“No subsidies, no writer-in-residence positions, no making a living out of book sales,” says Carlos Gamerro, summing up the fate of the Third World writer. But there is a sunny side, he says. “When you do have time to write, you write what you bloody well want to write – no pressure from the sales department.” It’s a maxim that Gamerro, one of Argentina’s most well-regarded authors, has scrupulously followed, right from his first novel, Las Islas (The Islands), which was published in 1998 and which uses the conventions of a detective novel to examine the disquieting hold the Falkland crisis has on Argentina. Born in 1962, Gamerro has lived through the most tumultuous years in his country’s history, including the “dirty war” overseen by a brutal dictatorship that only ended in the ’80s. It is the Argentina of these terrible years that we encounter in The Islands and The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Peron, which form a trilogy along with the as yet untranslated Un yuppie en la columna del Che Guevara (A Yuppie in Che Guevara’s Column). These novels scrutinize – and skewer- dearly-held notions such as national identity and national pride but, as Gamerro says, “National pride is obtained at the expense of someone else’s national humiliation.” Excerpts from an email interview.
In The Islands and The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Peron you combine the detective novel format with political concerns.
These novels belong to a trilogy on that part of Argentine history I myself have lived through, covering the advent of left-wing Peronism in the ’70s, the rise of the guerrillas and the hope of revolution, the bloody military dictatorship that crushed it and the 1982 war with England. Most of this period was characterized by brutal censorship and what I would call the fictions of power: the state was the major creator of fictionalized reality; it is important to bear in mind that in Argentina state crimes were committed clandestinely: not once was capital punishment legally applied, but around 30,000 persons were murdered and their bodies made to disappear; and the military government denied most of the killings, arguing that the disappeared had fled the country and were having a deuce of a great time abroad. In a like manner, we were winning the war against England day by day until one day, suddenly, inexplicably, we lost it. Crime fiction, because it so often takes the form of an investigation into hidden truths, because it tries to bring hidden crimes to light, was an appealing form; one of Argetina’s leading investigations into state crime, the 1956 non-fictional Operación masacre (Operation Massacre) by Rodolfo Walsh, was an important model for me, as well as paranoid all-encompassing political thrillers such as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.
How important is it to critically examine the idea of ‘national pride’, as you’ve done in The Islands?
Individual human beings, cultures and nations are often tempted to define themselves negatively in terms of their neighbours or opposites; but it seems that it is not enough to find oneself different, one must be different and better. One group must be more advanced, richer, stronger, more cultured, more spiritual, better at football, more tolerant, more egalitarian than some other group. National pride is obtained at the expense of someone else’s national humiliation; in its ultimate form, the name of this game is war. Is it really necessary? Is it worth the effort, and the suffering?
You’ve always been bilingual. How did this influence your development as a reader and writer?
I have always read in both languages; I grew up in Argentina but studied in a British school in Buenos Aires, where we played rugby and cricket, and I grew up among the dwindling Anglo-Argentine community. Argentina was never a part of the British Empire politically but Argentina’s ruling classes have always been either anglophiles or Francophiles, and culturally and economically we were quite dependant on the Empire, at least until 1945. So this rich and troubling relationship with British culture is something we share with India, and this is why the 1982 war with England can be seen as an external, purely military conflict, but also as an internal or cultural one, and perhaps for all of these reasons it is not a coincidence that my first novel centered on it. My latest novel, Cardenio, published earlier this year, is an imaginary recreation of the writing of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s play of the same name, based on a story in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which they must have read in the first English translation, done by the Irishman Thomas Shelton in 1612. I wrote the first version in English and then rewrote it in Spanish. So the two languages and the two cultures have always been there, in my first novel through the metaphor (and reality) of war, in the latest one through that of collaboration. I suppose this development can be seen as a step forward, all things considered.
In The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Peron, you pay tribute to Cervantes with the fictitious self-help book, Don Quixote: The Executive Errant, that your protagonist reads, as well as the larger theme of the book. At the same time, there’s a hint of Borges, well-known for referring to entirely fictitious books in his works.
Cervantes’ Don Quixote is what I would call a heroic reader: he does not read to escape into a fictional world but to change the world he lives in. Don Quixote believes in life as depicted in the literature of chivalry; my own rather degraded Quixotic hero, Ernesto Marroné, believes with equal passion in management and self-help books such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People; and especially in a sub-genre that adapts literary classics, such as Shakespeare’s plays, to the daily needs of managers and businessmen. Such books exist, my only contribution to the genre was imagining Don Quixote: the Executive-errant. I thought this was rather original, but while the novel was nearing completion I came across a management course booklet that featured on its cover a picture of a modern executive getting ready to charge a group of windmills, holding a briefcase in one hand and a lance in the other. As to Borges, it wasn’t deliberate, but I suppose the book Marroné reads might be seen as a parody of Borgesian parody, the idiot child of his Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.
Borges is the most widely-read Argentine writer in India. Who are some others that you would recommend?
In my recent Facundo o Martín Fierro, a series of essays on major landmarks in Argentine fiction, I proposed an imaginary situation or ‘Sophie’s choice’ of Argentine literature: the library where the last extant copies of all our great books are kept is burning, and you have the choice of saving Borges’ or all the rest. I would save Borges’, without any doubt, and watch all the others burn, including my own, not with pleasure, of course, but with the satisfaction of having done my duty. Having said this, one shouldn’t miss the uncanny and often fantastical short stories of Julio Cortázar; the pop novels of Manuel Puig (including his famous The Kiss of the Spider Woman) and, more recently, the writing of the children of the disappeared, which resort to absurdity and humour in dealing with the country’s, and their own, traumatic past; such as Félix Bruzzone’s Los topos (The Moles) and Mariana Eva Pérez’s Diario de una princesa montonera (The Diary of a Montonero Princess). We should also remember another widely read Argentine writer, even if he’s not always credited as a writer: Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. But Borges deserves your attention, as it was reciprocated – you know he was always deeply in love with India. In Mumbai and Delhi I shall be reading a lecture on “Borges and India” I have written especially for this visit.
Across the world we’re seeing nationalistic chest-thumping and growing authoritarianism. In these times, what is the role of writers, and literature?
In times of authoritarianism, sectarianism, censorship, collective or personalized threats, all of which may lead to or stem from varying forms of state terrorism, one gradually watches politicians becoming reluctant to voice dissent, the judiciary becoming a pawn in the power game, the press taking sides for or against its major players, or following their own political or economic agenda. When all of this happens, we tend to look towards writers as the last guarantee of truth, which is rather paradoxical given that writers are essentially people who make up stories, i.e., liars. But at least we can count on the fact that the lies they tell, they believe in; that they are telling their own lies, not somebody else’s. When writers start selling out, when they start telling lies they do not believe in, out of fear, calculation or conformity, then freedom of expression is decidedly in its death throes.