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July 17, 2009

saccomannoDid you know that Latin American novels are seldom distributed beyond the borders of the country where their authors live? Me, neither.

That means, say, that Guillermo Saccomanno, who won the Premio Hammett Prize for best crime novel in Spanish earlier today, is virtually unknown outside of his native Argentina–despite writing in a language common to most of South and Central America.

Saccomanno, 61, took the prize for the novel 77, but it’s merely the latest volume in a long and productive career that includes poetry collections, books of short stories, and a number of highly regarded crime novels. Several of his books have been made into movies, including Bajo Bandera, named best film at the 1998 Cartagena Film Festival.

After accepting the Hammett award, given at the Semana Negra crime writing festival, Saccomanno called 77 a “phantom novel” because it has not been distributed in the rest of Latin America.

“This is a policy we Latin American writers suffer,” Saccomanno told Reuters. “The book isn’t even published in neighboring countries, so what happens is we have to circulate the books through friends in Mexico or Venezuela.”

Saccomanno said it’s the practice of all the major Spanish language publishers, naming Alfaguara, Random House, and his own publisher, Planeta.

“This is nothing new,” Saccomanno said. “Globalization, like imperialism, has the same ‘divide and rule’ strategy.”

Set in 1977, when Argentina was ruled by a military dictatorship, 77 is the story of a gay teacher with Peronist sympathies and a fascination with English literature. Saccomanno says the theme of the book is civilian complicity in the so-called “Dirty War,” in which thousands of dissidents disappeared.

Calling the Latin American publishing situation “curious,” Saccomano suggested that winning the prestigious Hammett prize, named for American writer Dashiell Hammett, makes it likely that 77 will be translated into French and English before it’s available in Spanish outside of Argentina.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2009 1:22 pm

    On a somewhat related note, my work is often translated into Twitterian, Facebookese, dotcom pig Latin and blogsign before it’s ever plain old print-edition standard English.

    But seriously … is it possible that the publishing boundaries Saccomanno describes are a product of something besides, or in addition to, marketing strategies? I’m guessing this tendency toward, uh, Bordered Books (sorry), pre-dates the great waves of globalization in commerce and information. Maybe there’s an element of habit here, like the residue of old political conflicts across borders, or cultural nationalism within.

    Imperialism would have definitely inflamed some of those potential divisions, and I don’t know that globalism would be the magic antidote to just bring those literary walls right down. But, anyways, just wondering. You’d also have to compare the distribution of Spanish-language lit in the Americas to the ways in which music and other arts travel, or don’t travel, across the continent.


  2. rachel permalink
    July 17, 2009 2:01 pm

    It doesn’t make any sense to me that the publishing companies work in this manner. It cannot make much sense for them either, if the books were to be made available even just in nearby countries they would inevitably make a larger profit benefiting everyone involved. It is indeed very curious and very interesting. I wonder what the official reason for this policy is and if anyone has ever tried to propose modification.

  3. July 17, 2009 4:48 pm

    I never defended a status quo in my life, but…isn’t it possible that the divide Mr. Saccomanno speaks of is more a function of international copyright laws than anything more insidious? I know, for example, that for a UK version of an American book to be published, the foreign rights have to be sold to a publisher within the UK, even if the book itself doesn’t need to be translated. Different countries that share a common language are still different countries, and an assumption to the contrary (I tweak thee ever so slightly, Mr. Mabe) would be perceived as insensitive by many of the Latin Americans I know.

    Of course, I could be totally wrong and it may all be a giant conspiracy. Fortunately, as online retailers continue to gain ground, it’s a problem that hopefully won’t stick around too much longer. I have a few friends here in NYC who ordered that “Catcher in the Rye” knock-off that was banned in the States simply by going to and ordering it online from the British retailer. It may be that that isn’t an option available yet in all countries, but it should be soon enough…

  4. Julian permalink
    July 18, 2009 8:47 am

    Well. What Chauncey say don’t call my attention at all. I grew up in Argentina and I was there until early 90′. Now I’m 47 y/o. What you can notice all the time in Argentina is the presence of criminal groups ruling the country by empty democracy, by military coups or the most common, by economic pressure (such as 5% inflation a day for months or years).Or maybe all of three combined when the people start to react. Same rules apply for books and intellectual creativity. You don’t wanna think in conspiracy, because sounds paranoid, but at the end is clear. Argentina is the chosen place by the international neo merco fascism (Pirate Banks mean) to make social experiments. The most important is keep the country in complete isolation, (included books) as an economic concentration camp. Like a famous Argentinian artist named Miguel Cantilo said (famous in Argentina of course) “I can’t stand such an organized disaster without scream my anger”. Argentina still today is the unresolved last battle ground of the WWII. The Fascist rule everything and the people refuse to defend themselves, because in fact nobody wants to organize anything. you can see it in every detail of the Argentinian life.

  5. July 20, 2009 5:26 pm


    I think you caught Frank McCourt – his life, his melancholy, the singular “song” of his native country – beautifully.

    I’ve spent a lot of years in Ireland, both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland. And I came to believe, because of their long and tortured history, that some Irish people – like, perhaps, McCourt – have a hard time emerging from the tragedy and melancholia that strangled their country for so long. But, when they do emerge, their smiles and their warmth and their hospitality can light up the coldest day.

    McCourt didn’t have the easiest early life. And, after so many years as a teacher, he could have retired with a nice pension and spent a lot of time browsing in bookstores and going to Shakespeare in the Park. But that wasn’t enough for him. Perhaps it wasn’t enough because of his own personal demons; we’ll probably never know for sure.

    In the end, however, what really matters is that he didn’t choose the easy road. So late in his life, he chose the challenging one (and anyone who’s ever written knows what I mean). As per your anecdote, he still burned with passion late in life – even though some of those passions, apparently, may have been negative ones. And we’re all so much the better for it.

    Again, I think you’ve captured the man well. Thanks for a very interesting piece!

    Steve Winston

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