Labels that wouldn’t stick
Carlos Gamerro interviewed by Anna Aslanyan.
Carlos Gamerro is not keen on labelling his own books – nor, for that matter, on reading labels people tend to stick on any books. However, the Argentine writer, whose 1998 novel The Islands just came out in English, claims to have coined the term “baroque fictions”. The title of his collection of essays, Ficciones barrocas, it is there to replace “Argentine fantastic”, usually applied to those works of Borges and Cortazar (as well as other, less famous writers, often overlooked outside their cultures) where reality is treated as multilayer in “an attempt to reinvent the Golden Age of Spanish baroque literature.” Our conversation with Gamerro turns towards labels from the start, when I mention a popular – if by no means unanimous – opinion that for the Anglophone world the bulk of contemporary Latin American writing comes in two packages: magic realism and Bolaño. The Islands clearly doesn’t fit into either.
“English-language readers like their Latin American fiction authentic,” says Gamerro. “They want their ponchos, llamas and all the rest.” This, together with the fact that Latin American literature is a drop in the paltry pond of translations published in Britain, goes some way to explain why some of us can’t see beyond One Hundred Years of Solitude, with 2666 occasionally getting in the view. It’s not that Gamerro dislikes magic realism per se – rather, he is surprised when The Islands is referred to thus. “Whenever I hear people say that I go: what? What does it have to do with it? Call it cyberpunk or sci-fi, a literary thriller or even a war novel…” These, incidentally, are the names rolling off my tongue as I ask Gamerro if any of them apply, having failed to come up with a definition for his novel’s genre. He’s heard this question before: “I was on a train the other day, going to Hay festival, and got talking to some young football fans. They said: ‘So you are a writer? What kind of books do you write?’ That wasn’t easy to answer.”
Labels aside, Gamerro doesn’t mind talking about a variety of genres his novel embraces: “On one level it’s a thriller, a crime story – and these elements aren’t just a plot device. As for whether The Islands is a war novel – yes, there is a lot of it there, although the war came into the book later.” Once it did, it became central to the novel, whose publication in Britain ties in with the 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict. Gamerro mentions a lecture he gave on the subject in London, making me look at him in disbelief: is the date really being celebrated? Apparently not – at least not on the scale of mass jubilation in Argentina on 2 April 1982, the day the Malvinas were invaded. “The government we had at the time was extremely unpopular,” Gamerro explains. “But it all changed overnight after the invasion. Fortunately, this bout of nationalism didn’t last – in fact, it backfired.”
By 1992, when The Islands is set, the war fervour has abated, but not for the novel’s narrator, Felipe. Conscripted at the beginning of the conflict, he went through hell, was wounded and spent the next decade either in a mental hospital or in his room, hacking computer codes and taking drugs. He is not the only one for whom the Malvinas are still a raw subject: Buenos Aires is full of similar types, from his war buddies to chance acquaintances. Gamerro finds this obsession somewhat coincidental but strong: “Malvinas are, indeed, hugely important to Argentina. It’s not just a piece of land – it’s a symbol of the country’s prosperity, of the power it once hoped to achieve. Even their outline on the map is iconic; it’s often compared to Che Guevara’s face.” A different comparison is made in the novel: “Argentina is an erect prick ready to breed, and the Malvinas, its balls. When we recover them, fertility shall return to our lands and we shall become the great nation our founding fathers once dreamed of!” Looking at the islands’ contour tattooed on a friend’s arm, the protagonist sees “a perfect female sex, complete with half-open lips and a few unwaxed hairs on belly and thighs.” In the presence of such a strong feminine symbol, the author thought the contrast between it and the highly masculine nature of the regime was worth exploring.
As the novel develops around its thriller backbone, you keep wondering why another war is getting much less attention – the Dirty War unleashed by the Argentine junta against its own country, when many thousands were tortured and killed in the 1970s and 1980s. These events are weaved into just one strand of the wider plot. Gamerro points out that the novel is, in fact, part of a trilogy; the other two, La aventura de los bustos de Eva and Un yuppie en la columna del Che Guevara, are more focused on the theme. An Open Secret, his other novel available in English, also talks about state terrorism and the nation’s complicity in it. Asked about the perception of the Dirty War in today’s Argentina, Gamerro says: “Everything is very open. At the time when The Islands is set there were attempts to put an end to trials, but now the process has picked up again.”
The motif of complicity can be discerned in The Islands too. At first glance, it reads like a personal book in the sense that the protagonist’s experience is crucial. But here we come to more labels, such as “hindered narrator”, which, much as I like it, doesn’t go hand in hand with Gamerro’s design. “Felipe is mainly an observer. I didn’t use him – or any of the characters – to express any particular opinions.” Some of the novel’s best scenes are dialogues between Felipe and Tamerlán, the villain of the piece, who hires the hero to do a little investigative job, for a reasonable fee of 100,000 US dollars. In between instructing Felipe about his duties, his fiendish employer philosophises about big themes, proclaiming at one point that “one’s freedom begins where another’s tnds” – an inversion of a popular saying. According to the author, “This pact with the devil Felipe makes is meant to show that you can’t exist within an evil regime without being part of it.”
Sex and the associated imagery are just one of the novel’s many overlapping facets; its pages are generously peppered with the comic and the grotesque. This is a typical snapshot captured by the narrator in a futuristic office building: “a prodigious spiral of toilet paper that began at the almost empty roll in its holder, wrapped itself several times round his body and plunged up the tightly clenched crack of his arse.”
Another theme that never fails to fascinate readers, violence, is also there in spades. “Those were very violent times for Argentina,” Gamerro recalls. I ask him about an episode at a veterinary science faculty which brings to mind a slaughter yard – and, by sheer association, an eponymous story by Esteban Echeverría whose publication in the 1830s is considered the birth of Argentine literature. In the episode, Felipe slips and falls into a pool of blood near a shed where a cow is hanging, “at least what was left of it once its hide had been removed, its organs emptied, its musculature shredded.” Learning that students are petitioning for more humane methods of killing animals, he quips: “If by humane you mean human […] your wish has been granted.” Gamerro spent a year studying to be a vet: “That right was in the middle of the dictatorship, and in my eyes things that were being done to animals became emblematic of the cruelty of the regime. It was a code for what was being done to people. And I thought, perhaps Echeverría felt the same when writing El Matadero – he used the slaughter yard as a metaphor for political violence.”
Gamerro talks eagerly about the effort that went into the novel’s translation, done by Ian Barnett in collaboration with the author. The fact that his publisher, And Other Stories [3:AM Publisher of 2011], is dedicated to fiction in translation and prepared to put a lot of work into it is laudable in itself; the process Gamerro describes – the exchange of numerous emails between him and Barnett, the time they spent together in a room working on a draft – makes you long for an ideal world where you would be able to translate books in this way.
Our conversation keeps returning to Felipe: can we call him a reliable narrator? Is he more than just a not-too-unwilling instrument in the hands of the evil? “A curious thing happened last year,” says Gamerro. “The Islands was adapted for theatre – I wrote the play myself. Naturally, the narrator’s voice had to go. I was astonished to see that all Felipe does is just stand there, taking in what’s happening around him. That’s his role in the novel too.” How did the Argentine audience react to the play? “People we either very enthusiastic or very angry. Our politicians don’t usually read novels, but a stage production at an ‘official’ theatre is hard to miss. A lot of nationalists found my take on the war insulting.” For all the controversy, Las Islas has a cult following in Argentina, while the English version has been well received in Britain. Whatever its general perception, it would be true to say that the narrative, at its best, takes a situation and either turns it inside out or blows it up, creating that other layer of reality we were talking about earlier. As the interview draws to a close, more genre labels are bounced around, but I, like Gamerro, wouldn’t want to stick any on this book.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 18th, 2012.