“There Are More Things”: Benjamín Labatut on Betrayal, Fiction, and the Future

“If I’m honest, I never came back to Chile, at least not to the country of my early childhood, an inferno in which I was happy.”

Literature leeches upon the question of morality, morality upon literature. To read (and write) badly is to do so moralistically, uncharitably. From Plato’s Republic to Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, from Eliot’s Middlemarch to Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, the good and the beautiful have appeared in tension, and these texts have elicited great fury by refusing such simplicities. There must be some outrageous complication at the core of our literary project, which mocks the ossifying tautologies of daily life and rote wisdom, to sustain so many centuries of outrage. Fiction that derisively and decisively crosses boundaries historically established to constrain it—make-believe, imagination, fantasy—will often elicit curious eyes and moral outrage in equal measure. Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World—a narrator-less, essayesque novel in five parts featuring fictionalized accounts of great 20th-century scientific discoveries—received such ambivalence upon its English-language publication in 2021.

Reviewers (characteristically scarce for a book in translation) at the New Yorker and the London Review of Books paralleled the content of Labatut’s stories, which hover amid science’s beauties and horrors and the virtues and sins of its agents, with his loose approach to facticity, which they somehow found similarly morally outrageous. Never mind the obvious—it’s fiction!—Labatut’s provocation demonstrated how intimately questions of fictionality and facticity bleed into ethics and morality. Though criticisms around the masculinism of his work are undoubtedly justified, accusing a fiction writer of lying in his work results in a rather insipid and defensive approach to literature.

I interviewed Labatut via email earlier this year to understand how he came upon such a strange formal structure for his book and the thinking behind his literary project. What critical modes might be available for us, other than fact policing, in the age of reality-fiction?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Federico Perelmuter (FP): Let’s start from the beginning. Your upbringing was in some sense itinerant: Buenos Aires, Rotterdam, Santiago de Chile—more, I’m sure. Why?


Benjamín Labatut (BL): My biography—at least the one that’s on book covers—lends itself to deception. I haven’t corrected it for two reasons: first, because I dislike talking about my private life; and second, because I love that a small fiction lies there, in the part of the book that one believes to be devoid of lies.

My family lived in Lima, though I spent little time there, and only got to know Argentina as an adult. I was born in Holland and lived there until I was two, and then returned to Chile. When I was 7, my family returned to Holland, and we didn’t return to Chile until I turned 14.

The truth is that I grew up between those two countries, two countries that are antipodes in every sense except the strictly geographical. The reason for these familial transfers isn’t particularly epic. My old man moved us from one place to another for work. So, we weren’t exiles, just a group of Chileans gone momentarily astray.

My parents decided we would return to Chile when I was 14. I have yet to be able to escape this place. Strictly speaking, it’s impossible to leave. This country is something of a black hole.


FP: Does your migrant, rootless upbringing affect your writing? And your return, your decision as an adult to stay?


BL: I didn’t choose to return to Chile, my parents did. Really, if I’m honest, I never came back to Chile, at least not to the country of my early childhood, an inferno in which I was happy. And that’s not that strange. Who doesn’t feel that way? My childhood wasn’t migratory, but it was very rootless. Torn, even. I was an ordinary kid until I left for Holland. There, I shattered into many pieces and became odd.

I learned English in Holland, which I prefer a thousand times over Spanish. Moreover, I familiarized myself with the nostalgia from which literature springs. Nostalgia, at the Greek root, is the pain of an old wound.

My lack of roots has certainly affected my literature. Though I’m Chilean, and can’t deny it (well, I can, actually, and do so frequently, mostly to mess with my compatriots), I don’t feel identification with my country, or its literature, or nationality. But I don’t feel Dutch either. Argentine, even less so, though many people believe I am when they meet me for the first time, because I share their typical character flaws. I’d love to say (like Bolaño did) that I feel Latin American, but that too would be untrue.

I feel like Pinocchio. Not the dictator [Augusto Pinochet, who brutally ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990]—I feel like the wooden doll: someone unsure of who he is, but diametrically certain of what he wants to become.


FP: What do you want to become?


BL: I won’t tell you. Not because I don’t know, but because I’m a superstitious man. People should not know who you are, at least not really. And more importantly, they should never know what you want. Life is at stake in desire.


FP: Is writing in Spanish part of it?


BL: I write in English and Spanish. It depends on the project. And my fancy. But if I had to choose between the two, I’d take English.

Betrayal is important for writing. For life too. One must always betray something. And since I’m unwilling to betray my parents, my friends, or my country, I prefer to betray my tongue.


FP: How do you feel about being translated? In the US, where I lived until recently, your book has done spectacularly well.


BL: To have been translated was wonderful. I feel an enormous gratitude for it, partly because there is no better reader than a translator. I have a good relationship (and the beginnings of a friendship) with some of my translators, like Robert Amutio.

Translators are the saints of literature. Even the bad ones (God knows there are bad ones). Their work is fundamental: something at the level of what monks, copying manuscripts, did in the Middle Ages. Existing in another tongue is a privilege.


FP: You aren’t being read as a Latin American author, it seems to me. Does that disquiet you?


BL: I love not being read as a Latin American author. I don’t feel like a Latin American writer. I live in Latin America, am Chilean and Latin American, but I’ve never thought of myself as “a Latin American writer.” I understand that there are authors who feel comfortable with or attached to that label because they write within a tradition, or because their literature is tied to a strong national or cultural identity. But that isn’t the case for me.

What I would like is to be a Japanese writer: specifically, a Japanese Baku—a dream eater—a spirit with the head of an elephant, the body of a lion, and the tail of a cow, living in other people’s nightmares. Or, if not, a Merovingian. If I had to identify with some part of the world, it would be Tarkovsky’s Zone, the place where stalkers get lost.

Betrayal is important for writing. For life too. One must always betray something. And since I’m unwilling to betray my parents, my friends, or my country, I prefer to betray my tongue.

FP: Your work has been compared frequently to W. G. Sebald’s, perhaps the most renowned postwar German author. There are multiple allusions to his work in When We Cease to Understand the World. What is useful for you in him and his books?


BL: I don’t think anyone, anywhere, writes like Sebald. I reread his books every year. His melancholy and humor, the density of information that they hold, the beauty of his prose—which has a deeply strange effect, somniferous and hallucinogenic, that prevents you from remembering everything you’ve read, no matter how much you try—make him a complete exception. His oeuvre is an unreachable monolith, a summit that exits our world. In my opinion, he’s the best writer of the 20th century.


FP: Do you mostly read fiction, nonfiction, poetry? Does that change when you’re writing?


BL: I barely read poetry. Same with novels or short stories. I like a very specific kind of book, one that gathers information, beauty, and horror: things like J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, Eliot Weinberger’s An Elemental Thing, or essays and pieces by Jorge Luis Borges, Bruce Chatwin, Guy Davenport. I read very capriciously, and dislike most things, so instead of reading new things, I return to my favorite authors, like Roberto Calasso, William S. Burroughs, Bolaño, Alan Moore. I reread more than I read.

I don’t know if what I read changes when I’m writing, since I’m always writing. I research constantly, but that doesn’t count as reading. It’s something else.


 FP: Is the line between research and reading so clear? What separates the two?


BL: Of course it is. It’s one thing to read for pleasure and another to read for knowledge. Only rarely do they meet.

It happens with Calasso: his books are a path to enlightenment and an aesthetic pleasure all at once, but they can also be rather boring, overly cerebral, dry, and theoretical. Erudition is like that, because it doesn’t regard entertainment as the only measure of value.

I’m surprised how “entertaining” Borges is. Such a lucid, winged intelligence that extends toward transparency.

A similar thing happens with Bolaño: he never says anything clever, in the sense that he isn’t crafting a literature of ideas. And yet, one feels the talent and the genius behind every feint.


FP: When We Cease to Understand the World has a bibliography, unlike (for instance) Sebald, who never offers appendixes. To what end?


BL: What is at the back of the book is not an appendix. They’re acknowledgments, and are there for various reasons. In the first place, to thank Constanza Martínez, who helped me edit the book. Secondly, to recognize the work of many authors without whom I couldn’t have written the book. And thirdly, for legal reasons: since the book occupies a strange place between fiction and nonfiction, we had to watch our backs a little bit. It seems like a joke, but it isn’t: one of Shinichi Mochizuki’s (one of the book’s protagonists) coworkers, the mathematician Ivan Fesenko, wrote to my English publisher complaining that I’d perverted the ideas of Inter-universal Teichmüller Theory, and had irreparably damaged his colleague’s reputation. We had to explain to him, kindly, that the book is a work of fiction.

Sebald’s books (about which I can say nothing negative) all have the same absolutely characteristic narrator, who is very present: though he’s talking about real events, his gaze, and a horrifyingly lucid and beautifully melancholy perspective, drenches everything he narrates. In my book, that’s almost entirely absent. I try to avoid appearing in what I write.


FP: You said before that you don’t read poetry. Did you ever? What did you read, if that was the case? Why don’t you?


BL: I’ve read poetry, of course. My teacher—the man who taught me to write—was a Chilean poet who died without publishing any of his poems: Samir Nazal. From Chile, I love Nicanor Parra, Enrique Lihn, and Juan Luis Martínez. I also love Charles Olson, César Vallejo, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas. I’m also friends with multiple poets, like Serafín Alfsen Romussi, who is half-Chilean and half-Venusian and writes in a poetic vocabulary based on coa (something like Chilean slang) that fascinates me. I’m also a friend and admirer of Diego Maquieira. In fact, I’m translating some of his poems (Los Sea Harrier [The Sea Harriers]) into English.

What I dislike about poetry is the author’s voice, which is usually far too present. That exhausts me. I’m attracted by the impersonal. I prefer the rare beauty one can find in a good Wikipedia entry to the cries and cackles of a poet who feels like they must always relay what lies deep in their heart.

But if I don’t read poetry, it’s because I don’t write poetry. And I read, above all, to steal. I read so I can write.


The Righteous Anger of Dasa Drndic

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FP: Sebald, Borges, Chatwin, Bolaño, Burroughs: they’re all deeply Romantic writers. I dare say your work is, too: When We Cease to Understand the World explores knowledge, chaos, genius, science, canonical 19th-century concerns. Obviously, The Stone of Madness [La piedra de la locura, untranslated] is too, though it extends to art, Bosch’s specifically in that case. Do you feel like a Romantic? What is Romanticism to you?


BL: I don’t feel like a Romantic. Nor have I ever thought about what Romanticism might represent for me. Those ideas and debates that look to categorize a writer or aesthetic movement don’t interest me in the slightest.

What I’m fascinated by is delirium, by reason’s mad dreams and the excesses of thought. I feel called toward the contradictions that at once torture and enlighten us. I’m interested in chaos, senselessness, irrationality, randomness, and infinity. If that makes me part of a 19th-century movement, well, there’s not much I can do about it. I’ll never willingly include myself into any group. Unless aliens arrive.


FP: What about your contemporaries? Are you interested in them? Who do you feel is your contemporary, and what are they doing?


BL: I don’t think about my contemporaries; I write with my teachers in mind. My writing is born from admiration and the search for something that only happens rarely and obeying laws that no one comprehends. Just like physics or mathematics, literature has singularities, too.

How could Georg Büchner write Lenz in 1836, at the age of 23, a century ahead of his literary peers? What was J. A. Baker thinking while walking along English roads with a peregrine falcon’s soul in his chest, spelling out a prose of pure ecstasy to him? What do Lovecraft’s horrors mean, and how can we exorcize them? What spirit reincarnated in Kafka so that he could write his Blue Octavo Notebooks? From what dark planet did Clarice Lispector arrive? To approach these works, these mysteries, even in a chapter or a couple of lines, is the only thing that can give this miserable vocation purpose.


FP: Do you think of your literature in relation to “the contemporary” in some way, be it literary, cultural, political, historical?


BL: I’m interested in the past and the future. There’s almost nothing contemporary that fascinates me. The best literature anticipates what is coming or rescues some treasure from the hands of oblivion.

There are better idioms for the contemporary than the literary. Especially now, when we’re so immersed in and invaded by the present. We have to resist that. Think of other times, other ways of being human.

The past and the future are far wider than the present. Comparatively, the present moment is impoverished, practically doesn’t exist. But we’re ailing with the present, and with a present that is particularly miserable. That the contemporary doesn’t seduce me is not strange: this is my time, and the forces that shaped my generation shaped me too.

But I don’t want to see what I’ve already seen, or write about what everyone already knows. I want to dazzle myself. I want to live in the knowledge (as Borges once said, citing Shakespeare) that “there are more things.”


This article was commissioned by Ben Platticon

Featured Photograph of Benjamín Labatut by Juana Gomez.