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Author Spotlight: Fabián Casas

To read an exclusive English-language translation of Fabián Casas’ short story, ‘The Fantastic Four’, click here.

Ciclo de escritores y escritoras - Víctor Santa María

Author Fabian Casas. (Photo: Víctor Santa María)

We found Fabián Casas waiting for us in an old bar in Colegiales. A stack of empty coffee cups and the complete works of Chekhov, 300 pages deep, has us wondering if we had arrived late, but Casas received us warmly and before long we were talking freely about poetry, travels, language, and what it’s like to be a great author with no imagination.

The author of fiction, essays, poetry, and screen plays, Casas is above all a deeply reflective person and the fact that he is having something of “a moment” doesn’t escape him, nor does it make him uncomfortable. His most recent books of fiction, ‘Ocio’ and ‘Los Lemmings’, have gone through successive reprints, only to sell out again. Lately, he finds himself rejecting the label of “Argentine writer”, indicative at once of a certain humbleness and his growing stature nationally and internationally. Generous with his time and his words, Casas opened up to us about becoming a “famous author” and how his head-space looks something like the bar from Star Wars.

What are you working on these days?

I spent all of last year writing a movie script, and this coming week we’re going to start filming. [Vigo] Mortensen is coming down, he’s going to act and produce the movie. [Lisandro] Alonso is the director. I’d never written for film before. I’m also writing an essay about Tolstoy, a very long essay that I’ve been working on for the last three years. I spent two years reading different authors talking about Tolstoy, in different languages, books that I found during my travels. And I finally sat down to write it, because I have to hand it over this year to Emecé so they can publish it.

I’m also working on a novel that I have to turn in next year, since I was contracted to submit two things. The novel I’ve been working on quite a bit. Lately I’ve been reworking it, and I like it better now because you can’t understand a word of it.

I like when I’m writing to feel as if I have a rock in my shoe, something that makes you ashamed, or uncomfortable. I’m not really sure what it is. Something about co-existing with the uncertainty.

You’ve also written some children’s literature. Is that something you will continue to work on?

Actually, just now I have a friend whose name is Nahuel Vecino. I had the urge to write something called “Mi Vecino Nahuel” [My Neighbor Nahuel] for kids. Because, since I don’t have imagination, the development of my books always comes from direct contact with people’s names.

Given the strong following you’ve developed over the years, do you have a sense of your audience, of who reads you?

When I used to write poetry, it appeared in small books that sold out quickly. They were small editions, for a limited audience of poetry specialists. And then ‘Lemmings’ was the start of something new. Now I don’t know who reads me. People stop me in the street, famous people call me saying they’ve read my books. It’s strange. But for me fame is worthless. It´s still strange to me how this all started, all different people from different places. Still, I couldn’t say if I have a particular reader or not.

Suddenly people are calling me, they write from Germany, from Brazil, from Italy. That´s what´s great about books, you don´t know where they are, but they´re circulating.

You’ve travelled quite a lot over the years. Some time ago, when you were working as a journalist with Olé you were awarded a grant to spend time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What was that experience like?

I made good use of the grant. Aside from the workshop, I was swimming, running, eating. The truth is I had a great time with the grant. There are people though who get depressed, because it’s a long time and some people can’t handle it. I got to travel. I went to San Francisco, to see [John] Ashberry. That is, you had to explain why you were traveling, so I went to City Lights Books, where I read Ashberry, and later I went to see him. It was great. I also went to Portland and New York.

If you could meet any poet, living or dead, who would you like it to be?

I would have liked to have known Beckett. Still, you know how it is, you find yourself with the guy and you lose the urge. In general you have to read writers and not meet them, you know? But, as an idea, I would like to know Beckett. He’s an author that I’ve read a lot and his personality has always intrigued me. I’ve read at least three biographies about him, how he developed his writing and the things he had to break through and take apart to find his own voice. He’s an example of a really great author who took a long time to find his own voice. That part of him has always interested me.

You mentioned that at some point you had been translating the Objectivists poets from North America. How do you feel in the role of translator?

I don’t consider myself a translator. I do it because, it’s an activity, like…like going to see a movie. I went to see the Master, and I told all of my friends “go see it, it’s fantastic”. But with the Objectivists the deal was that they didn’t exist here. I had become fascinated with how the Objectivists were a small group, hidden within the North American canon, somewhere underneath the Beatniks, who are an international export. The Beatniks have their good writers, I don’t mean to say they don’t, but they’re easier to sell, to export, along with the whole outsider identity.

Later I was working on John Ashberry, who as a poet really blew my mind, but you have to spend a lot of time with it. So it came from wanting to share the poems.

Basically, as far as my relation with translation goes, I don’t produce, I don’t read books about translation, nothing. I read the translation that you guys did and it seemed like you had captured a certain intensity in the text, it seemed good to me.

And when they translate you, do you evaluate the translation?

If I can read the language, of course. Recently I was reading the Portuguese translation of ‘Lemmings’. And with Portuguese you can really work with the slang since it’s similar to our own. But then you also get the “false friends”, words that are so similar you thing they must mean the same thing and it ends up being a terrible mistake.

You’ve worked as a journalist, writing about football among other things, and it’s striking how you can speak in the same sentence about literature, football, philosophy, and so on. With such diverse interests and activities, how do you define yourself professionally?

I’m always aware when I’m working for a specific group and that you have a certain framework in which you have to work. For me, due to my training, there was never any difference between high and low culture. If there exist differences they exist to be criss-crossed. There are many times when my ideas about Lacan come to me when something happens while I’m watching a football match or something is said during the game. Or I see a popular movie, and that gets stored somewhere inside along with Hegel, and from there I start thinking, as if I were a welder. But I’m not original in that way, Walter Benjamin already did it a long time ago and he did it better. He was thinking in the bar, with his book about the Arcades, with his passage about how high and low culture are resignified. It seems to me like a very productive exchange.

I always prefer being a ‘welder’ to be being a ‘warrior’. Like the bar in Star Wars, with the guy with a fish head, and the girl with three tits [from the film Total Recall], I think that those are the ideal places where the things that really interest me start to emerge. The vital things, because they’re different, that’s where the exchange takes place. For me that kind of crossing is the anti-fascist place par excellence. Finding myself here with a Muslim, a woman, a man, a Jew, a black guy, it’s great. When you find yourself with the same set of people, who think the same, that’s where fascism comes in.

The bar from Star Wars is an interesting reference. Would you say you’re writing has some affinity with that space?

For me that’s where interesting things take place, always the great literature comes from there, from syncretism. I don’t know if it’s something you can detect in my literature, but it’s part of my personality, something I enjoy

Speaking of fascism, you’ve been called the “last author of the left”. How do you react to that label? Is it fair or accurate to call your writing “political”.

It makes me laugh. I consider myself a man of the left but I’m not a leftist militant. I identify the right with a certain view of nature. Because nature would have it that the weakest of the pack gets eaten by the lion and that way the herd is purified. The ones that remain are the best. I’m against all that, I want the weakest to have support, that they have their advocates. That they be protected. I consider myself leftist in that sense.

My cousin was always a reference point for me, like an older brother. He was an important figure in the JP [Juventud Peronista] and he took me along to places where they had occupied the university, and there was a kind of excitement in the 70’s that for me was beautiful, amazing. The type of thing, where people act politically and commit themselves to politics, to changing the world.

The Pope is Argentine, and he says that everything spiritual, the church, is apolitical. I think the exact opposite, everything spiritual is part of political progress, I can’t think about anything spiritual outside of politics. For me Christ was a completely non-transcendent figure. I don’t think anything exists up above, nothing at all, I think that’s a way to manipulate things. But I do believe that Christ was a political and spiritual leader. The spiritual acts he committed were also political acts. For example throwing all those guys out of the temple was a political act. It’s what the church needs to do. But I think that it’s impossible to change the church, for me change is always going to come from the outside. The counterculture is always invisible, you don’t know when it will appear.

What you’re describing reminds me a bit of Saint Augustine’s book, The City of God.

The story of Christ influenced me ever since I was little because I came from a Catholic family, and it always moved me to see Jesus washing people’s feet, to see Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Everything about him seems extraordinary to me, what he says and the way in which he says it and the way he reaches down to the people around him.

When we started translating “Los cuatro fantásticos” we wanted to capture some of the intensity in that story. In fact, the writer Alan Pauls has written a long essay, where he says of your books that this intensity has to do with how you employ proper names and “naming”, calling things, streets, people, songs by their names. Have you ever reflected on that aspect of your writing?

What I can say regarding the subject is that that I pay close attention to lexicon of the people I speak with. It seems to me that there in language, that’s where ‘Being’ is situated. It’s the same as when you are aware of the things that give you life, that give you pleasure. Because when you’re going to live, to live well, and you want to feel right, except when you might have some masochistic urge, you look to connect with the things that make you feel right, you don’t try to connect with the things that make you feel bad. Involuntarily, since none of us are Krishnamurti, you fall on bad times, moments of sterility and stupidity. But when you get in touch with good things, you connect with what you’re hearing, what you’re seeing, you try to find yourself with the things that transmit intensity, which for me is the opposite of cynicism and irony. For me wherever there is irony there’s no intensity.

So for me, I always have my ear trained and I look to capture something. Then I think how I would be able to take the word, cleanse it of the ordinary meaning it has and put it back in circulation with a new power.

You always have to listen. When I was a kid, in my neighborhood, when you played with figurines, when you lost them they used to say “melado”. I don’t know who invented the word, but there’s a ton of those kids, from different neighborhoods who are the same age as me and when I ask them “Do you remember the word “melar?”, this word that disappeared from the language. They say “Yeah, yeah, ‘melar‘ was when you lost all of your figurines” Who invented the word? Evidently, it wasn’t a word from the adult world, because it part of the kids’ code. Some kid invented it and it got around. But also these words, at some point, leave the language, stop working, and people stop saying them. And sometimes it’s a good thing, because you take that word, you use it again. You revive it.

Your texts are not only intense, they also tend to be very funny. Are you motivated to find humour? If so, does it come easy or is it something you labor over?

Humour feels totally natural to me. Actually, it doesn’t form any kind of a priori program for my writing, because I like a ton of things that aren’t at all funny, and are really dense. It’s just part of my nature, my personality. I think life is hell, and if you can’t introduce some humour… or at least some degree of excitement…You would go crazy if it weren’t impossible to convert the horror into laughter. You can’t go on. In that sense, it seems like a good counterweight. I also like people who can laugh at themselves, because when people don’t laugh at themselves, they spend their time thinking they’re important and that will destroy you.

Los Lemmings has made a great impact here in Argentina. Do you think that that impact has to do with a certain nostalgia or even melancholy for “the neighborhood”, which doesn’t exist anymore or has somehow transformed?

From my point of view, I see melancholy as a capital sin, as something really unproductive and negative. Especially now that I have a daughter I see it like that. I’m seriously happily with the life I have these days, I’m in a state of pure presentness. The past doesn’t interest me at all. I remember with fondness the good moments and the bad moments with sadness, but I don’t wish to be there again.

Everything I write springs from the fact that I lack imagination. It seems important to me that people, in whatever setting, whatever they’re doing, are able to recognise their own limits. “I am this person, this is what I do, I’m bald, I don’t have curls, I don’t look like Brad Pitt, I practice karate.” That’s what you are, what you do. I practice karate whenever I can, with my abilities, and just the same I write what I can.

So ‘Lemmings’ is a work about the things I know, not because I’m interested in defending that position, but instead searching among those things that happened to me for something that seems worth transmitting. Not to affirm that “I want to do populism” or “the neighborhood is my ideal”. I can only put forth what I know. Tolstoy could write just as much from the point of a Count or a peasant, that explained everything, but he was a genius. And the whole idea of the “literatura chabón”, for me literature can never be contained within all that. The moment you pronounce it, it’s no longer useful. Literature is the place where dogmas are broken, so it’s difficult to maintain labels.

You’ve said on various occasions that you don’t consider yourself an “Argentine writer”. How did you arrive at that?

I think sometimes that for me the most important thing is to not lose the human element. That can happen when you spend your time within certain norms that are really unproductive. So if you see yourself as an Argentine writer you can’t write. It destroys you. If you see yourself that way you can’t even think. I think [the label] serves insofar as something to repurpose, to take apart, to basically work against. The same thing happens when you start writing and discover some strength, over the course of many years writing becomes a strength. I have that strength, but for me writers have to work against their own strength. And in life, speaking from my own experience, comfort can be totally debilitating. I’ve realised this. I’m a person that can easily obtain a lot of things through work or whatever. But the comfort that brought was weakening me, instead of making me into something better. When I was a little kid, I lived in a poor family and that’s how I grew up, humble. We were really happy, I have really happy memories of my childhood. Not that I would want to glamorise poverty, of course.

The Japanese have a concept, one that I always liked. I travelled through Japan, and there I heard some guys talking about “wabi”, the idea of voluntary poverty. I travelled quite a bit. When I turned 22 I took off for two years traveling, and one of the things a person learns when they travel is you don’t want to have a heavy load. For me this applies to practically everything. You can’t carry too much, can’t be heavy, you can’t carry the weight of your parents demands or the idea that you have to be the great author of Boedo, or Argentina, that you have to have a girl, all of these things will destroy you.

You’ve travelled quite a lot through Latin America, right?

Yeah, I was gone from the time I was 21 to 24. At the time I almost needed my parents’ authorization to travel. I wanted to do Che’s journey, but without anybody dying. Even the literature I read there, Castaneda, etc. was very stimulating for me. The truth is I was very happy. Always throughout my life I had a certain nostalgia for that time period, up until I finally rid myself of that nostalgia, when I started to really feel self-realized.

I’m not saying that everything is always good, it’s not that kind of evangelical joy. I have my job, my partner that I enjoy, I have a very intense relationship. I adore my daughter. I never thought I would enjoy being a father so much. I enjoy what time I have to read. The friends I have are very important for me, they’ve supported me a lot, I couldn’t live without them. I feel good.

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The Fantastic Four, by Fabián Casas

As part of our author spotlight series, we present an English-language version of Fabián Casas’ short story, The Fantastic Four, from the book ‘Los Lemmings y otros’, translated for The Indy by Agustina Santomaso and Nicolas Allen. To read out exclusive interview with Casas, click here.

There was someone before, but I never met him. Although lots of people say that I have his mouth and a bit of his personality too. That kind of thing. I’m not too worried about looking like anyone else though. There are so many faces in this world that, sooner or later, you’ll end up being the same as someone else. No, I want to talk here about the ones I knew. Each one came and tracked his footprints through my life, and I think the way to remember those who passed through me is to explain who they were, what they taught me. That kind of thing.

Around that time Mom was working in the Peter Pan lingerie factory. What a great name. I wonder if it’s still running. Mom, according to what everyone tells me, was a bombshell, a real glamour model. Legs, ass, hips. We lived in the Once neighborhood in a tiny apartment that I imagined was something like the pipe of Hijitus: Mom’s bedroom, the living room where I slept on a sofa bed and a kitchenette pegged to the wall. That was it. Mom’s clothes were scattered everywhere. And cosmetics and magazines that were brought back from her friend’s salon. My mom was a big reader. Sometimes when she went out dancing, I would stay with mom’s hairdresser friend, a Paraguayan woman who would tell me about her kids who, she said, were around the same age and lived with their father in Asunción. I didn’t associate “Asunción” with a physical place, it struck me more as a verb.1

In my memory, the first guy was Carmelo. Squat, muscular, a retired boxer. Mom introduced him one night when he came by to pick her up. I was watching something on a tiny miniature TV that the hairdresser had brought us from Ciudad del Este. You see? “Ciudad del Este” sounded like a real place.

Carmelo walked up and shook my hand. I thought he was going to give me a kiss, because I was a kid and that’s what people usually did when they first met me. But he shook my hand with his huge, calloused telephone-of-a-hand. I liked the gesture. From that moment forward Carmelo was always coming by the house, and more and more when he came by to get Mom he would also sit around with me, talking about his exploits from his boxing days. And one day on an outing to the park, under the sun’s light, the most incredible thing happened: in the fresh air, Carmelo’s skin looked the color of Scotch tape. I want to be clear. It wasn’t as if he was covered in Scotch tape, like some kind of mummy; he actually was the color and consistency of Scotch tape. So I baptized him- to myself- “Carmelo Scotch”. I bet he looked amazing, half naked, under the lights of the ring.

When I got bronchitis, Mom had to bring me to the hospital to get treated. They had me use a humidifier, they gave me some shots, and told me that I had to get more sun. Carmelo was especially concerned about my health, and he told my mom that I had to get more exercise, run, jump. That kind of thing. He showed up in gym clothes the next day and told me that he had a plan to turn me into an athlete. He unfolded a diagram across our little orange formica table with all the different exercise routines that he felt would alter my body. We started to work out in the mornings in the gym where Carmelo worked. Abdominals, short sprints, track. It was fantastic. He stood by my side while I poured sweat, and shouted at me: “Come on, harder. Feel the burn! Feel it!” Then we headed off to the showers together. One day,while we were drying off, he told me about the greatest moment of his life when he fought the opening fight for Nicolino Locce. “You don’t know what it is to step into the ring of Luna Park when it’s packed…only you under the lights and all the people looking at you…the red lights of the cigarettes in the blackness of the stadium…” It ended in a draw.

To this day I still hear the war cry of Carmelo Scotch: “Feel the burn!”

One afternoon, Mom told me that he had been relieved of his duties. She had to endure a week of my harassing her before she said why. “ Because he raised his hand to me.” Mom was always firm. And when choosing her boyfriends, she showed herself to be a true renaissance woman. And so she changed from Sports to the Arts. The second candidate she snatched up from right under my nose: Professor Locasso had come to the school as a substitute, and no doubt, to earn whatever he could while doing practically nothing. He would show up in class, put his breakfast of pastries or meringues on the desk- I went to school in the morning- cross his legs and stuff his face. He told us that we must paint whatever came to us in the moment. During Locasso’s class, we were free to space-out all we wanted. So we took the paper and we painted whatever. When we brought him the paintings to take a look, as he chewed and set aside the newspaper, he would glance at our artwork and utter his famous pet phrase: “More color, children. More color.” Even if the paper was smeared with tempera like a cake, he would repeat “More color, children. More color.” It was fine. It made us laugh. Naturally, we changed his name from Professor Locasso to Professor More Color. Imagine my surprise when I saw him one night without his smock, in a dark suit that fit him a bit big, holding a bottle of wine and standing in the doorway of my house. Professor More Color was a man of some forty years, with a horseshoe of white hair that rested on his neck, always a bit long and unkempt. His forehead shone like a billiard ball. His athletic body, when it walked around the school yard, moved in strides.

According to what I gathered much later, More Color came across my Mom at school during the events of July 9th, the same day I stepped forward and recited a poem to mark the occasion. The school was overrun with people and the night before I had been really nervous. I was afraid that when it came time to deliver the poem I would draw a blank. But it was glorious. With every new verse, I revealed my talent for reciting poetry and all during that patriotic week my schoolmates and teachers couldn’t stop praising my performance. But getting back to my mother’s love affair. It goes without saying I was the center of attention. All of my friends knew that my mom was going out with More Color. Sometimes, during recess, some kids went so far as to ask me if it bothered me. I asked them: “that you know about it or that they’re going out?” Silence. Other schoolmates tried to be more understanding, still, they told me that it would have been better if my mother went out with the Math teacher- a really hard subject- instead of Art class. They were right. I can’t deny that I had already thought the same thing.

My mother’s romance with More Color lasted almost two years. When they broke up I was in the fifth grade. Unlike my relationship with Carmelo Scotch, my relationship with More Color was easy-going. The guy slept over twice a week and sometimes the three of us went out for a walk. Only once did the two of us go out together. He took me to see an exhibition of Salvador Dalí, a painter that he really admired. He liked that kind of twisted stuff. Bent clocks, crucifixes from outer space. That afternoon in a cafe, we had the following dialogue:
– Would it bother you if I spent more time at your house?- he asked me.
-No- I told him after thinking about it for a moment.
– I think it would be better if there was a man at home, and I’m thinking about marrying your mom. I still haven’t proposed to her because I want to get your opinion first.-
-The only problem is that the house is really small.- I said.
-If you and your mother agree, we could move to another place. With a patio. Would you like to have a patio to play in?-
-Yes.- I told him after thinking about it for a minute.

More Color seemed satisfied with my answer. We shook hands and he took me to catch the subway. He showed me all the possible connections and the different kinds of trains that there were. When we got home, late, he went to talk with my Mom in the bedroom. It seemed to me like they were arguing. I put on my pajamas, brushed my teeth, and went to bed. I woke up in the middle of the night, and it seemed more clear that they were fighting. The next week More Color didn’t even sleep over for an hour and even if he called on the phone to talk with Mom, I started to sense that something was off-color. I tried to remember the conversation that we had to understand where he had gone wrong. And I drew the following conclusions: it was no doubt convenient for Mom to have a man at home. What’s more, she was always saying to the Paraguayan hairdresser that she wanted to find me a substitute father. Which seemed reasonable to me. When I went to my friends’ houses, I envied how they could feel so sure of themselves and brag about their fathers. So, regarding marriage there shouldn’t have been any problem. I think the conflict had to do with the possibility of moving. For some unknown reason that I couldn’t and I can’t understand, my Mom loved that pigsty in Plaza Once or “The Eleven Park”, as she called it. Something in that house touched a chord with her and it’s impossible to go back on that kind of thing.

One afternoon in winter, while Mom was putting her hair in rollers, she told me that More Color had entered her hall of fame. Today I think that my childhood was separated into different moments in which my mother told me about the boyfriend she’d just dumped. I continued to see More Color during the next three years-5th, 6th and 7th- but, except uncomfortable greetings when we ran into each other in the school yard, we avoided each other. Although, it’s fair to say, thanks to him, I know all the subway lines across the city to perfection. I could never get lost.

More Color was already history when I signed up in the Rec center at the church to play football every afternoon. The priests drew you in with an amazing football pitch and, in exchange, they asked you to take communion. So I went straight to the catechism and I ended up as an altar boy in a couple of masses. One afternoon Mom came to pick me up, and she told me to wait for her because she wanted to give confession. The gesture seemed strange, coming from her. But it’s true that around that time she was spending a lot of time in bed, as if something had broken her spirit. Father Manuel listened to her in silence, in the confessional booth. Mom started to come every other afternoon to give confession, or to to walk around chatting with Father Manuel. She told me that the priest- who was very young- was giving her the will to live. “Mom, why don’t you want to live?”, I asked her. “It’s not that I don’t want to live, it’s that I don’t have the will.”, she answered me.

One night when I was returning late from my friend’s house, I happened to see Father Manuel leaving my building. What surprised me most was that he was dressed like a normal guy. He didn’t see me, but I saw him clearly because I was on the other side of the street. I didn’t make a peep. When I got home, Mom’s eyes were all red, as if she had been crying. The day after, she spent the whole day in her bedroom with the Paraguayan hairdresser. Whenever they opened the door, to go to the bathroom or to look for something in the kitchen, there was an awful smell of cigarettes. I think that’s why I never smoked.

I decided to talk to Father Manuel after I found Mom sitting in the living room with huge bags under her eyes. It looked like she had been sitting there since puberty. “All of the appliances decided to commit suicide,” she said with a hoarse voice, hardly seeing me. The mini-fridge and the television weren’t working, and the water heater made a terrible noise when we turned on the hot water.

Father Manuel was in his bedroom reading, they told me. I told the nun that I needed him urgently. Soon, I saw him coming down the hallway. This time, he was wearing his impeccable robe. He patted my head as we walked across the football pitch that at that hour- 2 in the afternoon- was empty. It was a spring day.
-Father, I don’t know what’s going on with my Mom- I told him.
I felt my voice emerging from deep in my chest.
-Son- he said, even though he was very young- do you know the story about Calvary and our Lord Jesus Christ?- he asked.
-The whole bit about the Romans and the crown of thorns and the betrayal of Judas?-
-Exactly. I want you to think about that part of our Lord’s story. Because often in life adults have to make great sacrifices. Do you understand?-
I didn’t understand a bit of it, but I agreed. He was selling me a line.
-Your mother is an exemplary woman. I want to be clear about that. And more often than not, people of integrity suffer greatly. Now we’re going to to go to the church and we’re going to kneel and pray for her.-

And that’s what happened. We prayed in silence. To be honest, I didn’t pray. My mind jumped from one image to another like a video game. I saw Father Manuel in his robe, then I saw him in street clothes, like I saw him when he was leaving my building, then I imagined him in his underwear, then playing football. Finally, he took my hand and told me not to worry, that the Lord knows what he’s doing.

What’s certain is that Mom didn’t go back to church, and a few months later they moved Father Manuel to a convent in Córdoba. The Lord knew what he was doing alright, because Mom began to feel better and she started coming out of the depression that she’d been stuck in. We fixed the TV, the mini-fridge, we took out the water heater and replaced it with a better one.
Throughout the rest of secondary school Mom didn’t bring home any other boyfriends.
And, just when I was preparing to start University, the last and, for me most important boyfriend arrived. His was name Rolando, he worked installing antennas on rooftops, and he was pivotal because he talked to me for the first time about my father. Because he was obsessed with whoever it was that my father was.

Mom met him in a group that got together every Sunday in Hospital Pena. It was a psychological support group to deal with Sunday sadness. It wasn’t that my mother got depressed on Sunday, she was really accompanying the Paraguayan hairdresser who on Sunday around 7pm, invariably, wanted to kill herself. Rolando was going because his football team had descended to the B league, and for that he had to suffer game-less Sundays. According to Mom, he was a devastating arrow straight to the heart. Rolando had curls, a prince valiant haircut and a gravelly voice. I took an immediate liking to him. And even more when I found out that he spent his time on the roofs of buildings fixing and installing antennas.
I love people who spend their time up on roofs, I love jumping from the roof.

So quickly- I was seventeen- I started going along with him. It was grand. In the summer, we climbed to the peak with a cooler and a six pack. Sometimes, if we hadn’t eaten, we brought cheese and membrillo in a tupperware. After fixing the antennas, we sat down to, as he said, have a little chat. Rolando was obsessed with other people’s lives. “Look at the guys who go around the world playing against the Harlem Globe Trotters. It’s crazy. Showing up so that those black sons-of-bitches can make you look the fool. Some people’s lives are insane, right?”. And always, after the beers were done, he talked to me about my dad. “I don’t know how you’re mother could believe anything that that imbecile told her. Did you know that your dad was caught up with the guerillas, and that he preferred that to having a family, taking care of you, seeing you grow up…And your mom thought he was a great guy, brilliant! You seriously never saw a photo of him?”.

One afternoon, as we watched the sun set from the roof of a tall building, he told me: ” You know that I love you right?”. “Yes”, I told him and I felt goosebumps. “But before I couldn’t even look at you because I could only think about how you were your father’s fuck-made-flesh.” I didn’t answer because I was left thinking about his expression, and I remembered when Father Manuel said that Christ was God “made-flesh”. Rolando downed all of the beers and said : “in Italy they call this time of day the Pomeriggio, do you know why?” I didn’t make a peep. “Because Pomeriggio means tomato. Do you see the color of the sky?” What a guy. The sky was completely red. He added “You see, from here we can see all across the city. Isn’t it great? Most of the people don’t know that we’re up here, watching them. We’re like gods.”

Sometimes, before sticking an antenna in the roof, he would raise it high with one hand and shout: “I’ve got the power!”. And we would die of laughter. Other times, he would get melancholy and say to me: ” Swear to me that if your father comes back, you won’t get sucked-in by him.” “Where is he going to come back from, Rolando?” , I asked him. “From Timbuktu, how should I know?”, he replied.

Some time passed and I was drafted into military. I was assigned to ground troops, and so I had to come down from the roof. I spent a year in hell as an assistant to a military general. At some point that same year, my Mom and Rolando broke up. She told me so in a letter. When I came back home, I found a job fixing antennas. I never saw Rolando again, but I heard about him from a doorman of one of the buildings. He told me that he had an attack of vertigo and that’s why he had stopped working at heights. It sounded to me like science fiction.

Sometimes when I am up high, with my lunch, I realize how wonderful it was that he let me go along with him and learn the profession. Because the roof’s dizzying heights is a solitary calling. For mythical creatures. You don’t need anyone up here.

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Author Spotlight: Oliverio Coelho

Oliverio Coelho (Photo: Lola García Garrido)

When I track Oliverio Coelho down, he’s in China. That’s not unusual for the Argentine writer; he’s often far from home. Sometimes that’s literal—he’s held writing residencies in Mexico, New York and South Korea—and sometimes it’s literary: his stories, of which he’s published one collection (‘Parte doméstico’, 2009), often take place in foreign locales, and when they don’t, a pervasive otherness permeates ‘domestic’ Argentine settings. Among his six published novels, one is called ‘Borneo’ (2004), another, simply, ‘Ida’ (2008)—departure. After his last extended stay in South Korea, he edited an anthology of contemporary Korean fiction entitled ‘Ji-do’ (2009).

Coelho was born in Buenos Aires in 1977 and continues to make his home in the city. When he isn’t writing fiction, or spending time in transit, he’s a contributor to the culture pages of La Nación, El País, Clarín, Perfíl and Los Inrockuptibles. For the latter, he regularly covers the publishing industry, a task which he characterized thusly for Granta magazine, when, in 2011, they named him one of the ‘Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists’: “to my thinking, the best way to play a role in public life nowadays is to risk thinking outside the box and to convey an ethic in any literature-related public involvement.”

In ‘Death of the Critic’, published here in an exclusive English-language debut, Coelho’s out-of-the-box sensibility is on full display. The piece, originally the closing story in ‘Parte doméstico’, was also published last year in Los Noveles, an online literary journal, and this past August in La Nación. Like Coelho’s other Korean tales—in particular ‘Sun-Woo’, a story which will soon be available in English as part of the translated anthology ‘The Future is Not Ours’ (Open Letter Books, 2012)—‘Death of the Critic’ exhibits a cruel world: dangerous for those who are creatively predisposed, bitter for those who aren’t.

Luckily, when I ask Coelho to answer some questions, his disposition is somewhat brighter. “I’m traveling around China,” he tells me. “But I’ll do everything I can to respond in my free time—in general I get back at night full of wonder and write a bit.” He spoke to us via email, full of wonder, and en route back to Buenos Aires.


Your work is just starting to make its way into English—coming out in the Open Letter anthology, and being featured in last year’s Granta #113. But you’ve written a great deal that has yet to be translated. Can you give us a primer on that work? What else would readers find if they were to read the complete collection ‘Parte doméstico’, and not just ‘Death of the Critic’? 

Readers would find a synthesis of my universe. Story collections can sometimes give writers the chance to concentrate their concerns. In my case, the story functions like a laboratory. It’s a place for tests; without these stories I never would have written novels. In a way, the characters are guinea pigs. Through the characters I attempt to explore certain power relations, especially romantic relationships that, in a sense, reflect the social crisis of 2001. The stories were written when Argentina was disintegrating. Those with ‘Eastern’ themes were written later, 2007, 2008… And they relate to the rest of the book through contrast; they are stories that take place in another world, but address the same problem: romantic relationships as mediated by the capitalist logic of success and failure.

What motivates you to write about life outside of Argentina — and, as in the case of ‘Death of the Critic’, Korea in particular?  Is it freeing? What does it help you achieve as an artist?

Having lived abroad, especially in South Korea, allows me to metabolise experiences that changed my literary universe. It’s inevitable that the Eastern way of life would be the subject of my fiction, after living there. I don’t think it has contributed to any artistic achievement, however; more likely it’s just made me more honest with myself about my curiosities and concerns. Nor do I think the experience has been freeing, per se. But it is comforting to know that I have that parallel landscape in which to develop my stories and that I can, whenever I feel like it, leave behind the field of inbred tensions that is Argentina.

Much of your work seems to challenge the distinction between moral and immoral. The protagonist of ‘Death of the Critic’, Min gyu, for instance, is both a “guilty” and “a victim.” Without giving away the ending of the story (though perhaps I just did), tell us a bit about what brought you to create Min gyu in particular, and what you think he’s up to over there in the deserted suburbs of Seoul.

Well, ‘Death of the Critic’ was the first in a series of stories that I never completed and that had to do with men consumed with bitterness. The story originated in a conversation I had with an Indian writer I met in Seoul. One night we had a good laugh speculating on a resentful writer who decides to kill a literary critic who’s ruined his life. Even though the story doesn’t replicate that plot line, I can point to it as the point of departure. Here, the protagonist becomes the killer by chance, in a miraculous way, and cuts short a relationship developing behind his back. But first and foremost, Min gyu is a victim of existence, of the survival of the fittest.

Can you tell us a bit about your influences, Argentine and otherwise, and how these predecessors or peers have influenced your work? Who else should we be reading in order to understand ‘Oliverio Coelho’? 

I don’t think that in order to understand my books you have to trace influences, antecedents, etc. Books are enjoyed or discarded for what they are. A reader is an instinctive creature, not a rational one. Those who look for precursors and influences are literary critics, and because they look for associations that are valid, often end up talking more about their own reading. In other words, I don’t think the writer is the ideal person to detect his influences. One can feel influenced by a writer, but that might not be reflected in the work. And what might be reflected is a writer that you never paid much attention to and who isn’t one of your favorites, but because of a shared temperament is always present. In my case, Céline.

What’s next? Any plans for other work to appear in English? Or for new work in Spanish?

I’ve been working on a novel for a number of months, I’d say more than a year, and still I’m quite a ways from finishing it… I can’t say too much more, there have already been so many changes of direction that any ‘coming attractions’ could spoil the plot. At the same time, I’m also working on a fictional diary that is based to a degree on my recent experiences in Seoul. The protagonist gets evicted and narrates his experiences in the pools, saunas and dating sights for foreigners. Bit by bit, it’s beginning to coalesce around a young, pretty Russian woman who, because she works twelve hours a day, on top of commuting to and from her home, has lost touch entirely with her own sexuality.


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Author Spotlight: Ezequiel Zaidenwerg

I met Ezequiel Zaidenwerg in August, 2008. I was spending a semester in Buenos Aires as an undergraduate exchange student and he was teaching a seminar on poetry translation. At the time, I harbored vague, earnest, poetic (in the pejorative sense) notions of what the process of translation was—in fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even think of it as a “process.”

Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, poet and translator (Photo: Valentina Siniego)

So, it came as a surprise when Ezequiel briskly set out, in the early minutes of Day One, to give us a crash course in poetic meter. The first thing I learned from him was the word “heptasyllable.” As Ezequiel presented it, translation involved a tireless kind of imagination, but one that necessarily operated within an elegant structure; it involved, for that matter, structure. You had to be a cover artist, not a composer. And you needed chops. So, first order of business: scales.

For a while, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about all this. But I came around. And as I got to know Ezequiel, as a professor and later as a friend, my enthusiasm for translation continued to grow.

When Ezequiel and I coincided in Mexico City—the city where I currently live and which is threatening to adopt Ezequiel—we decided to collaborate on the translation of several of his new poems. These poems, taken from his second book, ‘La lírica está muerta’ (Lyric Poetry is Dead, 2011), display his fierce poetic intelligence, both sprawling and precise, and his vast and focused imagination: his language, equal parts learned and off-the-cuff, manages to praise and problematize both our current (literary, cultural and political) moment and the legacies that have borne it out.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1981, Ezequiel has published one other collection of poetry—’Doxa’ (2007)—and two collections as translator: ‘Me va a encantar el siglo XXI’ (2011), poems by Mark Strand, and ‘El club del crimen’ (forthcoming), poems by Weldon Kees. He also maintains the celebrated poetry translation blog, zaidenwerg.blogspot.com, where he publishes poems newly rendered in Spanish twice a week.

In the following conversation, conducted during our time in the Mexican capital, we discussed topics of great poetic importance including, but not limited to: inspiration, freedom, Lorca and monsters.

Can you talk a bit about your most recent book, ‘La lírica está muerta’ [‘Lyric Poetry is Dead’], in terms of what prompted you to write it, how it came to be, how it’s structured?

I started writing ‘Lyric Poetry is Dead’ when I was 24 as a kind of invective against my elders. However, the project kept expanding, and, as it expanded, I myself continued to grow and change my ideas about poetry. The statement “Lyric poetry is dead” is an (ironic) quote from an Argentine poet, Alejandro Rubio, of the generation before mine, who, in an ars poetica included in the anthology ‘Monstruos’ [Monsters] that collected poets from the ‘90s, made this provocative declaration.

My initial proposal was to refute it; that said, as time went on, the book’s agenda ceased to be a defence of lyric poetry (which, in any case, doesn’t need my help or anyone else’s) and instead became an elegy for the loss of the idea of transcendence through poetry. In some way or other, the book’s thesis is that lyric poetry is a zombie — dead from the start, but continually reviving and reincarnating itself in order to terrorise us (or question us). As for its structure, it’s a unitary poem divided into thirteen narrative vignettes; in each one, lyric poetry is personified by a famous cadaver from recent Argentine history or the history of literature. As a kind of coda, the book concludes with a poem called “What Love Does Unto Poets,” which doesn’t strictly belong to the previous series, but which is intimately connected to it.

How do you think ‘Lyric Poetry is Dead’ most strikingly differs from your previous (and first) book, ‘Doxa’? To put it more broadly, what are some of the ways in which you feel you have “evolved” as a poet?

I wouldn’t know how to say whether I’ve evolved as a poet, or even if I’m really a poet, or what it means exactly to be one. Apart from that, I think that ‘Doxa’, my previous book, with the exception of the homonymous poem, was rather, on the one hand, a metrical exercise, and on the other hand an attempt to cloud the waters so that they’d appear more profound, to appropriate Nietzsche’s metaphor. Additionally, there was a conscious mission on my part to create radically different books, which has to do with trying not to fall into the comfort zones in which those who write poetry and sustain this foolish passion over the long term often fall. I firmly believe that, more than writing against tradition or against other poets, one writes against oneself.

Do you find yourself repeatedly revisiting particular “terrain” — certain subjects that continue to fascinate you, individual ideas or images, styles or forms you’re attracted to or comfortable with — over time? In other words, are there recurring motifs, or even recurring obsessions, in your work?

I suppose so. I think one (very) weak point in my poetry is the scarcity of physical images. Unfortunately, my poetic sensibility is eminently linguistic, so my poems tend to be constructed, almost without exception, from ideas (to be clear, let’s say that all have some kind of thesis); in addition, I think that what gives them poetic density, if indeed they have it, is the search for verbal imagination. Consequently, I suppose some of the elements that recur in my poems are humor, or at least a certain kind of sarcasm or irony; the mix of references from different cultural registers; and an almost unhealthy obsession with meter.

(Photo: Valentina Siniego)

Both your poetry and your translations are always written in meter. Why? Can you describe the importance of meter as you see it?

I can’t say (although I’d certainly like to) that metered poetry is better than unmetered poetry. There are abundant examples to prove it. However, for me personally, the use of more or less established metric schemes allows me to organise myself when I write; I believe, like Luis Cernuda, that freedom isn’t of this world, and I find it impossible to write amid the chaos constituted by total boundlessness. I think that, in the field of the arts, formal limitations don’t pose a restriction, but rather a condition of possibility.

Your blog of poetry translations, zaidenwerg.blogspot.com, is widely read and respected. What has the experience of maintaining this blog been like for you — both as a translator, period, and as a kind of “messenger” among various audiences and contexts?

Well, to tell the truth, I owe the entirety of my meager literary career to the blog. Although, perhaps rightfully, I’m known almost exclusively as a translator, posting some of my poems on the blog has helped give my poetry some visibility. With respect to the experience of maintaining it, this year will mark its seventh anniversary, and the third anniversary of its religious twice-weekly updates. I should confess that there have been moments of great enthusiasm and others in which, amid the tumult of life, only my sense of duty has prevented me from abandoning the routine of publication.

As for my responsibility to the public, I don’t consider myself a “messenger” of anything. The blog was born in a period of time when I found it completely impossible to write a poem of my own, and translation helped me stay in contact with the “kitchen” of poetry. I never thought of diffusion as my objective, nor am I interested in upholding the tabernacle of the “original” as something inviolate. About the translator’s role, my creed is effectively platonic: I believe in a kind of platonic

heaven of poetry, where poems exist separately from the particular linguistic embodiment dictated by the original; the translator’s job consists of seeing those ideal forms and adapting them to the conditions of production in the given language and the context in which the translation is carried out.

What is the relationship between your work as a translator and your own writing? Do these roles directly inform each other somehow?

Yes, obviously. I suppose that the fact of writing poetry and possessing a certain technical repertoire helps me connect a little better with that platonic heaven I mentioned before. As for the second part of the question, I hope that translating such diverse poems by such distinct poets has allowed me to enrich my arsenal of poetic methods.

Poetry, like any art, strikes me as a strange social beast. On the one hand, it’s intensely solitary by nature. On the other hand, people make a lot of noise about different kinds of literary “scenes,” which of course vary by place: readings, workshops, festivals, university programs, etc. How much literary “community” — formal or informal — do you need, or do you feel comfortable with? What is the relationship between solitude and collectivity like for you?

The poetry world, like all professional communities, is contemptible by nature. It’s full of hypocrisy, envy, and resentment. However, I don’t harbor the childish illusion of being able to change it: I participate, since in order to be a writer it’s necessary to disseminate what you write, but I don’t take it too seriously. I do believe in the fundamental importance of having interlocutors one respects and hopefully admires, and fortunately I have a small group of this kind. I should also mention that it’s difficult for me to feel comfortable in the context of Argentine poetry, given that I generally don’t have anything in common with the conception of poetry that many of my compatriots tend to have, especially when it comes to the technical dimension. Strangely (or not), I’ve found in other Latin American countries, above all in Mexico, a group of poets whose work, poetic and theoretical, inspires and nourishes me.

Could you tell us some of the poets — or poems — that have been most important to you over time?

I discovered poetry when I was 15, when my high school literature professor brought a poem to class by Federico García Lorca, “Oficina y denuncia” [Office and Denunciation”], which is part of his book Poeta en Nueva York [Poet in New York], and it made me see that there was something fascinating there, radically different from prose, which until that time I had read avidly and attempted to write. Later I discovered by chance, on the cover of a now-discontinued Argentine literary journal, a poem by Oliverio Girondo, ‘La mezcla'(The Mixture) from ‘En la masmédula’ (In the Masmédula). I didn’t know it yet, but what fascinated me about Girondo’s poem, more than his syntax and verbal experiments, was his incantatory use of rhythm. Some time later, when I bought my copy of ‘Trilce’, the incredibly famous and also experimental collection by César Vallejo, I completed my first trinity of books that inspired in me the desire to read and write poetry.

The second and more lasting revelation took place a few years after that, when I set out to read the authors of the Spanish Golden Age, from whom I finally learned classical technique. In sum, I’d say that my trajectory has gone from the avant-garde, or rather from experimental poetry (one couldn’t say that Lorca, Girondo, or Vallejo are truly avant-garde poets), toward a certain classicisim. More authors would come later, many of them from the US, whom I came to know intimately through translating them, as well as many others in my own language. In any case, as time went on, I went from thinking of poetry in terms of poets to beginning to think of it instead in terms of poems: in this sense, I firmly believe that poetry is a collective creation, a gathering of poems rather than poets; it’s for this reason that even those considered “great authors” leave only a handful of poems to posterity.

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