sat 08/08/2020

theartsdesk Q&A: author Jorge Consiglio | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: author Jorge Consiglio

theartsdesk Q&A: author Jorge Consiglio

On brutality, estrangement and what solitude can bring to a work of fiction

Jorge Consiglio: 'the author is at the service of the text, and not the other way around'

Fate: commonly understood to mean the opposite of chance or, more narrowly speaking, a theological concept. Often synonymous with predetermination – an idea which might be used to justify a set of unfortunate or fortuitous events, whether you are religious or not – it gives a shape for Jorge Consiglio’s novel Tres Monedas. A poet and an academic, Consiglio wrote this novel over the course of a ‘single scorching summer’ in his hometown of Buenos Aires. It is a book that moves toward a vista of overlapping concepts, saturated by the desire to transcend the rigidity of circumstance. Translated by Fionn Petch and Carolina Orloff, it was published in English under the title Fate in March of this year.

Segments of Consiglio’s fiction read like dense and compact prose poems. A single idea or image, such as an ongoing battle against insect infestations within domestic space, is spread across an entire chapter. Reading a book in translation, we often look for words, phrases or small details that can be universally received, but this readerly impulse subsides with increasing exposure to Consiglio’s fragmentary, idiosyncratic style.

The narrator who guides Fate is a distant relative to the voice that leads a string of short stories in Southerly, Consiglio’s first collection to be published in English in 2016. I spoke with Consiglio over email; our correspondence was generously translated by Carolina Orloff, co-translator of Fate and Director of Charco Press, Consiglio’s English-language publisher. We discussed the many reference points that have enlivened his career so far, with a particular focus on Fate. Consiglio lives and works in Buenos Aires; he is currently preparing to publish his sixth novel.

Fate by Jorge Consiglio

OF: Your latest novel, Fate, has a very memorable ending. I’d like to ask whether you were prompted by anything in particular when thinking about how or where to begin this novel?

JC: As a matter of fact, the first thing that I took into account when I began to write Fate was its ending. It could even be said that the novel stemmed from that scene. I sketched out the plot by virtue of the ending. And I think the strongest influence I had when imagining the ending was Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man, based on a novel by Graham Greene. At one point, the two main characters have a conversation in one of the carts of a Ferris Wheel. I was never able to forget that dialogue. I first saw the film when I was a teenager and I thought I had distorted that scene with my own imagination, but when I watched it again, I realised that I’d retained it intact. That exchange between Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles is just magnificent.

OF: The majority of Fate focuses on routines and the humdrum of the everyday; indeed, this is part of its charm. But early on in the novel, Karl engages in a violent duel with a stranger, Marina Kezelman is preoccupied by an uncontrollable ant infestation, and Amer gives up smoking, a habit developed over forty years. Would it be right to say that something sinister lies under the surface of Fate? A brutal force, perhaps, that probes at our understanding of ‘everydayness’, agitating the plot and causing reactions throughout the novel. If so, what can you say about this brutality and why is it there?

JC: In Fate, violence lies beneath the day-to-day, and finds any excuse to make itself present. It’s a tension – an energy, a force – that dominates the characters and, from a structural point of view, works to rack up the suspense. Faced with the frustration brought about by the mere act of living, any trigger can summon it. It’s a climax, an almost sacred epiphany which somehow redeems ordinary existence, ricocheting time and again off its own limits. Within the frame of the novel, violence – brutality, the irruption of the wild like in Jack London – could be linked to purity: it is the characters’ least social aspect and, therefore, the least contaminated.

OF: It’s often hard to ignore the presence of Fate’s narrator – on the one hand, passing on information as a set of cold statistics, but at other times, inviting sympathy, relaying the flurry of events that make up the course of each character’s life. Before you wrote the book, did you have an idea of how this relationship (between narrator and subject) would play out?

JC: Yes, when I began to write I was certain that the narrator had to be a powerful figure in Fate. I needed a voice that was so strong, so visible that – one could say – it could almost be a character in itself. And not because it partakes in the action, but rather because its point of view becomes apparent throughout the text. In this novel, the narrator takes a stance, arrives at conclusions, shares information, knows it all: he is God’s eye. He doesn’t miss anything. I wanted him to be like that. A narrator that takes a position. Very different to those ‘camera’ narrators that try and disappear, removing their traces behind them. I felt that this novel needed a dominating voice that interfered with everything. It is a daring device, since it can interrupt the make-believe of the story. Yet I felt this was the way best suited to what I wanted to tell. The novel’s needs, above all its tone, take precedence over any risk. In other words, the author is at the service of the text, and not the other way around.

OF: I was particularly struck by your choice of occupation for each of Fate’s characters: “a taxidermist, a meteorologist, a musician and a child”. Meteorology and taxidermy, in particular, have certain parallels; the former pays attention to the outside world, changes in the weather, while the latter is more focused on embalming the past, and arguably, domesticates the natural ‘animal’ world. Can you talk about how these professions were/are significant for you?

JC: Each detail that enters the text has repercussions. It’s like a drop of oil falling into water. I thought that the occupations I chose for the characters could work, on one hand, to describe them from their most intimate core (those professions speak of a particular fascination they have towards the world) and, on the other, I thought of them as ways of estrangement. If these characters were doctors, lawyers or CEOs, it would simply not work for the novel. Somehow, I had to break away from orthodoxy. These professions reflect their curiosity, their inquisitiveness towards a system they struggle to justify.

OF: The book’s Spanish title, Tres Monedas (Three Coins), indicates the degree to which methods of divination are important to the book. Can you talk about what influenced you or drew you to this particular idea?

JC: I think that one of the ideas that the novel tries to develop is the distinction between fate and chance. In this sense, fortune-telling is crucial. Uncertainty about the future causes a deep feeling of anxiety and one of the ways they find to make it more bearable is to resort to magical thinking. Within the novel, the great enigmas of the universe provoke curiosity, but they are also a source of unsettlement. In the face of perplexity, prophecies emerge as a possible way out. It is a source of certainty – or it is understood as such, which amounts to the same thing – and therefore serves to contain that angst arising from the randomness of the future.

OF: An interview is a particular type of conversation; more specifically, a structured encounter. Fate, on the other hand, depends on ideas of chance, coincidence, cause and effect. Would it be right to say that the structure of the novel depends as much on actions not taken, decisions left unmade, as it does upon the actions that drive the book forwards?

JC: From my point of view, your statement is absolutely spot on, and I am grateful for such a perceptive reading. Undoubtedly, within the structure of the novel, the actions that the characters carry out are as important as the ones they leave to one side. There’s an interesting idea that Yves Bonnefoy develops in a book of his called El territorio interior (“The Inner Territory”). He claims that when we are faced with a crossroads and make a choice to follow one path, the other one automatically begins to weigh on us as a kind of lost kingdom. Something along these lines happens with the characters in Fate. They follow their destinies with conviction and they are absolutely certain of the choices they make; however, everything that they leave to one side overwhelms them with an unfathomable feeling of melancholy. What could have been and wasn’t, the things that are left outside of choice, that sense of lacking, all this also constitutes them. They act and move forward in their lives yet they never lose sight of the reverberations caused by that absence. I think this element is one of the pillars of Fate’s sound. It is a silence translated through the movement of the narrative material and the syntax.

OF: Particularly key to each of your central characters in Fate is a feeling of separateness: they are isolated, estranged, singular characters on discrete planes. At the time of writing, this is a very relatable experience. In a recent essay for the online literature platform Asymptote, you wrote about a metaphysics of dimensions, a particular type of perspective gained from confinement that may lead to a fertile kind of intimacy, you argue. What do you think solitude can bring to a work of fiction?

JC: Solitude is, in my view, a fundamental condition to carry out any kind of intellectual activity, but I also think it’s necessary to have an interaction with the world to clad it with meaning. There is a Kafkaesque fantasy that has to do with total confinement and isolation in order to be produce a text. In other words, the creative act (linked in this case with reading and writing) set against the experience of life. It is a pipe-dream that, at some point, crosses the minds of all of us who write. It is a tempting idea: being able to write and read without interruptions. But I think it’s just that, a pipe-dream. The truth is that intellectual activities in general, and writing fiction in particular, stem from interaction with the world, with all the nourishing ingredients of mundanity. I am suspicious of the image of the luxury writer, the thinker who is comfortable in their ivory tower and cannot be disturbed. I prefer the idea of the writer who wanders and meanders, who gets lost and then finds him or herself again.

Southerly by Jorge Consiglio

OF: While the development of Fate has the appearance of a tightly organised string of inter-connected events, your short story collection, Southerly (2016), suggests a more haphazard composition, as though sketching ideas in a notebook to be developed later on, often closing on a tantalising ellipsis. How has your writing style adapted to fit the form of the novel?

JC: In my case, style – and with that word, I am alluding to the economy that commands the story, the structure and the syntax – is linked to two elements. The first relates to the narrative material, the depth of the tale: what form does it demand, what is the best way to tell the story that I have in my hands. The second has to do with genre. If I am working with short stories, the narrative flow is the most important thing. I let go of the reins of the plot because the causal system of that genre is based in the power of the image, and that is what I am looking for through intuition. In the novel, on the other hand, there is another strategy. One of the most important things for me is to invent a cosmos. For that, I need a system of internal connectors (a warp of actions, overlaps and details) that work to generate a complexity effect. Despite stating here that each genre entails a given strategy, in reality it’s not quite so: drifting and disorientation also prevail in the novel, they are a crucial part of the acoustics of the story. If the zigzag was not there, that coming and going of the unexpected events (the peripeteia), the plot would lose all its porosity, and would collapse as a result.

OF: Your prose feels peppered by references to genre-defining films: Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Carol Reed’s noir classic The Third Man (1949), to name a couple. You have spoken about how these images helped to construct a particular kind of atmosphere, rather than a plot, throughout your writing. I’d like to know more about this connection, between writing and film, and whether you’re watching anything right now?

JC: I think the reference system that you build when you write doesn’t only come from other literary works. In my case, films are a key influence. I discovered many kinds of narrative processes in films that blew me away. I try to work with stories that carry a certain atmosphere (calm pulse with frenetic pace), and in the world of film, this question is tackled wonderfully. There are also some structural issues that in a film you can observe more clearly than within a text. I am thinking for instance about montage: ellipsis, the changes in point of view, the chronological breaks. There are some filmmakers who I see as my masters. In that sense, Sidney Lumet comes to mind, particularly his 2007 film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. The way in which Lumet plays with jump cuts (as if the images are blinking), separating one scene from another, made me think about the role of connectors in the things I write. It was truly revelatory for me. Another film director I love is the Argentinian Mariano Llinás. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen by him, especially a film called Historias extraordinarias (Extraordinary Stories) which helped me think about the sound I wanted the narrator of Fate to have.

OF: You’ve mentioned how Borges’ notion of the Aleph – a point in space, or perspective, that holds all other spaces within it – has influenced your thinking throughout lockdown, and Southerly is a re-imagining of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The South”. While it’s possible to notice similarities in plot lines and continuities in perspective between your work and Borges, you also manage to retain idiosyncrasy within your language and style. How do you use literary sources when you’re writing?

JC: It’s quite tricky to answer this question. I am a passionate reader of Borges, as I am of other authors who share neither his style nor his ideas. The truth is that I find it impossible to know how the texts I enjoy reading resonate in my own writing. It’s quite a mysterious process and, to some degree, also unconscious. I guess that my narrative voice has a little bit of all the authors I have read, and also of the music I’ve listened to, the films I’ve seen and the voices of those people who, for some reason, made an impact on me. And if there is something of mine that prevails in the middle of all this it is exactly the manner in which I bring together this confused alchemy, or, in other words, the peculiar way I find to resolve this mass. Subjectivity perhaps is nothing more than the ability to organise your own particular sound with all the echoes which, for some reason or other, have influenced us.

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