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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Today we start with a name. More precisely, with the name of our Argentinean producer Aneris Casassus. I confess that I had never heard the name Aneris and it seemed quite strange to me. Then she confirmed that indeed, it is not common at all.
She told me that every time she introduces herself somewhere, the same thing happens. People ask her at least three questions: How do you spell it? What’s its origin? What does it mean? She always answers the same: Aneris, just as it sounds, with an I; it’s Greek but her family has nothing to do with the Greeks; and she has not found an exact meaning, or at least not a convincing one.
When she gets email from people, they sometimes think she’s a man or that it’s her last name. But Aneris doesn’t even bother to correct people when they call her Ana, Mery, Nelly, Anne Marie . . .
Ultimately, her mother is to blame for everything. Early in 1983, she read the name on a list and liked the fact that it was different, original. She had no doubts. If the baby she was about to give birth to was a girl, that would be her name. There were two variants: Amneris, with M and N. And Anneris, with double N. But Cristina, Aneris’s mother, was determined to spell it with just one. Dad liked it too.
When she got home after registering her daughter at the civil registry, and realized that it had been written with a double N on the birth certificate, she went back to the office and asked them to erase that extra N. She was lucky because the employee of the civil registry was a neighbor of hers and did her the favor.
So far, just an anecdote. But some time later, Aneris’s mother would discover that there was something else to that whim. This is Cristina:
[Cristina Ferrero]: Years went by and it was always, “Aneris, come eat your dinner,” “Aneris, go out to play,” “Aneris, let’s go to the garden.” Well, elementary school arrived and back then you had to label everything: the jacket, the clothes, the pencils—you even had to scratch your name onto each pencil. And there I began to write “Aneris,” “Aneris,” “Aneris,” and suddenly it clicked.
[Daniel]: It occurred to her to read the name from right to left . . .
[Cristina ]: And I said, “Hey, Aneris backwards reads Sirena (Mermaid). I had never realized that my own daughter’s name, backwards, read Sirena.
[Daniel]: Aneris was 7 years old, and that’s where her nightmare began. Here’s Aneris, chatting with her mom:
[Aneris Casassus]: Do you remember if I liked it, when I was a girl, that it meant mermaid backwards?
[Cristina]: No, you didn’t like it. It was unpleasant for you. You didn’t want your brother telling you, “come here, mermaid; come on, mermaid.” “No, no, mom, I don’t like being called a mermaid.”
[Daniel]: To this day her brother makes jokes about it. And as kids, the angrier she got, the more he did it… Not that she hated mermaids. She loved watching the Little Mermaid movie and, well, living in a seaside city, maybe it could have made sense. But having a tail with emerald green fins instead of legs was kind of disgusting to her.
Her biggest fear was that her schoolmates would find out the secret and start calling her mermaid instead of Aneris. She crossed her fingers hoping that no one would notice. And the truth is that hardly anyone did.
Her mom, in a fit of guilt, tried to help her with that:
[Cristina]: I would say it was unspoken, but we always kept it a deep secret.
[Daniel]: Until now, of course. She doesn’t care anymore. She is willing to share it because that particularity about her name . . . brought someone to her. . .
[Juan Pablo Sáez Gil]: Hello, my name is Juan Pablo. I am a recovering palindromaniac. I haven’t made a palindrome in 737 days.
[Daniel]: Palindromaniac, that is, a person obsessed with searching for palindromes, words that can be read backwards and forward. What Aneris hates about her name is totally fascinating to Juan Pablo Sáez Gil. After the break, Aneris will take us into the amazing world of palindromists.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Our producer, Aneris Casassus, picks up the story:
[Aneris]: I should have suspected that my secret would never be safe with a palindromist. I contacted Juan Pablo on Instagram. I told him that I was a journalist, that I knew he was a palindromist and that I would like to interview him for Radio Ambulante. I said absolutely nothing to him about my name. He answered me instantly. What took my mom 7 years to discover took Juan Pablo a thousandth of a second. Never before, in fact, had an interviewee answered me so quickly. I opened the message right away, anxiously . . . It said . . .
[Juan Pablo]: Hello, Aneris, how are you? It’s a pleasure. Is that your real name? Is it a coincidence that it means mermaid backwards?
[Aneris]: Yes, it’s a coincidence and I hate it, I replied in the chat. And he said:
[Juan Pablo]: I envy you! I wish I had a name like that!
[Aneris]: Juan Pablo is 38 years old and his obsession with searching for reversible words began when he was very young, thanks to his grandmother Hilda Esther del Valle Ocaranza, better known as “Nena.” She lived three blocks from his house in the town of Concepción, in the Tucumán province, in northwestern Argentina, and almost every afternoon, Juan Pablo and his two brothers went to her house for a snack. She prepared some delicious café au lait for them. Juan Pablo was a very shy and lonely boy who loved spending time with his grandmother.
[Juan Pablo]: She read books to me, she told me stories, they were very intimate moments, when I felt someone listened to me, I felt welcomed, and she was warm and made me feel important, visible, present.
[Aneris]: In that pleasant context, Nena planted in Juan Pablo the little seed . . . As a young woman, she had been a teacher and was passionate about teaching. One day she grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil and wrote the name of an Argentine province, Neuquén. Then she told Juan Pablo—who was about 6 or 7 years old at the time—to read it from right to left.
[Juan Pablo]: And I remember that moment as a child, when my brain exploded and I couldn’t believe it. I remember my grandmother wrote it on a piece of paper and I read Neuquén back and forth, and I couldn’t believe it. To me, that was magic.
[Aneris]: Then she did the same with the last name of the Argentine president at the time, Menem. And then she challenged him with longer sentences. This is Juan Pablo, talking to his grandmother Nena, who is 87 years old today:
[Juan Pablo]: Do you remember the palindromes you taught us? Do you remember one that was “Dábale . . . “
[Hilda]: “Dábale arroz a la zorra el abad.“(The abbot fed the fox rice).
[Juan Pablo]: That’s it, I always remember that one.
[Hilda]: Yes. “Dábale arroz a la zorra el abad.” I remember, Juan Pablo, your little face, when you discovered what that was. It was beautiful, it was beautiful.
[Aneris]: “Dábale arroz a la zorra el abad” is perhaps the most famous palindrome in the Spanish language. The entire sentence is symmetrical; it reads exactly the same both ways. But inside it, we can also find two-sided words: that is, from left to right they form one word and from right to left another. Such as arroz and zorra. Like Aneris and Sirena. So only now, at 38 years old, did I come to find out that what happens with my name is called a semordnilap, and for that very reason, I am the envy of any palindromist.
But do not think that searching for palindromes is so easy. I want to make something clear to you so you don’t cheat. Although phonetically it sounds the same in both directions, a palindrome must be written without any spelling errors: you cannot ignore an H even if it is silent, or use a B instead of a V. There are only two exceptions: accent marks and punctuation marks can be ignored.
Back then, Nena didn’t even know that these word games were called palindromes and that the term derives from the Greek and means “running back again.” She spent hours taking care of Juan Pablo and his two brothers while their parents worked—the mother as a biochemist at a laboratory, the father managing projects as an architect. When Nena didn’t know what else to do to entertain them, and so they wouldn’t miss their mom so much, she pulled out the palindromes like pulling an ace out from her sleeve. She knew it was a very effective thing. She had tried it with her students when she was a teacher, and they were always baffled.
[Hilda]: I wanted to get their attention with something that really makes you think, such as, for example, reading a word forward and backwards.
[Aneris]: For Juan Pablo, it was the perfect pastime.
[Juan Pablo ]: And the funny thing about this is that my brothers didn’t care and didn’t know that palindromes existed, and forgot about their existence. As for me, they marked me for the rest of my life.
[Aneris]: From the day his grandmother showed him the world of palindromes, Juan Pablo could not stop. While walking down the street, before he read the signs forward, he read them backwards. He started finding palindromes everywhere. The most famous sweets in Argentina, the Sugus, now he liked them even more. He was spellbound at each discovery.
[Juan Pablo ]: It was like wow, years eating Sugus candies and suddenly I discovered it was a palindrome.
[Aneris]: He remembers clearly two specific moments of that stage of palindrome initiation, in which he began to investigate more. One was in an elevator when he read a little button that said “Luz” and realized that if he just added an A to it, the palindrome “luz azul”(blue light) was formed. The other was in a bar. He wanted to use the restroom, and when he saw the sign on the door, he noticed that if he also added an A to “baños,” he formed “soñaba baños.” (I dreamed baths). His daily life began to be filled with palindromes, and that seemed spectacular to him. And, like every passion, it is more beautiful when it’s shared, so every time he found a new palindrome, he would run to tell his friends about it. The problem was that, like his brothers, they were not interested in the subject at all.
[Juan Pablo]: They were like, “Ah, well.” And I asked them, “Don’t you see the magic in there, the magical structure that explodes?” And they were like, “Oh, OK.”
[Aneris]: At least his grandmother Nena was always there to listen to him.
During his childhood and adolescence, Juan Pablo grew his collection of palindromes almost by himself. Every time he found one, he wrote it down in notebooks. He began to discover beautiful phrases. I know that when you hear them you may find it difficult to turn them over in your head. But if you don’t write them down to corroborate it with your own eyes, just believe me: they read exactly the same from both ends. Here they go:
[Juan Pablo] “Amo la pacífica paloma,” “Nos ideó Edison,” “Yo hago yoga hoy.” (I love the peaceful dove, Edison thought us up, I do yoga today)
[Aneris]: And this one is amazing:
[Juan Pablo] “La ruta nos aportó otro paso natural.” (The path gave us another natural step)
[Aneris]: When he was not with his friends and brothers riding his bike, or playing soccer or basketball, Juan Pablo was enjoying himself with each palindrome phrase he found. His life was like any other teenager’s life, but the palindromes were always there, accompanying him.
In the early 2000s, it was time to go to college and he moved to San Miguel de Tucumán, the capital of the province. He enrolled in psychology but then switched to law and always enjoyed reading things backwards. He began to enjoy all the cultural events and university life in the city. He had always liked to read, and now he had many more resources at his fingertips. One day his cousin called to tell him that El Griego, a classic bookstore in Tucumán . . .
[Juan Pablo]: Had Juan Filloy’s book on palindromes, which was like a palindrome relic. So I remember I ran that day, I literally ran to El Griego , I don’t know, maybe about ten blocks from where I lived, and bought the little book “Karcino” by Juan Filloy.
[Aneris]: The Argentinean Juan Filloy, known as the writer of the three centuries: he was born in the 19th century, lived in the 20th and died at the beginning of the 21st, at the age of 105. He was also a lawyer, court judge, and translator. He wrote dozens of books, many of them unpublished. “Karcino,” the one that Juan Pablo was specifically interested in, is a treatise on palindromes. The name comes from the Greek and means “crab.” Well, there is no need to explain that he chose it because of the particular way that little animal walks sideways. The 224-page book compiles 2,200 reversible phrases in various languages, starting with what is considered the first palindromist of Ancient Greece, Sotades, from the third century BC. What you are about to hear is Filloy, in a fragment of the documentary “Don Juan,” by Mempo Giardinelli:
[Mempo Giardinelli]: How many palindromes have you written, Don Juan?
[Juan Filloy]: I have written more than 10 thousand palindrome phrases.
[Mempo Giardinelli]: Is it possible to get so far in the Spanish language?
[Juan Filloy]: It is precisely the most palindromic language in the world.
[Aneris]: The reason is that it uses more vowels than, let’s say, Germanic languages, which are full of consonants. That helps a lot when searching for palindromes. In that same documentary, Filloy says that the first palindrome he heard in his life was the same one that Nena taught Juan Pablo: “Dábale arroz a la zorra el abad.” And ever since then, he couldn’t stop either. He began to write palindromic phrases on a daily basis.
Then Juan Pablo came to the bookstore and bought that book without hesitation.
[Juan Pablo]: It was like, I don’t know, like finding a treasure on a desert island, and it was the first book on palindromes that I ever bought.
[Aneris]: He discovered that there were much longer palindromes, that they were not just words or single phrases. He realized that the possibilities of a language to create palindromes were almost endless. This treasure enlarged his—until then—small palindromic world. A world that authors such as Julio Cortázar or Jorge Luis Borges had also explored.
Filloy’s book encouraged Juan Pablo to start writing his own palindromes. One of the first that he thinks he discovered was “Ánimo de mono me domina.” (Monkey feeling dominates me) And little by little, he challenged himself with slightly longer and more complex constructions, like this little poem:
[Juan Pablo] “La sed será mortal odio, idolatro mares de sal.” (Thirst may be a mortal hatred, I idolize seas of salt)
[Aneris]: Every time he wrote one, he felt something that is hard even for him to describe.
[Juan Pablo]: When you get to that moment when you read backwards and forward and it’s you who has created that little magic, there is a satisfaction that I can’t explain; I don’t know what it is.
[Aneris]: They are like little moments when everything seems to fit perfectly.
It gave him so much satisfaction to search for palindromes that he became obsessed with the subject, and little by little it became easier for him to put together his own symmetries.
[Juan Pablo]: Here we would have to see what came first, the chicken or the egg. Either I always had that ability to read in both directions and that is why I like palindromes, or, if by writing palindromes I developed the ability to read in both directions.
[Aneris]: It’s quite a complex thing, really. For me, at least, I find it very difficult to read backwards. And not to mention turning the words around mentally, without writing them down.
[Juan Pablo]: But at the same time, it is not a very interesting ability, I mean, it’s not a superpower. I’m not going to be a Justice League superhero by reading backwards . . .
[Aneris]: And sure, it is arguably a rather useless skill in pragmatic or commercial terms. But, after all, that’s what any game is about, right?
Beyond that book that had become his beacon, Juan Pablo continued to enjoy his hobby alone. No one he knew humored him with palindromes. Except, of course, his grandmother and the dear cousin who gave him the information about the book.
Not even his girlfriend at the time quite understood why he liked searching for reversible words so much. One day he wrote her a palindrome poem. Years later, when he had finally ended the relationship, he ran into that girl again, and she made a confession:
[Juan Pablo]: And she told me that one of the things that made her brain go dry was my obsession with palindromes. At the time, I thought it was the best gift I could give her. I mean, I thought any poet can write verses to his girlfriends; I wrote her a palindrome. But no, it had been the opposite.
[Aneris]: Juan Pablo felt like a strange animal. He found no allies around him. He actually came to believe there were no other palindromists in the world. Let’s remember one thing: we are in the early 2000s, and although the internet already existed, it was not as accessible as it is now. Those were the days of dial-up and cyber cafes. There were no Facebook or WhatsApp groups, and the use of email and search engines was just starting to become popular. But that already helped him a lot with his hobby . . .
[Juan Pablo]: I started to use the internet to look for information of all kinds . . . I was looking for reversible words, word games, anagrams, acrostics.
[Aneris]: Suddenly, he began to find some websites with a terrible design but with content just tailored to him. He could spend hours researching each one of them. He was doing just that when he discovered something incredible: his second treasure on the desert island. Not only were there more palindromists in the world, but there was a club that brought them all together.
And Juan Pablo was not going to miss the opportunity to meet them. We’ll be back after a break.
[Aneris]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Aneris Casassus.
Before the break, we met Juan Pablo, who had been obsessed with looking for reversible words since he was a child. But he had no one to share that passion with, and furthermore, this obsession with palindromes even distanced him from other people.
Then, on one of those days when Juan Pablo was spending time on the internet looking for palindromes and word games, he found something totally unexpected: the blog of the International Palindromist Club, the CPI. It was born in 1986 in Catalonia at the initiative of an engineer named Josep María Albaigés. On a trip to Argentina, Josep accidentally met Carlos Nafarrate, a doctor who showed him his large collection of palindromes. Ever since, he was totally captivated by the subject. So when he got back home, he decided to start looking for other palindromists. In the ’80s, he could only do it by phone or mail, but he managed to contact about 15 people who published their palindromes in the American magazine “Word Ways.” By 1987, a year later, there were already 20 or 25 people who made up the Club and edited their own bulletin, “Sema Games,” or well, Ga-mes, so that the palindrome could be heard. Sema, in the Spanish dictionary, is a minimal unit of meaning. So Juan Pablo looked for a contact email and wrote a message that could cross the Atlantic Ocean in a second. He was lucky. He received a reply very soon:
[Pedro Ruiz Lozano]: My name is Pedro Ruiz Lozano; colloquially I am called Pere Ruiz. I am president of the International Palindromist Club.
[Aneris]: Juan Pablo was not alone. There were more people who shared the same obsession he had. Members in Spain, France, Germany, the United States, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil . . . even closer to him, in Argentina. Juan Pablo could not contain the happiness in his body.
[Juan Pablo]: I thought I was the only person in the world who was interested in palindromes. And suddenly now, hundreds of people were exchanging palindromes of all kinds. It’s crazy how times change.
[Aneris]: He also thought he was the only one who had discovered the “Luz azul” thing. But now he found out that absolutely all palindromists had been captivated by that phrase early in their palindromic experience. All this was fascinating to him. At last, he felt understood in his passion. According to Pere, this is what almost all palindromists experience when they discover the existence of the Club.
[Pedro]: A palindromist is an artist who works alone, who does not know that other palindromists exist. And when he finds out that there is a group of people who talk about this every day and organize conventions, palindrome meetings—in short, a lot of activities related to the palindrome, then he gets excited.
[Aneris]: For those of us who are not palindromists, however, it may sound a little strange. In fact, Pere is used to hearing what most people think about them:
[Pedro]: I’m going to meet a group of freaks who spend their time writing backwards or making symmetries or such.
[Aneris]: But he sees it very differently:
[Pedro]: You realize automatically that what we are is a group of happy people, people who want to have fun, have a good time and use language as a tool to . . . well, be happy.
[Aneris]: For Pere, looking for palindromes is a kind of anxiolytic.
[Pedro]: Look, Juan Filloy used to say that he wrote palindromes to alleviate the anguish of living. I have written countless palindromes in the doctor’s waiting room. Then I thought, I mean, if I hadn’t been writing palindromes, I would be thinking about my sickness or my pain.
[Aneris]: Pere became obsessed with palindromes 30 years ago. He was leafing through the newspaper when he read, guess what phrase? Yes, yes. The same one that almost everyone started with: “Dábale arroz a la zorra el abad.” That moment was the beginning of his palindromic path. He has edited six books that compile palindromes written by him, and listen to this: one of them is a version of the Bible in palindrome, from Genesis to Revelation.
And, like Juan Pablo, when I wrote to him introducing myself, he also discovered my secret immediately. . .
[Pedro]: Because it is such an unusual name—and it is very unusual, in fact you are the only person I know who is called Sirena backwards—in that sense, I’m telling you, any new term that comes up, a palindromist will turn it around even [01:22:00] unintentionally.
[Aneris]: Pere was so excited to read my name that he even wrote me a palindrome verse:
[Pedro]: Your name took me to the sea. So I tried to build a palindrome with little things from the sea. You have it in front of you. Let’s see . . . read it, please.
[Aneris]: OK, here we go . . . It goes like this:
Aneris, sé esa ola y ese mar Ámese, ya loa sé: es sirena.
(Aneris, be that wave and that sea Love who you are I know: it is mermaid.)
I had to look up the definition of loa. It is a short dramatic poem.
So you see, I have my own palindrome verse.
But let’s go back to the moment when Juan Pablo discovers the International Palindromist Club. Pere replied to his email inviting him to become a member of the club and subscribe to the “Sema Games” magazine. Juan Pablo started receiving it by mail and devoured its pages full of word games.
Together with other club members, he got involved in heated chain mail debates about palindromes. For example, how to determine the authorship of a palindrome? That is, if all palindromists have ever experienced “luz azul” or “soñaba baños,” how do you know who came up with it first? Well, it seems there is a certain consensus that short palindromes have no owner; let’s say that anyone can think of them. But when we talk about longer and more complex palindromes, it is unlikely that two people would think of forming exactly the same paragraph, and in that case, it is appropriate to recognize their authorship. Pere illustrated this for me with numbers. He told me he has written about 10,000 palindromes, and he calculates that of those 10,000, 4,000 or 5,000 are the same ones that other palindromists had already written before, without his knowledge. In other words, he believes he has invented at least 5,000.
Club members shared their creations with Juan Pablo, and the feeling that he had company in this obsession only increased it.
[Juan Pablo]: It was such a crazy time, because it was like the discovery of a whole new world that appeared in front of me, and the thousands of possibilities there would be . . .
[Aneris]: In his own words, it was like unlocking a new level. He realized that he could challenge himself even more and started writing longer and longer palindromes. When he felt satisfied with what he had written, he sent some of his palindromes to Pere, who was amazed:
[Pedro]: There are some people of whom you say, “Hey, they seem to have been born with a gift, they seem to have something in their blood, right?” That palindromes come out naturally. Well, Juan Pablo Sáez Gil is this person. I know two or three more around the world who have this ability. There aren’t many more, and I think I know quite a few palindromists.
[Aneris]: What surprised him most was that he had his own style, something very difficult for a palindromist to achieve. If achieving a personal brand is a huge challenge for any writer, doing so with so many linguistic restrictions is extremely complex. Because, as Pere says, the palindrome resists being written. It is a phrase that is tough because there will always be a letter or a word missing to achieve perfect symmetry. Sometimes the palindromist manages to get the palindrome where he wants, but often the palindrome dominates him. The greatest feat, moreover, is to achieve a symmetrical construction that makes some sense.
[Pedro]: The job or task of the palindromist is always there, in trying to find art with a chisel that is very sharp, so sharp that if you tap a little harder, you break the piece and it becomes useless.
[Aneris]: That’s why, when they manage to prevent the piece from breaking. . .
[Pedro]: You just feel happy. I see them as happiness pills.
[Aneris]: After reading his palindromes, Pere suggested to Juan Pablo that he publish one of his texts in the club’s magazine. And they started up a palindrome correspondence. Soon they became friends at a distance.
[Pedro]: Juan Pablo and I wrote palindrome narratives together, or stories or dialogues in which he said one thing and I answered another, and vice versa. All palindromic, you understand. In other words, I found my soulmate in Juan Pablo and he knows it because we are in contact . . .
[Aneris]: After some time of virtual friendship, in September 2009 Juan Pablo traveled to Barcelona and met Pere in person in a café facing the sea. They chatted about their passion for palindromes, exchanged books, and set themselves a new challenge. Palindromes were not to be considered simple word games. Palindromes were themselves a literary genre. That would be their flag from now on, and they would defend it tooth and nail. They founded the “Rever” literary movement, whose name, of course, is a palindrome. Through the movement, they would bring together palindrome writers from around the world. Because until then, palindromists were not considered authors, but simply people who spent their free time looking for symmetries. The movement would also call for the International Prize for Palindromic Literature.
In addition, they established that July 2 would be International Palindrome Day. It is precisely the day when the year is divided into two—the axis, something fundamental when writing palindromes. Since then, every July 2, the palindromists of the club connect virtually and frantically share palindromes under different slogans. The topics are pretty varied. They can go from writing erotic palindromes to writing palindromes about Messi. Because of the time difference between countries, the activity can go on for 20 hours. When Pere recovers the chat files, there are 200 or 300 pages full of very funny palindromes.
[Pedro]: You spend 20 hours laughing non-stop. And what a palindromist has—and it’s been shown—is a desire to laugh, eh.
[Aneris]: It was around that time of exchange with the members of the club that Juan Pablo had a crazy idea. He would start writing the longest palindrome he could think of. He would write it daily until the day he died. Suddenly, his whole life began to be crossed by palindromes. If he was talking to a friend, he would look for palindromes during the conversation and would pay little attention to what the person was actually saying. If he was at work, he would obsess over finding palindromes in court records. Because at that time, Juan Pablo was still pursuing his law career and was already working in the Judiciary, where he still works.
[Juan Pablo]: Sometimes I am reminded of the movie about John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, when he starts seeing numbers that come together everywhere. I had a little notebook and wrote fragments of palindromes that I later interspersed and [00:30:00] interconnected. And there were little fragments that connected with letters. That was like an extremely complex letter engineering, which I was obviously passionate about, but it was . . . it was too much of an obsession.
[Aneris]: Imagine the complexity of growing a text without its ever ceasing to be a palindrome. A text that says exactly the same thing if you read it from one end or the other. Juan Pablo had also resolved that within that great palindrome there would be different genres and word games. Palindromes within palindromes, a kind of metapalindrome. It was really complete madness. He particularly remembers one night:
[Juan Pablo]: I was in my room, which was a very large room, and I remember I had all the slips of paper with palindromes on them. I spread them out on the floor, and I put a giant panel in the middle, and I say, okay, I’m going to start selecting and organizing the palindromes that I have. And it was a night that I started in the late afternoon, and I remember I was all disheveled, badly dressed, just like a scene in a movie. And I begin, let’s say on the panel, to put pieces of paper here, another piece of paper here, joining pieces of paper, this is the same category as this one, these are short, these are poetic, these are a person. This here, here, here.
[Aneris]: Until dawn . . .
And it lasted a long time. He spent entire nights without sleeping. But in addition, along with that book—which he called infinite—, he was writing two more. One was an anthology of palindromes and the other was a palindrome with a more poetic tone, written without punctuation marks. He was writing his palindrome trilogy.
Pere is very familiar with that obsession that Juan Pablo talks about.
[Pedro]: A palindrome is like a mosquito that bites you, and while you feel the effects of the bite you are composing like crazy and you spend a period of time doing nothing but composing palindromes. It is a kind of obsession, but that’s not good either, is it?
[Aneris]: Juan Pablo realized this in his fourth month of unbridled writing, when he overflowed.
[Juan Pablo]: I think that was the climax of the palindrome obsession. And my brain basically collapsed.
[Aneris]: He decided to put an end to that book he wanted to write until the day of his death, and titled it “Simetral Ártemis.” It has 68 pages in palindrome that can be read forward and backwards. He made sure that it had 6,886 words, a palindromic number. He was totally proud of the complexity of what he had accomplished. He printed about 100 copies and, very confidently, he went out to distribute it among his acquaintances.
But when he began to show it, he ran into the same wall that he had seen in his childhood. Except for his fellow members of the International Palindromist Club, absolutely no one was interested in his book.
[Juan Pablo]: Most people said, “But I don’t understand much. It’s kind of weird.” And it was frustrating to say. Sure, nobody cares about a palindrome. In other words, it is better to write in a single direction that can be understood, that is clear.
[Aneris]: Only three or four people admitted to him that they had managed to read the entire book. One of them, of course, was his grandmother Nena. Here is again Juan Pablo talking to Nena:
[Juan Pablo]: Do you remember when I wrote that book on palindromes and I gave it to you?
[Hilda]: I remember, I remember.
[Juan Pablo]: The one you tell me you have on your nightstand.
[Hilda]: I have it on my nightstand . . .
[Juan Pablo]: What did you feel when you saw that I had written a book about palindromes?
[Hilda]: For me, it has been such a great satisfaction because I saw in you what I could have done too—do you understand me?
[Aneris]: By the way, I forgot to mention that the book was dedicated to his grandmother; let’s remember they call her Nena. So, of course, “A Nena” becomes a palindrome.
[Hilda]: I love Juan Pablo with all my heart, and with him I have found this way of communicating about certain things that I had never discussed with anyone . . . I am proud to know that you are my grandson.
[Juan Pablo]: I am proud that you are my grandmother. It’s mutual, like the palindrome, it comes and goes.
[Hilda]: That’s it, it comes and goes . . . That’s right . . . It comes and goes
[Aneris]: And that was satisfying enough. Perhaps the time had come to abandon the palindromes, which were trapping him in mental labyrinths from which he could not get out.
[Juan Pablo]: It was like first being proud of writing something so complex, then saying, Well, the only purpose it had was to free myself from a mental obsession by means of a book, and let it go and kiss it goodbye. It was like taking the structure to the extreme. And then breaking it, blowing it up.
[Aneris]: The palindromes connected him with the mental, the rational, and now it was time to move on to the emotions. He began to travel, to take acting classes, to dance, to move . . . To connect more with his body and free up his head. And arguably, that was the beginning of the end of his obsession with palindromes. Only now, some 12 years later, has he come to love that book again . . .
[Juan Pablo]: I kind of see a young man of that time, disturbed and excited about linguistic structures. And it gives me a lot of tenderness and brings back a pleasant memory. Plus the idea of not knowing how I did it, because there’s no way I’m going to do this now.
[Aneris]: When he introduced himself, Juan Pablo confessed to being a recovering palindromaniac. He said he had gone 737 days without making a palindrome, although the number he chose as a joke is in itself a palindrome. And although he no longer spends all day looking for palindromes in a sick way, every once in a while, one comes to his head and when one end of a thread appears, he needs to get to the other end.
[Juan Pablo]: The analogy with an addiction is quite interesting, because even when I want to stop making palindromes, palindromes come to me.
[Aneris]: Without going any further, it happened to him recently while he was taking a shower and he saw a spider in the shower.
[Juan Pablo]: I see the spider (araña) and I read backwards “dañará” and automatically the leftover D is joined with “demoníaco,” which reminded me of a Cortázar palindrome that says “átame demoníaco Caín o me delata.” (Demonic Cain, tie me up or I am denounced) And if spider is joined with demonic, a palindrome inadvertently comes out which was “Araña demoníaca. Ya caí, no me dañará.” (Demonic spider, I have fallen, it won’t hurt me) And at that moment I say, Wow, what a nice palindrome.
[Aneris]: He got out of the shower and ran to write it down.
[Juan Pablo]: It’s pretty funny; I can’t contain them anymore. I try to cover them up and they sprout like a fountain of palindromes that comes out of me.
[Aneris]: I interviewed Juan Pablo in early December of last year. I proposed a date myself, and he accepted. Neither of us had noticed the detail. A while after our talk ended, Juan Pablo sent me a WhatsApp message: “Look what I just found, the date of the interview, you can’t tell me that there is no magic,” he wrote. We had spoken on December 02, 2021, that is . . . 12022021, a numeric palindrome.
[Daniel]: After abandoning palindromes, Juan Pablo began writing children’s literature. He went from the extreme linguistic complexity to the plainness and simplicity of children’s texts. All his work is available on his website “Yo soy.” You can find him at juanpablosaezgil.com
Juan Pablo frequently visits his grandmother Nena at her house in Concepción, the same one where he spent his afternoons as a child, entertained with word games. They usually spend hours talking about what they like the most: their passion for letters.
Aneris Casassus—or rather, Sirena Sussasac—is a producer for Radio Ambulante and lives in Buenos Aires. By doing this story, she finally reconciled with the reverse of her name because that led her to meet these passionate palindromists. Through them she understood that an apparently useless obsession can fill a whole life with meaning.
However, apart from this mention, we are all strictly forbidden to call her Sirena (Mermaid). Never.
Our special thanks to Sylvia Tichauer, a member of the International Palindromist Club, whom we also consulted for this episode. She publishes palindromes on her blog “La breve verbal” every day. Thank you as well to Carlos López for speaking with us. He is a Guatemalan palindromist who lives in Mexico and directs the Praxis publishing house, specialized in publishing books of poetry and palindromes.
If you want to know more about the International Palindromist Club, you can visit their blog and we also recommend the documentary ““¡Viva el palíndromo!” by Argentinean Tomás Lipgot.
[Pilar Bonillo]: Hi, I’m Pilar Bonillo, from RanaLabs. Our organization is part of the Deambulantes membership program. We support Radio Ambulante because we believe in independent journalism and in the importance of the world listening to the stories of Latin America.
As part of the benefits, I was invited to read the credits for this episode. If you want more information on how to do it, go to radioambulante.org/leercreditos
This story was edited by Camila Segura and Daniel Alarcón. Desirée Yépez did the fact-checking. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri, with original music by Ana Tuirán.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Nicolás Alonso, Lisette Arévalo, Emilia Erbetta, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Rémy Lozano, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, David Trujillo and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Pilar Bonillo. Thanks for listening.