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Virtual interview with Juan Cruz

Virtual interview with Juan CruzInstituto Cervantes Dublin Library, 14th June 2011. Translated by Emer Cassidy.

Juan Cruz

Hector Barco Cobalea

Good afternoon,

I’d like to throw out a few questions, and chance being so lucky as to have them answered by Mr. Juan Cruz Ruiz:

– Do you think journalism is truly free, or is it subject to certain interests, not just political, but also economic, in that huge economic and/or political organisations buy advertising space from the main media providers, this being one of their main sources of income? 

– What is your take on billions of dollars being shifted in just a few days to save the banks, whilst at the same time, the Food and Agriculture Organization requested 12,000 million dollars to fight hunger across the planet and was turned down?

– Is the average citizen justified in feeling indignant?

Thank you to all involved for enabling me to send in my questions.



Juan Cruz
Héctor, I had written a long reply, but cyberspace swallowed it up.

In summary:
Journalism is free to the same extent that people are: within limits. We are all dependent on certain interests. Newspapers as well. Nobody is completely free. The press needs to have strong businesses behind them in order to withstand the pressures on their editorial policies. And that’s why advertising is so necessary; without advertising, newspapers would certainly be at the will of economic and political interests.

The banks were rescued with public money, and they must return that money. Without a doubt, the terms with which they were given the money could have been stricter, but it’s not true that it was given to them freely and lightly, that is just not the case. I agree that they should have been penalised for their insane dealings. But within the capitalist system, if such mechanisms weren’t possible, it would lead to global disaster. Should we change the system? Let’s change it. But, in the meantime, this is what we’re left with.

Of course citizens are justified in feeling indignant. And, not just that, but also, worried, questioning, doubtful. And to act on their indignation, so that it doesn’t anchor them down with futile feelings of powerlessness and depression.

David Carrión
Good afternoon, Mr. Cruz. What motivated Vargas Llosa to write The Dream of the Celt? Was it reading The Heart of Darkness, was it Casement’s link with Peru, or his studies of Adam Hochschild’s work…?

Juan Cruz
In my opinion, Vargas Llosa always begins writing a new project once his imagination is sparked, and after finishing the fiction work, The Bad Girl, he decided to follow the footsteps of Casement, an Irishman who lived a controversial but fascinating life.

Bringing this life to the masses required an enormous intellectual, literary, and even physical effort, on the part of Vargas Llosa. And the outcome reads like an adventure as told by a special envoy to hell itself.

The author himself explained that it was reading Conrad, in particular, that motivated him to write this spectacular narrative essay. He is a voracious reader; he wanted to really scrutinise the finer details of a character, and that’s where Roger Casement comes in, in full-body portrait, right to the depths of his misfortunes.

Laura Martín
Is The Heart of Darkness a racist book, or a damning report of European colonisation? What was the aim of The Dream of the Celt, if indeed there was one?

Juan Cruz
I don’t think Conrad’s book was racist; from our current perspective on racism, or inequality, we could equally be tempted to condemn Madame Bovary, for example; and I think Conrad’s literature should be read as a great voyage of the mind, rather than a sociological reflection on the author’s ideology or view of the world and himself at that particular moment in time.

Conrad knew Casement and he wrote in this diary that of all the people he had known during his stay in the Congo, it was Casement he admired the most. So why did Joseph Conrad not sign the petition for clemency for Roger Casement, unlike Yeats, Bernard Shaw and Conan Doyle who all signed it?

Juan Cruz
Vargas Llosa dwelled a lot on that incident; I think Conrad felt cornered and slightly envious and he bore Casement a grudge, being someone who tended not emphasise his own talents, he felt outshone by Casement during his time in Africa. That’s why he left him in the lurch, and frankly, that was very hurtful to Casement. Similar to other times in his life when he felt cast off.

What was the dream that was driving Roger Casement when he arrived in Congo?

Juan Cruz
It was a philanthropic dream. He truly wanted to play a part in the abolition of slavery there where it was actually taking place, and that’s exactly what he did. Every fibre of his being was devoted to helping people, that was what he lived for, to help others free themselves from the shackles of feudal despotism. It was then used as a symbol which some tried to make controversial by drawing tenuous parallels with his own issues with his sexuality. Vargas Llosa pays him heartfelt tribute, at pains to put right the controversy created by the British.

What does Mario Vargas Llosa have in common with Antonio Conselheiro from The War of the End of the World, Alejandro Mayta from The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and with Roger Casement?

Juan Cruz
I think the only thing Vargas Llosa has in common with those characters is that he worked out the minutest details of their lives with the same intensity he then gave to their lives within the storyline, so that they would live on, and stand the test of time, in the minds of his readers.

A critic once broke Vargas Llosa’s novels down into 4 broad categories: urbane, historical, dealing with rural Peru, and erotic novels. Could we consider The Dream of the Celt a historical novel?

Juan Cruz
I think putting The Dream of the Celt into the historical box would be to take away some of its power and impact. From my point of view, aside from being a novel which has its roots in history, it is more a great anachronistic, or even uchronic, report on a fascinating era by both Mario, the reporter, and Vargas Llosa, the novelist. And it is also a wartime plea for human rights, a book denouncing slavery in favour of romanticism, as man’s conviction to live in harmony with his fellow kind.

Are there any elements in The Dream of the Celt which are new to Vargas Llosa’s work?

Juan Cruz
I think what is new is the book in its entirety; Vargas Llosa always approaches a subject from a completely new standpoint. He could have put together an essay of the proportions of a novella, based on his readings, and he read widely around the subject. Instead, he honed in on the different areas of Roger’s biography, brought them together onto the one platform in his mind, and from there he went on to create a volume in which he demonstrated his skills as a reconstructor of stories, but also, as a great fiction author. He has never said so himself, never actually specified it, but Mario Vargas Llosa, the fiction author, is also present in The Dream of the Celt.

If García Márquez’s work could be seen as a portrayal of power, and its vestiges, could Vargas Llosa’s work be seen as a portrayal of the resistance to or the growing awareness of that power?

Juan Cruz
I think that’s a good analogy. But, actually, I think all of Mario Vargas Llosa’s work has to do with power, even when it seems more to do with other subjects. Particularly, A Fish in the Water, which despite having been written in the midst of the biographical journey he was undertaking at the time, it is like the mid-point in which all of his ambitions, tragedies, and the majority of his books converge.

Vargas Llosa, Cabrera Infante and José Saramago. These are perhaps the three authors, and friends, who have most influenced your literary life. Is that right? Are there any others you would add?

Juan Cruz
My life in particular? Perhaps. I would add Onetti and Borges. And also, Unamuno’s poetry. And Kafka. Well, literature is never-ending. Oh, and Cortázar.

In 1972, you published “Crónica de la nada hecha pedazos”. You said that all of your work published in book format originates from this book, because it was in this book you began using reality to narrate your obsessions, dreams, and how those dreams can be broken. Tell us about your broken dreams. Are there any still lingering around?

Juan Cruz
My broken dreams are still around. Those that aren’t are the ones I haven’t been able to break.

“Crónica de la nada…” is a sesentayochista chronicle [referring to the revolution of 1968] turned into a novel. Do you think one day there will be a 15M [common abbreviation for the mass protest held on the 15th May 2011, in Madrid, against political mismanagement of the economic crisis] chronicle, or would that be a book that would be worth writing?

Juan Cruz
It should be written. I’ve just interviewed Javier Cercas about the subject. He is very clear on how (extremely) important this phenomenon is. Something is changing, without a doubt, and for the better, despite this endless tide of injustice and corruption we are going through at the moment.

The presence of the sea is fundamental in “Retrato de un hombre desnudo” (2005). What does it symbolise? 

Juan Cruz
The sea is life, and thus, it is also death. I was writing a book about the sea as life, and then death turned up out of nowhere. Life has such gravity, it fells us all.

In reference to “Retrato de un hombre…”, imbued as it is with many’s a travel anecdote, you said that no matter how much a person travels, “they are always in the same place”. Which is the place in which you always find yourself? And would you ever like to escape?

Juan Cruz
That’s a phrase by Beckett, and actually he was talking about his relationship with Ireland: “poor me, I thought I had left the island behind me, but the island is always by my side”.

That’s the way it is. My book is based by the sea, so that I can escape, and all of sudden, I see myself as part of the sea, the sea comes with me.

Verne and Dickens are some of the authors you read in your teenage years as mentioned in “Retrato de un hombre desnudo”.  Were there other authors before those who also had an important effect on you? Which were the authors, or books, that made you a writer?

Juan Cruz
Before that there were the instruction leaflets that come inside boxes of pills, old torn newspapers my mother had, anything that was susceptible to being read, and an old book by Oscar Wilde, “The Nightingale and the Rose”.

In “Retrato de un hombre desnudo”, you pay homage to your mother, from whom you said you have learnt more than from any other person. “Ojalá octubre” (2007) is a homage to your father. Which questions, or desires, did Juan the boy inherit from him?

Juan Cruz
Uncertainty, things were always about to be either very miserable or very happy, and they were almost always miserable. But there were also wonderful moments in which he was happy. That’s the way I am, I come from him.

Was it your childhood from that October which you would have liked to have continued forever?

Juan Cruz
I would like the feeling of childhood to continue forever. To go through all stages of life with the feeling of harmony you capture as a child.

In “Muchas veces me pediste que te contara estos años” (2008), you reflect on time, memory, pain, and growing older. Has this reflection led to any conclusions?

Juan Cruz
It’s a triple reflection which merges into one: our lives are inside of us, on our interior, and inside everything is mixed together into one whole. I am my literature, it explodes inside me. Does that seem pedantic? I’m afraid that’s the way I see it, if you don’t like my answer then forget it, but what I mean is: for me, writing is all of those things, time, memory, pain, and fear of dying. And if what I write doesn’t respond to those precepts, then I feel like I am merely worthlessly distorting my thoughts.

Comparing your first book to your current work, it seems like you have given up a certain experimentalism for a lighter style. Is that one of the concessions caused by the commercialisation of the publishing world you mention in “Egos revueltos” (2009)?

Juan Cruz
Oh, not at all, LMartín. It’s simply that over the years I decided to write so that my brothers would read my work, ever since a particular text I wrote so that we would never forget the wonderful woman that was my mother. It’s deliberate, but my brothers don’t buy my books. They feature in them. Except “Egos revueltos”, for certain, although they’re in there somewhere, in some way or another.

Would any current publishers dare to publish a new James Joyce?

Juan Cruz
Of course they would. That’s what a publisher’s job should be. To wait for a James Joyce to come along.

On the subject of cultural journalism, there are those who insist that it generally displays a total lack of interest in culture. Do you agree with that? What is there left in the cultural pages of a newspaper if we take away the obituaries and press releases from the various publishers’ and institutions’ press departments?  

Juan Cruz
I think any maximalist views run the risk of being unfair. There are some great cultural journalists, particularly in Latin America, where this type of journalism has become a specialism. And there are some very good ones closer to home as well. And there are very good sources of information on culture out there, despite what you say. Don’t be unfair, my friend!

Thank you very much for your participation.

Related links:

Profile of Juan Cruz on elpais.com, with links to his articles and interviews

About Mario Vargas Llosa and “The dream of the Celt”

About Roger Casement

Juan Cruz is our author of the month throughout the month of June.

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