Interview: Dimópulos and Magnus in conversation with JM Coetzee

‘Other ways of saying’: An interview with Mariana Dimópulos and Ariel Magnus

Mariana Dimópulos (b. 1973) is an Argentine novelist, critic and translator. She is the author of three novels, one of which has appeared in English as All My Goodbyes (Giramondo, 2017). As a translator she specializes in German philosophy. She has translated, inter alios, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Ariel Magnus (b. 1975) is an Argentine novelist, translator and journalist. He has published sixteen works of fiction. Among the authors he has translated into Spanish are Heinrich von Kleist, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Peter Handke, Walter Benjamin and Gertrude Stein.

This interview was conducted in July 2018. The questions were posed by John Coetzee.

JMC: Balzac famously wrote that behind every great fortune lies a crime. One might similarly argue that behind every successful colonial venture lies a crime, a crime of dispossession. Just as in the dynastic novels of the nineteenth century the heirs of great fortunes are haunted by the crimes on which their fortunes were founded, a successful colony like Australia seems to be haunted by a history that will not go away. The question of what to say or do about dispossession of Indigenous Australians is as alive in the Australian imagination as it has ever been. Could the same be said about Argentina, which has a similar bloody history behind it?

Mariana Dimópulos
Mariana Dimópulos

MD: The dispossession has multiple connotations in our country. The crime committed by the conquistadores, which lies five hundred years behind, was widely discussed since the nineties, when the conquista had its half millennium anniversary. While Spain celebrated the event, Latin America questioned itself about how to tell (us) this story. The conquistadores were murderers and not the ones who brought ‘civilization’. It was a bloody story indeed.

In the nineteenth century, Argentina as an independent country began a second conquista, that of the ‘desert’. It wasn’t properly a desert, but a territory inhabited by the people who had survived the annihilation work of the conquistadores and their heirs. This second conquista was the founding move of our nation: culture or barbarism.

On the other hand, the dispossession goes its own way today, stigmatizing not only the ones who look ethnically different (this eternal problem of the dominant minorities projecting their own way of living upon the rest of the world), but also creating a society which naturalizes the fact that someone was born in a villa miseria (slum) and the other one in a comfortable place. And that this doesn’t have to change. This dispossession is a fundamental one in Argentina.

Ariel Magnus. Photo: Maximiliano Luna

AM: The question is if Argentina could be levelled, like Australia, as a successful colony. If we compare today’s life standards in both countries, the answer is clearly no, save for a small elite. We do have a similar bloody history behind us, even bloodier in the Argentinean case ­ – the past extermination of indigenous people and there actual segregation being nearly total – but without the apparent benefits of such a crime. On the other hand, there are more recent crimes that do in some way conceal those of the Spanish conquista in the sixteenth century and those of the conquista del desierto (conquest of the desert) –the ‘desert’ being the land of the aborigines – in the nineteenth century. I mean the last of many twentieth-century military dictatorships we had to endure, the one that perpetrated between 1976 and 1983 an anti-communist massacre – similar, but much more cruel again, to others in other former colonies of the continent. As a child of this crime – and grandchild of the Nazi crime, that caused both branches of my family tree to move to South America – the indigenous crime isn’t as alive in my imagination as it should be. I don’t have the feeling that it is present either in contemporary literature or politics (although we have a political prisoner of indigenous ascendency). César Aira’s funny and imaginative ‘Indian’ books probably reflect the ‘indigenous question’ in today’s Argentinean intellectual society better than the factual studies you could read about this issue.

JMC: Jorge Luis Borges has been dead for thirty years, but to outsiders Borges still seems to be the presiding presence in Argentine literature. Born in the 1970s, you belong to the second or even third generation of writers since Borges. How do you feel about Borges? Is he a living presence for you?

MD: Borges is everywhere present in Argentinian intellectual life. If you go to Germany you hear every now and then a quotation from Goethe,  serving as authority to any idea at hand. The same happens in Argentina with Borges, in actual or imaginary quotations.

Personally I’m not a great reader of his work, at least not in this way of worshipping him that is usual. His view of philosophy as a branch of science-fiction, for example, doesn’t appeal to me in the least. His very Anglo-Saxon humour is for me another obstacle. Of course, he opened the Latin-American tradition to the world in a way that no other author did. This specific way of Borges was the universalization of the vernacular, this mixing of Leibniz and the gaucho, to say it provocatively.

But as a very young woman I read his poetry and I still defend this poetry, although sometimes too classical, in opposition to those who only vindicate his famous short stories. In fact, Borges has taught us how to understand our own language as a literary language, as dialectal variety of Peninsular Spanish. And also how to defend a certain (sometimes wrongly understood) national literature. In terms of style, he left an indelible and wonderful mark: brevity and accurateness.

AM: I wrote my master thesis about Borges (and Leibniz). I have a novel that is a continuation of a tale of Borges (unpublished, due to Borges’ widow). My last novel – to be published in English by Seagull Press next year – has as title a citation of one of Borges’ poems. So I’m with the outsiders in this: I also believe Borges is still present in our literature, and think he should remain there as our Shakespeare for a long time to come. For worship or the opposite, it is good to have a literary hero, one that not only gave us great texts, but also enlarged our reading horizons. I don’t think that we have to kill Borges in order to continue writing, or even reading our own literature.

Of course there is much more than him in the Argentine literature, and if you stop there, you will miss a lot of interesting writers. But let’s face it: if all of the writers of the country should disappear behind the figure of a single one, Borges is big enough to lodge all of us in his shadow.

JMC: You have been in the literary world long enough to recognize that who does and who does not get to be translated into foreign languages and published abroad is a very haphazard business, depending as much on luck as on merit. Among contemporary writers from Argentina, the one most widely translated into English seems to be César Aira. Can you name some other writers who, in your opinion, ought to be more widely known, and perhaps say something about their work?

MD: Many factors come into play in translation as a result of a culture interested in authors from another culture, of course. Literary prizes are a main source of translations – the one who has won an (international) prize has many chances of being translated. Since about ten years, Argentina has a program of translation promotion. And it has been a successful initiative.

Juan José Saer (1937-2005), for example, was a great and very influential writer for my generation who has been translated into English only recently (and only partially). He was a great stylist, in dialogue with the French tradition.  A woman writer like Sara Gallardo is mainly known within Argentinian boundaries and deserves much attention, in particular her novel Los galgos, los galgos. Among the strictly contemporary authors I would mention Esther Cross, who had a great success with a non-fiction book about Mary Shelley and the romantic movement in Great Britain.

AM: You are so right: in this world of literary agents and commercial prizes that many times just  replicate names and books that sell all right, being translated is pretty much a matter of luck: the luck of being successful or the luck of finding almost by chance the right reader in another language.

This said, I think it is very good for non-Spanish readers to have César Aira in English and all possible languages. He is our most important living writer at the moment –and a great admirer of Borges, by the way. Among the other living writers that should be translated in my opinion, I would single out Marcelo Cohen, who has a long and consistent work of futuristic fiction, settled in a world of his own invention, in which the main character is his masterfully dominion of language (always easy to identify with, as a writer). I think the late Juan José Saer, another master of language, deserves much more attention too, for his own books (Glosa is for me a highlight not only in Argentinean but in Spanish literature) and because he is a mirror for many young writers as well.

JMC: The decade that Argentina passed under military rule cast a long shadow. Even after the return to democracy, it did not seem possible for writers to go about their business as if nothing had happened. You were both born during the dictatorship, more or less, and were still children when it ended. Has the memory of what happened under military rule left any mark on your writing?

MD: This is a third and very fundamental crime of origins in Argentina. Our present democracy is throughout determined by this event. We have a controversy going on about the obligation of memory and the supposed need of ‘keep going and leave the past behind’. In fact, our generation suffered, if not always directly, as the second one affected in this story. Many of our friends have a parent who was disappeared (that means, was abducted, tortured and murdered during the dictatorship 1976-1983 or before).

In my particular case, my childhood went by ignoring this drama. But this kind of silence that the dictatorship installed in our minds and hearts is still very present, as a kind of fear. Because the repressive forces are still alive in our society.

I have just finished a novel about a young woman who decides to make a guerrilla revolutionary of herself in the seventies, and about a mature woman who decides to trace her story in our days. I have had this conviction since long ago: the only kind of epic you could write in our century about Argentina’s recent history should be about a member of the revolutionary movement. Of course, this has a lot of risks – idealization and simplification, to mention a few. My concern was, at the same time, the impossibility of this enterprise, the multiple factors that had so greatly changed our way of seeing violence and politics. In this impossibility I made my attempt.

AM: Indeed, the military dictatorship that began a couple of months after I was born and that deprived of fathers and mothers most of my friends left a mark in my writing, and precisely in form of a shadow. I could never write about it, mainly because I have an inclination towards humour in my books. On the other side, I could never refrain from referring to it, if the novel happened to take place near that time or in any relation to it. Only after twenty years of writing I found the way to get even with this theme the way I like it, that is with very black and impious humour: I wrote the novel in English. The convenient distance of a foreign language gave me the liberty and lack of responsibility I needed to exorcize somehow a particularly painful and enraging part of the land’s and my own history.

JMC: Besides being writers you are both professional translators, translating mainly from German. For a long time it was not Berlin but Paris that was the natural home for expatriate Argentine writers. What does German culture, German thought, German literature mean to you?

MD: I came to the German language and culture trough my philosophical and essayistic readings. At some point in my university studies I discovered the works of the Frankfurt School, in particular those by Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Reading in translation these books was really a challenge. I was able to discover a new style in writing, very close to a new style in thinking, below the Spanish translation. So when I got my degree I decided to go to Germany and ‘get’ this language for myself.

As a translator, I’m not very essentialist about languages and don’t think that in a particular language you can say things that you cannot in another one. But languages teach us other ways of saying. And I wanted this way of saying from the German language. At the same time I met my husband, who has German forebears. Together we went to Germany and stayed there for six years. I rapidly began with the great German thinkers, the most classical ones, studying Kant and Hegel. Then I began a wonderful trip to the literature of post-war writers: Heinrich Böll, Ingeborg Bachmann, Max Frisch, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and the most important for me, Thomas Bernhard. I never completely stopped reading philosophy either. In this long way, I finally became a translator of German specialized in the Frankfurt School. First I made a reader of myself and then sought to make others read the things I thought valuable enough. I’m still working on this.

AM: All of my five grandparents were German (the mother of my father married for a second time again with a German emigré). I went to a German school and became an M.A. in Germany (albeit not in German but in Spanish Literature and Philosophy). So German is more than just a second language to me, it’s part of my history and of my culture. Living in Berlin at the beginning of the century, I began to write reportage for newspapers in Argentina and Mexico, also because I was eager to show people what Germany was like. And that’s what I do since I returned to Argentina and became a translator: I use my knowledge of the language and my experience of the culture there to open up Spanish readers to a world so close and yet so distant because of the difficulty of its language.

JMC: I hope this question is not too intrusive. How do you make a living? How much of your time are you able to devote to your own work, and how much time do you have to spend on ancillary activities like journalism, teaching, and translation?

MD: I find it very hard to combine different things. I use to think about myself as a monomaniac person. Once I get into something, I have to finish it. This makes the combination between fiction writing and other activities such as teaching or translating quite difficult. So I live in a kind of constant conflict, and with the years I came to reconcile myself with this fate. In a practical way, I try to invent for myself some blank periods in which I can write fiction. These are not so simple to obtain, specially when you translate heavy works on philosophy, a task that takes enormous amounts of time and brings not enormous amounts of money.

AM: Since I was very young I struggled to do only one thing in my life: write books. So even though I began working when I was in high school, I always left some time to write my texts, which I did for ten years without even thinking in publishing it. In Germany I took advantage of student grants to keep on pursuing this irresponsible use of my time, at least half of the day. When I came back to Argentina and began to publish my books, I had a stroke of luck and won two highly remunerated international prizes the same year – one of them with César Aira in the jury, let me proudly add. This generated several translations and bigger advances for next books and so on. With that unbelievable amount of money I managed to live a couple of years.

At that time I switched from journalism (a profession I took mainly because my mother, seeing that I wrote so much, sent me at the age of 13 to a journalism course instead of a creative writing course) to my real passion: translation. Which now forms – those fifteen minutes of wealth sadly gone – my main income. But I do such work only in the afternoons, the mornings being always for writing. And I won’t renounce that for more money, I prefer to make a living out of not spending: no vacations, no fancy restaurants, no new clothes, no people to clean my house… Just enough time, every single day, to enter that timeless realm of imagining other worlds on paper.

Mariana Dimópulos and Ariel Magnus are visiting Australia as part of the ARC project ‘Other Worlds’. They are in residence first at the University of Adelaide, then at Western Sydney University.