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A portrait of Pablo De Santis and interview with the author PDF Print
Written by Doris Wieser   
Thursday, 04 June 2009

A portrait of Pablo De Santis and interview with the author

Translated by Anne Harrap

paolo de Santis
Doris Wieser
Pablo de Santis (1963, Buenos Aires), studied literature at University and started writing for comic strips very young.  At 20 the magazine Fierro awarded him its prize for best script writer. But he soon abandoned the genre, deciding to write stories for children and young people, and also novels for adults (particularly detective stories). For many years he earned his living as a journalist and editor; these days he concentrates exclusively on literature.  The author lives with his family in a central barrio (neighbourhood) of Buenos Aires (Caballito). He has so far published seven detective novels among his twenty or so books. For his novel The Paris Enigma he won the 2007 Premio Planeta-Casamérica de Narrativa Iberoamericana award for Latin American literature. This article introduces the author and includes extracts from an interview with him given this year.

Literary genres in Argentina

Pablo De Santis’ work reflects the the vast amount of writing in different literary genres that exists in Argentina.  The most celebrated icons of the Argentinian literary world, Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Julio Cortázar, would incorporate different popular genres into their work, raising them to the status of national literature. And fantasy, crime fiction, science fiction and comic strips have continued to have more prestige in Argentina than elsewhere. Pablo De Santis too feels himself deeply rooted in this tradition.

De Santis: “I think my books very much reflect the strong presence of popular genres in Argentinian writing. Because these different forms – crime, fantasy, science fiction – have been central to our literature. Whereas in other literatures they are somewhat marginal. Our greatest authors wrote in some of these genres.” (1)

Detective and Mystery Novels

When Pablo De Santis talks about crime fiction he is thinking principally of stories of mystery and detection which for him represent the more interesting side of the genre, Borges and Bioy Casares also considered the detective novel  superior to the more sensationalist thriller full of sex and violence. For them the whole art of the detective novel was in its careful and rigorous construction; works of high culture could do well to learn something from the genre. Certain elements of the novel of mystery and detection re-emerge in the work of Pablo De Santis in a new and different form.  The author draws on the tradition, never straying into plagiarism but reanimating certain characteristics of it.

De Santis: “One for me now forgotten element of the detective novel which was there at the beginning with Poe and Conan Doyle is the dialogue between the person who has method and the one who does not. For me this element was a more essential factor than the crime itself.”

ImageThe relationship between the romantic hero (whose attempts to uncover the truth proceed through dialogue) and his assistant, is one of the elements into which De Santis has breathed new life (particularly in The Paris Enigma). The way too in which he presents the case harks back to an older style: The narrator is not the hero, he of the sharp wits and the proven method, but the other, not so blessed, who finds himself embroiled in the case (e.g. in Philosophy and Letters and also in The Paris Enigma). This evidences the author’s distrust of the purely intellectual character.

De Santis: “Yes, I think  intelligence can be a type of limitation. I’ve known very intelligent people without the humanity to see how things really are, how people work. Lichtenberg has a saying, a model for an epitaph:  “Epitaph, he was a man so intelligent as to be of no use at all.” I think there is some truth in this. An exaggerated intelligence, if not accompanied by a feeling for humanity, will eventually become stupidity.”

His preference for the novel of detection goes together with a fascination for the secret, the mysterious, the hermetic, which for the author plays an important role in any kind of narrative, not just in crime fiction,

De Santis: “Hermeticism I think has strong links with literature. Firstly the idea of the secret is always present in literature. Telling a story is liking telling a secret.  There is always an element – not only in crime writing but in any type of fiction – which is the dénouement or revelation at the end. A story always contains the idea of something secret, that is why the tale is being told. And this is very much present in hermeticism, the notion that knowledge is always something hidden. Possessed by the initiated. Any book or story is a kind of initiation rite. The initiate is the person who reads the book and at the end discovers the secret. Secondly, the hermetic and esoteric traditions obsessively relate the microcosm to  the macrocosm, which is what literature always does; relates the small scale, the individual circumstance to universal laws.”

ImageMythological places

Pablo De Santis likes setting his novels in historical periods governed by concepts different from those pertaining to the present day: the XVIIIth Century (Voltaire’s Caligrapher), the XIXth (The Paris Enigma) or the beginning of the XXth (The Sixth Lamp). Seen from a present-day perspective, his literary motifs and commonplaces – frequent in texts from the afore-mentioned centuries – figure in such density that they seem to the reader strange and contorted. In addition, his novels are often set in distant places, in Toulouse and Paris in Voltaire’s Caligrapher, New York and Paris in The Sixth Lamp and in again in Paris in The Paris Enigma. The Translation and Philosophy and Letters, on the other hand, take place in Argentina, although the setting involves many elements of fantasy.

De Santis: “(Paris and New York) are like mythological places. For example I wrote some detective stories set in ancient China.  Ancient China or Paris, for me it is the same. They are places where the imagination can take root. If I locate the action in Sydney, in Australia, it has to be the real Sydney, not a fantasy place. In Paris, on the other hand, the imaginary faculty operates quite naturally. Buenos Aires too functions quite well as a symbolic city. Probably not for a European reader, but for the reader from Argentina, setting the plot in the Buenos Aires of the past is an easy concept, no? Whereas, if you locate your story in another part of Argentina, you don’t get that same effect.”

The symbolic in literature

In his literature Pablo De Santis maintains a stance similar to that of Borges although in Argentinian crime writing social criticism is a trend which is gaining ground – one thinks of current authors such as Raúl Argemi (who lives and publishes in Spain) and Sergio Olguín. De Santis refuses to compromise his position because he does not consider that literature can pronounce on problematic areas of society. For him literature functions rather on a symbolic level. Created worlds and mental games penetrate our imagination to a greater extent than the strictly mimetic.

De Santis: “We identify with crime fiction not because we have committed crimes – in my case anyway (laughter) – and solved them, but because they make us think that always, even in our own life, behind everything that happens on the surface, there is also something in the past, something buried, something hidden. For me this is what gives life to the crime genre, why we get hooked and caught up in it. That is why I am not so interested in social issues in novels because I feel that the way one relates to literature is never direct. Writing a novel set in Buenos Aires showing the poverty there will not reveal the truth about poverty in Buenos Aires. No, one always relates to literature through the symbolic.”

ImageThese days there are large teams of investigators involved in crime detection. The work is strictly allocated among experts specialising in the many different branches of criminology. These experts detect microscopic traces, carry out DNA analyses, ascertain the time of death of bodies found in lakes or rivers etc. It is these scientific advances which make up such a large element of American TV series like CSI and its spin-offs. However, for Pablo De Santis this technical side of things does not contribute much to the significance of a piece of literature.

De Santis: “And it has always been the case, that crime fiction has been dominated by the symbolic, not the scientific. There was no science involved in Poe or Sherlock Holmes. The factors surrounding the crime were symbolic or psychological ones. I think it is  very difficult in our current crime writing to create literature using science,DNA, all these things. That is why I think it is better to return to another time, to write the sort of story that does not need a pathologist, biological investigations and the like. That is the reason why generally speaking these series do not deal with just one case. C.S.I. presents us with two or three cases, it never concentrates on one.”

If Pablo De Santis’s narrative avoids his own time and place with their associated socio-political issues, what is for him the function of literature?  The author does not consider that entertainment is an inferior objective. As a writer of novels for children and young people he likens the function of literature to that of a game.

De Santis: “For me entertainment is central. Literature is a game, a serious game. If you observe children at play, they are playing but at the same time they are very serious and concentrating on their game. For me that is what literature is, when you write it and when you read it. It is constructing an imaginary world that the reader can believe in and making that reader for a short space of time trust and put his faith in the writer.”

In Philosophy and Letters he weaves a close connection between reality and fiction. They feed back into each other. For Pablo De Santis a basic characteristic of fiction is that we are all influenced by the fictions that we consume in books, in films and from the television, and that these have repercussions in our lives where they can become reality.

De Santis: “I believe that literature is influenced by reality and itself influences reality in its turn. Also it helps us to think. For me, we do not just think in concepts, we think in images, and literature is an infinite fund of images. I am starting to think how completely dominant the Oedipus myth is in the West and that is a fiction. I think we all need to continually narrate our life story to ourselves, as if we were in some way heroes of a novel. Not just literature but all fiction feeds into the way we see our own lives. I believe that in judging their own life, people are never realístic. They always have a penchant for popular literature or adventure stories, crime and romantic fiction.”

Pablo De Santis’ novels employ humour judiciously, but can be read as satire on Western history of ideas where Argentinian literature also situates itself – although on the periphery. These are works full of allusions and indirect quotations which distort rationalist, revolutionary, modern or post-modern ideologies, to the point where these seem somewhat absurd. Some of his favourite literary motifs are drawn from stock themes in Western literature: the Tower of Babel, secret even mortal languages, automata, labyrinthine edifices reminiscent of Gothic novels. In respect of his prose, he is not an author of rambling description or very detailed characterisation. His narrative is somewhat compressed, rapid, poetically elaborate and extremely versatile. The difficulty in reading Pablo De Santis resides probably in missing some of the indirect allusions the author makes en passant. But, then, good writing always demands an effort from the reader.

 1) All quotations are from Doris Wieser’s interview with Pablo De Santis on 19 February 2009 in Buenos Aires.


Novels for Adults

  • Palace of the Night. (El palacio de la noche). Buenos Aires: Ediciones de La Flor, 1987
  • Philosophy and Letters.  (Filosofía y Letras) Barcelona: Destino, 1998
  • The Translation. (La traducción) Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1998
  • (Shortlisted for the Planeta Prize 1997)
  • Theatre of Memory. (El teatro de la memoria )Barcelona: Destino, 2000
  • Voltaire’s Caligrapher. (El calígrafo de Voltaire.) Barcelona: Destino, 2001
  • The sixth lamp. (La sexta lámpara)  Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 2005
  • The Paris Enigma (El enigma de París). Barcelona: Planeta, 2007.
  • (Premio Planeta-Casa de América de Narrativa prize for best Latin American novel 2007)

Novels for the Young

  • Through the Fish Eye (Desde el ojo del pez) Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1991.
  • The Last Spy: El último espía).
  • Illustrated by Diego Bianchi. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1992.
  • [Prize for children’s and young people’s literature, the Premio Asociación de Literatura Infantil y Juvenil de la República Argentina (ALIJA) 1993].
  • Lucas Lenz and the Museum of the Universe. (Lucas Lenz y el Museo del Universo) Illustrations by de O’Kif. Buenos Aires: Alfaguara (Serie Azul), 1992.
  • The Shadow of the Dinosaur. (La sombra del dinosaurio) Illustrations by Pez. Buenos Aires: Colihue (Colección La Movida), 1992.
  • Hackers’ Nightmare (Pesadilla para hackers) Illustrations by Pez. Buenos Aires: Colihue (Colección La Movida), 1992.
  • Astronauta solo. Illustrations by Max Cachimba. Buenos Aires: Colihue (Colección La Movida), 1994.
  • Encyclopaedia in the Bonfire. (Enciclopedia en la hoguera)  Ilustrationes by Max Cachimba. Buenos Aires: Colihue (Colección La Movida), 1995.
  • Carnivorous Plants (Las plantas carnívoras) Buenos Aires: Alfaguara (Serie Roja), 1995.
  • Mixed Pages (Páginas mezcladas):  Illustrations by Max Cachimba. Buenos Aires: Colihue (Colección La Movida), 1998.
  • Lucas Lenz and the Emperor’s Hand (Lucas Lenz y la mano del emperador)
  • Illustrations by O’Kif. Bogotá: Norma (Colección Torre de Papel, Serie Torre Amarilla), 2000.
  • The Games Inventor (El inventor de juegos). Illustrations by Max Cachimba. Madrid: Alfaguara (Serie Roja), 2003.
  • The Ending Hunter (El buscador de finales): Buenos Aires: Alfaguara (Serie Roja), 2008.


Short Stories


  • Pure Storm Space (Espacio puro de tormenta): Buenos Aires: La Serpiente, 1985.
  • Signs. (Los signos)Buenos Aires: Page 12, 2004.
  • Secret king (Rey secreto) Buenos Aires: Colihue, 2005.

Comic Strips

  • Various scripts for the magazine Fierro in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • (Fierro Prize for Best Scriptwriter 1984)
  • Puzzles. Drawings by Max Cachimba, Buenos Aires: Colihue (Colección Narrativa Dibujada Enedé, Serie Freakciones), 1995.
  • The hypnotist. Buenos Aires,  Fierro Magazine, from 2007.


  • Transylvania Express, Guide to Vampires and Monsters (Transilvania Express. Guía de vampiros y de monstruos) (Anthology). Illustrations by Max Cachimba. Buenos Aires: Colihue (Colección Obsesiones), 1994.
  • Rich Guy and the Divito Girls Rico Tipo y las chicas de Divito (Essay)
  • Buenos Aires: Espasa Calpe, 1995.
  • Argentinian Inventions. Guide to things that never existed. Invenciones argentinas. Guía de cosas que nunca existieron. (Anthology). Illustrations by Augusto Costanzo. Buenos Aires: Colihue (Colección Obsesiones), 1995.
  • The Comic Strip in the Age of Reason La historieta en la edad de la razón. (Essay) Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1998.

published in German 04 April 2009 in

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