05. 02. 2009. 08:49

No longer bound by genre

An interview with Julia Otxoa and Eugenio Fuentes

"...our definition of literary genres is in serious need of revision." – Basque author Julia Otxoa and Spanish writer Eugenio Fuentes were invited as guest authors to Budapest’s 16th Book Festival. We asked them about their own as well as each other's work.

Spanish readers generally think of Eugenio Fuentes as a creator of detective novels. What is your opinion, Ms. Otxoa, about this genre? Do you feel any connection to it and, if so, do you prefer to read the great classics of this genre, or modern works?
Julia Otxoa: When I write and am in the process of creating, everything presents itself to me in the form of a question. A completely fictional setting appears before me, a complex interweaving of metaphor and allegory. The pursuit of similar questions was what guided me to read one book after another, experiences resulting in everything that I write today. This all began when I was a teenager visiting my maternal grandmother. I happened to open an old cabinet which—as if by magic—revealed row upon row of books neatly arranged by my uncle.  Until then I’d had no idea they were even there! After coming across this treasure chest, these books—together with the compulsory reading required in school—formed the basis of my first reading matter as a child. They were mostly novels by Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon, to name a few. I remember how much I enjoyed all the deductions, the examination, the hunt for clues. It was a world that truly enthralled me. Later on I moved on to completely different books, and, now, as an adult, I really don’t read detective novels. But I still have some very good memories concerning that world of detectives and murder cases, a world that always contained the kind of humor and clever elegance typical of really good literature.    
Julia Otxoa is known for writing “mini-narratives.” I’d like to ask Eugenio Fuentes what he thinks of this kind of work. Very few Spanish authors tend to use this genre; despite its growing popularity in Spain, is Latin America the true homeland of the short story?
Eugenio Fuentes: As a reader, I tend to prefer lengthier works possessing a broader perspective, like Faulkner, Musil, Juan Benet, Henry James or Proust…the kind of authors who write with a sort of greedy omnipotence. But I really don’t think that length matters when it comes to literature: there are long books that are good, just as there are long books that are bad. At the same token, there are good mini-narratives just like there are bad ones. I’m aware of the fact that these days, shortness is fashionable—Calvino dixit—but I refuse to believe that the realm of Lilliput is more deserving of praise than Polyphemos’s is. I’ve read works spanning a thousand pages that did not have a single unnecessary word in them, while I’ve also read novels that were only a hundred pages, yet out of that hundred at least ninety could have been left out. To sum up, I’ve never had any connection to mini narratives, but I don’t have any objections to them either.
What comes to mind first when you hear the word Hungary?
Julia Otxoa: A sensitivity toward culture, apparent in its people as well as in its history, the beauty of Budapest and its surrounding towns….
Eugenio Fuentes:  When I hear the word “Hungary,” I automatically think of the Danube, the unique culture found in the Danubian Basin, Sándor Márai, Liszt, Bartók and hot springs…. 
I personally quite enjoy reading short stories. A few years ago, Galician author Manuel Rivas stated that “novels are the future.” This statement was also the title for this interview. Ms. Otxoa, do you think that short stories get the attention they deserve these days?
Julia Otxoa: A mini-narrative is really nothing but a condensed short story. Its powerful form of expression is typified by a very restrained use of language, just as irony, a playful attitude toward language, the element of surprise and mystery. Great authors like Kafka, Monterroso, Cortázar, Borges, or Ramón Gómez de la Serna—and I could go on to name even more—all utilized this genre.
I think that in Spain the short story, and especially the mini-narrative, is slowly beginning to win the recognition it deserves in academic and publishing circles. In comparison to other genres like the novel, a mini-narrative demands far more of the reader, who must be an active participant, a “partner in crime,” so to speak. It is also important to emphasize that in mini-narratives understanding the intensity of the content, the work’s intended message, etc., demands the reader’s careful attention. Sometimes it is not enough to read these works just once, but two or three times, in order to unlock the thousands of interpretations concealed within.
A genuine murder mystery, or detective novel, is perhaps not the most fashionable genre these days, which might be interpreted as a fortunate situation. After all, if quality and not quantity is the standard by which books are judged, then it really doesn’t matter if less attention is paid to this or that kind of literature, for loyal readers will always remain faithful to the works they like. Is this correct?
Eugenio Fuentes: Now you’ve really hit the nail on the head with that last question. The issue of literary genre is a subject that demands a much longer analysis, for it isn’t something that can be quickly summarized. It is quite common these days to mix and combine, a habit that is affecting the issue of form and genre as well. In the time of Romanticism, Hugo and Schiller set the whole issue of form—as originally defined by Aristotle and Horace—on its head. This traditional system of classification is then put to rest, once and for all, at the turn of the 21st century.  What I write really can’t be classified as a detective novel. How a book is categorized is more an issue of marketing… and this doesn’t have much of an influence on me. I would like to write the very best that I can, bound only by the limits of my own abilities. Anything else that comes after this is really not my territory. You are, however, correct in saying that quality stands far above whatever the current fashion is. The real question is essentially the following: is a novel considered to be a murder mystery just because it begins with a death (usually violent in nature), and a detective is left to untangle the threads of how the crime happened? If this is the case, then I have never read a better murder mystery than Roberto Bolaño’s novel entitled 2666, a vast work that contains more investigations of female murders than I’ve ever found in any other great piece of literature written by either X or Y, yet nobody would ever label this book as a murder mystery! What kind of general characteristics, then, does a novel have to possess in order to be called a murder mystery? This is a question that will eventually be answered by either academics or literary critics. In my opinion, our definition of literary genres is in serious need of revision.

Márta Pávai Patak

Translated by: Maya J. Lo Bello

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