A Thousand Forests in One Acorn is a staggering, perhaps unique documentation of Spanish-language literature in the 20th and 21st centuries. The conceit is simple and profound: find the best living Spanish-language writers on Earth and have them select their best pages ever written. Then have them tell you why they chose those pages.
Such an anthology could only have been pulled off by a handful of people, the extraordinarily well-read and well-connected Valerie Miles among them. In addition to work with Granta and The New York Review of Books, Miles is a personal friend to many of your favorite Spanish-language authors. She was voted one of the “Most Influential Professionals in Publishing” at the 2013 Buenos Aires Book Fair, and she is also the co-creator of the Archivo Bolaño, which we discuss at the end of this interview.
— Scott Esposito
Scott Esposito: You’ve chosen 28 writers from three continents and nearly 75 years of publications. What were some of the criteria that guided your selection?
Valerie Miles: The book was a colossal undertaking and took five years to construct, with the help of very dedicated interns and assistants (thanks to Juan Pablo Roa, Gemma Gallardo and Sandra Pareja). The structure is basically the result of my being a writer and cultural journalist who became an editor in a foreign language and is still fascinated by the mystery of the creative act. So the book is at once a series of conversations, an anthology of representative work, a book of literary profiles, and a reference work with bibliographies that were supervised by the authors themselves. It offers the best writing of some of the key figures in Spanish language letters at the second half of the twentieth century, the pieces of work they consider the top of their form. It’s meant to be a fixed literary portrait of a period of time, and since it’s arranged chronologically, it also serves as an ongoing conversation among these writers over the geography of Spanish language expression. It’s an intimate book, it reveals secrets.
Keeping in mind that it is a book of conversations, one criterion was that the writers had to be breathing. I missed out on including some of them because we lost them before I got started—and I had this idea percolating for a very long time before finally getting to it—such as Spanish Carmen Martín Gaite, or the Cuban Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the Mexican Daniel Sada, or even García Márquez, who was not in a condition to be able to answer the principal question, “What do you consider to be the best pages of your entire literary output?” What a missed opportunity. It was actually when Guillermo Cabrera Infante died without having been able to record this question that I felt the urgency to get cracking.
SE: For almost any writer that would be an incredibly difficult question to answer, to say nothing of the writers here, who each have written thousands of pages of exquisite prose.
VM: Right, the process depended upon the writers in question being game for what was quite a long and at times excruciating process. That’s why the section is titled “The torture of Dr. Johnson.” Especially in the case of writers whose body of work includes over fifty years of creative output, or those who have a very large body of work, like Vargas Llosa, or who don’t particularly like to talk about their work, such as Eduardo Mendoza or Juan Marsé. In the end, though, Juan was such a great sport. We had a very long, delightful conversation and he told a number of anecdotes of his time in Paris, the inspiration for his book Last Evenings with Teresa, and why he decided to return to Barcelona to write.
SE: What were some of the other criteria you were thinking of?
VM: Another criterion of selection was largely based on a certain level of canonicity—the prestigious prizes, awards, recognition and critical acclaim in their respective countries, the ones in school curricula. It’s supposed to be a best of the best. The exact opposite of what we did in Granta, when we put together the selection of “Best of Young Spanish Language Writers.” Here I searched out the Cervantes Prize winners, the Príncipe de Asturias, the Nobel winners or candidates . . . I wanted the book to serve as an historical document, a portrait of a time in letters. Something that would become a lasting contribution for the general public interested in reading some of the best prose written in Spanish, that was alive and engaging, but at the same time could also serve as a resource for teachers and students. It’s hard to find that combination. Rigorous but engaging. I don’t know if I achieved it, but at least I can say that’s what I was trying to
I also wanted to allow myself a few “discoveries,” smoke out—as it were—the more secret writers whom for one reason or another have avoided the spotlight. Some writers are media shy, or have fallen prey to the political turmoil of the times, or exile, which denaturalized their work and pulled them away from their traditional readerships. Such is the case with the Argentinian Aurora Venturini or Edgardo Cozarinsky, or the Spanish writer in Mexico José de la Colina, the Cuban Abilio Estévez or the Salvadoran Horacio Castellanos Moya.
De la Colina was championed by none other than Octavio Paz, who considered him possessed of the finest prose in the Spanish language, a style he defined as “madreporica.” He’s from a Spanish Republican family that was exiled in Mexico at the end of the Spanish Civil War, and is known more for his work as a journalist. He’s been shy about his prose, despite its having devoted readers with Nobel prizes.
Aurora Venturini is one of the most perverse pens I know, and the oldest writer in the anthology, born in 1922. She won her first prize in 1948, given by Borges himself, and after a twenty-five year exile in Paris (she had been very close to Evita Peron), she won a young writer’s prize in 2008. She played a marvelous trick on the world of Argentine letters by sending a manuscript with a pseudonym to a “young writers prize.” The jury was stunned to find the young writer was in fact 87 years old when they contacted her with their unanimous decision. The following year the novel, Las primas won the best book of the year award in Spain.
I hadn’t read Hebe Uhart before putting this anthology together and a whole world opened up for me when I did. There is nobody working the mechanisms of language, the oral traditions, like she is. Her ear is pitch perfect and she travels around the deeply rural areas just listening to the different ways in which Spanish is being spoken, and records it. There’s nobody like her.
Finally, I considered that in order to have the book remain as fixed text, as a portrait of the times, I needed to have a critical mass of writers who have likely already written their best pages. Otherwise, in ten years the book is out of date. In fact, since the book was first published in 2010, we’ve lost Ana María Matute, Ramiro Pinilla, Carlos Fuentes, and Esther Tusquets. Luckily, I could record what they consider their best pages. There are some for whom that condition doesn’t apply; the younger ones on the list, such as Evelio Rosero (1958), or Antonio Muñoz Molina. And of course others, like Rafael Chirbes, Alberto Ruy Sánchez, Enrique Vila Matas, and Javier Marías, are writing now at the top of their form. But in all cases there is a deep consideration of the creative process, writers who are looking over their work and choosing what best represents that kernel of their obsession, the acorn that seeded a forest of letters over the course of their literary lives, a technical feat they’ve contributed, or a particular challenge.
And last but not least, the writers involved had to be willing to do an honest exercise; it had to be their choices and their reasons, and that took a lot of time to fish out, compile, reason. So I’m deeply grateful to the writers who decided it was ok to lie down on this literary couch and participate in their own analysis, because at times that’s what the process felt like.
It bears witness to a time on earth, a particularly ebullient time for letters in the Spanish language, both through the real voices of the writers, as well as through their storytelling. The 20th century was particularly fraught politically, as we all know, on both sides of the Atlantic. Mario Vargas Llosa once said, “la salud de una narrativa suele significar una crisis profunda de la realidad que la inspira.”
SE: And speaking of inspiration, where did the idea for this book come from?
VM: The inspiration for the book was an anthology done by Dial Press in the U.S. in 1942. It’s called This Is My Best and it includes writers like Hemingway and Faulkner, Steinbeck, William Carlos Williams, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Willa Cather, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, all the most important minds and pens of the time talking about what they consider their best pages. When I came across the book, I realized that it was even more valuable now than when it was published, which was a time when the world was locked in the deadly years of industrialized slaughter that was World War II. It was like a cry of hope and sanity from the center of a mad world bent on self-destruction. It has John Dewey arguing about why Hitler can’t prevail: “because his views and his practice rest upon the lowest kind of estimate of the capacities of human nature. The moral source of his final defeat will be just this total lack of faith.” The book celebrated beauty and thought, being human; the idea that it is so much harder to create than it is to destroy.
I was intrigued and moved by the My Best anthology, again its sense of urgency, and it spurred my interest in creating something in the Spanish that in fifty years might be worth more than it is now. When Carlos Fuentes accepted the invitation to participate in the project, he told me that he had grown up reading the original American anthology in his father’s library and that’s why he wanted to contribute.
SE: The anthology has an innovative format. For each writer, we are first presented with “The Acorn,” which involves the writer’s own words about him- or herself. Then we have “A Thousand Forests,” which is the piece of fiction from the featured writer. Could you tell me a little about where came the forests and the acorn?
VM: Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay “History” that there is one mind common to all individual men—his oversoul—and therefore the whole of history exists in one man, all of history lies folded into a single individual experience: “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” He also wrote “The fact narrated must correspond to something in me to be credible or intelligible. As we read, we must become Greeks, Romans, Turks, priest and king, martyr and executioner, must fasten these images to some reality in our secret experience.” A little bit like taking a walk through Baudelaire’s forest of symbols that nod to all men in quiet correspondence.
As an American who has spent half a life in Spain working in literature in so many different incarnations, writing, reading, editing, and translating, I had largely specialized in sharing the work of writers in translation for a Spanish language audience. So I found the idea of not translating but adapting this American idea fascinating; I gave it a twist by working with Spanish-language writers, and also by using my own format and adding the profiles section, enlarging the interview sections, arranging things chronologically, etc. So it gave me the opportunity to work with some of the most celebrated writers in the Spanish language during the second half of the twentieth century as a means for bringing a sample of their best work and their creative worlds to an American audience.
But though I began doing A Thousand Forests in English—the interviews with Javier Marías, Antonio Muñoz Molina were done first in English—for professional reasons (I was starting up a new imprint in Barcelona at the time), I found that first I had to publish the anthology in Spanish. That was nerve-wracking because it changed the target readership, it would have to pass the Litmus test of the Spanish critics right off the bat, and appeal to a Spanish language readership, which raised the bar ambition-wise. I wasn’t only addressing a foreign audience anymore. I had to discover things readers didn’t know about their own tradition. Needless to say, that was a daunting prospect. At first when I presented the proposal to writers and their agents, they sort of looked at me sideways, what is this zany person doing now? It was a little unconventional.
But luckily it all worked out, the reviews were glowing, Winston Manrique in El País was the first to write about it, and that got things moving. Javier Marías helped out by putting his conversation and selection on his blog and having his editors move it in social media. Then important critics paid attention, like José María Pozuelo Yvancos in the ABC, Juan Angel Juristo, etc.
But to get back to your question: I wanted to root out that one driving obsession of a writer, and find out what he or she, in the quiet of their studies, considers the best representation of that obsession. I wanted to hear the echo of individual voices that fasten images to some reality in my own secret experience, take a walk among the nodding symbols; Bryce Echenique’s lonely child growing up in Peru, Marías’s young man in Madrid whose lover dies in bed before they can consummate the act, Vargas Llosa’s painter in Tahiti who finds inspiration on a stormy night, Matute’s mother who chooses power over love for her son’s future in a world of magical creatures. Perhaps, by living out these experiences, I might discover some secret map hidden in the forest.
SE: It really stands apart from other anthologies because the authors are so personally involved.
VM: The idea was to uncover the secret life of these texts, why do their creators consider them their best work? What’s the clandestine, the underground, the surreptitious meaning or attachment? Where’s the kernel, the seed from which a body of work grew, what the driving obsession? Is it something sentimental, something technical, maybe even something spiritual? I wanted to open the door to the intimate space that exists between a writer and his work, and allow his or her readers a glimpse into that space, which under normal circumstances we are never privy to; here’s the text in black and white on the page, bearing witness and available to all of us now, but whose ghostly presence is still there? What is rooted in these extraordinary writers’ imaginations? I wanted the names of the ghosts haunting the blueprint spaces, and that’s why I ask the question “who are your departed?
We know what the critics have said or written, and there are remarkable pens that have been analyzing Spanish language literature critically for many years, from Angel Rama to Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Joaquín Marco, Jordi Gracia or Domingo Ródenas to name only a few. But I wanted to delve into that private space in the margin between creator and creature, really get in and measure that distance which lies between a writer’s intention and the result of what he’s written, and to do so, you need a clear idea of what those intentions were in the first place. So I set about asking for where that space was at an all time minimum in their work, which texts might have been more of a triumph than we think because of a certain challenge that only the writer is aware of; what incident motivated the writer to a scene or a character, what obsession is their particular eternal return, in one guise or another, one voice or another, one place, one situation?
SE: What sort of an impact do you hope for this book to have?
VM: Alberto Manguel wrote: “The relationship between a reader and a book is one that eliminates the barriers of time and space and allows for what Francisco de Quevedo, in the sixteenth century, called ‘conversations with the dead.’ In those conversations I’m revealed. They shape me and lend me a certain magical power.”
My second question—or really third, following what is your best piece of writing and why—is precisely that: “Who are your departed?” Quevedo’s sonnet is quoted at the beginning of the book to give the context. Who are the precursor writers they are in conversation with? And the name that looms like the “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air,” is none other than William Faulkner. The role Faulkner played in Spanish language letters in the 20th century can’t be underestimated. And of course Faulkner had to go through Paris before he was truly recognized in the U.S., which, despite a few momentary exceptions, didn’t come until Malcolm Cowley’s introduction to the Portable Faulkner in 1946, only three years prior to him winning the Nobel. Sanctuary had received some success in the U.S. in 1932, but Faulkner fell off the map again and spent 15 years practically uncelebrated. In France, André Malraux introduced Sanctuary in 1933, and, in his review of Gallimard’s publication of The Sound and the Fury in 1938, Sartre called him one of the greatest novelists of the century. Jean-Louis Barrault did a theatre adaptation of As I Lay Dying in 1934, and later Camus did one for Requiem for a Nun. The Nobel Prize was largely thanks to the French appreciation. So. The anthology in this way becomes a celebration of and cautionary tale for the lack of translation. Faulkner’s influence is everywhere in the anthology. Some of these writers—Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, Ramiro Pinilla—are bringing a tradition back to us through a different cultural lens, which is absolutely fascinating.
The same happened with Poe until Baudelaire came along and translated him, and brought him back through the “maudits” and the Beats. Emerson used to call him “the jingle man.” Why did it take so many years for Moby-Dick to be considered? It was out of print completely by the time of Melville’s death and didn’t come back until the ‘20s, thanks to D.H. Lawrence. Modernism had to happen before readers could begin to appreciate its genius. Usually the reasons why a great writer isn’t taken seriously are extra-literary, and again, exile is often an extenuating factor. Take Bolaño for example, twenty years of writing and being rejected until he was finally discovered. And even then, a large part of his consecration had come from the enormous readership he has in the U.S. Sometimes we take things for granted, sometimes there’s too much noise. Sometimes a writer’s work is so far ahead that it simply takes time to assimilate. Their work has to come back through the lens of other readers and cultures farther removed from socio-politico-economic issues that can cause tendentious readings or label or categorize a work outside of purely literary merit.
SE: Were there any surprises regarding what each writer chose to represent his or her best moment?
VM: In fact yes, there were. I would never have imagined that Mario Vargas Llosa would choose an excerpt from his novel The Way to Paradise. But he did. It’s a powerful passage, luminous and ancient at the same time, a moment of light breaking into the darkness. It describes the scene when Paul Gauguin painted his masterpiece, Spirit of the Dead Watching. The Tupapaus in Polynesia believed that phosphorescent lights were manifestations of the spirits of the dead, so when Gauguin entered his cabin and lit a match at night, it captured like a flash his lover’s terrified face, it caught the moment when she thought he was an ancestral evil spirit in the night and she was seeing it.
I asked why he didn’t choose something from Conversation in the Cathedral since it was such an important technical accomplishment, or La ciudad y los perros for its iconic stature, but he was firm about it. Also Carlos Fuentes chose the fourth chapter of Terra Nostra, not anything from Aura or The Death of Artemio Cruz. Terra Nostra had received rather negative reviews, the same as had The Way to Paradise for Vargas Llosa. But Terra Nostra is, like Moby-Dick, coming back into critical consideration. Some adduce that it was simply misunderstood at the time it was published. Gonzalo Celorio, in a talk at Casa de America in Barcelona, said that a number of specialists are in the process of rereading and reconsidering Terra Nostra as possibly his greatest contribution of all. It’s exciting that he chose this, and extremely enlightening in many ways: here two of the greatest writers in the language are telling us that there is something we’ve missed, or that the critics may have missed. It reminds me of something Dorothy Parker said in the original anthology about her choice of a short story titled “The Standard of Living”:
Now what is a writer to say about a sample of his own work? If he takes one course, he’s simpering. If he goes the opposite way, he’s Saroyan. I think this story of mine is the nicest bit of writing, the most careful, that I have ever done. I felt a certain maternal obligation to say a few words in its favor. Nobody else did.
The funny thing is how spot on Parker was about Saroyan. Without her obviously knowing it, Saroyan, in the same anthology, chose a preface to a one-act play titled “Hello Out There” and wrote: “I have little use for any other kind of writing, unless it is my own, in which case I am devoted to the stuff. This is so because I have such an intelligent view of things. If I wrote it, let me not pretend that it could ever be the work of any but the finest and greatest of writers. So it is –and they go about angry or laughing because it is so. But so it is, so it is.”
So maybe they felt a “maternal obligation” towards these pieces of writing. Fuentes died very shortly after our conversation and as far as I know, it was his last interview.
Carlos Fuentes answered very succinctly “I chose these fragments from Terra Nostra because they have the unfortunate habit of summing up my approach to storytelling.” But then went on at length about the influence of his grandmothers on his writing. “The grannies always stay with you, and later you move to Faulkner.” I was also surprised by Enrique Vila-Matas’s selection, a novella from his collection “Exploradores del abismo” and his enigmatic answer to his conversation with the dead: “A long time ago someone said to me: ‘See the things your pain creates.’ It’s a beautiful sentence—enigmatic, unique, I’d say feminine—and it is also a sentence that, in the most moving way, makes me feel closer to my dead.”
SE: In the interviews included in A Thousand Acorns, for the most part you restrict yourself to just one question per author. Did you extract these from a longer series of questions and answers? How did you settle on that one thing to ask the author?
VM: Well, I didn’t want to make the mistake of outwearing my welcome. If you think of what a huge question the first one is—“out of your entire body of work, what are your best 15 or so pages?”—you can imagine how long it took to answer that and the following question of why. As I mentioned before, I asked this question of writers who have large outputs and that’s no small thing! In some cases that process took weeks, others took months, and even in a few cases, years, to finally close. In the case of Javier Marías, for example, we conversed in person in Madrid and by fax over months, and a very long, very hot summer. With Edgardo Cozarinsky it was always with champagne, with Alberto riding around Guadalajara when not Mexico D.F., with Cristina Fernandez Cubas—who gives an impassioned defense of the underappreciated short form—Barcelona and Segovia, and Sanchez Ferlosio, a famous curmudgeon who in fact became very endearing over the course of our telephone conversations. He sent his contribution written out longhand in manuscript form!
But I had a clear method to the madness. I wanted to ask two questions that were identical to all writers (which sneakily are really three . . . what is your best, why is it your best, and who are your departed). By asking the same questions to all of them, we see the variety of ways in which the writers approach the idea of craft, the creative process, the imagination, and their role as storytellers, or intellectuals; their relationship with literature. You see their lives, their traditions, their vital contexts, and the particular or peculiar or idiosyncratic maps of their creative consciousness. Same question, different responses. The third question (at times there is a fourth) builds further on those apparent differentials or peculiar features that have come out, and directs the question down one Borgesian fork or another in the writer’s path.
Also, I had to keep an eye on length. As is, the book clocks in at 700 pages, so I didn’t want to abuse the reader’s goodwill. And with such important writers, the privilege is having their voices resonate; I didn’t want my own voice spoiling the intertextual conversation, the reverberation and echoes of their voices and those of their narrators over time. And that’s one of the reasons I arranged it chronologically, too. It’s a book meant to showcase them, not the anthologist or the journalist or the editor. So I tried to boil down, pare and prune the long conversations into an essential core. By asking the same questions, we see the different approaches each writer has to their creative process, and then one or two questions are directed specifically towards each one’s individualities.
SE: In Javier Marías’s “conversation with the dead” he notes that “translation is one of the best possible exercises for a writer.” Is there a strong tradition in the Spanish-speaking world for authors who both translate and write? And do you agree with what Marías says?
VM: I do agree with him in thinking that one of the best exercises for any writer is to translate. It makes you think about voice and style, grammar and syntax, it makes you gain control over your own style—translating is allowing the other writer’s voice through and containing your own. You delve into a text, pull it apart and rebuild it, render the effect, render the concepts, look underneath and see what’s there, find ways of effecting the same experience, problem-solve . . . I think for Marías, in fact, Sterne and Cervantes—and of course Shakespeare—have been, as he says himself, truly fundamental in his writing. The use of time, the use of meta devices that some attribute to the Modernists—Cervantes was already playing with mise-en-abyme, and we think it’s such a postmodern device, or Sterne’s delightful exercises in time and blank pages à la John Cage.
But what Javier is referring to here is what Dionysius of Halicarnassus defined as “imitatio,” a method of classical rhetoric that grew out of Aristotle’s idea of “mimesis” in his Poetics. Where Aristotle’s idea was that art is the imitation of nature, “imitatio” brings the idea into the realm of literature. Here, it deals with the imitation of prior writers in a constant process of polishing, inventing, and raising the bar. And of course there’s Bloom’s contribution on how all this breeds a sense of anxiety and struggle, or “agon.”
Translating a great writer allows you to imitate, learn their devices and apply them later in your own language. And this is a technical thing, if I were to start talking about cross-pollination in ideas, concepts, etc . . . we could be here all day. But in ancient Rome and later in the Renaissance, this rhetorical process of learning through imitation first taught spelling and grammar, then as students progressed they’d learn to locate parts of speech for style, for strategizing arguments and organizing materials. Then, once students could appropriate these correctly, only then were they allowed to invent on their own. It was a form of apprenticeship, step by step.
I think you learn more about your own language when you’re able to compare its structures and expressions to other languages, understand the variety of conceptual worlds that are locked inside of words. Wittgenstein mentions in his Philosophical Investigations, “The processes of naming the stones and repeating words after someone might also be called language games. Think of much of the use of words in games like ring-a-ring-a-roses. I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the ‘language-game.’” Literary translation is a language-game of the first order. It’s not a mechanical process performed automatically, it is a form of life, a form of fusing worlds together, as Gadamer wrote: “Understanding is always the fusion of these horizons which we imagine to exist by themselves.”
SE: Out of all the Spanish-speaking nations, is there one whose literature you feel the closest to?
VM: I really do like different writers from different countries, and it depends on whether we’re talking about fiction, poetry, essay, or reportage. I think since Rubén Darío, or José Martí on through Bolaño (a Chilean who writes about Mexico from Spain), Latin American literature has not been regionally bound though of course tradition weighs and there are certain characteristics that can be identifying but aren’t necessarily defining. The Boom generation writers—Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, Cabrera Infante, Cortázar et. al.—certainly distinguished themselves for embracing universal issues, experimentation and rejecting the regional novel. They crossed boundaries that were both national and literary. Interestingly, Latin American literature—and we’re talking about written in Spanish—is much older and richer than Anglo American literature, the chronicles of the explorers and poetry, but the novel is a form that took much longer to evolve there than in the North.
Mexico had the Stridentists and the Revolution, so much of the avant-garde and at the same time social realism, but there’s Rulfo who was so important and still is so influential, he’s still nodded to literarily all over. But the Nobel Prize for Octavio Paz raised the intellectual bar so high there, and was influenced not only by Sor Juana, but also by Hinduism and Buddhism, and then the erotica. There’s the work of Alberto Ruy Sánchez and his particular form of bringing together elements of Mexican and Moroccan culture.
The Mexican intellectual is an epitome, a class above the rest in cultivation, encyclopedic and highly sophisticated; critics like Cristopher Domínguez, poets like Tedi Lopez Mills and narrators like Alvaro Uribe or the legacy of Daniel Sada. Or Álvaro Enrigue, Guadalupe Nettel, Antonio Ortuño, and a young writer I’ve just read, Veronica Gerber, thanks to Francisco Goldman’s Aura Estrada prize. Can you tell I have a soft spot for Mexican literature? Once in the Bogotá Book Fair I heard a Mexican poet whom I’d never heard of before recite. It was like being hit with a bolt of lightening. When the lights came on after he read, I looked around and saw all these stunned, tear-stained faces and realized I wasn’t alone.
Then there’s the Argentine sense of humor, the melancholy, the new world brand of European nostalgia, and oh the pampa . . . Argentina has a strong literary infrastructure, serious bookstores, and sophisticated readers, so the writers know they have an audience. Borges set the stage and he didn’t even need a Nobel Prize! Cortázar; the stories of Silvina Ocampo, there’s a rich tradition for story writing in Argentina thanks to Borges and the group around the magazine Sur. There’s a lot of great film too, and writers like Manuel Puig and young ones like Lucía Puenzo or Marcelo Figueras. The stories of Edgardo Cozarinsky who chronicles the Jewish immigration, and Ricardo Piglia, or César Aira doing his high acrobatics, Alan Pauls and Rodrigo Fresán, who has read absolutely everything, and younger writers with scope and ambition like Andrés Neuman and Samanta Schweblin; the reportage of Leila Guerriero. They don’t have a Nobel Prize, but they have Borges. Oh, and a Pope by default. And Maradonna. Even a Queen. So the Argentines, being Argentines, don’t need a Nobel.
The Colombian Nobel, García Márquez, is probably one of the most beloved writers in the entire world and that popularity has in some ways cast a long shadow for following generations there. Though the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier was the first to talk about “lo real maravilloso”—the idea that Latin America is a land filled with marvels and so writing about it necessarily produces a marvelous reality—the style has also become a sort of straight jacket and something that can easily fall into parody . . . The world suddenly expected any writing coming out of Latin America to have elements of the Baroque and magical realism. Suddenly there was this easy definition of Latin American literature; it was a dangerous market-driven pigeonhole. For a while any writing that didn’t fit that category wasn’t interesting for a foreign audience. And Colombia has gone through such a traumatic time that following Vargas Llosa’s idea that good literature often comes from tragic times and there you have Evelio Rosero’s The Armies. There’s the work of writers like Tomás González, and Vallejo’s Our Lady of the Assasins. Now there are younger writers like Andrés Felipe Solano or Carolina Sanin and the Foundation for New Journalism, which foments the genre of reportage and chronicle.
For some reason there has been a lack of female voices coming out of Colombia and Peru, while they are thriving in Argentina and Mexico. It would be interesting to try to figure out why.
Central America has the Guatemalan Nobel Miguel Angel Asturias, and again, the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. Today there are strong writers like Rodrigo Rey Rosa or the younger Eduardo Halfon, the Salvadoran Horacio Castellanos Moya. And Spain is vibrant, with world-class writers like Vila Matas and Marías, Muñoz Molina and essayists too, Rafael Argullol, Victoria Cirlot, Felix de Azua, we’re now beginning a careful process of reading through the young Spanish writers.
But I’m particularly fond of Borges and Cortázar, of Hebe Uhart’s sense of humor and endless verbal panache, I never get bored reading her. Aurora Venturini’s constant mold-breaking intransigence, and Horacio Castellano Moya’s charming rogues. Cabrera Infante’s linguistic fireworks and high jinx mixed with high modernism, and of course it’s impossible to escape the spellbinding enchantment of García Márquez’s prose. And I was captivated and entranced by the tragic story of a boy’s coming of age in Bryce Echenique’s masterpiece, A World For Julius. And of course there’s Bolaño, Bolaño and Bolaño. I could just go on and on, but I’ll spare you.
SE: What is the effect of a Nobel on a national literature?
VM: I have the idea that in certain countries, the Nobel Prizes have been absolutely game-changing for national literatures, in the sense that generations of writers are vindicated for their dedication to it as something worthy of pursuit, resources and attention are given to educating and teaching literature, it’s no longer a frivolous activity of slackers who don’t have real jobs. I think it’s the case of Peru now, which seems to be experiencing a moment of ebullience, which was obvious in the incredibly varied delegation of Peruvian writers in the Bogotá book fair last year. It’s not that the writers weren’t there prior to Vargas Llosa’s Nobel—Santiago Roncagliolo, Fernando Iwasaki, Ivan Thays, Enrique Prochaska, Gabriela Weiner—it’s just that we are all paying more attention to them, reading them, there are greater resources being given to book fairs and publishing, people are asking who else writes in Peru? Probably it also has to do with the socio-political conditions also being a little more stable following the Fujimori debacle.
The influence of a prestige like the Nobel creates an entire ecosystem that foments writing and reading and taking work of the imagination seriously. You get a sense for how Chile has always been a country of poets and think of their Nobels, Neruda, and before that Gabriela Mistral. And then there’s the Huidobro, Pablo de Rohka divide. You can go on and on. It’s a country of poets, which is incredibly unique, though now there’s a strong generation of narrators too; Alejandro Zambra, Lina Meruane or Carlos Labbé.
SE: In your opinion, what is one thing that the great literature of the Spanish-speaking world might offer to American letters?
VM: Inventiveness, semantic panache, undiluted originality, experimentation without having lost a sense of the ludic and a sort of discreet erudition that doesn’t conk you over the head by trying to show itself off but more suggests itself like a whiff of lavender when you open the lingerie drawer. They aren’t afraid of telling dreams, aren’t writing for the big contracts; they haven’t lost sight of the fact that writing is not only craft—which it is, but not only—but also genius. Literature is not an industry, you don’t get into it and then have to pay off student loans, it’s not merely entertainment. It’s art, it’s thought, it’s discovery through the use of language, it’s the naming of things. As Carpentier said, it’s a marvelous continent and the stories are fascinating. They aren’t writing to jaded audiences accustomed to the rhetoric of marketing and advertising, or complacent readers of suburbia who spend days on the soccer field or driving SUVs. Theirs is a different kind of soccer field altogether. Though many of the citizens in these countries are world-weary in their politics and the dog eat dog of every day life, there is still a sense that literature is capable of changing things. Writing still has urgency to it, which I think is something that’s been lost in the U.S. We’ve spent so many decades without translating because it doesn’t fit into the corporate publishing’s business model that I think we’re getting bored with the same story over and over again. It’s what Goethe talked about.
Bolaño brought or at least influenced or motivated a return to the dialogue with the avant-garde, certainly he brought Borges, Cortázar and Rulfo back but also the dialogue between prose and poetry, the use of poetic devices in narrative structures. The writers know their own regional traditions well, they live in a periphery that is not Europe, and yet they have also read the great writers from the center. So Bolaño not only read his own writers, but also Pascal and Wittgenstein, Kafka, Joyce, Woolf, the Oulipo writers, the Beats, Calvino and Nabokov. And then genre literatures like science fiction and gothic fiction; Ursula Leguin, Alice Sheldon, Ballard and Dick.
So this imagination blends with formal experimentation, a return to dialogue with some of the avant-garde and modernists, so there’s a facility for experimentation that at the same time doesn’t lose its capacity to astonish and bewitch. Innovation without density, playfulness—who is more playful and deliciously mischievous than Enrique Vila-Matas and his great dilemma of literature and life? Vargas Llosa’s formal innovations in Conversation in the Cathedral or Javier Marías’s ghostly and hypothetical points of view?
Spain is going through a crisis in the publishing sector right now, which, paradoxically, may fare well for its literature. Perhaps it isn’t bad that the people who thought writing a novel is a perfect get-rich-quick scheme, or as Andrew Wylie once said is the equivalent of, “people who sing in the shower thinking they ought to be billed in La Scala,” or publishers who follow the market instead of innovating, will get bored with losing time and money and let the people who care more about art and less about billfolds a chance to get back to literature.
SE: In addition to your work with Granta and The New York Review of Books, among others, you were also a co-curator of the “Archivo Bolaño,” which appeared at the Centre of Contemporary Culture in Barcelona in 2013. Can you explain a little about what this exhibit was and how it came together?
VM: When Carolina first invited me to help with the reading process, I was struck by the importance of the work Bolaño had done during the years spent in Barcelona and Girona, not only because it marks the genesis of his narrative world but also because of how meticulously, how determinedly, he had been carving out his own, unique approach to expression; revolutionary in nature but clearly in conversation with tradition and aspiring towards continuity. Contrary to what has been repeatedly claimed about Bolaño the poet versus Bolaño the prose writer, his notebooks showed very clearly that he had every intention of becoming a novelist since the moment he arrived in Spain. He considered that in order for the Infrarrealist ideas to continue, they needed more ambitious work, and a novel. So he pursued the construction of a narrative voice without renouncing his life as a poet. In a notebook dated 1978 he wrote: “I want to write a novel but it’s so hard for me to get started.” And again he writes to himself, “We’re less young every day, fortune with some, poverty with others: I write verses, dream of a novel.” It’s safe to say that writing narrative was not the result of hardship or financial duress, and that poetry was not the only pure form for pursuing truth. One form served as a stimulant to the other, coexisting in happy communion and cross-fertilization.
Through a careful process of analysis and documentation of his early typescripts and notebooks, I realized that I needed to organize the unpublished pieces according to the dates they were written, alongside the published work to create the outline of his production. The resulting timeline, or what I called his “creative chronology” paints a different picture of Bolaño as a writer, or at least it establishes a contrasting storyline to that of his publishing history. I presented the idea to Carolina, and we started putting this together and dating that chronology.
The CCCB took this creative chronology and placed it at the center of the exhibit, it’s what articulates the structure of the exhibition. Arguably, it evidences why his publication grew exponentially from when the editor Pere Gimferrer gave him his first true break with Nazi Literature in the Americas in Seix Barral, in 1995, to his death in 2003, and why there is such a rich afterlife or deep drawer of unpublished manuscripts. He had been writing consistently, even feverishly, without being published for nearly 20 years, and through his methodology of cycle and recycle, the forest floor had been growing ever richer and deeper. The creative chronology and exhibition materials give an idea of the amount of writing that was done prior to his life as a published author, and it offers a first, exploratory plunge into his private world. It’s as if he were looking through the other end of one of his long tunnels of survival, a visitor from the future, explaining how he called the muses or the demons and jumped into the abyss, the quintessential outsider writer, exile, and immigrant, poor, bohemian, who accepted the challenge of searching for truth regardless of the consequences, uncompromisingly dedicated to his role as witness of his time on earth, the voice of an angry generation being hunted and slaughtered by dictators. The exhibit opens with footage from the Tlatelolco Massacre.
SE: Throughout his life Bolaño was an enigma to the world at large, and in death he has remained this way. Carolina López, his widow, has been notably reticent regarding efforts to wrest more information about Bolaño, despite great interest on the part of his fans and the academics who have begun the process of analyzing his life and works. And, of course, Bolaño’s own literature often harshly critiques or mocks the cult of the author. With all that in mind how did you feel about displaying things like Bolaño’s notebooks?
VM: The sheer volume of notebooks, diaries, manuscripts, letters, drawings, and clippings comprising the archive makes its organization a gargantuan task. It will take years before a complete evaluation of the materials, let alone any seriously argued conclusion, can be made. This exhibition, then, offers a first, initial glimpse of what is still a “work in progress.” Aware of the interest in Bolaño, the estate decided it was time to make available to the public some of these documents, as a means to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his death. The selection is meant to intrigue the general public, yetit has interesting material for scholars too, and it dispels many of the mistaken assumptions that have arisen over the years. For example the idea that he died because he had been a heroin user, which was the result of a piece of first-person narrative being mistaken for autobiography due to its unfortunate placement in the posthumous compilation, largely non-fiction, Between Parenthesis.
The public, in its voracious need to know, often forgets that there is a family context, the writer wasn’t living in the ether; Bolaño had two children, one of whom was barely two years old at the time of his death. The family has chosen to remain private for the time being. They lost a husband and a father and it should be respected. They will decide when is the proper time to make things available about their lives and that of their departed to a world full of strangers. Carolina has generously offered this viewing of his archive, and if there are scholars who are truly interested in Bolaño, it gives a great amount of information. The chronology is important and there are manuscripts and letters and unpublished work on display. So she is offering scholars material, but on their terms and I think it’s a minimal thing to respect other people’s privacy. (Here’s Carolina commenting on some of these things.)
SE: What are some of the treasures in this archive?
VM: Reading the material in an archive is like taking a voyage around the writer’s room; a privileged look into the mind’s eye that provides inestimable insights into their own particular or peculiar way of confronting their craft. Bolaño often penned notes to himself while writing, sometimes smack in the middle of a narrative paragraph, talking himself through a difficult passage. “I’m immensely happy,” is a comment that I found peppered liberally throughout Bolaño’s notebooks, which unveils what may be one of the great paradoxes of Roberto Bolaño. He lived as he also wrote, “in the rough and without a residence permit, as others live in a Castle,” both in Mexico and Spain, a “trapeze artist without a trapeze,” whose exploration of violence and evil had probed the dark recesses of the human psyche, yet he was happy, he experienced immense joy when he was writing, which I think comes through to readers.
Throughout his diaries one senses that the edge is never far away, especially during the Barcelona and early Girona years, yet he fought against falling prey to despair: “Commit yourself, Roberto, to your poverty of fright and to the poverty of fright that surrounds you in solidarity. You’re in the whitest part of the wave . . . Commit yourself, Roberto, to looking.” (“Diario de Vida. Poemas Cortos III” (Life Diary: Short Poems III), 1980).
From time to time it feels as though Bolaño left deliberate clues scattered here and there in his notebooks in the eventuality that some literary archaeologist might come a-digging, some apprentice sleuth. And there’s the writer detective like a ghostly visitor from the future, mischievously moving his chess piece from beyond the frame, beyond time. Given that García Madero found Cesarea Tinajero’s notebooks in The Savage Detectives, or that Hans Reiter found and read through Ansky’s hidden papers in 2666, or a mysterious book of geometry appeared in Amalfitano’s suitcase, which he hung on a clothesline like a Duchampian ready-made, it isn’t surprising that a sentence suddenly reaches out from the page to shoot a dart between the eyes. Throughout my own research notes, I have the word “Eureka” written to capture a moment of wonder or amazement or when I couldn’t help but laugh out loud for some Bolañismo. For example in the notebook where he’s writing “DF, La Paloma, Tobruk” (1983), after having read through the earlier notebooks with “I’m immensely happy” and my own notes commenting on the paradox, I read:
She opens a drawer in the bookshelf. It’s full of manuscript pages. She picks up one page at random: “Sometimes I’m immensely happy!” The writing is small. She has a sip of beer and keeps reading (no need to mention it right now but she doesn’t feel she’s violating anything by reading these sorts of notes, life diary, or whatever). The important thing, the really important thing I want to say is that the beer’s getting warm and the moon pops up over the alley for just a few seconds . . .
I had to laugh and still am . . . not only did he know someone would be there reading through these notebooks, but he got the gender correct!
SE: Bolaño once declared that “a writer’s country is his language.” Do you feel that Spanish-language literature can be construed as a single category in any useful way?
VM: I think so, yes, but with reservations. I know from having lived abroad for so many years. Though I speak a few languages, as an American when I come across an Australian, a Canadian, a Brit, there’s an immediate connection that has nothing to do with place. I’ve never been to Australia, and I couldn’t possibly count the amount of times I have been to France. I know it well. I had the proverbial French boyfriend. But the language connection goes beyond the fact that I don’t know the territory and creates and instant intimacy because we share the names of things.
I could go into a long discourse on how language sets worlds, but I already quoted Wittgenstein so I won’t bore you with any more of that. I think I’ve answered this already ad nauseum when talking about Latin America lit. The only larger difference, of course, is between Spain—which is a sort of Europe, though different because it is a peripheral Europe—and the new world sensibility of Latin America. But even so, and even though they don’t read each other on either side of the Atlantic so much—there are more Latin Americans published in Spain than the other way around—there is still a sense of belonging to the language that surpasses the merely national or regional identities.
SE: What authors would you name as emblematic of the worthwhile directions Spanish-language literature is currently headed?
VM: Álvaro Enrigue in Mexico, his formidable novel, Sudden Death, will be published in English shortly by Riverhead; Carlos Yushimito is a strong voice in Peruvian fiction; Israel Centeno in Venezuela; Samanta Schweblin is such a robust story writer and her new novel is causing a storm, she’s carrying on that particularly Argentine tradition of the fantastic but with a twist that is only hers, so elegant and sophisticated, and if you want to know where she’s coming from, New York Review of Books has just published a Silvina Ocampo reader that is an absolute must read; Andrés Neuman has probably written the greatest novel in scope of his generation, Traveller of the Century, and there’s a Bolivian revolution happening now with younger voices like the tight, almost Carverian prose of Rodrigo Hasbún; and the stories of a new writer, Liliana Colanzi, a generation following the trail blazed by writers like Edmundo Paz Soldán, whose novel Norte will be published by Chicago University Press. One of the writers whom I can’t suggest more strongly is Rafael Chirbes—his Crematorio will be out in New Directions followed by En la orilla. And Enrique Vila-Matas will have Kassel Doesn’t Invite Logic out in June, also with New Directions. A personal favorite is Marías’s The Infatuations for just so many different reasons . . . And there will be a novel published by Hogarth press early next year by the Spaniard Milena Busquets titled This Too Shall Pass, which has caused quite a sensation both here in Spain and in Frankfurt this year, where it was a phenomenon and has sold in something like thirty languages. It’s delightfully poignant and naughty but also sincere without ever becoming cloying. A daughter’s process of grief over the loss of her mother.
And of course Bolaño. Always Bolaño. The exhibit reopened in La Casa del Lector in Madrid on the 12th of February, so if anyone wants to see what is coming there, you have until June. It’s there, in his own handwriting, and the chronology too, so anyone can see for themselves where the unpublished work is coming from. Don’t believe the rumors, they are usually spread because people have one or another interest in nay-saying. He was writing for twenty years while being rejected across the board. He never stopped believing in what he was doing. Happily for those of us who love to reading him.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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