Interview - Marcelo Figueras

MARCELO FIGUERAS, born in Buenos Aires in 1962, is a writer and screenwriter. He currently lives in Barcelona. His novel Kamchatka (Atlantic Books, 2010) was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

A bestseller in Figueras’ native Spanish, Kamchatka is set in Argentina, during the bloody coup d’état of 1976. It is a terrifying time for all those with left-wing leanings and thousands disappear, many the victims of extra-judicial executions. A young boy is taken out of school and his family flee to a safe-house in the secluded hills outside Buenos Aires. They adopt new identities and the boy names himself Harry after his hero Houdini.

Lucy Popescu: Can you explain your book’s title for new readers?

During the Seventies in Argentina (which also means, during the last military dictatorship) there was a very popular board game that we, then kids & teenagers, loved: it was called T.E.G. (As in: Tactics and Strategies of War.) It was a ripoff of the classic Risk: a map of the world divided into countries (some real, some not: Kamchatka was one of them), armies identified with different colours, dice and cards laying out objectives that each player had to conquer in order to win.

Marcelo Figueras: When I started imagining the story, that particular game and that fantastic country (filled with eternal snows and volcanoes, a contradiction in terms; and really useful to have amongst your possessions, if you're a diehard T.E.G. player) kept popping up in my mind. Then I understood that, in order to survive the hardships of reality, my main character was going to need an imaginary territory: some kind of Shangri-La of the mind, where to hide till the worst had ended. And thus: Kamchatka!

LP: What compelled you to write Kamchatka and how autobiographical are the stories you tell?

MF: As an Argentinian citizen (and most important: as an Argentinian reader of fiction!) I felt the need to find a novel that helped me make some kind of sense of the tragic experience of the Seventies: the genocide that the military government orchestrated and produced, and the inevitable consequences of having grown up (and somehow survived, though not unscathed) in a totalitarian State.

From the dictatorship that fell upon our country in 1976 to the beginning of this century, Argentine fiction gave the cold shoulder to reality and all its trappings. And I'm not talking about the price the Arts pay when they are closely watched by a totalitarian State, like indeed was the case between 1976 and 1983: I'm talking also of the twenty years that followed the end of the military government. Leaving aside the works that were produced during the decay of the regime and the first couple of years of democratic rule, the subject of our own, domestic Holocaust was quickly shelved. By the year 2001, writing or filming something that had to do with the Tragic Years meant performing artistic suicide.

But the need was stronger than the fears. So I tried to write the story I wanted to read. And even though my parents didn't endure the kind of violence the novel shows (they, as I, endured a more insidious kind: the one that terror leaves upon the soul), it felt natural to lend my main character part of my own biography: my family (Midget included), my hobbies, my friends, my favourite stuff – books, TV series, films, comics...

LP: Kamchatka is written from the perspective of a 10-year-old boy. Did you find it hard to write in a young voice?

MF: It was easy, because I had no choice. I tried to write the first draft in the third person, from a point of view that aspired to objectivity. But each time I began, this point of view changed automatically to the first person. And I couldn't help it, it happened every time! So I finally surrendered to Harry's voice, the one that dictated the lines inside my head.

Nevertheless, I have to stress that Harry's is not strictly a child's voice: it's the voice the forty-year-old Harry uses when he remembers, the voice of a man reliving his childhood in the present tense. So in a way he's again a boy, re-enacting his past; but with the experience and the perspective only a grownup has. And it says so in the first pages of the novel: Sometimes, as I remember, my voice is that of the ten-year-old boy I was then... I'm telling you this because there was a reviewer from an important trade paper (I won't name names) that criticised me for failing to convey a realistic child's voice. Some people have the nerve to write reviews even though they have obvious difficulties to read what's plain on the page!

LP: In Kamchatka, Harry’s father is a lawyer who works underground defending political prisoners. Although you concentrate on the personal rather than the political, I felt that the novel served as a profound meditation on a particularly bleak period in your country’s past. Do you think writers have a role to play in confronting past and present injustices?

MF: Of course I do! I think there's a very specific work that has to be done, in order to learn what has to be learnt from the sins of the past, that only artists can do. Even when Democracy is reinstated and Justice works and criminals are brought to trial (by the way, many of them are being judged now for the first time: almost thirty years after the fall of the Regime!), to metabolize such a traumatic experience you have to count on your artists: filmmakers, novelists, painters, playwrights. If they don't do their part, if they don't gaze first into the face of the Abyss, you're going to find something's lacking: depth, perspective, soul-searching - and even truth: you name it.

I write because I don't know a better way to try to understand my circumstance; because I need the kind of answers I can't find in essays or History books. But I also read for that reason. And I think many people feel that way too.

 LP: By the end of Kamchatka, we realise that the hardest lesson Harry has learned is how to survive horror and bear loss: “Love one another madly” he tells us, “the people you know, but more importantly the people who need love, because love is the only thing that is real, it is the light, everything else is darkness”. What are your memories of this time?

MF: The darkest. I lived in utter terror. Even before panic attacks became fashionable (1976!), I dreaded putting a foot on the street. And I had uniform-phobia: each time I glimpsed a policeman doing his rounds (O.K., I'll be more specific: I had military-attire-of-any-kind-phobia), I turned my back on him and started walking in the opposite direction. Being a teenager, I didn't want to go out on Saturday nights. (My daughters don't believe me when I tell them; but they haven't lived through the things I lived back then!)

But the strangest, and most conclusive fact is this: during the first years I knew nothing about what was really happening. In this respect, Harry was much better prepared than me. My parents were apolitical and I lived in a fantasy world: loved my books & comics & TV series as much as I hated newspapers, news programmes and everything that had to do with reality. So imagine: how deep must have been the terror everybody lived in and breathed, how omnipresent in every aspect of everyday life, than even a Bubble Boy like me ended being indelibly marked by the experience.

LP:  How did your Argentinean readers receive the novel?

MF: They were wonderful. And specially the people that lived through similar stuff during that time: parents that had to flee with their little kids, grownups that were kids back then and were forced to lead clandestine lives, the sons and daughters of the desaparecidos. They took Kamchatka as their own, personal book; and that was the best reward I could hope to receive.

LP: You and your translator, Frank Wynne, were short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. How did that feel?

MF: Like walking on air. Being chosen as one of the six best non- English novels of the year, in the company of a Nobel Prize? You have to be made of stone not to feel giddy and over-caffeinated about it.

My mother never forced me to do anything, but this: to learn English. I fought tooth and nail, but inevitably, she prevailed. For the most part I was a really good student, but I was already going to school from 8 to 5, and found the two extra hours too much: I thought she was just trying to get rid of me.

When I finished Kamchatka's first draft as a screenplay, I sent it to the film director and to the producer who wanted to turn my original short story into a movie. The thing was pretty much what it is today, with one exception: in the final chapter, when papá leaves Harry with his own papá, mamá -the woman Harry and the Midget like to call The Rock, as that stocky, hard-headed character from Fantastic Four - was nowhere to be seen.

Without talking with each other, both the director and the producer asked me the same: where the devil is mamá at the end? Having invested so much in building the character, they felt it was a crime to make her disappear from the scene at that crucial time. Of course I had a thousand reasons to explain my decision: at the time, I said, mamá was leaving the Midget with somebody else, and it would have been impossible for her to be in two places at the same time!

But they insisted. And when my indignation vanished, I began to think. Then I understood the real reason that made me want to write Kamchatka. That story was the way I devised - without even knowing it, but even so - to be able to say to my mother the goodbye I never got to say to her in real life. My mamá wasn't a victim of the military regime, at least not in the obvious sense; but she succumbed to lung cancer when she was really young. One day she was the embodiment of good health: she never caught a cold that I remember. Two months later she was dead.

I realized then that I had built Kamchatka just to reach that scene; but when the time came, I just panicked and backed out. So I owe it to the director, Marcelo Piñeyro, and to the producer Oscar Kramer, who passed away a few months ago, the ringing of the alarm bell that woke me up and forced me to rise to the occasion. So Mamá is now where she was always supposed to be: everywhere, but mainly in that final scene, when she says goodbye to Harry and he finds a magic word written in the back of her pack of cigarettes.

LP: Describe your writing space.

MF: I have a study in my house, on the 4th floor of an old building in the very traditional neighbourhood of El Raval, only three blocks away from Plaza Catalunya. It has two balconies with crystal doors. The one in front of my desk allows me to see a couple of very tall palm trees and a patchwork quilt of tiled rooftops; the view has a very distinctive, Middle East-tinged flavour. Sometimes I imagine I'm writing in Rick Blaine's attic, in 1942's Casablanca!

Right now I'm surrounded by books, a collection of toys and figurines (a tiny bust of Dickens that I bought in London at his house-museum and a big headed doll of Willie Shakespeare to my right), some old family photos, a couple of weights (you have to train hard to endure a writing life!) and film posters. (Casablanca, by the way. And also Blade Runner.)

I write with the constant encouragement of a band of seagulls that fly over the palm trees and cry: 'Keep going! Keep going!' (To my understanding, at least.)

LP: Do you have a particular writing routine?

MF: I wake up really early (7 A.M., sometimes at 6) and write till 2 P.M. That's the best time for me. The afternoon is O.K. for rewrites, or some other kind of chores. (Like writing this, for instance.)

LP: Who have been your greatest literary influences?

MF: I've already mentioned Shakespeare and Dickens: the gods of my personal universe (non plus ultra!), because their narrative abilities are still otherworldly, but also because nobody has surpassed them in terms of understanding the highs and lows of human nature. But of course, there are many writers that I love too (Melville, Conrad, Saul Bellow) and some others I would like to believe that I channel or echo through my work: Salinger, Michael Ondaatje, John Irving.

LP: What are you reading now?

MF: Just finished A Visit From the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan), Skippy Dies (Paul Murray) and The Invisible Bridge (Julie Orringer). And having enjoyed the HBO miniseries, I've just started reading Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin)

LP: What do you have planned next?

MF: I'm finishing the first draft of a novel that, even when it still shares part of Kamchatka's world (very young characters, the search for some kind of meaning in an unsound universe), it signifies a departure in purely narrative terms. It begins with the killing of a very well known comic-book artist, and then forges its own path between genres: part fantasy, part science fiction, part horror, part good old fashioned adventure... and of course, part oh shit I know stuff like this is already happening realism.

Originally published by Latineos