November 2007

Martin Riker


An Interview with Paul Verhaeghen

This interview was conducted via e-mail during the month of October, 2007. It was intended to be a dialogue between Martin Riker from Dalkey Archive Press and author Paul Verhaeghen, on the occasion of Dalkey’s publication of Verhaeghen’s Omega Minor. If it ended up being more like a straight-up interview, this is because Riker, as it turned out, was mostly just interested in what Verhaeghen had to say, and so he (Riker) stuck to his questions, with only one small digression to tell a story about publishing the book.

Originally from Belgium, Paul Verhaeghen has lived in the United States since 1997, and currently teaches at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is a cognitive psychologist whose work focuses on memory and basic aspects of cognitive aging. Omega Minor is a 695-page tour de force that has been variously described as a “novel of ideas” and a “thriller.” Originally written in Dutch, and translated into English by Verhaeghen himself, the book won, among other prizes, the Flemish Culture Award -- the equivalent of the National Book Award. Verhaeghen made the news at the time when he refused the prize money for the award (about $25,000) in protest of U.S. foreign policy (as explained below). 

To start off, maybe you can just talk about what you had in mind with this book. It's a big book, both physically and intellectually large. "Ambitious" has appeared in every advance review I've seen. Did you set out to write "THE book"? Did you say "I have been writing for some time now and I think I am finally ready to write ‘THE book’"?
Heavens, no! Whoever starts out one fine day wringing his/her hands and going: "Hm, a quarter million words, hm? Why not?" must be bonkers. I am not. But I am a writing wuss. I float with the flow, I roll with the punches. When your story runs away with you, and decides she wants to multiply and have some bastardly subplots of her own and play some coy games of deception and deceit with her author -- who am I not to follow?

Very simply put: The book started one fine winter morning when I climbed up out of the subway in die Mitte, the center of old East Berlin, and found myself utterly alone on this huge square, a vast empty expanse, except that a strange glow was coming out of the pavement, which turned out to emanate from a small white underground chamber lined with empty white bookshelves, bearing that famous Heine quote: "That was only the beginning. One starts by burning books, soon human flesh will burn." That was the site of the book burning of 1933. And you stand up straight again, surrounded by the magisterial neo-classicist beauty of Schinkel's buildings, and you turn to the north, and there is the dome of the Neue Synagoge, where once the Jewish Quarter was; at the end of the street, to the West, lay the Wall; and a five minute walk will take you to both the Gestapo headquarters and the bunker where Hitler died. It's hard to escape that sense of history; it was hard for me to not start reading and listening and, ultimately, writing.

An early review in The Complete Review tells us that your novel is about, among many other things, "history -- the making and the telling of it -- and escaping the past (or finding that it is inescapable)." We might call this “cultural memory.” It is also a book about personal memory, as is perhaps most obvious in the Paul Andermans/Jozef De Heer storyline: the Belgian postdoc transcribing the story of an old Jewish man's survival of the Third Reich. In your academic life, you research and write about cognitive aging, so I have to think that you've put considerable thought into the shared ground of cultural and personal memory and/or the relationship of memory to the individual in society. It seems to me that this is an area in which science becomes, or has the potential to become, particularly "literary." Or vice versa: I think of the work of writers such as Sebald or Perec as having a scientific aspect with respect to how various types of memory are shown to (made to?) interact and/or "fail." Why is memory -- cultural or personal (and perhaps you don't even see a meaningful distinction between the two?) -- why is memory, that is, such a power topic for literature?

Memory is such a powerful topic for literature because memory IS literature. There is some fascinating research on the development of what psychologists call “episodic” memory -- or autobiographical memory. Very young children (2, 3 years of age) clearly have such a memory -- they can tell you about their day, or about last Halloween, often with minimal prodding. But those memories don't survive into adulthood. For that to happen, the child needs to learn two things: to distinguish the usual from the exceptional, so that the latter can be recorded, and to shape the memory in the form of a story. Almost all personal memories are crafted like a story, with an introduction, a main event, and an ending, recorded (and that can be shown by looking at reaction times) in a linear fashion. (No wonder the modernists never made it big on the bestseller list.) When children can start doing that, telling a coherent and compelling story, that's when memory starts. And with memory comes identity: you are not what you live through, but what you remember. Experience counts for nothing; it is the legible books of experiences that makes you who you are. Case in point: the unraveling of personhood and identity in Alzheimer's disease. Your memories fade: you fade.

In that way, personal memories and societal memories do not differ: States/groups/societies are also what they remember, and what they remember is often recorded in literature, written down or oral. Germany's struggle with WWII is partially lived through in The Tin Drum; America's working through Vietnam is still ongoing (Tree of Smoke); the fact that no big novel has yet appeared on the war in Iraq suggests that we are living through it as a 2 or 3-year old would, with immediacy, without the recourse of distance and reflection -- and that story is far from finished, obviously. It also shows the blind spots: Where is the great novel on the Civil Rights movement, or on the inner-city riots of the 1960s? (Or the great movie on those topics, for that matter?) Literature also has another perfidy in common with memory (and history): ready distortion. I have always loved unreliable narrators or stories told from different angles -- there is, in a certain way, no truth, because every recording of the truth necessarily takes a point of view (sometimes literally), and all of those are different. And sometimes the best truth is the sum of a whole lot of lies -- but I cannot talk about that in the context of Omega Minor without ruining your reading pleasure...

If I'm interested in talking about the different roles you play in your life, the occupations you occupy yourself with, that's because there are an unusually large number of them (writer, scientist, etc.). And that seems to me important to your work, which also approaches experience -- life! -- from the standpoint of various types of knowledge (artistic, scientific, sensual, etc.).

And this brings me to another role that you play in your life, or at least that you played with respect to this book, which is translator. You may not have been, to use your word, bonkers when you set out to write Omega Minor, since you didn't know what it would be, let alone how long, but I think you must have been a little bonkers on the day you set out to translate it. Of course I am extremely thankful that you were bonkers that day, because I don't think another writer could have achieved what you achieved with this translation, which to me seems as energetic and subtle as if it were originally written in English.

So let's talk about translation. I'm interested in whether you see yourself as a translator and what sorts of views and concerns you have regarding the issues of translation, but I also have a more specific question, which is: what's it like translating your own work? Is it much different from, say, writing?

It's no secret that we all want to hear ourselves speaking in tongues -- fluent like angels, staccato devils that we are. Simple truth: I read a trial translation that some official government organization had made for promotional purposes, and I didn't recognize my voice. At all. And then I thought -- so, I do have a voice in English... Besides the fickle muse, your own pathetic little croak is all you have. And so, solely to protect it, I suggested to Dalkey that I do it myself.

Funny thing -- to get subsidies from the Flemish government, I needed to submit, anonymously, 30 pages of translation. The reviewer of the text thought that I should remain more faithful to the baroque language of the original; s/he also considered my knowledge of Dutch idiom merely “good,” not “outstanding.”

So there you have it. I felt exhausted after writing this book. Literally exhausted: depleted of ideas, of themes, of things to sing about. The translation was a welcome way to fill my weekends, to add a second voice to the chorus of the book. It's all still in there, nothing major has changed. (Dalkey is probably happy I did not reinstate the 120 pages of footnotes that my Dutch publisher had me excise.) There are a few historical corrections. The German should now be all correct. There's minor tweaks. My editor rebuked me for my slang. (What? One stranger in a bar in Prenzlauer Berg cannot indicate his agreement with a second stranger's proposition by saying "Word!"?) The good thing is that I didn't have to ask the author for clarification. All passages that time had made obscure, I just edited out, or glossed over. It's not like writing at all. It's all there already, shaped and formed and obsessed over. You just have to try to get out of the way as much as possible.

I'm glad you told that story -- I didn't know it. I do know the story from our end, how the book came to be with us. I don't think you even know about this. It's interesting because people are always asking us how we find the books we publish and I always say that there's no single way. One of the more common ways, though, is that a funder, usually a foreign government agency -- in the case of your book, the Flemish Literature Fund -- pays for an editorial trip to their country, where we’re able to meet with publishers and writers and critics. Thus it happened that our publisher John met with your editor in Antwerp, and at some point Richard Powers's name came up. Powers is someone who’s always been supportive of Dalkey Archive, and last year he played a big part in our move to the University of Illinois. Your Belgian editor said he had a book Powers was interested in, and that he had a sample of it already translated. John took the sample on the midnight train from Antwerp (which, now that I type it, sounds like a particularly odd country song) and voila! I think the sample was not your translation, though. I think it was the one you yourself saw, and your own translation happened after. And you discovered your voice in English. I imagine that would be a really strange experience, the kind of experience you think you can guess at until you actually have it, and then it’s a lot different from what you thought it’d be.

Translating felt strangely like channeling myself. Which is not to be recommended. If anyone out there wants to channel someone, take it from someone who knows: Please don't channel me. (Makes me think of the tired Doug Adams joke: It feels like being drunk. If you're the glass of water, not a happy event.)

Still, even with me translating it, it's not yet done fully in my voice. Maybe because American is not yet my language. Maybe when its politics change, maybe when it is, again, the language of peace accords and smart discourse rather than that of senseless power chords and torture -- maybe then.

You’re a Belgian citizen, is that correct? Yet have lived in the U.S. since 1997. You are also, perhaps most problematically with respect to your sense of identity, a writer. I don’t know if the word would be “exile” or “transplant,” but how do you think about your own national identity, and how does this play a part in your writing?

Well, it's fun being a bastard. But all writers are, no? We all nicely shelter ourselves from our real home -- the world -- by making up these elaborate imaginings, well-rounded by a little sleep. I have always loved hybridity: dual-continent writers (Rushdie, David Mitchell, Richard Powers, Nabokov, Aharon Appelfeld), dissident writers (Pynchon in the 1970s and everyone in Eastern Europe), duplicitous writers (ah, the joy of the unreliable narrator!) -- in one word: bastards!  

Long before I moved here, I was taken by these dashing and daring American writers and the luster and bluster of their prose -- people not afraid of putting the plot first, and the characters second (pawns, not personalities); I was especially blown away by Pynchon, who rages through the page like Hendrix through his Marshall amp (even more so when read sleep-drunk between 5:30 and 6:30 am, on the first train to Ghent, on your way to fulfill your military service). Those readings mingled with the very real surrealism of growing up in Belgium, a farcical little country that does not exist, only glued together by mayonnaise and a deep sense of the absurdity of life. In Belgium, everybody always expects the Spanish Inquisition, and all of us are deeply anarchic and deeply (though often recovering) catholic at the same time.

So, that all adds up to some pretty weird stuff. To this novel. Which makes me fit exactly nowhere. European audiences go "What the fuck" vis-à-vis the encyclopedic, plot-driven sprawl of this galloping beast; Americans go (more literally so) "What the fuck" when confronted with the swaggering pornography, the enormous amount of real estate taken up by mutually incompatible adjectives, and the general sense that perhaps, after all, actions have consequences, even in fiction.

When Omega Minor won the Flemish Culture Award for Fiction, you turned down something like $25,000 prize money, because the taxes on it would have gone into the American Treasury. I will quote you: "I could pretend that this money will be used to finance public schools or medical care, or will help to alleviate the suffering of the forty million Americans who live below the poverty line. But who would I be kidding? The president just asked Congress for an extra $120 billion in emergency funds for the war... This money would be paid for in human blood." At the least, I think it's clear that you're a politically motivated person. But other than this very practical demonstration, I don't know what being political means for you as a writer. At the risk of forcing you, due to space constraints, into a woefully short answer, I have to ask: how is writing fiction a political act?

I did not set out to be a political writer. I don't consider myself one. I write about people, and places, and circumstances, and people in those places and circumstances. What do they do? Why? What drives them? What if -- as happens to one character in Omega Minor -- you are Jewish in Berlin in 1944 and a Nazi overseer asks you to go out into the city and simply point at fellow Jews, in return for which you will be allowed to set a loved one free? What if you are an SS officer and you decide to cross the country to liberate one, one single from the hell of Auschwitz? What if you work on the atomic bomb in Los Alamos and you start having misgivings? Dilemmas are what drive humans, and some of those dilemmas are set in a political context. Politics raise their head, just like sex does, or violence, or nuclear science. When I was nominated for my first award, the news about Abu Ghraib had just broken. How could I not see the parallels with the Soviets filling up the Nazi concentration camps with "political" prisoners, and torturing them badly? How could I not see the protofascist tendencies -- the concentration of all power in the executive branch, the suspension of habeas corpus, the bullying of the media, the secrecy, the warrantless spying, the trivializing and export of torture -- in this country that is now my own? It seemed to me that, to be true to my own book, I needed to do something. So I decided to ask the awarding agencies to donate the money, in my stead, to the ACLU and Human Rights Watch -- so far, four such organizations (some of them governmental) have donated a total of 24,000 dollars. Retracting this money from the Treasury will shorten the war by only mere seconds, but HRW and the ACLU can use it to great effect.

One thing, however, bothers me, tremendously. Whenever I speak of this in Europe, people ask me: "So, aren't you afraid they will not let you back into the country?" The fact that one can even think this about the USA is troublesome. We are, or should be, a nation of free speech. No Belgian will think twice when voicing his political opinion. Between 2002 and 2005, and perhaps still now, the feeling -- here and overseas -- was that dissidence was silenced in the States. Perhaps it still is.

Omega Minor is not a metaphor for the Bush/Cheney/Rove regime. But it is a book abut human emotions and human passions set in dictatorial times, and all of those resemble each other. That's a simple and awful truth.