A Conversation With Fernando Sorrentino

Pamelyn Casto, Interviewer; Celia Cordon-Tovar, Primary translator; Kent H. Dixon, Secondary translator.

Q: I’m excited to hear about your newly translated book, Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges. I’m eager to read it because I’m a fan of Borges’ work and a fan of your work as well. Tell us a bit about it and where we can order it?

FS: The first Spanish edition was made in Buenos Aires in 1974, by the small publishing company Casa Pardo. Later on much better editions were made by El Ateneo (1996 and 2002) and Losada (2007).

Here is info on the book and the publisher:

http://www.pauldrybooks.com/products/seven-conversations-with-jorge-luis-borges

Q: Borges wrote that no one has claim to originality in literature and readily confesses his sources and borrowings. Do you agree there is no originality? What do you think makes some stories “seem” original?

FS: Marco Denevi, whom I much admire, once said something like “All books come from other books, including the ones we haven’t read.” Regarding what Borges said, I think it is highly likely that – with some differences – everything has already been written. But the fact is that, in literature, the what doesn’t matter: what matters is how. Originality in literature does exist, and we can find it – basically and maybe exclusively – in how we write, not what we write about.

There are so many different ways to write! But it happens that good writers are always original. For example, for different reasons (because they are nothing alike), I admire Dickens and Kafka and I think both of them are very original.

Q: Borges also wrote fine poetry. Do you also write it? Do you think a knowledge of creating poetry contributes to writing good fiction?

FS: When I was in my twenties, I tried writing poetry. But I had the good judgment and critical sense to realize that those poems had no literary value. I don’t know how to write praiseworthy poems, and I decided not to try it anymore. I told myself: “It’s not just or healthy to add more ugliness to the world.”

My incompetence as a poet doesn’t stop me from being passionate about poetry. I’ve felt especially fascinated by some authors of old Spanish literature: I worship (literally) Jorge Manrique, Garcilaso, Brother Luis de León, Saint John of the Cross, Góngora, Quevedo…

And now I’ll say, going beyond the specific question, that all knowledge helps writing fiction. I think it’s more useful to understand, say, soccer than to not understand it. And this can be applied to any branch of knowledge. I’m not a supporter of ignorance or lack of culture, and I don’t believe in born “geniuses”: every creation requires study, knowledge, and work.

Q: What do you see as the greatest strength of Borges’ remarkable work?

FS: Borges is infinitely “re-readable.” I mean, when I reread any page of Borges, I unavoidably come across new findings, new shades, new echoes, new subtleties. He is an author that never runs out; it’s as if, without adding a single word to what was already written, his texts have their own life and they keep generating surprises and richness.

Q: Borges says in the intro to his Book of Sand that he tries to remain faithful to H.G. Wells’ example in combining a plain and at times almost colloquial style with a fantastic plot. I read that you view your stories as “distinguished by a curious mixture of imagination and humor that sometimes takes a grotesque turn but always stays plausible.” I think both statements apply well to some of your own stories. Do you see it as well?

FS: That’s right. Since I write rather fantastic stories, or at least, unusual and surprising, I have the need (or rather the obligation) to set up a credible atmosphere. That’s why I attach importance to what we could call the story’s “scenery.” I mean, I recount “everyday” facts with a neutral and indifferent tone, while, craftily and in a surreptitious way, I introduce the fantastic or strange elements, which interest me the most and justify the story in question.

Q: In the introduction to Doctor Brodie’s Report, Borges says he sets his stories some distance off in time and space. In this way the imagination can operate with greater freedom. Do you agree and do you also at least occasionally subscribe to Borges’ theory on fiction ?

FS: Maybe this is not my case… I have always had the need to locate my stories in a place that I know. It doesn’t matter if I adulterate or distort the details later, but first I need to close my eyes and “see”, for example, Costa Rica street, in Buenos Aires, where I was born and where my childhood and teenage years took place, and where, for example, my story “El regreso”

took place [which has two translations: “The Return” and “The Visitation”].

When I was a kid, it amazed me to see, in the neighborhood of Belgrano, those huge and ancient big houses, some of them from the 19th century, surrounded by massive gardens that looked like jungles…. And, looking at them from the street, I thought for instance of the plot of “Cosas de vieja” [“A Question of Age”]. That’s why I always say I need a real support for a unreal story.

Q: Some of my favorite Borges fictions are “Three Versions of Judas,” “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” and his parables, especially “Inferno, I, 32” and “The Witness.” What are some of your personal favorites?

FS: There’s almost no Borges’s page that is not one of my favorites. But, if I must choose, the most fascinating stories for me are “Tres versiones de Judas”, “Los teólogos”, “El Aleph”, “El fin”, “La señora mayor”, “Las ruinas circulares”, “La biblioteca de Babel”, “Biografía de Tadeo Isidoro Cruz”… Well, there are excellent pages and not so excellent pages, but none lacks great merit.

Q: In your conversations with Borges, were you surprised at what you learned about him? Would you say that Borges has also influenced your own work? In what ways?

FS: Borges was more or less what I expected he would be, according to what I had read of his. However, I couldn’t help but be surprised by his great mental speed, his power of improvisation, and his amazingly precise memory. And what’s more, the man has a wonderful sense of humor. I remember—off the record now—I asked him about a certain Argentinean poet, a very ridiculous writer, and Borges answered: “Well, it is very hard to talk about him without slandering him….” That seems to me like a flash of brilliant humor.

To what degree Borges has influenced me is something I can’t establish “mathematically.” But I do know that I’ve always tried to learn from those who know more than I do. (I also think I have had enough smarts to notice that I couldn’t learn anything from certain writers that, although famous, dealt with topics that I was not interested in and had nothing to do with my literary abilities.) And the fact is that – maybe subconsciously – reading Borges has constituted a series of lessons about how one ought to write: if the student (me) has soaked up the lessons from the master (Borges)… that’s another thing altogether.

Q: Was your first book, Zoological Regression, in any way related to or similar to Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings? I love the imagination contained in that Borges book and I look forward to getting a copy of yours.

FS: That first book of mine is very poor, and it belongs to a period in which I was submerged in a certain immaturity. Its mistakes are entirely mine, and the only good thing it has is some topics that I could develop later on, when I was older, more cultured, and, above all, had more literary sense and was more critically discerning.

Q: In Zoological Regression, you say you made the mistake of writing stories to please hypothetical readers. But with your second book, Empires and Servitude, you decided to write the stories “you” would like to read. What sort of difference do you see this switch making in your stories? Do you continue to write stories that you yourself would like to read?

FS: That’s right. I still think the same. I write without taking into account my readers. I try to always write what I would like to read. That is why I never show my originals to anyone: I don’t want or ask for anyone’s opinion about my manuscript.

The opinion of others would only confuse me, because no one can get inside my head. When I take my texts to a publisher, I’m the only one who has read said texts. And, when the book is published, there are only two people who have read its content before: 1) the publisher; 2) me.

Q: Which of your collections have been translated into English? Which of them contains the most short-short pieces? Is it sometimes a strange experience to see your work translated into so many languages?

FS: Let’s just say I have completely lost control over the translations of my stories. I can read more or less, with more or less difficulty, in English, French, Italian, or Portuguese, but… What could I say about my stories in German, for example? Absolutely nothing. And it gets worse when I have to face a sort of maze of pages in Japanese, Chinese, Parse or Tamil.

Of course, I love to show up in other languages that are not Spanish, but I’m not in the intellectual condition to enjoy such reading.

Q: What makes writing the short-short so appealing to you? Why do you think short-shorts have become so popular in recent years?

FS: Let’s just say that my head can’t imagine plots long enough to write novels (although I did publish one, not too long: Sanitary Centennial. On the other hand, it’s easy for me to imagine situations or conversations that could eventually turn into relatively enjoyable stories. In other words: I follow mere pleasure, simplicity, or, even worse, the “path of least resistance.”

Q: Of your published stories one of my favorites is “There’s a Man in the Habit of Hitting Me on the Head with an Umbrella” which can be read at:

http://www.jbeilharz.de/autores/sorrentino/paraguas-e.html

I was delighted to find all the short films on the ‘net that are based on this story. Have any of your others stories been done in film? Of those short films collected on the ‘net, which is your favorite version? And, could you include websites? And, did any of the interpretations surprise you?

FS: That story—to my complete surprise—has become my “classic story.” I wrote it when I was very young, around the 1960s or 1970s, and without paying too much attention to it. I had the idea, I wrote it and the fact is that the story just about wrote itself, went very smoothly, and it was immediately published in Spanish and English.

I wrote it like everything I write: trying, in a literary way, my best. I didn’t try (I never do) to write an allegory nor did I worry about transmitting any symbolism or anything like that. However, readers – within their rights – interpreted it in ways I never even thought about.

I think this article I’m attaching explains what I’m trying to say:

http://www.letralia.com/140/articulo03.htm

And here it is in English:

“The Narrator Writes a Story; the Reader Always Reads Something Else”

http://talkingpeople.net/tp/literature/translations/sorrentino/TheNarratorWrites.doc

There are other stories of mine that have been filmed, and more than once, in different countries: for example, “A Lifestyle,” “Method for Defense Against Scorpions” and probably others I can’t remember anymore. In my house I have a stack of DVD’s with short films about my stories, but I have never watched any of them more than once. I’m not inclined to take time with what I already did –except when necessary, like when re-editing. I don’t feel much gain in reading my stories once they are published.

Q: Another favorite of mine is “The Visitation” which can be viewed at http://www.sffworld.com/authors/s/sorrentino_fernando/fiction/visitation1.html

Which of your stories are your own favorites? Can we read them online? If not online, in what collections can we find them?

FS: If we are talking about distant times, it looks like the stories published between 1972 (Imperios y servidumbres) and 1982 (En defensa

propia) were, generally, popular and almost all of them can be found online on my webpage: http://www.fernandosorrentino.com.ar/enlaces.html#lenguajes

But, out of the stories published in my last book, El crimen de san Alberto, there are two online that I like:

“The Ushuaia Rabbit”

http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/UshuRabb852.shtml

and, “Problem Solved”

http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/ProbSolv.shtml

And another – based on a real anecdote – that pleases me is this one: “The Lesson” http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Less723.shtml

And there is:

Well, on East of the Web

http://www.eastoftheweb.com/cgi-bin/read_db.pl?search_for=FernandoSorrentino &search_field=author_id&order_by=author_last,title&type_ind=stories&page=1

There are 26 of my stories in English.

Q: What tips would you give aspiring writers of short-short stories? This question, I guess, could fall into the category of the types of flash fiction pieces that “you’” would like to read.

FS: I wouldn’t know what to say exactly. Going back to your first question, I think the most important thing is that the reader develops his or her own opinion and ability to discern between good and bad. They shouldn’t be tricked by anyone’s “fame” (most of the time fame is nothing more than a product of commerce, and it has nothing to do with literary quality), and should trust, rather, his or her own taste. That way they could, in a natural way, start to learn from the master that they themselves chose. This doesn’t imply copying anyone: no one can be copied without mistake, and every copy is inferior to the original.

What I’m saying is: we should learn as much as we can from the writers we like and that are good for us. And then, without fear and trusting our own strength, write as best as we can without paying attention to other people’s judgments. We could apply here a passage of the great Martín Fierro: he says that in order to overcome a danger or any difficulty, “rather than saber and spear / it is usually enough the trust / that man has in himself.” [más que el sable y que la lanza / suele servir la confianza / que el hombre tiene en sí mismo]

Q: Now that your Seven Conversations With Jorge Luis Borges book has been released in English, what projects are you working on now?

FS: Strictly speaking, I never had nor do I have projects. I simply get carried away by the circumstances. I accept the ones that seem pleasant and try to avoid the ones I don’t like… If I think of a story, and I don’t feel bothered writing it, then perfect, I write it. And if I can’t think of anything, that won’t make me commit suicide or bring me down into depression. I take literature as a pleasant activity, without deadlines or schedules, and never as a job or a burden that creates inconveniences or pains.

During certain times in my life I’ve had to carry out very unpleasant jobs (for example, I was an office worker), and for that reason I would never let literature (which is, above all, a game and a pleasure) turn out to be a job.

Sanitary Centennial. And Selected Short Stories (1988). Contenido; Introduction to Fernando Sorrentino; Translator’s Note; Acknowledgments; Sanitary Centennial (Sanitarios centenarios); A Lifestyle (Un estilo de vida); In Self-Defense (En defensa propia); Piccirilli (Piccirilli); The Life of the Party (Los reyes de la fiesta); The Fetid Tale of Antulín (La pestilente historia de Antulín); Ars Poetica (Ars poetica); Notes.] (translated by Thomas C. MEEHAN). Austin, Texas, University of Texas Press, 1988, 186 págs.

(Originally published in the FLASH FICTION FLASH NEWSLETTER, February 2011, issue 111)

 

Fernando Sorrentino

About Fernando Sorrentino

Fernando Sorrentino was born in Buenos Aires on November 8th, 1942. Most of his childhood and adolescence was spent within the grayish square formed by the four avenues of Santa Fe, Juan B. Justo, Córdoba, and Dorrego. In his youthful days he was an insignificant office employee. In his not so youthful days, and for a very long time, he was a teacher of language and literature in several high schools. He serves militantly among the steadfast hosts of fans of the Racing Club soccer team of Avellaneda. Sorrentino married Alicia Fraiman in 1969 and they have three children: Juan Manuel (1970), and the twins María Angélica and María Victoria (1978). And since October of 2009, they also have a granddaughter, Pilar, Juan Manuel’s daughter.