What we call history is nothing more than the gossip that comes to us from the past. Documented or illusory, the narrated facts are transmitted by a multitude of vested interests, and the ultimate narrative (which is never the final one) depends, to convince us, on the tone and context of the narrator rather than on the facts themselves. This applies to both macrohistory and the microhistory proposed by Carlo Ginzburg. That is, both panoramic displays and family albums.
Despite such power, gossip remains a literary genre little valued; We disregard the importance that Pascal gave him to know the size of Cleopatra’s nose, and we are more impressed by the statistics on the number of deaths in World War I or on the tons of wheat produced in Ukraine in 1964.
José Emilio Burucúa, whose academic curriculum fills a good number of pages, does not disregard that genre. Eminent historian, his bibliography includes essays on classical modernity, on Warburgian theory and practice, on the elephant as a symbol, on Ulysses, on laughter, on the great catcher, the Mountain Man. Burucúa knows that his duty as a historian consists (he says it himself) in “giving rise to the sufferings and desires of happiness and justice that the dead had”. His method is to pay attention to the “chain of truthful facts, as verifiable, and of the hypothetical facts that we postulate in order to explain the hidden reasons for what happened.” These two varieties of gossip, Burucúa calls them facta the first and ficta the second.
This learned and gossip style is part of the charm of the second volume of their Berlin letters (The first appeared in 2015, also in the Adriana Hidalgo publishing house), and is proof of Burucúa’s epistolary talent, whose previous fruits are the brilliant Eastern Mediterranean Letters and the North American letters. Invited by a prestigious German academic institution to spend several months in Berlin, Burucúa transforms his letters addressed to a certain Laura into a scholarly, entertaining, instructive newspaper, telling his adventures and tourist misadventures, summarizing conferences of important colleagues on the most abstruse topics and diverse, entertaining and capricious guide in the many museums he visits, citing with delight from a poem by DH Lawrence to passages from the Talmud. The adventures of the German language, the braided legal notions of “must” and “can”, Bach’s musical intelligence, the power of children to conceive something before they can name it, pass through his eclectic pen, death understood as “the triumph of competition over cooperation ”… The repertoire is almost infinite. To these Berlin meditations are added in the book others born of their digressions to the Baltic countries, Russia and Hungary, and some pages of illustrative photos. The book is a smorgasbord (Swedish food buffet) of intellectual pleasures.
And we are lucky because Burucúa offers us not one but two more titles. On the one hand, Natural and mythical history of elephants (Ampersand editorial). For another, B-S Encyclopedia (Peripheral), which allows or encourages the confluence of its facta Y ficta (carries the subtitle of Satirical historiography experiment) and perhaps it is the most happily ambitious book of Burucúa. Directing his inexhaustible curiosity to the history of his own family, Burucúa, with dazzling scholarship and an outrageous sense of humor, gives us, as one who does not want the thing, a gossip and authentic story of our atrocious twentieth century. Against the background of the political and social events that we believe we know, Burucúa reviews the lives of distant and close relatives, his wife and his wife, Aurora Schreiber, Catalan and Basque emigrants by the author’s side, of Jewish Europe by the of his wife, and also of closer and younger relatives. All this multitude of individuals, abundant as in a Russian novel (we said in my adolescence without having read them) and yet differentiated each as in the detailed records of the catalog of a quirky human library, are identified by name, number and initial, and together they constitute a fiery and reliable portrait of more than 10 decades of western history.
They parade through these more than 600 pages, accompanied by a section of photos and documents, characters worthy of Marcel Schwob of Imaginary lives: the miraculous Raul SW Berg, saved by the arms of a tailor when at the age of two he fell from a second floor, who already survived communism, wanted to be the Mountain Man II and ended up inventing a “device for multiple massages” ; José Emilio B-B2, the author’s father, deaf to the daily mood displays to which his son was so alert; the illustrious anti-Peronist Leonor B1-B, subtle subversive; Cecilia S1, who distrusted all narration, both fiction and historical, and for whom only mathematics and geography were real things; the contradictory Samuel B-1, animal lover and owner of an English Holland Magnum “to hunt elephants”; María F-M, born in Pontevedra in the mid-19th century, who saw the devil twice in person. Not all are comforting stories. Luis Martín B-B1, a tall, dark young man with dark eyes and very white skin, was arrested by the Argentine military dictatorship, tortured and disappeared, probably thrown alive from a Hercules plane into the waters of the Río de la Plata. The epitaph dedicated to him by Burucúa gives an idea of the profound wisdom of this book: “We know the virtues because they always occupy the foreground of our youth. Of their defects, little and nothing we know: Martín did not reach the necessary age so that they crystallized and became evident before the witnesses who told his story ”.
In a preface to Kipling’s poetry, WH Auden wrote: “For him civilization (and consciousness) is a small fortress of light surrounded by a great darkness full of evil forces, maintained throughout the centuries by constant vigilance, the power of will and self-sacrifice. ” Burucúa is one of those who, in our time of growing darkness, feed that light.
B-S Encyclopedia. José Emilio Burucúa. Peripheral, 2019. 712 pages. 25.50 euros.