:: Article

… Or, ‘On the Novel’ – An Interview with Agustín Fernández Mallo

By John Trefry, translated by Luke Stegemann.

Agustín Fernández Mallo

Publications of Agustín Fernández Mallo’s works in English translation only began circulating in late 2015 with the release of Nocilla Dream (translated by Thomas Bunstead), the first volume in his “Nocilla Project” (Nocilla is the off-brand Spanish version of Nutella), by Fitzcarraldo Editions, so we are fortunate to have a great deal in store. The ethos of the project is very easy to describe in a superficial fashion: an almost formless collation of hopscotching journalistic prose with little to no overarching narrative or thematic musculature. But in its elegance and surprising accessibility lies its most jarring quality. It is not a depiction of “the now”. It is not a caricature of the zeitgeist using the language and forms of the past. It is the now. It embodies the now.
—John Trefry

3:AM Magazine: The tendency of literature since the nineteenth century, formalized in the didacticism of Zola, seems to assert that realism is a proscenium pantomime of reality, a visual transcription of a self-contained play, systematized through a quaint presumption of causality. Yet, as we inherently know, both from the nonsense of our own lives and from the unexpected role of chance revealed in modern science, such things are simply oversimplifications. In books like Butor’s Mobile, or Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet, or in Paul Metcalf’s work, the events of writing are allowed to simply exist in a tissue of chance relationships. Much of Borges, who lurks in your writing, is fiction masquerading as nonfiction, or has very tangential relationships or inlets back to the “real”. You noted to me in a tweet before we began this interview that your work was a form of “complex realism”. Could you explain a bit about this?

Agustín Fernández Mallo: When I use the term “complex realism”, what I’m suggesting is that the writer must be realist, always realist, but not realist in the sense we have usually used the term in literature. If reality today is different from the reality of 30 years ago, we can’t keep describing reality in the same way as we did 30 years ago. Today we understand that reality corresponds to a model — or, even better, the sum of various models — which in science are termed “complex systems” — not complicated or difficult, that’s a different thing! This complexity is what creates that which we all know — the World — is connected in a system of networks — and I’m not referring only to the internet but also to thousands of analog networks in which we are all immersed at every instant. Until a short time ago, we knew the world in parts, whereas now we know that those parts are all connected through a system of networks with a very concrete topology. These networks are in everything: the way in which an ant is connected to an elephant in the chain of being, or the way in which a person is connected with his or her friends, the way in which our neurons are connected in the brain, the way in which nodes are connected in the internet etc. all follow the same network model. And this is why my books respond to a Complex Realism: they are realist because they talk about my time, my epoch, but they do so in a complex mode; that is to say, they’re taking into account the reality that surrounds me.

In fact, I’ll take that even further. There are only two classes of literature: realist and antiquated. That’s why my novels do not seem to me experimental, simply realist. What would really be experimental would be to write the way people wrote 50 years ago because now nobody talks or lives like that.

Lastly: when I finished writing the Nocilla trilogy — which I wrote in one go, in less than a year, and never for a moment thinking that anyone would want to publish it — I realized that my brain had spontaneously organized all the plot lines and chapters, and in general the whole structure of the book, in “network mode” (in contrast to “tree-like mode”, a typically hierarchical structure — proposition, complication, then resolution). Because of this, there were people who referred to my books as the first in Spanish literature that were completely rhizomatic. I wrote them spontaneously, without thinking too much about it, writing what I believed I should write without worrying about style or which themes to treat or deal with, without aesthetic prejudice. I write my novels the way I write my poetry — without determining beforehand where I’m going to go. This is what we call Complex Realism, a label newly minted because journalists and critics, faced with the novelty of my books, said to me, “Your literature is not social realism, it’s not magical realism, it’s not fantasy, it’s not politics etc., then what the devil is your literature?” and I didn’t know how to respond.

3:AM: In more conventional literature, the mechanism of metaphor seems to be replaced by causality, but in fact it is still metaphor. If you see the connective tissue of your novels as fully metaphorical, how do they position themselves as such differently than other novels, if all linguistic depictions depend at some level on being metaphorical conjurations?

AFM: In my case, the difference with other books or other models is not so much the use of metaphor, but the class and type of metaphors I use. I go back to what I said before: everything is connected in the network (and I insist I’m not referring to the internet but in general) like the topological structure of reality. The highest level of philosophical thinking can be metaphorically connected with thinking of the lowest form of culture — let’s say, for example, any piece of advertising. I think that my discovery was, in the first instance, to establish metaphorical connections without aesthetic prejudice, that is to say, if in my head, this apparently bastard and unconventional connection between ideas and characters works, I’m going to use it without first asking myself what has been done until before now in the History of Literature. Secondly, and obviously, these metaphors and connections or modal links must be rich in meaning, rich in symbolism, and they must say things which haven’t been said before, they must truly “construct reality”. Keep in mind that I come from poetry, I am above all else a poet, and that class of metaphors and linkage between groups of things seems very natural to me. It’s my natural way of thinking about the everyday. But all these are considerations a posteriori — when I wrote the book, I was not thinking about theory, I don’t even document my facts, what I don’t know I don’t usually bother with looking up, I just invent it. That’s what’s called novel, no? The freedom of absolute fantasy.

I believe that research for a novel is like a stone tied round the writer’s foot, it doesn’t allow him or her to move forward, he or she sinks. You have to be brave, imaginative and suggest nonsense which nevertheless has to be credible. This is the challenge: verisimilitude, not truth. 

Nocilla Dream

3:AM: How precise is the geographic or sequential construction of metaphor in the Nocilla books? For instance, reductively, “the hermit is a neutrino” is different than “the neutrino is a hermit.” Could you see the Nocilla books functioning in much the same way if they existed more as an open, non-linear, digital construct, something more akin to Wikipedia, or are they reliant on being a “book”?

AFM: Well, it’s obvious that if they were books in a network or transmedia, they would work in a different way — not better or worse, but in a different way. In any case, I wrote the books believing they would be read in a traditional fashion. What you’re talking about is something I did for another book, a Borges rewrite, that was in ebook form, in which I added digital content, and a network which I had built, with online videos and “Facebook pages”, which I had created (in the mode of classical Borgesian citations, but in digital), but for reasons which are not important now, the book had to be removed from sale. 

3:AM: Do you feel that you are working in a particular tradition of literature? And, given the strong presence of globalization in the Nocilla books, do you see something inherently Spanish in your work? Is it part of a more explicitly Spanish literary tradition or cultural strain of intellectual curiosity?

AFM: That’s a very good question, but I don’t know. I create a whole network of metaphors which deal with the world of consumption and industry, the world of science, high and low culture etc., and I believe that this way of mixing materials in my particular case has been more inspired by conceptual art than by literature proper.

However, of course there are authors who have influenced me, but you’ll be surprised because they are very classical authors. For example, I’m very interested in mystic literature (St John of the Cross), “low intensity” North American postmodernism (Don DeLillo), central European literature (Thomas Bernhard), Latin American (Borges, Cortázar), Spanish (Juan Benet). Yet all of those influences would mean nothing if they weren’t infused with the spirit of Reality as a network mix of many more extraliterary materials, such as those already mentioned.

The truth is I wrote my literature very much in the margins of Spanish literary landscape — I didn’t know a single novelist, I was just a physicist who had spent 20 years working professionally on cancer cures with radioactive isotopes in an underground bunker (underground to protect the population, not because it was a secret program!), and in my free time, whenever ideas would occur to me, metaphors or associations, I would mix them up in my own particular style, without regard to established literary taste. What I was very clear about was that if I ever wrote something worth being published it would have to correspond to a very particular world, to my world, to the development of my own personal poetics.

3:AM: I recently spent a few days as a patient in a hospital in Tokyo. Although the language barrier was difficult, especially for nuanced things—like communicating my allergy to general anesthesia—the use of real-time translating applications significantly smoothed over or pulled down the invisible barrier between me and the staff. If the tendency of earthbound culture is potentially a more tightly tesselated or even open or transparent flow, at least, or initially, in terms of language, with the increase in use of real-time translating devices, what do you see as the potential, or the concerns, remaining in our use of language and specifically of translation in literature?

AFM: Naturally, the potential is wonderful, but I don’t think it’s going to carry much weight in literature. Perhaps it has that potential in the structures and organizational mode of a narrative. With regards to translation, and as I’ve written on other occasions, I believe every translation is a process in which something is lost in the original precisely so that something is gained in the new text. Such that, paradoxically, in the translation, something permanent remains — the meaning of the text — and something radically changes — in the new language, there are new things that did not exist in the original. This is a translation of the sense and meaning of a text, which I believe in mathematics would be equivalent to “topological transformations”: for example, an object changes form but in reality continues being the same object (a typical example: a mug with a handle and a donut are topologically speaking the same thing, because both just have one hole, or to put it another way, you could transform the mug into the donut in a continuous move without creating or opening a new hole, or eliminating the one that was already there). This, in reality, is how metaphors work, transformations of meaning which however conserve something in common with the semantic field of the original words. I talk about this in a book of essays which will be coming out next year in Spanish.

3:AM: As a follow-up, I was specifically interested in the mechanism of translation in the Nocilla books. Much of the found content of the books seems like it is sourced originally from English. How much was fidelity important to you in this back and forth, or did you see it as an opportunity for generative evolution of the text? For instance, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre quote in Nocilla Dream stood out to me for its slightly “off” phrasing. It was familiar, yet different. Another more obvious example I can think of is calling the US television show with Michael Landon, Freeway to the Sky instead of Highway to Heaven. Why was it important to you to not correct phrasing on the return of your Spanish into English?

AFM: This is very interesting. In the first place, not even I, in my original Spanish, am necessarily obliged to make exact quotations. I can do that or not, I can play with that opportunity or not. This is my right, or poetic license, as someone who is building an artefact of fantasy — this implicit pact with the reader is my starting point. That is to say, in relation to the novel, there’s no room for terms like “this is true” or “this is false”; simply, it is what the author has wanted it to be. In fact, many of the quotes in my books are quotes which were translated from English and that I read already translated into Spanish. I’m not really concerned with what the original version in English was, because the important thing for me is that I received them already translated, and they’ve influenced my original worldview as translations, not as original quotations. I never enquire into the origin of things, all Origin is a fallacy (in this I follow Nietzsche: origin is a very contested Cartesian illusion of reliability). Everything reaches us filtered through culture. On top of everything else, I even use modified quotations, I play that game if I believe it’s appropriate to create a specific metaphor which is called for in a specific moment. What a novel must always be is coherent with the internal propositions of the book. That is to say, it needs to be “faithful”. Deep down, and like all things, these two visions relate to two religious ways of understanding this thing we call “reality”, two cosmic visions, the Catholic versus the Protestant.

For me, every translation is a new book, with the translator inevitably broadening the meaning of the original book in any translation. Something is gained because something is lost, that is unavoidable and is something I celebrate. Think of it like this: if a translation were exactly the same as the original, why would we need a translation, given we have the original?

3:AM: Would you discuss a bit your training and theoretical perspective in physics and its relationship to the development of your writing?

AFM: When I began many years ago, in what we might refer to as my literary thought, I was influenced as much by particle physics (typically quantum physics, applied to atomic and subatomic scales) as by cosmological, physical theory (the General Theory of Relativity, applied on the scale of the universe and its evolution), but nowadays, and as you will have seen, I’m much more interested in the intermediate scale, that is to say, that scale or dimension in which we humans move as complete objects, which is what I mentioned earlier in relation to complexity and Complex Systems. It’s at this scale where entropy is not only a source of disorder, but also of order (and this is what we call complexity).

3:AM: Do you feel that physics is in any way an attempt to transcend the accident of our senses, the happenstance limitations of what we are able to sense?

The cells of the retina are the same as those of the skin because when we are embryos the retina is part of the skin. This gives us a clue as to why the literature of every civilization develops a multiplicity of analogies between the eyes, the epidermis, and that which unites them, light. (Great Migrations, 1) 
—from Ya nadie se llamará como yo (translated by Zachary Rockwell Ludington)

AFM: Yes and no. I believe that science goes beyond our senses, yes, but it’s equally true that scientific facts have to be observed and in general detected by methods which involve at least one of our senses in such a way that our senses are always part of the process. Knowledge is an interaction between bodies. That poem is a metaphor combining light, anthropology and science. I love this poem because it gave me the opportunity to think about theoretical matters, and vice versa. But on the other hand, it’s an idea I have repeated in different formats in many of my books or essays.

3:AM: Your poetry has a strong familiarity to the prosody of your novels. What is the distinction for you between the two practices? I see peerage here with the poetry of Sebald in its very specular clarity toward the real or the prosaic, the sense almost that one is reading enjambed nonfiction or prose.

At the point where the great military road / from Strasbourg to the Burgundian portal, in line with / the run of the Vosges to the south, / crosses the Lauterbach’s course / from the Gebweiler transverse valley, / lies the village of Isenheim. / Here the Canons Regular, / the legendary history of whose order / is traced back to the anchorite / Antonius the Hermit who / in the year 357 departed this life / in the Theban desert, in 1300 / acquired the site from the Murbach / Cluniacs to found an Antonian hospital / for the cure of St. Anthony’s fire / which raged throughout all Europe, / an infection of the blood that led / to the rotting away of limbs / and with leprosy was among / the most dreaded diseases of the Middle Ages.
—from After Nature by W.G. Sebald


I see a forest and something more alive inside.

In rural areas Nature is strictly separated from the human habitat: specialized physical and climactic barriers are erected between the home and open country to ensure survival. In cities, the urban landscape forms a continuum with the buildings’ interiors, the city enters its apartments in the form of colors, smells, materials, and even flora and fauna. This continuity is what ensures the survival of the inhabitants of an urban space. (Extreme Climatology, 1)

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

—from Ya nadie se llamará como yo (translated by Zachary Rockwell Ludington)


We passed in front of a dig site [fiber optics, cables, 21st century communications], and I made a joke about the woman and the man they found holding each other in the excavation of Pompeii. The scene was in Journey to Italy: they found them while they were filming. Ingrid Bergman also had started crying then. Starting out from a memory equals starting from the end, memories are constructed for the last day even if their gene of past deceives us. In reality, we didn’t move. 
—from Pixel Flesh (translated by Zachary Rockwell Ludington)

AFM: Well, Sebald is one of my reference points and has been for the last ten years. The second poem I wrote long before that, in 2002. I believe a poem should be a perfect machine in the way it creates new meanings for things. Poetry is a real and convincing source for creating knowledge. The best poems in the history of poetry are always verses which do not attempt to “be poetic”. Poetry is not the decorated or adorned expression of an idea (that’s horrible and not at all poetic), but is the expression through metaphor of something that could not be said in another way. An investigation of reality. The poet, like the scientist, has to see the way an alien sees, a martian recently landed on earth, who has to define things never encountered before. This alien will come to conclusions regarding our everyday objects that will be surprising. For example, when Newton sees an apple fall from a tree, and from that establishes the universal law of gravitation, what he is doing is “seeing that object known as apple in a way it hasn’t been seen before”. This radical way of seeing those things closest to us is also the initial way of seeing and the initial question of the poet even though later the poet and the scientist use different methodologies, and different languages. In reality, when we create anything, as much in poetry as in science, we’re also creating decontextualizations (translations) as if we were creating Duchampian ready-mades of reality itself.

Nocilla Experience

3:AM: There seem to be lodestones in your books for how one may interpret the project in a broader way.

Thirty years ago the answer to all these problems was silicon, synthetic sealants in general. All the joining elements would be sealed, even the jointing between structural elements. The immense confidence in sealants as a panacea led to their overuse in many areas: exterior sealants which, subject to ultraviolet rays, aged more quickly. After all these years of immense confidence in a product, people wished to make up for the deficiencies of the project as originally conceived, as silicone had had some high profile failures, and became a symbol of poor workmanship in construction. (Ignacio Paricio, High Construction) Or, ‘On the Novel’. 
—from Nocilla Dream (translated by Thomas Bunstead)

The above quote is an example, but I think also of the Philips Agricultural Guides that appear in Nocilla Experience as a primer for understanding catalogic relationships, or the collection of found objects from hotels in Nocilla Dream as manifesting the death of the novel and how we are to know what to do with its corpse. How much of the metaphoric content of the Nocilla books is related to writing and language itself, or keys for how to use the language as a metaphor?

AFM: I have very little to add to this question because I’m in complete agreement with what you’ve said. Indeed, the examples that you give are like lodestones but used metaphorically, to which I believe I had recourse in that moment: to trace a different class of novel, like what I told you about the network structure. As these were my first novels, I had an obvious necessity to demonstrate this intention and to do it in the most subtle way possible. Today, given I’ve already done that work, I don’t see the need to demonstrate these intentions in my novels because my way of creating novels continues being what it is, yes, but it is now implicit in the storyline and layering of the novel. I’m thinking, for example, of my novel Limbo (the best of my novels to date, albeit it’s not as good as the book I’ve just finished and not yet published).

3:AM: After the advent of cinema, literature became critically subjugated to the language of film, which was in itself a capturing of literary techniques. Montage is simply parataxis. Certainly, there is some back and forth. It is not always literature influencing cinema. During its relatively short lifespan thus far, it seems that seeing literature visually vis-a-vis film has reentered literature to loosen words on the page in a variety of ways. This was something occurring in Joyce and Dos Passos, in Robbe-Grillet, and in your work in a sense. Yet I would suggest you approach cinema differently in your novels. There is a montage quality structurally, for sure. But I am thinking more, as an example, of the use of the refrain from Apocalypse Now in Nocilla Experience. It simply appears, almost matter-of-factly, like a transcription of an image. And that image, or even just the name of the film, swirls into the text the entire broader body of the film. What sort of interplay do you perceive between film and literature, and how does it impact your writing?

AFM: There is a trend to construct novels without attending to the conventions of how novels should be constructed—the layering of literary language, the plasticity of words etc.—and instead follow the language of cinema. These novels increasingly seem like film scripts. I think this is a mistake. If there’s one thing that can save the novel, it is to make it independent of cinema, to narrate in a way that cinema can never narrate, using to its benefit those particular characteristics which belong to writing. The novel should not try to copy cinema (an ambition which is in any case ridiculous because it’s a battle which has been lost even before starting). This is why, yes, in my novels there are many references to cinema—of course there are, I’m a child of my time, just as there are references to contemporary food, to present day mathematics, or to anything which affects me in my day to day life. But the structure of my novels has nothing to do with the narrative mode of cinema. My novels would be very difficult to film without ruining them completely. I think this is the area where writers need to place ourselves: from a position of absolute modernity and contemporaneity, creating a culture of objects which cinema cannot. 

3:AM: How do you think the vastness of information across the globe has changed our perception of our discrete bodies? How do you think it is manifested in the generation that has grown up with linked devices? How do you think their children will perceive their own discrete physicality?

AFM: Well, these are questions which clearly interest me too, given that my book of essays, coming next year, discusses these. I think there are two things: a utopian myth common to the historic avant-garde (art from the beginning of the 20th century), was the human connecting with the machine or the human physically acted upon by machines. We can think of Frankenstein as a precursor to this myth, and from there right through to electronic prostheses inserted in our bodies or cyborgs. I know that this way of understanding the limits of the human body is still present—in cyborg art, or in those narratives that deal with issues of human bionics. But it’s an outmoded and nostalgic idea of the body, coupled with a Newtonian concept of Time: Machine Time.

On the contrary, I believe that the utopian myth of the body which truly corresponds to our present moment is precisely the opposite—the human connected to a network, the body that disappears in an almost ubiquitous flow, with its organs separated in a global system, not a solid like a human machine. This awareness (which in the great majority of cases is something unconscious, a reflex action) of being dilated in a network is what I believe has made us change the way we write and relate to each other, and definitively the way in which we perceive our own body.


Agustín Fernández Mallo is a physicist and a writer. He is author of the award-winning Nocilla Project (Alfaguara), consisting of the novels Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Experience and Nocilla Lab, translated into several languages. Nocilla Project was released in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions and in 2019 will be published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is the author of the book of stories, El hacedor (by Borges), remake. His latest novel is Limbo, also from Alfaguara. He is the author of several books of award-winning poems, collected in Ya nadie se llamará como yo + Poesía reunida (1998-2012) (Seix Barral, 2015). His book Postpoesía, hacia un nuevo paradigma was a finalist for the 2009 Anagrama Essay Award. His
blog is El Hombre que Salió de la Tarta. Together with Eloy Fernández Porta he is part of the spoken-word duo, Afterpop Fernández and Fernández.

John Trefry is an architect and the author of the novel Plats, the caprice Thy Decay Thou Seest By Thy Desire, and the forthcoming novel Apparitions of the Living. More diminutive writings have appeared in various other outlets. He is the editor of Inside the Castle, a small press. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, and on Twitter @trefryesque.

Luke Stegemann is a writer, editor, translator and hispanist based in south-east Queensland. He has worked in media, publishing and higher education in Australia, Asia and Europe, including 15 years in Spain. He was formerly the editorial manager of The Adelaide Review, founding editor of The Melbourne Review, and associate publisher of Griffith Review. His recently published work, The Beautiful Obscure, blends art, history, politics and memoir to relate the interweaving cultural histories of Australia and Spain. Luke is also a three-star tournament official with Boxing Australia.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 14th, 2017.