Interviewed by Jorge Armenteros
Elvira Navarro, born in Huelva, published her first book, La ciudad en invierno, in 2007. In 2009 she published La ciudad feliz, which won the Jaén Prize for best novel and the Tormenta Prize for best new author, and was published as The Happy City in an English translation by Rosalind Harvey (HispaBooks, 2013). Her work has appeared in magazines such as El Cultural, Ínsula, Turia, and El Perro as well as the newspapers Público and El Pais. In 2010, Navarro was selected by Granta magazine as one of the best Spanish-language writers under the age of 35. Her latest novel is La Trabajadora (A Working Woman), forthcoming in English translation by Christina MacSweeney from Two Lines Press.
This interview was conducted verbally this past spring in Madrid, Spain. A corner café near the CaixaForum museum provided the perfect setting for the exchange of ideas. I was looking for the author described by Enrique Vila-Matas as the “true avant-gardist of her generation.” And after the conversation unfolded, I knew I had found her. I later transcribed the interview and edited the content for length and accuracy. Once edited, I translated the interview from Spanish into English. The result follows below.
Jorge Armenteros: The story in your novel, La Trabajadora, takes place in the periphery of Madrid. The city is shown as a solitary and hostile urban populous, unleashing an “impression of a barren plateau.” Did you intend to include the city as if it were a main character in your novel?
Elvira Navarro: Yes, it’s the first time that I decided to include a city as a main character in a novel. I had been working on a blog for a while that’s called Periferia (Periphery) where I told stories about my walks through different neighborhoods in Madrid. My two previous novels, La ciudad en invierno (The City In Winter) and La ciudad feliz (The Happy City), already have an enormous urban presence, specifically in Valencia from my childhood. The books have The City in their names because they consist of stories that come from very specific streets. The first thing I visualize before I write is an urban setting. Ergo, my lexicon is directly related to urban landscapes.
On the other hand, due to the Internet and the strong presence of audiovisual stimulation, I have heard that the idea of a literary narrative taking charge of urban spaces doesn’t make any sense. This is due to the fact that we have an infinite amount of images of these spaces at our disposal and we even have the possibility to virtually stroll through any inhabited region on the planet. It is said that in the 19th century, Flaubert had to tell stories about Paris because not everyone could visit the city or see what is was like. Now we no longer need the type of 19th-century narrator to explain what a city is like. We have thousands of images of Paris and any other place. However, those who say that it doesn’t make sense to narrate these settings have forgotten something essential. Narration of urban settings is not a mere scenario or a transposition of a real place. It is make-believe. In a book, a place’s description is another fictitious fabrication, and has narrative functions: The space becomes impregnated by the tone, generates a certain atmosphere, and sometime acts as a metaphor . . . On the other hand, fiction normally leans towards recognizable spaces with landmarks, and I’m interested in unrecognizable spaces, like neighborhoods in Madrid, that rarely appear in works of fiction, and when they do, they are represented with stereotypes. I was living for a while in Carabanchel, in southern Madrid, a very rough neighborhood; this neighborhood is the inspiration behind La Trabajadora.
JA: In a certain way, Elisa’s inner world reflects the same qualities as the city, internal desolation. In reality, who influences whom?
EN: The city is merely a reflection of Elisa. Elisa is the one who sees something a certain way and creates that city. In reality, that city doesn’t exist. It only comes alive inside the character’s head, and yes, it is a type of barren plateau. The concept of the barren plateau is very interesting to me because Madrid is in the middle of a plateau. Despite the fact that there are mountains to the north and south, Madrid is rural, poor, and is more similar to Castile La Mancha, Don Quixote’s homeland. If you look at Madrid, the colors come from the plateau. If you look at the dryness of the streets, that dryness is the plateau’s dryness. The heat that radiates from Madrid is also the plateau’s heat. It is a very La Mancha city and lives off of La Mancha asceticism. The Castilian plateau, both “Castillas,” due to being historically poor, have transformed into involuntarily spiritual places. The people have had to suffer and get by with very little. This is learned from living with both scarcity and immensity: You look around and you can see the horizon everywhere. The land and the sky. The essential things.
JA: How did your own reality make its way into your novel?
EN: This story comes from a text that I wrote in 2003, when I was living with roommates in Carabanchel and looking for work. I saved the text and had a feeling that I would revisit it later on. Years later, when I was working as an editor, I hadn’t been paid for six months, and that’s when the idea of a novel about precariousness became especially intense. At that time, I had seen my horizon of middle-class expectations fade away and not only noted that my difficulty finding work during an era in which media outlets and then-president Aznar constantly exaggerated the idea that “Spain is doing well,” but also the gap between what the Spanish economy needed from working professionals (basically engineers for the brick industry) and what I had studied (Philosophy).
JA: Thinking of Borges, who once wrote “reality likes symmetry,” Susana and Elisa reflect each other like some kind of mirror trick. Does Susana become essential to Elisa and vice versa?
EN: I think the mirror trick works best in the case of Elisa reflecting Susana, but not Susana reflecting Elisa. Susana mirrors Elisa and plays with this power, with knowing her mirror. I wanted to make Susana a character that was conscious of the fact that identity is a made-up concept. For example, we do not know if her psychotic outburst really happened. For Elisa, Susana is a mirror that terrorizes her. However, for Susana, Elisa is a game. She doesn’t take herself too seriously and maybe in this way Elisa is also Susana’s mirror.
JA: In the novel, we see an unsustainable situation that makes us feel like everything is going to go wrong. Do you feel comfortable writing and being at the center of such anguish?
EN: I believe that without conflict, there is no story. It makes us talk about what we don’t know how to resolve. That is why we talk, that is why we try to resolve things with words. Even though I would never talk about anguish, but I would talk about fear in every phase of fear: fear of precariousness, fear of loneliness and madness. Anguish is merely a form of expression.
JA: Both characters face an abyss of insanity and an abyss of reality. Which abyss is more dangerous?
EN: I wanted to bring the framework of both insanity and reality to light, because I believe that what we classify as real is merely a result of consensual fiction. That means that I don’t believe in an unequivocal reality; instead I believe in a perceived reality. I don’t mean that there are no facts, but what we call reality is much more complex than a mere confirmation of actions and facts without reason—it’s tormented by interpretations and beliefs that coincide with our perception. Then what is madness? I suppose that if we were all crazy, that would be normal. Madness is used in a metaphorical way in this novel. My intention was not to write the novel about some crazy girls, but instead it was to talk about the construction of their identities. Susana plays around with hers and Elisa perceives reality as a threatening monster, because she’s in the middle of an anxious process in which the world is turning into a monster because her perception is controlled by fear.
JA: However, Susana is able to reinvent her life—she redeems herself through art. Would Elisa be able to save herself with her writing?
EN: I don’t know if Susana redeems herself or not because we don’t know what happens to her at the end. What I want to highlight is that she achieves something because she isn’t actively looking for anything.
JA: If the forces of madness and fiction were interlaced, would there be redemption?
EN: Why do we have to be redeemed? The word redemption infers that you’ve been guilty of something. I don’t believe in guilt, I believe that it’s possible to see and do things a different way.
JA: And to evolve, perhaps?
EN: To stop believing and stop wanting to be in control.
JA: Was the novel’s structure planned ahead of time or did it happen spontaneously?
EN: Spontaneously. I don’t usually plan anything. That doesn’t mean that I don’t know where I’m going. I know more or less where I’m going, but I’m open to changing my initial plans and accepting what happens along the way if I like it. Basically, I don’t get attached to my initial plans.
JA: That also allows you to have a certain degree of freedom and the power to explore without feeling married to a previous idea, which must be very exciting.
EN: Yes, for me that is the best part about writing, that it has an element of discovery.
JA: Do you think that La Trabajadora is an anti-novel?
EN: If we think about the novel using 19th-century standards, it could be an anti-novel because it doesn’t have uniqueness, totality, or linearity.
JA: If we take into account that classic realism is nothing more than an illusion, should the novel implement a calculated demolition of all things conventional and simply take flight?
EN: An illusion is everything, right? Classical and non-classical as well. We’re not going to debunk one myth so we can create another.
JA: What do you think about the modern day literary canon?
EN: It is very influenced by the market and, secondarily, by academics. In Spain, we read a lot of translated English language literature. My canon is forcefully being changed due to imperialism and cultural colonialism. They decide what non-English language writers become “canonized.” Bolaño has had a lot of success in the English-speaking world and this had made his work recognized worldwide as literary canon.
JA: This also indicates that what is available, what fits into this superior category, goes through a filtering system. It all begins with books that are written, then what is popular, what is translated . . . little by little everything is filtered out. It’s like a vast ocean that only gives us three or four drops of water.
EN: It certainly is a vast ocean. Of course, this brings up an interesting question. You would have to study every case individually. Obviously, it is very clear with mainstream literature and literary literature where the unknowns are, because there are so many good things that get left behind.
JA: What alternative narratives do you like to put out there as a writer?
EN: My alternative is that you don’t have to ask me about alternatives. Everyone is free to do as they please!
JA: I suppose that depends on whatever the project you’re working on requires of you.
EN: Exactly, every text comes with its own rules. You need to let the text speak for itself. I don’t impose anything on the text.
JA: What languages have your novels been translated into?
EN: My full-length books have been translated into English, French, and Turkish. Some other stories I have written have been translated into Swedish and Italian
JA: How will you know that the translation of La Trabajadora is faithful to the source material? Or as Borges said, is the original faithful to the translation?
EN: I have no way of knowing either way. I don’t speak English!
JA: What contemporary North Americans novelists are you most interested in reading?
EN: I’m more interested in short story tellers, like Lydia Davis, for example. When it comes to living novelists, I’m very enthusiastic about Siri Hustvedt. They both tell stories in such an unorthodox and intelligent way.
JA: What risks do you think come with writing non-traditional or experimental literature?
EN: Risk is a very excessive word to me. I suppose that you risk not being well understood, but in reality, you never know what type of luck a book can have.
JA: Could you comment on the end goal or intention of fiction writing?
EN: I don’t think there is a universal end goal. I think that every person writes fiction for different reasons. In my case, it has to do with not knowing how to express myself well when using oral language. For me, literature is necessary for self-expression.
JA: Speaking of expressing yourself through books, what is your next project? What’s keeping you busy these days? What can we expect from you in the future?
EN: I just finished a short story book and I might publish a book that contains chronicles about Madrid, based on my blog, Periphery.
JA: Tell me a little about the blog.
EN: I started it in 2010, and I wanted simply to narrate the city as just another passerby, taking advantage of the fact that I love to walk.