When I bought my copy of Comemadre by Argentine novelist Roque Larraquy, the bookseller looked up at me from behind the cash register and said, “Be prepared—this book blew my wife’s mind.” He mimed an explosion mushrooming from his head. Comemadre, translated by Heather Cleary and published by Coffee House Press, was a 2018 nominee for the National Book Award for Literature in Translation. The slim volume is divided into two sections, each of which is filled with unsettling wit, poetic gore, and despicable characters. And, despite the bookseller’s warning, I was not prepared.
The first half of the novel is set in 1907 and centers on a rural Argentine hospital whose staff is seeking scientific answers to a question that has long languished under the purview of religious philosophy: What happens when we die? After a series of preliminary trials on some unfortunate ducks, the doctors conclude that the vocal cords can still operate for nine seconds following a swift decapitation. With this knowledge, they proceed to conduct their grand experiment on human subjects, whom they recruit with an ad promising a clinical trial for a cancer-curing serum—sugar plus vanilla. The moral dubiousness compounds with the experiment’s execution. As the guillotines fall, the unwitting subjects offer their last words to science, to be studied for evidence of higher truth. In the second half, the novel follows a performance artist working in Buenos Aires one hundred years later. In the postmodern art world, the vivisection of transcendence and its pursuit proves just as gruesome and rife with quandary as in turn-of-the-century medicine.
Reading Comemadre, one gets a sense of what Larraquy might be like as an educator: rigorous, interested in risk-taking, and unafraid of the horrors and humor that collide in the human mind. Larraquy currently serves as the director of Argentina’s first undergraduate degree in creative writing—a program he helped found at Argentina’s national public arts university, the Universidad Nacional de las Artes (UNA), in 2016. The five-year program, based in Buenos Aires, offers specializations in poetry, fiction, playwriting, audiovisual narrative, and other written forms. And, as is the case with all of Argentina’s public university degrees, the courses are entirely free for students. With enrollment exceeding 1,000 and the first class of students about to enter their final year, Larraquy is helping to prepare a new generation of writers to set out into the Argentine literary landscape.
I spoke with Roque Larraquy about Comemadre, writing that parasitizes, founding UNA’s writing program, and the history and future of Argentine literature.
Susannah Greenblatt (SG): Comemadre explores doubles of many kinds—conjoined twins, two-headed humans, doppelgängers, identity-merging plastic surgeries. How do you see the relationship between the first and second halves of the novel?
Roque Larraquy (RL): The initial idea for Comemadre was that it would have two texts that were different and that could come into dialogue. It’s not that I wrote the two texts separately and joined them. From the start, the idea was to do this operation of doubles. It interested me that the novel wouldn’t only be a literary text but also an object or a body that would incarnate its own concepts.
I also wanted to work with the possibility of dialogue between a scientific perspective and a perspective furnished by the art market of those years, which had to do with the body, with experience as part of the artistic object. So it seemed to me that those two parts could coexist in conflict and that one could parasitize the other.
SG: The seed of the historic part, which takes place in 1907, was a real advertisement that you found in an old magazine. Can you tell us a bit about that ad? What about it captured your imagination?
RL: Before I ever found that ad, I was really fascinated with texts written at the turn of the century. Not literary texts but rather texts on spiritualism, galvanic medicine, phrenology, etc. All of those self-proclaimed “sciences” that, with the passage of time, lost their scientific status and were left in oblivion. What interests me about them is that they’re disciplines that are looking to legitimize themselves as such, and they produced texts that are furious, argumentative, trying to convince the world: the truth lies here. And they’re constructing, also, a lexical system—names, words, scientific terminology—that in some way gives body to the discipline. So that struck me as closely related to literature. They’re texts that, read a hundred years after the fact, have potency. If one forgets that they’re trying to put forth a conception of “the real,” they are, as fictional constructions, extraordinary.
As I was reading all of that, I happened to find an ad in a magazine called Caras y caretas, which was a really important magazine in Argentina with serious political debates of the moment. It was an ad that promised a cure for cancer in a suburban clinic in this town that was just barely developed and had not yet been incorporated into Buenos Aires: Temperly. And then, what really piqued my interest was that the ad said that the serum was developed by one Doctor Beard in Edinburgh, England. This error really seemed to me an excellent seed from which to develop a narrative world.
SG: As the doctors contemplate the philosophical quandaries of the guillotine, they begin to debate where the self resides and when a self ceases to exist. For you, when and how does a character first come to exist? Can a character cease to be, or cease to be themself?
RL: I don’t know if I believe so much in the idea that a character is a fictional incarnation of an identity or a psychology. For me, a character is, in strictly formal terms, a system of recurrences. There’s a name, a set of actions, their way of talking, in the event that they speak in the text. These keep reiterating and among these reiterations there appear small variations. For me, a character is this. Sorry if that sounds a little soulless.
A character who is not the narrator and who doesn't otherwise speak, I believe, is constituted in the reading. One begins to construct fantasies of identity or psychology that coalesce into a character. I believe that every character, before the reader comes into play, is an incomplete character. It's the reader who stitches those elements together.
“What excites me is that this country—which has had such a long, unpredictable history—has such a potent relationship with writing and with reading.”
SG: The theme of failure runs throughout both parts of Comemadre, emerging as a necessary step in the pursuit of transcendence and sometimes also its result. Can you talk a bit about your interest in failure?
RL: Comemadre, and also my second book—Informe sobre ectoplasma animal—and the third novel that I’m currently finishing are all set in the first half of the twentieth century for the most part. This period interests me, because it’s a moment when the positivist outlook—so rooted in the idea of progress, of grand goals, of grandiose projections of the future—must contend with its own limitations and the failure of those grand projects as the century goes on.
Failure interests me, on the one hand, as an aesthetic tool. For me, the arc described in a grand moment of apogee and then of decline offers so many possibilities for narrative. On the other hand, it permits me to make some kind of connection between literature and the history of Argentina, which is characterized by having, between the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, an economic situation that enabled prosperity's grandiose ambitions, while never ceasing to be a country that’s so profoundly unequal—even at those moments when it was marked by such wealth.
With respect to failure as a writer or the failure of the writer, I don’t know if I have something very developed to say. In South America, writers can almost never live reasonably well from what they produce—there are so few cases of those who can—so it seems that the idea of failure, and of success, generally takes on a more material measure: success in terms of sales, success in terms of distribution, in renown.
In any case, from my point of view as a South American writer, failure would be to try to write for a certain idea of your reader, to plaster over your own intentions as a writer, and to wind up writing something that doesn’t represent you or the contours of what you wish to represent. The text, I think, constructs “the reader.” So to write toward something that’s impossible to discern—there we find an easy entry point to the idea of failure.
SG: Was the founding of an undergraduate degree in creative writing an idea that was in the works for a while? Why did it come to fruition at that precise moment in 2016?
RL: Well, to start, maybe the question would be “Why not earlier?” And this is also something we asked ourselves. There’s a strong tradition in Argentina of denying that writing can be taught to begin with. At UNA, we’re still debating this question with a few literary critics who—to put it bluntly—say that writing is a sort of gift from God, that it comes from the hands of the muses, or something like that. A very famous literary critic said that artistic writing is a faculty governed by desire and that desire cannot be taught. But faculty member and writer Gabriela Cabezón Cámara responded with her own question: If desire can’t be taught, then how can it be critiqued? How can a theorist or literary critic be trained but not a writer?
SG: How is this program different from the options for writing education that came before it? Can you talk a bit about what went into designing the course of study?
RL: Buenos Aires is a place where there are many opportunities for the training and education of writers, among them postgrad degrees, classes at cultural centers, and workshops given independently by a hundred thousand different writers. But what was missing was an undergrad track—a university program that would bring together all of those types of training in an integrated way.
In our research, we studied programs at other universities around the world and noticed that many of the existing programs in countries around Latin America were really rooted in the Hispanic tradition, a lot of focus on literature from the Spanish Golden Age. It was important to us that our program have a foundation in the Latin American tradition of writing.
And then, in the United States, there’s such a strong and consolidated publishing market that seems to dominate the approach to education in creative writing programs. It seemed to us to be a training in how to find success in the literary market.
So what we had to figure out was the role this program would have in a country like Argentina, which has an extraordinary literary tradition but doesn’t have a publishing market to match that tradition in terms of size, volume, or influence. Narrative writing isn’t thought of so much as a product of mass consumption here. We wanted this to be a program that integrated education not only in literary writing but also in other modalities of writing. There’s narrative, audiovisual narrative, playwriting, essay, as well as more professional tracks. It’s a wider scope of study that allows students to consider what place their own production could occupy in the context of all the writing being produced today.
SG: Now that there are over 1,000 students in the program and you’re getting to know a new generation of writers, what excites you about the future of literature in Argentina?
RL: What excites me is that this country—which has had such a long, unpredictable history—has such a potent relationship with writing and with reading.
It makes me so happy to see how these students work both within and outside of the university. They have held their own writing contests, they’ve worked with presses to publish the winners of these contests, they’ve founded their own independent presses for prose and poetry, and their books are sold at bookstores and reviewed in newspapers. They make zines. They have a political view of the writer's role and there’s really strong political participation among the students in general.
Something that particularly interests me in creating a free, public program is that there are not only people of all ages but also people of every social background—it’s not a space dominated by the middle and upper classes. You see that there are students who are construction workers and trade workers, and some are the first in their families to study at a university. We have kids who have just finished high school alongside people with PhDs and eighty-year-olds, all coexisting. Witnessing this community grow with the program makes me feel there is great promise for the future and that something’s going right.
Roque Larraquy is an Argentine writer, screenwriter, professor of narrative and audiovisual design, and the author of three books, La comemadre (2010), Informe sobre ectoplasma animal (2014, illustrated by Diego Ontivero), and La telepatía nacional (to be published in June 2020). In 2016, he was named director of Argentina's first degree-granting program in creative writing, housed at the Universidad Nacional de las Artes, a public institution.
Translated by Susannah Greenblatt