Agustín Fernández Mallo. Photo: Aina Lorente Solivellas.
By “injecting the novel with a large dose of Robert Smithson, and Situationism, and Dadaism, and poetry, and science, and appropriation (collage and quotes and cut-and-paste), and technology (often anachronistic), and images (almost always pixelated), and comic books,” as Jorge Carrión has written, and perhaps above all because he simply presented compelling new possibilities for the form, Agustín Fernández Mallo is considered to have revolutionized the Spanish novel.
Mallo was born in Galicia in 1967 and started working as a radiation physicist in 1992, designing X-ray systems and developing cancer-radiation therapies. Nocilla Dream, his debut novel, took the Spanish literary scene by storm in 2006, and bears all the hallmarks of his output since—an interest in form, a desire to highlight the connections between art and science, and an attempt to put his self-styled “post-poetry” into practice.
The following conversation, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, was organized by Fitzcarraldo Editions ahead of its publication of Mallo’s The Things We’ve Seen, also translated by Bunstead. The book, his fourth to appear in English, is out this week in the UK and will be released in the U.S. on June 15. Originally published in Spanish by Seix Barral as Trilogía de la Guerra in 2018, it won the prestigious Biblioteca Breve Prize.
Does any one principal idea run through The Things We’ve Seen?
There is a recurring idea in the novel, the thesis that the dead are never entirely dead, that in fact we cohabit a kind of hybrid space, us and them, as well as that the largest social network ever is not that of the internet but the one that joins the living with the dead. This leads us additionally to the idea that we are all socially connected with somebody who died in war.
What’s behind the title of the novel in Spanish? And how did the English title come about?
The title in Spanish, Trilogía de la Guerra (War Trilogy), comes from the fact that, in effect, it is composed of a trio of novels shot through with the experiences of people who have either been through war, or are still living out wars they’ve been through. But they aren’t accounts of those wars, or indeed of the characters’ fortunes during them, but deal rather with what we might call the B side of war, its unsuspected echoes in our day-to-day lives, while also being a reflection on the nature of war. For example, the current-day economic tensions between northern and southern Europe are, to my mind, nothing but a contemporary, secular version of the war between the Protestant north and the Catholic south. In fact, one of the ideas in the novel is that it’s impossible to understand the conflicts in the world today without an idea of their religious origins. Every war has its origin in one religious cosmovision or another. However bygone they may appear, they come back around repeatedly. Or, for example, to ask oneself that if wars are legal—which they are—then what does it mean for certain wars to be adjudged illegal—or what difference there is, juridically as much as morally, between a war and an act of terrorism. One of the recurring phrases in the novel is an illuminating line by the Spanish poet Carlos Oroza, “It’s a mistake to take the things we’ve seen as a given,” hence the title of the English version, which in the context of this novel can be interpreted as “it’s a mistake to take as dead that which we have seen die.”
How and when did you begin writing it?
It started out of a coincidence, and in the exact same way as the journey undertaken by the protagonist in the first part of the novel. I was invited to take part in a symposium about online networks called Net Thinking on the island of San Simón, in northwest Spain, the unusual thing being that only fifteen people were going to be involved, fifteen of us cut off from the world for several days on this tiny island with its very turbulent history, from being a place where the pirate Francis Drake once took refuge, to a prison camp for Franco’s opponents during the Spanish Civil War. I agreed to take part because there was something funny about these conversations concerning networks and global connectivity due to be broadcast live around the world on TV and social media taking place while we were completely cut off from the world, confined to the island, as if inside Plato’s cave.
It also so happened that I’d owned a book for a number of years entitled Aillados, Galician for “isolates,” about this island during the time it served as a prison camp. It includes lots of photographs from that time, showing the prisoners in different moments and places, and I took it with me, for information more than anything else. The moment I stepped onto the island I could feel the weight of all the bones and other objects beneath my feet, a weight increased by the fact that not only were the different wings of the prison camp still intact, we were actually going to be lodging in them. Then, in spare moments, I started doing something that began out of mere curiosity—I went looking for the places in which the photographs in the book had been taken, and I would then take the same photograph but in the present day.
When I found the first location and took my photo and compared it with the one from 1937, I became conscious of the chasm separating the two. In one photo, prisoners looking back at the camera, some even smiling, people who had gone on to die, some of them by firing squad, and in my photo, in the here and now, a sunlit scene—greenery, the sea—which could just as well have been out of a tourist pamphlet. Between the two there lay a gap, a very deep historical, narrative, and political gap, which I tried to get to the other side of, but could not—a few short centimeters that at the same time constituted light-years. This produced a vertigo that prevented me from taking the step that would get me from one photo to the other. It was then that I had a sense of the dead never being entirely dead and the living never entirely alive, and of the fact that we actually coexist, we inhabit the same social network. And so I got to work writing something that would be an attempt to build a bridge to take me from one photograph to the other.
What was the writing process like? How long did the project take?
Well, about six years in all, during which the Spanish Civil War opened the way for other wars in different places in the world, and to reflecting on what war is, in general. I started writing the San Simón story, and as is the way with everything I do, whether it ends up as a novel, poetry, or nonfiction, I didn’t at that point know whether it would be short or long, I didn’t even know what genre it would eventually take shape as. After that, everything started accreting in a very organic way, a coming together of quotidian experiences, unexpected occurrences, little details that take you from one horizon to another, visions of a sort, or modest domestic epiphanies that ended up constructing a spontaneously articulated text much like a wide-ranging network. I think this is one of the characteristics of the texts I produce—their organization, not in a treelike or hierarchical mode, but more like multifaceted networks, the advantage of which being that this allows me to connect, with nothing but a metaphorical link, concepts, facts, or events that are in principle very far removed from one another. As for research, it was minimal, the less the better. I’m of the opinion that the need to read up on anything and everything in order to write a novel is a myth that stems from the realist tradition, or from the kind of novel with roots in journalism. Research is a stone that can weigh the writer down, dragging you into the abyss—it prevents you from imagining or being free in your fiction making.
Did you travel or read anything in particular for this book?
Yes, and both were actually important to the project. Although I don’t like traveling—I don’t believe in the idea of physical travel as necessarily superior to traveling inside one’s mind or to being holed up somewhere—my public activities as a writer mean I’m always having to go to one place or another, and I must admit that I pick up on details and have experiences on those trips that I later recycle and sublimate in the things I write. In the case of The Things We’ve Seen, there are aspects of my own experiences in Shanghai, Normandy, and the U.S. So after these six years of writing, which took me to a lot of other countries as well, and with certain reference points in mind, such as David Lynch, W. G. Sebald, Elias Canetti, and Salvador Dalí, I saw that I had a novel on my hands.
In the Nocilla Trilogy, Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges—both Argentine—are very important influences. In The Things We’ve Seen, on the other hand, that weight falls more with two Spanish artists, with García Lorca and Salvador Dalí. Why?
Out of aesthetic affinity. In Lorca’s case, his work has never interested me except for Poet in New York, which I find fascinating, and that’s why he features in the part of my novel that takes place in current-day New York. With Salvador Dalí it’s different. He seems to me one of the best writers of the twentieth century, as well as a total artist who at the beginning of the twentieth century was bringing a great talent to bear on the practice of what we would today call interdisciplinarity—theater, filmmaking, painting, performance, and literature. It seemed inevitable to me to have the ghosts of Lorca and Dalí meeting in Central Park today, speaking to one another through the railings—one who lives forever inside the park and the other elsewhere in the city, having this dialogue concerning their friendship, the war, Lorca’s death, and the value of modernity.
Formally, The Things We’ve Seen represents a 180-degree turn from the Nocilla Trilogy, the turning point between which was Limbo, the novel you wrote between these two trilogies. What do you think it’s down to, this evolution from a fragmentation that was, let’s say, poetic in character, toward a greater emphasis on narrative? Could it have anything to do with the fact that Nocilla Dream started out as something you wrote by hand, and The Things We’ve Seen, I suppose, directly on the computer?
Doubtless that’s part of it. Nocilla Dream and Nocilla Experience were written in a hotel bed in Thailand, when I was recovering from a broken hip after being hit by a motorbike while on holiday there and didn’t know how I was going to get back to Spain. I started making notes in a very intuitive way, on pieces of paper I found around the room, and at the end I saw that I had these novels. I also wrote Nocilla Lab by hand, in Sardinia, in a notebook I bought there, and the first hundred pages in that novel are made up of a single, unbroken paragraph, in a sort of Bernhardian style. Because of that, I believe there’s another element underlying the evolution in my prose, which has to do with that fact I was initially drawn to styles and forms I hadn’t tried before, and which, precisely because of that, I found it exciting, seductive, to try out. In other words, when I wrote the Nocilla Trilogy I didn’t know how to write the Nocilla Trilogy, I learned in the doing of it, and so if I went on writing in that style it would have been mechanical, something soulless for me. The same goes for writing Limbo, El Hacedor (de Borges) Remake (The Maker (by Borges) Remake), and my most recent novel, The Things We’ve Seen, which was a text that demanded I look into new forms, and prompted me to set myself the challenge of exploring them. It’s the only way writing makes sense to me—the excitement of looking for new personal worlds. Then again, obviously there’s also the question of time and growing older. Time passes and with it your cosmovisions shift.
Writing is learned by writing. What about publishing?
Indeed. When I wrote the Nocilla Trilogy, I didn’t know how to write something of that kind, and when I got to the end I couldn’t go on writing in that way because I knew by then how it was done, I had got the hang of it, and I therefore found it boring. The same with The Things We’ve Seen, when I wrote it I didn’t know how something like it was done, I learned over the course of six years of writing, and now that I know how it’s done I suppose I’ll write some different kind of fiction, because in order to make fiction I have to feel the excitement of aesthetically investigating my own poetics. And the same goes for when I’m tackling something in poetry or nonfiction. I write for myself, not for the reader. I think that writing for the reader is a mistake, there are millions of readers, there’s no such thing as “one reader,” and you’re therefore never going to make them all happy. It’s just as crazy to write to please a certain person as it is to displease someone. You have to write to investigate your own poetics, trusting that this poetics possesses sufficient empathy that it will connect with some readers, and nothing more. Anything else is bound to backfire, there will be the whiff of imposture.
In Wittgenstein, Architect, your art project with the Spanish artist Bernardí Roig, you recall the moment in which you proposed climbing the rock face up to the philosopher’s cabin, taking the most direct route, and filming it, because “it is something that’s never been done.” To what extent do you believe that this impulse to innovate is a spark for your books?
I suppose that’s part of it, but, being completely sincere, it isn’t a clear part of what motivates me. I don’t think, I’m going to innovate. That would probably mean not only not innovating, but making a fool of yourself. Things appear as in an emersion, from materials you’re already familiar with, things other people have given you, which you then work with and recombine so that something of your own emerges, something original. This, in general, is how the mystery of life functions, like all complex systems, like the brain, and that’s how a revolutionary painting by Michelangelo or a goal in a football match might come about. The way I write is by letting myself be taken along by everything from the way I was educated, my culture and my aspirations, and given that I did my further study in the sciences, naturally one of my aspirations is to propose new kinds of worlds, to create metaphors that did not exist before, were not articulated in this way. When I went to Norway and opened that direct climb to the Wittgenstein Cabin, it was on the basis of an idea that suddenly came to me once, to creatively combine various passions—rock climbing, Wittgenstein’s philosophy, and art. The principal idea of this action, video plus text, is the following. Rock climbing is drawing on a wall, tracing out a route using your body, so the idea was to get up to the cabin Wittgenstein built in 1914—a place for him to go and think—by the shortest route, to trace out a very direct route, which is of a piece with his philosophy at that time, the work leading up to the Tractatus.
Again, it’s about a journey. Though you don’t like traveling, journeys are always a departure point for your work, journeys that are in some way conceptual, artistic projects. I mean, for example, the journey to the shoe tree in Nocilla Dream, or the journey through the Europe of World War II in The Things We’ve Seen. Your poetry also contains such experiences. How do you see the relationship between your literary work and journeys?
Well, there are two things. The first is that I don’t like traveling for pleasure, simply to “go and see” something. The world has already very much been mapped and I believe that your usual journey, undertaken to “experience different situations” and “feel different emotions,” is a regurgitation, an echo of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century journeys of exploration in search of the “other”—that is, they respond to a concept of the “exotic,” typically Western, which holds no interest for me whatsoever, or at least doesn’t interest me currently as a physical act. This kind of journey is nothing more than a fiction that is not only colonial but, as I say, typically Western. In fact, we are the only culture that travels in order to “see things,” with no practical meaning to the journey, purely for leisure. In this sense, I even think the figure of the tourist is more honest and coherent than that of the traveler. And I believe that this whole search for the exotic and the “other” can and should now give way, in the twenty-first century, to something more effective, more real, and less invasive, traveling as it were secondhand—through social networks, books, television, Google Maps, et cetera—all of this being a kind of “travel” that redefines what is supposedly virtual and makes it real. For example, in The Things We’ve Seen, using Google Street View, I undertake Nietzsche’s famous walk in Turin, when he hugged the horse and fell permanently mute. Well, I did do that walk physically myself, I went there and did it, I retraced the steps Nietzsche took, but the things that showed up when I consulted the Street View version of the walk seemed far richer to me, far more suggestive for the novel. And secondly, yes I do like to travel but only with a certain objective in mind, with the idea of one project or another. And finally, when I travel I write a lot because I try to reproduce an ambience most approximate to that in my home, and in a hotel that can only happen by watching television and writing.
The journeys you go on are conceptual projects, like those of Robert Smithson, who is one of your great influences, but there are surreal elements to them as well, like those of another guiding light, David Lynch.
Yes, certainly, I’m very interested in the moment in which we introduce a slight distortion into reality, a “soft focus” that makes us see the real differently, the side that is not visible or not evident. This is the moment in which, paradoxically, we can see what reality was like and learn from it. It’s something that, in a different language, science does, saying to us that that which we did not believe real is also “another thing.” The glass of water on the table has another dimension if expressed in terms of the not at all arbitrary union of hydrogen and oxygen. And to undertake such an operation one has to see things somewhat surreally, in the most etymological sense of the word, “to wish to see above or beyond the [supposed] reality,” infer that which is not evident at first sight.
What has it meant to you to be published in English?
My work has been translated into many languages, but in none of them has my work resonated and had as much impact as in English, both in the UK and the U.S. So it’s wonderful for my work to be projected in this way, and it gives me a sense that my fictions are understandable not only in the habitat and cultural system of my own language, of Spanish—the Hispano-American language would be a better way of putting it—but also in a culture that is in principle very distinct—the Anglophone one. Though it is also true that, as Nicolas Bourriaud says, all artists and writers are today “radicants,” an apt simile that denotes us as climbing plants that, through fleeting accretions, take on elements of other cultures—we imbibe them, we utilize them, and later, when we make our way to other places and cultures, we let go of them in order that we can go on developing an art with global tendencies. We are semionauts.
I once heard Eloy Fernández Porta say that Borges was the most punk writer of the twentieth century. Do you consider yourself a punk writer?
Fernández Porta was exactly right, because Borges is one of the most radical writers of the twentieth century. Yes, I consider myself punk insofar as that means radical, because radical is not shouting more than others or setting fire to cars, but “grasping things by the root,” such being the etymological meaning of radical, which is what I try to do when I make poetry, or write novels or nonfiction—to write attempting to go to the root of things, to propose new aesthetics, and, above all, to work with no aesthetic or academic prejudices whatsoever. Or, put another way, writing what you need to write in each moment according to your creative needs, your culture, your environment, your aspirations, writing what you believe you must write.
—Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead
Jorge Carrión is the author of Bookshops: A Reader’s History, Against Amazon, and Madrid: Book of Books, all three of which were translated into English by Peter Bush.
Thomas Bunstead was born in London in 1982 and currently lives in west Wales. He has translated some of the leading Spanish-language writers working today, including Maria Gainza, Juan José Millás, and Enrique Vila-Matas, and his own writing has appeared in publications such as the Brixton Review of Books, Literary Hub, and The Paris Review. He is a former coeditor of the translation journal In Other Words and is a Royal Literary Fellow at Aberystwyth University (2021–2023).
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