It is eight in the morning in Argentina when Pedro Mairal connects to speak with elDiario.es via Zoom. At that time a cricket can still be heard singing in the background on his stage, but the conversation starts right away thanks to the sips of coffee and the animated character of the writer. The battery of interview questions is preceded by the almost inevitable exchange of information about how things are on each side of the pond, levels of confinement, general mood. If it weren’t for the pandemic, it is very likely that the talk would be taking place in person.
Libros del Asteroide has recovered its novel for Spain Salvatierra, which was published for the first time in Argentina in 2008. It is the fourth Argentine book that the publisher adds to its catalog, in which they were already The Uruguayan (2017), One night with Sabrina Love (2018) and Evasion maneuvers (2019). The publishing house Destino also published here Short eternal loves two years ago. Mairal is a prolific writer, but his activity is not limited to just books. He is currently a member of the musical duo I thought it was friday together with Rafael Otegui, he writes lyrics for other musicians, he has a radio program called Cross me out the Nobel and publishes a column in the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, as well as magazine articles.
Salvatierra is a short novel about the relationship of two sons with the figure of their deceased father (who gives the book its name), a mute man who painted a picture over 60 years. About four kilometers of cloth stored in rolls in which he captured the story of his life in images and that his descendants want to preserve. The first sentence of the book announces that the reproduction of the work is in “the Roëll Museum”. How it got there comes later.
Salvatierra It was published for the first time in Argentina in 2008 (Emecé editions), in Spain in 2010 (El Aleph) and is now being recovered by Libros del Asteroide. From your point of view, how has the passage of time treated you? Has it aged well?
This book has emotional continuity. In my other stories there are things that squeak and make a lot more noise with the paradigm shift, with feminism and so on. In contrast, in this book there is nothing of the kind. He is a son who looks for his father after death, but he looks for him in his work and gets to know him through it. And he gets to know himself also because his father painted it even without him knowing.
It has a kind of Japanese serenity. An annulment of the self or leaving the self diluted because it is rather Salvatierra’s gaze on the landscape. His painting seemed an autobiography where he himself was not.
What was the original idea of the book?
For one thing, it was a documentary about Jackson Pollock that I saw on television. The moment they put him on the cover of Life magazine with the headline “Are you the best American artist?”, He stopped painting. And I thought of a character upside down: What would a painter who paints every day without skipping one look like?
The figure of César Aira also influenced a bit, a writer who supposedly writes a little every day and puts out three books per year. And it also has something of a poet that I rescued along with other poet friends named César Mermet. We had boxes full of his manuscripts and we really felt that we had someone’s entire life stored there. We take the responsibility of classifying and editing them little by little.
The reader has to imagine what the painting is like as the book progresses. Did you think of a specific artist when you wrote?
There is a little talk about the influences that Salvatierra could have on the book. The Spanish Luminists, for example. Painting with a certain idea of realism but at the same time capturing the light. As lthe CD cover of C. Tangana by Iván Floro, that I love. Paint with that same technique, let’s say.
It is also a bit art brut, done in a way almost without too much cultural filter, with complete freedom, at times it gets dreamy and surreal. He is always learning things and has no fixed style. There is a certain idea of landscaping because it is undoubtedly painting that space in the province of Entre Ríos, which is a coastal province.
The two sons have almost opposite positions. One does not want to know too much about who his father was as a person and the other is obsessed with precisely the opposite. Could it represent the internal struggle of any person in the face of the loss of someone close?
I believe that they are two forces that move us all with the relationship with parents and sometimes they happen at the wrong time. Sometimes there is one child who wants to know and the other does not want to know. And it can occur in the life of the same person at different times in life. Each one processes the duels as best they can.
Some deny and cover up and prefer to hide things. Others to do the duel really need to dig among the objects to reconnect with that dead relative in the objects. Without a doubt, I am more interested in the figure of the family archaeologist son.
It is precisely that son whose life changes and seems to occupy the blank place left by his father [en el libro dice “Uno ocupa esos lugares que los padres dejan en blanco”] but with writing.
Yes, totally. He needs to find the end of his father’s painting to see where his life begins, because he feels that his father painted it and invented it all. As a kind of Creator God, almighty and he is a part of the father’s work. Actually the only way out is to start your own work. I was very interested in that figure of the son that the father seeks to be able to put him in a place where he has a beginning and an end to find his own place and place. In the end he finds peace in the blank page, the place where his father could not paint.
The character of the mother is in the background. She lived almost in silence – she worked in a library, her husband was mute – and her death, although more recent, does not carry the weight of her father’s on their children. Why?
From there another book could come out. It seems to me that sometimes there are emotional ties that are taken for granted in a very unfair way. I remember the story of a friend who tells how she went to work as a rural teacher on the border. And the whole novel is interspersed with the letters sent to him by his father, with whom he did not live. And in a moment the mother goes to visit her at the border, takes a plane to go see her and has only a paragraph, she barely says that she is going to visit her. It is the absent father who somehow occupies everything.
And I think there is something like that in this novel. The mother has just died and is still very much present to the character, who takes her a bit for granted. As that love is, it was, it will be. Not intrigued yet. And there is something very unfair about that, but you cannot measure what it is that motivates someone to search for something.
I think it is changing, but there were centuries of this figure of women that works as a platform for others to grow from a self-denial, a silence, almost a personal annulment. As if that were the destination, maintain a structure for others to grow. It seems to me that it is a figure that is being diluted, fortunately.
Salvatierra has a very different style from other books of his like The Uruguayan, One night with Sabrina Love or the Pornosonetos, for instance. Where does that versatility come from?
I think each book asks me to write it differently. This called for a certain calm and a connection with nature, to be in sync with the times of nature. Because if you think about it, the protagonist is a man in his forties or so who returns to his hometown after having gone through the urban experience. And that synchronizes him back with his childhood, with what was his past, his family. That landscape, those people, that city. The book has something of the fluvial, a parsimony like a river or a plain mixed with lyrical and action moments, of dialogue.
I have to learn to write with each book and that always implies a feeling of experimentation. For example in The Uruguayan He needed an exacerbated, colloquial and confessional language because the character is confessing something to his wife precisely. Someone with a certain lyricism and a bit anti-hero. All that is shaping a style.
When in 2018 he published The Uruguayan in Spain, the book was in the process of being turned into a film and even the name of Jorge Drexler sounded on the soundtrack. But now it is a self-financed project promoted by Hernán Casciari. What happened?
The producer that had it partnered with Casciari because the matter was a bit stuck and he bought the rights. Casciari is a ‘maker’, he is a guy who has a very original head and for the first time he is with the project of making a film through a community that manages and finances the film. And that means that there are associate producers who can participate and, in some way, choose through votes the casting or turns in the script. And I was saying to Casciari, well, even if they pay so many shares they can be extras and kick the protagonist in a scene [risas].
This idea of cinema that you have to go to Hollywood to sell the story and tell it in 20 seconds and get a fund there but that arrives late and that they block you … all that economic bureaucracy that cinema has is the reason why the one that I don’t write movies. This way of Casciari is different.
Are you not afraid that with so many people with the right to have an opinion, the production will end up being chaos?
I trust Casciari. He always moves forward, never gets caught up in trouble. The idea is that they are opinions that help to make a decision but not that interrupt it. I find it very interesting to see what it will be like to work like this, but the truth is that I have no answer to how it will turn out.
I also feel like I blurted out the story. I had done a first script a few years ago, the first version, but now I put it down and told the writers that they have to make the film because I don’t have a movie head. I know how it is told verbally, but now it has to be told with images and in 90 minutes and that is another language.
Are you working on a book? Do you have a new literary project underway?
Yes, I am writing but I don’t really know what it is yet. There is something there forming. I am always working and suddenly I see that there is a book there. Of course, novels ask me for something more programmatic, I sit down to write. But many times it happens to me that I think about everything that I have been working on for a few years and I realize that it is a book.
The radio thing makes me want to turn it into a book as well, because Tachame el Nobel is a series of interviews that have to do with the kitchen of creation: how to compose a song or how to write a poem. Maybe there is a book in there.