Read the first part of this interview here.
Ezio Neyra: What are you working on now? Do you think it differs from your writing during the nineties, in terms of autobiography?
Juan Pedro Gutiérrez: Yes. As my life has gone on changing, my writing has done the same. I think it’s most obvious in my poetry, mainly from Arrastrándose a secas a la oscuridad on. For example, I just finished a novel, Fabián y el caos, and it’s completely autobiographical, but it explores earlier years in my biography and it’s set in the sixties and seventies. I wanted to narrate, from my point of view, in a very intense way, what happened to a young gay pianist during those years. It’s a novel based on a friend of mine, who was like a brother to me and who committed suicide. I was twenty years in trying to decide whether to write that novel or not, until I was finally able to get it done.
EN: I know the term “Cuban/tropical/Caribbean Bukowski” bothers you. All the same, I wanted to ask what you think of Bukowski’s poetry and fiction.
JPG: I like Bukowski a lot. It’s a shame he’s not recognized by the academia in the United States because he’s a guy that dared to write in a completely different way, to not give a damn about anything in the world, not even the academics or the critics. During a time when writers were looking for salaries, he didn’t teach a single university class. What happens is that his experience was very much a U.S. phenomenon. He had a German father, and he grew up traumatized because the father would hit him. Which was not my case. My father was always good to me. He wasn’t a German son of a bitch with Nazi pretensions or anything like that. So I wasn’t damaged by a traumatic childhood. My childhood was very good; I had marvelous parents and grandparents. I have all Bukowski’s books and from time to time I pick them up and reread them. But I think it’s a kind of literature that’s very different from my own.
EN: I’d like to ask if you believe in the concept of a national literature. And, if you do, what specific features would you say best define Cuban literature?
JPG: Look, the idea of eliminating national literatures and talking about literature on a global level belongs more to modernity. I don’t believe in it. I believe that literature, like all of the arts, functions by region. Maybe we, you and I, are grouped together as Latin Americans. The Cuban tradition is one of the biggest bodies of literature within Latin American literature, like the Argentinian or Mexican. It’s a corpus distinct from other traditions, with characteristics that are very much its own. I think Cuban literature is a very important literature, that it’s branching out and expanding all the time. This very middle-class literature that’s being written in Spain, or Germany, or France annoys me a lot. Really interesting authors are coming out of Mexico. Authors like Elmer Mendoza, or Guadalupe Nettel, or Guillermo Arriaga are of interest to me.
EN: Within the Cuban tradition, what line of authors do you come from? What authors do you feel closest to?
JPG: I have a little theory, say, and it has to do with the idea that there’s a sort of underground tradition in Cuban literature, that starts with maybe Carlos Montenegro and Hombre sin mujer, and afterwards there are more books in this line, like Boarding Home by Guillermo Rosales, Todos se van by Wendy Guerra, my own books. Maybe, I’m not sure how much, Tres tristes tigres by Cabrera Infante, something by Ángel Santiesteban, something by Guillermo Vidal. Which is to say, there’s a small group of writers who have dedicated themselves to doing very interesting and quality work. I adore Boarding Home by Guillermo Rosales. That’s the kind of Cuban literature I’m interested in. Anyway, I adore work by Carpentier and by Lezama Lima, too, most of all his poetry and essays, but I don’t think that Carpentier or Lezama have influenced my writing. If we’re going to talk about influences, there are North American writers who have been fundamental for me. Hemingway as a short story writer–not as a novelist, in which case I don’t like him at all. I learn a lot from reading him. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Grace Paley, who is a master. Maupassant, too, has always fascinated me. Chekhov.
EN: And within the Latin American tradition, which authors have you found most interesting?
JPG: Borges fascinates me, and so does Cortázar. Gelman’s poetry is stupendous, too. Then there’s the other group of big writers, who I’m not interested in, like Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez or Mario Vargas Llosa. They had some very important books that I loved, like Aura, or Vargas Llosa’s first three books, but after that I lost all interest in them. Juan Rulfo is a master who I have to reread from time to time. What bothers me with the big figures of the Latin American boom is that they always had an opinion about everything. That’s something I hate because a writer is a very plain and ordinary person–normal–like the person who makes the coffee or cleans the office. Exactly the same.
EN: Finally, would you say there are general thematic and aesthetic differences between the Cuban literature written on the island and the Cuban literature written in exile?
JPG: I don’t know much about the literature of exile. But it does seem to me that, in exile, the Cuban writer often fades into the background. That’s the impression I get. The very same Cabrera Infante writes practically nothing in London. There are two authors in exile who I’m interested in. One is Severo Sarduy, who needs to be read and published more. And the other is Reinaldo Arenas, but only his last book, Antes que anochezca. I’m not into his earlier work, which, in my opinion, was very pretentious and overwrought. Still, Antes que anochezca, which Arenas apparently dictated into a recorder every day while his partner transcribed it, is an extraordinary book. An autobiography, but told with a great deal of fatigue, madness, and urgency, with complete sincerity. Those of us who write know that it’s very difficult to achieve a high degree of awareness in the most intimate areas of our own lives. But Reinaldo Arenas dared to explore all the most sensitive spaces, and he did it in a masterful way.
Translated from Spanish by Lizzie Davis, a writer, translator, and musician living in Providence, Rhode Island. Her translations have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Circumference, and Aldus, among others. This year, two of her chapbooks of translation, Book of Birds with the Faces of Women and Circular, are forthcoming from the multilingual Spanish press Skat.