Before he began to publish his fiction he wrote two books about the real horrors of this world: I Remember Julia: Voices of the Disappeared (Temple University, 1996) and The Pear Tree: Is Torture Ever Justified? (Clarity Press, 2006). Martin Ruf spoke with him about both aspects of his work.
Your first book, I Remember Julia: Voices of the Disappeared, was a work of non-fiction. In it you reconstruct the life of a victim of the Argentinian military dictatorship. The portrait of this woman is formed by the memoirs of friends, colleagues and other persons who came into contact with her. How did this work come into being? Or, on a more general level, what were the stations on your way as a writer before the conception of this book?
That’s an interesting phrase you use, “stations on your way as a writer…” To write “I Remember Julia”, it’s true that I had to go through a lot of developmental stages as a writer. But before I could begin writing the book, I had to grow as a human being first.
One of the key “stations” - to use your word - was participating in a high school summer exchange programme to Argentina in 1987.
Imagine this … Argentine democracy had been just reestablished only four years before. The country was still reeling from the military government’s campaign of mass disappearance/torture/murder of approximately 30,000 suspected “terrorists” (yes, the military had caught some terrorists in their net, but most of the military’s victims were student leaders, librarians, doctors, nuns, trade unionists, psychologists, anthropologists, writers…etc.)
During that summer, I met a group of mothers who were protesting – the “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo” - wearing white scarves with the names of their disappeared children stitched into them. They wanted justice, but, if they couldn’t get that, they at least wanted to know where their children were buried.
Now, you can imagine the impact all that had on me, a well-meaning, 17-year-old, Lutheran kid from the Midwest. I was horrified. I was indignant. And I wanted to do something about it.
So, when I got back to the U.S., I studied International Relations and Latin American history and Spanish, with the intention of returning to Argentina, and doing something to address these injustices. Along the way, I found out about a wonderful group, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, led by the late, great, Dr. Clyde Snow. They were the ones exhuming the disappeared children, to give those mothers closure. I wanted in, so I called them up.
The Team wanted me to study archaeology over the summer, so I did. They wanted me to take a class in forensic anthropology at the Smithsonian, so I did. They wanted me to pay my own way down to Buenos Aires, so I did. (I did all of this based on my personal convictions, not literary ones. I guess my motto - for this book at least - was, “Live first, write second.”)
It was in the mass grave where I volunteered that summer that the Team had exhumed “Julia’s” remains. Here, I felt a story opening up for me – bit by bit, I met her family members and former friends. It was an amazing story of love and loss and heartbreak. I approached it with a lot of respect and some fear.
I thought, by telling Julia’s story – drawing on the voices of people who knew her - I could rescue Julia from the faceless statistics of 30,000 murder victims. On the basis of that idea, I won a Fulbright scholarship, and I traveled all over Argentina, interviewing everyone I could find who had known Julia, and these interviews, eventually, became the basis for my book.
So, like you said, there were certain “stations” along the way: high school study abroad; volunteering to work in the mass graves; Fulbright scholarship; book. Looking back, it almost seems sequential. However, my life, like anyone else’s, could have taken very different turns. As a writer, I feel privileged to have been able to have told Julia’s story, but the whole process leading up to it - even before I had the idea for the book - helped me grow as a person.
Was it a conscious decision to write about an equally dark subject in your second work of non-fiction, The Pear Tree: Is Torture Ever Justified? The form of this essay is quite different from that of your first book.
I began writing “The Pear Tree”, while investigating mass sexual assault in the former Yugoslavia. In many ways, it was a form of therapy, my search for “meaning” - to use Viktor Frankl’s word - of the horrible things I was analyzing every day. So, yes, it was a conscious decision to write the book in this format, although my intention was to save myself first, and to publish the book second.
Then the horrific, nightmarish bombing of the Twin Towers happened.
As we all reeled from the tragedy in New York, the reaction of many people, unfortunately, was to seek revenge, to destroy the “other”, and to demonize a wide range of people, based on their religion, their country of origin, and their skin color. All of this had political and cultural overtones that were unmistakably fascist.
For those of us who’d studied Argentine history, or just history in general, we could see the shadow of the torture camps (from Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib) being cast a long way off.
I felt it was my moral obligation to raise my voice against torture – which seems like it wouldn’t be necessary (because torture is irredeemably wrong), but those were strange times, indeed.
Because I believe in a personal voice, and because I have an innate fear of hypocrisy – particularly my own – I knew I had to ground my book in an event that occurred in the small town where I lived as a child in Australia. And I felt I also needed to reflect on the personal costs of advocating against torture – both psychological and spiritual.
So, if I can say it in this way, “I Remember Julia” was the movie of my experience as a human rights advocate, and “The Pear Tree” was the behind-the-scenes documentary. In “The Pear Tree”, I got to explore what a terrible thing it is to look into the darkest aspects of humanity, with the intention of writing something that could help us to transcend them.
The themes of your non-fiction are so important – and oppressive – that some readers may forget that your first two books can only move us because they are so well written. Therefore, my next question is actually less provocative than it may seem: In writing Julia and The Pear Tree, did you learn anything for your fiction? And a related question: Apart from obvious differences, in how far is the experience of writing fiction comparable to that of writing non-fiction?
I think a non-fiction writer has a duty to represent the truth of a story – what actually happened, what people actually said. I’m obsessive about getting exact details and facts, and tracking down loose ends.
I’m a believer in objective truth; however, because we’re not God, we can only see bits and pieces of the overall picture. In this sense, I think all writing, and painting and photography for that matter, interprets the subject as it portrays it.
I’m thinking of Nick Ut’s famous photograph, “Napalm Girl”. It’s the picture of a real nine-year-old girl, burned by napalm. She is really running, screaming down a road. It’s a real result of the U.S. war against Vietnam.
But the composition of the photo is the result of the photographer’s choices, skill, framing, ability to capture the moment. It doesn’t change the fact that all of that really occurred, but it presents reality in a particular way.
It’s a bit like what one of my favorite American poets, Wallace Stevens, wrote, “Things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
Fiction writers have duties, too. Of course, there’s no objective “Truth” against which to measure our work, as there is in non-fiction writing. But I approach my fictional characters as real people, and I’m always asking myself if what they say or do is in accordance with who they are.
But I’m also, in some sense, “recording” what my fictional characters are saying – they’re speaking for themselves, and, when they say something I think may be inconsistent, I have to ask them if they really meant to say it. Sometimes, they have their own reasons, and I leave it at that.
There are also other duties. I often write about truly terrible things, because it’s a fact there are people in this world who do terrible things. But there is also love and light and goodness and sacrifice and empathy. If I were to focus on the evil, if I were to say - even in fiction - that the world were an irredeemably horrible place, and that there was no hope of happiness or atonement or forgiveness, then I think I would have misrepresented the truth.
Your first novel, The Saint Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires, unfolds a complex narrative that can be read on quite a number of levels. At its core, however, it is a metaphysical quest that takes place in Buenos Aires. Do you still remember your first ideas about this central aspect of your novel?
It was such a liberating experience to write “Saint Perpetuus”! I’d just finished my doctorate in Political Science, and I was yearning to write fiction.
Don’t get me wrong – I thoroughly enjoyed studying for my doctorate. I’ve always felt at home in the academic environment: collaborating with colleagues, being constantly exposed to new ideas, finding the history of words, tracing the origins of ideas, researching old manuscripts in obscure libraries (I really like obscure libraries).
But for those of us who have studied for a doctorate, we know it’s an agonizingly-long experience of analyzing and comparing vast numbers of books against the clock. There’s little time for reading books just for the pure enjoyment of them, and no time for writing fiction (if we want to publish our theses on time).
For those of you who’ve read “Saint Perpetuus”, you may see a little of my life reflected in the character of Miguel Ibañez. We both love studying philosophy and investigating old bookstores, and we both enjoy – and, at the same time, feel confined by – academia. Also, we love Buenos Aires.
When I was “unleashed” from my doctorate, I was finally able to read the forbidden texts – Argentine mythology, histories of the Buenos Aires subway, histories of its parks and plazas, and the origins of its streets’ names, local ghost stories, archaeology, criminology …
You’ll see references to all those things in “Saint Perpetuus”, and also citations (I really like citations).
Okay, so there’s a lot going on in “Saint Perpetuus”. It’s about writing, academia, philosophy, balancing work and family, the search for (and the cost of) esotericism, it’s about God, the soul, the things we’re willing to sell to the Devil, and the prices we have to pay – and, of course, time travel.
But I think you’re right – Miguel is on a quest (and not just a metaphysical one), to finish the things he’s started, to find some sort of meaning and balance, and to make decisions about what’s important in his life.
A narrative on the borderline between the real and the fantastic that follows its main character to a number of specific subterranean locations and deserted rooms in Buenos Aires will almost inevitably be an implied discussion of Ernesto Sabato's exemplary novel of Buenos Aires, On Heroes and Tombs (1961). What is your relationship to this author and his work?
I really admire Ernesto Sabato – as a writer and as a person. There was so much depth to his life – he got a doctorate (in physics), and then gave up science to become one of Argentina’s greatest novelists, and then, under his direction, the horrifying story of the Argentine Dirty War in “Nunca Más” was written. He was two things I always wanted to be - a novelist and a human rights advocate - and that duality (a bit Steppenwolf-ish) has followed me all my life.
Sabato’s novel, “El Túnel” was the first full-length novel I read in Spanish, and it had a tremendous impact on me. It’s one of those books I’ve read several times (and that says a lot, because I’m a slow reader).
As such, I placed a number of homage moments to Sabato throughout my book. There’s one reference most people probably overlook, and I find it quite hilarious…
The novel has distinct satirical passages. Most readers probably wonder about the real background of especially these chapters.
I really like stories within stories and multiple narrations. Each point of view in “Saint Perpetuus“ - either from the anonymous civil servant or from our protagonist, Miguel - contains its own satirical subjects, but I’ll just leave it to the Reader’s imagination to think of the reasons why. Or, you could always ask Miguel’s officemate, Esteban…He seems to know what’s going on.
The form of your second novel, Muladona, is very unusual in that it has at least some features of a short story cycle. Apart from your own book there are very few convincing examples that use this narrative technique. So maybe we should first talk about this formal aspect.
As I mention above, I really like multiple narrations and stories within stories. I also like novels, and I like short stories. I’d been thinking about how to combine all of that into one book, when I began writing “Muladona”.
Some people have compared “Muladona” with the stories told by Scheherazade in “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights”. Others have compared it to “The Decameron” by Boccaccio. That’s all very flattering, and I’m not sure I deserve the comparison (I’m Norwegian-American, so there are two things I can’t stand – criticism and praise).
However, I especially like the comparison to Boccaccio, because both books are a series of stories told during an epidemic – whether it’s the plague in the 14th century or the Spanish Flu in the 20th.
I would say “Muladona” reminds me more of “Manuscript Found in Zaragoza” by Potocki, a book I’m absolutely fascinated by. I think Potocki’s narrative is genius.
The problem with these three books – I mean that from my perspective as a Reader, not as a “literary critic” – is that the stories aren’t really intertwined in the overall narrative of the novel, and they don’t culminate in a definitive ending (although Potocki comes close).
No book is perfect. I just wanted Readers of “Muladona” to be able to enjoy the stories separately, if they wanted to, or to read them together, within the framework of the novel, so they could have that complete reading experience.
Although my stories in the novel have different styles and are set in different periods, there are clues to the Muladona’s identity scattered throughout them, and, like family members, if you take a step back, you can see how the stories are all related (to themselves and to the larger story).
Okay, I’ve spent way too much time talking about structure. Yes, a novel needs structure: as my writing teacher, Arnošt Lustig, the great Czech writer on the Holocaust, taught me, a story needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end. However, I think the most important thing a novel has to have is a soul - an ability to reach out from the pages, across the years, to tell a story that has meaning for people’s lives.
One of the most impressive aspects of Muladona is the portrait of the main character, a young boy named Verge. His fears, his imagination and his loneliness in a town haunted by the flu are rendered with almost hallucinatory vividness.
Adults are hypocritical, making ridiculous rules for children that they, themselves, don’t follow. I felt that as a child, and I still feel that way.
It was so important for me that Verge was the protagonist of the novel (with all his frailties and all his strengths), and it was equally important that he be in charge of finding his own way out – without adults, without the Church, without the State. This is a common theme in my books, and I think it reflects what we have to go through in life – we all have to face situations that we feel completely unequipped to deal with, we all have to make mistakes along the way, and, ultimately, we all have to resolve things on our own terms, even if it means things end badly.
Your novel has an important religious aspect. Its presence is as unobtrusive as it is unmistakable.
In a lot of my works, I critique religious bigotry (as well as critiquing homophobia/transphobia, misogyny, racism and antisemitism). I won’t give any spoilers here, but, for those of you who have read “Muladona”, I’m sure you’re thinking of a particular character in my book who exemplifies these negative beliefs.
Because of my critiques, Readers sometimes express surprise when they find out I believe in God. Actually, God is a central pillar of my life, and prayer is a regular part of my week. To be truthful, I’ve lost my faith several times, but God has always been there when I find it again.
But I see a difference between God and the Church (and, by the “Church”, I mean a series of institutions that people have created to interpret God’s will).
I’m not against organized religion – I was raised in the Lutheran tradition, and I currently attend an Episcopal church – and I have met many Christians who are truly open and loving, and accepting of difference. On my travels, I have also met so many authentically-good people who follow the beliefs of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Shintoism (and, yes, also atheism), to name a few. So, I feel there are many roads to God.
Where things go wrong is when people use these institutions to blame, exclude, punish and terrorize people into a sort of religious submission.
So, why am I saying all this? What do my beliefs have to do with my books?
The answer is, I don’t check my religious convictions at the door of my study, before I sit down to write. Since I believe in the everlasting soul, if I’m writing a story about someone selling her soul to the Devil, then it’s not a hackneyed account – it’s a pivotal decision in that person’s existence. If I write a story about ghosts, what implications does it have for the afterlife, for atonement, and God’s love?
So, getting back to Verge, the main protagonist of “Muladona”, on top of everything else that this frightened boy needs to do to survive the creature’s tales, he needs to navigate these choppy, boiling, religious waters – to chart a course somewhere between his father’s Church, and the conception of God that he had as a child.
After so much darkness I'd like to end on a more optimistic note. Some time ago you published a touching essay on your website, “Acceptance Speech.“ To me, this is Eric Stener Carlson in a nutshell and the best introduction to your work: deeply humane; serious and humorous at the same time; without illusions, but not without hope. How did this essay come into being?
That’s very nice of you to say.
“Acceptance Speech” is a culmination of 30 years of writing. It’s about me coming to terms with a lot of things, including my own limitations: for example, I’ll never win the Noble Prize. But there’s so much more to do in this world than grasping for something that only a handful of people will ever attain.
The other part I’ve learned to accept is that there’s happiness out there. There’s love. There’s an opportunity for dialogue, to bring people together from all over the world.
For this reason, I’m very appreciative of the time you took to interview me – with all the bad things going on in this world, it’s these types of meaningful conversations - at a real, human level - that are going to make the difference. For me, it was a welcome opportunity to reflect on my work so far, and to imagine the path ahead.
It was my pleasure, Eric.