospital. Both men embrace getting older. Stavans says, “I like feeling older, being less afraid of life, not doubting the way I used to.” Zurita says, “there are only two states: or you are young or you are old.” He goes on to explain: “I feel potent in my pains, in my curved spine, in the increasing difficulty of holding the pages when I read in public.” Of his day-to-day life with Parkinson’s, he intimates: “I might have a bizarre sense of beauty, but my disease feels beautiful to me. It feels powerful.”
As a kid, video games taught me just as much about writing as novels did. The thousands of hours I spent with my head in books were matched by the thousands of hours I spent at my computer. In my child brain, they didn’t seem as if they were disparate forms belonging to different centuries. I’m not sure I even recognized the difference.
I played games for the storytelling, to the degree that no one in middle school actually considered me to be completely a “gamer.” I didn’t really care about winning or being good. What interested me were the stories.
When I played strategy games like Civilization, the kingdoms I built did not consist of representative pieces on a chessboard. In my head, even as early as age 7, the cities were real. Families lived in them. They had cultures and identities and backstories invented with each subsequent turn. I had feelings about them. My districts, armies, and generals were built not just for effectiveness but aesthetic design and sociological meaning.
My outings as a fighter pilot in space simulators had dramatic and cinematic arcs to them, missions experienced not as sets of objectives but as short stories, as chapters. The gleam of the fake pixelated gray of the bulkheads and the pulsing neon lights of the cockpit instruments were just as important as the scoreboard.
In the first two first-person shooters I played, I rarely completed levels successfully, instead treating the labyrinths of Doom or Dark Forces as Kafkaesque wanderings interrupted by existential shootouts. I was fascinated by how the story was introduced, how the narrative progressed over shifting environments, with layered escalations of both difficulty and design.
There were times when it was almost as if the games I was playing and the books I was reading were in conversation. Half-Life meant Huxley and Diablo II meant Dante. In the 7th grade, I took Latin and read Roman History just to give my obsession with Caesar III more context. William Gibson forced me to go back and re-experience Syndicate. Sim City 2000 directly caused me to steal my father’s copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Max Payne, my first experience with any sort of noir, meant Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler.
By the time I was in high school, I was confused as to why such a small collection of books were explicitly influencing games. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I could not understand why there was not a video game version lurking somewhere in a dark corner of the digital universe, or even vague homages in the totally unrelated omnipresent sci-fi dystopias that were the setting for so many games. In what can only be described now as adolescent naivety, it was unthinkable to me that male-dominated, technologically-centered works like Ender’s Game or Snow Crash were so in sync with the video games being developed, but As I Lay Dying and Pride and Prejudice were somehow unworthy.
In the 15 years since my 12-year-old boy gamer heyday, video games have become the most dominant form of media on the planet, though you would not be able to tell by reading contemporary literature. Aside from the efforts of Austin Grossman and Ernest Cline, the few works of fiction that do confront gaming’s prominence tend to be on the borderlines of genres not always considered “literary,” or works of experimental literature more interested in turning the form of the novel into a game than using the novel to explore what the rise of gaming means to the human experience.
What is particularly sad about this state of affairs is that the literary world and the video games world could greatly benefit each other. Even a conversation, let alone the beginning of real collaborations and dialogues, would help each contend with their respective shortcomings.
The book publishing industry needs to carve out a more interesting, necessary space for itself in the digital world. All too frequently “technology” is considered one big amorphous blob, or worse, treated with indifference. Barely enhanced e-books, predictably executed apps, and promotional Twitter accounts for dead or Luddite authors seem to represent the extent of most publishers’ innovative efforts. Even in terms of pure content, contemporary fiction too often fails to fully evoke 21st-century life and contend with its burgeoning issues. We writers disproportionately focus on the past, or worse, replicate the form and structures of centuries gone without appetite for the risk, resistance, and failure innovation entails.
The video games community, despite its tremendous financial success and cultural relevance, has its own significant problems. Despite the best efforts of a growing cadre of games critics, journalists, writers, and theorists, not to mention a legion of talented independent developers, the industry is plagued by issues of cultural legitimacy and a real struggle to grow out of repetitive content. American cultural institutions largely ignore the entire medium, the exceptions often taking the form of desperate half-hearted attempts to appeal to a younger demographic (such as MoMA’s addition of 14 mostly-retro games to its collection), or outright hostility (such as the late Roger Ebert’s 2010 statement that “video games can never be art,” a stance he subsequently softened after getting dissents from readers). Meanwhile, big budget games like Call of Duty and Halo follow the same tired patterns of gameplay and storytelling with little real innovation aside from graphical improvements and the ever-evolving appropriations of Hollywood clichés.
Games writing luminaries such as Leigh Alexander, Luke Plunkett, Tom Bissell, Cara Ellison, and John Walker have explored and debated every facet of what a video game is and should be, including the Sisyphean tasks of attacking the mainstream industry for its utterly regressive gender politics, lack of diversity, and unwillingness to explore subject matter other than the same tried and true action movie content patronizingly marketed to the worst imagined 12-year-old boy archetype. But this growing field of theory and criticism has only been so successful in forcing the form to confront its demons.
Over the past year, I made a concerted effort to begin meeting, talking, and collaborating with members of the games industry. I went to conferences, events, and explored the social networks of the few friends I had working in the field. During this time, every game developer I came across, whether her company was big or small, her projects commercial or experimental, expressed a desire to be taken more seriously as an artist and creator. And there was a tangible feeling that they are not there yet.
When I attended the Game Developers Conference for the first time in March 2013, I was stunned at how receptive everyone was to the presence of a random aspiring novelist. Mainstream behemoths and indie game developers alike asked me how they might more “literary” or “novelistic.”
Producers of big budget titles told me how much they wished they had better written content within their games, but seemed to have no idea how to access the pool of what one Creative Assembly designer called “all those surely unemployed creative writing MFAs living in Brooklyn.” There may be a kernel of truth in his statement. There is certainly unutilized talent in the literary world capable of writing the pants off of a lot of what passes for dialogue or in-game text in many mainstream video games. Aside from the few individuals with both gaming and literary backgrounds (like Austin Grossman), the games industry has little framework for how to judge the abilities of those who are not already writing for games or designing them outright. So far, no developer has been explicitly willing to take the risk to start evaluating or hiring Iowa grads. “It would be nice if we could figure out how to do it,” Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment told me, “but without a record of actually writing for games in some capacity, it’s very difficult to hire someone.”
At the same time, employees of mainstream developers continually express great interest in how to cultivate more serious topics and subject matter.
“How did books get to be so respected?” an Electronic Arts VP asked me at that same GDC last year, as though this suspect level of gravitas must be the result of a viral marketing campaign and not a cultural evolution that took place over hundreds of years.
Tin-eared dialogue aside, there is actually an impressive literary consciousness to be found within certain tracts of the video games community. In a conversation with Anthony Burch (Borderlands 2), Susan O’Connor (BioShock and Bioshock 2), and Aaron Linde (Gears of War 3), three supremely talented games writers, we shared our disappointment that there had never been a violent action game written by Bret Easton Ellis, and that no game designer had ever gone to David Foster Wallace and said “what do you want to make?”
“Blood Meridian would make for a hell of a videogame,” Burch told me recently. “McCarthy explores the depths of human evil and bloodlust; an interactive version could allow the player to explore their own personal capacity for those same things. I’d love to see a P.G. Wodehouse videogame. Wodehouse’s books, unlike most videogames, were centered around people but never included any violence or sex. I’d love to see his sensibilities transplanted into games. Just imagining a Telltale-style [a developer famous for making episodic adventure games] Jeeves and Wooster game makes me slightly giddy”
I then asked him how the games industry could attract better writing talent.
“Start making games that allow for greater narrative depth,” he replied. “If most of your game’s script consists of battle dialog (imagine writing 50 different variations of the phrase, “incoming grenade!”), that’s not going to attract top talent. If, however, your game allows the world to react to the player’s actions in interesting ways, or if your story reveals itself to the player in ways only games can achieve, then you might well find writing talent jumping at the chance to do something challenging, different, and risky.”
Underneath conversations like this lurks the reality that being a “games writer” is too often considered a secondary position in the making of a game. Designers, producers, and programmers tend to control a greater share of narrative structure and destiny than you might expect, with writers simply crafting made-to-order textual content.
Nevertheless, if my wanderings in the game world have convinced me of anything, it is that within even the worst cliché of the demographic “gamer,” there is a prospective reader of literary fiction. Not unlike the most ambitious and challenging novels, video games feature unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives, digressions that become their own plot lines, fragmented timelines, the use of magic, myth, hallucination, and multiple outcomes. These are commonalities rather than eccentricities, and gamers are undaunted, even treating narrative difficulties as worthy challenges.
Game designer Jane McGonigal calculated that as a planet we play three billion hours of video games a week. Millions of people have come of age experiencing storytelling predominantly through this medium. Millions of people have fake killed millions of other fake people. Millions of people have conquered the world or prevented it from being conquered, have built and run impossibly vast megacities, have followed the stories of countless heroes and villains.
We should try to write some novels for them.
Twelve- to 18-year-old males are not the only people playing video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 30 years old, and 45 percent are female. Yet there can be no doubt that most games are still marketed toward a young, overwhelmingly male demographic, with companies convinced this is necessary to their bottom line despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary.
This disproportionate focus leaves substantial room for the games industry to acquire new customers. There are whole swaths of potential players whom the video games industry has tacitly abandoned with sexism, repetition, and an inability to embrace new narrative and content.
We should try to make games for them.
We should be making novels into video games, video games into novels. Publishers should collaborate with indie game developers, trading them a platform and content in exchange for labor and a new form of adaptation. Literary magazines and libraries should sponsor gamejams. The games industry should fully embrace the thousands of works of classic literature open to them in the public domain.
Even without structured efforts to that end, there is some hope that within the flourishing realm of “indie games” the medium is maturing and embracing more literary themes and modalities.
At the booths of the Independent Games Festival, Calvino and Borges were household names. When I mentioned Edwin’s Abbott’s Flatland to the developers of Super Hexagon and Super Space, they rolled their eyes as if they were literature PhDs who had just been asked at a dinner party if they had heard of James Joyce. The makers of 2014 IGF Finalist Paralect have acknowledged the direct influence of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But the scope of this interest and knowledge is limited to a small set of authors.
Whereas in the past indie games were simply a subcultural sideshow and barely an influence on the larger industry, the rise of digital distribution has allowed small or individual independent developers to have the opportunity to reap real financial success while still remaining divorced from large development budgets and battles over the same predefined market share.
In the past year, award-winning games such as Papers Please (a game of passport control in a fictional communist satellite state) and Starseed Pilgrim (a game of gardening riddled with floating poetry), both developed by singular individuals, proved that indie games with atypical premises can succeed in the market and, more importantly, provide players with involving experiences that feel worthy of printed literary companions.
Gone Home, a game in which you explore your empty childhood home, is often described by players and reviewers as being novelistic, inherently like a book. As of February, it had sold 250,000 copies (in a scant seven months on the market). Not bad for the gaming equivalent of an indie novel released on a small press. Imagine if a self-published literary fiction novel about growing up in the mid-90s in the Pacific Northwest grossed 250,000 copies.
In the video games world, the performance of a game like Gone Home represents a nice, feel-good story, but still pales in comparison to the mainstream titles. For reference, Grand Theft Auto V sold almost 27 million copies in the last four months of 2013, grossing over a billion dollars in its first three days of sales.
While it’s easy to dismiss mainstream games like Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty as shallow, or not on par with any notion of being literary classics, it is difficult to imagine Miguel de Cervantes not enjoying a virtual romp through the virtual medieval world in Assassin’s Creed, let alone the glee Italo Calvino would feel upon witnessing Sim City. It’s easy to forget that video games, even the most boring or decadent ones, are realizing what were once only the high-minded fantasies of The OULIPO and other pre-digital experimental writers.
When the Dante’s Inferno video game was released in 2010, it caused several editions of The Divine Comedy to shoot up Amazon’s sales charts. It did not really matter that the game was nowhere close to being a perfect adaptation or embodiment of the epic poem. A friend of mine who teaches middle-school English in Cleveland, Ohio, almost wept recounting how a group of her students brought a copy to class.
“Kids ask me all the time about which author influenced Bioshock (Ayn Rand) or why Spec Ops: The Line failed in its attempt to remake Heart of Darkness,” she said. “My adult friends do too. But they rarely pester me to find out who won the Man Booker.”
With works both new and old, the literary community is in the unique position to take a role in an adolescent art form’s coming of age. And if game developers were to start directly pursuing writers with backgrounds outside of their comfort zone, the result could be an era of unprecedented collaboration and innovation for not just one industry, but two.
Image Credit: LPW