When Did We Begin Conflating Art, Politics, and Morality?

Mara Faye Lethem Speaks to Patricio Pron About His Novel of Italian Futurism

While Patricio Pron’s body of work is already an iceberg, only the tip is currently revealed in English. Don’t Shed Your Tears for Anyone Who Lives on These Streets is his second novel to be published in the States by Knopf. Born and raised in Rosario, Argentina, Pron earned a doctorate in Germany and has been living in Madrid for many years. However, this powerful novel is set in Italy, and draws together our current restlessness with ideological family legacies, centering around an enigmatic death that ended a gathering of Fascist writers in 1945.

As this kaleidoscopic maelstrom of voices and ideas unravels, it calls into question the relationship between art and life itself. To celebrate its publication, Pron and I conversed, and he explained why this particular book may be just what readers need right now.

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Patricio Pron: Mara, how does one begin? How do you tackle a text of mine for the first time? Is it helpful to have translated my work before? The beginning of this book is intentionally confusing and requires establishing voices that have to sound different from each other; the question of how they sound—was that a problem for you in approaching this text or is that something that you deal with later?

Mara Faye Lethem: I’ve been translating your work, off and on, for more than a decade now. So my experience in translating you gives me a comfort level, and confidence that is a wonderful foundation. In the first draft I have to sort of dissect the book only to later reconstruct it. The different voices should come through if the author has done their job. This book is itself something of a reconstruction, and has a quite complex structure. How organic was that? Or did you have it all mapped out?

PP: It often happens that the end of a book isn’t the last part its author has written, which is sometimes the beginning, especially in fragmentary narratives like mine. I proceed consecutively, however, even though that might not be apparent at first glance: I usually start with a question and go from there, but in the case of Don’t Shed Your Tears I had several questions: What led art to become politics throughout the 20th century, and politics to become crime, as happened over and over again?

What relationship exists between the morality of the authors (whom we tend to demand be almost moral role models, particularly in our times) and that of their works? Isn’t it obvious that authors of irreproachable morality tend to write reprehensible books, and vice versa? And, more specifically, what can we learn from the links between art and state that the Futurists cultivated in the fascist Italy of Benito Mussolini?

The Futurists were the first avant-garde, the one that opened the paths that would later be followed by all the historical avant-gardes and later contemporary art, they went the furthest in the quintessential avant-garde aspiration, which is to merge art and life. They got the closest to making their aesthetic ideas into State policies; they were also the avant-garde that were most quickly destroyed by their proximity to totalitarian ideas. Is there something in their story that serves as a kind of lesson about the inherent dangers of the flirtation with political power that certain artists engage in, as well as the inherent dangers of any aesthetic or political project that aspires to offer a single, absolute answer to the problems of its time?

Also, in less general terms, I was wondering why there are no great Futuristic novels and, of course, if I could write one, which meant writing a very different novel from the usual ones, a really anachronistic novel.

MFL: I love that this book has managed to find its way into English—a book set in Italy written by an Argentine living in Spain; a Futurist novel published in the 21st century. What drew you to this idea of “art turning into politics”? How do you see that as different from the proximity of art and power in prior centuries, the patronage of the church and the royal courts?

PP: I would go so far as to say that the difference lies in an inversion of the relationship between art and power: from the first half of the 20th century, and especially during the era of great totalitarianisms, art began to function as a means to legitimatize power, instead of the other way around. There were several, quite complex reasons for this but, in brief, I would say that what happened was that “the death of God” detracted from the legitimacy of authorities that had always been serving “by His will” and from an exercise of power that took place with the blessing of representatives of that will on Earth.

I’ve been seeing photographs of people protesting the confinement in the United States . . . They are like a nightmare in which the most evident symbols of American identity were seen through the lens of a demented artist.

Power then fell to the intellectuals and artists, who wielded the authority they still had (and, surprisingly, continue to have) with the idea (Machiavellian, in the best sense) of influencing power and conditioning its policies, which only happened on the aesthetic plane. On the plane of the “Realpolitik,” power continued and continues to act in its own interests and according to its own logic.

But, in any case, the result of this alliance was that the aesthetic arguments and the differences between artists and intellectuals became political confrontations: power was aestheticized, aesthetics (art) became political in a banal sense and art was dragged into the radicalization of political ideas, eventually putting itself at the service of the Soviet famines, the displays of force by Italian fascism, the Nazi ideas of extermination, American materialism, etc.

Very few intellectuals or artists were exempt from this logic (Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi, Albert Camus, etc.), and Don’t Shed Your Tears speaks indirectly of them. More directly, or in a way that’s easier to see, it pays homage to them and to a certain way of ​​understanding the links between art and life. But it also aspires to draw attention to a specific link between art and politics that we tend to forget but which permeates everything, including the most apparently innocent political demonstrations.

These days, for example, I’ve been seeing photographs of people protesting the confinement in the United States, and they are very interesting to me from an aesthetic point of view, like a nightmare in which the most evident symbols of American identity were seen through the lens of a demented artist. I wasn’t interested in these people’s ideas, but I was interested in their visual manifestation and, as such, in some way, in their ideas. And I think art always works like that, in some sense.

Were you aware of the “strangeness” of the novel from the first moment or was it something you perceived as you read (and translated)?

MFL: Have you seen Kent Rogowski’s jigsaw series Love = Love? Translating Don’t Shed Your Tears was a little bit like that. I spent my time mostly focused on the pieces, the words, and trying to put them together. The translation is in dialogue with the text, it doesn’t exist without the text. I always feel that I can ask you questions, but really, in the end, I have to find the answers in the book. Does that make sense?

PP: I think so. My own experiences as a translator coincide with yours, in the sense that the only answers we can find to the questions that a text asks us are in the text, even when the text is an elusive one. It is not that a text is “easy” or “difficult”: for my part, I have never set out to add any difficulty to the many difficulties of our present moment, but rather to propose to the reader some games, a break from the monotonous succession of coincidences that compose most novels. Like Terry Eagleton, I, too, belong to the “Readers’ Liberation Movement” and I trust the reader absolutely, but you already know that.

MFL: There is something to your sentence structure that carries through no matter what the subject matter of the book. I was recently reading Mañana tendremos otros nombres—a very different book of yours—and I can hear a certain voice in my head as I read that’s conveyed through the syntax, that layering of clauses, Which, of course, I sometimes feel the need to change. English doesn’t sustain it quite as well. I almost feel I should be apologetic about that, but I’m not. Sorry.

PP: No need to apologize, of course. I find it significant that, most of the time, after having read a book, what we most or best remember is a kind of music, or a voice. That voice (or those “voices”, since Don’t Shed Your Tears is what they call a “polyphonic” novel) is, in practice, the first thing I know about a book. Everything after that is an exercise in ventriloquism, in my case without a dummy and solely at the service of of a voice that demands its place in the world’s choir.

MFL: That touches on something I’ve been thinking about lately, the role of the mistake in art, and how we live with and/or reject that “human” aspect of artworks. This book confounds that issue, in a way, because it blends real history with invention to create its own unfactcheckable logic.

PP: Most of the protagonists of the years in which the book focuses had improbable lives, completely devoid of continuity and internal logic, which makes them lousy novel characters (and not for nothing, William Stoner is a magnificent character precisely because he doesn’t take part in any of the great events of his time). I thought that perhaps it would be interesting from the narrative point of view to embrace that implausibility by proposing to the reader the exercise of discerning which characters in the book are real and which are not. Readers may be very surprised by the results of this exercise, which is one of the games the book proposes.

MFL: Can we go back to something you mentioned somewhat offhandedly earlier? Is it really so patently clear that authors of irreproachable morality tend to write reproachable books, and vice versa? And how does that speak to our current moment of “cancel culture” and calls to boycott certain works of art?

PP: Perhaps that was an exaggeration, but only a slight one. Obviously not all authors of irreproachable morality write reprehensible books, but, insofar as they impose their morals on the characters, they tend to produce literature that’s trapped between the determination to go places and the will of its author to lead it where he wants to, which always ends up devaluing it.

American literature is replete with characters who escape the control and authority of their authors, for example Huckleberry Finn, and that literature is an example of the kind of formal and stylistic (and therefore moral) freedom that all true works of art have, which is why the recent “cancel culture” is so striking. It’s not a uniquely American phenomenon, of course, but the fact is that in Europe, at least for now, the boycott practice has not reached the dimensions it has in your country, which perhaps says as much about American society as it does about European societies.

A work is not its author. The opinions of a character do not have to be those of their author, any more than their nationality or their marital status should be. Fiction consists of trying to be someone else and understand that someone else, both on the part of the author and the reader. Somewhat controversially, a German philosopher recently argued that our “new” demand for authenticity was going to lead us to demand that, from this moment on, all the actors who play Nazis in the movies have anti-Semitic sympathies.

It does not seem insignificant to me that this book is coming out in the context of a state of alarm, in which a way of living we believed to be unassailable has been interrupted.

It is an exaggeration, of course, but it does not seem so far-fetched in the current state of affairs, despite which, I hope that no one comes to object to the fact that I wrote a novel about fascists without being myself.

MFL: I couldn’t help but notice the cameo appearance in this book of a recurring character of yours: Hollenbach, protagonist of a novel I haven’t yet had the opportunity to bring into English,The Start of Spring; what’s the origin of the theory of discontinuity; what makes this idea so important to you?

PP: Hans Jürgen Hollenbach is the author of the “theory of discontinuity,” a small philosophical system that he developed during the period between the wars in Germany to explain the turmoil of contemporary history. He is not the only philosopher who set out to do something like this, although he is the most important one in that novel you mention, in which the protagonist sets out in search of him, after believing that Hollenbach had accepted him as a student, and never finds him.

The theory of discontinuity (which, while it doesn’t appear in Don’t Shed Your Tears, does lend the novel something of its form) proposes that the continuities between historical events and regimes are merely the product of a specific way of looking at history that organize events into series the same way that syntax orders words in a sentence.

In reality, says Hollenbach in the novel, discontinuity governs everything: from our personal appetites to our ideas of a social order, and things like nations, families and even the concept of “I” are attempts to face the recurring catastrophe of having been thrown into a world that has no order or continuity, which sounds terrible and overwhelming but is told in that novel in a way that (I hope) will not be overwhelming or terrible.

My purpose in writing books like the ones I write is to propose a fiction that “thinks” while fulfilling all the other functions that fiction usually fulfills (opening a parenthesis in reality, giving us back a sense of continuity and time, for example), and in order to do this I need the complicity of very good publishers, magnificent translators like you, supportive institutions (like Civitella Ranieri in central Italy), and the complicity of those readers who trust ambitious fiction.

And in that sense, it does not seem insignificant to me that this book is coming out in the context of a state of alarm, in which a way of living we believed to be unassailable has been interrupted. Our streets have been emptied, our cities have been fenced in and our small pleasures are gone, putting an end, incidentally, to forms of organization and resistance without which we are completely defenseless. I find it difficult to imagine a moment in recent history in which the dreams that fiction proposes to us have been more necessary and illuminating than the moment we are living through, this strange nightmare in which discontinuity governs everything.

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Patricio Pron’s novel Don’t Shed Your Tears for Anyone Who Lives on These Streets is available from Knopf.

Mara Faye Lethem
Mara Faye Lethem
Mara Faye Lethem is based between Barcelona and Brooklyn, and translates from Catalan and Spanish. She has translated many contemporary novelists and is a reviewer for the New York Times.





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