An Interview with Author Arturo Fontaine by Translator Megan McDowell
We are pleased to release an exciting interview between Arturo Fontaine and Megan McDowell, author and translator respectively of La Vida Doble, which is now available to the English speaking world through Yale University Press’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series. In the interview, Fontaine and McDowell discuss what it means to be a Chilean writer, Fontaine’s writing process, and the role of the translator.
Megan McDowell: All of your novels have dealt with particularly Chilean subjects—Cuándo éramos inmortales has a lot of your own childhood in it, Oír su voz takes on the complicated process of Chile’s rapid economic liberalization with Pinochet still in power; and of course La Vida Doble deals with the mentality of revolution and the psychological effects of torture. This is your first book translated into English, and I wondered if we could take the opportunity to ask: what does it mean to you to be a Chilean author?
Arturo Fontaine: I have no way of knowing what I would be if I weren’t a Chilean writer. I guess I’d be a Uruguayan or French writer, or a Chinese or Congolese one, who knows. And then, all the same, my books would try to transform my world, to turn to fiction and use it as a means to bring my world closer to those who don’t know it, to turn it into a human experience that is open to anyone. When I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Banville’s The Untouchable, or Coetzee’s Disgrace, the Irish Catholic world, or a U.S. suburb, the world of a certain English milieu with its refined spies with their ties to the KGB, or the racial tension in South African—each is very present, with its unique local characteristics; nevertheless, through those very distinctive stories and situations the human condition of any time, any place is explored.
MMcD:What does it mean to be translated for an English-speaking audience who won’t have the intimate experience and knowledge of Chile’s history that your Chilean readers have had?
AF: It’s true that the Chileans, Argentines, or Spanish who have read the novel are closer to what I’m narrating. Even so, the story itself is enough. A novel is like a laboratory where an experiment is taking place, but the experiment can be repeated in other places and in other ways because what it shows is of general significance. Hopefully the readers of La Vida Doble: A Novel will be submerged in the strange and idiosyncratic world in which Lorena must live, where they’ll find not “Chileans” or “Latin Americans” but rather simply humans of flesh and bone who cross over by means of the story. Hopefully. Lorena herself says: “Listen well: don’t let the historical anecdote I’m telling constrain you; Chile’s narrow geography, either.
MMcD: A related question—in the U.S., words like “Socialism,” “Communism,” and “Revolution” have a different resonance than they do in Chile. Even for people on the left, “communism” is associated with experiences of dictatorship and repression, and doesn’t have romantic or idealistic associations that it does for Lorena, or that people in Chile are more aware of, even if they don’t share them; there is little history of socialist ideas or movements in the U.S. Is there anything in particular you think your North American readers should be aware of about Chile’s history as they read your book?
AF: Not much, really. Lorena makes things understood as they need to be understood; for example, what it means to her to belong to a radical revolutionary movement that tries to win a utopia through armed struggle, one that demands from her the complete sacrifice of her life. There have been so many movements like that, and there always will be. Whether the inspiration comes from Che Guevara, or the movement’s name is this or that, or whatever the specific content of the project for a new society, these are not essential matters. The willingness to sacrifice oneself for something that feels huge, almost impossible, is always a human possibility. The Islamic fundamentalists are painful reminders of this. Furthermore, the immediate enemy is brutal dictatorship. But the use of torture to get information out of terrorist groups is something that has happened in many countries, even in some democratic ones and not too long ago… I would like for the novel to show, in contrast to the film “Zero Dark Thirty”, the victim’s perspective, the way his or her identity as a person is gradually torn to shreds. Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty”—in spite of its merits, such as its momentum—takes on torture in a superficial way. It only shows us the perpetrator’s gaze, and the victim is thus dehumanized. This kind of treatment “un-realizes” cruelty. Henry James, comparing some Dutch painters with Guardi, at some point uses the expression “artistic conscience”. “The Italian,” writes James, “…dispenses with effort and insight, and trusts to mere artifice and manner—and a very light manner at that. …The Dutchman… feels that, unless he is faithful, he is doing nothing.” I believe in that concept. I believe that an artist must be faithful to the world he is trying to show, to the world he wants us to imagine. Kafka, for example, was a master in this. For an artist to do this superficially is an ethical failure in his work as such.
MMcD: As I worked on the book, you were very helpful and generous in answering my questions, and you also kept a bit of distance, stressing that I had to find the voice, the way to convey the book in English, which was something that I appreciated a lot—a translator couldn’t ask for a better balance. I wonder if you have spent time considering your stance on the translator’s role, or if you’ve ever been a translator yourself?
AF: I’m happy you felt that way. The novel in English is your work. La Vida Doble: A Novel should read as if it had been thought and written in English. I think your translation achieves that. It’s been your responsibility, as translator, to find an equivalent to what one reads in Spanish, but also flows in English. Translating is a creative task, an artistic and difficult one. But not impossible. Proust’s A la recherché… flows with a rhythm characteristic of French, of English in Scott Moncrieff’s translation, and of Spanish by Pedro Salinas, José María Quiroga Plá and Consuelo Berges. A priori, it seems like it shouldn’t be possible. I don’t think El Quijote ever had an English translation that did it justice until Edith Grossman’s. If Nabokov had read Cervantes in that translation he wouldn’t have written what he did in his Lectures on Literature. He didn’t get the humor or the humanity of Quijote. Gregory Rabassa did an extraordinary translation of 100 Years of Solitude. When I was studying at Columbia University, Rabassa came to a translation workshop directed by Frank MacShane, who was then the director of the Writing Division. I asked Rabassa what his secret was in translating 100 Years of Solitude. He answered: “Before starting to work, I would spend twenty minutes reading a novel by Faulkner”.
And yes, I have published some versions—I don’t dare called them translations—of some classic poems in Spanish. Many times, I must admit, I’ve failed. For example, I’ve struggled and struggled for years trying to translate two very famous poems by Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” and “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” They stood by me like two faithful dogs during my father’s long and painful illness before he died. I have never managed to translate them. I go back and try again every once in a while. The problem, of course, is their music, so interlaced with the metaphors and the meaning. These are cases when it seems like the music shapes the meaning.
MMcD: La Vida Doble has a great deal of research behind it. There were three people in particular who had experiences very similar to Lorena’s, although the character is not directly based on any of them. You also interviewed people from the left and from MIR. Can you talk a bit about how those interviews were? You also interviewed people who were close to the dictatorship, and their families. How did you approach them? Was it difficult to broach these topics?
AF: It’s true, I read many testimonials and watched many documentaries. They are listed at the end of the book. On one hand, I list them out of respect for the truth—this is not just pure imagination; there were many people who suffered though similar horrors, in Chile, in Argentina, and other countries—and also to salute the people who investigated and told these stories, sometimes at great risk. I got the chance to talk for a long, long time with one of the three women on whom the novel is based. I promised not to tell which one. I also talked with some intelligence agents of the dictatorship’s repressive apparatus, the CNI; some of them knew and worked with these women. They were weary, slippery men who knew their destiny lay in jail. I also spoke with people who participated in MIR, an armed revolutionary organization founded in the 70’s; they lived in secrecy and they fought back during the dictatorship. The book’s structure—one long interview—arose from those experiences. But, of course, the fiction is not the double of the real, it brings something new into the world with the goal of shining light on the real.
Were they difficult conversations? Well, yes, at times. Luckily, many of them had read previous novels of mine. They felt free because I wasn’t a reporter. And they wanted, I suspect, to tell me their stories. For some mysterious reason, there is something healing about telling one’s story. Maybe, when you feel you have lost, it can mean a lot to have someone seek you out who wants to listen to your story. And once we were there and a certain climate of intimacy had been created, phrases emerged that were dead at birth, certain silences, certain movements of the face or hand that were marked by an insurmountable pain—those, I will never forget. Those involuntary gestures influenced the novel more than most of the stories I heard.
My challenge was to find a language that could transmit the experience of horror with the immediacy of the real. I had to find a language that would not dull sensibilities. But a language that would also not be like squeezing lemon onto a live oyster. On the contrary, I had to make the reader imagine the horror and still want to keep reading. I thought a lot about the question in Lessing’s famous book: Why do we find beauty in the sculpture “Laocoön and His Sons” when, if we were facing the scene in real life—two boa constrictors tightening around the extremities of the father and his sons—we wouldn’t be able to stand it, it would inspire only horror in us and would be devoid of any beauty? What transmutation of the real allows us to look and keep looking at the sculpture and to approach the real experience of unbearable pain? I wrote hundreds of pages searching blindly for a language, not knowing what language I was looking for. Suddenly, out came the sentences that begin the novel: “Can I tell you the truth? That’s a question for you. Are you going to believe me? It’s a question only you can answer. All I can do is talk. It’s up to you whether you believe me or not…” The next day I reread the lines and I knew immediately: there, in that tone, was the novel. Lorena was born in that tone. She is that tone.
MMcD: Your portrayal of Lorena’s torture is so affecting because it is so subjective, or maybe suggestive. There is little linear or objective narration of what is happening, everything is told from the point of view of Lorena as she experiences it, and the effect is disorienting and disturbing. Can you talk about the process of imagining and writing those scenes?
AF: Well . . . I wanted to avoid the objective, cold, positivist and meticulous language that is used in documentary testimonials and in reports. That language allows you to know, but not imagine. And when you don’t imagine, you no longer feel a thing. I thought: these testimonials are a reconstruction after the fact, oftentimes put together from previous information. Often it seems like the person talking is looking at the scene from outside. For example, you don’t see, they’ve covered your eyes. That darkness was my starting point. You hear voices, you hear their threats, their humiliating insults, you feel naked and they manipulate your body, you’re at their mercy, the world disappears, then, all that’s left is your pain and you cry out, you scream like never before, you screech like a boar, like a donkey, possessed by an unheard-of and infinite pain, but no, there is someone controlling your pain, someone who is calculatingly shaping you with a chisel.
MMcD: Were there challenges to writing in a woman’s voice? Could the character have as easily been a man? How would the book be different then?
AF: When I reread those lines I cited before from the beginning of the book, I had no doubt: this was a woman’s voice. A very particular woman, of course. Because she was a woman, I think now, maybe it was easy for me to love her, in spite of everything, in spite of everything. Everything depends on her: Who is Lorena? That’s the enigma that runs through the novel from beginning to end. I kept on writing only to find out who that woman was. The political situation is only the first layer to the book. Really, what matters is Lorena.
MMcD: Lorena is a graduate in French literature, and the novel is peppered with quotations of poetry and philosophical references. I believe I read you say (to paraphrase) it was important for you that she have a critical ability to analyze herself and her situation, to be outside herself, watching and criticizing, at the same time she lives through events. It seems to me that Lorena’s education, particularly her knowledge of literature, gives her a way to conceptualize and find metaphors for her experiences that in a less educated person would be left unarticulated. Lorena makes reference more than once, for example, to Dante’s conception of traitors: once a human commits a betrayal, his soul is immediately banished to the final circle of hell, even while his body goes on living, inhabited by the devil. This is a powerful image to express the utter desolation Lorena feels for her actions, which to her are beyond forgiveness or comprehension. Can you talk a bit about why it is important for Lorena to be an intellectual?
AF: Experience is always richer than language. But a cultured person has, perhaps, more colors on his or her palette. Above all, the idea was, as you say, not only to narrate, but also to reflect during the narration. The intelligence agents in the novel are tough and simple. They are astute men, but not very contemplative. They don’t see themselves. They don’t feel much need to explain themselves to themselves. They can’t tell their story. Lorena, though, can see them. Lorena with her antennas, with her intelligence, allows us to explore the clandestine combatants’ world, and also the world of the agents who hunt them down. She has that double gaze.
Lorena mistrusts writing, she doesn’t believe in the possibility of telling what she is telling: “The truth was invented not to be told,” she repeats. She says: “The truth is too disturbing, too thorny, too contradictory and horrible. Truth is immoral. It shouldn’t be printed. You won’t write what I tell you.” And even so, she goes on talking as if it were an imperative to try, even as she is conscious of her inevitable failure—she plays with the idea that she is lying, and maybe she is. She says: “Do you want to believe me? Because we’re here in this hospice home in Ersta, Stockholm, and if you don’t want to, I’m not about to try to convince you. I don’t have any way to. As for me, I don’t give a shit about the truth. Am I telling the truth when I tell you I don’t give a shit about the truth? It’s my story, after all. But, does such a thing exist? As I talk to you, I look at you and calibrate your reactions. What I’m telling you is thought of as for you. I would be saying this in a different way to Roberto, in another tone, with other things emphasized and other omissions. Understand? What you want to do with my story, and above all your gestures—the way you suddenly raise your eyebrows or twist your mouth or interlace your fingers—are incorporated into me and they give shape and content to what I say and don’t say.” The one who tells the story is a fictional narrator, Lorena, created by the person talking so that she can tell the story. “I want to be Lorena to you. You’ll never know my real name.” She resists being understood, as if being understood meant a reduction in the complexity of life. “You are a crow with an ear for a beak,” she says. “No one can understand this story. And no one would want to. It’s futile. Only the edifying fable will be left, along with its moral; only the husk of the facts will remain, their pornography of horror. We already know them. But what gave meaning to them, what made them human—that dies with us.”
What’s more, her words are trying to give shape to what the writer will write, she gives him instructions and aesthetic advice: “I don’t know how you’ll use what I tell you, though I’m curious. I don’t know if it will help you at all. I don’t think a novel should repeat reality. Perhaps you should just imagine me on your own.” And, towards the end: “So here I am, telling you my shitty story… But it’s better if you don’t write it. Change it, make up something else, find a metaphor.”
Not only that: she gets ahead of the reader, she seems to also want to create her own reader. “I don’t want to go on. It’s too much. I don’t like the curiosity in your eyes, I don’t like the corners of your mouth; there’s something obscene about them.” And further on: “You’re not going to like what you hear at all. I can read it in your eyes. Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère: Hypocritical reader, my double, my brother!… Ha, ha! Why am I laughing? You said you wanted my version, so don’t ask me to give you yours. You have to listen to my story. That’s why you came to Ersta. No one made you come here. You know what? I can smell your contempt, your virtuous-souled contempt.”
So, within a very simple and stripped-down narrative structure—a woman who talks and a writer who listens—three stories are told: first, the combatant transformed into a victim and then, into traitor and torturer. Second, the story of the betrayals and abandonments of her childhood and early adulthood. And third, the story of her attempt to tell her story.
MMcD: It’s also important, perhaps, that as an intellectual, Lorena could not be accused of blindly following either her revolutionary brothers or the men of the repression. Rather, she is aware, and she is searching for something, some way of belonging to the world that she has never found. What do you think?
AF: Of course, she is no naive little girl. She knows what she is doing. She thinks, analyzes, scrutinizes. She pushes herself and wounds herself over and over with the thorn of her guilt. Her reading, those quotations, that’s what she is. “My being is a pit filled only with quotations,” she says. She holds herself over the abyss of her self, she lives from what she reads, her days are like pages. I didn’t want an “intuitive” woman who makes guesses based on hunches and doesn’t reason. I didn’t want Breton’s Nadja or Cortázar’s La Maga. “I describe those rivers,” says Oliveira in Hopscotch, “she swims in them.” No. Nor did I want a woman who was frigid or insensitive to motherhood. No. I didn’t want an intellectual or a combatant who channels all her erotic needs into those identities. No. I wanted a complete woman. I wanted a womanly woman who was truly intelligent, able to be lover and mother, both intellectual and political, an able combatant and, later, a ferocious agent. What’s more, as a man myself, I was drawn to the challenge posed by constructing a feminine character.
Her transformation takes the lid off the taboo of violence and with it, that of Eros. Her exploration of different forms of sexual pleasure is, in its way, an investigation of different forms of domination and submission, and their unsettling pleasures. But it is also a way to be a different person; better yet, to be different people, to be whoever. Her “self” is completely malleable, liquid and discontinuous, which she experiences as a liberation after the years of asceticism that the redemptive project of revolution forced on her. “I can tell you,” she says, “whatever I want. Like everything that happened in that club in Malloco. I can be someone else. That was the fascinating thing.” And, elsewhere: “Our hypocritical education is a gag. There’s a tyrannical pleasure in the degradation of oneself. We are that, too. In the underworld of that dark, bewitched house, I lived it frenetically, like one returning to a lost Paradise—not the sterilized and anodyne paradise of Genesis, but a cruel and delicious unleashing, a plunge into the burning and confused sea of our origins, a sudden fusion with the savage animal that inhabits us and that we cut ourselves off from. In that pit I touched the bottom of the truth that we deny ourselves, the truth that we invent. Not “The Truth,” but rather instants of vehemence, vertiginous truths like bites or burns, momentary passions that I lived deeply and free from confusion.”
MMcD: You are a man who wears many hats—professor at the University of Chile, Director of CEP, board member of the Museo de Memoria. Do you have enough time to write? Is writing a major part of your life? Can you talk about the nuts and bolts of your writing—when do you do it, what rituals and routines do you have?
AF: I never have enough time. I could always use more. Although I’m not sure that I would know how to make the most of that time, if I had it. I like to share life with people who are not writers. The idea of living only among writers doesn’t attract me, it seems boring. I have the impression that a lot of what I read has been written because someone had to write; it hasn’t been written from the guts. So they seek, then, to épater le lecteur and fill up pages—a bad-tempered, capricious imagination. I try to write every day. Often I don’t have the energy. Writing is tiring, and it hurts. The words emerge from layers buried within you, and it doesn’t come out of there without tearing you up. At least not in my case. I know there are writers who this doesn’t happen to, they are more professional than me. They write more methodically. Good for them. As for me, the birthing process doesn’t come easy.
MMcD: You are both a poet and a fiction writer—do you prefer one over the other?
AF: I wanted to be a poet from the time I was a child, although I also wrote stories. The novels came later. I’ve published several books of poetry, and some of my poems have appeared in well-known anthologies. Even so, the truth is I’ve had more recognition as a novelist than as a poet. It occurs to me that my readings and work as a poet have given me a certain sensitivity that underlies my novels. Still, I think that as a genre, in general, poetry is superior to the story, and the story is superior to the novel.
MMcD: You’ve given many interviews about the book, and I hate to make you repeat yourself. What question/s do you wish people would ask you about La Vida Doble that you’ve never been asked?
AF: I can tell you that for me, by far the best recognition has been that some of the victims or people close to victims have called me or wanted to talk to me. One woman told me: “Look, my husband, well, we knew he had been held prisoner, we knew he’d been beaten, but he never told us anything about it. Someone gave me your novel, my old man read it, and for the first time in thirty years he cried with me, for the first time ever, he told me. I’ve slept next to him for thirty years and not a word. And now, everything, after thirty years…” That day I knew it had been worth it, all those years I dedicated to writing this short novel.
Arturo Fontaine was born in Santiago and is professor of philosophy at the Universidad de Chile. He is the author of four volumes of poetry and three novels, and he regularly publishes essays on cultural topics. He is the director of the Chilean Center for Public Studies, and he is on the board of Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights. He lives in Santiago.
Megan McDowell is a translator specializing in Chilean and Latin American literature. She lives in Zurich, Switzerland.