In all my novels there is a quixotic streak. Don Quixote is a man who lives in a world between real and imaginary. I have always been fascinated by this possibility when telling my novels. In this case we have characters who live in a ruined Warsaw, but they, through alcohol and imagination, create an existence superior to what reality offers them. It’s what children have always done; that’s why childhoods are usually very happy.
It is quite similar to the situation we are currently experiencing …
The time is different, the tragedy is another, but the magic of a novel is to make us reflect on the present, on ourselves, through those bridges of words that connect different times and places. My characters celebrate that they are alive in the capital of death, and truly life is something to celebrate.
Do you think great books are born out of great catastrophes?
Catastrophes can provide the setting for great books, but not the essence of a novel, which has to deal with the individual.
“The writer always deals with misfortune. There where there is happiness and harmony, there cannot be a novel “
But they are undoubtedly a source of inspiration …
Yes, the writer always deals with misfortune. Where there is happiness and harmony, a novel cannot exist. War has inspired many novels because it puts the human being in an extreme situation. I like the novels of the First World War more than the Second, because the First was slower, there was enough time in the trenches to dialogue, reflect, explore the human soul. The Second has more vertigo, technology, bombardments from the air, it is more inhuman, that’s why it was not novel so well. Among the novels of the Second I prefer Life and Destiny, by Vasili Grossman. The disease also inspires, but there is no need to have a great epidemic, because where millions die, the novelist has to take care of a few or only one. To talk about illness and death, you can write The Plague or The Death of Iván Ílich.
Where do you find the themes for your work?
There are many sources: history, newspapers, literature itself, personal experience, anecdotes told in a tavern, imagination, wishes, frustrations. Sometimes novels come to us in the form of a story, of an event; sometimes they arrive in a more cryptic way, with an emotion or meaning. For example, The city that the devil took, did not reach me in a narrative way, but I wanted to understand what life was like in Warsaw after the end of the war, how a city almost completely destroyed was inhabited; and then you had to create the story that told that.
Besides, you are a translator. How do you handle this duality: writer-translator?
I like to translate, but I do it very little. Mexicans translate little because almost everything is translated in Spain, and publishers want mainland Spanish.
Have you ever translated a book with which you thought: “I would have liked to write this myself”?
As a translator it has not happened to me; yes as a reader. And here it is not merely a matter of admiring a work, but of feeling that a DNA is shared so that, indeed, there is a kinship with the novel that “I would have liked to write.” It happened to me with The March of Radetzki, by Joseph Roth and with The General of the Dead Army, by Ismaíl Kadaré.
One of his novels is adapted to the cinema. what does this mean to you?
No big deal. I don’t like the movies. More than anything I was moved that one of my novels seduced a group of people to dedicate years of work to it, which ranged from the script to the projection. It does mean something to the piggy bank, because the cinema can pay a writer what publishers never pay.
Do you think that in recent times television series have taken the lead over literature?
Literature is very advanced. The detail is that people lagged behind, became brutalized, and chose the mental laziness of those series that were previously called soap operas or soap operas.
What do you hope to find, in these circumstances, in the Hispano-American Writers Festival?
It will be the most important festival and the most beautiful, because just when so many turned their backs on books and literature, the people of Los Llanos de Aridane opened the door. In this way, it will not be a mere literary festival, it will be the celebration of being alive, of reading and of recognizing that life is in books and books in life.