Criticism as a tool for relating to national tradition defines the reading coordinates from which Maximiliano Barrientos (Santa Cruz, Bolivia, 1979) draws links with the literature produced in Bolivia. The mark of the periphery and the contexts it creates are two central elements in his reflection. Author of En el cuerpo una voz (2017) and Hoteles (2012), among other books, in this conversation Barrientos shows some of the vertices that distinguish his dealings with Bolivian literature.
Victor Vimos: When you think of the Bolivian literary tradition as a space for dialogue with your formation as a reader, what unique characteristics appear?
Maximiliano Barrientos: My relationship with the Bolivian literary tradition was never canonical; that is, it was not mediated by a series of authors linked by influences and attempts at parricide. Perhaps this is because Bolivia has always occupied a marginal place in the Latin American panorama. We write from the periphery. The peripheral condition is what has defined Bolivian literature, not only because we were absent during the boom, but because we never had an infrastructure to develop literature as a profession, as happened in other countries, where there were promotions and incentives, such as scholarships for writing and an established literary market.
VV: This writing from the periphery, however, has other types of spaces, marks, and meanings that strain its relationship with what we could call the writing of centrality. For you, how does that place on the periphery operate in the contemporaneity of what is written from Bolivia?
MB: In many cases, periphery becomes precariousness: that is why, in Bolivia, writing was experienced in many cases as a hobby, something that was done on weekends or during one’s spare time. There is no infrastructure that supports a literary culture: there are few bookstores, little media specialized in criticism. In some cases, precariousness was romanticized as a cult of marginality. It is useless that the name of Jaime Saenz begins to circulate through the academic media of Latin America or that the names of some other authors appear in recognized publishing houses if there are still a series of shortcomings at the level of infrastructure in Bolivia. The periphery is not a non-hegemonic style, it is a lack.
VV: What kind of dialogues or questionings do you have with this same tradition when taking a stand and setting your perspective as a writer?
MB: Echoing Borges’s famous essay, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” I can say that my approach to literature did not have a national paradigm. The writers (men and women) who influenced my world and my style belonged to different geographies. Which does not mean that Bolivia is absent from the imaginary in which my books were forged.
VV: As in Ecuador or Peru, what we call the “literary tradition” generally recognizes a series of works inscribed in a circuit with certain characteristics: urban, white, mestizo, written in Spanish… How do you look at the works that overflow these categories and allow for a reading of the literary closer to the non-central, in the case of Bolivia? Are these works present in your reader and writer’s imaginary?
MB: The idea of tradition already implies a whole mechanism, servile to power, that establishes a certain normativity. In my case, when I write, I don’t think about tradition or how some reference books have imagined the country. Perhaps this is due to a generational issue, in which other types of searches have been present. What legitimizes a novel as Bolivian? Perhaps what it does in this historical period is something very different from what it did fifty years ago, when literature was a way of consolidating a national identity (a good part of the boom novels can be read from that angle). I think the literary drive, before thinking about categories, should transgress them. That rhizomatic condition interests me in the books I read and write.
VV: It is interesting to look, as you propose, at the mobility of the symbolic representations the novel has had throughout history. In this sense, what would be, from your perspective, some of the representations that attention-catching novels written in Bolivia or by Bolivians fulfill in this historical moment? What place does the novel have, at a time like this, in Bolivia?
MB: I think answering that question exceeds the space of an interview. There is a plurality of imaginaries and representations. The social impact of the novel is marginal, and this does not refer specifically to Bolivia, but to all contexts. Unlike what happened a hundred years ago, the novel has no impact on the cultural imaginary. It seems to me that popular music (trap, for example) can have a more incisive impact than the novel. That displacement seems to me to grant certain fundamental freedoms to the creative aspect, but at the same time it turns it into an elitist exercise.
VV: Perhaps one of the elements of constant presence in the writings of our countries is pointing towards the conflictive relationship between tradition and modernity (understanding these categories, again, as blocks of defined time and space). What is your perspective on that tension? Do you feel yourself to be part of a framework that also attends to this difference as a point of dialogue with creativity?
MB: I think it is problematic to make such a cutting distinction between tradition and modernity. This pair of opposites should be deconstructed, and I think every novel that aspires to a literary condition does so. The challenge is how to make use of the literary techniques of European modernism to narrate what is most local, how to use these techniques to configure a voice of its own. In this gesture, the deconstruction of that pair of opposites is produced, since the books that are born from that intersection are inscribed in a line opposed to McOndo’s project, which, coming from South Americans, wanted to be sold as globalized and therefore “universal.” That category of “universal” is ideological. It appears as a concealment of differences, as a denial of the singular.
VV: What would be, from the other side, the place of “the local” in that singularity?
MB: The singular is always on the side of difference, that which cannot be assimilated into a totality. It seems to me that the challenge consists of how to use the narrative techniques of modernism so that this singularity, which is always difference, is not hidden, erased by the totalizing discourse of the moment.
VV: What relationship do you identify between your narrative and what could be considered “contemporary Bolivian narrative”? Closeness? Distance? Questioning?
MB: There is a plurality of proposals. More than a work project, it would be necessary to think about specific books and the points of contact that can be established with others. That, however, strikes me as part of the critic’s task, and not so much the writer’s.
VV: What would be some recent books, in the Bolivian context, with which you achieve those points of contact?
MB: I don’t know if there are contacts with all of them, but they do seem to me to be important proposals: Los afectos by Rodrigo Hasbún, Nuestro mundo muerto by Liliana Colanzi, Los dos entierros de Eleuteria Aymas by Máximo Pacheco, Cuando Sara Chura despierte by Juan Pablo Piñeiro, Click by Christian Vera, Los fantasmas del sábado by Adhemar Manjón, and Desvelo by Saúl Monataño.