Theodore McDermott: The Obstacles is, in a lot of ways, a coming-of-age story, but it’s also an incredibly ambitious—and achieved—book. How old were you when you wrote it?
Eloy Urroz: I started The Obstacles after finishing Las leyes que el amor elige (1993), my first novel. So I wrote it between ’93 and ’95, more or less, while I was getting my BA at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM). It was first published in 1996 in Mexico and then reissued in Spain in 2002. For the second edition I polished it a lot. I guess I was 26 or 27 years old when I first wrote it.
And yes, in a lot of ways it is a coming-of-age story. It resembles, for example, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, in that the search for love is a central theme, and—again like Flaubert’s novel, as well as Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man—one of the central rites of passage a protagonist undergoes concerns his love for a prostitute who becomes, through that love, the object of a desperate desire. The characters Federico Ross, Ricardo Urrutia, and Elias are all seeking love and not getting it.
TM: I ask because while the book is very close to youth thematically, it’s very mature formally and stylistically. Was this deliberate? An attempt to complicate youth and the concept of “coming-of-age,” things that are often treated quite straightforwardly in literature?
EU: I don’t think it was deliberate in that sense. I’ve always loved Vargas Llosa’s The Green House. To me, it’s the best Latin American novel of the twentieth century. I’ve always been captivated by its complex structure. What I wanted in The Obstacles was to have different narrators mixing up their stories, complicating the novel’s narrative. I wanted there to be different voices, and, if possible, different styles for each voice. So each one has a different style, more or less. In total there are 5 narrators if you look carefully: four are young men (Ricardo, Elias, Solon, and Federico Ross), and then there’s the old priest, August Roldan.
Don Quixote’s intertwined stories and the many narrators who interrupt the main story influenced me greatly. Stylistically, Onetti was very important for me; formally, Cortázar’s Hopscotch and Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers pushed me toward that kind of innovation. But, above anything else, Don Quixote and The Green House stand out.
TM: In the “Crack Manifesto,” you wrote that “the Crack writers dream about the existence of—somewhere in our Illiterate Republic—a group of readers who are sick and tired of [the supposedly profound, but ultimately facile literature that is en vogue], disgusted by so many concessions and complacencies. They, and you, cannot be deceived anymore. The concessions, I say once more, disturb them and make them think that their capacities are being underestimated. . . .”
How was The Obstacles received by Spanish-speaking readers? What was the reaction from critics and the public at large?
EU: In the “Manifesto,” think I used the term “profound novel,” which I borrowed from the critic John Brushwood. Two books in particular—Al filo del agua, by Agustín Yáñez, published in 1947, and Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo, published in 1955—established a tradition of Latin American novels attempting to be “deep.” I wanted to extend this tradition. I sought (and still seek) to be “challenging” and “experimental.” I as an author refuse to make any concessions to the reader; the reader will have to make an effort to get to the heart of the book.
Now, I’m not saying that books should be difficult for difficulty’s sake, but sometimes there are formal or stylistic aspects of a novel that are intrinsically necessary to the story itself. These may be challenging, but omitting them would fundamentally alter the book.
I grew up reading—when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen—those big, sprawling, nineteenth-century novels, novels by people like Thackeray, Dickens, Galdós, Balzac, Stendhal, Sue, Hugo, Verga, Clarín, and Pardo Bazán. But, from that point on—once I turned nineteen or twenty—I started reading Latin American literature. First the Boom writers like Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, Fuentes, Donoso, and Cabrera Infante, then the pre-Boom writers like Borges, Carpentier, Arguedas, and Onetti. Finally, after that, Elizondo, Pitol, and Arredondo of the so-called Generación de Medio Siglo.
After the 1960s, though—after the Boom—it seemed like there were no books coming out that had the same level of quality and ambition, no novels that were difficult and complex and challenging and profound. Having read everything by Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, and Donoso, I wanted more. The stuff being published was very light, very easy. For the most part, writers no longer challenged the reader—though there were, of course, some exceptions: Bryce Echenique, Muñoz Molina, and Bolaños.
We, the Crack writers, were into the literature of the 50s and the 60s, a literature that was itself very influenced by Mann, Kafka, Nabokov, Faulkner, Yourcenar, Moravia, and, above all, the British Modernism of Joyce, Lawrence, Woolf, and Forster. And we revered the Boom. To us, many of those books are milestones of literature. We wanted to pursue that line, that tradition. We saw that if there were ever going to be more books in that tradition of Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, and Borges, we would have to write them ourselves.
TM: Did critics consider this interest in Boom and pre-Boom writers a step backward?
EU: We did want to go back, but go back to bring the best elements of the past to the present.
Critics were a bit disoriented. They were misguided. They weren’t really reading our books, or not really criticizing them. They were very annoyed that we’d decided to give ourselves a name and that we wrote a manifesto. It became, at the time—1996—kind of a scandal. So there were a lot of articles coming out attacking the Crack itself without really mentioning the books. I don’t remember many people writing about the novels at all. The best responses came from outside Mexico—from the United States and Europe, and especially from France and Spain.
TM: Why were the critics so hostile?
EU: They thought it was kind of arrogant, but it’s difficult to explain if you’re not familiar with the Mexican critical atmosphere. People in the 80s and 90s were—well, let me give you an example.
Remember Like Water for Chocolate? For me that was kind of a light novel. Simple. Formulaic. But, it became quite popular, and I couldn’t understand why. That’s the kind of literature we were reacting against. Like Water for Chocolate and The House of Spirits were repeating a narrative form that had been employed and exhausted by writers like Arguedas, García Márquez, and Asturias. In other words, they were using Magical Realism as a way to interest a large number of readers, especially American readers, who were eager to consume something they believed was exotic and that—at the same time—was easy to digest.
TM: Were there characteristics of Boom writing that you wanted to handle differently, or take further?
EU: Any writer who wants to write something of some value, something that’s really worth it, first takes whatever seems best from the available models. This is what Harold Bloom calls the “anxiety of influence.” Then you add whatever you want to add to make it different, or to make it better—it’s a mixture of both. This doesn’t only apply to the Crack, of course.
TM: The Obstacles shifts back and forth between the highly urban world of Mexico City and the slow, quiet, and rural town of Las Rémoras on the Baja California. But the two protagonists/authors, one in the city and one in the country, are each writing primarily about the other place—the place they’ve never been—and about each other. Did you grow up in a place like Las Rémoras or Mexico City? Did this somehow influence how you thought (and wrote) about the other?
EU: I grew up in Mexico City, and for many years I had a chance to go to Baja every summer with my parents. So Baja was a familiar place to me. Especially the capital, La Paz. My father owned a yacht and we used to take two- or three-day trips around that area—the kinds of excursions the characters take in the novel. I was very familiar with the islands, the waterways, and the small towns around there. When we stopped going to Baja, I continued to imagine it in an incredibly vivid way that spurred my desire to write about it. But being from, and living in, Mexico City, I was very interested in writing about that environment as well. I’d been considering each separately; then, all at once, this story came to me: it was a way of reconciling my interest in the two different landscapes. It was a way of incorporating my factual knowledge of what these places are really like while simultaneously allowing me to include my imaginative vision of them as well. I didn’t want to get bogged down by realistic detail. The book’s structure allowed me that opportunity—and that freedom.
TM: Your characters are clearly very interested in writing. Were you like them as a young man, or did that come later, while at UNAM?
EU: No, I remember I wanted to be a writer by the age of thirteen or fourteen and began, as many future novelists do, writing poems. So I’d wanted to be a writer for a long time before beginning The Obstacles, and even, as I mentioned earlier, wrote a novel before it, though The Obstacles was certainly of primary importance to my early ambitions. It was a step toward being the kind of writer I admired.
TM: In writing the book, was it difficult to keep control over the several nested sub-books, the many narrators who interrupt and overlap each other? Did you write them separately, and only then put them together? Did you know from the outset that they would come together as fully as they do?
EU: No. In fact, I wrote “Bodily Prayers” first. It was a short novel, or a long short story divided into four chapters and set in the capital of Baja, La Paz. But there are other little towns that I’ve visited, and I always thought I should write a novel set in a fictional town close to La Paz. That was when I started to write the story of Elias.
Now, the Mexico City story with Ricardo as the protagonist—as far as I remember, I started writing that when I had a horrible ulcer and just after I saw Hitchcock’s Frenzy. At the beginning of the novel, Ricardo collapses from the pain of an ulcer and starts to hallucinate. He’s also just seen Frenzy. So, these two things, the illness and the film, motivate him to become involved with his housekeeper Inés, which is also the name of the “madam” who runs the whorehouse at Las Rémoras. So there are many parallels of that kind in The Obstacles. Whatever happens in Mexico City, it also might occur in Las Rémoras, and vice versa.
Then I decided to intertwine “Bodily Prayers” with the stories I was writing about Ricardo and Elias. But, no, it wasn’t easy to control the sub-books. It wasn’t easy.
TM: Did you work on them one at a time?
EU: After “Bodily Prayers” was finished, I wrote them as I went. I wrote chapter one, then two, then three, and so on, alternating between Ricardo in Mexico City and Elias in Las Rémoras.
It became much more difficult when I decided to include “Bodily Prayers.” Many of the characters from that piece jump into The Obstacles. Laila, for example, really first appears in Day Three of “Bodily Prayers,” where Federico Ross falls in love with her. Then Laila goes off with someone else, with Federico’s best friend. So Laila disappears from the scene, but Laila’s daughter then appears in Mexico City at the beginning of The Obstacles itself. The difficult thing was to match Laila the mother in the 70s with her daughter, who is also named Laila, in the 90s. The same was true for Solón, who first appears in “Bodily Prayers,” and only later becomes a main character in The Obstacles, and who, by the end, becomes a narrator himself, telling The Abominable Tale of the Love of Solón and Zolaida.
So, it was this sort of thing that was difficult to control. “Bodily Prayers” was, in the novel, published in 1975. So, all of Federico’s story is 30 or 40 years old when the book—the real book—begins.
TM: To me, Latin American writers seem much more interested in politics than their counterparts in the United States. Does this seem true to you as well? The Obstacles is not overtly political: was political engagement an expectation you were trying to ignore?
EU: Yes, I tend to agree with Donald Shaw, the British critic who’s written many books about Latin American literature. He says that before the Boom, the so-called Regionalist writers of the 30s and 40s were extremely political. Writers like Alegría, Guiraldes, Eustasio Rivera, Icaza, and Azuela were very concerned about their own countries, about the issues in their own countries. They were very political.
But with the pre-Boom writers there’s a shift. With Onetti and Borges and others, suddenly Latin American authors are being much less political than their predecessors. They’re not interested in politics at all, in fact. The pre-Boom and the Boom were, as you know, in the 50s and in the 60s. Then, Latin American authors in the 70s and 80s became very, very political again (Skármeta, Valenzuela, Peri Rossi). And Shaw thinks that it’s due to this politicization that their books became less challenging formally, less complex.
In other words, the writers of the Boom were very, very, very interested in form. Form was the most important thing. Like the modernists, what they really cared about was aesthetics, not politics. That changed in the 70s. I guess this was primarily a result of greater political and social turmoil.
TM: Does political engagement, at least as you see it in Latin America, have to result in less interesting writing?
EU: I think it’s possible to try to combine both, but the only way to excel is by not submitting your aesthetics—your aesthetic will—to your political ideas, whatever they are. That’s counterproductive. You will not help the novel. You will destroy your novel.
TM: Do critics see the Crack’s relative lack of political involvement as a problem?
EU: Well, since the “Manifesto” was written, each of us has changed a lot. Jorge Volpi, for example, has become increasingly political. On the other hand, Ignacio Padilla’s books are less and less political. It’s difficult to say. I don’t think there’s a pattern. In my own case, I don’t like to say I’m more engaged politically, but am I more concerned? Yes. More realistic, perhaps, and more aware, but not engaged. No, I never want to be engaged with any political agenda or ideology.
In Jorge’s case, I think he’s trying to destroy false ideologies. But I don’t even care about trying to do that. It might be a concern, but it’s not a goal. I’m not using my books to argue any points. I’m not saying that that sort of thing is wrong, but it’s just not my style.
TM: Latin America seems to be increasingly influential on art from other parts of the world. In a popular sense, this probably comes through primarily in film. Do you feel a growing sense amongst Latin American writers and artists that their voices are being heard (that their art is being taken account of) around the world?
EU: Yes, in some respects there’s more interest in Latin American filmmakers and artists and writers right now, though largely in a popular sense. For example, everyone knows who Jennifer Lopez and Selma Hayek are. And they think that, because of this, they know a lot about Latin America.
At that popular level, people are interested. There’s even been an increase of people learning Spanish. But this interest exists only at a certain level. At a cultivated level, among intellectuals, among professors, among critics, there’s a huge ignorance about the real value of some of what’s going on in Latin America.
For example, if you go and try to find any encyclopedia of literature, any world history of literature, or one of those collections of the top one hundred books of the Western tradition, you’ll find that there’s nothing there about Latin American literature. It’s like the only thing that’s been written in Spanish that’s worth anything is Don Quixote and maybe One Hundred Years of Solitude. Any Latin American intellectual knows much, much more about what’s going on in American and European literature than any American intellectual knows about Latin America, unless he’s a specialist. But if you’re just someone who’s an intellectual, who likes to read, but who only knows García Márquez, García Lorca, Neruda, and Don Quixote, and you think you know a lot, well, that’s sad.
So I still think there’s still a problem, a lack of knowledge. I heard once a couple of years ago that although the US publishes hundreds of thousands of books every year, less than 1% are translations. To me, that’s a scandal. I mean, you people should be very unhappy with that.
Some publishers, and a few publications, do inspire hope. But still, there’s a lot of trash out there. It’s unbelievable. The problem is, people everywhere—even people who like to read—don’t know what to read. They just go to the store and get whatever looks pretty. I recently saw a two-for-one sale on books—I didn’t like this at all. Books are not socks; they are not shoes. To me that’s wrong. Maybe you can pay less for one. That’s OK. But two for one, that’s wrong. This is not popcorn. You’re selling something very intellectual. It involves many years of work to produce it.
TM: What do you think of American literature?
EU: Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and Jonathan Franzen are perhaps my favorite contemporary American writers, but I’m more interested in earlier American writing. Saul Bellow, for example, is one of my favorites. But I think my favorite American author is William Faulkner. And that’s not only me. Many Latin American readers are attracted to his work.
TM: I’ve always wondered why that is, why Latin Americans have such a strong affinity with a writer who—though popular among ambitious American writers—isn’t held in quite such high regard here.
EU: The only answer I can give you isn’t mine. It comes from Carlos Fuentes. He wrote that Faulkner was the most Latin American of all American authors. Personally, what I like is that he’s very complex, very challenging, and structurally very difficult. You really have to pay attention.
The Obstacles is not even close to Absalom, Absalom!, but the kind of necessary, integral difficulty we were talking about earlier is really perfected in Faulkner’s work. I was trying to bring some of his techniques of fragmenting narrative, of switching time and setting without obvious indications, into The Obstacles.
TM: You end your section of the “Crack Manifesto” with the words, “Let’s let time have the last word on Crack.” The Manifesto was originally published in 1996; what has time told you about the movement?
EU: Personally, I have written, let’s see, three more novels since The Obstacles. Now, I’m writing a fourth. Every novel is different. I don’t like to repeat myself. I don’t believe in formula. I just want to challenge myself. I don’t have preconceived ideas. I never know why I have to write what I write about—I just do it.
All of my novels are complex like The Obstacles. Complex structures that present different challenges to the reader, like the movies Amores Perros and 21 Grams do for viewers—movies written by Guillermo Arriaga, a very good friend of mine. And the Crack, as a movement, has continued to be ambitious in this way, has continued to write the kinds of complex novels we admire so much. We are trying to extend Latin America’s rich tradition of innovative literature, and I think, in our way, we have succeeded.