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Interview with Malcolm Barral

Malcolm Barral: We would love Everyone to Read Ulysses

Malcolm Barral


Interview with Malcolm Barral, on the 29th May 2012, at the Dámaso Alonso Library of the Instituto Cervantes in Dublin, in association with his participation in the “Tribute to Félix Romeo”, with Miguel Aguilar, Luis Alegre, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón and David Trueba.

Malcolm Barral (Barcelona, 1973) is an editor, columnist and writer. He began his publishing career in a number of small publishing houses in Madrid, moving onto Ediciones del Bronce and Columna Edicions. Within the Planet Group, he managed the fiction collection of Destino and, later, the Spanish fiction collection of RBA. In 2008, he left RBA to create Barril & Barral with the publisher Joan Barril. He is a member of the Finnegans’ Order, which aims to appreciate James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses.

Sergio Angulo: —Welcome to the Instituto Cervantes. Have you been here in Dublin before?

Malcolm Barral: —Yes I have, several times. In fact, I’m part of an absurd literary order that comes to Dublin every year for Bloomsday and we’ve performed here a few times – an act that was strange enough to be from our order.

Sergio Angulo: —To put this order into context, tell us about Joyce’s Ulysses and its transcendence in literature.

Malcolm Barral: —Our order has the purpose of venerating James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is one of the literary masterpieces of the 20th Century, but it also contains different elements from other notable works. Recently I saw an interview about Ulysses, where someone said “It’s a book of books, It’s a book with many different ways to be read.” But you can say that about almost any good work of literature.

I think Ulysses has its own unique elements. One is that the author is playing, romping or challenging the reader all the time, and then he is what you would call in English a “phonetic fanatic”. He is a fanatic of wordplays, so you are constantly trying to discover what play is there. It’s a book that requires special effort and promises a unique reward as sometimes it´s hilarious and sometimes clever. Obviously it’s a book, as I said before, with many different ways to be read and that is comforting from a literary point of view. But what I like, what we like particularly, is that humorous side, and so we created a somewhat humorous order around this book.

Sergio Angulo: —Bloomsday, which is June 16th, is the day when the events from the book take place and it’s celebrated here in Dublin, where people get involved, they dress up as the characters and all that. So you make a sort of pilgrimage to Dublin every year?

Malcolm Barral: —Every year, yes. Ulysses is the story of Leopold Bloom and his journey through Dublin on one day, the 16th of June. So every year Dublin dresses up in Edwardian clothing and celebrates the book with commemorative acts. We do everything backwards. The story of Ulysses begins at the Martello Tower in Dalkey, which is where we finish. We always begin at the James Joyce Centre, and then there’s a sort of public reading, where people from each country read, or actors read passages, fragments from Ulysses and we just come here in unison every year and say the last phrase of the sixth chapter that reads “Thank you. How grand we are this morning!”

Sergio Angulo: —What does it take to be a knight in this order?

Malcolm Barral: —It´s essential to be a little idiotic, It´s ultimately a literary order of friends. It’s a little like the Toledo Order of Buñuel, as it’s partly a parody of  other orders. It requires a love for the book, a commitment to come to Dublin every year for Bloomsday, an affinity for our sense of humour and being able to laugh at yourself a little.

Sergio Angulo: —I heard you have a ritual – the macabre practice of visiting Dublin cemetery?

Malcolm Barral: —Yes. We invented the order, so we invent the rituals too. One year we went to the cemetery, because it´s in Joyce’s Ulysses. We discovered the Gravediggers’ Pub, the pub where the gravediggers go, and instead of being a dismal and gloomy place, it had some terrific waitresses and was really fun. This contrast between a pub for gravedigger’s and how it really is, has made it an indispensable stop on our journey every year, in our Bloomsday odyssey.

Sergio Angulo: —How many members are there at the moment?

Malcolm Barral: —There´s 7 of us now. We usually add a new person every year, but this year we´re thinking of going on strike and not appointing anyone, because we like contradictions and we want to contradict ourselves all the time.

Sergio Angulo: —Are you all writers or related to it in some way?

Malcolm Barral: —Well, all but our last recruit. We found an Irish woman, dressed as an Edwardian, in the park and the six of us got on our knees and asked her to be part of the Order. She said yes. She’s Irish, and she’s a woman who dresses as an Edwardian on Bloomsday, and she’s a teacher.

Sergio Angulo: —But do you keep in touch?

Malcolm Barral: —Only through our writing. The others, they´re more than writers…yes, they are writers and people of culture, but the bond is one of friendship. We all knew each other before.

Sergio Angulo: —Do you have any missionary ambition? Do you want to preach the Ulysses doctrine?

Malcolm Barral: —Honestly, no. It doesn´t have that much importance. We´re simpy a group of eccentrics who go to Dublin every year to worship a book of six hundred pages, and that’s all we are. We would love if everybody read Ulysses, because that would mean the average reading comprehension level of Spanish people was very high. That’s not going to happen, but as long as the book industry doesn’t disappear, we’re happy.

Sergio Angulo: —In 2009, a journalist from The Irish Times carried out a field study to find out how many people who participated in Bloomsday, had actually read the entire book. Out of all the people he interviewed, he discovered only one person had read Ulysses from start to finish.

Malcolm Barral: —In our order it’s a requirement to have read it completely. But as we´re people of culture, this is no great feat. We´ve all read Ulysses. Some of us have even read it in two languages, no doubt. But I mean, if you ask in Spain, how many people have really read Don Quixote….it’s a famous story so, of course, everybody knows the details, but how many people have actually read the whole Don Quixote?

Sergio Angulo: —Do you think that Joyce’s work in general, but Ulysses particularly, is inaccessible to people?

Malcolm Barral: —Yes, it has a certain complexity because of its many cultural jokes, which makes reading it difficult in general. It also has wordplays. Especially in Spanish, as there are two translations and neither of them is perfect, because sometimes the wordplay are lost in transaltion, and it’s a really difficult book. Joyce was complicated. For example, Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake, which still hasn’t been translated, but can’t be understood in any language anyway. It’s incomprehensible. The challenge Joyce presents in Ulysses is not as extreme, but there are still little inside jokes and wordplays and obscure references. To get something out of a book like Ulysses you need a lot of time and concentration. I don’t know how many copies of Joyce have been sold in Spain, pobably a lot because it´s well recommended, but it’s definitely a difficult book.

Sergio Angulo: —Have you read it in both languages, English and Spanish?

Malcolm Barral: —Yes.

Sergio Angulo: —For a Spanish reader who speaks English, which do you recommend?

Malcolm Barral: —I read it in English, after reading it in Spanish, and had already explored some of the wordplays, which made it easier. There are two translations – one is from Valverde and the other from Salas Subirat. The latter, the first edition published by Santiago Rueda, is the best one. I think Valverde’s translation loses resonance, and because it doesn’t have that ”phonetic” quality I mentioned, that lyricism and phonetic purity, it loses something. It’s more literal, and perhaps more accurate, but it loses its charm.

Sergio Angulo: —Do you do anything else, as members of the Order? You know that you wrote a book of short stories. Have you done anything else apart from that?

Malcolm Barral: —We´re writing another book of short stories at the moment, which will be published next year. Besides this, we´ve done nothing else. Although we see each other during the year, it´s hardly ever all together. Eduardo Lago, who is one of the founders, lives in New York. Enrique Vila-Matas lives in Barcelona. I live in Barcelona too. Antonio Soler and Garriga Vela live in Málaga. Marcos Giralt lives in Madrid. Some of us see each other when we’re in the same place, at a festival or something. We’re all friends who see each other fairly frequently, but it’s difficult for us all to get together at the same time.

Sergio Angulo: —Do the short stories you have written have any relation to Ulysses?

Malcolm Barral: —That depends. The last one had a connection, more or less. In the short story I wrote, the character was named Leopoldo, a Joyce expert who travelled to Ireland and wanted to hook up with a girl that was with him on the plane. He was a hopeless guy, who was a little like me. But it’s not like a school essay, where you´re given the topic. The book simply served as a template.

At the moment, we´re writing a book about childhood, which I find more difficult to relate to Joyce. I don’t know if we’ll get there or not, but with a novel where so many things happen, you can always find a connection, of course, There’s alcoholism, the Jewish issue, infidelity… There are so many topics that you can always tell a story that has something in common.

Sergio Angulo: —Is Dubliners the easiest of Joyce’s books to begin with?

Malcolm Barral: —Yes, because Dubliners is a collection of short stories, I think it would be the easiest. The best initiation book for Joyce, let´s say. What you shouldn’t try is Finnegans Wake, because that really is… well we can´t be sure if it was a joke to leave us wondering for decades, what the hell Joyce wanted to say with that book?

Sergio Angulo: —Next Saturday, on June 16th, it’s Bloomsday. Will you be here?

Malcolm Barral: —Yes, of course.

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