Mar 07, 2008, 03:16AM

Interview: Paul Verhaeghen

The Belgium-born author of award-winning novel Omega Minor answers questions about the writing life, Americans’ bashfulness about sex, and President Bush.

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Paul Verhaeghen’s most recent novel, Omega Minor, was published in 2004 and went on to win the Flemish Government’s Culture Award for Fiction, as well as the Dutch Bordewijk Award for Fiction. It’s a massive novel that follows a half-dozen primary characters through the major political and military crises of central Europe in the 20th century, with significant detours to Cambridge and Los Alamos. The Dalkey Archive Press published the first English translation, Verhaeghen’s own, in November.

Verhaeghen was born in Belgium but has lived in the U.S. since 1997, working as a cognitive psychologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Corresponding through email, Splice asked him about Omega Minor, the processing of translating his own work, and the relationship between psychology and novel writing. It didn’t take much, however, to get him riled up about contemporary politics.

SPLICE TODAY: Before we get into the nitty gritty of Omega Minor, perhaps you could talk about the process of translating your own work. To what extent does the English-language novel represent a "translation" at all, or is it a totally new beast? Do you have any plans to translate your older Flemish novels?

PAUL VERHAEGHEN: The translation! I just bumbled into it. To try to lure publishers into buying the foreign rights, the Flemish Fund for Literature had a few pages translated by a professional. And although this person did an excellent job, I had to swallow hard when I read that translation. It just wasn’t me. So: (a) I realized I apparently had a voice in English; and (b) I stupidly thought that therefore I should do the translation myself. So I applied for the job, and I got hired. It’s not a new book and it’s not a slavish copy. I felt I could take a few liberties here and there, twist sentences around, insert new puns, delete obscure jokes, correct a few mistakes. My English is still not as good as I would want it to be, but I wanted to avoid having a book that read as if it had been translated. In Dutch, my choice of words is very often determined by sound and rhythm. I tried to do that in the translation as well—you have to be able to read it out loud, somehow I feel that’s important. The good thing about translating your own work is that you don’t have to bother with doing the work “justice”; if something doesn’t work in the translation, off it goes! The author isn’t going to show up on my doorstep with a gun.

I do realize I got tremendously lucky. When is the last time you or anyone of your acquaintances lusted for a Flemish novel in translation, right? To get published in any language is a miracle, to get translated into American is even more unthinkable, and to get some small amount of attention and recognition is utterly fantastic. My older work is not worth translating (I hope it all goes out of print in Dutch soon), and whatever is going on inside my mind right now isn’t worth writing down. At all. So it’s gonna be Omega Minor and that is it. A quarter-million words is enough of an oeuvre anyway.

ST: Who do you see as your main influences as a novelist? There are echoes of Pynchon and DeLillo in your present-tense passages, plus Omega Minor has the kind of prodigious, multi-faceted structure of many other postmodern American novels. Yet there's a plurality of cultures (primarily in the scenes at the University of Potsdam's gästehaus) and a sense of America's intimidating size that seem very European. You've embodied this American/European balance in your own life, having grown up in Belgium and lived in America for a decade, but did you consciously draw inspiration from particular writers on both sides of the Atlantic?

PV: Anyone not intimidated by America’s bulk or by the sheer weight of European history has not been paying attention. That is what attracted me to the American postmodernists in the first place: the sense of being whacked over the head with the full complexity of the world. (I’d add John Barth to your list, if I may, and William Gibson.) These days, I feel ultimately most at home in a literature of displacement—I love David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami, for instance, and what’s lurking unwritten in the depths of their prose—but I guess I got contaminated with Pynchon at way too impressionable an age to get rid of it completely. My problem as a writer is that I ultimately belong nowhere: In Europe they reckon the book is too American; here they think it’s European; it’s not exactly a historical novel; it’s kinda-sorta-maybe a literary thriller; it’s a bit like an old-fashioned Bildungsroman; what the fuck is this thing? I used to think that that was a plus, but I’m finding out the hard way that it sure as hell doesn’t help with selling books and paying the bills.

ST: How did you encounter those American writers you mention? Do Gibson, Pynchon, et al, get translated into Flemish or did you read them in English? What other authors influenced you, particularly ones who American readers may not know as well?

PV: Pynchon is ultimately as untranslatable as Joyce or [Brazilian novelist João] Guimarães Rosa or [early-20th century Flemish writer Louis Paul] Boon. I got lucky; I knew at least some English back in the day. Omega Minor and [Pynchon’s] Against the Day share the same French translator—now that’s going to be interesting. I would recommend Boon, except that he’s totally unreadable in translation. You have to hail from a particular two-by-three block area of the village of Erembodegem to fully appreciate his craft, I have been told. I hail from two miles down the road, and find him sublime. But all my Dutch friends hate him.

ST: You're a practicing cognitive psychologist in addition to being a novelist. Did one come before the other, or were literature and psychology always related in your mind?

PV: As a kid, I was always writing, or painting, or banging things out on a guitar, or otherwise occupied with the sort of things you can do on your own in a far corner of the room. That was way before I even knew there was such a thing as psychology. I am also not that-kind-of-psychologist; I’m the kind that puts you in a dark room and forces you to remember digits and weird little shapes and bleeps and all that. Any behavior that takes longer than half a second is too complex to understand anyway. At a deeper level, of course, everything is related to everything else, the world is the world, and everything we do changes the fabric of the universe around us and yet leaves everything, in the long run, undisturbed. (The planet will still be around long after we’ve carbon-dioxided ourselves out of existence, and good for her!)

The one thing that I do feel carries over between my two worlds is the primacy of questions. As a researcher, the thing that keeps you in business and on your toes is not to come up with a bunch of answers, but to ask the right question, and your job is to mistrust any answer thrown at you—be it by someone else, by your own data, or by your own mind. Look at the world with suspicion, every day anew.

ST: Your novel makes much of the cyclical nature of history—as your young protagonist interviews a Holocaust survivor, a Neo-Nazi movement is brewing right outside the building, for instance. Do you think that this kind of repeated violence is the result of people not asking enough questions, or do you just view violence as a natural state of humanity?

PV: It’s not about violence. It’s about organized violence—leaders and followers and ranks growing and then stones getting thrown and then ending in a huge unnecessary bloodbath.

It does appear to be human nature, or some people’s human nature. Most historians like to either blame the historical context, or assume that some people are just evil, but it seems much more correct to assume that some people feel that the situation (or the group) gives them a license to shout/spit/maim/kill. The kind-of-psychologist-I-am-not has discovered that there is a type of personality, the authoritarian personality (also known as the “kick down, lick up” personality) that thrives under such circumstances. Anonymity, orders from up high, a feeling of self-importance and historical mission all help with that. I wouldn’t blame you if you think this sounds like some of the folks yelling from your television screen, or some of the more snarky, smirky elements in the current administration.

What you need for this mechanism to work is (a) an identifiable enemy that poses some global, but unspecified danger (so that it cannot simply be contained by some trivial lawful measure), and (b) an absolute conviction that you are right about this, ideally provided by some higher authority – the commander-in-chief, or, even better, the Commander-In-Chief. (Or the Commander-In-Chief as overheard by the commander-in-chief.) Imagine, then, a country in which the head of state is also the commander in chief; imagine that in said country the commander in chief is by definition above all criticism in time of war, for said criticism would give comfort to the enemy. Wouldn’t it be tempting, if you were head of state under such circumstances, to, well, uh, invade Poland?

Humans are notoriously poor predictors of the consequences of their actions. We always think we will be fitter, happier and more productive than we will prove in reality to be. To get to a point: It is hard to escape the parallels between, say, the Vietnam war and, say, the quagmire in Iraq. Some of us (like Cheney or Rumsfeld or G.W. Bush) are old enough to have seen—and some from up close, Google “Rumsfeld” and “Vietnam,” for instance—what endless misery and bloodshed a poorly executed invasion waged solely for political reasons can bring. Yet, of course, we think this time will be different, oh yeah.

No thinking will help. And questions will not be asked. Except that there is this part of the public—the non-ass-licking monkeys—that could speak up and take the leaders to task. Except that the other monkeys are effectively sitting on their faces, and in consequence whatever we say sounds kinda muffled.

ST: So why is Omega Minor set in 1995 if you’re so passionate about current, ongoing political problems? Presumably you started writing years before it was published, but why that year in particular?

PV: Simple: 1995 is the half-century anniversary of the end of World War Two - something to commemorate with quite a bang. Apart from that, I couldn’t set it much earlier because I needed Germany to be (semi/quasi-) unified, and I couldn’t set it much later because I needed believably vigorous survivors. Sometimes your choices are made for you.

ST: In addition to the descriptions of opera, nuclear physics, brain function, and European history, Omega Minor contains a tremendous variety of sex acts, a number of them walking the thin line between literature and pornography. (This is maybe another European influence, as English literature doesn't have a strong erotic tradition.) The novel's first scene refers to the similarity between the arc of a character’s ejaculated semen and the shape of the Greek character for "Omega," but what other functions, metaphorical and otherwise, did you want the sex to serve in your book?

PV: Yeah, that is another cultural difference indeed. I notice that the Anglo-Saxon reviewers highlight the sex a lot; the continental Europeans seem, for some reason, much more interested in the moral questions that arise from the novel—moral questions as in: What is war and why do we wage it; what is our debt and our duty to history; what makes me think that I would have done better if I had been in this or that situation myself? European readers shudder at the violence in the novel, which is indeed all too real; Americans apparently find sex more obscene or at least more remarkable than murder or torture. And why oh why am I somehow still surprised that this surprises me?

There isn’t much to learn in how character X kills character Y. But how X kisses, licks, bites, screws/fucks/makes love to Y—that teaches you a lot about X, about what X feels for Y, thinks about Y, and thinks about life. Go see the first five minutes of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

ST: There's a lot in Omega Minor about the similarities between storytelling and memory, specifically the flaws in how they both depict history. As a person who studies memory and writes historical novels, how do you feel fiction complements memory? In what ways do novels and stories help us create the "facts" of personal and national histories?

PV: Memory is fiction, and fiction is memory. And history is fiction, and history is memory, and stories are a form of history and vice versa and et cetera and so on and so forth. There is a strong connection between story and identity. Alzheimer’s patients lose their memories and by forgetting their place in the world, they lose themselves.

And so do nations. They have selective memories, deliberately so. We assume that only far-away regimes do this. The Soviet history books, for example: so clearly doctored. But take World War Two. There is so much we have forgotten. We locked up 110,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese citizens in "War Relocation Centers" (strangely enough, we didn’t build those for folks of German descent); we set our quota for Jewish refugees ridiculously low (27,000 for 1939); we killed 220,000 civilians in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so very late in the game, when the war in Europe was already over. I’m finding out that very few people of my generation even know this. Why would we? It’s not a nice story, it doesn’t fit with whom we aspire to be. The same is true in our personal lives, of course. We’re never who we aspire to be. So we forget. And embellish.

So yes, that is why we need someone like Vonnegut to write absurdly about the absurdity of war, and we need his grandson George Saunders to write cunning little parables about the mess we got ourselves in now, and we need a madman like [William T.] Vollmann to document the silent scream of violence in all its bitter gore. Art matters. What we remember of Vietnam is Apocalypse Now and perhaps [Denis Johnson’s 2007 novel] Tree of Smoke; we do need movies like Schindler’s List, superficial as it is; we need books like Catch-22. Which makes me very worried about now. Remember Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, waterboarding, Blackwater, 80,000 dead Iraqi civilians, outsourced torture and our own government that has now sent more American citizens to their death than Bin Laden has? That nobody seems to care, that nobody writes about this in any incisive way tells me we are in deep trouble, gliding into the deepest sucking black hole of an identity crisis. And how can we not? Because this is not who we want to be, this is not who we are, this is not our dream; this is who we are forced to be, by the people we—somehow, inexplicably, inexorably, inescapably—elected. So we keep our ears and eyes shut, and the media are all too happy to oblige and help us forget, by not showing us what they should show, by not asking the questions they should ask, by diverting us with dating shows and middle-aged loofah lovers screaming till the veins pop in their foreheads. After all, we have to be able to sleep, don’t we; we need all our strength to not jolt awake every five minutes and scream our lungs out in terror?

ST: Could you recommend a book?

PV: A book that did not influence me in the least, but that everybody should read, like, now, is The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders.

  • Paul Verhaeghen, at least reading this interview, seems like a fairly brilliant guy. I wonder what he does to sleep and not awake every five minutes and "scream his lungs out in terror"?

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