Víctor del Árbol: Literature Is My Homeland

Víctor del Árbol was born in Barcelona in 1968. He spent five years as a seminarian at Our Lady of Montealegre and later studied history at the University of Barcelona. He is a recipient of the Nadal Prize, the Tiflos Prize, and the first Spanish author to win the Prix du Polar Européen.

You spent time as a seminarian and then went back to school to study history--what brought you back to writing?

In essence, it was always the same reason: to understand the world, to understand myself and to find a way to fit in. Since I was a child, I never settled for the explanations that adults gave me. I suspected that appearances hide truths that are much more interesting. I come from a very humble family; I was the first to be able to go to college. My mother cleaned homes and I grew up in a tough neighborhood of Barcelona. To protect me, my mother made me go to the library. There I discovered the Iliad, and I realized that I wanted to be a hero. Not the kind of hero that Achilles was (invincible demigod), but rather that my vocation was to be like Hector (the antihero). Writing taught me to create a world where I could feel secure and happy, where I was free. History has always interested me, as do theology and law, because in my life and in my work there is always an obsession: Where do the roots of evil lie? Why is humanity its own Paradise and its own Hell?

You started out writing poetry and there is definitely a poetic sense in your prose writing. Do you still write poetry?

I still write poetry. Verse is the exercise of perfect succinctness. Federico García Lorca, Mayakovsky, Juan Gelman, Anna Akhmatova, Elizabeth Bishop... they've taught me to reflect on the word, the cadence, the rhythm. The stanza is a truth without rhetoric. It penetrates the most intimate reaches of the soul and beautifies everything it brushes against.

You worked for the Catalonia police. Has that experience influenced your writing?

Yes, I was on the police force for 20 years (I was a bodyguard for the president, I worked with battered women, abused children...). That work taught me to know myself better, to understand the difference between law and justice, and it helped me become close to the desperation and pain that men and women carry inside ourselves. It allowed me to explore the roots of violence, and the feeling of vengeance and of guilt. It helped me to ask myself whether it is possible to change, to leave behind the past. All of this is reflected in my novels.

Obviously your interest in history has also been very influential in your writing. What drew you to 1930s Russia and the concept for A Million Drops?

I dedicated many years of research to this period of history in France and in Russia, and discovered the history of Nazino camp and the influence of the Soviet Union on the Spanish Civil War. I followed the trail of a Spanish Republican who went to fight the Nazis in Russia and ended up being sent by Stalin to a gulag. All of that seemed fascinating to me. But my interest began when I was very young and discovered the poet Anna Akhmatova and I fell in love with Russian literature. Chekhov, Bulgakov, Pasternak followed. Russian literature from that period is painful and profound.

The period between the end of the Russian revolution and the end of the Second World War is fascinating because it exemplifies how the utopia of human liberation ends up becoming a terrible nightmare.

I'd like to note a personal reason as well: the discovery of my father and his life, our silences, and his absence.

Like your novel The Sadness of the Samurai, A Million Drops alternates time periods. What about this approach to your writing do you like?

It's a process that attempts to demonstrate that narrative time is circular. What happened will happen again unless we break that circuit. I believe that human beings live in the three temporal spaces at once: past, present and future. We live remembering, doing and desiring. And everything is connected; we are what we are because we come from some part of that. That connection interests me in a literary sense. The tricky part is maintaining the reader's interest along both timeframes.

Many people will read A Million Drops in translation. What differences do you see in the way the books are received in different countries or cultures?

Every country has a different sensibility that's expressed in linguistic usage and in aesthetic tastes and moral values. But there's one thing I've learned traveling throughout the world over the years: even though we use a different language, we all speak the same one; emotions have no homeland, they are universal. We give things different names, but they are the same feelings. Literature is my homeland because it has no borders. In literature, no one is a foreigner.

On the other hand, all societies and all individuals have scars and wounds that we need to heal. We live in a time of narcissism, of callousness, and of banality, a time of populism and of appearances. The literature that I aspire to demands putting the brakes on demagoguery, on cruelty as the only solution. It invites us to discover an individual in the other, not an enemy.

Have you ever been surprised or caught off guard by the way people have read your work?

I know why I write, the reasons that push me to do it. But I don't know why readers read my work. And that's the magic, that what's wonderful. A book has multiple levels of comprehension and every reader reads according to their own experiences. Once I put the final touches on a story, it no longer belongs to me. I'm happy when a reader arrives with me at the bottom of these questions, and doesn't remain alone on the surface. Some readers are more interested in the historical themes, and others in the psychology of evil, or the relationships between parents and children.

Very interesting questions and debates emerge regarding the nature of power; people I spoke to told me stories of relatives in the concentration camps, personal things in which they saw themselves reflected. That's what's most important to me, to feel that literature gives back to our lives our collective history as well as our individual histories.

You actually wrote A Million Drops several years ago now. With these new editions, is it like wine and the book gets better for you, or are you ready to move on to something new?

A good book improves with age. Through the generations it keeps returning with a useful and adapted discourse. That's how it turns into a classic. I know that A Million Years matures over the years, like a good wine waiting for its moment. Dystopia opposite utopia, the messianic discourse that delivers us into disaster, the sickness of callousness continues to be as prevalent today as they were then (or even more so).

After this novel, I continued with others (three, up to now) and I've explored other topics (childhood, madness) from other frameworks that are less epic and more intimate. I believe a writer should never be content with what he already knows how to do, that he should always seek new challenges. But it's a very important novel in my life and in my career. And I believe that it will be so for my readers.

Now that you're living your dream of being a writer, what goals do you strive toward next?

To be the best writer possible, to overcome my own impossibility. And that my epitaph be: "Here rests a man who had no fear of his own desires. Here rests a dreamer with his eyes wide open." I hope to deserve it. --Jen Forbus

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