Guillermo Arriaga was a guest at the International Literature and Translation Festival from Iași, Romania. He was invited to meet with the Romanian public in the second evening of the festival, on the scene of the „Vasile Alecsandri” National Theater, accompanied by the Romanian literary critic Marius Chivu, who addressed him many good questions. The public fell immediately in love with the Mexican author, screenwriter, director and producer. He was the sensation of the festival.
Guillermo Arriaga, best known for his films (21 grams, Amores Perros, Babel, The Burning Plain, etc.), wrote three novels – The Guillotine Squad, A Sweet Scent of Death and Night Buffalo – and a short stories volume – Retorno 201. In Romania, all have been translated at Vellant Publishing House, except Night Buffalo. Because I loved both his books and his films, I was delighted to see Arriaga in Romania and I wanted very much to have the opportunity to interview him. Fortunately, it happened, and I thank him once again for his kindness and openness. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to address all my questions :).
Meeting Arriaga is, clearly, one of the best moments in my life. We talked, relaxed, about his books and his movies, about life and death, love, cruelty, violence, how did the place in which he was born influence him, why women appear so rare in his novels, how did he come up with the story about the guillotine, his biggest addiction, the Romanian press and so much more.
Pentru versiunea în limba română a interviului, click aici.
Women don’t appear very much in your novels, they are definitely not in the center of the stories and they disappear quickly. Why is that? Are you more comfortable to write about men and the masculine psychology?
No, I don’t think so. The film I directed, The Burning Plain, it’s a film about women. A central character in my novel, The Guillotine Squad, is a girl called Belem and she’s very important. In the novel A Sweet Scent of Death there is a woman who has a clandestine love with one of the members of the community in which she lives. She’s also very important, I think.
Adela is very important, but she is dead from the beginning…
Yes, she is, but she’s important (he laughs).
But she doesn’t have anything to say. As for Belem, she appears one episode, when Feliciano, the lawyer with the guillotine, falls in love with her, and that’s it. She disappears.
True, but it’s not about the quantity of time in which they appear. It’s all about the quality of what their appearances represent. And I think that Belem, for example, shows that a woman can be independent, that a woman can have a rich sex life, that a woman can fight as brave as a man and that she is not condemned to be just a wife. She’s much more than an object. And I believe that’s very feminine.
I see your point. And it was a little bit surprising to find a character like that in a revolutionary novel.
By the way, she was inspired by a real person. And she was exactly like that, having sex with everyone she met (we laugh).
So, I think that maybe women don’t appear very much in my writings, from the point of view of quantity, but what they say when they enter the narratives it’s very much on the feminine side.
Then Adela… it doesn’t matter if she’s dead or not, Adela has a very big weight in the life of everyone. She’s so powerful that she even has a romance that begins in the day in which she’s discovered dead.
Guillermo Arriaga on the scene of the National Theater from Iași, taking a photo with the Romanian audience.
In your first novel, the main character is, from my point of view, the guillotine. It’s a little bit surprising to have such an object in the center of a 21st century novel. How did you come up with it?
I dreamt it.
Yes, I dreamt the story with the guillotine. And I wrote it. As crazy as it sounds (we laugh).
Is humour a way to escape death or an instrument to become aware of it?
I think that humour is a way of relating to life. It can be more cutting than drama, because humour makes you laugh about something terrible, as it is in The Guillotine Squad. Do you remember that they were cutting someone’s head and the people were laughing?
Yes, of course. They did it every time.
And I wanted to create this effect to the readers: to make them realize that they were also laughing when reading, that they were the same as the people from the book, they were amused by something terrible.
It happened to me, I laughed and, afterward, when I was thinking about it, I realized that I laughed when the heads were put by the Chinese guy in the basket, for example.
(He laughs) That’s the purpose, that you will horrify yourself because you were laughing of something so horrible.
I couldn’t see any hope for your characters, most of them are doomed (see Lilly, New Orleans, 195 etc., from Retorno 201). And yet, you previously said you are an optimist. How does this work? Optimist in real life and pessimist in writing?
I don’t think it’s pessimism. There are characters that have a difficult time and that’s it. You know, Lilly comes from a retarded woman from the street where I grew up. It’s not my case, but many of my friends lost their virginity with her. They were playing the „doctor game” with her and actually they had sex with her. She was not aware of what was happening to her. My friends were twelve years old when they had sex with her.
So I believe that terrible stories have to be told, in certain ways. The story with Lilly, for example, was something that I experienced and I think it was worth writing the story. It doesn’t have anything to do with being an optimist or a pessimist. Lilly is one of the best things that I’ve written in my life because of the narrative, the innocent evilness of these kids etc.
I also think it was a very important story to tell the world. I was reading it in the bus for the first time, with many people around me, and I went home and read it again and again, it has such a complex narrative structure! And, because it’s the first story from the volume, you can’t go on very easily…
Yes, this was the first story and, if you remember, I closed the book with In peace, which is a love story. There is a man who knows how much love matters. In the end, love saves him. So, I’m an optimist, see? (he laughs).
The Vellant Publishing House was the one that published the translation of three of your books. Retorno 201 had a special edition, with notes, drawings, collages on the pages, made by some readers – musicians, writers, illustrators etc. I heard that you got one copy. What was your first thought when you opened it?
I thought that that was the most beautiful edition that I ever had in my life.
Yes, because I felt honored that readers marked in the book what they felt, what it meant to them. It became a community book, it’s not my book anymore. I loved that idea! Because you know something, when storytelling got into the tribes, and they gathered around the fire, were telling stories, it was a great participation. And this resembles now that community, in writing.
I started to read your novels, and afterward I got to the short stories. It seemed to me that in the short stories you suddenly lost your sense of humour and you became a pessimist, looking towards the dark side of the life. Obviously, I simplified it a lot, but am I right or wrong?
Well, the short stories were written between the age of 22 and 26. Basically, I wrote most of them when I was 23 years old.
So it was the other way round.
Yes. But, above all this, I think that some of the short stories also have humour in them, the mix up with Columbus was funny.
But the rest is hard core (we laugh).
Did Retorno, the street, influence your career?
That street was the best thing that happened in my life. I loved the street, I belong to that street, that’s my nation, that’s where I come from. If I had been born on another street, maybe I wouldn’t be a writer. Hunting and Retorno made me who I am. I deeply embrace this street, it’s a great place to grow up.
At the meeting with the public from the National Theater somebody asked you if you told your daughter to read your books. You said that she has to discover your books, if she wants to. So I have another question: if she or your son would come to you and ask you which of your books is the best, what would you answer?
It’s like choosing between my kids. I can’t, they are all my children.
And you know something? They read my books on their own. I never told them about my books, never asked them to read them. I didn’t even know that they read them.
And how did you discover that?
They said to me. My son, for example, told me that he read my books when he was fifteen. I had no idea. They did it by their own, they had no comments or questions to ask me.
By the way, I didn’t even tell my students to read my books.
However, I am sure that they did it.
At the theater, you also said that you don’t like to write about something that doesn’t belong to you. How does The Guillotine Squad or A Sweet Scent of Death belong to you? I suppose you have nothing in common with the dead young girl, for example.
No, but, for example, A Sweet Scent of Death is placed in a village that I know perfectly. The names of the people are real, they are my friends, I’m describing my friends. It wasn’t a murder, but, funny thing, three years after the book was published, a girl was murdered in the same conditions, also naked etc. Why is it funny? Because these guys don’t know to read and write.
The beautiful thing is that they don’t know to read or to write, but the eldest brother of one of my friends knew to read and they joined every afternoon and he read the novel aloud to the others – and I didn’t know. They were joking, they were having such a great time!
Guillermo Arriaga signing for me a copy of A Sweet Scent of Death
Is there any question that you would like to answer, but nobody puts it?
No, I don’t think so. But I must say to you that I’m surprised by the quality of the questions of the Romanian press. They are not cliché, and I’m used to very cliché questions. And until now, I didn’t have the typical questions. For example, the question that you asked me, with the women, I never heard it in my life.
And it’s a pleasure to have a conversation with the people that have knowledge about what you do, with people who prepared very well for an interview. Not like „What’s the idea of the story?”.
Or „Can you sum up the plot”?.
Or sometimes „Can you tell me who are you?” (we laugh). And I always say: „Tell me who do you think I am”.
Very nice answer! Anyway, let’s go back. What’s you biggest addiction?
My biggest addiction… let’s see. I’m addicted to life. I love life, I try to be as much as possible with the people I love; you can never take things for granted, you know? Love is something you build everyday, you have to show your love daily to the people you love.
Is there any scene or episode that haunts you, but, for one reason or another, you didn’t include it in any of your literary or cinema projects?
No. The good thing is that those scenes that don’t work in a moment, they will come back and help you, in another story.
For example, there’s a scene in Amores perros that it was cut from the film. It was an episode in which one character helps the other one to pee. I was sad that it didn’t appear in Amores perros. But I used it again for Babel and it worked. Brad Pitt helps Cate Blanchett to pee and that becomes very intimate.
And does it happen all the time? One scene that didn’t go here fits, like a puzzle, in another story?
Yes, of course. Stories never die. Never, never. In a way or another, they will come back and help you tell another story.