The author of “Patria” talks about his novel, “The Swifts”, just released in Spain, which will be published in Italy on October 18 by the publisher Guanda with the title «I rondoni». The main character of the book, Toni, decides in advance the day to commit suicide
The secular miracle of literature. Who would have thought that, five years later Homeland (one and a half million copies sold, over 30 editions worldwide), the choral novel whose tears illuminate decades of darkness in a Basque country silenced by ETA terrorism, Fernando Aramburu told us with such acute lightness, in Swifts (released Wednesday 25 in Spain) the struggle of a lonely man, Toni, who decided to take his own life by establishing the exact date of his suicide eleven months in advance? Let’s get it right now, though. The new novel by the San Sebastián writer is neither a sad nor a gloomy book. His irreverent hero (a strange but exact word in this case, as the reader gradually understands), who captures us page after page with the dazzling memories of the past and the amused bitterness of the present, “is a citizen of our age, disillusioned and lucid, who without being romantic tries to become the protagonist of a tragedy and does not know how ». “What I like about him – he adds – is the fact that he does not renounce morality, despite everything, which prevents him from behaving like a simple nihilist”.
Aramburu responds from Hanover, the city where the philology student from Zaragoza, now 62 years old, long ago rang the door of a German girl who has become the companion of an entire life. Here, in Germany, he calmly awaits the storm of interest that will be unleashed by this new work of his. It is natural to immediately make a comparison between Homeland e Swifts, whose title is dedicated to the swifts, the birds that appear and disappear, always free, in the sky of Madrid and that “perform – he tells me – a symbolic function in the plot”. We will not reveal it, of course. «I believe that in both novels – he explains – there is a similar background music, although the themes treated and the characters differ considerably. The reader interested in concomitances will find them. Both in the one and in the other I tell episodes from the life of ordinary people, placed in real scenarios and in a historical period of my country that I have personally known ». Have you ever listened to a quiet man? There he is. Even the extraordinary success of that magnetic book that struck our consciences is treated with human sincerity. “Yup, Homeland it changed my life enough. I believe in the best ».
In the collection of articles «The noise of this age», you spoke of «voluntary solitude», calling it «an art». Is there something of her in Toni? Could it happen that the writer transmutes or identifies with his characters, like Flaubert in Madame Bovary?
“They are not Madame Bovary, they are not Toni, they are not my characters. The path of my life is another, monotonous and without interest in a novel. I’ve used my less boring anecdotes in the past. There is very little of me in Swifts. The dogma that the whole novel is necessarily autobiographical makes me laugh. I do not deny that half a dozen events similar to those of the protagonist have happened to me. Like him, I have a bitch, I was a teacher at school, I accumulate books at home. So? If I share some details with him, it is not to tell my life in secret, but because knowing certain themes the writer runs less risk of being wrong ».
Toni’s world: friend Patachula, bitch Pepa, ex-wife Amalia, son Nikita, friend Águeda, mom, dad Gregorio, brother Raúl. They are all indicated, along with others, in a kind of map at the beginning of the book. A real “system” of characters that reminded me of “Patria”. Is there anyone among them more important than the others?
«On this point I must be diplomatic and refrain from prefiguring the possible interpretation. Here there is no other solution than to resign myself to the old cliché according to which the reader has the last word ».
Is the choice of setting the novel in Madrid – a city where you have never lived – a way to get away from history?
«I associate Madrid with pleasant memories. I visit her several times a year, unless Covid prevents it, and I think I owed her a novel. I chose it as the setting for my story for perhaps sentimental reasons, but above all because I consider it the right place to offer a social design of modern-day Spain ».
A “politically convulsive” Spain, it has been noted, in which Toni randomly chooses a party in the voting booth and Patachula (who is not right-wing) votes Vox to “break the balls”. Tell us about these extravagant choices to highlight the political crisis?
“I’m not so sure people vote for rational reasons, after sensible studies and meditations. Perhaps some citizens take the trouble to read election programs. I would swear I’m a minority. I sense that the majority vote driven by previous tastes and predilections, out of protest, out of habit, out of superstition, out of fear, out of personal convenience, because the candidate has charisma or because the candidate looks like her mother ».
Returning to «Los vencejos», you observed – with regard to Vladimir Nabokov – that «the grace» of a narrative «is a characteristic attributable mainly to the narrator». I found Toni’s voice enormously original, just like Humbert Humbert’s in ‘Lolita’ or Charles Kinbote’s in ‘Pale Fire’. My opinion is that you have written a book that has nothing to envy to that great teacher. You can say?
“I certainly can’t say that. To emerge head-on from a comparison of this kind, I would have to place myself close to writers of less stature than Nabokov’s. For the rest, I have the conviction that a novel with literary ambition must not lack a certain textual personality, that is, a particular modulation of the written language coming from the narrative voice or voices ».
Are there any other writers you can get close to in this novel? I thought of Witold Gombrowicz. Agree?
“In my youth I read voraciously the books of Gombrowicz. His sense of humor, his merciless irony, the condition of observing the facts of his country from the outside, the search for a personal language and the contemplation of the world from an individual observatory exerted a strong attraction on me. It is possible that, without realizing it, the influence of this great writer continues to be active ».
You paid homage to Albert Camus and his intellectual teachings. There is a “literary” debt to him?
«Here we must distinguish. I owe to Camus a moral basis that brought me closer to humanism and which helped me to give a positive orientation to my work and my personal relationships. Camus vaccinated me against any justification for cruelty. As for the novel, I am willing to admit that in the primary traits Meursault and Toni are brothers in many respects, and it may even be that my character is more radical, since he never loses consciousness of his acts. There is a direct reference to The stranger when Toni’s mother dies, but this episode serves to mark the difference between the two figures of fiction ».
In «Los vencejos» Toni receives as a gift «Explorers of the abyss» by Enrique Vila-Matas. He says “out of kindness” that he appreciated it. What is your relationship with the other most important Spanish writers?
“Living abroad revives my compatriots’ curiosity for literature. At the end of each visit to Spain, I return home to Germany loaded with books. I thus discovered that I am a contemporary of very talented authors and authors, among whom I certainly include Enrique Vila-Matas. I could name many others. I do not neglect to read the younger ones. I am horrified by the idea of becoming an angry old man who hates the present because he does not have the physical and mental strength to appreciate it and because he does not understand what is happening near him ».
In short, we do not despise the present. But among the great characters of the past, who would you like to have next to you for dinner one evening?
«I think it would be interesting and also fun to share gnocchi with pesto and a baked sea bream with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart».
You are an avid reader. Does reading a lot help you write better?
«I read for different reasons, not just for the pleasure of doing it, also for research and for work. I attribute to the reader the ability to activate, starting from a text, poetry, beauty, depth of thought, knowledge, serenity. Sometimes I read badly, I confess, especially novels, because I dissect them instead of letting myself be seduced by the story. At the same time, through dialogue with the literature of others, I benefit from my own ».
In this regard, in «The noise of this age» he recalls a famous epigram by Jorge Luis Borges: «Let others boast of the pages they have written; I am proud of what I have read ». Which pages are you most proud to have read?
“This is an ingenious phrase from Borges. Let him alone enjoy it. More than pride, I prefer to talk about sadness, the great sadness that would cause me to go through life without having read anything by Cervantes, Alice Munro, Eça de Queiroz, Pavese, Kafka, many others ».
And what books are on your bedside table right now?
“A book of poems is never missing from my bedside table. Apart from that, in recent months I have turned to Heinrich Böll and the genre of the story ».
Between work and reading, do you always have some time left to watch football?
“Of course. I like football because it makes the hero figure possible; because it is a substitute for war with rules and without deaths or injuries, because it stimulates pleasant childhood sensations and because, if you know how to dose the adrenaline, it offers an indubitable cultural enjoyment ».
Aramburu’s book will be published in Italy by Guanda on October 18 with the title The swallows and will be presented in Milan on October 28 at the Franco Parenti Theater. Aramburu will be at the Pordenonelegge festival on 17 September to receive the «History in a novel» award.
August 25, 2021 (change August 25, 2021 | 21:17)