Almost like an Exorcism: An Interview with Writer Roque Larraquy

“I think humor is a tool that allows us to make visible the critical relationship between themes and materials explored in the text.”

Disciplines Roque Larraquy Has Studied:

Comemadre, according to one of the narrators of Argentine Roque Larraquy’s short, eponymous novel, is “a plant with acicular leaves whose sap produces (in a leap between taxonomic kingdoms that warrants further study) microscopic larvae. These larvae devour the plant, leaving only tiny particles behind; the remains then spread to take root in the soil, and the process begins again.” The only remaining samples of comemadre belong to British gangsters who use it to dispose of evidence, much the way Larraquy himself seems to have done, narratively speaking, with his invented plant. In spite of its titular prominence, comemadre appears only fleetingly in the novel, as if it had been consumed by the larvae of other plot devices, and yet its metaphorical sap is everywhere. Comemadre is a book about liminality, the spaces and connective tissues between things, and the transformations that take place in transit from one world to another, whether they are the taxonomic kingdoms of art and science, or life and death.

Comemadre is divided into two parts. The first takes place in 1907, at a sanatorium in Temperley, Argentina. The narrator is one Doctor Quintana, a physician at quack clinic offering a miracle cancer cure that reels in terminal patients who are then cajoled into participating in a grandiose, metempsychotic research experiment: to learn what awaits us after death. Led by their boss, Quintana and the rest of the clinic staff launch a “scientific” experiment under the hypothesis that, since the brain remains active for several seconds after decapitation, decapitated people will have a slim margin during which they can report on what they see. One of the doctors predicts that the “results will be more like poetry than prose… A fortune-teller’s opacity: ethereal nouns, verbs with no easily identifiable subjects.” When Quintana and his colleagues at last get down to guillotining their patients, their experiment unravels, as does Quintana’s authority over the story he’s telling, which itself seems to become a report from a different world.

The second part of Comemadre is set in Buenos Aires, in 2009. The narrator is an obese gay artist who is responding to a dissertation about his life and work by a scholar at Yale. His novelistic annotation tells the story of his sentimental education from lonely child genius to art-world phenom after he meets a doppelgänger who imitates him and becomes his collaborator. Like the Temperley doctors, he uses the human body—his own, however, in his case—to test the boundaries of human experience. And through a stranger former lover, his story ends up folding backs into Quintana’s a century later.

Comemadre is as weird as it sounds, but way funnier than it sounds. It is absurdist theater with an ache for transcendence. Stubbornly oblique and intricately disjunctive (the two parts’ stories’ ends feel fittingly decapitated), the novel reads like fragments from some great beyond, which made me curious not just about the gaps the reader must fill in, but Larraquy’s process of creating them. We emailed during several weeks.

—Aaron Shulman

THE BELIEVER: With its bipartite structure, and the elliptical ideas and tenuous threads connecting the two very different narrative parts, this isn’t a novel in which it’s easy to imagine its genesis. What was the first spark?

ROQUE LARRAQUY: Long before it was populated by doctors and artists, Comemadre was just a structural idea: I wanted to write a novel in two parts, sew together two different narrative materials and force them live together in a reciprocally parasitic way, to unite them gradually in one multiple and continuous body, an unexpected flowering. Two different eras, like a historical echo chamber; at least two narrators; two politics of narration, one centered on actions and a series of events, another rooted in a “story of I.”; two worlds crashing into each other.

BLVR: How did the two different parts take form?

RL: The story that first appeared as a field of interest was the world of contemporary art at the intersection of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, which occupies the second part of the novel. The text, in this way, began to write itself backwards. Then, fate brought into my hands a copy from 1907 of Caras y Caretas [Faces and Caretas], a very prestigious magazine of the era, with an advertisement for a sanatorium that offered a cure for cancer. It was the trigger that made the world of the first part of the novel grow.

BLVR: This novel felt like nothing I’d ever read before, but at the same time I sensed the presence of some storytellers I love—a certain Beckettian tone, for example, and a focus on the body that made me think of David Cronenberg. Who were you influenced by?

RL: I’m interested in texts that breath fiction without necessarily belonging to literature. For my first two novels, and also for the third, which I’m writing now, I read books on phrenology, mesmerism, alienism, galvanic medicine, spiritualism, etc., disciplines from the 19th century that dissolved in the 20th century because they didn’t accommodate new scientific paradigms. I also revisited Swift, Marcel Schwob, and Rabelais, in search of certain humor, and writers from the first South American vanguards, like Juan Filloy and Juan Emar, to bring out the artificiality of the language. There certainly were influences from cinema: Cronenberg, Greenaway. If it hadn’t come after Comemadre, Soderbergh’s The Knick also could have been a big influence.

BLVR: In the novel an oblique conversation takes place around the relationship between art and science. What were you hoping to get at?

RL: In recent decades the field of art had placed in the foreground the way in which bodies find themselves ruled by forces that regulate them, mold them, and transform then, and it has tried out aesthetic and political strategies of subversion that establish a dialogue with current reflections in biopolitics, a discipline that has a conflict-prone relationship with science. I was interested in working with both fields, science and art, sewn together by the relationship between bodies and the circulation of power.

BLVR: The best example in the novel of this relationship between power and bodies is the authoritative doctors convinces the dying patients to essentially volunteer for decapitation in the name of science. This is pretty macabre stuff, yet at the same time it’s very funny in the telling. How hard was it to find that balance?

RL: I think humor is a tool that allows us to make visible the critical relationship between themes and materials explored in the text. From the beginning of the idea was to establish a contrast between the dark nature of the narrated events and a distanced, lightly caricatured voice, which takes tragedy into the territory of farce and deconstructs every last suspicion of realism.

BLVR: Argentinian writers have historically strayed away from realism into the fantastic. How was Comemadre received there when it was first published?

RL: When it came out, Comemadre received excellent reviews, although this wasn’t immediately reflected in readers’ access to the book. Slowly, but in a sustained way, Comemadre found those readers, driven, I think, by being assigned in different universities in Latin America and Spain and even some Argentine high schools. The general interest aroused by independent presses in Argentina—which in recent years have managed not only to make their presence known in the media, but also establish a type of literature “on the margins” that wasn’t usually put out by big publishers—also contributed to its success.

BLVR: You wrote this book ten years ago. What has its “rebirth” in English felt like?

RL: In reality it doesn’t feel like a “rebirth,” because the book, to my surprise, hasn’t ceased to move around during all of that time. The different translations (into French, into English, soon into Italian) have allowed me to return to it again and again, given my interested in collaborating with translators in the process of passage into other languages.

BLVR: Coffee House seems like the ideal press for your book? How did it end up with them?

RL: Someone that I don’t know, who I love blindly, recommended it to Coffee House; the editors consulted Heather Cleary, an expert in Argentine literature, and she pushed the project along.

BLVR: What was the translation process like?

RL: Heather Cleary had the graciousness to go back and forth with me during the whole process of the translation; she sent me excellent first drafts, and together we combed the text paragraph by paragraph, in a beautiful exchange.

BLVR: So the process wasn’t like the murderous search for ethereal words that the doctors in your novel engage in?

RL: Argentine Spanish is perhaps the most peculiar and furthest dialect, as much morphologically as lexically, from the Spanish that is spoken in Spain and Mexico, because of the influence of Italian and other European, Amerindian, and African languages that left their stamp on Argentine speech as a result of migratory currents that populated the country. I was stunned by Heather’s sensitivity dealing with these peculiarities, her exquisite mastery of the language and the incredible way in which she sustained a prosody, musicality, and rhythm in the passage to English.

BLVR: What does comemadre, symbolically or metaphorically, mean to you? It’s a plant you’ve invented, but also sounds like Freudian cannibalism.

RL: The word doesn’t exist in Spanish, but refers, literally, to the idea of “eating the mother”; I was interested in this idea as a resonance of the “autophagic” idea of the text. I was worried that the word would be interpreted in a psychoanalytic sense, especially in a city like Buenos Aires, which has the largest number of psychologists per inhabitant in the world; that is why the title in Spanish has the article “la” [the] (La Comemadre), which pulls the term to a place of being a thing, an object, a material. In English the name is merely a sound; after lots of back and forth with alternative titles, Heather and Coffee House decided to keep the title (without “la,” of course), which made me happy. I don’t like titles that announce the content of the books, or the genre they belong to; I prefer titles that seem like a proper, autonomous name.

BLVR: What makes this novel a specifically Argentine novel? Or do you feel it’s not specifically Argentine?

RL: I think it’s a book that can be read anywhere without “Argentine” being an obstacle. It is, however, inscribed, without a doubt, in the two strongest traditions in Argentine literature: political and institutional violence, from a thematic point of view, and the embrace of the fantasy and science fiction genre (I think that Comemadre operates in both genres), genres especially explored by authors central to the Argentine canon like Borges, Cortázar, and Bio Casares, among others.

BLVR: What connection was there between the first part of the novel, which takes place over a hundred years earlier, and the present in which you wrote it? Our current world outside your head and the surreal historical one inside it are wildly different, but they clearly spoke to another in your creative process.

RL: My father was a psychiatrist; my mother, a pianist, worked in a public hospital; my brother is a psychologist. My childhood took place in a home which during the day functioned as a psychiatric office, with the attendant parade of patients and doctors (in general serious cases, from both sides). The world of doctors formed part of my first life experiences and this breathes through the first part of the novel, almost like an exorcism.

BLVR: Can you tell a bit about your second novel?

RL: My second novel is A Report on Animal Ectoplasm, published in Argentina in 2014 and last year in Italy. It’s a book that combines illustrations by the artist and designer Diego Ontivero with a text that talks about the rise and fall at the start and middle of the 20th century of a pseudoscience devoted the tracking of animal ghosts. The book presents a series of report about ghost-sightings of animals that died under traumatic circumstances, their influence on human beings and the tissue of their reality, and the development of a scientific institution that uses the material of these ghosts to combine them in monstrous ways and use them as instruments of social order/chaos, in the context of the first coup d’état.

BLVR: Is it coming out in Engilsh any time soon?

RL: There are no offers yet. I’d love for that to happen.

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