Rodrigo Cortés has room for many Rodrigos Corteses. The filmmaker Rodrigo Cortés has directed films such as Contestant, Buried, Red lights or Blackwood and worked with names like Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro or Uma Thurman. The courteous communicator brings good sense in podcasts about cinema and literature as listened to and shared as Here are dragons Y Almighty, while surprising with his satirical definitions in Verbose, dictionary that he writes daily for the newspaper ABC.
The Rodrigo Cortés writer is, if anything, the least known. In 2013 he turned his tweets into surreal aphorisms with At 3 it’s 2, play that he repeated with Sleeping is for ducks several years later. Between one and the other he published his first novel: It does matter how a man sinks title like the others edited by Delirio.
Now publish The extraordinary years (Random House Literature, 2021), fictitious memories of Jaime Fanjul, a singular man born in Salamanca in 1902. A character who crosses deserts, surrounds volcanoes and survives shipwrecks without being surprised. Who lives the fantastic adventure as a normal and ordinary procedure. That he comes out of the wildest situations with hardly any disheveled hair.
Seven years have passed since I posted It does matter how a man sinks. How and why was born The extraordinary years?
It arose without real foresight. I began to haunt the idea of creating false memories, based on the fascination that I personally felt for Buñuel’s, My last breath. Although this ended up turning into something very, very different. One day, in the middle of assembling Blackwood –One of the phases of greatest pressure from executives and producers–, I was waiting for a call from Los Angeles that was not exactly pleasant. I was in a coffee shop, I took out the iPad and wrote: “I was born on October 18, 1902.”
Seven lines later I found out that the narrator’s name was Jaime Fanjul, and twelve lines later he wrote that he was born before the sea reached Salamanca. And so the whole novel was written. Over time I realized that it had become a kind of unconscious vindication of creative freedom. It is written without plan, without purpose, without attending to any opinion, or consideration, or market study, or anything else other than the sheer free enjoyment of creating. Without rules and without structure.
On Clean wheat, the writer Juan Manuel Gil he wrote that “it is so stupid to mistake brevity for good rhythm, as the narrator for the writer.” How much of you is there in Jaime Fanjul’s memoirs? Is it stupid to confuse them?
Not only do we not look alike, but many times I have made him make decisions contrary to the ones I would make or express opinions different from the ones I have. Jaime, for example, believes that nothing in life has a purpose, that nothing has an end or an order. I, on the other hand, tend to believe that there is an invisible order behind things. Obviously one always pulls oneself to collect certain experiences and use them appropriately deformed and reformulated, but never literally. There are novels that are very confessional and this one is not at all.
He has mentioned Buñuel’s memoirs as a seminal idea, although in the humor of his prose, a certain harmony with Berlanga’s cinema or that of Jose Luis Cuerda. Are these referents aware or did you never think about them while writing?
What he wrote was part of a vibration whose tradition he could unconsciously recognize. A path that can be traced from Cervantes in his most forgiving version to Quevedo in his harshest version, passing through Cunqueiro. Or since you mention Berlanga, I mention Azcona.
But of course, the novel also draws on the readings of Gurdjieff or Saint-Exupéry. From Kipling and Roald Dahl’s stories, from those emotions trapped in the adventure books we read as children. Nothing in the novel has the vocation of being a rehash, it simply arises with an absolutely free impulse that manifests what you are and your way of seeing the world. That prints that absurd humor that questions the laws of everything, including those of physics.
That second tradition he mentions, classic adventure literature, can be seen in the narrative format: the protagonist does not spend three chapters in the same place. Travel from Salamanca to the Sahara desert, the Azores, New York or Paris. ¿The extraordinary years is it a travel novel? And if it is: Do you think travel literature feels differently after confinement?
I can say categorically that it is not a pandemic novel. It is written before and revised later. Interestingly, I did not touch a line during confinement. But hey, in their own way all novels are trips. It is true that thousands and thousands of kilometers are traveled here. Jaime Fanjul does nothing but walk, for more than seven decades, through various continents and meeting hundreds of extraordinary characters. Characters from whom you learn nothing.
Its protagonist seems bent on that, precisely, on floating where he passes without anything binding him, without committing himself to anything. You write yourself that “maturing is looking at yourself and not recognizing yourself”, but throughout his seventy years and 350 pages of memoirs, it seems that Jaime Fanjul matures rather little. ¿The extraordinary years is it also a novel about the inability to mature?
I would be unable to say what a multiform novel like this is about. It certainly covers the entire life of a character, although I think their childhood memories do not vibrate in the same way as their mature years. The prose that animates the last chapters is not like the exuberant and vital one at the beginning. There is a melancholic residue in her that does not disbelieve poetry and that embraces humor from a more settled and reflective place. These are the moments when you allow yourself to question yourself, and realize how awkward you have been so many times. Jaime Fanjul always understands too late, as we all do.
He said that there are times when he makes his protagonist express opinions contrary to his. I highlight a paragraph in which he tells that Jaime Fanjul helped put out a fire in the Cathedral of San Pablo until he was told that this cathedral was a symbol of resistance to fascism. “I stopped helping immediately: I neither knew that Germans hobbled on that foot nor had, personally, anything against fascism, which I appreciated for its concern for gymnastics.” Did you ever have doubts when writing passages like this?
No never. I turned my brain off at all times and was not worried about anything. The novel is not ideological in any sense. In fact, I seriously doubt that art should be ideological. I do not believe that the character should ascribe or respond to an ideology, nor do the thoughts of your character be shared by anyone, not even by yourself. The other way around: I had a lot of fun making Jaime say whatever he wanted and wanted to say. That inability to learn of which we spoke, that absolute indifference to what happens around him has in my opinion two enviable virtues which are: that he does not judge and that he does not think. Ascribing Jaime’s actions to ideological motivations would take all the fun out of him. That is why I did not hesitate to give him a few years as an anarchist and terrorist in Paris. He himself affirms that “My first attack had very good reviews.”
After being a terrorist in Paris, Jaime Fanjul dedicates himself to reading hands and guessing the future of people. He also earns money by tossing the cards, although he cannot interpret them. Do you think that magical thinking is more prevalent in times of crisis such as the pandemic that we are experiencing?
Sure you do, because it is inevitable and because magical thinking provides comfort. But none of that is in the novel other than in the joyous sense of magic. For example, the passage you mention from the tarot was written by drawing the cards myself. I don’t know anything about tarot, absolutely nothing. So I was drawing letters and improvising the speech. He would take out one letter and write, take out another and write more. He relied on that chance but not for esoteric motivations, but rather because the blank canvas tends to be a paralysis of creation. Instead the obstacles stimulate it. So he forced me to have stimuli or take advantage of them simply to see if I was able to get out of where I had gotten alive.
As we said, seven years have passed since his previous novel, and there seems to be a substantive change in his style. It does matter how a man sinks it abounded in long sentences and passages in which thoughts crowded together. The extraordinary years seems to be closer to Sleeping is for ducks: short and firm sentences that condense many ideas. Are you aware of this formal evolution in your work?
There are two answers to this and both are true. One is that they are novels that serve different purposes and therefore require different tools. For example in It does matter how a man sinks dialogues are fundamental, while in The extraordinary years there are hardly any. And that they are one of the tools that I enjoy the most: I put on a kind of chastity belt about it.
The other answer is equally true: it effectively responds to an evolution that goes from At 3 it’s 2, to Sleeping is for ducks passing by Verbose. It is something that has a lot to do with pressing the polvorón. It is closely related to poetry, in the sense that you start from a complex information or emotion and try to encode it in fewer and fewer words, so that it contains all their DNA and that the reader, when they consume that pill that you have turned it into See how it melts in your mouth. That moment when all the encoded information dissolves in it, even if it is by resonance mode.
That’s what I do with rewriting work. I firmly believe that rewriting is largely taking away. I work so that a paragraph can condense a chapter, a sentence can condense a paragraph and on one page there can fit several possible novels.