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A Conversation with Eduardo Berti, Author of An Ideal Presence

An Ideal Presence (Fern Books, 2021), by Argentine writer, translator, and OuLiPo member Eduardo Berti, is the result of a "medical-literary residency" in the palliative care unit at the Rouen University Hospital Centre in 2015. Inspired by what he "saw, heard and experienced," the author creates a collage-like portrait of the many sides of hospital reality through roughly fifty brief fictional testimonies. In this particular unit, a "bittersweet joy" prevails as patients are accompanied towards death, raising the question: how do we face our own deaths and those of others? At the same time, life is equally celebrated. An Ideal Presence is a collection of human emotions and relationships, with both tragedy and the joy of new encounters, love, friendship, and above all, kindness. Published by Flammarion in 2017, the book was recently translated into English by Daniel Levin Becker and will be published on September 7 by Fern Books.

What was your residency like? Did you live at the hospital? What was your relationship like with the patients and healthcare workers?

When I was invited to spend four weeks in the palliative care unit at the Rouen University Hospital, all that was expected of me a four or five page text. The experience was so intense that I soon found myself with several full notebooks, certain that a single text would not allow me to depict - as I wanted to - the rich complexity of the unit. I explained this to the organizers of the residency, including that I had begun to imagine the form a possible book about the unit. So, by mutual agreement with the Hospital, we decided to extend my stay in the unit. From then on, I went back and forth instead of staying there continuously. This was for several reasons, but mainly because sometimes I needed to take a step back to breathe and renew my vision. I was mostly in contact with the healthcare workers, who accepted my presence. They knew that I was going to be working alongside them and seemed happy to share their day-to-day experience with me. As for the patients and their families, I was in contact only with those who wanted to see me.

You specify that although they are inspired by reality, the testimonies are fictional. How did you go from reality to fiction, while trying to keep the fiction authentic? Why did you choose fiction?

I am a narrator. I looked at the world of palliative care through the eyes of a narrator, not a journalist.  This did not, of course, prevent the presence of reality. In the end, all fiction is a mixture of true things and possible, more or less plausible things. In the case of An Ideal Presence, I allowed myself to invent or imagine things based on what I saw and what the caregivers explained and told me. I was very faithful to the most "technical" aspects of their profession. I was less faithful beyond that.

I usually say that An Ideal Presence is, despite its subject, a book about life. A book that asks, roughly speaking, the following question: what is the place of life in a universe where death is daily and omnipresent? In a similar way, I wanted to explore the place of fiction in the context of a book where reality has such a determining weight... Of course, this weight is not always the same throughout the book. Some of the "testimonies" (and I put the word in quotation marks) are almost faithful to reality, except that I mixed in, for example, some things that several healthcare workers told me. Others are more or less “loose” variations of a series of stories I heard. Finally, there are others that are very fictitious and came to be in a very different way: I mentioned hypothetical situations (that I invented) in front of for some of the caregivers to see their reactions, to understand or imagine with them the possible consequences of such a situation. In any case, beyond the "degree of invention," the stories and situations that I put in my book were the result of this experience. In other words, I would not have imagined these fictions without having stayed at the hospital.

Your texts are very moving. They show different facets of the hospital environment - from the nursing staff to the administrative staff, to the reader and the beautician, and different attitudes towards you, like the nurse’s aide at the beginning of the book who swears not to read it. Have you had any feedback from caregivers or patients?

In the middle of my residency, while I was writing the book, I did a short reading aloud, of five or six texts, for the healthcare workers. It was a very emotional moment. The most touching thing was that the caregivers (mostly women) told me that they recognized themselves. I did a second reading at a more advanced stage. And then, once the book was finished, I gave the complete version to three healthcare workers from the Rouen University Hospital and to two relatives who are doctors. I asked them, for example, to correct any inaccuracies related to their professional background. Once the book was published, I received feedback not only from healthcare workers, but also from several people who had just gone through the experience of accompanying someone close to them in a palliative care unit.

Even if the patients are omnipresent in the stories, none of them testify directly. Why did you make this choice?

It's a question of perspective. I wanted to paint this world through the eyes of the healthcare workers. Fortunately for me, I felt from the beginning that I was very well received, that a pact of trust was established between the caregivers and me, and that they really wanted (and, I would add, needed, in many cases) to talk about their experiences and their views of the profession. I quickly felt, above all, that it was a real privilege to have the right elements and information to take this perspective, which is not the usual perspective when it comes to stories related to end of life or pain. This perspective also allowed me to explore topics such as calling, professional responsibility or empathy, among others.

In France, the book was published in 2017, but in the United States, the English translation will be ready after the pandemic: the book seems to acquire a whole new strength and meaning, now echoing an extremely trying/traumatic global experience. Have you re-read your book since the pandemic?

 I re-read the book a year ago (I had to mainly because I followed the Spanish translation closely, which came out a few months ago), but above all I thought a lot about the healthcare workers during the pandemic and I even received messages from some readers who had the urge to re-read my book during the first lockdown. In any case, I agree that the book seems to take on a different strength or meaning. And it seems clear to me, moreover, that the experience of the pandemic has changed the general view of the work of healthcare workers.

Your mother tongue is Spanish, and An Ideal Presence is the first book you have written in French. You explain in the introduction: "[...] it was in French that I discovered the universe that inspired these texts, that the first sentences and the first drafts were born, and that every time I tried to translate (them), the result seemed false, artificial." Yet you are also a translator, notably of Georges Perec and other members of the OuLiPo. How do you explain this difficulty? Is it related to the oral nature of the medium? Finally, your book can be considered a collection of multiple translations: translation of reality into fiction/text, of the oral into the written word, then of French and the French hospital setting into other languages.

An Ideal presence was a double surprise: first, the surprise of writing a book that I had not planned and that I would not have even suspected a week before the beginning of my residency; second, the surprise of writing it in French. The main reasons are the ones you just mentioned. This does not mean a change of language for me because I continue and will continue to write in Spanish. But I also continued to write in French after An Ideal Presence. So much so that I have just published a book (Demain s'annonce plus calme) that does not have a single "original version" because I wrote it in Spanish and in French simultaneously. As for the oral nature, I would say that it has actually been a great help for me: I don't know if I would have dared to write a less conversational text in French, in a more formal and "literary" register (that's with a lot of quotation marks).

The English translator, Daniel Levin Becker, is also a member of OuLiPo, as is the Spanish translator, Pablo Martín Sánchez. Is this choice of OuLiPo translators voluntary? Did you impose a constraint on yourself when writing An Ideal Presence? When you are an Oulipian, is the OuLiPo present in all your texts?

I know Pablo and Daniel very well. I admire their work, I have full confidence in them, and we have a great bond. How could I not be happy to have them as translators?  Otherwise, concerning the oulipism: no member of the OuLiPo is obliged to only make books with constraints. There is no such thing as a, let’s say, constraint of permanent constraint within the OuLiPo. Moreover, there are several ways of approaching the constraint and several ways of making an Oulipian book: one can lean, for example, either towards linguistic constraints (such as Perec's A Void, a novel written without the letter "e"), or towards rather formal constraints. In any case, and at the risk of disappointing you, there are no typical Oulipian constraints behind An Ideal Presence. That said, I think there is a rather Oulipian aspect in the fact that I was formally inspired by a book by American writer William March: Company K, published in 1933. In this book, which I think is very well done, March has all the members of a military unit talking. His former comrades from the Great War, even those who died in combat. I took the general form of March's book to depict a completely opposite universe from the one of the Great War a century earlier: a fundamentally female unit, which seems the opposite of a killing machine like the army... I thought I saw a "potentiality" (a very Oulipian concept, of course) in Compagnie K: that of a possible "fixed form.”  I was rereading March's book at the beginning of my residency in Rouen. I was still struggling to find the form for my book when, suddenly, the idea of drawing inspiration from March's structure became obvious... As soon as I understood this, An Ideal Presence was clearly set in motion.

Interview by Aloïse Denis

An Ideal Presence is the first book published by Fern Books, which describes itself as a small press unhurriedly dedicated to forms of writing, and ideas about publishing, that are thoughtful and generous and expansive. They’re interested in literary risk-taking, adventures in form and content and authorship, and the connections and relationships fostered between books and their readers. They aim to think out loud, as it were, about whose imaginations literary text can stir, what makes text literary in the first place, and what shapes besides bound printed matter it might take.

Based in Paris and Oakland, Fern Books will publish—among other things—many more translations of work by French authors (or, like Eduardo Berti, non-French authors writing in French). Next up is Violaine Schwartz’s Papers, translated by Christine Gutman, an empathetic portrayal of the modern refugee experience as reflected through interviews with asylum seekers, administrative documents, and other bureaucratic documentation arranged into a harrowing and enlightening poetic edifice.