miércoles, septiembre 27, 2006


Campbell en Los Ángeles

Los Angeles Times
By Reed Johnson

MEXICO CITY--The novelist John Gardner supposedly once said there were two plots in all of literature: either you go on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. But as Federico Campbell sees it, for a writer, the voyage out and the return trip home are often parts of the same imaginative odyssey. Especially, perhaps, if your home happens to be a place like Tijuana.
Although he left the border region decades ago and now leads the life of a prominent man of letters here in the Mexican capital, Campbell periodically returns to Tijuana to visit his sisters, reunite with old friends or take part in literary conferences. For him, and for an earlier generation of transplanted frontera writers, he says, Tijuana remains "our Ithaca."
The reference, of course, is to Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey," in which the Greek hero Odysseus spends 10 years wandering at sea en route from the Trojan War, before finally arriving at his Ithaca home.
Similarly, the distant Tijuana of Campbell's youth is very much a tangible place that he revisits in his mind and in his writings.
Half-century-old memories still stir him: the scorching autumn winds blowing in off the desert; Hit Parade tunes piped in from San Diego; bars, cabarets and bullrings packed with U.S. day-trippers; and weekend exoduses across the border to shop at Woolworth's and J.C. Penney.At the same time, Campbell is keenly aware that his sepia-tinged vision of postwar Tijuana -- a scruffy, provincial town of perhaps 60,000 souls -- has been displaced by today's sprawling, culturally dynamic metropolis of nearly 1.5 million, riddled with narco trafficking, corruption and painful questions about illegal immigration and identity.
Expect Campbell to tour his audience through a quasi-mythical landscape of memory and desire when he
speaks tonight at L.A.'s downtown Central Library in the wide-open Zócalo "Public Square" lecture series.
The 63-year-old novelist and essayist says he intends to talk about "a very subjective Tijuana, very personal, a Tijuana of the memory," not the contemporary Tijuana that so fascinates academics and others scanning for semiotic signifiers along the borderlands.
"I don't identify very much with this 'problematic' " of Tijuana, says Campbell, sipping espresso at his book-filled home in Mexico City's bohemian Condesa neighborhood, where he lives with his wife."It's a subject for study by anthropologists, sociologists, journalists and the College of the Frontera Norte. I think that literature doesn't necessarily do this."
He also doesn't believe in overselling Tijuana's singular qualities or in hyping its significance in the context of contemporary Mexico. "I don't want to fall into this thing of, 'Oh, the most interesting border in the world! The Tijuanenses, we are so fascinating!' "
Amiable and erudite, Campbell does not confine himself to one corner of the planet, either in literature or in life. He ranges in conversation over a vast geographical, historical and cultural terrain. A casual mention of the lush Colorado River valley evokes a comparison with the Nile Delta. He segues into an anecdote about northern Mexico by mentioning that his favorite baseball team is the Arizona Diamondbacks, across the border from the Mexican state of Sonora, where he went to school.Rather than mere name-dropping, Campbell's frequent cultural cross-referencing seems to reflect a mind for which art and literature are a kind of passport across divergent mental frontiers.Reflecting on the plight of Mexican migrants trying to cross the desert into el Norte, he recalls T.S. Eliot's injunction in "The Waste Land" to fear "death by water." The modern economic refugee, traversing a different sort of no man's zone, must fear death by sunlight.
The son of a teacher and a telegraph operator, whose ancestors migrated to Mexico from Virginia in the 1830s, Campbell is a walking compendium of facts, stories and intriguing footnotes about Tijuana's transformation from turn-of-the-century speck on a map to chaotic urban hub.Like his conversation, Campbell's writing is marked by desert-bright lucidity softened with gentle irony, a seductive combination of dreaminess and intellectual alertness. Although he moves easily back and forth from novels and short stories to essays, journalism and translations of such playwrights as Harold Pinter and David Mamet, Campbell believes in maintaining a certain separation between fiction and nonfiction. He writes regularly on political and social subjects, everything from assassinations to the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes.
But Campbell believes in fiction's unique capacity to arrive at truth by recovering what Oscar Wilde called "the lost art of the lie." "Many times you can't cross the border between dreams and truth. Luigi Pirandello says that the truth can't be known because none of us is able to penetrate the mind of another," Campbell says, referring to the Italian modernist playwright.
Another great European modernist, James Joyce, casts a shadow over what is perhaps Campbell's best-known work, the short story collection "Tijuanenses," which was published by the University of California Press as "Tijuana: Stories on the Border." Like "Dubliners," Joyce's masterpiece about natives of his Irish home town, "Tijuanenses" is Campbell's fond, forgiving, backward glance at his own youth. "It is my bildungsroman," he says, "my 'American Graffiti.' "
In "Tijuana Times," perhaps the most clearly autobiographical story, he writes about the members of the Pegasos gang, who took their name from the flying-horse logo of Mobil Oil. Although you'd call them a gang, he says, they weren't like today's taggers and street toughs, but nice, middle-class kids whose idea of a big time was camping out on a hilltop with a big tub of beer singing Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" and listening to Elvis on the San Diego stations.
"I believe, as [Jorge Luis] Borges says, the important thing for art is to be moving," Campbell says. "So we say that if there is any motivation in my stories, it could be it's a little nostalgia for Tijuana in the 1950s."
Other stories address themes of cultural dislocation, which also surface in his novel "Transpeninsular," about a missing writer. In the collection's concluding tale, "Insurgentes Big Sur," the narrator, torn between identifying with the U.S. or Mexico, observes that, "A city, I think, is like a person; either you know it well or not at all."
As one critic has suggested, the cities of Campbell's imagination are as much cities of the mind as physical places, and traveling to them requires a reliable inner compass. What's more, sometimes the stranger who comes to town, or returns there, is no stranger at all, but our self in a new guise.

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