The Serenity and the Fury: An Interview with Argentine writer Iosi Havilio

By Jessica Sequeira

A few hours after I chatted with Iosi Havilio in Buenos Aires, the city went mad. A crowd pulsed irresistibly toward the giant obelisk statue in the center of town; people climbed on top of stoplights, trash containers and moving buses, waving oversized bottles of beer and noisemakers; car horns honked endlessly and fireworks lit up the sky. Joy coursed in infinite particles through people’s veins, through the arteries of the city: Argentina had just beaten Holland in penalty kicks to advance to World Cup finals. This explosion of collective enthusiasm was already compressed, in potential form, during my conversation with Havilio at a branch of Café Havanna. People passed us continually on the other side of the glass, wearing national team jerseys, loaded down with beer and coldcuts, on their way to friends’ houses for pregame celebrations.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1974, Havilio is one of a generation of contemporary Argentine writers seeking to do new things with the Spanish language. Opendoor (Entropía, 2006), his first book about a young woman working at a psychiatric hospital in the countryside, took the Argentine literary world by surprise with its lush yet deadpan style. As an important Argentine critic put it, “Opendoor doesn’t obey any of the laws of reading; it feels like it sprang out of nowhere.” Paraísos (Mondadori, 2012), Havilio’s follow-up book to Opendoor, brought this young woman to the chaotic urban decay of Buenos Aires, while Estocolmo (Mondadori, 2010)told the story of a Chilean exile in Sweden and his Balkan lover. (Opendoor and Paradises have been translated into English by Beth Fowler and published by the editorial And Other Stories.)

Critical success and foreign translation might suggest that Havilio became a golden boy of the Argentine literary scene. And yet grumbles began to be heard from Buenos Aires’ independent press: a tiny, fierce microworld. “The praise on the book’s back cover [from established writers Beatriz Sarlo and Fabián Casas] responded to editorial necessities, but it also demonstrates the difficulty this generation’s literature has in genuinely breaking with established schemes and sacred figures,” was how a reviewer in local magazine Los Inrockuptibles put it. Havilio himself began to feel uncomfortable with the style he’d mastered, one which precisely because of its impassive, affectless voice could incorporate descriptions of anything from a mutilated finger, to a drug trip, to a theft of an iguana from the zoo. It was time to take things in a new direction.

Havilio’s new book, La serenidad (Entropía, 2014) might be summed up as the madcap ramblings of a protagonist in Buenos Aires who refers to himself as El Protagonista and admits he is “given to easy solutions and intertextuality.” It sheds the relatively conventional narrative of his previous fiction to assume a more daring style, consciously taking cues from the Argentine experimental tradition. Two different, vibrant lines emerged from the avant-garde, both seeking to go beyond the traditional plot-based novel. The first, stretching from Osvaldo Lamborghini and Héctor Libertella through to Rodolfo Fogwill, embraces a self-conscious, theatrical, hermetic style. The second, culminating in contemporary writers like César Aira and Ricardo Strafacce, takes up a more punny, improvisational approach in which absurd circumstances snowball. Havilio is interested in both lines, especially the first, which has in the last few decades particularly influenced poetry and which he thinks offers further innovative possibility in narrative.

The experiments of Havilio and some of his more adventurous contemporaries raise the question of what a new kind of writing might look like. It might use the comma as an instrument of propulsion, an opportunity to twist a sentence in different directions, ideas branching off at the slightest impulse. It might play with how the book is split up, transforming it into an articulated, segmented creature. It might include pictures. It might question the ideal of precision—“Leave the efficiency for Germany!” as local papers opined in footballistic context—to instead seek possibility in chaos. It might explore the contradictions of a strange yet serious humor, sentiment filtered through tender irony. It might aim for a certain breathlessness, like that following a penalty kick that hits the crossbar, hits the ground, and enters the goal, driving a country wild with happiness. Whether or not it’s entirely successful, its beauty might lie with the attempt.

*  *  *

JS: Let’s start with the title. La serenidad comes from a text by Heidegger, “Gelassenheit”. This begins with a talk in his hometown in honor of a musician, but turns into something else entirely. Heidegger talks about the atomic bomb and the relationship of humans with technology. Basically, he takes advantage of the occasion to pose philosophical questions.

IH: For me “Gelassenheit” was one of my richest and most pleasurable reading experiences in the philosophy faculty. In fact, I read it in the CBC [Curso Básico Común, a pre-university course in Argentina]. It called my attention because of just what you said. The Gelassenheit text is a homage to a German composer who came from the same town as Heidegger, and it digresses to become a criticism, not so much of technology but of the use of technology. It’s a call to roots, with strong nationalist content. The text interested me a lot as a literary genre.

JS: It’s not the kind of analytical text people often associate with philosophy.

IH: Exactly. I’m no expert in contemporary philosophy, but there’s something in Gelassenheit and other speeches—like the famous one Heidegger gave at Freiburg when he assumed the professorship, and in other ones by philosophers like Barthes and Lacan—which became a genre in itself going beyond philosophical content. Today you see that what many philosophers write is closer to these lighter essays.

JS: I don’t know if they’re lighter, but they’re more readable.

IH: Completely. They even have a narrative structure in miniature, which starts at one point such as Heidegger’s homage talking about the composer, and loops back to that. There’s a quote by the poet Johann Peter Hebel at the end, in a part which has always seemed really lovely to me: “We are plants—whether or not we like to admit it—that must come from the roots of the earth to be able to flourish in the ether and give fruit.” Of course that idea is open to discussion.

And then there’s the poetic-musical relationship Heidegger has with words, which for a long time was knocking around in my head. I kept asking myself, “What is this thing, serenity?” It’s a word with so many different meanings, no? If you put it in a search engine, you come up with spiritual connotations…

JS: Self-help…

IH: Exactly. Meditation groups, yoga, sunsets.

JS: Heidegger defines serenity as an attitude that says both “yes” and “no” to technology.

IH: I took up that idea and incorporated it into the story line. At the end of the novel, when the protagonist reads that civilization has fallen from grace and is headed for some kind of extermination, there’s this image of rats reading the text. (They’re apparently some kind of rat that can read.) They read it with a great degree of distance, with both tenderness and sarcasm toward the human being.

I think that serenity is impossible, and yet we continue working for it. The writing here isn’t serene at all. Just the opposite: it’s frenetic, mad, neurotic, anxious. For me this torment suggests the idea of anti-serenity in language. The protagonist begins to distance himself from words, but to do so—to achieve serenity in language—it’s first necessary to explode everything. Heidegger was talking about the atomic bomb, but similar ideas are at work here. Before a certain peace with language is possible, the protagonist has to talk, talk, talk, until reaching the very limit of what is possible. That’s where the baroque element comes in, the folding in on itself, the uncontrollable excess of words.

There are some scenes from La serenidad that are really mad. For example, the idea that someone could go to the bathroom of a bar and encounter the ghost of his dead father disguised as a cleaning employee. It’s crazy, delirious. What happens is that the language masks it a little.

JS: Domesticar, to tame or get under control, is a word you use a lot in interviews. There’s a pressure to tame the use of the word, which can come either from editors, or from writers thinking about what readers want. Could one think of this book as a reaction against domestication? Many contemporary books seem to be about, say, the problems of a couple in Colegiales, and end up kind of boring.

IH: Sometimes I ask myself what my work is opposing. There’s no doubt that it’s a declaration, and underlying it is a level of literary criticism regarding what’s produced now. I don’t have a perfectly clear idea what that criticism is—there are jibes against some kinds of realism, but not others. But certainly I’m reacting against a conception of control over writing.

There’s a moment in the profession when you achieve a certain level of mastery. I don’t know if it’s a question of it getting too easy, or of foreseeability, thumb-twiddling, resting on one’s laurels, participating less. Like you said, you could tell the story of a couple in Colegiales sharing an apartment, with a protagonist who’s a little bit your alter ego. His girl falls in love with his best friend, and one day he gets home and she’s fucking him in their bed. At one level you’d be opening yourself up as a writer, but on the other hand you’d still have a lot of control because you’d be very conscious of the story you want to tell.

With me I say “Let’s see now” and start hitting at some place I’m not sure of, to see what comes out. That pulls me out of myself. It’s not a question of difficulty—in some ways there’s something even more natural about that. Consciousness and language build up a kind of pressure that’s discharged. When I wrote La serenidad, I didn’t think a book would come out of it. A moment came when I said, “Ah, this could be something.” But it emerged from things I wrote out by hand, while working on other novels.

I’m not going to keep writing in this tone either. When you get bogged down in one form or tone, you domesticate it. With language, you can even domesticate revolution—literature is full of examples of that. I wanted to take up new places, new tones, fall in love in new ways.

JS: How has your idea of the “I” or protagonist changed from previous books?

IH: It’s more abstract, but also more sincere in that it declares the artifice so openly. When I described a character like René in Paraísos, a 50-year-old man, or Eloísa, a slightly crazy 17-year-old girl, you could imagine them. Here there’s no description. The narrator calls himself El Protagonista, which is at the same time a distancing, raising up, and sloughing off of himself.

JS: Reviews of the book tend to say similar things, that it’s reminiscent of the 18th century folletín, the Baroque, the Rabelesian. There are also parallels with 20th century texts like Ulysses. What were your lines of influence?

IH: To start with, I’d say this is a linguistic echo chamber of the formative literature I read as an adolescent: French literature, Borges, later Lamborghini and even later Joyce, things that were close to the Baroque. My first novels and short stories, which I never published, were extremely Baroque and literary, and I went moving away from that, freeing myself. I even got a bit angry about their influence. But at some point I realized that that’s in part who I am. Eventually I took up those readings again, lighter, liberated.

That other, very spare form which imposes a certain distance can be just as literary as baroque atifice. That story about the couple in the Colegiales apartment could also be literary, the transparency of the words making everything seem real. You could sit down and write something like, “Ever since I met Mariela, and we moved to a house in Colegiales, things have begun to be strange.” And then you start to tell the story. With this kind of clear, elliptical tone, you can also have truth. It took me a long time to reconcile myself to that.

In La serenidad, on the other hand, the presence of the words makes itself felt so clearly that if you want to join the game, you really have to drill into things to see what’s happening. If not, it’s only symbols. Nobody’s going to talk to you like that in a bar.

JS: Thank God!… What do you see as the relationship between this book and what one might call an experimental canon?

IH: The way I see it, there are two major lines of avant-garde writing in Argentina. At one point I thought they had become like tracing paper. Over-used, things to read but not replicate. But I realized that, no—thanks to their still being read by young people and contemporaries, the traditions remain vibrant.

The first tradition, that of Lamborhini and Libertella, includes a lot of really difficult texts. At one point someone asked me, “Do you think the tradition of experimental literature is still alive?” That question hadn’t occurred to me before. But when I began to think about it, I thought, “I’m going to enter the playing field, I’m going to get my hands dirty and ask myself how I can work with this material.” And then there’s this other line, the “Aira” line to call it something, which takes off from this but in a very different way. I think this line is something really alive, to the point that you even turn against it and say “enough”. It can get repetitive, redundant.

JS: The first line is more difficult to read. It’s less interested in telling a story than in pulling the carpet out from under the comforts of language. La serenidad picks that up in some ways.

IH: There’s still a plot. But in terms of my own narrative experience, I enjoy going back to this book more than my others precisely because it’s not so concerned with telling a story. I can’t even open my other books again, but this one is still fresh. There are some really interesting ways to think about the novel without the baggage of plot and characters.

Another cue undoubtedly comes from a certain kind of contemporary narrative poetry. In the last few years I’ve gone to live readings by young people where I’ve said to myself, “There’s something extraordinary here.” Whether they’re talking about their lives, their relationships, sex with their brother, how long it takes to study a degree, or their lives in exile, through their use of language what they’re talking about becomes new. That in some ways inspired La serenidad.

JS: Where did you get the idea of doing these Quixote-style subtitles?

IH: The entire text is a kind of behind-the-scenes, a backstage. I wanted to be able to tell the reader, like the director of a scene, that in this part so-and-so happens. It has to do with the theater, and with the reading of legends and fairy tales. If you say from the get-go what’s going to happen, the plot doesn’t matter so much. You lay bare the narrative procedure. It’s like at the opera, where they give you a brochure in advance with a synopsis of what will happen. Don Juan will seduce somebody who’s about to get married. Now you know, if you didn’t anyway, since it’s a classic. Ten minutes of reading the plot at the start, then the opera starts, and you can enjoy it at the aesthetic level.

JS: Almost like a second reading.

IH: Exactly. It’s the same in this book: if you already know what will happen, you can really enjoy its language.

Another one of the sources for La serenidad is this Lacanian scheme. (Turns to a diagram on p.101 of book.) While writing, I read some of Lacan’s philosophy in a literary way. A text came to me by chance, in which he talks about three spheres: the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary. It’s a marvelous system, which also permits a lot of freedom. I’m sure a Lacanian academic could explain it for hours; I interpreted it how I wanted.

Lacan uses this separation into spheres to think about the “I” in different forms. First there’s the real, which is everything, not just this. (Grips table.) The physical, but also ideas, everything that forms me—whether or not it can be touched, whether or not it’s conscious. You take this world and symbolize it. And then, once it’s freed from language, it becomes the imaginary. The imaginary is the moment when the world no longer has the need for symbols and no longer needs to name things.

You can think about my book in terms of this Lacanian scheme: the moment when the symbolic meets the imaginary. It’s like what we were talking about with the opera. You have an argument you read, then you close the brochure and give yourself over to the imaginary. The musical language of compositions—not just classical music, but any abstract language of sound—is where the imaginary world is brought to completion in the most magnificent way.

Part of my use of this scheme had to do with telling myself what I’m writing, but telling it with clarity. Not saying it has to do with exploring the psychological world of a town in the provinces, or of the relationship between urbanity, violence, and politics, but really saying what’s going on. With the section titles I attempted that. “On how The Protagonist ended things with Barbara, got tangled up in ontological discussions, and was humiliated by the presence of the Great Other.”

JS: What tone are you taking in what you’re writing now?

IH: I’m taking up that other line of the avant-garde, the Aira line, which many other young people are working on too. It has to do with a certain distancing and with the fantastic, a humor that isn’t humor. I haven’t read all of Aira, of course. Luckily. In fact, at some point I got tired of him, felt he was repeating himself. But at the same time he’s always magnificent. There’s a certain effect created by the proliferation of books. He’s created a new literary genre, that of publishing two or three books a year.

I’m drawing out the fantastic element hinted at in previous books. Not like in La serenidad where language creates it, but with a tone that’s really transparent and realist, and at the same time really playful. After writing La serenidad it’s hard for me to return to the narrative voice of Opendoor and Paraísos.

JS: Aira achieves his strange effect not by distancing himself, but by drawing you so close to the narrator that he can say anything and you accept it. “I’m going to tell you something in confidence”—then a ton of crazy things happen.

IH: Exactly. For others it might be interesting to develop the same voice over several books. But I prefer to intervene in different ways, searching for different methods, foundations, materials. Sometimes I think in almost sculptural terms. At a certain point you reach a comfort level which is, if not lack of commitment, something like that. You have to refresh things constantly.

JS: At one point the narrator asks: “And what do I do with all this?”

IH: That line comes from one of the cases Freud discussed, the case of a man who dreams of rats, feeds rats, has this madness about rats. Freud relates all this in a scientific tone. And at the end you come across this phrase, which to me seems great.

The question also appears in a story of Kafka’s. He wrote a series of really short texts, incredible prose exercises in miniature, almost like aguafuertes in the style of Roberto Arlt. One is them is called “The Passenger”; it’s under a page and a half. There’s a moment when the passenger is standing there on the platform, waiting for the tram, and something happens to him that’s similar to what happens in the rat story by Freud. He looks around, thinks about his life, and essentially asks himself: “Who am I? What do I do with all this?” And then the train arrives. Real life intervenes.

JS: It’s as if in the midst of the action there’s a freeze-frame moment, when the character becomes self-conscious of the situation.

IH: You find that in a lot of literature, music, art, film. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Kafka’s character gets on the tram, and that thought molds his journey. He sees a woman and continues thinking, spends the trip watching her from far away, and starts to write. And mentally he begins coming closer and closer, as if he could get behind her or inside her consciousness, and he ends up focusing on what’s behind her ear. It’s extraordinary.

JS: And it ends like that?

IH: Even better. He asks: “How is it possible that she isn’t astonished by herself, that her lips remain closed and don’t say anything?” He’s the father of the absurd. It’s a zoom-in that comes from his own zoom-in; his consciousness moves inward, then outward. And in the middle it seems that life runs normally.

JS: There’s a visual element in your work. Apart from the Lacanian scheme, there’s a massage diagram of feet, and a little photo of lions.

IH: I wanted the lions to move, but it was logistically difficult.

JS: Like a hologram?

IH: Exactly. But it would be really expensive. Imagine if you could open the book and they were moving.

JS: That would be incredible. The visual element is something from the avant-garde tradition, no?

IH: Yes, you might open the book and say, “This is Argentine poetry from the ’70s.” The narrator’s a bad poet, and yet he permits himself everything. He brings so many different things to the table, turning the book into a fiesta.

JS: He’s a guy who is at the same time intelligent and unintelligent. He has all these cultural references—at one point there’s even a reference to a Charly García lyric—but at the same time he doesn’t think in a linear way at all. Well, I’m not sure that’s intelligence either. At any rate everything is exploding in his head.

IH: It’s like all this literary and philosophic cultural baggage is in the process of putrefaction. There’s a kind of move toward vomitive discharge, no? As if he somehow foresees what will happen at the end. He’s the survivor of a generation; in the end, he survives everything. I think that this overflow of language, this unintelligibility, this dressed-up brutality make it impossible to survive. No further verborrhea is possible, you can’t amp it up further without becoming dehumanized.

The protagonist seems half beast, but at the same time he makes the effort to convert this into poetic work. In doing so, he believes that he can save himself; it’s open to interpretation whether it worked or not.

JS: You could think about it as an archive of experiences or ideas in which any individual part is replaceable. It’s the collection of things that’s important.

IH: What I do feel is that the text isn’t closed in any way. Not just in its story line. It’s a text that continues evolving, cooking away. Rather than continue with this tone, what I imagine is that if in ten years someone asks me to put out another edition, I could intervene in it, expand it. I could pick up any of the multiple story lines and insert myself there, writing another page. And nothing will happen. It will change nothing, not one jot. Expanding and correcting, drawing out images from other images, as if it were a performative text—the idea of doing that entertains me. I’ll have to see if it will happen.

JS: The other day you told me that the book is untranslateable. It works on the basis that one word sounds like another, giving rise to a chain of ideas and puns. As a translator you’d have to find equivalences.

IH: I’m not a translator, but I imagine at the same time it could be a really fun challenge. You could say, “Well, if this guy took these liberties, it’s clear I can too.”

JS: There’s the sound of the words on the one hand. And then there are all the references. You’d have include a note saying Charly García is a national rock icon, for instance.

IH: I had this very honest chat with Stefan Tobler, the publisher at And Other Stories, to whom I’m really grateful because of the superb work he does. He’s opened up a possibility that didn’t previously exist in a market so closed to non-English literature. It’s a really militant editoral, and a nonprofit. I’ve been really happy to participate in this project. Anyway, when he asked what I have that’s new, I showed him this book, but also said, “Look, this isn’t going to be translated.”

At the same time it’s true you read texts that lose a lot in translation, and yet their greatness is that from the get-go they say: “Don’t worry about exact equivalences.” A new pact is formed with the reader. If you enter into that game you can enjoy it a lot. You discover other kinds of narrative openings going beyond what the author intended. It’s not math, A x B = C so C/A = B. Different terms and meanings can spin out from it. In that sense, translation can exist within a single language too. Libertella is an author who even in Spanish needs “translation”, for instance.

JS: The back cover of Libertella’s Diario de la rabia notes that various translators went crazy with the task of translating the book. Finally an Englishman did it, but in a simplified form, since it’s impossible to translate the original.

IH: Some critics get angry because they don’t understand a thing. Others say, “I liked it, but at the same time I didn’t understand a thing.”

JS: With some books you have to stop worrying about understanding every single phrase, because if you do you’ll go mad.

IH: It has to do with a certain way of looking. I can look out the window now and see this guy. Look, he’s going to watch the game. Ah, he’s with his girlfriend. But not everything is intelligible. Trying to understand everything would be stupid, another way of looking to domesticar.

In La serenidad, even I don’t understand everything. It’s not all digested. This narrator is not like the one in Stockholm, who tries to understand and explain everything around him, as well as the historical circumstances. That’s another kind of fiction, the fiction of believing one can completely understand the story. This is a Chilean that goes into exile and can’t return because of his homosexuality, and when he does he has to confront his past. Why does the narrator include so many details? That’s fiction too.

JS: What’s your relationship with the protagonist of La serenidad? When I started the book, I thought it was a third person version of your life, but it’s not exactly that.

IH: The relationship is a very affectionate one. I’m grateful for his impudence. Without this tone I wouldn’t have had such a good time with words. I took great pleasure in making fun of myself, of the practice of writing. I appreciate his sacrifice. The protagonist is a man more or less like me, with elements from my own life, my obsessions, my fears, a lot of things. But I intervene in all that.

One writes in large part to ask who one is. Whether you’re writing about the Malvinas war or an alien landing, the question is ultimately, “Who am I?” Here, everything that I believe I am is altered by what emerges from the writing, which is also what I am.

JS: Which of your contemporaries do you think are doing things that are stylistically or conceptually interesting?

IH: There was a time when it was difficult for me to read contemporaries. It had to do with fears about my own writing, and with what I told you about distancing myself from the “literary”. I got frustrated with a certain kind of story with really current realist references. And so I started freeing myself, throwing off the books weighing me down.

The writers I find interesting change a lot, since they’re the producers not just of what you read, but of the world you’re writing at the moment. The same texts weren’t operating when I was writing Paraísos as when I was writing La serenidad. The latter book is linked to readings from the last four or five years, which have disconcerted me. Yes, “disconcerted” is the word. They’re not necessarily books I liked. I read a lot of things I like more or less, but they don’t modify me, they don’t intervene or shake up my literature. What I look for is work that really leaves a mark, where I say “La puta madre, what is this? Look what this guy’s doing.”

In Argentina there are a lot of really great poets and narrators. I like Pablo Katchadjian’s work a lot, even though of course I didn’t read all of it, not at all. What Carlos Ríos does is interesting; he’s published a couple of novels with Entropía. I’m also reading a lot of poetry. I went to a reading by a very young girl named Aldana Capellano, who writes a sort of performative poetry with a prose tone, not necessarily a “literary” taste. There are also a lot of fascinating reeditions of overlooked texts, like Néstor Sánchez’s Nosotros dos and the things editorial Mansalva puts out. The collection of Norberto Suárez’s stories, reedited by Fondo de Cultura, is a really valuable rescue.

There are a lot of great writers from other places too. I really like a Uruguayan named Robert Echavarren. In Cuba there’s a girl named Dazra Novak who wrote a book called Making of, looking at La Habana from within. And of course there are the Chilean poets, Nicanor Parra, Gonzalo Rojas, Enrique Lihn.

JS: How did you meet your translator?

IH: I’ve never met her. My link with my translator has something 19th century about it. Over a period of months, she wrote to me from Glasgow, and I thought, “Who is this? Where is she writing from?” She’s more like a character from fiction than any character from fiction. Although we’ve corresponded, I went to London two or three times and didn’t see her. I even went to Scotland and didn’t see her.

My English is rudimentary. But during the trips, after preparing a lot, I read some things in that language. It’s not easy to read in public. Reading out loud is part of the work of creating and looking for meaning, beyond whether the pronunciation is perfect. I read bilingually, fragments from Opendoor and Paradises. At the start I thought it would be tricky. But Beth brought out something musical in the textual rhythm, going beyond its sense. I think it might have something to do with her Scottish background. It makes this text a version, a remake into English.

It’s interesting to think of translation not as an exact copy of meaning, but as something that replicates the original text’s music and voice. In a novel like La serenidad, if it’s not about recreating the voice, there’s obviously no sense in translating it. But the same is true for my other, more conventional novels.

JS: The writer is treated very differently in the UK and US than in Argentina, no?

IH: I see two very different traditions. The Anglosaxon one tends to build up and mythify the image of the writer. Whereas in the French tradition, which is closer to the Argentine one, there’s this idea that you have to associate every writer with a movement.

In April I was at a festival in Montreal where there were a lot of North American writers. Their way of conducting themselves with the public is very different from ours. For some reason I was put at a table with a couple of “bestseller” authors, Latinos living in the US. I watched them acting and reproached myself. Why couldn’t I take on a character like they did, satisfy the public in that way? It’s difficult for me to treat literature as a spectacle. Alternatively the figure of the writer is built up there as a solitary genius, like with the acclaim for strange guys like Pynchon and David Foster Wallace.

On the other hand, in France, Chile, Brazil, and here, you have articles that come out every six months about “new tendencies in contemporary literature”. It’s just as hard for me to understand this necessity to position things, as if writers were members of football teams.

If you stand back from what you read, you can call it anything. Lately, to talk about contemporary Argentine literature, terms have been thrown around like realismo maquinalliteratura de barrioliteratura suburbanarealismo sucio. There are all these reductionist ways of thinking about things that dissolve magically when a text is truly good. A text that’s truly good doesn’t need any explanation. Just like people, right? The real greats don’t need to show off all the time.

When you’re genuinely writing, suddenly you begin to visualize this other world, and that’s what’s important. Whether it has ideas or not, whether it’s political or unpolitical, whether it’s Joycean or Arltian, whether it’s porno, all these ways of defining things retrospectively seem absolutely laughable.

JS: In the US case, I think you’re right that the writer is often talked about without context. Take Roberto Bolaño: for some reason, of all the Chilean writers he was the one who took off there. And in the newspapers he was written about as if he were some kind of strange and solitary genius, which he wasn’t. He had lots of contemporaries writing similar things, lots of friends.

IH: That’s why I have mixed feelings about translation. I’m happy to have been translated, but it’s a double-edged sword. I have friends who rushed to go through six, seven, eight translations. Who’s going to read them? There’s a certain modern impatience that’s precisely the opposite of serenity, which says that if you don’t grab something right away you’ll be left behind. What’s the book of the year, who’s the author of the year? Pure competition, without depth of thought. Writers emerge from nowhere and then get stuck in the same place, responding to the expectations they’ve generated. It’s one thing to take on a character. The problem comes when that character interferes with the writing process itself.

— Interview translated from the Spanish