By Claudio Iván Remeseira | Posted Friday, September 13, 2013, at 9:35 am ET
|Photo: Vasco Szinetar|
Patricio Pron was born in 1975 in Rosario, Argentina’s third largest city and a major port located 185 miles northwest of Buenos Aires on the western shore of the Paraná River. The son of journalists, after graduating from high school Pron started writing for local outlets while taking up Communications at Rosario’s National University. In 2000, the daily La Capital sent him to Europe as foreign correspondent; for the next couple of years, he travelled around Eastern Europe, the Balkans and North Africa. Between 2002 and 2007 he attended the Georg-August University at Göttingen, Germany, from where he graduated as PhD in Romanic Philology with a dissertation on Argentine writer, playwright, and cartoonist Copi (non de plume of Raúl Damonte Botana, 1939-1987). Since 2008 he has lived in Madrid with his Chilean wife, working as a literary critic (for El País’ literary blog El boomeran(g) and for the Spanish edition of Letras Libres magazine, among other publications) and as a translator.
Pron has published the novels Formas de morir (Ways of Dying, Universidad Nacional de Rosario, 1998, winner of the second prize for Crime Novel from Rosario's National University Press, Nadadores muertos (Dead Swimmers, Editorial Municipal de Rosario, 2001), Una puta mierda (Fucking Shit, El cuenco de plata, Buenos Aires, 2007), El comienzo de la primavera (The Beginning of Spring, Mondadori, Barcelona, 2008,winner of Jaen Novel Award) and My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain (2011), the first of his books to be translated into English (by Mara Faye Lethem). He is also author of the short-story collections Hombres infames (Infamous Men, 1999), El vuelo magnífico de la noche (Night’s Magnificent Flight, 2002), El mundo sin las personas que lo afean y lo arruinan (The World Without the People Who Make It Ugly and Ruin It, 2010), La vida interior de las plantas de interior (The Inner Life of Inner-Door Plants, 2013) and Trayéndolo todo de regreso a casa. Relatos 1990-2010 (Bringing Everything Back Home: Short Stories), a compilation of his work. He has also written several children's books. He is also the co-editor, with Burkhard Pohl, of Zerfurchtes Land. Neue Erzählungen aus Argentinien (Devastated Land. New Stories from Argentina,2002), the most recent German anthology of Argentine contemporary literature.
He has received several national and international awards, including the above mentioned Jaén Novel Prize and the Juan Rulfo Short Story Prize (awarded by Instituto Cervantes, Unión Latina, and Radio Francia Internacional) among others, and his work has been included in several anthologies in Argentina, Spain, Germany, Cuba, and Colombia. But perhaps the most important recognition so far has been his inclusion in Granta’s 2010 list of Best Spanish-language Writers under 35. Spanish writer Félix deAzúa has said of him: “Pron’s work ranks among the best of Sebald’s and the first Hanke, it is on par with Bernhard and has surpassed Jelinek”.
Before the publication of My Father’s Ghost …, Pron’s only works in English were a handful of short stories: 'Ideas,' translated by Mara Faye Lethem and published by The Paris Review; 'The Harvest' (translated by Janet Hendrickson), which appeared in Zoetrope: All Story, Spring 2009 / Latin American Issue, edited by Daniel Alarcón and Diego Trelles Paz; and 'A Few Words On The Life Cycle of Frogs' (translated also by Hendrikson), the piece included in the Granta Best Writers edition; the last two pieces are part of Pron's latest collection of short stories, La vida interior de las plantas de interior. To read some of the reviews of Patricio Pron’s work in U.S. media, click here.
On his first presentation in the United States, Patricio Pron will be participating of two panels at the Brooklyn Book Festival on September 22, 2013 (at 12:00 pm and 3:00 pm). The following interview was conducted via email during the first week of September.
A Writer’s Genesis
Most English-language readers—and many Spanish-language readers as well—became aware of your work as a result of your inclusion in Granta’s Best Spanish-language Writers issue of 2010. How would you summarize the impact that issue has had on your life?
PP: Being myself a reader of Granta, it was a pleasure and an honor to see my work published on it. Regardless to say its list of the “Best Spanish-Language Writers” wasn’t my own, but its publication was a very important moment in the recent Spanish speaking literary history because it made possible a discussion about the quality—or the lack of it— of the writers included in that list and made some readers aware of the huge amount of writers who could have been included on the list and weren’t. A great opportunity to realize how rich and diverse is the Spanish speaking literature today.
PP: Rosario was a tricky place to start up as a writer. It wasn’t neither far away enough from Buenos Aires to develop its own literary scene—when I embraced my vision of being a writer there weren’t any interesting publishing houses there, there was almost any place to go for you as a writer, non possibilities of professionalization, and therefore the roof was visible: you couldn’t rise your head too high because there weren’t any readers to support you on your efforts—nor close enough to profit from Buenos Aires literary scene if you hadn’t any money to visit regularly, as was my case. All in all, and even if you had the opportunity to live in Buenos Aires trying to get into that scene, you were regularly reminded by many about the fact that you were an intruder. So I decided to get there in a long detour through Germany and Spain, and—in a certain sense—I’m still returning home.
Your parents are journalists. What role did that play in your decision to become a writer?
PP: Well, they never encouraged me but they also never tried to stop me writing, so I think they played a significant role on giving me the freedom to do as I wanted—an old familiar say prohibited my siblings and I to become policemen and priests, nonetheless, but I didn’t want to become neither of them—. And they had lots of books as I tell on My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, and that was the actual encouragement to become a writer. Reading them is where it all started for me.
Before publishing your first books of fiction, you worked for several years as a journalist. What did journalism teach you as a writer?
PP: Velocity, simplicity without simpleness, the certainty that you’ve got a reader whose patience isn’t to be misused.
What where the first books that you read? How would you describe the influence those books had on your life?
PP: I recall myself reading Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days on a very hot summer in the northwest of the country in 1981 or 1982 and thinking—maybe for the first time—that there was a world out there—I mean, out of the oppressive realities of the Argentine dictatorship that each one of us perceived in a different way— and that freedom and love and adventure were there. And I also recall myself thinking about writers as people living all these things—the freedom, the love, the adventure Verne had written about—and coming back to tell us about them, and thinking about how great their service was.
You have said that the majority of your favorite childhood authors were German. Can you mention them?
PP: At that time I liked very much Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl, Rudolf Erich Raspe’s The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Jean Paul’s and Hermann Hesse’s works, but also—and fortunately—Bertolt Brecht’s and Robert Gernhardt’s poems, which prevented me from becoming an intolerable romantic.
I assume you first read them in Spanish translations, is that correct? When did you start learning German to read them in their original language?
PP: Yes, I’ve read them on Spanish then. I first started learning German when I was in Germany.
In your interview for Granta, you mention David Foster Wallace, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, W. G. Sebald, and Roberto Bolaño as your most admired writers. Curiously, only one of them is a German. What other German-language writers would you add to that list?
PP: Herta Müller, Heimito von Doderer, Arthur Schnitzler, Arno Schmidt, Thomas Bernhard, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Franz Kafka, Gregor von Rezzori, Daniel Kehlmann, Felix Philipp Ingold, Walter Serner, Gottfried Benn, Heiner Müller, Wladimir Kaminer.
Germany is not the first country most people would associate with Argentina, but as you have mentioned in other interviews, there is a long-time Argentine tradition of German-language literature in translation. What do you think are the reasons for this interest?
PP: Probably the German-speaking immigration to Argentina has played a role on shaping this tradition. Anyway, the interest on Mitteleuropa’s literature is a central issue of Argentine literature, and you can find writers there whose work would seem to be more comfortable on that literature than on the Argentine one: Ricardo Piglia, Marcelo Cohen, Alan Pauls, César Aira. All of them great authors, by the way.
Why did you decide to pursue doctoral studies in Germany, and why specifically in Göttingen?
PP: At that time I was interested on writing about Copi, the Argentine mostly French-speaking writer who had been banned of the Argentine literature for a long time due to ideological or moral reasons—he was homosexual, cross-dressed often and died of AIDS in 1987, a great author and a very peculiar character,—and Manfred Engelbert, director of the department of Romance Languages and Literatures in Göttingen, invited me—I was circumstantially there— to write my Ph.D. on him, an idea I’d never had before. I said yes and I really loved it. I remember my time in Göttingen with much homesickness and gratitude.
When you left Argentina for Germany, you have already published four books: the short stories collections (Hombres infames y El vuelo magnífico de la noche) and two novels (Formas de morir and Nadadores muertos). Between 2002 and 2007, there is a hiatus in your publications that coincides with the time of your doctoral studies, and in 2007 and 2008 you published Una puta mierda and El comienzo de la primavera, which won the Jaen Novel Prize and made you known in Spain. Clearly, your German experience was a pivotal point in your career. In what specific aspects did that experience affect you as writer—technically, thematically, etc.?
PP: Apparently—and I say apparently because writers usually aren’t their most accurate critics,—the German experience resulted in the appearance on my work of new themes and forms, specially the long German sentence I hadn’t tried before. Talkin’ on a more personal level, the fact is that I wasn’t satisfied with what I’d done to that point. Even celebrated by critics and readers, these books—from which three of them had won prizes—were unsatisfactory for me. I knew at the point I could do better, but I also knew that—for doing so—I needed to go through an ordeal of a certain kind, showing the cold shoulder to what I’d done before and becoming a different author under different influences in order to write different—ideally better—books, and nothing sounded more different than Germany, so there I went.
In the U.S., many fiction writers and poets find financial stability in the academy. You completed your doctoral studies but you didn’t go into an academic career. Why?
PP: I agree thought I think some things I’ve written blur the boundaries between the individual and the social.
PP: I had three hundred sixty six and a half reasons to interrupt my academic career. Let me mention one, probably the most important one: there ain’t many universities so good as the American ones out of America.
Latin American, Argentine, Spanish literature
After completing your studies, you remained in Europe. In what sense is your own experience as an expatriate different from that of other past and present Latin American authors?
PP: Well, the most important difference is that I’m not banned on Argentina, so I can return there every time I want—but I don’t want it very often.— This difference is essential, since it makes the experience of being abroad a positive, enriching one, rather than a sad and heartbreaking one. Living abroad gives the writer the opportunity to gain a certain perspective on his or her literary tradition he or she couldn’t have if staying on the territory, and also allows his or her work to expand its limits so to convey themes and forms that the author “brings” into his or her own literary tradition, enriching it.
Some critics say that it is no longer possible to talk about Latin American literature as a meaningful unit. What we have today, they say, is a myriad of writers following their own personal interests and creating their own lineages across national boundaries. You recently had a lively exchange about this issue in Traviesa magazine with Chilean writer Rafael Gumucio. Can you summarize your assessment of today’s Spanish-language literature?
PP: I can barely add anything to what we discussed there— and especially to what Gumucio said so brilliantly on our exchange.— Anyway, my position is that neither nationality nor language are useful criteria to think on contemporary literature, especially when discussing the Spanish-speaking one, which is being produced on a very extensive territory with a great diversity of interests and problematic. Having myself worked on the academy for a while, I understand the urge for establishing categories that enable us to historicize and teach literature there. But I also think that these categories are less useful than in the past if we want to approach to a reality on which writers don’t think on these categories anymore. I also think that I don’t think that race or gender are useful categories neither. So we’ve got some problems here if we want to keep teaching literatures like the Spanish-speaking one and not some kind of ideal, platonic abstraction.
You have strong opinions about contemporary Argentine literature. In “A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs,” the story included in the Granta edition, you paint a caustic description of the life of young Argentine writers, especially those from the provinces like yourself who go to the great capital city “to make it”. Does Patricio Pron share the same views on this subject than the narrator of that story (please summarize the story’s main points, since it’s not retrievable on line)?
PP: Most of them, yes. As a literary apprentice you must believe almost blindly on your abilities but you must also learn from others, especially from the older ones. The main character of “A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs” learns it on the hard way, which is always sad, but he also has the opportunity to live under the most important Argentine writer of his time—not only figuratively but also rather realistically: he rents a flat immediately under the flat the writer lives in,—and observe him do, and he takes that opportunity, which is great. And learns.
On the very first paragraph of the story you settle matters with Borges: “I didn’t live under the living Argentine writer in the same way that some Argentine writers live under the influence of others and all under the influence of Jorge Luis Borges”. How much do you think you have been influenced by Borges?
PP: A lot, I guess: To get away from that influence I even wrote a whole book of Borges’ pastiches, parodies and travesties called El vuelo magnífico de la noche, which was read by critics as being a book which reminded too strongly of Borges, “unfortunately”. Very well done indeed. Anyway, every great writer follows a path that closes itself almost as soon as the writer has gone through, but his work is an enrichment that any writer should miss. An Argentine literature without Borges would be certainly a less rich one, so I think we all have to take advantage of having him at our side—but which side is that one? The Argentine one? Another evidence that it’s not that easy to get rid of the old literary categories like nation and language—and try to learn from him what is to be learn, which is a lot.
You also wrote an essay about post-2001 Argentine literature and a sort of parodic review (published in the literary magazine Etiqueta Negra) of La Joven Guardia, an anthology of young Argentine writers—in which you are included. This article triggered a heated exchange with author and critic Elsa Drucaroff. What is the debate that is worth giving today about Argentine literature?
PP: There is a pending debate about why Argentine literary criticism is—with notable exceptions—so poor, and how the lack of arguments—as seeing on the exchange you mention above—is making Argentine literature a place with plenty of good neighbors who are bad writers out of good neighborhood. A place on which the discussion about literature can’t raise itself over the personal quarrels and the fear of having a serious exchange about what literature is about is doomed to be a place on which literature occupies a place on the local sociability but doesn’t interest seriously anybody. A place, so, from which it’s difficult to expect any good books coming, since usually good books are written there where the public conversation about books is rigorous and vital.
You did your Ph.D. dissertation on Copi, an Argentine playwright, author, and cartoonist who wrote most of his work in French and who had a huge impact on Argentine experimental writers. Why is Copi’s work relevant?
PP: Because some of the most interesting Argentine literature of the last thirty years comes straightly out of him and his influence. By denying Copi his place on the Argentine tradition, critics were reading wrongly what happened after, as they were impeded to understand where certain things were really coming from. And they were coming from Copi, which is a way to say that they were coming from the punk, anarchistic, cross-dressed avant-garde at the borders of the Parisian literary scene of the seventies and eighties. César Aira, Graciela Montaldo and Daniel Link had seen it before I did, so it was very interesting to go further on the direction they’d pointed and bring Copi back to the Argentine literature.
How would you describe Copi’s influence in your own work?
PP: A novel of mine about the Falklands War called Una puta mierda (2007) is highly influenced by his work, but—in a more general sense—his lesson that literature is about regaining a freedom long forgotten and must be free in form and content was fundamental for all I’ve written after 2003 or 2004, including my last books.
In one sentence, you opinion about César Aira.
PP: A highly unusual literary talent.
In one sentence, too, your opinion about Ricardo Piglia.
PP: A highly unusual literary talent.
Name five un-translated Argentine writers—alive or not—who you think should be known by English-language readers.
PP: Well, let’s see: the publication of the late Osvaldo Lamborghini and Rodolfo Walsh [Editor's note: Walsh's classic non-fiction book Operation Massacre has just been released by Seven Stories Press] and the living Elvio E. Gandolfo, Martín Rejtman and Marcelo Cohen would improve greatly what English-language readers know about the most important Argentine literature of the last half century, and Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Rodolfo Fogwill, Luis Chitarroni, Alan Pauls and Rodrigo Fresán deserve more opportunities on English, on which they’ve been translated already but not extensively.
A Writer’s Language, Bilingualism
You start your dissertation quoting the first historian of Argentine literature, Ricardo Rojas: “To what extent does the nation’s language define the national quality of its literature, and to what extent that literature is defined by the birthplace of its authors or the nature of their work?” At a time when global migration and trans-nationalism have come to define the life and work of so many writers, the question of the “identity” of language becomes ever more relevant. How would you answer it?
PP: I dunno. Every day I start anew trying to answer that question, never finding a proper and lasting answer to that. Nevertheless, I would say that—to me—it’s more important that my work has got the transparency of translations—like the ones that were so important for me when I started reading—than representing any kind of linguistic “identity”, since literature is about getting away from your original identity and playing roles. Literature is about what you—and the reader—can become, not about what they actually are, so it’s pointless to carry with you the burden of a former identity.
You said that you have internalized many syntactical structures of German. What is the role of bilingualism in your own writing? Besides Spanish and German, you also read English, French, Portuguese, Italian and Catalan. How does that affect your writing?
PP: Well, it seems that speaking and reading on these languages enable you to be acquainted on very different literary traditions and take from them what you think is worth taking, which is a great thing if you think—as I do—that the duty of a writer is to broaden the repertory of usable forms and themes on his or her literary tradition instead of its reduction and impoverishment through the repetition of the same and the limitation to one language and to one or two countries and literary traditions.
Even before settling in Spain, your literary language was not a naturalistic transcription of the Argentine idiom but rather had an educated, “neutral” tone. Since living in Spain you have incorporated more Spanish dialect in your work. Does that make you a Spanish writer?
PP: Not at all. Most Spaniards are reluctant to the idea of accepting writers not born in Spain as part of their literary tradition, which is a great disadvantage of Spain in comparison with other countries such as United Kingdom, Germany, France and the States. Maybe it changes with the time but on the meanwhile—and even if some non-Spaniard writer tries to be considered one, which isn’t my case—Spanish writers are born in Spain and the rest of them are tolerated guests.
Do you consider yourself a Spanish-Argentine writer or an Argentine writer living in Spain?
PP: I think on myself as an Argentine writer living abroad, or rather as a Spanish-speaking writer living out of his native country. But I don’t use to think on myself very often.
Many other Latin American writers live in Spain. What do you have in common with them, both in literary and extra-literary terms?
PP: Not much, I must admit. There’s certain number of Latin American writers living in Spain whose work I follow with interest and admiration—some of them are also friends with me, which is a great honor,—but I don’t think of them as being nothing different than Latin American authors living in their own countries or Spaniards. As long as they write on Spanish, they’re Spanish-speaking authors for me and I don’t expect them to represent any kind of national quota or identity.
At the moment of writing, do you follow any specific routines? Do you write in the mornings, in the afternoons, at night? Does the time of the day when you write even matters to you? Do you take notes about situations or people you meet or jot down ideas for a story?
PP: I use to write fiction on the mornings and non-fiction on the evenings—despite the fact that the frontiers between them blur up almost constantly on my work—or translate if I’m translating, and I also use to take notes about situations and people on notebooks I carry with me when I’m not at home, what is happening very often on the last months. I use to burn up manuscripts and drafts out of reasons I explained once somewhere, but I keep these notebooks with me since I started writing on them, in 1999 or 2000.
What are for you the main differences between writing short stories and novels?
PP: Well, to write a novel enables you to create a certain voice and develop it on a long period of time with all its nuances and subtleties. On the other hand, writing short stories requires that you develop it on a very brief amount of time. Both require different abilities, both on the side of the writer as on the reader’s.
Is there a method to your writing? Do you come up first with a situation and build up the story around it, or you articulate the story’s core idea and then develop the story around it?
PP: Both. After years of trying to impose a method over the story I was circumstantially penning down, I accepted the fact that each story creates its own conditions of possibility and is to be narrated following its own rules. Also after years of correcting industriously I’ve learned to write as playing a musical instrument—a piano, say—accepting the fact that each new reading of the text creates it anew, so it doesn’t make any sense to try to make a text “better” because its quality depends on the circumstances on which it’s read. And now my work is published almost without corrections, as I wrote it first.
How much do you revise?
PP: See above.
How is your work as a critic connected with your own fiction?
PP: Both writing criticism and fiction come out of reading books and are entwined together, at least on my own personal experience. Both are also efforts of reflecting about certain aspects of the relationship between fiction and reality and about the way we separate one from another not only in our personal life.
You have said that literary criticism is politically relevant. Can you explain this?
PP: Do ya have a couple of hours? Briefly pointed, literature proposes alternative visions on what we’re and what we can be. By discussing literature you discuss these visions and participate on a dialogue with others out there about them. Literature—fiction especially—is about saying that the way we are, the political decisions we take, the things we buy and the gender roles we play aren’t the only ones they are and making us aware of the fact that things can be different if we want them to. So promoting what is new and provocative and rejecting what is conservative and old is helping things to become different, and that’s a political activity on its own.
You are also a translator. How does that affect your own writing?
PP: I feel obliged to admit that I’m not a “real” translator, since I translate only works I like very much and only if I think that they deserve a readership on Spanish out some reason. Admitted this, I’d say that translating has made me aware of the difficulties translators go through, and of how highly creative their work is. My respect for their work—mostly very badly paid and left unrecognized—has increased after I started translating, which also has helped me a lot to understand their difficulties on translating my own work and has allowed me to collaborate with them more properly on these translations.
Body of Work
You’ve been called a meta-fiction writer. What is your response to that?
PP: Well, a writer is what other says he or she is, so. But personally I’ve got the impression that every piece of literature—even the ones about marriage, love, horses and carriages—talks about literature, about its conditions of possibility and its role on the contemporary world, so, if I’m a meta-fiction writer, probably all the writers are.
You have said that you want each of your books to be different from the others. Can you elaborate on this idea?
PP: Somebody has said sometime—and we all love these taxonomies—that there’re too kinds of writers: the ones who write the same book time after time expecting to improve it, approaching to what they think is its platonic ideal, and the ones who aspire to convey their intellectual curiosity in books that move on as their interests change. I shall belong to that second type myself.
There are common threads in your books, however, both thematically (death and political violence; the surreal, absurd, yet endearing nature of many characters; an acerbic sense of humor) and stylistically (the recurrence of rhetorical devices such as repetitions of words and phrases, which contribute to the obsessive, oppressive atmosphere of many stories; and the preoccupation for symmetry and formal beauty, not in the conventional sense of a “beautiful prose” but in the sense in which mathematicians and logicians talk about the elegance of a formula). Do you agree with this analysis of your work?
PP: Yeah, absolutely, and I thank you for that.
Above all, it seems to me that you are always talking about Argentina, even when the stories are set in other countries or in unnamed places.
PP: Yes, I also agree with that, although it seems obvious to me that not only Argentina but a lot of countries have experienced political violence, social disintegration and injustice in their recent past: Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Mexico, Spain, Germany, even the States, specially their lower classes.
Your first novel, Formas de morir (Ways of Dying), won a second prize in a contest of crime novels (called “Police novel” in Argentina). What do you think now of that book?
PP: I don’t use to read my books after they’ve been published and I won’t do that this time, so what I recall about that book and what I can say about it now is very bleak and totally inaccurate. Anyway I guess that book is the result of the best the writer I was could do there and then, as always books do. But I’m a different writer now and looking back is less interesting for me than guessing what is next.
For an Argentine writer of detective stories, Borges is the ultimate reference, not only as an author but as a translator and editor of a landmark collection of crime short stories too. Ricardo Piglia merged Borges’ detective plot structure with the tenets of a political novel; much of today’s Latin American fiction follows this model. What do you think of this dissemination of the crime-political novel format?
PP: Well, it seems that detective stories are a very popular form in Latin America to write about the political past. But, being the genre a very conservative one and Ricardo Piglia’s talent uncommon in the context, I’d rather see all these Latin American detective stories with political background as being so conservative as the genre itself. Nothing to take very seriously except for its commerciality, which is not what interests me at most on books.
In your second novel, Nadadores muertos, there are some passages (the travel across the big brown river, for example) that evoke a subtle childlike voice. You have written books for children. How did that experience influence your “adult” writing?
PP: Writing children books remembered me at that time—and with “me” I mean the very rigid and formalistic Borgesian writer I was then—that literature is about being free and that I should write books that evoke the same sense of open roads I got from the books I liked and were important for me. It was also very funny and a great pleasure to write these silly children books.
El vuelo magnífico de la noche includes some of your most well-known short stories. One of my favorites is “The Orphans,” about a woman who lives in the isolation of the pampas and bears several children, each of whom speaks a different language. It seems to me a happy blend of Borges and Aira, and a powerful metaphor of Argentina.
PP: Thank you. I’m glad you liked it.
Your next novel, Una puta mierda, is entirely set in the battlefield of the Malvinas-Falklands War of 1982. When that war broke up, you were 7 years old. What made you write about it?
PP: Well, in fact I was six years old when the war broke up. I still remember very well the menace in the air these months, the nationalistic speeches of the school teachers about our country and how we had to defend it—as if we could,—the boastings of the military on radio and television, the incongruous argument that we were defending islands that had belonged to us even if we didn’t know anything about it before we invaded them. We couldn’t imagine what was happening down there, and—in a way—we still can’t, so I wrote Una puta mierda to allow me the chance to fill the gap with the infantile imagination with which I imagined how it was to be on the battlefield when I was six.
El comienzo de la primavera also presents a detective-story element within the large and tragic context of Germany’s 20th-century history. It’s interesting that two of the novel’s main themes are translation and identity.
PP: Yes, it is. And also seems interesting that I wrote that novel in a time when I had given up my former identity and had started to make translation—between languages, but also between cultures and the different roles I played on them—my most common daily activity.
Is it true that your literary agent at that time told you that your books were unsellable and dumped you as a client, right before El comienzo de la primavera won the Jaen Novel Prize?
PP: Yes, but these things happen, you know. Anyway, he’s an excellent agent, capable not only of selling good literature but also of selling as good literature bad literature that doesn’t even seem to be good.
Your first choice of title for the collection El mundo sin las personas que lo afean y lo arruinan was “The German Book”. Why?
PP: Because all the stories included on the collection were settled on Germany, had Germans as protagonists or were inspired by German literature. And also because I’d written them while I was living in Germany, and also because I liked the idea of emphasizing the peculiar nature of a German book written on Spanish.
That collection opens with an outstanding story, “Las ideas”, superbly translated into English by Mara Faye Lethem. It is a folk-tale variation of the traditional theme of the pervasiveness of evil and the Unheimlich in the midst of social life. The parallels between Germany and Argentine are pretty clear, but there is one formal element I want to call your attention to: the section of the boy telling the story of a movie to his father, a mise-en-abime effect that reinforces the sinister nature of the whole story. What can you tell us about this?
PP: Not much. In fact, everything I could tell you about how I came up with that story and what the function of the movie into it was would weaken up “the sinister nature of the whole story”. Literature is more about questions than about answers, and it’s great that we all have as readers more of the first than of the second because it means that we can—and probably must—keep asking ourselves what is the meaning of all this.
The mise-en-abime resource appears again with similar effective results in “A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs”. In this case, it’s the story of a family crime, a domestic violence variation of Borges' "Garden of Forking Paths".
PP: Yes, and a very similar story appears in My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, which is the result of reflecting your face on a mirror reflected on a mirror.
It also shows how paranoia, one of the themes of the story, is at the same time an individual and a social ailment, especially in Totalitarian states like Nazi Germany or the RDA or in military dictatorships like Argentina in the 1970s.
“A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs” is also a theory of literature and a reflection on the issue of generational gaps. The Living Argentine Writer of the story is a father-like figure with whom the narrator has a psychological struggle: on the one hand he tries to understand him, and at the same time he tries to surpass him—to symbolically kill the father. This father-son relationship brings us to your latest novel, My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain. You have said that it was the novel most difficult for you to write. Why?
You actually killed your father in that novel, did you not?
PP: Yes, and my father liked it somehow when he read it.
You have defined yourself as a political writer, but in a very different sense that the term had—and still has—for many Latin Americans intellectuals of the 1960s and 70s. Can you elaborate on this?
PP: Well, the main differences about what the Latin Americans intellectuals did on the sixties and seventies and what some authors are doing these days—I’m thinking here especially on Juan Terranova, Alejandro Zambra, Cynthia Rimsky, Nona Fernández, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Laura Alcoba, Félix Bruzzone and many others—is that, on the one hand, we don’t feel compelled to support any existing country, party or cause but rather see politics in terms of the daily exchanges between people, at a microscopic level so to say; on the other, we don’t see ourselves—and I think I speak on behalf of most of us by saying this—as being any kind of moral or political authorities but writers who are part of a community trying to cope with its past and determine what to do with its present. Another difference between us and the great names of the literary past is that we don’t see novels as a means of the education of the reader but as the final result of a certain and very personal search. There’s a strong feeling on younger writers in Latin America that books are part of a conversation with the reader instead of the monologue that the better-educated and more-political conscious give on the presence of the ignorant ones searching for illumination.
The book is based on your father’s experience as a leftist activist in the 1970s and in factual information extracted verbatim from a local news website that covered the most recent events developed in the novel. After reading the book, your father sent you a letter correcting historical mistakes or clarifying some points, and you included that letter in your own website. Why didn’t you write the book as a non-fiction book? Why is still possible to call it a novel?
PP: On the one hand because, as I said, I don’t know how to write non-fiction books and was never really interested on writing them. On the other, because I’ve got the feeling that non-fiction books are written at the end of an investigation and in order to close it, but I was writing the book when I was almost starting to understand what it means to come from where I come from and what all this suffering is useful for. Simplifying it to the extreme, I think that non-fiction books are good for providing answers and fiction is adequate for making questions, and I had—and still have— more of the second than of the first.
The book’s underlying structure is a detective-story plot, but you have said that the crime novel format is inappropriate to tell this particular story. Why?
PP: Because—and I quote Mara Faye Lethem’s translation here—“I realized that there was no way of telling my father’s story as a mystery or, more precisely, that telling it in such a way would betray his intentions and his struggles, since telling his story as a detective tale would merely confirm the existence of a genre, which is to say, a convention, and all of his efforts were meant to call into question those very social conventions and their pale reflection in literature.”
There is a word in German, “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” which can be translated as “the overcoming of the past through its permanent re-elaboration”. Germans apply this concept to the discussion of their nation’s Nazi past. How does this translate to Argentina, Latin America in general, and Spain, that is now undergoing a revision of the political crimes committed during the Franco era?
PP: Argentina has begun only recently to re-elaborate its past, around 2002 or 2003, and thanks to the efforts of the Madres y Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, H.I.J.O.S., the organization of children of disappeared political activists, and the government of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner. The wide acceptance of the need to do “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” in the contemporary Argentine society is an example of what happens when a society tries to do the best with its past, and it’s great to see this happening. Other Latin American countries like Chile and Peru haven’t began yet massively with the discussion of the past and the revision of the political crimes of the Franco’s dictatorship is being strongly resisted by an important part of the Spanish society in an exhibition of the kind of political ideas that are presiding not only the vision of their past that Spaniards have but also their political decisions on the present.
Your father was a left-wing activist affiliated with Guardia de Hierro, a Peronist organization. This is the same organization the current Pope Francis was affiliated to in those same years. Any comments on this coincidence?
PP: Not being a catholic myself, I’m not the right person to ask it. But I must admit it feels very good to see some ideas I’ve been raised up with being promoted by the Pope and very much talked about these days. At a certain level, it proofs that there is a lot of victory on the tragic defeat of the Argentine political activists like my parents and the Pope himself.
This is your first novel translated into English. What are you expectations about your U.S. readers?
PP: When books are translated they began participating on local discussions the writer doesn’t know anything about when he or she writes them, meaning this that the books produce interpretations and opinions different than the ones the author was expecting and enrich his or her opinion about his or her books and literature in general. I expect to be part with my book on the conversations readers are striking up in the States these days, and I also wish this little book of mine and others to come improve these conversations rather than impoverishing them by the repetition of the same old ideas.
PP: I thank you.