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At the Frontiers of Thought stage, writers Alejandro Zambra and Javier Cercas debate literary principles and talk about the relationship between books and social and political context

The Frontiers of Thought cycle of lectures and debates stage received two of the most acknowledgeable names in contemporary literature in the Spanish language in its latest edition in São Paulo. Chilean Alejandro Zambra and Spaniard Javier Cercas lectured and discussed how literature helps to construct a personal identity and society as a whole, in a debate mediated by journalist Cassiano Elek Machado, editor at the Planeta Brasil magazine.

This year, the Frontiers of Thought’s theme is “world in discord, democracy and cultural wars”.

Alejandro Zambra is a novelist, poet and essayist, and was elected by the British literary magazine Granta as one of the 22 best youngest Hispanic American writers. Born in Santiago, capital of Chile, Zambra’s works are greatly inspired by his hometown and his contemporaries. His first novel, “Bonsai”, was extensively awarded and adapted to a motion picture. His latest book is called “Multiple Choice (Múltipla Escolha)”, which addresses politics, inequality, education and the Chilean memory.

Licensed professor at Universities of Girona, in Catalonia, and Illinois, in the United States, Javier Cercas’ works have been translated into more than 30 languages. His bestseller novel, “Soldiers of Salamis (Soldados de Salamina)”, which addresses the relationship of Rafael Sánchez Mazas -writer and ideologue for the Spanish conservative party Falange – with the Spanish Civil War, has sold over 1 million copies. His latest novel, “The Monarch of Shadows” (El monarca de las sombras), also addresses the Spanish Civil War and tensions with authoritarianism.

Zambra: “it should be written what we appreciate reading”

Alejandro Zambra. Crédito: Greg Salibian

Zambra opened his conference reading one of his texts, about the meaning of writing. “it should be written what we would appreciate reading,” said Zambra. He referred to the book “Discovering the World (Descoberta do Mundo)”, by Clarice Lispector, a writer he considers “formidable” and whom he paid homage to in his speech.

During his speech, Zambra remembered his childhood and talked about his intellectual formation, which was exposed only to two types of literature: Chilean and universal. “There wasn’t any native Latin American literature. My generation grew up under a dictatorship, but in the early 90’s, we were exposed to lots of good stuff,” he said.

In his insight on literature, Zambra again mentioned Lispector, saying that all easy writing is not to be fully credited. “They’re the desire to portray an image,” he said. “I had a different perception on the books I’ve written. I never really knew what I wanted to portray, and in hindsight, maybe I wanted to portray nothing,” he continued.

Cercas: “a book shouldn’t answer anything”

Javier Cercas. Crédito: Greg Salibian

A scholar with an extensive curriculum in Spain, Cercas analyzed the modern novel structure. To him, the best novels are those with a “blind spot”, meaning a question that is never answered by the book’s own logic. “Where nothing can be seen, literature sees. Silence makes the novel eloquent; this darkness brings light to the reader,” he said.

To Cercas, the goal of a good novel is not to provide answers, but to bring questions at the fullest. “The answer is the quest itself,” he completed. That’s why, he explains, a book cannot live on its own, and its value is only recognized at the rate it is read. “A sea of dead words that are reborn when they’re read. It’s like a music score that each person interprets on their own way, the more interpretation, the better,” he completed.

During his speech, Cercas mentioned the novels “Don Quixote de la Mancha” (1605), written by Miguel de Cervantes, “The Trial” (1925), by Franz Kafka, and “Moby Dick” (1851), by Herman Melville, as successful examples of a blind spot. “Don Quixote, for example: is he crazy or not? Yes and no, at the same time. It’s a world without monolithic truths; it’s an ironic and contradictory truth”, he analyzed.

Literature against totalitarianism

In Chile, Alejandro Zambra grew up under the dictatorial government of Augusto Pinochet and, he said, literature was vital to scape repression. “I believe that people sharing that childhood during the Chilean dictatorship felt like missing living the world. We felt like we weren’t protagonists, but we also felt like it was important to tell our version of facts and to tell our stories,” he said.

“My book ‘Multiple Choices’ came up from a strong desire to reshape it all. I was like: ‘What has dictatorship done, how has it occupied our brain?’ I escaped from it all thanks to literature, I’d cast a shadow of doubt on everything. In my texts, I cite Pinochet and find it terrible that this debate – which seemed buried – came back to life in countries like Brazil,” completed the Chilean national.

Javier Cercas also lived part of his life under the totalitarian regime of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in Spain “What we fight for today is what we’ve always thought for: a search for truth. Not that factual, journalistic truth, but moral and human truth,” he said. “We, writers, play an important role, because words shape reality and literature is complex enough to combat lies,” he added.

The writer and researcher also highlighted that populism is a consequence of lies and our society is dragged into them – especially the United States and Brazil. To him, the spark for the great economic crisis of 2008 has ignited the emergence of this totalitarianism as with the 1929 crisis that led to fascism, Nazism, and World War II. “History doesn’t repeat itself in the exact terms, but we should be careful not to make the same mistakes and believe in simple and magic solutions,” he resumed.

Content published in November 12, 2018

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