Hernan Diaz, the ultimate taboo

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This article is published in issue 26/27 of Vanity Fair on newsstands until July 5, 2022

“It’s a mystery how money is still a taboo, and that’s also one of the reasons I wanted to write this book. Money, wealth have a great place in the American imagination, much more than in that of any other people. Money money money, even if we never talk about it. We would never ask, for example: how much do you earn? If you asked me now, for example, I wouldn’t answer you. It’s ridiculous, I know, but I also find it fascinating. I think so because, revealing it, we would feel really naked. I think that something very similar happens with sex: it is a subject that attracts us, but which we voluntarily hardly ever talk about. I think it has something to do with desire. ‘

It is on wealth – how it is built, how it is maintained, how it perpetuates and the ways in which the human being changes – that Hernan Diaz composed his second highly praised novel. Trust (Feltrinelli), title, rightly, not translated into Italian so that, in the passage, it would not lose pieces of information: “trust” means trust, but also agreement, trust, trust fund.

An American novel about wealth, capital and the dark fascination of high finance: Trustby Hernan Diaz (Feltrinelli, pages 384, € 19, translation by Ada Arduini).

Trust is a chameleon-like object, a puzzle of fictions: the macro story of Andrew Bevel, an imaginary man who at the beginning of the twentieth century is the richest in the United States (“I’m a financier in a city governed by financiers”, he baptizes himself), it is passed through a prism and declined in four voices (a fictional writer, himself and two women who played a very important role in his life) and as many literary genres: fiction, historical document, memoir and diary. Bevel, with his wealth on par with, if not above, Scrooge’s Scrooge and Roy’s Succession – the latest lineage of small-screen rich men we are passionate about, with their little Shakespearean tragedies and that grueling ups and downs from private jets, helicopters and mega yachts -, embodies what is the (increasingly battered) American myth. And what is a myth if not a story that serves to order reality? In his previous novel, The falconPulitzer candidate, Diaz, born in Argentina, raised in Sweden, but who one day decided he “wanted to live in English” (he now lives in Brooklyn), had already explored another founding myth, that of the frontier, and also in that case had upset him by writing a western without a cowboy, an existential western, so to speak.

His novel is based on an assumption: money is fiction. What do you mean?
“What makes a work of fiction, even the most extravagant, credible is to follow certain rules. Language itself is a convention, because there is nothing that binds a word to a particular meaning. The same goes for money: we all agree that a 100 dollar bill, which is a symbol, has a certain purchasing power, that is, an effect on reality. Money, therefore, only works if there is a shared “trust” at the base, otherwise it is like playing Monopoly. In finance, then, there is an even greater level of abstraction. If it is easy to link a certain sum to a tangible asset, when that same sum is used to buy currencies, stocks and bonds, the links with reality are lost. Basically: we use this fiction – money – not to buy a piece of the real world, but other fictions ».

You have a degree in literature. What is it about high finance that attracts you?
“The fact that, while producing nothing, it governs our lives. And that it is considered something esoteric, arcane, dark. All this for me is at the same time monstrous and fascinating ».

What did you learn by studying topics such as fiscal policy, monetary policy, markets, financial instruments?
“That high finance, with that aura of fake scientific legitimacy, as if it were a higher mathematics that mere mortals cannot understand, is a” genre “designed with the express purpose of being incomprehensible, of keeping away people like you and me to put everything in the hands of the “specialists”. Think of the credit card reports, with those very small characters and the breakdown of interest rates: I think it exemplifies at the micro level what happens in the macro. Another thing I learned by comparing old documents from a hundred years ago with the New York Times today: they said the same things. I realized that the economic policies of the conservative right of the 1920s were the same as those of 2020. The Republican Party continues to support the same ideas: no regulation, concessions for large companies, no social security and benefits, high tariffs and protective, isolationism, tax cuts for the rich. Same, identical, madness ».

He wrote this novel under the Trump presidency, one of the richest men in the country.
“I think it influenced me in the second part of the book, the one where Bevel brags over and over – ‘I’m great, I’m the best’ – in that terrible, loud, vain, swaggering Trump tone. I think it was my way of working through those four nightmare years ».

Why does the power most coveted by the ultra rich, I think of Zuckerberg, Bezos, Musk among others, seem to be the control of information?
“It doesn’t matter how rich you are: there is no real power without a narrative of power. Power is a narration of power. Using four different voices that tell Bevel’s story, I tried to show just that. Furthermore, behind a great fortune there is often an opaque past and controlling its history also means being able to erase it. There is a gap that is particularly dear to the rich, the one between financial power and symbolic power: you can have all the money in the world, but you will not have the prestige for this. I believe these men are true prestige hunters. They want to be considered extraordinary, which is depressing and quite childish. ‘

Is there any of them that you find particularly interesting?
“No. The truth is that none of them intrigue me. “

Today, wealth is concentrated in the hands of very few. Has it always been like this?
“Yes, since ancient Egypt, and I also believe that political power exists precisely to maintain this state. Since the natural tendency of human beings is greed, the norm is the concentration of wealth ».

From which women have always been excluded. I think it would be easier for a woman to become president of the United States than to become a finance mogul.
“Economic power has its own way of perpetuating itself. It is the so-called “primitive accumulation”: if you take away all the means of production from a certain group of people and leave them only the workforce, it will be almost impossible for them, in the course of history, to overcome this fundamental inequality. And women, from the very beginning of humanity, have always been an oppressed group. In any culture. In every corner of the world. Everytime. And since financial power is always behind political power, it is very difficult to believe that men, who have enjoyed this supremacy for centuries, will ever give up this status quo. “

You will have an idea: how are these ultra rich people different from all other people?
“I don’t know if it’s right to talk about ‘all the rich’. However, I remain convinced that certain levels of wealth distort reality, because at that point we will try to align and adapt the whole reality to what is the story of one’s fortune. Besides, whoever is that rich is terribly lonely. Speaking of which, I have noticed a certain dissonance between this isolation and the way other people behave in their presence. It is something that I have experienced on myself: every time I have found myself in front of a rich man, I was no longer myself. It’s not something I go to
proud, of course, but it’s the truth. I also thought: if I feel like this as an individual, what if you throw such enormous wealth in front of the whole society? That everything is distorted, like in a black hole. What surrounds him comes out changed ».


Source: Vanity Fair

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