OCTOBER'S BOOK OF THE MONTH
The Past by Alan Pauls
The 2010 Frankfurt Book Fair focussed on the literature of Argentina. We publish the brilliant Argentinian novelist Alan Pauls, whose novel The Past took the Spanish-speaking world by storm. A complex and multi-layered tale of love gone bad – passion, obsession, sex and cocaine, all in excess – it brings to mind the works of Nabokov and Proust, while critics have also alluded to Philip Roth and Martin Amis
Rímini splits up with his girlfriend of twelve years, Sofía. The parting is initially amicable and he moves on, carefree, with a new zest for life. Hungry to make up for lost time and keen to forget the past, he finds a younger girlfriend and starts using cocaine. Sofía, however, finds herself unable to let go. As hard as Rímini tries to forget, Sofía will not let him. As time passes and their paths continue to cross, the past festers and torments them.
Here’s what the reviewers said:
'It soars in terms of style ... a momentous novel' TLS
' A novel that is brilliant enough to raise itself effortlessly above and beyond the level of the vices it portrays: strange art and reckless passion, cocaine, excessive exercise and other forms of addiction.' Le Monde
Alan Pauls was born in Buenos Aires in 1959. He has worked as a university lecturer, scriptwriter, film critic and, more recently, as a journalist. He has published four novels, including the much-praised Wasabi. The Past has been published in several foreign languages, and it was the unanimously acclaimed winner of the 2003 Herralde Prize.
ARMCHAIR TRAVELLER: ARGENTINA
Matías Néspolo has been selected by Granta as one of its ‘22 Best Young Spanish-language Writers’. His first novel, Seven Ways to Kill a Cat, will be published by Harvill Secker later this year. We asked him to tell us about Argentinian literature …
I wonder whether, in an era of global travel and digital communication, it makes sense to talk about ‘national literatures’. Especially when it comes to Argentinia, whose national literature has a very brief history and was created from nothing in the desert, rather as the National State was invented by the generation who, in the 1880s, believed in progress and reason. Argentinia’s literature has always plundered and borrowed from elsewhere, co-opting as its own authors such as the Polish Gombrowicz, as well as works written entirely in French (Copi).
As usual it was Borges who first noted and advocated the cannibal nature of Argentina’s literature. In his famous essay El escritor argentino y la tradición he championed making “irreverent” use of the entire Western tradition – a process of ingesting and metabolizing other cultures and literatures that has come to define Argentina’s identity. It is easy to understand why tango, as the quintessence of what is Argentine,is a music that is played with a small Central European accordion and a Spanish guitar.
Nevertheless, beyond the cross-breeding, Argentine literature has always had particular qualities of its own. First of all, an enquiring spirit. Secondly, a constant search for formal innovation. And, last of all, but not in order of importance, a permanent state of hostility. Bellicose by nature, Argentine literature is always prepared for war, including war with itself. The Argentine literary scene is a perpetual battlefield in which various factions constantly try to redefine the canon.
Despite this constant arguing, however, the canon's central Trinity tends to remain fairly stable. For decades the indisputable ABCs of Argentine literature were Arlt, Borges and Cortázar. In the seventies, a new group was allowed to enter the game: Rodolfo Walsh, Juan José Saer, and Manuel Puig. And now we are witnessing the reign of a different triad: César Aira, Rodolfo Fogwill and Ricardo Piglia. Piglia’s latest novel, Blanco nocturno, confirms his place as one of our greats, and tells us what we have known for a long time: that each of Piglia's books creates a new way of reading, as much for his own works as for Argentine literature itself.
Drawing a map of current Argentine literature has been made even more complex by the fact that, this year, Argentina is the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Until less than a month ago the list of Argentine authors officially invited to the Book Fair had not been published, something that the agent Guillermo Schavelzon complained about, justifiably, in the Buenos Aires press. In the end, the delegation of authors was more plural and representative than had been feared: there were bastions like Osvaldo Bayer and Ana María Shua; formidable poets like María Negroni and Diana Bellessi; authors favoured by the public like Marcelo Birmajer, Pablo De Santis, or Guillermo Martínez together with others endorsed by the critics like Martín Kohan, Alan Pauls, or Federico Jeanmarie; emerging young voices like Félix Bruzzone and Samanta Schweblin.
Apart from some flagrant absences –Sergio Chejfec, Marcos Herrera, or Rodrigo Fresán (who seems to want to distance himself more and more from the Argentine soap opera) – what the ‘Frankfurt Affair’ has revealed is the intensity of the battles being fought by the various factions in the Argentine literary scene. Their hostility to one another was undoubtedly spurred on by the financial crashof 2001, which made it much harder to get published. Nowadays what is being disputed is not only a place in the canon, an invitation to Frankfurt, or the receipt of a grant, but access to publication itself. The difficulty of finding a publisher is reflected in the way some authors – particularly those belonging to the generation born during the Dirty War(Hernán Ronsino, Ricardo Romero, Patricio Pron, Oliverio Coelho) – have used anthologies as a collective strategy for opening a space for themselves, elbowing their way in the restricted publishing system.
Addictive thought the Frankfurt soap opera has been, there is a danger that these battles will end up inverting the healthy cannibalism that has always defined the unattainable identity of Argentina’s literature.