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Interview with Rafael Gumucio

El 3 de November de 2012 en Sin categoría por | Sin comentarios

Rafael Gumucio: Living with guilt is horrible and living without guilt is worse.


Interview with Rafael Gumucio held on the 3rd of November 2012, in the Dámaso Alonso Library, Cervantes Institute Dublin on the occasion of his participation in the  ISLA Literature Festival round table discussion “Unscrupulous Writers: Intimacy, Violence and Humour in literature”, together with Ita Daly, Christopher Domínguez Michael and Catherine Dunne.

Rafael Gumucio (Santiago, Chile, 1970) has worked as a journalist for many national newspapers in Chile and Spain, as well as for in the New York Times. In 1995 he published the book of short stories Invierno en la Torre (Winter in the Tower) and the novel Memorias Prematuras (Premature Memories). Subsequently, Comedia Nupcial (Bridal Comedy), Los Platos Rotos (The Broken Plates), and Páginas Coloniales (Colonial Pages) appeared. His latest work is La Deuda (The Debt) (2009). He is currently Director of the Institute of Comedic Studies of the Diego Portales University and co-host of the radio program Desde Zero.

Carmen Sanjulián: Rafael, you are a writer and humorist, but you also write on very serious subjects – there are novels such La Deuda, for example, in which you denounce a contemporary Chile where many strange things happen.

 Rafael Gumucio: I usually write serious things, I don’t set out to be funny. In my daily life it seems that I am quite a bit funny because I’m clumsy and things end up different to how I would like them to be. I do believe that what I write has some humour, in the sense that it has a slightly broader view of reality. There is no idolization; characters are displayed in all their pettiness, their absurdity and their beauty too. It is all things together. For me the word humour means exactly that. It means to be able to see reality in all its myriad nuances. I do not believe that the comedian is someone who necessarily makes jokes or is someone simply funny.

Carmen Sanjulián: Also, in La Deuda you speak of guilt[1]. Recently Javier Marías spoke of the fact that the notion of guilt has been lost. Before, everything made us feel guilty and now anything goes. Why do you think that we have gone from one extreme to the other?

 Rafael Gumucio: I think it is a shift in society. It is a change that has to do with a certain economy. Chile is emblematic of this situation because it lived through a neo-liberal revolution of great importance. We established neoliberal reforms earlier and deeper than any other country. This, in a catholic country, guilt-ridden, with a Christian, Socialist and Communist past full of blame, which obviously creates in people a kind of trauma that is impossible to absorb between what they learned when they were children, from their families, and what society is asking of them.

The novel is called La Deuda (The Debt) because one of the basic principles of neoliberal economy is that one has to owe. Debt is not a problem, it is a quality. Money is not what you have but what you borrow. And that debt is never paid…until we realize that in the end, yes it is paid, as has happened in Spain and all over the world. But the idea we are sold during twenty or thirty years is “Look, you can not live with the money that you have under the mattress, you can’t live with your savings, you have to borrow, and then debt will make you part of society”. Debt is transformed into a sort of citizenship, identity. The Bank requests that you become indebted to them, until you could no longer afford to pay. But in the beginning banks told people “Get into debt. Repay this over twenty to thirty years”. And of course, in the old system, the system of saving, of only paying what I have when I have it, this is the old culture of guilt, which also has to do with what sense of responsibility I should have for what happens to others. That culture was fought and produced a crash.

The Chilean transition, what happened in the country is striking because I think that it spread into my private life and that of my friends, and I wanted to transcribe this. I’m not a sociologist, nor did I intend to write a sociological novel, but I was just interested in that new balance between a culture that upholds guilt and repentance, scruples, and another culture that thinks that repentance and scruples are a blockage, a form of not progressing, of remaining stalled – how those two cultures collide in private life, in the intimate lives of people, and how it created new monsters in them.

I’ve had to break with the guilt in which I was brought up, I myself have had to be part of this liberal society, and I’ve done so with joy. The novel made me discover the value of guilt, which is a paradoxical value because what I say is that guilt is very belittling, very sad, very prohibiting, but is better than no guilt whatsoever. In other words, the alternative promise, life without guilt, is a desert without remission. The truth is that I do not promise any paradise. Living with guilt is horrible and living without guilt is worse.

Carmen Sanjulián: When the coup took place in Chile, you were only three years old and you went with your family into exile. However, your grandfather founded the Christian-Democrat party in Chile, and your father was also involved in helping many others. This, even though you were a child, clearly marked you, and from this perhaps Platos Rotos (Broken Plates) arose.

Rafael Gumucio: Yes, the truth is that the political history of Chile was something completely intimate in my case, something everyday, absolutely quotidian. I spent the first years of my life in Paris, exiled, and it was like living doubly in Chile. Mentally, we lived in Chile, and in the history of Chile. My grandfather, my great-grandfather and almost all my family were involved in the history of a country that is very small and very homely, and it happened a little like the way it happened with Dublin: sometimes, very small and very provincial societies, without the greatest importance, become involved in history. In the case of Dublin, there is a literary history totally disproportionate to its size. Chile the symbol, what Chile means to the world, what it meant to history, has nothing to do with its size, the amount of inhabitants or the productivity of the country. We are a small Latin American country; however, we have produced a number of important global symbols.

As I had access to this source, it was interesting to me to tell our story. Paradoxically, this book was born when I was living in Madrid. When one lives as a foreigner, one begins to become obsessed with one’s own country. In fact, I decided to return to Chile because I didn’t want to be so Chilean. I was becoming a folkloric figure.

Carmen Sanjulián: How was your return to Chile? Did you feel exiled upon arrival?

 Rafael Gumucio: It was an experience that still I can not calibrate. I lived in Paris until I was fourteen and came to Chile in the middle of a dictatorship and an economic crisis, at a time of misery and repression. As soon as we arrived, a list appeared of people who were not permitted to be in Chile, so I lived there in secret for six months, although at the age of fourteen I had of course done nothing. Everybody told me to up and leave. However, the fact that I felt “important”, important enough to be clandestine, was an alleviation for a boy with self-esteem problems, who had suffered from dyslexia and from repression in France. So, strangely, I came to a place which was purgatory, if not hell, and I felt as if I were in paradise. I felt comfortable immediately.

On the other hand, being a writer in Chile at that time was absolutely impossible, with no prospects, and at the age of fourteen or fifteen, impossible things are a great help because they protect you from reality. Everything that went wrong in my life drifted into the background because I had embarked on a solitary project , one requiring all of my time, space and mind.

Carmen Sanjulián: Have you been given a cat for a hare many times? [To get a cat for a hare – un gato por liebre – is a Spanish idiom similar to a “pig in a poke”. It is also the name of one of Gumucio’s radio programs]

 Rafael Gumucio: Yes, but I’ve also given them from time to time.

Carmen Sanjulián: A Cat for a Hare is one of the comedy programs that you had, together with Plan Z. How do you embark upon this this story?

 Rafael Gumucio: By chance really, because just as being a writer in Chile was impossible because there were no publishers or readers, I had to embark on a career in journalism by myself and do a bit of everything. I watched a lot of TV, and wrote television criticism for a magazine. Some people read it and gave me the idea that I could do television.

Carmen Sanjulián:-Contra la Belleza (Against Beauty), an essay in which you criticise the society in which we live, which rewards beauty – what truth is there in this work for you?

 Rafael Gumucio: It is contradictory, because aesthetic parameters are very important to me. I judge people by their beauty or ugliness, and I am quite superficial. It really was a self-criticism. It was born from a collection of writings for Tumbona, a Mexican publishing house, which stood against many different things; they asked me what subject I wished to argue against, and I said “well, against beauty”. I had no idea, but while investigating, I realized that the idea of visible beauty, perceivable beauty, has been one of the problems of art.

Art has fought against beauty, because beauty has an essential political implication which is what I was interested in rebuking. I think it is a little like La Deuda (The Debt). Beauty is the most attractive symbol of injustice. Genetic or social injustice finds a living example in beauty. We may live in a totally egalitarian society, we may all have the potential to earn the same, but there will always be some more beautiful than others and, fatally, the beautiful marry each other and still have the most beautiful children, ultimately creating a society in which the beautiful govern to the ugly.

When societies are unequal, beauty is cultivated, and when societies are more egalitarian, beauty is persecuted. Of course, it is a zero-sum game, because neither can win the battle completely. God knows, if I lived in an egalitarian society in which beauty was pursued, I could not deal with it. I am more capitalist than socialist, but I fully understand that there is a problem there and that beauty is not innocent. We are told: “If you like beauty and hate ugliness, you must accept social injustices because they are of the same order: there are people more beautiful than others, there are people stronger than others, and there are those that are richer than others. Things are so, and are not going to change”. This is the discourse that is behind the propaganda of beauty, which I find unpalatable.

Carmen Sanjulián: You wrote Memorias Prematuras (Premature Memories) when you were twenty-nine years old. Where did it come from?

Rafael Gumucio: In fact it was almost a prison sentence, because after it I no longer have anything more to say… No, it was also a suicidal challenge, because a friend of mine read an interview in which I had a spoken a little about my childhood and adolescence and told me: “You have to write about that”.

I was, around this time, held in low literary regard. I had written a book which had been destroyed by the critics, and this seemed like a way out, I don’t know why. It seemed to me that I had a double opportunity. If the book was received badly, my death would be permanent. And if the book was good, it would be a gesture of boldness. And I did it when all my friends mocked me, thinking that it was a gesture of arrogance. Because in addition, I wrote the book at the age of 29, but the plot of the book ends when I was 26 – I didn’t even write about the three subsequent years. And of course, I thought about it as a novel. All the events are real, all the characters are real, but the structure I was thinking of  is like a kind of novel in which I try to show the progression and the trauma of a young man with the notion that he has become, and that his father or that society has helped him become, a genius. And how this young man has to discover that he is just normal, which is always a very big disappointment.

[1] culpa – blame/guilt

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