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A Region of the Spirit: An Interview with Carlos Franz

Jonathan Blitzer: The stories that appear in La Prisionera, which you have recently presented here in Madrid, take place in the imaginary city of Pampa Hundida, which also exists in your novels. What is Pampa Hundida? Where is it situated, and how was it founded?

Carlos Franz: Pampa Hundida is, above all, a region of the spirit, a mental space where desire runs up against obligation. Geographically, it is an oasis in the middle of the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world. It is a small and isolated city, but is connected to the world through modern means, although through some very antiquated ones as well: there is a sanctuary there where hundreds of thousands of people go each year to celebrate a religious festival, for instance. I believe Pampa Hundida synthesizes elements of Latin American modernity: the mixture of advancement and the persistence of certain vices. Young businessmen and drug dealers with satellite phones—both partake of a kind of intense and popular mestizo religiosity (both Christian and pagan). I “founded” the city in my novel El desierto (The Absent Sea, McPherson, New York, 2011), where I needed a symbolic space that was appropriate for a modern tragedy.

JB: You have also written a book of essays about Santiago, in which you offer a portrait of the city constructed through seventy Chilean novels from the twentieth century, and you´ve given it the subtitle “imaginary city.” What is it about the subject of how cities are seen and imagined that´s of such interest to you?

CF: The current tendency to accept as a fact the notion that we are all citizens of a “global village” seems ridiculous to me. Each day there are fewer citizens, in the political sense of being active members of a polis. What there are, though, are consumers in a global market, a majority of them passive. For that reason, I think, I´m interested in real cities—but as “books.” Cities can be read as dramas where public and private lives constantly intersect. We can read in these cities our own conflicts between identity and “globalness,” our desire for the future and our sense of belonging, or not, to a tradition.

JB: How old were you when you first left Chile? And where did you leave for?

CF: I have spent most of my life in Chile. Although I was born in Switzerland and moved to Santiago when I was eleven, my family is Chilean, going back several generations. In my forties I went to live in Berlin, and later London and Madrid. It´s now been eleven years and I´m considering returning to Chile, without the least bit of longing for the place. I believe I am yet another case in a Latin American tradition of constant emigration. My European forebears went to Chile, where they mixed with criollos and indigenous peoples, and later they left, once again, to reenter the rest of the world. Other examples are the forty-five million Hispanic-Americans in the US.

JB: How important has it been to live outside of Chile?

CF: It is a well-established fact that we know our own countries better from afar. And I think this has helped me better understand my own. But the biggest revelation amidst this distance has been to discover myself as a Latin American. The Latin American cultural community is something very real, real and much more complex than the simplifications that are sometimes fashioned of it in Europe or the US. Living abroad, I´ve discovered that I´m Latin American, or Hispanic American because Spain is part of our cultural identity, another province in that community. While one lives in a Latin American country, he feels, alongside his neighbors, all the differences, which seem important. But on finding myself in the Hispano-American émigré community in Europe, I´ve discovered that these differences are artificial. What we have in common— the language, culture, and racial mestizaje—make us far more similar than our differences render us different. The nationalisms that have divided us were an invention of criollo oligarchies, which in the wake of the various independence movements invented, and thus divided, nations they could then dominate in a system akin to caciques. Today nationalism is, unfortunately, one of the main illnesses afflicting Latin American politics; from afar this is very clear.

JB: You wrote your third novel, El desierto, from Berlin. And the novel deals with the subject of transitions and confrontations with the past, which has a certain resonance in Germany. How does this compare with the experience of living in Spain? Have you found that the Spanish case has captured, or triggered, your imagination in any particular way?

CF: My experience in Germany was essential for me to better understand the subjects at the heart of The Absent Sea. Especially the complex matter of “collective guilt.” In Spain, I´ve encountered some interesting parallels to the Chilean case. The three years of the Allende government were like those initial years of the Spanish Republic, a galvanizing movement and at the same time a very chaotic one. For its part, the Pinochet dictatorship was inspired by Franco's. And, finally, the transitions to democracy in Spain and Chile have followed similar courses, marked both by successes and difficulties. But much more important than all this has been putting in check my own version of the Spanish language, subjected to the constant challenge of different Latin American dialects that are heard here in Madrid along with the Spanish dialects themselves and their variants. It is an enlivening experience for a writer: to see that in the end no one is master of the language and that you have the freedom and the challenge to invent one for yourself.

JB: Originally you were thinking about moving to Barcelona, but you decided to live here in Madrid . . .?

CF: A Catalonian government employee told me that my four-year-old daughter would have to study only in Catalan. It surprised me a great deal that the public school system of a Spanish community was not offering the option to study in Spanish, or at least a mixed-language scenario. I do not like states that limit in that way the cultural freedom of their citizens. Barcelona seems to me a beautiful city to visit, but not particularly attractive as a place to live. Catalonian nationalism is no different than other fanaticisms.

JB: Who are your favorite writers? Who would you count among your influences?

CF: One of the few advantages of being an autodidact is to be able to read without preconceived theories. And so it is always a surprise, finding influences without limitations. Of course, I´m a product of reading the great Latin Americans, like Borges and Vargas Llosa, but I also have a preference for Anglo-Saxon literature, especially that which transgresses national boundaries. Henry James and Joseph Conrad, for instance. I also love literature that challenges the notion of national identity. Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick strike me as such incursions into human prejudices. As a foreigner, I feel it’s a limitation to consider these only as “great American novels.”

JB: Your work has been translated into several other languages, but never English. What does it mean to you, if anything, being translated into English? One of your novels is due out in English this spring . . .

CF: McPherson & Co. will be publishing at the end of April my novel El desierto under the title The Absent Sea, translated by Leland Chambers. It means a lot to me, as English is my second language as a reader and because I admire some of its narrative traditions, as I mentioned earlier. It was also a challenge to break the “sound barrier” in the Anglo-Saxon edition. English is forever becoming more closed-off to translations, compared to German, French, or Spanish. It is a clear show of arrogance and cultural impoverishment. The old concept of a Weltliteratur, or world literature, which Goethe wanted, depends on a constant flow of translations. When a culture sees itself as self-sufficient, and translates very little, it grows isolated from world literature. The exercise of comparing imaginations across cultures is vital for us if we are to realize that our own dreams are not the only ones possible.

JB: Could you say a few words about your story, “Spaniards Lost in America”?

CF: The story is part of a series of fictions situated in the imaginary city of Pampa Hundida. In this case, it is a comic drama about emigration, the solitude of the uprooted, and the egoism and greed that often characterize immigrants who are already settled in somewhere, when they turn their backs on others who are like them but have only recently arrived. An amusing satire, I hope.