An Interview with Alan Pauls

Your Novel „El Pasado“ was published in Germany to critical and public acclaim last year. It is a kind of encyclopedic account of a relationship that starts of with the complete turnaround of relations: What had been closest friends for 12 years now turn hostile against each other and almost act as opponents. Was this moment of complete change that is crucial for the novel also the starting point of your writing process?

The novel came to me as some kind of mental telegram. It said: Dead woman comes back from death to torture the man she loved. So from the start the novel was supposed to tell not exactly a love story but what happens once a deep, passionate love story ends. It is a novel about posthumous love, about the ruins of love. The novel claims that true love stories never ends; they just change. The become ghost stories. I’ve always thought The past was a love story as much as a horror one. As a matter of fact, it’s working title was The zombie-woman. Having said that, I am deeply interested in love experience as a disturbance, a state of unstability, even a sickness. A simple jealousy scene illustrates perfectly well the strange logic by which love can turn into a nightmare: in a few seconds, due to a dubious sign, or a hesitating answer, or some suspicious behaviour, the beloved stops being the most intimate and reliable partner and becomes a threat, an agent of danger, an ennemy. Love is then the home of what Freud used to call the „Unheimlich“.

How do you achieve the psychological depth of a character like Rimini`s girlfriend in terms of research and preparation?

No research, no preparation. It’s a blend of some theoretical highlights of my youth (I remember with a pleasant thrill an article on erotomany included in a psychoanalisis reading about perversion I translated from french when I was 22), some personal experiences (which I love to exagerate) and some historical or fiction models such as Adele H., Victor Hugo’s daughter, whom I discovered in the Truffaut’s film and who fascinated me instantly. Sometimes the best way to depict other people’s psychology is just letting our worst fears grow and go to the ultimate consequences.

What is very striking, is your unique style of writing. Your long and complex sentence structures make the reader inhale your prose very intensely, himself getting into a kind of rush. How do you find the form for your novels?

In literary fiction, a sentence is always a world, and I would like mines to be as rich and complex and inspiring and lisergic as they could possibly be. I would love to write ambient-sentences: sentences people could live in, swim, breath, allucinate, sink, fall asleep, run, be afraid, etc.

„El Pasado“ and Roberto Bolano`s „2666“ were both published in 2003. Both novels inherit the motif of an radical artist who displays his own body parts as the most radical form of art. Were you in contact with Bolano who praised you very much after the publication of „El Pasado“? Did Riltse perhaps even influence the character in „2666“ or was that already too late?

I never met Roberto Bolaño. We emailed each other for a while (but never discussed our works) and had just one phone conversation which was corrupted by strange noises in the line and some sabotage operations led by a mutual jealous friend who whitnessed the talk in Barcelona. I don’t see much similarity between Riltse and Arcimboldi (if that’s the 2666 artist you’re refering to). Arcimboldi is a sort of ethic, aesthetic and political paradigm of the XXth century’s tragedy. Riltse is a mixture of genius, swindler and clown; he just embodies some typical paradoxes of contemporary artist’s works and lives. But I must say that I’ve always been sensitive to the way Bolaño used to work on artist’s lives, to his biographical impulse.

Your translator Christian Hansen, who also translated „2666“, has gotten much approval for the work on your novel. How important is the relationship with translators for you? What do you think about the paradox of reading an author in translation?

Well, it is a very important relationship for me. But it is an impossible one too, since translators (I think Christian is an exception) use to be reclusive fellows who avoid human contact more than writers do. I try to meet my translators, at least the ones who work whith languages I know. I think they are very interesting people, very scary too. Radical devotions are often very scary. I used to be a translator myself when I was young, so I know what I am talking about. Translation is a sort of mission, almost a suicidal one: in every text written in a language you know (and which is not your mother tongue) there’s always this tiny voice asking you in whispers: translate me! you are the one! —calling you to do the job, as if the voice was imprisoned… By the way, the bigger names of XX century literature (from Joyce to Kafka, from Nabokov to Beckett) surf between two or more languages and deal in their work with translation problems.

For a long while you also wrote screenplays for movies. Is your extensive prose also a reaction to writing for films, where you are limited within the boundaries of film-making?

It is true that screenplays call for a dry, simple, direct style of prose. In a screenplay, the writing is just a kind of pretext, a simulation, the description of a coming image. Writing, in a way, must desappear. Literary writing goes exactly the other way. Anyway, I don’t think my fiction prose can be seen as a reaction against screenplay dryness or against whatever. As a matter of fact, it is an action, never a reaction.

Were you involved in the making of the movie „El Pasado“ and did the outcome satisfy you as a movie expert with an own television show?

No, I decided not to involve myself. I prefered to set Babenco free to do whatever he felt he had to do. But at the same time my novel was too involved in the project for me to be satisfied by its results. Satisfaction is not a current word in the relation between literature and cinema. Cinema is image; literature, imagination. In one way or another, at least for a writer, image always kills imagination. That’s why a writer is never in a good position to judge a literary adaptation.

Your new novel „Historia del llanto“ has just been published in Germany. You said it took you 20 years to write about politics and now that you do it, you want to approach it in a very atypical way for an argentine?

Not about politics in general but specifically about the seventies in Argentina, perhaps the most intense and tragic period in argentine contemporary history. It was the last time history was a Passion for us. But I did not want to approach the period through the usual front doors: heroes and victims, good guys and bad guys, dreamers and killers. So I’ve chosen some arbitrary rear, minor, non direct entries: tears, hair, money. Three small things we posess and we loose, defined precisely by this having and losing dialectics. Three objets trouvés, three “historical fossils“ in which I—like an archaeologist— read the whole seventies period. I am trying to approach history through a blend of intimacy and politics.

This „historia“ is itself a very atypical history, not relying on typical history-writing, but focusing on human sensation and the affects on an everyday basis. But still one can (and one cannot) read your novel in front of several concepts of history and remembrance (Proust/Joyce). Can history only be passed on through the ordinary?

I would say through sensibility. Sensibility as that field where historical or political data is processed, elaborated, recreated or disfigured through perception, memory, affects and sensations.

„Historia del llanto“ is the start of a trilogy. What can we expect from the coming „Historias“?

If Historia del llanto is the building of a sensibility, Historia del pelo is about image and identity obsession and Historia del dinero is about economics clandestinity.

What do you expect from this year`s book fair in Frankfurt, where Argentina is the guest of honour?

Some visibility for the very good young writers who are popping up in Argentina these days? Anyway, I’ve been told Frankfurt is a business fair rather than a literary one; an event for publishers and agents. So I hope there will be some room, drinks and canapés left for the ones who set business in motion!

The Interview was conducted by Marvin Kleinemeier for!

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