My first imagined land was Romania, where my father was born. When I was a boy in Buenos Aires, my father hardly talked about his distant native Romania at all. He only said what was strictly necessary. I ended up filling in his silences with my imagination.
My second imagined land was a kind of wasteland on the outskirts of Buenos Aires where, with two friends who, like me, were twelve years old, we put up a kind of flag that signified a declaration of independence from the Argentine Republic. Nobody knew about our humble little revolution.
My third imagined land? Perhaps you should look for it in my first novel Agua, which was published when I was around thirty years old. The novel depicts a country that is not entirely real and not entirely imaginary. The action is set in Portugal, there are scenes in real cities such as Lisbon and (above all) Coimbra, but others take place in a city invented by me, from Argentina. Coincidence or not, the invented city in Agua (possibly an echo of my father’s native country) is called… Vila Natal.
I won’t carry on listing them; there’s not much point. I have moved several times. I have lived in Paris, in Madrid. I now live in Bordeaux, in the south of France. I no longer really know what a real country is, or an invented land… I am increasingly mistrustful of borders.
Let’s move straight on to the imaginary country in The Imagined Land. A country in a novel, which is a blend of the real China and the China we have constructed through western eyes. The China that is idealised—or even feared—as some kind of alternate world. The China that, like the best fiction, reminds us that things could be done differently, or could be different…
My first contact with the real country, with real China, was in 2004. My wife and I took a trip to Beijing and Shanghai. A month-long trip, which was the result of various twists of fate. Our flight from Paris to Buenos Aires was overbooked and the airline gave us a compensatory voucher equivalent to a certain amount of dollars—I don’t remember how much—but which doubled in value if we used it on a different flight at a later date. Money was tight for us at the time, and we could have done with getting the money back from the airline, but my wife and I always loved to travel.
At first, we thought about going to Japan. We soon realised that the hotel and day-to-day life in Japan were going to cost a lot. Then we had the idea of travelling to China. It was practically a last-minute idea. So we went without any planning. Almost blindly… The distance, and the feeling of not understanding anything were all part of the magic of that trip… It is good, sometimes, to let yourself go, to not understand. Like when you read a poem or see a painting that captivates you, even though the meaning is not completely clear. In any case, the experience was so intense that it left various marks: I started reading Chinese literature and books about China (which, in part, led to my novel The Imagined Land) and my wife began studying Mandarin… She has made great progress with it.
After that trip, we took three more, which are included in a book I published last year: La máquina de escribir caracteres chinos [The Chinese Typewriter], which is a blend of travel journal and fiction.
But I wrote The Imagined Land much earlier. After that first trip and before the following ones. I wrote it after the impact of that first trip, but also influenced by various books that I read when I got back. Ghost stories and fantastic tales by Pu Songling, Gan Boa or Yan Zhitu. Classic novels. Early 20th-century novels by writers such as Rou Shi.
At one point, I came across a book published in 1926 by the French Jesuit, missionary and sinologist, Henri Doré. I am referring to his fascinating Researches into Chinese Superstitions. It was thanks to this book that I learned about the ancient (and not so ancient) existence of ‘ghost weddings.’ In other words: weddings between the living and the dead. It would take a long time to explain, and I won’t go into too much depth as it could be a spoiler for those who want to read my novel. In any case, the subject fascinated me. So much so, that I could not stop writing about it.
Many of my novels have been born out of the (unintentional or unexpected) union of two ideas that haunt me or hammer incessantly inside my head.
With The Imagined Land, for a long time I had wanted to write a novel or a piece of fiction dealing with the special bond that usually exists—not always, but fairly often—between girls aged 13,14 or 15… An extremely powerful bond that, of course, is mostly friendship, but into which other factors and other ingredients are often mixed: admiration, total understanding, and even a kind of love and physical attraction.
As a writer, I am fascinated by things that have no name, or that should have a different name to the one most people usually give them. Something like that happened to me with these two things, which I ended up mixing, combining, in The Imagined Land: on the one hand, marriages between the living and the dead; and on the other, the very special bond between two teenage girls.
Faced with these things that have no name (faced with the ineffable), I wanted to write a novel in which the exact name of the village in China where the action takes place is never mentioned and the exact name of the narrator is never mentioned.
The narrator, a 14-year-old girl, accepts the name that Xiaomei (her dear friend) gives her: she accepts the name Ling (which is a misunderstanding), but we never find out what Ling’s real name is. And it does not really matter.
In The Imagined Land, I wanted to work more on the emotion, to delve deeper into it compared to my previous books. I could joke or boast by claiming that in this novel, I tried to do what Flaubert did in A Simple Heart.
At the same time, I can see now that with The Imagined Land, I embarked on a second phase in my books. The emotion is more palpable, but that does not stop me from still investigating narrative forms or techniques, from being meticulous in my choice of words, the rhythm of my sentences…
I have been a part of the Oulipo group (the workshop of potential literature) since 2014. One criticism often made of the Oulipo (and I do not agree with it) is that if literature is too focused on form, it loses the emotion. I usually respond to that comment that one of the greatest emblems of romanticism and emotion (the sonnets) are full of formal rules compared to free verse.
In The Imagined Land, there are no ‘contraintes’: there are no classic Oulipian-type limitations. Members of the Oulipo do not solely write Oulipian books. And every Oulipo member has their own particular way of approaching the concepts of ‘limitation’ and ‘potential literature’. I think that this freedom has helped the group to remain relevant, active and renewed, even though it will soon be sixty years old.
That said, The Imagined Land does have a couple of rules. One of them includes the ‘separating’ (or ‘interspersed’) chapters which appear in italics and present the dreams in which the narrator and her dead grandmother meet. These chapters are not narrated by the dreamer (as would normally be the case) but instead by the person being dreamed about. Moreover, there is a whole theory about this within the novel. A theory that explains why the person being dreamed about is the one who best remembers a dream…
Once I’d finished the first version of The Imagined Land, I asked a dear Chinese friend (who lived in Madrid at the time, like me, since I wrote this novel in Madrid), to do me a big favour: for ten consecutive mornings, we would meet in a quiet café—if there is such thing as a quiet cafe in Madrid, but that’s another matter—and she would let me to read the novel aloud to her. That’s what we did. My friend, of course, gave me her opinion. Above all, I wanted her to tell me if anything sounded ‘false’ or ‘un-Chinese’. I wasn’t so concerned with things being ‘true’ or ‘plausible’. In other words: I wanted that voice and that story set in a lost city in 1930s China to be believable to my Chinese friend, some eighty years later.
At one point, I remember, I was reading aloud when I came to a phrase that said something like ‘su ánimo se vino al suelo como un castillo de naipes’ [literally in Spanish: his spirits fell like a castle of cards]’. My friend frowned. I looked at her and said, ‘Yes, I know, it’s a trite metaphor; it’s commonplace.’ She replied, ‘No, that’s not the issue. In China there are no castles…There are palaces.’ In the end I left that image but changed it to ‘palace of cards’. And I did the same with other metaphors and expressions. I ‘Chinesed’ them, if I may use that word. It was so interesting to take certain clichés in our language and colour them with the help of another culture.
Some of this, I dare say, makes the novel broader in scale. It deals with absolutely universal and well-known themes (love, family, friendship, tradition, freedom), but it sets them in a unique context that is rather strange to us, to Westerners. A context which, moreover, is the reverse or opposite to me: the narrator is a woman, the action takes place a century ago, China is the perfect antipode of Argentina, and while the narrator is 14, I started writing this novel (or had the initial idea for it) at the age of 41…
I realise now that the age of the narrator, Ling,—the age when our eyes are opened to the world, the age when we discover so many things—probably encapsulates the very same blend of the known and unknown as the novel does.
The concept of an ‘imagined land’ alludes not only to China. It alludes to death (this is what the narrator’s grandmother in fact calls it) and it also alludes to the early years of life, when everything seems possible. The age when—despite economic or social constraints, despite cultural traditions, despite laws and family pressures—our life and our future stretch out before us, vast, like some infinite land.
Translated by Charlotte Coombe
El país imaginado by Eduardo Berti (Impedimenta, 2012)
The Imagined Land by Eduardo Berti, translated by Charlotte Coombe (Deep Vellum, 2018)