Why, having been selected by Documenta Kassel 13 for your work as an editor, did you recently enroll in a basic course on editing books?
It seems to me to be because of the original contradiction that underlies my work. I detest my work. It seems to me to be a vulgar activity. A delight of the ego. An action of the New Rich that attempts to display, out of place, what has recently been acquired. And, nonetheless, I continue writing.
What’s more, I have been doing it unceasing for the last forty-five years of my life. Because of that activity I never paid attention to many of life’s other affairs. Among them, my education. If it is true indeed that I followed certain courses of study, all they were was a pretext to maintain my writing in shape. That is to say, I chose topics of study that could possibly serve as a pretext to continue fueling my writing.
Then I moved, once I began to publish, almost immediately from the condition of “not student” to teacher. That is to say, that I began to find myself, from then on, on the other side of the desk, to somehow say it. I—who had never become a part of the lecture hall in a regular way—suddenly became the one who directs the lecture hall. My voice began to be heard, as much outside of as within my books in presentations, conferences, classes, seminars, workshops, and roundtables.
I even came to create an academy: The Dynamic Writers School, which I directed for almost ten years. In other words, I was always on just one side of the word. In the role of speaker, almost never in that of the listener. That situation began to worry me when I began to gradually lose interest in reading in virtue of utilizing that time for writing. One of the most common pretexts that I gave myself to sustain such a situation is that I consider writing to be something tangible and reading to be something immaterial. I think I can give an exact, concrete account, with weight or measure, of the number of words that I can write in a determined interval. But the same thing doesn’t happen with reading.
I then discovered, by chance, the existence of such a course, which furthermore possessed a peculiar characteristic: that there was a strict process of selection to join it. The number of applicants was very high and only a few would be selected. I remember that at the moment of making the decision I took none of the course’s content into account—if I had taken it into account it would have been revealed, almost immediately, the incongruence that a series of books I had printed had reached the point of being invited to the greatest art gathering in the world and that I found myself applying to a competition for novices. A true contradiction.
In that moment I thought that playing the role of the student could in some manner cast off the weight of my carrying the responsibility for a group. Perhaps I wanted to test how much better I would be considered than a crowd of candidates. I do not know. They were all arbitrary and egocentric reasons belonging to someone who doesn’t have an adequate handle on his psyche; an act of trampling one’s fellow man, using a vacancy on the course that would then remain empty because of my absence.
When they announced that I had been accepted I had forgotten applying to such a project. A familiar guilt appeared then. The one I call The Guilt that I Must Pay for Committing Acts Outside All Logic. I received a warm, enthusiastic acceptance communication. Before that situation I ensured a schedule so that the main members of the institution—who, I am sure, would have requested some explanation—would not be present and I arrived with the money for the course in hand. The money: a form of expiation.
More than once I have thought that these actions, so outside any logic, are necessary for me as points of departure alienation from myself through which I must pass to continue maintaining an activity, writing, which is at most times disagreeable. When I think about it in that manner I am somewhat calmed. I would rather win the Nobel Prize in Literature and the next day invest a significant part of the prize in a costly calligraphy course than see myself spending my life in a cantina or compulsively seeking intoxicants, alcohol, assassinations, or sex.
How would you describe your solitude? Why do you affirm that that is the most suitable situation for your writing?
For some time I believed, faithfully, in the romantic idea of the artist’s solitude. For that reason for many years I pursued that ideal, to find a way to arrange for a proper space and time, in an environment that was hardly propitious: Peru in its full economic and terroristic crisis.
You have to take into account that back then the means to undertake writing were different. A classic machine was necessary, enormous quantities of paper, carbon copies, ink ribbon, bottles of correction fluid, pencils, dictionaries, and encyclopedias. One occupied a great space and made an infernal noise. Besides that, the worst part was developing the proper discipline. To domesticate oneself to maintain a defined space for determined hours of the day.
When I finally acquired this space I suffered a great disillusion. I noticed, among other things, that because I had so tried to acquire the supposed order of things, I had left fundamental things to one side. Everyday experiences—falling in love, wasting time with friends, distracting oneself like everyone else—that, from my present perspective, no one should quit living during the time that corresponds them. That compulsive search was perhaps the same one that made me, at the moment of finally finding the time and the perfect space to create, feel that what was thought of as ideal really wasn’t.
Furthermore, in that intervening period, technology has changed so much that now it is possible for me to carry my own studio in one of the pockets of the sort of writer’s uniform that I use in my daily life. Now I write on an iPhone. I carry the medium to make my writing possible at all times. I no longer need extreme silence and absolute solitude to write.
To the contrary, I note that I find myself more productive by having people around me while I write. It is best if each of my companions is undertaking some activity of their own. I turned fearful of the much longed-for solitude. It seems to me like it presents itself as a sort of threat, precisely because it does not appear naturally. So no one should think it strange if I solicit a few hours at their kitchen table to finish some new text I’m working on.
As a writer what role do you think that the acquisition (and getting rid) of innumerable dogs plays in your life?
Every day I am more convinced that the mystery that encircles the dog is the answer to many of the questions that we ask about ourselves. It isn’t true that I constantly acquire and get rid of dogs. What I have perceived with the passage of time is that the peculiarity of each dog is extreme and it seems to me that I have learned to detect certain symptoms that allow me to perceive when the human-dog relationship isn’t adequate for one of the two parties in play.
The dog that accompanies me now has spent more than ten years with me, and I was with an earlier one for almost twenty. To the others, those that the question refers to, I imagine that they were the ones that were in a trial period, of some three months, to verify if the famous adaptation of living together was possible.
The group of greyhounds that I maintained until some time ago was a separate case. I had plans to retire to a more rural life, where the greyhounds would keep me company, but—I link this question into the previous one—I wasn’t able to endure the absolute solitude—not the accompanied one I enjoy in the city—that that type of life required and so I offered the hounds, which were trained for hunting hares, to someone who was capable of offering them the type of life that they required.
But the question could be, rather: what the dogs do while always by my side? I don’t know. The constant presence of a dog comes from a mysterious place, similar to that of writing itself, that I don’t have much interest in inquiring into as I have found a certain peace, a joy, slightly blurred to not say sad, at accepting that my destiny is composed only of dogs and of writing.
Why are you so lucid when you judge others and so obtuse with your judgment of self?
I don’t comprehend such a question. I don’t know if I possess some grade of lucidity, but in the case of that being true the answer would delve into the specular. I would turn back to the classical idea that we are not prepared to see ourselves, and also the fact that when faced with the other we strip away many of the absurd ideas that we often have about ourselves.
Translated from the Spanish by David Shook
MARIO BELLATIN is a Mexican Sufi who studied theology in Peru and film in Cuba. His dozens of novellas have won all of Mexico’s major writing prizes. His novel The Uruguayan Book of the Dead, forthcoming from Phoneme Media, won the 2015 José María Arugedas Prize, Cuba’s most important prize for fiction. He was a guest curator of Documenta 13.