Q&A with Daniel Chavarría

Written by J.T. Leroy on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


Daniel
Chavarría’s Adios Muchachos (245 pages, $13.95) is the second
work of "Cuban noir" from Akashic Books, following their 1999 publication
of Outcast by José Latour. Adios Muchachos is a comic mystery
that left me giggling as the bizarre and unpredictable story took its final twist.
Though the book is set in Havana, the international cast of characters reveals
much about the composition of the still-blockaded island. The story revolves around
Alicia, "the loveliest bicycle whore in all Havana," according to mystery
writer William Heffernan. And despite the alleged machismo of Latin men, Chavarría–presumably
a straight guy–reveals no timidity or prejudice when diving deep into the
erotic behavior of his gay and transsexual characters–a point I took up with
him at the start of our interview.

Adios
Muchachos
is a very sexualized book, and the subject matter isn’t confined
to heterosexuality. In fact, two of the main characters are either gay or bisexual.
Your treatment of sexuality strikes me as very open-minded and very playful.

I
love the word "playful." It is exact, because my literary relish of
human sexuality is a result of my classical training. I wrote my thesis on the
comedies of Aristophanes, where sex–in every way, shape and form–was
exactly that, playful, ribald, with a humor born of the agrarian rites and the
wholesome geniality that nature teaches us. In my novel The Eye of Cybele
[coming from Akashic in 2002] there is an invective against the prudishness of
19th-century Europe, which could not bring itself to utter the word "ass."
They went to the ridiculous extreme of inventing the ugliest of words to avoid
it. One of the attributes of Aphrodite is "kallipygos," which means
"beautiful ass," and English puritanism came up with the cacophonous
"callipygian," which was later copied by the rest of the erudite community
of Europe in their respective languages.

As
regards Adios Muchachos, I’m certain it will not provoke a scandal
in the United States. After all, you have learned to say ass, and you have come
to understand gays and prostitutes, and I imagine interracial sex as well.

There
are many dark themes in your novel, but the book is also extremely funny at times.
Is it difficult to mix humor with deceit and violence?

Jacqueline
Kennedy once asked Charles De Gaulle who, among all the statesmen he had ever
met, had the greatest sense of humor. And the General answered: "Stalin,
Madame."

Have
you always been a writer? What did you do before you were an author?

I’ve
traveled a great deal since a very early age, and I’ve had to do all kinds
of jobs to make a living–miner, fashion model, clandestine guide at the El
Prado museum, actor and many other things. Later, when I returned to Uruguay,
I sold books, taught languages and put myself through college. Then, in Buenos
Aires, I became a literary translator from English and German, and I wrote scripts
for radio and tv. In the mid-60s I panned for gold in the Amazon, did a little
smuggling in Colombia and Venezuela, and when I was around 40, I was signed by
the University of Havana to teach Latin and Greek. My first novel was published
when I was 45 years old.

Do
you consider yourself a "mystery writer"?

Yes,
partly, but not full-time. I write mysteries, historical novels and a genre that
is very similar to the spy novel but which I prefer to call the "political
adventure novel." And that is mainly what I am: a writer of adventures. I’m
interested in exceptional characters in exceptional circumstances, and I’m
convinced that adventures have been the raw material for the most interesting
plots of all time. Homer is adventure; the theater of the three great Athenian
writers of tragedies based on the ancient Greek myths–that, too, was adventure;
the medieval novel is adventure; Don Quixote–and almost all of Shakespeare–is
adventure. And from the Renaissance to our times, the list would be endless. I
might add that Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, written some 2500 years ago,
is the most original of all mystery plots, where an investigator is searching
for a criminal who turns out to be himself–a fact that he does not discover
until the end when he has killed his father and copulated with his mother.

How
did you hook up with Akashic Books?

They
caught me with the age-old hook of friendship–but there was also a measure
of chance here, a measure of emotion that contributed to a lyrical commercial
relationship, as unorthodox as my novels. The guy who runs Akashic [Johnny Temple]
is a musician who loves books. A rare combination. And even rarer when you consider
his long-range vision and his creativity in steering through the twists and turns
of the market.

Do
you like working with small/independent publishing companies, or would you
prefer to be working with larger ones?

My
relationship with big publishing houses has, so far, been limited to Mexico, Spain,
Germany and France. In France, I have had considerable success and developed a
truly human relationship with my publisher. In other cases I’ve run up against
bottom-liners who make me feel like a number and an anonymous piece of merchandise.
My biggest market successes have been in Greece and Italy, with small editors
who have loved my books and bet on me; and it is with them that I have had my
best results on the market.

I’m
always surprised to find that writers from different countries know each other.
How do you meet writers from other countries? Is there an international network
of writers?

Of
course! There are lots of networks. And when we read a good writer whose work
we like, whose content tells us he’s intelligent, has a sense of humor and
amenable political positions and philosophies, he’s practically a brother.
Then when we get to meet in the festive environment of a literary convention,
well, a few get-togethers and eight or 10 drinks–and you become friends forever.
That’s the way I’ve met the authors who have contributed their blurbs
for Adios Muchachos. Larry Block and I danced salsa together on the pyramid
at Chichen Itza; I taught Donald Westlake a few tango steps in Turin; I took Martin
Cruz Smith to a Macumba; William Heffernan, Tom Adcock and I bet a case of rum
on a pistol sharpshooting contest; and Paco Taibo is an old and dear friend at
whose home I stay when I’m in Mexico. And so on.

Has
American literature been much of an influence in your writing? If so, which American
authors have had the greatest impact?

I’ve
read a great deal of literature from the United States. My initiation as a reader
of novels began with Mark Twain at the age of eight, and I discovered great poetry
with Walt Whitman, who is still, together with Catullus, the object of my adoration.
But during my youth I was a passionate reader of the writers of the Lost Generation.
My favorites were Dos Passos and Fitzgerald. Then I came to worship the writers
of the South. I think my literary development is indebted to the formal mastery
of Faulkner and the dramatic minimalism of Caldwell. In the area of crime fiction,
80 percent of everything I’ve ever read is by American writers. I think that
novels like Donald Westlake’s The Ax and Wambaugh’s The Choirboys
belong in the ranks of the finest literature of the last century.

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