Editors' Week: Natasha Wimmer on Bioy, Schweblin, and Argentine Cult Classics

Posted on October 05, 2010 by Scott Esposito

To celebrate the release of the latest TWO LINES, called Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, we've asked the editors--Natasha Wimmer and Jeffrey Yang--to do some interviews and blogging about the book. We're calling it Editors' Week.Yesterday's interview with Natasha Wimmer is available here, and today she talks about some Argentine cult classics in the new TWO LINES.

And if you're intrigued by what you see, you can order Some Kind of Beautiful Signal directly from the Center right here, or on Amazon right here.

On a trip to Barcelona several years ago, I had drinks with the Argentinian writer Rodrigo Fresán. We discussed our favorite U.S. writers. Rodrigo loved Chuck Palahniuk and John Cheever; I spoke highly of Alice Munro and George Saunders; we agreed on David Foster Wallace. But when I asked Rodrigo what Spanish-language writers I should read, the answer was unequivocal. “Bioy Casares!” he said. “You haven’t read The Invention of Morel?” And he whisked me off to the Barcelona bookstore and institution La Central and bought me a copy on the spot.

Not only had I not read it, I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t even heard of it. As anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with Argentinian literature will tell you, this was a travesty. Once you’ve read Borges, you read his great friend and collaborator, Bioy. The cult classic The Invention of Morel is perhaps the defining work of fantastic literature in Spanish, and as Rodrigo would say, fantastic literature may be the Argentinian literature par excellence.

I hadn’t heard of Bioy, but somehow I had heard of Silvina Ocampo, the writer who became Bioy’s lover when he was 19 and she was 30, and who later married him. In my mind, there was some romance attached to Silvina and to her sister Victoria Ocampo (editor of the influential literary journal Sur). I associated them with the Woolf sisters as leaders of influential intellectual circles—and, frankly, as icons of upper-crust style. I remember seeing dusty copies of elegant editions of Silvina’s stories in Mexico City, and I may even have bought one, later to be misplaced, unread. It wouldn’t have surprised me to discover (as I later did) that she had first learned to write in French and English and had been tutored in painting by Giorgio di Chirico.

As might be expected, a delicious hypersensitivity to luxury and foreign refinement permeates Bioy’s and Ocampo’s sole collaborative novel, The Thin Line between Love and Hate, an excerpt of which will appear in the forthcoming edition of TWO LINES. There’s something almost painful about the way the narrator savors the artifacts of civilization: “The last drops of arsenic (arsenicum album) dissolve in my mouth, insipidly, comfortingly. To my left, on the desk, is the copy—a beautiful Bodoni—of Gaius Petronius’s Satyricon.” Ocampo’s and Bioy’s language is just as cultivated and delectable, as silky as some expensive fabric (imported, of course).

I didn’t realize it until later, but the other Spanish-language excerpt included in this volume of TWO LINES is a perfect sequel to the intense stylings of Bioy and Ocampo. Samanta Schweblin, born in 1978, also writes in excruciating sensory detail, the clarity of her prose bringing her surreal scenarios into sharp focus. After reading “Birds in the Mouth,” the crunch of tiny bones and feathers lingers unpleasantly—even sinisterly—in the reader’s consciousness. There’s no denying the cultish mix of seduction and horror that permeates Schweblin’s stories: they, too, are cult classics in the making.