David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between the Covers is brought to you by Plotopolis, created by novelist and coder Ben Parzybok. Plotopolis publishes interactive fiction, think of the old style, choose your own adventure books but literary. What’s more, Plotopolis publishes to the interactive spaces where you have conversations like Slack, Facebook Messenger, or Telegram. If you’ve been wanting to try a new form of writing for your fiction or you haven’t found the right publishing venue for your already outside-the-box innovative writing, head over to Plotopolis’ website, read their first story The Whale’s Keeper, and check out the guidelines to more fully learn how to submit. Plotopolis pays professional rates and can be found at plotopolis.com. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Andrés N. Ordorica’s debut novel How We Named the Stars, an exploration of belonging, grief, and first love. Says Eduardo C. Corral, “In Andrés N. Ordorica’s majestic novel, the emotional and intellectual life of Daniel de La Luna, a first-generation college student, is rendered beautifully, deftly.” Adds Richard Mirabella, “Ordorica captures perfectly the challenges of building a life out of experience, out of allowing ourselves to feel everything. A beautiful tale of friendship and the comfort found in stories of the past and in the arms of elders, living and dead.” How We Named the Stars is out on January 30th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. If January is any indication, this is going to be an amazing year for the show. Even so, I can’t imagine a pair of episodes in any future month will better exemplify the combination of a warm gregariousness with a deep sense of openhearted erudition than the conversation with Mathias Énard and today’s conversation with Álvaro Enrigue. When I was speaking to Mathias in the last episode, we talked about one of his characters having an eros of knowledge, a desire for knowledge that didn’t make the borders of selfhood more fortified but did the opposite. It made one more porous to the world, more aware of what one didn’t know. I feel like both of these authors exemplify this and I found myself with each of them, given the way they both exhibit such a deep love of knowledge that is also a love of exchange and a love of sharing, I found myself imagining myself having a long meal with them, how fun that would be, that it seemed more fitting to be talking over wine or over mezcal over a many course meal happening over many hours, whether in France or Mexico. If I ever were to find myself being interviewed By the Book column, The New York Times Book Review where they always ask about your fantasy dinner party, these two writers would surely be at the top of my list for living writers, and Rabelais and Borges would probably round it out given how we meditate on each respectively in the two January episodes. There are a lot of uncanny correspondences between these two conversations beyond a love of conversation, beyond demeanor and sensibility when it comes to talking about one’s work with another, not only that both these conversations talk about food and both even touch upon the meanings behind ritualized cannibalism, the significance of symbolically breaking a taboo around death to honor a life but both are also conversations about history in relation to fiction, whether with Mathias telling the story of Napoleon through the eyes of a bed bug or the first King of the Franks from the perspective of his horse but also with Álvaro about how actual historical accounts were influenced by the contemporary fictions of their time, how sometimes, the histories we have of the winners are actually truly fictional and what it means to engage with history in order to tell the story of our lives today. I think of my conversation with Adrienne Maree Brown about science fiction and social justice, about how in her mind, all organizing is science fictional in so far as it is an act of the imagination and that we are in an imagination battle about who best can imagine the future we want to live in. Will we imagine it or will we live in a world imagined by others for us? Both of these January writers are very engaged in imagining worlds and reanimating and reimagining histories to do so. In an ideal world, each of these episodes with a writer, talking about their works in translation, would arrive at the same time with a long-form conversation with their translator, the translator conversation for supporters who subscribe to the bonus audio archive, an archive that includes conversations with the translators of Jenny Erpenbeck, Fernanda Melchor, Hélène Cixous, Dubravka Ugrešić, Mariana Enríquez, Alejandro Zambra, and many more. As I mentioned last time, Mathias Énard’s translator Frank Wynne and I are still figuring out the details but that conversation is hopefully coming soon. But today’s conversation is in and of itself in many ways about translation and about naming, and the power of naming, unnaming, and renaming. The history that Álvaro’s book is engaged with is also very much about these things too, so when you hear us for the first 40 minutes or so explore these elements, trust me, they will echo forward as we discuss everything else. The bonus audio archive is only one potential benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter and every supporter at every level can join our collective brainstorm of future guests to invite, and every listener-supporter gets the resource-rich email with every episode of all that informed the conversation or was referred to during it. But maybe as you listen today to this long-form conversation, this created space outside of time around an imaginary table where we can puzzle together the nuances of things as we go, if you, like us, enjoy this shared literary meal, maybe you want to support the longevity of the show going forward for that very reason itself. You can find out how at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with Álvaro Enrigue.
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is Mexican novelist, short story writer, and essayist Álvaro Enrigue. Enrigue has degrees in journalism from la Universidad Iberoamericana and a doctorate in Latin American literature from the University of Maryland. He began his career as an editor and columnist at literary magazines including Vuelta founded by Octavio Paz and its successor Letras Libres. His first novel La muerte de un instalador won the premio Joaquin Mortiz and was selected as one of the key novels of the Mexican 20th century. Carlos Fuentes says of his novel Vidas perpendiculares that it “Belongs to many literary traditions at once and shows a great mastery of them all. His novel belongs to Max Planck’s quantum universe rather than the relativistic universe of Albert Einstein: a world of coexisting fields in constant interaction and whose particles are created or destroyed in the same act.” His book Hypothermia was his first translated into English by Dalkey Archive Press though mysteriously, it was a novel in Spanish and a short story collection in English. His novel Muerte Súbita won the Herralde Prize joining an incredible list of writers from Spain and Latin America, everyone from Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías to Roberto Bolaño and Sergio Pitol. In 2017, we welcomed Enrigue’s second book in English Sudden Death translated by Natasha Wimmer. Marlon James called it, “brain spinning,” Salman Rushdie, “brilliantly original,” Jonathon Sturgeon at Flavorwire said, “The novel’s “content” is easy enough to describe: it is the story of a violent, sex-crazed, drunken, olden-style tennis match between Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo.” “As I write, I don’t know what this book is about. It’s not exactly about a tennis match. It isn’t a book about Caravaggio or Quevedo, though Caravaggio and Quevedo are in the book, as are Cortés and Cuauhtémoc, and Galileo and Pius IV. Gigantic individuals facing off. All fucking, getting drunk, gambling in the void.” “Enrigue here is pointing out that even if the novel’s contents are easy to describe, its meaning is elusive, and it’s elusive because it exists in the gaps between chapters, in conference with the reader’s imagination and what’s on the page. When I put it down, I wasn’t thinking about how funny it is, or the number of erections it contains, or the Counter-Reformation. Instead I began to worry about my friends who are writers and artists: their sometimes clashing spirits, the imperceptible ways they demolish monuments, the threat of political violence that hangs just over the horizon line, like a burning tennis ball.” Seventeen years ago, Enrigue was picked for the Bogotá39, the most influential Latin American writers under the age of 40. He’s received the Rockefeller Foundation Residence Fellowship at the Bellagio Centre and was a fellow at the Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars at the New York Public Library. He has taught creative writing at many places including Columbia, Princeton, University of Maryland, and Hofstra University where he’s a professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and teaches everything from Spanish language to a course on soccer and Latin America, as well as monographic courses on Cervantes and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz to a course on the poetry of the 17th century. Enrigue’s own research focus at the university. His on the relationship between the material and intellectual history in the early modern period, and his non-fiction has appeared everywhere from The New York Times to the London Review of Books to El País. Álvaro Enrigue is here today to talk about his latest book, also brought into English by Natasha Wimmer, You Dreamed of Empires. Stephen Sparks of Point Reyes Book says, “Álvaro Enrigue has turned the historical novel upside down and shaken out the dust, and the fusty allegiance to tradition to give us instead a book that vibrates on a frequency all its own. Bring a spool of yarn with you when you read this: you’ll need to follow that thread back out to the dull ordinariness of reality when you close the book.” Luisa Smith of Book Passage adds, “A potent cocktail of poetry, magic, history, and humor. There wasn’t a scene that didn’t swirl to life with colors, smells, and sounds including the mischievous use of language between the Spanish and the Aztec to both illuminate and deceive. It turns beautiful and horrific. Enrigue’s writing creates a dream state that captures the majesty of this unknowable empire and how it might have confounded those sent to conquer it.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Álvaro Enrigue.
Álvaro Enrigue: I can’t believe that I just listened to those words, dear David. [laughter] I listen to your podcast while running many mornings, so thanks very much for welcoming me. [laughter] How weird the life of oneself sounds so glamorous. Today in the morning, I’m doing letters of recommendation, not working on [inaudible], not taking care of the baby, walking the d*mn dog, etc., etc. [laughter] Thank you for this fantasy of my life that you just provided.
DN: It’s an honor to go on those jogs with you, unknowingly to be going on those jogs with you too, Álvaro. So You Dreamed of Empires, it dilates the moment of encounter between Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma, and the precarious time period when Cortés and his small band of soldiers has been invited into the palaces of Tenochtitlan as guests. But before we talk about the story, the history, and the implications of this moment, I wanted to spend some time with the role of language both in your book and also within the history because your book begins with the question of language. The book has two translators as significant characters, Gerónimo de Aguilar who’s a missionary, who when his boat shipwrecks in the Yucatan is taken as a slave by the Mayans along with his fellow survivors, so later, when Cortés arrives in Mexico, he rescues Aguilar and because Aguilar now has learned Mayan, Cortés uses him as a translator and Aguilar’s last surviving Spanish compatriot Guerrero refuses to leave, he’s become a Mayan war chief. He’s married a wealthy Mayan woman. On the other hand, the other translator Malintzin, more commonly known as La Malinche, is a Nahuatl speaking indigenous woman, possibly of noble origin who’s been trafficked into slavery herself and bought by the Mayans, and because women of varying status were often traded or offered in compensation after battles, she was offered, among many other female slaves, as part of a peace package from a Mayan leader to Cortés early on in Cortés’ time in Mexico and she too becomes Cortés’ translator having also learned Mayan while a slave, so this begs the question for listeners, “Why does Cortés need two Mayan speaking translators?” and the answer is because as he approaches Tenochtitlan from the coast, the people of what is now Mexico City speak Nahuatl, so if Cortés wanted to say anything to these people, he would speak in Spanish to Aguilar who would then translate it into Mayan to Malintzin and Malintzin would then translate the Mayan to Nahuatl, all of this because Aguilar didn’t speak Nahuatl and Malintzin didn’t, at the beginning, speak Spanish. Immediately, both in your book and in the reality of the situation, we are in a highly mediated space and also a dubious space around how well, if at all, meaning is being carried across. The translators are significant characters in the book as they should be but the reason I want to bring this up is because even before we begin, even before we begin the book, we encounter a long translator’s note but it is like no other translator’s note. For one, it isn’t a note from your translator to us which is what most translators’ notes are. It is a note by you but you also aren’t addressing us either. You are very warmly addressing your translator Natasha and we are voyeurs as we read your letter, and we are very much being placed in a meta way within a mediated space of the translation process before we’ve read one page of Natasha’s language conjured from your language. So let’s start here with what any reader would encounter about this choice and also about the letter itself.
AE: I’m interested in language, I am interested in literature, and I am a 17th-century literature professor. I am a person that reads books that are simply hard to read, so I live with this preoccupation about how some American kid from the suburbs of New York who is in my class about Sor Juana don’t understand the poem written in 17th-century Spanish by a poet that being a woman had to hide a lot of the things she was saying in order to survive as the very famous poet that she was because she was a superstar. That is a real preoccupation for me, how not to freak out a reader with the incredibly complicated way in which we write the historical names of the Nahua people. This has to do with the fact that the orthography of those names, the spelling, we say in English, the spelling of those names was frozen in the 17th century when indigenous people of Mexico were Latinized and Roman writing was introduced. These names don’t represent at all like in French and a little bit in English too or a lot in English, the way you spell a name is not the way you say it, so there is that very coarse preoccupation because I believe that literature should be read. I like difficult books and I believe in difficulty but at the same time, I’m Mexican, I’m courteous. [laughter] I say good morning and good night to everyone. I think that transparency is a courtesy. I want to tell the readers that everybody can do whatever they want. I love OPAC literature but I am not an OPAC writer or I don’t want to be. There is another very vital level that is the fact that I live in a world of mistranslations. I’m Mexican, I’ve been living forever in the US but I still have, I’m very proud of my super hard accent and I don’t care about it. My children are laughing all the time about my English and we speak Spanglish all the time. I live in a faculty where in the classes, we speak this very pure Spanish but the rest of the time, we are Spanglishing the reality, etc, etc. I live in this world in which the broken telephone, it’s an opportunity to have fun every day. There are people who lives in English, there are people who live in Spanish, and there are people who live in those two and another territory that is the territory of Spanglish, and that makes life incredibly rich and fun because we have more words, we simply have more words, the precise one, let’s say the historical ones and the invented ones. [laughter] All of that merges with the more serious preoccupation for language that obviously the writer has and of course, historical preoccupation for the place where I was born, raised, fed, educated, the place, the country that gave me my health, my sense of honor, my education, absolutely everything, that is Mexico and that is a country that obsesses me. Maybe because I have lived here for so long, I am a very Guadalupano Mexican. I’m more Mexican than the people in Mexico. As you were telling the very problematic story of the translation in the first moments of the first contact between Europeans and people from the Americas in Mexico, I was thinking, “Well, that mess explains everything.” [laughter] It was very difficult to have a message go through and somehow, this is of course a joke, I always quote Jorge Luis Borges who used to say that good writing goes through the fire of mistranslation and I think that he was right. We are able to communicate always. We find ways and our brains have found ways. Language is like the most human of all practices and the body does it all by itself. There is this deeper, more serious problem of constant misreading of that essential moment of the first contact between [inaudible] Europeans and people from the Americas. Well, we can go long. This is the last spacing which you can go long.
DN: [laughter] It’s so true.
AE: Really, really. I grew up in a completely different world in which long was good. Now long is not good. If you see how, for example, the visualization, can we speak about the visualization of the people from the Americas, was in the first year, when the first people from Americas arrived to Europe, in comparison, how it was after the defeat of Tenochtitlan and the enslavement of enormous amounts of indigenous populations of the Americas, you can see that this miscommunication becomes a policy to not understand the people from the other continent, so we can make them serve us for free, so we can take their communal property and make it private property, and that is there since the first letter of Christopher Columbus that says very clearly, “These people has communal property of land, so we should take it.” [laughter] A mental operation that explains everything that is wrong in the contemporary world. There is of course the language itself that is the love of my life, the thing I devote my time to but at the same time, there are these other ways of translating realities that became very problematic precisely because of how things happen in the moment in which Moctezuma and Cortés saw each other in the eye. I use in this novel that moment as a metaphor.
DN: Well, before we leave the translator’s note, when you’re talking to Natasha in front of us, you talk about how the Nahua names actually look as strange to you as they will to anybody in the anglophone world even though you were born and raised in Mexico. That many Mexican readers too won’t know right away what a certain Nahuatl word means but you tell Natasha that you would prefer, because of this, not to have them explained in English but understood through their context, through their repetition as the story progresses. But you also talk about how you made choices in how to spell these words sometimes simply based on what sounded better to you, how, for some words, you use the Nahuatl spelling but others, you don’t. Like with Moctezuma, you use the more familiar spelling because you feel like having the C and the T next to each other together are, in your words, a contained explosion, much like the character himself. You say in your letter, “Words may signify and signal but I believe they also invoke.” I was hoping maybe we could spend a moment with that and also if we could hear some of the ways these names sound, maybe you could share a name of one person that you chose, then an alternative that you rejected based on how it sounds to you when you say it.
AE: I’m not sure about what I rejected because you have to consider the trajectory of a book.
AE: I wrote it so long ago by now. We’re looking at the English translation of it, so I don’t remember that. But I remember the preoccupation with finding beautiful names or names that sound beautiful to me, of course, the best example and the one that is useful for everyone because I think that now that the US is putting more attention to Mexico City, the war [inaudible] is how we pronounce the Mexican, the Nahuatl name of the city. We, in Spanish, it’s Tenochtitlan, which is hard to say because it has the stress at the end, it has something unsatisfactory about it. But if you pronounce it in Nahuatl, it’s just incredibly easy to say and beautiful, Tenochtitlan. You just move the stress and that terrifying next that is all over, the Nahuatl, you have to remember that it’s because there was not a representation or the sound “ch”, so there was not even a J when the fall of Tenochtitlan. They assimilate the sound “ch” to the sound “ku” that is very important in Spanish because of the influence of Arabic in Spanish and that was translated as a mix which is tremendously disorienting for us because then it says Tenoxtitlán, maybe like the most difficult word to pronounce. But to quote a name that I love and maybe my favorite character in the novel, I’m not sure, I love the character of Moctezuma also and many of them but Moctezuma wife, Atotoztli, again, if you see it written, it looks really different but if you hear it, the beauty of the name is enormous, Atotoztli and it’s really easy to say. I would say that it’s easier to say if you speak English because you have the “sh” sound and we don’t in Spanish, you have to learn. Imagine, David, how beautiful the world could be if instead of Me-xi-co, we said Mehico or instead of Mejico with that awful J we use in the meal, we use the original pronunciation. It was Mexico. Listen how it falls, it’s like water.
DN: I love that.
AE: Instead of Mejico that is tremendously complicated to say and there is of course, the more difficult of them all that is the father of Moctezuma that appears in the novel because the conquistadores were putting his palace when they arrive to Tenochtitlan, that is Axayacatl, again, a really easy and beautiful word to say, Axayacatl. But if you see it as it was written in the 17th century, it is just diabolic. [laughter] No Mexican can say that. [laughter] It’s an outdated representation of a word but because no one of course says anymore the name Axayacatl, we try to pronounce the ghost of a sound that is very difficult to pronounce. I understand that when you’re reading a novel, you don’t stop to make exercise of pronunciation but I have to say that I teach this class some first contact about the way in which the Mexico City was transformed in Mexico City that according to many historians is the first modern city in the world because it’s a square and not radial, because it was the commercial hub between China and Europe, etc. It was the first city that for a moment had more people born in another continent than in the land. There are many reasons to believe that New York or Shanghai began in Mexico City after that encounter and I’m quoting historians, not people with enormous fantasies, like real respected historians. [laughter]
DN: Sure you are.
AE: I teach a class on that. The original Tenochtitlan and the refoundation of Mexico City expands like a way of understanding what a city is in modern times. In that class, in the first class, we do that exercise, Axayacatl, Tenochtitlan and it’s really fun. [laughter]
DN: Yeah. Well, the way, in this translator’s note, you talk about carrying less about purity or consistency across names, that sometimes you’re choosing based on the beauty of one spelling or pronunciation over another, I want to talk about your views on the relationship between your art or writing and “reality,” so we get a better understanding of what this project is. Your novel deeply engages with history and it’s also a fiction but you reject historical fiction as a lens through which to view your work. I wonder if it’s related to some of the themes you raise in a short story that you wrote 18 years ago called On the Death of the Author, a story that is both about Ishi, the so-called last Yahi Indian, but it’s also a story about how to write a story about Ishi and you say within the story itself, “The story of the last wild Indian in the United States shouldn’t be a hard one to tell, nor would it seem to present any knots that someone fond of saying one thing and meaning another couldn’t cut through. But there’s something about this tale-or about me-that turns it to mercury: I’ve tried pastiche, straight-forward narrative, the abominable stream-of-consciousness, diary entries, epistolary narrative and still it slips through my fingers like a fist-full of marbles.” For those who don’t know Ishi, it’s the story of a man whose tribe has been decimated, who comes out of the forest. He’s put in jail. He’s a spectacle there in jail. He’s taken out of jail by anthropologists who give him a job as a janitor in the Natural History Museum where he also lives and performs as a live human specimen for museumgoers. You say in this story about Ishi, “The survivor of an entire world that also lives in a museum is pure signified. No parts are lacking and without mystery, there is no mythology,” and elsewhere you say, “It could be that the story is most significant just as it happened, and that trying to retell it will only make it corny or a morality tale, which is always the worst form of sentimentality. To turn a story that is significant in and of itself into a metaphor is like loving love: however intense it may seem at the beginning, it always ends badly.” In the parts of your story, the same story set in contemporary times, we get these weird instances of literalness, a redhead who walks by wearing a t-shirt that proclaims the word redhead or a cafe that’s situated under linden trees whose street is called Under the Linden Trees and you say too much literalness could end up being harmful to oneself. I think in a similar spirit when you’ve talked about Sudden Death, your last novel, you say that to portray Caravaggio painting paintings or to portray Quevedo writing poems would be boring. That the entryway of tennis, something that Caravaggio did in fact do, allowed you to represent a maestro and a grandmaster without falling into the obvious, and that your problem in writing Ishi was that it was always literal to the extreme with all of its political meaning too exposed. Ultimately, you say “Because of this, I think it’s better to imagine him in the days in which, instead of being a wooden Indian, he was just the densest of the janitorial staff of an institute. You have to imagine him resigned to being the last of something and serenely mopping the halls.” I think of this notion of being the last of something when we think of the final days of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica too. The setting of this book we’re discussing today is the birth of something, it’s the last of something, so I have some questions based on all of this but the first one is the hope that you will spend a moment talking about literalness in relation to historical fiction and your rejection of the label. Talk to us about your own philosophy around your fiction’s relationship to history or to so-called reality.
AE: It’s a tremendously brilliant and difficult question that goes exactly to the core of what I have tried to do writing, what by now has been a long career as a writer. It was not planned. I always have the feeling that this book will be the last one but nevertheless, it keeps returning, the patience to say something, the passion of telling a story. The first problem of literal things, Hypothermia is a book that was written in prehistoric times. For me, it is a book that I don’t want to read again. It’s great in the past and gave me a lot of things but I don’t know, I really don’t know if it represents me or not anymore because it was written so long ago for a person very different from who I am now and has a completely unexpected living trajectory as all lives. Nevertheless, I think that the problem of everything becoming literal has increased and not reduced in the later times. I have completely forgotten about the precise metaphor of the redhead with the t-shirt that says redhead but I think that it was premonitory. [laughter] We live in a world in which everything becomes literary and everybody’s terrified of words, and their possible meanings, so I suppose that I was beginning to be desperate living in America. It is true that the book Hypothermia was great and all of it in the US but that last story that is the one that ties everything together was greeting in one of my many attempts to move back to Mexico City, not attempts, I have been jumping from Mexico City to the US during all my life and that story was written in Mexico City, and not in the US. I think that in Mexico, the problem is the opposite, the overwhelmingly metaphorical reality of Mexico, nothing means what it means. The way we use Spanish, the Mexican courtesy, it’s one of the main subjects of You Dreamed of Empires. The problem of Mexican courtesy is that people are so courteous that you never know what is really going on, etc, etc. It’s like the opposite of America in that sense. I don’t know why and I don’t want to pontificate about it but I think that we use the language to hype a lot in Mexican Spanish and in English, the communication is more literal, so there is that eternal preoccupation in me. I just have a problem remembering the second part of the question. What was it?
DN: Your books engage with history but the label of historical fiction seems to be reductive for you.
AE: I have the intuition that you’re a person that speaks Spanish and you don’t have to say yes or no, and I know that you know Mexico, it’s very clear to me. Remember Emiliano Zapata, Emiliano Zapata used to say something that I had never been able to translate exactly right to English, “La tierra es de quien la trabaja,” “This land belongs to those who work on it,” which was, of course, a tremendously revolutionary saying in the early 20th century and one of the ignition points of the Mexican Revolution, this idea that land doesn’t belong to the owner but those who work in that land. We’re speaking about a very different Mexico in that time in which one was last owned by only a bunch of families. I think that novels are the same. Novels are of the readers, not of the authors. My relationship with this novel is done. [laughter] Or I’m thinking about the next one. I’m done with this and it belongs to you. If some of your listeners or yourself think that it’s a historical novel, well, I’m equally grateful because they read it. For me, the main mystery of literature is why someone would read a book of mine. If it is historical for someone, it’s fantastic. It’s not that I want to impose a way of reading my books. I don’t have any control over my books or my children, forget about the readers or the professors. Everybody does whatever they want and I wish the world was more loose, that we were not imposing things on others all the time. But I feel uncomfortable with the idea of historical novels because I don’t want to disappoint the reader. It’s a very simple thing. Someone that will expect to read a novel in which what happened in history will be tremendously disappointed if he reads this book. [laughs] What I do is according to my political preoccupations at that moment and according to what I can write about in a moment, and according to many things, more than anything, this problem you were speaking about a little bit ago, how to find the way to tell a story. In these two books, Sudden Death and You Dreamed of Empires, the one in the middle, Ahora me rindo y eso es todo, I work with historical archives. That’s it. What happens in this novel as maybe in all of the others, because I was always measuring historical context for fiction since I was very young, but in these novels particularly, what I have done is work with an arch. The way people dress, the way people eat, the way people go to places, the everyday practices of the characters are tremendously loyal to how we think they were in that moment or as loyal as they can be. I am very serious when I do my research, not because I am serious, I’m serious because I love it. I just enjoy going the whole day to the library and be researching there. But at the same time, the stories I tell have to do more with desire than with what happened in history. Quevedo and Caravaggio never played tennis. There is this American word that has made my life tremendously difficult. That is a spoiler. Now I’m feeling the obligation of not spoiling my own books which is ridiculous but that’s how it is today. The story is not really related to what happened. The story takes an alternative way that has to do more with my good feelings, more with my fantasies as a child living in Tenochtitlan and not in Mexico City than anything else. There is this double component and whatever the book has to say is somewhere in the middle, and it’s not clear for me in this book as in any other.
DN: Well, Ishi, the so-called last Yahi Indian, comes up a lot on the show. For one, Cristina Rivera Garza also wrote a story about him, which we discussed when she was last on but mainly because it was Ursula K. Le Guin’s father who took Ishi out of jail and set him up in the museum.
AE: Wow. I didn’t know that. Well, I’m just going to shut my mouth. [laughter]
DN: So her father is the one who takes him out of jail and Ishi refuses to give his name but instead he gives the word Ishi, which simply means man, which of course further extends this notion of literalness. During the series that I did in 2022 called Crafting with Ursula where different writers came on to talk about their own work in relation to Ursula’s work, we wondered whether her system of naming was related to this event because in her Earthsea books, you have the name that you were given at birth, you also have the name that people give you when they watch you in the world and describe you, then you have your true name which you yourself don’t know but you learn through living and sometimes it’s given to you by another but it’s also something you don’t share because people can have power over you if they have your name, your true name. There are a lot of questions of naming and the power of naming in your book that I want to touch on today. But to start with, early in the book, we learn that the indigenous people of the coast thought of the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan as Acolhua but the towns around the lake itself thought of the inhabitants as Mexica but the island inhabitants of the great city considered themselves Tenochca. In addition, these people are part of a confederacy of peoples called The Triple Alliance but the Europeans, they flatten all of this complexity by simply calling everybody Aztecs. As part of an attempt to re-dimensionalize the world for us, I was hoping maybe, and this is an impossible ask, but just to begin painting a picture of Tenochtitlan for us, just prior to the Spanish, give us a glimpse of what it was like geographically, architecturally, or geopolitically in this moment before Cortés is brought to Moctezuma’s father’s palace.
AE: I will and I promise but I have to jump into the naming thing that is so important, and that explains so many things about my work and many parts of this discussion that in Latin America, we still somehow live by those naming parameters. When you were describing the way of being named in the novel, you were speaking about how indigenous people of Americas named themselves. Everybody had a name, everybody had a secret name, and everybody had a battle name and they could be used in different circumstances, and that somehow survived in Latin America. Well, if I use the name of one of my children, they will know that there is a problem going on. [laughter] We are always using nicknames and depending on the circumstance, you use a different nickname and when you arrive at school, there is this ritual in which you are named and that very few people call me Álvaro. People from certain periods of my life and certain professional places called me Enrigue, and that sounds normal to us. We don’t even notice that we are using two different names. But when I put in a novel that someone is Malinche, Malinalli, Malintzin, everybody gets scandalized. Some people, I’m sure, call you David or Naimon and who knows how your parents call you? We think, for example, David, that we live in this super-rational world with one talent. It’s Monday, the 17th of January, however day it is and the truth is that we live like the Mexican people in an articulation of a world in which there is a lunar and a solar calendar and our days are divided around that. There is the solar calendar that is the rational thing with which we pay taxes that has 12 months and there is the lunar calendar that is what really organizes our life. Today is Monday and I have to go teach a class. We still do those archaic things that when we see other cultures doing, we are like, “Oh, my God, they are so irrational,” or “I cannot understand it,” and we block ourselves. That’s for the name. Then the Tenochtitlan, you’re touching an important vein here because the core of the novel or the very core of my will of writing this novel was to be able to perform the city in literary key, to produce the city in the imagination of a reader, to make it just rise in your mind as a reader. I don’t know, I will never know of course if I was successful or not but the disapparition of Tenochtitlan is a great loss for humanity. We don’t have many descriptions and I can speak about that later if you want but all the descriptions we have, most of them are super biased, nevertheless, there are very few candid moments in which the Europeans sit and say, “What is this?” Now, there is this beautiful moment in Bernal Díaz del Castillo The True History of the Conquest of New Spain in which they are in [Mexica] on November 8th I think, yes, on November 8, the day before they get into the city, November 8th, 1519 and they finally arrive, and see the lake, the enormous lake that was the Texcoco Lake and they see all the cities around the lake that are the city of Texcoco, the city of Xochimilco, Xochicalco, etc, that are enormous cities, that are fortified that have these temples that are full of colors and everything is very green. In the center of that lake connected to the coasts of the lake by floating streets, they are not floating but I don’t remember the word in English now, there are the Calzada, the four Calzada that connected the city that was in the center of the lake and in the center of that, there is this explosion of life that is the chinampas that are the archaic, perfect way of producing corn, beans, pumpkins, and flowers of course, then animals and everything that is needed to feed a metropole. In the center of it, there is the island of Tenochtitlan where there are these 45 houses and there are the palaces, the towers, the walls, the temples, the colors, the thing but Bernal Díaz del Castillo says, “We saw that and we could not describe it because we had never seen anything like that.” He says, “The only place we could find something similar is in the Amadís de Gaula,” that is this fantastic novel that was fashionable in that moment in which the cities are fantastic. I think that gives you an approach to this deliriously beautiful city. The Tenochtitlan must be there. In this third letter of Hernán Cortés, he shows tremendous sadness about having destroyed the city, which is quite cynical, which is quite infamous. But again and again, he repeats, “We have to destroy it. It was the grandest city in the world and we have to destroy it.” You have to think that it was a city that Cortés exaggerates. He says it was bigger than Paris. It was not bigger than Paris at that moment and Cortés never saw Paris, of course, but it was bigger than the city. A Spaniard had never seen a city that big. When I say that it is a floating city is because it’s a floating city, it’s hard to conceive but the islet in which the temples and the palaces were, it’s tiny. If you go to Mexico City, you can today walk from one limit to the other of the islet from downtown Mexico City to Tlatelolco and it’s a 25-minute walk. It was a tiny little island but it was surrounded by these plots of floating fields, of course, but also communities. People moved through canals, through all of it, and there was this thing of the indigenous world that we are giving merit now. Now that the world is about to come to an end, the weather in New York now that it is winter is like the weather in Querétaro, Mexico, it’s not cold anymore. [laughter] We are in front of a catastrophe clearly. The indigenous people of central Mexico do not make generalizations about the enormity of the Americans but the indigenous people of central Mexico understood the fragility of an ecosystem. This is not Jim Morrison’s song sh*t about understanding nature, ego, and wisdom. [laughter] No, it’s nothing of that. It’s engineering. If we don’t use our resources well because we live in a very fragile ecosystem, we will lose the next war. It’s that simple. We will not be able to feed the children in the winter. There was this very delicate disposition of the city that respected, like in producing terms, the environment but also as an addition, the landscape. The way in which the Citadel of the temples of Mexico City was planted and constructed, reproduced the way in which the mountains behind the valley of Mexico give clarity and light to everybody that lives there. It was an amazing city. It has been a life obsession for me, how it was to be there, how it was to live there. I don’t know anything about technologies but they surely have a cool name that I don’t know. But there are people beginning to do videos about how it was and it’s just unbelievable.
DN: Well, I want to ask you some fraught and even controversial questions about how to tell this history, and how it’s been told but before we do, I want to start with something that’s fun because I think the main feeling of this book as a reader is one of it being really deeply enjoyable to read. This book makes you laugh and it also makes you hungry with Moctezuma eating grasshopper tacos with avocado sauce or ten chili, chocolate mole, turkey legs. It will disgust you, particularly the smell of the Spaniards and also their obliviousness to the ways the Mexica try to get them to wash or the way the Mexica continually hold fragrant herbs up to their noses and the Spaniards think that this is some ritual pageantry. There’s a ton of suspense in the book because you’ve dilated this knife’s edge moment in history which in reality was actually a dilated moment insofar as the Spanish are guests mysteriously for nearly a year. But even though this book happens in a tiny slice of that time, it’s really never clear the status of the Spanish or the Mexica if one people has an advantage, let alone who even understands what is happening. The acts of translation telephone that occur where the translators are clearly heading off major faux pas by changing what the different major actors are saying, they’re both moments of suspense and they’re also moments of comedy. This is all, on its own terms, wildly fantastical seeming to begin with, even if true. But on top of it all, many of these characters, some by design and some unknowingly, are on hallucinogens, whether magic cacti, magic mushrooms, or something I didn’t know existed, magic tomatoes. I was curious how much of this aspect is an extrapolation of real things we know about their use by the indigenous population or from reports by the Spanish versus something you’ve just simply imagined into the scenario. Either way, tell us why you wanted to enhance an already intensely, improbably, crazy sense of disorientation and miscommunication on both sides with psychoactive substances.
DN: The thing is how you tell the story. I return to what you were saying, how do you tell a story that happens in Tenochtitlan and how you recreate the city as accurately as you can and in order to do that, well, you have to go to the psychotropics because that’s how it was. There was the use of hallucinogens. It was of course ritualized, it was related to disciplines. It was not for fun. It was not to forget that you need to pay the rent and you don’t have money, which is another ritual but our ritual is different. [laughter] It was science. It’s heavily ruled and ritualized. But I think that to understand little things like the way in which history was written in the codexes, you need to understand that people were not sober. Well, they were reading those codexes and it was all part of a system in which a belief system, and I don’t know if this is clear or not in the novel but the novel is a novel, it’s not anthropology [tradition] and doesn’t want to be that by any means, but the great difference between the Europeans and the indigenous people of central Mexico in that moment is that the Europeans think that God is outside everything, outside history, and outside matter and the people of the Americas thought that the words were just here but we could not access them if they didn’t open the correct windows. The Mexican religiosity, and I’m following here López Austin and Matos Moctezuma, great archaeologists and anthropologists, a way of praying was using language, of course, as Europeans did but also eating a lot of chili, to get like really [inaudible] produce a little bit hallucinogenic state that you surely know that was a way of praying, of course, dancing, that very physical way of relating to divinity that by the way, we still practice in Mexico. If you go to the Virgin of Guadalupe temple on December 12th, you will see that the people are dancing. It’s a way of praying. That’s why I was so worried about smells, about the materiality of things because I think I don’t know but if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything. The amount of hallucinogenics, it’s a psychedelic comedy. I’m very thankful for people that say that it’s a historical novel but it’s really a psychedelic comedy. It’s a novel. It’s just a novel. Of course, it contains my political preoccupations but what doesn’t, if I read your supermarket list, the post in which you will write today what you will buy in the supermarket, I will know for whom you will vote next year. [laughter] Everything we write is political.
DN: It’s possible.
AE: Absolutely everything. Yeah, everything we write is political. To pretend that this is just for fun could be limiting. A novel is always a political piece of writing but it is also a novel, reality is complicated.
DN: Well, in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s review of the book for the LA Times, she talks about how the translation of the title itself calls to mind questions of translation and naming too, the Spanish “Tu sueño imperios han sido” would be most closely transposed into English as Your Dreams Empire Have Been, which is different than You Dreamed of Empires of course, which is less Yoda-like she says. The Yoda version Your Dreams Empires Have Been makes me think of your review of the book On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe by Caroline Dodds Pennock in The New York Review of Books where you talk about the Mexican political philosopher Enrique Díaz Álvarez who proposed that early Spanish chroniclers wrote about their contacts with indigenous Americans using the conventions of classic and medieval epic fictions, and you go on to say, as you’ve already alluded to today, that literate soldiers would have read chivalric novels and Greco Roman epic poems, that their accounts of the events that they experienced in Mexico were shaped and owe as much to fiction as to “reality.” That these books of fiction help them make real meaning of their lives this way, which of course resonates with Your Dreams Empires Have Been. But it also adds a different valance to the notion of historical fiction, I think, by showing how history itself is in many ways a fiction. But thinking of these soldiers reading novels of chivalry, that also makes me think of Don Quixote as that is the very thing that spurs Quixote to go on adventures in the first place. He’s reading romantic tales. He wants to be and hopes to be written about in one of these future tales, so this prompts him to go out into the world, to do acts of gallantry to hopefully himself then appear in a fiction. I guess I was hoping maybe you could talk a little bit about this aspect of the fictions that inspire the conquistadors imitating fictions, making empires literally out of dreams.
AE: Will you be mad at me if I turn it around? Miguel de Cervantes was a very unfortunate man as you know. He had an incredibly difficult life and he was the worst luck ever. He was a slave in Africa. Every time his life was beginning to work, something like a tornado, disgrace would come and ruin everything. He was a very unhappy man. One of the ways in which he thought he could resolve his problems as many people of his times did was to go to New Spain, to go to Mexico, and become a rich man there because you just needed to be a Spaniard to have the right to have land and some other things which are not completely true by the way but that’s how it was perceived then and that’s how we perceive it today. He wanted to become an Indiano and he was not authorized to go to Mexico because his certification of pure blood as not a member of a Jewish family was completely fake. Once he sent his documents, the Spanish Crown was like, “No, no, no, you are a converso. You are not going to Mexico,” which speaks about the horrors of the period of course, but he’s also very Cervantine too. I have the impression that Cervantes never mentions Díaz Del Castillo. I have read many times every word that Cervantes wrote and he never mentions Díaz del Castillo. But I think that he may have read him because it was already just published in the times when he was thinking about going to Mexico. Of course, I am not the first person who says that the conception of the world [inaudible] Quixote has to do with this foot soldier that was Bernal Díaz del Castillo that ends participating in the biggest adventure in the world that is what the Spaniards called, the name I don’t like to call, The Conquest of Mexico. There is this very literary side to everything, then cruelty of the occupation was such. The unbelievable brutality of the first 100 years of occupation was so dimensional that we lost everything in the way. It’s very recent, it’s only 500 years ago, we have a lot of material about 500 years ago but about the fall of Tenochtitlan, we have only one contemporary source that is the two letters that Hernán Cortés wrote to the king, the first one after he was defeated in Tenochtitlan and had to run, and the second one after he had already win the war and is trying to convince the emperor to support him to become governor of the new lands, the Adelantado, not viceroy yet but the general in those lands, it’s not something we got for very few years because he was a monster and everybody knew it but nevertheless, he got that for a little bit of time. That testimony is tremendously biased. It’s the only thing we have, Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote but 60 years later. I think four or five soldiers wrote about it in small texts. One of them was a priest dying that dictated his memoir and he’s very biased because the priest wants the fall of Tenochtitlan to be an act of God. The other two testimonies were presented when Cortés was a judge pretty much for human rights abuses in Spain and stealing private property, so those testimonies of people close to Cortés that had great jobs in Mexico City of course are completely biased. Pretty much that’s it. There are a couple of letters but the only material we really have are the two letters of Hernán Cortés because they were written there and they are the letters, more the second one, that is the more important and better known one because this is the one in which he describes Tenochtitlan. There are letters in which he’s justifying in front of the king the fact that he had committed a tremendous political crime trying to get himself into Mexico City. That was the job of the governor of Cuba. He was like a pirate and he needed to be pardoned, so he writes this letter in which he uses his imagination to show that he’s a great gentleman. Then there is the Bernal Díaz del Castillo testimony and there are the other testimonies I told you about. This is just to give you a dimension of how little we know about what happened. The Spaniards arrived in Mexico City on November 9, 1519, and were expelled from Mexico City in June of the next year. Everything we have written about happens only in the first four days of their stay in Mexico City. No one speaks about the other eight months that they were in Tenochtitlan. Who knows what was going on there? All the testimonies are, “The day we arrive, then the next day we rest, the next day we took a walk to [inaudible], saw the market, saw the temple, we returned and that’s it.”
AE: All the historians jump from there to the conflict with Pánfilo de Narváez who comes to arrest Hernán Cortés because he had committed a crime. We really don’t have an idea of what happened there and what we are reading is not only super biased material, it’s like imagination. What I think happened is that they were terrified inside the palace, so they didn’t say anything. They didn’t learn anything. They were just there waiting for the moment in which they would be finished but I can say that because I’m a novelist. A historian cannot tell because there are simply no sources about it and all the indigenous sources, and this is very important because the indigenous voice must always be heard, come much later. The indigenous people who wrote about the conflict were already Christian. They were baptized, they were bilingual, they wrote in Nahuatl but using the Latin alphabet and most of them were professors in the university that were Catholic of course, and who had been born after the fall of Tenochtitlan. The one that we know better who was the author of the poem that tells the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, he was born in 1521 after the fall of Tenochtitlan. They knew all the people who had versions of the story but what was told was an epic, to sell the king the idea of, “Send money, send troops, and let us keep doing what we are trying to do here.”
DN: Yeah. Well, there’s a lot in the real story of Cortés, some of which you’ve alluded to which wouldn’t be believable if it was told as fiction. It’s only believable because it happened, not only that he came to Tenochtitlan against the orders of Spain, a guy who in Hispaniola in Cuba was a notary, a secretary, a clerk to the treasurer, a farmer, and a mayor but also that when Velázquez sends Spanish troops to Mexico to capture him and prevent him from going on this rogue mission, Cortés attacks the army of his own country, then somehow convinces them to follow him to the Mexican capital full of riches. Or that Moctezuma has a million opportunities to attack Cortés’ small band of soldiers, yet is sending them gifts repeatedly as they approach. All of this is as improbable as Galileo and Caravaggio being roommates in your last novel which is also true.
AE: But they were. [laughs]
DN: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I wanted to explore two things about the true history that are fraught and loaded within Mexican history, and the Mexican psyche and which relate to this book. The first has to do with the figure of La Malinche, La Malinche, the most common name for Cortés’ translator. Cortés, with his small army, likely couldn’t have defeated Mexico if it weren’t for smallpox and if he didn’t have the support of many other indigenous peoples of Mexico who had serious grievances with Moctezuma, these other people were the vast majority of the armies amassed against Tenochtitlan. But La Malinche often, with no small degree of misogyny, shoulders the blame. When Fernanda Melchor was on the show about her book Hurricane Season, which among other things explores the femicides and narco cartels near Veracruz, we looked a little bit at Octavio Paz’s 1950 essay The Sons of La Malinche, about how La Malinche is put forth as both La Chingada, the fucked, the first violation against the Mexican female body but also as Mexican Eve for actively choosing her own ruin and we looked at an essay about Melchor’s work called The Fucker and the Fucked that looks at how her book troubles this dialectic that Octavio Paz set up. But thinking of how La Malinche is blamed as the native informant who opens not only her body but also the land to foreigners and the term Malinchista today which is used as an insult like traitor, nevertheless, there have been many reappraisals of her since 1950 that have complicated this and your book is one example. For instance, if you look at the list of characters in the beginning of the book, there are only two characters that have many names, Cortés who’s also referred to as Hernando, El Malinche, and Huei Caxtitlan and his translator Malintzin who’s also known as Malinalli, Marina, Tenepal, and María del Mar among other names but she’s never mentioned in your list or referred to in the book as La Malinche. Surely, the fact that you emphasize Cortés as El Malinche counter to how he is most often named in the world and you’ve deemphasized Malintzin as La Malinche, her most common name in the world, this must have great meaning I suspect. I was hoping you could talk about La Malinche as a figure in the Mexican mythos and in contrast as a character in your book.
AE: What a delicious subject and a subject in which, as you have said, I am just following people that are smarter than me and that have done better research than myself. [laughter] But yes, it’s a very important thing to put it first on the historical level. Hernán Cortés refers to himself as El Malinche in his letters. When the indigenous people talk to him, they call him Malinche and Bernal Díaz del Castillo does the same thing. The people calls Cortés Malinche. The indigenous people in the testimonies call him capitán. In the oldest of all the indigenous testimonies, we have the Annals of Tlatelolco. They speak about capitán but the person with which they speak is Malinalli. I have the impression that I can drop in a novel but not in an essay that wants to be historically accurate, that people were really talking to her. They saw the figure of power as her and he was the one with her, so they called him Malinche. Who knows what really happened? Because everything is, as we were talking about, tremendously distorted and written later, and biased, so there is that little historical fact, like the Acolhua thing. Hernán Cortés never says Mexica, Aztec, or Tenochca. He says Acolhua, the same thing with Bernal Díaz del Castillo. We have learned through centuries of research that they were called Acolhua because they came from the people of Texcoco who were the real owners of the historical nobility in the lake. The Mexica people that were these recent arrivals to their lake related to them in order to find their city, so they call themselves Acolhuas also. I was being loyal to the original words not because I care about purity when I’m writing a novel but because I think that it gives it a different flavor. If you call everybody Aztecs, it’s a mess. It’s play though. You don’t understand anything. If you begin to understand the little differences between the people who lived in the city, who govern the city, what about the nobility, you begin to understand that it was a complex world and it was a world that was similar to ours, even when it looked like an intergalactic enterprise because the fashion was really, really different and much better I have to say. There is that level, then there is the interpretation of Malinche that for me is a very important issue because I grew up during the golden years of the national revolutionary regime that governed Mexico for 70 years but Mario Vargas Llosa called very precisely “[dictadura perfecta]” not exactly a totalitarian regime but not a democracy at all at the same time. We were educated in a nationalistic system that I find simply repulsive and dangerous. We were educated like the, “Make America big again,” or whatever is the slogan. People believing that Mexico was this sacred land and whoever moved to the US was a traitor or whatever. That moment of ultra-nationalism that comes after the Mexican Revolution, it’s also the moment in which the word Malinchista becomes important in Mexico. We are not speaking about five centuries of demonstrating this woman. We’re speaking about a very specific period in which a very specific political class had very clear intentions to use this term and make it popular. You will never see Sor Juana mention Malinalli. You will never see the historians of the early 19th century speaking about Malinchismo. That’s a 20th-century thing. Then there is, of course, the new readings of Malinalli that I think are simply fair. They are of course politically loaded, everything is politically loaded but I think that they are more accurate. In the first place, she existed. It’s very clear that she existed. We don’t have anything about her. We don’t have bones. We don’t have documents. We don’t have anything. The only thing that there is of Malinalli as a historical object, it’s a wall in Coyoacán that was the wall of one of her stables. Well, the National Theater School of Coyoacán in Plaza de la Conchita, there is one of the warriors and the only standing early Mexico City thing that we have was the house of Malinalli.
AE: We have that and that’s it. We don’t have documents, we don’t have bones, we don’t have anything. Of course, it’s a character prone to being novels because there is no data to contradict whatever. But in the moment in which she was working with Cortés, no one knew that Cortés was going to produce a genocide. It’s that simple. I can keep elaborating on this but Hernán Cortés and his 300 soldiers were a tiny platoon in an enormous army of people that was discontent with the rule of Moctezuma that really took Mexico City. In the military traditions of central Mexico, when you defeated a city, the city was disbanded. People would return later and do a different thing about the city because there was this obsession with recycling. But the city was disbanded, so what happened is that the Tlaxcalteca won the war, not the Spaniard. Tlaxcalteca won the war. They disbanded the Mexica people. Hernán Cortés, a couple of months later in the fall of 1521, said, “Why don’t we occupy downtown Tenochtitlan and make a Spanish town there?” He negotiates with Cuauhtémoc who is still his prisoner and Cuauhtémoc says, “Yes, if we will be free of paying taxes to you, we can construct a city for you in the abandoned city of Tenochtitlan.” Then things happen. Eventually, a viceroy arrives. All that enormous territory that was the Cemanahuac became New Spain. Things happen. But during the lifetime of Malinalli, she could not have known that in the next 100 years, 90% of the people from Mexico will be killed by the Spaniards. It was just another people and she was a slave. When she was given to the Spaniards, she recovered her status as the couple of the captain general. She was doing what any reasonable person would do. There is the train of freedom here, I will jump in of course and if I can win certainty or this little kid I have, David, in my tummy that is Martín Cortés, if I can make some money on the way, I will do it. We all do it. We protect our children and that’s exactly what she was doing. Let me give you a linguistic dimension of the problem. There was not a word for indigenous people of the Americas in Nahua until late in the 16th century when the word [inaudible] was invented. For that, everybody was like Ishi people. There were not Europeans and Americans. Very fast people learned but in the beginning, in the moment of Malinalli, no one knew what Europe was, what European was. There was not a colonial adventure. I imagine that what happened in those eight months is that Cortés was deciding if he would stay as a prince in Mexico or not, what he was going to do. I don’t think he had any clarity about what was the next step and that’s why he doesn’t write to the king until he is defeated, then says, “Please, send help. I have this fantastic city here to occupy.” That’s a speculation but it is a fact that Malinalli was not betraying anyone. Not only that, she was an indigenous woman of power that sustained her power for a big chunk of her life. Now we know that she had an association with the later wife of Moctezuma, that is not Atotoztli. Atotoztli is a fantastic character in the novel and opens a tobacco shop in the town of Tepeyac. She was an entrepreneur. She was protecting her children. She was a woman doing regular things. The word Malinchista has to do with the 20th-century obsession with national identities that is so dangerous and so scary.
DN: Yeah. Well, it feels like your book is participating in this reclamation or inversion that’s happening with actual historians. You mentioned this similar thing with Matthew Restall’s book When Moctezuma Met Cortés, that one of the most powerful things in that book is his rhetorical strategy of renaming the conquest of Mexico, the Spanish Aztec war. Similarly, I feel like you’re restoring not just dignity but power to this character of Malintzin or Malinalli partially through renaming, then following the consequences of that renaming. Thinking in light of the fact that we have very little, partially because of how much was destroyed by the Spanish, in terms of accounts and histories, I wanted to spend a moment with perhaps the most fraught aspect of the story which is the question of both Aztec human sacrifice and Aztec cannibalism, two things that were used by the Spanish as justifications for their subjugation of this culture as savage and barbaric. The Spanish accounts play up and exaggerate these elements for this very reason, to justify their expeditions and conquest. For instance, the assertion by The Franciscan friar Diego Valadez who wasn’t alive when the city fell but he claimed that 15,000 to 20,000 people were sacrificed each year, a number that was accepted by the Archbishop of Mexico as correct, then later, the first formal historian of the conquest raises that figure to 50,000. As you point out in one of your book reviews, this is completely preposterous, this would be 137 sacrifices each day, 5 an hour, 1 every 12 minutes, 24 hours a day every day and it’s preposterous even if Aztec sacrifice wasn’t a non-mechanized process that as you say, “Demanded extensive ritual preparation and an individually selected victim.” Because the Spanish are writing their own self-serving fictions and because the Spanish testimonies became the default history, I think there’s a lot of deserved mistrust about what actually happened, for what reason and at what scale, and I found this when looking into ritual cannibalism too. On one extreme, you find people who say there was no human sacrifice or cannibalism, it was all the lies of the colonizer. On the other extreme, you find a historian who proposed that because of a protein-deficient diet, the Aztecs ate human flesh as a regular and significant part of their diet, a theory that has been debunked because of just how bountiful, rich, and diverse their diets actually were. But in the little, I looked into it, and I want you to correct me if I’m wrong, but it seemed like there is a near consensus both within and outside of Mexico among scholars that there was both ritual human sacrifice and ritualized cannibalism. When I think about this in relation to your book for the vast majority of the narrative, the people and society of Tenochtitlan are presented as quite meticulous, orderly, clean, and sophisticated in comparison to the Spanish who not only stink but are impulsive and greedy. But that’s not to say that you present the Aztecs as innocents or just enlightened. There’s also a sense of terror about the might of this culture and maybe something terrifying about the orderly meticulousness of this culture. But the opening of the book begins in an opposite way to the book at large I think. In the opening of the book, it feels like we’re more in a European point of view with an encounter specifically with the Aztec priests who are caked in human blood and wearing human skins, and the wretched priestly odor makes it nearly impossible for the Spanish to eat the food offered to them. I wondered if you could spend a moment with this aspect of the culture, what we know about what was or wasn’t done in your mind, and how you chose to engage with it in the book in this fictionalized imagined world within the gap of history.
AE: You just said more European. I would say not more European. I was very, very meticulous working on both points of view. This novel was written around the 500 years of the fall of Tenochtitlan but I cannot be emphatic enough about how important the date is because I think that is where modernity begins and I am not the only one who thinks that. I was very meticulous putting the indigenous perspective in some chapters and the European perspective in some chapters in the beginning. When everything begins to mix up, there are chapters in which you see both perspectives and they are contradictory all the time I think but I was meticulous in the language level for example. Sometimes they are Spaniards and sometimes they are [inaudible], etc, etc. I was trying to just confront both worlds and all the prejudices that everybody has over the others. I’m partial to the Mexica of course, but I’m Mexican, that’s how it is, that’s how we are, that’s it. [laughter]
DN: Of course.
AE: What I told in Sudden Death, the bones of Hernán Cortés are in a church in Mexico City and no one goes to see if it is real. You will never see anyone putting flowers there in the memorial of Hernán Cortés. He’s not beloved in Mexico and I don’t love the conquistadores. I’m partial to that soccer game. There is one thing, and I love that you’re giving me the opportunity to extend on the problem of human sacrifice, there is a place Tzompantli, the temple where the skulls of people that were sacrificed were put after their sacrifice, first to rot, then to stay forever. The amount of skulls that have been found that are calculated to be excavations are going on and I was lucky enough to visit those excavations. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the chief archaeologist of Mexico City. The spectacle is not edifying, not at all. It’s a tremendous spectacle that made me return to the novel and change many things about it. Nevertheless, during the 300 years in which Mexico City had been the capital of something, in that moment, they accumulated 40,000 skulls.
DN: 40,000 skulls?
AE: It’s an enormous amount of skulls and it’s so full to see them but it’s only 40,000 skulls. Any European middle-sized war would produce that in a week, not in 300 years. That doesn’t mean that I believe that it was great to sacrifice people of course. It means only that it has been exaggerated and I perfectly understand why. It’s visually so impressive, the blood, the hearts, the skull. We are still prone to that mythology because it’s so visual, so strong, and so surprising but there was an economy that sustained sacrifice. Again, it’s not my idea, I’m following Moctezuma’s ideas about human sacrifice. It was a way to contain the mess of the war precisely. Wars were not fought in pre-Hispanic Mexico whenever you wanted. There was a season for war and the season of war was the time where you were not tending the fields, this season precisely, the cold days, the shorter days of the years, and wars were arranged. You could say, “I want to take over the city of Oaxaca,” and the people of Oaxaca would say, “Okay, see you on Tuesday in this field” and there would be only warriors there, only professional people. The object of the war was not to kill everyone, then take the town, burn everything, and erase the things we do but to take as many prisoners alive as you could to do a sacrifice when you were back in Mexico City. Human Sacrifice is of course [inaudible] thing but at the same time is a way of containing the horrors of life. You will just sacrifice professionals. You are not sacrificing the children of the town. There were children sacrifices, of course, there were women sacrifices in different rituals and it was brutal. But the economy of the sacrifice kept the system producing an ecosystem that has proved to be tremendously fragile. Mexico is going to a tremendously environmental crisis precisely because we forgot how the indigenous people contained the eternal disaster that land is prone to. There was an economy of that. About cannibalism, what do you want me to tell you? [laughter] Every time someone goes to mass eats a little piece of Jesus, it’s a human thing. That’s a joke. That’s a joke.
DN: No. But you do bring up in one of your reviews, if I remember correctly, Montaigne in his essay about cannibalism where he encounters some indigenous people in Europe after a performance and meditates on how he feels like the ritualized version of it, and the scale of it, which is quite small in his mind compared to the barbarity of what he’s witnessed in massacres in Europe, that if I’m saying it right, he didn’t see it as barbaric as the war that was happening or had happened in his own lifetime.
AE: This is a man that is the contemporary of Hernán Cortés, so that’s how long there have been people saying, “Wait, wait, wait, this was a ritual.” Well, in the novel, there is the joke about eating a warrior [tostada] but it was not like that. [laughter] It’s a joke. It’s a bad joke my children would say. But the fact is that eating your enemies is a way of including them in your own heritage. Now, of course, I’m simplifying very complex systems of belief here but this is a way of honoring a person. Again, that doesn’t mean that I will have a pozole of my enemies by any means. No one should and we should not go back to cannibalism. We have the mad cow thing, we have many reasons not to do that anymore but this was used like propaganda. In the first letter of Hernán Cortés that was written when he was first defeated, he simply doesn’t mention human sacrifices or cannibalism. It’s when the Mexican people are prone to become slaves that they begin to speak about cannibalism because cannibalism was a reason through which you could enslave an enemy that was not the sign by the crown as a subject of slavery. It was one sodomy cannibalism and I don’t remember which was the [foreign language], I don’t know how you say that in English, three things that authorized you to make a slave of your enemy. There is all this propaganda written mainly in Europe about cannibalism and the barbarity of the human sacrifices. All is real but it was blown out of proportion. This was a very civilized world and the obsessive cleanliness and order of the city is real in all the chronicles of the period, the Europeans are like, “Wow, this is a functional clean city.” It doesn’t have anything to do with the way in which we live in Europe. Then when the indigenous people begin to go to Europe, they always return to say, “It’s very [dirty] and they are a bunch of criminals.” They don’t share. There is this obsession of indigenous people in Europe. They don’t share. They think that to have poor people is a good idea. It’s not a good idea. There we are. Inequality is still a problem.
DN: Yeah. Well, we’ve talked a lot about history in relation to fiction and history as fiction but in most of your conversations about your last novel Sudden Death, which takes place in the same century as this one, you say that the book is not about the 16th century even though it’s set then but it’s about the present day. I would suspect you would say this new book about the encounter of Moctezuma and Cortés is really about the present day as well. I’m interested in this in its own right but I also think of when you were doing events in Australia where you said that what bonds together Mexico is storytelling, that otherwise, Mexico would be 20 different countries with 68 languages across them. But when asked by your Australian interviewer how Mexico deals with their colonial period, you said that they deal with it mainly by ignoring it. That in school, you study the pre-Columbian times, then you leap to the modern republic without more than a token moment for the 350 years of colonization. If Mexico is made of stories, it seems like you’re suggesting that it is avoiding certain stories in the ways that it’s making itself. I wondered how you see this book in that light. If you do see it as a book that illuminates the contemporary moment, do you see it as speaking into silences with regards to how Mexico sees itself?
AE: I think that the preoccupations of this book are less contemporary than the ones in Sudden Death. Sudden Death is very clearly a book for me about the birth of modernity and with it, the birth of colonialism, inequality. I don’t have to go there. God bless now those subjects are in the mainstream and we are discussing them, and it’s fantastic. We should keep doing it forever. But this book speaks about contemporary Mexico all the time. It’s all about how we have misread our past in order to produce these courses that are not that healthy I think and how we have ignored some very important things about original cultures in order to generate this artificial republic that is Mexico as all republics. There is this moment in the 19th century in which everybody wants to have a republic and they just tell lies, they form republics and establish borders, and that’s it. Now we are American, now we are Argentinian, and now we are Mexican and this is our story. All of that is, of course, fictitious and was paid by an enormous cost in human lives to establish a republic implies to silence an enormous part of the population of that republic, sometimes with guns, sometimes writing books of history but the outcome is the same at the end. There was that preoccupation, then the 300 years of ignorance is a preoccupation for me. I think contemporary Mexico is not explained by our war of independence. It’s explained by what happened before that produced it, that war. It’s that simple. Maybe it’s just a professional reformation but I don’t think that we ever had such good writing as we did in those 300 years. I’m speaking about 1560 when the first Nahuatl poems were written with Latin letters appearing in Sor Juana to [Góngora]. There are these amazing writers in that period that are describing a country that is different from Spain and is different from the original land and works well. I am very worried about our ignorance of those 300 years. Mexico as a modern republic is only 200 years old, a baby as the US, as Argentina. Italy is younger, Germany is younger but France was always the same Kingdom as Spain, not always. [laughs]
DN: Well, I really love reading your non-fiction in relationship to your fiction. For instance, your essay in The Believer, El Vocho which describes growing up in Mexico in the 70s and as you mentioned today, how it was peaceful and provincial even if the peace was also imposed by a totalitarian regime. Your description I thought was great of The Doors having a concert there and people were so unexposed to rock music or the culture around rock music that they’re watching The Doors perform from tables while they’re sipping wine, which is just so great.
AE: With their parents.
DN: Yeah, with their parents. Such a sense of closedness in a cozy way. But that same essay tracks changes in Mexico from then until now also, perhaps embodied by your father’s life who was in the 70s an international business theorist who helped the Sandinistas design a closed socialist customs system. But by the 90s, he was part of the delegation that negotiated the commercial hyperopening of NAFTA and you track in various essays NAFTA and Calderon’s war on the drug cartel which causes the cartel to militarize in a new way and you look at the Narco traffickers in your essay When a Corpse Is a Message. In preparing for today, I discovered wild correspondences across the half-millennia gap between your book and now. For instance, Cortés’ translator Aguilar who had no heirs, his house in Mexico City became the site of the first printing press in the new world, which I thought was really fascinating. You yourself trace the structure of the corrido, the Mexican ballads sung about bandits and now about Narco traffickers, that they continue the same metrical structure of epics dating back to Virgil’s Aeneid. But thinking about how you connect the ways Mexico was provincial and closed, then became globalized and international, and how the latter is what led to this uncontainable monster of drug lords beyond the law, I think this is echoed in the “opening” of Mexico 500 years ago by another set of criminals. I think you’ve even called it a utopia set up by criminals allowing Spain to move goods from the Philippines to Acapulco, then across Veracruz into Europe now that Tenochtitlan had fallen. But I wanted to spend a moment with the counter-narrative, the ways that the Americas have utterly reshaped Europe, not just the movement of goods. You rightly point out in your talks that it’s hard to imagine European food in 1500 before the arrival of tomatoes, before the arrival of potatoes, squash, or chocolate. But as you explore in your review of Pennock’s book On Savage Shores, the transmigration was both ways too. Many hundreds of thousands of indigenous Americans are going to Europe, most as slaves but not only as slaves but surely changing European culture in Europe forever with this contact. I was wondering if this sparks any thoughts for you to talk about. It’s another obvious erasure or something we’ve willfully not looked at for so long, the ways in which the Americas are in Europe in so many ways.
AE: We erased that, we simply erased it and luckily, we have very brave and very devoted young historians. In this essay, we are speaking about our essays written in English so they are about American and British historians but the same thing is happening in Mexico, the same thing is happening in Peru, the same thing is happening in Bolivia. We are, with an enormous degree of difficulty I think, reconstructing a past that has been represented from the point of view of only one side of the equation. That’s all. As I teach about that, as I live in that world, that nourishes my fiction work. I’m really interested in one thing you said that it’s the house of Aguilar and the print. Once I publish an essay written in English, I will not say anything else about it because everything was super generous and I put there well, the Spaniards had the powder and they had the horses, and there was the small books, so there were many reasons why this happened but the true weapon of mass destructions were books. What really changed everything in Americas was not the war, it was not the small books, it was the dominion of books, and the editor who was a publisher, and an owner of a bookstore was like, “Come on, man, don’t do this to me. Books are good.” [laughter]
DN: Books are good. [laughter]
AE: Yes, the books are good in general. [laughter] Books are good but it is true also, it’s fantastic that the house of Aguilar, who in the times of Cortés, was named the tongue because he was the tongue of Hernán Cortés in Maya, became the house of the first print of the Americas and now a museum that belongs to the National University. These things you were speaking about, there are these fantastic correspondences that we must take as they are, historical things that happen but also have a tremendous metaphorical content. Mexican history is full of those divine things.
DN: Well, let me bring up something that’s a little bit I guess of a tangent also but maybe a fantastical correspondence too because one of the delightful things in the book is Moctezuma’s obsession with the horses and how you imagine some of the decisions he makes having to do with not wanting to harm them, these creatures that they call hornless deer that they’ve never seen before because the sister of my brother-in-law, Marcy Norton, she’s a historian of the early modern Atlantic world with a focus on Latin America and Spain, and she just had a book come out last week, so I was listening to this podcast about it, the book’s called The Tame and the Wild: People and Animals After 1492, so I was listening to her on the podcast, also thinking about you and I talking, Álvaro, when she was talking about how the pre-colonial indigenous peoples she was studying for this book, not all pre-colonial indigenous peoples but which included those that you portray in your book, how they didn’t have animal husbandry the way the Europeans did. They didn’t feed an animal that they would later eat. If you fed an animal, you wouldn’t eat that animal. One example is when the Spanish introduced chickens and they became companion animals for the indigenous. This made me think of this moment.
AE: [laughter] Wow. I’m going to run by that book [inaudible].
DN: But there’s even more, it’s really interesting I wanted to talk about because it’s about the reverse influence too because I was thinking about you because the horses are so central in an emotional way and I’m thinking maybe they were also exotic because there wasn’t a category of animal in Tenochtitlan that was domesticated for utilitarian purposes like a horse would be. Instead, what Marcy says is that the peoples were deeply invested in a process called familiarization. It’s the capturing of wild animals, parrots, and monkeys but also deer and tapir in some regions of the Americas, and even manatee in some regions of the Americas, and turning them into companion species. I bring this up because she proposes that one influence on Europe, of the transmigration from the Americas to Europe, was likely the influence of familiarization on the development of the notion of a pet in Europe and now all over the world from seeing these parrots and monkeys, then adopting themselves, the aristocrats, these companion parrots and monkeys, which we start to see in the paintings in Europe of the time.
AE: Yes, they begin to appear at that moment.
DN: Yeah. So having a creature that you fed but you didn’t eat. You fed this creature but it actually didn’t perform any useful service for you like hunting, it wasn’t a hunting dog but is raised purely for reciprocal affection. We’ve got to think that if there were hundreds of thousands of Native Americans in Europe at this point, that there are probably countless other erased things that are fundamental to how we see ourselves now if we think about maybe the notion of a pet, which gets codified maybe a couple hundred years later, like in a Bourgeois Society but maybe it begins with the encounter of the Americas with the parrot and the monkey.
AE: You are just blowing my mind. [laughter] One aspect of the invasion that I decided to take out, because a novel is a controlled environment and a very artificial controlled environment, was the war dogs that the Spaniards had with them. They are not mentioned in the novel and they were an essential tool in the occupation of the Americas. The war dogs. What you are proposing is that they bring this idea of the war dog and what returns to Europe is the best friend.
AE: My children are completely sure it’s not true by any means but my children are completely sure that I love the dog much more than I love them. [laughter] It’s not true but they are sure. They are an essential part of our families and I didn’t have an idea that it had an indigenous American component. But it’s again, all these things that we have erased and that we are learning. Thanks to these professors that are heroes of history that are redesigning the world for us. I think about the case of corn all the time and I use it in class and I use it in public things to explain corn as you surely know doesn’t exist in its natural state. There is no natural corn. All the cereals exist in natural environments but corn does not. Corn doesn’t grow without humans. Someone has to help the plant to reproduce. It doesn’t reproduce all by itself because corn is an American technology invented in the valley of Puebla 6,000 years ago or 4,000 years ago. It’s not a natural thing. It’s an engineered product. But that corn, when it’s transplanted to Europe, becomes the source of food for the protein that the European soldiers [could eat] to go and conquer not the world, I think that we give them much more merit than they deserve but a big chunk of the world, an enormous part of the world. That Mexican invention becomes cows that the Europeans can eat and horses that they can ride, and returns to produce the destruction of this continent and important parts of India, China, Asia, etc, etc. But this thing where you’re telling about the companion animals is fantastic. [laughter] It’s another heritage like corn, like tomatoes.
DN: Yeah, I think it might be.
AE: I can say tomatoes and Lola. That is the name of my dog. [laughter]
DN: Tomatoes and Lola, I love it.
AE: That could be a great record. [laughter]
DN: Well, as we come closer to an end, I want to return to language again and to reading, and writing. There are a lot of speculative elements in your work, narratives motivated not only by what if it had happened this way but also how we would be now if it had happened this way. For instance, in your last book, the first archbishop of Mexico, Zumárraga, someone who you call a conservative lunatic versus the first bishop of Michoacán, Quiroga, who you call a genius of inclusion and egalitarianism, one of the what ifs, this, “What if the archbishop of Michoacán’s vision had prevailed and the conquest of the Americas had been more inclusive,” you wonder in one interview if Zumárraga hadn’t burned all the Aztec doctors and with them all their medical books, you imagine contraceptives would have been invented in 1569 and the feminist revolution would have occurred in 1573, and there would have been female Shakespeares, Mozarts, and Cervantes. I love that imagining in that way.
AE: We have Sor Juana.
AE: We gave you corn and we gave you tomatoes but we gave you Sor Juana also who is our Shakespeare.
DN: In the same interview, you say a novelist has the right to be a prophet looking backwards. But in addition to your work being speculative and historical, I think it has another element that we haven’t talked about and that is being aware of its own artifice or of its own making, of creating a nested set of consciousnesses between the author, the narrator, and the reader. You’ve talked about Enrique Vila-Matas as an influence, as a writer you describe as, “Only writing about writing and one who is very disrespectful in doing so,” which I love. But Borges seems like the bigger influence here and you cite him in your acknowledgments. I think of how the book is sectioned by Moctezuma’s naps and Cortés’ dreams, so we have the sense of it sectioned by being in a different logic, the logic of not being awake in the normal way. Or the title of your book which comes from a 17th-century play where the narrator says, “Mentally, one saw oneself dreaming that one was dreaming and one could also see oneself dreaming that one dreamed.” There’s this sense of vertigo where we don’t know where we stand within these nested consciousnesses or dreams and also obviously, within these hallucinations too, which makes me think of Borges. But before I ask a couple of questions about this and why you want this effect, tell us about the Borges story that this book is operating under the aura of The Secret Miracle and how you see it in conversation if you do with The Secret Miracle.
AE: That god of writing that was Jorge Luis Borges is unbelievable. The intelligence, the elegance of the style, the discretion of that intelligence, it’s just amazing and amazing right there. I always return and return to him but in the El milagro secreto, I don’t know the name in English, The Secret Miracle, in the El milagro secreto, history is suspended for a second and in that second in a very Borgesian way, the whole history of humanity happens. When I was writing this novel, I could not find an end to it. The truth is that I never know when the novel is done but in this one, I knew that it was not done, that I needed to do something else but I could not find it. One day, I was preparing a class, a college basic class on Latin American literature and we were reading El milagro secreto the next day, we were discussing El milagro secreto the next day. I remember the moment because I am not a person prone to illuminations at all but that was one I was in the middle of this brutal sciatica crisis, so I was in the bathroom with warm water in my back, just preparing the class in tremendous pain and I read it, and it was, “Yes, we live in the dream of Cortés.” Real History went the other way and we are living in the dream of Cortés. Now, the Mexican Republic, the colonial years, the US, all of that is just the dream of this mad man and the reality went the way it should have gone. [laughter] Justice for all. That’s how it was articulated. You spoke about sectioning and that’s interesting too because I wanted it to work as a great comedy. It was very important for me that it was a piece modeled in the classics. Well, in the period, I was in Colombia for a little while, I was teaching the course there that is a wonderful course in which you read the classics and that produced a whole formation for me, and it was important for me that there were four acts and that there was unit of action, unit of time, and unit of space that is broken when Jazmín Caldera leaves the palace and goes to the city because we needed to see the city but nevertheless, it has that form. As usual, with literature, there is the idea of Aleph in Borges that I think it’s a meditation of literature. At least, all the books that we have read and every book we read contains all the other books is The Library of Babel. If you are a reader, you end up containing all the books of the universe and I wanted this story to be a little bit like that, that’s why the reference to The Secret Miracle and also to El Aleph, the moment in which Moctezuma that is up to the super high seas in [inaudible] and what he says is myself writing the book in Shelter Island, it’s a reference to El Aleph of course. The character of Aleph is named Borges and when he’s staring into the aleph, he sees himself seeing the aleph and you reading about him seeing the aleph, which is I think just a miraculous moment.
DN: Yeah. Also, it made me think about you saying the moment containing everything, the aleph in the Hebrew language is silent and it’s the first letter, and it’s the inhalation of God before speech, so if speech is creating the world, you’ve taken the in-breath, you’re about to speak, it contains everything you’re about to say but you haven’t said it yet, so there’s this really interesting thing around The Secret Miracle that way too, which is partly why I wanted to bring up The Secret Miracle and you mentioned the unit of time is this book feels like it’s working against chronological time, not only your historical narrative being a narrative about the present moment perhaps but the ways I think that the present can change the past or be present in the past which literally happens in this book. The present moment is in the past in this narrative. There’s an amazing section which you’ve just referenced, which switches into the subjunctive mode and imagines the overlay of modern Mexico City on one of the conquistador’s roots but also thinking of The Secret Miracle where the writer who is to be executed and needs a year to finish his play and in the last moment of execution, time freezes and for him, that freezing is for a year the amount of time that he needs to finish the play but he’s frozen, so he can’t write during that entire year. I was thinking also, I was reading last weekend in the New York Times Book Review the meditation by Valeria Luiselli on the latest English translation of Pedro Páramo and she characterizes the book’s central concern as, “How the world of the living haunts the world of the dead, and not vice versa,” so in a way, it’s an inverse of a ghost story. She says, “Time ebbs and flows in a kind of title pattern.” Maybe I wonder in addition whether Pedro Páramo, especially since it is also a book about the violence of nation-building but in a different point in Mexican history, if Rulfo is in any way in conversation with You Dreamed of Empires.
AE: I’m a big admirer of Borges but Rulfo is sacred to me. I would never dare to get it even close. [laughter] I think that the article of Valeria is fantastic and the idea of reversing the way we have always read Pedro Páramo is simply brilliant as everything she writes. It was a big revelation for me the moment I read that line a few weeks ago. But Rulfo is such sacred territory for me. He is like the aleph really. He’s like the word. I have the impression that Mexico is the invention of the words of Juan Rulfo and I have a personal connection to it because my family, the paternal side of the family, the Enrigues are from there precisely, from that side zone of the world. Rulfo’s books are just incredibly powerful literally and in the way in which they discuss minute Mexican politics and the Bible at the same time in the same line is just unbelievable, the power of expression. He’s writing in the voice of my grandfather. His character speaks the way my grandpa spoke, so it’s even a little bit freaky. [laughter] I have a relationship with Rulfo that I suppose that many Mexican writers do. We deal with other traditions but that one is just so important, so essential. I think that Valeria’s celebration of finally, a great translation of it into English will explain many things to the American readers that were impossible to explain because the translations were not bad but were a little bit deficient. There was less effort in them than the book demands. I’m very happy because I will be able to teach it in English now. It was impossible because it was so unloyal to the original but yeah, Rulfo is sacred ground. I don’t go there. [laughter]
DN: Okay, we’ll change the subject.
AE: No, no, it’s fine. [laughter] We can speak about him all you want. I teach it as the first zombie novel. It’s a great book that still connects with people all over the place and that has been sacred for Spanish readers because the English translations were a little bit deficient.
DN: Well to end, I wanted to return to the beginning and to our conversation about language in translation. If we think about a book, as Valeria suggests, where the living haunt the dead or a book where time is frozen but we can’t change the history of the moment or a book where one is a prophet of the past as you suggest, I think of how, with Sudden Death, when the English version came out, you wrote many more pages, perhaps 20 more pages that don’t exist in the Spanish version. You even add a line where the narrator says, “If you are reading this, you are reading a translation.” This too feels like the living haunting the dead as we often treat books when they are finished and published as finished, and static. As you’ve mentioned earlier, a thing that no longer is yours, a thing external and unchanging except in how it interacts with each consciousness it interacts with, and that the translation would or most normatively would respect what it is in relation to rather than travel back and change it. It made me wonder if tu sueño imperios han sido as part of its journey to You Dreamed of Empires, if it too has gathered more new words in this new language.
AE: Of course, of course, it’s a chance. [laughter] Let me add one thing and I think that I’m using so much of your time but I’m sorry, this is fantastic because we can just talk and talk. You have to understand that in the Hispanic tradition until not very many years ago, people thought that it was the spirit who grew for them. Juan Ramón Jiménez, who lived in Maryland, a very modernist poet, thought that the spirit grew through him. This fixation you were speaking about is something that I have taken serious time to demolish. It’s a human experience. It’s human knowledge. [inaudible] It’s the worst of us writing and trying to reach the sublime to our defects. We are a people. It’s not the spirit. There is a reason why I keep changing. The second one is it’s a second chance, a translation into English or into Italian that are languages that I speak. When a book comes in German, that’s it but more than anything, English because it is the language in which I misspoke but I misspoke Spanish too. The language in which I live, it’s a second chance to add little things to change, so yes, You Dreamed of Empires is longer than tu sueño imperios han sido. There are some episodes there that were not and one of them that is essential, maybe it is in Spanish and I forgot but I think that thing we spoke about in relation to Malinalli, of people talking to her and not to Hernán Cortés, I think that’s very clearly stated in the version in English. I think that when it came out in Spanish, I was like, “Oh, I forgot to write about this.” The end itself is the same, now the dream of Cortés and what happens after but the preparation for that end is longer in English also. There are many little things in the book in English that I saw as chances to change it. Again, Borges said many times because he was a provocateur but maybe he thought about it honestly that the translation is an original. He was I think as everybody should be and not everybody is but the world is changing, that there is a change in the way we perceive literature in the US and all over the place. Thanks to translation, we are still writing literature because the national ammunition for literature is not enough, so we need to reach other languages, to find new ways of telling and enjoying literature. Borges used to say that and I love that idea that the translation is a completely different book whose author is Natasha Wimmer. Now, they put the name of the translator on the cover. That is great. I think that it should be co-author. Natasha is my voice in English. My English is so precarious compared with her, like a glorious way of reproducing the reality of my books for an enormous amount of readers. One of the great privileges of this new weird American part of my career has been to see her work with an original in Spanish and reproduce it in English. It’s just a wonder to see her work and I feel incredibly privileged not only to be translated by her but because we work together. To see her bringing up the book in English, it’s just amazing.
DN: Well, I just adored it. I just adored Your Dreamed of Empires. Thank you for being with me today, Álvaro.
AE: No. Thank you for all of this time. Thank you for letting me express myself finally. [laughter] When I go to a public reading, my editor is always like, “You can only read two minutes.” [laughter] Well, before we moved to the internet, with the magazines, I was like, “Fantastic. Now we will be able to write as much as we can,” but not. It’s always 800 words, 5 words, 72 words. [laughter] I love that you’re generating space for that lost art of conversation, not lost but endangered of conversation. Thank you and thank you for taking care of my work for real.
DN: Thank you. We’ve been talking today to Álvaro Enrigue, the author most recently of You Dreamed of Empires. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
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