Paola Kaufmann

Author of 'The Lake'


Paola Yannielli (Paola Kaufmann), writer and neuroscientist: born General Roca, Argentina 8 March 1969; married; died Buenos Aires 23 September 2006.

Paola Kaufmann was considered one of Latin America's most promising writers. Her last novel, El Lago, published last month in the UK as The Lake, won one of the Spanish-speaking world's leading prizes, the Planeta prize for Latin American fiction, in 2005.

Two years ago, her novel La Hermana (translated as The Sister, 2006), based on the life of the 19th-century American lyrical poet Emily Dickinson, as seen through the eyes of the poet's sister, won the Casa de las Américas prize, as well as plaudits from critics worldwide. Kaufmann based the fictionalised tale and dialogue on the diaries and letters of Emily Dickinson and those of her loving sister Lavinia, or "Vinnie", as well as letters from their correspondents, breathing life into the enigmatic poet's character through Lavinia's first-person narrative.

Paola Kaufmann was born in 1969 in the city of General Roca in the Argentinian province of Río Negro to a father of Italian and a mother of German extraction, spending most of her youth in the province of Córdoba. She was born Paola Yannielli but took on the surname of her mother, a poet and philosopher, after the latter died in an accident when Paola was five.

After moving to the Argentine capital to study biology, she received a doctorate in neurosciences from the University of Buenos Aires in 1999, continuing postgraduate studies until 2003 at Smith College, Massachusetts, where she received a doctorate in physics. There, during her spare time, she studied every document she could lay her hands on about Emily Dickinson's reclusive life in the Massachusetts town of Amherst.

In 2000, while Kaufmann was still studying in the United States, her collection of short stories El Campo de Golf del Diablo ("The Devil's Golf Course") won Argentina's Fondo Nacional de las Artes prize. Back in Buenos Aires from 2003, she published The Sister and continued to write while working as a neuroscientist. "I write and am more productive when I have an exacting scientific routine," she said in an interview shortly before she died (of a brain tumour):

After passing long hours in the lab, and getting home at dawn, I just sit down and write. It makes me feel a bit like Jekyll and Hyde, though I'm not sure which me is which.

Kaufmann's last published book, El Lago, for which she was partly inspired by the searches for the Loch Ness Monster, tells the fictional story of a 1975 scientific expedition to find a mythical monster known as "Nahuelito" ("Little Nahuel"), in the remote Lake Nahuel Huapi in Patagonia.

It is the era of Argentina's military dictatorship and the heroine Ana, leader of the expedition, which includes two elderly Hungarian refugees from the Nazis, uncovers monsters and brutality she had not bargained for, including within her own family's past.

Phil Davison

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