sábado, 28 de mayo de 2011

Entrevista a Luisa Valenzuela en Paris Review

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/449/the-art-of-fiction-no-170-luisa-valenzuela


Would you say that Argentine writers—Latin American writers in general—have a different way of writing fiction than their American counterparts?

VALENZUELA

Oh, yes. I always am quite disturbed when American reviewers call my fiction surrealist. I consider it realist in excess. Latin American writers think of reality as having a wider span, that’s all—we explore the shadow side of it.

But the real difference has to do mostly with the origins of language. Spanish grammar is different from English grammar. This means that we have a different approach not only to the world, but to the word. At times it is something very subtle, a more daring immersion into the unknown. Un día soprendente, to give a very specific example, doesn’t mean exactly the same as un soprendente día. In English, you cannot even turn around a phrase or leave a dangling participle. Joyce needed to explode the English language to allow its occult meaning to emerge; Cortázar just plays around with Spanish words and grammar for the same purpose. Ours is a much more elastic grammar. English is onomatopoeic, beautifully strict, clear cut. Spanish, on the other hand, is more baroque and allows for ambiguity and metaphor. Does it have to do with the speaker’s character; or is character, as we may surmise, a construction of language?

INTERVIEWER

What do you think about the idea of women’s language?

VALENZUELA

I openly fight for it. I think there is a different charge in the words—women come from the badlands of language. Women know a lot about ambivalence and ambiguity—which is why, I think, good, subtle political writing by women novelists is dismissed in Argentina. Women are expected to console, not disturb the readers.

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

VALENZUELA

I think of myself as somebody who is a born feminist but doesn’t like any isms. I don’t want to be obliged to anything. I hate labels. But ever since I was a little girl, I fought my way as a woman; I saw the oppression too clearly. I think of myself as a casualty of that war and I bear my wounds with pride, though I avoid banner waving.

INTERVIEWER

Going back to your time at NYU: what do you think a writer who teaches can offer to a writer in a creative-writing class?

VALENZUELA

You cannot make a writer—it is an innate way of seeing the world, and a love of language, and a lifetime commitment. But the students in those classes already had a writer’s mind, so you could teach them to see what they didn’t see in their own work and move them beyond their own limitations—force them, push them inside the darkest corridors of their imagination, and also motivate them.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever taken a creative-writing class?

VALENZUELA

Never. The streets, journalism, and travel were my classes. I love to roam on my own in the bad neighborhoods of foreign cities. But who knows, a good writer’s workshop could become the equivalent of that, and it might even put you on the right path when you are blocked. Though I’m too proud, too old, and too lazy to even consider such a thing.

INTERVIEWER

You started out as a journalist. Do you think journalism has contributed to your fiction?

VALENZUELA

Not necessarily. Both worlds run parallel for me, but never—as yet—converge. Journalism taught me to be very precise and brief, very attentive to language. At La Nación my boss, Ambrosio Vecino, was a very literary man, a real teacher. He had been Cortázar’s best friend during their college years together. But journalism requires a horizontal gaze; it is absolutely factual. On the other hand, fiction requires a vertical gaze—delving deeper into the nonfacts, the unconscious, the realm of the imaginary. These are two very different ways of seeing the world.

Fiction, for me at least, is the best way to say things. I can be much more clearminded if I allow my imagination to take the lead—never loosing the reins, of course, but at full gallop. I also believe that, if you are fortunate, you can access the unconscious through fiction; in my case, elaborate ideas emerge in a very organized manner. Fiction for me is a way of “writing what you don’t know about what you know,” to quote Grace Paley.

Borges has this wonderful phrase in a short story: “Las falta de imaginación los movió a ser crueles” (“the lack of imagination moved them to cruelty”). Though cruelty with imagination can be the worst of all—just think of certain torturers in our respective countries. As a tool, imagination should only be used by writers, in their writing.

INTERVIEWER

What was Cortázar like?

VALENZUELA

I saw Julio Cortázar for the last time in December 1983. We spent a long afternoon together, and he confessed a strong need to write a novel. I asked him if he had any idea about the plot of his future novel. No, he didn’t, but he had a recurrent dream in which the publisher handed him the printed book, and he glanced through it and found it perfect—he finally had been able to say what he had wanted to say all his life. And it didn’t surprise him at all that the book was written not in letters, but with geometrical figures. He died the next year, on February 14. I remember thinking that the writers who had been honored with his friendship should bring his book into existence—one writer could write the triangle, another the cube, the circle, or sphere, and so on.

INTERVIEWER

How does the writing process work for you? Do you know, for example, when you are starting a novel as opposed to a short story?

VALENZUELA

Yes, absolutely. Well, except for my first novel, Clara. Back then, I never thought I would be able to write a novel, and suddenly the idea I had for a short story needed to branch and develop.

Otherwise the division is clear. You inhabit another realm when you are writing a novel. It’s like being in love—being “in novel.” At times, the need is unbearable. During those periods, I don’t want to write short stories. On the other hand, I might get a spark or an idea for a story; then I need a certain willpower to start pulling the thread, with the exact tension and patience so as to discover what lies behind the glimpse. Cortázar said that when the moment came he had to go to the typewriter and pull the story out of himself as if he were pulling out some kind of creepy creature, una alimaña. It sometimes feels like that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a writing schedule?

VALENZUELA

Each work finds its own time. For many years I wrote at night. Then I became scared of writing at night, probably on account of the ghosts that you call to mind when you are writing, mostly when dealing with the subject of torture and other dark political issues. I’ve returned to the night shift just recently, and am rediscovering the pleasure of total silence. But I still enjoy jumping out of bed and onto the computer—from dream to word, with no time to repent.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t have any rituals or routines that prepare you for writing?

VALENZUELA

I don’t have a ritual, but I like them a lot. With this postmodern contraption, the PC, I just do a few hands of solitaire as a warm-up. I wish I could play the piano instead.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write straight through from beginning to end?

VALENZUELA

In general, yes. When I don’t write straight from beginning to end, even if doing so takes a couple of years, I know I’m in deep trouble.

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise much?

VALENZUELA

This last novel had many versions. It probably has to do with the fact that I write on a computer now. I find it quite degrading, but times are changing. Before, I wrote by hand with a soft fountain pen—I still regret the loss of my old Parker 51, a gift from my father when I turned thirteen. If I needed a certain rhythm, I went to the typewriter. Writing by hand forced me to retype each page at least three times, and each time I retyped it I would hear the pound of the words, and polish them until they reached the perfect intonation.

INTERVIEWER

How does a book start?

VALENZUELA

El Gato eficaz, for example, just started pouring out of me. It was a very intense experience. I was a writer in residence at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and after a couple of blank months, this strange text came into being—and with such unusual language, so wicked and crazy. The words I used in telling that story were so unfamiliar to me that I had to write them down the minute they came. I was writing in elevators, I was writing in the streets, I was writing all over the place, on little notebooks and pieces of paper, trying to get hold of every phrase.

INTERVIEWER

What about Black Novel with Argentines? How did that start?

VALENZUELA

I was in New York and I thought I wanted to write a detective novel à la Chandler, but by the second page my intentions had flopped. I already knew who the killer was and who the victim was and how he had killed her. I knew, and I couldn’t lie to the reader. I realized then that the real, and only, search had to be for the motive of the crime. I went on writing, and not getting any wiser about it. Many times I thought I would have to throw the whole thing away. All the while, these flashes about repression in Argentina kept popping into the mind of my Argentine protagonist, Agustín Palant. Finally, I saw the complete picture—the return of the repressed—and knew I had to be very careful not to spell it out bluntly. Since the story deals with repression it is also about what cannot easily be said. Argentina, like Agustín, needs to know, but doesn’t want to hear.

INTERVIEWER

How do you deal with politics in your writing?

VALENZUELA

When I was young and all of those literary discussions were taking place in my home, the idea of politics in writing was anathema. Only Ernesto Sábato insisted that you could use politics in fiction. For Borges and the people around him, politics was a dirty word. You know, art for art’s sake. So back then I thought that you shouldn’t put politics where your mind was, where your writing was.

Now I know differently. Although the only way to deal with politics in literature is to avoid the message at all costs, without being self-righteous or judgmental. I learned that lesson inadvertently in the process of writing Strange Things Happen Here in 1975. Returning from two years of travel, I was faced with such a violent Buenos Aires that I didn’t recognize my city anymore. I decided that the only way I could understand—or at least have a feeling of belonging—was by writing; I decided to write a story a day, somewhat like an AA program. So I went to the local cafés, where the paranoid feelings were so palpable that any phrase I could pick up triggered a story. Often the phrases I would overhear had nothing to do with what people were actually saying.

INTERVIEWER

Do you mean that you misheard them, or that their speech was codified in some way?

VALENZUELA

Both. The basic idea was to work around what goes unsaid yet is there, throbbing. To grasp the underlying paranoia. Usually, I misheard the phrases—but it is true that everything more or less political was said elliptically or in a coded manner. Anyway, what was important to me then were random words that would trigger my imagination. Using black humor, the grotesque, the exasperation of language, I managed to depict the horror of oppression and torture, and reintegrate myself into the reality we were living then. I wrote thirty stories in one month. In the process, I learned how to write politics without giving a message.

INTERVIEWER

Is it important to avoid the message because it makes for better fiction, or because it more easily eludes censorship?

VALENZUELA

I don’t have a real message to give; I don’t know the solution. But if I believed I did, I would write an essay, a column, even a pamphlet—and never contaminate fiction with a message. On the contrary, I believe fiction is a search shared with the reader.

INTERVIEWER

Has your work ever been censored? I’m thinking of “Page Zero,” from your novel He Who Searches.

VALENZUELA

“Page Zero” was a censored page from the Spanish original. In 1979, I was correcting the proofs. The military had taken over in March, and my editor, Enrique Pezzoni, was courageous enough to go ahead with the publication but asked for caution. In “Page Zero,” an introduction that is really an epilogue, the main protagonist is interrogated and tortured. His confession is supposed to be the text of the novel. I agreed with the publisher to pull out “Page Zero,” but we forgot to take it off the table of contents. No one noticed anything; the novel was experimental enough.

Those were bad times for publication. We had to play around the margins of a very diffuse, random but lethal censorship. The publishers of a distinguished house that specialized in psychology and sociology—two very threatened disciplines at that time—went to see the colonel who was in charge of education and culture and asked him for guidelines that could be followed. The colonel was outraged: How can you ask that? You can publish whatever you want. This is a free country, with a free press and freedom of speech. Of course, he added, if some madman or other decided to plant a bomb in your publishing house, there is nothing we can do about it.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think about Joseph Brodsky’s claim that good poetry can only be written under political repression?

VALENZUELA

I used to quarrel with Brodsky over that claim. Brodsky would say, with his deep voice, that censorship was bad for the writer but good for literature. That upset me to no end—it may be true in places like the former Soviet Union, where censorship was regulated, but not in countries like Argentina, where censorship was completely random. You had no idea what would not please some military or other, and if something happened to upset them they would go for the kill—your parents, your children, even your friends. I might be ready to put my life at stake for my thoughts, but not everybody else’s. Brodsky would say that a writer who cannot put everybody’s life at risk is not worth the name, and that censorship pushed you to produce tighter metaphors. I think that a writer who cannot find the right metaphor is not worth the name, neither under a dictatorship nor a democracy.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever experienced exile?

VALENZUELA

Once, for a month and a half—it wasn’t much, yet it was difficult to bear. In 1976, I went to New York for the launching of my second book in English, Strange Things Happen Here. Two days after I left Buenos Aires, the police raided my apartment where my daughter was alone with her boyfriend—they were in their teens—and searched everything. They were looking for me. I had been fighting for human rights, hiding people who were in danger, getting crucial information out of the country. Fortunately, it was the police who came and not the paramilitary; they were threatening, but they didn’t take the kids away or harm them. I was advised not to come back. I remember spending a whole night with a Rubik’s Cube, trying unsuccessfully to solve it, as if that would put my life back in place. Eventually, I managed to return to Buenos Aires, only to leave it again—but this time it was my decision. I became an expatriate, not an exile.

INTERVIEWER

A similar scene appears in “Fourth Version,” when the character Bella goes abroad to perform her one-person show.

VALENZUELA

Yes, I do steal from my life at times! In that scene, Bella receives a phone call and is informed that some people are looking for her and that she should not come back. Her attitude and outlook change—she finally acknowledges the weight of her work—and she decides to return to a violent Buenos Aires and fight, with her own weapons, not allowing fear to paralyze her as it paralyzed others.

INTERVIEWER

Conversely, characters and events that originate in your fiction at times transgress their limits, literally invading reality; your novel Bedside Manner, for example, which unwittingly foretold a true military insurrection.

VALENZUELA

That was an ugly coincidence. An uprising of the rebel military took place the day after the book was launched. Since the novel speaks about just such an uprising, my friends claimed I was overdoing it with the promotion of the book.

The novel takes a very pataphysic—you know, never take serious things seriously—approach to reality. The uprisings were very real—the insurgent officers called themselves the Carapintadas, since they smothered their faces with camouflage grease. Everything in Bedside Manner is real—the hyper-hyper inflation, raids for food, the shantytown—except the overlapping of ridiculous situations. There are many other examples. I believe narrative knows better than we all do.

INTERVIEWER

You yourself appear as a character in The Lizard’s Tail. Why?

VALENZUELA

While I was writing The Lizard’s Tail, I realized that the Sorcerer was taking over the novel. This had to do with his choice of words—I had given him the first person, and with it the power over language. I couldn’t fight with him from the outside—it would have been a form of literary cheating—so my only possibility was to get in the novel myself.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by “literary cheating”?

VALENZUELA

I was playing a difficult, two-sided game. Not that I was writing an historical novel, but very recent history was at my doorstep, and the novel goes back and forth between the first-person character of the Sorcerer and the omniscient I. But the real person, José López Rega, on whom the character was based was very much alive then, and I just couldn’t distort the facts and kill him in fiction for my convenience. It would have been too easy, and would have spoiled the whole project.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever thought about writing your memoirs?

VALENZUELA

Of sorts. Not literary memoirs. But I’ve written diaries on and off, except for the last ten years or so. I always fantasize about writing travel logs, but then traveling gets the best of me and I don’t write. Also, I’m afraid that writing diaries is a way of avoiding fiction, so when I’m into a novel or a sequence of stories, I forgo the diaries.

But I think my life is literary and adventuresome in many ways, and I would love to tell it—if I could just pass the stage of direct narrative, which bores me to no end, especially because, in this case, I already know the outcome. There is no surprise left. Sticking to facts, however interesting, doesn’t allow me to delve into metaphor, to understand the deeper implications.

The novel I just finished, La Travesía, at first was intended to be a kind of apocryphal autobiography. After a couple of versions, I moved the whole thing from the first to the third person—the protagonist sounded too savvy for my taste, so I abandoned the autobiographical pretense.

INTERVIEWER

May I ask what the new novel is about?

VALENZUELA

La Travesía has to do with secrets. What are the secrets that we want to keep from others and what happens when we try to keep them from ourselves. It’s a bildungsroman of adulthood. This is the first time I’ve dealt with reality, and it was hard for me. The whole plot is invented, but the people surrounding the protagonist are not. I played with those disquieting feelings I used to get from Jerzy Kosinski’s novels—where does autobiography stop and invention start?

INTERVIEWER

Your complete short stories were published recently. How did it feel to see your stories all under one roof?

VALENZUELA

I was very excited to get in touch with my first stories again. Each story has its own independence. Each story is like its own individual, grown up and on its own. When I saw them all together, like a family, I could see the thread connecting them.

INTERVIEWER

Do you regret anything you’ve published?

VALENZUELA

There are so many writers who have burned or disclaimed their first books. Borges, for example. What a nuisance. I am very irreverent; I know no shame in that sense. It would mean some kind of censorship, wouldn’t it? Of course, there are some books I like better than others—some books still surprise me now, as if someone else had written them. On the other hand, I often regret what I haven’t written because I was too lazy or too cowardly. Writing takes real courage and commitment.


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.