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Interview with Javier Barreiro

Javier Barreiro: Aragon is particularly tough on its sons


Interview with Javier Barreiro held on 29th November 2011 at the Dámaso Alonso Library of the Instituto Cervantes in Dublin on the occasion of his lecture “Alcohol and literature”

Javier Barreiro (Zaragoza, 1953) studied Spanish Philology at the University of Barcelona. He has published 36 books and over 600 articles on literature and popular music of the twentieth century. Following his studies on tango, he was elected Honorary Member of the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo and of the National Tango Academy. He was vice president of the Aragonese Writers Association and director of the Dictionary of Contemporary Aragonese Authors (1885-2005). His interests also extend to studies on bohemianism, old Spanish discography, the stars of Spanish song, unconventional authors and themes in literature (alcohol, drugs, suicide …) and the search for forgotten works and authors.

Carmen Sanjulián: —Javier, when did you start writing?

Javier Barreiro: —When I was very young. It’s like a curse or a blessing, who knows… Some people are born with a particular ability and some are born with another. Some are born to make chairs, others are born to play football… And very soon you realise what you are good at. If you don’t, you’ll be told. What I was good at was writing.

From a very early age, I realised that I enjoyed writing, that it was easy for me. I won several awards. I even remember that when I was 13 or 14 years old, I used to write satirical poems to my classmates or even to my teachers and they were much appreciated. Or, in some cases, greatly feared.

Carmen Sanjulián: —Do you remember your first award?

Javier Barreiro: —It was the Sender Award in journalism, the very first year it was set up. I was about 20, and I was doing the military service. At that time, it was the most important award in journalism in Aragon, and it was my first piece of journalism.

I remember that I wrote it in my father’s car while we were travelling together. An idea came into my head. I wrote it down and to my surprise, I got this award. I reacted just like anyone who wins an award for the first time. I lost my head. I bought about twenty newspapers and I was very happy.

Carmen Sanjulián: —You are a prolific writer, but when you were 23 you stopped writing for a very long time. Why? What happened?

Javier Barreiro: —In the beginning, I mainly wrote poems. Poetry had a more prominent role in society back then than it does today. There’s no doubt about that.

I published several poetry notebooks and pamphlets. I won the first Premio Nacional de Poesía Universitaria (national university poetry prize). Everything was going well for me. The problem was that I was a “real” poet, even if that sounds arrogant: I was a poet who was angry with the world, who suffered and was in conflict with society.

But it wasn’t that bad, because it was a metaphysical kind of conflict. Not that my life was difficult. It wasn’t. I was a normal kid who almost had no problems of any kind. But I did have a heightened sensibility, I had problems adapting, which not only characterises the poet but also the creator, the artist in general, even if those words seem very transcendental.

It was the best time of my life, but I was suffering a lot, and one of the escapes from suffering, as we all know, is art, poetry, sublimation, so I decided not to suffer, to focus on enjoying myself and making the most of my youth. That’s what I did for eight years. It was a conscious decision.

Obviously, by doing that I destroyed my career, because a poet has to suffer, a creator can’t have a good time. What makes life good is not good for art and vice versa. I think I did the right thing because the truth is I don’t really care that much about posterity.

It’s true that you have to write the best literature you possibly can and, probably, if I had continued suffering, I would have written better poems than the ones I write now. I took that decision and I have no regrets so far.

Carmen Sanjulián: —You have written about tango, coplas, cuplés, jota… How did you develop that love for all these kinds of music?

Javier Barreiro: —I was hugely attracted to music since I was a child, I just liked it, I enjoyed it. It’s difficult not to enjoy music, but you could say that I enjoyed it more than other people. I loved singing and listening to music being sung…

The problem is that circumstances at that time, that sad time, maybe were not the best for me to study music. Today I would have done it for sure. Nowadays, children can choose from a range of possibilities. Parents offer them seven, eight or ten things to do or study. I even turned down the opportunity to join a choir as I was already spending a lot of hours in school. It was probably a mistake and in the end I didn’t study music. But I always liked music a lot.

Then I discovered tango and Gardel, which I became passionate about and which brought me many hours of enjoyment. One thing leads to another, and tango led to the copla… Besides, my speciality, as an academic, is the so-called “Silver Age”, between the end of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th century. During that period, which was so musical for so many reasons, and in which music had a much more important role in everyday life than it has now, it turns out that there was music everywhere, but absolutely nothing had been written about it. Regarding cuplé, almost all writers had relationships with the cuplé artists, with their music, but there was almost no information about this. So, to fill that gap a bit, I started to do some research, to look here and there, and that’s how this thing started and led to other things. I researched Spanish songs, the kind of music that I liked, like jota or zarzuela. And then there were others, like flamenco or jazz, maybe more complex music which takes you longer to get into and understand. But when you manage to understand something that’s difficult, your enjoyment of it is always greater, obviously.

Carmen Sanjulián: —You’ve always visited second hand bookshops. Have you rescued many jewels from oblivion?

Javier Barreiro: —I think I did, because to some extent rare books have become one of my specialities.

Jewels? Well, that’s a matter of opinion. Obviously, posterity is not exactly fair. Some people, probably optimists, try to justify what’s going on by saying the world is what it is, and if someone doesn’t transcend time it’s because they didn’t deserve it. But it’s not exactly like that.

I’m sure that at some point, some Cervantes or Shakespeare just felt frustrated, because they were illiterate. I haven’t rescued any geniuses but I have discovered people who are much less valued than others who undoubtedly are better than them. And I think it’s a cleansing exercise even if it’s not personally very convenient for you, because it is more profitable to stick to established value systems. But it does bring personal satisfaction, although no one will ever worry about those rescued from the dust of oblivion.

My next two books are going to be anthologies on two completely unknown writers: Guillermo Osorio, an alcoholic poet from the ’50s generation in Madrid, the generation that met around the Café Varela, about which almost no one has written anything even though it had many good poets. The other one is an anthology of gnomic short stories by Tomás Borrás. He was one of the great figures of the Spanish avant-garde. He appears in the famous painting La tertulia del Café de Pombo, by Solana. He was a very important man in Spanish theatre and journalism. But he was a Falangist, and that probably damaged his reputation, though he distanced himself from Franco, as did many others. Even though he was a great writer, since his death in 1976 none of his books has ever been reprinted and no further attention has been paid to him.

Carmen Sanjulián: —You are a great collector. Is there anything that you’re especially fond of?

Javier Barreiro: —I’m obsessive and compulsive but not as a collector. I’m not so interested in finishing collections either. I like to acquire things that are difficult to get, because you can keep them at home, and then when you need them, you don’t have to look for them too hard. If I had to choose something from my collection, it would be the music scores, as it’s quite unusual to have that kind of collection. Traditional folk music scores, in particular, which is what I collect the most. From the 1910s, ’20s, ’30s… They’re really beautiful. It so happens that a postcard with the portrait of the singer can cost about €20. And the score, which is much bigger, and apart from the postcard contains more information, like the drawing on the cover, the music, the lyrics, etc., can cost just half the price. I feel very proud of my score collection, and maybe I’ll organise an exhibition in the near future. Because you could organise all kinds of exhibitions from the material in it.

Carmen Sanjulián: —Many of your works talk about Aragon or Zaragoza. Is it a way of expressing your love for your homeland?

Javier Barreiro: —I’m not nationalist at all, but what happens is that you are who you are. In my case, I’m Aragonese. I don’t really believe in love that’s close to hand. It seems to me that the love for your family, and love for what is close to you doesn’t require too much thought. So, how do you explain love for your homeland? It’s probably a form of narcissism. What you drank, what you tasted in your youth, the way people talked, a particular kind of music, a way of feeling. And that’s especially the case in a place that’s not very respectful towards itself, like Aragon.

In my case, one of the ways to express my love for my homeland has been to dedicate myself to doing what others should have done: compiling a dictionary of contemporary Aragonese literature. The last one was done in 1885. Aragon is particularly tough on its sons. There are thousands of anecdotes from Buñuel, even Goya, who said “I get burnt just thinking of Aragon”. When Buñuel went to Zaragoza, he was told “your last film is pretty poor”.

As I mentioned before, it’s the same with the rare books, it’s not productive at all. Maybe there is no justification for it either. Why Aragon and not some other place? Well, that’s what’s in you and what comes out of you. That’s what happens with nationalisms: if I really want to write about Espronceda, I’ll have to go to Extremadura to see if the government of Extremadura gives me a grant to study Espronceda. Because someone has to pay you something, or help you when you’re researching. I won’t get a grant to study Espronceda in Aragon, but I will get some money to study the people from Aragon. Then you’re just part of that dynamic which I’m not justifying. I’m just explaining it.

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