Living to Write: An Interview with Doménico Chiappe

Jonathan Blitzer: “The Writer of Memories,” the story we’ve published in this issue of the magazine, is the first one to appear in your book of stories, Párrafos Sueltos (2003). And in several senses, the story contains some of the central themes of your work: immigration, the notion of place and location, the weight of literary tradition (and the anxiety that provokes). But in a fundamental way this story demonstrates an interest of yours that runs even deeper—one that is ubiquitous in your work and that deals with a fragmentary and multiple array of subjective sensibilities: distinct points of view, variable memories, unique (and sometimes conflicting) impressions. Can you say a little about this emblematic story of yours? How did it come to be? Where were you in your career when you began writing it?

Doménico Chiappe: I wrote “The Writer of Memories” when I had just left my job as a journalist and moved to Spain. (In Caracas I had been working at the evening paper TalCual, which I founded in 2000 with a group of dissidents of Chavism at a time when the media was supporting him unconditionally.) With that emigration, which I embarked on at the age of thirty, I found my narrative voice: that of a permanent foreigner. A condition that in Venezuela, where I arrived when I was four years old, I always refused to recognize. This epiphany of sorts coincided with my decision to devote myself completely to the writing of fiction—which was what prompted me to relocate to Madrid—and my intention to meld the multimedia language I was interested in (forms of reading and writing on screen) with the book or print format. In this story I tried to apply these literary techniques and to take on the theme of identity and the reconstruction of memory—and the liberties that each person takes in doing so in order to be able to live without being overwhelmed by certain regrets.

As you point out, there are symbols in the story such as Monterroso who partially embodies the literary tradition—a tradition from which I wanted, and still want, to break. And some of the episodes are real, like the constant moves. For the greater part of my life I didn’t live in the same place for more than a year at a time. But these episodes represent, at the same time, a more generalized instability in more diverse aspects of life that I transferred to the narrator. In Venezuela I began to jot down notes for the story, and at first I thought it would be a novel. Later, though, I decided to tell it in a more concise way, playing with the possibilities of its suggestiveness, which I think is another stylistic tendency to which I feel attached. I wrote it in Madrid. On arriving here, without a secure financial safety net (I did not yet have a work permit or grant or incoming salary) I faced two challenges: to write without concessions and to survive, which is to say, to make enough money on which to live. The idea to write other peoples’ memoirs for them [which the narrator of my story does] occurred to me as an alternative way of making a living. I even took out a couple of ads in the paper and hung flyers in bars, but no one called.

JB: One of the penetrating ironies of the story is that the narrator, this writer of memories, is hardly in possession of his own memories. He writes other peoples’ memoirs, but struggles to make out his own recollections. His struggle in this regard partly stems from his moves and constant emigrations. You have also been, and remain, an immigrant. You were born in Peru, then spent years in Venezuela, and now live in Madrid. How has this emigration affected (if at all) your creation of the reality of this story? Has it affected your faith in the stability of certain narrative structures, for instance?

DC: It is an elegant thought that this condition of being a permanent foreigner—like that of a sea turtle carrying its house on its back, capable of covering enormous distances without abandoning what is truly important—has carried over into my literature. But I do not think there is a relationship between this physical waywardness in my life and my fictions. The instability of the narrator of the story was also my own for a long time up through the years when I was working for different magazines and papers.

JB: As a journalist, you’ve done reporting and written long-form profiles which employ certain literary tools. (And you’ve even just published a book on the subject, called Tan Real Como la Ficción.) What about movement in the opposite direction: not using fictional tools in journalistic writing per se, but rather going from writing journalistic pieces to fiction. What tools or sensibilities that are more “journalistic” in nature do you make use of when writing your fiction? Or more generally, how do you see the intersection between your journalistic and literary work?

DC: Journalism has taught me how to observe, how to ask questions and to listen. It’s also taught me to write from a position of respect for people and to strive to understand that each person is a complex being. It has allowed me, as well, to get to know hundreds of lives, hundreds of intimate spaces—and not just spaces related to me or those around me. Doing journalistic work means gaining nourishment through stories. And above all it means coming to understand that these stories are pieced together. Before writing fiction I think it’s necessary to “live.” Arriving at that deep knowledge of humanity and avoiding facile judgments of [human] behavior with what are effectively editorials cloaked in a narrative voice. That role, the role of the judge, I leave to the reader. I like to play with the reader’s own cultural baggage, to make it so that the adjectives and conclusions are furnished by the reader.

That said, the narrative techniques learned by way of newspaper writing are precarious. You have to learn them first from writers of fiction and then apply those standards and tools to journalism, respecting that pact of veracity that nonfiction demands while appreciating that fiction proposes a pact of its own, of verisimilitude. I often cite John Hersey as a practitioner of journalistic writing, and among fiction writers Conrad and Calvino are touchstones. These are enriching travels back and forth, from one writerly practice to the other, in order to convert both forms of writing into art.

JB: How (and when) did you begin experimenting with multimedia writing?

DC: I remember realizing that a story I wanted to tell in the text of my first novel had already been told before in certain pop songs composed during the early 1990s. I realized that music narrated these stories both with immediacy and in the first person, and that the novel did so only from a remove, both temporal and personal in nature. In the second half of the 90s I had a friend who was studying computer programming and the dynamics of the Internet; another who had a music studio; many others who were in underground bands or were good photographers. I spoke to all of them about my ideas on the multimedia literature I wanted to embark on, and they all collaborated without asking for anything in return. I cannot overstate the role that altruism and good fortune had in the production of Tierra de extracción, my multimedia novel.

JB: How has your interest in the Internet–the writing made possible there—come to influence your own work?

DC: The first version that was published (on CD-ROM) of the multimedia novel Tierra de Extracción, in 2000, had approximately 150 pages of text. For the second version, which was finally published in 2007, I rewrote it on screen several times and, although I never tabulated its length in pages, it’s possible that it ran at barely a quarter of the original length. Without compromising the complexity of the story or its characters, in the work of this later edition I sought concision: to capture the greatest amount of information in the smallest number of words. There are diverse theories about what the digital medium requires, but I aimed to achieve three particular sensibilities: fragmentation, brevity, and forcefulness. Nonetheless, none of this is new. My writing on screen was influenced by writers such as Rulfo, Faulkner, and Cortázar. In print, books have been published that seem to have been written for, or in, cyberspace, many years before the web even existed.

The challenge of the web is to manage to tell stories with diverse artistic languages (visual, musical), and to make it so that they can hang together without crashing into each other in a space that allows each of the constituent elements to be at the same distance (a click) from the public. This fosters a polyphony in the work, and also involves a creative polyphony in a sense because, in light of the requirement that there be diverse languages, different types of creators have to participate in the process.

At the same time that I maintain my interest in the web and that I investigate and create multimedia works, I also continue to write in traditional manuscript form (i.e. for print books). I belong to a generation that has begun to hybridize genres, but I grew up with the actual paper book. And in my writing in this medium I go through some of the possibilities that a reader of a text on the screen has, only that on paper the reading itinerary is imposed and more linear for the most part. In one of my books (the novella Un hombre hace), the fragmented and concise writing inserts itself into the novelistic framework as though the reader opted to interrupt that linearity by opening a link. In another (the novella Al son de las fronteras) there are parallel narrations, two voices on two distinct narrative planes that take place at the same time before the reader. There are stories (like the series “Oficios” or the story “Espejos”) that are comprised of fragments, almost discrete appeals to one’s understanding, that the reader then has to assemble.

JB: Could you say some more about your multimedia novel Tierra de extracción (Land of Extraction)? What does it consist of exactly and how has it taken shape?

DC: On the screen the organization of a narrative fitted out in pages proves obsolete. A story is a novel if it has more than three storylines, and it is a short story if it has less. Tierra de extracción has five plotlines: 1) In the 1990s a young man emigrated to a small town and meets a woman who has just come back from a similar sort of exile. 2) In 1914, when the work on the first oil well began in Venezuela, a woman arrives looking for a laborer who has been writing her love letters, but she never finds him. The son of the laborer in question will search for this women years later. 3) The wife of a rancher frequents a discothèque which is a redoubt of freedom in that society where she cheats on him with someone who resembles a soap opera heartthrob. The cuckolded husband, by mistake, looks for someone else who looks like the actor but is from a soap opera on another channel. 4) The corruption of a social activist. 5) The personal travails of a character who is considered a success.

The work is the result of a combination of languages that interact among themselves and are accessible as discrete layers of the novel. The textual component serves to relate the plot points, the musical component transmits the emotions of the characters, the lyrical element of the songs reflects the inner thoughts of the protagonist of each chapter; the design and illustrations play with various iterations of the theme; the photography contextualizes the real stories; the animation portrays symbolic and dreamlike representations, and the programming serves as a communicative vessel to structure and transmit the sixty-three chapters. All this orchestration was possible thanks to the collaboration of musicians, painters, photographers, and programmers who participated in this project simply for the pleasure of it. In 1996 the writing of the novel began and the overall multimedia work was completed in 2007, when it was published online. In 2011 its programming structure was transformed to make it compatible with Mac and Windows operating systems, and out of this process came a structure open to anyone who wanted to make use of it, which is a better ending than the mere publication of the novel.

JB: You have commented that on the level of language it is important to maintain three characteristics in multimedia and digital writing: brevity, circularity, and fragmentation. Do these values—or perhaps they can be considered aesthetics—also guide your prose writing outside the digital context?

DC: The term aesthetic is valid in this case. The series of three stories I wrote, called “Ritmos” I wrote back in 1999 and later included in Párrafos Sueltos, from 2003. There I play with different (musical) meters to structure the narration. They are fragmented stories, with their beginnings and endings related in a short number of lines, and they proceed independently until the “music” forces them to come together. In “4x4: Rokanrol,” for example, there are three pieces that coalesce in the meter of 4x4, then three other pieces emerge, which combine with the four previous ones in 8 beats and, in this way, the stories start coming together until closing the circle at 16. It is an idea that could also be adapted to the multimedia framework, because it follows with exactitude these articulations of fragmentation (a branchlike structure with independent parts), circularity (all the different faces of the story can be seen without the reader needing to see where the story began exactly) and brevity (poetic, a certain concision of narration).

JB: I’m inclined to say that you write micro-stories—stories that are often very short and that have “chapters” of no more than a few paragraphs. But the editor who appears in your story, “The Writer of Memories,” who is forever writing the narrator to reject his manuscripts for being too much like the micro-stories of Monterroso, leaves us with certain doubts about how to define the genre. How would you describe the stories you’ve written in Párrafos Sueltos, for instance, or in your digital series of vignettes called El Evangélico según San Trópico?

DC: One cannot ignore the literary tradition because it is impossible to create a truly avant-garde work out of ignorance. But it is also a problem to simply repeat the forms developed by other writers who have found their own styles for themselves. In terms of “El evangélico según san Trópico,” the text is something like an “adaptation” of the totalitarian political process that has existed in Venezuela since 1998 to the structure and language of the Gospel of Mark. The Bible is one of the first book-length examples of hypertext, with its offering of fragmented reading and navigation guided by the different books, chapters, and verses. I wanted to extrapolate that narrative structure and apply it to the story of the rise of a messianic caudillo like the Venezuelan one.

JB: I recently read an elegant essay of yours, dedicated to your children María and Samuel, in which you tell them that “in this unforgiving world asking questions often constitutes an act of rebellion, most of all a private rebellion, which is the hardest kind.” Do you see your work—with its emphasis on individual voices and (fragmented) private subjective experiences—enacting or exposing these “private rebellions” in any way? And if so, does the body of your work represent perhaps a kind of overarching architecture meant to connect and house these private acts?

DC: The intimate rebellions, interior and private, against dogmas, canons, norms and ideologies (in short, against “accepted truths”) is the most important of all, and it is the first step toward discovering the reality behind the veil of reality. And you’re right that I am interested in reflecting the multiple forms that these private rebellions can take. I also like the words you’ve chosen—“architecture” in particular—because it is precise. In a novel and in any work that might be read all together as a great novel . . . the work of any author is similar to that of an architect.

Only time, the persistence of works in time, their readings after ten, fifty, or a thousand years will say if the edifice was constructed with strong, durable, or perishable materials. The idea is to achieve an oeuvre which, in its entirety, has this unity, but of course also that each book can stand up on its own, communicate [its message] without the crutches of the larger body of work. That is what makes art and literature transcend the moment in which the particular work was created, what allows them to contain that magic of moving the viewer or reader without it mattering where or when she first experiences the work. The rest (the market, the criticism of the moment, the lobby of writers from the established salons, the change of technological formats, the book fair), the rest is silence, to steal the title of Monterroso’s only novel. Or said another way: the current noise around each book will be silence.

 

photo by Lisbeth Salas