“In the relationships between pure and hard data something poetic can manifest”: An interview with Luis Sagasti — Tobias Ryan

Professor and art critic Luis Sagasti is the author of six novels, two of which have been published in English by Charco Press. With A Musical Offering, which was recently awarded the Society of Authors’ Premio Valle Inclán award, soon to be released in the US, I interviewed Luis about his influences, preoccupations and how he crafts novels from the delicate curation of resonant coincidence.

Much of your work is concerned with transit, across space and time, through words and music. How does it feel knowing that A Musical Offering will soon to find its way to a new readership in the United States?

Well, I’m really very happy to hear that my book will be published in the United States. I’ve always admired the extraordinary narrative capacity of North American writers. I’d also like to say that I’m very proud to be published by Charco Press: to be part of a truly exquisite catalogue is a source of genuine happiness.

In a translator’s note published with Fireflies, Fionn Petch speaks of coincidences/connections that he discovered when he came to translate your work. What can you tell us about the relationship between you and your translator(s)?

I’ve always had a very close relationship with my translators, with frequent exchanges. There are never any doubts or problematic questions they don’t run by me. I realise that translating my texts can be difficult work. Not due to colloquialisms (I’d go as far as saying there are none) but because I have a particularly attuned consciousness to the music, the rhythm and the cadences of the text. But not only have I never been disappointed with their work, they have enhanced my books with their interpretations. I’m speaking in particular of Fionn for Charco Press and Jean-Marie Saint Lu, who, among others, has translated the complete works of Bolaño into French.

In that same piece, Fionn suggests that your location, in Bahía Blanca on the fringes of Patagonia, can be felt in every page even if your novels are not “particularly ‘Argentinian’”. Do you sense something innately “Patagonian” in your writing?

I live in a city that is more or less at the gateway to Patagonia. It’s a zone, if you like, of transition. It is on neither the Humid nor the Arid Pampas, nor is it strictly speaking Patagonia (the cold and wind comes to us from there). Perhaps my books are indebted to that strange geography: they are novels, not stories, not essays, not poems … Bahía Blanca is 700 kilometres from Buenos Aires – an hour by plane – so I’m able to travel there very frequently. In some way my city replicates what Argentina (or Buenos Aires, being its grand capital) is to the rest of the world. As Borges said, there is no literary tradition here to which we must either accommodate ourselves or against which rebel. Argentinian writers tend to be nourished by a huge variety of literatures; a writer from Bahía is even more so as they are able to escape certain modalities that have settled in Buenos Aires, a city with formidable cultural power. 

A recent conversation on Twitter, inspired by a reading of Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World, offered a critique of the new-ish genre of “the novel of weird-but-interlinked-facts”. Is this a genre you recognise? Do you feel as though you are a part of any movement or collective?

Something interesting happened to me with Benjamin Labatut. Not even three or four days after I had finished his magnificent When We Cease… I received an email from him in which, among other things, he told me how much he liked my books and, what’s more, was oddly delighted by the coincidences that dwell within us when it comes to working on our stories. He was also kind enough to send me his latest book, La piedra de la locura (The Stone of Madness), which is as exquisite as it is disturbing.

Perhaps we form part of an involuntary movement of writers who have never met each other and maybe aren’t even aware of each other’s existence. In my case, for example, in many reviews I received from the United Kingdom, the Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk was cited. Well, when A Musical Offering was published in 2017 (and written in the two years prior), to say nothing of Fireflies, which came out in 2011, nobody knew her work here. I think I’m right in saying it hadn’t even been translated.

That aside, I think some books by Agustín Fernández Mallo could be added to this strange collective, of which De Lillo’s Counterpoint might be an antecedent.

Both A Musical Offering and Fireflies reference a broad range of literary, musical, artistic and popular culture. Who would you say are your most significant influences?

The most important influences that I’m able to recognise are not only literary as I often think of my books as though they are records, and many texts I structure like paintings (my latest novel, Leyden Ltd., formed only of footnotes with no main text, was conceived almost musically). In any case, I should name alongside Vonnegut and Borges, Spencer Holst, Juan Forn, Thomas Bernhard, Sebald, Melville, among the many other writers I admire, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Cezanne, Rothko, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Herzog, Coppola and so on. I’m not really sure to what extent they’ve influenced me, but all of them have inspired me (regardless of the result, of course!)

How did your style develop? Is it an outgrowth of more conventional narrative forms?

In my first book El canon de Leipzig (Leipzeig’s Canon), you could already recognise, at times, a certain lack of linearity in the narration, as well as the incorporation of two alternating stories (of which, though one is clearly the main plot, it’s in the other that the plot acquires its meaning). But it was from Fireflies onwards that I began to work with another sense of narrative. It’s hard for me to say “style”, but that’s where the features by which I most recognise myself appear. So I think there was never really a voluntary decision to express myself this way. What I find, though, is that there is a way of narrating, of achieving a meaning, which is congruent with our current way of interacting with reality.

You’ve mentioned your attentiveness to the musical quality of your prose. Do you also write poetry?

I’ve never written poetry in the classical sense, so to speak. But I find that in the relationships between pure and hard data something poetic can manifest. I believe that pure information can constitute poetry. That’s my premise with a book like Leyden Ltd.

In that same Twitter conversation previously mentioned, a commenter asked whether perhaps this evolution in novelistic form (“the novel of weird-but-interlinked-facts”) was the result of living in an “info-saturated era” – how much has this “information age” affected how you write?

When I was kid, there was an encyclopaedia called Lo sé todo (I Know It All) (what a title!) There were twelve volumes in which the “all” we were going to learn everything about followed no thematic order. Nor was it alphabetical. There was nothing of that kind. From bears it moved on to the history of dresses, from there to The Illiad, Confucius, Verdi, Arabia, silkworms, bonsai trees, Eskimos, how soap is made, the Bible, rainbows, coral reefs … As you can see, the order of the encyclopaedia was a mystery to adults. Which is to say that for a child it was absolutely transparent. Of course, I only read the captions of the photographs.

That chaotic drift has always stayed with me (a cause of suffering for my pupils, of course). The advent of the web only caused what was already budding in me to surge. Just as education consists of transforming information into knowledge, my understanding is that literature can transform information into poetry, into plot. An example: along its almost 7000 kilometres, no bridge crosses the River Amazon. And also: along its 9000 kilometres, the Great Wall of China doesn’t cross a single river. This connection, in a particular context, seems beautiful to me.

Does the actual, the historical (I don’t want to use the word “factual”…) carry a greater narrative weight than the purely fictional?

Not necessarily. It tends to be more attractive as one discovers that reality often behaves in a very curious way. There are life stories that could only be justified in literature if they happened to be real. And there are, on the other hand, certain literary excesses in reality that would prevent them working in a book (certain quirky coincidences, for example). My first two novels, and the central plot of Maelstrom, are pure fiction. The effort I had to expend to make them appealing (if they are appealing at all) was quite significant.

I know that your writing begins with melody, and that you have a radar finely tuned to felicitous concordance. You like to gather information, join the dots (design your constellations), but at what point do you know that what you have is a book, a novel, rather than a miscellany?

I think it’s like when you fall in love with someone. In an uncertain moment you grasp the very intense nature of the bond. There is something that meshes well with the other person. You don’t quite know what but it’s there, inescapable. With a book it’s the same. It’s happened to me with some that I’ll suddenly say… hey, I think this good; I won’t add any more salt to the sauce.

Several times throughout re-reading your novels for this interview, I found myself fighting the urge to go and check some point or other on online. It lead me to question your relationship with the reader. (Quoting freely from Fireflies,) do you conspire with them, breathing low and in unison, or is the relationship more tense, sparring, as both attempt to avoid responsibility for the ship becoming trapped in the weeds?

If the ship gets trapped we will go there and push like Herzog in Fitzcarraldo! I may be wrong, but I think it is possible to distinguish between micro-histories that are pure invention and those that are actually real events. Of course, I try not to make the difference too clear. Now, incredible as it may seem, I don’t falsify data (I may get the odd detail confused); I don’t see the point in doing that. And, returning to something I should have said before, I’m not interested in information that is pure curiosity, that has no literary heft. For instance: the Argentine province of Formosa is the antipode of Taiwan, whose island was called Formosa. I find it amusing, very curious, but it’s not poetic. It may be useful for the resolution of detective novel, but not much more.

Reflecting on the discovery of a 43,000 year old flute in Germany in A Musical Offering, you write “the true revolution lies in the second hole. Making a nothingness.” In your interlacing of incident, is it connection you seek to form or rather the openings into which the readers’ mind can leap?

Good question! I believe both things are related, come to think of it. The connections I try to establish between stories and information generate a kind of opening that, hopefully, will be inhabited by a great force of gravity that draws the reader to keep reading.

The ability to share information clearly, efficiently and engagingly speaks to me of the best forms of pedagogy. What influence has your teaching had on your work?

I have the immense joy and good fortune to be able to work in both of my vocations. I love teaching. I live, so to speak, in teaching mode. I’m always thinking about how to communicate things to my students. I can enjoy a film, but I immediately think “how cool, this is a great example for …” That said, I try to be clear in everything I convey because, to be honest, I’m a little slow; I wouldn’t say dumb, but I find it hard to understand things. So, well, I guess that must happen to everyone, which is why I try to be clear. I think that novels however, beyond clarity, should, in the long run, establish a twilight, diffuse zone: work a little on the right hemisphere.

*Footnote: there are very intelligent teachers who, more than teaching, make an obscene exhibition of knowledge.

War and its outrages are central to both Fireflies and A Musical Offering. And, in the very rare uses of first person narration in the latter, the reader encounters an “I” who served in the Argentinian army in Las Malvinas. What can these moments tell us about the book’s author and his understanding of human conflict?

Against my will, of course, I was conscripted into the Argentinian army during the Malvinas War. I was lucky enough not to fight, and once the conflict was over I went home. After the war, I was, for a while, in charge of taking parents to the wards of the military hospital where their wounded children (many of them mutilated) were. The experience was very powerful, of course, but incomparable to those who went to fight. We were a bunch of eighteen-year-old kids who didn’t understand what we were doing. And there were many of us who hated the dictatorship.

I believe the seeds of conflict lie in a lack of understanding of the whole, a lack of understanding that no one can grow without the help of others, in the absolute maliciousness of appropriating every resource or good that exists on earth and doing nothing to diminish the obscene levels of consumption. I believe that certain ideas we have attached to Darwin are gaining the upper hand.

Rereading these two novels to prepare for this interview, it was difficult not to read A Musical Offering as a continuation of Fireflies – especially as so much of its opening deals with the cyclical, the pauses between movements in classical music, the ongoing song which only inattention causes us to think has ceased. Do you consider your novels as part of a continuum or as discrete entities?

They give the impression of being a kind of continuation. And I think that along with Leyden Ltd. and the as yet unpublished Lenguas vivas, which is due out this year, they do form a kind of series, if you like. It’s not voluntary though, or something I’m entirely conscious of. I find that each book addresses or emphasises themes that the others do not. In that sense, I think that we’re in the presence of discrete packages. In any case, let’s drink to Planck because, on top of everything, he knew how to build that theoretical wall where human understanding stops (I think sometimes my literature tries to jump over that wall).

So, what comes next? Can you tell us something about the process behind Leyden Ltd.?

The novella of footnotes was a long time in the making. My intention, beyond the emphasis on the poetics of transmitting pure information, was to construct a story, a plot, from fragments. The notes are written as such, without any gimmicks. The idea is that, from them, the reader can follow the story of a certain Paul Wilkes, who in the sixties created an artists’ collective, Leyden Ltd., which still seems to be active today, in some secret way. Certain celebrities, such as Eric Idle from Monty Python, I believe, have suggested that they were involved with the collective at one time. Of course, for the construction of the novel I printed out all the notes, papered my desk with them for six months and, with different coloured pencils, marked out constellations of meaning. It was great fun, except when the time came to find a book among those pages.

What comes next then is a book that follows the saga, called Lenguas vivas (Living Tongues). There I attempt to deal with how we transform into language, and even more so when we die. There are some very interesting stories, which I hope I haven’t ruined, about the last female speakers of languages. As they die, the languages also die out. Stories about translations, the agony of colour in great paintings, the extinction of lighthouses… it all comes together in a true story, a personal story.

You once wrote “to resign yourself to being the mere intermediary: that’s true liberation.” Through your novels, have you found your freedom? Is that even an aim, or is this sentiment an act of authorial slight of hand?

As long as I can forget about myself – in writing, in my classes – that is to say, when I can, for a few moments, live in the present with total intensity (like when one plays sports, plays an instrument seriously or played as a child), this feeling of freedom is absolutely genuine. Of course, however, one is never there to enjoy it.

Luis Sagasti, writer, lecturer and art critic, was born in Bahía Blanca, Argentina in 1963. He graduated in History at the Universidad Nacional del Sur where he now teaches. From 1995 to 2003 he was Curator in Charge of Education and Cultural Outreach at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Bahía Blanca, authoring numerous art catalogues for exhibitions. He has published six novels, including A Musical Offering (Una ofrenda musical, 2017), Fireflies (known in Spanish as Bellas Artes, 2011), El Canon de Leipzig (Leipzig’s Canon, 1999), Los mares de la Luna (Seas of the Moon, 2006), Maelstrom (2015) and Leyden Ltd. (2019). He also has a book of essays Perdidos en el espacio (Lost in Space, 2011).

A Musical Offering, will be released in US in May 2022. You can read an excerpt here.

Many thanks to Lara (@lalonsocorona), Fernando (@f_sd) and Yanina (@schweben_weben) for help with the translation.