Jorge Volpi Interview at El País: History Is Often More Important Than Fiction in a Novel

El País offered readers a chance to submit questions to Jorge Volpi for a form of on-line interview. I took the opportunity to submit a question about Season of Ash which I reviewed for the Quarterly Conversation and found to be more interested in writing history than a novel, sacrificing character development to his thesis. I wanted to know if he thought the history was more important than the fictional elements:

When you write fiction mixed with history, what do you think is more important: the narrative and characters, or the history? I noticed in Season of Ash that at times the narrative served more to explain the history, and the characters became a method for arriving at the history.

My intention is for history and fiction to complement each other, though it is certain that in this novel I wanted the History in capital letters to have an importance as clear as the history of the characters, perhaps this provokes the sensation that the characters serve the grand History.

¿Cuando escribes ficción mezclada con historia, cual piensa es mas importante: la narrativa y los personajes o la historia? Noté en ” No será la tierra” que a veces la narrativa sirve mas para explicar la historia y los personajes se convierten en un método para llegar a la historia.

Mi intención es que historia y ficción se complementen, si bien es cierto que en esta novela quería que la Historia con mayúsculas tuviese una importancia tan clara como las historias de los personajes, acaso eso provoque la sensación de que los personajes ficticios “sirven” a la gran Historia.

It is an honest answer and confirms to his interest in writing politically engaged novels. Many of the other questions in the interview make it obvious that he is a political writer, by which I mean he wants to comment on politics and history and use fiction to explore ways of getting at these ideas. He doesn’t write from to serve a specific political base, such as the PRI or PAN, which would make him a hack. He is certainly not a hack and his commitment to working with politics and history is commendable, but it comes with risks. I think Elias Khoury from Lebanon use politics and history in his works with much better affect. Or Fernando Del Paso’s News from the Empire which has the grand sweep of history that Volpi wanted, is also a good example of how to mix the two.

As he mentioned in his lectures for Open Letter Press, he sees the younger generations as less politically engaged:

How do you see the lack of political literature and authors, lets say, or how they called it during the Boom “committed” on a continent that in the midst everything it is very political in those countries that often only breathe politics?

In effect, if we compare the present Latin American literature with that of the 60s and 70s (and after), we find an absence of political literature. On one hand, the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the USSR contributed to the disappearance of committed literature. And on the other hand, the gradual democratization of our countries made it so that politics stopped being regular material of those intellectuals and passed to the political scientists and political analysts that are part of the media. In addition, the latest generation are not only apolitical, but very apolitical. However, there continue to be examples of political literature in Latin America, you only have to mention the novel of Edmundo Paz Soldan, Ivan Thays, or Santiago Rocagliolo. And, in one sense, the literature about the violence that fills a good part of the region should also be considered political. Even this way, it is certain that writers don’t have a direct interest in contemporary politics, even the most authoritarian and picturesque.

¿Cómo ves la poca presencia de literatura política y autores digamos o como se decia en la epóca del boom “comprometidos” en un continente que en medio de todo es muy político en los países muchas veces tan solo se respira política?

En efecto, si comparamos la literatura latinoamericana actual con la de los sesentas o setentas (e incluso después), nos encontramos con la ausencia de literatura política. Por una parte, la caída del Muro de Berlín y el fin de la URSS contribuyeron a que desapareciera la literatura comprometida. Y, por la otra, la paulatina democratización de nuestros países hizo que la crítica política dejara de ser materia habitual de los intelectuales para pasar a los politólogos y a los analistas políticos de los medios. Además, las últimas generaciones no son sólo apolíticas, sino un tanto antipolíticas. Sin embargo, sigue habiendo ejemplos de literatura política en América Latina, baste mencionar las novelas de Edmundo Paz Soldán, de Iván Thays o de Santiago Roncagliolo. Y, en un sentido, la literatura sobre la violencia que prevalece en buena parte de la región también debe considerarse política. Aun así, es cierto que no parece haber un interés directo por parte de los escritores hacia nuestros políticos actuales, incluso los más autoritarios o pintorescos.

Finally, he talked about his latest novel, a free verse novel that is part fable, part history of the Holocaust. Mixing the Holocaust with non realistic elements could be interesting, or just lend itself to silliness. Hopefully, it isn’t the latter. It is an interesting approach and I would like to look it over someday, if not read it.

What made you write Dark Forest Dark, your latest novel, like a fable?

Dark Forest Dark is meant to reflect on the way everyday people can become an active part of a genocide, with Nazism in the background. However, in this meditation about innocence it seemed to me I could establish a connection between the massacres of Jews in the forests of Poland and the Ukraine, and the forests in the stories of the brothers Grimm, stories that Germans read obligatorily in those years. From this starting point I included many of their stories in the book.

¿Qué te llevó a construir Oscuro bosque oscuro, tu última novela, como una fábula? Gracias por tu literatura.

“Oscuro bosque oscuro” intenta reflexionar sobre la manera en la que la gente común se puede convertir en parte activa de un genocidio, con el nazismo como telón de fondo. Sin embargo, en esta meditación sobre la inocencia me pareció que podía establecerse una conexión entre las masacres de judíos que se producían en los bosques de Polonia y Ucrania, y los bosques de los cuentos de Grimm, que los alemanes leían obligatoriamente en esos años. De allí la inclusión de muchas de sus historias en el libro.

Arabic Summer Reading Challenge at Arabic Literature (in English)

Arabic Literature (in English) is having a summer Arabic reading challenge. There are prizes too!

To participate: Simply post at the bottom which ONE of these Arabic books (in translation or not) you will read this summer.* I will select a reading-challenge winner on August 20, 2010** and ship her (or him) a bundle of Arabic fiction new to English in 2010.***

It is a nice list of books and I know several are classics and worth the read. I’ve read these and if you have any doubts, they are all great booksa dn it would be a good addition to any summer reading list.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayib Saleh

Elias Khoury, Yalo

Naguib Mahfouz, Cairo Trilogy

Zayni Barakat,

Elias Khoury’s White Masks – Lebanon and the Civil War

I finished my review of Elias Khoury’s White Masks last week and on the whole I liked it and it is worth reading. I don’t want to say much more until the review comes out, although, I do think Yalo was a bit better book. However, considering it was only his second novel it is pretty good. White Masks is available from Archipelago on April, 20th.

Poster of the Lebanese Left Showing Martyrs

In writing the review I came across two interviews, one I’ve mentioned on the site before and the second I found. They add to the context of the book. Finally, I found a collection of posters at the American University of Lebanon. A quick perusal will give you a good sense of what the posters Khoury mentions in the book might have looked like, especially those of the Lebanese Left, which Khoury was allied with, and the example I have included here.

Yalo – A Review

Elias Khoury

Through torture one can learn—if you are the reader. Elias Khoury’s sometimes tough, sometimes disorienting novel, but always interesting, uses torture as a tool not only to to examine the politics and history of Lebanon, but the lives of Syriac (Maronite) Christians, and more broadly how can one be certain of what one knows in the worst of times.

Daniel Yalo, as we learn, is a veteran and deserter of the civil way who has led a directionless life that has amounted to little. Now imprisoned for planning a bombing the authorities ruthlessly interrogate him for information. Of course, he has little to give and as the sessions continue and become more extreme and degrading, they reduce him physically and mentally to a weakling willing to say or do anything. By novel’s end he barely knows what he has done and hasn’t done. Yalo is a novel where truth shifts and facts are never quite clear. With each torture sessions he finds himself changing his stories to tell the guards what he thinks they want to know. At first he denies he has done anything illegal, but slowly as he is beaten and tortured he begins to admit to things. Most of these crimes, though, don’t have anything to do with the bombing, but instead break apart the self deceit and lies he has told himself over the years. He admits to a series of rapes, not all at once, but in fragments that only make it clear he is not the most redeeming character. He also admits to robberies and affairs. Yet with each admission, with each life story he writes, he contradicts a previous admission so that it is never clear which admission is the truth. By the end of the novel it is obvious that Yalo is anything but a good man, but whether he is a rapist and thief or something lesser it is hard to know.

Along with the admissions of guilt Yalo looks back at his childhood and the war and he tries to explain in his life stories why he is the way he is. It is seldom useful, for the interrogators are seldom interested in the past, but like a fool who never quite understands what is happening to him, he continues to write more and more. Slowly he reveals enough details to piece together a rough, if inaccurate, life story. The illegitimate son of a tailor and the daughter of a Siriac priest, he is raised by his mother and grandfather who he calls his father. The grandfather is a strange man given to going to the seashore to drink sea water in a religious ritual. He is also a servier man incapable of compromise and his harsh character marks the boy.

Now, sir, even as he is suspended between the earth and the sky, the rapture runs through Yalo’s veins when he remembers the difference between a cooked woman and a raw woman. The theory was devised by my grandfather, God rest his soul. No, sir, my grandfather had no women, for he was a man riddled with complexes, but he divided food into two categories: meat and vegetables. After giving up the eating of all variations of meant, he assigned vegetables to three categories: defective, uncertain, and perfect. The defective do not ripen to be fit for consumption until they are cooked over the fire, like zucchini or beans or okra, and so on. The uncertain also ripen by fire even though they can be eaten raw, like eggplant, spinach, fava beans, and chick peas, etc. As to the perfect, they ripen in the sun and need no flame, because they have interior fire. These were all varieties of the finest fruit, grapes, figs, and tomatoes. My grandfather chose the perfect vegetables, and he ended his life eating nothing but raw vegetables. He even gave up eating bread. He began to shrink, he got very thin, his bones grew as porous as clay, and his flesh grew as rough as bone. He died with the intention of becoming a clay figure backed by the sun.

Through the interplay of these memories such as these , Khoury sketches a metaphor for Lebanon where truth is precarious and reflects not only where you come from, but who wants to know and when. Given the precariousness of it all is possible to go forward or they domed to repeat the war where “the Lebanese had dug up the history of all their past wars to justify their madness, which made talking to them impossible.”