Interview with Iosi Havilio author of Open Door

Iosi Havilio was born in Buenos Aires in 1974. Open Door is his first novel. His second novel is Estocolmo (Stockholm, 2010), and he is currently working on a sequel to Open Door. He has become a cult author in Argentina after Open Door was highly praised by the outspoken and influential writer Rodolfo Fogwill and by the most influential Argentine critic, Beatriz Sarlo.

When her partner disappears, a young veterinary assistant drifts from the city towards Open Door, a small town in the Pampas named after its psychiatric hospital. Embarking on a new life in the country, she finds herself living with an ageing ranch-hand and courted by an official investigating her partner’s disappearance. She might settle down, although a local girl is also irresistible . . .

Lucy Popescu: What was the inspiration for Open Door?

Iosi Havilio: There is an anecdote which I like to think of as the starting point of the story. When I was eight years old my father took me on vacation and we went through a small town called Open Door. He told me that nearby was a hospital for the mentally ill where the inmates were free to go about the place. I was frustrated because we did not stop to visit it. Hence, I was prompted to imagine a place where crazy people could walk in and out without restrictions. For many years, I remembered this fantasy of a dark, gothic and miraculous village. In addition, my later readings, experiences and obsessions contributed to my writing of the story.   There was no plan or any clear purpose behind it. The novel is pure invention, much in the same way as the memory of my childhood voyage probably is.

LP: In his Afterword to the English edition of Open Door, Oscar Guardiola-Rivera writes “Borges contended you couldn’t approach truth, ultimate meaning or ideal beauty directly because doing so, and being able to experience such things as the face of God, the meaning of the universe, or truth, would turn out to be a nightmare. The experience would be blinding and destructive.” Guardiola-Rivera goes on to compare you to Borges – in your ability to subvert reality. There is a nightmare quality to Open Door. In what other ways do you think this statement relates to your novel?

IH: No, please not Borges.  Guardiola-Rivera is very imaginative as well as generous. Anyhow, I believe that mystery is everywhere. There is a misunderstanding which leads us to look for deep revelations of the soul when analysing important literature. As I see the world, it is a never ending spiral which I observe upwards, from the bottom. Such an experience serves as an entrance and exit to any story.

LP: There is a tension between city and country in Open Door. Can you say a little more about this?

IH: People talk a lot about such tensions. They sometimes draw a map of fictions where such differences are expressed, starting from classical literature to today. I believe these to be futile categories, resulting from considering a part instead of the entire text, thereby misinterpreting the real world. Tensions never occur in time nor space, but only in the eyes of the observer. Otherwise, we risk falling into over simplified antagonisms and arrive at faulty language and communication. The worlds exist and that’s it. In fact, for the narrator in Open Door, the city is not fully a city and the country is not fully a country.

LP: On the back cover of the Spanish edition of Open Door, you mention capitalismo + salvese quien pueda (capitalism + every man for himself). What relevance does this have to your novel?

IH:  It was my editor in Spain who made the remark. I have an inkling of why he wrote it, but since they are only inklings I prefer to keep them for myself.

LP: There is a lot of explicit sex in Open Door and scenes that some readers may find off-putting. What were you hoping to achieve in these passages?

IH: Absolutely nothing else then what they say. I don’t know of any other sex then the explicit one. Paraphrasing Bataille, I would ask: what is more scandalous in a scene of lesbianism under the sky, the pussies or the stars?

LP: When did you start writing and why?

IH: I could date it to my adolescence. But as I grow older I am inclined to believe that it was a long time before, even before I could read and write. Indeed, I am convinced that most of my writings need not be put into words.

LP:  Do you believe in Ricardo’s Piglia’s assertion that “All great literature is political”?

IH: Of course, either by action or by omission. In fact I believe that the best political literature is the one that doesn’t speak of politics. Just as the best love stories don’t need to speak about sentiments.

LP: Who inspires you and why?

IH: All living things, including books.

LP: Do you think you are difficult to translate and do you participate in the translating process?

IH: I had no part whatsoever in the translation and I believe that was a very good thing. I think that the difficulties lie not so much in translating meanings into words as in the task of uncovering the underlying universe. In this sense, I am grateful that Beth Fowler has done a wonderful job in making the novel her own.

LP: Describe your writing space and your writing routine.

IH: Impossible. Chaos is my only method.

LP: What are you reading now?

IH:  After many previous frustrating experiences, I finally read with great pleasure James Joyce’s Ulysses.  It was great fun. I still hear the music, the breathing and the dissonances.  Also, I went back to Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir and I am reading again Facundo by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. I tried Michel Houellebecq again after a while. The Map and the Territory is amusing and caustic but, in my opinion, it lacks the strength of his earlier books.

Extract from Open Door by Iosi Havilio, translated by Beth Fowler

Shortly before seven, I saw her for the last time. She was wearing faded jeans and a black T-shirt, she’d put her hair up in a kind of bun. She seemed happy, normal. Her breath was bitter, from an empty stomach.

We had gone to La Boca. We were bored, the walk had been a failure. Too many people around, too many noises all at once and nothing much to do.

At some point Aída went into a bar. She gestured with her hand, she barely moved her lips, she seemed to say I’ll be right back, or something like it. I lit a cigarette. With my back to the street, I caught my reflection in a long and narrow mirror with traditional painted designs around the edge. People passed to and fro and I disappeared and reappeared between them.

A blond boy stopped in front of me. He had a cigarette hanging from his mouth. He smiled at me and mimed lighting it with an imaginary lighter. I gave him mine. He couldn’t have been skinnier, or dirtier. He was that type of blond whose hair is the only blond thing about him. A tough street kid, tanned skin, full lips, theatrical stare, aged about fourteen or fifteen. He lit his cigarette with the tip of mine and lingered longer than necessary in handing it back. A tough street kid, tanned skin, full lips, theatrical stare He had a scar snaking between the knuckles of one hand. He didn’t take his eyes off me. He looked at me the way some brats do, unintentional and yet intense.

‘Fancy a smoke?’ he said bringing his face closer, all his teeth on show. I just looked at him, a bit lost.

Do you want to or not, the boy pressed me and, because it was Sunday, because I was bored and because Aída still hadn’t come out, I hunched my shoulders as if to say: Why not? The boy jerked his head for me to follow him.

First I glanced into the bar and amongst the crowd I saw Aída going into the toilets. What had she been doing all this time? It didn’t surprise me, Aída did that sort of thing, disappeared, played hide and seek. The blond boy was waiting for me at the corner.

We took a diagonal lane and came to a yard that doubled as a basketball court, a few parked cars around the edges. The blond boy guided me to an out-of-sight corner where there were two other boys, even rougher looking and much younger. One was rather chubby with the look of an obedient dog, his face camouflaged in the hood of the tracksuit he was wearing. The third boy was much taller than the other two, wearing denim from head to toe, a proper show-off. Did you get it? the blond boy asked the one in denim, who immediately took a long, fat joint out of his pocket, twice the size of a normal joint. The blond boy lit up, took two deep drags and passed it to me. We smoked, each taking our turn, in perfect harmony. They asked me my name and I asked theirs. They told me that they lived round here and that they played in a band. They wanted to know where I was from. From far away, I replied.

Drugs don’t always act the same way, it all depends on the person and the circumstances. The lad in denim, who had struck me as the most laid-back of the three, was retreating into himself. The fat one, on the other hand, had taken down his hood and was getting more and more excitable by the minute. The blond boy, like a good leader, didn’t seem to be affected.

‘We want you to suck us off,’ the little fatty said out of nowhere, projecting the not-yet-fully-formed voice of an overweight adolescent.

The blond boy released a smoke-filled laugh. The one in denim turned pale, then red. All the blood rushed to the fat boy’s head, enough for the three of them. And he laughed too, through clenched teeth. As I didn’t say anything, didn’t even move, their nerves finally got the better of them and they passed me the joint again. The round continued without comment. When the joint had finished, we said goodbye with a kiss on the cheek, like good friends.

Published in English translation by And Other Stories:

Interview originally published by