ALBERTO MANGUEL is an editor, translator and essayist. He was born in Argentina and since the eigthies makes Canada his home. He is the author of several books, among them A History of Reading, which was awarded France’s prestigious Prix Médicis. He recently published the anthology God’s Spies – Stories in Defiance of Oppression and a new edition of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. paulo da costa spoke to Alberto Manguel in Calgary.
paulo da costa The stories in God’s Spies portray abuse of power in the context of several political, social and cultural backgrounds. In your introduction to the book you quote Robert Graves who says the writer’s task is creative or curative. It also reminds me of a statement by the ex-catholic priest Matthew Fox who says Compassion is creativity in the service of justice. Can stories redeem our wounds, our tragedies?
Alberto Manguel I don’t think in itself literature can redeem anything, that in itself it can change, instruct or condemn. Literature is in itself not active. We, as readers, can turn the text into something, into an instrument of change.
You can sit and watch a hundred performances of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, think it funny, interesting, look at it in an historical contest, analyzing it as an example of the theater of the absurd and so on. But it took the performance of Rhinoceros in Algiers, during the Algerian War, for it to create a riot. Both sides – those fighting for Algerian independence and those fighting for French colonialism – took the play to reflect their thoughts. When at the end of the play, the hero will not turn into a rhinoceros like everybody else and says: I will not capitulate, Je ne capitule pas, each side echoed that cry and felt that literature was speaking for them.
Literature is that malleable thing which allows for adaptation from any side that reads it. The old dictum that the devil can quote Scriptures to prove his point is absolutely true. We keep using literature in different ways but in itself literature changes nothing.
pdc: I also noticed the absence of Canadian stories in God’s Spies? Is the launch of a political collection of stories, and in what is perceived as an unusually apolitically-demonstrative country, a challenge in itself?
AM: Canada is an international place, so in that perspective I am not concerned in being specifically Canadian in order to justify the publication in Canada. We are past that. It was true in the sixties and perhaps up to the seventies, but not any longer.
I would have liked to include a Canadian story. There was a Mavis Gallant story about the Second World War that would have fitted nicely. There are certain native stories about the situation of the natives in Canada that could have fitted the collection, but not quite. Unfortunately, I did not find a story that was good enough, I thought, for the collection.
pdc: Reza Baraheni, an Iranian writer and a contributor to the anthology, has sought asylum in Canada and now makes our country his home. Are we a heaven on earth?
AM: When you come from Sierra Leone or ex-Yugoslavia, a country such as Canada will be perceived as heaven on earth, simply for the fact that you don’t have someone stopping you in the middle of the street and cutting of your hands with a machete and because one is able to sleep in a house that will not be destroyed by bombs.
Beyond it, we are still a society where within certain limits, and taking into account all manner of prejudices, we are still capable of conducting democratic dealings. We have a structure that works, and because of such structure we may have to endure governments such as the ones of Ralph Klein or Mike Harris, but at the same time, we are protected from certain excesses by the laws of this country, by the fact that those laws work.
It does not mean that we are immune to fault, that we don’t fall into every sort of anti-democratic situations like the APEC Summit’s pepper spraying incident in BC or the assaults on natives that go on constantly. However, we have a system that allows for redress and that is more than can be said for many other countries.
pdc: You have recently launched a new edition of the Dictionary of Imaginary Places. In your opinion is there a culture and/or a language which has offered the world an unusual share of the imaginary worlds in literature?
AM: It is certain that the Anglo-Saxon culture has created more imaginary places and more exemplary imaginary places than any culture. It is odd. I don’t know why that would not be true say of the Chinese or the French cultures.
The fact remains that the three archetypal models of imaginary places are Anglo-Saxon. To begin with, Utopia by Thomas Moore which becomes the paradigm for imaginary societies. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe becomes the model for the one-man society, for the creation, on a island, of a society of one’s own. It had countless imitators. From the Robinson Swiss family to Japanese and Australian Robinsons. It’s infinite. It has spawned a genre which in French is called robinsonade. Robinson Crusoe has captured the imagination of the world and has been one of the essential myths of many civilizations. The third is Gulliver’s Travels, where instead of creating a new society, you mirror the faults of your society in the imaginary societies of others. Once again Swift’s Gulliver creates a genre. There are the equivalent of Gulliver’s Travels in absolutely every culture: from Borges in Argentina, to Frigyes Karinthy in Hungary; from the letters of Montesquieu in France to Jan Morris in Wales with Last Letters from Hav. They are all based in the idea of Gulliver’s Travels.
Those are the three essential imaginary places and they are Anglo-Saxon. It may be because the Anglo-Saxon culture begins in a small island and needs to invent places in order to set the stories of their imagination. But that is not true for instance of Japan. I don’t know what the explanation is.
pdc: Could there be a relationship with the economical/political power behind a literature?
AM: Not necessarily. You have a huge power, say the Roman empire, which doesn’t create any imaginary places, well, except the Garden of Hesperides or places like that which are mythical rather than literary or fictional. But no. Not specifically. It is not merely the fact that they can export their ideas and impose their imagination. It isn’t just that.
pdc: What was the first anthology you remember reading which has left you with a lasting impression?
AM: The first anthologies – and which I even continue to read today – were poetry anthologies, the classic ones: the Albatross Book of Verse edited by Louis Untermeyer, Palgrave’s Golden Anthology, the Faber Book of Modern Verse – and modern, meaning, up to 1950 or so – were important anthologies for me.
After those, I have discovered anthologies which I think are exemplary. D. J. Enright puts together the most wonderful anthologies. The Oxford Book of Death is, I think, one of the very, very best. The Oxford anthologies are usually quite good when they refer to English subjects. Their anthologies of Latin American literature are not very good, I think. They are historical, too rigorous, and don’t deal with good literature as much as with necessary literature, which isn’t a good rule.
A series of anthologies published in Argentina in the Sixties were fundamental to me. They were called the Crónicas de Jorge Alvarez. Alvarez was a publisher who put together thematic anthologies of short stories and allowed the readers to discover everyone from Salinger to Updike. He used the anthologies to present new writers to the public.
pdc: Do you have any comments to offer on the relationship between the imagination and technology?
AM: Technology is effectively a new tool and when a new tool is invented, and however excellent the new tool might be, we have to reconsider the way in which we work. Whether it is a tool for our body, a tool for our mind.
Usually the technologies that have appeared in our history have evolved gradually. With them many problems come into being and until they have asserted themselves in their own terms, until they have acquired their own vocabulary, until it has become clear to us what it is that they can do – because you discover electricity and what do you do with it? – until you develop a use for the technology, it is nothing but an interesting scientific discovery and it does not have a use.
There is always a reaction against technology. Remember the important reactions against the new technologies of the industrial revolution which threatened not only to change the way in which we worked but the possibility of working, which is why the Luddites burnt the weaving looms. It meant fewer people could work if the machine was doing the work of these people.
What has happened in our time – in the last twenty years – is that technology has advanced far too quickly for us to find any real creative use for it. Up to a very large degree, the electronic technology is still a gadget. It is an instrument for propaganda, it is an instrument for play, it is above all a commercial instrument to sell anything with the excuse of communication.
As a communication tool it has become essential because of its speed, because of how largely it can cast its net. On one hand, we have to be aware that that very speed makes it superficial and the vastness of the net makes the information retrieved very brief and inconsiderate; we don’t reflect upon it. It may be very useful instantly to find out how many people have bought bicycles in Western Samoa. Comparatively, that sort of information would take a very long time to reach us through any other form of information and would then be too old to be of any real use. Commercially, the electronic media works very well, which is why, of course, it is in the hands of multinational corporations and why we are inundated by advertising whenever we switch our computer.
However we mustn’t confuse that kind of communication and information retrieval with any kind of profound authentic reading, any kind of reflective acquiring of information. Electronic media doesn’t allow that in its very nature. I compare it to having invented the jet plane. You could take a jet plane out on the street and drive it along the road, but it is going to be cumbersome, costly. It is ineffective if what want to do is stroll. If you want to reach Europe in four hours then it is much, much better than a row boat. We are using the electronic media as a jet plane to stroll down the street by using it to try and read books, communicate ideas, which are essentially slow processes. It does not work because there is no space or time in that media for the attention, reflection and pause communication.
I think it will be a question of a few more years until it will find its own place and then we will go back to the other technologies which have served us well for those other purposes such as books, film, allowing us to communicate slowly.
pdc: Some claim the text and the book have been greatly affected by the visual technologies, the cinematographic expectations of reading audiences.
AM: An effect of a new technology is that it makes you reconsider the previous one. For instance, when the printing press was invented people went back to reflect on calligraphy. The largest number of calligraphy manuals were published on the twenty years following the invention of the press.
We are at a time, and more than ever before, when we are reflecting on the book and on the powers of the reader because of the perceived threat of the new technology. Obviously that affects the way in which we look at the book and writers are also aware of that. It doesn’t mean that writers have never been aware of it. For instance the influence of film on writing can certainly be perceived in writers such as Tom Wolfe. But you can also perceive it in writers such as Petronius writing in the first century, because what interests Petronius is the narrative succession of action that does not depend on the verbal description of anything. That is a definition of filmic narrative. It is not that something new has been incorporated into literature but that perhaps we have become conscious of that particular feature.
pdc: In that context, what will be the place of the electronic book?
AM: The electronic book is a gadget and I think will disappear. Whenever a new technology comes into being it imitates the previous technology.
For a long time when film was created it was theater on the screen. The set, the acting, the dynamic, was theatrical, and then people like Griffith, Eisenstein changed it so it became another way of looking at the recreation of reality. Very quickly film acquired its own vocabulary and didn’t compete with theater. However, from the twenties and all the way to the sixties, film people were still trying to invent gadgets which would replace the theater like 3-D, tri-dimensional with colour glasses, cinemascope, sensorama. Those things that never caught on because they didn’t have anything to do with real cinema, with what film can do. Besides, they are much more clumsy than theater. Why go through the effort of filming someone act, projecting it on a screen, have an audience wear glasses – to appear three dimensional – when for far, far less money you can walk into a theater and see someone act three-dimensionally? Why do it? Why go through the effort of producing a text in an electronic book that will appear behind a screen, uncomfortable to read, simply because you can do it? It already exists in a book. If you want to add movement, if you want to add retrieval functions, by all means, use the electronic media, but if what you want is a page of text, well you already have it. It is called a book.
Supposedly, the advantage of electronic books is that in one small volume, you can accumulate hundreds of thousands of pages. True. The problem is that in that minuscule library you still have the problem of retrieving and being able to read it in any comfortable way. Also if you were to trust your entire library to that one instrument you would be taking the risk that at the slightest, slightest electronic glitch everything could be lost. And we know what is like to lose a text in a computer!