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Federico Andahazi


NEW YORK TIMES, May 16th., 1997

Sex and Argentina

By Calvin Sims

BUENOS AIRES, May 16 — Three years ago, Federico Andahazi, an unknown psychologist, decided to write a novel about a 16th-century Italian anatomist who made what the author calls one of the greatest discoveries of all time.

Today, Andahazi's novel, his first, has caused a huge literary scandal. The book is a fictional account of how a scientist became interested in the function of the clitoris while examining corpses and of his subsequent attempts to research the subject in bed with Venetian prostitutes.

The book, "The Anatomist," was virtually unknown before the scandal but now is at the top of the best-seller list here. It won the prestigious Fortabat Foundation prize for the best

  Federico Andahazi

first novel by an Argentine. But the award ceremony was canceled by the sponsor, Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, a wealthy businesswoman, leading to a national debate over freedom of expression.

Outraged by the book's subject matter, Mrs. Fortabat rejected the competition jury's decision last year and canceled a glittering award ceremony. She finally, but grudgingly, gave Andahazi the advertised $15,000 in cash but not the prize itself.

But Mrs. Fortabat, a cement heiress who is considered a pillar of Argentine society, did not stop there. She took out newspaper advertisements warning that the book did not "contribute to the exaltation of the highest values of the human spirit."

Many leading Argentine writers and literary critics contend that "The Anatomist" is an innovative work of fiction, and they have accused Mrs. Fortabat of an effort at censorship. That is a serious charge in this country, where many writers and journalists who were suspected of being Communists were persecuted during the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.

"Fortabat's very strong and conservative reaction to the book shows that she doesn't yet understand the breadth of artistic creativity," Tomas Eloy Martinez, a leading Argentine author who teaches Latin American literature at Rutgers University, said in a telephone interview. "It also shows that Argentina is still an intolerant and repressive society, especially when it comes to something like sexuality."

Andahazi, the author, a 33-year-old with long hair and an earring in his left ear, said he considered it ironic that his book's themes — sex, science, power and censorship — were being played out in real life over the book's publication.

In the novel, the anatomist's experiments are denounced by the scientific establishment and by the Catholic Church's Inquisition. He is arrested and sentenced to be burned at the stake, but is reprieved after he cures a wealthy widow, who is suffering from a strange disease, using the knowledge he has gained from his experiments.

"Fortabat's paid advertisement made people chuckle, but I certainly suffered from it," Andahazi said. "Being pitted against the most powerful woman in Argentina sent a shudder down my spine."

Mrs. Fortabat declined to comment on her opposition to the book, but people close to her said that she was particularly annoyed with the competition jury because it did not respect her way of thinking.

"She sees it as an obscene and mediocre book, which includes coarse language, and she didn't agree with the jury's vote in the least," said an associate of Mrs. Fortabat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The uproar over the book has not only fueled its explosive sales here but has also piqued the interest of foreign publishers. Suzanne Herz, vice president for publicity for Doubleday, said in a telephone interview from New York that the publisher paid $200,000 for the book's English-language rights, one of the highest amounts ever paid to reprint an Argentine novel abroad.

"This is one of those rare books that comes along every year," she said. "It's provocative and has well-researched subject matter. Of course, the controversy played a role in our decision to acquire it." Doubleday plans to publish the book in English in the spring of 1998.

Apart from the censorship issue, many Argentine women are saying that they hope the book will generate a new understanding of female sexuality. Many Argentines still take the attitude that in sex a man's desires are paramount.

"I'm not ashamed to say that I'm giving a copy of the book to my boyfriend because I think he has much to learn about the female love organ," said Rosario Fellipi, a 27-year-old secretary, who attended the Buenos Aires annual book fair recently.

Juan Rearte, 43, an electronics salesman, who recently bought a copy of the novel at Fausto bookstore downtown, said, "This is the type of book that the priests would have forbidden when I was in Catholic school, and that's exactly why I am going to read it."

Carmen Oliva, 47, a restaurant manager who was also at the book fair, said, "It's appropriate that the book is set in the Middle Ages because that's exactly the level of knowledge that most men have when it comes to female anatomy."

Members of the Fortabat Foundation jury said they voted unanimously to award the top prize to "The Anatomist" because it was by far the best of the dozens of books they reviewed.

"Although the average age of the jury is 80, our selection of this book shows that we are not scared to speak about sex," said Maria Angelica Bosco, an author and member of the jury. "We were impressed by the book's objectivity in illustrating the confrontation between the church and science in those days."

While it remains unclear exactly why Mrs. Fortabat objected so strongly to the book, a leading Argentine sociologist, Jorge Balan, contends that many of Argentina's upper class feel threatened by a book that accuses the church and other institutions of hypocrisy.

In the book, for example, the brothel where the anatomist performs his experiments is next to a church. The prostitute with whom the anatomist caries out most of his work hears the bells of the church chime while she is receiving her clients. She even daydreams of how she will go to Mass after finishing with a particular client. There is a constant interplay between the church's idealized view of the world and the reality of the brothel.

"The book exposes the way in which the church ignores, yesterday and today, a reality that is there for everyone to see, and I believe this is what bothered Mrs. Fortabat the most," Balan said.

"The upper class may feel threatened by this book because they also act in a certain way but try to hide it — and they don't want this kind of issue aired in public in a book."

from the NYTimes. ©1997 NYTimes News Service


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