Chilean writer Carlos Franz, who arrived in Auckland some 24 hours before his conversation with Tom Moody, has spent the little time he has had in Auckland trying to find traces of Katherine Mansfield in the city, with little success. When you come to a country you don’t know, he levels, you spend your time looking for the elements familiar to you from literature.
This relationship between literature and place, in addition to power, emerges in various guises during the course of a convivial conversation. Carlos discovered literature as a place of refuge at the age of fourteen, when both his country and domestic life were a mess (his parents were going through a bitter divorce; the country witnessed a coup). He found that he could ‘live inside the book’ and that he too could create worlds through writing.
It is this fourteen-year-old self that Tom asks to hear more from in relation to Allende’s overthrow. Carlos remembers being terribly disappointed and ‘instinctively against it’. The coup had practical implications: a curfew was enforced for the entirety of his youth. And psychologically: lunches at his grandfather’s would play out in the divides between left and right, ending in terrible arguments and family rifts. At the private school he attended, he was found to be an outsider again – first a reader among sporty types; now a leftist among the right.
He tells us that The Absent Sea, the only of his works to be translated into English, is his attempt to understand his relationship to Chile’s tumultuous past. The protagonist returns to Chile 20 years after the coup, to Pampa Hundida, a fictional city. It is a small town in the northern desert of Chile, a fertile and rich oasis surrounded by a menacing environment, a spiritual hub where once a year 100,000 people from across Latin America gather to celebrate the virgin and expunge their sins through rites.
For Carlos, Pampa Hundida can do something that a real city cannot. By mixing attributes found in the real world – physical, spiritual and otherwise – he was attempting to comprehend what happened in Chile – where force and the law, cruelty and compassion hung in the balance. ‘What could lead us to such cruelty? What sort of forces were latent that suddenly appeared?’
Tom guides the conversation to contemporary Chile and its literary scene, which is characterised by many small independent publishers – so many, according to Carlos, that it is in fact ‘hard to say what is happening’. The big ones are bankrupt and there is a reliance on Spanish publishing houses for distribution. We get a feel for Spain’s hegemony in Spanish-language literature – Carlos calls it the Rome for Spanish language writers, in that this is where the major critics, writers and publishing houses are. They are the gatekeepers deciding who will be lucky enough to be published beyond Latin America.
And what of the English-speaking world’s resistance to translated works? Carlos acknowledges that is notoriously difficult to be translated into English – only 2 per cent of works published in English are translated. Diplomatically, he suggests this is because the English-speaking world is vast, and has novels in English from Pakistan to South Africa, and that perhaps we are thus satisfied. But, he warns, this leads to cultural isolation. Over 40 per cent of works published in Spanish are translated; readers are better informed about the rest of the world. (As we find out during question time, he read Mansfield’s The Garden Party at age 15 – it was translated in the 30s).
Carlos rallies the audience, saying in these times of diminished outlets for literature, one can still take a stand. There is an act of rebellion in participating in literature at all: ‘Writers and readers are resisting a world that is trying to crush us’.
Reviewed by Emma Johnson
The Absent Sea (El desierto)
Published by McPherson
Carlos Franz will appear again at free event Disappearances
on Sunday, 20 May 1:30pm – 2:20pm
Limelight Room, Aotea Centre