Dancers More Akin to Gladiators: An Interview with Leila Guerriero and Frances Riddle
To think that one of the most moving books I would read this year would be about a dance contest—an obscure, Argentine, dance contest, no less—is very surprising. But A SIMPLE STORY, written by celebrated Argentinean journalist Leila Guerriero is just that: an incredible book about a little-known dance, the Malambo, and the contest that occurs every year in a small, provincial town in Argentina. It is brief, stunning, and powerful, a book that deals with obsession, humility, social class, and the physical challenges of mastering a dance that can quite literally destroy a person’s body. These dancers are more akin to gladiators than dancers. I was lucky enough to interview both the author and translator of this slim but unforgettable book, which is February’s Brazos Best pick. Leila Guerriero is a well-known and celebrated journalist. Frances Riddle, the translator of A SIMPLE STORY, is a Houston native now living in Buenos Aires.
A huge debt of gratitude goes to Barbara Volkmer de Ruiz who not only translated my questions into Spanish but translated Leila Guerriero’s answers into English. This would’ve been impossible without her talent and assistance.
Leila Guerriero, author of A SIMPLE STORY
Brazos Bookstore: Your point of view is very important because you were not really aware of the Malambo before you began the book. I think this is important because the reader is probably coming from the same place as you were. Did you think your point of view was important to the story?
Leila Guerriero: I believe the point of view is always very important for a writer of nonfiction. Two journalists can visit the same place and tell the same story, but it is the vision, the point of view, which will make every story different. The first time I went to Laborde I was convinced I was going to tell the story of the festival. I hadn’t spoken to any editor about the story, so I went on my own, as a freelancer, thinking I would figure out later who I could offer it to, maybe some magazine like Gatopardo or Rolling Stone, where I usually publish. I had discovered the story in 2008 in an article in the Argentine newspaper La Nación. There was an article there, written by my colleague Gabriel Plaza called “The Malambo Athletes Are Ready to Compete,” or something like that. I talk about this in my book. What caught my attention was that strange combination of words: “athletes,” “Malambo,” and “compete.” I didn’t know much about Malambo, as you said. I only knew what any Argentine would: it is a folk dance that is included in dance shows for export and that children dance it at school functions. That is all. So, the words “athletes” and “compete,” mixed with what I believed was a somewhat stereotypical dance, like the stereotype of the gaucho—it caught my attention. I read the article; it talked about Laborde and the champions—another word that caught my eye, “champion,” which is not usually a word used to award an artist, least of all a dancer. For example, there is no such thing as a National Ballet Champion, or a National Champion of Crime Fiction. But these dancers, they were champions for life; in Laborde they were paraded like gladiators, the dance came with huge physical demands, and they must prepare themselves with physical trainers as if they were Olympic athletes.
I saved the article for two or three years and when I finally made some contacts and travelled to Laborde, I had the idea of writing, as I told you, a chronicle, a report on the festival. The first few days I interviewed previous champions, people from the town, and I remained in the property many hours and saw dozens of dancers. Then, like I say in the book, one night I saw Rodolfo González Alcántara dance. Nobody had mentioned him to me. He wasn’t amongst the favorites. But I saw him and went crazy.
In that moment, although it wasn’t until later that I realized this, my point of view changed completely. I had gone there to write about the festival, and I did, but through the life of a man who participated in it. Years later, when I started writing the book, a large amount of things came up naturally that were important for me that they be there. For example, the terrible contradiction that I felt all the while as I was doing the report. I knew that my presence there was a huge pressure for Rodolfo. I knew that although he didn’t say anything to me, he felt pressured and asked himself what would happen if he didn’t win the competition, what will become of me if the book “fails”. And while being aware of this, I told myself, as long as Rodolfo doesn’t say “enough,” I would stay, as I did, through every moment possible: with him in his dressing room, following him everywhere, closely scrutinizing him and his family. There were a series of reflections on the journalist’s profession that I wanted to be in the book, how far to go, how our main protagonist can fascinate and frustrate us at the same time, because there were moments where I felt profoundly frustrated. Rodolfo was a fascinating beast onstage, but when I interviewed him he was the most normal man in the world, and he had a way of narrating his story that was a little, let’s say, monotonous. All of this ended up in the book and it is part of that point of view you mentioned, I believe. And there is a funny story: when the book was published in Spanish we went to Laborde to present it. At one point someone from the audience asked how Rodolfo and I got along. Rodolfo said something beautiful: “I am going to confess something, I liked Leila very much, but there were moments when I wanted to kill her. I hated her, hated her. Everybody left the dressing room to leave me by myself, but she stayed there. And I knew she was not going to leave if I didn’t kick her out, and she knew I would never do that.” We all laughed a lot.
BB: Even though the book is about a dance, it is really about so much more: family, integrity, tradition, class divide, and much more. Besides learning about an obscure dance, is there anything you'd like a reader to come away from the book knowing?
LG: I don’t believe that a book must teach its readers anything, but certainly when one writes, one wants to communicate something and have an effect. In that sense, I believe A SIMPLE STORY is not about a dance but about a poor man with an impossible dream for people of his class: wanting to be a dancer and making a living out of that. Many of the poor boys in Laborde chase that dream. I think the book tells Rodolfo’s story, but through it, it also tells the story of many poor people who have dreams, ambitions, illusions that seem impossible. At least in my country, Argentina, being poor and wanting to have an artistic career, as a writer or dancer or actor or painter, is unthinkable. I think it is a book about the potential of a vocation, about the enormous risks taken when one’s vocation is as strong as Rodolfo’s. It is a book about the causes and the consequences of the paths we take in life, and it is a book about effort, stubbornness, and talent.
BB: Has Rodolfo González Alcántara read "A Simple Story"? If so, what does he think of it? Do you and Rodolfo stay on touch?
LG: Yes, Rodolfo did read the book. Something strange happened. The book came out in Spanish in 2013. I asked the publisher to give me twenty or twenty-five copies for Rodolfo. When they arrived at my house, in July or August, I called Rodolfo to let him know: “Rodo, I have your books. I can send them to you wherever you want.” Rodolfo lives far away, in the suburbs, in a place called Pablo Podestá, an hour from my house. He was traveling a lot and so was I. That is why I offered to send them, because a long time would pass before we saw each other. And Rodolfo said, “No, you have to give me those books. We have to meet so that you can give them to me. You cannot send them to me via a messenger.” He felt this was something personal between us and that I had to personally give him the books, not send them with somebody. I told him that sounded fine, but that at least two months would go by before I was in Buenos Aires (that was a year of many work-related travels). And he said, “No problem, I will wait.”
There was this book that talked about him, his wife, his family, and he waited all that time without reading it. Finally, when I was back in Buenos Aires, I called him, I invited him over for tea, and he and his wife Miriam came. We talked and I gave him the box of books. And when he left I wondered what he would think of it. Because there are moments in the book when I am bewildered by him, wondering, “Where is the animal I see onstage, where is that prowess, why does he speak like that when he is offstage, with commonplace and ready-made phrases?” I didn’t know what he was going to make of this.
Besides, another’s vision of our own life is always disconcerting. It was November 13, 2013. Rodolfo had left my house in the afternoon. That same night, he wrote me this: “‘I did not see him cry, but he cried…’ Thank you Leila, for making me live, every time I read the book, the beautiful moments that changed our life. Thank you, God, for getting in our path”. “I did not see him cry, but he did” was the last sentence in “A Simple Story”. So now you see what our relationship is like. Then, on January 12, 2014 at 1:57 he sent me a message, while we were all coming back from Laborde after presenting the book there, which said, “Dear Leila, what to say of everything you made of my life? I adore you with my soul and eternally. Thanks. Have a good trip back.”
We stay in touch with Rodolfo, of course. Even though we are not friends, there is a huge sense of affection. I will visit him now, on January 13. My editors at New Directions, Christopher Wait and Laurie Callahan, wanted to visit Laborde, so we are all going to the festival together, from January 13th through the 16th. Rodolfo really wants to meet them. I talked to him yesterday and he told me he was already in Laborde and to please take mosquito repellent because the city is full of mosquitos.
BB: "A Simple Story" gives the reader an intimate look at the physical sacrifices a person must make when competing in the Malambo competition. When you began to learn of the discipline and hard work involved, what impression did this make on you?
LG: As usually happens when one goes into a world one knows nothing about, I was very impressed, very curious, and captivated. Not only with the physical effort, but also with the fact that all of the young men that participated were from humble backgrounds and they spent enormous amounts of money in order to train to become Laborde champions. Where, I might add, they do not receive any prize money—it is only for the prestige. There are so few things left in the world that are done solely for honor, and that impressed me a lot. Another thing that impressed me was the fact that winning the festival, being the champion, implied never again dancing in competitions; once they are champions they can never compete in any other Malambo competition. It is like winning the Nobel prize in literature and being told, “now you can no longer write.” Also, the physical effort required for Malambo astonished me—I had no idea. I thought anybody could dance it, that it was a rustic dance, unrefined. But these dancers, apart from having a dancer’s training, they had an athlete’s training. Rodolfo, during the final phase of training, climbed sand dunes, ran under the midday sun close to Santa Rosa, where he was born and where his family lives. That part of the country is a dessert and the heat can get up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t know any ballet or contemporary dancers that subject themselves to that type of demented training.
Frances Riddle (translator)
Brazos Bookstore: Before reading A SIMPLE STORY, had you heard of the Malambo before?
Frances Riddle: No, I’d never heard of the Malambo. I’ve been living in Buenos Aires since 2010, but I think that even for people here, it’s just something they vaguely know as some gaucho dance; it’s not something that most people ever dance or talk about or think about. It’s this obscure thing and it sounds boring or even ridiculous, like some kind of cowboy tap dance competition. So the fact that Leila was able to write such an engrossing chronicle that shows the elegance and drama of the dance is all the more impressive.
BB: Were there any particular challenges in translating Leila's book? If so, what were they?
FR: Well, there was the gaucho dance attire to translate. These words aren’t part of people’s everyday vocabulary in Argentina, so I just got blank stares from everyone I asked. But I went to my library and the librarian started pulling out all these books about gauchos and I was thinking, “Oh shit what did I get myself into?” But there was one book with great diagrams and that’s all I really needed. I think the biggest challenge was Leila’s writing style. She says she edits obsessively and it shows in the Spanish that every sentence is so meticulously constructed but then you have to come in and rip it apart at the seams and redo it completely to make it as vibrant and powerful in the new language.
BB: How closely did you work with Leila, if at all?
FR: I didn’t work with Leila at all. We’d been in contact about rights since I’d translated a couple of her shorter chronicles for Asymptote and Berfrois and I’d met her, so I knew she was very warm and accessible, but it never even occurred to me to ask her a single question as I translated. Looking back I feel almost guilty about it, like I should’ve asked her at least a few questions, but I guess the writing was transparent enough that I didn’t need her help.
BB: Have you seen a Malambo contest firsthand? If so, what are your impressions?
FR: We just got back from THE Malambo contest, the one Leila wrote about in the book. This is like the World Cup or the Olympics of Malambo, where the guys have trained 12 hours a day for a year to get there and out of 25, only one will see all that hard work pay off. It takes place just a few hours from where I live in Buenos Aires but I never would’ve thought to go there; a gaucho dance festival just doesn’t sound like my kind of scene. But when we were editing the book, Laurie Callahan, my amazing editor at New Directions, said “Wouldn’t it be fun to go to the festival?” And so she and the book’s other amazing editor Chris Wait and his really fun wife Julia all flew down from New York City. Leila, the author, set everything up and basically threw her heart and soul into making sure we had the most perfect, incredible experience at the festival. We got to meet Rodolfo, the book’s protagonist, and his wife and their three-year-old son. So that was a surreal experience in itself but I was surprised that I actually really loved watching the guys dance. What I liked most was when they danced the northern style malambo. They wear these tall boots with heels and the stage has mics under it so when they really get going it sounds like they’re conjuring up a massive, violent thunderstorm that’s just going to crack the stage in half.
BB: What is your ideal hope with people reading A SIMPLE STORY?
FR: I guess I hope that readers are as moved as I was by Rodolfo’s story and Leila’s beautiful telling of it. I cried every time I read the book, which was like 7 or 8 times total. So maybe you don’t have to cry or read it 8 times but I just hope that people are able to connect to this story of a guy who has a passion and a talent and who’s willing to make unthinkable sacrifices to be able to live his life doing what he loves.