Daniel Sada and I have spent many afternoons together in cafés in La Condesa, Mexico City’s bohemian neighborhood. Of all the Mexican writers of my generation, Sada is the one I most admire, for his highly rigorous technique, the unequaled density of his prose, his steel-solid aesthetic sensibility. We always talk about literature, sharing ideas about our own projects and discussing what’s happening in Mexican writing, with numerous tangents into world literature. As can be seen from this, our most recent conversation, Sada has a clear pedagogical mission. He is able to hold in his mind radically different models, alongside the most refined metric forms in the Spanish language, which he utilizes with the familiarity of a daily visitor. Everything that blossoms most wildly in his work entails a level of difficulty that seems at times insurmountable for the common reader—but that reader, in any case, is not the one he has in mind. Many critics note his kinship with Juan Rulfo: the world he sketches, the violence running through it, the irascibility of his characters, but even that does not adequately explain the weight and cardinal importance of his work in contemporary Mexican letters. His principal text, Porque parece mentira, la verdad nunca se sabe (Because it seems to be a lie, the truth is never known), from 1999, invariably arouses a certain distress in his readers’ hearts: its 700-page length, its unique stylistic mixture of colloquialism and elegant language, its internal rhythm (about which I’ve asked him and on which he expands here); and a healthy distress, that of greatness, which I hope readers of BOMB will experience, and about which I’ve attempted to spark him to talk.
José Manuel Prieto The first time I heard about Porque parece mentira, la verdad nunca se sabe (Because it seems to be a lie, the truth is never known), I learned about its internal rhythm, its infamous octosyllabic meter. Can you explain that a bit for readers? What effect are you seeking there?
Daniel Sada It is in no way a desire to be flashy or overly elaborate that leads me to use octosyllables, hendecasyllables, alexandrines, decasyllables or heptasyllables. I have a deep knowledge, from childhood, of the most elemental constructions of these metric forms, so characteristic of Spanish. In my primary school in Sacramento, Coahuila, Panchita Cabrera, a rural schoolteacher who was an ardent fan of the Spanish Golden Age (a type that no longer exists) taught us these phonetic techniques with one goal in mind: that we might fine-tune our ears in order to appreciate the expressive delicacy and virulence of our language. In fact, to be honest, it’s more difficult for me to write free prose, because I don’t have any technical (phonetic) resources on hand that might provide some support. Now, in the most recent novels I’ve written, Luces artificiales (Artificial lights) and Ritmo delta (Delta rhythm), and in an as-yet-unpublished novella titled La duración de los empeños simples (The Duration of simple endeavors), I’ve let go of meter, and for that very reason I’ve had to work much harder to write them. I should also say that for many years I buried myself in the study of Spanish rhetoric, partly in order to destroy and then rebuild, in a different way, the internal logic of the Spanish language (to rid it of aridity and give it more expressive color). The result, over the years, is not definitive. The process of transfiguration continues to expand, and that’s one of the reasons I keep on writing. I have plans for literary projects that, according to my calculations, will take up the next 20 years of my life. This whole agenda depends more on my health than on the health of my ideas.
JMP But doesn’t it seem a bit unusual to you that a prose writer would rely on meter? Do you know of any similar instances in Spanish or in any other language? How do your readers react? Do they even perceive it? How does it aid in the reading of these books?
DS Of course the use of meter by a prose writer is unusual, especially in the literature of our time. With regard to that, I must emphasize my classical education. I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, in hendecasyllabic lines, in the Argentinean writer Bartolomé Mitre’s translation, direct from the Tuscan to the Spanish, and also the Poema de mío cid (Poem of my cid) and La Araucana. These three works, in addition to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Aeneid, have all the characteristics of novelized histories, with characters, plots and subplots branching out in a form that moves beyond the most simple and unequivocal aspects of a linear projection with a chronological movement. To all this I should add that the works are written in verse, and I wanted to attempt something similar. My novel Albedrio (Free will) is written in octosyllables, and some of my short stories are written in decasyllables, hendecasyllables and alexandrines. In my novel Because It Seems To Be a Lie the Truth Is Never Known, I utilized all the meters I know of in Spanish. However, the problem that presented itself in the context of this whole range of constraints is that the reader might never develop empathy, might become confused if she or he does not have a basic knowledge of the rhythms of our tongue. In some fundamental way, anyone might conceive of all of this as just so much pedantry, but I begin from the idea that my work will be read by ideal readers, who are connoisseurs and lovers of meter rather than simply arrogant exegetes. The end point of this audacity can only be reached via our own passions: you either take it or leave it, and that’s that. Readers love me or hate me; there is no gray area. Now, in Artificial Lights and Delta Rhythm, I have abandoned meter, not because these are urban novels, but because I want to discover how I might function without so many restrictions. Some readers thank me for it, while others reprimand me for having abandoned my perhaps unmistakable literary stamp. And as for me, I can only say that I will write exactly what I want to write.
JMP Can you talk a bit about the genesis and history of Because It Seems To Be A Lie?
DS When I wrote that book I was immersed in nineteenth-century novels, and I realized that most of them incorporated an entire gallery of characters: Dickens’s Oliver Twist has 67 characters; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has 27 female characters, including the protagonist—a marvelous diorama of temperaments that perhaps comprise all that women have been and will be; in War and Peace there are 109 characters, and none of them is incidental, but rather each has a direct effect on the plot. In terms of what we might call the marrow of Balzac’s A Human Comedy, with the trilogy formed of the novels Lost Illusions, The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans and Old Goriot, it’s possible to enumerate 234 characters. Novelistic ventures of this caliber impressed and informed me: in them it was necessary to touch on every social stratus, and in turn I required myself to conceive of a story with 90 characters, with bifurcations and reflections that might extrapolate narrative time and overflow my imagination, which is always—and this is for certain—circumscribed by the most evident parameters of reality. I wanted to see the novel as a totalizing venture.
JMP What is your relationship with so-called border literature? Do you believe that such a literature exists, and if so, do you see yourself within that framework? An offshoot of this question, seen from a U.S. perspective, is to imagine the relationship with literature that is constructed in the south of the United States. I’m thinking, for example, of Cormac McCarthy.
DS I am exceedingly irritated by the fragmentation of literature: that a writer might self-identify as “detective,” “fantasy,” “romantic” or “minimalist” is reason enough for me to stop reading her or him. I like it when literature surprises me as I move farther into a story’s dramatic density. If know in advance that the book in question is a “thriller” or a work of “science fiction” or whatever naming device might help me to sight the path I will traverse, then I’d prefer not to traverse anything, not to read anything. Likewise with so-called border literature. I believe that a reader who is truly passionate about literature is not interested in any kind of classification. It may be that this whole mess of adjectives thrown together any which way only works for didactic ends; perhaps in that context the infinite number of conceptual demarcations might be justified, but for me as a reader or as a writer, they don’t work at all. I could give a fig about the future of border literature.
JMP I understand perfectly what you’re saying, and the irritations of such narrow demarcations. But it’s a question, in some of your stories, in some of your books, of narratives that take place in rural settings, with a certain very palpable and quotidian presence of violence. Perhaps you might add something more. Artificial Lights is a very urban story. Has making this change signified a certain challenge for you? Does your abandonment of meter have something to do with the abandonment of that particular landscape?
DS My abandonment of meter is partial. I now put my faith in cadences, rather than withdrawing from any type of rhythmic emphasis. I confess, a propos of that, that I could never write outside what my ear can’t even conceive as a modulation.
JMP Talk to me a bit about your relationship with film. How many of your books have been made into movies? How do your books, your baroque writing style (I don’t know if that’s an adjective you use for your own books, and incidentally I’d like to know if you consider yourself a baroque writer), adapt to the more linear texture of film?
DS None of the stories I’ve written has been conceived for film. Suddenly, over time, many readers have commented that they see cinematic scenarios in my work, and in addition, that my dramatic texture seems to them to function excellently on-screen. I don’t know why such a large number of filmmakers and passionate fans of film have appeared in my life. I had to get used to hearing overly elaborate justifications for dramatic compositional methods that I found extremely strange and inapplicable to my work, and despite that hodge-podge of excesses I simply couldn’t assimilate the idea that one of my stories might work on the big screen, until 1996, when Marcel Sisniega, who at that time was a young film director, proposed to me that we shoot my novel Una de dos (One of two). I accepted, with some skepticism. Marcel had the good judgment to invite me to write the screenplay together with him, and after I accepted, I set two conditions: that despite being an adaptation, the film would preserve the spirit of the book; and that it would maintain a consistent rhythm in which the level of intrigue would never falter. We worked on the screenplay for over a year. There were struggles, and in our excessive desire to achieve perfection, we wrote a number of different treatments. We agreed on one thing: that we were not going to make a bad movie simply to remain faithful to the book. To our surprise, the film won a number of prizes, but it had no success at the box office. In the years following 2002, One of Two has been shown in art houses and on TV. It’s become a symbolic reference point for recent Mexican filmmaking. And on the other hand, to answer another part of your question: it’s true that I’m considered a baroque writer, and what can I do? In the oldest meaning of the term, the baroque is the “poorly made,” the “excessive,” the “overdecorated.” I tend toward explorations into language, and I attempt to achieve clarity and eloquence in the anecdotal movement of my stories. The rest is a system of aesthetic inquiry that, in essence, should not alter the development of characters or stories.
JMP To go a little deeper into the baroque: what would differentiate a writer who is baroque from one who isn’t? Within the boundaries of work in Spanish, we always talk about writers like Alejo Carpentier or José Lezama Lima. In your last response, you basically characterized yourself as a baroque writer. What are the characteristics of baroque writing—a baroque approach to reality that attracts you, or that you consider useful in order to delve more deeply into reality and locate truths that might otherwise escape you?
DS It’s difficult for me to call myself a baroque writer. I would like to be a writer without adjectives, because I know that grants me all the liberty in the world, including my tendency to measure my prose. If Carpentier and Lezama Lima are known as baroque writers, I don’t think that such a denomination adds to or detracts from their literary merit. All you can say about them is that they do not write in meter.
JMP Talk to me about your relationship with Juan Rulfo. Did you know him personally?
DS Throughout my life I’ve known many intellectuals and very few artists. In my thinking, I place artists at a much a higher level than intellectuals. It goes without saying that thoughtful people interest me, but when I discover that a person is also creative, I can say that I’m almost touching heaven. For me, knowing Juan Rulfo has been one of the best gifts life has given me. Rulfo was familiar with an amazing amount of literature, but he never went around boasting about everything he had read, and therefore he was not an intellectual. He once recommended that I shouldn’t persist in intellectualizing everything I was experiencing, because that would end up getting in the way of my perception. Reading is perpetual nourishment, never a vehicle for vanity. Intellectuals, in general, are braggarts, perhaps because they do not possess a true interior landscape. Artists are more silent; they are observers and have, naturally, a great capacity for astonishment. Artists are continual absorbers, and it is perhaps only much later that they pick and choose. These are all Rulfian concepts, and were spoken, I will confess, very close to my ear, as if they were secrets that can only be told in low tones.
JMP Tell me something about your latest novel, Delta Rhythm, and in what way it is or isn’t a continuation of what you’ve been doing up to this point. And what are you working on now?
DS Delta Rhythm is a novel about dreams, and that particular rhythm consists of a duration of approximately one hour, which is quite exceptional, since it’s only possible to have a dream of that temporal dimension once or perhaps twice a year. There are four dream rhythms (and here I’m applying solely the physiological mechanics of oneirism), which are alpha, beta, gamma and delta, with this last being the most prolonged and the most saturated with different states of mind. Delta rhythm is sometimes hurried and sometimes slow. It’s also digressive, symbolic, ambiguous and derivative. I attempt to engage all these modes in the style and form of my novel. I like it when the plot speeds up and then immediately slows down; I like it to be symbolic and all the rest. It’s an attempt to align myself with dream logic.
I’d prefer not to talk about my next novel, because I’m very superstitious. All I’ll tell you now is that it’s a plot based in obsessions. The novel is short and will be out in March 2006.
JMP What kind of writer do you think you are? Could you answer this by thinking through one of your books?
DS I still don’t know what kind of writer I am. I know that I’m not famous, which allows me to continue to explore my perception and my psyche with absolute freedom.
Translated by Jen Hofer
—José Manuel Prieto is the author of the novels Encyclopedia of Living in Russia and Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire (Grove Press, 2001), his first book to be published in English. He lives in Mexico City, where he is a professor of Russian history at the Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas. This year he is a Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writers.