arises in contrast”
Translated by Carolina Orloff & Fionn Petch
Ariana Harwicz is one of the most radical figures in contemporary Argentinian literature. Born in Buenos Aires in 1977, she is the author of four novels in Spanish Matate, amor (2012), La débil mental (2014), Precoz (2015) and most recently, Degenerado (2019). Her first novel, Die, My Love was translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff and published by Charco Press. Die, My Love went on to be longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize in 2018. Ahead of the publication of her second novel Feebleminded, in its translation by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff, Hotel’s Thomas Chadwick spoke to Ariana about the tensions and contrasts that inform her work, the alienation at the heart of the novel and how the acts that save you can also kill.
Can we start by outlining the genesis of Feebleminded. Where did the novel start? Was there a specific instant or idea that guided your work?
There’s a conceptual mistake in trying to ask an author – and in turn, in the author trying to think – about the exact image, the exact notion, the idea, the sonata that triggered the book, and the idea that you’re always responding to a generating image or to an inspiration. The truth is that it’s a more intricate process, one that’s way more complex, and a lot less fixed in time. In other words, it’s not that a book emerges from something that happened earlier. Just today I was thinking that a book is in fact the result of a series of philosophical thoughts, a series of reflexions, of anxieties, and from that the novels emerge. That’s how my four novels were born. Feebleminded is the result of observing mothers and daughters, of thinking deeply about motherhood, about all things monstrous, about how damaging motherhood can be, what a burden it is. And seeing how all that is represented in paintings, sculptures, in films. Yet it is also the result of having observed idiotic mothers and daughters and women on trains, in changing rooms. And it is the result of a sequence of reflections around passion, around Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer. So I’d say that the genesis of Feebleminded is a philosophical path that ends in the book, but which began much earlier.
I’m interested in the contrasting spaces the novel describes and in particular the fluid movement between the domestic space – clean linen, fresh toast, kitchen tables – and something wilder, more organic and untamed. How important was this contrast in space to the writing of the book?
I find contrasts extremely interesting and I think they are a key element in every book. I am not sure whether I learnt that from films, where the meaning and the ideology emerges from contrast, from montage, or whether I got it from poetry, but in any case, if I had to explain what my prose is made of, I’d say it is made of the friction that arises in contrast, in contrasting spaces that are domestic and childish with those that are a lot more metaphysical, untamed, wild and abstract, from a macro to a micro level. Everything – from the tiniest detail to the grand scheme of things – is built upon contrasts. That I try to learn from painting. Not long ago I went to see this exhibition by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, and I think it has to do with something he does. A great austerity, a palette of cool colours, pastels but cool, and yet there is grandeur there, a grandiloquence in the forms, but also mystery. I think you can see the effect of contrast very clearly in paintings. I believe emotions come from that, from playing with and thinking about contrast, not just conceptually but also in terms of form. Grammatically, I always try to juxtapose words that belong to different registers; words from a very high register in dialogue with colloquial terms, and from that combination a third meaning emerges, which is the meaning of my books.
Perhaps leading on from this, the novel also appears to suggest a contrast between human interactions that are harmful and strategies of care. I came away with the sense that the human relationships that nurture are also those that are destructive. How does care figure in the novel, is care a destructive act?
It’s true that there is a certain continuity from the previous question. I cannot – and I think no one should at this age, at the age of 40 or so – half way through my life (or more) I cannot look at anything in a pure, absolute way. That is, when I look at a father and the way he treats his daughter on the train, I certainly see some malice, some nastiness, something corrupt, but I also see something noble, a degree of love, of protection. And it’s the same when I look at motherhood, friendship, passion. In this sense, all relationships carry a risk of death. All human relations traverse those two places: the place of protection – as if we were animals – and the place where we are about to shoot. Like Burroughs, aiming at his own wife as part of a game and then accidentally shooting her in the head. I think that is exactly how I see human relations – which are all relations of passion – like Russian roulette. That is how relations are portrayed in my novels. There is a moment in which you think you are going to be saved, a moment of relief, and immediately after comes the moment of extreme tension where no doubt that bullet, that kiss, that caress, that sexual act, will turn into the bullet that is going to kill you. I think all my novels have that double movement.
At the heart of the novel is an inter-generational conflict between a mother and daughter, is there something inherently violent in that relationship?
Some years ago, when I wrote the novel in 2013, 2014 (though years are very difficult to count between the novels, because time passes differently, in art time is something extraordinary), in any case a few years ago I would have said that the book was about motherhood and passion. But now I think that those are themes hovering above the text, like eagles or helicopters. I think the central theme is alienation, how the main character in Feebleminded is alienated by a passion, by a domestication imposed by the mother, she’s alienated by the sexual modes forced on her by the mother, that kind of idiotic model. Therefore, without knowing when I wrote it, this is something that I saw later, the entire the novel is perhaps a manifesto against alienation. Writing is perhaps the most non-alienating act ever. Yes, the mother-daughter relation is a violent one, genetically and ontologically violent. It could not be otherwise, even though it may be the sweetest, the most loving and the most generous relationship. There is a woman who is born of another, there is a woman who is going to die before the other. One of the two is going to disappear. There’s a body that remains where the other one has perished. There’s a body that is in decline, while the other one is blooming and emerging into youth and desire. Can there be anything more violent than that…?
In many ways the novel skilfully stands apart from any particular historical context, but at the same time there are hints of our contemporary world. I wondered to what extent the novel’s exploration of care and mental wellbeing was influenced by particular aspects of the world today?
This question hits a nail in relation to what I write and how a given era is captured, what is the proximity, the distance, the position of a writer and of the narrator in relation to a period in history. It is both. Feebleminded is a novel that deliberately shuns any sign that may give away a historical context, except for a few details: there are ATMs, microwaves, and mobile phones, so we know we’re not in the nineteenth century, but we don’t have many other clues. The novel sets itself in an era from the landscape, the region, the conversations, and in that sense, parts of it could be set in the 30s, 50s, 60s, 70s or 90s. I wanted the novel to be stripped of specific signs. On the other hand, there are contemporary ideologies and mandates and laws that are there tangentially. Perhaps all my effort, and the characters’ effort, is that of observing and mistrusting an era, hating it even. Observing it with suspicion but also great lucidity. I believe that when writing, you shouldn’t be an accomplice to the historical context. The effort of writing is the effort of sweeping away the assumptions of an era.
I’d like to know a little more about the title, Feebleminded; what was the thinking behind it?
Every title is like a construct, a crystallisation of something, like a haiku, a painting, or a single letter. More than other titles, I think Feebleminded (or La débil mental in Spanish, literally ‘the mentally weak woman’), manages to capture with precision the essence of what the main character is enduring. And also the mother, the grandmother and even also the reader, because they are reading it. So, more than my other titles, it captures a state of mind, a sentimental state, a state of the soul. A given colour. Feebleminded emerges from a contemptuous, pejorative way that the main character has of treating herself when she says that she is in love. She is in love like an idiot, like a feebleminded woman who is not quite right, who’s lacking something. In Spanish we have a few expressions to mark this: ‘Her ducks are not lined up’, or ‘she’s missing a few sweets, or a few players’. They are all colloquial metaphors whose equivalent in English I don’t know. But I prefer to leave them as they are. Out in the countryside where I wrote the novel, you see these kind of girls – a bit lunatic, a bit idiotic, not quite mentally disabled but not quite right either – all the time. It is there, in that limbo, in that in-between place, that the feebleminded, the women in love, exist.
You have said that Feebleminded is the second part of an “involuntary” trilogy, along with Die, My Love and Precocious. What is involuntary about the relationship between these three works? How do you see the connections between the novels? And at what point did you realise that the novels were linked?
By no means did I ever imagine that Die, My Love would be a novel. I was not thinking about writing a novel, nor in the genre, or the themes, or in feminism. I was not thinking about anything at all. There’s no overarching awareness that I am writing about the mother-son relation, about infidelity, about feminist issues, nor is there an awareness – luckily – of writing full stop. When I wrote Feebleminded I didn’t think about the novel in relation to the first – Die, My Love – or to the third, Precocious. In other words, there was nothing programmatic that linked them, neither in terms of suspense, nor in terms of themes or plots, or style. I didn’t even think I was going to publish them. That is, the series emerged due to a kind of continuity of style that comes through, because style is something that you cannot govern, or negotiate, or force. Style marks the uniqueness of a work. I think that what links these three books together is a certain style. And style is music, a tone, it’s what makes the novel a novel. It’s what allows a book to exist. I think that’s what groups them together.
The novel opens with a statement of origin – “I came from nowhere” – and the question of the origin of the self appears several times throughout the book. I’d like to extend this question to fiction more generally. How do you see the origin of writing? Does it, also, come from nowhere?
Just like earlier on we talked about the title, and my feeling that the novel can be summed up in it, the first paragraph is also that perfect summary: ‘No vengo de ningún lado’ or in English, ‘I come from nowhere’. Even though in the English we lose one negation, ‘coming from nowhere’ or ‘not coming from anywhere’ is the same. It should be down to the reader’s interpretation, of course, but if I put myself in the shoes of the reader, I think that there lies all the uncertainty, the friction, the arm-wrestling; between coming from your mother, your grandmother, your great grandmother, and all the horror and the sacredness implied in a genealogy, in the architecture that is a family. That building, a pyramid. Something eternal. I remember when I first saw the genealogy of my family, that went back centuries, and the vertigo that I felt. And on the other hand, that “I come from nowhere”, as if we could erase at the stroke of a pen the fact of coming from our mother, grandmother, great grandmother, from an inherited culture, from a set of mandates, as if it were an expression of freedom, of anarchy. “I come from nowhere” is also an exclamation of desire, an epithet, a poem. I don’t know where writing comes from. It’s like cave art. They come from a need. From a philosophical need, like painting, like music. It is the vital need to survive.
What are you currently working on?
This is the classic question that is so encouraging! I am not working on anything specifically. Consciously, I am not working on anything, and in a non-conscious way, I am searching. I shake my head as I say this because the search is a kind of spiritual and intellectual gesture. As the tango goes, in order to write you need to live, to suffer. So for now, I am in that intricate path that is seeking, suffering well, observing well, the path of trying to see. From that, no doubt, the novel will emerge
Feebleminded is published by Charco Press on May 2nd, 2019;
the book is available for pre-order here.
the book is available for pre-order here.
Compared to Nathalie Sarraute, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, Ariana Harwicz is one of the most radical figures in contemporary Argentinian literature. Her prose is characterized by its violence, eroticism, irony and direct criticism to the clichés surrounding the notions of the family and conventional relationships. Born in Buenos Aires in 1977, Harwicz studied screenwriting and drama in Argentina, and earned a first degree in Performing Arts from the University of Paris VII as well as a Master’s degree in comparative literature from the Sorbonne. She has taught screenwriting and written two plays, which have been staged in Buenos Aires. She directed the documentary El día del Ceviche (Ceviche’s Day), which has been shown at festivals in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and Venezuela. Her first novel, Die, My Love received rave reviews and was named best novel of 2012 by the Argentinian daily La Nación. It is currently being adapted for theatre in Buenos Aires and in Israel. She is considered to be at the forefront of the so-called new Argentinian fiction, together with other female writers such as Selva Almada, Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez and Gabriela Cabezón Cámara.
Carolina Orloff is an author, translator and scholar who has been working on research projects studying the literature, politics and culture of contemporary Argentina. At the end of 2016, together with Sam McDowell, Carolina co-founded Charco Press, an independent publishing house focused on the translation into English of contemporary Latin American literature. Carolina acts as director and main editor at Charco Press.
Fionn Petch was born in Scotland, lived in Mexico City for twelve years, and is now based in Berlin. He translates fiction, poetry and plays from Spanish and French, and also specialises in books and exhibition catalogues on art and architecture. He has curated multidisciplinary exhibitions, including the Citámbulos urban research project, and worked for several film and literature festivals. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the National University of Mexico (UNAM), on the concept of persuasion in early Greek thought. Fionn can be contacted at That Elusive Word Translations.