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Inhabiting Language


The award-winning Catalan writer on political attempts to repress his native language, inventing stories to tell the truth, and the powers and pitfalls of memory.

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Image by Anita Sethi.

At the heart of celebrated Catalan writer Jaume Cabré’s most recent novel, Confessions, is 60-year-old narrator Adrià Ardèvol, who looks back on his life before his memories vanish under the grip of dementia. Ardèvol recalls his own gift for languages, which led him to become a linguist, his loveless childhood, and his antique-dealing father, who suffered an untimely death. The gripping and ambitious narrative moves across centuries, from the fourteenth to the twenty-first, winding through the Inquisition and the horrors of Nazi rule. At times, major temporal shifts are made in single paragraphs; the novel weaves between stories, from a medieval murder, for instance, to the planting of a tree from which an eighteenth-century Storioni violin, one of Ardèvol’s father’s antiques, is crafted. What emerges is a fundamental exploration of love, language, and questions of good and evil.

Cabré was born in Barcelona in 1947, studied Catalan philology at the University of Barcelona, and has made major contributions to Catalan culture. But, thanks to the English translation of Confessions, which the Spanish newspaper El Mundo described as “a piece of writing that has the power to influence our view of the world—a quality belonging to the best of literature,” his work is only now receiving its due. Released in the US by Arcadia in December 2014 and published in Catalan in 2011, the book has sold over a million copies and garnered multiple awards, among them Spain’s Premi de la Critica Catalana (2012), the Premi de la Critica Serra d’Or (2012), and the Prix Courrier International (2013). Cabré’s previous nine novels include Señoría, set in eighteenth-century Barcelona, and The Eunuch’s Shadow, which considers the nature of oblivion. He has also worked as a playwright and television scriptwriter, penning the first Catalan television soap opera, La Granja.

I met Cabré at his agent’s office on a sun-drenched day in Barcelona, not far from where the author was born and raised. The interview took place in a room lined with bookshelves, many filled with copies of his books, in numerous languages. Our conversation was translated by Mara Faye Lethem, who has previously worked with authors Patricio Pron, David Trueba, and Albert Sánchez Piñol.

Anita Sethi for Guernica

Guernica: Language and identity are powerful themes in Confessions. As a young boy, Adrià has a “gift for languages” and is expected to learn ten of them. And you write, “[We] don’t inhabit a country; we inhabit a language.” What drew you to these ideas?

Jaume Cabré: Catalan has been repressed and banned, not just during Franco’s dictatorship but also prior to it, since the arrival of the Bourbons in Spain. For someone like you who’s a British citizen this might seem strange. How can you ban a language? It turns out that you can. During the dictatorship it was illegal to speak Catalan. This is an experience that we Catalans have all had to varying extents. Some more tense than others, but it’s something we all share.

When you read what George Steiner says about language—that language captures a universe—you see that it’s a terrible global catastrophe when a language dies out. Each year, in this world, several languages do die out. There are certain languages that have their survival assured for many years, such as English, but there are other languages whose survival is not so sure, such as Catalan, especially if they don’t have a state that protects them. Catalan is spoken in Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearic Islands, and Andorra. There are about ten million people who understand it and eight and a half who can speak it. But its future is much less certain than, for example, Danish or Slovenian or Latvian, because they have a state.

I believe poetry is the essence of language.

Guernica: The novel looks at the individual’s battle with society, and the personal is skillfully interwoven with the political and the philosophical.

Jaume Cabré: I’m interested in the history of ideas. I create a paradox within the novel: on the one hand you see the power that European culture has had and, at the same time, the power of European cruelty. For me this is an unresolvable paradox. That was what kept me writing this novel.

What I strive to do is make my characters seem like real people so that the reader experiences them as people—that’s something I’ve been working on all of my life. I couldn’t have written this novel at twenty or thirty, for technical reasons—I didn’t have the technique then—but above all because I didn’t have the life experiences I have now at sixty-seven.

I’m always reading, and you learn a lot by reading. When I was twenty-five, I read a lot, but didn’t have much reading behind me.

Guernica: Which authors have most influenced you?

Jaume Cabré: I read a lot of poetry. All types of poetry, but mostly Catalan poetry, because I believe poetry is the essence of language. Reading the classics, be they medieval or contemporary, gives me a stylistic energy that I’m very interested in.

I read all sorts of literature, novels both in translation and not. Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Proust, James Joyce—these are core authors for me. I also read Catalan prose authors, but I’m an omnivore when it comes to reading nineteenth-century Russian and German literature. I like to be influenced, I’m open to that.

Guernica: Did you always want to be a writer?

Jaume Cabré: There were many books in my parents’ home. I’m from a family of five children and we were all readers. And so by the time I left home, I had already read many books, and I was very interested in reading more. That was when I started to have the desire to write. But it wasn’t like a divine apparition with angels and seraphins on high. Not for me, at least.

Since we were five siblings and I was the fourth, as they grew up and left I would take over or conquer their rooms. I remember, in the final room I had conquered, I wrote down that I really enjoyed reading, and that now I wanted to see if I could create a character and make him move. I remember the story was very short—about a boy my age who rode a bicycle to the fountain, drank, and came back. A very exciting plot! I read it and said, “Look, I made him move.” But then I thought, “Who is he, where does he come from, where is he headed?”

Another thing I began to do around this time, when I fell in love with the novel—I would get angry when [a book] ended and so I would write a continuation of the novel I was reading. And this had an advantage to it. There was already a style to the novel that I would imitate. For several days I would continue the story and change it—for example, resuscitating characters.

I take all my characters very seriously. Even if they only appear once, they still need to have their own life.

Guernica: You describe wanting to make a character “move.” Your characters move geographically, but also move readers emotionally.

Jaume Cabré: There’s an earlier novel of mine called Señoría in which a character who’s very important in the first part of the novel dies. It’s set in the Barcelona of the late eighteenth century and he dies under shady circumstances. I thought someone would come and save him but they didn’t. I was so affected by his death that for ten days I wasn’t able to write. But I recovered from it and continued writing. Readers have told me they had a similar feeling to the one I did when I was writing it. And I’m convinced that if I hadn’t been so affected by it, the reader wouldn’t be either. So I take all my characters very seriously—the main, secondary, and supporting characters. Even if they only appear once, they still need to have their own life. Some characters are absent literally but at the same time very, very present.

Guernica: Why did you weave the theme of music into Confessions?

Jaume Cabré: The violin worked its way in on its own. I hadn’t foreseen that one of the pillars of this novel would be the violin, but once I made the father a character who’s interested in antiques, I had the idea that there was a certain object that would accompany Adrià throughout his life. That became the violin, which is so much a part of the father’s story and his tragic end.

There’s also a symbolic dimension to the violin. So I began to look at it in a different way. It’s Adrià who belongs to the violin’s life, because the violin’s life is much, much longer than Adrià’s or his father’s. So that tempted me into the past, following the history of the violin.

Since I took eight years to write this novel, I had time to think about it. I was interested in everything, including where the wood the violin is made of came from. That took me to the whole family, the siblings who made their living from the wood in the forest. That’s a whole other universe. And then I had to integrate that into the rest of the novel without the seams showing. I thought, “I’ve found the tree, let’s go to the seed.” I discover things in the process of writing.

I remember walking by the monastery with my wife and my brother, who’s a biologist. I was explaining to him that I’d been writing about the wood that comes from there and he told me that seeds can be dormant for many, many years, even for centuries. And I said, “Wow.” Throughout the process of writing there are constant epiphanies like this.

Guernica: The novel is rich in detail. Can you describe your research processes?

Jaume Cabré: Along the way, about certain things, you realize, “I don’t know anything about this.” You think, “Is this going to sound ridiculous?” So I pestered more than a hundred different people over the course of this book. And when I finished the book I gave it to six or seven trusted readers, who are always the same, but I also gave it to a brother of mine who’s a doctor and I asked him to read it, and he was very helpful. It’s good to have a group of trusted readers. As my kids have grown up, they’ve joined this group. When they find something they’ll tell me—or hush it up forever.

Research is necessary. However, you need to make sure you don’t fall into its trap. You need to have time left for writing. To avoid the trap, I just throw myself into the abyss while at the same time being aware that if I’m dealing with information I don’t know enough about, I have to go to someone and talk about it.

Guernica: Unknowability comes up in Confessions. The narrator says that “there are snippets of the soul that I don’t believe you do know because it’s impossible to know a person completely, no matter what.”

Jaume Cabré: The reader has information about the characters that the characters themselves don’t have. We all have our secret sides. Even I come to understand things about the characters only through the writing process, as I am going along.

I think that’s true of real life—we don’t ever know anyone completely. Secrets are very important to creating a narrative work that’s believable. The characters come into that world with secrets, as happens to all of us. As honest as we try to be in our relationships, we can never completely know someone. From a narrative perspective it’s very important and pleasing—you want to have those secrets there. The secret is an essential part of the creation of the novel.

I’m repulsed when I hear a novelist say our job is to lie. Novelists speak the truth.

Guernica: The book also grapples with memory, and the question of recuperating memories. Has this always been a fascination for you?

Jaume Cabré: I’m interested in how memory and power come together in evil. These are obsessions of mine that appear throughout, like the theme of music. I know at some point or another one of my obsessions will emerge. You don’t know how much I save in psychiatrist bills with this writing!

The opposite of memory—the idea of oblivion—was the starting point for a novel called The Eunuch’s Shadow. My children knew my father, but not my mother, and didn’t know any of my grandparents. They knew one of my wife’s grandmothers, but not her father. My children’s children haven’t met any of that generation—this is a fact of life, it happens in every family. But you think, “How can I rescue them from oblivion?”

Guernica: One of your characters says: “I know I make things up: but I’m still telling the truth.”

Jaume Cabré: I’m glad you picked up on that, as the essence of a novelist is to invent things and speak the truth, at the same time. And Adrià sees that very clearly. The way he is able to express things is by inventing a lot of it, but through these “lies” you’ll see the truth. For me that’s one of the essential aspects of writing narrative. I’m repulsed when I hear a novelist say our job is to lie. Novelists speak the truth.

Guernica: Your work has been translated into many different languages. Do you find audience responses differ depending on what part of the world the reader is from?

Jaume Cabré: The day after tomorrow I’m going to Poland and soon to Budapest. Everywhere you go you find readers who are interested, even though the story takes place here in this very neighborhood. It doesn’t matter that it takes place locally if the intention to make it universal is there. That’s what I strive to do.

G

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