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From Arrabal To Me — Chance, Forgetting And The Engines Of Creativity

A bit like the playwright Fernando Arrabal who launched an artistic project of decades after spotting a several disjointed phrases, our columnist reflects on the anodyne coincidences that led him to write these words.

From Arrabal To Me — Chance, Forgetting And The Engines Of Creativity

Magician playing with dice

Juan Cruz


MADRID — In art, everything is fortuitous. And so too in the piece you are reading...

In the 1960s, the Spanish playwright and artist Fernando Arrabal founded the Panic Movement, named after Pan, the Greek god of nature — and pranks. The inspiration for the artistic departure came to Arrabal when he placed two books on a big table and opened them at random. The first phrase to catch his eye was "the future acts," and then in the second book, "through coups de théâtre."

Thus a fortuitous adage, that "the future acts through coups de théâtre" or dramatic turns, became a creative spark and strangely presaged the exuberant "chaos" of the riots of May 1968.

Arrabal wanted at the time to distance himself from Surrealism, a current with which he is associated and which is equally fond of disorder. With the help of the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and the cartoonist Roland Topor, he duly turned a post-war period still weighed with conservative torpor, into creative years.

Arrabal, who is 90 and lives in Paris, liked to startle his Catholic compatriots, painting himself in the company of Jesus at the Last Supper. He once scribbled 'I shit on the fatherland' (me cago en la patria) on one of his books.

The book found its way to a female reader living in a far-from-indulgent Spain, governed then by Arrabal's bête noire, General Francisco Franco. It caused a furore and prompted legal pursuits, provisionally ending Arrabal's occasional visits to his homeland. He defended himself before the Spanish authorities - or was he mocking them? - insisting he had written I shit on the Patra (me cago en la Patra) - meaning a female acquaintance known as la Patra.

Fernando Arrabal at the Festival de Cannes 2022

Fernando Arrabal

Manic but kind

The outrage subsided in time and he would revisit Spain, even before Franco's death in late 1974. After the caudillo's death, his works were performed in Spain, initially to great acclaim and later more quietly. The theater thus became a stage for Arrabal's haphazard concoctions, thanks in part to a few words seen on two pages in Paris.

I met with Arrabal on various occasions in Madrid. Eccentricity never made him vain or detached. He was and remains, cheerful and active. He writes, gets cross and laughs, and plays chess of which he is a recognized master.

The future unfolds through dramatic turns that erupt in humdrum routines, or great events.

When I used to see him, his rather manic attire sharply contrasted with his enormous kindness. His humane quality did good to people who knew him, as it does to youngsters who have never met him. I would particularly recommend rereading those works of his that mocked the idiocy of his time - and frankly, ours - and which remain effective both on stage and in print. I cite as examples Baal Babilonia, Fando and Lis and Automobile Graveyard.

But above all, I cannot but cherish that one phrase that emerged from his delight in creating: L'avenir agit en coups de théâtres. It describes the reality of our daily lives.

The future unfolds through dramatic turns that erupt in humdrum routines, or great events. The 2001 strikes on the World Trade Center were sudden and dramatic, as was the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs. What if it had succeeded? It would have changed the course of Cuban history, not to mention those of the U.S., USSR and the other initials, acronyms and pseudonyms of that time!

Science in the work of writers

War in Ukraine, the Qatar World Cup, our life right now and our waking up this morning. There's a science to them, to be found not in labs, but in the work of writers seduced by the mythical, or nonsensical, like André Breton, Marguerite Yourcenar or Arrabal. My first sentence is an appropriate overture then to what we may still term the coming year.

The day before writing this, in Spain, I found an older article of mine I had forgotten about, on Albert Camus. He was one of the greatest of French novelists, and a columnist like myself, and his works have fueled my 'faith' in the haphazard. Just before finding the article, curiously, I was surveying his books on a library shelf at home.

The article was published in April 2021 in the journal Nueva Revista de España and the Argentinian paper La Nación. For reasons that might boggle a psychiatrist, it had receded to the back of my mind, where forgetfulness resides. The first coincidence then was to spot it on Twitter (which really means, it popped out of thin air), just after looking at my Camus books.

That day, I was to interview the Uruguayan-born theater director Mario Gas, whom I had misnamed Mario Camus, another Spanish director, in a previous interview with him, also undertaken in April 2021. Thankfully the editors caught the misnomer in time and it never appeared.

The confusion must have been caused by Albert Camus. He died in 1960 on January 4, the date I had spotted my lost article.

Last thoughts on Arrabal 

Before leaving to interview Gas, I found a bedside book of mine, The World of Yesterday by the Austrian Stefan Zweig. It describes the world of the early 20th century that preceded the horrors of Camus' time, which drove Zweig to suicide. I also took in my satchel another book, Vudú urbano, by the Argentine Edgardo Cozarinsky, a writer who peers into his country's darker periods. I had to finish the book before meeting with its author in Buenos Aires.

When I returned home, I found another Cozarinsky book, Cielo sucio, sent to my house by courier. A promotional strip around its cover promised a "Stifling Summer."

And that's when I thought of Fernando Arrabal, and began to write this item - before the 'disorderly' little events that reminded me of Arrabal slipped into the back of my mind, that sacred den of oblivion.

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Pasta v. Fascists: How Italy's Staple Dish Became A Symbol Of Resistance

Pasta may not be considered controversial today, but it played an important role during Italy's fascist years, particularly in one family's celebration of community and liberation.

Photo of the Cervi family.

Photo of the Cervi family, whose seven children were shot by the Fascists on December 28, 1943, at the Reggio Emilia shooting range.

@comunisti_alla_ribalta via Instagram
Jacopo Fontaneto

ROME — Eighty years ago — on July 25, 1943 — the vote of no confidence by the Grand Council of Fascism, leading to Benito Mussolini's arrest, set off widespread celebrations. In Campegine, a small village in the Emilian province, the Cervi family celebrated in their own way: they brought 380 kilograms of pasta in milk cans to the town square and offered it to all the inhabitants of the village.

The pasta was strictly plain: macaroni dressed with butter and cheese, seen as more of a "festive dish" in that period of deprivation. As soon as the Cervi brothers learned about the arrest of Mussolini, they procured flour, borrowed butter and cheese from the dairy, and prepared kilos and kilos of pasta. They then loaded it onto a cart to distribute it to their fellow villagers. Pastasciutta (dry pasta) specifically regards dishes with noodles that are plated "dry", not in broth. That would disqualify soup, risotto, ravioli...

Even though pastasciutta is the most stereotypical type of pasta today, it had a complicated relationship with the government during Italy's fascist years.

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