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Daniel Samper Pizano: Up Close and Personal with a Classic

Daniel Samper signed on as a reporter and columnist at the Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo on May 1, 1964. Half a century later, he has announced that he is signing off and retiring in order to devote time to writing essays and novels. This is important news, considering the significance of his work and his contributions to Spanish-language journalism. The bookstore launch of the novel Jota, caballo y rey (Knaves, Horses, and Kings), a recreation of the Bogotá of the 1950s, featuring horse racing, social rituals, cheekiness, and the long shadow of a dictatorship disguised as hope, attests to his decision. This journalist, humorist, tenacious investigator, rabid fan of soccer and vallenato music, and now creator of filigree-fine works of fiction, grants his first exclusive interview in this new stage of his life.

By: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos: Julieta Solincée

 

There was a time when all of us novice journalists—at the tender age of eighteen— wanted to be like Daniel Samper Pizano. As cub reporters getting slapped with the cruel reality of newspaper and magazine newsrooms, where a swarm of people stood ready to bury our hopes and shoot down youthful dreams, we saw the blond, blue-eyed Viking dressed like a beatnik poet or university dilettante as a figure to emulate, as the embodiment of our hopes.

Among other things, Daniel was a shining star of the Latin American press from an early age. He was a child prodigy at the El Tiempo newspaper, working alongside Luis Carlos Galán and Enrique Santos Calderón; he was the author of “Reloj” (The Clock), one of the most memorable and widely read columns of all time. He conspicuously led the paper’s first homegrown investigative unit (emulating the film All the President’s Men), created delightful TV comedy and café chantant, and worked as a remarkable journalist and author who compiled and released a selection of his works at the end of almost every year. He was someone who could handle humor, freedom of expression, irony, and all the other enchanting devices that were beyond the reach of newly minted reporters like us.

As one might expect in Latin America, not every year was great for Daniel. Having witnessed the events of many decades, some harsh and some dramatic, he tried to serve as an outspoken conscience of the times, but history exacted its pound of flesh on several occasions in the form of threats, insults, and somber enmities. This is perhaps the main reason he took refuge in Spain more than a decade ago. Laughter, drama, farce, and the romances of the great Spanish-language tragicomedies have nourished his writing.

His many awards and distinctions, his wonderful friendships with Joan Manuel Serrat, Gabo (as Gabriel García Márquez is affectionately known), Klim, Fontanarrosa, Les Luthiers, and Fanny Mickey, among many others, his travels, and even his exile in Spain complete a portrait of someone ever present and always welcome: a classic in the strictest sense.

Undaunted Colossus and Knaves, Horses, and Kings both reflect the miasma of corruption and degradation that, like macabre sports, have permeated social, professional, and political life in Latin America. Could we say that these novels are a metaphorical extension of your reality?

I was not trying to denounce anything when I wrote these two novels. I simply wanted to tell stories inside a framework of social, economic, and political realities, as well as emotional and sentimental ones. I suspect that the novels reveal a combination of my concerns as a citizen and my more personal fears and joys.

How do you mentally reconcile your early career as a journalist with your later work as a novelist? Why would an established journalist accept such a challenge?

I was always interested in writing fiction. I had already published a few stories, perhaps twenty, in ECO and Colcultura magazine during my first years as a journalist. The thing is that I lacked the time, the will, and the talent—or all three—to dive into the deep waters of writing a novel. I can say I’ve done it two and a half times; I published a fictionalized biography of Agustín Lara called María del alma (My Beloved María) with Pilar Tafur. And anyway, it seems normal to me that a writer would experiment with different forms of expression. Being able to write is a wonderful privilege, and it is understandable that a writer would want try all genres.

My generation saw you as a symbol of productive journalism and the honor inherent in the profession. Do you think that young people are keeping those dreams alive? 

Every generation suffers its own anguish and cherishes its own hopes. Ours was marked by high ethical standards, even when we were wrong. I’m afraid that some of the generations after ours have been seduced by the ideas of getting rich quickly, materialism, and showing off. The rapid march of technology may have created current generations that feel even more anxiety and hope.

The idea of “It’s time to take a look back” seems to underlie your dynamic fiction. Is it now time to give in to memory and intimate experiences and exorcise your angels and demons?

Memory figures largely in the two novels mentioned. I feel more confident submersing myself in memories and distorting them to serve the story I want to tell. For example, I can’t imagine writing a futuristic science fiction work.

Various circumstances have given you a ringside seat to Colombian history and you have been an exceptional witness to many dynamic episodes. How do you feel about the fate of Luis Carlos Galán or Guillermo Cano, to name just a couple of important figures?

The answer to that is related to the previous ones. Both Cano and Galán shared a deep ethical conviction about their responsibilities, to the point of sacrificing their lives in the service of their ideals.

Would you say that journalism is the prehistory of literature and would you agree with Heine that it is literature’s equivalent of military service? 

More than the prehistory of literature, I see journalism as the preliterature of history. By that, I mean that journalism is a rough first approximation of history. The raw material of both is language, but language is not always appreciated; often, it is not even studied.

Chaplin once said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” What role do you think humor plays in modern life and culture?

Humor is essential in my life. In fact, I distrust people who don’t laugh. We all know that dictatorships and religions suppress laughter first. In all eras, including our own, there is generally a place for someone who casts a skeptical and laughing eye at life. And if not, then laughter is even more necessary.

Which authors do you read, which ones do you reread, and which ones do you have no wish to reread?

I read everything: poetry, novels, essays, prose, journalism, humor, soccer, modern problems, etc. I reread authors of novels, poetry, and humor more than anything else. Cortázar falls into the first category, Quevedo into the second, and Guareschi and Fontanarrosa into the third.

You really love vallenato music; are you worried about its future? How can vallenato recover its legendary aura, narrative capacity, and the sweet past created by the great masters?

The current state of vallenato is deplorable: soulless lyrics and plangent music. I think the pendulum will swing back and we will see composers who rescue the vallenato you associate with the “great masters.”

Has opinion journalism fallen from the intellectual heights of the past? There is an army of columnists, but they don’t seem to be able to plumb reality with the grandeur and depth of Calibán, Enrique Santos Calderón, Klim, Alfonso Castillo, Antonio Caballero, or yourself.

I think that columnists like Calibán, Alfonso Castillo, Pangloss, and myself had the advantage of a daily column, which we don’t see now. This brought us closer to readers and forced us to vary our topics. But I see other columnists equal to those you mention, like Héctor Abad, Cecilia Orozco, Ramiro Bejarano, Juan Esteban Constaín, and Jorge Orlando Melo, to name just a few.

In a world steeped in corruption, indifference, and fraud, can investigative journalism keep up with new demands and requirements?

Investigative journalism rarely reaches the necessary heights: there is no doubt that corruption has moved into the space-age and investigative journalism is stuck in the steam era. Even so, scandals like the “false positives” (civilians murdered by army personnel and recorded as combatants) and the recordings of corrupt members of the military were brought to light by the press.

What is your relationship with Daniel Samper Ospina, the columnist and director of the Colombian soft porn magazine, SoHo? Is it a father-son, teacher-student, teacher-teacher, or reader-reader dialogue?

It is a father-son and teacher-student dialogue: he is the father and teacher and I am the son and student.

What do you hate about today’s journalism? What do you miss about the journalism of yesterday? 

I am terrified by the ignorance of our history and lack of love for our language, although there are some notable exceptions. I was about to say that our profession used to be held in higher esteem, but this might simply be the grumbling of an old man.

How long will you continue to pin your soccer hopes on your Santa Fe team? 

Until they become the world club champion. I don’t think it will take more than three or four more years because we are putting together a great team.

Does the bourgeois lad who went to the racetrack in Knaves, Horses, and Kings reflect parts of you? 

There are quite a few parts, including a love of adult movies, Saturday visits to eat tamales at Ley with friends, a passion for soccer, and a feeling for friendship.