I went to see the Peruvian author, Fernando Iwasaki Cauti, in discussion with his translator and friend, Professor Rob Rix (Head of Modern Languages at Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds), last Thursday. The event was held as part of the Manchester Literature Festival, which is currently sweeping the city, in the Instituto Cervantes. Fernando talked about his place in the South American, and Hispanic literary canon, the vital importance of humour, the entanglements technology has furnished us with, and word play. In short, issues so far up my street they’re already in Rusholme.
Fernando is an extremely prolific and varied writer; he writes novels, short stories, such as Neguijón (The Worm of Decay) and Ajuar funerario, non-fiction essays and academic histories, like Nabokovia Peruviana, and things in between. He has worked as a columnist, a magazine editor, an anthologist. But his works still haven’t been translated and distributed in English – pointing to the gaping hole in the UK literary industry and its readers’ acquaintance with ‘foreign’ fiction.
Fernando was wearing a bright red (velvet) jacket, and round glasses; he didn’t know how to work the microphone properly, and he didn’t belong here, in the drab North. These were good things. The wine was warm. This was a not such a good thing.
He was charming, in the way of the exuberant, warm, patriarchal (and emphatically non-British) artist. I wanted him to tell me things about my life. Instead I asked, “In your opinion is, or should, writing be, difficult, a struggle, or can/should it be something approached light-heartedly? Unlike life, can it be without struggle?” After multiple muttered attempts at translation, Fernando answered by describing his writing habits: he can write non-fiction anywhere, plane, train, dentist’s office, but fiction he must be consumed by, writing only at his own table in his own house, write 18 hours a day, for many months absorbed in it. He talked about the “writer’s voice” which must be upheld, even when composing a text message. He didn’t really answer the question. But then, he never could have.
The past and present, and their relationship, seemed to be an overriding concern for Fernando. This manifests in the idea of pain, in the novel Neguijón (The Worm of Decay) – which takes place in the pestilence of 17th Century Spain. The neguijón is the ‘tooth worm’, a medieval idea that tooth decay was caused by microscopic worms burrowing into the tooth. The author discussed the abstract, detached conception of pain we have today, our detaching from pain; whenever it occurs: we numb it immediately, and illuminating this through the extreme contrast of a world where the body, its smell, its pain, could never be escaped.
The impact of technology definitely underlines this idea of a present rapidly accelerating from its past. Cauti doesn’t mind iPads and e-readers and kindles; and their literary counterpart: micro, “flash” fiction, just so long as they don’t replace reading. And their discussion did prompt the best line of the night, in a section read from Libro del Mal Amor (The Book of Bad Love): “In these times, we have a lot of face, and not enough Book.” I posted it as my status.