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with Quim Monzó

Quim - pronounced "keem" - Monzó (Barcelona, 1952) is, in the words of one Barcelona publisher, "a phenomenon, truly a phenomenon". With over 600,000 titles sold in Catalan, with several titles translated into a dozen other languages, a film based on his penultimate short-story collection triumphing in France, his journalistic articles read weekly by hundreds of thousands of people and his new book - Guadalajara (Quaderns Crema, 1996) - now going into its seventh edition just eight months after publication, Quim Monzó is currently, without a doubt, both the best known and most respected writer in Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona. Despite a pressing schedule, which includes working on a new novel, Monzó kindly found time to do the following electronic interview.

BR: Much of your work until now has been in the form of short - occasionally very short - stories, or of journalistic articles. What are the advantages of these formats for you? Will you be changing your (literary) vehicle in the future?
QM: Up until now I've published three novels and five collections of stories. I change my (literary) vehicle whenever I feel like it. At all events, the short story format is fast, agile and vibrant. It's a format which is very close to that of poetry. And even though there are people who think of it as a "minor genre", there are also others who, swinging the other way with the inevitability of a pendulum, believe that the novel is a facile genre, and that the truly meritorious, divine genre is the story. That isn't true, either.

BR: International critics have compared you more than once with Franz Kafka: stylisticaly you share certain similarities and you are both acute observers of the behaviour and neuroses of the modern citizen. ("Instability" and "The Decision" from your collection The Reason for Absolutely Everything are two good examples of this). Do you find this a fair comparison?
QM: I find it flattering, obviously. Kafka is one of the Gods of 20th century literature.

BR: Kafka apart, could you mention some other writers who have influenced you?
QM: When I was a teenager, it was the time of the Latin American boom, which left a tremendous mark on me. Especially Bioy Casares, Cortázar, Cabrera Infante, García Márquez, Juan José Arreola... Others? Italians such as Giorgio Manganelli, Dino Buzzati, Italo Calvino. French writers such as Raymond Queneau and Boris Vian. Americans like Robert Coover, and Donald Barthelme's later work, the period between "Amateurs" and "Paradise".

BR: Some of your work has been described as hyper-realist. Do you think hyper-realism and humour can exist without each other?
QM: Humour without hyper-realism, yes. But hyper-realism without humour, no. In art, without humour - a subtle and invisible humour - there is nothing worth keeping.

BR: Hyper-realism would make an American reader think of Raymond Carver, with whom we do not associate humour - as we do with you - but rather a certain poignancy. I would say that your work could be better compared with Robert Coover, that is to say, there is a fusion of realism with fantasy and satire, for example in the juxtaposition of famous myths with inventions of your own. While avoiding labels, do you think you could clarify your idea of hyper-realism for English language readers who haven't had a chance to read you?
QM: When I think of hyper-realism I think more about painting. What do you call what Raymond Carver does in literature? Hyper-realism? Minimalism? To be honest, realism on its own, realism tout court , has never done very much for me at all, frankly. I don't know why, I have a different way of looking at it: literature is not life, even though it is inspired by it. I think literature has certain possibilities that life doesn't have (and vice-versa) and it seems to me an impoverishment to limit oneself, in the holy name of realism, to reproducing reality, even though this might be done in order to show how empty, how banal life is. When competing with life, when on life's territory, life is bound to end up winning. But what is more it's a mistake: literature is not life, and never will be. You talk about Robert Coover. What can I say? That I admire him greatly, certainly.

BR: How do you keep your peace of mind when analysing the chaotic individual and social behaviour in evidence around you? Do you take part in this chaos in a happy, unworried way, or with the cold heart of an ascetic predicting the imminent disintegration of his own society?
QM: The fact is I don't believe that I am analysing any kind of chaotic individual or social behaviour. I write stories and that's it. I don't bother consideringwhether I do so in a cold or a cheerful manner. If I did so, perhaps everything would turn out too mechanical and I would stop wanting to write them.

BR: Could you tell us anything about your forthcoming literary projects?
QM: That's difficult. Even if you're writing something, until what you're writing is completely finished and you're happy enough with it to show it to others, you don't even know yourself what it is exactly that you're writing.

BR: Would you say that pornography was an essential element in your work?
QM: No. Pornography interests me, a great deal. But it's not essential to me.

BR: Have you ever written a purely pornographic short story?
QM:Yes, I have. At one time I wrote quite a few of them under a pseudonym for a rock music magazine called "Musical Express".

BR: Are you happy with the translations that have been made of your works? Have you collaborated in any of them?
QM: I collaborate in those that I understand. In Spanish, obviously. Both with Marcelo Cohen and Javier Ercas we have always checked everything down to the last comma and weighed up every last adjective, every construction, every nuance. In French and Italian I've had translators who have checked with me about doubts they've had, which I appreciate, because everyone who's translated something at some stage knows that doubts always arise. As for German and anything to the north of it, well I don't understand a word.

BR: Up until now O'Clock (1986) is the only translation into English of a book of yours. This is surprising when you bear in mind the large number of translations of your work into other languages. How would you account for the lack of translations of your books into English?
QM: I guess they just aren't interested.

BR: You took on the role of social commentator on Mikimoto's "Persones Humanes" on the main Catalan TV channel, a magazine programme full of gentle satirical humour. What did you personally get out of that experience?
QM: I like the telly. I spent a year doing that programme, one a week. What did I get out of it? Maybe an understanding that writing for television is one more variation on journalistic writing of the type that appears regularly in the press.

BR: How do you carry out the necessary research when writing a journalistic article?
QM: Research? Remember that the type of column that I do is more of a personal commentary, a personal point of view, and not so much investigative reporting.

BR: Soon the film of "The Reason for Absolutely Everything" will be shown in Buenos Aires. Will it be coming to the States? Rumours are also abroad that there are plans to make a film based on your novel "The Extent of the Disaster". Could you confirm any of this?
QM: As for "The Reason..." I don't know. The director, Ventura Pons, is the one who knows about all that. I know the film was shown in Montreal. I don't know if it was shown in English-speaking Canada or just in the French-speaking part. Regarding "The Extent.." There is a film, already made, entitled "Primates". It is based on the "Extent of the Disaster" but in such a tenuous, tenuous fashion that not a single character or situation from the book is in the film. They've only kept the erection business. There's a gorilla who, at a given moment, gets an erection, but I don't know if it's a permanent one (as in the book), or why he gets this erection of his.

BR: You preface "The Reason...." with a letter from the Times Literary Supplement describing how Tornielli, an Italian amabassador, gave the writer Jean Giraudoux a hard-boiled egg, with no reason being given. Has the mystery been solved? Do you have any hypotheses about this?
QM: I wrote a letter to the Marquis of Tamarón, the author of the letter to the TLS, and he told me that he hadn't been able to get to the bottom of it. And that several people had wanted to find out about it, but that nobody had. Hypotheses? I haven't got any.

BR: Could you give us a twenty-words-or-less run-down on the current political situation in Catalonia?
QM: No, have mercy! That's one thing I'm not doing...

BR: Is Catalan bound to become a generic language on its own territory, is it going to be known in the schools and not on the streets, like Latin used to be, or is it heading for long-term oblivion?
QM: Catalan is in the middle of a process which will make it like Irish or Occitan. It's in its death throes. Sometimes I think that the Yiddish writers, like Singer, must have felt something similar to what I feel: that the country is vanishing from under my feet.

Interview with Quim Monzó by Jim Blake. May 1997

Edited and translated by Matthew Tree.

©The Barcelona Review 1997