This week, we are delighted to be publishing Cry, Mother Spain, Lydie Salvayre’s prize-winning account of the life of her mother during the early months of the Spanish Civil War. Here, in this exclusive interview, she discusses her remarkable novel with her translator, Ben Faccini.
Ben Faccini: What got you started on the writing of Cry, Mother Spain? Was it an image or a memory? What set the writing in motion?
Lydie Salvayre: I read George Bernanos’ Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune. The book was a real shock to me. That’s what set me off. It gave me a shove in the back. The artist Nicholas de Staël
once said he didn’t paint what he saw, but rather the blows he received. Cry, Mother Spain was my attempt at responding to the blow I’d got from reading Bernanos. Of all the accounts of the Spanish Civil War, his book is the one which denounces the Nationalist reign of terror with the most vehemence and anger, showing how that terror was directed at those who were defending their fragile Republic – and all this approved of and blessed by the Catholic Church.
Bernanos’ dark and desperate chronicling of the events of 1936 immediately made me want to provide a counterbalance, an antidote, to write another vision of these events. So I wrote about the young people who fought to establish a more generous order, an order that was fairer, freer and more harmonious. And thanks to that they lived what the author and poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger called a “short summer of anarchy.”
BF: Your novel is an interweaving of history, imagination and memory. How did you put it together? Is Montse’s village, for instance, a real place or somewhere you made up?
LS: I knew the village where my mother was born and grew up. In 1936 it was a tiny, isolated place up in the hills of Catalonia, inhabited by poor families, peasant farmers like my grandparents. The villagers were people who thought that their lives were fixed for ever and would never change. But when the conflict started they began to dream of change, of choice, of a better life and they took an active part in the Anarchist uprisings. My mother, Montse, and her brother, José, joined the struggle. My childhood in France was in many ways nurtured by their accounts of the war. It wasn’t hard for me to remember any of it. I didn’t need to do any specific research to bring their stories back to life or study the context to events – even though my penchant for romanticism meant that I modified, embellished or erased some aspects of the stories I knew.
BF: Was it a difficult novel to write?
LS: No, I have never found writing a book as easy as this. It was a happy time. The simple fact of writing down my mother’s name, Montserrat Monocles Arjona, momentarily rescuing it from the oblivion to which it had been consigned, and the mere fact of reviving her language, her very incorrect but highly inventive mix of French and Spanish, the act of “entrusting” her legacy and life to a novel, all that was nothing but a joy. I have to say, too, that I never conceive of writing as a task or a torment. I can happily spend days and days trying to find a right word, a right sentence or a right rhythm. It’s never a chore for me. Never. It’s what I prefer doing above all else.
BF: Your novel is carried by Montse, by her passion for life, her thirst for freedom. Can you tell us more about her revolt?
LS: I think that if there was a slogan that could sum up the aspirations of Montse and her generation in 1936, it would be something like: “we must achieve the impossible.”
Montse, and her brother, and thousands of other enthusiastic young people like them believed that their yearning for a better world – which they had been told was impossible – was achievable. And Barcelona was the place where this utopia came true. All the documents of the period reveal that, and the people who lived through those times in Barcelona never forgot the experience. But this utopia only lasted a few months, for many reasons which would be hard to sum up quickly. George Orwell, in his Homage to Catalonia and Ken Loach in his film Land of Freedom revealed the inflated expectations that came out of that Anarchist revolution and the painful disappointment that ensued. The memory of that enchanted period stayed with my mother all her life, like a glimmer of hope, a memory that made her heart beat faster. Her eyes still lit up when she spoke about it years and years later. There was no bitterness in her, no sense of failure. She didn’t share her brother’s desperate disappointment. She often used to say: “We lost the war, but we won the battle for meaning.”
BF: Your writing is haunted by these voices from Spain. Tell us about your particular relationship to Spain.
LS: The Spanish Civil War was a pivotal moment in history. It was a prelude to the disaster that later engulfed Europe, and Europe closed its eyes and refused to intervene as Hitler and Mussolini hurried to support Franco. I’m personally attached to the story of the Civil War because that war shaped my parents’ lives and consequently my own. When the Francoists won in 1939 my parents fled to France along with 500,000 other Republicans from Spain. That’s why I grew up with two cultures, two languages, “swimming between two shores” in a literary sense: the Spanish shore with its excesses, its exuberance, the Baroque and “bad taste”, and the French shore with its classicism, its rigour, simplicity and measure. It’s why Cry, Mother Spain is a mix of tight, refined prose and outrageous insults. In the book there are poetic quotations alongside jokes of questionable taste. My Spanish bad taste contaminates my French good taste at all times.
BF: The dialogue in the book is particularly lively – with a great assortment of insults and proverbs.
LS: The idea of vulgarity is very different from one side of the Pyrenees to the other. Addressing someone as “tu” (“you”) is considered very informal in France, but not necessarily in Spain. It’s the same for swearing and blasphemies, which are definitely considered rude in France, while in Spain they are almost an art (I’m not joking). The Spanish have elevated insult to the rank of artistry. And a Spaniard who can’t come up with profanities is not really a Spaniard.
BF: How does it feel to have had this book translated into many languages? Is it a new start for the book or something else?
LS: Before the age of internet, the translation of a book was more of a surprise, the unchartered promise of another form of reading, another perspective, another life. Now you often know what’s coming from abroad, and sometimes you’re told what you should think of a new book. Its freshness, uniqueness and freedom have been somewhat eroded.
Having said that, the translation of a book is a chance, the guarantee of another life, the possibility that it might die a little slower. And working with a translator can be very fertile. Without wishing to flatter you, your questions on the text led me to think about the interpretability of certain words. In particular how “libertarian” in English could be confusing, and how we had to clarify situations which could be confusing for a English-language reader (notably the allusions to the Front National, the extreme-right party in France). I suppose you really become aware of the particular character of a language, and how each language has its own way of thinking, of perceiving, its own particular rhythm – basically it drives home how translation really is never a simple copy and requires enormous creativity and reworking. For a novel, it is a kind of new beginning.
BF: The end of the book is very strong, it feels pretty conclusive. Did you feel like you’d closed a chapter of your life with this book?
LS: Strangely, not at all. This book reaffirmed my heritage. Rather than settling old scores with History, it made History a stronger part of me, an integral part of my life. It made me feel more alive. That is not to say that I’m nostalgically attached to my family’s past and its legends, but only that this past continues to illuminate my present. It reassures me in this rather bleak period of ours.
BF: Which authors have had the biggest impact on you? What books do you read again and again?
LS: I’ve mentioned my great love of Spanish Baroque literature – and I have an equal passion for the French classics. I love Quevedo, the most Baroque of Spanish writers, as much as I do Racine and Pascal. But they are not the only ones I read, far from it. I admire many authors, too many to mention. Of those that I’ve read many times and those I intend to read again, I would probably say Beckett and his trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable) and perhaps Michaux. As soon as I say that though other writers come to mind. I love them all as much.
BF: What do you aim to transmit to your readers? What pushes you to write?
LS: The writing of Cry, Mother Spain caught me off guard and swept me away, but before reading Bernanos I hadn’t considered writing the story. At least, it was never a conscious decision. I threw myself into it, unprepared. I was called to it, without any pre-established plan, without any form of intent. The more I wrote, the more I noticed that the story had many echoes with our times. The religious fanaticism of Spain in 1936 mirrors a certain form of religious fanaticism today. The nationalism in Spain in 1936 doesn’t seem too distant from the rise of nationalism today. Europe’s inability to respond to the Spanish Civil war isn’t dissimilar to the endless procrastination and dilly-dallying we see today either. In those days, too, people refused to see a certain reality because it upset their notions of comfort. People are just as blind again now. But I didn’t want to spell these parallels out. They are there if the reader wants to see them.
BF: Are you writing a new book?
LS: I’m just putting the last touches to a very different kind of book from Cry, Mother Spain. It’s coming out in October. Its called A Short Treatise on Carnal Knowledge, and as the title suggests it’s about rather awkward matters which make me blush.
Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre, translated by Ben Faccini, is published on Thursday, 16th June.