Contraband Forms: An Interview with Ernesto Pérez Zúñiga

Jonathan Blitzer:  You have written three books of poems, two short-story collections, and three novels.  But for the first part of your career—and while you lived in Granada, where you grew up—you dedicated yourself almost exclusively to poetry.  When, and why, did you turn to prose?  And does it have anything to do with your relocating to Madrid?

Ernesto Pérez Zúñiga:  During the months I was living in Línea de la Concepción, along the European frontier (on the border with North Africa), I began to internalize fictional universes that were becoming more complex, that needed to be developed in narrative fashion.  But I didn’t know how to do it.  I came to Madrid one summer on vacation, and had a motorcycle accident.  I felt that I had died, and that in my hands was a new beginning.  I left my work in Andalusia, my family, friends, my then girlfriend of five years, and I stayed on in Madrid, while I looked for a more authentic place within myself from which to write, a place which, to a certain extent, had always been there but was somehow deferred . . . The writing inside me was waiting for the moment in which I could achieve enough liberty and independence for the source to flow out. Until I arrived in Madrid, I had not found that space within myself . . . Once there, though, the writing began to flow, as though something had been set off . . . I dove into the solitude that I needed, and also into the stimulations of a great city.  I began to write prose fiction and also found an independent poetic voice . . . This entire process has now culminated in the publication of my new novel El juego del mono, which returns, by way of a character named Montenegro, to the border of Gibraltar. 

JB:  You’ve spoken about the fact that you had to come to Madrid “to develop literarily . . . in a world that you didn’t know.”  What did you find when you arrived here?  If I’m not mistaken, you were twenty-five at the time—has the city, and its place in your imagination, changed much since? 

EPZ:  I found a city that moved with a social freedom that I had never known until then.  I remember that I made friends who I’d roam the city with at night in a black berlin from the ‘80s.  We parked wherever; we spoke with all types of people, from whatever neighborhood; it didn’t matter who they were or what they did.  The society was infinitely more open than the small cities where I had lived until then.  And this includes the literary culture.  Literary norms in Madrid were a matter of individual predilection, in constant flux, rather than the result of some pressure to conform to established tastes.  This was the city I came to know—a city that was opening itself more and more by the day.  I remember how the subway would fill with ever more diverse faces, with other languages and cultures, coming from every cardinal direction.  I saw that procession of people who came to live here, and who were waking up our country from its heavy slumber of isolation.   

JB:  You have said the following: “I want everything I write to be of the maximum literary intensity possible . . . one has to take risks, [writing] books that have sufficient intensity…”  There is a certain resonance between your words and those of a writer you greatly admire, the Uruguayan Juan Carlos Onetti.  He wrote something fairly similar in 1939: “There is only one path, the path that there always was.  That the creator of reality has the strength to live alone and look within himself. That he understands that we do not have tracks to follow, that each one of us has to forge his own way, tenaciously and gladly, cutting through the shadow cast by the mountain and cutting through the inane shrubbery.” How do you make sense of this process of “cutting through that inane shrubbery” and arriving at your own voice?  

EPZ:  Onetti has been one of those silent masters who has carved out a way of being before and beside literature; he’s one of the most important writers for me, along with Valle-Inclán and Cervantes. Cutting through the inane shrubbery means, first off, not writing books that aren’t necessary.  And books that are necessary are the ones that force themselves on their writer, that fight to be let out, and that have strong roots that want to spring forth into trees in the immense forest of literature.

JB:  Who are some of your literary influences?

EPZ:  I have countless influences, and they are constantly expanding; I’ll name a few that quickly come to mind.  Cervantes, Valle-Inclán, Onetti, Rulfo, Guimaráes Rosa, Babel, Kafka, Faulkner, García Lorca, San Juan de la Cruz, Joyce, and Murakami.  There are important musical (and for that matter cinematic) inspirations too . . . One day I would like to write a novel dedicated to the music that’s been important to me.

JB:  As a Spaniard who came of age in the 1980s, after the famed Latin American Boom, what have you felt in terms of the presence and tradition (both so distinguished) of Latin American letters taking root here in Spain?

EPZ:  I came into being literarily through my reading of Borges, Cortázar, García Márquez, Onetti, Rulfo, Vargas Llosa (which I name in the chronological order of my reading).  We have the good fortune of being in a language that has grown in so many societies, in workshops that are far-flung and that have multiplied the richness of the language.  I’ve never felt alienated from that tradition.  My home is the language.  I enjoyed books by Valle-Inclán or by Borges with the same sense of belonging.  And I’m the better for it; they have opened up our imaginations and our language.  These days, we have had the good luck, too, of many of these workshops growing closer: now those from Santiago, Caracas, Lima, or Granada do not work so far away.  Many of us live here in Madrid, and many of my writer friends are Latin Americans. 

JB: You’ve collaborated with a pretty diverse group of writers, who come from Venezuela, Peru, and Chile (to name a few).  How have these collaborations affected the language you’ve developed in your writing over the years? 

EPZ:  We have exchanged traditions and influences, which all would have been much more difficult to share at a distance.  We talk about different literatures, written in the same language but coming from wherever, really.  Our vision and our knowledge have expanded the circles which represent each individual, each origin, and each education.  This has given rise to different expressions, for example, at La mancha literaria, a literary magazine where writers in Spanish from all over exist side-by-side.  But also, of course, this all has affected my way of speaking.  Before I know it, and often without realizing until later on, I find that form of speaking in some novel.  Its ideas, its form of being drift into me.  I’ve also had the good fortune of having great friends . . . who are excellent writers . . .  On first meeting them, they helped me shed some of that stale Spanish traditionalism (caspa española), and now we’re all different than we were . . .

JB:  Can you speak a bit about that caspa española [literally: Spanish dandruff]?

EPZ:  That’s more or less the idea of a stale tradition—literature, in this case, that comes from the Franco era.  With the Civil War, Spanish literature was scattered across various exiles; all the artistic impulses driving to respond to the issues of modernity were shut down, and what took root instead here in Spain was a literature that was exceedingly traditional, which anchored literary development until very late, until the 1960s and 70s.  Part of the phenomenon of the Boom has to do with this.  In the Americas, the place of our exile and where Hispanic (or Latin)-American and Spanish writers had stayed in close contact, a much richer literature was being written than that which was being written in Spain.  People like Max Aub, in Mexico, for instance . . . In Spain, however, the dictatorship, the censor, the parochial and religious climate, put pressure on Spanish literature, and held it back in some ways.  The Civil War interrupted the vanguard movements in Spain and disrupted the careers of many writers who either died or went into exile or otherwise suffered the disfavor of the regime, like Ramón Gómez de la Serna, to name one.  The writers of my generation lost our own literary tradition, weighed down by Francoism; in Spanish the literature that had evolved naturally from the experiments of the ‘20s and ‘30s was written in the Americas, with, of course a couple of exceptions (like Juan Marsé).  To me, Spanish literature is a point of reference until the Civil War, then it’s the literature of the Americas, and now we have a blend of sorts . . .

JB:  You were born in 1971, and your parents lived through, as did so many others of their generation, the Franco years under the shadow of the Spanish Civil War.  In some form or another, that war has remained a noteworthy presence in your fiction.  How do you see your inheritance in terms of that history?

EPZ:  No one wanted to talk too much about this subject when I was a child, nor was it part of the curriculum of required courses at school.  There was a lot of confusion, remnants of that past, simplifications.  I grew up with that mystery, partly illuminated as it was, as the grandson of the two opposing sides.  Since my childhood it’s been a fundamental subject for me.  I read everywhere, and spoke with witnesses from that time whom I’d come to know, both in cities and in the country . . . My vision of that time started to fill in bit by bit.  That mystery became an internal conflict so significant for me that I had to write a novel in order to understand it; it was my first novel, Santo Diablo.  The fashion of writing novels about the Civil War that emerged around 2003 is often talked about, although some of us had, of course, written novels about the war before then, in 1999 in my case.  It was never a generational fad so much as a generational theme.  The generation of my parents had grown up in the immediate aftermath of the war.  But for me it was a strange time, which, nonetheless, was laden with implications for my own history.  I needed, and need, literature to be able to make sense of it.

JB:  In your three novels you either invent or portray a city that’s in some way marginal, a place that tends to be situated along a frontier or a border of some sort. In Santo Diablo (2004) you invent the city of Vulturno; in El segundo circulo (2007) you describe the city of Lumbres (“a town practically abandoned”), and finally in your latest novel, El juego del mono (2011), you have set the story in Algeciras, a town between the Spanish La Línea de La Concepción and British-owned Gibraltar.  Why such interest in these marginal and borderline spaces?

EPZ:  Borders are a place where reality moves in an especially interesting way, and this reality, in turn, reveals an ambivalence of stillness and adventure, benefit and failure. What interests me about human beings is their chiaroscuro, and borders free me up to explore that animality and spirituality that emerge along the hazy line which separates consciousness from unconsciousness, dream from waking life.  Also, from a narrative standpoint, it is an ideal space to investigate the limits of realism and invention, to experiment with genres, to explore the contraband of form and literary content.  In another sense, the margins interest me because there human characters are intensified, and the jumble of these human characters is brought out.  Finally, of course, the border is one of the great themes of our time; it is the place where some are condemned and others are saved, and it is the place one must pass through in order to continue growing . . .

JB:  In this month’s issue, we’re running your story “Dos Manzanas.”  Could you say a word about the story?

EPZ: It is a story about the transformations of Madrid in the late 1990s.  A wave of immigrants was arriving in Spain before the perplexed and indifferent eyes of the rest of society.  The attitude has changed a lot since, but at the time it was essentially that kind of gaze.  So I wrote “Dos Manzanas” at the end of 1997 because I wanted to introduce readers, as witnesses of a sort, into that story; so that through literature the reader could enter into a fiction reflecting that reality, in a present that he didn’t want to see but from afar, as we might watch a movie on television. 


Read Ernesto Perez Zuñiga's "Dos Manzanas" over here.