VITAL ACOUSTICSA CONVERSATION WITH Jorge CONSIGLIO
TRANSLATED BY Carolina ORLOFF
ON THE PUBLICATION OF Fate (CHARCO PRESS, 2020)
In Jorge Consiglio’s FATE four characters go about their daily lives within the simmering heat of a Buenos Aires summer. The characters are not particularly exceptional, their lives punctuated only by the mundane contours of everyday life: going to work, cooking meals, spending time with family, walking the city streets. Across the novel—lovingly translated by Carolina ORLOFF and Fionn PETCH—this everyday landscape is softly transformed as mundane details become hooks upon which the more profound moments individual lives are hung. A meteorologist has a fling with a colleague on a research trip and is forced to question the foundations of her marriage. A taxidermist gives up smoking and falls in love with a fellow quitter. In a little more than a hundred pages the strivings and frustrations of human existence are laid bare through the banal interaction of the characters with the city around them. Ahead of the publication of its English translation this month, Hotel’s Thomas CHADWICK spoke to Jorge CONSIGLIO about the central ideas that guided the novel’s construction, the intensity of the writing experience and how a story can become a time bomb.
︎ For an ‘Author’s Note’ and an excerpt from the novel, see here.
To start with I’d like to ask about FATE’s origin. Can you describe your first encounter with the novel or the ideas that would go on to produce it?
The two ideas that are expressed in the text came to me at the same time during a night of insomnia. On the one hand, the question of all things coincidental. The way in which things that appear to be trivial can suddenly cause substantial changes in the destinies of characters. On the other hand, the need to resort to magic thought as a way to quench anxiety; the illusion of being able to anticipate the future eases emotional tensions and produces a feeling of safety. I always have those ideas in my head—they are preoccupations that recur in everything I write—but in this novel, I found a form of narrating that challenged me to write it: to create three narrative paths which at the beginning are parallel and at the end, appear to cross each other.
In the fascinating author’s note that accompanies the novel you remark that you “wrote FATE over the course of a single scorching summer.” I am interested to know more about the process of working on FATE was it a particularly intense experience?
I wrote Fate in the mornings of three scorching months. I’d wake up early and begin work right after washing my face. I’d made sure I had some water and mate near the computer and would not get up from the chair before noon. Then, I’d have lunch and spend the afternoon correcting what I had written in the morning. I live in Buenos Aires. During the summer, everyone seems to leave the city and above all what prevails is a kind of blandness, an atmosphere like that of the end of a party. I believe that something of that climate filtered into the novel. The writing process that Fate had was intense and arduous. I tend to go through what I write over and over, again and again. In this case, I tried to work with the notion of silence more than in my previous books. I went back to each sentence to find the exact sound, the right music. Writing, in general, is as hard a practice as it is pleasurable one. For me this is a process of endurance. I struggle to come across the exact shape that the text calls for but, at the same time, I assume that task as a vital justification for my being.
The novel continuously strives to outline the connection between seemingly innocuous details and more profound moments in individual lives. You illustrate this in the author’s note with an example of a woman who overslept and missed her train on the day the brakes failed and the train crashed. This relationship between the detail and the profound also strikes me as particularly pertinent for the practice of writing. What was the role and function of detail in your work on FATE?
In my opinion, literature is intrinsically linked to metonymy. Not everything can be narrated. Therefore, the healthiest process for any text is a process that aims to find the appropriate details, details that can condense within them the multiplicity of meanings that the text needs. A well-chosen detail brings the right temperature to the story, but it also describes the characters indirectly, generating dramatic tension, elaborating the setting and heightening the intrigue. I personally find details fascinating. They work as condensers or crossing points. They are the key element for the system of tensions to ignite within the text, for the story to become a time bomb.
Another key theme that emerged in my reading of the novel was the role of the city in driving the connection between the innocuous and the profound—almost as a catalyst. This strikes me as a specifically modern phenomenon. I once read that during the period of rapid urbanisation that took place during the 19th-century, one generation would see more people in a day in the city than their parents would have seen in their whole lifetime in the countryside. How do you see the novel’s predominantly urban setting relating to the interactions that are produced within it?
Definitely in this novel the city is not just a setting; to a certain extent, it has an active role in the sense that it conditions the movements of the characters. It is a space of loss but also of encounter. It’s linked to the idea of the labyrinth. There is a kind of ‘vital acoustics’ in the characters that works in response to the city of Buenos Aires. It’s not about getting lost, but rather about how one gets lost. In addition, one of the characters, Karl the musician, is German, which means he feels this alienation more determinedly. To a certain degree, the city is a mirror for him. It refracts his condition as a foreigner and he feeds off it. I think that Karl’s very estrangement is a way of relating to the world.
Thinking further about the relationship between individuals and their environment, I was struck by the contrast between the different professions of Marina (meteorologist) and Amer (taxidermist). Each in their own way try to bring order to an element of the natural world, but each character experiences the struggle inherent in doing this. How do you see the contrast between these two characters and their professions?
I think that in many ways these characters are defined by their professions. Marina K is a meteorologist and is in charge of monitoring the relationship between the levels of humidity in a remote place and the development of certain species. That is to say, the answers she’s looking for—and the preoccupations that inhabit her—are always in a place removed from her day to day. You could say that the same thing happens to her at a personal level. In terms of Amer, he’s sensitive to the stirring of the world—which he experiences as a whirlwind of constant changes—and finds refuge in the most basic routines. In other words, the rigour of habits is a tool he uses to confront the exaltation of the day to day. Stability is for him a value, and he links it to the rigidity of habit. It is not strange, therefore, that a character with such traits works as a taxidermist, freezing for ever the ephemeral instant of a gesture.
Early in the novel, the character Karl notices a scratch in the wall. For Karl the crack comes to represent “stability … certitude, permanence” something that can be trusted unlike the incessant movement of the rest of the world around it. The scene reminded me of something John Berger says in Ways of Seeing, in which he interprets paintings as moments of stillness. At times reading the short segments that construct FATE felt a little like reading a series of still-life paintings. How does stillness work in the novel?
The notion of stillness is ambiguous in the novel. Some characters, like Karl and Amer, link it to a notion of stability. Others, like Marina K and Zárate, relate it to the extinction of life. The idea is embedded in indeterminacy; in the zigzagging of the plot, the concept takes one direction and then another. There is a polyhedral understanding of stillness, of permanence. I wanted there to be no restrictive ideas in Fate. Reality, represented by fiction, is shown always as a quagmire. That is the kind of ethics that the novel tries to convey.
The novel’s overall question—again as outlined in the author’s note—is fate or chance: is there structure to our lives or do we exist in chaos. How do you understand FATE’s answer to this age-old question?
Again the answer here has to do with uncertainty. In Fate, like in a vast part of literature, big questions are formulated but no answers are given. The duality of fate and chance exists as the pillar of the story, however, to sway the scales toward one side or the other would manifest the moral of the text in a way that would be too obvious. Everything that takes place in the novel is complex and can be read from many different perspective, even from opposite points of view. That complexity in the plot communicates the levels of connotation that the novel aims to leave with the reader.
Jorge Consiglio was born in Buenos Aires in 1962. He has published five novels: El bien (The Good, 2003; Award for Emerging Writers, Opera Prima, Spain), Gramática de la sombra (Grammar of the Shadows, 2007; Third Municipal Prize for Novels), Pequeñas intenciones (Small Intentions, 2011; Second National Prize for Novels, First Municipal Prize for Novels, re-published in 2019), Hospital Posadas (2015) and Tres Monedas (2018), published by Charco Press as Fate (2020). They have all been awarded prizes in Argentina and in Spain. He has also published three collections of short stories, including Villa del Parque (2016), published by Charco Press as Southerly (2018), five books of poems and a book of essays.
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.
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.