(13 June 1912 — 10 April 1981)
Literary critics agree that Oscar Cerruto is among the five most important writers of Bolivian literature of the twentieth century. Cerruto produced one of the most important social novels of Bolivia, about the Chaco war between this country and Paraguay; his short stories changed the literary realism dominant in Bolivian literature; and finally, he wrote a unique poetry regarded as a zenith of lyrical perfection. His literary work also includes essays and literary criticism as well as a grammar of Spanish. It is fair to say that although his prose may be as significant as his poetry, he is perceived more as a poet than a narrator. His literary activity was accompanied by a career in the Foreign Service and a permanent involvement with the press.
Cerruto was born in La Paz, Bolivia, on 13 June, 1912. His father, Andrés Cerruto Durand, was Bolivian, and his mother, Lelia Maggie Collier, British. His paternal family belonged to the upper class of Bolivian society. He was raised in a very traditional Bolivian environment: a patriarchal family, where the father is the sole authority. He was sent to the country’s best public schools, which Cerruto did not like because of the aggressive behavior among students. By 1918, the year he started elementary school, he already knew how to read. Her mother, a pianist and an artist, taught him to read. Cerruto was a precocious writer. In an interview he recalls having written his first poem at the age of eight, about the death of a dog struck by a car. He mentions that he did not write sentimental verses but, on the contrary, somehow a cruel poem. He showed the poem to his father who did not like it. “No volví a escribir hasta los catorce años” (I did not write again until I was fourteen years old) says Cerruto (“Precisión”, 47-48).
When he started high school, he was a shy and low profile student but already an avid reader. At the age of fourteen he went to live with an aunt, Lilly Collier de Conley, who had come to Bolivia as the wife of a British employee of the Bolivian Railway Company. She guided the young reader into the world of English and Spanish classical literature. Cerruto became familiar with the works of such authors as Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron, Miguel de Cervantes and Gustavo A. Bequer. He started writing poetry about social inequalities and the struggles of the working class.
In 1926, at the age of fifteen, he got his first job in the newspaper Bandera Roja (Red Flag), a leading publication for the dissemination of socialist ideas. He wrote articles against the government and the Catholic Church, and in favor of workers. The newspaper was raided and closed by the government, and Cerruto barely escaped prison. Working for Bandera Roja was the beginning of his career as a newspaper journalist, columnist, and administrator. He will alternate this occupation with a career in diplomacy, his main professional activity during his life.
1926 was the beginning of his participation in the political life of Bolivia. It also was the year of his first important intellectual manifestation. He published a series of articles on new trends in Bolivian poetry in the newspaper La Razón (The Reason). His ideas were criticized by a well-know writer of his time, Carlos G. Cornejo. Cerruto was engaged in an intense debate over his ideas. Soon, several well-know writers of his time joined the discussion; most of them supporting the ideas of the young writer. Cerruto proved to be a most informed and gifted critic, able to maintain an elevated discussion with much older and established intellectuals.
Influenced by the Marxist ideology popular among young intellectuals of the time, his political activism sent him to jail in 1928, accused of conspiring against the security of the state. In 1930, having finished high school, he began law school, following his father’s desires. His father died the same year, and he abandoned law school. He went to work in newspapers such as La razón and El Diario (The Daily), and continued to publish poems, short stories and literary articles. Almost a year after his father death, his older brother, Luis Heriberto, commited suicide. Cerruto became the family head and had to support his younger brothers. This was also the time when he began to work for the Bolivian Foreign Service. He was appointed as secretary in the Bolivian consulate in Arica, Chile, in 1931. A few months later, he won a literary contest in Arica. This may have been the start of his prestige among Chilean intellectuals. Later he became a friend of famous Chilean poets such as Vicente Huidobro and Pablo Neruda.
In 1932, Bolivia and Paraguay were engaged in war over the remote southern region of Bolivia called “El Chaco.” Cerruto was drafted to go to war, but he never made it to the front line. Because of the death of the Bolivian consul in Arica he was ordered to occupy that position. The Chaco war ended in 1935. During those years Cerruto wrote what is widely considered to be the most important Bolivian novel about the war: Aluvión de fuego (Flood of Fire) published in Santiago, Chile, in 1935. This novel shows the drama of Bolivian society as a whole during the Chaco war. Rooted in Marxist and socialist ideas, Aluvión de fuego is the description of a nation engaged in two wars: an external one against Paraguay, and an internal one against Indians, the working class and leftist intellectuals. The novel depicts not only what happened on the battle front, but also in the highlands, where Indians were being recruited by force, in the mines, where the army was bloodily repressing the social agitation of the workers, and in the city, where authorities and conservative political leaders were promoting chauvinism to avoid political discontent. The novel ends with the hope of a social revolution forming among the workers and the veterans of the war.
Cerruto lived in Santiago until 1937, and then he moved to Buenos Aires, where he wrote for important newspapers such as La Nación (The Nation). In 1942 he was appointed as Cultural Attaché to the Bolivian Embassy in Argentina and he remained in Buenos Aires until 1946. These were important years for the still young Cerruto because of the friendships he established with several important writers. To the names of Chilean poets already mentioned, we can add other well-known writers residing in Buenos Aires such as Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Eduardo Mallea, Pedro Enríquez Hureña and Alfredo Cahn. These years were also important because Cerruto’s political beliefs radically changed, as well as the themes of his literary work. Until then both his poetry and narrative had mainly focused on social subjects, guided by his socialist ideas. But the short stories he published in literary and cultural magazines in Buenos Aires are centered in the daily life of the upper class in Bolivia. The plots seem to have dropped any reference to social and political struggle. It seems that Cerruto did not regard these publications as very important because he never compiled or published them again, but they show the elements of a change that will be fully completed in 1958 with the publication of the first poetry and short-story books of his intellectual maturity.
In 1946, Cerruto went back to Bolivia, still working for the Foreign Service. He married Marina Luna de Orozco in 1950. This marriage will last all his life. From 1952 to 1957, Cerruto directed the newspaper El Diario of La Paz. During this period Cerruto seemed to be more dedicated to the short story genre, although still writing poetry. He published several short stories that later became part of his book Cerco de penumbras (Frame of Shadows) to appear in 1958. His only daughter, Madeleine, was born in 1954. The newborn motivated Cerruto to write a poetry book dedicated to the baby, titled Cifra de las rosas y siete cantares (Cipher of the Roses and Seven Songs), published in La Paz in 1957.
Cifra de las rosas y siete cantares is the first book of poems by Cerruto. It is a stylistically elaborate book. Although it does not address directly the most important subjects of his later books, it already shows his mastery of language. These poems still echo the style of Latin America modernism in the rhythms and images, although this had been a movement of the beginning of the twentieth century. In Bolivia the style continued to be cultivated in the middle of the century by celebrated poets such as Franz Tamayo. Cerruto did not followed modernism as closely as Tamayo and other poets, but Cifra de las rosas y siete cantares is marked by some of the characteristics of modernist poetry such as the emphasis on the sonority of language.
In 1958, Cerruto publishes two very important books in Bolivian literature: one, his collections of short-stories, Cerco de penumbras, and the other, Patria de sal cautiva (Fatherland, Captive of Salt), a book of poetry that can be considered his first major poetic work.
Critics have emphasized that with Cerco de penumbras Bolivian narrative abandons traditional realistic writing, and enters into the realm of purely fictional writing (Antezana 2000). Thus Cerco de penumbras does not pretend to represent reality, but rather to explore the unreal through fictions created in language. The themes of the short stories that form the book are: dreams, death, madness, time displacement, and the magic of Indians. As the title of the book suggests, reality seems to be surrounded by shadows, the space where there is neither clarity nor darkness. It is interesting to contrast this with the title of his novel, and to notice that the fire and violence that was predicted to change society (the revolution) has been replaced by a more ambiguous perception of the world: here the undefined sides of reality can change social interaction but in an unpredictable manner.
This new vision of reality is closely linked to his understanding of language. In his poetry, Cerruto makes it explicit that language is not just a tool for the representation of reality, but, more importantly, a tool for the investigation of reality. This may be an explanation for Cerruto’s obsession with the perfection of language. Cerruto said that for him writing was a fight for the “la palabra no intercambiable” (the non exchangeable word) (“Precisión,” 49). This is why his poetry has been defined as classical (Mitre) and as the work of an artisan (García-Pabón).
Patria de sal cautiva is the first major work by Cerruto that addresses the meaning of Bolivian existence both as a country and as a community. The title of the book alludes to the fact that Bolivia has became a landlocked country trough the loss of its coast to Chile in the war of 1879. Cerruto sees a country isolated not only geographically but also historically, mythically and socially. In this book the landscape of the highlands and mountains of the Andes are marked by the past. Mythical times and history have left their traces in the territory, creating a permanent feeling of solitude. The destructive events of Bolivian history as well as its abandonment by the aboriginal gods have throw the country into an almost metaphysical state of isolation. A few lines from the poem “Altiplano” (Plateau) illustrate well the tone of the book:
El altiplano es frecuente como el odio.
Ciega, de pronto, como una oleada de sangre.
Sobre su lomo tatuado por las agujas ásperas del tiempo
los labradores aymaras, su propia tumba a cuestas,
con los fusiles y la honda le ahuyentan pájaros de luz a la noche.
Altiplano sin fronteras,
desplegado y violento como el fuego.
Sus charangos acentúan el color del infortunio.
Su soledad horada, gota a gota, la piedra. (Poesía, 77-78)
(The plateau is as frequent as hatred
blinds, suddenly, as a wave of blood.
On its back tattooed by the rough needles of time
The Aymara farmers, shouldering their own grave,
With rifles and slings scare birds of light to the night.
Plateau with no frontiers
Unfurled and violent as fire.
Their charangos accent the color of misfortune.
Their loneliness erodes, drop by drop, the stone.)
Seventeen years passed until Cerruto published his second major book of poetry, Estrella segregada (Estranged Star), published in Buenos Aires in 1975. During these years, Cerruto became a recognized writer, nationally as well as internationally. In 1960 he traveled to Washington to make a recording of his poetry. In 1963 the Italian government conferred him a cultural distinction; in 1969, the Bolivian government presented him the Medalla al Mérito (Medal to the Merit) for his contribution to Bolivian culture; and in 1972, the Venezuelan government awarded him the Andrés Bello Medal of Culture. All these years he continued to work as a Bolivian diplomat or in Bolivian newspapers. He occupied important positions in the Bolivian Foreign Service. From 1966 to 1968 he was appointed as the Bolivian Ambassador in Uruguay. From 1958 to 1961 he worked as director of the newspaper Ultima Hora (Last Hour) in La Paz.
The publication of Estrella segregada is a landmark in his poetic production. The majority of the critical reception of his work has been dedicated to this book (Antezana 1986, Wiethüchter). This is not surprising, given the carefully crafted language, as well as the full development of his vision of Bolivian reality. The title of the book refers to the Illimani, the Andean mountain that guards the city of La Paz. For Cerruto the mountain is a fallen god, a subject separated from his community. As in Patria de sal cautiva, he sees the loss of social and communal significance as engraved in the very landscape of the city —its valley-like topography, the streets, the hills, the people. He describes this lack of social meaning as a degradation of moral values and beliefs originated by the predominance of corrupted political power in the life of the city. Even language seems to be contaminated by the sick condition of the social: the lack of certainty and truth. Cerruto says in “El pozo verbal” (The Verbal Well):
Las palabras te ensalzan
te besan las manos
luego te muerden. (Poesía 106-107)
(Words exalt you
kiss your hands
then they bite you.)
Opposed to the space of “las cancerosas calles/ tatuadas/ por el orín y las blasfemias/ donde aúlla la gente” (the cancerous streets/ tattooed/ by urine and blasphemy/ where people howl) (Poesía 99), the Ilimani represents the world of light and meaning. Cerruto calls it “el resplandeciente” (the shining one), translating the word Illimani from the Aymara. However, this shining star, being a fallen god, only has silence and a conjectural meaning: “Tal vez/ enigma de fulgor” (Perhaps/ enigma of brightness) (Poesía 123). For Cerruto, La Paz is the symbol of a degraded social reality. Political power is not only corrupt, but it has corrupted human relationships all over the social corpus. Disappointed and bitter by this perception of reality, he turns his poetry to a dialogue with the dead: the poets he admires. This is the subject of his last book of poems, Reverso de la transparencia (The Backside of Transparency), published also in 1975.
It is worth noting that as he advanced in his diplomatic and literary careers, he became more resentful about Bolivian society. Nevertheless, there are no traces of Cerruto directly criticizing the system in which he worked, nor of the established literary system of which he was a consecrated figure. In 1973, he became a member of the Academia Boliviana de la Lengua, the most traditional literary and linguistic institution of the Spanish language in the country. From 1968 to 1976, he took leave of his diplomatic career, and dedicated his time to reading and writing. It is during these years that he wrote Estrella segregada, and Reverso de la trasparencia. In 1976 he resumed his work with the Foreign Service and founded the Academy of Diplomacy of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, an institution that he directed until 1980. The adjective of classic that has been applied to his writing can also be applied to his life. He lived surrounded by politicians, diplomats, and traditional writers. He participated in private literary saloons, and he dressed formally most of the time. He was a true letrado (man of letters), the name given to Latin American intellectuals who, since the colonial period, are at the service of the state. He may well be considered the last letrado of Bolivian society in the twentieth century. In the circles he frequented, he was already considered the most important living Bolivian writer. He seems to have achieved a position of success and happiness. Still, the acrimony of his poetry makes the reader wonder at the reasons for his loneliness.
The isolation into which Bolivia had fallen according to Patria de sal cautiva, and the degradation of society that we see in Estrella segregada becomes in Reverso de la transparencia the absolute loneliness of the poetic voice. A collection of songs to dead poets, the book is a dialogue with the texts of classical Bolivian poets such as Franz Tamayo, and Ricardo Jaimes Freyre. Cerruto recognizes in them his own loneliness and bitterness. They are mirrors of his soul. He wonders where Bolivian community is, and why he feels so alone. But he does not know if it is him or society that is to be blamed for his alienation:
o pobre yo,
en este inmenso
país tan nuestro
y tan ajeno.)
Y me olvidaron.
Y luego me borraron.
¿O yo los ignoré
y así los expulsé
del mundo? (Poesía 198-199)
or poor me,
all of us,
in this immense
country so ours
and so foreign.)
I was a man
And they forgot me.
And then they erased me.
Or did I ignore them
And thus I expelled them
From the world?)
After publishing Reverso de la trasparencia Cerruto did not write more poetry. The last poem of this book is a dialogue with death, and it would seem that the poet felt that he had nothing else to say. Six years later he became ill, and while being operated on, he died. It was the 10th of April 1981. His death at the age of 69 was felt as a major loss for Bolivian literature. A wide variety of homages, private and public have followed his death over the years. There is no doubt that his poetry is a major literary work in Bolivian as well as in Latin American literature. Many of his views on Bolivia are still the best description of a society struggling with its own flaws and inadequacies. And no poet in Bolivia has expressed so absolutely the loneliness that comes of being a poet —an illuminated consciousness— in times of ethical degradation.
University of Oregon
Luis H Antezana, “Prólogo: Cerruto en (el) ‘Cerco de penumbras,’” Cerco de penumbras, Oscar Cerruto, Ed. de Luis H. Antezana, 3ª edición, (La Paz: Plural, 2000), vii-xviii;
Antezana, “Sobre Estrella segregada,’” Ensayos y lecturas, (La Paz: Ediciones Altiplano, 1986), 17-45;
Oscar Cerruto, Poesía (Madrid: Ediciones Cultura Hispánica/ Instituto de Cooperación Iberoamericana, 1985).
___________“Precisión: Aluvión de poesía: Oscar Cerruto,” interviewed by Alfonso Gumucio Dagrón, Provocaciones, (La Paz: Los Amigos del Libro, 1977), 39-65.
Leonardo García Pabón, “La soledad nacional del sujeto poético: la poesía de Oscar Cerruto,” La patria íntima. Alegorías nacionales en la literatura y el cine de Bolivia, (La Paz: CESU-Plural, 1998), 193-212;
Eduardo Mitre, “La soledad del poder,” El árbol y la piedra. Poetas contemporáneos de Bolivia, (Caracas: Monte Avila, 1986), 26-33;
Blanca Wiethüchter, “Poesía boliviana contemporánea: Oscar Cerruto, Jaime Saenz, Pedro Shimose y Jesús Urzagasti,” Tendencias actuales en la literatura boliviana, Ed. Javier Sanjinés, (Minneapolis/Valencia: Institute for the Study of Ideologies, 1985), 75-114.