Writers & Company

Master storyteller Rodrigo Rey Rosa on Guatemala, Morocco and his mentor, Paul Bowles

The Guatemalan novelist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about what the late American expatriate composer and author taught him about writing.
Rodrigo Rey Rosa is a Guatemalan writer. (Amazon Crossing)
Listen to the full episode51:33

Rodrigo Rey Rosa is one of the most celebrated contemporary Latin American writers. Described by Roberto Bolano as "the consummate master," he is known for vivid, haunting fiction that combines the surreal world of dreams with the real world of violence.

From his imaginative short stories to his powerful, evocative novellas, Rey Rosa draws on his experience growing up during turbulent times in Guatemala and his formative years spent in Tangier, Morocco. It was there, as a young man, that he came under the creative influence of his lifelong friend, the American writer and composer Paul Bowles. With Bowles' encouragement, he found the unique voice and vision that characterize his work. 

Rey Rosa's latest book, Chaos: A Fable, begins in Tangier, post 9/11. It's a provocative morality tale, probing questions of faith and anarchy.

Rodrigo Rey Rosa currently lives in his hometown of Guatemala City, which is where he spoke to Eleanor Wachtel.

An atmosphere of violence

"I don't want to say idyllic, but I had very easy and happy childhood in Guatemala. But we were exposed to violence, urban violence. From my school bus I saw at least two people shot down and it was in the news. We were not exposed, unfortunately in a way, to the violence in the countryside that started in the late '70s but was kept out of the press. That violence was much more virulent, but less evident. Nevertheless I think it caused an atmosphere of really dark and sinister connotations."

Life in Tangier 

"My first impression of being in Tangier as a young man was not of the city but of the countryside. Outside the city, there are rolling hills, olive trees and golden wheat fields. The city is more labyrinthine, chaotic and a bit nightmarish. Generally cities, for me, are not the ideal place to be. Tangier at that time was a bit aggressive. Once you got off a bus you would be surrounded by hawkers or guides that wanted to monopolize you. So that was not the pleasant part. 

"But outside of the city lies the Mediterranean coast, which can be beautiful. That hasn't changed so much. What has changed is that the city has grown immensely. Part of that countryside is now under cement. But what's left is as beautiful as ever."

My first impression of being in Tangier as a young man was not of the city but of the countryside. Outside the city there are rolling hills, olive trees and golden wheat fields. The city is more labyrinthine, chaotic and a bit nightmarish.- Rodrigo Rey Rosa

The Man, The Myth, The Legend 

"I am grateful for destiny that I hadn't heard about how famous Paul Bowles was when I first met him. I only knew he was a great writer. I had read Gore Vidal's introduction in Paul Bowles' Collected Stories which was very impressive. I know Vidal wasn't an easy critic but he had admiring things to say about Bowles.

"Immediately after I arrived in Morocco, I started hearing that people were afraid of Bowles. He had an impressive personality and they thought of him as a kind of sorcerer. Sinister rumours began following him. I turned a deaf ear because after meeting him it all seemed like so much mythomania. My impression of the man was contrary to these sinister and perverse rumours from people that had never met him. I'm glad I hadn't read any of the gossip."

Best practices

'The writing workshop by Bowles lasted six weeks. After the third week I thought I was really in the wrong place. I was having a great time in Morocco but I thought I was, in a way, wasting my time. But I was following something that Bowles actually said outright, that you cannot teach writing or learn writing from another person, you learn from books and from your own work.

"I agreed with him. But he was so transparent about it that I wasn't reacting against his method of teaching, but about his idea of writing. He explained very clearly in the first session that he was doing this only because he needed money and someone told him that people were interested in what he had to say about their work. He was adamant that teaching writing was an absurd concept. He was very careful not to act as a teacher or guru."

Back to Tangier

"I was in Europe and I decided it was time to revisit. The city had changed and had grown immensely. Many buildings had been torn down and uglier, bigger buildings were in their stead. But it was still very much the same. The atmosphere, the crazy energy and the surroundings were the same.

"But people were obsessed with talk about al-Qaeda and the Arab Spring. There was more tension in that sense. In the years when I was there previously, the Moroccans had never talked about politics. This time around it was in the foreground. It was very radicalized."

Chaos: A Fable

"This book came out of that visit to Tangier after a long time away. I call this story a fable because you have to read it with a pinch of salt. A fable is always something you're not asked to believe literally, as you would read a contemporary story. I insisted that the word fable, or something that referred to fables, was in the title because I think it needed that. The book's ending is a bit crazy and so the title announces that the story is a bit fabulous." 

I insisted that the word fable, or something that referred to fables, was in the title because I think it needed that. The book's ending is a bit crazy and so the title announces that the story is a bit fabulous.-  Rodrigo Rey Rosa

Rodrigo Rey Rosa's comments have been edited for length and clarity.