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.