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Temporal lines: An interview with Pedro Mairal, Samanta Schweblin, Fabian Martinez

Fabian Martinez Siccardi (born Patagonia 1964) is an award-winning writer of fiction. Pedro Mairal (born Buenos Aires 1970) is the author of Savatierra (2008), translated into English as The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra. Samanta Schweblin (born Buenos Aires 1978) is the author of Distancia de rescate (2014), translated into English as Fever Dream. All three writers have visited Australia recently. The interview was conducted by John Coetzee.

J.M. Coetzee: Balzac famously wrote that behind every great fortune lies a crime. One might similarly claim 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 comparably bloody history behind it?

Fabian Martinez Siccardi: The bloody history and the dispossession of indigenous peoples in Argentina, which is not only an issue from the past but also a current one, given the conflicts occurring all over the country over land and other rights, does not seem to be at the centre of discussion in Argentina, not even among the politically progressive and socially sensitive sectors of society. And this is due, in my opinion, to a profound ignorance of history. The massacres, the concentration camps and all of the past and current abuses against indigenous peoples have never made it into the textbooks, and at the same time, the main media outlets are hermetically sealed against indigenous voices, which they normally accuse of being ‘terrorists’.

An example: In 2017, Santiago Maldonado, a young white man who was participating in a Mapuche indigenous protest, disappeared in Patagonia. Over the months that followed until his body was found, the protests that were held all over the country demanding explanations from the government about Maldonado’s fate gained supporters, until there were hundreds of thousands. A few weeks after Maldonado’s body was found, during a conflict over territorial devolution, the Argentine army shot Rafael Nahuel, an unarmed 27-year-old Mapuche man, in the back, killing him. The march to protest his death was attended by 200 people.

Samanta Schweblin: My first walks through Adelaide and Perth shocked me, the Indigenous presence in the streets, such pain and violence that it was literally palpable. That is the sensation that one takes from Australia around this issue, a ghost who seems to have come from the past, but who is present, who is still visible. In Argentina, there is almost absolute invisibility of indigenous people. There is no record of them in the streets, in the media, or in our cultural consciousness. Our generation, at least the great majority which grew up in the cities, is closer to a European immigrant grandparent past than an indigenous past. We know about indigenous peoples through their own colonisers, and to date there has not been any type of historical revisionism which includes them.

Pedro Mairal: I agree that there is a process of invisibilisation. Indeed, there is an Argentine self-perception of being fully European, seen, for example, in a popular saying which states: ‘the Mexicans descended from the Aztecs, the Peruvians from the Incas, and the Argentines from the boats’. This phrase completely denies the presence of indigenous blood in Argentine culture. In order to survive, indigenous peoples had to deny themselves to themselves, and reject and erase their identity, in order to fit in to a European identity. Andrés Di Tella’s documentary El Pais del Diablo (The Devil’s Country) demonstrates this very well.

Nation states try to draw a line in time and say: from this date on, this is the legitimate state. Temporal lines and territorial lines. Measurements, quantities, years and kilometres, over a land that always was and always will be. I was born within this state, constructed on a foundation of massacres and misappropriations. That empty space, that desolation in Argentina’s landscapes, is a space filled with knowledge which has been lost, information that was never written down, wisdom pushed aside and silenced. But guilt is of no use if we don’t transform it into something. And what I can do about that is to privilege curiosity over ignorance and prejudice. To try to listen to that silence, until the landscape itself begins to speak again. To know that that violence occurred and to listen to the lost voices.

JMC: Jorge Luis Borges has been dead for thirty years, but to outsiders Borges still seems to be the presiding presence in Argentine literature. 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?

FMS: I didn’t read Borges in my youth. His writing seemed impenetrable and his conservative ideas annoyed me, particularly his connection to the upper classes of Argentina (the main beneficiaries of the indigenous genocide). But a few years ago, Edwin Williamson’s biography brought me closer to Borges as a person, which helped me to rediscover him as a writer. Kafka y Sus Precursores (Kafka and His Precursors), for example, is a fascinating text. In spite of that, he is not a living presence for me, as for example Antonio Di Benedetto or Julio Cortázar are.

SS: Borges also came to me a little late. In between, there was a generation of authors who came after him and had to survive his genius and his indisputable importance, and we are the sons and daughters of that generation. We approached Borges having been forewarned, and with that combination of respect, curiousity and lightness with which you might have a discussion with your grandfather. Even so, his legacy can be felt in all of our literature. Borges condensed and expanded very Argentine ideas and forms, around the genres of the uncanny, the fantastic, the detective story, the gaucho story, that we now feel are very naturally our own.

PM: Maybe our relationship with Borges is less parricidal than that of other generations. The last generation needed to write ‘in spite of’ Borges. I don’t feel that he casts a shadow on me, or prevents me from writing. On the contrary, he helps me. Borges was and continues to be very important for me. As if he were a literary grandfather instead of a literary father; and you don’t have conflict with your grandparents. Borges illuminates me with his intelligence. He opened doors, he opened up topics, he universalised potential things to write about. He has an enormous intellectual generosity, as if reading him allows us to participate in his intelligence. He has some concepts which are so syntactically clear that he helps us to think in another way, using new structures.

JMC:  The question of who gets to be translated into foreign languages and published abroad is – I am sure you will agree – a very haphazard business, depending as much on luck as on merit. Among contemporary writers from Argentina, the one most widely translated seems to be César Aira. Can you name some other writers who, in your opinion, ought to be better known, and perhaps say something about their work?

PM: I think that more Argentine poets need to be translated. Joaquín Giannuzzi, Sergio Raimondi, Fabián Casas, Olga Orozco, Juan L Ortiz, Elena Annibali. It’s difficult to translate poetry, but it’s necessary in order to try to crack the shell of narrative fiction, which can sometimes create the illusion of literary totality. I’m interested in being able to translate other languages and approximations to the experience of an era and a region.

SS: It’s difficult to name just a few, but through my own reading in the past few months, a great contemporary Argentine writer who comes to mind is Marcelo Cohen, who is absolutely brilliant and not at all widely translated. I would dare to say that a lot more Argentine literature is being translated now – in the last two or three years there has been a lot of activity – the issue now is about diffusion and circulation, because these works are published by small publishing houses and with limited print-runs. Few of these translations make it to Australia, and even those that do will very rarely reach more commercial circuits.

FMS: I do not read enough contemporary Argentine literature to give a good answer, but I know that there are a number of authors who are being translated into English. Charco Press, for example, has recently translated Luis Sagasti, Jorge Consiglio and Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, who I think are excellent. This publisher has also translated Die, My Love, by Ariana Harwicz, nominated for the Man Booker International.

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 still very young when the dictatorship ended. Has the memory of what happened under the junta left any mark on your writing?

SS: Although it’s a recurring question, and although over time I have discovered those marks, it surprises me that my first impulse is still to say no. Maybe it’s because, although that grim period did not affect me directly, I come from a family and an environment that survived by navigating through silences, ellipses and ambiguous responses: spaces which characterise everything that I write. I even believe that the strong continuation of fantastic and uncanny elements in our literature has a lot to do with those monsters and that past which is so present.

FMS: I spent the dictatorship in Patagonia, very far away from the violence and conflict centres. From those terrible years, I only have a few remaining memories which may end up in one of my novels, but for the moment, my literary focus is the violence committed by Argentina against indigenous peoples. For me, that is the original violence from which all of the rest originates, including the violence of the 70s and 80s. Until Argentina confronts that part of our history, apologises publicly to the victims, and actively works to redress the injustices which are still punishing our indigenous populations, I don’t think that it’s possible to achieve true peace. Nobody can live in peace when there are dozens of corpses in the basement of the house and more locked up in the attic.

PM: I remember two moments of fear and turmoil in my home in the 70s. The first was when an English journalist, a correspondent in Argentina who was a friend of my father, was arrested by the dictatorship and my father, a lawyer, had to go to the prison with a habeas corpus writ. He succeeded in getting him out before anything worse could happen. The other, when another friend of my father had his house blown up, with his family inside, by a guerrilla bomb. They survived but were seriously injured. The youngest son, who was eight, was the first to recover, and because the rest of his family were still in hospital, he was brought to live at our house and he shared my bedroom. I was 9 years of age. Because of the fear, he refused to close his eyes when mum shampooed his hair, he’d rather the soap sting his eyes. Every night I would have to make up stories that our house had armoured doors to keep us safe so that he’d calm down, and every night he would fall asleep playing with one of my electronic games so that there would be lights on. He used up all my batteries. He had thick pink scars all over his body. I haven’t published what I’ve written about that yet. I remember the fear as something that was always there around us.

JMC: For a long time Paris seemed to be the natural home for expatriate Argentine writers. That does not seem to be the case any longer. Does France, and French literature and culture, continue to have a meaning for you? What about Germany? What about the United States?

SS: A large proportion of the first books I read as an adult were by North American authors. I always loved them, and I grew up thinking about them and consciously studying them. But I don’t think that following that tradition was a completely personal choice. In the nineties, when I started to buy my own books, eighty per cent of new publications in Argentina were translations, and the great – immense – majority of those translations were from the United States. I feel like French literature kept a pulse in more academic spaces or literary niches. I don’t think that German literature has much of a presence either. I follow it to a certain extent because I live in Berlin, but apart from a few renowned authors, it remains much less widespread in Argentina than English literature.

PM: English culture and literature were also more relevant for me. Being born in the 70s, the cultural axis was already turning away France; in the 80s I think it shifted towards the USA. Middle-class Argentines started to prefer that their children learn English, instead of French. I first learnt English, and then later a little French but I read Proust and Celine in translation. Baudelaire had a certain influence on my poetry, perhaps now it’s been filtered and absorbed by more current writers. I’m interested in Apollinaire and in the other extreme, Houellebecq. When I was in Paris, I was moved when I saw the motto of liberté, égalité, fraternité on the facade of the Palace of Justice, because it dawned on me that that was where that idea had been created.

In terms of German culture, I’m interested in the strange ones such as Büchner’s Woyzeck, and filmmakers such as Herzog.

The USA had a big influence on me, with its concept of ‘show not tell’ in the narrative. The idea of suggesting from the surface the depth of ocean that lies below, as authors like Hemingway and Carver do. I also believe in a certain verbal and vitalist enthusiasm from the Beat generation, and the most deprived and modern idea of poetry, in poets such as William Carlos Williams.

FMS: As a translator, translations really annoy me, and for that reason I don’t read much German, French or any other literature in translation from another language. As well as Spanish, I also read original works in English, and for that reason English literature in general, from the United States, England, South Africa or Australia is much more relevant for me than any other.

JMC: How do you, as a writer of the younger generation, 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? Do agencies of the Argentine state provide any material support for writers? What of cultural bodies in the wider world?

SS: That is one of the main reasons why I live in Berlin: In Germany I only have to work a third of what I used to work in Argentina to buy my writing time. The economic situation is becoming increasingly overwhelming. I suppose that no writer hopes to make a living purely from their books these days, we all have other jobs to support that other plan which is the authentic one, writing. But there should be enough time, at least, to be able to write in your free time, and it’s very troubling to continue to discover the great number of writer friends, some of them very talented, who can’t even defend those spaces anymore.

FMS: I do commercial translations, literary translation doesn’t pay the bills and requires a lot more work. I translate insurance forms, information leaflets for medication, instructions for prostate operations… It’s a repetitive job and in general very boring. But I think about Kafka, about how his job at an insurance office may have pushed him to immerse himself more fully in his fiction, and that gives me some consolation.

PM: As I publish more books, my royalties are increasing, but I also have to do other work so that my wife and I can support our family. I teach literary workshops and I write for journalism and screenplays. I generally divide my day into two, one half for earning money and the other half for writing texts that one day in the distant future might earn money for me, but which are not written with that purpose in mind.

I think there are publication grants available at institutions such as the Argentine National Arts Fund, but I’m not sure how they work.

Once in a while, a book of mine is translated outside the country, and the advance payment is welcome, but it’s sporadic rather than regular income. When I receive invitations, such as the one to Adelaide, in Australia, or to Rennes, in France, I try to take advantage of the opportunity to have that time available for my own creativitity and to discover other cultures.

This interview was translated by Jemma Ives.