The cement heiress and the novelist

Federico Andahazi won a prestigious literary prize only to have it withdrawn on grounds of indecency. Amanda Hopkinson finds out why
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The Independent Culture
An obscure Genoan adventurer, Cristobal Colon (or Christopher Columbus), discovered the Indies, otherwise called the Americas, in 1492. An obscure Venetian scientist, Mateo Colon by name, discovered the "female love organ", otherwise called the clitoris, in the 16th century. Federico Andahazi discovered Colon and published a fictitious biography of him in 1997. Of course, no country or gender or individual waits around for discovery, but it is precisely the disclosure and dissemination of knowledge that is Andahazi's own field of exploration.

Federico Andahazi is, in his way, as curious a discovery as Mateo Colon. Born in Buenos Aires to a Russian-Jewish mother and an aristocratic Hungarian- Catholic father (whom he lost sight of as an infant and only met up again with on a street corner at the age of 17) some 34 years ago, he qualified to follow his father's career as a psychotherapist. Argentina is the country where psychotherapy is practised more than anywhere else; where the middle classes tot up their analysis fees with their monthly food and rent money, often in similar quantities; and where half the urban population appears to be engaged in analysing the other half until, at a given moment, places are exchanged and the practitioner reverts to being the patient. Quite why there is so much analysis is a moot point, but much has been made of a national identity crisis in a country which finds its geographical location a mistake, considering itself to be properly a part of Europe, whence so many of its origins.

Andahazi's early experiences only confirmed his suspicions. His grandfather had used his position and stately pile to assist escaping Jews during the last War. Argentina's "dirty war" of the 1970s and 1980s, waged by the military on the civilian population (targeting authors and intellectuals) reaffirmed Andahazi's conviction as to life's essential fragility and arbitrariness. His experiences of witnessing a sudden abduction on the street, of returning home and finding a boy, whose parents had been "disappeared" by the army, sitting on the steps render him "one of the fortunate ones. Fifteen years ago, no way would I be left alive to write and publish what I do."

He has written poetry since his mid-teens, without publication, adhering to T S Eliot's adage about enough bad poetry being written by teenagers without it also getting into print. Novels he began in his twenties, assuming that he'd need to hang on to his day job: "For me, psychotherapy is a profession and writing a vocation." He was therefore quite unprepared for the explosion of publicity which surrounded the publication of a book which was short- listed for one prestigious prize, the Planeta, and won another, that of the Fortabat Foundation, only to be vetoed by its chair, the cement heiress and pillar of the establishment Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat on the grounds that "this novel in no way contributes to the world's spiritual or moral values". Andahazi himself considered that The Anatomist was dealing with such weighty matters as scientific discovery; institutional cover- ups; the relations between church and state and between the sexes mediated via power and punishment, and was deeply offended.

Fortabat may be a formidable force - "there isn't a brick in Argentina not stuck with her cement" - but the 23rd Buenos Aires book fair turned this fiasco into a triumph. The award ceremony may have been cancelled but the $15,000 prize money was still bestowed and the book sold 25,000 copies within months. Women, ubiquitously the main readers and purchasers of books, bought it in droves. In a country where 85 per cent of divorces are sought by wives, and male understanding of the workings of female anatomy is popularly assumed to be 500 years out of date, it proved essential reading. Doubleday bought it for $200,000, and hired one of the most prestigious translators, Alberto Manguel, to work on it.

Ironically, it was not Mateo Colon's "discovery" of the clitoris which first captured Andahazi's attention: "Quite by chance, researching something else entirely, I learnt that Colon had made an important discovery about the circulatory system of blood, well ahead of Harvey, who took all the credit. Yet Colon vanished from history and, coming from a country practised in censoring what it doesn't approve, I began to suspect his writings had been suppressed." Having a chosen a historical theme - like Eco, Andahazi suspects "the further back you go in history, the closer you can get to the present" - he pursued his library studies through a series of dead- ends. Further believing that "history is what best lends itself to fiction", he seized on Columbus's supposed exclamation on his arrival at the Caribbean island he named Hispaniola: "O my America, my new-found-land!" and adapted the eulogy for the landscape of the New World to the intimate exploration of the mons veneris.

Andahazi did not know of Donne's witty variation on the theme, but he knew he wanted to compose an essentially philosophical work. He was less "seduced by the idea of composing an erotic novel than of reaching philosophy through prose".

Andahazi's view of philosophy has little to do with, say, the arid dissections of Oxford linguistics and a lot to do with the classical concept of the thing we live and die by. There's a preponderance of violent death in The Anatomist, much of it deliberately vengeful - the Inquisition's drownings and burnings - or cruelly unpredictable - the rotting corpses of syphilis-ridden prostitutes. Necrophilia was the real religion of the Middle Ages.

Although many of Andahazi's scenes are set in the brothels and morgues where Colon's experiments take place, his theme remains that of colonisation, whether that of native "barbarism" by a self-styled "civilisation" or of the sensibilities of women by the brutal ignorance of men. Paradoxically, neither the vampiric Pope nor the dispassionate doctor survive the orgies of religiosity and sensuality. The sole survivor in this mess of retribution is Ines, erstwhile devout wife, saved from hysteria by Colon's tender ministrations, who circumcises herself and her daughters in order to found a new order of whores and who succeed in exploiting their exploiters by sacrificing Cupid to cupidity.

Power and wealth, sex and scandal: big words for someone who regarded himself as at best a part-time author. In the flesh, Andahazi is indeed slight and polite, the ear-ring and ponytail in place not to shock but because he likes them. He seems genuinely more interested in where to replace the windshield on one of his collection of motorbikes, or how to get the hotel phone to dial his girlfriend ("Argentine, but Austrian really") than in the razzamatazz of smart restaurants and night-clubs on offer. It's his first time in London, but he doesn't speak English and is busy digesting dinner and gestating his next novel - a Gothic fantasy set in Geneva, exploring the relationship between Byron and his secretary Polidori. "A Communist porn artist" according to Senora Fortabat. Says he: "Her politics were aligned with those of our military dictatorships. I'll stick with the paradox of philosophy, which is meant to be about truth and fiction, which is meant to be lies."

8 `The Anatomist' by Federico Andahazi, trs Alberto Manguel, is published by Doubleday at pounds 12.99

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