Reading Into Film : With his UCI students, visiting professor Josa Agustin is examining the problems of translating one artistic language to another, literature to cinema. As a Mexican screenwriter and author, he's uniquely qualified to lead the study, his first book in English.


He's considered one of the leading Latin American writers of the late 20th Century.

Once dubbed "L'enfant terrible" of contemporary Mexican letters, Josa Agustin published two novels and his autobiography by age 22. Three decades later, the award-winning author has written 11 more fiction and nonfiction books that address the political, social and ethnic problems of Mexico.

So what's Agustin doing teaching a class on Mexican cinema at UC Irvine?

Agustin, in fact, not only studied film at the National University of Mexico in the 1960s, but he has more than a dozen screenplays to his credit, many of which were turned into well-known Mexican movies. He has even directed experimental films and one theatrical release.

As a distinguished visiting professor in UCI's Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Agustin is tapping his expertise to teach a graduate course on Mexican literature and cinema this quarter.

And his grad students, who are analyzing the translation of nine books into films, have an extra incentive for doing well in the course. Their best essays will be included in a book, "Literature and Cinema in Mexico," to be published next year in the United States by the University of California Press and in Mexico by Editorial Planeta.

As part of his appointment at UCI, Agustin is editing the students' work and writing an introduction to the book (his first written in English).

"We found out that there are not many books, if any, on the problems of translation from one artistic language to the other," explains Agustin, 51.

In his introduction, Agustin will "discuss the main differences between the artistic languages: which books can be done [on film], which can't, and why." Or put another way, he says: "Sometimes literature wins, and sometimes cinema wins.

"I think that the books which have more literary density--works that are dealing with a lot of reflections, with very specific literary metaphors, with word play, etcetera--are always more difficult to adapt."

Agustin says Mexico has a long tradition of translating novels into film, dating back to the earliest days of sound.

The course is not dealing with films that have had wide distribution in the United States, such as "Like Water for Chocolate," but rather popular Mexican films produced between the '30s and '90s.

Among the titles his students are examining is "Vamonos con Pancho Villa" ("Let's Go With Pancho Villa"), Rafael Munoz's 1931 novel about the Mexican revolution, which was made into a film directed by Fernando de Fuentes in 1935.

"It's a classic," Agustin says. "In fact, the film is much better than the novel."

Another, "Ensayo de un crimen" ("Rehearsal of a Crime"), is a 1944 novel by Rodolfo Usigli that was made into a 1955 film directed by Luis Bunuel.

The film, Agustin says, was freely adapted from the novel. "It's a great book and a great film. It shows what a very creative director can do when they are not too close to the book."

Agustin, who lives in Cuautla, a small town 60 miles south of Mexico City, is winding up a two-quarter appointment at UCI, which began last spring when he taught two classes: "Recent Literature in Mexico" (from 1968 to the present) and "Literature and Counterculture in Mexico."

He has taught occasional classes at the University of Denver, the University of Iowa, the University of New Mexico and UCLA, but Agustin rarely teaches in Mexico. When he's home, he says, he spends most of his time writing.

Earlier this month, Agustin's sixth and most recent novel, "Dos horas de sol" ("Two Hours of Sunshine"), won France's prestigious Two Oceans Prize, which is given to outstanding works of literature in foreign countries. In addition to $6,000 in prize money, the recipient's book is published in France.

Agustin says "Two Hours of Sunshine" tells the story of two old friends who are journalists on assignment in Acapulco: "They plan to enjoy the sun, the night life and women, but as soon as they get there, a terrible hurricane falls in town and completely disrupts their plans, and they have to face several important questions about themselves, principally the problem of aging."

The novel, which was published in Mexico last December, has been bought by a Mexico City film company and, says Agustin, a screenplay is being written. Although Agustin sold several of his books to the movies in the '60s and '70s, none were produced.

The language, drug use or politically sensitive material in the novels ran afoul of strict governmental censorship of movies in Mexico. But, he says, censorship has since softened under pressure from the creative community, and he has high hopes that "Dos horas de sol" will make it to the screen.


The son of an airline pilot, Agustin grew up in a middle-class family in Acapulco. He began writing when he was 11. At 12, he was studying theater and at 14 he joined his first literary workshop.

His first novel, "La tumba" ("The Tomb"), was published in 1964 when he was 20. Its narrator is a 17-year-old boy who belongs, as one critic put it, "to a group of wealthy juveniles whose dissolute behavior derives at least in part from their debauched, hypocritical elders. The disrespectful tone and racy slang lend authenticity to the plot."

The book is considered the first in a wave of novels by young Mexican authors writing about the problems and conflicts of the younger generation, a movement that was closely tied to the anti-establishment student rebellion of the era.

Agustin continued to address the problems of young people in his more ambitious second novel "De perfil" ("On Profile"), which was published in 1966--the same year as his autobiography.

The autobiography was part of a series published on prominent Mexican writers under the age of 33. At 22, Agustin was the youngest.

"It was quite a shock in Mexico," he concedes with a laugh. "They thought it was outrageous to let people so young tell about their lives."

Agustin's autobiography included his five-month visit to Cuba in 1961 when he was 16 to teach reading and writing in the Cuban government's National Campaign Against Illiteracy.

Because he and the girl he accompanied were underage, he says, the only way they could get a passport was if they were married. Without telling their parents that they were even going to Cuba, they got married. Three months later, Agustin wrote his father a letter from Cuba asking if he could get the marriage annulled and, Agustin says, "he did it incredibly easy."

(Agustin has been married to his second wife, Margarita, for 32 years, and they have three sons, the oldest a poet and publisher.)


Agustin's celebrity stature was tarnished after an arrest on drug possession charges--"A small amount of pot," he says--that resulted in his spending seven months in Mexico City's infamous Lucumberri prison. He tapped that experience to write his prize-winning 1974 play "Circulo vicioso" ("Vicious Circle"), which is both an expose of prison conditions and an implied condemnation of Mexican society.

"It was horrible," he says of his incarceration. "There was a lot of corruption and violence." He didn't just mark time behind bars, however. While in prison, he wrote one of his most critically acclaimed novels, "It's Getting Late: Ending in a Lagoon," an intense story dealing with hallucinogens and human nature.

When he first began to publish, Agustin says, "the literature in Mexico was so conservative and not linked with the popular culture, especially with youth."

He saw his mission as a writer to "reconnect with culture," to "deal with themes that writers felt were not worthy enough to read about, and also to present a new kind of language, sort of a blend of literary and colloquial language." That, he notes, opened him up to criticism for excessive use of slang and obscene language.

His focus on realistic language hasn't changed, he says. "In a way I keep doing it. It's part of my style." That's not to say his writing hasn't changed over the years, he says.

In dealing with "the problems of the young people" in his early novels, he says, "I was writing about what I could see, what I knew and what I felt. I think after that I've been maturing--I hope so--and so all the things have taken on more depth, profundity."

Agustin says he has retained the humor, irreverence and "ironical approach to society" that marked his early writing, "but I am more concerned with political problems in a way, with metaphysical questions, especially in regard to dreams, and also I've been dealing a lot with eroticism."


When he returns home to Mexico in mid-December, however, it's not a novel he will be working on: He'll resume working on the third installment of "Tragicomedia mexicana," a nonfiction overview of life in Mexico from 1940 to the present.

Agustin says his three-part historical chronicle "covers all the major political and economic problems and all the changes in society. It can be sports, the media, the arts, of course, popular culture--everything that has been important in Mexican life."

The first two books have been "very successful," having sold more than 200,000 copies. "There was nothing written about that before, especially taking that wide perspective," he says.

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