Gelman’s Jewish family went to Argentina early in the 20th century to avoid pogroms in tsarist Russia. They settled in Villa Crespo, a Jewish neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, a city where half the rapidly growing population were first-generation immigrants. Juan was the youngest of three sons, and the only one born in Argentina. In later life he would recount how one of his elder brothers used to recite verses by Pushkinin Russian to him, which first stirred his interest in poetry.
His birth coincided with the year of the first military coup in 20th-century Argentina, and the struggle between reactionary forces and civilian rule was to inform his political militancy. He began writing poetry as an adolescent, but took up journalism to make a living. By the early 1950s he was both writing and playing an active role in the Communist party of Argentina.
His first influential book of poems was Gotán (1962). The title is back slang for “tango”, and reflected his wish for poetry to be popular and based on the rich language of the Buenos Aires streets. Through the 1960s his politics became more radical, and he left the Communist party to join the outlawed Peronist FAR (Revolutionary Armed Forces) and later the leftist Montoneros, who believed in revolution through armed struggle.
He continued to publish small books of poetry that were influential among the radical youth of 1960s Argentina, but perhaps his most interesting collection was Los Poemas de Sidney West (1969), written as though they were translations of poems by an apocryphal English writer.
He also wrote trenchant articles for the most outspoken newspapers and magazines of the time, in which he tried to warn against the tide of violent repression that was engulfing Argentina. Threatened by the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance, in 1975 he left Argentina for exile in Rome, then Madrid, and later Mexico City.
In 1976 another vicious military dictatorship seized power in Argentina. Events followed that were to mark Gelman’s life for the rest of his life. His daughter, Nora, his son, Marcelo, and his son’s wife, María Claudia García Iruretagoyena, were “disappeared” in a raid by the security forces. Nora was released, but the other two were never seen alive by their family again. It was not until 1990 that Marcelo’s remains were found in a cement-filled barrel.
María Claudia’s story was even more dramatic. Some years later, Gelman discovered that, as she was a Uruguayan citizen, she had been flown there under the co-ordinated scheme planned by the Southern Cone’s military dictatorships, known as the Condor Plan. Not only that, but Gelman found that she had been seven months pregnant at the time, and had given birth in the military hospital in Montevideo before her presumed death. In 2000 Gelman discovered his granddaughter was alive. They eventually met, and she adopted the name María Macarena Gelman García.
Having refused to publish poetry between 1973 and 1980, Gelman again began to produce new books regularly, the first being Hechos y Relaciones (Deeds and Relations). These works reflected the horrors he had experienced, but also revealed an interest in Yiddish poetry and classical Spanish authors such as Quevedo and San Juan de la Cruz.
When he was in his 70s, Gelman’s poetry began to win him international recognition, perhaps the most important being the prestigious 2007 Miguel de Cervantes prize, the Spanish-language equivalent of the Booker. Like many Argentinian exiles, he could not bring himself to return to live in a country that had seen such moral degradation, and yet the separation from his home country haunted all his later work.
One of the prose poems offers a summary of his writing philosophy:
He sits at his desk and writes
With these poems you won’t take power, he says
With these verses you won’t make the revolution, he says
He sits at his desk and writes.
He is survived by his second wife, Mara, and by Nora and María.