Pola Oloixarac on Mona.

Nathan Scott McNamara interviews Argentine writer Pola Oloixarac for the LARB about her new novel Mona (translated by Adam Morris):

Where did the story for Mona begin? What was the first piece, and what was the process that followed?

I began writing Mona when I had just moved to San Francisco. Like most immigrants coming in the US, I had this feeling that my life was beginning anew, this time for “real,” so I thought what the hell I’m writing in English now. I’d written articles on politics in English in The New York Times and elsewhere, but never fiction. I was hooked instantly. Writing in English felt very playful, like putting on this fancy dress that is not exactly you, but you love it anyway, you love it even more, and you start acting (writing) in the spirit of the dress. I wrote the first four chapters in a spell. Then I left the English draft marinating for a while, my American baby was born (my anchor baby!), and when I came back to the book, I realized that something was lacking: I needed the force and the delirium of Spanish. So, I translated what I had into Spanish and found a different voice, more restrained than my previous books, with a different humor — a in a way, it was all about the humor — and that voice became my guide. Even if it was in Spanish, it had the controlled aroma and a certain coyness of the English, which felt very inspiring for building the thriller aspects and the thought process of Mona the character. I liked the idea of faking an autofiction, to write as if part of that genre, which to me it’s very American because I’d read first it in English.

One writer at the literary conference says that music is a “transparent field in which genius and mediocrity were self-evident truths — and this only ever led to hatred, distrust, and malaise.” He says that not knowing each other’s languages was the key to conviviality at the literary conference. Have you experienced this gain in the gaps between languages as you’ve traveled international literary spaces and, if so, can you say more about it?

Well, I identify as a total language nerd, I’m obsessed with languages. I’m fluent in French, Portuguese, Italian, English, I have a beginner’s Catalan and in September I’m getting back to revive my wretched German, a language that I love but I need to practice more. So, for me, the more is always the merrier. I guess that when you’re mixing languages and people, it always comes to something very fundamental of the person. Because changing languages means changing abilities, it’s a bit like being an immigrant of the mind. When you’re out of your language comfort zone, you’re forced to adapt to a narrower set of tools, and you may feel silly, incapable. It’s very humbling, makes you feel a bit like a child again. A lot of people don’t want to cope with that feeling.

I think that Russian character in Mona means also that music has a way of being experienced that is immediate: you immediately have your nervous system exposed to it when you hear it. Whereas in literature is an art that takes time, so the “self-evident” beauty cannot manifest unanimously, like when you’re hearing someone wonderful play a piece. In my case, I want to be exposed to other people’s ideas and mental games and if they’re foreigner and alien that always adds to the excitement.

We’re doing this interview in English, but you write your novels in Spanish. What was it like working with Adam Morris on the translation of Mona?

Adam is a dream translator. It was so fun to work with him, not only because he masters Spanish (and Portuguese) so well, but also because he’s an expert in the occult and in American culture in general. Adam has such a brilliant, erudite mind, and a very chic take on the spirit of trolling. He was great at capturing the humor in Mona and making it flow in English. It’s funny also because he has this Buddhist approach to translation: that he erases himself, so when I find things in English Mona that to me are “very Adam,” he says “what you hear of me in Mona is actually me reflecting you in English. Pure Freud!” His elegance is very self-effacing. For him, I think, the visibility of the translator has to do with how different his translations are once you compare them, how his style complete changes from one author to the next. The mastery becomes evident by defect, like a negative in a photo. We met in San Francisco, where we were neighbors in the Mission, and we became friends. I was taken by his prose in American Messiahs, his nonfiction book, and admired the books he’d translated from the Portuguese, superbly strange authors like Hilda Hilst and Noll; Mona is his first translation from Spanish.

You have lived in such different geographies: Buenos Aires, San Francisco, now you’re in Barcelona. What sort of library are you able to carry with you as you travel?

When the pandemic burst, I had just arrived in Barcelona with a suitcase of clothes and toys for my daughter Asia, who was three years old by then. I had maybe two books with me, one was by Eliot Weinberger, whom I find fascinating. The pandemic was starting, and all the shops were closing in Barcelona, but I managed to go to a Re-Read, where they sell used books. I got a couple Salman Rushdie, Stendhal, Yourcenar, Durrell, and Javier Cercas. Fantastic company. Upon those premises I’m building a new library. The bookstores are dreamy in Barcelona, it’s really a treat to get lost here. I had amassed a nice library in SF, and those books went to Buenos Aires, where they remain. But every time someone travels, they bring me my books from Buenos Aires. One of those recovered treasures is the “Borges” by Bioy Casares, one of my favorite books in “high” Argentine Spanish, that will be coming out in the US translated by Valerie Miles with The New York Review of Books. It’s a colossal work, but anyone in the world can do it that person is Valerie.

Writers are all so different, and multilingual writers even more so! I love hearing about how they write, and how they deal with translation, and of course about favorite bookstores. (If you’re wondering about the odd name Oloixarac, it’s a modification of her actual family name Caracciolo.) Thanks, Trevor!


  1. One writer at the literary conference says that music is a “transparent field in which genius and mediocrity were self-evident truths — and this only ever led to hatred, distrust, and malaise.”

    At first I thought they were talking about translation, not music. That works, too.

  2. The Bioy Casares book on his friendship with Borges contains 1664 pages according to Amazon. A colossal work indeed!

  3. Wow!

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Obviously great friends.

    (The name of Bioy Casares immediately makes me think of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.)

  5. Which Durrell?

  6. Lawrence, I’m sure. Gerald is fun, but I don’t think he’d show up in that company. (And if he did, he’d be given his full name to avoid confusion.)

  7. (And I find it weird that if you google Durrell you get almost all Gerald hits. Philistines!)

  8. Lawrence, I’m sure.

    OTOH, The Whispering Land is set in Argentina.

  9. January First-of-May says

    Lawrence, I’m sure. Gerald is fun, but I don’t think he’d show up in that company.

    …That’s pretty much what I thought as well, somehow, even though I mostly only know Lawrence as the guy that Gerald mentioned was also a writer.

  10. “Larry” is the stuck-up brother who fools around with writing.

  11. Lawrence and Gerald Durrell were very close, and it was Lawrence who encouraged Gerald to take up writing. All those anecdotes about how Larry was stuck-up were in-jokes between the brothers. In actual fact, Lawrence was already married when he encouraged the family to move to Corfu, and he never lived with the rest of them.

  12. Gerald made fun of everyone, especially those close to him.

  13. Yes, Lawrence was my assumption as well, I was mostly being tongue-in-cheek.

    Apropos, the PBS show is at the very least palatable (I’ve only watched the first season so far, can’t even remember if Larry’s portrayed as living with the family there) and I think this lot might enjoy it.

  14. Trond Engen says

    Larry’s living with the family.

    There’s a moment, when he’s waiting for the acceptance of his first novel by a publisher, when his mother says (something to the effect of): “Are you kind with us? I hope you won’t be one of those authors who make fun of their family members.”

  15. Apropos, the PBS show is at the very least palatable

    That’s a pretty good description. My wife and I watched (most of?) the first season and by mutual consent dropped it for more compelling things (like Endeavour). It’s light, breezy, stupid fun, but the stupidity got a bit much.

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