New York Times Book Review


Ban the Bard

Date:July 28, 1991, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
Byline:By Ariel Dorfman;

THE LAST DAYS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE By Vlady Kociancich. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. 297 pp. New York: William Morrow & Company. $20.

Dictators do not only persecute and censor writers. They also pose some interesting literary challenges, particularly after they have been overthrown. Faced with the extreme violence that has just ravaged their land, writers must ask themselves, now that they can tell the truth without fear of reprisals, whether they will document those contemporary events in almost journalistic fashion, staying within the boundaries of history, or if they prefer a more indirect approach, creating an allegory that allows them to explore the horror and its origins with greater freedom from immediate historical circumstances.

It is the latter method that the Argentine author Vlady Kociancich has adopted as a way of probing the turbulence of her country's recent history in "The Last Days of William Shakespeare," her first novel to be translated (acceptably, by Margaret Jull Costa) from Spanish into English.

The story begins in a light enough vein. In a South American capital that bears a startling resemblance to Buenos Aires, the National Theater, housed in a decrepit building, has been quietly performing "Hamlet" over and over, 856,904 times to be exact. A Government faction denounces this as an insult to "our traditional way of life" and, taking control of the company, mounts a "Campaign for Cultural Reconstruction." In a country where the postman comes to sip tea because he has no letters to deliver and where the "9:15 express arrive [ s ] punctually at 9:40," nobody takes the campaign seriously. What could be more ridiculous, after all, than a picnic at which the guests are instructed to chant "Down with Shakespeare"?

Gradually, however, the mood turns more somber. As the campaign slowly invades all walks of life and the followers of the new director of the theater and his vulgar lover, a prostitute, begin to terrorize and murder the populace, we realize that, under the guise of a search for "the very deepest roots of our national psyche," a tyranny is being installed.

"A very old car passes by me like a dream. In it are some men in black uniforms . . . and between them sits a man wearing a white shirt, who turns a very white face to the blind, deaf, and dumb spectators on the pavement and shouts, 'Long live Shakespeare!' He's silenced with a blow."

When the military intervenes and saves the republic from the nightmare, it is all too clear that their own crusade for "national liberation" will be carried out by those same thugs. What started as a farce has ended as a tragedy.

Though the central metaphor of "The Last Days of William Shakespeare" is a compelling one, its murky relationship with Argentine history can be frustrating. I could never understand if the author was trying to satirize and condemn the chaotic reign, from 1974 to 1976, of Gen. Juan Peron's widow, Isabel, and her insane sorcerer adviser, Jose Lopez Rega, or the subsequent infamous military regime. It may have been Ms. Kociancich's intention to keep readers guessing, but such a strategy muddles the plot instead of making it resonate.

A more crucial limitation of the book may be that, despite some funny and poignant moments, we never feel desperately interested in what happens to either of the central characters: Santiago Bonday, a bumbling, cynical intellectual who embraces the campaign out of vanity, fear and ennui, and Renata, an ingenuous nymph in charge of the wardrobe department in the theater, who becomes an unwitting victim of the campaign.

In spite of these imperfections, the publication of this powerful cautionary tale is to be welcomed at a time when hardly any other recent Argentine literature is available in this country. One of the most important novels published in Latin America in the last decade, Ricardo Piglia's "Respiracion Artificial," has yet to find an American publisher -- nor do we have translations of such major writers as Daniel Moyano, Hector Tizon, Liliana Hecker, Ana Maria Shua, Mempo Giardinelli or Juan Jose Saer.

In this context, the ending to Ms. Kociancich's parable, in which "Hamlet" is triumphantly restored to the National Theater and an adoring audience, takes on an ironic twist. After all, this Argentine novel denouncing an imaginary suppression of Shakespeare in a faraway Latin American land is being published precisely at the moment when American readers are missing much of the remarkable fiction that is being written in that very country.

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