Q&A with Daniel Chavarría
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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