Fernando Ravsberg*

When he was only 8, Daniel Chavarria decided to become a storyteller, like one of those Uruguayan “gauchos” who told stories where what mattered least was whether they were true. Photo: Raquel Perez
When he was only 8, Daniel Chavarria decided to become a storyteller, like one of those Uruguayan “gauchos” who told stories where what mattered least was whether they were true. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — Even as a little boy, he was dazzled by the stories told by the laborers in the fields of Uruguay, so he decided to become a storyteller too. At 30 he hijacked a plane and re-routed it to Cuba, where — a half a century later — he was presented with the National Literature Award.

At 80, yet still full of vitality, Daniel Chavarria carried out that obligation at the Havana International Book Fair, which is dedicated to him this year. At the same time he was passionately retouching a fictionalized biography of Raul Sendic, the former leader of Uruguay’s urban guerilla Tupamaros movement.

Though he deplores most crime literature — despite his love for a Soviet spy series — his first blockbuster was in the literary genre, which would go on to mark all his work.

Stories and Lies

“At the age of eight, I was born as a storyteller on my grandfather’s farm. During the harvests there were a lot of seasonal workers, plenty of “mate” to drink, the campfire and a storyteller – who could be anyone from a real gaucho to just a bum. In any case, I was dazzled by their stories.”

“Many of them had fought in the civil war and had come back with packs of lies – but ones very well told. I didn’t care about historical truth, I swallowed them whole. I believed these guys when they told me about fighting tigers or swimming across a river with their feet tied.”

“Since that time, they were my ideal. I wanted to be like them, growing old and living their tales, and that’s what I do now. But as a child I wanted to be a storyteller. When I was 12, a cousin of mine lent me The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and it amazed me. That was when I discovered the written word.”

“I was an active reader, like everyone in my generation. We had had very little TV or radio. This gave me time for writing, though every time I read my scribbling I realized it was crap. I was making the mistake that many young people make: having a model and wanting to write like them.”

Nonstop to Cuba

The International Book Fair taking place in Cuba right now is dedicated to Daniel Chavarria, who has just been awarded the National Book Award. Photo: Raquel Perez
The International Book Fair taking place in Cuba right now is dedicated to Daniel Chavarria, who has just been awarded the National Book Award. Photo: Raquel Perez

“I left Uruguay in 1961, and while in Colombia I collaborated with a guerrilla movement led by a priest in the western mountains. I was the manager of a bonded warehouse, but I became involved in smuggling and taking advantage of those channels to sneak out wounded comrades.”

“During one of those intrigues I was warned from Bogota that the Administrative Securtity Department had detected me. I decided to leave quickly because I was scared shitless, but I couldn’t escape by car at night. I was a bad driver and in those days the roads were really bad.”

“The only option I had left was to hijack the plane that came every day from Bogota and to divert it here. I bought all the tickets for that flight but only brought along my wife and our six-year-old girl. Another poor man came along who boarded without knowing where we were going.”

The most stolen author

“I began something like ten novels, but when I looked at them, they all seemed like crap. I ended up finishing the first one in Cuba, at the age of 45. Joy emerged because I fell in love with the Soviet espionage TV series 17 Moments of Spring, which made me start thinking about how to write for that genre.

Daniel Chavarria assured us that he’s the author whose works are most stolen from Cuban libraries. Photo: Raquel Perez

“At that time I was a translator for the Agrarian Reform Institute and I had information about the US effort to introduce the Citrus tristeza virus on the island. Disease control specialists told me about the danger it posed to us by potentially sabotaging citrus yields with a virus.

“I always thought that 90 percent of the crime novels in the world were garbage, and that only a small part of them constitute really good literature. Nonetheless, I had my greatest success with Joy, which was a total success. Over a million copies wound up being sold throughout the entire socialist camp.”

“However I’m giving you this interview because you think El Ojo de Cibeles (The Eye of Cybele / 1993) is my best work. I think so too, though it’s not the most popular because it’s a difficult book. It’s hard for many people to understand that when a novel’s good, it speaks for itself.”

“I really appreciate the National Literature Award, but I had already gotten people’s recognition much earlier on. Librarians told me that I had the honor of being the most stolen author in Cuban libraries, and that was the greatest tribute people could make.”

(*) Read Fernando Ravsberg’s blog (in Spanish).
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