share


Interview with Rodrigo Rey Rosa

Instructions: Take the high modernist and early postmodernist experimentalism of Argentines Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. Move it forward two generations and bring it a few thousand miles north to Central America. Mix in equal parts Patricia Highsmith, Flannery O’Connor, and Lydia Davis. Add a splash of Wittgenstein. Let it set in Morocco.

 

What you will have is something resembling the Guatemalan novelist Rodrigo Rey Rosa. His difficult-to-categorise fictions move to the rhythms of noir, but the quandaries he attempts to resolve go far beyond the whodunnit. What is left to a man after his language has been removed? How does abduction and forced amputation resolve itself in the years that follow those weeks of crisis? What does one make from an owl with a broken wing?

 

These are some of the questions at the heart of the gem-like, intricate constructs that Rey Rosa builds from his super-clean, exacting prose. Over email I corresponded with him about his major influences, the impact Guatemala’s decades of violence left on his psyche, his travels and formation as a writer, and his impressions of his great peer and admirer, Roberto Bolaño. Rey Rosa proved to be consistently genial and prompt, and he remains very much a world traveller, visiting Belize and New York City among other destinations during the course of our conversation.

— S. E.

Q

The White Review

— Jorge Luis Borges is a major influence of yours, and it is your earliest writing that is most indebted to him. What was your first experience with his work?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— Borges made me into a reader and a writer at the same time. Before experiencing him I was a different kind of reader, one who floundered in a country with very few readers, and without any living writers (those who were alive were exiled at the end of the ‘70s and the beginning of the ‘80s). I read and reread Borges in those years, which is to say in my adolescence and young adulthood. I feel that, among many other things, Borges is an ideal author to come to in late adolescence. Apart from serving as a kind of literary road map, he directs us toward the best that is in us – this was what I discovered in Borges as a serious adolescent who wanted to be a poet or a mathematician. The itching to give one’s intellect free reign, this is something that Borges can transmit. Reading him produces what might be called a longing for knowledge – and, why not, a longing for eternity – combined with a pessimism or nihilism that is very Latin American, very Argentine. In Borges’s prose there is a mix of cerebral control and physical despair. This sort of a mixture is something that can be very appealing to an adolescent. After all, who is more easily influenced than a teenager? ‘What is important is the elated, and tranquil, and happy work of the mind,’ writes a character in Bioy’s A Plan of Escape, which Bioy himself wrote under the influence of Borges. I would endorse that statement.

Q

The White Review

— Do you still read Borges?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— I read him less than I used to, but yes, I still do. Now I read only his essays, his articles, his prologues, his lectures. Professor Borges, which is a compilation made by his students from a course that he gave on English literature, is very enjoyable, not to mention instructive. Bioy’s Borges, which gives one the impression of listening in on the conversations of these great friends and men of letters, and from which one leaves with the impression of knowing both much better, has been one of my richest and most amusing reading experiences of the last few years. It is, I think, a masterpiece, comparable maybe to Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and it is incredibly funny, too. The two friends tear apart authors and books left and right, and they indulge in malicious jokes of all sorts; they’re so frequently politically incorrect that it’s possible the book won’t find its way into the English language soon, I’m afraid.

Q

The White Review

— Its heft – it is 1663 pages – would also pose a sizable obstacle to any aspiring publisher. Your short novel Carcel de arboles (The Pelcari Project) is almost an Invention of Morel for your generation, or perhaps a Guatemalan version thereof. You share a number of aesthetic similarities with Bioy, particularly a preference for short novels, noir conventions, and exacting prose. Did you learn things about how novels worked from Bioy?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— The character of doctor Pelcari in The Pelcari Project alludes to a footnote in Plan de evasión (A Plan of Escape). Referring to the neurological experiments that are carried out in Bioy’s penal colony, it says something like, ‘See the treatise of doctor Pelcari.’ Nothing more. In one sense this is the point of departure of one of the narrative threads in The Pelcari Project, the one recounting the surgical procedures suffered by the prisoners. As for Bioy – whom I continue to reread – his work helps me somehow to bridge the gaps, to withstand Borges’s influence. There’s a point in Bioy’s trajectory where I would say he moves too far away from Borges; he becomes, I think, too rooted in porteño culture, too Buenos Aires. But this doesn’t last long. Just before Bioy reaches this point, for example in Asleep in the Sun, Borges’s influence has already disappeared, or is barely perceptible, but that isn’t to say that this Bioy is made of weaker stuff than the writer of The Invention of Morel, which is extremely Borgesian. Something of Borges’s influence remains, but not as a hindrance, it doesn’t weigh him down. And, nevertheless, Asleep in the Sun is a very porteño book.

Q

The White Review

The Pelcari Project begins with an epigraph from Ludwig Wittgenstein that might be paraphrased as such: thought that takes the form of writing is made by the hand, and thought that takes the form of speech is made by the mouth; but when it comes to thought that takes the form of purely mental activity, the imagination, ‘I can give you no agent that thinks.’ This is a very apt omen of what we read in the following pages. I’m dazzled by the combination your bring to bear in this book – on the one hand, Wittgenstein’s beautiful philosophy, almost a Platonic realm of pure ideas, and on the other hand these horrible experiments carried out in the jungles of Guatemala. What is the link between the two?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— I just looked at my copy of A Plan of Escape (the same one I read in Tangier in the ‘80s), and the mention of doctor Pelcari appears in the final pages – it’s not actually a footnote but rather a diary entry of the character Nevers. It says, ‘Copy a paragraph from doctor Pelcari’s treatise,’ and it cites some lines on the specialisation of the optic nerves that interpret colour. I actually only invented the doctor towards the end of The Pelcari Project, at the conclusion of the part about the prisoner and his notebook, which occurs long after the section where we see doctor Pelcari. So I must have found something else to inspire the prisoner’s scars, his mental state, although the idea of the surgical explanation clearly came from Bioy. I think that the larger concept for the book came from a little book called La science des monstres (a book of teratology), which I found in the flea market in Tangier. It deals with natural ‘monsters’ and experiments performed on embryos in order to create deformities or abberations.

 

 

It was either in there or in my readings of Wittgenstein (whom I also continue to reread, let’s see if some day I understand him better) where I found those ideas that seem to underlie Pelcari’s experiments. It’s a fortunate coincidence, I would say, how all these disorganised readings come together. But, above all, my point of departure for The Pelcari Project was a vision: the image of a naked man tied to the trunk of a tree in the middle of the jungle. It seems strange to me, the clarity of this vision that I had in the middle of the night during Ramadan, and that forced me to explain it: what had brought that man there, what person or people had reduced him to this state? The jungle, I think, made me place the story in Guatemala, and, in addition, secret prisons existed there at that time. From there, the rest of the pieces emerged: the corrupt politicians anxious to enrich themselves, the political prisoners, the armed guards…

Q

The White Review

The Pelcari Project was your first full-length novel. What you said about Borges – ‘a mixture of cerebral control and physical despair’ – seems to be a fantastic description of that book’s protagonist. His mind produces this sensitive, engrossing, finely wrought journal, which we get to read, and yet his body has been brought to such a desperate state by the surgical experiments. How long had you been trying to write a novel before you managed to complete Pelcari?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— I don’t know if it can be called a novel! It’s barely fifty pages, right? Before The Pelcari Project I wrote another short novella, which I threw into the flames. It dealt with a kidnapping, which isn’t Borgesian at all, and it was very, very bad. Up until that moment I hadn’t wanted to write a novel – perhaps it was the influence, once again, of Borges – though it’s true that I had wanted to write stories longer than those in my first books, many of which are what might be called prose poems. At some point it occurred to me that Borges’s question – if a story can be told in ten or fifteen pages, why bother using 100 or 200? – had this answer: because the literary experience is very different, just as seeing a miniature is an aesthetic experience is distinct from seeing a mural, although the content of both might be identical. It’s possible that my movement towards these less concentrated forms was bound up with the desire to distance myself from Borges.

Q

The White Review

The Pelcari Project would make for a very short novel, but since you’re a writer who tends to do so much with such little space, I thought I might count it as one in this case, much in the way I’d call César Aira’s books novels, even though many of them are just as short. To follow your metaphor of the miniature versus the mural: as a writer what appeals to you about working on a larger canvas, so to speak?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— You’re right: the form of The Pelcari Project – with a prologue, an epilogue, and various points of view – makes one think of a novel. Apart from distancing myself from Borges, my movement toward broader forms has been a kind of experimentation and introspection, a search for arguments and characters that require a certain space in which to develop.

Q

The White Review

— Is there an upper limit to the length of novel you want to write?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— Definitely. I don’t see myself as ever writing Russian novels. I’d like to write a book of some 300 or 350 pages, but not much more.

Q

The White Review

— Reading a Rodrigo Rey Rosa novel is a very visceral experience. In an interview that you gave to BOMB magazine, Francisco Goldman opened the interview by recounting an anecdote about you and the Salvadorian novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya in Buenos Aires. The two of you were having a beer, and suddenly there were gunshots, which turned out to be part of a bank robbery and murder. Everyone in the bar kept saying such things never happen in that neighbourhood, and Goldman observed that the story ‘almost suggested that when two Central American writers like you travel, you take violence with you’. In an essay, Moya claims his first memory is of a bomb exploding on his front porch, and he goes on to say that violence has been a profound part of his life. Would you say the same for yourself?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— I’m afraid that for many people who have been born in this part of the world – that is, Central America – violence is a part of daily life.

Q

The White Review

— That sense of violence as an everyday thing is very present in your writing. The stories you tell often revolve around violent acts, yet I wouldn’t characterise them as grizzly or sensationalistic. You portray them with a notable amount of restraint, or maybe balance, and there’s also a sense of the quotidian, or even at times a lightness or whimsicality, that belies the violence one finds in your pages. Have you given a lot of thought to presenting violence on the page?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— The first paragraphs that I wrote with the intention of creating stories consisted of violent scenes, some that arrived rather auspiciously from things I’d heard or read, some that I imagined, and some that I dreamed. Writing violence was always a thing that was much easier for me than describing settings. Was it a form of catharsis? Or a way of ‘processing’ the fear, or, as they say, exorcising the fear? Fear is a constant when you live in a place that is supremely violent, although for many hours of the day one forgets these things. Then suddenly, violence is there: in the form of a shooting in the street, or news of a kidnapping, a mutilation. These are a part of the air I breathe.

Q

The White Review

— With this ongoing presence of violence in your life, or at least your Guatemalan life, and the lives of those around you, it seems like this would be a powerful community experience, a commonality, perhaps a source of shared understanding. Maybe this helps explain why the bonds that form around certain violent acts in your fiction are fascinating. For instance, your novel El cojo bueno (The Good Cripple), which is about kidnappers who sever a man’s foot in an attempt to ransom him. The book follows their lives for years after the ransom attempt, and even though they all go their separate ways, these men remain indelibly connected by that severed foot, a rather simple act that took maybe half an hour of their lives. It was very striking to me, how that one incident could define each of their lives and, in a sense, determine their futures. How did you come to tell this particular story?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— I began to write that book at the Hotel Atlas in Tangier. At the time I was reading another book of Wittgenstein’s, Remarks on Colour. I had spent a long time in Guatemala before returning to Spain, and then Morocco, a place where I’d been living sporadically, and I kept hearing about all sorts of very violent acts in Guatemala. Stories of massacres, of kidnappings: the atrocities committed during the war were then beginning to come to light. I was particularly impressed by the authenticity and rawness of the novels of a Guatemalan named Marcos Antonio Flores (who died recently), which dealt with the urban guerrilla war in the ‘80s. Above all, what interested me so much about his books were the specifically Guatemalan things. In those decades kidnapping was another just another fact of life there, and I’m afraid that it still is. I myself have had first hand experience with kidnappings. My mother was abducted in 1981 and freed six months later, after some very complex negotiations. I was asked to deliver the ransom, and the way it’s delivered in the novel – with this kind of treasure hunt – is taken from that experience, except for the outcome, of course.

Q

The White Review

— What did you find most uniquely Guatemalan about Flores’s writing?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— Apart from the era it represents – the most intense years of the guerrilla war – and the people marked by resentment and betrayal, it’s the use of Guatemalan speech – the idioms, the sayings that reveal their speakers’ prejudices – in which Flores’s novels seem most original to me. The combination of historical elements and timely politics: that is, the revolutionary struggle at a time of disenchantment (and here, the signing of the peace was really a huge capitulation, which was only half-recognised by the left at the time) and the use of colloquial speech to name this moment.

Q

The White Review

— Do you find these things in your own writing?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— I suppose that directly examining these same matters is something I’ve done, in a sense, to make me a more Guatemalan writer than I was before I returned home, so that I could establish myself after spending fifteen years abroad.

Q

The White Review

— In the fifteen years you lived away from Guatemala, what were your primary influences and obsessions as a writer?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— When I left Guatemala for New York, my reading habits changed. From a place that was very much about the classics, and above all the provincial, which is what one found in the libraries and bookstores of Guatemala (it was always difficult to find foreign contemporary authors that weren’t bestsellers), I travelled to one where it was easy to buy or find books of any kind, where I could read, for instance, almost all of the authors cited by Borges, and where I met other aspiring writers who considered each other ‘real writers’. In Guatemala I certainly couldn’t have met any living writers, much less a writer of my generation. Other than an ancient professor of literature, a Spaniard exiled during the Franco era whose classes I observed, I had nobody with whom to talk about books, much less to discuss writing. Now, of course, things have changed dramatically. Today in Guatemala poets and writers abound.

 

But to return to your question, I believe that after the influence of Borges came Kafka, whom I read a lot of while I was in New York – translated, of course, into English. At that time I read almost no novels, because of an absurd snobbishness that I suppose came from some part of Borges’s influence that I assimilated poorly. I continued to read a lot of essays, particularly philosophy, and North American poetry, which I had almost no knowledge of whatsoever – Whitman and Eliot, among others. A little later, in Tangier, while under Paul Bowles’s influence, I began reading a lot of novels, mostly from the Anglo-Saxons. Conrad, James, Greene, Orwell, Compton-Burnett, Chandler, Highsmith… I also read travel literature, Cunninghame Graham, Norman Lewis, once again Greene. I became particularly interested in English-language writers who had written about Latin America, about Mesoamerica in particular; I suppose they showed me a Latin American, or Central American, countryside that is almost impossible to find in Hispanic literature. (Rulfo is the exception here.) In this environment, learning how to write about geography became an obsession. It seemed to be something the Hispanic tradition lacked. And it was something that came naturally – or at least seemed to come naturally – to the Anglo-Saxon writers. Perhaps there’s something about travel writing that just isn’t practiced very widely in the Hispanic world.

Q

The White Review

— What aspects of the Latin American geography do you feel are most typical or best suited to be represented in a work of literature?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— I don’t know Latin American geography very well, apart from Mexico and Central America, and a little bit of Colombia. I don’t know if there are landscapes more or less ‘literary’ or representative a priori. I think that part of the work of some writers has been converting certain landscapes into literature (Conrad and the sea, Bowles and the desert, Norman Lewis and Laos or Burma, Rulfo and the Mexican plains), and to show readers parts of the world that have not been digested through the collective aesthetic of a certain era, that’s to say, converted into literary thoughts. Or course, the world today is almost completely parcelled out, and already in the last century this work had become less literary, more photographic. However, it’s also true that the world doesn’t look very much now like it did back then, so I don’t want to say that this work has been finished for all time. Any piece of the ever-changing earth could be good material for literature, could be converted into a literary work, insofar as it somehow explains or depicts the conduct of the people who inhabit it.

Q

The White Review

— You mentioned in another interview that The African Shore, your novel depicting Tangier, took something like a month and half to write. Your prose there is so distilled, it’s one of the very, very few novels of which one might say not a word is wasted. How did this novel come to be?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— It’s true that I wrote that little novel very quickly. I had never before written a story set in Tangier, and I had been frequenting that city for almost two decades. Morocco of course had suggested itself to me several times as the setting for a book. I can only assume I had some sort of pent up energy to tell a story set in North Africa, and when I decided to give it a try it came rather naturally. I must have been encouraged by the fact that by 1998 Morocco had become quite different, at least externally, from the Morocco that Bowles had written about, or in a way invented. I guess I looked at Morocco, especially Tangier, as a territory that was his. But by then Bowles had stopped writing. It’s important to understand that I wrote this little novel in a state of happiness mixed with nostalgia. For one thing, I felt that Bowles’s death was close, and for another, I would probably cease visiting Morocco. I now see that, in a certain way, it was a double farewell.

Q

The White Review

— In the novel, it’s an owl that proves to be the sort of lingua franca that brings together all of the narrative strands, the one thing that momentarily makes all of the characters interact with one another and enter into each other’s lives, despite how very different they are from each other. How did it come to be that an owl was at the centre of this book?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— I really don’t know. I let myself be carried away by the story, and this was the result.

Q

The White Review

— Is the idea of the inexplicable something that you’ve given much though to?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— If one isn’t a religious person, then life itself is inexplicable. So, of course, I’ve given the inexplicable a great deal of thought.

Q

The White Review

— As a writer, are you more interested in the sort of incidental and short-lived relationships that we see in The African Shore?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— I wouldn’t dare say that. As a writer, all sorts of relationships interest me.

Q

The White Review

The African Shore really stands out from the rest of your writing as a very international novel, almost postmodern in its cosmopolitanism. One of your protagonists is a Colombian who brings a very Latin American presence to the story. Then you have the melting pot of different cultures one finds in Tangier, among them wealthy Europeans, Muslims, provincial Moroccans, Africans attempting to migrate northwards. It all feels very relevant today, even though it was written in 1998. Time after time, there are all these little moments that bring forth the constantly intersecting cultures, the considerable frisson and movement one finds in Tangier. Among the many places you’ve visited in your life, does Tangier stand out as particularly notable for its topography or culture?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— That’s just how things were in Tangier in 1998. The Africans who came there to cross the isthmus were the most distinctive part of that scene – they were something that I had not seen before, and they absorbed a great deal of my attention. But Tangier has always been notable for the variety of cultures that it has sheltered since antiquity; there one finds vestiges of practically all of the peoples of the Mediterranean, from the Phoenicians and Carthaginians to the Greeks and Romans. This seems to be a constant, and it is probably owed to the city’s location. ‘The front door into Africa, and the back door into Europe,’ as I have heard the European and American expats in Tangier say. It was necessary to understand at least two languages – French and English, or Spanish – and, of course, preferably also Moroccan Arabic, in order to not be momentarily excluded from conversations at parties, which constantly switched from one language to another. Almost all of the Tangerines – rich and poor alike – are true polyglots.

Q

The White Review

— Your most recently translated novel, Severina, has a very interesting premise: it’s a love story between the owner of a bookstore in Guatemala and a young woman – she seduces him by stealing his books. As the story develops, bibliophilia serves as a metaphor for romantic love, and vice versa, until the interactions between those two themes become very complex. The whole thing develops into a very engaging, very original sort of noir. People have long talked about the similarities between how a book can draw you in and how one becomes enchanted by a love affair – but, as a writer, do you ever become seduced by a project you’re working on?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— I don’t know if I’d use the word seduction. What occurs is closer to an obsession. But certainly love’s delirium, the feeling of falling in love, is a sort of obsession. In the case of writing this usually results in something healthy, or maybe therapeutic. Love’s delirium, in constrast, is more like a sickness.

Q

The White Review

— The narrator and his love interest – Severina – eventually fall in love, in part by sharing books. But of course things don’t last between them. It seems to me that this book is a story of lovers wanting to believe in one of love’s ideal states – those shared affinities that are so intense for a matter of weeks but that cannot really support an entire relationship. What do you see as the value in a relationship like that which the narrator has with Severina?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— Nothing, apart from the fact of it, the relatioinship itself. But the protagonist’s obsession – to want what he shouldn’t – gives meaning to his story, and to his life, even though it’s short-lived. It reminds me of these verses of Quevedo’s, in his poem ‘Elias Rivers’: ‘They will be ash, but it will have feelings / they will be dust, but dust which is in love.’

Q

The White Review

— Borges’s letters play an important part of Severinas plot. And then in The Good Cripple you bring Paul Bowles into the story as an actual character. Do you ever feel any anxiety about bringing these mentors of yours into your work?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— Not at all. I would almost say the opposite. Anyone who tries to write must be completely impartial. In a book, a mentor, a friend, even a parent, has to be treated with the same consideration as one would give to someone unknown, a criminal. Even an owl.

Q

The White Review

— Your writing is often classed as ‘minimalist’ work, mostly for your remarkably taut prose and the way you have of telling stories that feel like they have been cleansed of all possible excess. Do you think of yourself as a minimalist?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— No, I don’t consider myself one. I’ve read very few writers classed as minimalists.

Q

The White Review

— Is there a particular reason you haven’t read much minimalist literature?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— Just that I’ve not had enough time! Can we call Lydia Davis a minimalist? I love her stories. And speaking of short story writers, Flannery O’Connor is one of my favourites (whom I discovered thanks to Bowles), as is Patricia Highsmith, also one of my favourite novelists.

Q

The White Review

— Did you move consciously towards the sort of writing that now defines your style?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— Because my first writings were so brief, there was more hermeticism (which was mostly involuntary) than transparency. I would say that I’ve had to work very hard to avoid excessive reticence. A fear of boring my readers has been a very deep preoccupation of mine, and it’s something that shows itself in my way of writing.

Q

The White Review

— When I read your books I feel like everything in the story is linked in some way – except, figuring out the logic behind it is a remarkably complex task, a little like how I feel when I read Wittgenstein. Would you consider him an aesthetic influence, as well as a philosophical one?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— I would like to think that I’ve been influenced by Wittgenstein, although it might be indirectly, because I can’t say that I entirely understand his philosophical statements beyond his general approach. His notebooks, like the Cambridge one and the Skjoden one, and his diaries – in those he talks about his readings, the music he likes and doesn’t, his religious doubts and his dreams; these are texts that I continue rereading, and they seem to always enrich me. I’m afraid that the Tractatus, the Philosophical Investigations, and the more technical texts are too difficult for me to digest, but the economy of his prose, his rejection of phonies, and even his purity and basic humility, all of these make him an extremely attractive figure to me.

Q

The White Review

— Your stories say exactly what needs to be said to create a feeling of potential – they create a number of trajectories that you can almost imagine intersecting somewhere, somehow; or they create a number of shapes that you just know are meant to fit together in some way. And then you leave it up to the reader to complete the project. This aesthetic works so powerfully for you in the literary realm – do you practice this sort of writing in other genres, for example, letters or diaries or essays?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— Since I returned to Guatemala I’ve written very few letters. I almost exclusively write stories, and I haven’t kept a diary except on rare occasions, mostly when I’m just starting to write something, like a sort of warm up. I don’t think that the non-fiction that I’ve written can be called ‘essays’; they’re articles destined for publication in periodicals, newspapers, or magazines, and they require a language and a method that’s very explanatory in nature. Fiction can pose questions that have not previously been formulated. But there are many different kinds of fiction. And there are also texts that are simply objects of contemplation, or the origin of new experiences or literary aesthetics.

Q

The White Review

— Where do you happen to find these questions? We’ve talked about some of your books coming out of actual life experiences, or nightmares, or versions of nightmares you’ve found in other books – but for the questions themselves that inhere in these projects, do you regard them as coming from a certain place?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— The questions come from within the prose itself, during the act of writing. I wouldn’t want to say that my books mostly come from actual experiences of mine, although, yes, often the circumstantial details that support them come from personal experiences. For instance, what I was saying about The Pelcari Project, that the idea for doctor Pelcari, who serves to articulate the story’s framework, came directly from Bioy. Some of my stories have effectively come from articles in periodicals: ‘Poco Loco’, or ‘El hijo de Ash’, for instance. But this way of writing usually leaves me unsatisfied, and I’d almost always rather avoid it.

Q

The White Review

— We’ve talked a lot about your influences and contemporaries, so we can’t possibly stop before we bring up Roberto Bolaño, who was a great admirer of your work. Is he an author that you’ve read widely?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— I’ve read a number of Bolaño’s books, but not all of them (I’m a very slow reader). I think that in his final books, and especially in 2666, Bolaño achieved something that very few writers manage: a style that permitted him to address any theme, something like a machine for converting any sort of information or perception into a literary experience.

Q

The White Review

— Since we’ve been talking a lot about the virtues of short fiction in this interview, do you think it is an important thing to create novels that function as does 2666?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— Of course. I believe that all kinds of novels are important. The ‘totalising novel’, that can claim to cover the world or contain an entire epoch (although, or course, it can’t actually do that), seems to me as important as the short novel or the fragmentary one. A novel’s particular importance doesn’t depend on its size or theme or intention, only its execution. What matters is the literary experience, what happens to us as we are reading it. Reading 2666 is a unique experience, and because of this it is important. It presents us with a point of view, a ‘segment’ of reality that did not exist before we read it.

Q

The White Review

— Do you feel like this is a thing that the novel excels at to a greater degree than other art forms?

A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— Possibly, and perhaps this is due to the element of time. What I mean is that reading a novel is extended through a certain duration, and in a way the novel’s time comes to be bound up in the reader’s time. The reader of a novel coexists with it for a longer period than we usually exist with any other sort of artwork.

Q

The White Review

— Even with a short novel, this length of interaction is almost always much longer than any other art form you might think of. One establishes a sort of rhythm with it, as though you’re living with it for a few days, or a few weeks. For those minutes or hours each day that you’re dipping back into whatever novel you happen to be reading, your personal chronometre ceases to coincide with your day-to-day life and becomes that of the novel’s. Does writing also function in a similar fashion for you? I mean to say, does it give you entry to a certain experience of existence that, like reading, you require from time to time and could not contemplate living without?
A

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

— When it comes to writing I’m not particularly disciplined. There are long periods where I don’t write any fiction. When I begin on something that seems like it will become somewhat lengthy (my short stories are almost always written in one or a few long sessions), I try to find some way of clearing my schedule of anything that might disrupt my immersion in the work. In the past I used to take the bus and hole up in a cheap hotel far away from anywhere, so as to not run the risk of having any kind of interruption. Nowadays this has become very difficult. But, yes, I would say that in these moments, what dominates my personal sense of time is the necessity of, or the obsession with writing. These are good moments, moments that I’ve longed for, the moments for which one has been preparing.
 

This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2015 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is an editor of The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Scott Esposito is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? (with Lauren Elkin; Zero Books, 2013). His writing has appeared recently in Music & Literature, Drunken Boat, and The Point. His criticism appears frequently in the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post.