The Washington Post

Gonzalo Rojas, celebrated Chilean writer, dies at 94

Gonzalo Rojas, a Chilean-born writer whose lyrical explorations of eroticism and mortality made him one of the most celebrated Spanish-language poets of his generation, died April 25 at a care facility in Santiago after a stroke. He was 94.

The seventh son of a coal-mine technician, Mr. Rojas taught himself to read when he was 8. He recalled being thrilled by the sounds and textures of language when he heard a brother cry out during a violent hail storm that nearly destroyed the family’s zinc roof.

His brother shouted the word for lightning: “Re-lám-pa-go,” Mr. Rojas later said, elongating the syllables for dramatic effect.

“Since then, I have lived in the zumbido, the buzzing of words,” he said.

In a career spanning more than seven decades, Mr. Rojas was an author, university lecturer and diplomat. After a long exile during the Pinochet dictatorship, he received the Spanish-speaking world’s most prestigious literary honors, including the Cervantes Prize of Spain, the Octavio Paz Award of Mexico and Chile’s National Prize for Literature.

Chilean playwright, novelist and essayist Ariel Dorfman called Mr. Rojas a “gentle volcano of poetry,” whose long, flowing stanzas illuminated the life forces of nature, the forbearance of miners and the “everyday lyricism” of women.

One Rojas poem, “Las hermosas” (the Beauties), starts on a note of voyeuristic excitement:

Electric and naked in burning marble out from the skin through dresses,

swelling, defiant on a quick tide,

they stomp the world, they stamp the lucky star with their spiked heels,

and they sprout up like wild plants in the street

and put out their hard aroma greenly.

As a poet, Mr. Rojas absorbed various movements that proliferated in Chile and abroad, including a brief flirtation with surrealism in the late 1930s. Rebelling against modern trends toward the colloquial, he instead embraced the highly descriptive Symbolist poetry that bloomed in Europe in the 19th century. It was evocative, intimate and universal.

One of his most anthologized poems, “Coal,” coursed with sympathy for the downtrodden.

Mother, he is almost here: let us open the door,

give me that light, I want to receive him

before my brothers do. Let me take him a good glass of wine

so he will feel better and hug me and kiss me,

and stick me with his beard.

There he is, he is coming home

muddy, raging against his bad luck, furious

from exploitation, dead of hunger, there he is

under his Castilian poncho.

Gonzalo Rojas Pizarro was born Dec. 20, 1916, in the port town of Lebu several hundred miles south of Santiago. His father died of a respiratory illness a few years later, and his mother moved her eight children to the nearby city of Concepción.

Gonzalo became a scholarship student to a boarding school and received degrees in law and Spanish literature at the University of Chile in Santiago.

He spent a period in the Atacama desert teaching literacy to miners and founded the literary journal Antárctica in Santiago before gaining broader recognition with the publication of his first volume, “La miseria del hombre” (The Misery of Man) in 1948.

Mr. Rojas published nearly 40 poetry collections, including “Contra la muerte” (“Against Death,” 1964), “Oscuro” (Darkness) in 1977 and “Del relámpago” (Of Lightning) in 1981.

While teaching and working in administration at the University of Concepción, he organized literary seminars and conferences that were credited with helping spur the Latin America literature boom of the 1960s that propelled such writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes.

Mr. Rojas’s first marriage, to the former Mary Mackenzie, ended in divorce, as did a brief second marriage. His third wife, Hilda May, died in 1995.

Survivors include a son from his first marriage, Dr. Rodrigo Rojas Mackenzie of Kassel, Germany; a son from his third marriage, Gonzalo Rojas-May of Santiago; six grandhcildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Mr. Rojas began diplomatic service in the early 1970s under President Salvador Allende, initially as cultural attache in China. He was serving as charge d’affaires in Cuba when military forces aligned with Pinochet overthrew Allende in a coup.

As a leading intellectual, Mr. Rojas was deemed a threat to the regime. Banned from teaching in Chile, he spent the next several years lecturing at colleges in East Germany, Venezuela and the United States. He returned to Chile by 1990 and settled in the city of Chillan.

Already an eminence of arts and letters, he wrote of feeling newly inspired by returning home at long last.

“I’m undergoing a rebirth in the best sense, a re-childhood, a spontaneity I can hardly explain,” he wrote in the essay “Where One Comes From.” “It’s as if I allowed language to speak through me. It resembles carelessness, yet it’s a maximum awareness. I’m letting the waters speak, and rise, and express themselves.

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”

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