Books interview: Juan Pablo Villalobos

"Why the Liberian pygmy hippo? If it's absurd, let's do it really absurd. At the end it's a symbol;

Juan Pablo Villalobos's first novel about a boy growing up in a luxury compound in the mountains of Mexico with his drug baron father, Down the Rabbit Hole, was chosen by Sarah Churchwell as her 2011 Book of the Year and shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. I spoke to Villalobos and his translator Rosalind Harvey in London last week.

The original title of the book, Fiesta en la madriguera, did not translate directly to English. What happened to the Fiesta?

RH: We felt that a direct translation could be taken as an order: "Party down the rabbit hole, now! Go and have fun!" There's not that ambiguity in Spanish. Also, we felt the allusions to Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were quite complete. Having the "party" -- with its echoes of the tea party, the mad hatter -- would be too many layers of reference.

JPV: Also, madriguera in Spanish is like a burrow for many different animals, so the English title is a really good adaptation. Totchli [the child narrator] is a rabbit, so the title offers this second reading. All the names in the novel are animals, which neither the Spanish reader nor the Mexican reader knows, because they are Nahuatl names -- a language not really known [nowadays] in Mexico.

The novel is Mexico doesn't have the glossary. How does a reader learn of the animal names?

JPV: They don't, but that doesn't matter. This second reading is... like a secret. You can Google it.

RH: I did.

JPV: If one reader's curiosity is really strong, he can discover what the name means. And Usagi [Totchli's temporary name] in Japanese is the same: rabbit.

You wrote the novel when you found out you were having a child. At what age will you give the book to your son to read?

I think maybe 11 or 12. As to Totchli, I always say he can be a really smart boy who's six or seven, or he can be a bit more naïve and ten or eleven. He lives in these particular circumstances: trapped in the house without contact with other kids, without school. He could be 7, 8, 9, 10... I don't care.

Have you studied child psychology?

No. My interest was particular only to literature, not a psychological or pedagogical approach. I was seduced by this voice and the possibilities when you can say a lot of things that you wouldn't if you were telling the story in the third person. The identity between the narrator and the writer can be dangerous, too, like you're exposing your ideas.

The book recalls Henry James's What Maisie Knew, the emergence of this voice in modernist literature. What works inspired you?

There's a very good book, a short story collection about the Mexican revolution, called Cartridge. It was written at the beginning of the 20th century by a woman, Nellie Campobello. Those stories are narrated by a girl, with a similar perspective and style to Totchli.

He learns words from the dictionary, often using them incorrectly. Did you plan to write a novel about semiotics?

In the language, in the use of the dictionary, I was really trying to explore the production of a vision of the world through the knowledge of language. Obviously, that's why he's trapped in a house, he only goes out once. It's a thesis novel. You describe this world, you put the characters in there, and then you have to play with that all the way through. I think the main challenge was to be coherent. Not [necessarily] true, but convincing.

In one passage, Totchli refers to a woman's bottom being "this big". The narration takes on a visual element.

As a matter of fact, I've had discussions about the orality of the book. I think it's a very literary book that stays on the page, but because of this tone I had to sometimes use these strategies to be closer to the reader; looking for some complicity. It's about trying to get closer.

Totchli has a flashback of a visit to a Mexican village that he's thoroughly unimpressed by. Has he been robbed of a heritage?

Maybe, but here I was thinking of the symbols and clichés we use to construct the identity of a town or country. You're thinking of Mexico and you're thinking of hats, mariachis, tequila; these fast associations. "Let's go to my town: it's a churro town!" "There are no churros. This is a fraud!" It's like the Disneyland of churros. It's [actually] my town.

Through the book, there are these reflections about how we construct our vision of reality with ideas that are really wasted. Tired clichés. It happens the same with Africa. How to construct the idea of it? "Poor, only horrible people" -- it's like that. It's a provocative joke.

One wonders who is protecting the boy, who is he being protected from. Who is the enemy?

I took a lot of care not to fall into the bad guys and the good guys. I try to escape from moralisms and write the story most clean of ideology. In the end, the father is a threat to his son.

How political is the novel?

Very, of course. This character Mazatism is a cliché of the late Sixties and Seventies professors at the Latin American universities, with the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions and the theology of liberation. This character joins all these clichés and the vision against America.

It's at the heart of Mexico, this hate/love relationship: "It's shit, America, but at the same time we love it". We see it at the pictures, we buy all the products, we love America -- but the speech is: "We hate America. The Gringos."

Totchli carelessly throws away a Star Wars toy given to him by another young boy. Is this an expression of his nature, rather than nurture?

For me it was a moment to see that he's a child. But it's also a small episode of the class struggle, class war. These two boys [who come to visit] are from the outside world and are the neighbours of the servants. Mexico is a very class divided society. In this episode I wanted to sell that really fast.

Why the Liberian pygmy hippo?

I love hippos in general. In the beginning I was thinking just in hippos; a boy who wanted one. Then I read this article about the animals in danger of extinction and the fourth or fifth most threatened was the Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. I thought: perfect. It's more radical. He doesn't only want a hippo -- he wants a particular kind that is in danger of extinction. If it's absurd he wants a hippo, now let's do it really absurd. At the end it's a symbol; he wants something that's really nothing.

The novel at the end is about the learning of power. How much power do you have? It depends, when you're a kid, on who your parents are. You are the son of a politician? You are the son of a very rich man? You have working class parents? You learn to deal with how much power you have.

Totchli is rather taken by the word "solidarity".

It's a word that's particular to Mexico from the Eighties. President [Carlos] Salinas was very popular outside Mexico. Like [Brazil's former president] Lula, everybody loved him because he was modernizing the country, he was a PhD graduate from Harvard, he was "perfect". He had this social programme, Programa Nacional de Solidaridad (National Solidarity Program), a collaborative project between citizens and the government. But the reality was demagogia [demagogy].

This word -- solidaridad -- was used all the time in the news, the media, advertising for six years. It became a bad word and you remember it.

What's next for you?

JPV: I just finished my second novel. It's for my daughter, who is two. One for him and one for her.

RH: Next one for your wife.

JPV: Let's see! [laughs]

You've moved from Spain back to Latin America. Where do you vote, if you do?

I've voted with a cross for twenty years. I spoil the ballot, always. Because, I think that if you don't agree with the options you have to say. It's not that I'm not going because I don't believe in the parties -- no. You have to go. And then you have to say: "fuck off, everybody".

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain