A Conversation with Fernando del Paso By Ilan Stavans

ILAN STAVANS: Since in “Palinuro of Mexico” you function not only as the novel’s author but also as a cultural commentator, I wonder if you could take a step back for a moment and assess for me its merit and achievement. Almost two decades after its original publication, what’s your opinion of it? What are its excesses? Would you change anything today? Have you ever considered a revised version?

FERNANDO DEL PASO: The novel does suffer from excess—excess in style, excess in references. The same can be said of my only other two novels: “Jose Trigo” (1966) and “Noticias del Imperio” (1987). But most of these excesses are deliberate. In fact, I remember once being asked during an interview why I wasn’t capable of writing shorter, more condensed books. I answered that “Palinuro of Mexico” could have had some 3,000 pages and that I had made a conscious effort to abbreviate it and the result was 650 pages. By nature I’m a baroque writer, extravagant and immoderate. This is a spontaneous drive in me. At the same time, I’ve gone from an extremely complicated to a more accessible style. My third novel is notably less complex than the second and, similarly, the second is less difficult than the first. So I think I’ve made some progress—my artistic route has been from excessive complexity to relative simplicity. As for what I would or wouldn’t change in the novel today, to be honest, it’s hard for me to say. Books are like children: once they are born, the world is theirs and they are part of the world, and our role shaping their lives diminishes as time goes by. They have their own virtues and their own paths, and the only thing one can do is witness their development and feel amazement by what they can or cannot achieve.

IS: I have with me the Mexican edition of “Palinuro of Mexico,” published in 1980. But the book first came out in Spain, by Alfaguara, in 1977—three years earlier. Why?

FdP: I can give you a curious explanation. The novel in manuscript was awarded the Premio Novela Mexico, sponsored by Editorial Novaro, a publishing house, as you know, dedicated to comic strips and second- and third-rate titles. Then, Editorial Novaro established this very important prize, which was given first to the Mexican playwright and novelist Jorge Ibarguengoitia, second to the Spanish writer Juan Marse, and in its third year to me. But a conflict arose when the owner realized that the mammoth-size brick that had earned the prize was too much and refused to publish it. But the jury didn’t want to change its decision and since the owner didn’t want anybody else to bring out the book, a year and a half or two went by before my literary agent, Carmen Balcells, could get it away from Editorial Novaro. Those are the vicissitudes that took it first to the Iberian peninsula and only later to Mexico.

IS: I assume the critical reaction in these two countries was very different. After all, the novel is, among other things, an investigation of the Mexican psyche, its past and present.

FdP: Spanish critics were a bit more generous. Both agreed, though, that the novel had an extraordinary richness, a praiseworthy poetic content, good sense of humor, but that it was an excessive book, arrogant, too ambitious, and hence, frustrating in some aspects. Its attempt to create a macrocosm was enchanting, they claimed, but it also backfired.

IS: As far as I know, the novel has been translated into French, Portuguese, German, and English. The English version by Elisabeth Plaister, of course was first issued by Quartet in London in 1989.

FdP: Plaister’s translation, with the exception of a tiny notice in the “Times Literary Supplement,” went totally unacknowledged in England. The reception was a disaster: nobody talked about it, I never got a single pence. The French edition came out earlier, in 1985, just as classes had resumed after the summer break, and it was a huge success. Translated by Michel Bibard, it won the prize for best foreign book of the year. Every single newspaper and literary supplement discussed and praised it. It’s important to note that a good segment of its French readership, as far as I can tell, was young and enthusiastic—just as “Palinuro of Mexico” has remained an all-time favorite among the young in my own native country. In Portugal it also went unnoticed, but the German translation by Suzanne Lang (who took five years to complete it) was also successful. It was presented during the 1992 Frankfurt Book Fair and not long ago in Munich, it won the prize for best translation. Recently, the book appeared in Holland as well, where in a few months it has sold 6,000 copies—a best seller for such a small country.

IS: Just out of curiosity, did the Portuguese version circulate in Brazil?

FdP: It did, but with no reaction whatsoever. Needless to say, the Portuguese language in Brazil is quite different and thus I doubt the country is a suitable market for a dense novel translated across the Atlantic. Along similar lines, it will be interesting to see how Plaister’s British translation fares with North American readers.

IS: I’m interested in your work with translators. Were any major changes made in any of these version? Or rather, could we talk about “variations” of the book and not of “versions”? Were translators free to manipulate the text to some extent?

FdP: I worked with all of them by mail. Elisabeth Plaister and I corresponded for a long time, and then, almost at the end of the process, she came from Portugal to visit me for a few weeks in Paris, where I was living at the time. It’s only natural that it has errors and mistakes, of course, but in my opinion it’s a splendid translation.

IS: Let me turn to the topic of polyglotism. In your career as a reader, knowledge of other languages, I assume, has been essential. You speak English and French, don’t you?

FdP: But that’s all. As a child I didn’t have a bilingual education, since I went to Mexico City’s public schools. My first readings of Alexander Dumas, Sir Walter Scott, Jules Verne, Eugene Sue, and Emilio Salgari were in Spanish, often in terrible translations from Barcelona and Buenos Aires. I became acquainted with Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, and Thomas Wolfe in Spanish. My passion for a handful of dramatists also dates from these foundational years, when my spoken and reading skills in Shakespeare’s and Diderot’s tongues were nonexistent. Of course every so often I would come across an extraordinary translation, like the one Borges made of Faulkner’s “The Wild Palms”; but these were exceptions, not the rule. I began doing some readings in French and English on my own when I turned twenty or twenty-one; but I wasn’t even close to fluency. Only later, when, together with my family, I settled first in Iowa City for a couple of years, then in London for fourteen years—would I master both tongues. Obviously the moment we returned to Mexico in the mid-eighties, I stopped practicing them and, as a result, I’ve forgotten a lot. I could still write a letter to the dentist or an inquiry to a foreign publisher, but I certainly couldn’t write literature in either of them. No, I don’t consider myself an authentic polyglot. Spanish is my mother tongue—my only language.

IS: But “Palinuro of Mexico” was written after English became a tool and not an obstacle, right?

FdP: Yes.

IS: I ask because your Spanish seems to me bookish, foreign, its syntax alien, or at least peculiar, to native speakers. This issue of writing in one’s own native tongue but thinking, or imagining, in another, obsesses me, and not without reason: I left Mexico in my mid-twenties, and almost right away established a double loyalty with English. I have discussed the topic with Ariel Dorfman, Felipe Alfau, and Julian Rios. As I think you will agree, Borges’s Spanish has what I would describe as a Shakespearean—or better, a Chestertonian—twist. His grammar, the way in which he uses adjectives and adverbs, is outlandish, bizarre. Something similar can be said of Cortazar’s Spanish in “Hopscotch,” also mixed with Gallicisms from his decades in France. These mannerisms, without ever losing their appeal, often become problematic: Borges translation of Faulkner ends up turning the text into another on of his own creations. (The Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia, in his novel “Artificial Respiration,” has a section about this most curious of Borges’s reversals.) All this brings me back to the Spanish of “Palinuro of Mexico.” Would it be fair to talk about a kind of “promiscuity” between Spanish, English, and French in the novel?

FdP: Yes, no doubt. Furthermore, while re-reading my third novel, “Noticias del Imperio,” I have discovered a tendency to imitate English syntax, a struggle between Spanish and English, and even an inclination to Anglicize and Gallicize. It comes as a natural result, needless to say, of decades in Europe. Whenever I become conscious of this metamorphosis, I try to find a neutral language, and that’s why, in “Palinuro of Mexico,” almost every character (Palinuro, Walter, Fabricio, and Molkas), when using dialogue, has the same tone of voice. But I’m not really worried about this artificiality, this “pollution” between languages and styles. After all, literature is nothing but invention—sheer artifice. And perhaps I should add that beyond this linguistic “promiscuity,” as you call it, Ilan, the novel is also permeated by a British sense of humor. Even though my English was poor when I arrived in London, I understood the nation’s mood and state of mind rather quickly. This, I guess, comes back to one of your earlier questions: when I went over to Elisabeth Plaister’s translation, I realized that in English many things sounded far better, more original than in the Spanish original.

IS: This reminds me that Gabriel Garcia Marquez once claimed that Gregory Rabassa’s translation into English of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was “more accurate” than the original, and Borges, when talking about William Beckford’s “Vathek,” suggested that the original was unfaithful to the translation. These comments are fascinating, if only because Garcia Marquez has little to do with English, but Borges, on the other had, knew it far too well. Have you ever translated other people into Spanish?

FdP: Never. Or rather, never a literary text, only press releases and similar stuff. What I would love to translate is poetry, but unfortunately my knowledge of foreign languages is limited. By the way, I began my career writing sonnets, but later switched to fictional prose.

IS: Your first book, published in 1958 (at age twenty-three), is a collection of sonnets, “Sonetos de lo diario.”

FdP: Yes. Juan Jose Arreola brought it out in his series El Unicornio. And I’ve written a few more throughout my life, but never more than twenty altogether. Once or twice I’ve experimented with free verse, but the result was very dissatisfying. The sonnet works best for me.

IS: Let’s talk now about when and where you wrote “Palinuro of Mexico.”

FdP: In Iowa City and London. It took eight years—from 1968 to 1976, but I should add to that several more months in which I had to rectify spelling and information.

IS: How many versions did you make?

FdP: It depends on the chapter. For some I made many version—twenty to thirty—and others just came out finished. An example: chapter 24, “Palinuro on the Stairs,” which not long ago was published independently in book form, began as a brief description. I felt it was very theatrical and thus decided to turn it into a dramatic piece. The chapter grew as versions accumulated, until it was clear to me that there was no resemblance between the first description and the final text. Then, when the novel was finished, I burnt the manuscript. I did so because I didn’t want anybody to know how I had arrived at the final product. I wanted to be the sole proprietor of a secret, which I knew I would sooner or later forget.

IS: Did the same happen with your other novels?

FdP: No. I have two boxes with the manuscript and notes of the first, and scattered segments of the third.

IS: The novel was written under the auspices of various grants and writing programs.

FdP: Early on in my career Juan Rulfo suggested that I apply to the Ford Foundation and they sent me to Iowa. I had been working as a copywriter for a publicity agency in Mexico and abandoned all that. After that I applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship, recommended by Rulfo, Miguel Angel Asturias, and Octavio Paz, who had all read “Jose Trigo” and were ready to support me. Thanks to the money I got from the foundation the book began to take shape. Then, in London, I began working for the BBC, where I was a newscaster and producer of programs on Latin America. And in 1985, the family moved again so that I could work for Radio France Internationale as a journalist, and finally I enlisted in Mexico’s diplomatic service. “Palinuro of Mexico” obviously benefitted immensely from my early globetrotting, just before the family made it to France.

IS: Tell me about the role of medicine in your novel.

FdP: I originally wanted to become a doctor and began medical school, but for personal reasons had to abandon it. As the book acquired its present form—and it took a long time to do so—I realized my interest in medicine was based on my passion for its romantic aspects. I began to understand that it is nothing but a science of failure. It attempts to save a person’s life and, although it succeeds at times, it is truly powerless in that it cannot explain the enigmas of the human body. Our body is a microcosm and is the only thing we truly own in life: with the body we love and hate, with the body we enjoy and suffer.

IS: Julio Cortazar used the phrase “a living cadaver.”

FdP: That’s exactly what we are—a living cadaver. I’m fascinated by our endless questioning of physical limitations and by the link between body and soul.

IS: Is there any doctor that, as a writer, marked your passion for medicine? Perhaps Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy”?

FdP: I was impressed by Burton but, to be honest, there isn’t a doctor writer I admire. My attempt to establish a bridge between these two fields, literature and medical science, is self-made. Let me repeat that I’m interested in the history of medicine, but only as a romantic dream.

IS: Which isn’t unlike the history of the novel as literary genre. After all, the novel’s progress is also a chronology of failure, isn’t it? I’m thinking of Cervantes and Diderot. . . . In its attempt to encompass the world, the encyclopedic novel, which you champion, cannot but fall short of its totalizing dream.

FdP: Perhaps, but my attempt in “Palinuro of Mexico” wasn’t a globalizing one. I knew my limits early on, although at times, I know, it’s hard to get that impression from the text. I wouldn’t describe my novel as a failure, but that, of course, is up to the critics.

IS: A challenge in “Palinuro of Mexico,” or I should say an obstacle, is the constant shifting of narrative viewpoint, oscillating from the third to the first person and back.

FdP: I didn’t set out to employ that type of literary device. It happened as the manuscript developed in the most spontaneous of ways. Suddenly, I realized I wasn’t creating a cast of characters but, in fact, a single protagonist with a number of facets or masks. In that multiplicity I myself, as the novel’s creator, was also included, if only because the book has a high degree of autobiographical content, even though I have mixed the autobiographical aspect of it with fiction and vice versa. The all encompassing protagonist could at times become Cousin Walter, who ends up being another aspect of Fernando del Paso—not of what del Paso once was but of what he could have been.

IS: Perhaps that explains why Cousin Walter reminds me of Henry James’s protagonist in “The Jolly Corner.”

FdP: But this omnipresent character can also unfold into Molkas, Fabricio, and Palinuro’s other friends—Molkas representing the most vulgar, unrefined aspects of this character of characters, whereas Fabricio symbolizes his most refined side. Having said that, I should say that the secondary characters—Grandfather Francisco, Mama Clementina, Papa Eduardo, Aunt Luisa, the French botanist—are all more clearly defined and cannot be perceived as variations of the same individual.

IS: Let’s then turn to the baroqueness (or neo-baroqueness) in your style, which you mentioned a while ago. When you talk about baroque prose, I cannot help but think of the differences between Mexican and Cuban literary cultures. I say this because “Palinuro of Mexico,” in spite of its multiple references to Mexican history and art, seems to me better suited alongside the works of Cortazar, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Jose Lezama Lima, Severo Sarduy, Reinaldo Arenas, and Alejo Carpentier. It is self referential, carnivalesques, parodic, and satirical, and, at the same time, it offers a variety of levels of meaning and interpretation. Of course all this has come to be known as the trade mark of Cuban writers. Mexican writers, on the other hand, are much more accessible—with the exception, obviously, of Carlos Fuentes, with whom you share more than a hyperactive style. Both countries, Cuba and Mexico, inherited from the Iberian peninsula a highly convoluted, hybrid worldview, part Christian, part Muslim, part Jewish, and they added even more ingredients to the soup—in the case of Cuba a mulatto and Creole dimension, and in the case of Mexico a mestizo one. And these ingredients were in turn superseded by Oriental and Hindu influences. Our architecture is equally baroque: rococo, churrigueresque, plateresque, and other hybrid textures compete against each other for space and recognition in the very same cathedral and monastery. They turn their objects into exaggerations, or what Borges would call “caricatures of themselves.” But in literature the two nations couldn’t be more different.

FdP: Claude Roy, a French writer, once argued that pre-Columbian cultures were already baroque, meaning that in Hispanic and Portuguese America such tendencies were already in place even before the “conquistadores” stopped by.

IS: An interesting point.

FdP: But as you know there are, according to Eugenio d’Ors, more than twenty different kinds of baroque style. The simplest definition of baroque is a style that tries to saturate space by abusing curves to the point of hyperbole, and you will agree with me that Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess, is indeed baroque. As for my own “barroquismo,” it’s influenced by Rabelais and Joyce (who, by the way, isn’t exactly a baroque writer, but at the time isn’t far from one), and by more contemporary figures like Gunter Grass, Lezama Lima, and Carpentier.

IS: But again, Mexican writers are somehow allergic to excess. I mentioned Carlos Fuentes as an exception, and obviously not all of Fuentes’s books- certainly two or three. He was born in 1928 and you in 1935. Perhaps earlier in your career that meant you were part of different generations, but you’ve turned sixty and he is close to seventy, so the age difference is negligible. Fuentes has been a magnetic figure, the center of the a solar system around which other writers gravitate. He has overshadowed others.

FdP: You’re right. Today I might say we belong to the same era in Mexican literature, although, to be accurate, he began much earlier than I did, and his early novels, up until “Terra Nostra,” had an impact on me.

IS: In what way?

FdP: “Where the Air is Clear” was a revelation to me. It was a novel that revolutionized Mexican fiction in that it stationed itself in a decisively urban atmosphere—its protagonist, as you know, is Mexico City. It influenced me in its attitude and openness to other styles. We were at the time reading the same set of authors: Flaubert, whose approach to the novel we admired, as well as Joyce; and in more technical terms, John Dos Passos, Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and Faulkner. Without them we wouldn’t be who we are today.

IS: More than Fuentes influencing you, I would say the two of you maintain a trans-textual, trans-temporal dialogue. He of course has been a consummate adapter, rewriting (or shall I say stealing?), say, a screenplay by Cabrera Infante, a short story by Adolfo Bioy Casares, a central motif in Henry James’s “The Aspen Papers,” and so on. But in your case one can talk about bridges reaching out to the other’s work. In the last chapter of “Palinuro of Mexico” you mention, among many other literary and mass media names, Artemio Cruz. And in one of the early chapters your protagonist goes out to buy a copy of “Where the Air is Clear.” Then, of course, there is the chapter “A Bullet Very Close to the Heart,” in which you discuss the fate of Ambrose Bierce. In the eighties Fuentes published his novel “Old Gringo,” in which the spirit of your chapter, if not its words, are present. He even describes him as that, an “old gringo,” as you had done: “viejo gringo.” Ambrose Bierce, by the way, also appears in “Noticias del Imperio.” . . .

FdP: Shortly after “Palinuro of Mexico” was published, I had lunch with Fuentes. At that time he told me: “Fernando, I have been told that one of your chapters deals with Bierce’s experiences in Mexico as he joins Pancho Villa’s military forces. I don’t want to read it, and I won’t read it, because I’m preparing a whole novel on the very same topic, on which I’ve been working for a while.” It’s a coincidence, then, but an expected one. After all, once one writer discovers a fascinating character like Bierce, who crossed the border at age seventy-something, traveled through Mexico, and was never heard of again, the topic becomes a magnet to others.

IS: You’re not only a novelist but a painter, and your pictorial art has been exhibited in various countries. Occasionally “Tristram Shandy” dares to use drawings and graphic design to express what words cannot say. Cabrera Infante paid tribute to Sterne in “Three Trapped Tigers,” where to describe darkness a full page is printed in black ink, and several graphic designs are present. Others in what I’ve called “the encyclopedic tradition,” which includes Cortazar’s “Hopscotch,” Georges Perec, Umberto Eco, John Barth, and Carlo Emilio Gadda, have also made use of this practice. It strikes me as an interesting fact that you don’t, in spite of your background as a painter.

FdP: I was tempted, but I chose to keep these worlds separate. My view of literature is still based on its oral tradition. A good page is one that can be read and enjoyed aloud. Its sound is what really matters—one really shouldn’t mess around with easy tricks.

IS: As one of its many aspects, “Palinuro of Mexico” can also be approached as a political novel. One of its leitmotifs is the student massacre, in October 1968, at Tlatelolco Square. Just as the Olympic games were about to begin, the Mexican government, as you well know, was facing heavy pressure from social forces asking for democratic change. But refusing to open up, the ruling party under the leadership of President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz ordered the army to confront the student uprising with tanks and bullets. Many thousand died, and many more were injured. Of course the Tlatelolco incident appears numerous places in Mexican literature, from Elena Poniatowska’a memorable “Massacre in Mexico” to books by Jose Agustin, Gustavo Sainz, and Parmenides Garcia Saldana. But your work has a special place on that shelf: the protagonist in “Jose Trigo” is killed by army squads at Tlatelolco. And yet, by 1968 you were thirty-three, too old to be an undergraduate at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico or the Instituto Politecnico Nacional, the two academic institutions where the uprising began. Thus, “Palinuro of Mexico” is, in a sense, about political nostalgia.

FdP: You’re right. By 1968, still in Mexico, I had already begun writing the novel (under another title). I was married and had a petite bourgeois life. I witnessed the student uprising, but was never a participant. I’ve always been a left-wing intellectual, although a more moderate one in recent years. I was active during the Bay of Pigs protests, against the United States. And yet, the Tlatelolco incident left a deep mark on me. Suddenly I had a new character, named Palinuro, a medical student killed in 1968, and I wanted to make use of him. Of course by then I had already read Cyril Connolly’s “The Unquiet Grave” [published under the pseudonym of Palinurus], which I had received as a gift from a poet friend, Francisco Cervantes. This new character forced me to return to the Mexico City of the fifties for the novel’s setting, which—it remains a curious fact to me—didn’t bother any Mexican readers. The novel had begun as a re creation of my adolescent years, particularly of my high school years in Justo Sierra Street. Then I realized that Palinuro needed to die in 1968, but since I didn’t want to sacrifice what I had already written, I let the discrepancy in dates stand. The Justo Sierra Milieu attracted me enormously, and I regretted abandoning it for a sterile atmosphere like the Ciudad Universitaria campus. But Palinuro had imposed himself as the novel’s heart and there was nothing I could do. And since my protagonist in “Jose Trigo” had died at Tlatelolco, I felt terrible about repeating myself. So I decided Palinuro would be beaten in 1968, and only afterwards he would die. This has created confusion among readers: critics and careful readers have misinterpreted my words, claiming Palinuro was indeed another victim during the massacre.

IS: Your reply brings up a crucial issue: the tie, no doubt problematic, between the Mexican government and the country’s intelligentsia. I wouldn’t want to repeat myself either, not to devote too much time to a topic that has soaked up incredible amounts of ink. Latin American writers and artists, as you know, often begin their careers as opponents of the government, speakers for the masses, antagonist of the powers that be. But sooner or later, they end up embracing the very enemy they vilified and fought in their younger days. The examples are numerous, including Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes. Could we also include you on the same list? After all, since the mid-eighties you’ve been part of Mexico’s diplomatic service. And now you direct the Biblioteca Iberoamericana “Octavio Paz” in Guadalajara, funded by the government. Have you betrayed your adolescent principles? Should we, readers of today, read “Palinuro of Mexico” from a different perspective, and not, as has been done, as a form of protest?

FdP: It’s easy, at least in Mexico, to talk about “the government,” “the state,” as if they were nothing but abstract entities. One has friends in the government, longtime friends. Besides, very valuable writers and artists, from Jose Vasconcelos to Jaime Torres Bodet, have worked for Mexico’s government since . . . well, since time immemorial. Don’t forget that our economy is shaped in such a way that the thinking person, once a commitment to art or literature is made, has very limited options in order to earn a living. In my case, I’m far from earning enough money from royalties, prizes and awards to support my family. Mine has been what I would call a “succes d’estime.” Also, after years in London and Paris, my decision to enter the diplomatic service became a kind of return—a return to my homeland, a return to my soul and sources. It allowed me to return to the study of Mexican pictorial art, music, and dance, and to help disseminate them. Which means that I have a clear conscience, to the extent that I represent the country’s politics from a cultural perspective, not the country’s politics from the political side.

IS: Finally, I have been thinking about your job as a librarian, which in many ways, is what you do at Biblioteca Iberoamericana. Hispanic American civilization has a long tradition of literary figures becoming heads of major libraries, from our archetypal one, Borges, to Leopoldo Lugones, Alfonso Reyes, Paul Grousac, and so on. Add to this the fact that another aspect of “Palinuro of Mexico” is its cataloging of books from Hispanic, Anglo-Saxon, and French cultures. What about your personal relationship with books?

FdP: To be honest, my duties as director of Biblioteca Iberoamericana- which is very small, 18,000 titles, created only in 1991—leaves me little time to have one. And yet, my relationship with the book is quite close. Before opening one I always begin by smelling a book. Old books of course smell better. In recent ones, the smell is neither pleasant nor very distinct. Before leaving Mexico for England, I had some two thousand volumes of my own, which I had to store for more than two decades. I love old-fashioned hardcovers. But I’ve ceased to read. I don’t really keep up with recent publications. Instead, I devote my time to the art of re reading. Lately I’ve been re-reading Joyce, “Don Quixote,” and the Bible, which continue to amaze for their inexhaustible nature.

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