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Interview with Álvaro Enrigue

Álvaro Enrigue is a Mexican writer who lives and teaches in New York. A leading light in the Spanish-language literary world, he is published by the prestigious Barcelona imprint Anagrama. His numerous awards include the Herralde Prize, one of the few in the megagalaxy of Spanish-language literary prizes that seems to align with Anglophone taste – former winners include Roberto Bolaño, Javier Marías, Enrique Vila-Matas and Juan Villoro. He is also one of a number of writers, including Yuri Herrera, Andrés Neuman and Alejandro Zambra, that have been referred to as part of a new Latin American Boom. (The original Boom included Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa.) He is married to Valeria Luiselli, another eminent Mexican writer who has been thoughtfully translated and published in English; if the pair were in any doubt about their status as a literary power couple, they were then featured in Vogue in 2016, complete with moody black-and-white photo and the inimitably Vogue headline, ‘Married Mexican Writers Álvaro Enrigue and Valeria Luiselli on Their Buzzy New Novels and New York Life’.

 

Enrigue has written four novels and two short story collections, between which there hang some common threads. There is a consistent and interpenetrating concern with world history and the world’s current political dispensation. Though Sudden Death (tr. Natasha Wimmer) looks explicitly at the origins of transatlantic modernity, he has also said of it: ‘though set in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is about the twenty-first’. I have seen him grimace hearing his work referred to as historical fiction, yet he has also spoken about the fact the novelist is in a good position to be ‘a prophet looking backwards’. His short story ‘A Samurai Sees the Sunrise in Acapulco’ (tr. Rahul Bery), published in The White Review No. 12, expands on a period in the 1600s when Japanese merchant ships, guarded by Samurai warriors, docked in Mexico; in Decencia [Decency], a character recounts his experience of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) and its heady aftermath. Politics are sometimes addressed head-on and sometimes as subtexts: Enrigue is on record as saying that, given the chaos and violence in the country in the last decade or so, no modern Mexican writer can avoid writing politically. (His 2014 essay in the London Review of Books, ‘When a Corpse Is a Message,’ remains a good primer on the state of Mexico since 2006, when the president Felipe Calderón declared ‘war’ on organised crime, and narco-traffickers began professionalising, and ultimately militarising, their operations.) There is also a noticeable focus on form in Enrigue’s work: Sudden Death always seems to be nibbling at the idea of what a novel can be; Hypothermia (tr. Brendan Riley) is both a short story collection and a novel, reflecting the nature of a number of the characters, who feel at home in neither the US nor Mexico. Other kinds of in-betweenness loom large too – such as Caravaggio’s bisexuality in Sudden Death, and the Orlando-like Jerónimo in Vidas Perpendiculares, who has the gift of being able to remember past lives, including one as a young woman in Greece at the time of Christ.

 

Enrigue’s work occupies seemingly incompatible positions. The formidable erudition comes allied with an anarchic, sometimes boyish sense of fun. Sex is depicted with an unusual combination of deftness and abandon, and despite the breadth of his intent, and the often grand concepts he toys with, he nonetheless steers clear of cold intellectualism. Carlos Fuentes said it best when he claimed that Enrigue ‘pertenece a una
– a muchas – tradiciones’: he belongs to many traditions at once.

Q

The White Review

— Could you tell me a little about how it has been these past weeks and months, as a Mexican living in the US?

A

Álvaro Enrigue

— It is my feeling that the whole panorama is so dark right now that complaining about a possible backlash against residents with my passport is almost frivolous: what is developing in front of our noses is the demolition of all we considered “American” in the past quarter century. That includes the more severe drama of the undocumented, hard working and tax paying migrants, among whom Mexicans have not been in the majority for a long while Mexican migration has been in decline since 2009]. Most undocumented migrants arrive into the United States on planes, and from other continents, since Clinton built the wall that Trump says he will build – on top of it? But there are bigger issues. What this administration will do to the environment is a catastrophe of global proportions. If even a small part of the absolutely crazy anti-Muslim policies of Trump are implemented, religious violence will increase dramatically all over the planet. Hard times are coming abroad, and that includes Mexico, but the first victim of this crazy return to caveman times will be the United States. In bolder terms: I don’t doubt that Trump and his electors would love to destroy Mexico – we are brown, after all – but for now they seem focused on breaking the spine of the United States.

 

Q

The White Review

— So you yourself haven’t felt intimidated or less welcome on any level? Being there while a strain of racialist sentiment has been gaining such resounding legitimation?

A

Álvaro Enrigue

— I live in New York, so here the thing works quite the other way around: there is more solidarity, a true effort by the local government to become more inclusive and have the minorities better represented. And I work at Columbia, which declared itself a Sanctuary Campus immediately after the University of California did. The US, as with all countries, has infinite virtues and defects, but one of the virtues I have always admired most is its federalist spirit. Now more than ever it feels like a true alliance of states. On the other hand, in summer we always rent a truck and drive all the way to the desert in the Southwest, rent a house to spend a long period there, just reading and writing and making amazing expeditions with our children. This next summer we are planning to do the same thing, but in Sardinia, Italy. We don’t want to be alone in those Republican solitudes with the children.

Q

The White Review

— This talk of politicians and climate-change deniers reminds me of a line in the Hypothermia story, ‘On the Death of the Author’, where you suggest, in C. M. Mayo’s translation, that a storyteller is ‘someone skilled at saying one thing while telling another’. And yet that story, and much of your work besides, seems propelled by the lack of, or an interest in the lack of, such a facility – your narrators constantly discuss the artifice of the stories they’re telling, and the historical material you often employ is just as frequently accompanied by talk of the haziness of historical record. Sudden Death centres around a tennis match between Francisco de Quevedo and Caravaggio of which there is no proof, and that lack of proof is discussed in detail.

 

A

Álvaro Enrigue

— The novel as a form has its own history and reasons to be what it is, but I think that today the hardcore literary novel is under tremendous pressure: it was a technology invented to synthesise things that are better told now by political scientists, journalists, film directors or TV series writers. It should be gone by now, like the epic poem, which became extinct after the writing of the awful national anthems in the nineteenth century and survives now only as irony. The novel has a flexible form – each one, when it is good, is the first one and the last one written in certain specific way – and, like the song, it seems able to survive everything. My take on the problem of making a living as a dinosaur tamer is, then, to occupy the liminal spaces that the historians, philosophers and media people can’t occupy yet. The place of the novel in today’s world is blind, a negative site in which we meditate on what can’t be statistically proved but still explains things that can’t be explained in any other way.

 

Q

The White Review

— You have this very clear sense of what the novel is for. Has that clarity always been there – was it there when you were writing your first novels in the nineties – or has it come to you over time?

 

A

Álvaro Enrigue

— It’s more what I think these days. Some sort of referential frame that lets me devote myself, for a few hours every morning, to the tremendous pleasure of writing a story by hand in my notebook, guilt-free. There are all these ideas that get cooked up when I go for a jog, when I have to attend a panel or take part in an interview, but they come afterwards, always independent of the drive that comes from the mysterious force of vocation.

 

I did radio for some time when I was very young in Mexico City. There was this moment just when a radio show was about to begin: the double zero in the clock and turning on the mic, the adrenaline rush. I still feel like that, every day, when I adjust my headphones, uncap the pen and start to write. The same thing happens when I open the classroom door, but one doesn’t need an elaborate theory to understand why it is important to keep teaching.

 

Q

The White Review

— I wanted to ask about the Classics course you’ve been teaching at Columbia, because antiquity seems like one of the few historical periods your work hasn’t dipped into! In Hypothermia you look, if somewhat sidelong, at the way Latin American societies were shaped by the customs of a Bourbon court (some very funny passages on Baroque cuisine), Sudden Death is set mainly in the 1500s (Europe and the newly discovered Americas), Vidas Perpendiculares has a reincarnation mechanic whereby we visit multiple historical periods, there is the Mexican Revolution in Decencia – all the time, as I understand it, with an emphasis on history as a way of understanding how we do things in the present. Has this immersion in the Classics – presumably also looking at certain texts for the first time in English – made you rethink any of the ideas you have been formulating in your work about the roots of modernity?

A

Álvaro Enrigue

— I have been writing a Western – not very conventional, but a Western – for the past three years. Part of this sent me go back to the foundation Mediterranean epics: the first books (scrolls at that time) in which white people hurt each other for the sake of it. My American editor didn’t take it super well when I told her that, instead of cloistering myself to finish the novel, I was going to teach this incredibly demanding wonder that is Columbia University’s Classics Core Course. I answered to her that to read again Homer and Virgil is to write, and she conceded. But this is anecdotal. Like everybody educated in Mexico – and more in my case, as part of my education came from Jesuit institutions – I have a very strong and rigorous formation in the Classics. To know them is part of the DNA of the Republic, which was designed in the nineteenth century by lawyers who, having renounced the Catholic tradition, found sources of legitimation in the Roman and Greek writers. Tacitus is my standard for great prose and Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars and Julius Caesar’s The War in Gaul are still model books for me. I’m obsessed to a psychopathic degree with Sappho. They are all over my own work, not always in a clear way. There is a classic episode in Vidas Perpendiculares, it’s just that the main character of that story is Saint Paul and we don’t consider him part of the Classics because he was a radical rabbi from Turkey who moved to the asshole of the Empire at a young age – but he was writing just a few years after Ovid and his first language was Greek, and he was a citizen of Rome. We read him as a dusty father of the Church, but really he was a Roman author of fantastic literature – he should be read next to Apuleius. And my El cementerio de sillas comes directly from Herodotus. A writer’s prose is always a register of previous readings, and I have always loved these supremely uncool books. It is the generation from Julius Caesar to Saint Paul that established the first bricks of modernity, for instance in their view that time was a line that always runs forward, that there will be an end for History. And they were, too, the first generation that understood completely the enormous power of the technology that is the metaphor. We drink from their cup all the time.

 

Q

The White Review

— What is it about Westerns that has attracted you? I am guessing that tradition is also quite present in Mexican culture.

A

Álvaro Enrigue

— There is only one way to tell each story successfully and the most difficult part on a writer’s job is to find it. Each novel demands its own form and the only way to tell what I am trying to tell in the one I am writing now is using the Western as a mould – but not in the strict way. I like to write at the outer limits of a genre, the place where it could become a different thing but nonetheless remains a novel. There is something in standing at the very border of things: it produces clarity. Hypothermia, in Spanish or French, is a novel written in the rim between the novel and the short story collection, but it is a novel, as much as Vidas perpendiculares is a novel that becomes a short stories collection as the plot thickens – in the English language world, Hypothermia  was marketed as a collection of short stories, which was weird. If you change the tenses of Sudden Death and add the word ‘speculation’ to the beginning of a few chapters, it’s an essay on early modern material culture.

 

But the part I love in your question is the second one, because it connects deliciously with the previous question: the Western does exist in Mexican culture, but under a mould that is a remnant of the Latin epic. The stories of great bandits and popular heroes from the desert and the arid part of the Sierra Madre – the most beautiful and challenging mountain chain in North America – are told in songs named corridos. And a corrido is an epic story written in verses of eight syllables: two eight syllable verses form one Latin hexadecasílabo – the same used by Virgil in The Aeneid. At some point during the Ottoman occupation of Spain during the tenth century, when Spanish was still a local kind of Latin, messages from the areas of conflict began to be composed dividing the classic sixteen syllable verse into two couplets of eight, which led to the form that would go on to be used in Spanish Romance – a long poem that tells a story about military actions. That form survived intact in the Mexican desert – half of which now is in the United States, because history is capricious and abusive. Today the great sagas of the drug lords and their gunmen are still told using that very strict classic form. They are recorded and transmitted on the radio and played at massive venues: Aeneas with an AK-47 and sunglasses.

 

Q

The White Review

— I never knew that about corridos; I think if they have any fame in the UK it is as narco ballads. I was thinking of John Wayne or James Fenimore Cooper – in the way that one sees so much US pop culture saturating the day-to-day in Mexico, I was imagining you might be planning to take on those sorts of Westerns; I remember the thrill of reading Jorge Luis Borges on Billy the Kid. So was it originally that you wanted to tell the story of one of the drug lords or their men, or more the story of this peculiar form itself?

A

Álvaro Enrigue

— I would never perpetrate a novel about narcos these days. To write a novel about Mexican violence that has cops, drug lords and gunmen would be like commenting on a football match, recounting exactly what is happening on the pitch, wouldn’t it? The television commentators are there to add other things. If you want a verbal description of what is going on in the field you listen to the game on the radio; if you want a descriptive meditation of what is going on in Mexico, you read the journalists – one of the positive outcomes of ugly times is that they generate excellent journalism, because it becomes urgent. My take on Mexican violence is all over Sudden Death. Mexico is just the temporary harbour of a global conflagration between not very realistic politicians and free-market Talibans; a world insurrection of suicidal neoliberals. You can’t explain the Mexican problem without considering the poppy producers in Afghanistan, the American banks, the French kids doing meth in a cellar in Lyon, the Colombian guerrillas, etc. Huge political and commercial currents move around the world and pum, a dropout kid trying to earn some money gets decapitated with a wire hanger in Saltillo. One of the working titles of Sudden Death was ‘The Book of Decapitations’. I was writing Decencia when hell broke loose in northern Mexico towards the end of the first decade of the century, and the two young characters in the book were, originally, petty marihuana dealers. Suddenly the newspapers were full of real people so similar to my creations, I just tried them as guerrilla fighters from the Liga 23 de Septiembre an anti-government Marxist-Leninist urban guerrilla movement in Mexico in the early 1970s] and the book became full of new meanings that enriched the general discourse, without sacrificing the original ideas about the origins of political impunity in Mexico. The new novel deals with those problems too, as I am the traumatised citizen of a nation traumatised by the Wars on Drugs – no Mexican can write about anything else, but not all novels are narco novels: there are levels of sophistication. I’ve been watching John Wayne movies – that way of walking a horse backwards to avoid a shot in the back, my God! And I have been thinking a lot about Borges’ love for the Westerns, present in his gaucho stories. There is something to be said for using the innocence of those discourses. But let’s change the subject: to speak about an unfinished book brings bad luck. Or let’s write a good corrido together; I have never done one, but we could make a shit load of money if it gets recorded.

 

Q

The White Review

— Can I ask about the indigenous feather art in Sudden Death? It seems to hold quite a lot of importance, featuring three or four times in the book in close-up detail – there is a headdress and an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, both made of entrancing, shimmering feathers. ‘So brilliantly iridescent was the thing that the image seemed to move.’ ‘If you hold it up to the light in just the right way, it glows’ translated by Natasha Wimmer]. These objects are given to Cortés and co., and then bandied about back in Europe as presents between popes, cardinals and the like. The idea seeming to be that they exert fascination on viewers the world over, and yet, because of the special qualities of the feathers, which distort what they reflect, they also de-form the gaze they invite. This seems to me potentially quite important in your overall project.
A

Álvaro Enrigue

— Adjectives do that, right? De-form, re-form the gaze they invite. The whole novel, which I had been circling for a long time, came from the discovery of the possibility of that gaze: one that modifies the piece of art, and not its viewer. A miracle. A curator and historian, Alessandra Russo, made this fantastic exhibition of pre-Hispanic and colonial feather art in the National Art Museum in Mexico City 2011]. The pieces were amazing – they didn’t need any contextualising support. One day, anyway, the workers who were mounting the pieces called her over. They were having lunch sitting on the floor of the museum and had discovered that the pieces changed if you looked at them from a lying down position in front of them. Alessandra sat with them and understood what they were telling her: if you illuminate those pieces properly and you see them from the point of view they were intended to be seen from, they reflect light in such a way that they look as if they were producing light by themselves. They become, literally, brilliant. So part of the exhibition was hung really high on the walls and illuminated from the ground with lights that reproduced candle light. When you entered the hall, it felt like if you were on mushrooms. It was unbelievable. I saw one of the mitres at the exhibition and it was like Achilles’ shield: the whole fucking world concentrated in one piece of art. And it was feather art, a forgotten art. And the piece had not been seen as they should for 300 years. It was like receiving a phone call from Atlantis.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is a writer and translator based in East Sussex, England. He has translated some of the leading Spanish-language writers working today, including Agustín Fernández Mallo, Enrique Vila-Matas and Juan Villoro, and his own writing has appeared in publications such as >kill authorParis Review DailyReady Steady Book and the TLS. In 2015 he co-edited a Mexico feature for WORDS WITHOUT BORDERS and he is currently an editor at the translation journal IN OTHER WORDS.


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