At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map for this conceptually complex work of fiction, which comes in a petite, 144-page package. Ms. Luiselli was born in Mexico City, though her father’s diplomatic post brought them to countries like South Korea, South Africa, or India. She now lives in New York City.
Both books spend a great deal of time in subways and cemeteries asking philosophical questions, like what happens to language if you are disappearing? Why write to sustain life like Scheherazade in 1001 Nights? Why not write from death to life? Keeping in mind the Mexican rites on the Day of the Dead, when altars are built to the departed, it’s oddly appropriate that Ms. Luiselli should find in the New York subway a perfect setting for a classical “nekyia” rite, a descent into the underworld to ask ghosts about the future.
The title is taken from Ezra Pound’s fourteen-word Imagist poem titled “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough.” The unnamed female character (hilariously catty, telling fibs and swiping things from friends) unreliably narrates Pound’s shock after seeing his friend, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, in a train station in Haarlem, a month after he died in a trench at Neuville St. Vaast. “The doors of the train car opened and he saw the face of his friend appear among the people.” Pound pruned the poem down to an essential image that was “as brief as his dead friend’s appearance, exactly as startling.” This image and this style inaugurate Ms. Luiselli’s novel, which breathes life into the famous Mexican poet and diplomat, Gilberto Owen, who died in Philadelphia half blind and in a delirium tremens, in 1952.
Faces in the Crowd is told in two voices, three cities, and four temporal planes. The narrator’s present, living in Mexico City with her husband and two children, simply named “the boy” and “baby,” sets the framework narrative. She is in the process of writing a novel about when she was a young Bohemian and assistant editor in New York, obsessed with the poetry of Gilberto Owen. Feeling displaced and alienated, she had found solace in his book of poems, Obras. Owen experienced the heyday of the Haarlem Renaissance, when Duke Ellington was swinging and García Lorca writing his famous “Poet in New York,” before the market crashed in 1929.
Fast forward again to the present in Mexico City, where our writer is struggling with motherhood, trying to take up the project she had left unfinished so long ago. Like Emily Dickinson, she is unable to leave her home. When she goes into baby’s room, she knows she’ll “catch my smell and shiver in her cot, because some secret place in her body is teaching her to demand part of what belongs to us both, the threads that sustain and separate us.” The children’s diapers and toys fill her writing space, they don’t let her breathe. A novel requires sustained breath but she is short of it, so everything she writes “is—has to be—in short bursts.” She will write “a silent novel, so as not to wake the children.”
Back when she still lived in New York, she had tried to convince the editor she worked for, Mr. White, to publish translations of Owen’s poems and drop his monomaniacal quest to find the next Bolaño. So she forged an original document with her artist friend Moby, and tried to pass her own translations off as if they were those of the Objectivist poet, Louis Zukovsky. Just before the books are sent off to print, she confesses to the hoax, losing her job and ruining the editor’s reputation in one fell swoop.
So she took to snooping around the building where Gilberto Owen had lived, and at one point sees someone she could have sworn looks just like him. She found a dead orange tree in a pot on the rooftop, which she stole and brought home. She wrote notes about him on post-its and stuck them to the dead branches, creating a tree of life. When the branches were teeming with her notes, she would “gather them up as they fell and write the story of Owen’s life in that same order.”
In Mexico, the notes are now stuck to her wall. Her son reads them. Her husband asks how many people she had sex with back then. They are the notes of a breathless mother with shadows under her eyes, and they begin to tell her own story, her writing diary, every day scenes, circumscribed by the moment, but yet holding a lingering element, a phonetic or symbolic thread that moves the story forward. “It all began in another city and another life,” she writes. “I would have liked to start the way Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast ends.” She remembers her pregnancies, when she was so large she used to drag herself “like a sea lion along the wood floor.” She will write “a dense, porous novel like a baby’s heart.”
She remembers reading in a Bellow book that the difference between being alive and dead is a matter of perspective; “the living look from the center outwards, the dead from the periphery to some sort of center.” So she now channels Owen’s voice, who narrates his own novel in the first person: “This is how it starts: it all happened in another city and another life. It was the summer of 1928.” And continues, “I would have liked to start the way Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up begins.” Instead of reality imposing itself on fiction, fiction begins to take on its own life, to breathe beneath the surface. “A horizontal novel, told vertically. A novel that has to be told from the outside in order to be read from within,” she writes. She’s sure she’s seen his face this time.
The Vorticist center of the novel comes when the parallel stories converge in time and space, two trains running on parallel tracks synchronize for a moment before breaking again to follow their own trajectories. She sees his face, he sees hers, and their phantasmagorical reflections in the windows superimpose. From that point on, they become like voices on the page, weightless, echoes over time, locked in a shadowy Möbius strip. “The ghost, it was obvious, was me,” she writes. “A vertical novel told horizontally. A story that has to be seen from below, like Manhattan from the subway.”
In a wink to Max Beerbohm’s “Enoch Soames,” in which the character travels to the future to see if his books have lasted over time, one of Jorge Luis Borges’s favorite stories, Owen recounts the next vision of the woman in the train. He can just make out the title of the book she’s reading; Obras. Owen writes notes for a novel “narrated in the first person, by a tree, a woman with a brown face and dark shadows under her eyes.” The novel closes with an earthquake.
When Granta published its Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists issue in 2010, Ms. Luiselli hadn’t yet published fiction or she might have been included. The novel is a stunning example of the type of writing that is currently coming out of Latin America: formal innovation, cosmopolitanism, and a renewed exploration of the twentieth century avant-garde.
Writing from death to life instead of from life to death allows risks; to dare, why not? Audacious, conceptually cutting edge, Faces in the Crowd is, among other things, an allegory for the writing process itself, how words as empty vessels take on significance in the hands of a talented writer. Words that shape mental holograms, breathe life into the inanimate; allow us to inhabit the spaces of our own lives. A modern carpe diem, or ubi sunt, the novel prompts the sort of strange disquiet conveyed by Emily Dickinson’s famous line; “I heard a fly buzz when I died.”
Following on yesterday’s interview with Valerie Miles I thought we’d feature the Javier Marías section from A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, mainly because I like the bit about translation and find his reasoning for choosing this bit of Dark Back of Time incredibly interesting.
This is going to follow the format I’m planning on using for all the rest of the authors in this collection: a snippet from their interview followed by a bit of the piece they chose as “their best work.”
And once again, if you order the book now, from the Open Letter site, and use the code “FORESTS,” you can get it for only $15. That’s like $.02 a page. Not even shitting around.
The reason for choosing this last fragment, which is from Negra espalda del tiempo, is because out of all my work, it is the passage that has made me feel the most moral doubts. I have asked myself “should I write this, should I put this into somebody else’s mind? I have the bad luck that it has come into my mind, but should I put this into somebody else’s mind and make him or her feel as bad as I am feeling now?” It’s not that I thought of suppressing it, of course not, not so much as that, but I thought that this is a “putada” to make somebody who might not ever think this at all in his lifetime, to make him think about it, about the idea that nothing ever passes, nothing ever goes away totally. When children get hurt or are frightened or have a nightmare, one of the things a mother says to her child is “ya pasó, ya pasó,” it’s over, it’s finished. You’ve had a really bad time, but now, in the present, you aren’t having that bad time any more. And those words, “it’s over” are very consoling, very healing, as if the present were the thing that counts; it is a consolation to think that that the bad thing or the worst possible thing is over. In this paragraph the idea is that no, it isn’t like that, things aren’t always over. Things that happened are always happening, they are still happening and they shall always happen. There is an echo of Macbeth here: “it seems as if our yesterdays were all under the earth, trying to surface.” I think the fragment is not bad and it has some force, and it is convincing in a way because generally the idea would be no, it’s true that when things are over, things are better. Or you can bear what has happened because it is already past, and the past is always more bearable than the present. So to put in somebody else’s mind the idea that no, watch out, because it’s not like that, is not a very nice thing to do to potential readers.
In my case the writer I have most in mind is undeniably obvious and explicit in many of my books: Shakespeare. I have taken many titles from him for my works: Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí, Corazón tan blanco, Cuando fui mortal, and La negra espalda del tiempo, which is not exactly a quote, but it comes from what he says in The Tempest about the abysm, and of course some fragments of works by him are also mentioned openly in my books, fragments from Richard III and Macbeth, and of course The Tempest and from Henry IV and Henry V.
And of course Cervantes, although in the case of Cervantes he comes to me directly in the Spanish language, but also indirectly in the English language because I did translate Tristram Shandy about 30 years ago, and it was a hard task and a long one, and Sterne was so influenced by Cervantes in that novel that in a way I would say that perhaps it is much more Cervantine than any Spanish novel of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. And of course by translating that book when I was young I learned so much about writing and about the use of time in the novel, that I also have a rather permanent dialogue as it were with Sterne himself and with Cervantes as well. Of course there are many others, the authors I have translated into Spanish, because translation is one of the best possible exercises for a writer. If you know two languages and you can translate, I think that’s the best way to learn how to write. If I had a creative writing school, which I would not, but if I did, I would only have students who speak at least two languages and make them translate. Because you happen to be not only a privileged reader, but a privileged writer if you can renounce your own style, if you have one, and adopt someone else’s—someone who is much better than you, always if you are translating classics at least—and if you can rewrite that in your own language in an acceptable way, let alone if it is in a very good way, you are sharpening your instruments and your writing will improve tremendously. I translated poetry by Nabokov and Faulkner, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Stevenson, Auden, Thomas Browne, Isak Dinesen, Yeats.
Of course translating well is not enough, you must have some ability for invention and some talent and a few other things, but as far as the instrument goes, that is the best possible school. Therefore, those writers I just mentioned influenced me because I did translate them, they are always very much on my mind, and I have adopted in my own writing sometimes solutions that I have found for them in Spanish. Sometimes in translation you cannot always have an absolute equivalent, but you can add something with which you compensate for what you miss. And sometimes I have even used small things; I remember having used something from Nabokov, in one of his poems he talks about the “mellow moon”; which I translated as “la luna pulposa.” Whenever I have used that expression in Spanish, I realize that I am in conversation with my Nabokov. So I have many authors in mind. Funnily enough, there are more poets who I have more conversations with when writing, and that is something that has not been pointed out very often. When critics talk about evident influences, sometimes I think, “but I have never read that author,” but they always link you with other novelists, they never think of poets and I think that one of my strongest influences can be found in the poets, which is why in Tu rostro mañana there are quotations from Eliot, Rilke, Machado, and Ashbery.
The woman watches the streetlamps while trying to protect her hair from the wind with a kerchief, an old-fashioned image not often seen any more, maybe that’s why she’s not very skilled at it and, not managing to tie the kerchief in place, she gives up, her hair flying in the wind like a banner. She has left the night behind, and her bed, and she thinks with some uneasiness about the young man still asleep there, he’s spent too many mornings there since he stayed on without ever saying he was staying, coming and going while she’s at work, leaving and returning whenever he feels like it with no explanations, as if he’d rented out a room and didn’t live with anyone, neither asking nor telling; but at night when he comes to bed in the darkness, far too late, he wakes her up like a hungry animal—like a child who can’t bear to wait—and tears off her nightgown and gets her sheets sweaty, taking up her time for rest, robbing her of her sleep to keep it for himself. The woman stays awake almost all night, thinking about what’s happened in the darkness and wondering if this was the last time, she leaves in the morning weary of her thoughts, fearful that when she comes back after all the hours in the world outside he’ll still be there, and fearful, too, that he’ll be gone; she fears both things equally and hasn’t even tried to tell him to stay or go because it also frightens her to think that he might listen to her, or that he might not, if she were to say one thing or the other, one thing and the other, if she dared. And she doesn’t know what to do so she doesn’t do anything, she just waits for the bus, chilled, watching the streetlamps hold out against the rising light of the sun as if it had nothing to do with them, during this time when their two territories coexist and do not exclude each other though they do not intermingle either, just as the real does not mix with the fictitious, and in fiction it can never be said, “It’s over now, there, there, it’s all over,” not even as consolation or subterfuge, because nothing has really happened, silly, and in the territory that is not truth’s everything goes on happening forever and ever and there the light is not put out now or later, and perhaps it is never put out.
(Excerpt translated by Esther Allen)
As promised at various points in the past, all this month we’re going to be running excerpts from our latest book, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn by Valerie Miles. This anthology—which is so much more than an anthology—features twenty-eight great writers from the past century, each of whom picked out the handful of pages representing the “aesthetic high point” of their writing career.
Not only do you get the best of the best in here, but each author’s section is prefaced by an illuminating bio and an interview in which they address questions of influence, what they were trying to accomplish in their selected pieces, etc. This context is incredibly useful and fascinating, allowing the reader to build a sort of network . . .
Over the next month, we’ll be posting short excerpts from the collection—both from the interviews and the works themselves—starting with the interview below in which Valerie explains the project.
Also, for the month of September, you can receive a copy of A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for $15 by purchasing it through out website and using the code “FORESTS.”
Here’s the interview, which was conducted by University of Rochester MALTS graduate Katherine Rucker.
Katherine Rucker: Which authors chose works that surprised you? Were there instances when you didn’t agree with what they chose as their “best work?
Valerie Miles: I was surprised by more than a few of the choices the writers made, which charged the whole process with a far more interesting result, and sort of verified the idea that what a critic says objectively isn’t always in sync with how a writer feels about his or her own work. Yes, of course we know that, but I wanted to go farther and find a way to prove it. Not that a writer is correct and a critic mistaken, which is obviously not the case either. Just that there is a private space in which a critic, for however expertly versed he or she is in a writer’s work, cannot enter, it belongs to a writer’s private sphere. So I wanted to appeal to the writer’s complicity to enter this more intimate creative space, ask that they open the door to their studios and hand over the secrets about what they feel is their own best work; the obsessions that have finally sparked something significant, where the space between intent and result is at its minimum. I wanted to hear about the struggles they’ve had with form, or on the contrary, the felicities of a certain character, a passage, a technical accomplishment or a particular high stakes bet that aesthetically paid off.
This is what I set out to explore, that secret and intimate distance between a writer and his work. In that sense, perhaps two of the selections that I found some of the most surprising are those of Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. During my initial discussion with Mr. Vargas Llosa, which was done by email since he was in Peru at the time and I was in Madrid and later Barcelona (some of these conversations, though edited down into short introductions in some cases, were often held over a long period of time), I had mentioned novels like Conversation in the Cathedral, since it represents a truly incredible technical and structural feat, and is widely considered one of his most accomplished novels. I also thought he might choose something from The Time of the Hero, which was such an important novel in the history of twentieth-century Latin American literature, initiating the whole movement known as the “boom”, when writers emerged of the stature of Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Carlos Fuentes. It was the launch of a generation of bold new writing from Latin America that quickly took center stage. The writers of that movement have made a mark, they brought a swing into audacious technical innovations, together with a newfound linguistic élan which lasted through the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s (the pages of Granta magazine during the 80s give testament to how important translation from the Spanish was then. It was a time of great ebullience, and there was a sense that literature could help bring about social change, that it was imbued with significance beyond mere entertainment, an art form that was vital and challenging and pushing political discussions. Writing in the Americas was full of genius, and the new Latin American novel held a pole position on the map of world literature.
Instead, Vargas Llosa chose a piece from The Feast of the Goat, which touches on a theme that cuts across much of his writing, the abuse of political power in Latin America by merciless dictators and how their brutal behavior wreaked havoc over generations. He chose a fragment in which a young girl finally tells the secret of how she was brought to the dictator’s bed as a young girl and raped. He also chose another fragment, a scene from a book that is less widely known as some of his others, The Way to Paradise. Here, he brings Paul Gauguin to life and his grandmother, Flora Tristan, both of whom have left lives of a certain consequence to follow their individual ideals. Gauguin went to Tahiti to paint, and Flora Tristan to Paris to fight for women’s rights. It’s interesting that he would choose this fragment, which expresses a sort of Nabokovian flash of illumination with the strike of a match. The circumstances behind what brought Gauguin to paint his masterpiece, Spirit of the Dead Watching, which depicts his Tahitian mistress lying naked on her belly, terrified by the light of the match he struck when he entered his cabin late at night. She confused him with an ancestral ghost. Interestingly, they are both scenes of young girls in different sexual relationships with older men.
Carlos Fuentes, on the other hand, tells us cryptically that his choice, the fourth chapter of Terra Nostra, largely considered one of his more obscure novels, is his greatest accomplishment because it “has the unfortunate habit of summarizing my approach to storytelling.” I would have thought he might choose Where the Air is Clear, Aura, or The Death of Artemio Cruz, largely for the same reason as I mentioned earlier with Vargas Llosa. They are the novels that made him into a huge literary sensation at a time when the Latin American novel was experiencing its zenith. This was the last interview he gave before he died, and since then, in fact, the critics have begun revisiting Terra Nostra, it’s being studied more in universities, and there are serious deliberations regarding the nature and importance of the novel that may have been the most widely misunderstood in his lifetime.
One of the reasons I wanted to organize this project in this way, also, was to learn from the writers themselves and let them give me a good reading list!
KR: This anthology tells us where Spanish-language literature has come from. Can it also tell us where it’s going? Or, if there were to be “A Thousand Forests: Volume 2” in thirty years’ time, what are some young voices that you might expect to see there?
VM: That’s a very interesting question. I do think it gives a sense of the literary back and forth, the traffic, between Europe and the US during the latter part of the twentieth century. Europe as paradise, Europe as center, Paris particularly is itself almost a protagonist. Also Faulkner, interestingly, looms large as one of the most important influences on these generations. However the U.S. was at the time more of an enemy than a friend. It seems, though, that the North and the South have grown closer in many ways, and I would venture to say that the literary traffic is now more north and south than transatlantic, which one would think should always have been natural, but it wasn’t back in the day. The Cold War, Pinochet, it was “complicated”. But New York seems to be taking the relay from Paris as the center, where the conversation is, which I find particularly exciting.
Also, if you notice, there aren’t as many female voices as I would have liked. I finally decided I had to get this book done, it had been on my mind for many years, when Cabrera Infante died and I hadn’t had the chance to ask him the question of what he considered his best pages. And García Márquez was already too ill to respond. The Mexican Daniel Sada had passed. I think the feminine voice has been growing and hopefully when it would come time to do another volume, we could be sure to have a strong crop of women writing. But not because they are token, but because they are that good . . . a new generation of Lispecters, of Silvina Ocampos, of Carmen Martin Gaites.
KR: Of the excerpts and stories included in the anthology, which ones would you most like to see translated in their entirety in the future?
VM: I would love to see someone take Hebe Uhart on, which would be a monumental challenge for a translator, a sort of Argentine version of the linguistic panache that is the trademark of Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio’s writing. She’s got such a sharp ear for language and yet she’s so terribly funny. Sánchez Ferlosio demonstrates in his choice for this anthology how the fantastic can be much more claustrophobic than any unrelenting realism! But Hebe is just one of those big old secrets just waiting to be discovered, and Andrés Neuman quoted her in the epigraph of his novel Talking to Ourselves. I think Horacio Castellanos Moya is another truly hilarious writer, but his humor is of the neurotic type, so psychologically penetrating it makes you blush, he’s an absolute master of the charming rogue. You just can’t believe he’s doing this, but there he is, just doing it! And there is nobody, and I mean nobody, as deliciously perverse as the ninety-something Aurora Venturini who had the audacity to send one of her novels in anonymously for a young writer’s award, taking it unanimously after not publishing for as many years as the age of some of the other contestants. Borges discovered her and awarded her with her first literary distinction, before she was forced into Parisian exile for having been so close to Evita Perón. Also, the Cuban writer Abilio Estévez, who is also a very talented playwright and hence so incredibly spot on with his characterization. Or the great artisan of the sensuous, the Mexican Alberto Ruy Sánchez, whose series of erotic novels are about the most arousing examples of what can be done with the form when its in the hands of such a careful, affectionate wordsmith.
Say Ramiro Pinilla three times in a row in front of the mirror. I dare you . . . A Fig Tree will appear.
KR: You spoke a little bit about the experience of working with the authors in your preface. Was there a common theme or thread that you saw in their experience as writers?
VM: I asked two questions that were the same to each one of the writers and by that measure, I was able to survey whether or not there were differences. And yes, as anyone who reads their answers can see, there was a very wide range of different and even contradictory answers, which I find one of the happiest results of all. There’s no rote! And then the third and fourth or fifth questions, the “coda” section, was to continue the path of the conversation set out by them.
So what does that mean? It means that there are as many doorways to the craft as people who have the keys. Each one, as an individual, has had to confront the blank page, and each one of them feels differently about just about everything involved. For example, I call the section where I ask them to talk about their selection of their best pages as “Dr. Johnson’s torture” because I could see how some writers just really had a hard time talking about their own creative process—as was the case of Eduardo Mendoza, for example, or the great Basque writer, Ramiro Pinilla, for whom Faulkner was a liberation and Algorta his own private Yoknapatawpha. Others, like Marías, took up the challenge and our conversation lasted an entire summer! His section really shows someone dedicated to the devices of literature and very consciously applying new techniques and innovations in point of view, in poetical associations between forms. Each writer inhabits their own personal labyrinth and that’s what makes the chance to compare and contrast these different approaches a rich experience.
After all, we needed Paris to tell us how important Faulkner was, and in a Telerama poll taken in France in 2009, Faulkner beat out Flaubert, Stendhal, Baudelaire, de Beauvoir, Camus and Celine, coming in second only to Proust. Early on, in the US, he was considered a mere chronicler of the Southern condition. The Boom—Fuentes, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa—are the children of Faulkner. That’s why translation is so important, it brings the periphery into the center and renews our own traditions. Sometimes we don’t see our own forest for the trees and we need a readership to appreciate what we aren’t able to see for ourselves. What would Baudelaire be without our Poe, whom Emerson used to call “the jingle man”? And what would Bolaño be without Baudelaire?
In a few weeks, we’ll be releasing A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, one of the most impressive—and beautiful—books that we’ve ever published. It’s a 715-page beast that was put together by Valerie Miles (one of the people behind Granta’s “Best of Young Spanish-language Novelists” special issue) featuring twenty-eight Spanish-language authors, from Aurora Venturini (born 1922) to Evelio Rosero (born 1958). Of these authors, about half have been translated into English (Javier Marias, Carlos Fuentes, Enrique Vila-Matas, etc.), and the other half are making their way into English for the first time ever—like Elvio Gandolfo.
But before getting into Gandolfo, there are a couple more things to say about this book, which isn’t your typical anthology. For this collection, each author selected the piece to be included on the basis that it’s the “aesthetic high point” of their writing career. Then, they answered a number of questions about this piece and their writing life, explaining their influences, what they were trying to do in the included excerpt, etc. All of this is prefaced by insightful short biographies (written by Valerie Miles) and capped off by a bibliography of the author’s works in Spanish and in English . . . In other words: This is a damn amazing, useful, impressive book.1
Ninth Letter, a “collaborative arts and literary project produced by the Graduate Creative Writing Program and School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign,” and one of the most beautiful lit mags out there, decided to run one of the pieces from A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, “The Moment of Impact” by Elvio Gandolfo, a story about a whale falling on a city.
You can read the entire story here, but to entice you, here’s a bit of what Gandolfo had to say about it:
I tried to make something impossible, at least in terms of the physical laws and limits we are bound by at this moment in science and history, plausible. In that sense, the story satisfies me fully. Besides, it seems to be written for nobody . . . At another time, I might have come up with a single short sentence (“a whale falls on a city”) and I wouldn’t have even written it down. When I did, however, I filled in all the details composing that precise moment and “the space of the impact.” The businesses, the streets, names of the residents of 1043 on Peatonal Córdoba (taken from the name plates on the building’s intercom) are (or were) real. When you use actual landmarks you discover the limits of what is really real for the people living in that place.
This is one of the outstanding voices that I discovered in working on this book, and I’m willing to bet that almost all Three Percent readers will love this piece. So go to Ninth Letter now and read it. And then preorder the book—it’s worth the $19.95 just for the production quality.
1 Over the month of September, we’ll be doing a special Three Percent promotion for this, running an excerpt from an interview or a piece of fiction every day. More on that in the near future.
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 6 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.
Today’s featured Granta author is Argentine author Luisa Puenzo, whose story “Cohiba” was translated by Valerie Miles for this special issue.
Luisa Puenzo is yet another author featured in Granta‘s “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue who is multitalented and working in more than one medium. In addition to writing several novels—including El Nino pez, 9 minutos, La maldicion de Jacinta Pichimahuida, La furia de la langosta, and Wakolda—she’s directed two movies—_XXY_, which won the Critics’ Week Grand Prize, a Goya for the Best Foreign Film, and more than 20 international prizes, and El nino pez, which opened the Panorama section at the Berlin Film Festival and was part of the film festivals in Tribeca and Havana, among elsewhere.
In terms of her films, XXY sounds/looks pretty intense and interesting. Here a short, mysterious synopsis:
XXY is about Alex is a 15-year-old teenager with a secret. Soon after her birth her parents decide to leave Buenos Aires to make a home out of an isolated wooden cabin tucked away in the dunes of the Uruguayan shoreline.
XXY begins with Alex´s parents receiving a couple of friends and their 16-year-old son Álvaro from Buenos Aires. Álvaro´s father is a plastic surgeon who accepted the invitation because of his medical concern for their friend´s daughter. The inevitable attraction between both teenagers forces them all to face their worst fears . . . Rumours are spreading around town. Alex gets stared at as if she were a freak. People´s fascination with her can become dangerous.
And here’s a trailer (with subtitles!):
This interesting interview with Puenzo provides a bit more insight into the literary origins of the movie, what it’s about, etc.
Cinema Without Borders: XXY is a daring and unusual film, what inspired you to make this film?
Lucia Puenzo: XXY is based on a short story called “Cinismo”, from the Argentine writer Sergio Bizzio. From the moment I read that story—the sexual awakening of a young girl who has what doctors call genital ambiguity—I couldn’t take it out of my head. I began to write with that image in my head: the body of a young person with both sexes in the same body. I was especially interested in the dilemma of inevitable choice: not only having to choose between being a man or a woman, but also having to choose between a binary decision and intersex as an identity and not as a place of mere passage.
CWB: How much research was done on the subject before writing the script?
LP: Months of research . . . I worked with doctors, geneticists, teachers, parents of children who were born with different diagnoses of intersexuality, and young adults who had or had not been operated when they were born. The time I lived in Paris, in the Cinéfondation, I contacted Alex Jurgen, a German intersex person who made a documentary of her life (Octopusalarm) in which, after of years of operations and taking hormones to become a man, Alex realizes he will never be merely a man or a woman.
Based on this, it’s not entirely surprising that Puenzo’s short story—“Cohiba”—revolves around a filmmaking workshop run by Garcia Marquez:
At five minutes to ten in the morning, a black car with smoked windows appears like a mirage at the end of the palm-lined road. The ten of us attending the workshop wait in front of the rest of the students, the cameras, the journalists at the bottom of the stairs. There is a rumour going around that this will be the last workshop the maestro teaches. Birri – the school’s director – helps him out of the car. García Márquez emerges sheathed in a blue jumpsuit, cleaning a pair of spectacles that get lost for a moment in Birri’s white beard when they separate from their embrace. Smile for the hyenas, he whispers, giving us hugs in front of the journalists’ cameras. We follow him up a floor, to the classroom. He doesn’t let anyone else in except us. Inside, the microphones are already turned on. Every word is recorded and belongs to the Film School of San Antonio de los Baños. So . . . who has the big idea? García Márquez asks. He’s having fun with us. Or, rather: he’s making fun of us. Your mission is to deliver one good idea, only one, he says, fishing around in his jumpsuit pockets until he finds what he’s looking for: an inhaler. He takes a hit from it and his eyes come back to life. If you don’t have one, then go out and find it. We are intimidated to the point of going mute; when he leaves ten minutes later not one of us has been able to decide yet whether his voraciousness is of the vampire variety or is merely contempt. One thing has become clear: screenwriters, for the maestro, are no more than a breed of lackeys.
So, from the very first day, García Márquez has turned his students into a pack of hunters. The big one is our prey and it can be found anywhere (past, future, fiction, reality). On the second night, standing in the doorway of the theatre, roach hanging from her lips, the Brasileira looks into the darkness and sighs . . . I won’t leave until I find it.
[. . .]
García Márquez is already seated at his desk. The Argentine woman who arrived late, he says. I want today’s big idea. I tell him the story of a student who – for lack of ideas – decides to murder her maestro. He interrupts me immediately (asking for another). There is an exchange of glances. The Brasileira breathes in deeply and explains that she has only a beginning. The maestro smiles: all you need for a story is the beginning. He asks her to speak up, and he zips up his jumpsuit. He’s dressed the same way for four days now, always in a jumpsuit. A blue one the first day, orange the second, brown the third. The fourth one is English racing green. The Brasileira brings the microphone to her mouth and tells the story of a woman who falls in love on her third evening in Havana. She knows the man is hiding something, but it doesn’t matter to her. She would leave everything behind not to lose him. She continues on until the maestro’s snoring interrupts her halfway through a sentence. The worker in charge of taping the workshop presses the pause button. Suddenly, García Márquez opens his eyes, as if the weight of the glances focusing on him were enough to wake him up, and he tells the Brasileira that she has a good beginning. Now she needs an ending.
So no big idea that day. He lets us leave at quarter to one. I spend the next half-hour not being able to leave the bathroom: kneeling at the toilet, vomiting until I’m empty. When I come out, the minibus is taking off for the city, more than a hundred metres down the road. I don’t try to run, my legs are too wobbly. The walk back to the apartment seems to be getting longer and longer. The concrete is burning and disfiguring the landscape. By day, the frogs cede their kingdom to the flies. A car advances behind me at walking pace, keeping a few metres back. The Brasileira is waiting in the doorway in front of me, wearing a sky-blue dress and black sunglasses. Her hair is in a long braid and she’s holding her shoes in her hands. Her smile isn’t directed at me, it’s for the Chevy that is coming up behind me. Cohiba smiles back at us from the other side of the windscreen. The Brasileira doesn’t notice that I am queasy and trembling. She hugs me and moves me towards the car: she wants me to meet him. She opens the back door for me to get in. Cohiba looks at me through the rear-view mirror. He is about to say something when the Brasileira climbs into the front seat and greets him with a kiss on the lips. My friend is coming with us. Cohiba doesn’t say a word. He does a U-turn to go back in the direction of the school. All the windows are open. There is no glass in the rear windscreen. When the car pulls out on to the road, the wind zigzags between one window and the other. The Brasileira shouts so that Cohiba can hear her over the wind and the car’s engine. She tells him her story, that García Márquez says it lacks an ending. Cohiba smiles as if the problem were already resolved. He switches on the radio, puts in a cassette and turns up the volume. He has it up so high it’s impossible to talk.
Aaaannnndddd . . . If you’re not already a subscriber to Granta, you should become one now and receive this special issue for free! (That’s five issues for the price of four. Or, to be more specific, that’s $85 worth of Granta for $46 . . . )
Here’s the final part of the unedited version of Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles’s introduction to the special issue of Granta dedicated to “Young Spanish Novelists.” Part I is available here, Part II, here, and you can download a Word doc of the entire piece by clicking here.
If a good part of contemporary Spanish literature seems eccentric to Europe, Latin America has always been the literary Far West, offering another way of being European, if you wish, since the traditions there incorporate all sources, not only their own. No other language shares the same territorial expanse (nor population) in contiguous “nations”. Its modernity seemed peripheral until its literature became contemporary of all men in the sixties: it brought about a renovation in the metropolises of various languages, thus moving the periphery into the center. The intellectual meridian has not passed through Madrid for over a century, although the publishing meridian cuts across both Madrid and Barcelona, where writers can be found building their reputations, which then furthers their regional prestige. The controversy over whether there are national literatures in Latin America has long become the stuff of historians, and we prefer to sustain, without excessive romanticisms, that the literary homeland is the language itself. Although in reality all literature is a magma of forces and traditions or trends in opposition, fluctuation and influence; of the living and the dead, of all languages—as is proven by reading the authors selected for this issue—and put in circulation by other hidden legislators: the translators, the editors and the critics (since without criticism there is no literature, either). In order to discover this, though, one needs to know the works, and this can only be done by reading, obviously, in translation. This issue, for example. Need we be reminded that a literary culture in which there is no translation is doomed to repeating the same things to itself over and over again?
This issue is being published almost simultaneously in English and Spanish, as witnessed by the cover. Fifteen years ago, a selection of the best young writers in Spanish would not have encountered such favorable circumstances for translation. Until recently, above all in the U.S. and given the rule of English as lingua franca and the relevance of its publishing industry (although we must not forget that the lion’s share of corporations are owned by the Germans or the French, which is to say Europeans, and London and New York are not the only hubs of power in the literary world), the lack of interest in Spanish language writers has been notable. Perhaps such cultural customs as using the labels of “Latino” or “Hispanic” to things written in Spanish, which seems more to suggest the idea of quotas, confusing literary values with those of integration, could be a culprit in the U.S. A sort of mental isolationism. Perhaps the Latin American authors who were consecrated in the 60s satisfied the scarce curiosity of the wider readership and so there was no more room. Some writers, in search of an audience, went so far as to write directly in English. There are many prestigious examples. But the city with the third largest Spanish-speaking population is in the U.S. and Spanish is the country’s second language. Latin American and Spanish writers have been somewhat perplexed by this lack of interest in translation, given the fact that the foundation for the English literary tradition is itself a translation (the Bible). The center is more provincial than the periphery. In Latin America and Spain literary translation from many languages is the norm, evidenced by the authors admired by the writers chosen for this issue: still Faulkner, Nabokov, Joyce, Bernhard, Cheever, Salinger, among others (Borges and Onetti). Obviously then, although it should be repeated, the intermediation of translation guarantees the exchange between the centers of literary power.
The situation in the U.S. is changing more quickly than in the UK, thanks to a new generation of small independent initiatives in the wake of others like New Directions, which has been publishing translations since 1936. Eliot Weinberger has keenly pointed out that the recent disposition and aperture to translated literature is a consequence of the attacks on September 11th almost a decade ago. The influence of Cien años de soledad on American and world literature and the wide readerships gained by genre novelists, or the recent popularity of authors like Carlos Ruíz Zafón on one hand and the work of Roberto Bolaño among the young writers on the other, or the universal critical acclaim for the work of Javier Marías, have all served to up the ante and renew the narrative credit of Spanish language literature in its diverse strata. The collection of young writers selected by this conspiracy of readers in Granta aims to seal a pact, a secret handshake of sorts, which we hope in ten years will prove the value of this arsenal of shared references, as has been the case in prior Granta selections; in ten years we will see if our choices were correct, how many of these writers will still be read, how many of them will endure.
Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles
Here’s the second part of the unedited version of Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles’s introduction to the special issue of Granta dedicated to “Young Spanish Novelists.” Part I is available here and you can download a Word doc of the entire piece by clicking here.
To select the young writers within the last named context we invited four writers, who exercise the trade in diverse ways from a variety of origins to serve as jurors, each offering a somewhat detached vision of the spirit of what is being written in this language: the Argentine writer and filmmaker Edgardo Cozarinsky, who has lived between Paris and Buenos Aires for many decades; the British journalist Isabel Hilton, previously a correspondent in South America who currently divides her time between England and China and the jury member who is the most involved in public affairs, together with the novelist Francisco Goldman, American of Guatemalan descent (whose influence has also been decisive in the publication of many Hispanic American writers in the US, among them Bolaño), and who lives between New York and Mexico City; and the Catalan writer and literary critic, Mercedes Monmany, who lives in Madrid. Those who write these lines make up the last two members of the jury, writers and editors, one an American and the other a Canadian-Mexican who have both lived in Barcelona for a very long time. So, endowed with our inevitable prejudices and carefully cultivated arbitrariness, we chose twenty-two authors. We reiterate the fact that this verdict does not constitute any kind of manifesto, nor is it the fruit of a marketing scheme between an editor and a literary agent. Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists aims to offer a true-to-life portrait of the vitality, the diversity—it deals with individual talents—that thrive in the contemporary literature (literatures?) of the Spanish language.
It has been an ambitious endeavor, covering the entire area of the second most widely spoken language in the world, in more than twenty countries. We were as meticulous as possible. The flood of mediocre work, along with the depleted state of literary criticism outside of the academic world spurred our anxiety. We believe that we couldn’t have come up with another list with the same merit as this one with 22 other authors, as one juror had commented to Ian Jack, then editor of Granta, regarding the first issue dedicated to the best young American authors. We searched publicly and privately in the most diverse ways for recommendations and discoveries, from telephone calls to internet blogs and cultural section,s and, of course, to books. Duomo ediciones, the publishing house that sponsors Granta en español in Barcelona, received the work of more than three hundred Spanish language writers from all over the world. We read through everything and came up with a list that included suggestions from members of the jury throughout the course of voting. Early on, we renounced the possibility of a unanimous vote, establishing a system of four rounds in which authors received at least a majority vote. It almost goes without saying that we didn’t take into account the nationality or sex of the candidate, only the certainty, at times more enthusiastic and others less so, that what we read corresponded with our intentions: our reading as vice impuni, to recognize talent that was either already consolidated or that would, in our opinion, strengthen in the passage from objective to accomplishment, as narrative writing with artistic intention (what heresy . . .) and the pretense of perdurability. Members of the jury opposed the inclusion or exclusion of this writer or that one, but in the end the majority ruled. There were laments over writers who were not included. Such a diverse jury found, then, the diversity that the reader is about to discover, which has little to do with creative writing workshops or a pedestrian idea of exoticism: profoundly ironic and demanding female writers on the one hand, but also male writers who represent women in a much less passive and traditional role than earlier generations; there are parodies and formal innovations: revision and even exacerbation, as could be expected, of diverse sentimental customs and literary traditions more or less regional and even local, although not necessarily belonging to the author, since many have chosen to live in foreign countries and are more open, thanks to their own backgrounds, to the inventions of other places.
A necessary digression: the preface to one of the previous Granta selections mentions that already in the eighties attention was being called to the way writers were presenting themselves to the public instigated by agents or editors as personalities who give interviews to the media; not as engaged intellectuals but as celebrities whose physical appearance was also relevant for widespread coverage since it was no longer the work itself, but the writer who spoke to the reader. This type of publicity became routine in Spain since the early nineties, thanks to the fact that the publishing sector is subjected to the same circumstances that have prevailed in the English language for many years. Yet in Latin America it is still not the case, authors tend to be much more reserved since the figure of the celebrity writer who directs their work exclusively to the widest possible audience has not yet been imposed. The changes commented on a quarter of a century ago in this magazine have now given way to the current explosion, unimaginable in those days, of blogs, videos, social networks and all the thousands of new means of promotion, that distract us like fireworks from keeping that minimum amount of concentration needed for considered reading. Most of the writers selected here have had their own blog at some point and some of them have explored the narrative possibilities of this media explosion. Nothing new. But the talent we are searching out could not be evaluated through these accessorial phenomena, as they have not yet encompass the present in full. It’s possible that the reader might expect some sort of a defense of the Internet and the currents of its parallel world in this forward or in our selection, but in light of the enthusiasms of last century’s Futurism, we need not give them any greater literary importance.
Click here for Part III.
This is really cool . . . Over the weekend, Aurelio Major sent me a copy of the foreword that he and Valerie Miles wrote for the special “Young Spanish Novelists” issue of Granta that’s coming out in a couple weeks. According to Aurelio, this foreword—which appears in full in the Spanish language edition—was trimmed for the English version of the magazine, leaving out some of the bits about Spanish and Hispanic American literary culture in order to reach “a wider public with perhaps less concern about context.” Well . . . It’ll be interesting to see what the differences are between this version (which is very well-crafted) and the one that appears in the official issue. Personally, I think the more context the better, although I’d love to hear what all of you think, so please feel free to comment below.
And putting aside any possibile editing controversies, what this piece really does is make me even more excited to read the issue.
The essay is pretty long, so I’m breaking this up over three posts. If you’re impatient, of just want to read the whole thing in one file, you can download the Word doc here.
Granta has never before put together a selection of the best young writers in a language other than English. The first, highly influential Best of Young British Novelists proposed a group nearly twenty five years ago. After that landmark gathering, four more “Best of young” lists were created: two for Young Americans and two more for young British writers. Now, in _Granta_’s first gleaning of young Spanish language talent, we present both renowned authhors, and less familiar names. Only a handful of them have been translated into English. We limited participation to writers under thirty five, meaning they were born after January, 1975; with at least one novel or story collection to their name. Given the proliferation of Spanish language publishing over the past few decades with access to publication made much easier, even when modest, we found it wiser to impose certain limits on such a vast universe to avoid a list of already established authors. But there are other motives. In fact, this issue is a conspiracy.
1975 marked the end of the dictatorship in Spain. It was a year of preludes and apogees of the South American dictatorships and their subsequent exiles, the end of the Viet Nam war and a time when the political opportunism of those who still venerated the other, radiant dictatorship in Cuba became apparent. There were other events: the tradition of the South American émigré writer in Paris came under examination and writers began seeking publication in Spain, first in Barcelona and later in Madrid, as the publishing industry grew in the post-Franco years. For writers born after 1975, the complex, often misleading warp and woof of politics and literature (different after the end of “actually existing” communism in 1989) is more of an exception than the rule. The censorships of the left as well as the right, black lists, forced exiles and persecution, are now ensconced in the process of transition between memory and history (except in modern day Venezuela and Cuba), and these young authors have not suffered the social and moral circumstances that perturbed their elders. When asked, many of the writers gathered here expressed skepticism, in varying degrees of reticence or nervousness or irony, over the idea of an author having an active influence in the public sphere, outside of the work itself, a role which had been an unavoidable engagement for many writers (not always the most lucid) from earlier generations. Yet now there are other perhaps more insidious censorships: those of the cultural powers that be, of the market whose forces erode the pact of a referential consensus, of the attention deficit disorder caused by a sea of virtual autism, of fleeing readerships—without readers there might be books but not literature—censorships that can be contested through strategies like the one we propose here in Granta. It’s obvious that these young writers have to fight other sorts of phobias and restrictions; but they all coincide in their admiration for many canonical authors, almost all of them read in various languages and are confronted by the same inveterate enemies of promise as those that Connolly signaled when he was thirty five: activities outside of the act of creation that serve to restrict or pervert it.
We are writing this forward before the novelists and story writers chosen know who will accompany them in this issue, which represents the culmination of the efforts which began seven years ago with the first issue of Granta en español.
Among those included by the six members of the jury, there are writers who are full of promise. For most their best work is yet to be written. By contrast, Cabrera Infante, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, Donoso or Juan Goytisolo had already written some of their fundamental books before turning thirty five. Of course that is not the case with other authors such as Saer, or Benet, who wrote their greatest works later. Despite the fact that some claim that nobody is young after thirty, it is also fair to say that the novel is almost always a product of maturity, of life lived and decanted. We felt the need to impose the thirty-five under stricture because of the eruption of numerous summary anthologies throughout the nineties, more or less improvised, and the plethora of local lists of young writers in all the Spanish speaking countries (one could almost do an anthology of anthologies) and because we wanted to be more forward looking. We had to also take into account here the readers who are not versed in the literary traditions, evolutions, tyrannies, excommunications, revolutions and betrayals of this language. Moreover, a variety of manifestos have been launched over the past few decades emulating the procedures and strategies of ideological opportunism, as a measure for crossing the threshold to recognition by the literary power establishment, in other words, as a means for survival. But time has quickly proven their insufficiencies and even their puerile nature: must it be repeated that despite attempts to collectively interrupt literary tradition (McOndo in Chile, Crack in Mexico, Nocilla in Spain), talent is individual and the irruption of a single writer can suddenly upset all readings of the past and the future? Who could have imagined fifteen years ago that the work of an outcast Chilean washed ashore in Barcelona via Mexico would exercise as wide an influence on enthusiastic young writers not only in Spanish, as Cortázar a few generations earlier? Writers, readers, critics and editors working in Spanish, feel less exasperated now that the English language references to literature in our language are no longer reduced simply to the binomial Borges-García Márquez. Now at least Bolaño is also being mentioned. But this trinity is still not enough.
Since this selection includes authors from a variety of countries and at least four regional hubs (Barcelona-Madrid, Buenos Aires, Lima-Bogotá, México), we should remember four very important moments in the literary relationships of reciprocal influence and cumulative effect between Hispanic America and Spain, always complex and unbalanced due to national peculiarities and collective susceptibilities: the commotion in Spain caused by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío’s work within the context of the loss of the last Spanish colonies to the US in 1898; the influence of the Spanish generation of ‘27 after the Republican exile throughout Hispanic America principally in Argentina, Venezuela and Mexico within the context of the Spanish Civil war at the end of the thirties; the rise of the South American novel in Spain during the sixties in the context of the seismic Cuban revolution; and the present, which appears to be branded by the works of Bolaño and a bit earlier by Marías and Vila-Matas within the context of the radiant plebiscite populism in Venezuela, anti-globalization (anti-Americanism) and narco-terror.
Click here for Part II.
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