Books of Forbidden Pleasures: An Interview with Federico Andahazi

I met with Federico Andahazi on a pleasant Friday afternoon in his beautiful home in the Belgrano R neighborhood of Buenos Aires. We drank coffee alongside his distracting bookcase—crammed with novels from around the world, as well as the classic green spines of the Editorial Losada philosophy collection—as he discussed his current biographical project, why Gutenberg is a pirate, the cultural politics of the Kirchner government, and the reason why he’s not just an Argentine Dan Brown.

Andahazi is a bestselling author in the Spanish-speaking world, with his historical novels and series like The Sexual History of the Argentines selling millions of copies. His most recent book is El Libro de los Placeres Prohibidos, a medieval religious thriller beginning with the death of a nun dedicated to the “prohibited pleasures” in a luxurious brothel on the banks of the Rhine. But he is most well-known for his novel El Anatomista, about the Renaissance anatomist Mateo Colón’s attempt to win over a Venetian prostitute by finding the “amor veneris” in woman’s body, the site of love modern readers know as the clitoris.

After Andahazi’s novel won the Premio Fortabat in 1996, the decision was contested by its sponsor Amelia Fortabat for failing to contribute to “exalting the highest values of the human spirit”. The jury defended its selection, and a controversy played out publicly in the pages of the Buenos Aires press. At the same time Andahazi had been a finalist for the Premio Planeta, the highest-paying prize for Spanish literature, and though he had withdrawn when he’d won the Fortabat, publisher Planeta was happy to publish his book, which went on to top sales charts in Argentina.

Andahazi has two books available in English: The Anatomist (Anchor, 1999) and The Merciful Women (Grove Press, 2002). When I spoke to him, he was preparing for a trip away from the city with his wife.

Jessica Sequeira: Where are you traveling?

Federico Andahazi: We’re going to the coast now; we’ve just come from the waterfalls in Misiones. We have a house on the Costa del Este, a beautiful place in the middle of the forest. I’m going there to work for a bit. It’s close,300 kilometersaway. The architect is Fernando Robles, but the design was done by my wife and myself. I’m working on a new book, my first autobiographical novel, and it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It has to do with my own family history. The story begins in Budapest, the city my paternal grandfather was from in Hungary, and ends here in Buenos Aires.

My grandfather had a very interesting life and I’m fully involved now in reconstructing it. He was one of those immigrants who was really good, really kind, but who didn’t ever talk about the difficult episodes he’d lived through. He lived through two wars. The first World War, the second World War, and then the Soviet invasion of Hungary. He never said anything about them, but I began to discover different fragments of his life.

My father was a poet, and he had a book of poetry that I opened when I was fairly young. Inside I found a clipping from a newspaper which reported that my grandfather had been given a recognition by the DAIA [Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas], along with the widow of Schindler—Emilie Schindler of Schindler’s list—who was living then in Argentina. And through that clipping I realized that my grandfather had saved a number of Jews in his house in Hungary, and that among these Jews had been his first wife. And so I went about reconstructing these episodes.

This is the first novel that has to do with my own biography and my own family history, and I assure you that it’s the most difficult. You have to work in a different way, because it’s not about researching history in the libraries, but about looking into your own family’s past. I came to learn that my grandfather was very well-known in Budapest. He founded a political party, was a member of Parliament, and was ambassador in a number of countries. It was when I went to Hungary to present one of my novels that I realized how really well-known he was. His name was Bela Andahazi-Kasnya, and he was a painter. A post-impressionist. During the course of my investigations I started coming across some of his work too, really good paintings. Many of them I have here in the dining room.

Come, I’ll show you. This is my grandfather, a self-portrait. Let me tell you the story behind this painting. A few years ago I had written a novel called El secreto de los flamencos. It was about painting, specifically about the Flemish painters. And in an interview I had mentioned that it was a homage both to the profession of painting, and to my grandfather, because he was a painter.

After some time had passed I got a call from an elderly home, and the director of the home told me that a little old lady had died and left something for me. I had no idea then what it was or what this was about. When I went, it turned out that this woman had read the article in the newspaper which mentioned my grandfather. And she had left a small will, which said that when she died she would leave me this painting that had belonged to her. This elderly home was part of the Jewish community, and so I realized that this woman had been hidden in my grandfather’s house, and that when she’d arrived here in Argentina she’d begun buying works of art. And so my grandfather’s story went about reconstructing itself little by little. For me, to have this painting here, given to me by that person who had that relationship with my grandfather, is really moving.

JS: How do you explain the great fascination with history in your novels?

FA: What I find is that every novel—for all that it takes place in the past, a past more or less remote—always inevitably refers to the present. To me it seems a more elegant way to talk about current issues without having to get bogged down in the mud of current events.

I don’t think it’s possible to talk about a historical period without talking about the present. But neither can we understand the present if we don’t understand history. We are the product of a long historical process, and if we don’t understand that process, we won’t be able to understand the present and the current moment. I like those periods of history that were in some way turning points, the Renaissance or the Middle Ages for example; I also like thinking about the important characters in history.

For me, the most important character in history without any doubt is Gutenberg. Because when I went to research the life of Gutenberg, I realized that in reality he was the very first pirate of the book. Gutenberg didn’t invent the press. He invented a machine to forge manuscripts. He wasn’t conscious of the importance of his invention; he just created a machine to swindle people.

In a library I saw the first printed books of Gutenberg’s, which appear as if they’ve been printed by hand. It is clear that their intention was to appear to be manuscripts. That is to say, they were forgeries. The first book in history, the first printing, was a pirated book. One can’t understand the history of the book without understanding how the book was born.

Now everyone is discussing e-books, and pirating in relation to the electronic book. Previously, a manuscript would take a year or two of work; Gutenberg could do the same thing in a few days. I don’t think we can understand the electronic book if we don’t understand how Gutenberg’s printed book emerged. Because it’s the same thing. The electronic book emerged as a pirated book, and then an industry of the electronic book built up around that format. Many of the first advances in history emerge as small independent actions, that afterward transform into something else.

JS: You began your career as a psychoanalyst. How did you go from that to writing?

FA: First of all, I still am a psychoanalyst. I’ve taken it up again after many years of not exercising the profession. Just a little while ago I started up again with a few patients—just a few because I don’t want to take time away from writing. I arrived at psychoanalysis through a previous passion for literature. Because what’s certain is that when you read the work of Freud, you encounter world literature. When you read Freud, or when you read Goethe, or Shakespeare, or Greek mythology. As Freud didn’t have a theoretical body of work to represent the construction that is psychoanalysis, he turned to literature to draw models from it.

And so I think my initial fascination with psychoanalysis is precisely its relationship with literature. My own family was really involved with literature. My maternal grandfather was an editor. He was born in the Ukraine, coming here when he was very young and, like all immigrants, very poor. His first job was selling newspapers, and he learned Spanish to be able to say the headlines of the newspapers. As he grew older he went from selling newspapers to selling books, and from selling books to editing them. His surname was Merlin, like the magician, and the editorial had the same name. And he was a very good editor.

You asked me how I came to literature. Look, I can give you an exact date. It was 24 March 1976. That was the coup d’état that began the military dictatorship. In my grandfather’s house there was a very important library, which was very dangerous then because it had political books. And just as in so many other families with dangerous libraries, my grandfather that same night took down all the books, and when there was nobody in the street crossed to a vacant lot and set them on fire. And that was very painful for him. He lived only a few years after that, because those books were his life.

I watched that scene from the balcony of my grandparents’ house, and it was very difficult. Right then I said to myself—I was 13 years old—”I have to do something with this. I want to write books that can make up for this moment in the life of my grandfather, in my own life.” Even now, every time I finish a book it’s like returning a volume to my grandfather’s library.

JS: How did you go about writing your first novel?

FA: My first novel is unpublished, and I don’t think of publishing it. It’s a novel that I like a lot, a crime novel. The crime genre is very difficult. I think a writer can say he’s a writer if he’s capable of writing one. With that first novel I proved to myself that I could, and it has no value other than being a sort of proof for myself.

Then I wrote a second book, 200 pages. Originally the different parts were chapters of a novel, but they ended up as short stories. I was very young when I wrote them; the stories are nearly all from the ‘80s. It’s a book I have a lot of affection for, because it was the first one I was not only happy with, but that was published.

So my first novel in print was actually The Anatomist. Before the controversy began it had won the Fundación Fortabat prize, and afterward I was a finalist for the Premio Planeta. It’s a book that received recognition from some very important writers. And then, well, the controversy came along, but I think the book can detach itself from that discussion, which I didn’t like.

JS: The variety of genres is impressive—crime novel, short stories, novels, history books.

FA: I really like changing registers. I’m not one of those writers who always do the same thing and repeat themselves. You have writers like that, I’m thinking of Dan Brown for example, people who always try to do the same thing. In contrast, I like to go from the short story to the historical novel to the biographical novel, and I also have a lot of essays. For example, I wrote the series The Sexual History of the Argentines, which are history books. Many people ask me if they’re books that talk about sex. Yes, they talk about sex, but they’re history books.

Those books were a lot of work. In addition to The Sexual History of Argentines, I also wrote in collaboration with local authors The Sexual History of the ColombiansThe Sexual History of the Chileans, and The Sexual History of the Mexicans, which were much more difficult because I had less prior knowledge. I worked closely with a Mexican writer, and a Colombian, and a Chilean. I really enjoyed that research because human beings universally have this curiosity, which there’s no need to give up. It seems to me that literature is precisely this, the development of a curiosity. I don’t know if literature answers many big questions, but what it does do is formulate them, and often they are then resolved by science.

JS: History plays a large part in your work; many of your novels are set in the past or take on historical themes. How do you see the relationship between history and literature?

FA: The two are very different. But in a paradoxical way, many times the route of fiction leads you to respond to historical questions. Sometimes, without the intention of telling the truth—on the contrary, we writers are professional liars—one finds that the fiction is reconstructing the pages of history. It happened to me with Placeres Prohibidos. Everything that has to do with Gutenberg is a historical reconstruction, and many times before finding the documents I would formulate a hypothesis and afterward see it confirmed by history. Literary imagination often guides you to the path of truth.

I don’t think that literature has a specific function. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have any function, but one can’t start from a dogma or a premise that literature serves to do this or that. And I think that every book has a particular purpose. For me, The Anatomist had a very different purpose than The Sexual History of ArgentinesThe Anatomist is a book whose intention was for the reader to put in doubt many of the certainties that accompany him in life.

Other books had other purposes. One novel I also have a lot of affection for is a book called The Prince, which is a sort of rewriting of Machiavelli’s Prince applied to Argentina and Latin America. It’s a political satire that I wrote during the Menem period. And it’s curious because here in Argentina, it was read as a satire of Menemism, but when I presented it in Mexico, they thought it was a satire of Salina de Gortari, and when I presented it in Brazil they saw it as a satire of Collor de Mello, and when I presented it in Ecuador they said “Ah yes, it’s a satire of Bucaram.”

As you can see, this book had another purpose. It was a book written with a great deal of humor, which I enjoyed writing very much. And although I wrote it a while ago, many scenes seem to be talking about now. The characters are the same. Here after 2001 there was a slogan ”Que se vayan todos” [“Everyone out”], but the people now are the same as ever. They may have changed their shirts but they’re the same. This book was begun in ‘98 and completed in 2000, but it’s never lost relevance. It starts with a president standing in the presidential balcony, who jumps, and instead of falling goes flying away. Shortly after that de la Rúawent flying away. [Editor’s note: In 2001, Argentine president Fernando de la Rúa famously “escaped” the presidential palace by helicopter after resigning from office, following riots provoked by the economic crisis.] And so it’s a book that never loses relevance, that continues existing while the same thing plays out over and over.

I don’t think literature has a specific purpose. It seems to me that every book, even despite its author, takes on a different meaning and sense with each reader. Of course I think that books always reflect the author’s point of view. The reader realizes how the author thinks. But often people believe that writers have the authority to opine about anything. Even now, certain philosophers are being asked about the economy, and these guys end up talking about the value of the dollar. When you get involved in politics like that, everything becomes pretty messy.

For the moment I’ve decided to leave politics to one side, because we’re experiencing a very delicate moment, in which it seems to me that we’re very close to censorship. Politics is inserted into absolutely everything. I used to travel often representing Argentina in different places, but now if you don’t identify yourself with the government and you aren’t Kirchnerist and you aren’t Peronist… Right now for example you see it with the Salón del Libro in Paris.

JS: The government’s selection of writers and journalists who will attend the Salón was controversial, no? All supporters of Kirchner.

FA: Exactly, and since the government knows how I think, they don’t invite me anywhere anymore. This is serious, because the authors going to Paris are authors with almost no distribution. It’s not that they aren’t published in France, or the United States. They aren’t even published in Uruguay. I think that what the government should do, and what the United States does very well, is spread culture. Many think that the United States is only an economic power, but in reality it’s a cultural power. The United States is known in the world, before its economy, for its culture: its literature, its cinema. Afterward comes business, afterward comes everything else.

JS: It’s a fairly one-way relationship, isn’t it? People here know a lot about US culture, but not the other way around.

FA: I know, and many of us authors suffer. The same thing was true of England and France until a few years ago. But how did that happen? It has to do precisely with the cultural power of a country. The influence of a country has to do first with culture, and afterward with economics. The cultural relationships between the west and the east emerged starting with a book, The Travels of Marco Polo. Marco Polo was a traveler, but he was also a writer. He brought the culture of the East to Europe, and through him European culture arrived to the East. It’s very clear that the first contact is produced by culture.

So I think that the current government is wrong, because what it should do is promote culture abroad. And what it does instead is use culture as a means of propaganda for itself. And that’s bad for culture, bad for the country, bad for the government. And so I think that we’re passing through a very delicate moment, very delicate. It’s a moment in which the government has a clamp so strong it ends up asphyxiating literature, because what writing means now is writing in favor of or against the government. That’s why I try to keep myself outside the controversy.

That has consequences, because the government always wants to know how you think. For example, film directors who don’t do political cinema, but who don’t align themselves with the government, are sent tax inspectors. Or look what happened to me. I had a debate with the director of the national library, Horacio González, and from then on I never had access to any public medium again. Never again did any of the mediums that have to do with the government interview me. It seems absurd, but it’s a dangerous moment.

We have a mirror for the future, which is Venezuela. I followed Venezuelan events very closely because I often went to present books there. First I would present in Argentina and afterward in Latin America, so I would always be traveling to Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Peru… And what I saw in Venezuela was that every time there was less. Less was published, every time I went there were fewer books, and now there isn’t even paper. It’s not even an ideological question now–it’s not that they don’t publish me because I don’t think like them, they don’t publish me because there isn’t paper. So I think that the country is a mirror we should look at very carefully.

I travel abroad a lot, and more and more frequently at discussions held in other countries, in Europe for example, I’m noticing people from the Argentine embassy coming­­­­—not to give support, but to see what you’re saying. It’s a pretty unpleasant feeling. For all that one doesn’t want to get involved in politics, politics gets involved with you.

JS: Would you say the same about religion? It’s another major theme in your books.

FA: Religious themes do appear quite a bit in my books. I don’t have a religious background; in fact I’m not religious. But I’ve addressed the theme of the church quite a lot. In fact, I’ve had more than one debate with the church about my books. There was a priest who went around saying that people shouldn’t read them.

The situation is curious now that we have an Argentine pope, one with whom it seems to me I have many things in common. Not everything, but a lot. As a result of Francisco, religion in Argentina is seeing a new momentum that for a long time it hasn’t had. Atheists always ask for tolerance on the part of the church. But I think that we atheists also have to learn to be tolerant of the religious.

JS: My impression is that your work isn’t against religion or the church per se, but rather against dogmas.

FA: Against dogmas, exactly. As I’ve grown older I’ve become a lot more tolerant. My mother was a Jew so I should be one too. But if I had to tell you right now what kind of Jew I am, I’d say I’m the type of Jew that would historically have gone over to Christianity. I think that Christianity is a sect of Judaism and I feel fairly close to it.

I wrote on these issues in a book called The City of Heretics, which has to do with this point of communion, limit, and separation between Judaism and Christianity. I feel like I’m standing on the precise line between Judaism and Christianity. And in this new novel I’m writing about these ideas a lot, because it takes place during the Nazi period, and while my paternal grandfather wasn’t Jewish, his first wife was, and he hid her in his house. And so at that moment this conflict was a question of life and death.