A Conversation with Carlos Gamerro

The Argentine writer Carlos Gamerro is known for his satirical novels, which begin from real events in his country’s history and carry them to their absurd limits. His books are ‘compelling postmodern thrillers confronting guilt, complicity and the treachery of language itself’, ‘picaresque journeys’, ‘caustic and utterly original novels that offer a shattered window onto Argentina’s recent past’, ‘hilarious, devastating and dizzyingly surreal accounts of a history that remains all too raw.’ And his plots are ludicrous: In one, a magnate, kidnapped by guerrillas, must place a bust of Eva Perón in all 92 offices of Argentina’s leading construction companies as part of his ransom. In another, a hacker who has spent a decade spent immersed in drugs and virtual realities must try to forget the freezing trench in which he passed the Malvinas War. ‘Gamerro picks history’s what-the-fuck moments, which when found in fiction are so strange as to knock the reader momentarily out of the imaginary world,’ wrote Ben Bollig in The Guardian.

Born in 1962, Gamerro studied literature at the University of Buenos Aires, where he taught until 2002. His novels in English, all translated by Ian Barnett, include The Islands (And Other Stories), The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón (And Other Stories) and An Open Secret (Pushkin Press). In addition he has published several other novels and collections of essays on Argentine literature. Along with Rubén Mira he wrote the film script for Tres de corazones (2007), directed by Sergio Renán, and he has translated works by Graham Greene, W. H. Auden, Harold Bloom and Shakespeare. In 2007 he was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge and in 2008 participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. In 2011 his theatrical version of The Islands premiered at the Teatro Alvear in Buenos Aires, directed by Alejandro Tantanian. He was the co-author of the catalogue of the 11th International Biennale of Lyon, and participated at the International Congress of Writers in Edinburgh. He has been translated into German, French, English and Turkish.

I met with Gamerro at Malvón, in the Almagro neighborhood in Buenos Aires. I ordered an espresso, while he chose the ‘basic’ merienda with two scones. Surrounded by the ubiquitous randomly dispersed plants found in so many local cafés, we discussed contemporary Argentine literature and its relationship to history, comedy and the absurd as eerie xylophone music played in the background.


JS: Your books start with real events and transform into a madness of invention. I’d like to understand what you and other writers here are doing with history. Presenting facts just as they might be boring. I see a lot of people trying to use historical material in an unusual way, turning it into narrative and even in some cases science fiction. This seems one way to take Argentine history and make it universal.

CG: I agree. One theme I worked on and that many writers more or less in my generation have worked on is the dictatorship. There’s a huge body of work on that by historians, journalists and researchers. There are thousands of books about the ’70s. If you’re going to do that, there are so many books like La voluntad, which is very fun, or witness accounts, most of which are very boring, but mark a period. For example there’s Recuerdo de la muerte, which I think came out before the famous report Nunca más.

I believe fiction has to do something else, although not necessarily be based in pure imagination. There are those who do that. César Aira goes a bit that way. Yesterday I was talking to a poet friend who doesn’t like Aira’s work at all. I’m not so conclusive in my judgements as he is. Yesterday we were arguing because I presented him to a professor from Oxford, and it was enough for the professor, who works with Argentine poetry, to say he liked Washington Cucurto and Néstor Perlongher for him to say, ‘That pelotudo!’ When I told him I like Cucurto and Perlongher too, he said ‘Don’t tell me that or I’m leaving.’

Aira does things I like, but other narrators in his generation work more directly with what happened. Fogwill works with the Malvinas War in a totally fantastical way in Los Pichiciegos. Piglia works with the dictatorship. Aira doesn’t take up directly political themes, but young narrators who follow his logic like Félix Bruzzone do. The Moles is a novel totally influenced by Aira. It starts with a son of the disappeared who ends up as a transvestite in Bariloche, going out with a neo-Nazi agent. In that logic, which goes from A to another alphabet, the logic of Aira is applied to a political and historical theme with great results. Maybe it was necessary for Aira to do what he did for others to do what they’re doing now.

I do a lot of research when I’m preparing a novel, but it’s a way of working with history and research that’s imaginative. I look for things from reality that seem mad, that the imagination wouldn’t be capable of discovering. I look for the absurd or fantastic in history. I’ll give you an example I couldn’t use in the novel The Islands, but could in the version for theater. Reading the story of a fighter from the ’60s or ’70s, Joe Baxter, I realized that in those days Peronist groups had a project to take over Malvinas on their own and give it to Perón in Spain. They thought that Malvinas with all its symbolic power would enable Perón to come back to power. What writer would that occur to, no matter how insane he is? Or let’s take a more concrete example, from a trashy journalistic account. I won’t name the author because I don’t like him much. There’s a chapter on the history of the Borne brothers. I was reading and suddenly discovered — and this is a story close to me because the son of Jorge Born was a classmate of mine — that for 60 million dollars ransom the Montoneros demanded the busts of Perón and Eva Perón be displayed. I wanted to write a book focusing not on the 60 million dollars, which was predictable, but on the busts of Eva.

JS: For me imagination isn’t inventing from the head but linking things that already exist, things that wouldn’t necessarily connect logically.

CG: Last year I put out a book of essays about Facundo by Martín Fierro, and about the Argentine dictatorship, linked to history and politics. Ater that I wrote a chapter about Che Guevara. When everyone thinks of Che they think of Cuba and Bolivia. For me the interesting story is in the Congo, when absolutely everything was going wrong. Like in Woody Allen’s Bananas, but protagonized and written by Che Guevara. I said, now that’s what I have to focus on. I wrote a chapter called ‘Las tinieblas de Che’, because it was Heart of Darkness, the Conrad novel which also takes place in the Congo, but happening to Che. This is guevaresca fiction, about those moments that wouldn’t fit in a straightforward historical reconstruction.

JS: They wouldn’t fit in a history thesis either. I remember writing an essay ages ago on Rosas, who’s often discussed as almost a dictator now, and I mentioned in a footnote that he ended his life in English exile as a gardener. It’s kind of comic and sad at the same time, how after a life like that he ended up tending his pumpkins. My grader wrote, ‘This is funny but has absolutely nothing to do with your topic.’

Changing tack, I’d like to ask what you think of the recent autobiographical trend, fictions that start from real facts from one’s own life.

CG: It’s dull enough to live without having to live again in writing. I have always liked a phrase by Alfred Hitchcock, who said ‘Other people’s movies are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.’ There’s a certain type of realism that’s overdone.

JS: Nobody’s life is that interesting, no matter how strange events are.

CG: I think the author has to have a personal connection with the theme, or the reader will naturally ask why the fuck should I bother. For example, I wrote my first book about Malvinas. Although I didn’t go to the Malvinas War — it isn’t autobiographical — I should have gone. I’m in the class of ’62, the class that did go. I was saved. And the feeling that stayed with me was, ‘That was close.’

JS: ‘It could have happened to me.’

CG: Exactly. The novel came from that question, ‘What would have happened if…?’ A speculation. It’s sort of a ‘what if’ autobiography, an autobiography in negative. Not what happened to me, but what could have happened.

JS: Yes, it seems so many people are writing autobiographical things I’m interested in the reverse, something more speculative or imaginative. Work that takes on another dimension without coming completely unstuck from reality.

CG: Thinking on those lines I could ask myself why I left off writing fiction about recent Argentine history and went to the period of Shakespeare.

My most recent project is a book on Shakespeare, which I wrote in English first and then rewrote in Spanish. My jumping off point from the perspective of language was the translation of Quixote made at the time of Shakespeare. I wanted to play with it. My novel is fiction about things it’s a luxury to imagine. We know Shakespeare wrote the work at the end of his life when he was probably exhausted. He started to write with a younger playwright, John Fletcher, someone very successful at the time. They wrote three works together, this one, Henry VIII (the first I translated) and The Two Noble Kingsmen, about two competing nobles with the same blood. The focus of the novel isn’t so much on Shakespeare as on Fletcher, and what writing with Shakespeare would have been like.

I respect the information that exists. We know the work debuted in the court on such and such a day, we know Fletcher also wrote with another playwright called Frances Bowman. That’s the ‘spicy’ bit. According to legend, Fletcher and Bowman lived together, wrote together, shared clothes and a woman. When that broke up, because Bowman wanted to marry a rich heiress, Fletcher had to find new work. That idea tempted me. He wasn’t starry-eyed, saying Ay I’m going to write with Shakespeare, but instead Everything’s going wrong, Bowman’s gone, I have debts to pay, now I have to write with Shakespeare. I respect a basic framework. At a certain moment Shakespeare’s brother died and I incorporate that, but where we don’t know much, I invent. It’s amusing because it’s the first time I’ve worked with a story that’s both fiction and non-fiction.

Ever since I was a young boy, as long as I can remember, I’ve lived in two languages and two cultures. My grandparents on my mother’s side come from Gibraltar, an English colony in Spain. When I read in a footnote that Shakespeare wrote a work based on Quixote, it was like a flash. Everything connected. It’s part of my personal history and also very representative of Argentina. The confluence of the Hispanic and English in 19th century Argentine literature is very strong. I also grew up surrounded by what remained of the Anglo Argentine colony, along with people from Ireland and the United States. Cervantes and Shakespeare are my favorite authors, the ones I read, write about and teach.

JS: There’s a way to think of history as a great archive from which you can pull anything from any time and connect it to the present.

CG: I developed a method of reading history where I skim through most of it, oh great, how interesting, all background info that’s not useful. I’m waiting for that really strange piece of data to emerge, something unusual that will inspire me. The book about Quixote began from a footnote, and The Busts started with a fact from a book published in the ’90s about missionaries and great Argentine fortunes. There was a personal connection there too, since Borne’s son was a classmate of mine. Not only that, we were born the same day. That created a conflict for me, because since his birthdays were completely lavish, everyone went to his. I had to celebrate mine before or after, until they kidnapped his father and took him out of the school, and I never saw him again. Then I could celebrate my birthday in peace. I was the indirect beneficiary of the kidnapping.

JS: Sort of macabre.

CG: That’s where I’m going. This worked on me the moment I said I’m going to write a novel on the topic. It’s not that I put the anecdote in. But there has been a personal connection ever since I was a kid, because this happened when I was 13. I even rode my bicycle to school down the street where he was kidnapped. The book isn’t autobiographical in the sense I don’t use this as part of my story, but it allows me to connect.

JS: I came to your work because a friend recommended me your ‘mystery novel’.

CG: That must be An Open Secret, my most realistic in terms of plot. It takes place in the ’90s, and is about someone who goes to a little town in the province of Santa Fe to look into the story of someone ‘disappeared’ in the town during the dictatorship. It’s almost a mystery novel about what happened in those years.

JS: Did that really happen?

CG: Things like it happened in towns all over the country, although not necessarily this exact story. I based the town in the book on one my family is from, so I feel strongly connected to it. Years after publishing the novel, it came out in the newspaper that in the cemetery of that same town two cadavers had been dug up, the bodies of disappeared people. This book was not as humorous as my other ones.

JS: In The Busts there’s a lot of violence and uncomfortable sexual scenes, but they get a comic treatment.

CG: I’m doing something else there. In An Open Secret, the protagonist is researching what happened in the past and speaking with people 20 years afterward, and the novel is made up of those stories. Each one is trying to tell what he knows, or explain or justify something. The premise is that the chief of police of the town gave the order for this person to disappear, but the military men knew they couldn’t do it without the whole world realizing. So they told people, Unfortunately we have to ‘disappear’ your beloved neighbor, what do you think about that, what can we do? The whole town somehow became an accomplice.

JS: Yes, this is a far cry from your book where an executive is reading books of self-help.

CG: When Macri won and all the glorification of corporate culture started, I said, ‘My novel predicted it.’ Now the parody has become reality. The logic of The Busts has a lot to do with Quixote as well, in that someone wants to make into reality something that happens in books. But the twist is that not everything goes wrong. In fact, somehow things work out. The protagonist goes to the strike, applies the principles and is successful.

JS: We should read more books of self-help.

CG: To some extent this is based on what happened to me. I was reading books for the novel. During that period I wrote screenplays, and also commercials. I had meetings with not only film producers but also marketing people from Bagley and Terrabusi, because their products were going to be in the films. In those meetings I suddenly found myself starting to apply the principles of Dale Carnegie, and it worked! No joke, at a utilitarian and direct level, they are effective. Those tricks like how to make someone believe an idea is his, how to win an argument when prestige is in play, basic things… and the worst is that after that, I applied the advice to my personal, emotional life and it also worked!

JS: It’s a bit the opposite of what one thinks of literature, something subtle that doesn’t say things directly.

CG: There’s another literary tradition too. One author who has a lot in common with Cervantes is Flaubert. In Madame Bovary or Bouvard and Pecuchet he’s also trying to show people’s stupidity, which simultaneously fascinates him. He makes great literature out of a woman who reads romance novels.

JS: It’s true that few good novels come from thinking, ‘I’m going to write about justice.’ You have to start with something silly.

CG: I know Shakespeare and can work on him with quite a lot of subtlety. But true story, a book came into my hands called Shakespeare for Managers, and I practically transcribed it in The Busts. What can an executive learn from King Lear? I said to myself, ‘This is marvelous.’ That’s the opposite of that highbrow argument ‘Literature is something else’. I tried to make literature out of real life, something comic.

When I started writing this book, everyone told me, you have to read Hilary Mantel, who won two Booker Prizes. I think even one was too many. I read almost an entire book, Wolf Hall… Maybe I can understand why the English like it, because their entire life they hear Thomas Moore was good and Thomas Cromwell was bad, and she flips this around. It’s kind of a Tudor historical revisionism, where the bad are good and the good are bad. But it would be like reading a revisionist history about Rosas in which he’s a paladin and a hero and his enemies are the bad guys. If you’re not Argentine, this probably won’t mean much to you.

JS: It’s like the Malvinas War, which is very important here but not necessarily other places. Maybe comedy can help a book go beyond local boundaries.

CG: In England The Islands had a fairly large impact because of the Malvinas theme. In other countries, much less. But I think most reviewers realized it was a novel that went beyond its theme.

JS: I read a review in the Glasgow Review of Books with a footnote asking why this book was translated and not others of yours, if it had to do with its Argentine theme. Perhaps this is a reality of the market, where people reading an Argentine author expect a related topic…

CG: That’s happening to me now. I wrote those novels about the dictatorship and Malvinas War, which were translated. Now with Shakespeare they’re telling me, ‘We already have our own writers talking about that, we already have enough on that topic.’

JS: It seems a widespread problem, that a Latin American author feels obliged to write about a national theme in comic style, because that’s what will be read and translated abroad. I translated a Bolivian writer who doesn’t want to be thought of that way, so she writes more fantastical things. But she feels pressure all the time when she presents her work abroad and people ask about the connection to her country.

CG: I choose the themes of my novels because they compel me. It’s a bit of a cliché, but in my case it’s true — the stories choose me.

JS: Maybe that has to do with vocation. But I still think it’s true that for most people there’s something in the air, not something calculated but a pressure. Academics looking for connections with politics or certain sociological topics don’t help. One understands the reaction of writers like Aira.

CG: Aira is even more radical because he wants to end not only with politics and history, but with reference to real life. He dispenses with the slightest parameter of realism. I remember Ema and the captive, one of his first books, which takes place in the period of Indian raids and captives in the desert. Suddenly some Australian animals similar to duck-billed platypuses run through the pampa. Aira is denouncing the idea there always has to be a least a series of parameters. I’ve been compared to Aira because of my crazy plots, but I think there’s a basic difference. He likes to set forth a given logic to subsequently break it. He’ll write a novel about Indians and gauchos and in the penultimate chapter, a UFO will come down from the sky to abduct the Indians, who will return illuminated.

JS: There’s something conceptual about purposely taking an idea and breaking it.

CG: Yes, he’s breaking a plot or creating one that’s absolutely ridiculous or unpredictable. In contrast, I take a certain logic and try to carry it to the limits of absurdity, while always following its logic. Marroné has to get hold of some busts, applying the criteria from books of self-help, and at the end of the novel he’s still trying to get hold of them. It’s not that I suddenly leave that and start something different. In Aira anything can happen.

JS: Sometimes his work seems like he woke up and wrote down whatever was in his head, and that’s okay…

CG: In Aira it works, but there are a lot of young narrators who started to do the same thing, saying alright, whoever writes a novel with a plot is passé, that’s something old. Aira showed you don’t have to do that. But it’s become yet another recipe, a formula. The unpredictable can become predictable. You’re reading and at any moment expecting something strange to happen. Like everything in the avant-garde, the first to do it is great, then afterward come imitators.

JS: It also goes against the idea of psychological profundity, entering someone’s interior world. It’s more external nonsense, things that happen.

CG: Yes, clearly it’s also against the idea of constructing characters with an inner life, which is something the critics took up immediately and explained as having to do with the contemporary dissolution or fragmentation of the subject.

But I like to construct characters. Readers talk to me about them like they’re people they identify with, who move and affect them. Those characters remain engraved in their minds. That’s something I like, the idea of creating characters that afterward people feel they knew. Some survive over the course of multiple novels. Marroné was farcical in the first novel until he arrived at a certain level of depth, and in a second novel darker things happen. He isn’t totally a nice guy.

I’ll tell you something to do with this. While writing An Open Secret, I realized that Fefe is the same age as Felipe Felix in The Islands, that he doesn’t have a father and is looking for information about him, and that his mother has a kind of disability. I realized he was the same character, but I hadn’t been conscious of this. I took it as an indication that this person from The Islands was still alive and had taken over the novel in some way, beyond my will. It was a sign. It wasn’t my decision, but it happened. When I finished The Islands I wasn’t thinking of continuing the history of Tamerlán, but he spoke: ‘No my dear, if you think you’re done with me because you killed me, you are very wrong.’

JS: Who are the authors from here you like to read? Whose projects do you respect?

CG: Last year I wrote a book on the history of Argentine literature. Not the writers I like best or who seem most important, because that seems boring, a little pompous and pedantic, but those I consider fundamental, who created the Argentine tradition, values and sensibility.  I think literature has a creative role, which doesn’t reflect reality but somehow makes it. Sarmiento and José Hernández forged a new way of thinking. Memories of the Province is like Southern Gothic, a collection of freaks. There’s Mansilla, who had several chapters about the Indians, completely ludicrous. Closer to us in time, I like Saer and Fogwill, above all in Los pichiciegos. Also Osvaldo Lamborghini and Martín Kohan. Almost at the end I talk about novels that have to do with dictatorship. The most interesting are written by children of the disappeared or military fathers. I also mix in a bit of film writing with Albertina Carri and Nicolás Previdera. And then there are Felix Bruzzone and María Eva Pérez, the author of Diary of a Montonera Princess, a very fun book because it pokes fun at all the children of the disappeared in an irreverent way. A Very Beautiful Girl, which I didn’t like so much, by Julián López, is a novel about the children of the disappeared written by someone who isn’t one, a phenomenon that also seems interesting. The question for many people afterward is how to move from those to other themes, how not to get bogged down in the stories of the parents and suffering of the children.

JS: Yes, that was my question at the start, the ways one can escape from or rework historical themes.

CG: My personal answer: by writing a novel about Shakespeare in English. That’s not a joke, it’s part of the process. When I finished the book about Che Guevara I told myself, I’m tired. I think I’ve completed my duty. I’d like to move onto other things even for a little while, take a deep breath. Now I’ve found something very different.

JS: Maybe this sounds bad, but one can see how people get tired of political themes.

CG: I think people are going to keep writing about them, like the Spanish do about the civil war that happened even longer ago, and the Germans do about Nazism. But there have to be new forms. What I like about Felix Bruzzone and María Eva Pérez is that what they write doesn’t seem like anything before it. It’s totally fresh and new. And things keep happening. Someone now should write about the change from Kirchner to Macri.

JS: It would be called The Change, with Macri reading self-help books.

CG: I swear, the day of the election when I saw the PRO party on television doing daddy dancing, I said I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Once again the limits of my imagination were put to the test by reality.

JS: I watched the program on 60 Minutes where he talked about how he dreams his dance steps the night before. It’s very comic.

CG: The kirchneristas on the other hand take themselves very seriously. Once they invited me to Ushuaia for the anniversary of Malvinas, and I went in an airplane with all the politicians. They took us from one place to another, took us to listen to Cristina. Once everything was over they took us back to the airplane without even giving us anything to eat for lunch. The whole anti-Peronist myth about people going to the ceremonies for a choripán [sausage sandwich] is a lie! They don’t give you a choripán. I wanted one! It was all very outlandish. Now it’s normal to treat the Malvinas theme with humor, but when I started there wasn’t much precedent.

JS: A sacred cow.

CG: It was a field where I ran a risk. But it turned out well for me and became something possible.

This is not a view I have about literature, that serious or tragic themes have to be funny. It’s just how I am. If there’s a possibility to laugh, I take it. While writing the end of the book, I was reading Nunca Más, looking for witness accounts. One would think there would be nothing funny in the testimonies of victims of torture and families of the disappeared. And there isn’t. But later I was reading the shorthand transcriptions of the trials of commanders of the armed forces, and there I began to find testimonies by victims that made jokes. They were so uncomfortable with what they were telling and felt so embarrassed about having to say it in front of people, that like anyone telling something terrible they began to try and lighten it up a little. And then I realized, or suspected since I have no way to prove it, that in Nunca Más the jokes were edited out.

JS: Made to fit bureaucratic style.

CG: In the newspaper everything was printed, complete testimonies without any kind of editing. You found the tragic, the solemn, the pathetic, the ridiculous, the humorous. When I realized even the victims made jokes about their experience, I said, ah then I’m not so misguided in doing that. What’s the situation in which one makes the most jokes? Funerals.

JS: Yes, in fact situations of complete happiness seem more serious. Perhaps humor comes from a situation of irony or tension.

CG: Sometimes laughter is an end in itself, other times it’s a way to lower the reader’s guard. If you start in on a terribly tragic theme with solemn language it’s kind of emotional blackmail, saying you have to suffer, you have to like this novel. In contrast if you start with humor, the reader relaxes and you can do what you want. I remember an Italian film called Pasqualino Settebellezze, an Italian comedy about a seducer in Naples and his sisters, all very funny until Pascualino goes to war, is captured by Germans and put in a concentration camp. Since that’s his personality, he decides to seduce the German woman in command of the camp, an immense fat lady. When they want to fuck, he can’t even do it. The fatty looks at him and says ‘You Italian, dying of hunger, eat pasta, mangia fideos!’ And she cooks him pasta so he has enough energy.

JS: That’s pretty black humor.

CG: You can say a lot of things with that and cut it at any point, not for moral reasons but so the reader doesn’t laugh until the very end. I like to play a bit with the reader’s emotions, to surprise him or take him places he doesn’t want to go. That operation involves the fantastic, the absurd, the unreal. I love adventure, spark, picaresques about a ‘loser’ figure with neither honor nor values. What does daily life matter to me? There are 30 pages of dirty realism in Quixote you go flipping through, but the book really begins when he puts on his helmet, picks up his sword and heads out into the world.