Puerto Rican writer Luis Othoniel Rosa’s English-language debut Down with Gargamel!, translated by Noel Black from the original Spanish title Caja de fractales, explores a not-so-unfamiliar future in Puerto Rico and the United States, in which both the natural world and capitalism is dying.
Luis Othoniel Rosa is the author of the novels Otra ves me alejo (Argentina, 2012) and Caja de fractales (Argentina/Puerto Rico, 2017), and of the study Comienzos para una estetica anarquista: Borges con Macedonio (Chile, 2016). He studied at the University of Puerto Rico and holds a PhD from Princeton. He teaches Latin American literature at the University of Nebraska. Down with Gargamel! is his first book to be translated into English.
The novel opens at a bar in Santurce, in the year of 2028. Then, with great humor and devastating wit, Rosa travels through the perspectives of a group of friends, activists, artists, and academics trying to make sense of how to survive and navigate through this new world. As they struggle with food scarcity and frequent blackouts, their beliefs on how to both live and die “happily” are constantly tested.
Published only a few months before Hurricane Maria landed in Puerto Rico, the novel’s critiques of capitalism and observations about death will feel both strangely prophetic and painfully accurate to contemporary readers, especially as we navigate the current COVID-19 pandemic. Down with Gargamel! will be available in August from Argos Books and can be pre-ordered here.
I spoke with Rosa about Puerto Rican literature, the challenges of publishing, the nomadic life of a Puerto Rican academic living in the United States, and his love for Jorge Luis Borges and Manuel Ramos Otero.
The Rumpus: When you wrote Caja de fractales [Down with Gargamel!], it was before Hurricane Maria, and yet, it seems to anticipate the world after the hurricane. What drew you to this dystopian setting?
Luis Othoniel Rosa: There were a lot of other novels published that year that are also dystopian. For example, Pedro Cabiya’s Reinbou, or Rita Indiana Hernández’s Tentacle. Rita Indiana Hernández was living in Puerto Rico at the time. There are a few others who wrote dystopian novels during those years before the hurricane. But I think the reason why the novel feels prophetic about the hurricane is because for a lot of people the economic crisis in Puerto Rico started in 2004, and we knew. That was the origin of the precarious conditions before the hurricane—those austerity measures and the economic crisis manufactured in Wall Street, with a fake, fictional (and un-payable) debt that we will have to pay for the rest of eternity—my children and my grandchildren will pay, too. So, it’s an impossible debt, bigger than life and death. The precarity of the political reality in Puerto Rico was such that we already knew this. So, it’s not an example of literature being ahead of the present, but rather literature as common sense and proximity. If you were going to Puerto Rico, speaking to Puerto Ricans, living that life, you knew it, right? It did not surprise anyone that that would happen.
Rumpus: Do you think some of that reality shapes the way in which the book is structured? It seems perspectives get folded into other perspectives in the book, even within one section. Was that shaped in part by the experience you were talking about?
Rosa: Yes, I would have to add there, that the nomadic experience of the diaspora in the US shapes very much the structure of the book. I’ve worked all around the US for fifteen years now. That constant movement. The living in academia, too. The novel is constantly reflecting on that uncomfortable position of being in American academia in order to survive in order to write your book. So, of course that shapes the structure of the book, too. How American academia sort of reveals the dreams of the international middle class.
We were told by the baby boomers that if we studied hard, we’re going to get everything in life. So, the university attracts the international middle class to America. Once you get there, though, you cannot get back because this is not the world of the baby boomers. You also give up your community. You give up family. You give up in order to stay in the university and in order to write. So, the novel reflects on that loneliness and the people that we find in that constant movement, the people who are also like you, sort of outsiders, loners that have sacrificed so much to stay there but are not happy staying there, in academia. That uneasy alliance. The university as a refuge, as a gypsy encampment of sorts, but also as a prison. Maybe that is why the cathedrals in the novel are also prisons… And I am always thinking of returning to Puerto Rico. But what does it mean to return to a devastated island? And that has been a topic of many other Puerto Rican writers of my generation, to return to a homeland that is no longer the same.
Rumpus: Craft-wise, were there things that you felt you learned from writing this book?
Rosa: Definitely. I’ll start with a previous point here. The novel is profoundly influenced by a series of writers. It’s Borges for sure, the Argentinian writer. But Borges was a very intellectual writer who never published anything longer than ten pages because he obsessively edited everything for years and years. He writes this very intellectual type of fiction that you don’t know if it’s an essay or a book review or a short story, that parodies academia, too, like I was trying to do.
I come from that tradition of literature, but that tradition is very influential on other writers in Puerto Rico that came before me. One in particular is Manuel Ramos Otero. His best book for me is Página en blanco y staccato that he writes in New York. And he was very much influenced by Borges. But contrary to Borges, he was very politicized, as a Puerto Rican and as proud gay man. He left Puerto Rico in the 1970s for New York. Like many Latin American writers of New York at that time, he gets AIDS. He is the same generation of Reinaldo Arenas and of many others that died in New York, that came to New York thinking the city was a more welcoming place for gay people than homophobic Puerto Rico or Cuba. The “sexile” he used to call it. And they experienced another cruel dystopia in the city, in the middle of a pandemic nobody cared about. That Manuel Ramos Otero is able to take intellectual Borges and translate him into both the LGBTQ struggle during the AIDS pandemic (Ramos Otero queers old Borges), and to the eternal struggle of the Caribbean islands against colonization and empire… I think that is the archaeology of Caja de fractales [Down with Gargamel!], right. Those two together.
In terms of the craft, this is quite a short novel. My first book is also very short. I think it’s like seventy-five pages. And this one is one hundred and one pages. Those numbers are purposeful. Six years I was writing this novel, I kept writing and writing, writing long… The document titled “Caja de fractales” in my computer is more than two hundred thousand words. And I just scaled down. Cut, cut, cut, cut. The idea was that every single paragraph should be quotable, that it should stand by itself, not paying attention at all to fiction formulas in order to accommodate the book to the rules of the literary market. I have a salary. I have another job as a professor and researcher. That job represents a little bit of freedom to experiment.
So, the novel did want to be a theoretical reflection about many philosophical influences. To me, feminism was a fundamental one, a type of anti-capitalist feminism that is very strong in Puerto Rico and Latin America. In the novel, there are these places where you can die happy, the “happy death homes” or “morideros para la muerte feliz.” That comes all from Silvia Federici’s writings about the witches as our proto-feminists. The first thing I wanted to imagine was the end of capitalism—that which some say we can never imagine—and so I tried to write that end of capitalism. In this sense I am not ashamed to say that this is quite a political novel, but it’s not ideological. The characters are flawed; there are no role models. And of course, one of the main characters of the novel is a junkie.
Rumpus: Could you talk a little bit more about publishing? I think about this a lot, about how Puerto Rican literature on the mainland is less known, because of the market and what stories it makes available, and what stories it chooses not to sell. I guess my question is: do you think the goal is to try to change the market? Or do we say the market is unchangeable, and then we just keep on creating spaces in which our stories get told?
Rosa: I’m going to give you two examples because this is complicated. Because the literary market is not one; it is many. Even in the US, it is more than one. But publishing from Puerto Rico, and writing in Spanish, has a lot of fucking challenges because first the markets in Spanish are dominated by Spain. And Spain does sell more books by Latin Americans than books by Spaniards, but the books that they sell are by Argentinians, Mexicans, maybe Cubans, right? Puerto Rico for them is nothing. To give you an example, there is a young Puerto Rican novelist (I won’t give you his name) that is kind of a genius, who was born in another Latin American country but grew up in Puerto Rico his entire life. He got a contract when he was twenty-seven to publish at Anagrama, the same publishing house of Bolaño, of Piglia, and many other of the best Latin American novelists. And when he published his first book they told him that he had to put in his biography that he was from the other Latin American country, not Puerto Rico. Because Puerto Rico, for Spain (and sometimes the other Latin American countries), sounds like the US, like oh, those people don’t speak Spanish. They don’t know what Puerto Rican literature is, right. So that’s on one level.
The other example I was going to give you was the Puerto Rican novelist Eduardo Lalo. Eduardo Lalo wins the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in Venezuela; that is a prize given every two years to the best Latin American novel, the most important prize for novels in Latin America. And he is the first Puerto Rican to win it! I think this was 2010 or so. He’s not the best Puerto Rican novelist alive, but he wins the best prize for Latin American novels in Spanish. He publishes his novel in Argentina, like I did, too. And when he accepts the prize, he reads an essay entitled “The Invisibility of Puerto Rican Literature,” which is a very good essay. But it is also a complaint about how our tradition is not appreciated in Spain or Latin America or the US, right. But I, and a lot of people like me, also felt that that was kind of disingenuous. Why? Because the reason why the Puerto Rican literature is so experimental and frankly so damned fucking good is precisely because the market was denied to us.
We are a group of writers and readers, and we all know each other, and we have a passion beyond anything for literature. We’re nerds and we produce awesome shit. But a lot of that has to do with the fact that we didn’t have big editors telling us how to write. No big presses. No illusions of making money and becoming famous. Just literature at its most bare, the love and the people. So, I wouldn’t complain too much about not being included in those literary markets. Those markets fuck with your literature, right? A lot of us felt like, you’re kind of asking the literary markets to colonize us.
Rumpus: What was the first trigger for this book? What inspired it?
Rosa: Well, you know what it is? I write obituaries quite often. I did it for a newspaper in Puerto Rico. But I still do it now sometimes on social media for family or a friend or a writer I admired. The last obituary was last week when my grandmother died. I always write obituaries. It’s a genre I like a lot. It’s a minor genre, but it shouldn’t be. Like the book review. That’s another minor genre that I really like. Those are genres of generosity that really have an impact on the people, that you can honor people and a community with. So I wanted to do a book of obituaries. At first, a novel that was just obituaries, fake and real, a little bit in the tradition of Borges, who wrote book reviews of false books. I wanted to write obituaries of false people. And I did write a bunch. That’s how it started. And I wrote for a year. I probably have a hundred pages of obituaries! So the novel has an entire part in which there’s an experimental book of obituaries that explores the topic of how to die. How to honor the dead. So it started with that and very soon it became about how can we honor the death of a world view? Of a generation?
I guess that obsession with death has a lot to do with feminism and climate change and this new form of necro-capitalism, unregulated and sick and deadly, in which we are asked to die to save the economy.
Rumpus: In what ways do you think the novel resonates now amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
Rosa: Bad luck, right? The Spanish edition is published and a few months later Hurricane Maria occurs. And now the English translation comes out and bang, unprecedented earthquakes in Puerto Rico and a global pandemic. It’s the temporality of disaster capitalism. We live in it. These catastrophes and crises are fuel for the capitalist machine that comes out of them so much stronger than before while devouring all of our social institutions and whatever remains of the welfare state. Now, on the bright side, these disasters are also teachers. María was a teacher, COVID-19 is a teacher. Because as we see how useless the State is in protecting us, and how corporations profit from our dead, we are suddenly forced, out of survival, to help each other, to practice mutual aid and break with the superstition of individualism.
I say these disasters are teachers, because mutual aid is a form of knowledge. Something we need to learn, and practice, like learning how to play an instrument, or learning how to dance. I think that Caja de fractales [Down with Gargamel!] is above all a novel about the sublime beauty of mutual aid in the face of disaster, an ode to mutual aid, if you want, even when mutual aid can get also very dark. Mutual aid can also be about helping people die with dignity. All the characters are constantly cooking, and sharing food, and taking care of the sick, and the mentally ill, it’s a novel that asks the reader for help. Anarchy in its most pragmatic and beautiful way I could imagine back then: how to live a life worth living, and how to have a happy death, without the State and without corporations, only through sharing our vulnerability and relearning mutual aid. We have made capitalism a religion, an all-mighty and eternal entity, even life and lives can be sacrificed in the name of saving the economy. They are explicitly saying that with COVID-19; “it’s okay if we die as long as we can save the economy.” The maddening logic of that assertion is the same madness of the religious fanatic. Caja de fractales [Down with Gargamel!] wanted to be the heresy against that capitalist religion.
Photograph of Luis Othoniel Rosa by Ingrid Robyn.