“Literature is constructed not out of certainties, but in the absence of them”: An Interview with Patricio Pron
To read Patricio Pron is to be in the company of a multifaceted writer with a broad trajectory as both storyteller and literary critic. His work has been translated into a half-dozen languages, including English, German, French, and Italian. All this becomes clear when talking with him about his work, along with his ability to conceive literature starting from a subtle wisdom that adheres to the generic breadth of his writing.
Claudia Cavallin: First, congratulations on receiving the Alfaguara Novel Prize in 2019. Your work, Mañana tendremos otros nombres [Tomorrow we will have other names], was described by the committee as “The autopsy of a romantic breakup that reflects the modern age in an exceptional light.” Here, the relationship between He and She goes beyond certain feelings: “Both had been distancing themselves from one another in spite of their physical closeness; maybe she had been afraid that he would disappoint her, and he had shared her fear, to which he had added the certainty that it would happen, that in one moment or another, he would let her down.” The absence of names, the presence of those two fearful articles… Is the anonymity in the novel, which lets us relate to others, even from afar, the thing that connects us with the most profound feelings it evokes?
Patricio Pron: That’s exactly it. The absence of names for the main characters in the novel has the purpose of putting in relief the idea that what happens to both is, on the one hand, specific, and on the other, universal. Something about romantic experience leads us to believe that what happens to us hasn’t happened to anyone ever before; but of course, it has actually taken place again and again in the past, to other people who are not very different from us.
C.C.: You have discussed in other interviews how the bewildering dreams of human beings all end with blows of disappointment, including in the political realm. In the case of Mañana tendremos otros nombres, can the amorous rupture portrayed in the novel—as we live now in the peak of the “Tinder era,” of love algorithms, of the anonymity of social networks—be read as a symbol of how the contemporary context affects us all, even beyond the novel?
P.P.: I would like that to be the case. One of the recurring themes in the Spanish-language love story is the tendency to not put the experience in the context of a society and historical moment that influence and transform the story. This contradicts the argument that we have always fallen in love and always loved in more or less the same way. It seems clear that the way in which we conceive of love and attachment is a product of economic and political circumstances that cannot be swept aside. In this way, we are always “reinventing love,” and the way we do this says a lot about who we are, our way of life, what we believe, what we desire, etc.
C.C.: It’s important to highlight another work of yours, which was awarded the Twenty-Fourth Jaén Novel Prize, El comienzo de la primavera [The beginning of spring]. Here, Martínez moves through the streets but also along other, more interior paths, both philosophical and intellectual. Do you believe that the inclusion of philosophy in literature establishes a connection to what other writers like Jorge Luis Borges have done? Is it similar to that Borgesian game of mirrors, in which Martínez manages to see his existence beyond himself and his time?
P.P.: I’m glad you mentioned that novel, which was the start of many things for me. I don’t have any formal philosophical training, although I read a lot of philosophy, and, in that sense, I feel something similar to the discomfort of an impostor when talking about the link between literature and philosophy in my books. Apart from that, I have always thought that literature, rather than putting forth certainties—always so provisional in nature—should ask questions, some of which effectively fall in the sphere of philosophy. And that personal conviction is also a product of Borges’s influence, as you mention. All great writers open a door, and, in their way, in some sense, also close it: no one can write Borges’s books anymore because he’s already written them. Nevertheless, one can possibly learn something from those books, and I suppose that is what I’ve been trying to do since I read them for the first time. So yes, Borges is an important influence in my work and in the way I think of literature.
C.C.: In Lo que está y no se usa nos fulminará [What lies unused will vanquish us], there exists a certain circularity between the author, the one who writes and the way he writes himself. Given that circular causality, and taking up again the idea of mirrors in the last of the stories told there—which has repeated punctuation, like parentheses, one inside the other—does one lose the linear nature of time? And, to return to Tinder, are his notes for a dating profile an ironic commentary on existence, expressed by the simplicity of only a few phrases?
P.P.: Many times I write narratives and short stories to explore a theme, to figure out in general what I think about them. “Notas para un perfil de Tinder” [Notes for a Tinder profile] is one of those cases, although it’s now clear that I needed to continue reading (and to write a whole novel) to find out what I thought about the mediation of certain technologies when it comes to the development of romantic relationships. On the other hand, the stories are written in many different ways and in different forms: as you note, circularity is one of those forms. But circularity doesn’t interest me so much as a literary technique as much as a means within a narrative to insinuate or suggest that there are many ways in which literature and life interconnect and feed into one another: Not only in the world of writers, but also, and more importantly, in the world of readers.
C.C.: I can’t help but connect what’s happened recently in the political realm of South America with what’s often been written, almost like a historical and literary reference that has, at times, proven to be very prescient. Your novel El espíritu de mis padres sigue subiendo en la lluvia [The spirit of my parents keeps climbing in the rain] explores the relation between the political and the social in the history of Argentina. The photographs that are mentioned curiously bring up the omitted details of that which couldn’t be narrated but that did take place historically. Do you believe that the historical narratives of this new era can become one of the most reliable sources for things that were not immediately recorded in their own historical moment (as the example of the photographs shows) but can be recorded later, as in a political novel?
P.P.: One of the texts in Argentine literature that left the greatest impact on me was Operation Massacre by Rodolfo Walsh. In it, Walsh puts forth a style of literature that, far from limiting itself to narrating what one knows definitely occurred, tries to speculate as to what could have happened, in an effort to go beyond the little that we can know about the tragic acts of the recent past, not only in South America. In one way or another, I recognize this proposal of Walsh’s in the majority of books that have hooked me recently, such as La dimensión desconocida [The unknown dimension] by Nona Fernández. I try myself to contribute to that discourse, to the idea that literature is constructed not out of certainties (of which there are very few), but in the absence of them and in the scarce reliability of past testimonials, photographs included.
C.C.: To close, I wanted to focus on a quotation from one of your articles, “Escritores urgidos de dinero” [Writers in need of money], published in Letras Libres, in which you mention the problematic relationship that has always existed between writers and money—the tricky dynamic that has been drawn historically between the poverty of a writer and the value of his or her work. What is the potential or desired relationship between today’s publishing industry and its readers that would permit writers to go beyond well-connected society to the broader literary market, or, as Sergio Chejfec says, beyond the printed medium shared by both literature and money?
P.P.: It’s not an easy question to answer. But precisely because it’s not easy to answer it becomes, in my opinion, especially important to try to do so. My impression is that the discussion around how writers make a living and around the possible forms of economic compensation for their work misses the question (of much more importance, I believe) about what determines value in literature. The paradoxical demand on the part of the publishing industry for more and more texts, regardless of their origin or their relationship to the truth, not only fails to satisfy the demand of readers, but also inhibits it: frequently disgusted and disappointed by what others try to sell them as literature, the reader loses interest when confronted with what oftentimes has no value. Karl Kraus argued once that “when book publishers lose their shame, readers lose their respect,” and it seems to me that one of the ways to reclaim the transformative nature that literature once had is to demand the respect of those in the editorial world along with a commitment and a love for literature that, in fact, nearly all of them have, although many times they feel they have to hide away in cynicism so as to not admit the true nature of their practice.
Translated by Travis Price
Claudia Cavallin is a writer, journalist, and university professor, and she serves as Media Manager of Latin American Literature Today. She is the author of the books Ciudades de película: Ficciones urbanas del cine, la literatura y la música (Editorial Académica Española, 2012) and Espectros de la palabra. La metáfora en Borges: los juegos del lenguage que hacen posible la configuración de un universo de imágenes recursivas (Editorial Académica Española, 2012).
Patricio Pron is the author of six books of short stories, including Trayéndolo todo de regreso a casa. Relatos 1990-2010 (2011), La vida interior de las plantas de interior (2013), and Lo que está y no se usa nos fulminará (2018), as well as seven novels, including El comienzo de la primavera (2008, winner of the Jaén Novel Prize and distinguished by the José Manuel Lara Foundation as one of the five best works published in Spain that year), El espíritu de mis padres sigue subiendo en la lluvia (2011), Nosotros caminamos en sueños (2014), No derrames tus lágrimas por nadie que viva en estas calles (2016), and Mañana tendremos otros nombres (2019), as well as the children's novel Caminando bajo el mar, colgando del amplio cielo (2017) and the essay
El libro tachado: Prácticas de la negación y del silencio en la crisis de la literatura (2014). His work has won several awards, including the 2004 Juan Rulfo Short Story Prize, and has been frequently anthologized and translated to Norwegian, French, Italian, English, Dutch, German, Portuguese, and Chinese. In 2010, the English magazine Granta chose him as one of the 22 best young writers currently working in Spanish. More recently, he received the 2016 Cálamo Extraordinary Prize for his complete works and the 2019 Alfaguara Novel Prize. He earned his doctorate in Romance Philology from the Georg August University of Göttingen, Germany, and he lives in Madrid.
The fourteenth issue of Latin American Literature Today features dossiers dedicated to the dislocated writing of Latin American authors based in the United States and the gothic fiction of Mariana Enriquez, plus reflections on writing in a second language by Fabio Morábito, an interview with 2019 Alfaguara Prize winner Patricio Pron, and exclusive translation previews from Guadalupe Nettel, Gabriela Wiener, and Luis Alejandro Ordóñez.