Las Islas (1998), a novel about the Falklands-Malvinas war and its aftermath, set in a futuristic Buenos Aires, and described as “Science fiction, war story, travelogue, fairy tale”, is to be published in English translation by And Other Stories in late spring 2012. He is also the author of a collection of short stories, El libro de los afectos raros (2005). Bi-lingual in English and Spanish, Gamerro has translated Shakespeare, Auden, and Harold Bloom.
LP: Why did you decide to become a writer and who have been your biggest literary influences?
I really decided to become a writer after studying for a year to become a vet. My mother thought that there was more money in washing dogs but after a year groping in the entrails of horses and cows my inclination towards a literary vocation had solidified into a deep faith. When writing my first novel, Las Islas, I was deeply addicted to William S. Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon. As Argentina had no tradition of war novels, I had to resort to foreign models, and as I was dealing with the Malvinas/Falklands war, only the novels of the aforementioned authors or the surreal Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin and Michael Herr’s Dispatches would do. I talk about models because these you choose; influences I believe creep up upon you unawares and work in mysterious ways and are best spotted and dwelt upon by critics.
LP: Could you give an overview of what you mean by “the Argentine fantastic” genre and how it differs from the tradition of magic realism?
I was trying to establish a basic difference between what is sometimes called the Argentine fantastic (certain stories by Borges, Bioy Casares, Cortázar and Silvina Ocampo) and the tradition of magic realism. The basic difference is they’ve got nothing in common. As I explain in my recent book of essays, Ficciones barrocas, (Baroque Fictions), the The basic difference between the Argentine fantastic and magic realism is they've got nothing in commongenre of the Argentine fantastic, which I prefer to call Baroque fictions, supposes reality consists always of at least two planes, usually one of representation and another one of the represented (sometimes called ‘reality’ for short): a Baroque fiction will alter the accepted order between these planes, or cross boundaries, usually with an effect that is either disquieting, uncanny or terrifying: the object will conform to the reflection instead of the reverse; there will be dreams within dreams or the character will not know if he is dreaming, waking, or waking inside a dream; reality will reveal itself as theatre and vice versa… These 20th century writers use all the old baroque tropes of Cervantes and Calderón and Shakespeare (where did the English get the idea he is a Renaissance writer?) to structure the plot and the representation of reality. Magic realism on the other hand takes place in a world that is always one, never divided into two: in this homogeneous reality unusual or marvellous events occur naturally, without causing fear or even surprise. Representation is hardly ever an issue.
LP: Writing about the Argentine literary tradition you said, “For us, the city is the territory of the fantastic and the magical.” Could you expand on this and explain why you think this is particular to Argentine literature and what it means for you?
The natural medium for magic realism in Latin America is usually rural. The rural literature of Argentina, the 19th century gauchesca, on the other hand, is obsessively realistic because the urban gentlemen who wrote it had bought into positivism and rationalism and had no sympathy for the superstitions and beliefs of the gauchos, much less for those of the natives who they were striving to wipe out. If you look at the stories of Borges, for example, the strange or unusual typically occurs in the city: those stories with a rural setting, perhaps because of the pressure of the gauchesca genre, are decidedly realistic.
LP: You’ve also said “[William] Faulkner has been the single greatest influence on the Latin American literary boom of the 60s”. In what ways?
You must bear in mind that the boom was massively experimental, in terms of language and narrative devices. Faulkner created the basic formula that the Latin American writers of the 60s would apply: he combined state of the art, avant-garde techniques, the kind of Modernist writing until then associated almost exclusively with the city (think of Joyce, Virginia Woolf) with a rural setting in a semi-feudal society (which defines both Yoknapathawpa and the territory of a large part of Latin American literature, including Brazil). Until Faulkner, rural literature was realistic, conventional and conservative: the avant-garde, experimental writing, was mostly urban. Also, Faulkner’s territory has more in common with the Caribbean region (including all the islands, Central America, Colombia, Venezuela) than with the rest of the US. Faulkner was, in many ways, a Latin American writer who wrote in English.
LP: How autobiographical are the stories you tell?
Never directly. I mean, if you’ve lived it, what can be more boring than going through the same experience, again? As for healing, through writing or catharsis, there’s therapy for that, it works better and is easier and probably even cheaper than writing (most educated Argentinians go through years of psychoanalysis as a sort of unavoidable rite of passage). What I sometimes do, is lend some experience of mine to a character, use it as building material; specially when I want to connect with some character, place or situation emotionally (if I want to hate him I’ll tell myself he was this kid that used to bully me in school, let’s say). When I came to create a small town and its life in my El secreto y las voces, I based it on the town where I used to spend my summer holidays: not just to get the facts right, but to get the right emotions.
But there is another way in which my stories are powerfully autobiographical: in the negative, in reverse. I prefer to write about the experience I did not have, that perhaps I desired, perhaps feared, or both: the road not taken as Robert Frost would have it. Particularly when this was a close call: when I had avoided some awful or maybe alluring fate. The most obvious example of this is in Las Islas: a novel about a young man, my age, who gets sent to the Malvinas war. I should’ve been sent, but had applied for my drafting to be postponed. For years afterwards I was pursued by the question: what if I had been sent? Who or what would I be now? This second, ghostly life "Argentina is an erect prick, ready to breed, and the Malvinas are its balls"was with me, grew with me, this other Carlos Gamerro who had gone to war would appear in dreams, in the lulls and eddies of daily life, until one day I decided to write his life down. I believe these ghostly selves, and the lives they lead, are always with us and are one of the origins of fiction.
LP: What inspired The Islands and The Secret and its Voices?
In the case of Las Islas I realized after ten years that all the fabulous material about the war had only been adequately used by a single writer, the late Rodolfo Fogwill, in Los pichiciegos (translated as Malvinas Requiem). The Malvinas are for us more than a piece of land lost in the Atlantic, they are the magical key to national identity and prosperity, a kind of Holy Grail of Argentina’s quest for greatness; as one character puts it, “Argentina is an erect prick, ready to breed, and the Malvinas are its balls”; while another one sees their irregular symmetry as a Roscharch test, where one can interpret the shape of his fears or desires, and yet another one (but this is in reality, not in my novel) saw them as “the embodiment of Eva Perón”. I wanted a novel that could include all this, embrace this logic, and take it as far as it can go. In this, I failed. I recently found out that in the 60s a revolutionary group had tried to recover the Islands in order to bring Perón back from exile, to them, to command his return to power. When real life is so inventive, what can a fiction writer do?
LP: Does the fact that you are bi-lingual affect your writing?
Well, there is this tendency for the mot juste to pop up in Spanish when I’m writing in English, and vice versa. Also, Argentine Spanish is quite hybrid, the massive immigration, particularly Italian, but also English, French, Central European, has made it quite mongrel, quite mixed. I love that, I leave the purity of the language to the Spaniards and their colonial nostalgia.
LP: Will you participate in the process of translating your work into English?
Ian Barnett, who is busy at work on El secreto, is a good friend of mine and has been wanting to translate my stuff for years. Parts of Las Islas have been going back and forth between us to the point where I can’t remember who did what. Yes, I’ll become his worst nightmare, I can assure you.
LP: How do you turn your research into a novel? Do you use record cards? Diagrams? Character dossiers?
What I look for in my research is the random, bizarre, unexpected kind of thing that only history can provide
Nothing as sophisticated as that. On the one hand I jot down ideas, bits of dialogue, things that come to me at random. When I have enough of these scribbled pieces of paper I paste them on to different pages according to theme, scene, situation, and see if there is a novel or a story there.
When it comes to research, I also read more or less at random, following leads from one book or text to the next, seeing what chance throws my way (the absence of good libraries in Argentina makes this a wise way to move). What I look for in my research is the random, bizarre, unexpected kind of thing that only history (the story of the facts as they unfold) can provide – what the much stricter logic of the imagination couldn’t dream of. For example, I’m wading through this very boring journalistic piece about the rich and powerful of Argentina, and I stumbled upon the fact that when one of them was kidnapped in the 70s by the Peronist guerrillas, one of the demands of the kidnappers was that busts of Eva Perón should be placed in all the offices and branches of their powerful corporation. I suddenly saw the board meeting, the discussions about who would buy those busts, what material they should be made of (shall we economise, let’s say plaster, or do we do the honourable thing and go for bronze?) and I knew I had a novel (La aventura de los bustos de Eva).
LP: What do you have planned next?
I’m working on the theatrical adaptation of Las Islas, which is to open in April in the Teatro Alvear, with one of our most talented directors, Alejandro Tantanian, an amazing cast, two great artists, Sebastián Gordín and Marina De Caro, in set design, and the wonderful composer/interpreter Diego Penelas as musical director. A dream project. For many years I wrote film scripts, but this is my first full-scale foray into the theatre.
And Other Stories is a new publishing venture, a radical and community-based initiative that promotes writing in translation. Instead of leaving it to the editors and sales people of publishing houses to decide what we should be reading, various reading groups, editors and translators get together and decide what is worth publishing. Over the next year, they plan to publish four books using this unique and collaborative approach.