Antonio Muñoz Molina: “Death does not equal us all”

The end of the state of alarm did not stop his pen, which continued to register his abysmal strangeness at the new normal, but among his impressions there were memories of his rural childhood and that of his ancestors. As if the past offered to provide some light and certainty in the sea of ​​doubts and shadows that flooded the present.

All those notes are in ‘Back to where’ (Seix Barral), his latest book, personal testimony of the pandemic –and something else– before oblivion erases from our memory this terrible time we have lived.

– Next Tuesday will be a year and a half since the first declaration of the state of alarm. 18 months from now, is it clear to you what happened? And I am not referring to the virus and infections, but to its impact on our lives.

-That right now you can’t know. But there are things we do know. We know the people who have died and those who have been damaged, and that the lack of investment in health, education and scientific research has taken a huge toll on us. But in what way the sensitivity of many has been modified by this, that we still do not know. There are times for everything. Now is the time for documentation and immediate testimony. Now the important thing is to put on record what we have lived, and the time will come when all this will filter and become memory, novels and studies.

-What reflection has the pandemic prompted you?

– These months I have thought a lot about the idea of ​​fraternity. For different reasons, our society has claimed, above all, personal freedom and equal rights. It is legitimate, but we had forgotten the fraternity. That heroic image that advertising and literature sell of the captivating individual who triumphs is an entelechy. It is enough to be a little sick to realize that you are just nothing, that you depend on the sympathy of strangers, as Tennessee Williams used to say. The pandemic has reminded us of this, and there should be a paradigm shift in that regard. Beyond such legitimate issues as freedom or identity, we are part of a common humanity.

“Above such legitimate issues as freedom or identity, we are part of Humanity”


-Has this experience changed you personally?

-It has made me more aware of the immense fragility that affects everything that we took for granted. I had that learning for the first time on 9/11 in New York. Life is based on a series of routines that we consider safe: that the light turns on, that water comes out of the tap… Very complex things, but that we take for granted. During the confinement we were able to verify the prodigy that supposed that there was food in the supermarkets. By the way, at the expense of very poorly paid people. The fabric of an advanced society like ours is extremely fragile because it depends on permanent connections. Now we know that all of this can be interrupted overnight.

-This time they bombed very close. Is it now related to the idea of ​​death in another way?

-I have always been very aware of mortality, especially after a certain age. These months I have not reflected more than usual on death, but on the inequality with which we face it. We thought that death and illness equaled us all, but we have found that no, that the weakest are those who have suffered the most: grandparents, the most unprotected, those who had to go to work and could not afford to doing it at a distance, which are precisely what keep the world going. Apart from that, the death by covid of José Mari Calleja affected me a lot. I was very fond of him.

-The world sinks and the body asks you to write about your childhood and your ancestors. How does this mechanism work?

-I think it has happened to a lot of people. It seems like a reflex action and it has to do with that search for connection, for love, for brotherhood. In my case, there is also a generational issue. I belong to a generation that very early had the dream of emancipation. We came from very oppressive worlds and wanted to live our own sovereign lives, but to do so we had to break with those who had raised us. I wonder how they felt our rejection. Now that generation is disappearing and we are the oldest of the new ones.

“We broke up with those who raised us and now I wonder how they felt our rejection”


-Now, the grandson of his grandmother Leonor is the grandfather of his granddaughter Leonor.

-When my son told me that they were going to give the girl that name, I was moved. That sense of continuity warns you of the ideology of individualism. There is someone who came before you and someone who comes after, and you will be lost in the past just as my ancestors are lost now. This is so and should be borne in mind. I think about the way my grandparents are in the things I write and remember, how they appear when I dream of them, and I wonder what we will be in the memory of those who survive us. Anyone knows.

-Evoke the past invites nostalgia.

-There is nostalgia, but there is also lucidity, which acts as an antidote to nostalgia. I also talk about this in the book, and I tell the dark part of the past, the harshness of that life, the difficulty, the cruelty and even the violence with which we lived. Until not long ago, situations that seem inhumane to us today were common, such as people laughing at those they called ‘fools’ or ‘effeminates’ and hitting them in the street. In the book I tell a scene that stuck with me in which a man was chased by people who threw stones at him. This was vile, but it was part of the fabric of life. If we want to portray the past, we cannot soften it, we must also show that.

-Incapable of locating him in that rural world, his grandmother Leonor asked him: «And where do you come from?». Are you already clear on the answer?

-I am clear about the circumstances that have made me what I am. Each one has a mental composition that comes from the education they have received, the time they have lived and the conflicts that have marked them. My family and social origin has marked me, and the fact of having lived throughout my life in two completely different worlds. Seeing the present in relation to that backward rural world, closed and subjected to the dictatorship is something that determines what I am, and from where much of my imaginary world springs.

-I return to you the question that you drop in the title of your book: Return to where?

-I do not know. I don’t even know if you can go back somewhere, or if you should. I believe that we must not return to the world that made the pandemic possible, nor to the world that makes possible the environmental catastrophe in which we live. But neither can you go back to childhood or the past. It only turns into memories, fiction and dreams. But in real life there is no going back possible. The only thing there is is now, the construction of the present and the immediate future.


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