Carlos Maleno Q&A: Finding salvation in stories

‘The Irish Sea was a kind of private investigation of what I am and what I’ve been’

Carlos Maleno: “we can only hope to be Kafka’s insignificant, humble successors”

Carlos Maleno: “we can only hope to be Kafka’s insignificant, humble successors”


Carlos Maleno was born in 1977 in Almería, Spain, where he still lives. He is the author of two novels, The Irish Sea (2014), winner of the Premio Argaria for best narrative work, and The Endless Rose (2015), both published by Editorial Sloper. The Irish Sea was released by Dalkey Archive Press on May 26th.

In the first chapter of The Irish Sea, you write that “we can only hope to be Kafka’s insignificant, humble successors.” What was your first experience with Kafka’s work?
My first contact with Kafka’s work was in late childhood, I believe around 10 or 12, when I “stole” The Metamorphosis from my parents’ library. It made a big impression on me at that age. Then, I remember reading In the Penal Colony and being hugely impressed by that, too. That story might have been my first observation of the senselessness of the human race’s cruelty toward itself. A little while ago, when I was arranging my books, I happened across this story again, and I left everything half done and began to re-read it. I had the same feeling. Maybe at 39 I’m not much different from that boy of 12.

At one point in The Irish Sea, you recall how Robert Walser felt that the critics wanted him to write like Thomas Mann. It brought to mind the distinction in 2666 between major and minor works of literature. How do you interpret this enigmatic passage in Bolaño’s novel?
Having read this question, I get up from my chair and find Bolaño’s 2666 on the bookshelf. I don’t have to look for the passage, because it’s one of those marked out by the little bits of paper stuck between the pages. In it – and contrary to music, in which the major scale sets the stage for the complete, rounded, perfect, festive work, while only in the minor key can one delve into what’s human, into pain, into doubt – Bolaño categorises the great literary works, which are perfect, round, and closed, as nonetheless minor.

For him, the imperfect, perhaps incomplete work, where the writer is in the grip of the deepest uncertainty, is the major work. In the process of writing such a work, the artistic question is secondary to the existential one – to doubt, pain, or love. Yes, they talk of love, too, as the mad Russian boy said to Marlow in Heart of Darkness. In the major work, it doesn’t matter who is being written for, not even literature matters, because at that moment the author is struggling against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench. And there can be no doubt that 2666 is a major work. It’s undeniable. Nobody can deny blood, and in saying this I have in mind Bolaño’s own account of how Kafka, perhaps the greatest writer of the 20th century, understood that the dice had been rolled and that nothing could come between him and writing the day he spat blood for the first time.

There is a thread of science fiction throughout the novel. Not so much the science fiction of Schrödinger’s Cat as that of Gombrowicz’s Cow. I’m referring to the following entry in his Diaries:
I was walking along a eucalyptus-lined avenue when a cow sauntered out from behind a tree.
I stopped and we looked each other in the eye.
Her cowness shocked my humanness to such a degree – the moment our eyes met was so tense – I stopped dead in my tracks and lost my bearings as a man, that is, as a member of the human species. [...]I allowed her to look and see me – this made us equal – and resulted in my also becoming an animal – but a strange even forbidden one, I would say.
He goes on to refer to himself as an “alien” and “a phenomenon not of this world. Of another world. The human world.” What do you think it is that makes humans different from cows? Or, as Beckett says in The Expelled, are we not so different after all?

Humanity has been quite exalted, leading even to a humanisation of certain species of mammals. Intelligence gets taken for humanity. In that exchange of glances, Gombrowicz saw the recognition of his being by the cow, the mutual recognition of two living beings that can feel, perceive the world, and suffer. This bothered and excited him. There isn’t much difference with regard to intelligence between a dog and a cow or pig, but people recognise themselves in the dog, they humanise it. But what happens when we perceive this same intelligence in animals that have been treated like mere nutritional products, that will be slaughtered, packed up and consumed? It’s a bit disturbing. Gombrowicz was deeply human to question his own humanity while staring into that cow’s eyes. Along these lines, I’m very interested in books like Under the Skin, by Michel Faber, or from the opposite perspective, The Restraint of Beasts, by Magnus Mills.

In El factor Borges [The Borges Factor], Alan Pauls defines nostalgia as something that must be constructed like a work of art is constructed, and he quotes Borges, who said that “one loses only what one really never had”. Towards the end of The Irish Sea, nostalgia is said to have a transformative effect on reality. Did you personally feel such a nostalgia when writing it? If so, did it spur you, or did it develop unexpectedly from the act of writing?
On the one hand, a nostalgia for somewhere I’d never been, for a certain imagined light, acted as the book’s driving force. But it’s also true that The Irish Sea was a kind of private investigation of what I am and what I’ve been, and maybe during the writing of it a nostalgia for what I could have been also began to develop. During that period, I wanted to be able to spend all my time reading, writing, and feeling, instead of spending endless workdays at a job I didn’t like. Still don’t. Sitting down to write after all those hours at work is almost a fight against all odds.

Is The Irish Sea a novel? Were the stories, or chapters, written according to a unifying plan?
When I started writing, my first intention might have been to write stories. At the time, I was reading many of the great short story writers. I was spellbound by the stories of Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Bolaño, and Enrique Vila-Matas, to whom I owe so much, and who for me is one of the greatest living writers. But little by little, unintentionally, as the writing progressed, everything started connecting, like it was a forgotten dream being suddenly remembered. My editor in Spain called it a novel, and perhaps by way of an answer I’d do better to paraphrase Salman Rushdie: And, in the end, the only thing that’s left of me are stories. There’s another quote by Tim O’Brien: But this too is true: stories can save us. And maybe this is what The Irish Sea is: a collection of stories that became connected while I was writing them, creating a nostalgic autobiography in which I might have found something like a salvation.

Henry James once said that it was imperative for a work of fiction to have a centre from which everything emanates, be it an event, a character, or a character’s consciousness. Does The Irish Sea have such a centre?
Yes, the centre of The Irish Sea is the text of the same name, in which there’s enormous weight given to the final sentence: Alone, so far from the Irish Sea. Nostalgia again, for that sea where one’s never been, for that Elena, all the book’s Elenas, the woman one had or never had, or maybe it’s all just nostalgia for the present.

Who are some of the English-language writers who have meant something to you?
Apart from all the classics that hold a place in my memory – Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Beckett – I’ve recently been very interested in Don DeLillo, to whom I was a latecomer. His books always surprise me, and a long time after I finish one I find myself still thinking about it – they linger in my memory and find their own place there. I think, along with the brilliant Eduardo Lago, that DeLillo is probably one of the most relevant writers in the English language. I’m also a great reader of Philip Roth, books of his like The Human Stain and ones maybe thought of as minor like Exit Ghost or The Humbling have been great reading experiences for me. As for newer English-language writers, I’m very interested in Rachel Kushner, perhaps in part because of her kinship with Bolaño.

Note on the Translator
Eric Kurtzke is an American translator of Spanish. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2012 with a BA in English. After a time spent teaching English in Mexico City, he moved back to the States where he works as assistant editor at Dalkey Archive Press. The Irish Sea is his first book-length translation. He is currently translating Maleno’s second novel, The Endless Rose

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