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Between Juan Almela and Gerardo Deniz, the synthesis

Text by Mar Gámiz

Photographs by Toumani Camara

Toumani Camara Velázquez

Gerardo Deniz would like the face of a cat engraved on his tombstone. Gerardo Deniz, after reading it all, seeing it all, having experimented and learned it all, discovered the cat’s perfection, of which there is no shortage of references in his work… nor is there of sex, or chemistry, or languages, or literature or sense of humor.

This somewhat harsh list of some of the recurring themes in his poetry also came up during the talk we had with him, one warm April morning. Sitting on a living room couch, cane in hand and a blurred gaze, he glimpsed a smile that immediately demolished the barriers of shyness and anxiety that one tends to feel when interviewing someone one admires. Gifted with the talent of memory and speech, he began a conversation that would cause the person writing these lines to burst out laughing, as a result of the poet’s bitter irony.

Toumani Camara Velázquez

The admiration mentioned above originates, initially, in Deniz’ linguistic proficiency, who, like Juan Almela (his baptismal name), translated to multiple languages throughout his life, such as Sanskrit, Swedish, Latin, Russian, German, Italian and others. However, when asked about translation, after loathing it, he’d rather change the subject, although he does share a few anecdotes. He explains, for example, how much he suffered translating, by special request of Octavio Paz, Vladimir Maiakovsky’s poems; he shares that his German teacher was Mariana Frenk’s sister and, more importantly, that he began learning languages because of his interest in chemistry, because all articles were written in any other language except Spanish.

Toumani Camara Velázquez

And that’s because Juan Almela / Gerardo Deniz’ great passion was always chemistry. After living more than 70 years in Mexico, he thinks he should’ve never left Switzerland (where he arrived because of his father’s political reasons, a Spanish exile) because the time he’s been alive is the time great discoveries relating to science were made, precisely in that European country.

He explains: “Organic synthesis in chemistry was one of my weaknesses, I dedicated a lot of time and effort to reading – I almost never practiced any – about it.” “It was too much to ask for someone to be interested in organic synthesis and not be at the same time fighting the man in the lab next door to see who got the job, the trip, the lab, the party…”.

Toumani Camara Velázquez

Because the young Almela did work in a lab, but it only took him a few sessions to see too much: envy, intrigues and egos that were far from experimentation in situ.

However, the astonishment and interest that organic synthesis gave him (which consists on studying molecules and causing chemical reactions) transported him, little by little and with much effort, towards one of the activities that he would end up dedicating his life to: poetry.

On the one hand, the construction of complex, organic compounds, based on simple molecules; on the other, the constructing of meaning, in poems of abundant associations through words. The constant wish of Juan Almela, the scientist (the translator), was organic synthesis, which Gerardo Deniz, the poet, distilled linguistically in the most beautiful and synthetic expression of language.

Toumani Camara Velázquez

To better read Deniz, it is advisable to get Erdera, the complete edition of his complete poetry published by the Fondo de Cultura Económica

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