A Conversation with Julián Ríos By Marie-Lise Gazarian Gautier

Q: Do your readers have to go through a period of initiation to understand your work?

A: No, absolutely not, but every reading is gradual. There are various levels or stories in any minimally complex work. I would like my tower of Babel or babble to have many stories, different floors and different tales. One can remain on the ground floor, go up to the second level, stay somewhere in the middle, or survey the view from the roof. The reader can glance over something quickly and in passing, like in a stroboscope, or he can stop and observe the details. For instance, when you look at the paintings of the Flemish master Brueghel or those of the meticulous Victorian painter Richard Dadd, you first see them from a distance, so as to catch their panoramic scope, and then you get closer to look at all the details you couldn’t see from afar. I believe readers should do the same thing.

Q: Your two characters, Babelle and Milalias, live a life of literature more than a real life, isn’t that right?

A: There is a continuous process of osmosis between life and literature. In addition to these two characters, whom we know by their nicknames or, rather, “pen names,” Babelle and Milalias or the man of a thousand aliases (his real name is Emil Alia), there is a commentator or scholiast named Herr Narrator, who is based on an old professor friend of theirs from London whose name is X. Reis. So on top of the double folly of wanting to live and write on the same plane, there is the madness of the character who echoes Babelle and Milalias, the commentator or “echommentator” Herr Narrator, who is twice crazy, since in German Narr and Tor both mean madman. My characters live to write and write to live, and many times they go off on adventures because they believe these can later be transposed into literature. This is unlike what happens in Don Quixote, where the main character reads books and tries to reenact them in real life. But there are some connecting links between Cervantes’ work and mine. Babelle and Milalias are definitely a “Sanchixotic” pair, they are locked into a type of folie a deux. In their mad frenzy of writing and living, they become pawns in their own game. Milalias creates, destroys and recreates the manuscript of his mitobiograpic novel with the help of Babelle. And in some instances, their fictions become so real for them that they can no longer distinguish what they lived from what they imagined.

Q: Does the same thing happen to you?

A: No, I always distinguish between my life and the life I describe in my books. We never get to rewrite our real lives, they never go into a second edition.

Q: You use the symbol of the clover repeatedly in Larva. Is it a four-leaf clover?

A: It is. The pages on the right, which refer to a party held on the feast of Saint John, the longest night of the year, represent the first leaf. The pages on the left are the mirrors in which “language reflects itself,” as Mallarme said; they are the second leaf. The “Pillow Notes” are the third leaf. Finally, the fourth leaf of the clover is the “Index of Names” at the end of the book, which gives the readers some clues, although not all the names are mentioned, just some that are disguised in various phrases and phases, masked in that masque of masks which is Larva.

Q: Larva has been described, in Quimera of Barcelona, as “one of the Most anticipated works of the last decade, an orgiastic text, a feast of words, a narrative and linguistic achievement that discovers new territories for the Spanish language.” Do you see your work as challenging, controversial, explosive and playful?

A: I would like it to be all those things. Hopefully it is. I always keep the following quote from Wittgenstein in mind: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Without a doubt, by broadening the language I am expanding the limits of my world. That’s why I often reiterate that I would like my language to be as ancho (broad) as Sancho, as long as his Don, if you will. To expand the language is fundamental for me. I want to take the language out of its bonds and bounds to make it more whopping.

Q: Emir Rodriguez Monegal said you are a three-dimensional writer. Could you add the fourth dimension?

A: I hope I can. I wish there could be many mentions and mansions in my language so that this fourth dimension, and if possible a fifth, will come out.

Q: If you had to give geometric shapes to your books, what would they be?

A: Larva has a visual leitmotiv (which appears very clearly on the spine of the hardcover edition), a mask which is both an upside-down eight, the symbol of infinity, and a Mobius strip. That continuous figure of eight/mask/strip shows us both its internal and external faces in a sort of Mobius striptease. . . . Someone also said Larva was like a Rubik’s cube, because you can give it so many different spins. There is also the shape of a spiral. In any case, I let the readers decide which shapes are most appropriate; some might prefer a circle or vicious circle, others squaring the circle. In any event, I hope that my readers are not too “square” themselves.

Q: Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is the source of all books for you. Do you think Larva is a novel which represents all novels?

A: Larva is a novel that can only represent itself, and just barely, but I do agree that the aim of all great books is to stand for all works. Joyce used to say that if they burned Dublin down, they could rebuild it on the basis of Ulysses. My highest ambition would be to write a book that would permit all of literature to be rewritten if they burned down every library in the world. This is impossible, of course, but authors write to seek the impossible and they have to remain impassible about doing so. The book of all books, the total work, is the synecdoche of literature. All books end up being that ideal work, a literary simurg in the hand. It is still difficult to accept that literature comes from literature, as well as from life and experience. Any minimally complex book brings out previous works. In this sense, Finnegans Wake would be a magnificent example of a work that lifts the curtain on almost all Western literature.

Q: Like Cortazar, you trace a sort of textual path for your readers: from the pages on the right, you send us to the notes on the left, and later to the “Pillow Notes.” Should we read your books lying down?

A: At least, I hope I haven’t made you lie too much. Lying down would be the ideal position, as long as your ignorance is not facedown. . . .I was not joking the many times that I have said that Larva should be read in bed and, if at all possible, with four hands, regardless of the type of couple involved. That would be the ideal way to read it, because Babelle and Milalias sometimes read their favorite works in this fashion. The movement from the right to the left of the text is designed to break the linear pace of the novel and reveal its complex web of interconnections. Sometimes, people who are reading Larva for the first time ask me where to begin. As with almost all works, I think that my novel can be read in many ways, and there is no set of instructions to follow. You might read Larva without looking at the pages on the left, and following the narrative conventionally, as with most novels. As I said before in reference to Brueghel, you can look at the panorama or take in the details. Once again, it depends on which side of the clover or cover you want to clutch the book by. On the one hand, there is the narrative action, like taking a moment to see what’s happening when you first arrive at a party, but eventually being drawn in and meeting some of the characters there. Then there is the aspect of the reality and concreteness of the writing. We mustn’t forget that Larva is a book of books, it is a work which the characters attempt to live and write at the same time. So the act of writing is significant, and this is reflected in the pages on the left, which send us to the anecdotes that support the verbal thought and action at the party and back to the beginning. So Larva can be read in many ways.

Q: Nevertheless, you would like to impose on us the triptych order of your chaotic world.

A: Chaos is not really chaos when you look at it with a modicum of care. Sometimes, what seems confusing to us isn’t really, is it? Ezra Pound loved an inscription at the base of a statue of William Shakespeare in Leicester Square that says: “There is no darkness, but ignorance.” Many times, what seems chaotic or dark to us is nothing but the shadow of our own ignorance in the face of something we don’t know or don’t understand. So I don’t impose a way of reading on my readers. I would like the motto of Larva to be Theleme’s assertion: “Fay ce que vouldras,” or “Do as you will.” The author should not be authoritarian. In Larva, I allow readers to have their own say, or essay the approach that they want. Since I have been wrapped up in the work for fifteen years, I occasionally allow myself to voice an opinion as a reader to the reader and tell him what particular path I think he should follow to understand better a particular paragraph. You could also be very strict and look up a note every time the text makes reference to it. This is a way of underscoring the fact that we sometimes read too fast and that we should take more time to look at the landscape.

Q: So it is a form of mutation?

A: A mutual-action.

Q: A mutation or metamorphosis?

A: Yes, a motamorphose (word-metamorphosis). In a journal called Texture, put out by the French department of the Universidad del Pais Vasco, they made a directory of Spanish authors, with labels for each. Under my name, they put the term motamorphose, or metamorphosis of words. The term is based on a play of words in Larva, “metamorphose des mots.”

Q: You look at your readers as handymen who have to work with you in reading/writing the book. It is as if they are your co-authors.

A: Of course, they become co-authors and have to work with what is at hand. Handymen are persons who have to improvise a little, they don’t need all the tools in the world. The readers or “bricolecteurs” can read creatively even with limited means or knowledge. This interests me a great deal.

Q: Where does your dizzying passion for words, almost to the brink of madness, originate?

A: From words, words, mirror words. From patch/page work. In Larva, Babelle says Milalias has a “delire de lire” (a delirium of reading), “a page agape.” I too am a page of honor of the Page. As Novalis used to say and Octavio Paz has repeated, the author is a servant of the language. “Amo idioma”: Master Language. I would even add that the writer talks back to his master, particularly over academic norms. Writers are therefore in a vicious or virtuous cycle from which they can never escape, because they have chosen the world of the word that begins anew every time. How can I not be fascinated by words, since they are all that I have as an author? If I were a movie director or a photographer, I could count on the collaboration of actors and models, people of flesh and blood. But characters in a literary work are made of words, no more and no less. Words on the page. People tend to think that words are abstract. Writers often envy painters for their ability to use plastic materials and dip their fingers into the paint. But for me, words are also tactile and plastic; they have an inherent sensuality. As a writer, I attempt to show the sensual, physical, material aspects of words.

Q: So the word has a body.

A: It has a body and his bodyguard and servant the writer knows how to handle the word hand by hand. “Amo idioma” (I love language). A living offprint/offspring is born from this struggle and fond embrace between the author and his words. This is the difference between a living author, who writes with a dynamic language, and a scribbler, who writes with a dead language in which words still seem to be buried in the dictionary, lifeless and without personality.

Q: Why did you choose to bring the ghost of Don Juan into your novel? Was it to seduce and conquer the Spanish language?

A: Of course, I would say that the aim of the masked Don Juan is to seduce with his words, and not just people, but other languages as well. This is without taking into account the sexual, promiscuous adventures of the character in a then very promiscuous post-swinging London. All the tongues that appear in Larva usually belong to ladies, and Milalias attempts to seduce both the women and the tongues they speak. In one chapter, in tribute to his Spanish language, Milalias says, “All languages are going to become languages of my language,” which can be interpreted in many ways. So there, all the tongues are disguised in Spanish. For instance, when Finnish and Japanese women speak, they do so with Finnish and Japanese words disguised in Spanish. As far as I know, this linguistic transvestism has never been done in any language, and this is what separates me radically from Joyce. My aim is not so much to babelize, babble and mix languages, but rather to give all languages the appearance of being Spanish, as we are at a costume ball and the tongues are masked in a masquerade of words. The Peruvian writer and critic Julio Ortega, a professor at Brown University, once said that if Hispanophiles from twenty or thirty different countries could gather to read excerpts of Larva in Spanish as well as in the subtext of their own native tongues, the laughter would be heard all the way to Tokyo. For instance, when a Japanese girl calls Don Juan ganso, she is not only calling him “stupid” but also an “inventor,” which is what the word means in Japanese. This is the fantastic side of words, they are layers of masks on a many-sided polyhedron.

Q: In Midsummer Night’s Babel, the devil reminds Don Juan that he sold “his soul for a bunch of words.” Are these words your novel?

A: I think that any book is a pact with the devil, in some sense. I think demons possess the true writers, and that we do sell our souls for a bunch of words, otherwise we wouldn’t spend our lives stringing words together. Writing is also a rebellious act. The writer, as Blake said of Milton, is of the devil’s party.

Q: Then it cannot be deus ex machina but diabolus ex machina.

A: And Deus as well. One of the Italian wordplays in Larva is “Diobolo,” which means god and the devil at the same time. To be able to reconcile all extremes is the supreme ambition of any author; we don’t want the light and darkness, high and low, and the other dichotomies of the Manicheans to stand any longer. I think that the best modern literature is complex precisely because there are no set boundaries, and one is not sure which is the light and which is the shadow, what is good and what is bad. . . . This is what is both fascinating and disturbing about the modern world, don’t you think?

Q: What is literature-or “liberature,” as you like to call it?

A: “Liberature” is the term used by the characters of Larva, and it refers to the significant desire of writers to transform what is repressed, to express what we repress so that it doesn’t oppress us anymore, and I don’t just mean psychological repressions. It appears that writing was invented to control slaves, but, as we know, it eventually became a tool of liberation. We write to seek greater freedom, in many ways. The great writers have been great liberators of energies, taboos, and all sorts of things. That’s why I like to speak of “liberature,” meaning a literature that strives for freedom.

Q: Do you seek the universality of tongues within the Spanish language?

A: Every author is hemmed in by his mother tongue. When a writer has a truly original vision, the language is born anew in his writing. At the same time, a language always goes further than itself. I think that basically every writer inscribes himself in a tradition that goes further than his own language or national culture. When I mentioned Wittgenstein earlier, I noted his comment that the desire of the writer is to increase the boundaries of his language. Juan Goytisolo has also said that the important thing for an author should be to make the language richer than when he first found it. I also share Carlos Fuentes’s vision of gaining ground from the sea in the name of literature; this is the task of any genuine author. So, any great writer is basically an explorer of language who charts the new tongue and discovers new territories for it.

Q: The writing in Larva sometimes seems coded. For instance, you tell us in Morse code that nothing is certain and everything allowed. Could this be a definition of what the process of writing means for you?

A: I think that if a novelist follows his own narrative game, he eventually achieves a state where everything is permitted. The phrase you just mentioned contains a more or less legendary allusion to the Ismaili sect of the Assassins, which existed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. One of the founders of this sect, Hasan ibn-Sabbah, also known as the Old Man of the Mountain, used to intoxicate his followers with hashish in his fort at Alamut, in the north of Iran. When they were completely intoxicated or asleep, he had them moved to a secret garden in the castle, where some girls (the most beautiful in the world, according to Marco Polo) would tend to their needs, offering them fruit, attention and more hash, until they once again got intoxicated. Then Hasan ibn-Sabbah would have them moved back to their grungy quarters and the harsh reality of a razed landscape. When they awoke, the Old Man of the Mountain would appear at the right moment and tell them that they had had a divine vision of the heavenly paradise awaiting them if they followed his orders and executed the enemies of his sect and died for their ideals. After having such realistic “dreams,” the “assassins,” or eaters of hash, would become fanatics and stop at nothing to do their master’s bidding. The saying that nothing is certain and everything allowed (which some chroniclers claim Hasan ibn-Sabbah uttered before dying) alludes to the play of mirrors between reality and fiction. Fiction is not reality but it is truer than nature, it is a lie that becomes the truth, and makes that everything is permitted. Because everything is permuted, or transmuted. Everything is allowed in literature when one has talent and the ability to tell a tall tale tellingly, and to allow words to release their inner meanings. Everything is admitted in literature when it becomes “liberature.”

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