Periscope: Carlos Gamerro

Carlos Gamerro

Carlos GAMERRO (fiction, translation, nonfiction; Argentina) has authored six novels, most recently Cardenio (2016), a collection of short stories, and a body of literary criticism, as well as translations of seminal English-language literary works including Shakespeare, W. H. Auden, and Harold Bloom.  His own work has been translated into German, English, Turkish and French.  Gamerro’s script for Tres de corazones [Three of Hearts] was made into a feature film in 2007.  A 2008 IWP alum, he returns in the fall of 2019 for a teaching residency at Grinnell College.

I. Literary/personal

Q. Your Favorite Grammatical or Stylistic device?

As a writer, at present: montage. That is, writing without a master-narrator, putting together collages of letters, conversations, poems, plays or fragments of plays, legal documents & newspaper articles I might collect or make up, etc. etc. I have found out that when you want to recreate life of a certain era in writing, the most convincing way is through the language of that era.

Q:  What books are on your work desk, under your bed, your phone, on your mind, right now? What languages, and what magazines, do you read in?

Quite apart from the books I might be teaching (at present, Joyce’s Ulysses, Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida); the novel I’m working has led me to read Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, a fictional account of his years in Siberia as a political prisoner, and reread Lucas Bridges’ Uttermost Part of the Earth, a memoir about his life as a settler in Tierra del Fuego and his efforts to save the Selk’nam (Ona) Indians from the genocide, which took place towards the end of the 19th century.

I read in English and Spanish, regularly; occasionally in French, Italian and Portuguese.

Q:  What marks—ideas, friendships, networks— has your time in the IWP left? Do you retain affiliations with US literary culture?

I have never left Iowa, I am merely returning in the flesh – my days in the IWP are always with me, whether I’m consciously remembering them or not. I’ve been in touch, on and off, with other participants and members of the staff.

Since my first stay, in 2008, three of my novels have been translated into English, but all of them in the UK. Let’s hope my stay in Iowa this year can strengthen my ties with US literary culture.

II. Literary/general

Q:  What Latin American writers are in your view neglected, or deserve to be known more widely? What about Peninsular writers? Is Spanish-language writing in the US on your reading radar?

I think most Latin American writers are neglected, even (especially) by Spain and its publishing industry. A newspaper from Spain, El Mundo, published a list of the “100 best 20th century novels in the Spanish language”: 70 from peninsular Spain and only 30 from Latin America (this would be a mere historical curiosity were it not for the fact that it is kept alive in the internet, by Wikipedia among others). Given the relative merit of the Latin American and the Spanish novel (not to speak of sheer numbers) the selection is preposterous, and says more about Spain’s provincialism than about the merits of its novelists (which--and in this I begin to answer your second question--I don’t rate very highly; in poetry of course they are wonderful (think of Machado, García Lorca, Alberti, Hernández, Guillén etc.) but in narrative, from the 19th cetury onwards, they have produced nothing that can even be remotely compared to Borges, García Márquez, Onetti, Carpentier, Lezama Lima, Donoso, Vargas Llosa, Bolaño, etc. etc.

The situation is different in Portuguese: Portugal has great novelists in the 20th century, but the number of Brazilian writers and the dimensions of its publishing industry make for a more balanced relationship. When it comes to translations into English, market acclaim is at the most granted to one or two authors per generation: García Márquez and Vargas Llosa in the 60s, Bolaño in the 80s. etc. All in all, writers in Spanish fare better than those in Portuguese, whose work is less frequently read in translation (João Guimarães Rosa, arguably the greatest novelist of the20th century. in the Portuguese language, is hardly ever in the international reader’s radar).

I am regrettably not familiar with Spanish-language writing in the U.S., but I acknowledge the debt.

Q:  Argentina  (or at least Buenos Aires)  is renowned for its intensive literary workshop scene. What effect does this have on what gets written and then published?  Can this form of collectivity be compared to the kind of professional training MFA programs have served contemporary American literature?

Buenos Aires, and to a lesser extent some of the other larger cities (Rosario, Córdoba) have an intense literary scene, and the writing workshops or talleres (and also reading workshops – I am blissfully ignorant of whether we have literary salons) are a very active part of it. And this scene is in turn connected to the varied and thriving independent publishing scene, so authors find in it not only a way of learning the craft but of approaching the market, or non-profit oriented publishing circuits and, more importantly, creating alliances such as publishing ventures, readings, performances and like events.

It is common to observe that workshops and / or MFA programs do not ‘create’ geniuses or even great writers; but this objection or rather qualm misses the point entirely. They might not raise the ceiling sky-high, but they certainly raise the floor: during my stay at Iowa in 2008 I attended quite a few readings by students of the different MFA programs, and could never detect any writing that was technically bad, unclear, with obvious flaws in the construction of sentences or the deployment of information.

Workshops and writing programs are also important in that they allow writers from underprivileged backgrounds, with incomplete schooling, to approach the world of writing and publishing.

Q:  We at IWP are inevitably preoccupied with the concept of “world literature.”  Do you think in terms of a world  (= interconnected)  literature—as a reader?  as a writer?  a scholar?  teacher?

I am writing this on the plane taking me home from Sydney’s “World Literatures Conference and the Global South”, so I’ve just experienced a powerful immersion in a new world literature zone: it is not often I get to meet so many writers form China, New Caledonia, Australia and New Zealand, including of course Aboriginal and Maori, Japan, etc. My usual circuit is more the Latin American, US, and European scene. The exception is of course Iowa. When I am asked about the IWP, my first remark is “it is truly international; not just North American and European writers with the odd Latin American, African or Asian to complete the picture.”

What is also important is to work towards a greater reciprocity of communication. Lecturing at European or US universities, I’ve often found out that they might be very interested in what I have to say about Borges or Carpentier or Argentine politics, but when I start talking about Joyce, Shakespeare (two writers I specialize in) or Brexit, I soon find myself talking to the walls. I believe that the idea of world literature should rest on complete fraternity and equality of reciprocal knowledge: writers and scholars from ‘the North’ or ‘the West’ should be ready to listen to what writers from ‘the South’ or ‘the East’ have to say about them, not only about themselves.

III. Broadest

Q:  Any gratifying or hopeful developments in social life or politics you’ve seen in Argentina in the last, say, decade?

We´ve suffered another four years of devastating neo-liberal policies but thank God, and our voters, it seems that by the end of the year they will be over (fingers crossed). Quite apart from that, I think the confluence of feminism, indigenism and environmental activism all over Latin America, and not just in Argentina, is one of the most promising developments in the last years.

Q: Is social media strictly evil… or…?

If we are talking of the internet, I have to say that without it, being a writer living in Argentina, I would’ve never have been able to write my novel Cardenio, which is set in Shakespeare’s England, or the novel I’m working on at present (and most definitely will complete during my stay in Iowa), La jaula de los onas, which takes you places like Tierra del Fuego, the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, Greenland at the time of Polar exploration, the Chicago World Fair of 1893, and the Pullman Strike of 1894.

If we are talking about e-mail, it’s useful for communicating with family, friends and colleagues and sharing stuff, even if it is not always a good idea to begin your day by wading through the inbox. When I’m working on a book, my usual practice is to not look at email until I´m through with my day’s writing.

As to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. they’re a real pain, and I sometimes wonder if they do not do more harm than good. They are proving to be a better vehicle for fake news, manipulation of elections and Orwellian surveillance than for new forms of liberty, equality and fraternity.

>Q:  Describe Your utopia.

Talking about the last decade, and the next, I believe any utopia at present should be directed towards long-term survival – i.e. it should be ecologically-minded. In a way, we have it easy: for once we all agree that the deciding factor is lowering CO2 levels, something that is, for once, objectively measurable. Of course, when it comes to deciding on the way to do this, solutions vary from the techno-fix to searching for alternatives to present-day capitalism. But rather than talk of a solution, we should think about changing a whole philosophy of life and learning with humility from those cultures that have lived for thousands of years in harmony with their environment.

Thank you.

October 2019

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Happening Now

  • Kristian Sendon CORDERO (IWP '17) co-edited a special issue of Words Without Borders on writing in the Philippines. Its range of poetry in the country's many languages includes Filipino work of Genevieve ASENJO (IWP '12).

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