The Cocky, Indulgent, Nihilistic Virtuosity of Daniel Saldaña París
Ottessa Moshfegh talks to the novelist of “Among Strange Victims” about the freedom of feeling doomed.
I met Daniel Saldaña París last fall and soon discovered that we probably descended from the same galaxy; our imaginations have traveled a similar celestial pathway down into this mysterious shitstorm called “life on Earth.” I’m not afraid of being completely grandiose and arrogant around Daniel. He’s a generous friend and understands what it means to be overwhelmed by one’s own growth, and devastated and entertained by the limitations of the idiots all around. It’s important to have at least one friend like this.
This interview was conducted over email rather formally alongside a more personal correspondence. “All my appetites are on the rise lately. I want to eat, drink, and fuck all day. I think it may be from overexercising,” he wrote. “Everyone is a slave. I am retreating from the brainwashed society. The only way for me to spiritual freedom is celibacy and daily purge of delusion,” I wrote back. So, it’s like that between us.
Daniel is from Mexico and writes in Spanish. I don’t read Spanish, so I haven’t read much of his work. His first novel, Among Strange Victims, was recently translated into English by Christina MacSweeney. As I read it, I felt I was witnessing a great performance. It reminded me a little of young Mozart showing off at the emperor’s golden harpsichord, giggling and improvising variations on Salieri’s welcome march, startling all the wigged and powdered Viennese stiffs. And I sensed something desperate and inflamed in the writing too, as though the author assumed all along that nobody would ever read his book. That’s probably what I like most about it — the cocky, indulgent, nihilistic virtuosity.
Ottessa Moshfegh: You’ve talked to me before about how most people in Mexico don’t give a shit about books. Can you elaborate on why, and how this is evidenced in the culture?
Daniel Saldaña París: Well, the publishing industry in Mexico barely exists, especially if we talk about “literary fiction.” Nobody really makes a living by writing novels, except perhaps five or six people. The disdain for the arts in Mexico can be seen everywhere in society. The public education system is terrible, so most of the population can’t even understand what they read if they read anything at all. There are around 500 bookstores in the whole country, for a population of 120 million people. You never see anyone reading on public transportation — partly because the working shifts are so harsh and the wages so low that people use the public transportation to sleep the extra hour they need to survive.
The government tries to palliate this situation by giving grants and awards to writers, and the result is a literary elite self-obsessed and disconnected from reality, without readers and pretty much subsidized with taxes. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that those taxes are spent in cultural grants instead of spending them on the so-called “War on Drugs,” but without readers, the whole idea of writing a book becomes rather absurd. It’s a discouraging situation.
On the other hand, the freedom derived from this situation is great. The market has its own control mechanisms and tends to flatten literary creativity, in my opinion — like, if you see a certain kind of book succeeding, you are more likely to imitate that style. But in Mexico, without an industry as big as the American publishing industry, nobody gives a fuck if you write the most avant-garde piece of fiction or a plain, schematic genre novel. And it doesn’t matter if you write about an imaginary whimsical world or about the 15 beheaded migrants found in a ditch the day before — the market will not punish you for the choice of subject because the market’s punishment is democratic and affects everybody anyway, no matter what you do. You have the same access to the governmental grants and awards regardless of what you write. So, if you can’t get rich, at least you can write something important to yourself and remain faithful to your ideas. I think that might be one of the reasons for this good moment Mexican literature is having right now, with authors like Yuri Herrera, Mario Bellatin, Julián Herbert, Álvaro Enrigue, Valeria Luiselli, Verónica Gerber, and Eduardo Rabasa — among others. They’re receiving international attention and getting their books translated. None of them are trying to write a bestseller because that’s not within the Mexican horizon of possibilities, really. Therefore, their fiction is pushing boundaries in ways that a strong, controlling industry would not allow.
Obviously, this is a simplification. We don’t just write for the non-existent Mexican readers. A lot of what is written in Mexico reaches readers in the rest of Latin America and in Spain. The market for Spanish-language books is wider, and the “validating industry” that flattens creativity lays beyond the Mexican borders. But I personally feel that no one gives a shit about my books — maybe I’m just a pessimist — and that idea feels horrible and refreshing at the same time. I feel ignored and doomed to anonymity, but free to do whatever I want within the sacred space of literature. I can very easily forget about the world, which has forgotten about me since the beginning, and write my stuff to be at peace and to better understand myself and my surroundings, without trying to please anyone.
That said, the ideal combination would be to have more readers and still keep a good deal of experimentation and originality, as it happens in Argentina — where the readership rate is way higher and they have a handful of essential and amazing novelists per generation since Roberto Arlt in the early 20th century. You just have to see the numbers: in Buenos Aires, they have approximately 740 bookstores, about 25 for every 100,000 people. It’s the city with the most bookstores in the world. The contrast with Mexico is overwhelming. Writers don’t get rich there either, and they definitely don’t have the public grants system that we have in Mexico, but at least they have readers. And they have César Aira.
OM: On the subject of Spain, in Among Strange Victims you invite the reader to hate Marcelo Valente, the narcissistic academic from Madrid who flounders in Mexico. He’s such an effete and delicate fool; you capture the insufferable know-it-all brilliantly. Tell me, please, what’s the matter with intellectuals? And is satire always self-reflective?
DSP: I’m interested in satirizing every kind of intellectual I’ve met over the years. From the Mexican intellectual, pompous and macho, to the American academic poet, comfortably experimental and apolitical. In the case of Marcelo Valente, I recalled my years as a college student at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. I used the character partly as personal revenge against actual people. I guess I write better satire when it’s out of resentment. But obviously, every character has something of myself too, so you could say that satire is self-reflective to a degree, at least in my case. I make fun of my own vanities through every character.
I wanted to create unlikable characters. I wanted every character in my novel to be hated for his or her behavior. But I did not want to condemn these characters from the beginning. There has to be a certain ambiguity. Ideally, I want the reader to hate a character first, then to get to like him/her. Marcelo Valente is a delicate fool, yes, and he halfheartedly defends obnoxious ideas. But then he also helps Rodrigo to stay in Los Girasoles, and he listens to him and almost becomes a friend of his. He acts like a moron because he can’t feel genuine enthusiasm. He lacks vital drive. He has anhedonia. It is here where this character is also intended to be a general comment on Spain or even Europe. When I lived there, before the crisis, I felt people were at ease with reality. A lot of intelligent people I met lacked the kind of drive I used to see in Mexico. They weren’t revolting against the establishment, they weren’t questioning what had been done before them, nor proposing a generational change of any kind. They were essentially comfortable with the world. One could study philosophy, get tenure and teach the same lesson for thirty years without ever revising his or her own beliefs. That was the sole aim of my classmates. Maybe this changed with the crisis — I have the feeling that it did. And don’t get me wrong, I am an admirer of Spanish culture; I myself am half Spanish and read a lot of Spanish literature. At the same time, I have a general feeling — which is a cliché, I know — that Europe is dead inside. And I wanted to play with that cliché in my novel.
This is an important issue for me. I defend my right to use the cliché as a tool in satire. As long as one knows that something is a cliché, I think one should be able to use it as a point of departure for a character. The character must eventually transcend that cliché, but parting from a cartoonish generalization is a valid strategy, I believe. Elias Canetti, in Auto-da-Fé, created a masterpiece using cliché and parting from a cartoonish intellectual — professor Peter Kien. The influence of George Grosz’s cartoons was acknowledged by Canetti. That is one of my models. And I think it’s a great model when satirizing intellectuals in particular. The cliché elements of the character help the reader to recognize him on the spot. Then you can build originality around it.