Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Translated from the Spanish by Ellie Robins
I’ve admired Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s fiction since reading, many years ago, his amazing novellaCárcel de árboles (published as The Pelcari Project in Paul Bowles’s English translation). Although he is from Guatemala City and part of my family is from there too, and we are pretty much the same age, we’ve never hung out together there. When I was living in Guatemala for most of the 1980s, and during my frequent visits up until a few years ago, Rey Rosa was always somewhere else, living in New York or Morocco. Even if we overlapped there, we weren’t yet friends. I knew his sister Magali, an environmental activist, because once, on a magazine assignment, I traveled with her up into a cloud forest, a trip during which, unforgettably, I got to sit in a forest glade smoking pot and watching four quetzal birds cavorting through the green glowing air over my head.
Though we have good friends in common—the writers Horacio Castellanos Moya and Martín Solares—it was only over the last couple of years that we coincided at literary festivals and conferences in Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, and Paris. Sometimes we headed out for a delirious, hilarious night or two on the town together, often staying out until seven in the morning or so. I love the guy. He’s an elegant dude, always well-dressed—I’m usually in jeans and a t-shirt—with a fastidious yet relaxed air, but with mischievous and teasing laughter brimming behind nearly every one of his spoken sentences. He’s one of those writers who seems as you’d imagined him to be while reading his books.
Bolaño wrote that Rey Rosa “is the most rigorous writer of my generation, the most transparent, the one who knows best how to weave his stories, and the most luminous of all.” Rigorous and luminous, spare and sensual, terse and hilarious, horrifying yet with a poetic, supernatural and metaphysical imagination, his writing—like that found in the novella The African Shore , just out from Yale University Press in Jeffrey Gray’s translation—throws open windows in your mind as you read. In one of those disconcerting coincidences that Rodrigo is famous for, it turns out that he is a close friend of my New York therapist’s. She sometimes asks me if that bothers me. It doesn’t, as long as he doesn’t put her into one of his novels, where undoubtedly she would reveal mortifying dreams that I wouldn’t even remember that I’d had. We conducted this conversation over terrible phone connections from Mexico City and Guatemala, patched through New York. Imagine us shouting like two nearly deaf old men in a noisy cantina.
— Francisco Goldman
Francisco Goldman I remember when we were in Buenos Aires, you and Horacio Castellanos Moya went to Rosario, didn’t you?
Rodrigo Rey Rosa Yes.
FG And something happened there that almost suggested that when two Central American writers like you travel, you take violence with you.
RRR Ah, yes, there was a shooting a few meters from where we were drinking a beer.
FG What happened?
RRR Horacio and I were there with the director of the Spanish Cultural Institute, who was hosting us. We were talking about Central America when some gunshots went off and people started throwing themselves on the floor. Then we saw a motorcycle go past with two guys shooting into the air, and the director threw himself to the floor too. I got up from the table, and Horacio sat very calmly watching the scene. Later we discovered that they had robbed a bank around the corner and killed someone. Some people had been injured by the stray bullets. Everyone kept telling us: “This never happens in Rosario, it’s a quiet place.” It became a talking point that we’d seemingly brought violence with us.
FG Like a black cloud following you around. I remember you saying that suddenly it was as if Horacio was in his element, going out into the street studiously analyzing and recreating a crime. Then a similar thing happened a few months ago when you came to Mexico City to give a lecture. The topic was violence, wasn’t it?
RRR Yeah. In Mexico I decided I would never talk about violence again. It’s unpleasant to become associated with a topic. Also, violence can overwhelm you. You don’t choose it as your specialty; it’s a daily occurrence here in Guatemala and you just have to work with it.
FG Before your lecture on violence in Mexico City, you went out for a walk on Avenida Insurgentes, and what happened? You were mugged. You have a reputation for very strange things happening to you that almost seem taken from your novels. They told me that you had a black eye and had blood leaking down your cheek while you spoke.
RRR People were jealous, I’m afraid. (laughter)
FG Yeah, they were super impressed! Martín Solares is the one who was telling me about all these strange things that happen to you, and that your life and dreams sometimes seem to be mixed up, no?
RRR I don’t know, Frank. I’ve been very lucky. Maybe I just notice coincidences more than other people do.
FG When these things happen to you, do you think they influence the relationship between your writing and your life?
RRR I’m constantly waiting for things to write about, so maybe in some way I invoke these favors of destiny. I don’t think about it much. It’s a way of seeing the world that makes you more sensitive to coincidences, which aren’t supernatural—life is just very complex and strange. Inexplicable things are always happening.
FG What is the strangest thing that’s happened to you recently?
RRR Not long ago a woman approached me asking if I was Rodrigo Rey Rosa. She had readThe Pelcari Project and had wondered if I’d known of a secret prison in the jungle of Izabal, near Petén, in Guatemala. I’d never heard of it. She said that in exactly the same years in which I had set the novella, in the 1980s, there’d been a type of rehab clinic/internment camp for young drug addicts, misfits, drifters, and people with so-called obsessive political ideas. She knew someone who’d worked there who had a very interesting text that I might like to read. So this incredible document fell into my hands—a testimony by a psychologist who’d worked at this internment camp for six months. Like in the detention center in The Pelcari Project, they’d kept these young people there like slaves, like animals, even when their families had been charged a lot of money to send them there. They’d also tie inmates to trees and conduct neuropsychiatric experiments on them. So at the moment, I’m working on a documentary about this incredible story.
FG A documentary?
RRR Yes, we’re halfway through. I have to say, though, that everything that this guy wrote is much stranger than what appears in my novella. We’ve found people who managed to get out, either because their families rescued them or they escaped. We also heard of people who committed suicide after getting out. I knew that there were secret political prisons in Guatemala, but I thought I was writing science fiction about them—I never could have imagined this real story.
FG Why did you decide to make a documentary and not write more fiction about it? I know that you studied film at the School of Visual Arts in New York in your youth.
RRR This story has so many ramifications in real life, that it’s not necessary to fictionalize much. In any case, for me, documentaries are another form of fiction. Situations are recreated. In paying attention to reality, just by passing it through our filter, we change it, construct it—not necessarily with good or bad intentions. It’s inevitable.
FG And memory, the way in which people change things they’ve lived through—as the years pass and they have to recount them—all of that is fictionalizing too. But I imagine that one reason that you are making a documentary is that the fiction came to you almost readymade.
FG If this had come to you in a more fragmentary form, with less information, might it have inspired a novel?
RRR Yes. You make a documentary by taking pieces directly from reality and assembling them. But writing a novel is letting your imagination work almost unconsciously. So the texture is very different, even if the content is very similar. And I’m not speaking about film, which is in fact rather marginal for me. Writing that comes from my direct observations has a texture, a rhythm, that’s very different from the one I make up by letting my memory work in tandem with my imagination.
FG Let’s speak a little about a fascinating change in your career in the last few years. Your recent work has been very influenced by the aggression that you’ve experienced in Guatemala, a country that we both know very well. It seems that in the documentary, and obviously in El material humano (Human material) and in Los sordos (The deaf)—
RRR That difference I was talking about is right there, precisely between El material humanoand Los sordos. The first was as if I had found the story in a newspaper or a report. Los sordos, on the other hand, is full of things that I had to dream up. The books essentially tell the same story. It’s the same material, but it’s almost as though there were two different writers working.
FG Do you enjoy being one of those writers more than the other?
RRR I get more pleasure from writing a book like Los sordos, where it’s a type of directed dream, without any worry or responsibility for the characters I’m using. The other type of writing projects, they’re almost asking you to use them—you put yourself in their service. Or, in the case of this documentary, the work is closer to journalism, which isn’t very pleasurable for me. The idea of what might result persuades me to get involved—it’s more of a conceptual pleasure.
FG In El material humano you basically explore the dilemma that everyone who writes and who has spent time in Guatemala faces. You let the reader see how it is to live in this atmosphere, so full of violence, death, and paranoia. You openly show a very ambivalent relationship to the country; you write constantly about the desire to escape. And you almost define the problem of being a writer in a situation like the one in Guatemala. You feel, first of all, that it’s a radical experience that changes you; you’re drowning in, and are being shaken by an incredible darkness. And you ask yourself: Why do I have to deal with this? What I’m seeing, is there anything universal about it? Do I have a duty to tell this story, should I leave, or do something else? So what was it like to return to Guatemala after so many years living abroad, in Morocco, New York, and Paris too, right? How did your writing change upon your return?
RRR As a writer, you can see being in this environment as a curse or a gift. It’s your destiny, your lot, to be from there, so what do you do with that? There are contradictory impulses. One day you say, “Well, it’s very good that I’m here,” since you have the opportunity to witness something so radical. But it’s also a misfortune, because this subject can absorb you, to the point of—
RRR Yes, it can swallow you up. It hurts you. You don’t feel the same about it every day. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a long time, since I came back here almost 15 years ago: When do I leave for good, until what point is it wise to put myself at risk? Writers are personas non grata here, or nearly. For someone who wants to make a living as a writer, Guatemala is a good place, because it’s cheap. With the little money that I make from my books, I can live well here, and I don’t have to do other jobs, which wouldn’t be the case if I decided to live in Europe or even Mexico. Here I have family ties, a daughter. But I’m always fantasizing about leaving, even about where I’d go in a hurry, if I felt threatened. I have imaginary escape routes.
It’s something that you think about at times like this, when there’s a particular tension between those who believe that there was no genocide and those who believe there was. The sense of being under threat reminds me of the ’60s, when the anticommunist sentiment was so violent. Environmentalists are being called terrorists, for instance. Anything that’s not part of the system of finance and weapons is being demonized. At the same time, if you see the pamphlets and listen to the radio broadcasts and read the papers, there’s a fight again. It’s clearly not the right time to leave right now, but if that fight is lost, I might have to flee.
FG How awful. That violence with which people speak in Guatemala—posting insane virulent things about you on the Internet, or almost in a frenzy, coming up to you in restaurants shaking all over and calling you a Communist, or telling you to get out and take your “Old Testament judgments” back to New York. Ha! That was a rich old crone at a Guatemala City book-signing for The Art of Political Murder who said that to me. I could never live there.
I was struck by that moment in El material humano, when you’re talking to your sister’s son in Italy, and you say, “Guatemala isn’t going to improve, it’s going to get much worse.” You advise him to stay in Italy. The reader realizes that you are a very cosmopolitan man. You’ve been to many countries; you spent those years in Tangier with an incredible friend like Paul Bowles. One thinks how difficult it must be for you at times to resist the desire to go abroad.
Before you returned to Guatemala and violence imposed itself on you as a theme, some of your books took place there and others did not. For years you were known, almost like Bolaño, as the brilliant young stylist of the novel, a writer with an idiosyncratic, very poetic sensibility. A novella like The African Shore is such a beautiful, strange, stirring book. To take an owl as the thread of that novel is fantastic in the best sense of the word.
RRR I left the country without knowing how to write, or that I could write. Literature wasn’t the center around which I organized my life. That’s very different than coming back and having a couple of tools, and seeing writing as a duty. Guatemala is like a laboratory where at first you feel like an observer, but then you realize that you’re becoming the observed. I still haven’t woken up from a dangerous fascination.
FG One doesn’t wake up. In the years that I spent in Guatemala, writing The Long Night of White Chickens and especially The Art of Political Murder, the sense of its darkness saturated me completely. When I returned to New York, I felt very isolated; I couldn’t shake these shadows from myself.
RRR If I were from another place, I’d feel guilty or stupid being here, but having been born here and having family here… the word would be inevitability. I believe in fate, you have to do what you can with the materials that fall to you, with your limitations.
FG A propos of The African Shore, were there any special challenges for you in setting a novel in Tangier instead of Guatemala? Did you still consider yourself to be an outsider or a foreigner in relation to Tangier, or did you consider it home?
RRR I wrote it in 1998. I dared to write the book when I realized that the Tangier that Bowles had written about—or better yet, created—had changed so much that it was no longer the same city. Only the wind remained… I lived there, and partially in New York, from ’82 to ’92, and spent summers in Tangier until 2001. When I started writing the novella, I could sense that I would never live in Morocco again. The book became a sort of farewell. But I never thought of Tangier as a home. I’ve never been at peace at home—but in Tangier I often was.
FG You said something interesting at the beginning of our conversation about waiting for life to show you what you could do in a novel. In recent years you’ve written two true novels,Severina and Los sordos, which are very different. How were those novels born? How do you recognize that a novel is coming to you, and how do you begin it?
RRR I’ve been doing it for long enough that I think it’s a sort of Pavlovian reflex. It gives me pleasure to become immersed in the process of writing a book, in burying myself in it for a certain amount of time. When I have a moment of calm, either in the morning or in the evening, I’ll set myself with a paper and pen, and I’ll start doodling. Sometimes it leads to a page of prose, and then to another, and at some point I just have to continue. The process begins in a completely undisciplined way but there comes a moment when I have to surrender, abandon everything else, and enter that tunnel. It starts with me not looking for anything in particular, since I don’t know what I’m after anyway, and then suddenly I find it. Once I’ve found that thing to write, I set myself to work full time.
FG How was Severina born?
RRR A little like that, but it was at the time of a break-up, when emptiness grabs you like an undercurrent, which can be very depressing. I escaped it by using that negative energy to invent this figure for myself.
FG Like letting the light in.
RRR Yes, the novel became a sort of coded message to my ex-lover. My relationship to literature is very superstitious; I see it as a type of spell. I was waiting for this message to do its trick.
FG Did it work?
RRR To my regret… (laughter)
FG I have an obsession with the old indigenous sign language that deaf Guatemalans speak.Annals of the Cakchiquels—I think that’s where I read about it—even mentions a mountain in Guatemala known by the indigenous people in pre-Hispanic times as Mute Mountain. There they spoke a sign language that in some form still survives. The phrase “mute mountain” stuck with me, and I did a little research into Central American and Mexican indigenous sign languages, and that led me to a character in a novel I’ve been working on. Was your novel Los sordos in part inspired by this phenomenon?
RRR Not inspired by, but at a certain moment, when the novel took me to that place in Guatemala, I discovered this language of the hands and it made me reposition the writing around it, to the extent that that was where the title came from. When I write this type of text—completely unconsciously, without premeditation—I let myself go with the flow. It’s a type of hypnosis; I let the story carry me. But, of course, sometimes it takes me to places that I don’t know, and forces me to inform myself more, since I want to avoid being an ignorant tourist. I learned a lot of things about Guatemala that I only knew very superficially before. In order to be able to talk about the landscape and the present customs first-hand, the novel forced me to take myself, with my feet, to those places I had visited as a teenager and of which I had only imprecise memories.
This happens to me with longer texts, but not with the short ones, because they don’t require it. This novel in particular required me to deepen my knowledge of the reality of Guatemala, and especially of the indigenous people—it’d be in our best interest to learn about them, but we very stupidly ignore them.
FG Los sordos offers a complete treatment of Guatemalan wrongdoing.
RRR Yes. It wasn’t a big project of national exhibitionism, but it is what it is. (laughter)
FG We’re laughing, but why are we laughing? Your novels are full of humor. I remember sitting in Guatemala in the years when Horacio and I were working as writers at the El Periódico newspaper. When he was writing his novel Senselessness, I remember him laughing very happily and saying, “Frank! The people here in Guatemala are bad, these people are bad, this place is bad.” For all the horror that we have to see and live through, in your writing and in Horacio’s the sense of humor is very important.
RRR Well, it’s an antidote for the horror. It might be that a defense mechanism inspires this humor—without it the impulse would be to run away.
FG In all of your novels there’s the sense of a highly crafted, marvelous landscape, it’s felt as a living presence that has a very intimate relationship with the characters and the story.
RRR If it weren’t for the landscape, Guatemala would really be hell. The Moroccan landscape, which is almost a desert, is the polar opposite of Guatemala’s tropical exuberance. If you’re always in the same country, you stop seeing the landscape. Only when you change landscapes do you begin to pay attention. Living in North Africa made me aware of how landscape affects the psychology of a place.
In contrast to the anglophone legacy, where there are several masters, in classical Spanish literature one notices a total lack of landscapists. So, you know, once you notice a literary problem, you start to solve it in your own way. I take a lot of pleasure in making the landscape become part of the characters’ psychologies. It’s not easy, especially if it’s not part of your literary tradition. Now it’s become natural for me, almost like a reflex, but at first it was very difficult to integrate it into a story dynamically.
In general, landscape determines a certain tone. Before writing a scene, I try to imagine the surroundings. I do it almost subconsciously. I worked as a translator for many years, and I think it helped a lot in this regard. Aside from Bowles’s writing—he’s another person for whom landscape is central—an important book for me was The Missionaries: God Against the Indians, by Norman Lewis. It chronicles the atrocities committed by different churches around the world, but particularly in Guatemala.
FG One feels in Guatemala that the landscape has such an intimate relationship with the lives of the people—it can be so beautiful, but sometimes so malignant.
RRR Yes, its volcanoes give me a bad feeling! It’s like they’re giant bombs.
FG Norman Lewis was very astute in his descriptions of Guatemala. I don’t have the exact phrase, but in one of his texts he says that in comparison with other countries, Guatemala is like a very strong cheese.
RRR He said that?
FG Yes, I’m pretty certain it’s in his writing about Chichicastenango.
It occurred to me that in many of your novels—in The Good Cripple, Los sordos, and now El material humano—you speak of the moment when you had to hand over a ransom for your kidnapped mother. You compare this moment to a treasure hunt. In all of these novels you create different versions of the scenario. It obviously affected you very profoundly.
RRR That happened when I was 20; I’d only just begun to write. My first story, called “La entrega” (The handover) is about precisely that. It’s strange; it’s as if I had been born as a writer with this sign—again, either a curse or a gift, but regardless, a genuine experience that I couldn’t manufacture. It’s karma.
FG Yes, I experienced something similar in 1984 in Guatemala. Out on the street, a death squad made Jean-Marie Simon and I think that they were about to kill us; it was a fake assassination. I’ve written about that moment several times.
RRR It’s a moment of epiphany. I ask myself how people who don’t write or make art digest these things. This profession is quite an effective antidote; it opens the possibility of a sort of collective processing of fear.
FG What we offer might not be much—a story, a novel—but we’re at least acknowledging something, giving it a certain existence in words. When you think about everything that people live through in silence in these countries, all of the trauma that they have to keep inside, you begin to understand what Roberto Bolaño meant when he compared Latin America to a madhouse, a huge madhouse.
RRR Yes, and ever more so now.
FG In Lo que soñó Sebastián (What Sebastian dreamt) which includes the title novella and three stories, the final story, “Cabaña” ends with a paragraph that seemed extraordinary to me:
Guide to the world of the dead. When you are certain that the body has left you, feel sad for the good you didn’t get to do; then stop feeling sad and begin your journey to the past. Feel happy for the evil you didn’t get to do, then stop feeling happy and realize that what propels you is chance, which when you were going in the opposite direction seemed to you like order, or necessity.
It seems to address something that runs through your books. The wrongs that people do to each other, of being both the perpetrators and victims of misdeeds and chance. Could you see this paragraph as a key to your work?
RRR I feel a little strange about that paragraph. It must have been stuck in; I don’t know where it came from. But yes, I like to remember that you can see life like that, from outside, from above. I’m glad that I wrote it.
FG It’s an incredible prose poem, that paragraph. Actually, I plan to quote it in the non-fiction book I’m finishing up right now. Bolaño thought very highly of you. Do you think highly of his work, too? Did you know him as a person?
RRR We met in ’99, a few years before he died. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but I didn’t like everything of his so much. I loved The Savage Detectives and 2666.
FG Me too.
RRR As for Monsieur Pain and By Night in Chile, I felt weary as I read them.
FG Rodrigo, we share that opinion completely. I didn’t like By Night in Chile that much either; it bored me. When I was married, Aura [Estrada] and I noticed that many critics in the US claimed that it was his best book. I remember us realizing, “These critics who are saying thatBy Night in Chile is his best book are really saying that they hate Bolaño!” (laughter)
RRR He was one of the most generous people I’d ever met. I had lunch at his house a few times, and we had dinner together in Barcelona two or three times. Coming back from a trip to India, I got very sick. I had a fever and had to stay in bed for several days. Roberto sent a friend of his with oranges and vitamins. He’d call three times a day to check on my fever. He made me feel as though I had an incurable illness; nobody ever worried so much about me. It was very moving.
FG How wonderful.
RRR I was more worried for his health than mine; he was already in rough shape. But I knew him better by phone; he was a great conversationalist, and we would spend hours talking about books.
FG In a way, this interview is an introduction of your work to North American readers. Obviously your relationship with Paul Bowles is an incredibly important one in your life.
RRR I was very young, and I had never spoken to a writer before I spoke to Paul. I had seen Borges at a conference in New York, but from far away. I had read Paul’s stories and they had a great effect on me—that was why I wanted to take a workshop with him.
FG A workshop in Tangier.
RRR Having only written some 50 pages, I was very lucky to meet this person with whom I had a lot in common. He was a chameleon, in the sense that he could be natural with someone like Malcolm Forbes—who visited once—or with a Moroccan beggar. He could adapt himself to almost anyone’s psychology. He must have been intrigued by what a Guatemalan was doing in Morocco.
FG Which was?
RRR Traveling. What made our literary friendship possible was that at that time I was a total Borges devotee, and Paul was a great admirer. Paul was the first person ever to translate a Borges story into English.
FG I didn’t know that.
RRR He understood my enthusiasm. Also I was working in a similar way to him, writing tales of violence. It was a friendship that began and never changed, right to the end—a literary friendship with a complicity that, of course, taught me a lot about how to be a writer. In the first year of our friendship and in the last, our conversations took the same course. There was a sort of tacit agreement not to talk about personal problems; we talked about music, literature, travel, but not about health, family, or anything else. I was like a sleepwalker, sort of directionless, and suddenly he showed me a way forward.
FG How wonderful, what luck. It’s like what Bolaño said about Borges: that he is the type of writer who opens paths.
RRR Yes. He opens unexpected parts of reality. In this case he opened the possibility of friendship, as both Paul and I shared the sense of having discovered something other. At that time, in the ’80s, few people I spoke to had read or liked Borges.
FG I was lucky enough to see him at Michigan University in the ’70s. It was an unforgettable experience.
RRR Yes, but then he wasn’t universally read or known. And he was hated by the Left.
RRR That’s a big thing. I think it was Bolaño who said that we had to read Borges again thoroughly, since the Left really damaged itself by not reading Borges carefully, due to political prejudices.
FG I remember a lot of arguments with people about exactly that. That’s where my skepticism of the Left’s dogmas came from. It was like a vaccine I was lucky to receive at such a young age.
RRR Yes. It’s almost like if you admitted to liking Borges they would look at you with suspicion and hatred, almost.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.