Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Jorge Eduardo Benavides:The Useless Art

On a recent visit to Miami, the Peruvian writer Jorge Eduardo Benavides presented his latest book of short stories, led a creative writing workshop at the Spanish Cultural Center, and took time out to discuss Latin American literature, Montesinos, and the years he spent in Europe. All it took was one book for Eduardo Benavides to install himself in the Latin American literary world.

Set in the 80s, Los años inútiles (The Useless Years) presents a snap shot of politics, love, and the chaos of the human condition in the final days of the disgraced Peruvian president Alan García. Next came El año que rompí contigo (The Year I Broke Up With You). Once again politics and fiction intertwine in serpentine prose that makes Benavides’s literary style, in the final analysis, the only position the Peruvian author takes.

Now La noche de Morgana (Morgana’s Night) is making its presence felt among the titles that inundate book stores. Unconcerned with fashion, the book takes on the trappings of fantasy. Here are “Ulysses de Joyce” (Joyce’s Ulysses), “Cosa de niños” (Childish Thing) and “El ekeko” or the standout “A microfono abierto” (Open Mike).

The writer, who has lived in Spain for the past 15 years, stopped in Miami to present his book and give a weeklong creative writing seminar at the Spanish Cultural Center in Coral Gables like those he offers in Madrid and Tenerife. If he were a rock star, you could say that his workshop was sold out, attracting an eclectic crowd eager to of behind the scenes of each of his works.

So, Benavides quotes a Spanish writer from the beginning of the 20th century to give an example of an efficient metaphor: “she wore a white dress like a sip of milk.” Or he reads a story by Manuel Rivas out loud and, sometimes or, leaving no doubt where the writer’s material comes from, he narrates from memory the beginning of Conversation in the Cathedral and ends at precisely the moment when his students want to know more. As a bonus, there are his comments illuminating each text the aspiring writers offer to read. In a break during class, he chats with meansheerts.

Edmundo Paz Soldan has said that Mario Vargas Llosa and Manuel Puig are the two contemporary Latin American novelists who have had the greatest influence on the new generation. Reading your novels, we can see something of Vargas Llosa. What do you think of Puig?

–I like his work. There is one way in which I think there is something of influence: what love affairs there are in my novels have a touch of the ridiculous and tender that comes from popular romances. I’m interested in the development of characters because pop romances are much more real. If love isn’t over the top, it isn’t love. I believe Puig rescued and recuperated the idea that it’s not necessary to be solemn to tell real, even crude, stories.

Your novels and your stories all treat the last days of the Aprista government, the climate of social and economic instability. Is that because that the last period when you were in Peru?

–Absolutely. My last stint in Peru coincided with a period of turmoil. I went to Tenerife when I was 26. The six years before that was a tense time of participating, understanding, and feeling disillusioned with so much of what was happening in my country. With the novel I’m writing now, I’m finishing a political trilogy. It’s a novel set in the 70s with the same characters as The Useless Years, but in their junior version: the director of a newspaper appears in this novel as an ambitious editor. I think everyone has an era they write about, where they find their ghosts and demons.

I hear that Vladimiro Montesinos, the incarcerated right-hand-man of the also incarcerated Peruvian ex-president Fujimori, appears in this novel.

–Yes, he appears. But it’s a complete fiction. Not everything they say about him is true. I don’t try to recreate him; it’s more free. I was reading a biography about him when I was in Lima recently and he actually seemed like a comic book character, one of the bad guys. He had a house with a secret passage that you enter by lifting up the bath tub that leads to the beach. Montesinos is a character from a novel.

The political novel and the urban novel share an esthetic to a large degree; each relies on a rather melancholic poetic. Had you already decided on those characteristics before writing your novels or did they show up like welcome guests?

–Essentially, I believe that every novel is a discovery, a voyage that the author proposes to the reader. Even though for the author it is more or less impossible to know where he will end up, in practice all of this is revealed little by little, as though the map had been laid out beforehand, whether in notes or simply in the writer’s head. There are slight detours to follow, without too many demands or rules.

Now, in counterpoint to your political novels, Morgana’s Night is fantasy. Was that a date you had waiting?

–I’ve always been a fan of the Latin American literary boom. Those are big and ambitious novels. My personal favorite is Julio Cortazar. Of course, I also like Borges, but I think that he was an erudite author and Cortazar was cultured. He had a very intense relationship with life while Borges was more of an observer. He saw the world from his library. I don’t know much about them, in terms of their lives, but that’s the feeling I get as a reader. For me, Cortazar wrote fantasy. These stories are a tribute to him. These are not stories that take place in alien worlds; they’re here. For me it was hard to take up a different tradition. I enjoy literature in English, sure, but when it comes to making things mine, my understanding of literary reality comes from the Latin American tradition. I didn’t make that choice; that’s just how it is.

Do you think it’s possible to teach how to write literature?

–No, you can’t teach anyone how to write literature. What you can teach is how to simulate this creation but in a very mechanical way. So when you read them, you realize that there are set structures. As different as all the writers we read may be, each one knows the rule of how to write: how to begin a story, how to end, and the language. I think the workshop offers these tools and from there you can go on or not.


Interview Jorge Eduardo Benavides (Meansheets)