What are archives? Powerful stories – you just need to look for them, says Hispanist Daniel Nemrava

He has long been interested in the relationship between literature and totalitarianism. Hispanist Daniel Nemrava is currently looking into a topic that might strike you as a bit tedious: archives. Do not be fooled: once a researcher focuses on how archives can serve regular folk, they start running into some very powerful stories. 

Read the story in the Czech version here.

Who goes searching through archives? When, what for, and why? These are some of the questions asked by the international team encompassing seven countries that Nemrava is a member of. To research the archives of Latin America, they won one of the most substantial European grants out there: the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.

“The way we tell history has been changing from the ‘great’ history to microhistory – history as told by groups of people, individuals and minorities. In Latin America, these minorities are mostly indigenous but also include the LGBT+ minorities. All of a sudden, you are looking at a very different history,” says Daniel Nemrava, the head of the Department of Romance Languages at Palacký University in Olomouc, about the project TRANS.ARCH: Archives in Transition, Collective Memories and Subaltern Uses.

Like a dream: a shipment of books from Freudlandia onboard a government aircraft

Daniel Nemrava specialises in the Spanish literature of Latin America. Once enthralled by Gabriel García Márquez, he gradually read his way from the Caribbean coast of magic realism to the literary interior of Latin America.

He has travelled through many of the local countries and lived in some of them, sometimes repeatedly. After his initial trip to Mexico, he visited Chile, Uruguay and Ecuador, has lovely memories from a wild trip to Cuba and also peeked into Nicaragua and Colombia. The country that captivated him the most was Argentina, particularly Buenos Aires. 

“The city left me speechless. It’s beautiful, wild, ‘European’ – a mixture of Rome, Madrid and Paris in a Latin American context. There is a strong presence of Italians and other European immigrant communities that have sprung up since the end of the 19th century, including a sizeable Czech community. And all those books! Wonderful bookshops, countless antiquarian booksellers where you can spend half a day sitting and reading with a cup of coffee, coupled with a lingering tradition of extremely well-read booksellers who can point you in the right direction. Those were my first strong impressions of the city. Buenos Aires has very strong intellectual roots; I was surprised at the overall level of erudition and the urge to move with the times. They also have the highest count of psychoanalysts per capita in the world, almost an average of 200 per 100,000 people, and half of them live in Buenos Aires,” says Nemrava with a laugh.“

That’s why Argentina is sometimes called ‘Freudlandia’.” (By way of comparison, Finland ranks second with a ‘mere’ 56 psychoanalysts per 100,000 people.) 

He and his wife arrived in Buenos Aires not long after the sovereign default and collapse in 2001. “We saw the banks hiding behind sheet metal, barricades, secret entrances for government officials, riots in the streets. And everything was so cheap; books, in particular, were going for a song. I would go book-shopping with my rucksack and soon filled my room with them.”

Eventually, he had to face the conundrum of what to do with stacks of books so far away from home. 

“Once I realised that transporting – literally – tons of books was outside my power, I started thinking of ways to go about it. We visited the Czech embassy and the ambassador Edita Hrdá helped us out. They were just expecting the arrival of a government aircraft to Buenos Aires, so they loaded all the books for the return flight. A van from Olomouc picked them up at the airport and I got a call from my department saying the books had arrived in my office. We filled the library with them. To this day, the books retain the scent of the River Plate.” 

Socialist holdover

He spent six months in Mexico and visited Cuba several times: “Cuba is in a category of its own, even when you just consider the things we have in common. One of the reasons people go there is to see a socialist holdover – unfortunately, the holdover is alive and kicking and mixed with wild capitalism. I find it almost embarrassing to take pictures of it as though it were a tourist attraction. I have many lovely memories from Cuba but also many sad ones. I sometimes feel embarrassed for tourists who are having fun in the resorts while Cuba is mired in turmoil, political repressions and hunger.”

A university professor in Cuba makes thirty dollars a month; a hotel porter makes the same money in about a day. “A university doesn’t even have paper. I went for coffee with a local author: the police stopped us to make sure he wasn’t harassing ‘the tourist’! And another guest sitting at a nearby table kept making notes and glancing at us,” says Nemrava, painting a picture of the Cuban life.

It might have just been paranoia – but even that is something that makes normal life hard for the locals. 

Nemrava has hours of engaging stories to tell about the experiences and feelings from his travels. 

He emphasizes that “It’s good to get to know the country, at least a little bit, before you try to interpret its books. I need to be in touch with the locals and talk to them; one of the goals of my travels has always been to build a network of contacts – not always formal, but all the stronger for that.” 

He used his network as the groundwork for the prestigious European project that won the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions grant. Its overarching topic is “Archive”, and it brings together five European and four Latin American universities.

Archives adrift in the sea of time

Project Archive. “What exactly do you mean by that?” asks the journalist while the reader suppresses a slight yawn. But this is only until Daniel Nemrava starts painting the picture of how archives tell stories: not only through their content but also through the way they are organised, (in)accessible, open or closed, how they are interpreted by those who use them – and how and what they are used for, whether they are impacted by the powers that be, how they change in response to societal changes, how they are built, destroyed or purposefully changed by political regimes...  All of a sudden, you are looking at a sea of fascinating questions and points of view. 

And he gives a concrete example: “Our colleagues in Argentina are looking into the unofficial archives of the indigenous minorities and the gay minority. They are exploring what happens when an archive becomes a means of civic engagement or even a tool in the fight for ‘our cause’.”

Argentina is still recovering from the trauma of dictatorial rule in the 1970s. “Many people disappeared back then. It is not uncommon for their children, now in their thirties and forties, to find out that their ‘parents’ are not really their parents; that their actual parents disappeared or, more accurately, were disappeared, and they were sent for ‘reform’ to new homes. And so they set out on a quest to find their identity in the archives.” This is one of the many faces of archives. 

In the past, archives mostly served the academic community and were used by various experts in their research. “Gradually, they began to be used by various independent groups and communities, who also began to establish their own archives. One of the Czech examples of this is the portal Memory of Nations.” 

 “We study the phenomenon of archives as a dynamic and open entity that became the subject of interest to civil society.” At the same time, the researchers are striving to revise the definition of the term ‘archive’. 

In what way? “To make sure it reflects its unanchored status in today’s post-fact world. We will look at how archives come into being, how they have changed with digitisation, and how accessible and representative they are,” says Nemrava. “We will study the positive use of archives by society as well as their misuse to distort history, as weapons in power struggles. We will also examine the use of ethnic and expat archives in politics, the court system and the arts.”

Daniel Nemrava notes that since Latin America is not exactly a peaceful and quiet corner of the earth, it is an ideal place to study archives torn by societal changes. 

Revolutions, protests, bankruptcies

How are the countries of Latin America actually doing right now? “Politically, the one that’s the worst off is Venezuela: Nicolás Maduro models his leadership style after Castro. Nicaragua is now quite authoritarian as well. In general, though, fragile democracy prevails. The countries are poor and corrupted, but they do have free elections. Mexico is a military zone due to the government’s war with the drug cartels and severed heads found in garbage bins are an everyday occurrence – although certainly not everywhere. We actually sent a female student out to Mexico. We encourage carefulness but don’t paint an apocalyptic picture: Mexico is a beautiful country where you can live and study,” concludes Nemrava. 

The project anticipates large research teams on both continents that will connect and mingle and aims for publications and large conferences. Unfortunately, it feels like the project has been treading water a little due to the pandemic.

“We won the grant one day, and the next day they closed the university and the borders. International mobility is key for us. We have several million in grant funds just for placements abroad; the money represents 38 months in Latin America that we can divide among ourselves and our PhD students. It’s generous and wonderful and I just hope that we will be able to start enjoying it soon.” 

It’s all Czech to me

Daniel was born and bred in the small historic town of Uherské Hradiště. When the Velvet Revolution ended more than 40 years of communist rule, he was a student at the local grammar school. And just like the overwhelming majority of students, he wanted to switch from Russian classes, which had been compulsory up to that point, to some other language. “I thought Spanish was wonderfully exotic.” 

However, his future career path was only determined when he borrowed One Hundred Years of Solitude after a friend recommended it. “I was completely gobsmacked. The book and Boris Jirků’s illustrations were utterly bewitching.”

When he later re-read the book in Spanish, it added a new dimension to Márquez’s narrative, although he still speaks highly of its Czech translation. “The tropical atmosphere and the unusual Baroque-esque style are maintained in the Czech version but still the original takes it up a notch. The warmth and colour of Márquez’s Caribbean Spanish make the atmosphere tangible.”

He grew so enthusiastic about Spanish that he enrolled in Spanish and Portuguese degree courses in Brno. He met his wife Markéta at the university; she is also a Hispanic scholar and specialises in Mexico. They performed in the same theatre group – in Spanish, of course. 

“The theatre performances were a wonderful way to practice our vocabulary and explore the language. We had quite a success with the local Spanish community and even performed once in an actual theatre, the Goose on a String.” 

He was a university student in the early 1990s: “It was a time of change. We were lapping up everything that was coming from abroad. We were writing a lot. I would crank out five articles a week – translations, reviews, awareness-raising.” 

After earning his master’s, he enrolled in a PhD programme in Brno and then became an assistant professor at the university in Olomouc. Shortly after, he left for Granada where he would spend the next two years teaching Czech. 

Was Czech all Greek to his Spanish students? “Definitely. Czech isn’t an easy language, but some were quite good,” he says with a laugh. “It was one big adventure. We moved our whole family, including our one-year-old son, to Spain in an old Skoda Favorit for a two-year stay.” 

Our work culminates in a book

When the two years were up, he returned to academia and to Olomouc, where he is still teaching, researching and writing, on top of being a department head. 

And he still enjoys what he does, although he starts our conversation with a lament – somewhat justified by the current circumstances – over the rough treatment of the humanities when it comes to research evaluation and funding. The criteria are mostly based on the sciences, which he thinks is unfair. 

“Our work culminates in a book or a book chapter. In the current system, these are awarded very few points compared to a collaborative scientific paper. The Hispanic studies, just like all the other humanities, are evaluated as a science – but our work includes creative and essay writing, popularisation, books and translations, which have no value in the eyes of our colleagues who study natural sciences.”

Nemrava is convinced that it is the humanities that are haemorrhaging money in the new evaluation system. Not least due to the incessant questioning of the ‘use’ of, say, philology majors. 

“We are trying to convince the authorities that we are useful. Our graduates work in education, diplomacy, the private sector, including management, at embassies and as professional interpreters.” 

As a language scholar, he says he also feels a decline in interest on the part of prospective students. “Being able to speak a foreign language is almost a matter of course these days. Languages are seen as practical tools and ‘philology’ is a foreign term to many.” 

As a consequence, they accept almost all applicants, which has pushed the standard of philology departments down a notch, says Nemrava. “Our students must read a lot, many of the classes require critical reading skills. We were used to well-read applicants but now avid enthusiasts are as rare as hen’s teeth.” 

Experiencing literature

Rather than succumbing to scepticism, he is trying to come up with better ways to attract and engage his students “Not every academic is also a good teacher. Some of us prefer to hole up in the archives and shy away from people, which makes it difficult to connect to your students and impart your knowledge to them.” Nemrava himself is one of those who enjoy teaching and lecturing and, as he says, “I don’t get the worst scores in student evaluations.” 

“I want my students to experience literature through their personal experience, but they often don’t have any – neither with Latin America nor with its books. So instead, we start with topics that are personal to them, with relationships and characters, and we gradually move on to the structure of the story and its wider implications. As an added bonus, I invite living authors and filmmakers to Olomouc.”

Authors Samanta Schweblin, Sergio Ramírez (a Cervantes Prize laureate), Luisa Valenzuela, Laura Restrepo, filmmakers Imanol Uribe, Agustí Villaronga and more. Nemrava knows everyone in person! “Not quite everyone!” he says with a laugh. 

When the pandemic put a stop to personal meetings with authors, he started holding them online but believes the time for live and sparkling meetings in a packed library will come again. “A personal meeting usually leads to increased interest in the books of our guests.” 

Nemrava also experiments with classes where literature and film mingle and merge, such as a translation class devoted to translating the subtitles for the well-known Spanish film festival La Película. 

We teach by day, create at night and then burn out 

According to Nemrava, the pressure to publish is rising but “They ask for a lot of bang for very little buck. I head a department of thirty people and can see the exhaustion and burnout in some of my colleagues. Others have abandoned any effort to research and publish and only do the bare minimum. Of course, every group of people includes those with drive and those who are just along for the ride. This does not necessarily mean that they don’t want to work hard but everyone is entitled to have a personal life and leisure time, to spend time with their families. Not everyone wants to or can sacrifice everything else for work. There is at least the option to take a six-month sabbatical.”

Did he take this opportunity? “I did – and burned out,” he says. 

“I went on the sabbatical under the condition that I would complete my ‘habilitation’, or post-doctoral qualification, so I worked on my thesis, which later became this book,” he says, pointing to his Dreamers and Castaways with an intriguing picture on the cover. “That’s a photo of a sculpture by my father, Stanislav Nemrava. He called it Paganini’s Suicide.” 

With a pinch of overstatement, you could say that writing the book almost resulted in suicide. “For years, I was working flat out – lecturing, applying for grants… Then I quit everything, sat down and began to write – and collapsed.” That was six years ago and Nemrava says it took him close to a year to recover. He had backaches and trouble sleeping, but he survived and started breathing more freely again. He gives a lot of the credit to the staunch support of his family.

Despite all the issues and obstacles, he thinks that the academic world is free, inspiring and creative. He has limited the number of classes he teaches but spends all the more time preparing for them: “I can’t just open my notes and read them out loud year after year. I can’t, and I don’t want to, sink into a rut.”

Power, violence and literature

He has long been interested in the relationship between literature, politics and power, especially the totalitarian kind. “Power, violence and literature. I am interested in how authors talk about this, and the stories usually offer wide latitude for interpretation.”

He studies books of high literary merit with a novel approach to the complex and intangible reality; books that are unsettling in their form as well as their content. “I’m trying to find the ingredients that make them transcend their narrative and become timeless, to see whether and how they can speak to readers distant from the author in both space and time, and whether they offer readers parallels to their personal experience.”

His book Dreamers and Castaways analyses five different works from this perspective. “Each work depicts the conflict of an individual with a dictatorial regime, but each in a different framework. The literary critic Jiří Trávníček used to say that characters should not serve as coat-hangers for convictions. Authors should not flatten their characters with their theses unless you want to read a nicely worded ideology handbook…”

“For example, the Kiss of the Spider Woman by the Argentinian author Manuel Puig takes place in a prison cell where a revolutionary – a Marxist and a partisan – meets a gay guy who lives in his own film world and is particularly fascinated with 1940s B-movies about women who sacrifice themselves for their husbands. He identifies with them and passionately retells these films to his cellmate to help them both pass the time in prison,” outlines Nemrava. 

To the revolutionary, who deeply believes in his ideology, the film world seems superficial: “‘Your world is fake,” says the revolutionary. ‘And you live in clichés,’ argues the gay guy, who eventually succeeds in seducing the revolutionary and the two characters end up having sex. They influence each other with their dreams and visions: the gay guy arouses love and feeling in the revolutionary while falling in love with him himself.”

As the story nears its climax, the gay guy is paroled, and the revolutionary sends him on a mission to take a message to his comrades. “However, the gay guy is being watched after his release and the revolutionary’s comrades notice this when he gives them the message – and shoot him. And so he ends up like the heroines of his beloved films, who sacrifice everything for love. The book paints a wonderful picture of mixed film and reality and offers a fascinating representation of reality,” says Nemrava as he summarises the book. 

The author Marcel Puig who grew up in a small village near Buenos Aire was himself gay. As an oddball and a gay person, he suffered in the community he lived in, and cinema was his escape. “The gay character is something like his alter ego. The book works beautifully with the idea of ‘kitsch’ – even mass ‘kitsch’ culture can manipulate people just like a dictatorial regime does and can drive them to a senseless heroic deed.”

This is not the only book where one of the main characters is gay: “They are in three of the five books that I analysed,” says Nemrava. It actually makes perfect sense: dictators usually start out by suppressing the rights of minorities. A minority character – or a character who is in a minority in a minority – intensifies the feeling of oppression and other hardships. “Oppression is most visible in minorities, whose lives are destroyed not only by the powers that be but also by, say, conservative Catholic society or even by the people around them and their families.” 

He continues to develop this theme within his current large project: he examines how archives can be useful to “regular folk”. Where do people start searching in archives, what for and why. “The way we tell history has been changing from the ‘great’ history to microhistory, that is, history as told by groups of people, individuals and minorities. In Latin America, these minorities are mostly indigenous but also include the LGTB+ minorities. All of a sudden, you are looking at a very different history.”

The author is an editor of Deník N.

Translated by Jana Doleželová

Vlajka Evropské unie

Tento projekt je financován z prostředků programu EU pro výzkum a inovace Horizont 2020 na základě grantové dohody č. 101036051.