By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
What had happened in the intervening years? I had no ideas, only that I wanted to start a career as a writer. I have accepted the fact that I stopped writing at the beginning because I was conscious that I had nothing to say. That I had nothing that was worth taking the time to say. When one has nothing to say, the best thing is to keep quiet. And so the question becomes, were you preparing all that time to be a writer? I wasn’t preparing anything. At the end of the 1960s, there rose in me a need to express myself poetically. And that resulted in three books: Possible Poems (1966), Probable Joy (1970) and From This World and the Other (1971). The book from 1973 [The Traveller’s Baggage] is a transitional one.
You also wrote, in 1975, a book-length poem calledThe Year of 1993.
In a certain way, it announces the fiction that will be born. From then I realized that I had something to say and I started to say it. When I was 19 or so, I remember I wrote a poem which said:
Whoever has fallen silent
the way I did
without saying it all.
This was a sort of dumb idea because what did I have to say at 19? When we’re 19 we have a huge number of things to say but we don’t know how to say them. You have to wait. Time will be your teacher.
When you wroteManual of Painting and Calligraphydid it come easily to you? I mean, you felt you had something to say and then, when you actually sat down to do the writing, did it come easily?
Well, there are critics that consider Manual of Painting and Calligraphyone of my best novels.
I’m one of them.
There are critics that allow themselves to be seduced by the experimental aspects of fiction, and that novel has something experimental about it. I have to recognize that it was not done consciously. At that time, I was feeling a little like the Molière character [in Le bourgeois gentilhomme] who was astonished when he found that he had been writing prose since the time he was born. He asks himself, “I write prose?” Let’s say that was a bit like the situation I found myself in. I believe deep down this happens to all writers. I was searching for my own voice, and when I found my voice, I was already a writer. If you find your own voice, then you express yourself according to that. This small territory that is yours and no one else’s, it’s your voice.
This idea of somebody who doesn’t think they have anything to say realizing that they do indeed have something to say recurs in several of your books. It’s true of the painter H. inManual of Painting and Calligraphy, it’s also true of the proofreader Raimundo Silva inThe History of the Siege of Lisbonand, in a way, I felt that something similar was happening with the cello player inDeath With Interruptions, because he thinks of himself as a not particularly good cello player, but Death sees in him the ability to be better than that. So you seem interested in this moment of self-discovery.
We would be doing very badly if women only fell in love with geniuses. The cellist is a cellist like many others. He is not trying to find his genius. What the cellist is searching for is the person he can’t get. This character did not have to be a cellist, he could have been a store employee, but that’s not so romantic. Now if it’s a cellist who wants to play Bach ... the reader loves that.
I guess what I’m saying is that many of your characters are looking for a way to express themselves.
My characters are normal, everyday people. The fact is, as can happen or not, they sometimes find themselves in situations in which they have to make a decision. For example, in All the Names, the clerk in the registry is not a cellist. At a certain point, life challenges him. It’s as though life is saying, “Now what are you going to do?” When he takes the record of a woman whom he knows nothing about, he doesn’t realize at that moment that life is challenging him. And at the moment he becomes conscious of what is happening — that he wants to meet this woman whom, as I said, he knows nothing about — that is the beginning of a new life for which he is unprepared. And the reader comes to realize that, without knowing it, the clerk was actually prepared to take on all that he would come to face.
I was asking before, and maybe I wasn’t asking in the best way, about the element of fantasy in your books.
That which you call fantasy, deep down, is simply something that we do not understand or something that has not yet happened.
For example, in One Hundred Years of Solitude García Márquez writes that the girl ascends to the heavens on a sheet and disappears. What matters is not if that is true. What matters is whether or not it is believable within the context, believable to imagination. At the moment when something becomes believable to your imagination, it is justified.
In my latest book, The Elephant’s Journey, there are a number of events that could not have occurred. But in the telling of the story, they become, I wouldn’t say believable, but something that works, something justifiable in the context of the book. What matters most is that the reader feels good reading. That he feels happy reading, with or without fantasy. That’s what matters.
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