I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“What distinguishes the writer from the reader is that the writer goes first.”
Toni Sala has been quite busy, but you wouldn’t know it. The author of more than a dozen novels—and the winner of the Catalan government’s 2005 National Literature Prize—Sala is but the latest in a series of Catalan authors to make a recent, mid-career debut in the United States. His newest novel, The Boys, appeared this past November from Two Lines Press in a stunning translation by Mara Faye Lethem, bringing Sala’s sharp wit and ominous vision to a US audience for the first time. Translation-savvy readers might hear a little Rodoreda and Monzó in Sala’s prose, but the most significant comparison could be to Bolaño’s more Iberian-inflected work—light-footed, death-haunted sentences that tumble along at the shuddering speed of a car crash. The Boys takes as its centerpiece the tragic deaths of two brothers, explored through several overlapping perspectives that shift and shuffle the drama so to get nearer to the tragedy’s still-beating heart.
Our conversation was bookended by the November 13 Paris attacks and the December 2 San Bernardino attack, events that have and will continue to change both of our worlds. Toni shared something in our initial pleasantries that I found exemplary of his approach to story: “A few hours after the Paris attacks, a burned car was located in Vidreres, the little town where The Boys is set. Vidreres is seventy kilometers from the border, and the vehicle contained false plates and unactivated phones, which set off the alarm in Catalonia. In the end, it was likely something to do with the drug trade. But the center of the world can be everywhere.”
Hal Hlavinka Catalan literature seems to be having a moment in English right now. The last few years have seen translations from contemporary writers like Quim Monzó, along with key texts by Mercè Rodoreda and Josep Pla. There was even a marvelous, maddening translation of several novellas from the avant-gardist Miquel Bauçà. And of course, many of these authors have already found new audiences in other languages. Can you talk about the idea of Catalan literature finding a global readership?
Toni Sala It’s all very impressive. Archipelago Books recently published a great novel by Josep Maria de Sagarra, Private Life. As well, one of Mercè Rodoreda’s last books, War, So Much War, has also made its way into English. We are living in a golden moment for translation that may resolve some historical injustices. The Catalans don’t have a state behind them—on the contrary, our culture has been, and is, constantly attacked by the Spanish government. But Catalonia is a cultural power of the first order, and that’s something that no one contests in fields such as painting (Miró, Dalí, Tàpies) and architecture (Gaudi, Sert, Miralles). What’s happening now is what happened with some Eastern European literatures a few years ago (Poland and Hungary, for instance), which suddenly made a leap onto the world stage. Writers like Josep Pla or Mercè Rodoreda will see the international attention they deserve. To go back to the translation of Private Life, I just read a critical review in which Eileen Battersby compares Josep Maria de Sagarra to Joseph Roth. It’s a comparison that I hadn’t thought of before, and it helps to understand both Catalan and world literature. This is good news.
HH And what about the status of Catalan literature for Catalans?
TS Literature has a very important role for the Catalans, because the language is our identity card, and the value and evolution of the language is related to its use in literature. But Catalan writers have always had an eye on foreign literature. As a French border country, Catalonia’s language of cultural exchange was, until recently, not Spanish but French. In the twentieth century, Catalan writers incorporated the English and American traditions.
HH What do you think it is about French literature—and now, English—that has appealed so much to Catalan authors? Is there a particular sensibility, or aesthetic, or style that seems more natural than the Spanish?
TS Of course, it’s all due to modernity. The same way that painters who later became famous—such as Rusiñol, Miró, Dalí, and Picasso—went to Paris from Barcelona, Catalan writers entered modernity mainly through Paris. Our first modern novelist, Narcís Oller, can be placed in the Naturalism movement; he even published a novel with a prologue by Zola. Spain could not provide that modernity. Their tradition is probably more closed, more autarkic—something that Franco only worsened. In the Catalan background there is an affinity with the French classical tradition, especially Montaigne and, later, the Enlightenment—the anti-Baroque.
HH What would you say, then, are the major differences—aesthetic, thematic, historic—between Catalan and Spanish literature, aside from the language?
TS It’s a very interesting question, and the answer is tradition. Catalan literature had a high point in the medieval period. Ramon Llull is one of the first authors who used prose in the vernacular with high cultural purpose; Tirant lo Blanch is one of the best novels ever written, not to mention the work of the poet Ausiàs March. But we didn’t have the Spanish Baroque. In the seventeenth century, Catalan culture was overshadowed by the Spanish golden age. This is a crucial difference. Catalan literature has very little Baroque to it; it’s even against Baroque, refuses it. When in the very beginning of the twentieth century we get placed back into modernity, we do it through values related to classicism, especially the Greek tradition. In a conscious and willed manner, the Catalan tradition aims to be clear, calm, clean, ironic, and civilized. Values that we identify with the Mediterranean and the classical past—call it rationalist, anti-Baroque, anti-Romantic. Of course these are generalizations, but the best and most authentic Catalan writers have been part of that tradition.
HH But The Boys seems, at least to me, to flicker between these two traditions: a classicist-inflected Greek tragedy and a reading of narcissism and madness that feels much closer to Romanticism. Do you feel like your work—whether out of a conscious act of rebellion or not—bridges the gap between these traditions? And are there any Catalan or Spanish writers who you think have successfully done so, past or present?
TS We should first consider if Greek tragedy cannot be Romantic. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche makes an extraordinary claim regarding Aeschylus and Sophocles for striking a balance between order and chaos. The Boys may indeed be an involuntary complaint against the classical tradition; it’s something which I have often thought about. Carner, the best Catalan poet of the twentieth century, wrote a poem saying he would never be dedicated again to the darker aspects of life: pain, death, ugliness, etc. It is a conscious decision, there is nothing to say, and perhaps it’s the smartest way to go around, accepting the world as it is, shutting up and giving thanks for it. We can’t really choose another. My favorite Quim Monzó story, “Two Bouquets of Roses,” can be interpreted this way. A clerk is bored at work. His boss tells him not to worry and just take the day off. Out on the street, the man meets two girls, goes to bed with them, and everything is wonderful. The story doesn’t say that this never happens in real life. But the reader knows that this is a story written by Quim Monzó, the skeptical Quim Monzó, and this absence of criticism has a devastating effect in a book, incidentally entitled The Best of All Worlds. I’ve often wondered about the morality of writing about dark themes. I like Seneca’s sentiment: “To move to the enemy fields, not as a deserter, but as an explorer.” One of the characters of The Boys, Nil, for example, his art is brutally dark. But Nil is a failed artist—or maybe he isn’t? He does, of course, trigger the story of The Boys.
HH You’ve chosen a very deliberate fragmentation for The Boys: to pursue a single event—the vehicular death of the brothers, the boys of the title—from four distinct yet overlapping perspectives. We begin with Ernest, a bank clerk new to Vidreres, and continue on through Miqui, the deranged trucker; Iona, the widowed girlfriend; and finally to Nil, the artist/sadist you mentioned. Did the characters precede the event?
TS The beginning was the accident. There was a similar accident in my hometown. I do not remember if there was one death or two. I remember that some people were wounded as well. These kind of accidents are frequent everywhere—accidents with young people, mostly at daybreak, coming back from some party. This core is important; creative energy parts from your interests; you write and read from things of personal interest.
HH Did any particular voice emerge from the accident first?
TS The first character I imagined was the banker, someone who feels close to the misfortune of the family of the dead because he has daughters himself. But since he’s not from Vidreres, he’s someone who is bound to live the tragedy from the outside. This is a book about identity, and the theme of death has a lot to do with identity. The first part of the novel was to be a short story. I spent one year on this story of the banker. Then one summer, the other three parts came along.
HH Of all the characters, the banker strikes me as the most distant—on the longest orbit out from the brothers’ death. It seems like the tragedy is more or less a way for him to reckon with the anxieties of parentage, of having daughters that could, at any moment, see the same fate. But by the time we get into the second section with the truck driver, Miqui, the focus has flickered away from guilt and anxiety towards a kind of narcissistic perversity and resentment. The tone and distance shift.
TS I agree with your observation about the banker. Surely the way this episode was written affected the “coldness” of the character. Until a certain point, the banker is an exogenous character in the story. He comes from another region, fifty kilometers away, outside the world of Vidreres. Even working at the very center of the town, he is an outsider. And one of his problems is that he’s not counted as a part of the community—he watches the funeral from the outside. In fact, he has no continuity in the rest of the book: in some way, he serves as an introduction.
HH And the other voices?
TS The second character, the trucker, comes from the neighboring village, Sils. He is another degree of remoteness. The third character, one of the dead brothers’ girlfriends, is finally someone from Vidreres, part of the community. And Nil, the artist, is the son of the landowner, the direct heir of the lands. He serves as the direct link to the earth. In terms of identity, you can see the four chapters as concentric circles—Dantean, if you want—towards the land, towards bonds with the earth.
HH So as we get closer to the tragedy, we narrow in on the primary actors in the story—Nil and his family—as the catalysts for the plot. But they’re also, in a sense, the primary economic actors in Vidreres, as landowners. Do you think the recent recession has revalued the novel’s responsibility towards an economic critique?
TS Yes, but this economic critique—this war against fantasy—is not exclusive to books. For several years, we came to believe that Spain was a great economic power. This was encouraged by the government. But the country was in debt, and the resulting crisis has been spectacular. Reality often deceives itself and then come the crises. The fantasy—that Spain’s economy could weather the storm—can be a form of escapism. That’s why there’s a logical backlash now by writers and readers.
HH Catalan independence comes up a few times throughout The Boys, primarily invoked against the background of the Iberian recession. Can you talk about the novel’s relationship to Catalonia’s movement towards independence?
TS As I said before, one of the main themes of the novel is identity, which is an issue that has been very important in relation to independence. The independence movement was triggered when the children of immigrants from the rest of Spain became independentists. Historically, Spain has used the Spanish identity of immigrants to fight separatism; it still does. This is perverse, because it splits Catalans from one another. In The Boys, there are two characters with opposing views on independence. On the one hand, Miqui doesn’t believe in independence. On the other, his friend is pro-independence. But the independence movement is only one element of the novel that has to do with identity. In the time frame of the book, January 2012, the movement didn’t yet have the current hold it does now. National affiliation is only a part of our identity.
HH You noted earlier that death and identity are bound together; is this a literary theme you find to be true in general? To put it another way, what kind of a tool is death, for a writer?
TS Death is one of the few radars we have to probe the self. The other is love, but I think that love is even more complicated, more subjective. All that we can say about death or love is literature. This makes me think how our personalities themselves are made of literature, more than we think. The presence of death in our lives is so obvious that we don’t normally realize it. Borges said that everything would be meaningless without death. If we were immortals, for example, the manner in which I answered this question would be meaningless. I could answer anything—huhg agñaughakj agauihgañghkjln aseagaeera —and it would have no importance, because, being immortal, we would have the certainty that any possible combination of responses would exist. Another day, among endless possibilities, I would answer your question appropriately. In moral terms, death is the guarantor of transcendence. We know that the world remains when someone is dead. Death certifies that there is something more than us. It can cause anxiety because we are not sure who we ourselves are. One lives together with this strange person that is one’s self.
HH “Our personality itself is made of literature.”—this sentiment runs alongside Cormac McCarthy’s famous line about Blood Meridian, “Books are made out of books.” But in your formulation, it’s the writer/reader herself who is composed of literature. What literature are you made up of? And to address McCarthy’s version, what personal canon is looming behind your own work? Is there any difference?
TS My canon is predictable, the universally-loved authors that you can imagine, without limitations—without borders between novel, essay, poetry, reportage—along with the Catalan tradition. Indeed, this is a chain, and each book is a link. That books are made out of books, it’s true, but I tend to see literature as a unique book containing all books. Because if books are made out of books, then which came first? Perhaps, in this single volume, the world would be between the pages, or the pages between the world. This is a conversation—a conversation between books—but above all it is a conversation between the books and the world. A conversation that serves to humanize the world. Books take in the world’s material and humanize it. Through books we advance inside ourselves, we explore what makes us human. This process is constantly changing, always as unfinished as we are, but it makes us. It’s an expansion of consciousness—that would summarize it.
HH As for your education as a writer, did you have any formal training, or is this a self-taught endeavor?
TS I studied philology at the university, but this has nothing to do with writing. On the contrary, I think it’s an anti-literary education. I don’t believe that writing can be taught in a deep sense. I might reconsider, but for now, whenever I’ve been asked to give writing lessons I’ve always said no. Creativity should be creative, there are no formulas, and everyone does what he can and each writer works differently. A single author writes each book differently, and maintaining that freedom is one of his toughest tasks. Writing is a matter too intimate, and perhaps too risky, to want to involve anyone else in. I have a daughter and sometimes I wonder if I would like her to be dedicated to writing. I don’t really know. I don’t think you can teach writing, but I do think that you can teach reading. So I teach literature, or rather, reading. And the difference between reading and writing is not as great as it seems, much like the difference between hearing and speaking. In a conversation, what matters is what is said, what is communicated, and it is important who speaks, but also who is listening. There is a certain autonomy of the text. The writer puts something down on paper, but he needs the reader to be able to understand it. As for my own education, I like the words of the Spanish poet Jaime Gil de Biedma who once said of writing, “A lot of vocation and a bit of work.”
HH Certain fields of study are then particularly damaging to a young writer?
TS Literature has its dangers. For me, the biggest is that literature’s raw material is fantasy. Both readers and writers sometimes get drunk on fantasy. This deployment of fantasy can affect life itself. Needless to say, the lure of fantasy has itself often been a literary theme. But there is always a conflict between truth and self-deception. Literary writing is basically a battle against self-deception. It’s like working towards an antidote: you can end up poisoning yourself. What we call truth—forgive me for being so bold!—is a living and changing material. It moves because it is alive. Power does not like the truth, because power needs to fix it in place—to imprison, tame, and use the truth. But truth changes. That’s why literature is so corrosive to power. Literature attempts to pursue this changing truth, to pursue the change itself. When literature separates from truth, rhetoric appears. My perception is that, with very few exceptions, universities teach rhetoric. We study a distorted literature—etymological, unlived. In this sense it is an anti-literary education. It’s not a matter of reading a thousand or ten thousand or ten thousand and one books; it’s not quantifiable. That’s why Socrates didn’t write, because you cannot fix knowledge, you cannot fix truth. We must spend our lives fighting self-deception. The university as I know it aims to establish knowledge and convert it into a comfortable rhetoric.
HH There seem to be three working ideas of literary creation here: 1) that fantasy is the material of literature, 2) that literature attempts to pursue the fluidity of truth; and 3) that the pursuit of truth is a battle against self-deception. How do you keep a balance between the three in your own writing?
TS Ah, who knows? I guess writing is basically done to keep the faith that it all serves some purpose. But you will never know the result of your book. The balance you point out, who knows if I’ve succeeded or not. It is also a changing truth.
HH Does knowing that Catalan literature is finding success on the international market change your approach as a Catalan writer?
TS Yes, I think it inevitably does change your approach, and the danger is that the conversation with the outside world can become too much of a fantasy, and therefore a deception. One needs a very delicate language for a very delicate conversation. I’m now thinking about the devastating effects of the Internet, so sophisticated in the art of self-deception. I think the Internet’s facility for self-deception explains why we’ve not seen much successful literature produced online, despite all the writing the Internet generates. When it’s open to an honest conversation, literature is as universal as music or painting. As I said, Catalan writers had always kept an eye trained beyond the borders. Somehow Sagarra, Pla, Rodoreda, and Carner all already anticipated the possibility of this international conversation. Sure, the responses have arrived long after these authors have died, but very often literature is a seed. To put it another way, authors contaminate each other. We would not read the same Amis if Shakespeare had not existed (and Amis would certainly write differently), we would not read the same Carriére if it weren’t for Céline. Literature is like a family, with all the consanguinity and heritages. There are families with good and bad reputations, there are dysfunctional families, there are mafia families, influential families, poor families. You cannot help but think of his family when you think about someone. And needless to say, as an author, having a good tradition behind you is ninety percent of your work. You can only choose a little part of your tradition, a little part of your family—the main part will come to you by inheritance. As for my specific case, with the translation of The Boys, it’s a bit more difficult. I don’t know exactly how Two Lines Press got my book, so I tend to think of it as a happy coincidence, perhaps undeserved. At the moment, the critical reception has been enthusiastic. As an author, this is a little scary. Being indoors is very comfortable. But much of the work in writing consists of confronting challenges. Perhaps the most impressive effect of my American adventure was to see The Boys displayed in a bookstore next to the new translation of Mercè Rodoreda’s War, So Much War. I almost felt sorry for her.
HH The second part of The Boys addresses this capacity of the Internet for self-deception in several extensive commentaries. Do you view the contemporary novel’s relationship to the particular psychologies and semantics of the Internet as inherently antagonistic? Or is the Internet simply a new border for writers—Catalan writers—to look beyond?
TS The Internet is a new border for writers in general. It has many consequences, as the invention of the printing press had, or even as the origin of writing itself had. Both writing and printing immediately aroused justified mistruths. Plato warned that writing can give you an appearance of wisdom, but not wisdom. Soon after the invention of the printing press, a Venetian publisher warned that “books galore make men less studious.” They’re the same mistruths we now have with the Internet, with its similar revolution. Unlike writing, which fixes language, or printing, which spreads it, I think the Internet’s real danger is that it works in real time. Internet writing is fluctuating, constantly moving. The Internet allows a kind of irresponsible writing. You receive instant feedback on what you write, and that blurs your responsibility. This is very dangerous for a writer. What distinguishes the writer from the reader is that the writer goes first. It’s his responsibility to decide what he writes. The notion that readers might immediately respond gives the writer the opportunity to simply adapt his creation to the public’s demand. Yes, with books this could still happen, but it’s further from the instance of creation, when the writing is done. The writer must be able to keep a distance from the reader in order to maintain his freedom and responsibility, and the Internet makes this much more difficult.
HH We started this conversation just days after the Paris attacks, and since then we’ve seen the attack in San Bernardino and all of the attendant backlash from American and European politicians. Things seem to be moving very fast right now and in very ugly directions. In your view, what responsibilities does the writer have in this particularly violent contemporary moment?
TS The writers have the advantage that they work with words. This may sound obvious, but it is not so. They are experts in moral violence but not in physical violence. We can ask them for responsibility in the same way that we can ask for it of a musician or a baker: merely a responsibility of his person. There have been towering writers of all ideologies, including Nazism. I’m not saying they do not have responsibility—of course they have—but the world of literature is based on the writer’s ability to complicate things, and this makes it anti-violent. You can incite violence from writing, obviously, but I doubt that successful literature—in its purest form—can succeed in that way, because its goal is to describe the complications and the final ambiguities of the world. I’m not saying that a writer can live apart from the world; on the contrary, it’s precisely this friction, the inevitability of having to deal with others, that makes us moral actors. What I’m saying is that writers fight violence in a very sophisticated and unobvious way. Because good and evil always demand a process of simplification, literature cannot make us better, only more complicated. On the other hand, it is very appropriate to ask a Catalan writer of his responsibilities, because Catalan writers have very often been used by politics, and turned to politics themselves. The responsibility of the writer’s craft is in reminding us that things are more complicated. If the only way to solve problems was through literature, humanity would have stopped trying. Fortunately, the world does not end with writers; and fortunately, the world can’t get rid of them either.
Hal Hlavinka is the event coordinator at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and Golden Handcuffs Review.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee