RUI ZINK INTERVIEWED BY RITA RAY ON FEBRUARY 2 & 3, 2015 AT JAWAHARLAL NEHRU UNIVERSITY, NEW DELHI – PART 1
Portuguese writer Rui Zink was born on June 16, 1961. "Writes books, gives lectures, i magines things." - Rui Zink in his own description. He continues to write one story after another, novels, plays, graphic novel and much more. His language has become beyond its own boundaries. The structure of his written text also goes beyond conventional grammar. A different world came to life in subjective language. 'Torkito Tarjoni' has been published on the occasion of his upcoming 60th birthday on June 16. Presently a lecturer by profession. His first novel was ‘Hotel Lusitano’(1986). Zink is the author of ‘A Arte Superma’(2007), the first Portuguese Graphic Novel. Also his ‘Os Surfistas’ was the first interactive e-novel of Portugal. He is the author of more than 45 published books all over. Zink achieved prestigious ‘Pen Club’ award on 2005 for his novel ‘Dádiva Divina’. His several books has been translated in Bengali like ‘O Livro Sargrado da Factologia’(‘ঘটনাতত্ত্বের পবিত্র গ্রন্থ, 2017), ‘A Instalação do Medo’(‘ভয়, 2012), ‘O Destino Turístico’(‘বেড়াতে যাওয়ার ঠিকানা', 2008), 'Oso'('নয়ন') etc.
FEBRUARY 2, 2015
RR: Rui, there are lots of questions that I’ve been wanted to ask you for a long time. The first is the archaeology of your writing. You see I’m always interested in a writer as a reader, your readings from, I mean, as far back as you can go, which has now something to do with your writing.
RZ: OK, your answer is: I read a lot. As a child I read a lot of Enid Blyton; I hated the Famous Five. I loved the Secret Seven. The Secret Seven were real like the children on my street. I could picture myself as them. The Famous Five were older and they could go away for some mysterious reasons for weeks, they could go away by themselves and they had these incredible British luncheons and I hated that; I resented how easy-going they were. And I read a lot of comics. From the age of seven I started reading the Tintin magazine, which collected the best of different magazines in France. So I had access to outstanding French comics story-telling when they were at their best. Then I started reading Jules Verne, between ten and eleven I have this memory of reading dozens of Jules Verne books. Sometimes a book per day or a book in two days. Summers I would go and change the book at the mobile library. It was a small passing by several villages in summer – I would be spending the summer with my grandma – and they had these Jules Verne books.
RR: Yes, you spoke about it in the ‘Night Flight’ – ‘Voo Nocturno’.
RZ: Yes, yes. I didn’t think of writing so much. I wanted to be a comic book artist because I always drew very well. I was what you call a prodigy from the age of four. My drawings were outstanding. And then one day it happened to me what happened to boys in the Baroque period, boys that had a fine voice. All of a sudden, reaching puberty, their voices was no longer so pretty. And their sponsors were faced with this choice: either they castrated the boy – they really did that in the eighteenth century – in order for his voice to remain nice; or they didn’t and a great singer was lost to the world. Well, I chose to be a great singer lost to the world! Therefore, I realised at the age of 14, 15 that I would never be a great painter and that actually I had reached my peak quite early in life. Brilliant at the age of seven; outstanding at the age of ten; mediocre at the age of fourteen. And I would only become more and more mediocre. At the same time I got bored with drawing, for my parents were both painters and teachers of drawing. It was unattractive to go into the family business. And then I found words again! It was as if I was re-born for a second time and that was when I started, I remember, I started reading books as literature, with linguistic depth and with psychological, metaphysical serious questions. Because before that I read Emilio Salgari and Sandokan, Jules Verne, the Secret Seven and all that for the story – I would be pulled into the story and imagine things. But I think at the age of 15-16 the plot was no longer the main interest in a book. It was as if I was reading for the first time. Because I had been illiterate for quite a few years, which is normal: boys don’t read that much. So I got back – I don’t know how – but suddenly I found words and said: this is for me. I can do this. My main mentor into writing was Dostoyevsky. I was facing issues, boy issues that I could not deal with, I didn’t knew how, I was a stranger to myself as teenagers usually are, and suddenly there is this guy, this guy from another place, another time, another planet, and he knows more, he knows more about what’s going on inside me than me. I picture it as a moment where I say, ‘how come this guy can go places where I never saw anyone go before?’ Not my parents, not my teachers, not my friends, definitely not me. Only language and psychology can reach this place. And I said: of course this is what I want to do. Because I want to be the guy who understands human nature. And we lived happily ever after.
RR: OK, so this response, this reply of yours throws up three more questions that I would like to ask you one by one. First, you said you started reading Enid Blyton from the age of seven, then from the age of ten you started reading Jules Verne. So were you reading them in Portuguese or you were reading them in their original English and French?
RZ: No, I was reading them in Portuguese. I started reading books in French when I was maybe 15.
RR: Fifteen. In English?
RZ: In English, when I was maybe 16.
RR: OK. More or less at the same time.
RZ: More or less. French maybe a little before because when I started being interested in comics in my teens, in my late teens, the comics came from France.
RZ: By then everything came from France – enlightenment, literature, philosophy, linguistics – everything that was there interesting. Then I started reading English also because my uncle had this library; 95% of the books were in English and the other 5% in German, Italian, Spanish and so on. And also French. My uncle is very important for me, he was the literate guy in the family. So, he was a role model. And, of course, he started being a reading guru, for complicated stuff. And I remember some books did not exist in Portugal but he could get them because he could buy them outside the country. And so I remember at 16 or 17 going to Italy hitchhiking – I used to hitchhike a lot in those years across Europe – and I remember taking with me a copy, my uncle’s copy of Ulysses. And I had a task –I was disciplined in a military way I was planning an invasion. So, between 15 or 16, and 20 – in those five years I was planning a very disciplined way of work.
RR: You had already decided that you wanted to be a writer.
RZ: I had decided I wanted to be writer. And for a profession a teacher. It was obvious. Not a good pay but enough.
RR: You had decided at the age of 14 or 15 that you wanted to be a teacher.
RZ: Yes, yes. I saw it as a noble profession. My discipline with Ulysses was that I would read 40 pages every day. And the thing is, my English was not very good. Basically self-educated.
RR: But you did it in school?
RZ: I had done one year when I was 10, as an option. and then when I was twelve I was forced, for curricula reasons, to go back to zero again. To zero?! So I got bored. As far as I’m concerned, my English I learnt by myself, self-discipline, and applying the technique of going to see movies with subtitles and try not to read the subtitles. The advantages of a country where you don’t dub movies. And I did some variations, like going to see the movie first and pay attention to the subtitles and then a second time trying not to look at them. Also reading the books, reading I still think it’s a very good technique to learn a language, to buy very lousy books in the language you want to learn, detective novels, very simple ones, in order that what you can’t understand you can easily guess, because you are in Cliché-land. My English was very bad, definitely not Ulysses level. But I told myself the problem with the book was not vocabulary, it was the syntax. Thus, I was facing the same problems as a British reader. I was wrong and I don’t remember half of it, you know, but I did it every day and something may have stuck.
RR: You finished it?
RZ: I finished it. I would do my 40 pages a day. It was not a pleasant experience.
RR: 40 pages of Ulysses every day is quite a task.
RZ: Today I won’t be able to read five pages because I am a slower reader. One day many many years later – 10 years, 15 years, maybe 20/30 years ago – I saw a TV show, ‘Great writers of all time’ and there was Joyce. Now, this Irish actor with an Irish accent was reading the drunken scene where the character talks with the shoe. Suddenly listening to the actor it was clear that it was a fine piece of writing. The problem was interesting to me – that I as a reader didn’t know what tone was adequate. I had been reading it all along with an inadequate tone. That is a good thing for people who teach difficult books. Sometimes, maybe, it is better for the students to listen. What seemed to me to be complicated wasn’t complicated at all. It was just an Irish guy – drunk.
RR: So, your interest in English literature was mainly because of the library that your uncle had.
RZ: Yes, it was that. And it was also some sort of rebellion. The intuitive rebellion that some kids have. That is saying the opposite before you know what you’re fighting back against. That’s stuck in me since the time I was a child. I had this pattern of being a rebel from the very early age of five or six for some reason. Sympathy for whoever is losing, which is very good for a writer. Everybody, my teachers, my generation, who’s who, was French educated. Paris was the place. All my teachers read French, spoke French – the whole dominant culture was French, the elite spoke French. So I decided, ‘No, I don’t want to go to Paris, I want to go to New York’.
RR: Why not London?
RZ: London is very very boring. Have you ever been there? Terrible food.
RR: But the books in English that your uncle had in his library and which you read were American literature?
RZ: Mostly American literature. There was some English literature but they were mostly American. Actually I think it is more dynamic, I think we writers are a lot indebted to American literature.
RR: I don’t know whether I agree with you but…
RZ: maybe not, but the contribution of American literature to world literature is to make clear that the aesthetic game belonged to the page and not to the sentence or the paragraph. For me French and British and Portuguese literature were very much about how beautiful is the sentence is. It is a very baroque, very ornamental approach to language. And then you have American literature where – but for some people, like Faulkner – the beauty was not in the sentence, usually plain – which tended to be plain – but in the larger picture and its pace. And for me the master stylist was Truman Capote. Also the detective novels’ school, the hard-boiled cynical hero in Dashiell Hammett. I really liked the idea, which is not American but very much present there, of the reluctant hero: the guy who eventually does good being the guy who actually didn’t want to do good in the first place. That is the sort of individualistic American hero for me. I saw it and I saw the non-bullshit attitude in American literature. Phillip Roth has the perfect pace too. He was in my uncle’s library.
RR: You didn’t like Henry James? Because he came back to Europe.
RZ: Yes, I read Henry James because you have to read him. But I found him sort of boring. I was never attracted to Henry James. I was attracted to people like Mark Twain, of course, Mark Twain’s comic genius. The only British guy that I read through continuously with joy, even when he does lousy books, is Martin Amis. He was very much influenced by Saul Bellow. He was also in my uncle’s library too – Saul Bellow. And there was Gore Vidal, there was Kurt Vonnegut…
RR: What about Salinger?
RZ: There was Salinger, but for some reason he didn’t grasp me. I never tasted the greatness in Salinger, maybe because I was suddenly taken by awe, by surprise by Kurt Vonnegut. For me he was a stylistic master. I would name, as stylistic masters, Roth, Capote and Vonnegut. If I am talking about Italian, then it is Italo Calvino. The invisible cities is a work of beauty. The challenges that he takes in every book, I wish I could take those challenges. I cannot. I don’t have that kind of intelligence. He is very good at plotting, a nearly geometric harmonious writer. I am much more erratic in tone and pace. Calvino is a master experimentalist. Then, of course, I found out and read in Spanish Cortázar and Borges. They are the key writers for me too. And then of course in Portugal I have several favourites like José Gomes Ferreira, very humorous, very nice poetry. And, like with all Portuguese – Eça de Queirós. In the 20th century – José Cardoso Pires. Then I met lots of masters – people who guided me – the chief one being Alberto Pimenta, who is a poet. That is nice because he is a poet with a fictional taste and I am a fiction writer with a taste for poetry and word game. He was a model. What is interesting about the experimentalists is that they are writers and they can also be actors. I did a lot of acting as well.
RR: I’ll come back to that later. You are now doing something that Vonnegut also did. He used to sketch with his stories. You’re also doing that now.
RZ: Yes, yes. My very first novel – published novel – Hotel Lusitano – had a few drawings. And at one moment the narrator says, ‘if it was Kurt Vonnegut, the drawing of that dinosaur would be like this’. Then in the footnote I say – ‘Famous American writer known for drawing’. That was my way of hinting to the reader: ‘Look, this is a founding father’.
RR: So you were attracted to American literature as a quite young boy, and then I saw somewhere in your bio-data that you won a scholarship or something and went toto do good the States as a young writer.
RR: And you started going to the States quite young.
RZ: Not quite young. I wanted to go to the States. My best friend went to the States for a year when he was sixteen and I wanted to go too and I applied twice and failed twice because I was the child of divorced parents. I think that was the reason, by then they thought that if you were the child of divorced parents you would be problematic, so I flunked the exam twice, which was not a written exam, it was actually a personality test. They were assessing your personality and I felt personality non grata, which was very humiliating. I longed by then to go to New York. New York was really my magic city, like for millions of people and then years later I wrote this book. I wrote my first novel when I was a teenager and my approach was like with reading Joyce’s Ulysses. I read Joyce 40 pages a day before and it worked. Now I am writing my first novel, how shall I do it? I don’t know how, but I know what I will do: I will write 5 pages a day!
RR: Where is it now?
RZ: It’s at home. Unpublished. Thank God. It’s called Fatal Mayonnaise (Maionese Fatal) and it is a very naïve first novel. There is this moment, where you can see, ‘Oh! This is Boris Vian’, Because you are learning the trade and it has all those mistakes that the other day one of the guys was talking about in Kolkata. He was saying, ‘that we in India have this thing we say that ‘he answered’, ‘he said’, ‘he opined’’ and in Portuguese we have too, so as a writer I felt that I should do ‘he answered back’, ‘he thought about that’, he frowned’, all those things that real writers do and so the first book is filled with that kind of trivia and kitsch. But it was the result of discipline – it was the result of 5 pages a day.
RR: You still do that. In 2011, when you came here first, every morning religiously you will write, you will have a time to write, then in the evening also you will have a time to write, so I noted that discipline in you in the very beginning. You have that discipline.
RZ: You have to do that discipline and the good trick for writers is that you feel guilty, if you don’t work. That’s the basic thing. But I’ll go back to where we got lost, where I got lost. We were talking about going to the States. So, Hotel Lusitano is not my first novel, it’s my first published novel.
RR: So how many did you write before that?
RZ: I think I wrote two other novels.
RR: Besides Maionese Fatal?
RZ: I think I wrote at least two other novels, the manuscript of one of which I lost on top of a car. It was a version of Alice in Wonderland, passed in Lisbon and it got lost. I left it on a car rooftop to get the house keys and when I got back, it was gone, maybe someone stole it, maybe it was Saramago! But I wrote another novel about an anthropologist visiting Earth and I was trying to make a comic soap opera story but I failed miserably too and I didn’t try to do it again, because one day I read Manuel Puig’s, the Argentine writer, Boquitas Pintadas, which is a masterpiece of ironic soap opera book, much better than Kiss of the Spider Woman. And I sighed: well, it’s been done, it’s been done very well and I will not try to do it again. Why would I? But by then the thing was written and it’s still at home somewhere. But going back to America – one day I have this idea, a very simple idea, sort of awareness, and it goes like this: I am going to try to write about what I know. Fiction is as Eça de Queirós says, ‘to deal with reality and covering it with the diaphanous shawl of fantasy.’ The technique is – I still apply it – usually when you say something that really happened, the reader tends to think it is made up. Where people think it’s made up, it is real and where people think it’s real, it’s made up. I still use that technique and it still works. So what should I write about? I am twenty something. What do I know of life? Well, I do know Lisbon. I’ve been living here all my life. Right, I know Lisbon. And what can you do? Oh, I can put some American boys, my age, just like a mirror for what I am, not called Rui, called John. I can make this guy come here with his friend, sort of Tintin and Captain Haddock, two guys coming to Lisbon – one more shy the other more outspoken. They can come together to Lisbon and they can spend their time here. So I had this city I know seen from the point of view of I don’t know – an American. That I had to imagine. And that’s how I came to Hotel Lusitano. I wrote that in 1984 and then I sent it to an award for first books in 1985. The award was not given to anyone because according to the jury no one was good enough. I still hate that jury. As a jury nowadays I always tend to give the award to someone; it’s always better to give the award someone. Less humiliating. By awarding no-one the jury was making a very blunt statement: we were all bad, we were all mediocre. It was embarrassing and I was hurt. Then suddenly there was a miracle. In the States, there came the fashion of young writers and there were 3 young writers that were best sellers: Bret Easton Ellis. Jay McInerney, David Leavitt. And so suddenly a smart Portuguese publisher said, ‘Wow! This is working, this is making a lot of money. Let’s try to find out three young Portuguese writers of the age, no matter what they write and let’s publish them.’ By luck, my book was there when they said, ‘Now it’s fashionable to publish new blood.’ So I was one of the three they published. The book had one review and it got lost. Then suddenly, in 1987, I am informed that the American embassies all over the world are doing a contest to send 50 young writers out of 50 countries to the States to spend 7 weeks in America to be in the USIA program, what seemed the nice side of CIA, pouring money into a bit of propaganda and culture and all that. What happened is that by then I had a few advantages; advantage 1: I spoke English, so I could write a small essay on ‘Why do I want to go’ in English. Remember, by then most people in my generation only spoke French; advantage 2: I was a novelist in the making, all my colleagues and rivals were poets; third, I had a printed book and fourthly, my printed book was on Americans coming to Portugal. And so I got it easy. I was the selected Portuguese – they had decided to select three people from each continent. I could see that it could have been the Spanish boy but for some reason they decided not to send anyone from the more obvious countries, instead from Europe they picked a Swedish, a Dutch and a Portuguese. And you could see there the economic movement from rich north to poorer south: the Swedish had two hardcover books, the Dutch had two books in softcover – one poetry and one fiction – and the Portuguese had one book in softcover. And the whole thing was great because it was American style. And since they were investing in us, we had to be all the more good. So suddenly I was no longer the guy who had spent more than five years trying to publish, no longer the boy who had been considered nothing by this Portuguese jury; instead, all of a sudden, the Americans, the very Gods on earth, were telling that I was one of the most promising young writers in the world! And that got me full of self-pride. I’m very grateful for that. That gave me fuel for freedom – many years of freedom. It was in more than one way the closing of a circle, since I was an American before going to America and wrote about America before going there. It was just poetic justice. What happened is that I went back to the States after some years to teach in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Now, for the last ten years I’ve been going back again, more or less once a year for a couple of weeks, but my goal is no longer to go to the States.
RR: You said this morning something like – let me see – yes, ‘America has colonised our subconscious’. Do you feel the same thing about yourself?
RZ: Yeah, the sentence is from a movie by Wim Wenders from the seventies. He worked a lot with an Austrian writer I love – Peter Handke. I admire him very much. He’s one of the few writers who really touched me, really made me cry. Still, the sentence was lingering there before I saw it in the movie. It’s not a criticism, it’s…
RR: It’s a fact.
RZ: It’s a fact. It’s obvious. When I say we should be able to vote in the American elections, I’m not joking. The Americans should not be offended by this because American politics affects the world. But it’s also a result of pop culture. If you think about pop culture – pop culture always existed but the 20th century gave pop culture the means to colonise all other worlds, you know. Until the fifties, there was high culture and pop culture. Nowadays pop culture is like America – pop culture is standing with its dirty boots all over everybody. I’ll give you an example: in the 70’s it was still provocative for an intellectual to say ‘I hate opera, I fall asleep in the opera, I would rather watch sports.’ Nowadays it’s the opposite, nowadays it’s assumed that if you’re an intellectual or an artist you’ll have to enjoy sports and hate opera. That happened with books. Before lesser books – let’s say, cooking books or detective novels – were sold mainly on the street, at a kiosk, next to newspapers and glossy magazines, not the bookstore. Now it seems dumb books chased the others away from the store and sometimes if I want to buy a Nobel-winner I have to go to a kiosk.
RR: What about humour? How did you come to use humour in your writing? Who are your forefathers in that?
RZ: OK. Let me finish the colonising thing. The point is it’s a fact, and it’s not always a bad thing. It’s like when you step over a hat: you didn’t mean to, you just didn’t notice that it was there. In the twentieth century, America became so powerful economically, politically – such a big empire that its pop culture went everywhere. We all saw American movies, we all saw Fred Astaire, we all relished with American stories, the American way of telling a story. So that’s it.
RR: Humour, Rui…
RZ: OK, now going back to humour – it’s still a mystery. This is a work-in-progress answer. I’ve been pondering on that for a long time I’ve been studying myself, I’ve been publishing some essays on humour but it’s still a mystery. How come you start using humour. My explanation so far is that when you feel different you find out that you have to find a way to communicate. So, humour – at least, my humour – is born out of lack of comfort. So, lack of adaptation – a feeling of being misfit. What happened was that when I was a child, the street I was born in, where my mother’s house still is, was a very poor street. I was born in a poor, working class, proletariat street in Bairro da Pena, Calçada da Santana near Mouraria – that’s where I lived. My grandfather was a nurse in a psychiatric hospital all his life and he was – he and my uncle and my parents were the representatives of science. How I picture it – my grandfather was the representative of science and healthcare in the whole neighbourhood. So, he was a retired nurse when I was born. He would go all day around to give shots to people for free and doing small care. Not as a doctor but as a nurse. When I stepped out of my home, my friends were working class. But at home we were quite educated. We didn’t have that much food. Actually we ate worse than most of my friends’ houses because my grandmother was a lousy cook and we didn’t spend that much money on food. But there were books, there was education, politeness. I don’t remember hearing a single foul word in my family. The opposite of in the street, you know in ‘A Palavra Mágica’, the magic word, it’s a true story about my first expletive.
RZ: Merda. It is like that. It’s a good story and I just wrote it down because it happened like that. I remember when I went out to the street I didn’t get the right tone of the voice. I didn’t even have the right language. I tried to fit in and I was wrong. Every time I started talking people found me boring because I would make sentences too long. I wouldn’t say – shit, fuck – that was the main vocabulary. ‘Oh, this dish is so nice, thank you very much’. So it was weird. I had a weird name. Everything was weird. I was Zinco, not Rui. And people knew that we were weird. People knew that my grandfather was nice, my mother was a school-teacher, nice too, but they were weird. Then my father was in Africa, it was weird. Separated family. The family was weird, everything about us was weird. We belonged but always not belonging. And then I found my first expletive after much planning – it was an historical moment. And then when I turned twelve – it’s just the opposite – when I turned twelve suddenly my mother plots to put me in a very good school – public school but in another neighbourhood, very posh neighbourhood. But because my mother was a teacher, my father had been a teacher in that school, they managed – they schemed – to put me in that faraway school instead of in the one I was supposed to go to, the public school closer to the neighbourhood. I would have been a gangster by now. So I was sent to this school. Suddenly after a few weeks I realised that I didn’t speak like them. I spoke too many foul words, I spoke gang slang.
RR: You were a nowhere man. Here you used too syntactical language and there you used too much slang.
RZ: Exactly, always wrong. But then I turned it into my advantage. As a child you don’t know how to use your difference – imaginary or real. But then you start taking advantage of something; I started noticing it was nice to be street-wise among preppy boys. Suddenly they were asking me for directions, suddenly they were asking me for instructions. That was interesting and I still looked a very nice boy, educated boy. But I was starting to manage how to use difference in my advantage. You see that – having a flaw can be of advantage, you know, you can use it and you can start building your pace by having the wrong pace. That is very important for me; that is the key to humour. You use your wrong pace to build a nice rythm. Actually Peter Handke has avery good definition that I quoted in my second published book, in 1988. This beautiful definition of literature can also be a beautiful definition of humour. ‘Literature is the ability to turn the incapacity of being part of a system into the capacity of not being part of a system’. It’s a beautiful sentence and I think it defines humour too: turning your difficulty, your impossibility of fitting in, into something you can work with. You turn your flaws, your incapacity to be like others into the talent not to be like others. And humour is stopping just a little bit before or a little bit after the usual. Just like the clown in the circus. The humour I like is when you turn things just a little bit. Humour is like a torero teasing the bull ‘come, come, come to me’ and then you slide a bit. The less you move the better the joke.
RR: What is the tradition of humour in Portuguese literature? Where do you place yourself?
RZ: OK, there is a tradition of humour that goes back to the first writings in Portuguese in the XIII century – you have the Cantigas de Escárnio e Maldizer –satire and you have the songs of love. What happens is that satire usually puts you in prison. So we stick to the songs of love and longing because they don’t get you jailed. We have a long tradition of humorists and satirists as in any Latin language. We have a thing to joke against power. Some of Camões – he can be a joker too, some parts of Lusíadas are very funny. Then Bocage – Bocage is incredibly funny. Even if you didn’t read his poetry you have heard the stories about him. He became a character. Even if those didn’t happen to him he was a strong enough personality for people to say that it is by him. You always writers and characters that didn’t do all the things people say they did. But it fits them. So it sticks to them. Then you have Eça de Queirós, our greatest ironist. You can’t escape him. And in the 20th century you have, for instance, Mário-Henrique Leiria, great micro-stories…
RR: Gin Tonic…
RZ: Gin Tonic. Very very good, he’s like, I would say he is the father of micro-stories in Portugal. He was very very good. His black humour is great. José Gomes Ferreira – very humorous poetry, very gentle humour. I visited him when I was 14 with friends and spent an afternoon with him. It was great. He was the embodiment of poet, he looked like a poet. And he was explaining things in a very humorous way. He was a communist but an aristocratic communist as it happens sometimes in Portugal. He had a very beautiful humour. And I did my MA thesis on…
RZ: Yes, Vilhena. He is our political satirist – of resistance. Very popular and not always very high-brow but very very good. And in Portugal then there is of course Alberto Pimenta.
RZ: He has this beautiful book…
RZ: Filho-da-puta. Discurso sobre o filho-da-puta is a beautiful sharp book. It’s a prose book written by a poet. And it’s written like it was an essay. Sort of a nineteenth-century essay about this weird animal. It’s a weird animal – a plain jerk. If you take away the foul language, the word ‘puta’, which is actually not very strong because ‘filho-da-puta’ means ‘jerk’ and it’s not an insult to the mother but to the very guy. And it’s a character that we have in our society, all societies, I guess. The bureaucrat who only cares about himself and hates life. It’s a beautiful book written in the Calvino style. That kind of perfect organization. I learnt a lot with him.
RR: What about Jonathan Swift? Because last year – two years back – when you did that stand-up comedy with Raquel Varela you borrowed the title from Swift. Did you read Swift a lot?
RZ: I read, as a child, Gulliver’s Travels. Swift is like Cervantes. You have read Quixote even if you haven’t read it. You have read Gulliver even if you haven’t read it. But Gulliver should not read only as a children’s book.
RR: It’s a satire.
RZ: It’s a satire. Like another book I read when I was young that touched me a lot – Erasmus’ O Elogio da loucura – Praise of folly. Very sharp book. I knew about him but somehow when I was studying humour for Vilhena in my Masters, I ended up reading that tiny essay, Uma modestaproposta – A modest proposal. I found out that it is considered to be the first modern black humour. And I went on to read it and it is marvellous and very modern. It’s the kind I like and use. It’s not really part of Portuguese tradition, more of the British tradition. In the beginning you have this voice that you tend to believe because it’s the voice that’s telling you its point of view and then you suddenly realize that that voice is all wrong. That maybe the storyteller is not very bright or a very nice person. He may even be crazy.
RR: Like ‘Jogo literário’.
RZ: Yes, it’s beautiful because at the end Swift shows himself has the hypocritical person he criticizes in others what he actually does. He shows what an abomination is hypocrisy. So yes, Swift is important and I studied him as a role model. I’ve told you a long autobiographical part. But there’s this other part. When I was 15, I started trying to learn the trade. I mean, the technical part, the creative writing modus operandi. My uncle had this anthology – I think it was the ‘Playboy anthology of humour’. It was a very large book. It had about 50 American comic writers. Most of the time I was not laughing, not even smiling. The stories were always too exaggerated, claiming from the very beginning they were going to be funny – I could not get it. And then, all of a sudden, there was this short story by Woody Allen, ‘My war with machines’. And that short story was very funny from beginning to end. I was laughing my heart out. I knew I was not going to do that: make people laugh their hearts out. I am not committed in that way, I’m not telling jokes every five seconds, I’ll deliver a poker face pun maybe every five pages, and that’s it. But I wanted to learn the trade. I wanted to master the technique – I wanted to learn to drive a car even if I don’t own a car. So I translated that story – ‘My war with machines’; I think it was 1977 and it was the first story that I translated into Portuguese. Not to publish it, no, no. Just to see the play from the backstage, in order I could understand the movement and learn the trade. Some 15 years later two books of Woody Allen were translated into Portuguese by two very qualified guys. However, one of them kept the humour, the other lost it all. Not because it was a worse translation as the language goes but it didn’t get the syntax right, missed the timing, the pace, the pauses and the turns, so it was not funny at all. When the other was delivering a straight joke, the other one would be turning around and around and would lose it. Those were the things I started noticing, I started looking at, that’s what I did and I think all writer should do. Everybody in a trade should pay attention to how the best professionals work. Then you go home and try to do the same. After years of feeling different, of feeling misfit, suddenly it was coming out naturally, suddenly I was attractive; suddenly whenever I said something I was having my Oscar Wilde moment – I would say something witty and it worked. It worked! I also started learning the trade. Learning the trade is very important. It’s very important to study with the best. When people tell me, ‘what is creative writing for? Can you learn?’ All great writers went to a creative writing class. Only maybe not in a class. All the same, they were looking, paying attention to what the others are doing, sometimes copying, sometimes doing similar things, trying to understand how it moved you there, that is learning how the engine functions. And I did it very seriously.
RR: So now from your stand-up comedy we come to your dramatic side. ‘Felizes da Fé’.
RZ: OK. One thing you find out as teenager is in order to overcome shyness you jump and be provocative. I was very interested, especially when I was hitch-hiking across Europe, in the punk-rock movement – Sex Pistols and all that. I liked the philosophical concept of the punks – you don’t need to love me but at least don’t despise me, don’t be indifferent, hatred is better than indifference. That is the keynote to teenage – indifference is the worst thing that a teenager can feel. I started while in high school doing small things like small provocative things – small drawings and all that, and then of course learning, I was watching a lot of performing arts. Then in the late seventies and early eighties there were a lot of performing arts where all these poets, I came to know them personally, were doing weird performances – neither poetry nor theatre. And improvising. Usually it was very boring stuff – they would put a cup of tea on top of their head and then take half an hour to say ‘what?’. And then a few of of them were amazing, like Alberto Pimenta, who went into the zoo and put himself in a cage with a sign saying ‘homo sapiens’. And that was funny, that was provocative and that’s why we ended up being best friends, I guess: because he saw in me himself younger and I saw in him some connection to what I may become. In college, by then, I started doing some proto-provocative stuff.
RZ: I was trying to attract the students’ attention. I was selling Futurism, I was selling Surrealism, I was selling Dada. As my parents were artists, I was very familiar with Dada. I really enjoyed that thing. Performance is very good if you don’t have talent for acting. In high-school I had been in a theatre group – there was this crazy teacher who created a theatre group. He was very important for us, Prof. Limpinho, and he made us co-write a play. It was maybe my first creative writing course. Writing a play in ’75-’76, criticizing school and society wrongs and all that. And then Pornex – the pornographic exhibition. It was a joke, a very well organized poker-faced practical joke. Picture this: a five-day event with drawings, paintings, sculptures, conferences, debates, movies, performances. It ended up being a myth. Thirty years later it still is. Even if you were not there you knew about it. And you were either for or against. For me it was one of the few moments when a Portuguese university was showing some breadth because it was young people discussing sex. That is the main law of Pornex. Forget the pornographic part, as in Filho-da-puta forget the foul word, and think that you have students intensely impassioned discussing concepts – is pornography good, is pornography bad, is there violence, is it humiliating, is to demeaning for the actors, is it demeaning for the viewers, is it abusing or expressing freedom. Do we actually know what we talk about when we talk about stuff? So it was like a device, Hitchcock had a name for it, McGuffin. It’s a plot device: two people on a train having a metaphysical discussion. How do you keep the viewers’ attention? Well, you tell them that there’s a hidden bomb in a suitcase that will explode in 10 minutes. At the end you just tell the audience: ‘Well, the bomb did not go off’. So the sex part in Pornex was a McGuffin– nothing but a device in order to have a beautiful, intellectual, passionate student event. It’s very much like the Portuguese sopa da pedra. You have a very basic plot, something that triggers people’s imagination – that is very important for writing – and then you can sail away with nearly zero effort. I actually used the same technique in A Instalação do Medo. My main interest in the book is the part where they talk about economy but of course I had to go slow and write about all other fears. It didn’t make me very happy to write down some fears but I knew I needed that in order to create dynamics, a growing of expectation until I reached what I really wanted to talk about.
RR: And, after Pornex, Felizes da Fé.
RZ: Yep. After Pornex, which was a very successful theatrical event, I started doing demonstrations with a group of people as omnivorous as me – absurd demonstrations on the street. I did more and more classical stuff.
RR: Now I’ll come to your interest in comics. You said you drew exceptionally well till the age of 14. There was your interest in comics. Have you ever thought about doing the whole comic production by yourself – drawing and writing?
RZ: I may go back to that. I’ve been toying with the idea. Of course, I would have to find a way to overcome my limitations as an artist. But in the last few years I’ve been drawing with my left hand and I like the imprecision of my left hand. It’s much simpler because my right hand is still very sharp. The problem with comics is that you need to repeat pictures. So one of the techniques that I have to learn is to repeat pictures. But I’m tinkering with that. I think I’ll eventually come to that. It’s coming.
RR: But it’s one thing to be interested in comics – reading it, creating it – and another to have an academic interest in it. What made you do your PhD on comics?
RZ: Provocation. I thought it was fun. I had done quite a bit of provocative work in my MA my choosing a satirical guy who was not popular at all in the academics. People said it was not worth writing a thesis on him. I answered back with my Umberto Eco quote about science, page 43, where he says: ‘What defines quality is the nobility of your work; not the object but the methodology.’ I answered that and people shut up. Nothing to say, right? Old Umberto nailed it right. When I’m doing something provocative, I’m very much alive. My mind keeps racing, sharp, sharp. It’s only worth doing academic work if you’re passionate about it. The goal is to be the first to do something in the world. That’s the real contribution. Well, I was not the first in the world but the first in Portugal with a couple of things – first graphic novel, first MA (dissertation) about a contemporary living guy – and, why not, first PhD on comics as literature. Not comics as a pedagogical tool but comics as serious literature. I’ve read French comics all my life and some of them are very serious. Before Charlie I was reading Hara Kiri, which was much more hardcore in its humour. Then there was British-American comics. I enjoyed the idea of doing at the same time an academic work on comics as literature and being about to prepare a literary comic book. I think both were finished in 1997. So in the same year you have the Arte suprema and my PhD. It is like Anibaleitor. It can be read as a pleasant fable about the art of reading, a scholarly book, an essay, a very didactic book and a blunt literary book. I like that. I like to be a guy who does things and at the same time thinks about what he is doing.
RR: There are still a lot of things to ask but I’ll end it here today. One last question: I read in an interview that is online – you gave it quite a few years back – where you’ve called yourself a marginal writer. And this morning you said you’re a lowbrow writer. Your comment.
RZ: Sometimes one say things one doesn’t believe in. Sometimes you say things just to be witty. I have said a lot of things across the years. Being witty is always interesting if you manage to make people smile, make people ponder. I was friends with people who are marginal writers. Real ones. Not me. I was proud to have done with a friend the one that is still today considered, more than twenty years later, the best interview ever to Luiz Pacheco. And we did this interview because I actually knew the guy. One day a Croatian guy said something very nice. Dean Trdak said, in Zagreb, presenting a book of mine, Tourist Destination: ‘I knew the generation born long time before the revolution and the younger generation, clueless about those times. I felt there was something missing, until I read Rui. Now I think he is the missing zink, i.e., the missing link.’ It’s a very nice thing to say, and I’m not only flattered, I feel he nailed it right. I share some of the older generation ethics (although I disguise it quite well) but I share the newer generation jazzy aesthetics. But I’m no marginal artist, I really can’t claim that glory. Nowadays not only I get along with the mainstream writers – I too am a mainstream writer nowadays. I am part of the system now.
RR: Yes, you made yourself one of the system. Or the system included you?
RZ: It’s the same thing. I never wanted to be out, you know. It’s very comfortable to be part of the system. If you’re marginal, you’re not invited by Camões Institute to go abroad and lecture. So, if I want to be invited by Camões I must accept to the invisible rules. And I’m OK with that. It may not seem but when I’m in a good mood I’m a reasonable negotiator and a diplomat most of the time. But I also get some respect from and get along with marginal writers. The thing is that I was a marginal and that was OK but I never really wanted to be one.
RR: So, if you didn’t want to be a marginal, how come you became a marginal?
RZ: It’s like with children, as mothers would say: ‘It’s not my child’s fault, officer, it’s the company. They are a bad influence to him’. In Portugal who you side with is very important; you befriend some people and you inherit their enemies. So what happened is that I befriended the most marginal of poets in Portugal. I befriended the poets – the experimental poets – like Luiz Pacheco and these guys were already marginal because poetry is always marginal. And for a long time I inherited their enemies. It could be worse – it could be bank debts.
RR: You are talking about Ana Hatherly and…
RZ: Ana Hatherly, Alberto Pimenta, Melo e Castro… They are still a band apart, estranged from the literary canon. Like Hilda Hilst in Brazil. I have a friend – a more conventional poet – whom I admire very much, Gastão Cruz, who has a clear distaste for concrete poetry. He says: ‘Experimental poets?! Nonsense! All poetry is experimental!’ Well, it may be, but some raises less unanimity. Can you imagine poets that for decades in a row have to hear: ‘What you do is not poetry!’ I admit my doings – Pornex and stuff – didn’t help much. I was somehow eccentric and…
RR: ‘Was’ or ‘is’?
RZ: No, I think I was more because people get used to you – people always get off-centred when you sort of decide to be on your own. I get along with most people in the field, but I abhor the idea of being all the time with the same group. In Portugal people say ‘join the gang’ and then you have to be with the gang all the time, like some weird cult. Thing is, I’d rather watch TV, play with my cats, read a book, take a nap, do whatever I like to. It’s very tiresome to be all the time a gang of writers and Portuguese literature system is very tribal. You put three people – specially the poets – and there you go, you have a tribe.
RR: But you wouldn’t say that it was your style of writing, because it was quite unique? Because it doesn’t have any parallels?
RZ: It doesn’t have to do with my writing, I think. It is because I did a lot of things in that time that were considered improper. When I did Pornex, it was improper, it stuck to me – crazy guy obsessed with sex, and then when I did street theatre we were the only ones doing that and it was weird. The problem with me is that I do so many things I cannot be in one single place all the time. So it happens that when I go away, people say – oh, he doesn’t really belong here. Not one of us. He’s like a gypsy, not really a citizen of this art. Writers say – Oh Rui, he is great, he is incredible but he is mainly good at teaching. And then teachers say – Oh, he is good but he is not academically strong, he is actually good as a writer. Most of the time I feel comfortable in this no man’s land, I think it’s actually a very good place to be, it sort of makes me look more unique than I am. Because you are not unique, you are unique in a context. In a Portuguese context, in my generation, people see me as a trickster or a joker, someone who would do unexpected things and someone who’s not afraid of dirtying his hands.
RR: I think it’s because of television.
RZ: Television, yes. How could a writer be on TV? It was 20 years ago but it stuckIt is funny. Sometimes I am annoyed – how come I became a TV personality? I haven’t been on TV for 20 years and in the meantime I have published 30 books. Then I think – it’s OK, if they remember my presence in such a vapid medium even after 20 years that’s some sort of immortality, right? That I learnt – I have to live with this pop culture side of mine. Never say ‘no’ to any experience if it has to do with language. And television is also a big medium for language. Art too. Most of the time it is used for mean things, yes. But it’s not the medium’s fault, it’s the use we give to it. That also I learnt from the experimental poets. But the experimental poets most of the time snubbed TV. Me? I liked everything. It’s like the Latin guy Terence from old Rome, who said: ‘nihil humanum mihi alienum est’, ‘nothing human is strange to me’. You try everything, you may not like it but eventually you end up finding something you like and can put to use. Very few people know that Cortázar – Julio Cortázar – actually wrote a comic strip, Fantomas contra los vampiros multinacionales where he, Susan Sontag and Umberto Eco appear as characters inside the story. I am also indebted to Umberto Eco, who wrote fundamental essays about comics and mass culture.
RR: After reading Os surfistas I had written to you that I found echoes of O Nome da Rosa in it.
RZ: Yes, yes. But my favourite Eco is the semiotician. I think, for instance, that Eco will always be a scholar more than the writer of popular books like O Nome da Rosa, which I don’t like very much. But it’s a very effective book. Then, Calvino was a writer who eventually became interested in theoretical questions. They are like opposites and I favour Calvino more as an artist. But what Eco wrote in the sixties and in the seventies is still nowadays paramount for me. As a writer he always has good ideas but he doesn’t sound to me as an artist. Unlike Roland Barthes, who wrote this wonderful essay about love – A lover’s discourse. Now, that’s a beautiful book! By reading it I realized that essays too could be literature. He says: ‘I am going to talk about love, which is a cultural thing, but in order to do that I am going to talk about my experience. I am going to put here some stories that I remember about my love life. But then I am a philosopher. So, I am going to put here examples from philosophers talking about love. But I am also a literature guy, so I am going to put here stories taken from the literary canon. But I am also a linguist.’ And so on. The result is a dictionary that can be read as a fiction. In a way, it’s the lesson of Joyce’s Ulysses: try to catch it all leaving nothing out. Nothing is too lowbrow or too highbrow for us.
RR: OK, Rui, thank you. We will stop here today.
CONVERSATION OF FEBRUARY 3 WILL BE CONTINUED TO THE NEXT ISSUE…
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