"I feel ignored and doomed to anonymity, but free to do whatever I want within the sacred space of literature."
I met Daniel Saldaña París last fall and soon discovered that we probably descended from the same galaxy; our imaginations have traveled a similar celestial pathway down into this mysterious shitstorm called "life on Earth." I'm not afraid of being completely grandiose and arrogant around Daniel. He's a generous friend and understands what it means to be overwhelmed by one's own growth, and devastated and entertained by the limitations of the idiots all around. It's important to have at least one friend like this.
This interview was conducted over email rather formally alongside a more personal correspondence. "All my appetites are on the rise lately. I want to eat, drink, and fuck all day. I think it may be from overexercising," he wrote. "Everyone is a slave. I am retreating from the brainwashed society. The only way for me to spiritual freedom is celibacy and daily purge of delusion," I wrote back. So, it's like that between us.
Daniel is from Mexico and writes in Spanish. I don't read Spanish, so I haven't read much of his work. His first novel, Among Strange Victims, was recently translated into English by Christina MacSweeney. As I read it, I felt I was witnessing a great performance. It reminded me a little of young Mozart showing off at the emperor's golden harpsichord, giggling and improvising variations on Salieri's welcome march, startling all the wigged and powdered Viennese stiffs. And I sensed something desperate and inflamed in the writing too, as though the author assumed all along that nobody would ever read his book. That's probably what I like most about it—the cocky, indulgent, nihilistic virtuosity.
Ottessa Moshfegh You've talked to me before about how most people in Mexico don't give a shit about books. Can you elaborate on why, and how this is evidenced in the culture?
Daniel Saldaña París Well, the publishing industry in Mexico barely exists, especially if we talk about "literary fiction." Nobody really makes a living by writing novels, except perhaps five or six people. The disdain for the arts in Mexico can be seen everywhere in society. The public education system is terrible, so most of the population can't even understand what they read if they read anything at all. There are around 500 bookstores in the whole country, for a population of 120 million people. You never see anyone reading on public transportation—partly because the working shifts are so harsh and the wages so low that people use the public transportation to sleep the extra hour they need to survive.
The government tries to palliate this situation by giving grants and awards to writers, and the result is a literary elite self-obsessed and disconnected from reality, without readers and pretty much subsidized with taxes. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that those taxes are spent in cultural grants instead of spending them on the so-called "War on Drugs," but without readers, the whole idea of writing a book becomes rather absurd. It's a discouraging situation.
On the other hand, the freedom derived from this situation is great. The market has its own control mechanisms and tends to flatten literary creativity, in my opinion—like, if you see a certain kind of book succeeding, you are more likely to imitate that style. But in Mexico, without an industry as big as the American publishing industry, nobody gives a fuck if you write the most avant-garde piece of fiction or a plain, schematic genre novel. And it doesn't matter if you write about an imaginary whimsical world or about the 15 beheaded migrants found in a ditch the day before—the market will not punish you for the choice of subject because the market's punishment is democratic and affects everybody anyway, no matter what you do. You have the same access to the governmental grants and awards regardless of what you write. So, if you can't get rich, at least you can write something important to yourself and remain faithful to your ideas. I think that might be one of the reasons for this good moment Mexican literature is having right now, with authors like Yuri Herrera, Mario Bellatin, Julián Herbert, Álvaro Enrigue, Valeria Luiselli, Verónica Gerber, and Eduardo Rabasa—among others. They're receiving international attention and getting their books translated. None of them are trying to write a bestseller because that's not within the Mexican horizon of possibilities, really. Therefore, their fiction is pushing boundaries in ways that a strong, controlling industry would not allow.
Obviously, this is a simplification. We don't just write for the non-existent Mexican readers. A lot of what is written in Mexico reaches readers in the rest of Latin America and in Spain. The market for Spanish-language books is wider, and the "validating industry" that flattens creativity lays beyond the Mexican borders. But I personally feel that no one gives a shit about my books—maybe I'm just a pessimist—and that idea feels horrible and refreshing at the same time. I feel ignored and doomed to anonymity, but free to do whatever I want within the sacred space of literature. I can very easily forget about the world, which has forgotten about me since the beginning, and write my stuff to be at peace and to better understand myself and my surroundings, without trying to please anyone.
That said, the ideal combination would be to have more readers and still keep a good deal of experimentation and originality, as it happens in Argentina—where the readership rate is way higher and they have a handful of essential and amazing novelists per generation since Roberto Arlt in the early 20th century. You just have to see the numbers: in Buenos Aires, they have approximately 740 bookstores, about 25 for every 100,000 people. It's the city with the most bookstores in the world. The contrast with Mexico is overwhelming. Writers don't get rich there either, and they definitely don't have the public grants system that we have in Mexico, but at least they have readers. And they have César Aira.
OM On the subject of Spain, in Among Strange Victims you invite the reader to hate Marcelo Valente, the narcissistic academic from Madrid who flounders in Mexico. He's such an effete and delicate fool; you capture the insufferable know-it-all brilliantly. Tell me, please, what's the matter with intellectuals? And is satire always self-reflective?
DSP I'm interested in satirizing every kind of intellectual I've met over the years. From the Mexican intellectual, pompous and macho, to the American academic poet, comfortably experimental and apolitical. In the case of Marcelo Valente, I recalled my years as a college student at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. I used the character partly as personal revenge against actual people. I guess I write better satire when it's out of resentment. But obviously, every character has something of myself too, so you could say that satire is self-reflective to a degree, at least in my case. I make fun of my own vanities through every character.
I wanted to create unlikable characters. I wanted every character in my novel to be hated for his or her behavior. But I did not want to condemn these characters from the beginning. There has to be a certain ambiguity. Ideally, I want the reader to hate a character first, then to get to like him/her. Marcelo Valente is a delicate fool, yes, and he halfheartedly defends obnoxious ideas. But then he also helps Rodrigo to stay in Los Girasoles, and he listens to him and almost becomes a friend of his. He acts like a moron because he can't feel genuine enthusiasm. He lacks vital drive. He has anhedonia. It is here where this character is also intended to be a general comment on Spain or even Europe. When I lived there, before the crisis, I felt people were at ease with reality. A lot of intelligent people I met lacked the kind of drive I used to see in Mexico. They weren't revolting against the establishment, they weren't questioning what had been done before them, nor proposing a generational change of any kind. They were essentially comfortable with the world. One could study philosophy, get tenure and teach the same lesson for thirty years without ever revising his or her own beliefs. That was the sole aim of my classmates. Maybe this changed with the crisis—I have the feeling that it did. And don't get me wrong, I am an admirer of Spanish culture; I myself am half Spanish and read a lot of Spanish literature. At the same time, I have a general feeling—which is a cliché, I know—that Europe is dead inside. And I wanted to play with that cliché in my novel.
This is an important issue for me. I defend my right to use the cliché as a tool in satire. As long as one knows that something is a cliché, I think one should be able to use it as a point of departure for a character. The character must eventually transcend that cliché, but parting from a cartoonish generalization is a valid strategy, I believe. Elias Canetti, in Auto-da-Fé, created a masterpiece using cliché and parting from a cartoonish intellectual—professor Peter Kien. The influence of George Grosz's cartoons was acknowledged by Canetti. That is one of my models. And I think it's a great model when satirizing intellectuals in particular. The cliché elements of the character help the reader to recognize him on the spot. Then you can build originality around it.
OM Why is the miserable intellectual the subject of your satire, and not, for example, a rapacious slumlord? Or a politician, or a news anchor? Or is Valente's ineffectuality a crime worse than abuse of power? I'm curious because writing from a moral hilltop is something I question in my own work. Am I not just out-snobbing the snobs when I condemn them through satire? Am I not therefore also condemning myself and my work and my readers? Am I aiming the gun in the mirror? Whose side am I on? I ask myself these questions. Ultimately, I must point the gun at myself. Fear of death is what fuels me creatively when I find the world and life itself too disgusting to love. How hostile are you? And, if you could kill any one person on Earth with impunity, who would it be?
DSP The miserable intellectual has been the subject of my satire—although not the only one—because that is the world I know the best. I started working in a literary magazine when I was 19 and that has been the milieu in which I've been immersed from then on. I have never been an academic, but my parents and my wife and many friends of mine are academics, so that's another world I can say I know. I don't mean to say that I am just going to write about what I know the best, without doing research on different milieus and professions for future fictions. But for my first novel, I felt I needed to write about something close to me, at least as a point of departure for the book, which later moves in a different direction. I don't rule out writing about a news anchor, politician, or slumlord in the future. But you're right—there are much worse characters in real life than boring intellectuals, and I do think that as a writer I should be able to depict those other worlds too.
As for the second part of your question, Valente's ineffectuality is not a crime, much less a crime worse than abuse of power, which is a very fashionable crime in Mexico these days. If I write about the negative aspects of each character in an emphatic way, it's because I believe we are defined by our flaws, rather than by our virtues. On the other hand, I don't mind aiming at the mirror, and I don't mind condemning myself. I do not write to appear as a superior person, or to show off my rather limited intelligence. I find myself laughable and don't care if that permeates my work.
If I could kill any one person with impunity? That's a hard question. I don't think that killing one person would change much. Nor would killing two thousand. The things that are fucked up are fucked up because of an underlying structure, and if you kill one person another will instantly take his or her place within the structure. Also, after spending the last ten years reading the news about my country, I've noticed that killing with impunity is pretty easy if you can afford it. Given the present situation in Mexico, not killing people is an action revolutionary enough. That being said, I am a person full of rage and many times a week I wish someone was dead, so you better give that magical power to someone else.
OM Out of the three male characters in the novel, I found Richard Foret to be drawn with a very different pen than the neurotic Rodrigo and Valente. You present Foret with such impressive heroism and charm and inventiveness, and yet you keep him at a distance from the reader. He is more a myth than a real person. I almost had a little crush on him. His personal history is completely unbelievable, and yet your historical rendition of his life story feels completely factual. Was he a real person? If you were to cast a Hollywood actor to play him, whom would you choose? And, please, can you define masculinity? Is this word still relevant? What's it like to be a man these days?
DSP As I was writing the first part of Among Strange Victims, I grew bored of myself. This is something that happens to me frequently. I was being too faithful to my interests, my obsessions, and my style, and I needed something different. Not only for the reader but for myself, in order to enjoy the writing process. Now, I've always been fascinated with certain characters of the avant-garde era, from Kurt Schwitters to Gertrude Stein. And I've always been interested in artists and writers from elsewhere who ended up living in or traveling through Mexico, as it happened with Antonin Artaud, B. Traven, or Malcolm Lowry. I believe it was in a Dada exhibition at the Pompidou Center where I discovered Arthur Cravan for the first time, and when I did some research about him I couldn't believe his story. He was Oscar Wilde's nephew, he made a magazine all by himself with different pseudonyms, he lived in many countries and became a professional boxer, fighting against Jack Johnson in Barcelona in 1916. Anyway, Cravan ended up living in Mexico with the great poet Mina Loy, and he disappeared there in 1918, in the middle of the Mexican Revolution. I thought the story was gripping and had to include it in my novel somehow. If I didn't use his real name it's because I needed some freedom to adapt the character to my fiction. Even though I had done all the research, I preferred to write without constantly checking my notes, to let the story flow regardless of the actual facts. That's how Richard Foret was born, as a fictional version of Cravan. Cravan's work also spoke to me strongly. His poetry, and especially his loose notes, made a powerful impression. I was writing poetry at the time, finishing my poetry collection The Autobiographical Machine, which had some similarities with Cravan's work, so I decided to include some of my notes and lines from my poems as if they were this character's notes.
But Foret's place in the story is not a central one, as you said. He is a reference, a contrast. The slackerdom of Rodrigo and Marcelo had to have a contrast: myth and heroism. Foret embodies everything that Rodrigo lacks and is looking for—a drive, a mission, a project, a meaning. To write Cravan/Foret's story and nothing else, on the other hand, would have been too literary for me.
If I were to cast a Hollywood actor for this character... It's hard to say. Cravan was handsome but in a non-stereotypical way. I think I would cast French actor Louis Garrel. Also, in my novel Foret's main language is French, so he would be a good choice.
I've been thinking a lot about masculinity lately. It was a subject vaguely present in Among Strange Victims, but will be much more important to my next novel—which I hope to finish soon. Mexico is a very sexist and macho country, where the ideal of masculinity is stiff, outdated, and ridiculous. People there find it funny to question one's masculinity and to make jokes about one's sexuality all the time. It's stupid and tiresome, and it can become a criminal attitude when it comes to homophobia and sexism. I'm fucking sick of all that, and I want to write in opposition to it. There's no need for a closed definition of masculinity because it's a concept in constant transformation. To be a man in Mexico, for me, means only to be ashamed of the oppression exercised by other men, and to be ashamed of the ideas commonly associated with traditional masculinity. I can't say what it's like to be a man in a positive way, but I know what type of man I'm against—the one who doesn't allow himself to be vulnerable, who hides his emotions and can only relate to women through desire or condescension.
Among Strange Victims is forthcoming in early June from Coffee House Press.
Ottessa Moshfegh is a fiction writer from the United States. She is the author of two novels, McGlue and Eileen, and a collection of short stories, Homesick for Another World, which comes out in January, 2017.