The Sickness on the IFFP Shortlist: Interview with Alberto Barrera Tyszka
The shortlist for the 2011 Independent has just been announced, and The Sickness, by Alberto Barrera Tyszka, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is one of the six novels selected. We have prepared an interview with Tyszka in which he discusses the novel, his work as a writer both of literature and for television, and his views on the political situation in Venezuela.
Paul Engles: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Could tell us a little about The Sickness?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: I have always been interested in fragility, in pain. From this starting point, I connect myself with writing, with readers. Illness, in all its dimensions and possibilities, is an experience that exemplifies human misery very well. It is when we are at our most vulnerable, searching for answers we cannot find. Even more so in these times when there is such an authoritarian pressure to keep oneself healthy and so much blame attached to illness. The obsession with health seems to replace the obsession with death. The novel tells several stories to do with this phenomenon of illness, mostly within the context of a family, who try to maintain affection in these trying circumstances and to find hope.
Paul Engles: One reviewer of The Sickness, a doctor by profession, wrote that he was so impressed that he thought you must be “one of us”, a doctor also. Have you ever worked in a hospital?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: A long time ago, when I was young, I was an intern for two months working as a nurse in an ontological hospital in Caracas. Without a doubt, this short period made a great impression on me. I was fascinated by the mystery of human body, by the impotence of medicine and of faith when faced by the senselessness and randomness of life. Then there were the experiences that we all have with relatives or friends who are ill. As you age, you come to understand that life kills, and we cannot do anything about it.
Paul Engles: Is The Sickness your first novel? And have you published any fiction since?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: Before The Sickness I published a novel called “También el corazón es un descuido”, a book of parodies, which was not too good. I also published a book of short stories and three books of poems. After The Sickness, I published a book of short stories entitled “Crimenes” (Crimes). Now I’m just finishing making the corrections to a new novel.
Paul Engles: The Sickness won the Herralde Prize, which is open to writers from the entire Spanish-speaking world. How did this affect your writing career?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: Prizes often help a lot with the promotion of the book and allow the work to find a wider readership, helping the writer in his career. The Herralde is a very prestigious prize, and it also allowed me to be published by Anagrama, one of the most important Spanish houses. All this has been great for me. But writing is something else. It remains a discipline, a lonely business. No award makes us write better.
Paul Engles: You co-wrote a biography of Hugo Chavez. Was you intention to bury him or to praise him, or something in between?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: Both within and without Venezuela, people often see our reality in a very limited and simple way. We are subjected to a terrible polarization which produces only mediocrity. I wrote this biography with journalist Cristina Marcano and our precise aim was to find a line that transcends polarization. It is not an impartial book, because nobody can be impartial, but it aims to be a balanced book. We tried to bring together a chorus of voices, but only those of people who actually knew Chavez, who lived or worked with him at some point in their lives, regardless of whether they are now for or against his political project.
I, personally, am very critical of Chavez. I think he is a new incarnation of the dictatorial warlords of our continent’s past. But I also think it is a symptom of our history, a country whose greatest tragedy has always been and still remains the levels of inequality and poverty.
Paul Engles: I understand that you have written for television. Is it an enjoyable medium to work with?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: From a very young age, I always dreamed about making a living from writing. It is often impossible, and much more so in Latin America. I worked for a while for a newspaper, then in an advertising agency, and I ended up writing for television. For twenty years I have lived from writing soap operas. I earn a living from “cheesiness”. Soap operas are the most important non-traditional export in Latin America. The differences between these programmes and literature are immense. You wouldn’t think it to watch them, but the soap opera genre is very strict. In television I write a particular product, governed by the specific laws of the market. As Scott Fitzgerald said about Hollywood: it’s not art, it’s an industry. That’s how it is. Literature relies on something that television does not tolerate: ambiguity.
Paul Engles: Another review of The Sickness compared your writing to that of Ian McEwan, the English novelist. Have you read his work? Are there any English novelists whose work you particularly admire?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: Whoever made that comparison is, without a doubt, extremely generous towards the novel. I appreciate it, but it is too much. I have read some of McEwan’s books. He’s a great writer, extraordinary. With respect to current British authors, it’s not easy for us access their work and keep up to date with it. But I have read and am interested in authors like McEwan, of course, and Martin Amis, Hanif Kureishi, Nick Hornby.
Paul Engles: Are there any novelists – writing in any language – that you particularly admire? Which writers would you identify as your main influences?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: The topic of influences is always complicated. There are so many things in writing that one does not decide. But I can tell you which authors I read frequently, and which authors I’d love to be influenced by: Chekhov, Stevenson, Joseph Roth, César Vallejo, Hemingway, Juan Rulfo, Raymond Carver, J.M. Coetzee . . . among many others.