When the Mexican writer Antonio Ortuño was a teenager, and he took a bus every morning to get to school, a beggar also used to get on and repeat the same tragic tale of an abusive father and an abused son. “Because of her condition as a hypocrite and a preacher, the coplita always seemed repellent to me,” explains Ortuño in the introduction to her new book of stories, Minions, published this week in Spain by the publishing house Pages de Espuma. “However, I must accept, I was fascinated that the beggar, so Jeremiah and temperamental, took tears and coins from the most candid of that traveling audience that was the bus. Because what he was trying to do with his alleged moral teaching was, of course, to make them fall into a trap. A preacher, whether he knows it or not, is always a liar. Life is more complex than the theories and beliefs that try to explain it ”.
Ortuño (Zapopan, Jalisco, 44 years old) has published eight novels, three storybooks, and dozens of opinion columns since 1997 for different media (he is currently a columnist for this newspaper). Minions, his new book with 11 short stories, is an opportunity to sit with him on the bus and question the stories that divided the world into good and bad. His characters, as weak as they may seem, are not just victims: thieves who wanted to help a relative, lying writers who save his life with every word, alcoholic parents who worry about the nocturnal dangers that lie in wait for their daughters. “The stories in this book are not intended to operate the sentimental blackmail of those moaning verses,” writes Ortuño about stories full of satire, tragedy, and something of Black Sabbath.
Question. Why Minions? Is this a storybook about submission?
R. Yes, submission and relationships are at the heart of the book. I have written many stories over the years and in this book I gathered those who had that kinship, that descent into the mud puddle of power relations, of submission, and also of the dominance of hegemonies.
P. But it is not a pitiful book for submissives. Is it also about their revenge?
R. Sure. I don’t believe in this convenient moral victimization in which everyone below is absolutely helpless. I think the issue is much more complex. Sometimes the victim also changes position and becomes a perpetrator, or sometimes he is someone else’s perpetrator. So it is a bit clear in the first of the stories [Historia del Cadí, el sirviente y su perro], in which a dog is a victim, and above him is the servant, who is also a victim of the Cadí, who is also a victim of the Vicir. Everyone has a bigger fish that bites them. The tables are also turned in some other of the stories because it is a tension that is not only one-way. Victims not only define themselves as victims, but also have other spaces in their lives in which they can change their role. I was interested in rehydrating the issue of power relations in a field of greater complexity than the one-dimensional game in which the master who is always master, and the henchman who is always henchman.
P. A phrase of his in the introduction says: “Moral fables burst me.” Are you sidestepping morality in favor of any of your characters?
R. Not dodging, but in some way giving back to literature its ability to challenge us and its ability to navigate the terrain of ambiguity. Not on the ground of moral absolutism. I am bothered by stories that basically only try to tell us that someone is very bad or very good. It seems to me that literature should delve into things that are not clear to us. When written with absolute moral certainties, it seems to me that we end up preaching from a pulpit. I don’t like preaching writers, nor do I want to be. That is why we have this beautiful malefic cat on the cover: it refers to the meme in which it is inspired, but it is also a tribute to this character of Lewis Carroll, of the Cheshire cat, who was always a little distant from events, and that of soon it fades and only his smile remains.
I think that literature gives us the possibility to look at the other side of the tapestry of things, and to find even within those darkness where apparently it would be necessary to put a kind of moral compass to the reader. Show him that moral compasses are sometimes broken. There is no absolute moral north in literature to which all compasses have to point. The issue of power, the issue of abuse, the issue of evil, are complex issues and have many aspects.
P. Doesn’t the cat-meme come from the story that is called White Souls?
A. Well, yes. The verdict of the cat at the end of that story is not intended to be a moral in any way. All the characters in the story, to achieve a laudable moral end, as they end up doing crap and a half. They show the miseries that trying to do good can entail. That seems to me more suggestive or seductive than story after story about how bad the world is and how bad the bad guys are. We are a bit saturated with that kind of approach to literature, or at least I am. I do not want what I write to resemble the chapters of the Rose of Guadalupe. Moral fables blow me away, but I am attracted to the subject of moral observation.
P. Can the writer also be a submissive? That seems to be the case in that tale called Scribe
R. That is one possible interpretation of the story. The narrator of that story is a guy tied to being almost the notary, the narrator, of the adventures of a family that has power in the place where he lives. The man and his children have disputes, but the narrator has to write everyone’s versions and try to survive between threats, pressure, but also gifts and gifts. He somehow lives on that tightrope, trying to balance what everyone says, offending as little as possible, because previous scribes have been executed for crossing the line. Of course, it is a reflection on writing and especially on this that has re-appeared in a spectacular way in the world of committed writing. When that commitment, more or less abstract, becomes a concrete commitment to people of power, the role of the writer becomes that of a scribe. He becomes a hired hitman who has to deal with it, his job is exclusively to try to keep those who send him happy, and to transmit his words, and to justify it above all.
P. You have been writing in the press for many years. Your tale The horoscope says Is it a criticism of how the media has covered the disappearances of women in Mexico?
R. Yes, and at the same time it is something broader than that. On the issue of disappearances, I think, only very deceitful politicians think that the entire fault lies with the press. The press will also have its share of responsibility in some circumstances, but they never have all the responsibility. In the story there is also a stark observation of what the police and institutional power are. At some point the narrator thinks that there are fewer police officers and that is why there are fewer crimes. But of course there is a criticism that the narrator also makes of the media, speaking of the uselessness of many notes, the superficiality with which many information are covered, and the fact that they give openly false information, such as horoscopes. A media outlet shouldn’t publish that, it shouldn’t interview witches, it shouldn’t give rise to such superficial versions. However, we also publish official bulletins, which have not been contrasted, and we gave ball to the speeches of a lot of powerful people, which are never contrasted. In general, the media do not fulfill this critical task, and the reduction to the absurdity of that is the horoscope.
P. Another story deals with the subject of violence against women, a science fiction story in which men can have their testosterone ‘turned off’ with a switch to end the violence.
R. I am not a great science fiction reader, it is not my field, so I wrote this as a personal challenge. I had a lot of fun. I tried to take various ideas to the last consequences, such as what could happen in a society in which a way was actually found in which sexist violence would disappear. It seemed to me that the only way for this to happen globally would not be with an individual awareness of some men, but with a measure that directly affects all of them. Reduce men to what they are reduced to in this story. It is evident in the story that this danger [machista] it exists, because the moment the switch is removed, man becomes a kind of maddened wolf that begins to kill the rest of the men. There is talk at some point that in other places there are people like fanatic and obscure who continue to live in the past. Actually, that would be something more similar to what we are, cities where there are no such controls.
I insist, the story does not have to give a positive resolution to social problems. It simply has to exacerbate those frictions that exist. Very consciously I chose outcomes for my stories that had nothing to do with the consensus of social networks or with the consensus of the churches or the parties, and so on. Because all those roads can end badly. There are plenty of examples of utopias turning into bloody nightmares. So it seems to me that my pleasure is to put moral certainties in crisis through writing.
P. Are you worried that readers won’t understand the irony or satire in your stories?
R. I tend to trust readers. What I enjoy the most about my extra literary work is listening to the readings of readers that I probably don’t even know, who send me a message through networks or who comment on something about what I write. Somehow I find that reader who can laugh at the same things that you laugh at, who somehow enjoys that terrain also of instability and irritation that reading causes. I do not tolerate a book that is agreeing with me all the time, because it seems to me that it is written with condescension, because the writer is looking for a way to please me. These types of writers seem to me like waiters who are too much on top of you at the table, those who ask you every two minutes if you want something else and they don’t let you talk, they don’t let you breathe. Many of the most exciting readings I have had over time have been with literary speeches with which I have quite a few philosophical or stylistic differences.
P. How much did music influence this book? The book starts with two quotes, from Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed, and on twitter you said the book is “the Ramones meets Black Sabbath.”
R. I generally write while listening to music. Not correcting, because then I don’t hear myself correcting. But when I’m writing, or when I’m working on anything, I’m listening to music, and there are many aesthetic keys that music has given me that have nurtured my literary work. The wit, bitterness, and melancholic yet smiling skepticism of someone like Leonard Cohen has been very influential for me. The “the Ramones meets Black Sabbath” is because the stories in this book are dynamic, they are fast, they have their pop hooks like the songs of the Ramones. And on the other hand, it also seems to me that they have density, that they have force, and that they torture the senses a bit like the songs of Black Sabbath. They are aesthetic references for me. The music that I like, I take it with the same seriousness with which I reflect when I read Borges or Virginia Wolf. For me, intellectually, and without comparing one with the other because they do different things, they are material on which I reflect and that nourishes me intellectually and aesthetically. I would like that whoever reads this book is left with an impression equivalent to the one I was left with when I first heard a Ramones record.
P. And if you could describe this book with just one Black Sabbath song, what would it be?
R. Oops, there are many. But I think that War Pigs… well, or Paranoid.