A lover of books cannot but find this one extraordinary. “Confiteor” by the Catalan writer Jaume Cabré stands out, even judging by its cover: the image of a young well-dressed boy, the son of an aristocratic family of times gone by, with his brillantined hair perfectly parted on the side, reaching for the book of his choice in front of an enormous bookcase. It’s exactly how one imagines the hero of this novel, Adrià Ardevol y Bosch as a boy in 1950s Barcelona. “Confiteor” unravels the love confession, the unspoken truths, the colossal letter of an “absent-minded wise 60 year-old man” addressing his dead beloved, in his effort to give her a present that will live eternally, so that he also will go on living “everytime someone reads these pages”, before Alzheimer’s kills off his brain for ever, devouring his memories.
On the back pages of an essay on the nature of Evil, Adrià decides to unfold his memories, the thread of his life, a thread inextricably linked with a precious Storioni violin, the Vial, which carries on it already five centuries of history. Assisted by his memory, knowledge and imagination he embarks on a labyrinthine journey around the genealogical tree of the violin, undigging stories from the bleakest books of the European past that shed light on the paradox of human nature: “the human being destroys the human being but also composes ‘Paradise Lost’”.
Cabré is a writer who embraces the core of being human; a writer who without a doubt has enriched and taken forward the art of novel writing with his original, enchanting narrative form comprising a host of techniques. I had the pleasure of conversing with Jaume Cabré, and I am very grateful for his answers to my questions on a novel that will indeed be a classic for future generations to come.
Your book has just been published in Greece and, already, everybody is talking about it. Did you expect this response? Why do you think the readers have embraced this book wherever it has been published?
I cannot know this. It’s part of the mystery. The only thing closer to a reply is that the building of this novel has taken eight entire years. And I have written it with a “terrible sincerity”, an expression I don’t understand very well myself. And, as I usually do, I committed myself to reach the bottom of my characters’ souls, I can assure you that I have delivered my soul into this novel as I try to do with all my novels… As I was getting excited about the characters I discovered, every time I suspected I could establish a link between characters, or between characters and objects, or between facts apart in time… I couldn’t help trying to make it work.
Actually, the purpose of my writing is that someone reads me anywhere in the world, and once the reading is over he decides to stay quiet for a while…
Which was the whisper that has led you to write this book? A book that has been characterised as the “ultimate text” and touches, perhaps, upon human life as a whole: life and death.
If you mean the reason why I wrote this book, or my inspiration, I cannot reply. I write because some characters overcome me. They stand up on my desk and they challenge me.
The first thing I wrote and that became part of the novel afterwards was the text called “Palimpsestus”: the fusion of a high ranking Nazi officer and an Inquisitor. Further on I will approach that with detail on another question.
But the character who demanded aloud and insistently a long story has nothing to do with these two sinister characters: it was a shy, lonely boy with very strange parents, almost dangerous, and who clearly needed psychological support from Black Eagle (the brave Arapaho chief) and from the valiant sheriff Carson.
In writing this book you chose to use some distinctive, rather extraordinary narrative techniques. For example, passing continuously from the first person to the third, and from direct to reported speech, even in the same sentence, without any kind of warning signal. I think that the magic of the novel lies partly in these techniques… Are there any particular reasons you adopted this mode of writing?
It’s not whimsical. It’s a way of writing that turned out to be necessary in previous novels (“L’ombra de l’eunuc” and “Les veus del Pamano”) but that I have taken further in this one. Why? From the perspective of a “worlds’ creator” I feel like a god who controls characters, space and time. Thus I want to speak about everything at the same time. But literature is an art of linear expression that is read word after word, as for music, that reads note after note. As I know what happens in every location and in every moment… I make the effort to write it all as it “happened at the same time”, so that the reader can receive it in one gulp. Of course it’s not exactly this way. With the changes from first to third person, with the change of interlocutor within the same sentence or the space change also within the same sentence, I feel I am everywhere with all the characters, like being in a global art, as painting, that you watch entirely. The risk is that the reader may get lost. But I make sure that he always has a reference, from where to get oriented, even without noticing… I trust the reader because I know he is clever.
It’s very difficult to write this way… But as I saw the possibility to do it, I couldn’t help, I had to try…
Adrià likes learning foreign language, even “dead” ones, like Aramaica. Why is learning a “dead” language such an imperative?
Because his curiosity is neverending. In fact, aramaica is a living language nowadays, although threatened. But for Adrià knowledge has no utilitarian purpose, he enjoys knowledge for the pleasure of knowing. So he discovers a letter from his father, written in aramaica, that only he can decipher! I must admit that I would like to know everything. As I am not very intelligent, I delegate this anxiety for knowledge to my character.
“Confiteor” is a book for (among else) the history of Europe. What is the future of Europe, according to you, especially in view of the economic and social crisis that has been tormenting the continent this last decade?
I wish I knew! What I wish: I would like a united Europe, with more presence of peoples and cultures larger than the States; and with more presence of people than banks and trusts… A Europe capable of a human vision and compassionate of the refugees crisis or other humanitarian disgraces.
The reality: the States, in current Europe, have so strong interests that what they do, instead of enriching the territory, is fencing against each other to support their own interests...
Sometimes, the stories unfold simultaneously, become tangled with each other, they fuse together, if you like. For example, the stories of the Inquisitor and the Nazi who commit crimes in the name of their own respective faith. What is the reason behind this association?
The fusion of the Inquisitor and the Nazi was among the first pieces I wrote of this novel, as I mentioned before. I realized that, in spite of the 500 years span, they were both the same character: to defend the Idea (the Inquisitor defends True Faith and the Nazi the Ideal Arian Society) were capable of any kind of violence against defenseless people and were unable to feel piety for the victims or remorse for their atrocities. When I realized this I thought that this novel, as the narrative world kept growing, could put in relation almost all the facts, even those that had happened in other times or places. It’s the author’s sight becoming the sight of the god who has created this narrative world…
Are there any autobiographical elements in your work?
Many irrelevant things are autobiographical: Adrià is born, grows and lives in my own home, in the Barcelona Eixample where myself and my siblings were born, in a house very similar to the one you see on the cover, where a boy, dressed and combed as children were at the beginning of the Fifties, tries to reach a book that may have been forbidden. The neighborhood where he lives, at short distance of the Academy of Music, the school he attends… Adrià’s love for music; Bernat’s dissatisfaction. Their friendship… The spots of the Pyrenees (Gerri de la Sal and Sant Pere de Burgal), where I spent many hours while writing “Les veus del Pamano”… All these are autobiographical elements. By the way: my parents had nothing to do with Adrià’s parents: they were good, caring people who poured all their affection and a lot of music over their five children.
Towards the end of the novel, Adrià says “I do not know where evil lies, and I am unable to explain my agnostic confusion. I lack the appropriate philosophical tools to continue on this direction. I insist on looking for the seat of evil, and I am sure it does not inhabit the interior of every person”. Would you be kind enough to comment on this passage?
Adrià, after all his difficult life, makes up his mind to build up an essay on evil. But he realizes that he cannot understand why evil exists, he can’t understand how evil incarnates in people… He is blocked. And therefore he drops reflection and starts a narration. He tells her beloved what he should have explained to her long ago. He abandons the intellectual reflection. In order to explain the inconsistencies of life, he uses the weapons of narration. Umberto Eco said something similar: when he decided to write “The name of the Rose” after years devoted to essay and to theoretical reflection…
Although the stories that unfold in the book cause great sadness, I couldn’t help but smile at so many instances where a subtle sense of humour prevails. Does humour play any role in your writing and, perhaps, in your personal life?
I am not a joking person but I do like laughing and when someone makes me laugh… But watching my characters from the creator’s perspective some ironic situations appear, or even shocking or humourous. I do not intend to make humour: I am only using irony in a gentle, not clumsy way.
Sometimes, both Adrià and Bernat seem to be searching intensely for happiness, albeit in vain, since they can never be happy. Is happiness an unattainable dream after all?
Adrià and Bernat are friends. Each admires the other’s abilities. Adrià would like to play the violin as Bernat does. Bernat would like to be as wise as Adrià is. Both want to be sincere to each other; but both are dissatisfied men, yes. Because they can’t get along with their reality. Instead, Sara and Tecla seem characters more centered into life; they have a realistic view of life. Both men are dreamers.
“Real art is always born out of disappointment. We never create anything out of happiness”, says Adrià. Are the people who devote themselves to Art, condemned?
Let’s see… It would be a blessed condemnation… When at “Die Schöne Müllerin” Wilhelm Müller makes the lover sing, euphoric: “The beloved miller is mine!”, he also makes the lover, joyful because the woman has smiled to him, declare:
“I have hanged my lute on the wall
I have wrapped it with a green ribbon
I can’t sing any more, my heart is too full,
It can’t possibly fit in a verse…”
What the lover says is that he doesn’t have to sing; music is not necessary because he lives the happiness. (Afterwards we’ll see his disappointment back and bitter things happen, in that book of poetry that Schubert turned into an extraordinary lieder cycle.)
In general the artist is uneasy: he doesn’t know what he is looking for, and he doesn’t know why. If he was totally happy, he would devote himself to that happiness. This doesn’t mean exactly that every artist has to be sad. He must have some uneasiness that makes him search for who knows what… (I can’t explain this better…). But I do know that the artist cannot hang his lute on the wall.
Adrià has been afraid of death since he was a child. Sarah, although she doesn’t believe in anything, at the end of her life reveals her belief in a sort of afterlife, where mothers find their dead daughters, because, otherwise, as she says, life would be unbearable. Is faith in (a) God nothing more than a covert human need to believe in continuity? Our need to deplete the terrifying event of death, as a final and irreversible end?
It’s a mother’s grief. It’s Sarah’s personal Stabat Mater what leads her to say that she must reunite with her dead daughter. I conceived this episode more as an idea of continuity and to relieve the unbearable pain of a mother’s loss, more than a true faith in God.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who comes alive in your book, says that a book is worth reading when one wants to read it again. Could you mention some of the books that you have read again and again over the years with the same or a new interest?
“A book that doesn’t deserve to be re-read did not deserve to be read”, in fact it’s a phrase of Samuel Josef Agnon, hebrew writer and Nobel Prize. I have allowed myself to put these words in Isaiah Berlin’s mouth because of narrative rythm and tone: Berlin quoting Agnon would have been a kind of footnote, too hard for my poor readers.
In reply to your question: I have recently re-read “La muerte de Artemio Cruz” by the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, and I liked the novel better (if memory doesn’t deceive me) than when I read it for the first time many years ago.
What I do read again and again (as you say) are poetry books, not necessarily in their entirety. When I have a moment, I go to the room where I have poetry books, I pick up a book almost at random and I read a few poems. These are vitamins. Poetry is energy for a novelist. Mistrust the novelist who does not read poetry.
“Et in Arcadia ego”: Adrià’s Arcadia is the presence of his beloved Sarah, and Tona, the village where he used to spend his summers. What is your Arcadia?
The Arcadia that was, could be Tona, because “incidentally” Adrià and me have the same childhood Arcadia. By the way, a new autobiographical issue to add ¡to your question! The Arcadia I have not lived through yet is our road to collective Itaca: the independence of Catalonia.
Interview: Eleni Mark