A Tiny Repeated Gesture: An Interview with Blanca Riestra

Blanca RiestraJonathan Blitzer:  In this issue of the magazine, we’ve published your story “The Night Sucks (La noche sucks),” which later became the novel of the same name.  You have never considered yourself a short story writer, though—rather, a novelist (although you also write poetry). In fact, you have even expressed certain reservations about the short-story form.  What are they?  And why do novels and poetry suit you better?

Blanca Riestra: What I like about the novel is that it depends on delay and on difference (in the Derridean sense of the word); it is the only genre in which one can see time acting on the language.  To write a novel demands patience, humility, and, at the same time, ambition . . . With regard to the short story, its immediacy annoys me, as do its apparent necessity to have an inspired and surprising ending and its pretentiousness.  In this way it’s a bit like fireworks, bright but superficial.  (Of course, I’m generalizing; there are a lot of stories that do not have these characteristics . . . )  I have written stories, and yet what I am realizing now is that even these stories are the fragments of a novel.  I feel that my writing is essentially novelistic because it needs a slow, enveloping rhythm that is firmly linked to space.  I’m forever interested in repetition, regularity, and accumulation; that image of the novelist as some old man who starts accumulating matches or toothpicks, who sets out to concern himself with the tiniest details of each fragment and who, by the end, manages to construct a cathedral.  I like that sort of manifestation of Diogenes’s syndrome.

JB: How do poetry and novel-writing complement each other in your work?  It might seem, at first glance, that they are genres, if not opposed, then at least fairly distinct in terms of their formal demands . . .

BR:  In my case I think there is a certain continuity.  I’m not sure exactly why, and perhaps it is quite the opposite [for others], but in my case I think there is a greater relationship between the novel and the poem than there is between the short story and the poem.  Though, that is because I write novels as I write poems: with an almost obsessive regard for composition and with an emphasis always placed on the detail, on the object, on the most miniscule sensation, on rhythm . . .

JB:  You have spoken about your interest in the spatial concept of the novel and also, as you’ve alluded to, about the novel as a genre that thrives on delay.  Could you say more?

BR:  More than land or territory what interests me is space.  And that’s not simply because many (if not all) my novels are essentially city-based novels.  It’s also because I conceive of these novels as spatial objects, as forms that need to be sculpted.  Writing a novel is to be an avid collector, to become enamored of objects and to set out to amass them . . . I like the image of the chess player, of someone who constructs cathedrals out of toothpicks, of a marathon runner.  The importance of a tiny, repeated gesture . . .

JB:  As you say, your novels do tend to be set in cities: Paris, Santiago de Compostela, Prague, Madrid, Albuquerque.  You’ve said that the great cities are “organisms that communicate among themselves.”  In what sense do you mean? 

BR:  Well, I like to think that in the small things are also the big ones, that cities reproduce the structure of cells, that in one man are all men, and that in one book are all books (to paraphrase Borges).  In that sense, the world would be a kind of “universal assembly” (to continue with Borges) that is held everywhere simultaneously, so that we would attend something like an unceasing communion of the saints. 

JB:  I know that you are an admirer of Roberto Bolaño and in particular his long novels (2666 and The Savage Detectives), which you’ve said have or work on certain “lapses of meaning,” that these novels turn on “something that is kept silent.”  This description might also apply to your last novel, The Night Sucks, which is also situated in the Sonora Desert, in Albuquerque.  Would you say you were seeking there some sort of silence or “lapse of meaning” in particular?  And what did you find in New Mexico, literarily and personally?

BR:  The “novel seen from above” [literally a “forested novel,” a coinage of the author who has described it as “a novel like a forest where the stories trace figures that are only observable from above”] has been an obsession of mine for some time.  It comes from an intuition tied to the reading of 2666, but it is also related to other prior readings that only became clear to me on reading the posthumous novels of Bolaño.  My experience reading 2666, my amazement, was above all structural, physical; I saw 2666 as some kind of occult design, like those circles that extraterrestrials trace in corn fields and that can only been seen from a bird’s-eye view . . .

There is a lot about the United States from the second Iraq war in The Night Sucks.  I lived in New Mexico between 2005 and 2007.  The Albuquerque of The Night Sucks is spotted with the caravans of mutilated soldiers and flags at half-mast for those killed in Iraq.  But life in a desolate city in the center of the United States is also a metaphor for the world.  The violence that’s there, in our lives, in the lives of adolescents, of housewives, of bus drivers and bartenders.  I am no moralist, nor am I reflexively antiwar; I’ve come to accept that the essence of the human being is irrational and violent. 

JB:  You have also explained that the story itself flashes past us “as though we were seeing it from a car” passing along the highway.  Why have you decided to sketch the characters of the novel this way, with that interest in imagining, or depicting, them as blurry somehow, and at a remove?  I suppose it might have to do, in part, with the city in which the story takes place: as you say, “a crossing among highways . . .”

BR:  Writing for me has a lot to do with the senses, with the kinetics of the language, with how this infuses and reproduces the meanderings of life.  In that sense, I would like to write as if I were in a passing car, with the radio on, which is one of the most delectable sensations I know. I suppose it has something to do with feeling free. 

JB:  You wrote your sixth novel, The Night Sucks, when you were back in Madrid.  And when you lived in New Mexico you wrote your fifth novel, called Madrid Blues, about Madrid.  Could you say something about this: do these cities have something in common, or was it because of the circumstances of your trip that you wrote them in this order?

BR:  They are like two sides of the same coin.  It has to do with closed-off worlds, self-sufficient like paperweights, or bonsais.  In Albuquerque I was thinking about Madrid as an imaginary world.  From Madrid I remember Albuquerque as though it had already fallen into non-existence.  The idea that the world is simultaneous continues to strike me as bewildering.  I love to travel and to stay in [new] places, because the fact of going to live somewhere beyond your natural place shakes the boundaries of reality in a jarring way. 

JB:  Was there anything in particular about your time in New Mexico that allowed you to go about imagining, or reimagining, the city of Madrid? What were some of the details from Madrid that stuck in your mind, and which did you set out to reinvent?

BRMadrid Blues is a mix of memory and illusions.  Madrid has a charming vitality— cinematic in fact—but it is also a tough city, dusty, working-class. For me, coming from Galicia, Madrid is the deep south; it is a North-African city to me.   

JB:  The fusion of English and Spanish—that American-frontier Spanglish—is clearly a source of interest to you in The Night Sucks.  And it might be said that this form of expression does not only appear in the dialogue among characters but is also a generalized aesthetic in your prose.  What was your first experience with this mixture of languages?  You are from Galicia, where Spanish and Galician (gallego) are both spoken—has this influenced you at all?  

BR:  The speaking of US Latinos has always struck me as deeply expressive, literary.  I like the borrowing, the copying, and hybridizing . . . As Breton said, we must let the words come to a boil and produce their sparks.  In the title of the novel there is already that mixture present.  I wanted to play with the polysemy of the verb to suck.  That is to say: the night sucks [in the colloquial sense of “sucks,” apesta in Spanish] and at the same time that the night is like a black hole that swallows up all the characters, one at a time, sucking them toward non-existence . . . The truth is that “monolingualism” is something very foreign to me, seems even an impoverishment.  I was born in a part of Spain that is bilingual (Galician-Spanish), and in my case I also speak French.  I read incessantly, both in English and in French . . . although, without doubt, I transcribe my vision of the world in Spanish, and that is something that will never change.  But my head navigates among various linguistic shores, and their mixtures strike me as beautiful.