Winter 2000, Volume 17.2
The Reality of the Imagination—A Conversation with Carlos Fuentes at 70
Michael Wutz (Ph.D., Emory University) teaches in the English Department at Weber State University. His is the coeditor of Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology (Cornell Univ. Press, 1997) and the co-translator of Friedrich Kittler's Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford Univ. Press, 1999). His essays on modern British and American fiction have appeared in Studies in American Fiction, Style, Modern Fiction Studies, Mosaic, Amerikastudien/American Studies, and others. He is currently working on a study on the interfaces of modernism, science, and (media) technology.
Carlos Fuentes is widely regarded as Mexico's foremost contemporary novelist. In his writings, he frequently combines history, legend, and myth in innovative ways to probe the complexity and identity of Mexican culture. Interweaving multiple strands of Mexico's cultural heritage—ranging from Aztec culture, the Catholic faith imprinted by the Spanish Conquistadores, the failed energies of the Mexican Revolution, and current developments in Mexico as well as of U.S.-Mexican relations—Fuentes creates an elaborate mosaic of Mexico's national identity and establishes a fictional panorama of his country's location within a global diaspora.
Fuentes rose to international prominence in the early 1960s during the so-called "boom" in Latin American literature. Together with Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Juan Ruolfo, among others, Fuentes is frequently credited with drawing international attention to the important contributions of Latin American writers to contemporary literature. Like his contemporaries, who collectively ushered in the "boom" of the 60s, Fuentes' work tends to be experimental and challenging to conventional expectations of narrative; it is frequently characterized by temporary dislocations, migrating narrative perspectives, the combination of disparate historical moments, and the interrogation of traditional boundaries. In their entirety, these strategies often produce a surreal effect or, perhaps more properly, a "magical realism" that raises fundamental ontological questions about being, the human imagination, and the trajectory of local and global histories. Among his most widely celebrated novels are The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), Terra Nostra (1975), The Old Gringo (1985), Christopher Unborn (1989), The Crystal Frontier (1997), and, most recently, The Years with Laura Díaz.
Mr. Fuentes is the recipient of numerous prizes, among them, the Romulo Gallegos Prize from Venezuela, the Alfonso Reyes Prize from Mexico, the Miguel de Cervantes Prize from the Spanish Ministry of Culture, and the Medal of Honor for Literature from the National Arts Club. Most recently, he was named the first recipient of the Latin Civilization Award by the French and Brazilian Academies (1999). He holds honorary degrees from Cambridge University, Dartmouth College, Georgetown University, Harvard University, among others. He lives with his family in Mexico City and London.
The interview took place on 1 April 1999 on the occasion of Mr. Fuentes' appearance as featured speaker at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference (NULC) at Weber State University. I would like to express my appreciation to Dr. Mikel Vause, co-chair of NULC, for bringing Carlos Fuentes to campus, and naturally to Carlos Fuentes himself for affording me the opportunity for an interview. Having a face-to-face conversation with a writer of his achievements and energies was a memorable occasion, an animated and vivacious give-and-take from the very first moment. As he himself put it, and as his quick wit, warm humor, and sustained responses demonstrated, "I am as fresh as a daisy."
Let me please begin by coming back to your wide ranging speech from this morning. One of the points that you made is that Cervantes in Don Quixote begins to question the notion of authorship and, along with it, the notion of authority—words that both derive from the same etymology— and he does so in favor of the one certainty we have, that is, the human imagination. I'm wondering what authority, if any, does the human imagination have (left) in our world of global crises, of multiple, concurrent types of genocide?
Well, I think that the imagination continues to be the foundation of literary and artistic reality. Every great work of art is founded on the reality of the imagination. I think that precisely the state of the world—as you know, epochs of crises—proves that what the imagination creates becomes the truest reality of the world that we live in. In the Spain of the Counter Reformation, imagine if only the forces of the Inquisition—anti-Jewish, anti-Arab, purity of blood, the Catholic faith—if all of these had triumphed and this would have been proposed as the sole reality, which is what the absolutist monarchy wanted, and you had not had a foundation of another reality in the imagination, namely Don Quixote by Cervantes, or Las Meninas by Velasquez, or La vida es sueño by Calderón de la Barca, or the sonnets of Lope de Vega—without this the other reality would have triumphed. You know, you can have an imagination that runs more or less parallel to the political and social life of a country which has, I think, been the case of English literature since Elizabethan times. But in Spain you had to go against the times. Robinson Crusoe is a perfect hero of capitalist England. He was a self-made man; he is in a desert island where he ekes out a living for himself and creates culture there. The Spanish writers and artists had to go against the grain of the political forces of the day and therefore create another reality based on the imagination. And that is their strength.
Would you be prepared to go on saying that the imagination, say, is a fundamentally destabilizing sort of former reality.
Yes, yes, yes, because as soon as you have something that is stabilized it should be destabilized as soon as possible, or it will petrify and die, and mummify. In order to be alive the reality has to be destabilized continually, assailed from different points of view, from different influences, from what is alien to that reality, from what contradicts that reality, and therefore is capable of a great new reality. Maybe that is very dialectical, but that's the way I see it.
It's dialectical, and maybe also dialogical in a Bakhtinian sense.
And dialogical in a Bakhtinian sense, and the sense that you hear many voices, that the novel becomes the agora, where all voices are heard, where all voices are respected. This is also the idea of Hermann Broch, and has been inherited by Milan Kundera and myself. We are disciples of the idea that the novel is the agora of many points of view, but also of not only a psychological reality or a political reality, but of many aesthetic realities that would otherwise have no languages—a meeting of languages, in other words.
You also mentioned this morning that we are living at the end of the 20th century, the "shortest century," as Eric Hobsbawn described it, and we find ourselves living in a new sort of reality. But it's a new reality that doesn't have a corresponding legality. That's sort of the point you were making. I'm wondering, would it be possible to claim such a new form of legality for the institution of art? Let's say that art would have an authority that is counter to the authority of the State and, in that sense, productive.
Yes, and that's interesting that art has always had that authority. Now, art as separate from the protection of the State, as you know, is a rather modern event. Generally, all depended on the maecenas, on the emperor or the king or the states protecting the art but leaving in enough leeway. I mean, the Pope permitted Michelangelo to paint as many naked figures as he wished onto the walls of the Vatican and nobody was astounded. But in the modern world, the State has adopted a totalitarian attitude towards the artist, so that the independence of the artist vis-à-vis the State becomes more crucial precisely because the State has so many elements for persuasion and subjugation that it did not have in the past. So the problem becomes a crucial problem. Now, there are many ways of subjugating an artist. Phillip Roth once famously said, in Russia dissident artists are driven to an insane asylum; in the United States they are driven to a talk show. And another way of castrating an artist is by making him a popular figure and a figure that is totally acceptable. You know, Buñuel told me that he went to the death bed of André Breton in a hospital in Paris and what he said was really an epitaph for Surrealism. Breton grabbed Buñuel's hand and said,"My dear friend, you realize that no one is scandalized anymore." You see all the great innovations of surrealism in TV ads today. The jumbling of reality, of times, of the planes of reality, has become commercial, an everyday occurrence. This has meant the end of the vanguard. We have seen the end of the idea of the vanguard in the 20th century, which produced the greatest works of the artistic vanguard. It also spelled the death of the artistic vanguard. What happened? What happened was that in their hearts of hearts, all the great vanguardists believed in the possibility of progress in the arts, the way that economic life, social life, historical life progress so that the arts would progress. Today we have lost that illusion. We know that art does not progress, that art is a time unto itself. It's a temporal reality unto itself, not subject to the idea of progress. And so now I think we're going to create a new art for the 21st century that is independent of the idea of progress that, in their way, animated the greatest vanguardists in the literature of the 20th century.
About ten years ago, in an essay you wrote for The Guardian, you were arguing a similar position in the case of Salman Rushdie's work. You were suggesting that he was one of those remaining outposts that really needs protection in order to develop his own critique of forms of totalitarianism. Would this be fairly equivalent?
Yes, yes, yes. That would be a way of putting it. Today I think there is this rebelliousness.... Even a country of such stable institutions as England, with guarded middle-class, bourgeois values for the majority of the population, has created some of the most rebellious artists of the greatest imagination, in opposition to the middle tone of their society. From Emily Brontë to Virginia Woolf through D. H. Lawrence, you have the artist as the rebel, constantly rebelling against the strictures of conformism of society. So it is not only the question against the modern totalitarian state, but against an even more pernicious conformist kind of bourgeois comfort that stifles the artist, and the power of English literature is a good example of what I'm saying.
Let me come back to your personal life in relation to this question for a moment. You are still an ambassador of fiction of course, but at one point you were also an ambassador of a state.
For two years only.
Yes, I know. How did you negotiate between these two vocations?
I didn't negotiate. I was in France, and you can't be unhappy in France. But I was unhappy about not being able to do my work. Finally it became very troublesome for me not to be able to do what I wanted to do, which was to sit down after two years of getting to know France well, which is a great experience, and of enjoying the perks of being an ambassador. I said, well, I want to get back to writing. And so I left it. That's my only bureaucratic experience.
So your diplomatic mission as a state representative sort of prohibited you from…
It didn't give me time…. Paris is a very demanding diplomatic post; there are 200 foreign missions in Paris. And you have to represent your country, you have to go to parties, you have to go to dinners, you have to receive delegations, you have to make speeches, you have to see commercial interests, you have to take care of your Mexican students in France. You have to visit the mayor of Bordeaux, the mayor of Calais, they are all expecting your visit, and so it becomes an impossible life for a writer—absolutely impossible. A writer's time should be devoted entirely to writing.
When you were in Paris as a diplomat, or perhaps prior to then, did you have any chance to follow the traces of some of the Surrealists there? You mentioned Buñuel earlier. Did you have a chance to hunt out their haunts, what they were doing there?
Well, more than that. I met many of them. Buñuel of course; He always wanted to go back to the old haunts. He was a special devoté of the Closerie de Lilas, which was a meeting place of the surrealists. We also went a lot to the famous café on Montparnasse, La Rotonde, and all these places where he lived. He lived on the Boulevard Raspail and was close to all that. I also knew Max Ernst quite well. He was a wonderful old guy who had a lot of tales to tell and who was then married to Dorothea Tanning, an American artist. And I also met a disciple of the Surrealists who was close to them. So, I met quite a few of the artists. Aragon I met, I saw a lot of Aragon, who had become a dandy in his old age. So I did meet a few of those survivors. I didn't meet Breton.
Coming back to the connections people have made between your work and that of Luis Buñuel, I'm wondering where you see a connection between Surrealism—whatever may lie behind this rather amorphous term—and the notion of magical realism?
Oh yes, there is a great connection. I'll tell you the origin of magical realism. As you know, during the 19th century the Latin American novel was very poor, because it was imitating French, or European in general, romantic or realist or naturalist fashions, from Balzac to Zola. It was sort of a derivation of that. In the 1920s, two great Latin American writers who were then very young men, Alejo Carpentier of Cuba and Miguel Angel Asturias of Guatemala, coincided in Paris during the Surrealist revolution. And they were struck by what the Surrealists were saying and doing. And they said, "But listen, we have this in a natural state in Latin America. We have a natural surrealism. What do we have to learn from the Europeans? Well, we have to learn that we have Black roots, and we have Indian roots, and we have Mediterranean, Jewish, and Arab roots, which is what Borges understood. And we can create a Latin American literature with these elements that have been shunned because they are considered backwards or barbarian, according to narrow definitions of civilization, which excluded anything that was Iberian, Black or Indian." So they went back and Asturias wrote the great legends of Guatemala, the books based on the Maya life, and Carpentier the books based on the Afro-Cuban reality of the Antilles, and Borges, of course, had a lot to do with the Jewish and Arab literature. So this renovated the literature of Latin America and went beyond Surrealism. It went back, rather, to the roots that had been forgotten of our culture and gave us all the springboard from which to write our own novels and the generation that followed.
Would it be fair to say, then, that the surreal or magical realism of South America is an early expression of what we now call multiculturalism?
In a way, yes. There was the influence of all the other underground cultures of Latin America, certainly. Although, of course, you know, magical realism has become the province of one single writer, García Márquez, and nobody else can claim a stake to that land, the same way that Faulkner claimed Yoknapatawpha for himself. There is something called Macondo that belongs to García Márquez, and that is the nation of magical realism. Nobody else can trespass.
Márquez has of course always noted his connections to Faulkner, and you as well have observed repeatedly that, for example, Faulkner's management of temporality is very close to your own sense of time_it's very fluctuating and recursive. I'm wondering, earlier today you spoke of a culture that celebrates the cult of information, and yet, correspondingly, we also witness a contraction or shrinkage of signification. Do you think your own work, and perhaps the work of other Latin American writers, is a way to open up this narrowing field of meaning making?
Oh, yes. Not only Latin America, but all over the world, I think, true writers are offering the other avenues of knowledge, the other avenues of sensibility, the other avenues of imagination that are constantly being restricted by the abundance of information, which is really a posited information because of the lack of significance, of the bounty of information we are offered. That is the paradox of modern information. It is so much that we think we are well informed, but when you look closely at it, it is abundant, but it is insignificant at the same time. So the province of creative literature of the imagination is more important to defend than ever, because it is a stronghold, a small fortress, against this invasion of the abundance of banality. That is what is applauded and accepted and celebrated all over the world today.
So literature is a sign of resistance to combat the global avalanche of schlock?
Yes, yes. It is like the desert of the Tartars in Dino Buzzati's novel. You have a fortress in the middle of the desert, and you are defending it and you don't know why and against what, but you are defending it to the death.
Another point you mentioned earlier is the opposition between the global village and the local village, the world of Bill Gates and the world of Emiliano Zapata. That reminded me of one of the stories in The Crystal Frontier, "Malintzin of the Maquilas," in which Mexican women are working in a television factory, and they are producing these vision machines, and at the same time that they are doing that they really recycle their own family myths and family traditions. Would this be a way of bringing the global and local village together? That television is an extension, maybe the ultimate extension, of the global village, and the myths of families, the traditions within families, are a representation of the local village. I think the question I'm really getting to is: How would you respond to the observation that the border crossing of television into South America, across the Mexican border but beyond that crossing the entire global village, could be seen as the ultimate liquidation of local traditional cultures?
Well, it could be the opposite, you see. Because I'm not against any of the new techniques and the new media. I don't oppose any of them. I oppose the use that is made of them, which is very different, and when I see a good use made of them I applaud it. In Oaxaca there are 16 different ethnic Indian groups, and now the Oaxacan blacks, which have been ignored, have been added to this. So we have 17 ethnic groups, with languages and customs, and a very courageous man from Mexican television decided to give the Indians their television. And they communicate their fables and their thoughts and everything in their language, and it appears on Oaxacan or on national television with subtitles in Spanish. But they are communicating among themselves and preserving their culture. I think that what is lacking in the world of the modern media, especially in television, is what has always accompanied the great manifestations of art and literature and film, for example, which is the criticism of the book, of the film, of the painting. This is nonexistent in television; there is no real critique of what the medium offers. It is accepted passively—the famous couch potato. The moment we create a culture of critique of the modern media, we could be more demanding, and modern media would have to respond in a better fashion. And I'm also not excluding the extraordinary benefits that television can bring to the school, the information it can bring, the communication among different schools in different places. I've been in communication through Mexican universities with students throughout Latin America. I think it is wonderful that I can speak to them, that I can hear their questions, that they can answer my questions. There are many possibilities that are quite unexplored. So it's not only the schlock that today defines television, but the possibility of a critical television, of an educational television, of a television that works in many many areas. If it works well in some areas, why shouldn't it work in all those other areas?
Television, Marshall McLuhan famously said, is an essentially passive medium.
Let's make it active.
Let's make it active. I think that what I'm hearing you say—and please correct me, if I'm misunderstanding you here—is that art is by its very definition always an active medium. A medium that solicits active responses from its readers, viewers, you name it. This brings me to a question about what many critics consider to be one of your most important works, Terra Nostra. It's quite an overwhelming book, a book bound to challenge any reader. In the past, as, for example, in a prominent passage of the autobiographical Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone, you have observed that with Terra Nostra you finally managed to reach out to a new breed of readers. You actually created those readers in the act of writing the book. What kinds of readers did you create while writing Terra Nostra? What did you expect of your readers prior to this particular book?
I've always, from the very beginning of my career, had the conviction that there is a difference between writers who write to a preexisting audience, and these are the writers of best sellers. They know who their readers are, so they have a recipe, and there is a confection, a kind of pie by Betty Crocker. And so the cake is there and they eat it. I was recently at a beach in Mexico, and the whole file of people sitting in front of the water were reading Sidney Sheldon and Tom Clancy. That's not the literature I'm interested in. I'm interested in literature that creates readers, that ignores the expectations of the reader and fully gives the writer's vision of the world, and then asks the reader to complete it, to collaborate, in a way, to become a co-author of the book. This is demanding, but it's the only way I envision readership. This has always been my motto, but in Terra Nostra it is especially demanding, and that is probably the reason why this is a novel that has found few readers in Mexico and Latin America and many, many readers in Europe. For strange reasons, this novel sells above all in France and Germany and eastern European countries, and even in England in the Penguin edition, much more than in Latin America. There is a recognition, vaguely perhaps, of the values of European culture, but also of this demand of great respect for the writer. I don't know why many critics in the United States said Terra Nostra is an authoritarian novel. The author imposes himself as the dictator of the novel. No, I think I'm leaving open doors all the time for the completion of a novel, and I take this a step further, I think, in Distant Relations, which is perhaps my most open novel, a novel in which there is no end, really, because the novel cannot have one end since it has multiple origins.
Distant Relations is a book told by the French Count Branly, whose name reminded me immediately of Edouard Branly, the late 19th-century French physicist. (You mentioned earlier today that you like to go for walks in cemeteries, and Branly of course has a prominent grave site at Père Lachaise in Paris, aside from Quai Branly along the Seine.) Well, I couldn't help but notice what I think are numerous scientific references in your work. I noticed that in particular in Cristòbal Nonato (Christopher Unborn).
Well, that was full of that. You know, I give thanks to Roald Hoffmann, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
He is also an acquaintance of mine, and a recent contributor to our journal.
Oh, he is a wonderful man. He is not only a great chemist but a great, a splendid mambo dancer. When I started writing the novel, I was in Cornell, and he helped me with an enormous quantity of scientific information. He gave me books on embryos and gestation and a million things I needed to know to write that book. Thanks to Roald, who is a great friend of mine, a real intellectual and scientist.
Cristòbal Nonato also reminds me of this 18th-century idea of the homunculus. Was that part of your initial conception of the book, that here is this fully conscious miniature human being that...
No, I really shied away from that. That is in Terra Nostra. In Terra Nostra, the homunculus appears in the bed chamber of the Queen when it is full of sand, and the homunculus is hidden somewhere there, but that is not at all the case in Cristòbal. This is a real human being being gestated, and the supposition of the novel is that during the nine months we spend inside our mother's belly we are fully conscious of the world, of what our parents are saying. We are fully aware or could be conscious of the world we've come from, the inheritance of our genes. And then the price of being born is losing all that and having to learn it all over again. What was in my mind was the Talmudic idea of total consciousness within the mother's womb, and then at the moment of birth the descent of the angel with the sword who hits you between... right here. The mouth makes the incision we have and makes you forget everything you have learned in your mother's womb.
Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone appears to be an unusually autobiographical book of yours. I remember you saying—it was actually in Diana—that you live to write. There's a very intimate relationship between writing and living. It's almost as if each moment of your life somehow makes its way into fiction, if not immediately then at a remove. Could you say something about this and maybe explore it a little bit further for us?
Well, that's very eccentric book in my canon precisely because it has an autobiographical basis. Usually I don't do that. But this is part of something I conceived as a trilogy in which personal experience does have a role. Here it was the relationship with the actress Diana, who is Jean Seberg. The second volume deals with Carlos Pizarro, who was a guerilla fighter from a good Jesuit educated family in Columbia. He became a guerilla fighter, became disenchanted, who opted for the democratic offer, became a candidate for the presidency and was murdered on a plane while on flight from Bogotá to Medellin by a young assassin, 19 years old, who came out of the bathroom and shot him to death and was promptly killed by the guards of Pizarro. And in his shoe was found a note saying, please deliver the $2,000 you promised to my mother in Medellin. And the third is the story of a young man who was my friend at the school in Chile and was later brutally tortured and murdered by the Pinochet regime in a concentration camp. So there you have three things that have to do with contemporary events, or events I've been close to, because I know the Pizarro family in Columbia, etc. That is the concept of that. It's a trilogy.
Another idea that you articulate in Diana is that, in the 70s, you begin to discover that up to this point you had invested yourself primarily in notions of literary form. Initially, the novel could be of value to you primarily if it was making a genuine contribution to innovative forms of telling stories, but in the 70s you begin to reconsider that in favor of a greater, more balanced emphasis on subject matter. I'm wondering, how do you negotiate this tension between narrative form and theme in your more recent work?
Well, you know, that is the price of having written so much over such a long period of time. By now I should be retired. I should be on some beach watching coconuts fall, but I'm still writing. So, naturally, over a career of 40 years, you go through many modifications and many experiences, and many challenges and many retours en arrière sometimes, and many advances, flash forwards and flash backs. So maybe that is true. There is after all, a balance that you achieve at a certain age in life. Maybe this new novel of mine, The Years with Laura Díaz, is precisely a result of that search for balance. There was an interviewer on television in Mexico who said, "They tell me that this is going to be a very easy novel, and I find that in every paragraph you're switching narrative persons and you're avoiding quotation marks." And I said, "No, I think this is a very understandable and simple novel." And the interviewer said, "I don't think so. I think it's formalistically quite challenging." Well, I didn't see it that way. Maybe when I wrote it, I didn't feel it that way, but some readers might feel it that way, and others are so attuned now to certain once revolutionary methods of narrative that they take it in their stride. So there you are, there is a change in the audience and there is a change in the writer. It's inevitable.
In Diana, you also offer what I think is a wonderful meditation on the sensuousness of writing materials. You talk about the way in which walking into a European stationary store and buying paper there is an extremely sensory experience for you, whereas buying paper in Latin American countries is almost just the opposite. Writing and working with books and paper, it seems, are strongly sensuous experiences for you that are partly determined by the material qualities of paper and pen, their feel and touch in one's hand, the smooth flow of ink on the absorbent paper. Could you please give us some insight into your use of writing materials?
I write with a pen. I write on wonderful W. A. Smith notebooks, which I buy in England, with a pen. That's the way I write fastest, most sensuously. I really feel I'm in touch with my writing that way. I could never write on a screen. That is alien to me. Writing by hand is a sensuous enjoyment and habit, and I don't want to change my habits now. I enjoy the feel of the pen on the paper, the smell of the ink, the smell of the paper. José Emilio Pacheco, the Mexican poet, also is a great fan of English and American stationary stores. They are the best in the world. They are really extraordinary, and he says how he opens a book and smells it as though he were opening the legs of a woman and smelling. It's a very sensuous experience, yes.
You actually quote that particular passage in Diana,
Yes, I do.
You mentioned earlier that Terra Nostra is a book that is well received in Europe, in England, France, and Germany. I'm from Germany and...
Ah, a Gastarbeiter.
Yes, a Gastarbeiter. — I noticed that in one of the more, I think, personal passages in Diana you talk about the way in which your father, who was half German, was a man possessed of a certain order, but he was also very willing to allow you disorder in terms of your own personal space. And that physical disorder, in turn, translated into a kind of mental order. That is to say, you have a very clean sense of space in terms of your work. How does this mental order, if that is indeed the appropriate term, register in your literary work?
I'm a very disciplined writer, a very ordered writer. I've written so much, and my work advances quickly because I have a great sense of discipline. I write in London, basically. It's a city that permits me to live a very kind of creative life. I like Mexico City; it's a carnival, a Bakhtinian carnival, if you will, but you can't really write in a carnival. In London I wake up at 5:00 in the morning. I start writing from 6:00 to 12:00 every day, so I manage to get 8 or 10 pages done every morning. That discipline for me is essential, and I think it has a lot to do with my German ancestry. Most Mexican writers don't work that way. They are too Latin. So I think my German genes come out in my sense of discipline. I feel that I don't sacrifice anything at all in the process. On the contrary, I'm gaining enormously and I'm being replenished for my effort and my discipline in writing.
You are an extraordinarily prolific writer and seem to write constantly—many books of non-fiction, short stories, novels, essays, introductions, among other genres. I'm wondering whether you see any tension between your fiction and your non-fiction? Do you find that you have to struggle between those poles, or is there a permanent permeable boundary between one and the other?
No, no, I go very easily from one to the other. I have no problem whatsoever, no conflict. They are quite separate provinces, as though I were living in Arcadia and also living in Kosovo at the same time.
We've talked about sensuality a moment ago and how important that is for the work of writing. My sense of much of your work is that you also pay a lot of attention to sensuality in thematic terms—notions of procreation, maternity, sensuousness, and sexuality, more generally. These are very very important issues for you, which you bring out in refreshingly frank and open forms. Could you please comment on what I sense are some maybe primal or primordial connections in your work between the word and desire, between bodies and words—the jouissance, as the French would put it, between language and being?
I think that the essential sense of the beauty of a body lies in desire, of that body or for that body. And that is what makes beauty. The real canon of beauty for me is desire. Frida Kahlo says it in my new novel. When a woman is desired, she is always beautiful. So, more than the Coatlicue, the great Aztec goddess that was perhaps a symbol of beauty for the Aztecs, not for us, or the symbol of Venus which probably would have been loathsome for the Aztecs and beautiful for the Greeks, I think that the interior element of desire is what makes beauty. In that sense the corpus of writing—and it is not for nothing that we call it corpus as well—has to have that sense of desiring and being desired in the act of writing and in the act of reading. And thus it resembles the human body. There is another profound resemblance, and it is that the text will go on living when the author disappears, and that text must make another. Let's say that a text is living because of the meaning it procures between the author and the reader; both are contemporary. But there is a moment, and it is the most tragic moment in a couple's life, when one dies and the other survives, and everybody knows that one is going to die before the other. The passion and the love and the eroticism is defined a great deal silently or overtly by that knowledge. And I think that happens also with the body of a book, and the relation that establishes that book between an author and a reader. There is a moment when the author won't be there and the reader will, or both will have disappeared but the book will remain. And if the book does not have the sensuous capacity of surviving as a body, as a flesh, as a sensuous thing, I think it would also perish. So that element is essential for the writing. It presents the consciousness of the book, the writing as an essential entity.
If you permit me to take this literally for a moment, are you at all involved or consulted in the physical design of your works, the layout on the page, the covers of your books, for example? That's a different type of beauty from the one you were just describing, but an important beauty nevertheless.
To a certain extent, yes. I don't have that power because I'm not in Lithuania or preparing an edition in Istanbul, as the case may be. But in the measure that I'm capable of saying, for this book I'd like to have Bodoni type, and this is the cover I would like, that is what I can do in my Spanish or French or English language editions. Not with Gallimard because they have a uniform cover for all their editions, and that's that, and it's a very beautiful one. But, yes, to a certain extent, when you can intervene you intervene. And sometimes you're shocked by what comes up. I've seen too many cactuses and sombreros on the covers of my books_I'm fed up with them.
The opening story of The Orange Tree, "The Two Shores," is like much of your work: a story about language, in this case, about the translator, Jerónimo de Aguilar, who loses his monopolistic control of words once La Malinche displaces him as translator and lover. In a particularly poignant passage, he reflects that "I proved my power to decide peace or war thanks to my ownership of words." He speaks these words at the threshold of Spain's conquest of Mexico, and they are words with ominous contemporary resonances.
Yes, you see, what Aguilar did historically was to translate the contrary of what Cortés, the conqueror, was saying. He said, I come in peace, and he would say, he comes in war, he lies; he is coming in war. But the lie of Aguilar turned out to be the historical truth, so that is the ambiguity of the traductor/traidor theme of that story.
I've noted that you pay close attention to dates. (Earlier today you suggested that both Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date, April 27th, the one on the Julian, the other on the Gregorian calendar). The Orange Tree closes with a story called "The Two Americas" and that story, in turn, closes with the date of November 11th, which happens to be your birthday. Is there any significance in that?
It's kind of a, what do you call it, inside joke. You know, in Distant Relations I turned out to be the narrator in the end, I myself. Those are little plays one makes.
You, along with many other Latin American writers of your generation, have repeatedly expressed your affinity for William Faulkner. Do you see any similar affinities between yourself, other Latin American writers, and North American writers?
I think so. In the first place, it's no novelty to say that there was the great influence of many of the 20th century novelists in the United States on Latin America. The novel in the United Clark Taylor, Weber State University States was far more important and powerful than our novel, and I think I had a particular influence of John Dos Passos, especially in my first novel. I think that García Márquez and Vargas Llosa were very much influenced by Hemingway; I wasn't. But García Márquez and I were both very influenced by Faulkner, whereas some of the more modern writers have had a greater influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald. But there has been this great influence of the American novel on Latin American literature, certainly. Now what there is—and this as a German you might be interested in knowing—is the profound influence of German language writing in Latin America. Their great great popularity. I don't know a single important writer who is not very very conversant on Robert Musil and Hermann Broch and Thomas Mann, certainly. Heimito von Doderer is very much read in Latin America; you wouldn't believe it. Sometimes it's very difficult to find German books in Spanish or in English or in French. So I discovered that the best way to read German authors is in Italian, because in Italy they are all translated. Therefore, I was able to read one of my favorite authors, Lernet-Holenia, because he appeared only in Italian, or Leo Perutz, who appeared only in Italian. I bought the books in Italy and read them in Italian because that is where... I mean the German influence in Italy is paramount. It's far greater than in other parts of Europe. So many of the books I was able to read in Italian translation.
I can see immediately how you would be drawn to Leo Perutz. He too creates alternate fictional realities.
Another author that is immensely influential in Latin America is Joseph Roth. So there is quite a constellation of Germanic writers that have become stars of modern Latin American literature.
You mentioned John Dos Passos, who I am very fond of myself. What's the connection between his work and yours?
Well, I was very conscious of him when I wrote my first novel [Where the Air Is Clear]. I was doing the first novel of Mexico City, the first novel that had the city as protagonist. And therefore, I was very conscious of the antecedents like Berlin Alexanderplatz or Dubliners, and certainly of Manhattan Transfer and the USA trilogy. Especially Dos Passos had a great influence on my writing of that book—the camera eye, the short biographies and the narratives, the cinematographic editing of the novels.
I've long been intrigued by Western representations of Mexico. I'm thinking especially of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, which is not Mexico itself, but a "generic" South America, and Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, among others. Do you have any responses to these types of representations?
Oh, yes, yes. I think the great novel of all of those you mentioned is Under the Volcano. The others are English novels about Mexico. Under the Volcano is a Mexican novel. I consider it a Mexican novel. I consider it one of the best Mexican novels. Lowry really created a world that is Mexican, that cannot be disassociated from Mexico, whereas you could write The Power and The Glory, which is a very good novel, in other places, or The Plumed Serpent, which is an allegorical novel, too. But the way Lowry fuses the Mexican landscape with the soul of Consul Firmin, that is quite unique. You can't disassociate the Consul and his troubles from the Mexican landscape. You cannot, in any way. They are wedded as wedded can be, and that is the big difference with Greene and Lawrence, and Huxley also, who wrote about Mexico. Lowry is a wonderful writer. Maybe, even, a great Mexican writer.