This conversation was held over two weeks, with translator Kit Maude asking the questions in English and Oliverio Coelho answering in Spanish (answers subsequently translated by Kit). In between there were several actual conversations at different venues in Buenos Aires – including the excellent 878 Bar and its wonderful Single Malt Sunday, a marvellous Basque restaurant to which Kit can never return, and Oliverio’s thirty-ninth birthday party – none of which are printable.
I suppose it makes sense to start at the beginning, which for you was quite early. Your bio says that your first book, Tierra de vigilia (A Wakeful Earth) was published in 2000 when you were 23, but last night you said that you first started publishing things when you were 19. Either way, you were pretty young. I imagine the word ‘prodigy’ was mentioned. Did you just get out of school and decide that you were going to be a writer? Have you ever had a real job? How do you feel about that early work today? If you were capable of, as in the Borges story ‘El Otro’ (The Other), speaking to your younger self would you have anything interesting to say?
Sometimes after a few beers one can get insanely big-headed. I have no idea where that revelatory confession came from. What I did when I was 19 was self-publish a book of terribly solemn poems. It shouldn’t be considered my first publication. And Tierra de vigilia can barely be considered a novel. It’s a somewhat forced piece of fiction but, given my age, a few people did indeed call me a prodigy. I suppose that readers and critics don’t expect a 23-year-old to take the idea of writing seriously. When I was in secondary school, I suffered from long bouts of loneliness and so forced myself, like a professional, to write a page every night. In my teenage years I produced several unpublishable novels. They weren’t even novels. I call them that because of their length but really they were exercises in an incoherent style influenced by writers that in Argentina, against all common sense and entirely anachronistically, tend to be prescribed formative reading for any young writer: Faulkner, Onetti, Lezama Lima, Virgilio Piñera.
During that time, I made all the mistakes that a writer can make and in that sense I recognize that the excessive dedication I put into it was absolutely necessary for the learning process. I’d like to think that thanks to that Baroque experience, today I feel freer to compose phrases more naturally. They form in my head and spill out in blocks onto the page, restraining my youthful impulse towards virtuosity. Let’s say that I’m no longer overwhelmed by the beauty of language. I see it as a functional beauty that must be captured at just the right moment, i.e. when it can be paired with an idea. One might see a sort of style or distinctiveness in the way the phrases tend to come together. So if I had to say something to my younger self, I’d improvise some kind of sermon about how careful a writer must be at the beginning of their career when they fall in love with writing – one’s own and that of others. Even though I know that going through the various stages of fascination, imitation and experimentation produces a state of grace during which the most original texts can be written.
That poor kid! No useful advice like ‘Invest in soybeans’? Or ‘Talk to that girl before it’s too late, she always liked you’? But I’ll bet the poetry collection helped on that score. Who was it dedicated to? What was her name?
And that’s an extraordinarily dense reading list, no wonder you need glasses. I’m not sure that you completely got the virtuoso instinct out of your system, though. I remember my first encounter with your work was with Ida when I had to translate an extract for an anthology. I must have called you every name under the sun, if you ever felt cursed in late 2009 or early 2010 I’m afraid that was my fault. The writing could admittedly be breathtaking at times, you had certainly made yourself into a superb stylist, but I still have no idea what the book was about. Your two most recent novels Un hombre llamado lobo (A Man Called Lobo), and Bien de frontera (Borderlands), however, seem to pay a lot more attention to plot, while still being distinctively yours. And at some point you also started to produce almost classically structured stories, as can be seen in ‘The Occupant’ (recently published in The Literary Review US) and ‘The Threshold’ (published by Granta). Was this a conscious decision, did it happen organically, or was it just that you started reading people a little more familiar with punctuation?
Fortunately I was smart enough not to make a sentimental mistake that I was bound to regret. I didn’t dedicate the poetry collection to anyone. It was an almost paradoxically Borgesian book, like its title, Desmárgenes (Maude: a ridiculous title, not worth translating). I’ve tried to bring an end to that book’s existence but every now and then a copy will turn up. At the time I was vain enough to send it to several well-known poets. I regret having brought it up and piquing your morbid interest. It’s more of a proto-poetry collection and I’m pretty sure that if you ever read it you’d never translate anything by me again. My literary stock would nosedive. Ida is where the urge towards virtuosity and an interest in realism combine. In spite of its convoluted style, it might well be the simplest of my novels. It’s about a man who, after being left by his wife, wanders around Buenos Aires, which offers a reflection of his devastated emotional world. It was my homage to the city where I live. Back then, I walked around the city a lot: it was a portrait of society. In 2001, I became a sort of archaeologist of the economic crisis, wandering through the different neighbourhoods. Of course, I wasn’t trying to be an archaeologist, I was just young and lived a nocturnal lifestyle. I was looking for adventure. Perhaps in the later novels the plot required a different kind of prose and observation, not so much of my immediate surroundings but a more atemporal, or perhaps anachronistic, way of thinking.
The stories of Bien de frontera and Un hombre llamado lobo were conceived in isolation, not out of immediate observation or in the throes of the catharsis that besets an artist during a period of great social upheaval. So my stylistic mutation was quite natural. Stories came that required the skills of a fiction writer rather than an observer. My time in Seoul was key to that. And also I started to read more eclectically, I got into J.G. Ballard and Mario Levrero, to name a couple, plus Sergio Chejfec and Marcelo Cohen in Argentina . . . I was blown away by a few books by M. John Harrison and Iain Sinclair, for example, who I think have a far more syncretic and contemporary understanding of literature. Argentine writers are still strongly tied to the incredible tradition of writing in the Rio de la Plata region in the twentieth century but that bond can be so stubbornly self-referential that at times our fiction seems not to be read overseas, where those codes don’t apply. It seems as though it can’t be read with the same freedom with which an Argentinian, a Uruguayan, a Belgian or a Japanese person can immerse themselves in a book by Margaret Atwood, say, without needing to know anything about Canadian culture and history. I wonder if that’s down to a genuinely distinctive quality of local literature that makes it unintelligible to outsiders. Perhaps from your privileged perspective you might have something to say about that?
I was just going to ask you about your travels, but we’ll get back to that. I’m not sure that Argentine exceptionalism in literature can be separated from the wider culture which, amateur mass psychologist that I am, I’d diagnose as suffering from raging schizophrenia with fascist tendencies. This is the only country in the world that thinks that ‘national rock’ is a musical genre (it seems to involve very long, very slow guitar solos). Borges addressed this many decades ago in his essay ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ but it keeps coming up, which is somewhat disheartening. I think it’s hard for a lot of Argentinians, many writers included, to let go of the comforting idea that the Argentine experience is fundamentally different from that of the rest of the world, only they can’t decide whether that’s a good or bad thing. In fact, I find that a good litmus test for an Argentinian writer is precisely whether they’re brave enough to poke their head above the parochial but seductive currents of the Rio de la Plata without succumbing to the kind of bland universality that people are beginning to call globalized literature.
I’d include you in the list of those who manage that. You’ve already touched on this but could you say a little more about the effect your travels have had on your work? The residence in Korea is particularly clearly reflected in the collection Hacia la Extinción (Into Extinction) when, all of a sudden, stories start to be set there.
In just a few lines you’ve touched on a delicate issue that requires a little more context and explanation. Otherwise we run the risk of sounding flippant. The source of the schizophrenia you mention can be traced fairly exactly. For some reason – perhaps the myth that Argentina was once an economic power and cultural empire – the majority of the population is still looking for traces of distinctiveness in the present. There is a sense of a destiny deferred. A chosen people that never assumed its rightful role. They’re still waiting. The allure of nationalism is a feature of empires in ruins, or that never existed. ‘National rock,’ for example, is a way of making ourselves distinctive. It’s not as though Argentina ever spawned a series of genius rock musicians or composers that couldn’t have grown up anywhere else. But people need to believe that anything created locally must be somehow distinctive so as to justify the wait and in some way feed the idea of Argentinians as the chosen people of Latin America. Some of these allegedly distinctive characteristics are born of ignorance. Ignorance of the fact that Western culture is the sum of its different characteristics and historical processes. As in any other tradition, some art forms do have distinctively Argentinian characteristics but, seeing as you mentioned rock, if one looks at artists such as Spinetta during his time in the band Pescado Rabioso, or Pappo’s first albums, you can see that they’re entirely lacking in local colour and just influenced by psychedelia in the case of the former and blues in the latter. They’re no more or less Argentinian for having incorporated different influences and mixed and metabolized them. There certainly wasn’t any populist intention to produce ‘national rock’, just as no writer should set out to write national literature. Another issue is the artistic bureaucracy, which I think is common to every country, who insist on trying to decide whether such and such an influence is local or foreign or whether such and such an artist is truly ‘ours’, but I don’t think that’s ever of interest to anyone outside the country in question. As you say, it’s a topic that has been regularly discussed with regard to Borges, who, without any intention of writing national literature, is the most Argentinian of all the twentieth century writers. The only thing that matters is whether one’s influences have any meaning and fulfil a role within the work. Astor Piazzolla, for example, reimagined the tango in accordance with his musical interests, not his nationality, and yet he can be described as a very Argentinian composer.
Going back to the heart of your question, let me say something more: the distance that a writer puts between themselves and the mandate to represent their country doesn’t depend on their travels or cosmopolitan experiences but rather their reading and artistic formation. Nonetheless, for me my travels led to a change of tack in my literature, strengthening certain formal aspects of a more universal imaginative world that, paradoxically, resists the common sense of globalization. Most especially, they gave me a chance not to write, to take a pause, to lean calmly over my notebook and write without pressure, rethinking my style as though I were trying to recover from something. This is very clear in the story ‘El don’ (The Gift), which I started to sketch out in Korea, and tells the story of a pianist who has lost the ability to play. I think that writer’s residences sometimes function as centres for artistic or emotional rehabilitation. I’ve felt the same thing in several different ones, not just in Seoul but also in New York and Mexico. Those stays brought out a more objective perspective with regard to the obsessions and preoccupations that appear without being entirely resolved in my first, more self-referential novels. They were like a slow epiphany about a part of me that I was already leaving behind. So I’d say that what happens to one’s identity when one travels and spends time overseas will then come out in one’s writing as a new aspect or a challenge, but you never know quite where or when. I think that often, as you say, some authors seeking universality succumb to a global provincialism that panders to the literary market.
While I agree for the most part with your analysis, I think you’re going a little easy on the artists (and intellectuals and bureaucrats who encourage them – until recently there existed in Argentina a Ministry of National Thought. Nobody seemed to think this was weird.) But we could go on about this for a while when there’s an excellent opportunity to move on. You mentioned identity and now I’m going to suggest something horribly simplistic: your writing has moved on from an exploration of yourself and your immediate surroundings, say in Ida, to wider issues of identity with a particular focus on parents and children, Un hombre llamado lobo is about a son looking for his father, Bien de frontera is about a con-man with many, many different identities looking for his daughter, the story ‘The Occupant’ is fairly self-evident, ‘The Threshold’ might be seen as an exploration of the loss of parenthood and thus identity . . . I don’t want to get too personal with this but it’s a glaring theme in your work. And then there’s the historical dimension – you were born in in 1977, part of a generation that has a decidedly problematic relationship with its parents. Are these issues that you consciously wanted to explore, or is it just natural for someone of your age in Argentina to be writing about them?
It’s true that it’s an aspect of my recent novels. The exploration was deliberate, I think it’s part of a cycle, my previous novels focused on the solitude of the individual, dealing with the inner worlds of characters faced with a hostile environment, people who have been marginalized by capitalist relationships, post-apocalyptic characters that I always like to introduce because their spectral nature allows them to maintain a privileged critical viewpoint. A way of moving on from these ideas was to address the universe of broken or dissolved parent–child relationships, transforming the solitary individual without a past into a disinherited soul looking for their roots amid a crumbling society. It’s worth wondering whether one of the effects of the state terror of the seventies on society might have been the lingering sensation of continuous decomposition in the air. I mention this as a potential explanation for the climate that appeared unconsciously in Un hombre llamado Lobo.
But to be totally honest I didn’t decide to take the leap until it became an urgent issue following the death of my father. A biographical event altered the course of the writing. I’d just started to write Un hombre llamado lobo and the plot changed markedly. Familial relationships and affairs suddenly became unexpectedly important. In fact, it was as though the characters’ chance to resolve an identity was like paying off a debt, in one case between a father and son and the other a father and daughter. Once that inheritance is resolved, identity ceases to be a debt, or a void, and becomes a composition.
‘Once that inheritance is resolved, identity ceases to be a debt, or a void, and becomes a composition.’ I bet they put that line in bold by the side of the article. Great stuff. I’m not sure ‘post-apocalyptic’ is quite right though. Your atmospheres aren’t so extreme, even in ‘The Threshold’ the sense is more like that of gradual but inevitable decay. How do you like ‘acute entropy’? You can put it on your next cover if you like. A related question concerns love and sex – your characters don’t seem to get to enjoy much of the former and when they do the latter, it can get pretty weird. I get the sense that as a writer you’re not overly interested in romance. Is that a fair statement?
I like the term ‘acute entropy’. I wouldn’t just put that on the cover, I’d put this whole exhaustive conversation there. Talking to you, I feel like a kind of athlete. Watching the Olympics makes some writers, myself included, very melancholic. There’s something heroic in the stature and sacrifice of an athlete that doesn’t affect writers in the same way simply because we can always continue on in our chosen profession. The blank page will be there until our final days.
An athlete is beholden to the drama of time and the consequences of idleness. I think that I’ll stop there. I know what you’re thinking: I’m indulging in cut-price philosophy to avoid the question. I have yet to include a romantic dimension in my literature. I feel that the inner workings of a relationship are run through with so many fragile, subtle threads that any attempt at intelligence is in danger of pulling it all apart and ruining the whole enterprise. It’s a risky business that demands great maturity. In general in my books, love is something from the past, it’s a biographical fact rather than an experience. The alienation that lingers on in the human being when love has come to an end allows me to define my character via the scars. Perhaps it’s that deliberate distortion that makes sex something like a strange and forever incomplete rite of redemption.
No! Don’t include this or anything like it on the cover – a particular bugbear of mine is Spanish-language publishers’ insistence on turning their cover blurbs into mini essays. Yes, we all know you’re terribly clever but you forgot to say what the book is about. If you can’t sum up a book in a hundred words you have no business trying to sell it.
I expected you to try and avoid the question because it was a pretty stupid one really, but it allows me to move on to something more interesting (for me, at least, perhaps revealingly): sex, or its symbolism. It’s interesting that you call it a rite, because I was going to bring up the idea of fetishes, which turn up fairly regularly – you get quite graphic about them in the story ‘Ojo de pez’ (Peephole) for instance – and also ownership. You’re in the habit of using the godawful verb ‘poseer’ (to possess) as shorthand for sex, and a lot of the sexual relationships in your work have something of ownership about them. And that in turn brings me to the idea of collecting, which comes up in ‘The Threshold’ of course, and I know that you’re exploring it in some new work too. I’m not sure what I’m asking you here . . . can you see the sex-possession-things link, or am I just revealing too much about my fevered imagination?
Kit, among your many qualities I admire your defence of design and deep frustration with the policies of certain publishers. Not only are many book covers a kind of essay that skims over the book itself, they also often reveal the ending. Unforgivable! I’ve seen many prestigious Spanish publishers do it. It shows that, in the Spanish-speaking world, publishers often have very little faith in their literary titles and make no effort to sell them. They just fill up a quota and see it as a kind of philanthropy.
To answer your question I’ll focus first on ‘The Threshold’. Any readers who made it this far must be expecting us to talk a little more about the story. Otherwise I run the risk of becoming a waffling blurb-writer myself. What the story seeks to expose is how desire functions in a patriarchal society. Patriarchal societies where women have no rights or intellectual influence often tend towards war or autism. Today, for example, ISIS has become a new manifestation of the archaic patriarchy. And nobody can deny that machismo is still rife in Latin America. So, in ‘The Threshold’, a story that I actually wrote before Ida, the dystopian hypothesis behind the game is that women have been driven away by the centripetal force of the male gender; humanity has lost its way. Men wander around like inmates in a giant prison whose walls consist of pure misogyny. That’s how a world without women would be. Fetishism makes sense in a world of extreme entropy. The narrator preserves a tiny part of his desire through collecting and so as yet has managed to avoid becoming an automaton, but he’s rightly afraid of that happening. He senses that a woman might save him from becoming inhuman. I think that really it’s a story about the romantic fantasy of a solitary man victimized by his own sensitivity. The other story you mention, ‘Ojo de pez’, is the complete opposite. It’s a fairly weird story that I wrote for an anthology quite a few years ago. I was assigned the theme of transvestites, which was a challenge for me. I think I did my best to tell a romantic story from an unconventional perspective. Unconventional love, like unrequited love, is epic and therein lies the value of literature.
Ah, yes, I’m widely admired for my ability to be personally offended by the antics of publishers. Don’t get me started on the decline of editing – especially of translations, there are some very poor translations being published these days. But I want to get back to collectors and the allure of the object, which is another theme in ‘The Threshold’. You run a side business along with another writer selling records to collectors. Are you a collector yourself? Do you feel that compulsion to possess things?
I think that today, the figure of the collector is crucial. A collector is influenced by an economy of desire that belongs to another time but they have survived and even earned themselves an enormous space in the contemporary bourgeois imagination, albeit distorted by capitalism. I wasn’t thinking about that when I wrote ‘The Threshold’. Back then, a collector was the symbol of something that no longer existed, an archive of humanity. I’ve just started writing a story, which might develop into a novel, in which collectors again appear as background figures. The main character is a supplier, a picker who drives around the suburbs in search of unique objects for which people in the city centre are willing to pay a fortune. A picker is an opportunist, always gambling, and he’s also a middleman, a connection between two worlds. Although I don’t collect books or records, I do own a lot of books and records. A collector would, for example, seek out the first edition of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks; they’re haunted by fetishism. When I buy records for myself I look for editions that are in good condition and sound good. However, a friend of mine, who’s also a writer, and I, have indeed set up a small record business and that has given us a privileged view of collecting and its manias. And I’d like to get some of that down as literature.
Ha! I very much doubt that the antique-collector characters featured on American Pickers would recognize themselves in that description. An easy (perhaps) question to finish on: Do you get much opportunity to read contemporary writers? What should people be reading these days?
I knew that question would come. In recent years I’ve been reading less contemporary literature. At one time I wrote reviews and kept tabs on what was coming out. I had no choice but to read lots of contemporary writers and often found myself reading things I’d never have chosen for myself. On other occasions my role as a critic allowed me to discover writers I’d never have come across otherwise. To answer your question, I’ll focus on what I think ought to be read more outside of Latin America for its quality and originality. In some cases, such as Sergio Chejfec, they are available in English and I think that should be celebrated. In others they aren’t. I think that certain books by Marcelo Cohen would confound a lot of stereotypes about Argentine literature. Among my contemporaries, readers should seek out books by Hernán Ronsino, Jorge Consiglio, Selva Almada and Juan José Becerra. I’m mentioning contemporary Argentinians because I don’t think they get enough visibility but there are also a few Brazilian writers that exist beyond the astounding galaxy of Clarice Lispector. The viejos lobos (Maude: literally ‘old wolves’, translates as ‘the greats’, but I’ve left it as it is because what writer wouldn’t want to be known as a viejo lobo?): João Gilberto Noll, Rubem Fonseca and Sérgio Sant’Anna.
I very much endorse those recommendations with the caveat that one should check the quality of the translation first – it can be heartbreaking to recommend a writer to someone and then find that they’ve been sabotaged by their translator and editor. And as for Marcelo Cohen, I’ve been banging on publishers’ doors about him for years, as yet to no avail. Among your contemporaries I’d add Federico Falco and would also like to mention a writer who ought to be as canonical as Borges: Silvina Ocampo.
Read Oliverio Coelho’s story story ‘The Theshold’, translated from the Spanish by Kit Maude
Photographs © Kit Maude; Javier Narvaez Estrada