Brief Dialogue on Happiness at SAMLA 2016

The following is the talk I gave today at the Samla Annual Conference, in Jacksonville. It is about my Brief Dialogue on Happiness (free download). I would like to thank Professor Jim Minick, from Augusta University, for inviting me to present and for organizing the terrific Creative/Nonfiction panel.

Happiness is not a human condition, but our biggest passion.

In his famous essay De Vita Beata, Seneca wrote that “poor is not who has few things, rather poor is who wants always more”. A happy life, according to the philosopher, is the one spent following our real inclinations and free from greed. If we carry a lot of “knick-knacks” on our shoulders, our walk will be harder. Happiness is easy to find; sometimes we just need the bravery to run after it and overcome our fear.

My Brief Dialogue takes place in Uruguay, where there is a man who has adopted this philosophy of life and has found a way to freedom. Media from all around the world have been talking about him over the last two years: his name is José Mujica, the former president of the Uruguayan Republic, a charismatic symbol for the next generation. Writing about him, I tried to show that, even though we live in extremely dystopian societies we can find our way to the Utopia, which is not an abstract concept; on the contrary, Utopia has its roots in reality.

The speech on Sustainability, that Mujica gave to the United Nations in 2012, made him known worldwide. And I quote: “The most important thing when we talk about sustainability is human happiness, as we didn’t come to the World by accident, just to reproduce ourselves, but we were born to be happy”.

People were astonished by the words of an 86-year-old man inspired by Seneca, who talked about happiness and portrayed a possible better world. It was quite uncommon to hear such a speech from a politician! “Travel without useless baggage along your life’s road,” he said … And I wondered how, in 2012, a man could express himself through Seneca’s words.

My story develops through a conversation between two nameless characters, a flower grower and a young boy in a bar in Montevideo. The flower grower tells his story, quoting excerpts from Mujica’s famous discourses and draws from the real conversation that I had with him.

The young bartender, simply called ‘the boy behind the counter,’ listens skeptically and reveals his identity only in the last chapter showing that at any time and in any place, we can run into a Pepe Mujica.

El Pepe was born in Uruguay, a tiny Latin-American State between Brasil and Argentina, that was freed from military dictatorship in 1985. Under dictatorship, hundreds of people were imprisoned and tortured by the State’s Army of the so-called milicos. Anarchists were jailed, revolutionaries as well, and amid these, there was the Tupamaro’s rebel group led by Mujica. With the end of the dictatorship, a “law of impunity” was proclaimed in order to prevent retaliations from ex-prisoners and ex-soldiers; some sort of forced peace was passed down to the new generation.

Mujica, as a leader of an armed rebels’ group, was jailed but he managed to escape on many occasions. During his “fiction-like” life, he was shot 16 times and he carries the scars on his body to prove it. Moreover, since he was a leader, he was jailed longer than all of the other prisoners, almost 13 years in total. Only after 6 years of complete isolation, the Milicos soldiers allowed him to read something: they threw random books into the Calabozo (the jail cell), science and philosophy books. This is how Seneca came physically into Mujica’s life, and the books rescued the man. Through reading, Mujica survived; his mind overcame reality and he became the man that the world knows today.

Despite many positive changes, Uruguay is still a dystopian Country (like most). Access to cultural exposure is often censured, and therefore people are easily manipulated. This happens both in poor and in rich Countries, for different reasons and through different social and economic mechanisms.

Literature is one of the few tools we have to understand and criticize this phenomenon.

In this time of crisis, talking about positive and negative Utopias in terms of literary contexts is fascinating. It is my conviction that the key to achieving our happiness lies in literature itself. We can consider the utopian concept as stemming from literature and finding its possible meaning in literary works. It is a narrative solution. Reading can give us access to this imaginary dimension and lead us to the realization that happiness is something obtainable.

In fictional writing, sometimes, the author creates a story for her society. By portraying a Utopia, writers can change reality through their words and consequentially create a better humanity.

Unfortunately, few people can figure out their idea of Utopia. This is due both to our strong attachment to reality and to our inability to accept our own imaginations.

There are also many authors who write about Dystopia, which is a good way to investigate humanity. By describing a dystopian condition, a writer can show how unequal and unfair our societies are, and, most of all, how much better they could be.

For instance, in George Orwell’s masterpiece, “1984”, we see an imaginary future in which our Planet is divided into three big totalitarian leaderships, fighting each other to control the planet. Is this not what’s happening today?

Another example could be José Saramago’s stories that also take place in imaginary and extremely dystopian conditions. José Saramago uses a dramatic approach portraying a “border reality” to help us appreciate our lives; but also, proposing alternatives, which is a characteristic of the utopian thought itself. In Saramago’s novel “Blindness” the only person who does not suffer from the overwhelming disease of losing sight is the “wife of the doctor”. In one of the first chapters, she is described surrounded by her husband’s vast book collection. This image conveys the importance of reading in order to avoid “blindness”.

Authors like Orwell and Saramago have exposed the real sense of our crisis.

You might ask why I decided to write a fictional work instead of an interview or an article, to talk about Mujica’s philosophy.

Supposedly, nonfiction is defined as “the branch of literature comprising works of narrative prose dealing with or offering opinions or conjectures upon facts and reality…” and so on and so forth…

We are also quick to think of Nonfiction as opposed to Fiction. I believe instead that these two genres do not represent opposites because sometimes the best investigations of reality hide in fictional works.

You know, my background is not exactly academic… For more than a decade, I have been living in sort of limbo, working a few months per year in any kind of job, and then reading and writing. In my novels, I have compulsively tried to describe life, stealing characters from the real world. When I read about Pepe Mujica though, I realized that he wasn’t just a perfect character to put into a book, nor just simply great material for a journalistic scoop. I had found a living character that I needed to meet in person. I sensed that he could help me to morph the real into the imaginary. Pepe Mujica struck me as standing in the middle, as revealing a fictional behavior in the real world.

This is why I decided to write in a fictional form, even though I describe real places in a specific time. Mujica is a perfect character out of a utopian novel; there is not enough space for him in a newspaper column or in an article on a financial review. His natural dimension is in a literary context, which is the place where I would say I met him. My Brief Dialogue begins in the dirty bar in Montevideo where Mujica and I met for the interview. In that moment, in that place, we were not just an aged President and a foreign writer: we were two characters within a “Brief Dialogue on Happiness”, transpassing continuously the imaginary line between real and unreal.

As I admit in the introduction to the Dialogue, it was hard for me to be loyal to reality; therefore, the narration is half real and half not.

Another reason why I chose to meet Pepe Mujica in person is because I couldn’t believe that he invested 90% of his presidential salary into housing projects for poor single mothers. During the whole period of his presidency (from 2009 to 2014) Mujica lived in his own shack, refusing to move to the presidential building. “I am a flower farmer,” he used to say “why I should leave my place?!”, thus teaching us all another important lesson: to always remember what we are; what our mission is.

Mujica is a man whose philosophy is to reject material wealth, in favor of an existence founded on love for simple things (like the fresh eggs, the old car that belonged to his father, the 30-year old German fridge “on its last leg” …) He is an idealist, all in all, who fought for a better world, a place without wars and social unrest.

However, despite his idealism, Mujica has a strong sense of reality, he maintains that he would be crazy if he tried to convince Uruguayan people to live like him because happiness is pursued differently by each person and it cannot be taught.

picture6In 2014 I lived in (this side of) Montevideo under quite difficult conditions, for about 4 months. I arrived there with 200$ in my pocket and I experienced life first-hand in the Uruguayan Cantegriles of Bella Italia, (nobody knew that I was in cantegriles) it was the poorest place I could find (sort of Brazilian favelas) because I wished to write the truth. I didn’t take a room in a hotel or eat at fancy restaurants. I dressed down like one of them – no money, no idea of the results of my quest – I stayed with the poor and wonderful people of Cantegriles, who don’t even have a decent place to sleep. Still, they always had a smile for me. The children impressed me the most. In this passage of the “Brief Dialogue”, I observe them at my arrival in Bella Italia:

Children couldn’t move in the morning as they woke up freezing and only around midday the sun heated them and they could finally go out and play. Few of them could write, sometimes they couldn’t even speak. To fend for themselves they used fists and bites. Humidity from the low shack ceilings turned into cold drops overnight and fell on their beds all day long, so in the evening they had to lay down in their wet sheets, never dry on time. In summer, instead, as the temperature reached more than a hundred degrees, in those same beds they melted in their own sweat.

This is my old yellow folder. I consider this object the most important symbol of my experience in Montevideo. I always kept it with me, wherever I went, while waiting for a meeting with the President. With time, I realized that this object raised the curiosity of people: the waiters of the bars I spent time at, or the old people that I interviewed. It was as if their attention were focused not on what was inside (there was nothing, the text wasn’t even ready) but on the idea of what it could be.

“What do you hide in that folder Francisco?” “¿Vos guardás el Diálogo sobre la felicidad en esa carpeta amarilla?” “Can I read it?” and so on… But I never opened it because I thought it would be much more stimulating for their imagination. The yellow folder became a metonymic symbol for the story I could tell. The yellow folder was the Brief Dialogue itself. In other words, this is how I realized that real happiness is in the search for happiness itself.

Finally when I was back in Nice, half of my friends and family members appreciated what I had done and they even read the text! However, the other half was surprised to find out that I had done everything for free. They would just stare at me and ask: “Why?!”

With only the help of Eleonora, I printed 10.000 copies of this little book and we distributed them for free to high school students during a series of talks around Italy and the South of France.

In the bar where I met with Mujica, the setting of my fictional book, he told me that everything begins with children. This is the reason why I ended up in dozens of schools talking about happiness, on my own time.

At Samla Conference, in Jacksonville, on Nov 6 2016.
At Samla Conference, in Jacksonville, on Nov 6 2016.

Our message to the students is about the importance of reading to be free and to be, one day, better men and politicians than we are. Reading helps us to elaborate questions on the external and the internal world. If children lose their curiosity, their capacity to wonder, they will risk to let other people think in their place. This is precisely how I personally define Dystopia: to let someone else think in our place, which is something that many politicians would like us to do…

But to conclude with the words that an ex-president and lifetime flower farmer impressed on me: the capacity to question oneself is the beginning of any revolution.