There was a lot of background noise at the press center. I was excited and anxious, thinking that my time was limited and I wanted to ask just the „right” questions. As I approached him, still thinking about the powerful impression he made the night before, he smiled and invited me to sit next to him.
Guillermo Arriaga is a Mexican writer, author of A sweet scent of death, Retorno 201, and The Guillotine Squad and scriptwriter of amazing movies like 21 Grams or Babel, nominated to BAFTA awards, an eclectic figure and a passionate hunter.
As I sit next to him, he tells me that he is amazed by the Romanian press and their questions, so I have a high standard to live up to, already. I reply, half-jokingly, that I hope I won’t be the one to disappoint him. Then I begin:
Alice Teodorescu: Let’s start with a tricky one first and we’ll see where it leads us… I was wondering if you could tell me how you would define mortality in relation to your art, as you tackle with a lot of huge subjects.
Guillermo Arriaga: I think I will put mortality as a very important part of life. But it’s not about mortality, it’s about life. What I’m talking about is not death, but life, a life that has an ending. So if we want to be people that embrace and enjoy life, we have to know that it finishes and that’s why I talk about mortality.
A.T.: I’ve felt that you have to embrace death, not fear it. Be aware of it. And it relates to what you were saying last night, to risk, to go out there and live.
G.A.:If you don’t risk, you begin to die…
A.T.: But talking about ending…as you finish the day, what is the final motivation for you to keep on doing what you are doing?
G.A.: What is the final motivation? That my life is going to end. I have several skulls in my working place, from different materials. I bought one of bronze in Brazil. They all remind me that I’m going to die and that my work is going to survive me. Writing and doing films is an affirmation of life, because I am reproducing moments that I would not be able to repeat anymore. But they will go beyond me.
A.T.: What about these moments? You said that you could only write and create from your own experiences. How do you know a moment will become part of your art?
G.A.: When it doesn’t go away. When it keeps knocking you and says I have to be told, I have to be told. There are stories that I have since I was 12 years old…
A.T.: They’re in the back of your mind…
G.A.: No, they completely come back to the front of my mind.
A.T.: So, they keep pushing.
G.A.: Yeah, they keep pushing.
A.T.: But, what about memory? Is it important in what you create? I mean, the retelling of those moments…
G.A.: What is important in history in general, is not what happened, really, but how you perceive it. If there’s a car accident right now, outside, and we are 20 people watching it, there will be 20 perceptions. And how everyone perceived it, that is what’s worth it, more than the memory. I’m going to tell you about William Faulkner. Faulkner wrote a lot about lynching, and murders, and incest… and his brother said I don’t understand my brother, we live so happily, yes, there was lynching, but not that much, yes, incest, but not that much, so why did my brother perceive it like that?… we grew up in a very happy environment, what are we talking about?
A.T.: Do you think that the culture that you grew up in heavily influenced you and if you had grown up in another way, you would have been different?
G.A.: I was telling a colleague of yours that the best thing that could have happened to me was to have grown up in the street I grew up. That definitely takes my perception of life and it’s the best thing that could have happened to me. And, yes, it’s not only culture, it has to do with the life experiences you have. Hunting has completely defined who I am and has completely defined my literature.
A.T.: I was actually wondering, when did you start hunting? How did it happen?
G.A.: I wanted to become a hunter when I was like 5 years old.
A.T.: So, you knew..
G.A.: I knew. It’s funny, because my father is not a hunter. But the 3 male sons, we started hunting at some point in our life. And the 3 of us are much related to animals. One of them became a veterinary and he’s an expert in cows, the other one raised wild animals (like tigers…) and me as a hunter.
A.T.: It’s an impressing story. Well, I do believe that we are animals as well, as a species. And I’ve remembered just now that you said something about everyone finding his own tribe. Can you name your tribe?
G.A.: My tribe is people that want to be out. My tribe is people that are not afraid to risk in their life. My tribe is people that like living intensely, fight intensely, love intensely… I think that it’s about people that don’t like monotony, they don’t like to be bored.
A.T.: And they don’t like to be lived by life, probably…
Let me switch now to the creative part of life, as you said that you could write anywhere if inspiration comes…
G.A.: It’s not about inspiration, it’s about sitting in front of your computer and trying to make it work. I had to adapt to write in many environments. But for me, the perfect environment is at night, in my studio, where I’m not disturbed, where I have all of my books… I, for example, use many photographs and paintings to write, sometimes I go and read some passages… So I, also, need my books. For me, my books, my films, are the blood of my work. If I lose my books… which I have bought all of my life, I have like 6000 books… (he pauses and gestures) That’s what feeds me.
A.T.: It’s really interesting that you say you use visuals for writing. After seeing the movies, I remember strong images and I remember it felt like visual poetry, if I may say so, and what remains with me, still, is a sense of very powerful emotions, like gripping my stomach. I was wondering if you are happy if people feel that way:
G.A.: I’m very happy that people will feel things. There are even people that hate you when seeing 21 grams or Babel. They say, I hate the person who wrote this and then they meet me and they change their point of view.
A.T.: Well, it kind of happened to me as well. Not hate, but I’m really empathetic and movies like these follow me for months.
G.A.: But, that’s better. There’s something called „the parking lot movie”, when you reached your car, you forgot about the movie. I don’t want my movies to be like that. I prefer to be hated…
A.T.: But to linger…
G.A.: But to linger, exactly. Having a happy film where people will feel happy, but don’t remember it again, I don’t want that. I like to touch people, to change their perception and make their mind move.
A.T.: I can relate to that, but it’s difficult. I really admire you for wanting to tackle with this subjects that are considered taboo. And I’m really expecting to see Words with Gods.
G.A.: I hope you like it.
A.T.: I hope, as well. I think I will, because religion is one of my favourite topics.
G.A.: I can tell you, my colleagues did a great job and I’m very, very happy with the film. For me, there are masterpieces in some of those segments. Absolutely… they put everything they had, they weren’t just doing their job, they were doing something important.
A.T.: One last remark, I have a tattoo and I related to what you said that teenagers these days, because they’re in a protected environment, they need…
G.A.: Scars. They need scars.
A.T.: Yeah… It lingers already and I’m thinking that maybe I need to get out there more. (I laugh a bit)
G.A.: Yeah, because now youth is very protected. I don’t know about here, but in Mexico they are really protected now.
A.T.: No, in Romania as well. Maybe in the countryside it’s not that much…
G.A.: But they have scars, they don’t have tattoos.
G.A.: So people in the countryside, they live the hard life and they have more and more physical scars, but people who come from big cities, they live in an apartment, they go to school, they use the public transport, nothing happens, they need scars, so they get a tattoo.
A.T.: I’ve never put it in that perspective, but you opened my eyes… so thank you very much!
G.A.: No, thank you! And you were up to the standards of the great Romanian press.
A.T.: Thank you.
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Do we write in order to heal? Is literature a form of therapy? – asked Ion Vianu, writer and psychiatrist, at the third meeting of the FILIT evenings, the special guest of which was the Nobel Prize laureate Herta Müller. “The Hungarian novelist György Dragomán told me that when he was 13 or 14 he was depressed and he decided to kill himself. He told his father it would be better if he died, and then his father gave him a book by Herta Müller and encouraged him to read it. «If afterwards you still want to kill yourself, then go ahead and do it». And Gyorgy Dragoman read it and changed his mind,” was the answer given by Ernest Wichner, a German writer and translator, the moderator of the evening.
Many things are therapy, a flower, a garden, anything that is beautiful can be therapy, added Herta Müller. “But in art, if something is beautiful, it is also painful. There isn’t just one side to it, it’s not just something that gives you joy. This pain is necessary, poetry does not end with its last word. It hurts, but it also helps me. It’s the same with writing. I’ve always believed that the sum of the two is zero: it hurts me as much as it helps me. This equation must exist, otherwise I don’t like the text,” explained the German writer.
In these circumstances, writing is a risk, but not writing is also a risk, as Herta Müller also found out, because she has often wondered what would have been best: to write or not to write? “Maybe it would have been better if I didn’t write. If I hadn’t started books and gone in this direction, I would have had a different life, with different friends. I would have worked somewhere, as a seamstress or in a stockings factory. I would have worked every day, I would have been tired, I would have seen what was going on around me and I would have found another way to express myself. I would have woven all this sensibility into a pair of stockings,” the writer said, musing about her alternative destiny. “But it wouldn’t have been visible in that pair of stockings…” Therefore, she concluded, it’s better that she works with words.
Anyway, all things are both sad and funny – this has always been Herta Müller’s belief. This is what her childhood was like. Sad because of her mother, who, returning home after five years in a labour camp for deportees, was sad for the rest of her life. But her childhood was also amusing, because, when retold on the stage of the National Theatre, it made the audience laugh. “I’ve always believed that my mother was old, although she was only 28. To me, at the age of five, it seemed I myself was very old, that I had already lived through so much, done everything. I was thinking what the heck I’m going to do until I’m 28.” But this feeling, which now seems amusing, came from the fact that her mother had “a very sad interior and exterior countenance”. She would eat in a rush and she had an obsession for potatoes, a luxury food in the labour camp. “I had to learn to peel the potatoes very thinly, and if I couldn’t do it, my mother would be very angry and hit me. It got to the point where I was afraid to eat together with her,” remembered Herta Müller. Her mother, like most of those who had returned from the labour camp, was never rid of the fear of starvation. She would eat with sadness, but also with joy. “These are such mixed up things, that you don’t know what is the percentage of each of these feelings,” added the writer.
“It’s impossible to be dry when it hurts”
Herta Müller told the audience that when she left her native country, she was so broken down, that all she could think about was what she had experienced in Romania. This is why, she says, she couldn’t have written about anything else. “Especially in the first years, when I knew that the Ceaușescu regime was still in power and that dozens of people I knew and loved had not managed to escape, I couldn’t write about anything else. It was that – or not writing at all.” However, the writer added, there’s nothing wrong in finding inspiration in your own experience, especially when it’s so powerful that it does not leave you undamaged. “Half of the world’s libraries are filled with books written by people who did not choose their topics, it was the topics that chose them.” Among these are the writers who have lived through the two World Wars, through the Gulag or the Holocaust.
Ion Vianu wished to stress he appreciates the extraordinary extent of the feelings Herta Müller conveys in her books. “She has a very acid side, very ironic, a serious and amusing side, but also a colourful one. She is a metaphor factory, my favourite writer.”
“It is impossible to be dry when you are in pain,” replied the Nobel laureate. “I want to oppose this pain through something that gives me joy. I don’t want to give in to pain. And I wouldn’t like the process if I didn’t have the possibility to see images. Through accurate observation, on the one hand you put yourself at the disposal of a reality, but you also evade it. I cannot explain this.” One way to evade was to set herself tasks, to observe things in the street – moles, for instance. “I’ve counted moles for hours, especially in summer. Or wooden walking sticks, an item that is no longer present in Germany, and is on its way to extinction in the rest of the world as well. This beautiful, cultural object is disappearing, unfortunately. Or pregnant women – I’ve always found something to count,” Herta Müller said, disclosing thus one of her “formulas”.
Also, in the times of the communist regime, jokes were such an evasion, an escape. They were, obviously, “both sad and funny”. “When you are depressed, jokes are good therapy. This activity gave me and my friends the joy to live. It is known that the best jokes have always been made in the worst of times.” And I don’t need a handkerchief, because I’m determined not to cry, as Herta Müller wrote in her latest book translated into Romanian.
* * *
Scriem ca să ne vindecăm? Nu cumva literatura este și terapie? – a întrebat Ion Vianu, scriitor și psihiatru, la cea de a treia seară FILIT, al cărei invitat special a fost laureata Premiului Nobel pentru Literatură Herta Müller. „Romancierul ungur György Dragomán mi-a povestit că, la 13-14 ani, era depresiv și a decis că vrea să se sinucidă. I-a spus lui taică-su că ar fi mai bine să moară, iar tatăl lui i-a dat o carte a Hertei Müller și l-a îndemnat să o citească. «Dacă după aceea mai vrei să te sinucizi, poți să o faci». Iar Gyorgy Dragoman a citit-o și s-a răzgândit“, a fost răspunsul dat de Ernest Wichner, scriitor german și traducător, moderatorul întâlnirii.
Multe lucruri sunt terapie, o floare, o grădină, orice este frumos poate fi terapie, a completat Herta Müller. „Dar în artă, dacă ceva este frumos, te și doare în același timp. Nu există aici doar o latură, nu e doar ceva care te bucură. Această durere e necesară, poezia nu se termină o dată cu un cuvânt. Mă doare, dar mă și ajută. Așa este și la scris. Eu întotdeauna am crezut că suma celor două este zero: mă doare tot atât cât mă ajută. Această ecuație trebuie să existe, altfel nu îmi place textul“, a explicat scriitoarea germană.
În aceste condiții, să scrii este un risc, dar și să nu scrii este tot un risc, a aflat Herta Müller, care s-a întrebat de multe ori cum ar fi fost mai bine: să scrie sau să nu scrie? „Poate ar fi fost mai bine să nu scriu. Dacă nu m-aș fi apucat să citesc cărți și să merg în direcția asta, aș fi fost într-o altă viață, cu alți prieteni. Aș fi lucrat undeva, într-o croitorie sau într-o fabrică de ciorapi. Aș fi lucrat în fiecare zi, aș fi fost obosită, aș fi văzut ce se întâmplă în jurul meu și aș fi avut altă metodă de a mă exprima. Aș fi băgat toată această sensibilitate într-un ciorap“, s-a gândit scriitoarea la destinul său alternativ. „Doar că într-un ciorap nu s-ar fi văzut…“ Așa că este mai bine că lucrează cu cuvinte, a fost tot concluzia ei.
Oricum, toate lucrurile sunt triste, dar și amuzante – este credința constantă a Hertei Müller. Așa a fost și copilăria ei. Tristă din cauza mama ei care, întoarsă după cinci ani dintr-un lagăr de deportare, a fost tristă tot restul vieții ei. Dar și veselă, pentru că, iată, povestită pe scena Teatrului Național din Iași, această copilărie i-a făcut pe cei prezenți în sală să râdă. „Tot timpul am crezut că mama mea este bătrână, deși avea 28 de ani. Iar mie, la cinci ani, mi se părea că sunt deja la rândul meu foarte bătrână, că am trăit deja foarte multe. Mă gândeam ce dracu’ mai fac până la 28 de ani.“ Dar această senzație, acum amuzantă, a venit din pricina faptului că mama ei avea „o ținută exterioară și interioară foarte tristă“. Mânca în fugă și avea o obsesie a cartofilor, care fuseseră o mâncare de lux în lagăr. „A trebuit să învăț să cojesc cartofii cu coajă foarte subțire și, dacă nu reușeam, mama se enerva și mă bătea. Mi-era și frică să mănânc cu ea“, și-a amintit Herta Müller. Pe mama ei, ca pe majoritatea celor veniți din lagăr, nu o părăsise teama de a muri de foame. Mânca cu tristețe, dar și cu bucurie. „Sunt niște lucruri așa de complicate, că nici nu știi care sunt procentajele acestor sentimente“, a spus scriitoarea germană originară din România.
„E imposibil să fii sec când te doare“
Când a plecat din țara sa natală, a povestit Herta Müller, era atât de distrusă din punct de vedere nervos, încât nu avea în cap nimic altceva decât ceea ce a trăit aici. De aceea, a afirmat autoarea, nici nu avea cum să scrie despre altceva. „Mai ales în primii ani, când știam că în continuare există regimul Ceaușescu și câteva zeci de oameni pe care-i iubeam nu au scăpat, nu puteam scrie altceva. Mai bine nu aș fi scris deloc.“ Dar, s-a justificat într-un fel scriitoarea, nu este nimic greșit să te inspiri din propria experiență, când aceasta e atât de puternică încât nu te lasă nevătămat. „Jumătate din biblioteca lumii e plină de cărți ale unor oameni care nu și-au ales temele, ci temele i-au ales pe ei.“ Așa sunt scriitorii care au trecut prin cele două Războaie Mondiale, prin Gulag sau prin Holocaust, de exemplu.
Ion Vianu a ținut să menționeze că apreciază extraordinara întindere a sentimentelor pe care le transmite Herta Müller. „Are o latură foarte acidă, foarte ironică, o latură gravă și amuzantă, dar și o latură colorată. Ea este o fabrică de metafore, scriitoarea mea preferată.“
„E imposibil să fii sec, când te doare ceva”, i-a replicat laureata Premiului Nobel pentru Literatură. „Eu vreau să rezist la durerea asta prin ceva care să mă bucure. Să nu mă las învinsă de această durere. Și nu mi-ar plăcea, dacă nu ar fi această posibiltate de a vedea imagini. Prin observație exactă, pe de o parte te pui la dispoziția unei realități, dar te și sustragi. Nu pot să explic asta.“ Iar o cale de sustragere a fost aceea de a-și impune să observe pe stradă câte ceva – de exemplu, alunițe. „Am numărat alunițe ore în șir, mai ales vara. Sau bastoane, care acum în Germania nu mai există, iar în restul lumii sunt pe cale de dispariție. Acest obiect frumos de cultură dispare, din păcate. Sau femei gravide, tot timpul am găsit ceva de numărat“, a dezvăluit Herta Müller una dintre „rețetele“ sale.
Iar în vremea regimului comunist, bancurile reprezentau această fugă, această sustragere. Ele erau, cum altfel?, „și triste, dar și hazlii”. „Dacă ești depresiv, bancul e o bună terapie. Această preocupare ne-a redat, mie și prietenilor mei, bucuria de a trăi. Se știe că cele mai bune bancuri s-au făcut în timpurile cele mai groaznice.“ Și n-am nevoie de nici o batistă, pentru că nu vreau să plâng, cum a scris Herta Müller în cea mai recentă carte tradusă în România.
Source: Third FILIT Evening
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More about FILIT 2014
FILIT 2014 through the eyes of its guests. This edition in numbers
The second edition of the Iaşi International Festival of Literature and Translation (FILIT) is drawing to a close. The organisers estimate that the audience of the festival was of 35,000 (25,000 de spectators at the FILIT events and 10,000 visitors of the Bookfest book fair).
In total, almost 600 people (from abroad, from Romania and from Iaşi) were involved each day in the FILIT events: writers, translators of Romanian and international literature, cultural managers, literary critics, editors, educators, journalists, cultural bloggers and volunteers. Bookfest has meant another important deployment of forces, reuniting in its organisation around 100 people (the staff of the Association of Romanian Publishers, publishers, book sellers, logistics managers).
The FILIT guests came this year from 18 countries: Mexico, France, the Republic of Moldova, Iran, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Denmark, the USA, the UK, Germany, Poland, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Turkey, Sweden, the Netherlands, Romania. In total they travelled by plane 250.000 kilometres.
The celebratory spirit of the entire city, the extraordinary interest shown to literature by the young public, the size and the complexity of the festival, as well as the fact that it can easily stand on par with any of the similar events throughout Europe are just a few of the aspects noted by the FILIT guests. Here are some of the statements they made:
„ I’ve had a wonderful time at the festival. I’ve had a very big audience yesterday evening and a very enthusiastic audience and it’s the audience that makes the event I think. If you see them interested and if they’re enjoying themselves, then you project better.”
“The festival is of the highest level, in my opinion. It is an event not just of our national cultural scene, but, as far as I can see, this is one of the largest if not the largest such festival in the East of Europe. It’s a great success”.
“I’m glad to be here, in the capital of our Moldavia. FILIT is a large-scale event, there are very many writers here, and I am here with my friend, a great American poet, Edward Hirsch, and both of us are enjoying your hospitality”.
“I’m impressed this is the only second year of the festival and it seems – if somebody would told me that this festival had been going for ten years or twenty years I wouldn’t be surprised, because it seems to be very well organized.”
“It’s incredibly dynamic and I’ve never seen so many people and we don’t have quite so many people in festivals in Britain. You’ve had a NObel prize winner here yesterday, it’s amazing, it’s great.”.
Casa FILIT in front of the Palace of Culture involved the construction of a modular pavilion of approximately 1300 square metres, with a service personnel of around 50 people.
The Iaşi International Festival of Literature and Translation is an event funded by the Iaşi County Council through the Iaşi Museum of Romanian Literature. FILIT 2014 takes place under the high patronage of the European Commission Representation in Romania and has as its main partner the National Bank of Romania.