Symphonies of Literary Violence: A Conversation with Pedro Novoa
Pedro Novoa (Lima, 1974) is the author of four novels, three collections of short stories and various other works. His latest novel La sinfonia de destrucción (2017) was published by Editorial Planeta and was on the long list for the Premio Herralde de Novela. Novoa is a professor at the Universidad César Vallejo where he is also pursuing a doctorate in Educational Sciences. The following interview began as an informal conversation during the International Book Fair of Lima last August and was subsequently completed and edited via email and Facebook messenger.
Gabriel T. Saxton-Ruiz: We first met in person the day you presented your last novel La sinfonia de la destrucción (Symphony of Destruction) at the International Book Fair of Lima. You arrived a few minutes late and your editor Víctor Ruiz Velazco was pacing around like an expectant father by the entrance of the auditorium, cursing Lima’s chaotic traffic. That moment became seared in mind as it exemplifies the agitated and frenetic pace of life in Peru’s capital. “Lima, what the hell are you?” asks one the characters in La sinfonia de la destrucción. How would you respond to that question? And in your novel Maestra vida (Life Lessons), the narrator describes it as “the city of vertigo and stridency; Lima the horrible, three times a bitch,” but it’s a place that “will never cease to be the city of kings, of princes.” How has the city influenced your writing?
Pedro Novoa: You don’t get to know Lima, you inject it. It’s like LSD, a potent drug that makes you trip. Something that hits you at once and transports you right to the center of a hallucination. And there in its artificial paradise, you start to transform into a demon ruling amidst beastly snorts, delirium and destruction. It has the skin of New York and the spirit of Sarajevo or Beirut. It’s a half-breed like Mexico City, suffers the same poverty as New Delhi, but at the same time, boasts of certain neighborhoods that aspire to be like Barcelona or Madrid, the center of the world. And sometimes, the city is also a cesspool. It bears the same curse as any great metropolis; resembles a bit of all of them, but it’s like none other. The problem is that LSD trips can last between seven and twelve hours, however with Lima, the situation is exacerbated and the trip lasts a lifetime. If you become infected, you’re fucked. Always a burden, you’ll carry the city in your memory wherever you go, or worse yet, you’ll keep it inside as if you were possessed. You’ll compare its excesses or it defects with any other urban setting, whether it’s better or worse. Lima will be your unit of measurement and you’ll measure yourself to it. The bizarre thing is that when you’re in it, if you manage to sync up with the rhythm of the trip while on that metaphorical wild colt’s back, you won’t suffer the savage ride, but rather, you’ll rule with a crown on your head and gripping a scepter. Magnificent and luminous, as if you were a furious Attila trampling about, demolishing the shit out of the best of all paradises for the simple and perverse pleasure of doing it.
GSR: Are there Peruvian authors who have also depicted life in Lima and that have affected you in particular?
PN: More than just reading, I enjoy rereading works of the realist tradition that go beyond describing Lima as an exotic or replaceable setting. I like books in which the city takes on the role of a character, of an irreplaceable entity that forces one to not only imagine the context, but also as in Balzac’s works, sense the social aroma imbued all over the place. In that sense, I am fascinated by the Lima of Diez Canseco, Congrains, Martín Adán, Reynoso, Julio Ramón Ribeyro, Vargas Llosa and Fernando Ampuero. They have created in Lima a microcosm that instead of simply housing their peculiar characters, it conceives them. A midwife of a city, an enormous placenta. Not one of those displaced cities that only serve as exchangeable chessboards where the black and white pieces determine everything. I like when the chessboard also plays, also wins and decides things.
GSR: Who are the contemporary Peruvian writers that you’ve been reading?
PN: I’m pretty much reading the vast majority of contemporary Peruvian authors since I have a column of book reviews called “Epístola a los transeúntes” (“Epistle to the Passersby”) which comes out nationally every Saturday in the newspaper Expreso. Because of this, it would be nearly impossible to mention all of the writers. What I could say is that I’m reading authors from Piura, Trujillo, Huancayo, Ayacucho, Cuzco and Arequipa who have literary projects that are on par with those coming out of Lima. In addition, I also regularly check out texts from exiled authors who reside in France, United States, Spain and the UK.
GSR: In your novels, you incorporate different registers, genres and texts (poems, blogs, text messages, emails etc.). Could you comment on this discursive mix?
PN: I believe that the novel is the genre that has been the most open to capturing that flexible and loose spectrum of the human capacity to communicate that goes from a poem to a tweet. It captures the diverse forms of communication. When the letter became a common medium in man’s social life, literature captured it, first as an element of the text, and then later as a discursive variation. Novelists inserted missives within their narratives, respecting its different parts (date, day of the week, place, etc.) and they even created a narrative subgenre which is the epistolary novel. Nowadays we’ve witnessed many writers who include emails in their narrations, respecting or incorporating the various components of this communicative mode because the structure also contains a message. For this reason, I believed it was important to transfer that discursive peculiarity to the novel, in some way respecting the structure. That’s why I took into account inbox messages, Facebook status updates and of course, emails. It’s what Cornejo Polar calls “the force of the referent,” those impulses that reality tacitly or explicitly imposes on works of fiction. I believe that virtual settings should and must be introduced into novelized fiction not only as references, but also at the formal level so that they can be reflected upon, critiqued, validated or dismissed. The interesting thing about using these types of literary devices in a novel is that one adopts a critical distance and is able to observe how reality can be altered and language can be rendered precarious by its iconic nature. And at the same time, one should recognize that while its use certainly degrades the language of the text, it’s a powerful mode of communication. The novel, at least La sinfonia de la destrucción, doesn’t hold anything back, highlights these forms and exposes their insides like an exercise in the dissection of contemporary language.
GSR: Your most recent collection of short stories, Inmersión (The Dive), includes science fiction, fantastic and realist pieces. Could you describe your creative process? Do you have a different process depending on a given literary modality? What type of research do you conduct at the time of writing?
PN: My creative process consists of two elements: real life events and fictional ones. Between them there must exist a connection; without it, I simply can’t continue. For both novels and short stories, I follow Hemingway’s advice who recommends writing about what you know, have lived or witnessed, and Vargas Llosa’s idea of creating stories based on reality because if not, one could involuntarily write a failed autobiography. In the case of “Inmersión,” I fully explored this type of ad hoc poetics. It is one of the most autobiographical stories I’ve written, but at the same time, it appears to be the opposite. The story started with a shot of reality. I was in the pool and decided to relive a difficult challenge that I completed in the Navy: 50-meter freediving. While I was doing it, I felt the need for oxygen and immediately remembered my experience in the naval barracks. All of a sudden, I decided to write about this like Hemingway recommended, but then I thought about the other point made by Vargas Llosa. I had to invent, and for that I had to alter everything. I had to conduct more than a surgery, a total transformation. The real couldn’t be made up, it had to become another reality, more intense and frenetic. As Borges would say, reality has no obligation to be interesting, but fiction does. So I changed everything. The protagonist would no longer be me, but a Japanese man; it would no longer be from a military perspective, but a civilian one. It wouldn’t be a horizontal dive, but a vertical one. And that’s how I wrote it. This story won the Caretas award in 2015, a long-established award in my country which has been won by all the greats of the genre. It was even translated into fifteen languages, and the English version by George Henson was published in the British newspaper The Guardian. With regard to the differences between the short story and the novel, I get the sensation that for the most part, I wield more control over my stories, but with the novel, I experience a process of reverse control, in which the work and its characters take on a type of independence and thoroughness that drastically distances itself from the initial plan. And with respect to genres, each story develops its own essence, there’s an unexpected twist that transforms what would generally be considered a realist piece into an example of the fantastic.
GSR: In many of your works, there are characters that embody the figure of the outsider like Ismael in the short story “Gardenias rojas” (“Red Gardenias”). Could you talk a bit about this character and how you developed him?
PN: I belong to a marginal sector within Peru’s lettered society, writers who not only come from marginal zones but also explore themes that involve the reflection and problematization of urban marginal spaces. Generally undervalued, rejected, misunderstood and/or type-casted. There’s a permanent struggle to establish legitimacy within a racist, sexist and segregated country like Peru. Whether they’re subtle or tacit, these mechanisms of discrimination exist. Perhaps it was the fact that I was expelled from the Peruvian Navy that I acquired an anti-hegemonic rebelliousness, or if I want to step into the role of a psychoanalyst, maybe it was before, my hostile relationship with my paternal figure. A figure that is always questioned and heavily criticized in my fiction. This constant rebellion against authority figures have made me (I assume) have a special interest in characters who represent minority sectors. Sectors that are typically humiliated and attacked in every possible way. That’s why I always imagine my characters from the margins of society. In the novel Maestra vida, the protagonist is an oppressed woman who is also Afro-Peruvian. Similarly, in Seis metros de soga, the novel follows the life of an Afro-Peruvian boxer who hails from the slums. In Tu mitad animal (Your Animal Side), the main character is a cobrizo (copper-colored man), while in my most recent work La sinfonia de la destrucción, the focal point of the narrative revolves around an individual originally from the provinces and who lives in a marginal neighborhood. It’s with this desire to write from the periphery and from decentered thinking that I developed “Gardenias rojas,” where a very special, tender adolescent with cognitive difficulties expresses a homosexual love, indescribable to him, in a hostile environment of bullying and endless assaults. This short story is also one of those pieces that I’m especially fond of because they tell two stories at once. An initial reading portrays the suffering of a teenager who has to endure the harassment of his peers because of his cognitive condition and evident homoerotic inclination, but it’s also a symbolic work about a well-known and beloved gay author in my country called Oswaldo Reynoso. Just like the fictional character, Reynoso suffered humiliation and attacks, but these came from both literary critics and the most traditional and conservative sectors of Peru’s society.
GSR: Does film influence the way you write your novels and short stories?
PN: Of course, in addition to literary works, there is always a film or a slew of films that filter into my narrative production as either an echo of a montage, a deliberate transfer or search for settings or specific characters. For example, I really liked the architectural montage of the film Magnolia with its idea of fragmentation suggesting subtle intersections between its different parts. It’s well put-together, which I find very seductive, and is a technique I’ve been developing and fine-tuning with each novel, at times with shorter and faster scene breaks like in Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Basterds. With regard to the settings, I especially like the oppressive and disconcerting ambiance of David Lynch’s Eraserhead or Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Among the different types of characters, I gravitate toward broken and conflicted individuals made up of unresolved traumas and obsessions, verging on the absurd as in Travis from Taxi Driver, Jodorowsky’s Fando y Lis (Fando and Lis). Characters that are tinged with hardened and unkempt features borrowed from spaghetti westerns like those out of Scola’s dark comedy Down and Dirty. A special mention also goes to the gangs that move about violently in major cities like the droogs in A Clockwork Orange or in Trainspotting. Lastly, I have a particular predilection for a certain grotesque aesthetic in films such as Jodorowsky’s Santa sangre (Holy Blood), Tod Browning’s Freaks, or Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small. It’s a disturbing style that transfers the most abysmal features of the human condition onto damaged and tenderly monstrous beings. I should also mention a Peruvian film, Días de Santiago (Days of Santiago), whose protagonist is plagued by a violent past that has left him feeling strange and confused in an even more violent society. I’d like to add that in addition to literature and film, music is also an element that is intimately related to my works. The novel Maestra vida is the title of a salsa song by Rubén Blades, and in Seis metros de soga (Six Meters of Rope) there’s a chapter called “Pa’ bravo yo” (“If You’re Looking for Someone Tough”) by Justo Betancourt. My latest novel, La sinfonía de la destrucción is also a celebration of intense music, the title comes from the famous song by Megadeth, and throughout the novel there are references to salsa and even hip hop. For me, music is a vital victory of silence and noise, discovering rhythm in the chaos makes it acceptable and even festive.
GSR: Your works have been awarded numerous prizes in recent years. What did it feel like to win the Primer Premio Internacional de Novela Corta - Mario Vargas Llosa (First International Prize for the Short Novel - Mario Vargas Llosa)?
PN: My history with awards is a story of morale-boosts and self-belief that reassures a selfless heart. Like a mother who for a couple of smiles doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice her entire life for a son. That is how I see it or at least, how the prizes initially felt to me, that necessary dose of encouragement to bear the outlandish vocation of the artist in these times. The first incentive that spurred my motivation was the Premio Horacio de Novela Corta for the novel Seis metros de soga, awarded by el maestro Miguel Gutiérrez, one of the most prominent and respected novelists of my country. It was the first time that I ventured into the novelistic genre and with the blessing of el maestro, I had the confidence to continue writing novels. It was Miguel Gutiérrez who told me to forget about my first novel, that I should put an end to my characters or I could run the risk of being an author of a single novel and be condemned to publishing sequels. That’s why I put an effort into cutting the umbilical cord of my first novel and wrote the second one. Maestra vida, which managed to win the Premio Mario Vargas Llosa, had an international impact since 669 (an almost satanic figure) participated in the contest including novels from twenty-three countries around the world. The repercussion was immediate since the (then) new Nobel laureate would personally award the prize in the city of his birth. The novel, published by Alfaguara, did well, but is currently out of print and can now only be acquired in a digital format in various parts of the world. Meanwhile, the novel La sinfonia de la destrucción, also generated a certain buzz because of another award, this time the Herralde. It was on the long list of the 2014 finalists among 1,462 entries. This fact made the cultural media pay attention to me and my finalist novel. In the end, after years of editing, it was published with Planeta. And it has also been well-received although in the global market it is only available in an ebook format. I guess the international expansion of the novel has just begun, but to do this, the first step would be its publication in other languages. To date, I’ve been translated into Italian, French and English, and only my stories. And only one of them, “Inmersión” (“The Dive”) has been translated into fifteen languages. The translation of one of my novels is what I most desire. I hope that in time it will happen.
GSR: What are your next literary projects?
PN: I’m very excited about a literary project that deals with the post-war condition of Peru. It’s a bit of a narrative reconstruction and deconstruction of that moment’s participants, both members of the armed forces and insurgents. I’m interested in proposing a current drama about those injured during the war and their trauma and misery, but my aim is not to glorify them; the opposite, I want to dive into their stories with them and if possible, rise up as well.
GSR: In the short story “Carne de subasta” (“Meat Market”), you incorporate Mexican slang in the words of the protagonist Jalisco Méndez. What is your relationship with Mexico? How did this story originate?
PN: I have relatives in Sonora, Mexico. Herbert Ávila, a cousin of mine, went in the 80s to cross the border to the US and live as an undocumented immigrant over there. He was a “wet back,” was able to enter American soil and to not get deported back to Peru, he took out his Mexican passport. He’d get expelled from the country closer to the border and would attempt to cross again. And that’s what he did three times until they almost killed him. Because of that he stayed in Sonora where he raised a family and has found that stability that he’d longed for in the US. He’s the one who used to say we were “auction meat,” something to be offered up to the highest bidder. It’s a terrible image depicting the condition of many Latinos, and I racked my brain to recall the Mexican slang that my cousin had already made his own. And because it also seemed to me to be an interesting metaphor for the current situation of the Latino man. Someone who is sold to the highest bidder in our neoliberal, commodified and inhumane world.
On the other hand, I’m constantly on the lookout for terms with popular origins, and it seems to me that Peruvians and Mexicans have a rather vast inventory of colorful, symbolic and rhythmic words. This lexicon of Mexicanness also came to me through film and music. Just to mention the most important examples, the film Amores perros and a few songs by Control Machete and Cypress Hill.
GSR: In another short story in Immersión, “Disparo predecible” (“Predictable Shot”), you discuss Peruvian soccer. Could you comment on this piece and the relationship between soccer and literature? You were eight years old the last time Peru qualified for the World Cup. Are we going to qualify this time around?
PN: For me there are two great sports that get me especially wound up: boxing and soccer. And by a strange coincidence, traumatic defeats gave rise to two of my narrations. The first, Romerito’s fall against Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in Madison Square Garden, and the second, the consecutive eliminations of Peru’s national soccer team, particularly the last ones replete with the ineffectiveness of some players who shined overseas, but in the qualifying matches, failed to show up. From the first one, I wrote the novel Seis metros de soga (Altazor, 2010) whose title refers to the dimensions of the boxing ring that was assembled in the Amauta Colliseum in Lima. And the other story was “Disparo predecible,” where I propose a double narrative: one anecdotal and the other, symbolic. The anecdotal storyline refers to a hitman hired to kill a soccer player who missed a decisive penalty. A penalty that in the end meant that Peru had once again been eliminated. In the symbolic reading, general cynicism abounds and a player who did manage to play in the World Cup (Cubillas) settles the score with a player who just squandered the possibility of competing in the tournament (Pizarro) by missing the penalty. In my opinion, soccer is the unofficial religion that people have adopted to channel their modern spirituality. The novel Seis metros de soga includes numerous scenes of rough pick-up soccer which end in fights. I think that soccer contains a lot of violence and sexuality, and perhaps because of that, people are passionate about it. There’s an Eros/Thanatos combination floating around each soccer match. There’s Genesis, but also Apocalypse; there’s love that coexists closely with destruction.
The odd thing that I discovered when I was researching boxing for my first novel was that it was not a proper sport (only Olympic boxing could be considered one). It doesn’t constitute a physical activity that physically benefits the person who practices it, but rather it causes a series of injuries to the eyes, nose, ears, knuckles and brain. But I could also conclude that even though boxing isn’t a sport, it’s an activity very similar to life because life doesn’t physically benefit the one who exercises it, and it causes a series of injuries. Because of that, the symbol of the boxer is constantly linked to that of a fighter in general. And with soccer it’s the same. It’s not a rational activity. You can have the best players and still lose; play in the worst conditions and triumph. Soccer is also a lot like life; it offers you rematches, it places you in combat situations. This makes me think that soccer players symbolize powerful warriors. Illustrious and heroic individuals that like Hector who knew in advance that he was going to lose, went off to meet his destiny. The same thing will happen tomorrow, I’m extremely excited about the game, regardless of the outcome. And just like Hector, I know that sooner or later he’ll die, but it doesn’t matter. As in The Iliad, we’ll go and face our heroic destiny. And we’ll just try our best to be up to the challenge.
More than faith, I have the crazy desire for heroism.
Translated by Gabriel T. Saxton-Ruiz
Gabriel T. Saxton-Ruiz is Associate Professor of Spanish (Latin American Literature & Culture) at the University of the Incarnate Word. Before coming to UIW, he was an Associate Professor of Spanish & Latin American Studies and Vice Chair of Humanistic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He received his BA in Spanish and French from Virginia Tech, and his MA and PhD in Modern Foreign Languages from the University of Tennessee. His research interests include twentieth and twenty-first-century Latin American literature, popular culture studies, cultural gastronomy and representations of violence in various types of cultural productions. He is the author of Forasteros en tierra extraña (2012). Saxton-Ruiz is also the Editor-in-Chief of Stories From Peru, an online magazine of Peruvian literature in translation into English. His scholarly articles and translations have appeared in diverse publications in the UK, USA, Cuba and Peru including Words Without Borders, Revista Hiedra and Revista Conjunto-Casa de las Américas.
Pedro Novoa (Lima, 1974) has won the Premio Horacio de Novela for Seis metros de soga (Altazor 2012) and the Premio Internacional de Novela Corta Mario Vargas Llosa for Maestra vida (Alfaguara, 2012). He has published Cacería de espejismos (Fondo UCV, 2013), Tu mitad animal (Fondo UCV, 2014), and El aleteo azul de la mariposa (Fondo UCV, 2015). He was a finalist for the Premio Herralde 2014 with the novel La sinfonía de la destrucción (Planeta, 2017). He won first place in CARETAS magazine's Concurso de las 1000 Palabras for the short story "Inmersión," whose English translation ("The Dive," translated by George Henson) was published in The Guardian.
The fourth issue of LALT highlights underrepresented but deserving voices from across Latin America, with a focus on women writers as well as special sections dedicated to genre-bending science fiction, indigenous-language poetry and prose, and the essential relationship between author and translator.