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Interview by Carlos Fuentes with John P. Dwyer
SOURCE: "Conversation with a Blue Novelist," in Review, No. 12, Fall, 1974, pp. 54-8.
In the following interview, Fuentes discusses his approach to writing, Latin American writers and literature, and his place in Latin American literature.
[Dwyer:] On what project are you working now?
[Fuentes:] It's an enormous novel, over seven hundred pages. I guess one might call it a Medusa of a thousand heads. I hope to be finishing it within a month.
Would you dare to telescope all those pages into a brief outline?
Look, I'll try. I guess that everyone, at least once, has asked himself what he would do if he had his life to live over. Well, what I do in this book is bring the question to the level of an entire civilization, the civilization of Spain and Latin America. What the novel essentially asks is what Spain and Spanish America would do if they had an opportunity to relive their history. I then narrate what would happen under those circumstances of having the freedom to repeat this history, of choosing to repeat the history of our civilization, of its gestation, of the encounter between European and Indian civilizations: in short, of the formation of what is Latin American culture. What would happen? Unfortunately, if history could repeat itself exactly as it occurred, it would be much easier because there would not be the tragic margin of choice. But since the margin of choice does exist, history does not repeat itself exactly as it was. Nevertheless, its essence is the same. Its tragedies are once again the same, as well as its errors. And in its freedom to err once again lies the true sense of tragedy of choice.
Even though your outline is relatively uncomplicated, I am sure that you will present the story in a narrative maze.
It has to be that way because once I, as the novel's author, decide to allow myself the luxury of offering these cultures a second chance, I can only accomplish my goal by erasing chronology, by wiping out conventional concepts of time and space, so as to recreate all to my own tastes, concentrating the whole into a Goyesque canvas, as it were. Basically, the novel is like an Escorial under construction, where at the same time and in the same place exist such interesting characters as: Juana la Loca [Jane the Mad]; Felipe II; Carlos II, el Hechizado [The Bewitched]; Felipe el Hermoso [Phillip the Fair]; all the dwarfs, buffoons, albinos, doctors, lawyers, Jews, Arabs … the whole crew….
You mention a recreation of the past….
Yes, but this novel happens in the future.
Of course, another chance to create itself again. Have you ever thought of rewriting any of your works, or giving them as it were, an opportunity to be recreated by their author?
No, never, I don't even reread my works. Aguilar in Mexico is now publishing my "complete works" but I refuse to correct anything. They'll stay exactly as they first appeared. I think that rewriting one's works is a form of self-paralysis. Looking back turns an author into a pillar of salt.
But doesn't seeing your works published as "complete," at this stage of your career, cause any mixed emotions?
No, not at all. Volumes will still be added. It really is nothing more than another edition, a new one with photos, a criticism section, and a prologue written by Fernando Benitez. One could hardly call it my "complete works" because I am now forty-four and I hope to continue writing for at least another quarter century.
How do you feel when you now see yourself mentioned by younger Mexican writers as having influenced them?
Like an ol' gran'daddy!
Of all that you have written, your plays have probably received the least critical attention. One especially, seems rather difficult to stage: Todos los gatos son pardos, where at the end of the play dead vultures rain down upon the stage from high above the set.
Actually, that play has yet to be staged. Barrault is planning to present it in France next year and Glauber Rocha, the Brazilian director, is going to make a movie of it. Barrault is going to use the Theatre of the Gare d'Orsay where Orson Welles filmed The Trial by Kafka. He has converted the theatre into a type of amphitheatre or circus, and will present the play with all the things he needs. I really hope that it will rain those vultures from a high scaffolding. Rocha, of course, with all of his cinematographic means will be able to do just about what he pleases. It is a difficult play to perform. On the other hand, El tuerto es rey is much easier because there's only a set and two characters, and it has already been presented with a fair amount of success, especially in French.
Do you still write movie scripts?
Yes, from time to time. To help finance my novels I write movie scripts, but my attitude in regard to them is that of Woody Allen: "take the money and run." I'm not a good writer for the cinema because mine is a verbal world, not a visual one. I love the movies and learn a lot from them. But since I'm really a spectator at heart, when I write for the movies, I don't work out well. My methods are too literary. My projection is totally verbal and the cinema calls for just the opposite.
You once called Cortázar the Bolívar of language for the Latin American novel. In many ways, you too might be considered a Bolívar of….
Oh, no. If anything, the most you could call me is a Benito Juárez.
A Juárez, then, in reference to eroticism in Mexican literature.
Oh, God. That is simply not true. Please no. What about all the poetry of Octavio Paz which is fundamentally erotic? You see, if we accepted your point, we would be forgetting about all those poems and poetic passages in Sunstone, which after all is extraordinarily erotic because Paz himself is a very erotic author. I might be best classified as a "pornographic writer," at times, anyway … an author of blue novels, or at least of blue passages, let us say.
Several sections of A Change of Skin bear out your point.
Agreed, but I really believe that eroticism in Mexican letters is due more to Paz's poetry and Luis Buñuel's films. Even if all Mexicans don't realize what Buñuel is doing, one has to acknowledge the eroticism of films like El, Los olvidados, or Robinson Crusoe.
In your statement on Neruda you mentioned the importance of poetry to all Latin American novelists but, in many ways, it's a subject of much less critical attention than the contemporary novel.
Those who ignore the importance of poetry do a great injustice. Historically, and to the present day, the novel has always been vitally linked with poetry in Latin America. One cannot understand our novel without reference to our poetry. The novel, after all, is a fairly recent phenomenon in Latin America, while poetry has represented an uninterrupted tradition dating back to colonial times. We have always had good poets. In fact, the most important Mexican—and perhaps even Latin American—poet was an eighteenth-century nun, Sor Juana. And so you see, the appearance of Latin America's novel is preceded, influenced and determined by a vast background of poetry with figures like Leopoldo Lugones. Rubén Darío. Vicente Huidobro. César Vallejo and Pablo Neruda. This has always been the case. Frankly, I would be unable to write novels if I didn't read poetry.
In your essays, you often speak of a tendency in the contemporary novel to move toward a poetic expression.
That's true. The traditional European novel, as far as I am concerned, has died. Take the English novel. If any country had had a continuity in its novelists, it's England. But this occurred in a tradition that was alive but now has ceased to be so. Today, any British novelist who tries to continue speaking about psychological relations, or about social or class relations, would probably write a rather poor novel. He would only be repeating the great discoveries of the past. I don't believe that anyone can still write the novel that Dickens did, or for that matter, even Flaubert. Bourgeois realism is dead. And this fact leaves the novelist in a difficult situation. Many of his techniques, and a good part of his story material, have been taken away by the mass media. The melodrama, mystery stories, these are all now the object of television serials, daily radio programs and films. They have all ended up as movie plots. Today Balzac wouldn't write The Human Comedy. He'd make a film. No, a series of films about the social and psychological life of France. This all leaves the novelist stripped of his story. As a result, he must ask himself what can his novel say and how can it say it. It's a difficult challenge. We are now faced with the problem of deciding what actually belongs to the novel. We then find ourselves left with the essential basis and fact of literature, which is poetry. Poetry, and its very name implies it, because of its all-relating and comprehensive nature simply is literature. The novel is divesting itself of many trappings that the mass media now employ. It's a task that must be done if we are to find the very basis of literature and its definition, which is poetry. This is all very evident in Joyce, in Herman Broch and Malcolm Lowry. And I believe that it is one of the definitions of the contemporary novel in Latin America, which in no way can be judged to be a naturalist or realist novel. Ours is a novel that attempts to create, to construct verbal universes, its own and, in a certain way, sufficient unto itself.
Your remarks on the destruction of "bourgeois realism" are very evident in A Change of Skin. There your characters constantly remind the reader that he's participating in a novel. The traditional framework of realism is constantly being questioned.
That's right. I believe that there's a constant reflection on the genre, a criticism of creation within the created work, that destroys any illusion, either naturalist or realist, that the reader might have. And for that reason, the reader is disturbed, disturbed because he formerly could rely on the novelist's assuring him that what he was reading was real, that the novel was reality, and that the characters actually existed—that in fact the novel was true. The soap opera tells us these things, flaunting its reality to the viewer, assuring him of its truth, while the authentic novelist of today is saying to his readers that what they believe is reality is not so. He's saying that there's something more than that reality. The novelist is then attacking the reader's conformity, his acceptance of what is presented, and forces him to participate as a co-creator of the novel. The author imposes upon his reader a responsibility identical to his own. As I said in my remarks about Neruda, the poem creates the author, and it also creates its reader. I believe that this is a must for today's new novel, and Latin American novelists realize it.
How, then, do you react to criticism of their novel as being realist or naturalist, an idea expressed very recently by a reviewer of several Latin American novels available in English translation?
Even if we include the best translations available, I doubt that the Latin American novel could have the resonance and importance in countries where it is translated as it does at home or in Spain. The essential struggle of the Latin American novelist is with his language and culture. We are very conscious of having inherited a language that died at the end of the eighteenth century, one that had fossilized, academized and refused to deal with the themes of eroticism, rebellion and criticism. We find ourselves at battle with a language practically dead. We are attempting to revive it, to shatter it and to put it back together again, to infuse it with a new substance. This is an essential aspect of the work by Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, Octavio Paz and Lezama Lima. And it is a phenomenon difficult to transfer to another language in translation. I believe that ours is a situation akin to that of Pushkin, who is apparently an untranslatable poet. According to my friends who read Russian, no translation accurately reflects Pushkin's greatness. I think that we have run into similar problems, at least in some cases. Since we are writing a literature of foundation, one that deals with the problems of a stagnant culture, of a dead culture and its language, the essential part of the phenomenon is produced from within that culture and from within that language. Its nature is not easily transferred to another language. On the other hand, I find it rather extraordinary that acceptable translations have been made, and actually some very good ones that now reach a growing public in the United States, in Europe and in Japan. I think we are fortunate that it has happened, a gift of the gods, if you will, that these novels are published, and that they attract a readership and a critical reception. The fact is that there is now, without doubt, a presence of Latin American literature in places today where none existed twenty years ago. But the main battle, the essential repercussion, will always have to be within our own cultural and linguistic sphere. I don't doubt that in the least.
You probably are familiar with José Donoso's Historia personal del "boom" (Personal History of the "Boom"). How do you react to his characterizing a party at your home in 1965 as being the symbolic initiation of what later became known as the "Boom" in the Latin American novel?
Your question calls for a comment on the comments by Donoso. Just let me say that the book is a bit uncommon in Latin America where people are usually more solemn and everything is taken on a very abstract and somewhat stuffy level. Donoso's book belongs more to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of personal recollections, of confidences, of memories brought back to life. I really liked the book. On one side. Pepe is a Henry James who coexists in a very mysterious way with his nocturnal and monstrous side, with that of the vulture in search of carrion. I think that he is half Dracula and half Elsa Maxwell. All this elegantly adds up to a type of Henry James.
What are your feelings now on the "Boom?"
I don't believe that there ever was such a "Boom"—it was really an invention of the publishers and bookstore owners. Actually the whole process of a literature comes before, dating from much further back in time. No one can really say when it started, much less at that party Pepe Donoso mentions in his book. We have had a long history of literature in Spanish. If instead of a "Boom" we wanted to discuss an authentic movement of renovation, then we would have to talk about Borges, about Neruda and Huidobro. And Macedonio Fernández. And then Onetti, a great novelist who began writing much before we did. And Alejo Carpentier, as well.
But you would agree that there was something to the "Boom" …
Oh yes, most certainly. There was, and still is, a fraternity among certain writers. Some of the members of the "Boom" are close friends. I believe that for the first time we have a generation of writers in Latin America who are friends, who respect each other, and who don't stick knives in each other's back. I guess you could say that about Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, García Márquez and myself. We are all very good friends. Among ourselves there is a feeling of group unity, a fraternity. There's no question about that.
The "Boom" has also inspired a look back to what came before it, a rereading of preceding works. Wouldn't you agree?
Yes, exactly. That is one point I'd like to emphasize, because some people have criticized us by claiming that we have a society of mutual admiration among ourselves, that we are each other's most conscientious promoters. But that isn't the case. In fact, if you look at the personal opinions and critical works of all the novelists I just mentioned. I believe that in nearly every instance what we've done is to say and to recognize that there is a literature and a tradition behind us: that we did not appear from nowhere, but rather that precisely writers like Vargas Llosa. Cortázar and I have given great credit to and underlined the importance of people like Onetti, who had been little read and recognized. We have recalled the existence of and insisted a great deal on the importance of the founding influence of the poetry of Pablo Neruda, of Huidobro and Paz. We always mention the existence of writers like Felisberto Hernández. Roberto Arlt and Macedonio Fernández. So you see, this is not a closed group but rather one that is attempting to understand the process and to point out the value of an entire literary tradition. What we are trying to say is that it all didn't begin with La ciudad y los perros [The Time of the Hero] or La región más transparente [Where the Air is Clear], or Rayuela [Hopscotch], but rather that there was a whole process of gestation that must be considered.
This section contains 2,910 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)