Pola Oloixarac is a bitch. I’m certainly not the first to make this observation—Oloixarac’s satirical fiction and pugnacious political journalism have earned her more than a few detractors, and plenty of them have already said as much. But I mean something different by it: I refer to the place she’s claimed in the Argentinian literary tradition, one still enshrouded in the long shadow cast by Jorge Luis Borges.
Borges, of course, was a bitch. Casual readers of Latin American literature associate him with philosophically dense narratives whose plot diagrams and digressive asides offer the literary equivalent of Escher landscapes. But Borges also wrote essays and literary criticism that many consider his finest work. And these are supremely bitchy.
Bitchiness is a critical attitude. Borges learned it from the British: he was a fervent admirer of G. K. Chesterton, whose ingenious manipulations of formal logic inspired the design of his fictions. When it came to his critical style, however, Borges’s lodestar was Henry James—a writer so notoriously bitchy that I fear belaboring my point by explaining any further what I mean.
For a bitch, critique is always a question of style. A disciplined bitch understands that style, although apprehended holistically, is something that functions with mechanical precision. And like a good mechanic, a bitch knows how to take it apart. This is why bitchy literary criticism is often the most satisfying kind. But bitchiness is not developed only in the negative. Like satire and parody, it is creatively generative, if slightly distinct: while a satirist endeavors to reveal that the emperor has no clothes, a bitch will point out when he is very badly dressed.
It was the audacious bitchiness of Oloixarac’s 2008 debut, Savage Theories (Las teorías salvajes), that made it a best seller across the Spanish-speaking world. Oloixarac not only dared to caricature the old guard of the Argentinian left and the aging cadre of pompous university professors who jealously protected its legacy; she also self-consciously adopted a Borgesian prose style to do it. A defining feature of Borges’s career was his public opposition to Peronism. Responding to the Peronist Restoration still ascendant in 2008 with a chic and stridently savvy satire dubbed over in prose that gently parodied Borges, Savage Theories was such an unthinkable heresy that the author was denounced as a right-winger sympathetic to the fallen dictatorship. The scandal was compounded by speculation that so erudite a novel could not have been written by a woman barely thirty years old—surely, some critics supposed, Oloixarac was the pseudonym of a man. But the author’s intellectual poise in the interviews that followed were sufficient to convince the public that she was the bitch who wrote it. Mocking her critics, Oloixarac took to leaving lipstick traces on autograph pages at book signings. Of the novel’s bright pink cover, she told interviewers: “I made sure they used the same color as my favorite bikini.”
Oloixarac published a second novel, Dark Constellations (Las constelaciones oscuras), in 2015 and became a prolific contrarian commentator, particularly with regard to the changing fortunes of the country’s Peronist political machine. Mona (2019), excerpted here, has been celebrated across Spain and Latin America as a coy riposte to the global projection of parochial American tastes and shallow identity politics that has, of late, begun passing itself off as “world literature.” Adapting her style to this milieu, the bitch has adopted the brittle introspection and ambivalent relationship to writing that characterizes certain works of autofiction. The titular character is, like Oloixarac, a Latin American writer of Peruvian descent whose wildly successful first novel has propelled her to the international festival circuit.
Fate arranges certain translations; other times, a character demands it. For a few years Pola and I were nearly neighbors in San Francisco. We became friends and, later, collaborators. When she realized she needed a qualified bitch to translate Mona, she insisted it had to be me.
Read “Difficult Characters,” excerpted from Mona, here
Art credit: Josh Dorman, The Abomination, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York. © Josh Dorman