by Sue Brownbridge
Introduction from BR editor:
Barcelona native Nuria Amat is a well-known and
highly respected author in the Spanish reading world, both here in Spain and in Latin
America. She holds a degree in Spanish Studies and a doctorate in Information Science; she
taught for many years at the University of Barcelona and has written numerous works of
fiction and non-fiction. Her most recent work includes the novels El país del alma
(The Country of the Soul)  and La intimidad (Intimacy)  along
with a collection of essays Letra herida (Wounded Letter) .
Barcelona Review translator, Ana Alcaina, met up
with Nuria Amat at Happy Books café the first week of April where Michael Garry Smout and
myself joined the two near the end of the interview to take photos. Nuria is a tall and
slender brunette with long straight hair, attractive, sexy, quick and intelligent;
shes full of high energy and her passion for words and literature comes bursting
through. Wed all met up for lunch at the bistro El Salón in the Barrio Gótico
about a month before and here, as the wine flowed, the conversational gamut ran the course
of much European and Latin American writing. I was amazed to learn that shed spent
time with Samuel Beckett while he was working on the production of his plays in Berlin.
She laughed when she told us that he used to turn to her, a young girl in her twenties,
during rehearsals and ask her opinion on how this or that worked. She was also very
inquisitive about our backgrounds and our reading and who we considered the most important
English-language writers today (who she can only read in translation) and if there were
many good small presses in America and the U.K. (We assured her there were and gave her a
run down.) It was an altogether delightful meeting, and here she shares some of her
personal views and perceptive observations with Ana Alcaina...
BR: What exactly do you
mean when you say that books protect you from the tedium of life and from the risk of
dying? What is literature to you and why this obsession, this consuming passion for books,
libraries and writers that are always to be found throughout your books?
NA: When I was very small, I discovered literature and writing to be a
way of life. This world disgusts me no end. I truly believe that the world is evil and
unjust, though, in addition, I have a certain ingenuousness, which I also believe is
necessary for writing. However, I have always been sickened by the world, and so I found
in literature a kind of stopping place, somewhere I can cling on to and live pretty much
the way I want in accordance with the values I hold to. If I hadnt found this way of
Writing is a vocation, thats how I
experience being a writer, its a vocation, an exceedingly important life choice.
Seeing things from the perspective of the world of literature is to see the more human
side of things, if you like, and thats what most interests me, thats what
Im into. We writers are somewhat obsessive (to my mind, its one of the
qualities of a writer). Another issue is madness, not so much being in the depths of
madness yourself as being on the edge in order to be able to write. I have needed to build
myself this kind of family, I say that to some degree books are my family, together
with, well, these marginalised minds that are a bit strange, that make subtle distinctions
in life, outlandish, eccentric people, Im not saying mad
well, that too. When
I reflect on the suicide (or accidental death) of this poet [José Agustín Goytisolo], I
feel that it is entirely consistent with what I have been writing in Letra herida
(Wounded Letter). The death of Goytisolo follows what I believe about literature; in Letra
herida, I constantly talk of poets who commit suicide, and I think it is a gesture
(throwing yourself out of the window and killing yourself) that is almost typical of the
writer today. Cesare Pavese started to write, saying "All of this is repugnant.
Thats it. Ill not write anything else." And he killed himself. When a
writer becomes aware of the uselessness of the word and especially when he or she has no
words left, then this gesture is a coherent act.
However, there is a major contradiction here: on the one
hand, I am subjected to the pressure of the market, and on the other, I am opposed to the
market. What is happening here in Spain isnt happening to the same extent in other
countries because the commercial prizes we have here dont exist there. Instead,
there are genuine literary prizes. Though it has to be said that I am gradually making a
living from my books, and that is one of my goals. If I rank my ambitions, the first would
be to contribute something new, to have my own voice, which doesnt have to be just a
style, a form, a way of seeing
in my case it is more of a voice, that is what is
important to me, something that is not happening now, like everything, the media are
devouring every kind of art, we have to live with that, you cant attack it. The
other day, a few of us, Juan Goytisolo and some other friends, we were talking about it,
and thanks to the fact that some people sell a lot, we can sell too. But the market (el
mercado) I am opposed to.
BR: Some general comments
on the publishing world today?
NA: Its saturated. Everybody is writing. Its absurdly
inflated, corrupt (tramposo); the author is not important. The only importance is
selling. I feel like a puppet. My romantic idea is that serious authors should be
published by small houses, as a reaction against the commercial market, but we
dont have that here in Spain. I would love it if the market were like it was twenty
years ago. It was more honest, much healthier.
BR: In La intimidad
(Intimacy), you say "the first thing a true writer learns is to accept the absence of
original phrases and that all true literature has an air of disguised plagiarism and that
now, more than ever before, writers muses are libraries." Could you elaborate
NB: Ill explain it but of course you cant take it literally.
There is an element of irony, which is essential for writing, but there is another
important feature; I have just been reading the biography of Beckett, a writer I knew
personally and who, like so many other writers
like Borges, for example, got his
ideas from encyclopaedias. He chose Britannica or some other encyclopaedia and got on with
Well, as I was saying, Beckett - one of the most innovative writers ever in
the history of literature - was accused for years of imitating Joyce. And it is true that
his early works had a touch of Joyce about them. To enter into the sphere of literature
that interests me, you have to have read a lot and even, I would say, to have copied a lot
in the sense that you have to have influences. The only way you can acquire your own
voice, your particular gaze in the literary world, is after you have soaked up these
authors. This voice only comes out when you have steeped yourself in these authors.
Its rare for it to be any other way. It is possible to get your own voice when
youre 20 years old, but then you lose it later.
"The university in Spain today is dead, period. Its
an absurdly bureaucratic system."
BR: And so, when it comes
to writing with the aim of having your own voice, how do you overcome the
"disease" or "complex" of wanting to compete with these great authors,
or even of outdoing these muses?
NA: I believe that writers live in a constant state of contradiction. On
the one hand, the writer has to be very ambitious because every time you set about writing
seriously, you are in reality saying "I am going to compete with Cervantes".
Because if you dont, what are you writing for? However, on the other hand, you have
to live with this degree of irony. Thats how I live, but my fear is not so much over
whether I have or have not achieved this personal voice, but rather that I dont want
it to disappear. I am always afraid, especially now that I have just finished a book (El
país del alma [The Country of the Soul]), that I have reached a moment when I am
unable to write. This is when this fear, this vacuum, arises, and I think that many
writers commit suicide because of this, because of the silence that either they impose
upon themselves or which is imposed upon them by the outside world. For certain writers
(and I consider myself to be one of them), words are very closely linked to life: while
there are words, there is life, and when there are no more words, life is over. Its
good that the market exists because it helps we writers who are more ambitious in literary
terms to be able to publish and to publish well. However, it is so inconsistent - I am
playing at something I dont believe in. To an extent, this is our contradiction at
the end of this century: here we are, we who have survived some unknown experience for
some unknown purpose, because there is no escaping the fact that literature is not useful.
On the one hand, I know that it is useless, socially speaking, and on the other, I believe
that if people read more, they would be better in the sense that they would be more human.
BR: This reminds me of
some of George Steiners books. In Letra Herida, you also talk of an
encounter you had with Steiner. I dont know if the story is true or not.
NA: It is true. I am often asked about it because most of my stories are
fictitious. I have felt the need to create a world for myself, writing is a very solitary
task, and I have needed to create a kind of "family", and it is because of this
that I have had to relate these meetings with writers. I suppose that we writers need to
incorporate the life of the imagination into our real daily lives. But going back to
Steiner, it is true that I keep up a correspondence with writers in other countries. I
have, you might say, excellent godparents, and one of them is Steiner. The conversation
that appears in Letra herida is entirely true. I have made the opening of the story
a little vague in order to throw the reader off the scent, but what interests me about
Steiner is his love of literature.
BR: And what is the role
of literature today? Why write?
NA: To survive. I think thats the most sincere reply. We writers
are often asked this question, and there are lots of possible replies - and all of them
are true. Some will say that we want to be loved more, etc. and you could say something
different every day. But the most honest answer is because its how I can live.
Still, there comes a time when I dont know if its the clothes that make the
man or the other way round, but for me its a choice I have made in life. Plus, it
has to be said as well that the world has changed a lot in the course of the last 20
years. I am a child of 1968 and I believed passionately in values that have now
disappeared: feminism, leftwing politics, etc. We were trying to change the world but all
of this has turned out badly. So, in a sense, literature is a refuge, a way I can denounce
things. In literature, the world has changed to the point where there is an enormous
difference between the seventies, the time of the boom, García Márquez, etc. and the
present day. Before, serious authors had a certain standing and were important to society
but nowadays, writers are nobodies. This is related to something that was said in the last
Woody Allen film, Celebrity, which was that every generation has the heroes it
deserves, and its true that you need to be a failure in literature, because being a
hero is suspicious, very suspicious.
BR: You mentioned feminism
earlier. Whats your view of so-called womens literature and of feminism in
NA: I dont believe that there is such a thing as womens
literature. I am a feminist and I believe that everybody should be, although its
true that you have to fight all the time, its my daily struggle. Im not a
member of a group anymore, but if theres something to be signed, I sign it. Although
it seems to me that all these movements, well, they either do no good or
dont know, Im just a bit disenchanted with it all. They dont pay any
attention to us anymore, there are other interests, but its true to say that I have
always been rebellious by nature.
BR: Is the Spanish
university a healthy one today; i.e., there appear to be a growing number of protests
among the university students lately: How do you see this? Is it a positive movement?
NA: The university in Spain today is dead, period. Its an absurdly
bureaucratic system. When I was teaching I felt like I was the persecuted character in The
Trial by Kafka, so I resigned. There is no movement, no interest in independence,
creativity, art, free thinking. The university is a machine that strangles creative
thinking. Unfortunately, the future will be the private university. Teachers are more
interested in keeping in their own little areas, in their own tight departments, their
little power cliques; the students are protesting for their own self-interest within their
own particular group. There is no collective movement. It is the reign of mediocrity.
BR: Is there any hope? You
wrote a manifesto with some other teachers not long ago [including Juan Goytisolo, Javier
Marías and over 60 others, entitled: Un Manifiesto de Intelectuales Denuncia el
Inmovilismo y la Endogamia en la Universidad Española. Available on-line in Spanish]
NA: We got no response from the manifesto, no one paid any attention.
There is no hope.
BR: What writers and what
kind of literature are you interested in at the moment?
NA: The literature that has most interested me recently is poetry.
Theres even a poetic tone to my latest novel. I suppose its a natural
progression of what I was saying before: libraries, madness, etc. I have felt better
sheltered, more protected in this world that I have, well, in the world they say I have
when writing. I am interested in what I call "true" books, with words that reach
right inside me, books that are precisely not the light literature that is popular today.
When there is a truth, when there is an intention, when there is magic
reading works that let me see a new world, this new way of seeing things.
BR: Why do you write in
Spanish if you are a Catalan author?
NA: The prime reason is that I am Catalan but I grew up speaking Spanish
and it is a language I adore and which I have to fight for to make mine. I believe that
the writers that exist at the end of this century that I call bilingual, or who swap
languages, writers on the periphery, if you prefer, are very interesting. My maestros, as
I call them, are all bilingual - Juan Marsé, etc. Thats to say, I am the offspring
of these authors and I seek to defend bilingualism because I believe its very
healthy for literature - not having your own language or having two, three, however many -
its very healthy. Id even go as far as to say you write better. Its very
positive for literature. The very fact of believing that a language is common property is
very good, nobody can see themselves as its owner, particularly in these times of rampant
nationalism. I have written the odd play in Catalan, but I feel more comfortable, or
uncomfortable, in Spanish. As Spanish is not my language, as its not my natural
language, I have had to make it mine and when I come to write, there is a greater sense of
emotion. In Latin America, my books are relatively popular - something found surprising -
and I believe that it must be because for them Spanish is a stepmother - the language they
speak is not the language of the "fatherland".
I have got an incredible advantage out of being
bilingual and I am against any kind of imposition, wherever it might come from, and if
certain things are forced upon me in a dictatorial or pseudo-dictatorial manner, I shall
always be against them. In my view, the Catalan language is a way of life, a way of
talking, a way of communicating with friends and with my family. There is no need to
defend it, thats the way it is, and Im not going to go out and wave a flag
over it, just like I wouldnt for Spanish. Curiously enough, though, my literary
world is a Catalan world. Elsewhere, they call me a Catalan novelist. In Venezuela, for
example, in relation to the plot in La intimidad, they told me, " But it
seems as if this has happened here." And Im talking of a completely Catalan
world. Or when I was in Granada recently, people said "Ive bought two books by
the poet J.V. Foix." In other words, Catalan nationalists should be overjoyed because
it is a way of advertising the culture itself.
What a contradiction, dont you think? Here, we are
sometimes criticised because we write in Spanish, when what we are doing is promoting
Catalan culture. I am a bilingual writer who has chosen the Spanish language as a form of
writing, and I am Catalan, and despite writing in Catalan, I have no particular interest
in doing so. Beckett of course wanted to write in French and he made this decision as a
way of leaving his country behind, he hated Ireland. I dont feel this need. I
identify more with South Americans, for example, for some reason. One of the
characteristics of good literature is that it lies between borders. One of the ways of
developing a new voice is to exploit, if you can, the bilingual condition. The sign of the
times is purity, but the most interesting literature in Spain is the literature to be
found on the periphery amongst the Galicians, Catalans, etc. A "pure" Spanish
literature cannot be defended, even if those in Madrid think it can. The most important
literature of this century is not being written at the centre, but rather on the outskirts
BR:You recently went to
Granada at the invitation of the Faculty of Psychology to talk on the issue of madness in La
intimidad. What did the experts ask you?
NA: They asked me how it was possible for me to write this novel if
Id never been in a mental hospital. They also asked me if Id read a lot of
books on the issue and I replied that I hadnt read any specialist books but that I
had read a lot of novels (I always do my homework for all my books), books about the lives
of heroines such as Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre. Ive learnt a lot
about life through literature. In the literature Im interested in, the great
characters are outlandish and strange, though I dont like to use the word
"mad". My theory is - and I told them this in Granada, paraphrasing Lacan when I
told them that all women are mad - my theory is that all novels are mad. Cervantes
hero, so they say, was a madman, but rather than mad, I think he was a writer because
hes always confusing literature with the real world. Quixote is the prime example of
a novelist. But I believe that the leading characters in great literature are generally
all a bit mad. In fact, I think that we are all a bit like that.
BR: This issue of the BR
is running a retrospective on Felipe Alfau, native of Barcelona, but relatively unknown
here as he lived most of his life in New York and wrote his two novels in English.
Youve mentioned earlier that you read him in Spanish translation. Some thoughts on
NA:Youre doing Alfau? Yes? Thats wonderful! Hes the
perfect example of what Ive been talking about, a "true" writer who stood
apart from the mercado, who didnt write for the commercial market. . . . What
I like best about Alfau, more than the particular style of writing, are the stories;
that's what I remember, those wonderful stories. [She refers to Locos. She
didnt know Chromos was in translation (unfortunately now out of print).]
Im very happy to be appearing with him.
BR: Can you tell us
anything about your next novel, which is just about to be published?
NA: I can tell you the title, El país del alma (The Country of
the Soul), and I can say that it as a novel about love, about the love of words. Its
not set in the present and it is against excessive nationalism. I believe its quite
BR: And do you now have this sense of the vacuum that you talked about at the
beginning, this fear that you will have no "voice" left?
NA: Yes, and increasingly so, I think. The older we writers get, the more
we feel the terror of silence, although I believe that novelists have the advantage over
poets: it lasts longer, you can take more time
but because I have this breath of
poetry inside, I suffer a lot in this respect. I need to publish in order to write
something else. I try to make every book different, I try not to continue in the same tone
of the previous book, I wait until a new tone comes and if doesnt, I dont
write. Every novel has its story; in the case of La intimidad, for example, I
remember that I "saw" the first page. I remember I was doing nothing, I was
writing something else, and suddenly I heard this voice and I saw the first page of the
novel and I set about writing it and put everything else aside.
dictation", as Benet would say.
NA: Yes, well, put like that its very appealing. Its also
true that I have written this last novel five times, so it cant be that inspired.
But yes, and now what Im worried about, what I fear is that I wont hear this
"voice" ever again.