Ariana Harwicz is one of those writers whose intensity reminds us that some of us live what we think, and also that to think is to think against something or someone. This is the source of the vitality that emanates from every one of her responses. Talking with her reminded me that the flowers that bear our names also grow at the extremes, on the edge of the cliff overlooking the abyss.
Ariana Harwicz is from Argentina, born in Buenos Aires in 1977. She currently lives in France, where she continues writing. She is the author of the recently published Trilogía de la pasión (Anagrama, 2022), which brings together her three acclaimed novels Matate, amor (2012), La débil mental (2014), and Precoz (2015). The same press published her latest novel, Degenerado (2019). She has been translated into many languages, including Hebrew, French, Arabic, Italian, and Ukrainian. The translations into English of her first three novels are available online on the webpage of Scotland-based Argentine press Charco Press.
In this conversation, we talk about her book Desertar (2020), written during the pandemic in collaboration with French translator Mikaël Gómez Guthart. Despite its brevity, this is an enigmatic and complex book—an untranslatable book, if you will. It would not be quite right to say that, in this interview, we talk about translation and desertions; rather, we try to enter into the mystery that surrounds translation, exile, the mother tongue and the translated tongue, literature and art. Desertion, of course, also means foreignness, living elsewhere, living that tension, that asperous friction between that which is one’s own and that which is others’.
Marcelo Rioseco: My first question about Desertar has to do with an element that’s quite difficult to define: the presence of an indefinite element in the conversation itself, as if the reader weren’t quite sure where it’s taking them. You talk about translation and the relationship between translation and literature, but sometimes translation is treated as something beyond literature. Personally, I felt that the conversation between you and Mikaël neither resolved nor sought to resolve this apparent paradox, and I think that’s really what this book is about. Do you agree with my reading?
Ariana Harwicz: Yes, Desertar is a book made with somewhat elusive intentions. It’s not orderly, and it’s not programmatic; the conversation is full of omissions, interruptions, sometimes reiterations. At times it might seem like an interrupted monologue, almost like a thread of WhatsApp audio messages where two people speak to each other, but give monologues too. At some points it’s a somewhat more classic conversation. I don’t know if this was on purpose or if it was all we were able to do at that moment of chaos, of lockdown, with the pandemic, and with two very distinct personalities; Mikaël Gómez and I are very different from each other. He’s much more pragmatic, he refuses to go around begging translation for love. I’m much more passionate about that subject; I could spend the rest of my life thinking about translation. Desertar, in short, is a book made of frictions, tensions, not a book about translation. The fact is that the translation part stuck, because you’ve got to go with something, but it’s really a book about how fascinating and frustrating it is to be foreign.
M.R.: There’s a part of the book where you talk about the writer’s relationship with the translator, and you say “the writer and the translator are united in sickness and in health.” I’d like to get into the dark side of that quote: what kind of sickness are you talking about?
A.H.: I was thinking about translation earlier today, while I was finishing the last diaries of Sándor Márai. In his diaries he talks about his plans to kill himself with a shotgun, and also about suicide statistics in the United States in the late eighties. Márai mentions a small town where thousands of people had killed themselves with shotguns, rather than poisoning themselves, because Americans don’t trust poison. I really liked that. I was thinking, while I was reading, who translated these diaries? And I said to myself, “I’m going to look and see if that person is alive.” I always feel that compulsion to find out if the translators of twentieth-century authors who’ve since died are still alive. It’s almost like going to meet Sándor Márai. If I can’t meet Nietzsche, I’m going to look for his best possible translator. It’s a question of getting to a place that is, I don’t know, unattainable. And about sickness and health, I’d say yes. We’re in Fitzcarraldo’s boat. Either we die or we save ourselves, together. I always have a somewhat romantic idea of the translators who’ve dealt with my work. We face a sickness together, and that sickness is the text; we’ll see if we heal each other or if we die together. It’s something like treating an illness.
M.R.: I’m glad you made me think of the remarkable diaries of Sándor Márai, which are some of the best I’ve ever read. It’s a very impressive, very raw book, and the translation into Spanish is a punch in the gut, no doubt. It makes you think about how such a famous man could have such a bad time and be so alone in the United States.
A.H.: I read it in the middle of the pandemic. I didn’t want to put it down. It’s one of those books where you get down to the last three pages and you can’t stop reading. Sándor Márai lived to be almost ninety, but he lived his life, ultimately, in exile. I like authors in exile, and not just political exile; his whole relationship with Budapest, with Hungary, all of that. I’m attracted to writers who went into exile, or who stayed behind but formed islands of exile within their own countries. And if those authors are already dead, I’m always going to go in search of their translators. I’m not content to just visit their graves, that’s not enough for me.
M.R.: Márai was in the habit of reading the young poets of Hungary. I don’t think that was the most comforting way for him to spend his exile. He lived in San Diego, right?
A.H.: Yes, in San Diego. That’s where he took his own life. In his diaries he tells how he went to buy the gun and they wanted to sell him a cartridge with lots of rounds, but he says no, one or two will be enough. In case it misfires, the gun seller responds. The whole question of going to buy a gun struck me as so novelistic.
M.R.: Speaking of exile and exiled writers, I was meaning to ask you something about the book’s title. I initially thought the question was, “To desert what or whom?” But now that you mention exile, I think this desertion has more to do with that, with exile, right?
A.H.: I don’t know why I’m like this, but not a day goes by that I don’t think about war. It’s almost the only thing I find interesting. All the metaphors, all the allegories, all the fictions, everything that has to do with war, with being at war. I cannot dissociate writing from war. It’s impossible for me. For example, I’ve always been interested in the figure of the deserter, the soldier who runs away. I have always seen the idea of desertion as linked to literature. That being said, when it comes to translation, there is an element of having to desert, having to flee your own book, to flee the battlefield and cede it to the invader, to the translator, so they can translate.
M.R.: Speaking of exiles—linguistic exiles and mother tongues—I wonder if it’s possible to live a linguistic double life, between two languages. If you had to choose, would you go back to a French-speaking country?
A.H.: The topic of linguistic exile is exhausting. I’ve put it behind me, because first you have to know how to speak correctly, get familiar with the academic norms. I studied arts and literature at the Sorbonne, but then there’s familiar speech and layers of meaning; understanding jokes and double-entendres, catching humor; and then there’s slang, colloquiality, the ability to mix registers. For someone who writes, who wants to keep as tight control over writing as I do, it’s hard. I want to calculate the timing, the speed of my jokes, of my pauses. When I pass from one language to another, the impotence I feel is terrible. The language dominates me, and I am submissive to the language. That doesn’t happen to me in Spanish—I feel that we’re partners, we’re equals. In French, I’m the submissive woman and the language moves me where it will. I can’t stand that submission, but still, I’m not going to stop speaking French.
M.R.: How do you deal with that situation in daily life in France?
A.H.: Here, wherever you go, some professor will pop out to correct you: getting a shopping cart, putting gas in your car, paying taxes; it’s very tiresome, but you get used to it. I don’t know if I would choose France again, but I would choose any country with a language other than Spanish. I think it’s a very significant experience for a writer, going through this, even going through the humiliation. It’s like being drafted into the military. In daily life, it’s another story. You’re walking down the street and you ask some guy, also a foreigner, if the street turns down this way or that, and he answers you with a question: “Where are you from?” Then I’m in a museum and I ask the guide something about the exhibit and the question, again, is, “Where are you from? Brazilian? Because I speak Portuguese. Are you from Brazil?” And that happens every day, five or six times. There is an obsession here with where you’re from, and that’s tiresome. I always tell them I’m from China.
M.R.: I can imagine how they look at you when you say that… From a more literary perspective, has French had any impact on how you write in Spanish?
A.H.: Totally, totally. The one thing that intrigues me—but I don’t think I’ll figure it out in this lifetime—is the following: an Argentine composer who lives in Berlin told me it’s all the same to him being in Berlin, in Hungary, or in Egypt. He told me the experience is pretty much the same. In my case, my writing is based, without a doubt, on foreignness. I’m almost certain I would not have been able to write in Buenos Aires. I don’t know why. There is a mechanism that activates inside me, I don’t know what to call it, an aesthetic operation that emerges, fueled by one language’s retreat and the other’s apparition, that sort of war between languages. I think in French only to transfer that thought into Spanish, and the latter language’s strangeness is then a product of that impact, that intersection, like two planes that almost collide in the air. I can’t imagine writing in my country, with my landscape, surrounded by my family. It’s as if I needed some sort of danger, and I find danger in being a foreigner; it’s a state of permanent peril.
M.R.: Speaking of books and writing, there’s a statement in Desertar with which I strongly agree. It refers to literature as a form of vengeance…
A.H.: The history of literature is full of payback, fits of jealousy, vengeance, failed plans to kill someone. An artist writes a poem or paints a picture because his wife left him. That’s the true story of art. I always write with hatred and a spirit of vengeance, always. I can imagine no more perfect motive. The more inspired I feel, the more I want to take revenge on someone, someone specific, an ex-husband, a parent, someone who stole something from me, a child.
M.R.: That makes me recall a poem by Ernesto Cardenal. I think it goes, “They told me you were in love with someone else / so I went to my room / and I wrote that article against the Government / that got me locked up.”
A.H.: Exactly, that’s a good one. The whole history of art is read wrong and thought out wrong. One always writes or paints for some other reason; after that, history takes care of fitting the work into whichever reason sells best.
M.R.: What are you writing now? I know not every writer likes that question…
A.H.: For now I’d say I’m not writing anything, because I’m just getting started. I’m going to do a novel. I’m still not quite sure how to write it. It puts you in a major bind, not repeating yourself when writing really is a matter of repeating yourself, so there’s a paradox there. It’s not that you have to repeat yourself, but there is a music that comes back, that repeats, even when you switch up the strophes, the phrasing, the subject matter. So I wonder how to find another form, and other forms follow me, the forms of my previous novels are like ghosts coming after me. I’m also going to write a brief little text for an opera. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out; it’s for the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. I have high hopes for it, working with a composer and seeing what goes on between literature and music.
M.R.: How is your relationship with music? I ask because your book includes several quotes on the subject, and a character appears whom I suspect you really love: Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist. Do you feel some spiritual closeness to him?
A.H.: It could have happened to me with Wagner, with Stravinski, with Wittgenstein’s brother Paul; but it happened with him. It was love at first sight. I see him as the artist par excellence. If there’s such thing as an artist, you can find it in how he carried himself. He has it all, even beyond the gloves, beyond how he talked to giraffes…
M.R.: He was a deserter, too…
A.H.: An absolute deserter of concerts. And then there’s the way he called Steinway asking them to make him a piano that didn’t exist. He would call them and drive them crazy. And the vacuum cleaner anecdote, when the cleaning lady turned the vacuum on. He was very young and he couldn’t hear what he was playing, and after that he always wanted the vacuum cleaner on while he was playing, because he wanted not to listen but to feel. In my eyes, Glenn Gould is like a writer.
M.R.: My last question has to do with the end of the book, where Mikaël cites a verse by Paul Celan: “Your mother’s soul helps you circumnavigate the night.” Then he adds the following: “At the end of the day, I think that’s exactly what it’s all about, right? Combatting our ghosts, seeing our spirits, those of the night, of course, and those of life itself.” That powerfully grabbed my attention, about the mother and passing through the night. Why did you end the book that way?
A.H.: It seems rather elegiac, right? It ends there suddenly, on such a high note…
A.H.: On Paul Celan and Proust, what’s more. It’s a very ostentatious ending, nothing like what today’s era demands, preferring to put a mask on grandiloquence. Nowadays, everything in literature is disguised, the wolf in sheep’s clothing. We knew it was a very high-pitched ending, on the level of a musical note, but the whole book is talking about life, death, operating rooms, surgeries, burials, experiences from beyond the grave. Paul Celan is all those things; the example is perfect. It’s Celan who says all that about the mother tongue, the murderer’s tongue. Paul Celan who gets into the language of his parents’ killers. Getting into the enemy’s language seems to me the highest possible cause. And not leaving it behind, because he could have written in a different language, other than German. He could have written in French, he could have learned another language, as all those who flee from horror and change languages do, but he didn’t. He said: I’m staying in this language, wielding the murderer’s tongue, the bloody tongue, like a sword. And, well, the book is kind of about that. Translating is a bloody act. Everybody says so—Umberto Eco and Walter Benjamin too. We wanted to end the book that way, with an act that is a little bloody, and also with a journey through the night.