The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…
In the prologue to his novel Los lanzallamas Roberto Arlt writes: ‘to have a style it is necessary to have comfort, to live off a rent, to have an easy life’. This was an answer to many contemporary critics who had pointed out that Arlt's prose was arcane and obscure, that he couldn't write. Regardless of the place he now occupies in Argentinean literature, Arlt, born to Prussian/Austro-Hungarian parents in Buenos Aires, arrived to the canon as an outsider. An outsider to the aristocratic club of the Argentine literary establishment. A linguistic outsider.
Spanish, the language in which he wrote, was his third language. It is tempting, then, to draw comparisons with Franz Kakfa, a Czech Jew writing in German. Both were in a sense examples of what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘minor writers‘, linguistic exiles, those never at home in their prose, stuttering and stammering on the page. Yet both went from being outsiders to joining the literary pantheon. From minor to major and across the platform provided by multiple languages. That both died in relative obscurity, regardless of what we consider now to be their importance, provides the biographical element to make this comparison impossible to avoid.
It is often argued that the awkwardness of Arlt's prose is a result of his early contact with mediocre translations of European writers of the period. Arlt learned to read and write with cheap copies of Crime and Punishment, Beyond Good and Evil, Stories of the Steppe, and scientific manuals – or anybody who's read two consecutive pages of his work will be tempted to say. His writing is cluttered with references to the scientific achievements and aberrations of the time, punctured with inelegant and – already then – archaic words like ‘pelafustán’, ‘hierbajos’, ‘bigardón’, and others straight out of the Argentine argot known as lunfardo (a combo born of the meeting of Italian, Yiddish, and other reterritorialised European languages and dialects). His scientific flights of fancy provide the non-literary rarefaction to a prose that is always felt at a distance, unfamiliar, and pierced by innumerable trajectories.
Regardless of prose, lack of style and linguistic competency, Arlt is today one of Argentina's most renowned 20th century writing machines. Coherently with his linguistic transplant from the centre of Europe to the Rio de la Plata, Arlt is the Argentine writer who best captured the effects of the dehumanisation resulting from the Great War (felt even in the pampas). Arlt the stuttering machine. Far from the stylistic proficiency of many of his contemporaries and majestic in his own right.
Goran Petrović's La Mano de la Buena Fortuna. Martín Rejtman's Rapado. Belén Gache's Luna India. I keep coming back to these three books. And to Fogwill's Los pichiciegos. Néstor Sánchez's ‘Diario de Manhattan’ (published in La Condición efímera, a selection of his work). And to Juan José Saer's Nadie nada nunca. I can't say how many times I have read these books.
Rejtman and Gache were to me what punk was to many British teens in the 70s/80s. Fogwill convinced me that humour is a prerequisite when it comes to writing about political issues (in this case the Malvinas/Falklands war). Sánchez stunned me with his account of a struggling Argentine writer in an alien megalopolis (something with which I can identify). Saer, I never read anyone more obstinately holding on to his home, the province of Santa Fe, a place which serves as setting of all the books he wrote while living and becoming imperceptible in Paris. Petrović proved that it was possible to have a postmodern and non-reactionary Borges, and that this Borges could come from the Balkans. If there is a universal (or regional) canon, these books are part of my personal canon, desert island companions. It took several years for my library and I to be reunited across the Atlantic, but these – and a stolen copy of Arlt's Obras completas – came in my suitcase.
These aren't the only books, of course. I write about these because they all share something in common beyond my personal attachment to them: they are that part of my canon that I can't translate into my present situation. Being displaced implies also the loss of these personal items. Beyond the limited space of academia, few have heard of Rejtman or Gache, Sánchez or Fogwill. How can I convey the fact that my prose in English is a mix of these four? Saer might be known in certain Parisian cafés – London has always been oblivious to Argentine writers, save the one or two who attempted to write as if they had been born in Cornwall. I still can't believe Petrović remains untranslated into English. Even my autocorrect refuses to accept the existence of these people.
I hardly ever get a chance to talk about these books. They remain the dark side of my canon. Like all dark sides this is the most important side. Should I stop writing my own stuff and get on with translating these books? Writing about them? This is exactly what I'm doing right now. Perhaps the role of the minor writer isn't so much writing minor prose but bridging the spaces between languages, attempting to bring into the light the pages lost in translation. Attempting to unite a [literary] self that is bound to remain disjointed.
Since I decided to start writing in a second language I've found myself thinking about Arlt and Kafka and other minor writers a lot. Why does one feel the need to write in an alien language? Why that penchant for the always close linguistic accident? Why does one reject comfort, settling instead for a state of constant uncertainty. Writing on tip-toe, that's what it is. Doubting about prepositions, syntax, words. This is clearly a decision determined by one's place in the world, temporary or permanent. Because for the minor writer literary recognition and sometimes even publishing remain out of reach, there must be a reason why this happens, a non-literary reason. This biographical stratum is a dangerous territory – the possibility of turning writing into a ‘small private affair’ (Deleuze) is always around the corner.
One of the most cringe-worthy author-bios I read in the last months had someone claiming to write ‘to understand the world around me and myself’. This was of course a major writer, someone working in a mother language (using the minor/major dichotomy to establish greatness or otherwise is something better left to major publishing houses, literary critics, agents, and angry literati commenting online).
For a minor writer the surroundings are always beyond understanding; and so is his/her transplanted self. Perhaps the only possible way of accounting for this defamiliarity is by working in a language that one doesn't fully grasp, abandoning all motherly safety, getting lost in the process as well. It is a way of reasserting that the ‘I’ is nowhere to be found, that even that form of knowledge is nothing but an illusion. The only thing that is left afterwards is writing. A self-typing writing machine stuttering on the page.
NOMINATED TO THE ANTI-CANON: Roberto Arlt, translated into English, and for the British public.
Fernando Sdrigotti has published widely both in Spanish and English, contributing to 3:AM Magazine, The Descrier, Psychogeographic Review, Open Democracy, Utrop, and Revista eSe among others. His first collection of short stories, Tríptico, was published in 2008 and he has two forthcoming books, Ordinary Stories in Minor English and Shetlag [sic]. He is also the founder and editor in chief of Minor Literature[s], an online magazine aiming to provide a meeting place for writers of both ‘minor’ and ‘major’ English. Born in Rosario, Argentina, he now lives in London. He sometimes tweets and frequently deletes at@f_sd.