Interview with Luis Panini
by Janice Lee
January 15, 2014
Luis Panini is one of the most talented writers you’ve never heard of. With writing that recalls the best of Franz Kafka, Lydia Davis, David Foster Wallace, and Julio Cortázar, it is a regret that his writing can not be read in English (until now! see below). I recently sat in on a class at CalArts where he was a special guest in my friend Laura Vena’s class on Latin American literature, and it was a huge pleasure to hear him talk about his writing and thought processes. Laura Vena translated a few of his short stories (or fragments) into English, the results of which can be found below, and so I’m hugely happy and excited to share this interview here and debut these new translations of his work into English.
Janice Lee: In your other life, you’re an architect and furniture designer. I’m interested in how this work and mode of thinking influences your stories. For example, the preciseness of your language, the constructedness of your stories as rigid and stable structures, your attention to spatial details and spatial relationships, and the existence of people and objects in physical environments rather than in relation to each other.
Luis Panini: My academic background has not only influenced the way in which I think about stories before I actually write them but also it has made me think about overall structures when I am constructing (not writing) a book, whether is a collection of short fiction, a novel, a book of poems or some piece of writing that does not necessarily falls into these ankylosing categories. Spatial awareness is very important for me since it is ultimately where the “game is played” and this is why I frequently try to inject some sort of symbolic meaning to both, the spaces my characters inhabit and the objects they come in contact with. In a way, what I am trying to accomplish is to integrate these “architectural objects” into the narrative in such a way that these become as important as the characters or the story itself. It is about translating the mere functionality of a space or an object into an emotional component in the writing process or how this space or object is acknowledged and assimilated by the reader. Duchamp’s “Fountain” comes to mind. He managed to transform a simple urinal into an object charged with many layers of meaning by placing it within the confines of a “sacred space.” Outside the museum, Duchamp’s piece is nothing but a urinal. Inside the museum is everything but a urinal because the reading conditions of this object have been transgressed. This is the sort of relationships I like to establish between my characters and the space they move about.
JL: You’ve described your stories as vignettes or fragments, and I think they operate in this way, but too, at the same time, they seem like such self-contained and intentionally built structures that do have set boundaries. Can you talk a bit more about the general shape of your individual stories?
LP: I did refer to those texts (the ones collected in my second book) as vignettes or fragments because that is truly what these are. They are absolutely self-contained pieces of writing. I like to think that the most interesting building block in writing is not the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, etc. but the fragment, because a fragment does not require a beginning or an end, it does not need to tell a whole story to work, it does not have to acknowledge the fragment that precedes it or follows it and I find this to be truly liberating, a sense that I do not get when I take a different approach. About a year or two ago I finished writing a book that deals with memory and it is comprised of more than one hundred fragments. There are two versions of that book. In one version the fragments follow a chronological order of events and in the other version the fragments appear in the order in which they were written, the order in which I remembered a loved one who died recently. I chose to write about that story through fragments because in a way I wanted to emulate the mechanisms of memory and a fragmentary approach made perfect sense since I could experiment with the elasticity of the overall structure (or lack of one) by allowing a virtually infinite number of permutations. This also allowed me to set very strict boundaries on a fragment bases that I had to respect as I was writing each line. Every time I deviated in any way from those boundaries, the fragment did not work. It felt like an ill-conceived part of a whole. Through this method of writing I learned about the shape of not just individual stories but also how these can be connected in a book and how they interact among themselves by borrowing, cannibalizing from each other, etc. A book composed of fragments can be dozens of different books, only limited by the sequence you end up choosing.
JL: I know you are a Béla Tarr fan too, and I find that there are some resonances in your work with Tarr’s fans. For example, the focus in your stories is often on a person’s existence in a space or situation, and the story settles in on the details of the environment, constructing a scene that becomes a sort of story, rather than a story that is based on action and resolution. This reminds me of the indifference of the camera in Tarr’s films too, where often the setting is there before a character enters, and remains there after the character is gone. What are your thoughts on this observation?
LP: Sometimes I think that filmmakers are the ones who truly influence my creative process and writing methods, much more than literature in general or specific writers and books, and this has nothing to do with the fact that I live in Los Angeles, a city in which if you mention that you are a writer most people immediately ask you what screenplays have you written. Béla Tarr is one of these auteurs (I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed seeing that old man peeling potatoes in “The Turin Horse”), but also I am fascinated with the way other directors choose to tell stories, like Michael Haneke, Yorgos Lanthimos, and my personal favorite Ruben Östlund. I am not trying to say that my literary work has a cinematic quality or that it could easily be translated onto the screen, but this element becomes quite obvious since I tend to favor heterodiegetic narrators in most of my texts. I like to take it to the extreme, turning them into machine-like narrators which can be perceived as actual cameras panning through multiple rooms in a residence to create some sort of long shot composed by zoom-ins, abrupt cuts, blurs, etc. My vignette titled “The Event” is an example of this. After the character has “disappeared” in a very tragic way the camera goes back into the apartment where it all began and stays in recording mode to capture the solitude of the space, which to me is far more important than the demise of the actual character. In another vignette the narrator also acts as a camera that moves inside of a mansion to capture many of the possessions of a lonely man dying of complications related to an immunological disease. I was not interested in that man’s story specifically, but in how I could construct one by describing the pieces of furniture and ornaments he owns, the art hanging on his walls, and the materials and finishes of his home. I guess by doing this I am trying to illustrate some sort of terror that sometimes keeps me awake at night, the fact that after one dies everything else remains in its place, unaltered, because we are that insignificant. And it is this sense of pervasive malaise what informs most of my writing.
JL: I’m affected deeply by level of compassion and human dignity present in Tarr’s fans. On this subject, Andras Balint Kovacs writes:
“The man, whose philosophy despises ‘humanist’ feelings like compassion and pity, suddenly and certainly unwillingly, manifests the deepest compassion for a helpless living being, a beaten horse. This event, says Krasznahorkai, is ‘the flashing recognition of a tragic error: after such a long and painful combat, this time it was Nietzsche’s persona who said no to Nietzsche’s thoughts that are particularly infernal in their consequences.’ This is the example which leads to a conclusion about the universality of this feeling: ‘if not today, then tomorrow… or ten, or thirty years from now. At the latest, in Turin.’ … an attitude or an approach to human conditions, which Tarr fundamentally shares with Krasznahorkai… Both authors have a fundamentally compassionate attitude toward human helplessness and suffering in whatever situation it may manifest itself, and of whatever antecedent it may be the result.”
In Tarr films, compassion can exist without moral judgment, or, in other words, “In the Tarr films human dignity is not based on morality. It is based on the fact that in spite of their absolutely hopeless and desperate situations the characters remain what they are, however low what they are brings them.”
This simultaneous closeness and distancing, this empathy is ever-present in your stories for me too. For example, in “Mathematical Certainty,” there is a deep care in the description of the hat, but also in the generous curiosity afforded to the man with the brain tumor. I also recently heard Lydia Davis talk about description, and said something like, “In order to describe something, you have to love it. Even if it’s ugly, like an old shoe, you have to love it in a way to really describe it.” The preciseness of your language and the kind of curiosity afforded by such a detail as the length between the interior wall of the hat and the tumor, seems like a generous gesture in a way. What are your thoughts?
LP: I believe empathy and compassion is what drove me to write the vignettes included in my second book, as strange as that may sound given the dark nature of the overall subject matter of those texts, which is ill will. In fact, I can pinpoint the exact moment that acted as the catalyst. Back in 2006 there was a terrible brush fire, which consumed an enormous area near Los Angeles. For some reason that I yet have to comprehend a news show chose to broadcast a recording with no “viewer discretion advised” warning beforehand. I saw the body of a fallen hare partly carbonized. It was still moving, shaking the rear legs, convulsing, agonizing. And it affected me so much because animal suffering is something I simply cannot deal with. So this visceral reaction prompted me to explore this feeling in different ways, in fact so many that soon became a book about ill will. Ill will towards animals, patients with terminal diseases, sexual partners, art, even towards the reader. The main character in “Mathematical Certainty” is a man who soon will die of a brain tumor he has chosen not to have surgically removed. Instead, he decides to buy a white hat to conceal, maybe in an unconscious way, this organic tissue developing inside of him. Growing up in a predominantly catholic environment I heard many people say that the real reason why a man or a woman got cancer was the result of divine punishment, as if sinful behavior (whatever that means) could trigger it. So, in a way, that particular vignette is about religious ill will, the supposed shame caused by the disease, thus the comparison between the hat and a crown of thorns. Again, I was not too interested in the life of this character, but in presenting a juxtaposition of elements, such as a man fully dressed in white with something truly dark growing inside of his skull, and more so in determining the distance between the interior wall of the hat and the tumor, because those particularities or insignificances are what fuel my desire to write. I don’t want to write about the victims of a serial killer or the reasoning behind his actions, instead I want to write about the way in which this terrible person peels potatoes.
JL: The last time I saw you, you mentioned an anecdote about reading from your work with another Mexican writers, and being accused of not being “Mexican” enough in your writing. Can you speak a little bit to this and the identity expectations at large associated with being a writer from a certain category, identity, race, gender, etc.?
LP: I have never been too keen on assigning locality to my work. Unless it is absolutely necessary for the story, I prefer not to mention cities, countries, currency, etc. that could trigger preconceived notions while someone reads one of my stories or novels. Nameless entities give me the opportunity to engage the reader in a different way since the lack of geographical specificity will ultimately force him/her to build one, whichever best fits his/her imagination. In fact, two years ago I finished writing a novel that, at least in my mind, takes place in Brasilia, I am not sure why, perhaps it has to do with the fact that Brasilia was one of the cities I read about the most while I was studying Architecture and I wanted to replicate some of its urban elements in my novel. Most of my stories can take place in many different corners of the world. I truly do not see the need to couple them with recognizable places. That anecdote you are referring to happened a couple of years ago. I read in public Mathematical Certainty and by the end there was an eerie silence. If memory serves me well, I believe I heard a woman coughing. It was that quiet. Then, another writer read a story about a man wearing a pair of old and dusty boots, walking on a dry piece of land with scarce vegetation; tumbleweeds were rolling in the background. And this man was searching for a lost love, a woman he had met several decades before but had not seen during all of this time, I do not remember why. The audience went absolutely mad. Many of its members got up to give the writer a standing ovation. And he was smiling, he was very proud of his work. And I was smiling too because I was happy for him, but I was also very happy to have read Mathematical Certaintybecause I got to tell a story I still believe is interesting, at least to me. During the Q&A, a member of the audience accused me of “not being Mexican enough” (he knew I no longer lived in Mexico, it was in the bio that was handed out), as if Mexican Literature could be reduced to a certain number of topics and literary formulas to tell any story. He also mentioned that my story had no “ending” and was inferior to the other one because in that other one “the guy got the girl”, as if some sort of redeeming quality must be integrated into any successful piece of writing. To this day that comment puzzles me because sometimes it makes me question myself about what is expected of me as a Mexican/American author? In any case I like to think that nothing is expected of me. Many authors write about their roots, their people, identity, the social and political environments that rule the place where they were born, and there is nothing wrong with that, but I consciously choose not to write about those topics simply because I am not interested in them.
JL: Who are some other writers you’re reading now that you are particularly excited about?
• Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai is the first that comes to mind. I have read most of his work available in English and Spanish. A couple of months ago I read the beginning of Seiobo There Below, his latest novel to be translated, and I was mesmerized by it, so I just bought it as part of my “Christmas Book Haul.” Those were, perhaps, the most beautiful lines I have ever read. Krasznahorkai is, by far, my favorite writer at the moment.
• Another great author I have read recently, also from Hungary, is Péter Nádas. His Parallel Stories is a massive +1,100-page novel, but it is incredibly rewarding (for the most part).
• I am currently reading a very peculiar book titled Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, written by Vilém Flusser and Louis Bec. It is some kind of philosophical/biological treatise about a very odd cephalopod, the Vampire Squid, so odd in fact that it is the only animal not extinct in a unique order: Vampyromorphida. All I can say about it is that I am really enjoying it.
• Also, I just got the 2-volume Everyman’s Library edition of The Transylvanian Trilogy, by Miklós Bánffy, yet another Hungarian author, whom I am particularly excited to read. It is supposed to be an epic tale of twisted aristocrats pre World War I, at least the first part (think Downton Abbey season one, just set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire right before the assassination of the Archduke).
• The Spheres trilogy: Bubbles, Globes, Foam (I believe only the first volume is available in English), written by German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, is another one of my recent reads that I enjoyed immensely. This man’s erudition just baffles me. The trilogy is divided according to the scale of the interconnectivity of the micro and macro spaces Sloterdijk is exploring to tell the history of humanity through a multifocal point of view.
• One of the best novels I’ve read in 2013 was Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. I thought the story was brilliant and kept me engrossed from cover to cover. Very rarely do I laugh out loud while reading, but this book managed to do it. Nobody else writes dialogue like Pynchon.
• Every year, since 2007, I travel to Mexico to visit the International Book Fair in the city of Guadalajara, Jalisco, where I purchase most of what I read in Spanish. Back in 2012 I was looking for La experiencia dramática, Sergio Chejfec’s latest novel, at the “Argentinian Books in Mexico” stand. I could not find it. The man in charge said to me “if you love Chejfec you should check out the work of Néstor Sánchez”, another Argentinian author. So I did. I purchased three of his books, which I read recently, and he was so right. Sánchez wrote some of the best books I have ever read in Spanish and he has to be the best-kept secret of Argentinian Literature, even ten years after his death. I truly hope his work will soon be available in English. And on that note, I just bought Modo linterna, a book of short stories by Sergio Chejfec, who is simply one of the greatest authors walking on Earth. A couple of his books are available in English. I highly recommend to everyone My Two Worlds. Everything around me disappeared while I was reading it. It is that good.
• And then there is Mario Bellatin, whom I have been reading with religious devotion for the last 15 years and continue to do so. I just finished El libro uruguayo de los muertos, one if his finest books to date. He is one of the most engaging, mysterious, disturbing, and original authors working today, not just in Mexico, but all over the world. Bellatin truly defies what literature can be by constantly refining and reinventing his own writing methods. He allows his readers to construct mental bridges between his books, to link and decipher their cryptic contents so they can gain full access to one of the strangest, most hermetic, self-referential (or not) literary universes populated by his very own personal mythology. A great starting point is Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, which is available in English.
• And these are some of the books I am very excited to read in 2014:
• Mathématique, by French author Jacques Roubaud, my favorite member of Oulipo. It is the third installment in his proustian-size project he started with The Great Fire of London and continued with The Loop.
• Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding Volume 1, which is supposed to be some sort of delirious memoir plagued with fictional elements and one of the best books ever written by a Rumanian author.
• The Discovery of Heaven, by the Dutch writer Harry Mulisch. A couple of months ago I visited the Netherlands and one of my brothers in law, who lives in Olst-Wijhe, took me to the house that Mulisch used as the inspiration for the main architectural setting in his most famous work. This, of course, triggered my curiosity and prompted me to buy a copy of the novel.
• Perhaps I am most excited to read Reiner Stach’s biography of Franz Kafka, comprised by three volumes, although only two have been published in German. Princeton University Press has also published both in English.
• Also looking forward to reading the collection of stories Autobiography of a Corpse, by the Russian author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, which just came out a couple of weeks ago in English. I have never read anything by him, but I understand he is one of the masters of the absurd and dark humor.
• Finally, two books coming out soon that I can’t wait to read by American authors are Can’t and Won’t, by Lydia Davis, and Leaving the Sea, by Ben Marcus. I am always amazed by the attention each of them pays to every single sentence they produce, like Gary Lutz or David Foster Wallace. Reading any of these authors is like venturing into something similar to a state of hypnosis.
Luis Panini was born in Monterrey, Mexico in 1978. He holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the Autonomous University of Nuevo León as well as a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Kentucky. He is the founder of PeRiOdIcA:, a furniture design studio. He has published two books of short fiction, Terrible anatómica (2009) and Mala fe sensacional (2010), and his work has been included in numerous fiction anthologies and magazines. A book of poems and his first novel will be published in 2014.