A MODEST IMPERIALIST: William T. Vollmann
I became an ardent fan of William T. Vollmann’s work after reading Europe Central (2005). It is an extraordinary accomplishment, a remarkable feat of re-imagining one of the most complex, and harrowing, events of the 20th century, the conflict between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Vollmann tells his many stories with dark humor, intelligence, and a great, measured respect for suffering and courage. This past fall, I read Imperial, Vollmann’s 1200-page nonfiction exploration of Imperial County, California, along the Mexico divide. Taking up all sorts of subjects on both sides of the border, Imperial is a great, consuming read. It is a crying shame that a work this deep, this smart and this unusual has not received anything like the attention it deserves.
After Vollmann agreed to the interview, I decided to first tour Imperial County. With a friend, I flew to Los Angeles, rented a car, and drove out to the Salton Sea, Brawley, El Centro, Mexicali, Mecca, and Niland—seeing as much as I could of this barren region in four and a half days. I then flew up to Sacramento to interview Vollmann at his studio, a former restaurant near downtown Sacramento. The place is a bit of a dream. A long single-story building topped with razor wire, from the outside it is as unprepossessing as a liquor warehouse in Yonkers. Yet inside it is both beautiful and almost futuristic—long clean work spaces for his labor-intensive photographic work, ample shelving for his many books, a small kitchen. On the walls, large photographs of prostitutes from all over the world dominate (a staple subject in Vollmann’s oeuvre), but there are other images as well. There are paintings and engravings, colorful and almost magic-realist, on the doors and elsewhere. It is a lively, structured and altogether inviting place.
Vollmann was exceptionally gracious as both host and interview subject, quite generous with his whiskey and his time. If there is one paramount impression I came away with, it is this: when you read Vollmann, particularly a work like Europe Central or Imperial (although this is true in some ways of The Royal Family, too) you gain a very strong impression of a writer in great command of his subject. The voice is authoritative, magisterial—in the world he has constructed, you feel on page after page that nothing important has been left out. But in person, Vollmann constantly stressed the provisional nature of his accomplishment, the ways in which he failed—by his lights—to get anything like what he wanted in the final product. His genuine modesty, an abiding sense that all was not accomplished, was quite striking. This was especially so to someone who had recently read Imperial, and had a very fresh impression of what a remarkable work it is.
Steven Ross (Rail): So let’s begin with the obvious question: how did you come to get interested in Imperial County, and come to write this book?
William Vollmann: Okay. Well, my friend Larry was a professor at San Diego state and he edited a lot of anthologies of interviews with various writers. He became interested in my books, did some interviews with me, and we became friends. At some point he and his wife moved from San Diego to Borrego Springs, and for years and years they tried to get me down there. I wasn’t particularly interested, and then for some reason, I thought, well, I like Larry, you know, I’ll go spend time with him, and he is quite the tour guide. So he was driving me all over. As you know, at first, I was kind of underwhelmed, but then I said, let’s go to Mexico, and so we went into Mexicali, and right away—I guess its not that hard, or maybe I have kind of an instinct for it, so we found the red light district, and people said to us, you can NOT stay over night here, it is very dangerous, so we checked into a good hotel, for about six dollars a night, without a door and it all worked out.
At first I was fascinated just with Mexicali. And then, I started thinking about the border itself and the whole idea of delineation—I mean, what could be more like a flat blank page than the Imperial Valley, and then suddenly, as a result of a war, they draw this line across it, and, as a result of this purely mental activity, the two halves of it begin to diverge.
Rail: So was it largely the border, and this issue of delineation and the divergence of the two halves that began to get you so interested in Imperial?
Vollmann: Pretty much. And then I started meeting some acquaintances, I would not really say “friends,” because on the American side, they are much more guarded, whereas on the Mexican side it is much easier to make true friends. Some of these large scale farmers would tell me how difficult it was to make a living, and how you need several hundred acres, and then, on the Mexican side, they would be getting by with these tiny little ejidos and, to be sure, the self-sufficient farm was starting to go away there too, but people would still say “sure, eighty hectares, whatever, is perfect for me, I don’t need anymore,” and this then raised for me the whole Emersonian issue of what is America. Is it a place where we are all free, individual homesteaders, free-holders? We all would like to think so, the law pretends so, in spite of, of course, the increasing police state that we live in, but you know, this myth of the self-sufficient family farm—isn’t that the real America, we think—and it is, of course, almost entirely a myth now in America—but not in Mexico. All these interesting little ironies!
Rail: Do you think any of this survives there, now, in Imperial, anything of this idea of the independent farmer, or is this now all just something of the past?
Vollmann: Yeah, I think that Imperial County still exemplifies very conservative world values. You know, it is an overwhelming Republican place.
Rail: Oh, I cannot imagine a single vote for Obama down there.
Vollmann: No! But at least they pay lip service to the old style conservativism. You know, I got interrogated a couple of times at the border by some border patrol idiots, and once they called the FBI, and this woman they reached there was from El Centro [a town in Imperial]—and I was being, well not exactly obstreperous, but certainly a smart aleck, because I don’t really like authority that much, and I could tell that she was sympathetic to me, you know, kind of saying I don’t really understand what right you guys have to keep him there.
Rail: Something of the old fashioned respect for individualism?
Vollmann: Or the idea that everyone has the right to go to hell in his own way. And you go to a public meeting, like one of these Imperial irrigation district meetings, and no matter what they are, they start with a pledge of allegiance, and everyone stands and puts his hand on his heart, and means it and you know, that’s not something I have really done since I was in elementary school. And yet, you know, I found it rather touching. Who wouldn’t want to believe in the idea of America as Walt Whitman, or Thomas Wolfe, might have imagined it?
Rail: You say often that you began this as a novel. What made you change to the kind of reportage that you settled on?
Vollmann: Well Steve, I realized that I didn’t know enough to write a novel. I think it is much more difficult to write a novel about an unfamiliar socio- political group than it is to write non-fiction about it. With non-fiction, you can start from ground zero and educate yourself, and try to educate the reader. I once wrote a trilogy of novels about prostitutes, and I would say it wasn’t really until at least the second one that I felt comfortable making up character; that I really understood what I was doing. Otherwise, you end up with something that is sort of reductive or sentimental, or something that just betrays your own ideology.
Rail: But I guess that was not a worry for you in something like Europe Central, where the story is driven by historical figures?
Vollmann: Well, that was something that I had been thinking about for many, many years, so I felt I had already done the homework. I had spent a bit of time in Europe, my parents moved over there when I was fairly young, I can read and write a couple of the languages, so I have some access to it, whereas I had no real access to border culture; I just didn’t know much about it.
Rail: So you did not stick with the idea of Imperial being a novel for very long?
Vollmann: That’s right. Now if I wanted to, I could write a novel set there, and I am as a matter of fact going back there and working on some short stories, some shorter fictions, but I think it would have been foolish to try to do that earlier.
Rail: Did any of your views about any aspect of Imperial, the people, the agriculture, change significantly in the course of doing this book?
Vollmann: Well, for one thing, Steve, I had really no significant knowledge of water.
Rail: Well that certainly did change! [Imperial is filled with many technical tables showing water use there in great detail over the past century.]
Vollmann: And if you want to use a Marxist phrase, water is the substructure which powers the whole historical and cultural superstructure. If you don’t understand the water, you’re not going to understand why this is here, why that is there, what people are trying to do, why people come here, all this kind of stuff, so—I guess, also, I became increasingly sympathetic to the people in Imperial County as well to the people of Mexico. My first reaction was to think, you know, this place should never have been here at all—And then I began to be very impressed with the people who had, you know, stuck it out, who had made it their home. I am very fond, for instance of Stella Mendoza, the then President of the Imperial Irrigation District, and a lot of these farm workers I talked to, well, they love it there.
Rail: Well, I remember some of the farmers you speak to in your book, how they speak of the stars at night, what it was like for them when they first came to this desert, how amazed they were with it all. I was reading these descriptions in the suburbs of New York, and quite enchanted with the idea of a sky like that, I have to say!
Vollmann: Yes! But the irrigation has really reduced the air quality, you don’t see the stars like that too much anymore. There is a lot of haze in the air, the diesel smoke, and the constant turning of the topsoil, making dust—Imperial is now one of the leaders for asthma. And then there are all these geothermal projects that Mexico and the U.S. are hoping to get rich on down there. And they really, really dim down the air—and so, I have never seen any of the castle-like mirages, or the “cities in the air” that the older people talked about—that would have been fun to see.
Rail: And what about some of those passages where the contrast between America and Mexico is taken up. There is one, I don’t remember exactly what it is you are eating, but you are eating something in Mexico and you talk about it as being both “filthier and sweeter” than its American counterpart, and how this is a kind of metaphor for the difference between the two cultures.
Vollmann: Yes. I think it’s true. Mexico really is more alive, and it is also more alive with death.
Rail: Now, what about the technique, the writing itself. You draw upon so many different approaches and sources—you have these tables, and you have this historical reportage, interviews with individuals, your own personal impressions when you travel—it is an amazing variety of techniques on display. Was this a way of doing justice to the complexity to the subject?
Vollmann: Yes. I think one of the most wonderful things about being human is our ability to create metaphors, and any signified can be hooked up to any number of signifiers, and instantly, however unlike the things are, we will see some sort of connection. We could probably have a computer generate some of these metaphors, and we could just work on them a little bit, and they would be just as effective. You know, whatever pops into your head—“a baby is like an apple”—or whatever, and one of the ways to look at Imperial, this amazing blank canvas in which history and economics and exploitation—where so many things have been inscribed—is to inscribe our own tropes upon it. And so why not look at it as a set of Rothko paintings, or, why not remember personal aspects, such as a sad love story about the place, or whatever—it’s all valid. And by doing this you start getting some sense of how infinitely valuable any aspect of reality is, and we have nobody to blame but ourselves if we can’t come out of our own limits, and see that everything is infinite and that’s especially how I feel when I am down there at night, and suddenly the miserable heat goes away, and the sky—sometimes you can see stars, sometimes you can smell water, and everything just kind of presses upon me like it is some of those night scenes in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, where the sky is alive and we are a part of it—that is how it seems to me down there.
Rail: Did you have any second thoughts when writing this book about the enormous amount of recreation of the past—the produce tables, the water changes, the changes in the soil and so forth. I think it is a very challenging read for all but the most devoted of readers.
Vollmann: Yes it is. Well, you know, it is a slog. But then so is a calculus textbook. That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t learn calculus. I have never been really that concerned about whether my books are too difficult, or too long, or whatever. It’s not that I set out to obstruct the readers—it is what it is—and to think about the very valuable question of what is the American myth of self-reliance, what should it be, well this does require you to think about farm size, for example.
Rail: Yes, this is so. And I don’t know if this was the intention, but through the constant repetition, the enormity of the issue does come through too. One is really struck that this little part of America, this part that almost none of us have ever thought about, has just so much effort, and labor, and manipulations of the land in it—it was really quite a revelation for me.
Vollmann: It was really very exciting for me. And of course, the more research I did, the more I wanted to do, and ultimately, of course, like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book is a failure, because it wants to encompass even more, and it can’t. Like you say, it asks so much of the reader, and it asks so much of me, and I feel terrible that I didn’t have at least five hundred pages on the various Indian tribes.
Rail: I knew that was coming. I have to confess I was a little sorry there wasn’t a bit more about the Indians too. What little there was in Imperial was fantastic.
Vollmann: Yeah. I had a whole bunch of stuff I cut out, you know?
Rail: Well, yes—but in so far as there is both this account of the past, and this exploration of the traces of the past in the present, the book, I think, is really very much a success.
Vollmann: Well, thank you, Steve.
Rail: I am sure you know it is now sold in the American History section of Barnes and Nobles.
Vollmann: Oh, is that where it is? No, I did not know that. That’s a good place for it. I could also imagine it in Chicano studies, or cartography, or pornography.
Rail: Okay, let’s get to back to this point when you say it’s a failure, I understand what you mean when you talk about not being able to include what you wish could have been included, but so far as we have an account of what brought us to this point, and a very attentive and personal interaction with the consequences, it’s a very unusual and I would say successful way to do history.
Vollmann: I was very excited when I was working on it, and sometimes, very, very happy, when I was thinking about the landscapes—and sometimes extremely sad, when I was dealing with some of the stuff about the illegal aliens dying, the misery of some of these migrant workers. It was very important to me to have at least some of the death certificates included, so I am glad that some of them were there—And it’s great for people to see that some of these people don’t even have names, and that not all of them were Mexican either—you know that sad little chapter about Imperial Hazel Deed—do you remember her?
Rail: I do.
Vollmann: When I read about her I was so hopeful that she was going to have had this great life—that she maybe might even be still alive, or she would have died recently as this happy pioneer grandmother, and everyone would say, “oh yeah, she had a really interesting life,” and instead she dies in Fresno at nine years old, and the family had just been beaten down by Imperial, just must have been—had to go somewhere else—and we could never even find an obituary for her. And that’s probably a common scenario for laboring families.
Rail: Yes. But you didn’t feel that many of these lives in the factories in Mexicali were unequivocally sad.
Vollmann: No. I was pleasantly surprised. I expected the worst.
Rail: I am sure a lot of readers would too. By the way, the stuff with the camera was very comic.
Vollmann: Oh I had a lot of fun with that! Talk about failures huh? [Laughter.] Like that guy in the Mexicali valley I interviewed whose job was working with a paint sprayer, with this black paint, and he had this black cough, and was paying, what was it, fifteen or twenty bucks a month for his mortgage, and he was as happy as can be, and I am wondering if this guy is going to be dead in six months, but he’s happy, and who am I to say this is “false consciousness”?
Rail: Well, the interviews, particularly with the women in those factories, really brought that out. And again, this is I think a very hidden world to most Americans.
Vollmann: Yes. To return to the whole thing about failures: that one chapter cost me something like $20,000, and as you can see, I learned hardly anything, I learned a very, very little bit—And I had great trouble with the Viking lawyer who wanted me to change the names of the companies, I had to say no, and send private detectives back there, and all this cost me an additional $11,000 last year… I think he was quite dismayed that I managed to beat him down on that one, but so it goes!
Rail: Well, I will say this: it might have cost $20,000, but certainly one of the better, almost sight gags, is when you run into those Mexicans who are doing clean up in this abandoned toxic factory, and you wanted to take their picture, and they say sure, Okay, but we have to put on our protective clothing first or the boss will be upset. Something very deep about the Mexican character came out in that story—the friendliness, the desire to accommodate, but not get in trouble with the boss, and in the background, this ease with taking these insane risks.
Vollmann: Did you see the picture in the photo book?
Vollmann: They looked very official. [Laughter.]
Rail: Yes, indeed; if you didn’t read the book and didn’t know that they just put this protective clothing on for the picture! You were certainly very lucky to stumble upon that. And I am sure everyone asks you about those tunnels. Was that a real surprise, the extent and elaborateness of what was down there?
Vollmann: Oh, I was shocked—I thought they couldn’t possibly exist. Especially since I had heard all these stories from Mexicans about these Chinese vampires who sucked the blood of the Christians—I thought, huh, this sounds like the blood libel of Passover and all this kind of stuff, and then I find out that there were Mexicans who lived underground and wandered a bit in that maze, it was really kind of thrilling.
Rail: In terms of what you might call a purely visual adventure, these are some of the most exciting parts of the book.
Vollmann: Well, the funny thing is, I have quite a few photographs that I made of these tunnels and I didn’t put any of them in the photo book, because, they don’t look like anything—you take a picture inside, you see, you know, like a square dark passage with a bunch of dirt and some broken chairs and then that’s as far as your flash can go. So I have some pictures of some people looking down into the tunnels, and they have some documentary interest, but I didn’t use them otherwise.
Rail: Interesting. And it’s so interesting that there would have been so little initial acknowledgment, given how extensive they are. This too was quite a shock.
Vollmann: Yeah, that’s right. The people in Imperial County have never heard of them, and that is a shock—that even Stella Mendoza, with her Mexican roots, had never heard anything about them, and the people in Mexicali mostly think that they’re a legend—
Rail: That was clear.
Vollmann: Yeah. It makes me wonder more about legends in general.
Rail: With good reason! After all, behind this legend was a real fact.
Vollmann: That’s right. Like the sad story about the Chinese who were misled into the desert by the Mexicans so they all died of thirst, back in the 1920s or whenever it was and, if you were driving down on Route 2, or 1, whatever highway goes south of Mexicali, you come to a place called “El Chinero,” where they supposedly died, and the Mexicans there, you know, they love ghost stories, so of course, there now is that legend.
So who was this friend you were traveling with? Did he have a good time?
Rail: Oh, I was lucky enough to get a friend of mine from New York to come with me so I did not have to do this trip alone. He had not read Imperial so he was pretty much just following my lead, but sure—when you are from the East, chances are, you have been up and down the coast of California, maybe Yosemite, maybe the Oregon border. This is a part of California that is just invisible to you. And, if you are from the East, chances are, big agriculture is also pretty invisible to you too.
Vollmann: That’s very true.
Rail: Also, I live in Putnam County, which is about 50-60 miles north of New York, and up there, well, water is just not an issue! Between the snow and the rain, it is something you worry about keeping out. And to be in this part of the world where the water is just everything, well, that was fascinating.
Vollmann: Yes, I think this is going to be the century where water makes or breaks us, in so many ways. With global warming there is going to be flooding, and more and more small water companies are being bought up, and these horrible big companies who are making bottled water are draining the aquifers, and everyone is just thinking about the short term. And meanwhile, I couldn’t believe it when I was doing the research for Imperial—people knew by about 1910 that the aquifers were dropping, and here it is, one hundred years later, and of course, they’re still dropping!
Rail: And yet, you also cannot get over the booster-ism, the constant re-assurance that everything will only get better, that everyone will always get a better price—this is a constant theme in Imperial.
Rail: And you don’t think it is only naiveté do you? I mean, you do think there are ways in which the land is improved and so forth?
Vollmann: Yes. It says something about capitalism—at its best, and at its worst. One of the things that really struck me was that: of course, this land in Southern California has indeed become more and more valuable, over time, but in the process of subdividing this land, and getting more and more profit out of it, it has really become uglier and uglier. When you think about how beautiful those orange groves must have been in Riverside—it must have been so great, when that whole area was like the way this palmologist described it in 1905, the way these oranges would glow like chandeliers, all through the area.
Rail: Even now, driving through and out of Mecca towards Joshua Tree, when the sun is going down, the way those orange groves caught the light, and the birds are flying—its gorgeous.
Vollmann: It is so beautiful—it really is. But you know, I have a friend I went to Cornell with who grew up in Minnesota, and he grew up on a family farm, and he hates family farms, it’s interesting talking to him—he says, of course, let them disappear, no one wants to do it!
Rail: You know what Galbraith said about growing up on a family farm? After that, nothing else ever seemed like work.
Vollmann: That’s probably true! Did you read any of John Muir’s autobiographical writings? It sounded just hideous. I forget where it was, maybe Minnesota, or Wisconsin or somewhere—everybody was just working practically to death. But did you get to go to any of the ejidos? [These are small farms in Mexico that are part of farming collectives; the arrangement dates to before the conquest.]
Vollmann: Well, I wouldn’t have believed it if I had myself not seen it, but invariably, the people in the ejidos talked about how life was really not too bad, how they loved the tranquility—there is a lot of contentment in these places.
Rail: What do they grow?
Vollmann: Whatever they want! They’re not particularly concerned about profit, they just want to be able to make it through the year, have as much leisure as possible, and do the same next year.
Rail: And what is the water situation for them?
Vollmann: It is gradually getting worse. First of all, the Imperial Main Canal used to be on the Mexican side, and then the All-American Canal of course put it on our side and then, now, we are more than half finished lining the All-American Canal. San Diego paid for the lining in exchange for getting all the water that is going to be saved for a certain period. And that means that the Mexican communities, and some of the wetlands too, south of the border, that survived as a result of the seepage, they’re all dying.
Rail: I did not know there were wetlands south of the border.
Vollmann: Yes, there are. The Colorado used to be so huge, you could take a steamer all the way up to Yuma.
Rail: That seems unbelievable.
Vollmann: I know. Now, of course, you could throw a ball across it. Then they had these enormous tidal shifts, the Colorado would shift all the time, and there were all these wetlands as a result—they had jaguars there, all sorts of things there then.
[Vollmann goes to the darkroom to do something with his photography; I look at this book he has given me on Imperial.]
Vollmann [Returning.]: Here, this is a really fantastic book.
Rail: Yes—[after looking for about five minutes.] This must have been of great use to you.
Vollmann: Oh it’s terrific. I used it a lot when I was writing Imperial. There are a lot of references to it in there.
Rail: Well, this language, my god, I am reading this section that I can’t get over—“if he fails then he will be forgotten, but if he enhances the land, then let his name be inscribed forever in the annals of history.”
Vollmann: Yes he was one of the best boosters! Everything is just glowing! This talk of inscribing your name in history. And here, look at their vision of Niland, how they thought it was going to be [we look at a black and white drawing of a many-towered, magical city, with several long wharfs extending outward onto an abundant river.]
Rail: Talk about if they could see it now! This is like Bar Harbor Maine, the way they imagined it! Now, “Niland” [which was named so because they thought they would be a queen city on the new Nile] contains a kind of pun the other way, like “nil” or “nothing.”
Vollmann: That is for sure! You wonder. There were so many ways in which they went wrong. And one of them was that they could not foresee how productivity, agricultural and otherwise, would just continue to increase. And so, if all the people they imagined had continued to come to the Imperial Valley, they just would have become poorer and poorer. You know, you need maybe one percent of the people they imagined would come to Imperial to supply all the agriculture they dreamed of. And then, also, they didn’t face up to the whole issue of salinization. In Niland for instance, in the 1930s it was all full of grapefruit, and its all dead now, because of the salt.
Rail: One of the deepest themes throughout this book is the way the improvement of the land was also its ruination.
Vollmann: Yes, that’s right. And that seems like a cautionary tale as we try to do anything, whether it’s fix global warming or solve the Muslim problem for all time, or anything.
Rail: But in light of all this, the water problems, the salinization problems, is it your view that in the long run, Imperial just cannot survive as an agricultural economy, that say fifty years from now, we will just import this food?
Vollmann: I think it could survive, but only if the power of the cities is weakened. Because the people in LA could not care less about the people of Imperial County.
Rail: Oh, indeed. They do not know about the people of Imperial County. I was surprised when I rented the car at LAX and the rental agent asked me where I was going, and I said “Imperial County” he was completely blank, had no idea. I am sure he was Mexican-American too.
Vollmann: That sounds right. When six or seven years ago, Placido Domingo performed in the Laguna Saluda, in the desert, near Mexicali—and you know, Mexicali is maybe an hour and a half from San Diego, tops—in the San Diego papers they had to give maps to show where Mexicali was.
Rail: Well, yes. Though that is also a very distinctive feature of America. I am always struck by this. I had never been to Mexicali, but I have been to Mexico several times, and I am so struck that Americans might go to one after another Caribbean island and never go to Mexico. It is incredible, when you have this culture and this country as interesting as any in Europe, and Americans will just fail to visit it.
Vollmann: That’s true, Steve. When I was in my early twenties I hitchhiked from San Francisco to Fairbanks and back, and I had no idea how big Canada was.
Rail: Well I am probably guilty of a little of that, too! But I mean, even Americans who will get on that plane and go somewhere, they often just don’t go to Mexico, and, when you have gone and seen what is there, this treasure on the border, it is just amazing that it is so rarely visited.
Vollmann: So true.
Rail: Can I now ask a little bit about Europe Central? You know, in a way, this is a kind of mirror image question from the one I asked about Imperial. That was such an unexpected subject, and part of what makes the book so striking is that you would find something here so interesting to write about, whereas in Europe Central, here you have this subject that has been written about, taken up, over and over, by many, and yet, you thought you had, and did have, this very distinctive angle on it, and in particular, the use of artists in that narrative as a way of telling that story.
Vollmann: Well, of course that speaks to me, as an artist. You know as Flaubert said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”
Rail: And so for you, was it “Shostakovich, c’est moi?”
Vollmann: Yes! And all of them, even Stalin and Hitler, I have to put myself into them, and try to imagine, you know, if I had been those people, what I would have thought, what I would have done—and I think that’s what creates the artistic unity in a novel, when the author does that—it’s when you fear to do it, or are too proud to do it, and say no, I have nothing in common with Hitler say, he wasn’t even a human being, so I am not going to let myself enter his consciousness. That’s fine if you are a judge, but not as a writer—
Rail: I have to tell you, I think, for Americans generally, the Nazi world is a much closer one.
Vollmann: Than the Soviet world.
Rail: And your feel for that Soviet world was quite remarkable. The language of that NKVD agent throughout that book was chilling, amazing. I have to give you a bit of a compliment here—it is this. My wife is an Estonian and grew up under the Soviet Union, and I would read these passages, these various remarks by the NKVD agent, and I would just die laughing, they were so sharp and so cruel, but when I would read them to her, there would be no laughter at all, which was an indication of how well you got it. It was just not very funny for someone who grew up in the Soviet Union!
Vollmann: No, I bet not! A real compliment! Well, I had fun imagining it all.
Rail: I am sure! But again, it is unusual for Americans to be gripped by or to immerse themselves in that distinctive world. And I just have to ask how you got a feel for that crazy Caligula-like atmosphere of people constantly anxious about being purged.
Vollmann: Well, you know, we Americans have always lived in a somewhat narcissist culture, and it’s in the interests of the ruling class to keep us that way. This cruddy corporate culture, they don’t want you thinking about any place outside of the United States, because if you do, you might learn something. You might find out that something is better over there, or you might find out that something is worse over there and why it is worse—you’re much better off thinking about celebrities and what’s your favorite snack. And so I would rather just write about other places. And you know, I’m German-American in part; I imagine that my distant, or not so distant relatives, who knows, must have committed atrocities.
Rail: At the same time, you really show a terrific feel for the way that some of these people, like General Paulus [of the German Sixth Army] had these real virtues, and a certain kind of willingness to act with integrity in these ridiculous situations.
Vollmann: That’s right. And you know when the Nazi war criminals said that Hitler took the best virtue of the German people, which was their obedience, and misused it, that was not completely self-serving; there was some truth in it.
Rail: Indeed. And the way in which these men did not act on their own judgments about what to do, but continued to obey these self destructive, ridiculous orders.
Vollmann: And felt that they were showing all the more faith by doing that. It was kind of heartbreaking.
Rail: You mention heartbreaking. One of the most effective scenes for me is when you describe the way Paulus, after the tremendous sacrifices he is making, must still leave his service revolver outside when he meets the Fuhrer, as if this is in any way someone who could not be trusted to be absolutely loyal. I did not know this, and it was very deep to read this, to learn how much better these men were than the leadership they served.
Vollmann: Yes, they really were. And when he got to the end, “better go and shoot yourself now!” was all that was expected of him. It was very interesting to visit the place where he lived, in Dresden, after he was released. Did you know he was a minor police inspector? I always wondered why they did not shoot him with the others—it wasn’t that he was such a very bad man, but, if anyone was guilty, he was guilty. I wanted to get his Stasi file, there is a Stasi museum, you can do it, and after his death, this flat of his even briefly became the headquarters of the Stasi—now it is cooperative housing—I talked to some people who lived there, and of course they had no idea that he lived there—but it takes about a year to get all the documents, and it is very expensive, but one of these days I would like to do it.
Rail: Let’s go back to the use of the artists in that narrative. This was really such an interesting way to add to this story. And is there historical evidence for this portrait of Shostakovich, the way he is constantly putting off the party apparatchiks who criticized his work, always saying, “yes, yes, you are absolutely right, I will do it this way next time!”?
Vollmann: That is exactly how he was. He was very, very sly. You know a lot of people do blame him in the end for breaking down and joining the party, and I really can’t, I just pity him—it must have been terrible for him having to go up there and having to denounce Solzhenitsyn and all the rest.
Rail: Well, yes, to live in that regime, in that way, by which I mean, as the object of attention, how could it be otherwise?
Vollmann: Of course, and to be an artist, most of the time, just is to be politically naïve. You’re focused on other things. Käethe Kollwitz for example may have been dimly aware that she was being used when she went to that exhibition of her work, near the end of her life, in the Soviet Union—she certainly never talked about it later—something must have been very disconcerting for her, as an optimistic loyal communist.
Rail: This talk of class and oppression leads me to another question. In Imperial, you focus almost entirely on the poor and working poor. Do you think there is something that we generally miss or don’t see about their lives that make it particularly worthwhile they be the focus? There are very few Mexican middle managers in Imperial for example.
Vollmann: I think it was working people who built both sides of Imperial and who gave it the character it has. Imperial County, the whole place, has a working class feel to it—the towns, the ranches, everything—and it was first settled, on the Mexican side, by Chinese cotton ranchers, it wasn’t professionals coming there—I mean, sure, D’Anza went through there and surveyed it, and before that there were Indian tribes here and there, but to me, that is mainly what I feel—it is the working people who came there and who made it.
Rail: Allright. And we haven’t talked about this yet, but, why not—what about the immigration and the border, and the incredible determination that these Mexicans have to cross the border and take these risks to do work. It is amazing.
Vollmann: Right. To risk death to clean our toilets. Well, it really shows the hypocrisy of this country, because, supposedly, we are all about capitalism, and the free market, so, these people who want to keep the immigrants out, I say, they are welcome to do those jobs, and, if they did them, then there would not be any jobs for these immigrants and they would not come.
Rail: And there are many places in the book where you point out that in the old days, say 50 or 60 years ago, many of these people did this work, and then returned to their homes on the other side of the border without difficulty—if the employer vouched for them in a letter, say, apparently, that was enough then—so you might say that in this regard, 50 years ago, America was a less hypocritically capitalist country.
Vollmann: Yes, I think so. One of the things that really surprised me when I was researching the chapter on César Chávez.
Rail: And what a striking part of the book that is! I remember you approach it almost tentatively because that would have been, or could have been, a book unto itself.
Vollmann: Oh yes, absolutely, that could have been another book. Well until I started thinking about it, it didn’t occur to me that he wasn’t the beneficiary of all those field workers—he was only protecting the American workers. The ones like Lupe in Mexicali or otherwise coming across—he was their enemy, because for him, they were scabs, taking American jobs. And for Lupe its like hey, it’s the same work, the same labor, I am the same person.
Rail: Here too, I think this was a wrinkle to the story I think most who remember the labor struggles over grapes would not have known. We tended to think about that issue without knowing the immigration issue as well.
Vollmann: Right. And I wonder what he could have done. He could have, I suppose, tried to establish a branch of the UFW [United Farm Workers] in Mexicali, but it wouldn’t have mattered—because other people would just have been streaming in and gone across the border from Southern Mexico, or further—it would have done no good at all.
Rail: You probably would have to have had an amnesty, something like that. And in those days, no one even thought of that idea.
Vollmann: That’s right. So that’s how it is I guess.
Rail: Is Imperial and the subject of it still under your skin?
Vollmann: Yes. Very much. I have been going back to Mexicali and Tijuana—have you been to Tijuana?
Rail: Yes. It’s certainly different than Mexicali—more oriented towards what you might call the “retail” relation to America, whereas in Mexicali, with its industrial parks, they make their wealth that way. You are a little bit more invisible as a visitor in Mexicali.
Vollmann: That’s true. And yet at the same time, Mexicali is more open; it’s much easier to make friends there. And I think the border differential in Tijuana is so hard, by which I mean, harder edged—the consciousness of Americans and Mexicans there being somehow adversarial.
Rail: Well I did see that. In Mexicali, you come over and it is no big deal, whereas in Tijuana, as soon as you cross, you really are the object of a certain sort of solicitation. I was surprised in Mexicali how much you are left alone.
Vollmann: I love that about Mexicali. They are so happy, with the heat, with everything—it is all just perfect. One time I was on a bus with Lupe and it was a summer night, maybe down to about 70 degrees, and he had his parka on, his teeth were chattering, it is amazing how people just adapt to the environment they are in.
Rail: Well I have to say, it all comes back to the same thing: by getting interested in this subject, and by giving it the treatment that you did, you really did a great thing.
Vollmann: Thanks. It is an inexhaustible subject in so many ways.
Rail: Yes, of course, I agree—and you don’t even have to read the whole book to see that. But it wasn’t obvious. [Vollmann laughs.] And to make a non-obvious thing clear for the rest of us, well, like I say, that is a great thing.
STEVEN ROSS is a professor of philosophy at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.