The time has come for Carlos Gamerro to speak English. Born into a bilingual family in Buenos Aires in 1962, he’s been using the language since childhood. Since the 1990s, he’s been translating from it (books by Auden, Shakespeare and Graham Green) and lecturing in it (at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the US; at Cambridge University in the UK). But now, readers can welcome the author into a different kind of English conversation: over the next year, two of his novels will be released in first-ever English editions. Those books—‘El secreto y las voces’ and ‘Las islas’—will be released in the UK as ‘An Open Secret’ (Pushkin Press, 2011) and ‘The Islands’ (& Other Stories, 2012).
They are part of a diverse and cultivated body of writing that includes other novels (‘El sueño del señor juez’ and ‘La aventura de los bustos de Eva’), literary essays (‘Harold Bloom y el canon literario’ and ‘El nacimiento de la literatura argentina y otros ensayos’), and short fiction (‘El libro de afectos raros’), works that have helped make Gamerro, according to fellow writer Federico Falco, “one of the inescapable narrators of his generation.” In the last year alone, he’s released two new books: the novel, ‘Un yuppie en la columna del Che Guevara’, and the literary study, ‘Ficciones Barrocas’—both to significant acclaim.
‘Bad Burgers’, available here in an original English translation, has been published thrice before in Spanish—in the magazine ‘Pisar el césped’, the newspaper Página 12, and in the story collection ‘El libro de afectos raros’. It distills much of what makes Gamerro’s writing distinctive; what Federico Falco, writing in the newspaper Perfíl, has called “the three fundamental pillars” on which Gamerro’s writing stands: “brilliantly hatched plots, characters who, without surrendering the profound, rub up against pop culture, and a view of the national reality somewhere between critical and humorous.” Reason enough for English-speakers to listen to what he has to say; now, at long last, in our native tongue. The author spoke to us via email—and in English—from his home in Buenos Aires.
You have two books coming out soon in English translations — ‘An Open Secret’ and ‘The Islands’. Can you tell us a bit about the process of bringing them into English? Are they your first full-length works to be published in English?
Yes, these are my first full-length works to be brought into English. After a few near misses — all of them in the UK, I suppose it’s a side effect of my upbringing. Or maybe it’s one of the mysterious effects of a general trend of Argentine culture where practically all the ‘English’ schools are precisely that, English (even though mine advertised itself as Scottish).
So, after years of waiting, I suddenly found myself with two publishers vying for my work! Pushkin is a prestigious publisher of classics and choice new fiction, and & Other Stories is an exciting new venture you should do a piece about! I was lucky in that both accepted my choice of translator, Buenos Aires-based, England-born Ian Barnett, who’s been living in Argentina for ages now, is an avid reader of Argentine fiction and has been wanting to do my stuff since he first read ‘Las islas’ back in 1998. His translations of me are ‘in collaboration with the author’ although my role is actually less to collaborate than to drive him crazy. With ‘An Open Secret’ we were using the ‘comments’ option and towards the end I thought of looking at the numbers and we had reached comment 1,500! But it’s a dream situation: to have the same translator for all my books, one who is open (or resigned) to all suggestions, who is obsessive, devoted and, to top it all, a good friend.
You were raised bilingual — speaking English and Spanish at home. How has the experience of being a bilingual author affected your literary explorations of an Argentina that itself is a mix of so many cultures (Spanish, Italian, Latin American, English, etc)?
There is a story about Borges and his relationship to English and Spanish: he always said he first read ‘Don Quixote’ in English translation. This has become a myth of origins and also a powerful statement about Argentine cultural and linguistic identity. Well, in my case, I sort of repeated (without knowing it at the time) Borges’ experience in a very meta-Borgesian way: I first read Borges in English translation! (That was ‘The Book of Imaginary Beings’, when I was about 12; I remember I drew pictures of all the critters in a scrapbook of mine). We are a mixture of course: the indigenous, the Hispanic, the Creole, and the East and West European (together with a dash of the Middle-Eastern), all thrown into the mix. Those who say Borges is ‘not Argentine enough’ or ‘too European’ don’t know the first thing about Argentine culture – even if they are Argentine.
Speaking of this mixture, a great challenge in translating ‘Bad Burgers’ was to transfer a particularly porteño swagger in the narrative voice into something comparable in English. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I wonder: as a translator yourself, how conscious are you of the “Argentiness” of the language you use?
I wasn’t consciously trying to sound ‘Argentine’ (I guess that just happens) and I wasn’t worried about exploring the nuances of Argentine Spanish, which I did, very consciously, in my novel ‘El secreto y las voces’ [‘An Open Secret’] — so much so that I could say that the novel is about the language, about how we use it to lie, equivocate, incommunicate, command or suggest silence, unknow the truth. But, in another sense, ‘Bad Burgers’ is one of two stories of mine (the other one being ‘El cuarto levantamiento’) where the language commanded the story and the plot. Basically, I heard a sentence, I took it down, and then I heard another one, wrote it down in turn, and only very gradually did I understand who was speaking, what was happening to him. I had no character, no plot, before the words of the story. If only this were always the case!
And, by the way, you didn’t do badly at all!
Why, thanks. Compliments are always accepted.
Ehem, but moving on… What is the significance, in ‘Bad Burgers’, of the narrator seeking sustenance and salvation in an imported American chain restaurant like McDonald’s? What did you see in this set-up: humor, pathos, greed, the debasement of Argentine cuisine? Something else altogether?
I don’t really see ‘Bad Burgers’ as a political story, not even in the sense of wider cultural politics. At the risk of being pompous, I suppose its main import is metaphysical. I have this notion that the success of McDonald’s worldwide has to do with our need to flee from chance, randomness, unpredictability. In other restaurants, as the narrator says, you never know what unidentifiable concoction will match the recognizable name on the menu. In McDonald’s you know exactly what you’ll get, you can actually taste the product in your mind before you bite it, and there is always a perfect match between the mind and the palate. All McDonald’s (in spite of the ‘little differences’ Tarantino’s characters talk about) look the same, taste the same, feel and smell the same, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Buenos Aires or Bangkok.
In McDonald’s, nothing can go wrong — that is why the character in ‘Bad Burgers’ keeps going back, because something did go wrong, very wrong, for him, in a McDonald’s, and his whole concept of an ordered universe has been shattered by this event.
I always thought Ronald was rather sinister by the way; I could never suffer my kids to climb on his knees without experiencing a slight shudder of dread. And it’s all presided over by this smiling metallic deity — Ray A. Kroc. (Have you seen his picture? Isn’t he a sort of gloating smiling Moloch?). At the end of the story (don’t worry, I’m not revealing the main point) the employee of the month (Kroc’s representative on earth) expels the protagonist from McDonald’s. But maybe this is a blessing?
When you eat at McDonald’s — if you eat at McDonald’s — what do you order?
Combo I (Big Mac, fries, coke). No chef salads, no apples, no medialunas. If you’re going to sleep with the enemy you might as well go all the way.