A member of the Crack Generation, whose 1996 Crack Manifesto questioned the hegemony magical realism held over Latin American literature, Jorge Volpi has become an intellectual and literary referent for the upcoming generations. His books—most famously his Trilogy of the Twentieth Century—attempt to tackle the links between literature and history, literature and power, literature and knowledge, among others. His most famous novel, In Search of Klingsor, was published in English in 2004 by Fourth Estate, and, more recently, Open Letter Books published a translation of the last volume of the Trilogy, entitled Season of Ash. Volpi is currently a visiting research scholar at Princeton University. We were lucky to meet him at Stanford, the same day in which he was awarded the Casa de las Americas Prize for his book of essays El Insomnio de Bolívar. Overwhelmed by phone calls from friends, newspapers, and family, Volpi was still able to make some time for our questions. What follows is the result of our conversation.
Literature and History
Diego Azurdia and Carlos Fonseca: In your Trilogy of the Twentieth Century there seems to be a short-circuit between historical events—the Second World War, May of 1968, the fall of the Berlin Wall—and literature. How do you think literature works on history? How does history work on literature?
Jorge Volpi: First of all, literature and history are absolutely linked. The narrative of history is already in some sense literature. That is to say, history has been understood in the past centuries as a scientific discipline, as a constant reference to concrete facts, constantly relying on documents as its source. Thus, one could say that literature has the capacity to fill in the gaps that these documents leave behind. Literature uses imagination as its tool for analyzing the historical processes.
Discourses and Power
DA and CF: Do you think there exists a relationship between these discourses and power?
JV: I actually believe that the central theme of these three books is power. More specifically, how individuals comport themselves in relationship to power. Sometimes it is the everyday man, sometimes the politician, sometimes the scientists or other specialists. That power that is permanent, omnipresent, that microphysics of power described so well by Michel Foucault, seen in the behavior of concrete characters, in their intimate worlds, but also from the much wider perspective of the State. The novels attempt to observe, through all of these characters and discourse, the perpetually antagonistic relationship to power. How you exercise power and how you resist power.
Evil and Literature
DA and CF: In Search of Klingsor seems to revolve around an attempt to explain evil, or at least one of its variants. It seems that this theme runs through contemporary Latin American literature. What do you think is the genesis of this emphasis on evil in a society that declared itself, more than a century ago, beyond good and evil? How do you see the relationship between evil and literature?
JV: Evil is one of the most interesting themes for me. And yes, it is a theme that is very present in contemporary literature. First, because evil has been understood in the 20th century as a political category rather than as a theological category. We assume—above all—Nazism as the paradigm of absolute evil, even though, for many people this place might be reserved for any totalitarian system, including the contrary tendency, which would be Stalinism. For sure, the theme of evil is very present throughout In Search of Klingsor, in a political sense, but it acquires almost a metaphysical tone when connected with scientific investigation, with that almost Faustian idea of the scientist’s compact with Hitler, with Nazism, with evil. That idea of selling our souls, that functions almost as a metaphor for what occurs not only in the within Nazism but within many Latin American political regimes that—within the ideological war—always believed themselves to be on the side of good, as well as that were ready to do anything to battle that which for them was evil (even becoming themselves an image of evil). And that is maybe one of the themes that is present in all of Latin American literature, everywhere, from the Boom to the present literature dealing with political regimes. It is, for example, one of the central themes in the work of Roberto Bolaño. The evil that remains latent throughout By Night in Chile, or the evil of the assassinations in Santa Teresa—Ciudad Juárez—in 2666. Our regimes keep being related to evil. Although one must say that there is, perhaps, an overuse of the term in our times. An overuse that begins when Bush uses constantly terms like the Axis of Evil, the fight against evil, the War on Terror—suddenly then evil seems to reappear in a theological dimension, almost metaphysical, that doesn’t help us explain what occurs at the political level.
Utopia and Literature
DA and CF: Both El fin de la locura (The End of Madness)and No será la tierra (It Shall Not Be the Earth), seem to be narratives that tell of the disappearance of a utopic horizon. The theme returns, in your more recent El Jardín Devastado (The Garden Destroyed). What do you think is the place of utopia today? Has it merely disappeared, or do you believe that, as in your novels, we live under its shadow?
JV: We are accustomed to understanding utopia in these extreme terms, which have to do with the imposition of a truth. The utopia understood merely as some model of behavior, which exists already in Plato’s Republic, disappeared in the 20th century, becoming in turn some sort of recipe that those in power decided had to be the only truth possible. This produced the inevitable link between utopia and totalitarianism, and in the long run it discredited not only totalitarianism but also utopia. And yes, during the second part of the 20th century there was a nostalgia for utopia. While in general it was seen that the utopias generated monsters—totalitarian regimes—there was still a nostalgia for utopias that could really lead to a better society, more just, that was really the origin of utopia as such. In our age I believe that we are living in an epoch not so much of disenchantment, discontent, or nostalgia but in an epoch that is attempting to rearticulate utopia again in its original sense, merely as a model that is not sought by force. Above all, the utopia of a better society, more just, more egalitarian, should still be the hope of most of us, but we must not interpret it as the only and absolute truth.
The Origin of the Trilogy
DA and CF: How did you come up with the idea of writing The Trilogy of the Twentieth Century?
JV: Well, I must admit that I didn’t originally envision it as a trilogy. At the beginning I thought I would only write In Search of Klingsor. But when I was finishing In Search of Klingsor I noticed that I liked this process, which I had not done before, this process of not only of writing a historical novel but a novel that would mix up politics and scientific discourses. It seemed to me that it would be interesting to form two more novels in order to articulate a novelistic history of the 20th century. And so, when I was finishing Klingsor I was already imagining myself writing a novel about the ‘70s and a novel about the end of the century. And that is how it all happened.
DA and CF: In recent statements you have declared Roberto Bolaño to be the last Latin American writer. What does this mean?
JV: Certainly there is some provocation to this statement, a small boutade like the ones Bolaño loved so much, but there is also something true to it. Bolaño seems to me to be the last writer that really felt part of a Latin American tradition, the last writer that responded with a knowledge of those models. Not only did he have a battle with the Latin American Boom but with all of the Latin American tradition—in particular with Borges and Cortázar—but that extends back to the 19th century. His was a profoundly political literature that aspired to be Latin American in a way different from that of the Boom, but that was still Latin American. I believe that this tradition stops with Bolaño. After him, my generation and the subsequent generations, I don’t see any authors that really feel part of the Latin American tradition, or that might be responding to these models. They seem to respond to more global models. There is no knowledge of a strong Latin American identity. This is the central theme of this book [El Insomnio de Bolívar] that has won the Casa de las Americas Award. Latin American literature seems to dissolve as a unity, and it is only possible to understand it as a collage of fragments that no longer form, as in the times of the Latin American Boom, a cathedral. Now, writers in the distinct countries of Latin American feel part of their own nationality, and maybe what they are beginning to form are models whose paradigm would no longer be a giant edifice, a cathedral, for example, a Latin American temple, but rather holograms. That is to say, little fragments that contain information that is Latin American, almost in an unconscious fashion, but that above all respond to an individual will and that are no longer a matter of identity.
The End(s) of Latin American Literature
DA and CF: After the end of Latin American literature, how do you read and write facing the Latin American Boom?
JV: I believe that for the writers of the new generations, of my generation and the next ones, the Boom matters, but it is not central. I believe that it is one of the traditions to which they respond alongside others, like contemporary British fiction, American . . . There is no battle with the Boom as there was in the case of Bolaño’s generation. The Boom is absolutely canonized, they are our living classics, and you respond to them as you respond to any classic, as if they were the Greco-Roman classics. There is no longer that battle that was the center of Latin American literature until Bolaño. Now we are in a stage in which these books are the classics just as Cervantes is a classic.
Carlos Fonseca writes regularly for the literary review website: El Roommate. His first novel is in the works. He studies Spanish and Portuguese literature at Princeton University. He lives in Manhattan. Diego Azurdia, born in Guatemala City, is a Ph.D. candidate in Spanish and comparative literature at Columbia University, where he specializes in modern Latin American literature. Currently he is working on his first novel.
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