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Obituary: Héctor Tizón by Miriam Frank

Héctor Tizón died aged 82 in Jujuy, Argentina, on 30th July.

He was a lawyer, diplomat, journalist and judge, but was best known as an author, highly regarded for his vivid depiction of his world in the high Andean plateau in northwest Argentina, tucked between Bolivia and Chile, and far removed from the bustling Europeanised Argentine capital. He was a prolific author of novels, short stories, essays and articles, and his works have been translated into French, German, Russian, Polish, Serbo-croatian and Hebrew, and the English translations of two of his novels, Fire in Casabindo and The Man Who Came to a Village, were published by Quartet Books. He received numerous literary prizes and distinctions, and was awarded France’s title of Chevallier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2003 he was celebrated at Buenos Aires’ National Library with a comprehensive retrospective exhibition of his life and work, titled Rootedness, Exile and Memory, and more recently he was put forward for the Nobel Prize for literature.

He was born in 1929 and grew up in the small picturesque village of Yala, at the foot of the Andes, where I visited him when I was translating his work. He spoke to me of his years as a diplomat in Mexico, Paris and Milan and travels around the world, his return to Yala, his difficult period of exile in Spain during Argentina’s military dictatorship, and his re-return to Yala, the place where, he declared, he felt at home and he was himself. His writing captures the stark silence, winds and dust, brilliant blue skies and electric storms of that barren high plateau, the Puna, woven into the rugged life and harsh history of its inhabitants.

He lived to see his memoirs published, in which he reflects at length on death: 

Nothing and nobody is able to quell the memories that suddenly illuminate what we had believed lost and gone. Oblivion is more powerful and irremediable than death. Only that is dead, which we definitively have forgotten. 

He will indeed live on through his stirring and evocative depictions of that expansive flat landscape and remote people close to his heart, and the universal truths which he so eloquently reveals in them.

He is survived by his wife, Flora, daughter and sons, Guadalupe, Ramiro and Alvaro. 

Héctor Tizón

Héctor Tizón, Argentine author of, among others, Fire in Casabindo and The Man Who Came to a Village, passed away on 30th July at his home in Jujuy, Argentina.

From the Buenos Aires Herald:

One of Argentina’s great contemporary authors, Héctor Tizón, died at his home in Jujuy yesterday morning. He was 82. As he lived far from Buenos Aires, in Yala for many years, outside the capital and in what is geographically the beginning of the Quebrada, he was never part of any fashionable group or movement. Hence his writing was somewhat neglected by the reading public. However, for those who read and knew his production, he will be one of our greats.

Tizón had been ill for some time, first losing his sight, and later he suffered serious infirmity. One of his significant (public) moments came in the late nineties, when a group of writers proposed him for the Nobel prize for literature. Given his jaundiced view of life, he thought the process was a bit of a joke, the subject of his quiet and seriously thought sense of humour. But he quietly enjoyed the recognition.

Héctor Tizón was always a writer. However, he was equally and staunchly a respected lawyer, expressing and demanding deep respect for the law in its purest and applied forms. He graduated in law at the University of La Plata in 1953 and returned north to practice, after a short season in Buenos Aires. It was during Arturo Frondizi’s government, in 1958, that he began a third, and short-lived career as a diplomat. He was posted to the Argentine embassy in Mexico as cultural secretary. That was as much a job as the opening of a universe, given that he gained the acquaintance of such names as writers as Tito Monterroso and Ernesto Cardenal, the Argentine Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, all renowned Latin Americans passing through, and the Mexican Juan Rulfo. And it was during that posting that he completed and published his first volume of stories, A un costado de los rieles (At one side of the tracks, 1960). His literary career had begun and his season as a diplomat ended. He left the service in 1962, when the military overthrew Frondizi’s groundbreaking government.

His first novel, Fuego en Casabindo (Fire in Casabindo, 1969), confirmed his talent, but its delay after his first book is a separate story. Back home in 1963, and at his law practice in San Salvador de Jujuy, the provincial capital, he completed the novel and posted the typescript to his friend, Dardo Cuneo, who had served as a presidential secretary during the Frondizi government. The two men corresponded during the following years on a variety of subjects, but the book was never mentioned. Eventually, Tizón plucked up courage and asked for the return of the typescript, only to be told by Cuneo to wait a few months because the Galerna imprint was about to publish the book. Fire… would eventually, in the nineties, be translated into English by Miriam Frank and published by Faber, in London, with the English version, also by Miriam Frank, of El hombre que llegó a un pueblo (The Man who Came to a Village, 1988). The original printing of Fire… was sent to the Herald by Cuneo. My Herald review of the book was sent to Yala and our friendship began, over 40 years ago. Tizón invited the whole family to stay in Yala, to talk about books. We took up brief residence there.

Tizón’s writing appears at first a closed scene to the reader, but rapidly it becomes a wide-angle view of an ancient and barren land. His descriptions are not so much of his characters as of their history in a region which to this day has the whiff and feel of a place centuries old, from an age much before the Spanish conquest. This is the Puna, the high plain, where people have lived their existence and customs close to the rock, reaching back over the centuries, perhaps to an Asian migration deep in the mists of time. Fascinating.

His books top the 20 titles and range through stories and novels, written and developed quietly after office hours in Yala. The apparently leisurely life of the writer established as a respected lawyer was shattered in the seventies, as was much of the existence of Argentina. After one of his colleagues was pushed off a ledge in the central courts of Jujuy, and then the daughter of another colleague and friend, the lawyer and poet Andrés Fidalgo (1919-2008), was “disappeared” in Buenos Aires, the environment of a lawyer defending trade unionists became less than comfortable. Like many, Tizón and family, decided to leave the country, “for a time”. Among the many anecdotes we shared is that of his departure. Tizón and his wife came to our house in La Lucila and, sitting in the patio on a spring evening, they announced their decision. His parting remark that night was, “Wherever we go, whatever we do, let’s not allow that politics should ever break our friendship.” I have lived with those words.

In 1982, when the military were busy elsewhere and the Malvinas war became an amnesty of the damned, Tizón returned from Madrid to Jujuy, reopened his practice and carried on writing. By then exile had broken up the family. His youngest son stayed in Madrid, his youngest daughter eventually took up residence in France, and his eldest son, a lawyer, first in Córdoba, returned to the practice in Jujuy.

On his return, Tizón became a judge, eventually to rise to the provincial supreme court. He was elected for the Radical (UCR) party as a constituent assembly member of the constitutional reform in 1994, and after that was often called to sit on the panels of literary prizes here and elsewhere. His last published book, written as his sight began to wane, was a volume of memoirs, printed in 2008.

His wife, linguist and educational scientist Flora Tizón, two sons and one daughter, survive him. They’ve lost a great man, but his powerful and at times beautiful writing, should survive him well into the future.