In addition to being one of the great up-and-coming translators of Spanish literature, Will Vanderhyden is also a good friend of mine. Going back to 2015, he had been telling me about an enormous translation of his from a very well-regarded Argentine, an author whose work I’ve wanted to read for some time.
The author is Rodrigo Fresán, and the book is his massive opus The Invented Part. This book (which is actually only part 1 of an even more massive trilogy) has won comparisons to such major American postmodernists as David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo.
Although Fresán is a major writer in Spanish, this is only the second of his books to be translated. Fortunately Will will be changing all that, as he is working on even more of Fresán’s novels, to appear in upcoming years.
Will received fellowships from the NEA and Lannan Foundation to work on The Invented Part. He has also translated fiction by Carlos Labbé, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Juan Marsé, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, and Elvio Gandolfo. Will and I conducted this exchange over email.
Scott Esposito: Rodrigo Fresán may not be exactly what people imagine when they think of “Argentine fiction.” The Invented Part is a sort of cerebral sci-fi novel, with reference points along the lines of authors David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and William Gaddis. The story itself includes elements like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, James Franco, the Beatles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabokov, and William Burroughs—that’s a whole lot of Anglo-American stuff. Can you tell us a little about Fresán and some of the influences that brought him to this territory?
Will Vanderhyden: The Invented Part is a funhouse of Fresán’s influences. That’s sort of his calling card. Writing all of his literary and pop culture obsessions into his fiction. An “ecstasy of influence” run wild. What he calls “referential mania.” Diagnosis of a style.
And that’s what The Invented Part is all about: possible ways a polymathic writer—who is but isn’t Rodrigo Fresán, an alternate Fresán in a parallel universe, maybe—might read and rewrite his own life through and with and against an expansive constellation of favorite writers, books, bands, songs, films, etc. that have shaped it.
So, there are many influences to talk about and many ways to talk about them. Like, for instance, how Fresán takes some of his most-revered writers like Fitzgerald, Burroughs, and Nabokov and turns them into characters. How he does the same thing with Bob Dylan, Ray Davies, and the members of Pink Floyd. About the perpetual emanations of Cheever, Vonnegut, and Proust. Or about how the unconventional structures of Fresán’s books stem from formative childhood exposure to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Beatles’ “A Day In the Life.” About the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as prefiguring his referential mania. Or about all the ways his fiction references and draws influence from the aesthetics and ideas of postmodern writers like the ones you mention above.
But since you bring up Argentine fiction and point out the heavily Anglo-American nature of Fresán’s references, I think it makes sense to talk about the indelible influence of Borges.
When I interviewed Fresán recently, I asked him where he thought he fit in Argentine literary tradition. He responded by saying that there’s nothing more Argentine than to consider oneself not Argentine; in that sense, he considered himself very Argentine. He traced this idea back to Borges, pulling a quote from his famous essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” the main thrust of which is that Argentine tradition is “the whole of Western culture” and Argentine writers have as much right as anybody to read, write themselves into, and rewrite that tradition, indeed that—being on the geographical and cultural periphery, both a part of and apart from that tradition—they are in a unique position to do so. The quote ends with a kind of winking edict:
Therefore I repeat that we must not be afraid; we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Argentine in order to be Argentine because either it is our inevitable destiny to be Argentine, in which case we will be Argentine whatever we do, or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.
Fresán positioning himself vis-à-vis Borges is telling. He grew up in the literary milieu of Buenos Aires in the 1960s (his father was a graphic designer for a publishing house) where Borges was a constant and celebrated figure. He says that he likes to think that he read Borges “as if he were a children’s book writer, in the noblest sense of the term, as a formative and foundational writer, as a spinner of perfect yarns, as one of those storytellers who open the door for us to go play in other books . . .” To my mind, Fresán is a Borgesian through and through and so—though such labels may be “mere affectation, a mask”—very much part of Argentine tradition. An Argentine tradition—both Argentine and not—of readers who write. A tradition of writers who, following the above Borgesian edict “try out every subject.” A tradition of literature as metaphysics and as a game.
SE: I feel like “Borgesian” is such a loaded term these days, seemingly being used by everybody to refer to anybody. And I know that when you use it, this is definitely not the case, as you have a very particular meaning in mind and wouldn’t apply it to just any author. So could you elaborate a little more on in what sense you see Fresán as “Borgesian”?
WV: But when I say Fresán is a Borgesian, I don’t mean that his fiction is similar in form to Borges’ (Borges is known for short, concise stories, Fresán for gargantuan, maximalist novels). What I mean is that he embraces the Borgesian zeitgeist. Like Borges, Fresán is interested in the porousness of the reality-fiction border, in the infinite possibilities of story, language, and perspective. Like Borges, Fresán likes to play formal games, mixing metafictional hijinks, literary criticism, elements of genre fiction, and a flare for the fantastic and the philosophical. Like Borges, Fresán writes fiction that springs from his library, from an impulse to turn reading into writing, to emulate, impersonate, satirize, sample, and rewrite other writers.
In an essay titled “Borges and Me, and Me” (published in Granta in 2010 and translated by Natasha Wimmer), Fresán describes Borges’s formative influence:
Borges, for me, always is and will be the Great Writer who understands writers as great characters and as great readers. Borges as the Reader-Writer, who, in my view, with his manner of being, defines a hypothetical and elusive Argentinian literary tradition. This is a tradition that passes for the idea of the betrayal of tradition—roots that don’t burrow into soil but into the wall against which the books are shelved. The wall that throbs with the cosmic virus of the silent and slow but constant invasion from Tlön. The wall that houses the genius of a librarian, blind and polymorphic and perverse, who recommends so many things all at once and who’s convinced that salvation and paradise will always live inside a book. Inside a book that contains the whole universe.
SE: The book’s main thread involves a character who wants to break in to the Large Hadron Collider so that he can merge with the so-called “god particle.” Although, when talking about a book like The Invented Part, such summaries are of only so much value, as this book is so maximalist, so varied and enormous that it beggars any kind of short summary. So could you tell us a little more about what’s in here, and how this overarching narrative relates?
WV: This overarching storyline functions as a framing device, a way to position the narrative voice. The sci-fi premise—that the narrator (known variously as The Boy, The Writer, The Lonely Man, and X) has managed to transcend space and time by breaking into the Large Hadron Collider and merging with the “God Particle”—occasions a kind of über-narrator, “transformed into particles . . . floating here and there and everywhere . . . incorporeal yet omnipresent.” A voice that narrates in “the most first of third persons,” as if The Writer “were reading his own mind” in the process of coming up with the book.
The book is structured in three acts, with the long middle act itself divided into five parts. All seven sections sit in different temporal relation to the overarching premise, narrating different parts of The Writer’s story both before and after his disappearance at the particle accelerator. The disjointed, non-linear structure, and the free-floating narrative perspective give Fresán leeway to unleash his coruscating, referentially maniacal style. To move around outside of time, to comment on and deconstruct his own process of narrative building. To turn that into the story, or multiple possible stories, variations on the theme of literary creation.
SE: This book is quite long—almost 600 pages—and it includes a lot of detailed information of the sort mentioned in the first question. What are the challenges of translating a book this long and with this much real-world detail?
WV: Well, luckily, I’m pretty familiar with a lot of Fresán’s references. The writers who come up most in The Invented Part—Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Burroughs, Cheever, the Brontë sisters, etc.—are writers I’ve read quite a bit. I grew up listening to The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Bob Dylan. So I didn’t have to translate an entire culture of references like some translators have to. That made navigating the overload simpler.
I’m also familiar with writers writing in English who Fresán is stylistically and formally in conversation with (writers like Wallace, Gaddis, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Dennis Johnson). And I think that can be really helpful for a translator in terms of finding the right register in a translation.
That’s not to say it was easy. I still had to do a lot of research and I developed a knack for tracking down quotes that were originally written in English but that Fresán had translated into Spanish. A search engine well utilized is an incredible tool for a translator.
It also helps that Fresán provides an extensive acknowledgments section at the end of the book, listing many of the references that enter the book and/or informed his own research.
Still, some quotes and details were tricky to pin down. For example, there was one Nabokov quote I was never able to find. Something that he had supposedly translated from a Paris Review interview. In the end, I couldn’t track it down, and Fresán told me to just make it Nabokovian, remarking that Nabokov might appreciate such a forgery, and reminding me that, when it comes down to it, it’s all fiction.
SE: I want to go back for a second to the prior question, where I mentioned the “main thread” of The Invented Part, and how with a book this wide-ranging the idea of the main plotline is almost beside the point. Throughout this novel, Fresán is relentlessly playful and digressive, playing games with typography, form, structure, and seemingly finding a way to talk about whatever he wants regardless of where the book should be going. What were some of your favorite moments or interludes in the book?
WV: One of Fresán’s formal tics that I find really fun and memorable is his list-making. Lists feature big in all of the book’s seven novella-length parts. They’re an essential part of the book’s architecture and they evoke a notion at its heart: the idea of fiction as a diffusion of “marvelous moments,” as variations on a theme, as infinite possibilities.
In the opening part we get a list of the preoccupations of The Boy (the first iteration of The Writer). Curiosities that foreshadow the hyperactive imagination of a referential maniac in the making. Things like: “Why does Superman appear to exert himself equally—the same muscle tension, the same knit brow—when he picks up a car or alters the orbit of an entire planet?” Or: “Why do the digits on the hand have specific names and those on the foot do not.” Or, when he’s a little older: “Why is the Miss Universe contest always won by a woman from planet Earth?”
Later, we get a playful list of character sketches—from the mind of The Young Man, an aspiring writer, obsessed with The Writer—with hilarious, over-the-top, Pynchonian (one of them, no coincidence, is a DJ named Tomás Pincho) names like: Apollo Dionisio, Constancio Tiempos, MacTypo, Cash Krugerrand, and Bienvenido “Come Together” Tequiero.
One of the most poignant uses of this list device comes in the part titled “A Few Things You Happen To Think About When All You Want Is To Think About Nothing,” which is a portrait of The Lonely Man—another iteration of The Writer—in the emergency room, in serious pain, waiting for a diagnosis. With his future uncertain, The Lonely Man, who has been suffering writer’s block, experiences a sudden torrent of story ideas. Ironic little set pieces bound up in ideas of mortality, loss, regret, and how parents inevitably mess up their kids. A taste:
In “What Will Be,” and regarding the impossibility of giving children a good education and making all the right decisions for their future, a father at a party, holding and held up by a glass full to the brim with whiskey, says: “My little Leo never walked in on me and his mother making love . . . I wonder if that will be a good or a bad thing for the development of his personality. What do you think, gorgeous?”
In “Will Be,” a man, in the exact instant of the orgasm that kicks off the story of his paternity (there goes that spermatozoid to dance inside that ovum), experiences the petit mort of being able to, in a matter of seconds, contemplate his entire future as a parent. The joy and sadness and confusion that await him along the way and the death of his condition as the last of his bloodline. Then, right away, he forgets all of it. Better that way. Otherwise it might be like one of those stories that, before long, night after night, he’ll tell to his future son (a story his son will memorize, down to the last word and inflection, delighted by knowing everything that’s coming, down to the last detail) who’s already there, on this side, forever.
In the final part, a farewell gesture, The Writer makes a list of metaphors for the book he’s trying to write—the same book we’ve been reading. Some samples:
A book like antimatter, like the antimaterial that—it’s energy so dark—will turn into another book, in another dimension.
A book that would sound like an album of greatest hits composed of rarities or like disrespectful or distorted but sincere covers of itself.
A book not of nonfiction but of yes-fiction.
A book that’s like a book of ghosts but where the ghost is the book itself, the dead life of the work.
A book whose seven sections would be written simultaneously, quickly changing the place of things, like cards in a game of solitaire or a Tarot reading in which The Writer card always comes out face down and too close too the Madman, The Wheel of Fortune, The Hangman, and Death.
A book like one of Edward Hopper’s clean and well-lit rooms, but with a Jackson Pollock waiting to come out of the closet.
SE: The Invented Part is the first part of a projected trilogy, with The Dreamed Part, the second book, finished in Spanish. What can you tell us about the trilogy? Will all of the books be this long?
WV: I can tell you that Fresán didn’t set out to write a trilogy, but he had a hard time letting go of the voice and perspective he’d created in The Invented Part. He says he got addicted to that “alter ego/Mr. Hyde” version of himself. And once he decided to keep going, the writing came easy.
I can tell you that The Dreamed Part is slightly longer than The Invented Part. That it’s even crazier. That Fresán’s referential mania is in full force, his imagination even more unleashed. That it explores similar thematic territory but through the lens of dreams. That there are more sci-fi plotlines. That there is a lot of Nabokov, a lot of the Brontë sisters, and a lot of Bob Dylan in it.
As far as part three, The Remembered Part, I can’t offer any specifics, because it’s still being written. Here’s what Fresán had to say about the trilogy, which sums it all up far better than I could:
The idea is that the trilogy ends up creating a portrait, between figurative and abstract, of how a writer thinks . . . A memoir not of a life but of a method. When you remember something, at the same time, you decide to forget something, because you never remember the totality of events. That, in itself, is already a form of editing and narrative building. The same thing happens when you dream and when you invent. That is, if you will, the formal center of the trilogy. To invent and to dream and to remember. Those are the three motors of the narration of a life that together make a work of art.