Matthew has written various pieces for the Guardian Weekend, The Broadsheet, Poetry Now and Journeyman.

Telling stories

Interview with Javier Marias by Matthew Perret

It´s not easy being successful. Not only is Javier Marías a bestselling author here in Spain, he is also one of the very select band of contemporary Spanish authors whose work appears and sells well in English translation too: All Souls, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, A Heart So White and When I Was Mortal are available from all good bookshops.

But herein lies the problem. Some critics in Spain have described him as an ´English writer in translation´ in what I take to be a kind of slur on his Spanishness. Does he take this as an insult?

"It was meant entirely as an insult and came not only from critics but also from fellow writers. I could never take it as such, though, because one of the most admirable things a writer can achieve is to incorporate the general wealth of other languages into his own. But I do mean "into his own", not awkwardly, in a mere transposition of terms or through unnatural syntax. Rather an assimilation of things which theoretically do not exist in your language though they may become part of it after your work. In fact, that is probably the way literature has developed everywhere ever since Homer...

"It´s actually "castiza" literature which ages the most rapidly. And in Spain there is still an official admiration, not a real liking on the part of readers, for the stiff, old-fashioned writing we have endured for too long".

Marías is also a notable translator and is proud of his work on Sterne´s Tristram Shandy, Conrad´s The Mirror of the Sea and Sir Thomas Browne´s, Hydriotaphia, all of which he describes as having ´Spanished´. "´The very idea that any of my own texts might sound a little like those is so desirable that I would be happy to be such ´an English writer in translation´. At the end of the day I look on the whole thing as unintended praise."

As a young man, Marías ran away to Paris. He also lived in Barcelona, Oxford and the US. In his newspapers articles he´s criticised such things as the postal services, the lack of courtesy in everyday life and the car addicts of his home town. One of the few pieces of praise he gives it is for the double-decker buses of his childhood. Doesn´t the city have any other saving graces? "Madrid used to be hospitable to outsiders. It is becoming less and less so, not only because of the general haste and bad temper of all big cities, but also due to our Mayor of the last 10 years. He is from Sevilla and must hate Madrid as he set about destroying as much of it as he could and making the town ´invivible´. Even so, the city remains cheerful rather than gloomy. And it is still true that, unlike in some other places, here everyone is accepted and people don´t care where you are from. You could say that the place really does ´belong´ to all Spaniards, the biggest proof of this being that nasty outsider as Mayor. You cannot say that of many other Spanish towns".

Marías is certainly a man of strident views especially when it comes to something as close to his heart as language. When I ask what he thinks of the phenomenon of Spanglish, the man who has written "las lenguas se mezclan, se permean unas a otras, y así se enriquece" is keen not to have his words misunderstood.

"This, I´m afraid, has nothing to do with what I was talking about before. No "incorporation" here, not in any real sense. It´s just an artificial mixture apparently due only to laziness. Spanglish could never be an enrichment of either English or Spanish. Rather both would be abolished by it. The phenomenon seems only to illustrate what I remember my mother telling me and my brothers, when, as teenagers do, we mumbled only monosyllables: "Don´t be misers with your speech, that´s the worst possible ´tacañería´ of them all".

The English-speaking world has produced numerous, and often well-regarded, travel writers who specialise in Spain. As yet, relatively few Spanish writers have set out to explore and chronicle such things as Morris dancing in Berkshire or whisky-making on the Isle of Mull. Is there a place for a Spanish Brenan or Gibson? Has Marías even been tempted by such an ambassadorial position?

"There have been more Spanish writers on Britain than is perhaps generally acknowledged", he says. "Blanco White or Moratín, for instance, in the 18th century, and more recently Álvaro Pombo or Juan Benet. Of course there would be a place for a Spanish Gerald Brenan, but I am certainly not interested in taking the role. I did apply a similar point of view when I wrote my novel All Souls, which is set in Oxford. But I do not feel like being what you would call a ´travel´ writer and I have always hated the ´novela costumbrista´."

The manipulation of the words is, hardly surprisingly, a subject very close to Marías´s heart. In All Souls the narrator is a faux-anglais booksniffing adulterer and bluffing language teacher cocking a snook at the system that gave him a lukewarm welcome. In A Heart So White he´s a simultaneous interpreter who breaks all the rules with an unethical intervention of his own and In Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me he´s a ghostwriter and speechwriter. All are users of words, ostensibly for the purposes of others, but in some way creating an identity through the story they tell. (They also, amusingly, have notably establishment cronies hanging over them: Oxford University and its worthies, Felipe, Maggie and the King of Spain himself).

Is all literature a form of translation or is it just that his narrators have a tendency to impersonate and represent?

"What those narrators and the opera singer in El hombre sentimental all have in common is the fact that they are ´voices´ rather than ´flesh and blood´. At the same time, and as they tell and meditate, they happen to have jobs in which they have renounced their own voices. In a way they are ghostly, they usually put their voices and speech at the service of knowledge, the translator is an interpreter, the teacher a conveyor of knowledge, the translator a conveyor of others´ words. In their respective novels, however, what they do most is to relate things their own way, to choose what to divulge and what not, to be masters of their own speech. In a way you could say that literature is the only possible field for those who have nothing to say in real life, or are unable to say anything, or have no voice of their own. And of course, yes, in a way all literature is a translation, as in fact all speech is a translation too."

Interestingly, in his recent work Negra espalda del tiempo, Marías himself is the narrator with his own name. Is he a reliable narrator? Should we believe what he says? "In this novel I say that candid depiction, absolute objectivity while describing facts, is in itself a chimera, for by simply relating that something happened you are distorting the facts themselves. In the end, no witness can ever give an account of how something happened exactly. You could say, in fact, that telling is an impossible task, unless you are telling stories..."

Matthew Perret, The Broadsheet

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Granada tapas bars

At any bar in Granada you'll be given a fairly substantial free plate of meat, fish or salad with every drink. A bar that didn’t give you free tapas here would rapidly go out of business. People spend hours on end on their premises rather than having a swift aperitif and then going to a restaurant or cooking at home.

At the turn of the century, tapas were served free in the whole of Andalucía, as well as in Murcia, Extremadura, Low Castile and the working-class districts of Madrid and Barcelona. In many small villages, the tradition never died out, but in all the major towns it had become virtually extinct by the time of the Civil War. Since the 1970s, though, there has been a resurgence in town tapas.

A typical evening out in Granada begins at around 7pm with a te moruno in the sloping streets of the Albayzin’s Moorish quarter, above the Calle Elvira, in what the guidebooks call Little Morocco. It's a good spot to meet up, look at the papers, talk sport and politics or simply stroll in the sun. Try As-Sirat (Moroccan for ‘bridge between earth and Paradise’) at c/Calderería Nueva, 5, off c/Elvira.

By 9pm start moving downhill to a bar and discover the real delight of the town. At Restaurante Chikito, Plaza del Campillo, 9, south of Puerta Real, Lorca, Manuel de Falla, Kipling and HG Wells all enjoyed great tapas. They’re all laid out on the bar for you to point at the one you want, or if you say nothing, they'll give you a hot tapa de cocina.

Look out too for the great mini-toasties at Sidrería Juan, Moroccan tapas at Bar Ziryab and tasty Swedish titbits (including some marvellous salmon) at Bar Lax – you'll find them all in c/Verónica de la Magdalena, west of Plaza Trinidad, as well as several Arabic places serving houmous and tabouleh. In the more old-fashioned places, you don't get to choose at all. Los Caracoles, along Cuesta del Chapiz, beyond Casa del Chapiz in the Albayzin has only one kind of tapa (guess which one) and there's an old man's, domino-playing sort of place that has only liquid tapas (gazpacho in summer, hot soup in winter) in the Realejo area between c/Molinos and c/Santiago in the shadow of the Alhambra.

In other traditional spots there is a rotation of tapas to ensure you never get the same thing twice (hence the ubiquitous cry of "Dame una primera!", "Una segunda!" and so on, from barman to cook). One game I indulged in with some friends, purely for the purposes of research, was to try to "dar la vuelta a las tapas" – see how many drinks we had to have before we came full circle and got "una primera" again. Unfortunately, by that stage we couldn't remember how many drinks we’d had, nor what the first tapa had been. Nor how we came to be in Spain at all.

Finally, you can move on to Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, the street that according to legend has more bars than the whole of Norway. In the Pedro Antonio area one of the best no-tapas places is the mellow La Tertulia, Pintor López Mezquita, 3 (my second home) but if you’re still hungry, you could try El Pescador and Bar Peralta, between Pedro Antonio and Camino de Ronda, or Los Girasoles in c/San Juan de Dios.

by Matthew Perret

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