photo by Andrea Tejeda K
One of my favorite debut novels of 2016 is Daniel Saldaña París’s Among Strange Victims. Set in the bland outskirts of Mexico City, the book effortlessly creates a slackeresque, sarcastic atmosphere reminiscent of the film of Jim Jarmusch or Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke. What Saldaña París then does is to take this texture of malaise and push it into bizarre and philosophical directions. Rarely have I laughed this much at a novel, and Among Strange Victims has also been a book whose characters, situations, and deeper aesthetic inquiries has stuck with me.
After finishing this novel, I began corresponding with its author, and a conversation emerged around subjects including: how to work with an unambitious protagonist, cocktails made from tequila mixed with urine, the downsides to Bolaño’s nostalgia, Enrique Vila-Matas as an influence, and who, if any, is the presiding influence over Latin American literature.
Scott Esposito: Among Strange Victims revolves around two lives: Rodrigo, who’s a young adult office drone working in an uninspiring museum on the fringes of Mexico City, and Marcelo, who is a middle-aged professor in Madrid who travels to Mexico on sabbatical. One the surface there are a lot of differences between these two men: Marcelo has achieved a certain rank in society and is writing a book on a hugely important modernist writer, whereas Rodrigo is basically a nobody in a shitty apartment doing nothing with his life. Yet I kept feeling that the novel was striking equivalences between them, because they’re really both defined by their incredibly passive approach to life. Did you find it challenging to write a novel with two protagonists who are so fundamentally unambitious?
Daniel Saldaña París: One of my premises, when I started writing the novel, was to see how far could I get with an extremely passive and unambitious character. In a way, it’s Bartleby’s premise too, and Melville’s character was one of my principal references for the first part of Among Strange Victims. I think that life is so fundamentally absurd and nonsensical that if you let yourself be carried along by the circumstances, without opposing any will, the resulting actions will be interesting, rather than tedious. Especially in Mexico, passiveness can take you to strange places, because of how bizarre everything is. Being slack and passive in a raving context may take you further than having a strong will to fight that same context. As a motor for action, passiveness has proven to be, at least for me, as effective as volition. It is an idea completely at odds with the prevalent discourse of empowerment, and I wanted to write a novel from that paradox.
The fact that the two principal characters share that peculiarity has to do with another concern of the book, which is (the lack of, the quest for) communion. I needed the two characters to have something in common despite the superficial narrative of their lives because I needed them to bond. After the isolation in which Rodrigo spends the first part of the novel, I wanted the third part (where we see him again) to show him interacting with Marcelo, opening himself up. Passing from the inner monologue of the first part to the dialogue between the two of them in the third required an unlikely communion, possible only because of that deep affinity. They become allies in inaction.
SE: I’m glad that you focus here on passiveness as “a motor for action,” because I really feel like this is what gives the Rodrigo sections of the book their charm. First, I must remark that Rodrigo’s first-person narration is very, very funny, and his extremely cynical narrative voice could only work for someone so fundamentally passive. With someone who is less of a putz, it would just come off as far too arrogant and off-putting. And secondly, some of the set-pieces, particularly in the book’s first section, are just magnificent, and again could only work with an extremely passive narrator who simply does not care about anything. I mean things like the used-tea-bag collection that he staples up to the wall of his apartment, or the rain shelter that he builds for the hen out of a crappy table and a bunch of plastic bags. These are such completely ridiculous plot points, but they somehow seem germane to who Rodrigo is and the world he inhabits. I’m curious to know how these came together as you were writing the book, if you were trying to push Rodrigo’s story into realms of absurdity and comedy, or what it was that propelled the opening sequences in these directions.
DSP: I rewrote the first forty pages of Among Strange Victims several times over two years before finding the right tone for it. It started being a very serious, philosophical novel, but with each new version it became more and more humorous. I knew from the beginning I wanted to create a character who would have certain obsessions—the hen, the teabags, the empty lot. At the time, I was enchanted by Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, a novel constructed by unrelated recurrences. Another model I had for the first section was Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé, in which an arrogant philologist ends up marrying his housekeeper. But it took me a while to understand that, apart from copying my literary masters, I had to find a register closer to who I am. And I make fun of things, all the time, so I introduced the farcical element gradually.
The frenzy of Rodrigo’s voice needed a very complicated prose, with constant digressions and a lot of commas. In a way, it was the rhythm of the prose that marked those sections and that took me in the directions you mention. Once I had the first-person voice for Rodrigo, I let the plot develop from it. When the character by himself was not enough to keep the plot moving (sort of moving, at least) I brought in new characters, forcing him into ridiculous situations.
SE: It gets very ridiculous, and in a less comic novel I would say that it strains credulity, but again, this book is in such an exaggerated space that you just go with it, and it seems okay.
I work a lot from exaggeration, so Rodrigo’s only evolution in the first part of the book is that he becomes more passive—he loses his job, he marries out of passivity, he focuses on his little obsessions increasingly. He’s certainly not a likable character, but in the end, I believe he’s not entirely unlikable either—because he’s laughable. I tried to find that middle point playing with his inner monologue. He is cynical, but he’s also lonely and bored—and in love with a hen.
SE: Rodrigo’s life is definitely ridiculous—he starts with that teabag/hen existence, and then he marries a woman he despises on a whim. By contrast, the sections with the Spanish academic Marcelo feel much more intentional to me—Marcelo comes to Mexico with a clear agenda to write a book, and perhaps this is why his story feels so much less ridiculous. It’s only toward the end, when Marcelo and Rodrigo are brought together by chance and they both become passive characters that the book once again takes on this very ridiculous direction. Do you feel that perhaps there is a formula here, something along the lines of “passive protagonists tend to lead to ridiculous plots”?
DSP: I wouldn’t say there is so much as a formula. Marcelo is a character with intellectual ambitions, who in the past has been driven by his desire for women. Rodrigo is almost aimless; his goal is less clear—it has to do with finding something like a community. But then there are some pretty active characters leading to ridiculous plots too—Jimmie, the gringo expat who experiments with hypnoses and contemporary art.
SE: That’s true, Jimmie is your consummate man of action, albeit idiotic action. Let me ask you about the other narrative voice, the third-person voice that describes Marcelo and his experiences in Los Girasoles, this flyspeck town in the Mexican desert where he’s come to write his book. Even though this is a third-person omniscient narrator, again the voice is rather sarcastic, even at times a little mean-spirited to Marcelo. Why did you want to move this to the third-person, and how much did you think about how the narrators of the Marcelo and the Rodrigo sections would sound adjacent to each other?
DSP: I didn’t want the novel to be plainly ridiculous and equally extravagant all the time. Also, I wanted the ridiculous parts to convey meaningful meditations too. Rodrigo discovers the density of his solitude through marriage. Both he and Marcelo discover the importance of friendship through complicity, lies, and conversation. I didn’t want humor to become a deviation. I wrote this book to know myself better, too, and in order to achieve that goal it needed to have greater nuances. Hence, the register changes.
Shifting to the third-person narrator points in the same direction. I was afraid that Rodrigo’s voice would become tiresome after a while. And I needed a shift of perspective since he is a character too isolated to conduct the plot by himself all the time. I considered that the adjacent sections would be a bit of a shock to the reader initially, but with Richard Foret’s [the modernist poet Marcelo is writing about] appealing story the change would be smoother. The third-person narrator is sarcastic but not to the same level that Rodrigo’s voice is. I like when omniscient narrators express their opinions regarding characters, and I would say this narrator has complex feelings for Marcelo. He mocks him a bit, but there is also a certain tenderness in the way he depicts him—or at least I tried to do that.
SE: What are some of the philosophical underpinnings of this novel? You bring in Descartes and the cogito explicitly at the end of the novel, but other than that the philosophy is very understated and I’m curious to know more.
DSP: There is another, more complex explanation for the shifting voices. The first section is called “The Third Person” and it’s narrated in the first-person. At the end of that section, an intruder comes into Rodrigo’s apartment and defecates on his bed. “Who is that person?” becomes a sort of mystery until the very end of the book. The meaning of that ending (which I won’t spoil here) is pretty open and it may involve time traveling, but it also conveys a personality split in which the first- and the third-person collide—one could say.
This comes right after Descartes’ explanation of the identity principle—a piece of wax might change in shape but it remains one. So, basically the whole thing with the narrator shifting has to do with a rather obscure meditation on identity—specifically, on the enlightened version of the identity principle, atop of which all of Western philosophy is built. The “I” that Descartes locates at the very base of his philosophical system is the first-person voice, but it splits into a third-person voice through self-reflection in order to see itself as an object. I wanted to take this splitting to a physical dimension in the book, through a hypnotic state induced by tequila mixed with urine, and involving shit and contemporary art. It all makes sense to me, I swear.
Before Among Strange Victims, I had published a poetry book called The Autobiographical Machine. The first section of that book is called “The First Person,” and it’s a collection of prose poems dominated by a “character” called The First Person, narrated in the third-person. In both books, I played with the possible interchangeability of the personal pronouns, in a way. I’m not convinced by the idea that we experience reality in the first-person all the time. My inner monolog shifts narrators too.
SE: What is your formation in philosophy?
DSP: I studied philosophy in college and I was an avid reader of philosophy for some years, but I must admit I rarely read philosophy now. My early readings, though, were a very clear influence on me, especially French authors like Georges Bataille, Foucault, and Deleuze. The three of them were Nietzsche’s readers, and so I read a lot of Nietzsche too, mostly through their interpretations. Since I am not a philosopher myself, I don’t have such thing as a closed system or a defined aesthetic, but I do take ideas from philosophy for my fiction. One of my concerns is dealing with both the sublime and the abject, bringing them together in my fiction in a very Bataillesque way. From Bataille I also take the idea of a community, a secret community—an idea later reworked by Blanchot and then by Jean-Luc Nancy—which I think is central to my work, and to Among Strange Victims especially.
As for other authors and movements, Dada and the French Situationism are also great influences in what I write. In both movements, the idea of merging life and art together is brought to it’s most radical approach.
In 2009, I created something called Universal Method of Derived Poetry, which was a public art project that took a poem and turned it into a hazardous walk around the city. It was a project vaguely inspired by Situationism. Basically, it’s a set of instructions to read a poem on the streets, turning each line of the poem into a one-block walk in a specific direction. My idea of the city is permeated by the Situationist theory of psychogeography, and it’s something very present in some of my fiction—mainly, in the novel I’m writing right now.
In the last few years, my philosophical interests have shifted a bit. Now, I’m mostly interested in feminism, and the few theoretical texts I still read have to do with that. Feminism has always been one of my concerns, and I think it’s somehow present in Among Strange Victims, but lately I’ve been devoting time more seriously to think and read about it.
SE: I want to go back to something you mentioned, that hypnotic state induced by tequila with urine. This is precisely where I felt that Rodrigo and Marcelo lapsed back into their inner passivity, and thus where the plot starts again moving in a delightfully ridiculous direction. Without giving too much away, the hypnosis, tequila, and piss all have to do with a certain kind of avant-garde art they’re creating, which is either complete bullshit or visionary work. At this point I couldn’t help but think back to Foret, the modernist genius poet whom Marcelo is studying. In the second section of the novel you alternate between Marcelo’s and Foret’s lives, and in my reading Foret comes off rather poorly: a scribbling fool with little idea what he’s doing. But now, roughly 100 years later, his words are treated as the highest kind of prophecy, pored over by academic departments. And so I wonder if the book isn’t sort of implying to us that these acts that Rodrigo and Marcelo are participating in—ridiculous nonsense or not—might, in the passage of time, come to be seen as great art worthy of study and reflection?
DSP: I like your reading of this passage. I think one of the themes throughout the book is the weird combination of avant-garde + nostalgia. These two elements are fundamentally opposed, one might think. The avant-garde movements of the early 20th century were explicitly born against all forms of nostalgia in art, and against the past itself as an aesthetic value. A century years later, though, there seems to be a hunger (a market) for those movements and ideas, but a hunger tainted with nostalgia—a betraying comeback. Bolaño is the perfect example of this paradoxical approach. The Savage Detectives, in my reading, is a story about updating the avant-garde in the most nostalgic way possible. I wanted to write a story that would point out the paradox of such an aim. Both literature and the academy work as nostalgia factories—there is a race to see who can turn the most recent events into idealized past. But the present is always less heroic and way more ridiculous. In my novel, Foret is a self-indulgent, hyperactive, violent character—among other things—who later goes down in history as a superhero and a prophet of the avant-garde. And I did want to play with the hint that something similar could happen with a sexist expat gringo playing around with hypnosis and contemporary art in a present-day Mexican town.
SE: When we spoke in Montreal you also indicated the Situationism was important to you and your literary development. Could you tell me a little about your experiences with it and how it affects your work?
DSP: When I was living in Madrid, twelve years ago, I was part of a neo-Situationist group called “Austria.” We had weekly meetings in the musty Café Manuela, and we even published a crappy fanzine with the same title. Eventually the group dissolved because of sex-related conflicts. One of the former members—now part of the Podemos political party—has threatened to sue me if I talk about our discussions or if I somehow make him into a fictional character—which I obviously do all the time. Since then, Situationism has been part of my personal mythology, in the same way than felt and grease are part of Joseph Beuys’ personal mythology. I use it as a material for my fiction, as a reference emptied of its original meaning, as a wink and a revenge strategy all at once. Of course, I still read Guy Debord once in a while, and I take certain elements from his theories (psychogeography, mostly) to shape characters and plot lines in my fiction, but I’m not a hardcore theory reader and I care very little about being faithful to the spirit of that or any other movement.
SE: I wanted to ask your thoughts on the work of Enrique Vila-Matas, since I see what seems to be like some strong connections. For instance, your Universal Method sounds a great deal like a Sophie Calle-esque performance piece; Vila-Matas collaborated with her most compellingly in his novella Because She Never Asked. Or the idea of merging life and art that you derive from the Dadaists, another important theme and reference point of Vila-Matas’s. Has his work been important to you?
DSP: Vila-Matas is one of my main influences among the recent Spanish-speaking writers. Not only because of his novels but because of the many authors I was introduced to through them. Witold Gombrowicz, Robert Musil, Sergio Pitol, Robert Walser, Marguerite Duras—they all are referred to by Vila-Matas, and they all became a central part of my literary education, partly thanks to him. Vila-Matas is, thus, a teacher—one of the few teachers I haven’t revolt against yet. His Historia abreviada de la literatura portátil was a huge discovery when I first read it, as it was Bartleby y compañía and, more recently, Dublinesca. The way he establishes a dialogue with contemporary art, and with the literary canon, is something I am very interested in. I don’t read him now as often as I did some years ago, but I still feel very connected to his work.
SE: I completely agree about Vila-Matas as a popularizer—I had the same experiences, and I suspect he’s been an important influence in the re-emergence of some of the writers you name. To return to a point you made about Bolaño—about how he relentlessly imbues his work with nostalgia—I feel like Vila-Matas presents an interesting alternative. His books are often remarkable tributes to the great writers of bygone times—and, as you mention, increasingly contemporary artists as well—but I do not sense the same nostalgia in his books. And I think, for all their commonalities, this points to an interesting difference between how Bolaño and Vila-Matas look at literature. So I wanted to ask how you view nostalgia in your own work (certainly Among Strange Victims resists it) and how you feel you would like to engage contemporary (or past) writers/artists in your own literature.
DSP: I agree with you about Vila-Matas. He is far from nostalgic, and the way he incorporates the literary and artistic canon in his work is not only playful but also a form of criticism in itself. He is, because of that, a bigger reference to my work than Bolaño is. I am interested in nostalgia, of course, but I would like to play within a shadowy terrain, in which the reader never knows for sure if the narrator is giving in to nostalgia or making a parody of it. I find it more interesting that way. I would like to write a book with a constant tension between nostalgia and irony, honesty and humor, naiveté and satire. I know this kind of book would be harder to read, but I’m fine with that—I don’t aspire to become an extra-literary phenomenon myself.
SE: In one scene Rodrigo is hitting on a couple of Polish girls visiting Mexico, and one of them is reading Bolaño. You paint it as a very earnest, almost naïve gesture on her part, and Rodrigo seems not to think much of the Chilean’s writing. What strikes me about this scene—other than Rodrigo’s dismissive stance—is how The Savage Detectives is treated as something that a casual visitor to Mexico might pick up as part of the local color. I know that Bolaño has become a phenomenon, but when I first read that book, which was in 2006, shortly before The Savage Detectives took the English-speaking world by storm, it would have been a decidedly different kind of person who was into his work. Why the inclusion of Bolaño in this book? And do you feel like he is moving toward a certain ubiquity?
DSP: I think it is impossible to read Bolaño without taking into account the reception of his work, especially since it went mainstream in the U.S. We can’t pretend it is 2006 and he is just an interesting writer with a complex novel set in Mexico. And the truth is that Bolaño’s work is now a part of the Mexican landscape and it’s contemporary mythology. The fictional layer of a place, composed by the novels written about it, overlaps with the physical and the political layers.
Now, I have mixed feelings towards Bolaño. I do not like his excess of nostalgia and I think his prose is rather lame most of the time. On the other hand, I admire the way he deals with the novel’s general structure, switching narrators and jumping back and forth in time. And I think he understood something very essential about Mexico City. I would say he even changed the way we see the city and talk about it—and that’s huge. Even though I recognize his importance, I find it hard to deal with the fact that he has become the main reference for all things Latin American for readers in the U.S. and elsewhere—while many great Latin American writers remain in the shadow. That scene in my novel that you mention points in that direction: the two foreign girls talk about Bolaño because he is now the literary-Lonely-Planet-guide for Mexico. Meanwhile, the local character, Rodrigo, fails to see the importance of Bolaño’s work. I don’t necessarily agree here with the character’s view, I just think it is a common reaction among many people in Mexico.
Another side effect of Bolaño’s success is that a lot of young poets in Mexico can’t tell apart fiction from reality, and they go around pretending to be “infrarrealistas” and writing bad poetry as if that was enough. Just two days ago I gave a talk in a bookstore in Mexico City; a young guy waited until the panel moderator said we would take questions. The young poet walked to the stage and babbled some incomprehensible remarks (something about Mexico City being the Paris of the 21st century), then he said he was drunk and that it was all an homage to Bolaño, and he left. It was not provocative at all, it was just kind of embarrassing. I guess to sum up, since Bolaño became an extra-literary phenomenon (that is—a market phenomenon), I think critics (and novelists can be critics, too) must talk about the cultural phenomenon around him, and not only about his books. Many times, literature is not as interesting as what we do with it as a society.
SE: These are some really interesting thoughts. The question of Bolaño’s reception is something I’ve thought and written about, most notably in a paper that then became an essay in The Latin American Mixtape. I feel that his writing stands on its own, but in my opinion there is no question that Bolaño’s meteoric emergence in English is in large part due to the fact that he fits a lot of the tropes that make sense to the Anglo market, as well as to an extent the international trope of the “successful” writer promulgated through things like major awards and literary festivals. The question of nostalgia strikes me as a significant one because this is precisely what a lot of people like about his writing. I think we’ve already discussed why your own writing runs counter to this vein of nostalgia, so perhaps we could talk about Latin American literature more broadly. We definitely still see nostalgia as a major trope—for instance, a writer like Alejandro Zambra—but I do believe there are a lot of alternatives, and should be. Do you feel like there is a different vein of writing that is coming around, more in the anti-nostalgia camp (for want of a better word)? Are there writers (aside from Vila-Matas) you would place into such a grouping?
DSP: I agree with you about Bolaño’s success and its relation to the tropes you mention. I had not thought about nostalgia as one of those tropes, but it makes perfect sense. There is a market for nostalgia, coming from Latin America or elsewhere. Now, I don’t place myself in an anti-nostalgia group per se. I have written pieces soaked in nostalgia myself. I just try to detach myself from nostalgia when it comes to reading the literary tradition, and especially the avant-garde years—which is what Bolaño did. But I think that nostalgia can be treated very wisely and it can be a powerful element of fiction. Alejandro Zambra is a good example of that. When Zambra talks about the Chilean past in Formas de volver a casa (Ways of Going Home), for example, nostalgia seems to be a revolting feeling the narrator can’t avoid, even though the times depicted where essentially fucked up—because of the dictatorship. Nostalgia plays an interesting role there, and it is not used merely as a value for the literary market.
I don’t know if nostalgia can be seen as a general trope in recent Latin American literature. If I have to place myself within a certain tradition of Latin American writers, it is certainly one that does not care for nostalgia as a prime value. Juan José Saer works with the different layers of fiction—almost in a Borgesian way—but also explores the mythology of a precise region. Mario Levrero writes about not writing. The issue of writing and not writing transforms the soul of the narrator before the eyes of the reader. Something similar can be said about Josefina Vicens, who came before. César Aira has very little to do with nostalgia too. His fiction manages to be contemporary art in a Duchampian way while remaining faithful to the art of telling stories. Mario Bellatín deals with some obscure subjects and has created a fascinating universe where fiction seems to be a bizarre mechanism, full of oddness. Going back to the ’70s, Rosario Ferré’s short stories take the typical tropes of magical realism and turn them into a political commentary about gender and class in Puerto Rico, using cruelty and the obscene as her tools. The way Antonio Di Benedetto or Álvaro Enrigue approach the “historical novel” is definitely foreign to the feeling of nostalgia. Those are some of my references in the Spanish-speaking literature. Those are the writers I’m interested in. I don’t know if they are exactly anti-nostalgia, but there is something different going on in their works.
SE: Now that we’ve broached the whole topic of predecessors and influence, I feel like I have to ask: it’s common to think of the Boom as being written under the influence of Faulkner, but the Boom itself is quite an old phenomenon now—almost as far away from us as a writer like James Joyce was from the Boom. And when I talk to Latin American writers of your generation and the one immediately preceding, they seem to feel that the Boom no longer overshadows Latin American writing. What do you feel are the influences of Latin American writing these days? Is it even possible to point to a figure, as people could once point to Faulkner?
DSP: To start with your question about pointing to a figure like Faulkner . . . I don’t think it’s possible anymore. I don’t even think that Faulkner was the main figure for the Boom writers. That might be true for Juan Carlos Onetti and Gabriel García Márquez, but not for Cortázar, Rulfo, or Vargas Llosa. The Boom was a marketing strategy created in Barcelona by a literary agent to sell books, and it worked, but there is little in common among those writers, except for being all male and mostly macho.
Of course, one can try to find some totemic figures for my generation—Bolaño? Foster Wallace?—but the truth is that the scene is too fragmented and diverse to make that one figure a believable choice. Also, each country has a specific tradition of its own, even though there are shared figures. Roberto Arlt or Manuel Puig can be seen as main references in Argentina, while for the young Spanish writers they remain marginal or even unknown. Nobody reads Josefina Vicens outside of Mexico, but if you talk to fifteen young Mexican writers it is almost sure that half of them will mention Vicens as an important figure. Then, even my own “main figure” changes every year or so: from Thomas Bernhard to Georges Perec to Malcolm Lowry to the 19th-century French decadent Joris-Karl Huysmans. On the other hand, I am not a critic, so my gaze is not exactly trained to find affinities. I understand that critics have to find common lines and they tend to see a kind of uniformity where all I see is noise and chaos.
Daniel Saldaña París (born Mexico City, 1984) is an essayist, poet, and novelist whose work has been translated into English, French, and Swedish and anthologized, most recently in Mexico20: New Voices, Old Traditions, published in the United Kingdom by Pushkin Press. Among Strange Victims is his first novel to appear in the United States. He lives in Montreal, Quebec. Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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