May 16, 2021

“Our relationship walks along the narrow edge next to the precipice”


Juan José Millás, has always defended that Prehistory is not a matter of the past, but that it enjoys “a moving today”. How did you decide to partner with Juan Luis Arsuaga to write this great story about existence?

Juan José Millás: Well, once I get to know Atapuerca and the Museum of Human Evolution, which Arsuaga directs, and which is unique in the world, I return home with the impression that I cannot keep that inside and that I have to write something. From there, I begin to document myself, but the more I document myself, the less I know, or the more my ignorance widens, as Arsuaga says. My frustration was very great, because I needed to say that the people of Prehistory explained my life to me better than my real grandparents. And that anxiety couldn’t be taken away from me as a writer. Then I remembered Arsuaga in Atapuerca and that he had fascinated me with his fantastic capacity for oral storytelling. There I began to ponder the idea of ​​proposing this adventure, but Arsuaga seemed unattainable to me, because he has written in the best scientific journals in the world. So, I asked them to organize a meal for us and, after half a bottle of wine, I proposed to him to do this thing that could be absolutely new and very interesting. And I said: Arsuaga, you and I could partner to talk about life.

“I was interested in this delusion by Millás because it was about doing something that had never been done before”

Juan Luis Arsuaga


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In addition to that half a bottle of wine, Juan Luis Arsuaga, what led you to embark on this proposal from Millás?

Juan Luis Arsuaga: Well, I had read That Nobody Sleep, the previous novel by Millás, which I had liked a lot because it has a style of magical realism that moves on the limits between reason and nonsense, delirium or the imaginary. That is why it seemed to me that it could be an adventure because, of course, if not, the feeling was that, to tell what he wanted to tell, I could already write it, I have also published more than 20 books. In fact, my book before this one was very successful.

JJ M: Sure, because I introduced it. (Laughs)

JL A: What I mean is that, in order for me to embark, you had to propose something to me that I couldn’t do on my own. In the world of science there are many people who are not capable of transferring their research material to books and, in those cases, it is normal for them to associate with a writer who knows how to translate that discipline. But it is not my case. That is why, at first, I resisted, because I have written so many books on human evolution. But since it was about doing something that had never been done before, because it was not going to be a popular science book – and the book is anything but that – I became interested in this new delusion by Millás.

“The book has a strange unity underneath that, to me, remains a mystery”

Juan Jose Millás


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And then he slammed the table and exclaimed, “We do.”

JJ M: The coup was real and that’s why I tell it in the first chapter.

JL A: And in the end we got this monster!

JJ M: At first, we didn’t know what it was going to be.

JLA: No, but we did know what it was not going to be.

This experiment illuminates a new genre, between travel literature, the road movie and popular science.

JJ M: When we have finished we have realized that it is a novel that is not a novel; an essay that is not an essay; and a thread of conversation that reflects, above all, the relationship between two very different people: one that comes from the world of science and another that comes from the world of humanities. So, let’s say that the product is Arsuaga and that I am the added value.

JL A: I liked it, Juanjo. I think this is a book that we couldn’t do separately and that we could only do together. Also, we embarked on this without knowing where we were going to end up and that was a very good decision because, if we had started to rationalize it, it would not have turned out so well. Literature also has to be allowed to happen.

“The difficult thing is the questions. And Juanjo asks me questions that would never have occurred to me “

Juan Luis Arsuaga


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JJ M: But I was concerned – because my head is fictional – about the unity of the story, which is what I ask of a story. There was a time when I told Arsuaga about this concern of mine and he told me: forget it, because cohesion will be a secondary effect. And just like sometimes, when you are in that search in a story, you fall into the danger of artificiality, in this case I lowered my guard and it turns out that the thing flowed, and that the book has a strange unity underneath that, for me, it’s still a mystery, because it’s a side effect.

Millás writes in the book that “Arsuaga is a compulsive teacher and I, an insatiable student.” Isn’t that shared curiosity, from their respective disciplines, the common engine of this journey?

JL A: It is that the difficult thing is the questions. It happens to me with the students, that all the assignments that they propose to me are as if they left the class program. What I want is for them to ask questions and then try to answer them, and then start writing. But there has to be a question, whatever it is, or are we dead. And what Juanjo puts in the book are the questions, because a scientist usually asks himself the questions in his own bubble. So, the good thing about Juanjo is that, as he is not locked into my particular world of science, he asks me questions that would never have occurred to me.

But both worlds weave affinities and bridges, as in the chapter in which Arsuaga explains the difference between anatomy and physiology, and Millás transfers it to the difference between morphology and syntax. One explains the world with data and the other with metaphors.

JJ M: This seems very interesting to me because I think that historical moment in which the humanities and the sciences decided to separate was a disgrace. I always say that you can be a great doctor, but you can’t be a great doctor without scientific training; Or you can be a great architect, but you can’t be without scientific training. But Arsuaga is a great scientist because he has a humanistic base.

JL A: Says Edward O. Wilson: What else is science but the humanities?

JJ M: Yes, we have the illusion that we have again made that return to the encounter between the humanities and science.

“I needed to say that the people of Prehistory explained my life better than my grandparents”

Juan Jose Millás


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This is also the story of a friendship that is forged as the story is built, somewhat in the wake of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

JJ M: Of course, that is one of the main threads of the book: our relationship or dis-relationship, because it is a very mysterious thing that is not a friendship relationship.

JL A: Ours is a relationship that walks along the narrow edge that overlooks the precipice of rupture. And that is the grace of the book, which is a most natural and bearable relationship and, at times, is completely incompatible.

JJM That tension is there. Sometimes I can’t stand you.

JL A: Sure, you see? That’s very productive, I think.

Towards the end of the book they reflect on why we age and why we die, and both conclude that this makes for a second book. Then?

JJ M: We’re on that.

JLA But we have to get somewhere, Juanjo, if we do it this time we have to get somewhere.

JJ M: Well, we are working on it, because I am old and Arsuaga is not. So, I see old age from inside the house and he sees it from outside. That has given, when we have spoken, very interesting results, because I see the pipes, the pipes, while he sees the facade. I send him news from the inside and he sends it to me from the outside. I think something interesting could come out.

JL A: But also aimlessly.

JJ M: Also aimless.

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