- Of Books as MerchandiseA conversation
Let us begin by giving each of our two novelists, Jorge Volpi from Mexico and Edmundo Paz Soldán from Bolivia, the opportunity to speak for a few minutes about the genesis of their two most recent novels, En busca de Klingsor and Río fugitivo.
One of the things that most surprised me was the critical reception of the novel, first in Spain and then in Latin America. Critics have reacted to the book as something of an oddity within the tradition of Latin American literature, and particularly in Mexican narrative. And this has to do as well with its genesis. Cabrera Infante, when he spoke of the novel, said that it was a German novel written in Spanish and that it formed part of a literary tradition that was not necessarily Latin American literature. He resented that there was not a single mention of Mexico in the novel—well, there is, technically speaking, one when the Toltecas are discussed as predecessors of the Aryan race, but we can’t really consider that a Mexican reference—as one of the predominant points of the novel. It seemed to suggest that I had decided to write a novel that deliberately had nothing to do with Mexico, and it really was not that way. I chose a topic that had not been dealt with very much in narrative in general, and in narrative in Spanish in particular, and that was science.
My case is very different. I wanted to solve two challenges when I began to write. I wanted to write about teenagers. I had spent nearly six years outside my country, and I felt a need to write about the last year that I had lived in Bolivia, a particularly traumatic year for me. The other topic that I wanted to engage was how to write a political novel that was not explicitly about politics. I think that this is a generational concern as well. We are not as interested in writing the great political novel, but we are interested in the topic of politics and how to connect with the topic. Nineteen eighty-four was traumatic because in 1982 we had recuperated a democracy, but, because of the situation left by decades of military dictators, we were breaking records for hyperinflation. I thought that I could write a novel about that moment of decomposition, in which the crisis was represented [End Page 24] in a middle-class family, using teenagers as a microcosm of this macrocrisis. Later the protagonist becomes an older person who reflects on his adolescence as a period of lost time that will never be recuperated.
Since we are on the topic of the genesis of these two novels, could you comment on the vicissitudes of publishing, that other side of literary production, that led to the appearance of these two novels? How do we go from the manuscript to publication and distribution? Also, Jorge’s book won the Premio Biblioteca Breve. Perhaps you could comment as well on the rebirth of this award.
The Premio Biblioteca Breve has been a surprising case for me. Until this point in my literary career, when I finished a manuscript—be it a novel or an essay—I would send it to the three or four important publishing houses in Mexico, wait to see if that worked or not, and then try three or four others. This had been the process. But when I was writing this book, I had no intention of publishing it. I knew it [the publishing process] was going to be complicated because of the size of the book. Publishing houses always take a risk in publishing books of this size. Finally, I finished the first version, which was eight hundred pages, in Spain, and took it to Mexico, where I submitted it to a couple of editors and told them that I was going to keep revising it, and the size would surely diminish. I...