Manuel Rivas (A Coruña, 1957) is a writer, poet, essayist and journalist. Some of his works have been adapted to film. One of his best known works isButterfly’s Tongue, based on three stories from the book ¿Qué me quieres amor? (1996), for which he received the Premio Nacional for Spanish fiction. O Lápis do Carpinteiro has been published in nine countries and is, to date, the most translated book in the history of the Galician language. En salvaje compañía (In the Wilderness) and Los libros arden mal (Books Burn Badly), which won the Premio Nacional de la Crítica for Galician fiction, have also been translated into English. Todo é silencio (2010) (All is silence, Radom House, 2013) was a finalist for The Hammett Award for crime-writing. His latest novel,Las voces bajas, was published in Spain in 2012.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: —Manuel, in Butterfly’s tongue, the main character, Moncho, is a boy who is a bit scared on his first day of school. Do you remember this phase of your life?
Manuel Rivas: —My first school was a kind of creche and I was very young, I´d only just started to talk. I went with my sister who was a little older because my mother had to work. I remember I carried a plastic bag and, as there were so many of us, there was no place to sit. With the best intentions, one of the two sisters who brought us, sat me down on the kind of suitcase that children have for storage, and so I spent a year there sitting quietly on a suitcase. It was a kind of premonition of emigrant lineage. I sat there with my case, and one day, I opened the case and realised it was empty. There was nothing in it.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: —As we´re discussing memories, do you remember when you first started writing?
Manuel Rivas: —That’s a process. I don’t think there’s a day you wake up saying, “I’m a writer”. I started to write very early, but they were just notes I made in a notebook. I called them poems. There’s even an anecdote about my godfather, who had a small typewriter and encouraged me to write. As it was a typewriter for receipts, it had a small carriage, so I thought it would be better to write poetry. That was the idea I had about poetry. But anyway, we’re talking about playing with words.
If I really had to choose a moment, I think it would have to do with listening. For me, that’s the first tool for a writer, as well as a journalist. So, if I had to say where the writer in me was born, it would be in a place of listening, which was a staircase in my maternal grandparents’ house – a country house in Galicia. It was a staircase where you could hide after you were sent to bed. You’d stay hidden in a sort of ascending wooden tunnel, while the stories the adults told would come filtering up the steps.
Álvaro Cunqueiro spoke of a group of sailors who understood the language of the sea. In a time when there were no such advanced forecasting tools, they could anticipate storms through signs and murmurs of the sea. They were called “the listeners” (os escoitas) and were rumoured to have one ear larger than the other. I think a writer also needs to have something like that – an ear, a conch shell larger than the other.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: —You have always felt a passion for journalism. Do you think there is still that strong bond between journalism and literature?
Manuel Rivas: —Yes. There are a large number of people who have shared the status of being both a writer and a journalist. I think it´s good for a writer to have feelers, that grounding that a journalist needs to have – the principle of an active reality. Also, it’s necessary for a journalist to have a flare for style when it comes to writing.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: —As a writer, do you have any routine, any rituals when it comes to writing?
Manuel Rivas: —No, I’m not very methodical. I think it’s a struggle when you write. Our body is a battlefield on which alternative energy struggles, the energy that always enables you to write and to overcome the moments of dejection. This erotic energy, this force of desire sometimes has to fight with what we call Thanatos.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: —In your work, there are several literary genres. Do you feel any preference for one in particular?
Manuel Rivas: —I would represent it with the image of concentric circles. The topic of genres gives way to a theoretical reflection, a necessity to classify. But in the end, what exists is the mouth of literature. Either it exists or it doesn’t. You can find it in different forms, but it’s true there can be very poetic tales where the poetry vibrates. There can be texts presented as literary, but we don’t really perceive that vibration, that liveliness. We don’t see the mouth of literature opening. Sometimes, the mouth of literature opens in life, in a bus, in a bar, in a conversation or in the odd discussion.
I think the core of literature is poetic, that’s the first circle. The expression, “The secret zone of the human being”, is a need to express the enigmatic reverse of the mirror. That’s why I think that a way of detecting what defines literature is that it simultaneously reveals, works with light, and creates a new enigma, a new secret. It also has a strong resemblance to a camera obscura. In this case, the the light that enters through the small hole and is transformed, in conflict with the darkness and the shadows, represents the words. A word is a loaf of bread made up of light and shadow.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: —What language do you feel more comfortable writing in?
Manuel Rivas: —I started writing literature in Galician and still do. I still write a big part of my work in Galician. It’s a first love and feels good, but it’s also true that the relationship between language is not a relationship of struggle or exclusion. When that is suggested, it has nothing to do with words or with language, it acts as another kind of manipulation. Actually, what languages want is to embrace each other. So I feel I would like to write in many languages. But in the end, the truth is that you have to master your own language, and that’s true whether you’re writing in Galician, in Spanish or in Inuit.
Marcel Proust used to say that the ideal way to write is with the feeling that you’re writing in an unknown or foreign language. In the end, the purpose of writing is to bring something into existence that wasn’t there before, like a new species. Even if it’s something that resembles a nettle growing out of a handful of dirt.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: —Your last book Todo é silencio is structured in two parts – Silencio amigo (Friendly Silence) and Silencio mudo (Mute Silence). I think Rosalía de Castro’s enthusiasts are delighted with that wink. Why did you choose these two titles for your novel?
Manuel Rivas: —Yes, Silencio mudo is an expression that appears in a poem by Rosalía called Follas novas. “Todo é silencio mudo soidá dolor…” There are different types of silence. We could go further and include undertones, but fundamentally, there’s a friendly silence that is a fertile silence, the silence, for example, that corresponds to each musical note, a note of silence. It’s a silence that helps you, a creative silence. On the other hand, it´s the root of literary creation.
The counterpoint is the silence that doesn’t help creativity, that isn´t fertile, but an imposed or acute silence. I remember a phrase that was written by an inquisitor when he ordered the cutting off of an Indian´s ears in the Andes. It’s a phrase I find tremendous and terribly precise. It states, “He was not docile to the reign of my voice”. I think that’s what mute silence is, the silence of totalitarian power, of the power that seeks not only to control society and wealth, but also people – to control their minds.
In the novel, a biblical psalm is repeated as a litany, which aptly declares, “The people´s idols are made of silver and gold. They have mouths but cannot speak. They have eyes but cannot see. They have ears but cannot hear”. I think that psalm is very modern.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: —How was the process of writing for this book? It was originally suggested by José Luis Cuerda to make it into a movie.
Manuel Rivas: —It was a hybrid process. Sometimes people from the world of cinematography would broach the subject of me possibly writing a script. I was working on a novel that was basically the equivalent to the first part of Todo é silencio, the section about the characters’ childhood and youth, when the possibility of writing a script resurfaced. I was faced with this challenge and so I started working on a script for awhile. I only wrote a draft because I wasn’t convinced by it. Then I told myself that I had to finish the novel.
I remember a prologue to The Third Man where Graham Greene says, “Without a literary text, a script cannot exist”. I think that’s right. Today, I am more convinced than ever. If I hadn´t written the novel, the script would never have been developed.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: —Nevertheless, a considerable number of your books have been adapted to cinema. Are you happy with the results?
Manuel Rivas: —I greatly admire cinema because, especially today. it’s almost a heroic job that requires resources, complex execution, and teamwork. The job of a writer is not exactly a solitary job, because afterwards, you´re either an open body in which many people coexist or you´re not a writer. They are very different processes, different windows that sometimes look out on the same landscape. Today, if I had to choose, I’d choose the job you do simply with a pencil and a piece of paper.
In any case, it’s absurd to compare two complementary forms of expression, because we are a generation that has grown up with cinema. I find what we call poetry in many movies. When I wrote Butterfly’s tongue, for example, I never thought it would become a film. But now, when I see it, I see that world perfectly reflected. I think it’s more of an intimate relationship, rather than a rivalry, as it´s sometimes made out.
Alfonso Fernández Cid: —Finally, when do you feel morriña?
Manuel Rivas: —I think that a nostalgic feeling for something you have desired, or still desire, or have lost, is very common. I think that morriña and saudade is something universal. Possibly, what I feel most strongly is not so much nostalgia for the past, but nostalgia for the future. So teño morriña do porvir (I have morriña for the future).