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Juan Gelman

Juan Gelman Juan Gelman[2†]

Juan Gelman (May 3, 1930 - January 14, 2014) was an Argentine poet and a major literary figure throughout Latin America and in Spain[1†][2†]. He was also known for his fight against the military junta that ruled Argentina in the 1970s and '80s[1†][3†]. His personal tragedy from this period became a significant part of his life story[1†][2†].

Early Years and Education

Juan Gelman Burichson was born on May 3, 1930, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the Villa Crespo neighborhood[2†]. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine[2†]. As a boy, he read Russian and European literature widely under the tutelage of his brother Boris[2†]. His father, José Gelman, was a social revolutionary who participated in the 1905 revolution in Russia; he immigrated to Argentina, went back shortly after the Bolshevik revolution, and then returned to Argentina for good, disillusioned[2†].

Gelman learned to read when he was three years old, and spent much of his childhood reading and playing soccer[2†]. He developed an interest in poetry at a very young age, influenced by his brother Boris, who read to him several poems in Russian, a language that the boy did not know[2†]. The experience of reading Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and Humiliated (1861) at age eight made a profound impression on him[2†].

As a young man, he was a member of several notable literary groups and later became an important journalist[2†]. He also worked as a translator at the United Nations[2†]. He was always an ardent political activist[2†].

Career Development and Achievements

Juan Gelman’s career was marked by his political activism, his work as a journalist, and, most notably, his poetry[1†][2†].

Gelman was jailed in the early 1960s during the Peronists’ struggle for control of the federal government in Argentina[1†]. From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, he wrote for the magazines Panorama and Crisis in Buenos Aires[1†]. His involvement with the Montoneros, a left-wing Peronist group that used violence in its efforts to overthrow the military government, resulted in his being forced into exile in Italy in 1975[1†]. He returned to Argentina briefly in 1988 before moving to Mexico[1†].

Gelman released his first collection of poetry, Violín y otras cuestiones (“Violin and Other Issues”), in 1956[1†]. He published prolifically for the next five decades, with his poetry registering the waxing and waning of his prominence as a political activist during the second half of the 20th century[1†]. The poems in Anunciaciones (1988; “Annunciations”), for instance, show Gelman withdrawing from the public sphere; through them he reflects on his political life and returns to some of his early interests in language and creativity[1†].

Among the most notable themes in Gelman’s wide-ranging poetry are his experiences in Argentina during the 1960s and ’70s, his exile, and his Jewish heritage, as well as the nature of poetry itself[1†]. A selection of his poems appear in English translation in Unthinkable Tenderness (1997)[1†].

In the late 1990s, Gelman returned to public prominence as he tried to locate the child of his son and daughter-in-law, who were among those “disappeared” by the military government during Argentina’s Dirty War of the late 1970s and early 1980s[1†]. In 2000, the president of Uruguay, Jorge Batlle, acknowledged that Gelman’s daughter-in-law had been transported to Uruguay, where she gave birth to a daughter; Gelman and his granddaughter were subsequently reunited[1†].

Beginning in 2000, Gelman received a number of major literary awards, both for new collections of poetry and for his lifetime’s work[1†]. The most prominent was the Cervantes Prize, the highest literary honour in the Spanish-speaking world[1†]. His win confirmed his place as Argentina’s most prominent poet at the turn of the 21st century[1†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Juan Gelman’s literary career was prolific, with more than twenty books of poetry published between 1956 and his death in early 2014[2†][1†]. His first collection of poetry, “Violín y otras cuestiones” (“Violin and Other Issues”), was released in 1956[2†][1†]. This marked the beginning of a long and fruitful career that saw him become one of the most important voices in Latin American literature.

Gelman’s works are characterized by their political and social commentary, reflecting his experiences in Argentina during the 1960s and ’70s, his exile, and his Jewish heritage[2†][1†]. His poetry also explores the nature of poetry itself[2†][1†]. A selection of his poems appears in English translation in “Unthinkable Tenderness” (1997)[2†][1†].

Here are some of his main works:

Each of these works represents a different phase in Gelman’s life and career, offering unique insights into his experiences, thoughts, and feelings[2†][1†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Juan Gelman’s poetry is known for its deep tenderness and political engagement[5†]. His work emerges from the socially engaged verse of the 1950s and evolves through engagements with Anglophone poetry, pseudonymous translations, the poetics of exile, and various forms of mysticism[5†]. This evolution culminated in the award of the Cervantes Prize in 2007[5†].

In his early poems, tenderness is already a basis for political action, and the role of poetry therein[5†]. By tracing the movement from tenderness in the home against a backdrop of social deprivation and working-class struggle, through Gelman’s sympathy for Maoism, to a Guevarist politics[5†], we can see how his work reflects the political and social climate of his time.

Gelman’s poetry registers the waxing and waning of his prominence as a political activist during the second half of the 20th century[5†][1†]. The poems in “Anunciaciones” (1988), for instance, show Gelman withdrawing from the public sphere[5†][1†]. Through them, he reflects on his political life and returns to some of his early interests in language and creativity[5†][1†].

Among the most notable themes in Gelman’s wide-ranging poetry are his experiences in Argentina during the 1960s and ’70s, his exile, and his Jewish heritage, as well as the nature of poetry itself[1†]. His work is a testament to his personal experiences and his commitment to social and political change[5†][1†].

Personal Life

Juan Gelman’s personal life was deeply intertwined with his political activism and his poetry. He was born to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine in Buenos Aires’ Villa Crespo neighborhood[2†]. His father, José Gelman, was a social revolutionary who participated in the 1905 revolution in Russia[2†]. Gelman learned to read when he was three years old, and spent much of his childhood reading and playing soccer[2†].

In 1976, during Argentina’s Dirty War, his son Marcelo and his pregnant daughter-in-law, Maria Claudia, were kidnapped[2†]. They became two of the 30,000 desaparecidos, the people who were forcibly “vanished” without a trace during the reign of the military junta[2†]. In 1990, Gelman was led to identify his son’s remains, and in 2000, he was able to trace his granddaughter, born before Maria Claudia’s murder and given to a pro-government family in Uruguay[2†]. The remains of Maria Claudia have not yet been recovered[2†].

During his long exile, Gelman lived in Europe until 1988, then in the United States, and later in Mexico, with his wife, Argentine psychologist Mara La Madrid[2†]. He also had a long and brilliant career as a journalist, writing for the Argentine newspaper Pagina/12 until his death[2†].

Gelman’s personal life was marked by tragedy, but also by resilience and a relentless pursuit of justice. His experiences deeply influenced his poetry, infusing it with a profound sense of loss, but also with a powerful affirmation of life and a fierce commitment to human rights[2†][1†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Juan Gelman’s life and work left a profound legacy in both the literary and human rights spheres. His poetry, which is considered among the greatest produced in Latin America in the last century, is celebrated for its depth, beauty, and social and political commentary[6†]. His works have been translated into 14 languages and have won numerous prestigious awards, including the Cervantes Prize, the most esteemed literary award for work in Spanish[6†].

Beyond his literary contributions, Gelman is also remembered for his relentless pursuit of justice. His 23-year search for his granddaughter, Macarena, who was born while her parents were imprisoned and killed during Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship, made him a crucial symbol for the human rights movement in South America[6†]. His tireless efforts to bring to justice the criminals who tortured, murdered, and disappeared his loved ones and the loved ones of many thousands of his co-nationals have been widely recognized and admired[6†][7†].

Gelman’s life was marked by personal tragedy and political struggle, but his enduring legacy is one of resilience, courage, and a deep commitment to justice and human rights[6†][7†]. His poetry continues to inspire readers around the world, and his tireless advocacy for justice continues to resonate in the ongoing struggle for human rights[6†][7†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Britannica - Juan Gelman: Argentine poet and activist [website] - link
  2. Wikipedia (English) - Juan Gelman [website] - link
  3. PBS NewsHour - Juan Gelman, Argentine poet who fought against a military junta, dies at 83 [website] - link
  4. Kiddle Encyclopedia - Juan Gelman Facts for Kids [website] - link
  5. Taylor and Francis Online - Just a moment... [website] - link
  6. The Independent - Juan Gelman: Poet whose search for his 'disappeared' granddaughter made him a symbol of human rights in Argentina [website] - link
  7. Mondoweiss - Ariel Sharon and Juan Gelman: Two responses to the legacy of the ghetto [website] - link
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