A Conversation with Luisa Valenzuela By Evelyn Picon Garfield

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1986, Vol. 6.3

EVELYN PICON GARFIELD: Let’s talk a little about “The Lizard’s Tail.” To what extent is the depiction of the Sorcerer based on the historical figure of Jose Lopez Rega? Wasn’t he a minister under Peron? What, then, did he have to do with the repression after Peron? And to what extent have you exaggerated about the Cult of the Dead Woman (“La Muerta”), that is, Eva Peron?

LUISA VALENZUELA: I think that the separation between what we usually call reality and fiction is more tenuous than we can imagine. And there are people or historic moments that serve as pivots, bridges or shifters. Jose Lopez Rega, and the whole period of Peronism in which he was a major figure, is situated in that difficult limit that almost mediates with hell, above all with the infernos of Argentine superstition that we refuse to recognize. Lopez Rega was really called the Sorcerer of Argentina, and rightfully so. Peron used him more as an advisor in occult sciences and astrology than as a minister. Many of the scenes in my book are true, even his attempt to resurrect Peron when he died. And that’s not to mention his contacts with Brazilian “macumba” or his books on talismans. But the most devilish of all was his creation of the Triple A, the Anticommunist Association of Argentina that organized the system of tortures and disappearances.

As for the Cult of the Dead Woman, I didn’t exaggerate at all. I only extrapolated a little and I mixed it in with another necrophilic cult, La difunta Correa. But one mustn’t forget that “Evita is alive in the souls of all Argentines” and that they’ve buried her thirty meters under to prevent fanatics from disinterring the body and carrying it off.

EPG: There is much reference in the novel to secretions—urine, semen, blood—and even flatulence. These secretions are almost always tied to rituals, although sometimes their presence produces a humorous effect. I’m thinking in particular of the fart the Sorcerer emits by the water; it sets the swamps afire for days. Please explain this imaginative fascination.

LV: In this time of almost biblical terror because of a new and unknown plague that threatens us, it’s not necessary to delve into the importance of body fluids. I wrote “The Lizard’s Tail” before knowing about the threat of AIDS. But you know of those things, that is you sense them, they’re here for those who want to read them—and writing is above all the process of reading. Secretions have always had a primordial value in my work; I began to see it clearly in” El gato eficaz” (“Cat-O-Nine-Deaths”). And now I think of language as one more secretion, the most terrifying of all perhaps because of everything it conceals while revealing, or vice versa.

As for rituals, I don’t think there can be rituals without secretions, without Christ’s blood or the devil’s spittle. There’s the hanged man’s semen that engenders the mandrake root and menstrual blood that they say contaminates everything, even though in my humble opinion it only contaminates the reputation of the husband who has been incapable at the moment of engendering a child (metaphorically speaking, of course).

As for my chapter about the rushes that catch fire from the Sorcerer’s fart, it can be seen as one more example of the incontrovertible realism of my fantasies, because we’re speaking of dry straw, parched in spite of the fact that it grows on the water, and of human flatulence which is of course gas (methane, I believe) and therefore combustible. All that’s missing is a flame in the path of that fart, which could very well be the divine flame that the Sorcerer pretends to possess. The humorous effect has nothing to do with these simple anecdotes. It’s implicit, I hope. Don’t there have to be humorous effects if we’re talking about secretions in the primordial sense of the word?

EPG: To what extent are the self-impregnation—the “Theocopulation”—and all the allusions to the testicular trinity and the guiding star that announces the birth, an ironic desacralization of the Immaculate Conception, the Holy Trinity and the birth of God, when seen as an ironic metaphor for the conception and procreation of power and malefic forces?

LV: The metaphors sustain multiple readings, thank God. Therefore, God, as well as the Holy Trinity, can be one of them. Another also exists, the Triple A that I mentioned before, created by our character to sow terror and death. And that’s without going into the long Kabbalistic tradition of the number three which is easily transformed into the number one. All of which doesn’t mean that the Sorcerer in my novel doesn’t believe he’s a god, nor that messianic fervor cannot be the most dangerous of all insanities.

EPG: Can you enlighten the reader about the various ritualistic and magical figures in the novel like “the old Machi,” “the Caboclo of the Sea” and “730 Wrinkles,” as well as the cult of Umbanda? Are any based in reality, that is, real magical and superstitious beliefs?

LV: Let’s take this clarification of the benefic characters in “The Lizard’s Tail” one at a time. “Machi” is the name given to shamanic women of the Mapuche people in the south of Chile, where it is said the protagonist found her. Curiously enough, when dealing with word plays, it is only just now that I realize that an Argentine philosopher, who is a genius in psychoanalytic theory among other things, and who is one of my few teachers, also has this name. Only the last name is written “Maci” and I never pronounce it in Italian as it ought to be.

“730 Wrinkles” is a character from my personal mythology who has appeared in other works of mine.

As for the “Caboclo of the Sea,” it is a female character in reality, but I needed a man to balance off the old women. And Umbanda isn’t a superstitious belief; it is an established religion that comes from Brazil and has its origins in Afro-Brazilian cults. It is the white version (because of race) of “candomble,” which is in turn the white version (because of its beneficent quality) of “quimbanda” or the diabolic “macumba.”

EPG: In this great mythical metaphor called “The Lizard’s Tail” the hunger for power and cruel repression and the magical stature of the Sorcerer in his desire to dominate the world, to cover it with blood, virtually embroider a fascinating web around his horrific and cruel actions. The torrential descriptions and humorous examples of wordplay almost act as incantations that not only make the reader feel his presence but also give one the sense that you, the author-character-biographer, are controlling him. And so the exorcism at the end, the prophecy come true, his self immolation in which you have a hand. The spider’s web of words that traps you in the middle of the novel is the same one that traps the Sorcerer at the end in his pregnant hallucinatory state. And you even speak of a “certain sympathy” for him. Please explain the relationship.

LV: I wrote “The Lizard’s Tail” with only one purpose: to try to understand. I couldn’t manage to explain how such a supposedly intelligent and sophisticated people like the Argentines had fallen into the hands of this so-called sorcerer, a malevolent one at that. The first image that came to me was one of the Sorcerer dressed as a bride in some sort of total reversal of values. Somehow I understood that this would be a novel about the monumental fight for power, and I also realized that the protagonist was so abominable, so vile that the authorial voice could not be omniscient, because it would paint a stereotype. So I allowed him to assume the first-person narrative, and he began to speak in a poetic language, rich with associations. And so he became likeable despite his exaggeratedly aberrant ideas that functioned like symbols. A wink of the eye at the reader, as Cortazar might have said, except that it boomeranged to the extent that the Sorcerer began to seem nice. That’s why I tried to dive into the novel headfirst and after had to get out because the situation was very threatening to me. For that reason, I was obliged to abandon the frontal attack of the text and was only able to return to it laterally in order to bring about the outcome.

EPG: Let’s turn to “Other Weapons,” your latest collection of stories and short novels. In “Fourth Version,” why do you structure the narrative from several distanced perspectives and use italicized commentaries?

LV: Because I was writing a long, long novel that kept on getting longer. Even though I had the whole plot ready beforehand, I realized that there were levels I failed to reach, truths I couldn’t achieve. Then I thought about the ineffable, about the political refugees as a metaphor for the text, and I found myself obliged to distance myself more and to restructure the story from without.

EPG: Can you describe your attraction to ritual, which appears in earlier works like “He Who Searches,” but also in “Rituals of Rejection,” and particularly “The Lizard’s Tail”?

LV: I think that ritual forms an inseparable part of the human thought insofar as it consolidates myth. Ritual reaches a part of magical, analogical thought, perhaps what is today linked to the function of the right hemisphere of the brain.

EPG: Must love and love-making always include the element of fear as in so many of your works, including the story “The Word ‘Killer’”? You call that fascination “an intensity provoked not so much by love as by the imminence of disaster.”

LV: Aren’t Eros and Thanatos always joined that way? But perhaps there is something more than that inseparable union, something that makes us fear love and at the same time feel immensely attracted by that fear.

EPG: There is a long tradition of literature in Latin America and particularly in Argentina committed to exploring and exposing political persecution. It seems that in most cases in your fiction these political themes are played out against erotic backdrops, as in “Fourth Version,” “I’m Your Horse in the Night,” and “Other Weapons.” Please explain the relationship you see between the two—eroticism and political persecution—so closely joined in your fiction.

LV: I don’t believe that it is only in my fiction that eroticism and political persecution (above all referring to torture) are related. I can think of so many other novels, for example, “La ultima conquista de el Angel” (Angel’s Last Conquest) by Elvira Orphee. And in real life.

EPG: In your collection of short stories, “Donde viven las aguilas” (Where the Eagles Dwell), there appears to be a coherent group of stories, among them “Cronicas de Pueblorrojo” (The Redtown Chronicles), “Para alcanzar el conocimiento” (The Attainment of Knowledge), and “Where the Eagles Dwell,” with an aura of magic and a legendary quality about them that set them apart from the others. The allegorical element seems to persist in those stories: the idea of an illuminated one who appears to write on behalf of the others in “The Redtown Chronicles,” a face-to-face encounter with aging in “Where the Eagles Dwell,” a New World Prometheus in “The Attainment of Knowledge.” Are there really such symbolic connotations? Can you describe the genesis of those stories? Their insistence upon the concept of change in life?

LV: I’ve always dreamt of writing an entire book with this kind of story, an invention more than a recreation of Latin American myths. The symbolic connotations must be deciphered by my readers, not me. The only thing that I am consciously proposing is that we recognize to what extent we are Latin Americans, we Argentines who always pretend we are so “European.”

EPG: The stories deal, at times, with male/female relationships, but once again, on a general, almost philosophical level in “Textos de la sal,” where you speak of kissing and copulating in metaphors about red masks of salt, eternal thirst and pain. Or in more jocular yet painful tones about androgyny in “Leyenda de la criatura autosuficiente” (Legend of the Self Sufficient Creature). Do these themes establish continuity with previous works like “He Who Searches” and “Cat-O-Nine-Deaths”?

LV: The continuity is more or less discontinuous, if you’ll permit me the paradox; it is inseparable from the task of writing. There are recurrent obsessions, fascinations, nightmares and revelations that, luckily, never abandon us entirely.

EPG: The revelation of hidden or latent vitality, activity rather than passivity, appears in “El custodio Blancanieves” (The Custodian Snowwhite) and “La historia de Papito” (Papito’s Story). Also perceptions of persecution and victimization are in the latter and in “Mi potro cotidiano” (My Everyday Horse). To what degree are these themes about humanity in general or about a specific national situation?

LV: Perhaps it is a question of a general human aspect that appears in very specific circumstances.

EPG: Is it possible to see in “My Everyday Horse” a split personality—that which commands and that which refuses to obey in each of us—or are we witnessing political persecution and submissiveness?

LV: I don’t know. It’s the reader who must make this sort of interpretation. For me the best literature is that which allows for a rich range of symbolic interpretation.

EPG: And finally, can you tell us a little about what appears in your fiction to be a repetitive desire to become one with the earth, the stone, for example in stories like “El fontanero azul” (The Blue Waterman), “The Custodian Snowwhite,” and “Where the Eagles Dwell”?

LV: How interesting that you’ve pointed that out. I never thought of that before, like so many other coincidences and symbols. But now I remember a text that appears in “Libro que no muerde” (Book That Doesn’t Bite) that goes more or less like this: “Lying on the rock, feel the throb of the rock: your own pulsation.”

EPG: Please tell us what you are writing now.

LV: Writing isn’t the word. I am “stalking” a novel that escapes me. I have almost half of it written but it refuses to continue growing. And I know more or less where it’s going. It’s a novel with the tentative title of “The Motive” because that’s what it’s about: the search for the motive to a crime. I always wanted to write a detective story, but since that’s not within my capabilities, I began one where the assassin and the victim are known, but not the motive of the crime. Not even the murderer knows it, and he searches because it is absolutely necessary for him to understand himself, of course. He’s a writer who finally goes in search of his lover, another writer. Both are Argentines in New York and the search begins with an exchange of identities and all the paraphernalia that I’m interested in. They delve into the darkest regions of the city and of their subconscious. Since they are writers, they are very alert to metaphors, which doesn’t mean they find what they’re looking for, of course.

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