Born Guilty (Hijo de ladrón), is considered the best Chilean prose work of the twentieth century. Its publication, in 1951, marked a change in the manner of addressing themes, deepening the characters’ introspection. Rojas’ life and work are an inseparable duality: in most of his narrative, his own life experience merges with fiction.
Of Chilean parentage, Rojas was born in Buenos Aires on the 8th of January 1896, in a house at 1678 Combate de los pozos Street, located in the neighborhood of Parque Patricios. In 1900, his parents decided to return to Chile and settled in Santiago until 1903, when his mother, widowed two years earlier, decided to go back to Argentina’s capital with her only son. Together they lived in successive tenements in the neighborhoods of Caballito, Flores and Boedo. In 1908 they moved again from Buenos Aires to Rosario and then, in 1910, to Mendoza.
For Rojas, this period as a child and a youth, was a time of travails and hardships, of interrupted studies and working odd jobs to help his mother; but also and above all, it was a training period for learning about street life and meeting many people whom, years later, he converted into characters of his books and portrayed with deep sensitivity and empathy.
On both sides of the Andes
In Mendoza, Rojas worked at various jobs: assistant electrician, house painter, farm worker, and finally as a laborer on the Trans-Andean Railway. During this time he had contacts with anarchist workers and started reading the writings that favored this current of thought. In April 1912, Rojas reached Santiago from Mendoza, crossing the Andes on foot and as a stowaway on a freight train. He lived in diverse poor neighborhoods and tenements, and held blue-collar jobs as a coach painter and boat night watchman in Valparaíso. Throughout that period he maintained his ties with the anarchist world and was arrested during a crackdown in 1913.
Inspired by José Domingo Gómez Rojas, a young Chilean poet who years later would die in prison victim of the oligarchic repression of the 1920s, Rojas began writing poetry…
Inspired by José Domingo Gómez Rojas, a young Chilean poet who years later would die in prison victim of the oligarchic repression of the 1920s, Rojas began writing poetry. He also collaborated with some anarchist newspapers, such as La Batalla of Santiago and La Protesta of Buenos Aires, writing revolutionary pamphlets. He began to bond with theatre people, working as a prompter with some acting groups and as a typesetter in small printing presses.
In 1917, the magazine of the literary group Los Diez published his famous sonnet Gusano, which would later appear in numerous anthologies. In 1921, as a member of a theatrical company, he traveled back to Argentina. While he was in Mendoza the magazine Ideas y Figuras published a collection of his poems with the title of Poéticas.
Rojas lived in Buenos Aires until 1924. There in the city of his birth, his story Laguna won second prize in a literary contest sponsored by the newspaper La Montaña. In this story he describes his experiences working in the Andes. Shortly thereafter, he was awarded another second prize with his story El hombre de los ojos azules in a contest in the magazine Caras y Caretas.
Back in Chile in 1924, he went on short tours with different theatrical troupes and continued to work as a typesetter. In late 1926 he published his book of short stories Hombres del sur and, the following year, Tonada del transeúnte, a collection of several of his poems. Both publications received outstanding recognition from literary critics.
As a freelancer, Rojas also collaborated with the newspaper Los Tiempos writing articles under the pseudonym “Pedro Norte”.
In 1928, Rojas was hired as a librarian at the Chilean National Library. The same year he married the teacher and poetess María Baeza. They eventually had three children: Maria Eugenia, Paz and Patricio.
Also, in late March of 1928, his mother Dorotea Sepúlveda died. Rojas had been especially close to her during his nomadic childhood and youth. She was a quiet woman of strong and selfless character who constantly told stories to her son as her sole entertainment. Part of these stories would later be reproduced in some of Rojas’ books.
In 1928, Rojas married the teacher and poetess María Baeza, they had three children. In late March of that year his mother Dorotea Sepúlveda died…
The year after his marriage, a new volume of short stories was published under the title of El delincuente. This compilation included The Glass of Milk (El vaso de leche), one of his best-known stories, poignant, deeply human, and infused with a strong sense of solidarity toward the vulnerable and the abandoned. This book was awarded the Marcial Martínez Prize and Atenea Prize by the Universities of Chile and the University of Concepción, respectively.
In 1930, Rojas wrote his first novel: Lanchas en la bahía. This novel tells part of his experiences as a night watchman in the Valparaíso harbor. The following year he submitted the novel to a contest sponsered by the Chilean newspaper La Nación, winning first prize. The novel was published in 1932, with a foreword by the renowned Chilean literary critic Hernán Díaz Arrieta. The book includes a brief afterward: Imágenes de Buenos Aires – Barrio Boedo, the first piece of Rojas’ eventual autobiographical project wherein he narrates his early years in Argentina. In 1934 Travesía, a compilation of nine short stories, was published.
Two years later Rojas’ second novel: La ciudad de los Césares, based on the legend of a lost city of gold located in Patagonia, appeared. That same year (1936) his wife died and he assumed the care of their three children. Rojas was appointed director of the University of Chile Printing House. In addition, he wrote articles for the newspaper Las Últimas Noticias, worked as a translator for two publishers and sold betting forms at the Chilean hippodrome. In 1937, he was named President of the Chilean Writers Association, and he organized the first National Congress of Writers. The following year he published a collection of essays under the title: De la poesía a la revolución.
During the 1940s, Rojas continued to write articles for various newspapers and magazines and some of his works were republished. In 1941 he married Valérie López Edwards.
After nearly a decade of literary silence, broken only by his newspaper writings, Rojas published: Born Guilty in 1951. This novel, written in first person and with many autobiographical passages, introduces the character of “Aniceto Hevia”, Rojas’ literary alter ego, who became the protagonist of the core tetralogy that comprises the author’s major works.
After nearly a decade of literary silence, broken only by his newspaper writings, Rojas published: Born Guilty in 1951.
This novel broke with the limited focus of the Chilean literary style termed “Criollismo” and introduced themes with universal perspectives. Traditional temporal linearity was replaced by frequent flashbacks, and internal monologues emerged as a device to emphasize the psychological traits of protagonists. The characters possess an innocent wisdom, conferred by the experience and pain of the dispossessed, a philosophy of solidarity, an ability to identify with The Other, thereby endowing the voiceless with a voice.
Born Guilty, translated into several languages in addition to the English translation, constitutes an essential contribution to Chilean prose literature. It consolidated Rojas’ literary renown both in Chile and abroad. Rojas traveled to Colombia, United States, Panama and Puerto Rico, giving lectures on literature. In 1952, he visited Cuba for the first time. Then he worked as professor at the newly established School of Journalism of the University of Chile.
In 1954, he published his poem Deshecha rosa, dedicated to his deceased wife. The next year appeared Imágenes de infancia, an expanded account of his childhood, subsequently completed, posthumously, in 1983 under the title of Imágenes de infancia y adolescencia.
National Literary Award
In 1957, Rojas received the Chilean National Literary Award, from a unanimous jury. This award is the highest honor and recognition for Chilean literary creators.
The following year he published the second novel with “Aniceto Hevia” as the lead character: Mejor que el vino, which received the Mauricio Fabry award. Situated in Argentina and Chile, the novel centers on “Aniceto Hevia’s” amorous experiences and corresponds to the fourth chronological period of Rojas’ tetralogy, the other tomes of which are: Born Guilty, Sombras contra el muro (1964) and La oscura vida radiante (1971).
In Antología Autobiográfica, Rojas presented the genealogy of his most important novels and stories, defining and clarifying the autobiographical traits of his narrative.
Rojas continued to travel. In Caracas he taught a course on creative writing that would later be published in a handbook titled Apuntes sobre la expresión escrita (1960). He was invited by several universities in the United States to give lectures, including the University of Washington in Seattle, the University of Oregon in Eugene and the University of California in Los Angeles.
In 1958, Población esperanza, a theatrical work written by Rojas in collaboration with the Chilean playwright Isidora Aguirre, premiered.
In 1960, he published his novel Punta de rieles, gaining widespread recognition from critics and readers. He also published his book of essays El árbol siempre verde, which included Algo sobre mi experiencia literaria, wherein Rojas describes his literary beginnings. The other essays describe the concerns and purposes of literary style and other literary and political topics.
The following year, the Chilean publisher Editorial Zig-Zag issued Rojas’ Obras completas, an inaccurate title because it failed to compile all his vast work. Then appeared Antología autobiográfica, wherein Rojas presented the genealogy of his most important novels and stories, defining and clarifying the autobiographical traits of his narrative.
In 1962, Rojas entered Mexico overland from the United States and, in Ciudad Juarez, married Julianne Clark. During the year spent in that country he wrote Pasé por México un día (1965), based on his readings of Mexican history and literature and his personal experiences there.
In 1965, he published Historia breve de la literatura chilena, a personal compendium of the most prominent names of Chilean literature, which was much discussed by critics and peers.
In 1966, he went to Cuba, initially as a member, together with Salvador Allende, of the Chilean delegation to the “Tricontinental Conference”, after which he served as a juror in the genre of novel for the literary contest of the Casa de las Américas. Following his stay in La Habana, he traveled on to Europe, spending time in Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, England, Czechoslovakia and Russia, returning to Chile via the United States.
Three years later he was invited to Israel. His subsequent book Viaje al país de los profetas, which recounts his impressions of this country and its historic situation, was inspired by that visit. Before returning home, he also traveled to Greece and revisited Spain.
In 1969 Manuel Rojas began to write what will be his last novel: La oscura vida radiante, which was published in Buenos Aires – Argentina, in 1971. Due to its content, the Pinochet dictatorship prevent its publication in Chile. That will only occur, more than ten years later, in 1982.
In the 1970s the Argentinian publisher Editorial Sudamericana released a major collection of his stories entitled Cuentos (1970). Following that, the Madrid-based Editorial Aguilar, published Obras (1973), an extensive collection of his poems, essays, stories and novels.
The 11th of March, 1973, Manuel Rojas died in Santiago, Chile. His funeral was attended by numerous distinguished personages from the cultural, political and social world, including Chilean President Salvador Allende. The Senate also paid Rojas a special and heartfelt tribute.