A Conversation with Fernando del Paso
Stavans, Ilan, The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Q: SINCE IN Palinuro of Mexico you function not only as the novel's author but also as a cultural commentator, I wonder if you could take a step back for a moment and assess for me its merit and achievement. Almost two decades after its original publication, what's your opinion of it? What are its excesses? Would you change anything today? Have you ever considered a revised version?
A: The novel does suffer from excess - excess in style, excess in references. The same can be said of my only other two novels: Jose Trigo (1966) and Noticias del Imperio (1987). But most of these excesses are deliberate. In fact, I remember once being asked during an interview why I wasn't capable of writing shorter, more condensed books. I answered that Palinuro of Mexico could have had some 3,000 pages and that I had made a conscious effort to abbreviate it and the result was 650 pages. By nature I'm a baroque writer, extravagant and immoderate. This is a spontaneous drive in me. At the same time, I've gone from an extremely complicated to a more accessible style. My third novel is notably less complex than the second and, similarly, the second is less difficult than the first. So I think I've made some progress - my artistic route has been from excessive complexity to relative simplicity. As for what I would or wouldn't change in the novel today, to be honest it's hard for me to say. Books are like children: once they are born, the world is theirs and they are part of the world, and our role shaping their lives diminishes as time goes by. They have their own virtues and their own paths, and the only thing one can do is witness their development and feel amazement by what they can or cannot achieve.
Q: I have with me the Mexican edition of Palinuro of Mexico, published in 1980. But the book first came out in Spain, by Alfaguara, in 1977 - three years earlier. Why?
A: I can give you a curious explanation. The novel in manuscript was awarded the Premio Novela Mexico, sponsored by Editorial Novaro, a publishing house, as you know, dedicated to comic strips and second- and third-rate titles. Then, Editorial Novaro established this very important prize, which was given first to the Mexican playwright and novelist Jorge Ibarguengoitia, second to the Spanish writer Juan Marse, and in its third year to me. But a conflict arose when the owner realized that the mammoth-size brick that had earned the prize was too much and refused to publish it. But the jury didn't want to change its decision and since the owner didn't want anybody else to bring out the book, a year and a half or two went by before my literary agent, Carmen Balcells, could get it away from Editorial Novaro. Those are the vicissitudes that took it first to the Iberian peninsula and only later to Mexico.
Q: I assume the critical reaction in these two countries was very different. After all, the novel is, among other things, an investigation of the Mexican psyche, its past and present.
A: Spanish critics were a bit more generous. Both agreed, though, that the novel had an extraordinary richness, a praiseworthy poetic content, good sense of humor, but that it was an excessive book, arrogant, too ambitious, and hence, frustrating in some aspects. Its attempt to create a macrocosm was enchanting, they claimed, but it also backfired.
Q: As far as I know, the novel has been translated into French, Portuguese, German, and English. The English version by Elisabeth Plaister, of course, was first issued by Quartet in London in 1989.
A: Plaister's translation, with the exception of a tiny notice in the Times Literary Supplement, went totally unacknowledged in England. The reception was a disaster: nobody talked about it, I never got a single pence. The French edition came out earlier, in 1985, just as classes had resumed after the summer break, and it was a huge success. Translated by Michel Bibard, it won the prize for best foreign book of the year. …