Ricardo Labastier

Love is a Form of Sickness

Text: Carola Leitner Fotos:

“The Past” is the first novel by Argentinean author Alan Pauls to be translated into English – and also the first to be translated into German. At the book fair in Frankfurt, this title was already presented as a well-known bestseller. Rave reviews turned out to be the logical consequence. Pauls – one of Latin America’s most valued writers – talks about love, and he knows all kinds of it. The story is simple and complicated at the same time – as life always is. The protagonists, Sofi a and Rimini, had a long-term relationship and then broke up. This is where the novel begins ...

First of all, have you ever been to Austria?

Yes, 30 years ago, when I was really, really young. I think it was my first trip to Europe.

Did you like it?

Yes, I did. But I think I was about 18 years old. Well, I was young, but not a child.

Do you have plans to visit Vienna? Perhaps in the next few weeks?

Unfortunately not. I’m a professor at the University of Princeton, so I have to go back to my classes. I had a week’s holiday, so I decided to take this tour of Germany, Austria and Switzerland for the release of “The Past”. I’ve done a lot of readings.

Do you like readings?

Well, public reading is not a tradition in Argentina. We don’t present books this way. We mostly do public inter-views with authors. I, myself, like to read out loud a lot. I even do that when I’m writing my books; it always helps to hear how words sound. There’s a problem, though: prose or narrative writers are rather dark, obscure and an-onymous people, so I don’t think prose writers are good public readers. I hope I am better than my colleagues.

I’m sure you are. I read you’re teaching literature. What exactly?

Latin American literature.

You do it in English?

No. I give two courses, both are in Spanish.

Aren’t you tired of answering questions about your epic style, and maybe the comparisons to Proust and Nabokov, too?

Well, I don’t have too much to say about that, except that Proust and Nabokov are writers I like a lot. I don’t see how far I could go in that direction. I’m not tired, I do see myself in the company of those monsters. I always feel pleased to be compared with them, but I think I am sort of ‘small’.

It was Peter Ustinov, I think, who once said: “Women don’t know what they want, but they do everything to get it!” Would you agree with him?

I always liked Peter Ustinov as an actor. I don’t know ...

I’m asking because Sofia knows exactly what she wants.

I’m a little bit reluctant to generalize about women and men, all that gender choral and discussion. I prefer to think of myself as a writer who wrote a novel about love experience or sentimental experience, where two characters, one male and one female, are sort of trapped in absolute love. And they behave in this sick loving milieu as well as they can. The female character, Sofi a, is a little bit crazy. I don’t make a big difference between being in love and being normal. So, I don’t think that saying Sofia is crazy is saying something bad about her.

I simply saw it as her being crazy about or for love.

Yes, that’s right, in a way. The theme of the book – if there is one – is that love is a form of sickness, and each and all of us behave in this sick world of love, as well or as badly as we can ... and as we want. I wouldn’t say that Rimini is the normal guy and Sofi a the pathological character. I would say that they live in a special atmosphere ...

In a bubble ...

Yes. In a way they are guinea pigs of some love experiment. I always saw those characters as guinea pigs in the hands of mad scientists and so I don’t know if women know more what they want than men. I think they have their own loving protocols. Maybe those protocols seem charming sometimes, and sometimes they are dangerous to men. Maybe men’s sentimental protocols seem stupid or in¬sensitive to women, maybe charming too ... I attempted to see the problem of love between the sexes and all that. I attempted a sort of harmony of warriors. That’s what I would say about it.

Are the past experiences of the single reader always part of a book? I mean the way I read the story, how I felt and understood the various situations, settings, actions etc.

Yes, that’s the most interesting part for me – dealing with the past. I mean, in a way, love is sort of an excuse in the novel in the sense that it’s the royal way to getting into the past, and to thinking about how the past is a remote zone of people’s lives. But the point of the novel is also that the past is by definition something that is always happening now. In the moment, it is something you can’t leave behind, even if you want to. So, in that sense I think Sofi a’s character is also much more lucid, much brighter and smarter than Rimini’s, who thinks oblivion is a possible thing. So, I mean that’s interesting. There’s a sentence by the author of the beautiful novel “The Go-Between”, L.P. Hartley. He once said: “The past is a bizarre province of the world, things don’t happen there the way they hap-pened elsewhere.’ I always liked this special notion of the past, not the temporal notion of the past, but the special one, and these two lovers, the heroes of the novel, are in a way a couple of astronauts. There they are floating in this bubble, in this spaceship of love, and in this bubble there is no big difference between past, present and the future and as a matter of fact, they never manage to escape this absolute love story. They have lived.

Is there a difference between love and obsession in the book?

I don’t know, I wouldn’t make such a drastic distinction between love and obsession.

Sofia wants to hurt Rimini because he hurt her. Completely forgetting that she is hurting herself much more in return...

She doesn’t want to hurt him. What she wants is for him to realize that they are still together. She wants him to be aware of that. She knows something about him that he doesn’t know about himself. She’s a sort of hyper-conscience of the guy she loves, and that’s what he can’t stand. He can’t stand Sofia’s superiority. She doesn’t want to hurt him. I wouldn’t make such a drastic distinction between the love and obsession he needs. And that’s the most horrible situation when two people are in love and one thinks he or she knows everything about the other, so this is the problem, a big question. I don’t think she hurts him. Even when she – for instance – in an indirect way causes the death of his actual lover, she’s doing him a favour, because he can’t stand the jealousy of his actual lover any more. So she always acts as a sort of providential force in Rimini’s life. In a way she’s a little bit scary; she is disruptive, a kind of ghost, a lady vengeance. Every time she disrupts it, it’s always to do him a strange favour; maybe she does for him what he doesn’t dare do himself. It’s a little bit more complicated, hurting or being hurt, but that’s what makes love interesting. If it’s real passion, or literally passion, the question can never be answered. To say she is hurting him, he is being hurt, she is an executor ...

I read the story as one of failure. But now talking with you, I’m not sure any more.

What was that failure in your opinion?

The failure was that the relationship didn’t work. They broke up still loving each other ... The story ends with the launch of the group ‘the women who love too much’, founded by Sofia. That was too much for me. I expected that one of them would die or something. Something dramatic.

Oh ... You said love didn’t work for you. What would a good-working love need to be for you? I don’t know ...

A happy love story ...

Not really a happy love story, but ‘The Past’ is quite a dra¬matic love story, including death, losing wife and child ... they don’t see each other for a long time. It’s an obses-sive love story. Also a very strong story ... But it’s fiction! Don’t forget that.

I know, I know, it’s fiction.

And obsessive love stories are good for fiction. At least for me. I wouldn’t be able to write a fiction story about a working love.

With a happy ending, that would be boring.

No, no, I know you don’t mean a working love story in the Hollywood way, the obsessive love in a very dramatic way puts on stage various mechanisms and protocols and programmes, fantasies, imaginations that are part of any love story. I mean, for instance, take jealousy, that is something pretty normal, it’s a daily life thing, everyone has those experiences in life. But if you focus on jealousy in a deep way you will immediately find that jealousy is the most crazy and obsessive and demented experience, maybe in human feelings. How do you understand that the person you thought five minutes ago was the person who protects you and loves you, gives you support and hospitality. And then, five minutes later, because of some stupid sign, becomes the most hostile, the most threatening person in the world, I mean, that’s jealousy. An everyday-life human experience. That’s what an obsessive love story is useful for, just to put on a dramatic stage, some articles, some elements, some pieces of a very normal and daily life expe¬rience we call love. For me, everything is a little bit mixed, at least for fiction purposes.

I get the point! I still think people link stories from books to their own experiences. What about your readers?

I’ve had very diverse responses to the book. Regarding the readers’ responses, there were people who said: ‘I read your book, and I split with my long-time girlfriend’. Other people came to me and said, ‘I read your book and I remarried my long-term girlfriend from whom I had been separated for three years’. So the book was nothing more than a sort of screen onto which all those people were projecting their stories, feelings and desires, fears. We always project onto the screens of art, cinema ... The book was useful for people who wanted to be alone, to be separate, and also for those who wanted to be together with somebody. And men came to me, and said ‘I am Sofia!’

I am Rimini, by the way!

That’s an interesting thing. Women said, as you said, ‘I am Rimini, and this Sofia is a fucking bitch!’ I like books, films and art that put all these distinctions we agree on without thinking about them, and reveal that things are always more complicated and identities more diffuse, conflicts much more complex than we think they are.

That’s weird. The book has been read, in Argentina at least, as a generational book. The book reflected the love experiences of a generation, which is completely untrue. Because the story of the book is a very anachronistic story. It’s a long love story between two young people, and people don’t have long love stories any more.

That’s not true.

Okay, you’ve had one, and I’ve had one or two, but it’s not a cultural issue. A cultural issue of contemporary times is that young people love each other just for fun and for sex and pleasure and don’t commit themselves to really deep loving experiences. This is a contemporary issue. So the book goes completely the other way. But I think it is precisely this anachronistic aspect that makes it really contemporary. Because there is a sort of secret need, a floating imagination, about long lasting love affairs that also works in this speedy, light, functional love culture of a contemporary world. So even for me it’s a strange book. In a way, I see the book as a 19th century melodrama implanted in a contemporary world. Maybe these sorts of paradoxical elements are what make the book an enthusiastic read. Even to people who don’t subscribe to this notion of deep, committed love. Even those kinds of people read my book and say ‘Well, this is really an amazing world’. So even people who don’t think of love the way the book portrays it, they think, even for themselves, that the book is a revelation of some kind of exotic world, like a love zoo.

The book shows all the possibilities of love.

Yes, I think so, too. Because I must confess: I am a love believer! I believe in love in the sense that love is, for me, one of the human experiences, maybe the others are politics or religion, that can include everything. That can be the context for everything. This is really extraordinary, this is really strong. Good loves, bad loves, long loves, short-lasting loves. Every form is included in love, and this power of inclusion is what I find extraordinary in love experiences. Well maybe it’s a little bit corny, a little bit anachronistic, but that makes it interesting.

It is, it is! It’s 6.30 now and you have to go to your reading. And I must say, I’m really sorry that I’m going to miss it!

Yes, but maybe I’ll do a reading in Vienna, too, one day. I would really love to. Has the city changed?

Hm, I’m not that old, so I can hardly say. But I don’t think so. Vienna never changes.

Vienna never changes?

Yes, that’s what Austrian writer Alfred Polgar said about the city. So maybe you haven’t missed a lot … I wish you the best of luck!
Thank you!