Like Borges, José Carlos Llop wanted above all to be a poet—“I always wanted to be a poet and from a given moment onward I knew I was a poet. But one is a poet when one writes poetry. And at that very moment, I mean” —and like his admired Philip Larkin he was a librarían. His native Mallorca has something of Joseph Brodsky’s Venice about it and something of the Trieste of Claudio Magris and of Italo Svevo, who was not a librarían but divided his day between writing and his job in the Bankers’ Union (l’Unione Bancaria). For in Llop’s Mallorca the great tradition of Mitteleuropa converges with Mediterranean culture, a convergence that is in turn inscribed in the pages of the translator, poet and narrator, now the subject of a long and extremely interesting interview conducted by Nadal Suau and Daniel Capó and published by Elba (José Carlos Llop: una conversación).
Llop reminds us that “tourism began on the island well before tourism per se began” and that “Mallorca is an island present in history more than other islands of the Mediterranean”, to a large extent because of its insertion into and constant dialogue with the “western canons” since the time of Ramón Llull and because it has been the destination of travellers, artists and writers such as Gaston Vuillard, Charles Wood, George Sand, Paul Morand, Gertrude Stein or, more recently, Albert Camus or Robert Graves. The island was, as well, the place of residence of Camilo José Cela, who founded a journal named after his home in Son Armadans, which opened its pages, among writers and artists, to almost everyone. And it was there, on that same island, where the Conversations at Formentor were instituted, taking their name from the nearby beach. Their repercussion, especially because of the prize they award (the Prix Formentor), goes well beyond island and national limits. This culturalism, to use Llop’s words, influenced him and his relation to tradition and the language —“my relationship with the language has never been maximalist”, he confesses. “I’ve sought the music of Catalan poetry in my own”— combining in his work as well as in his life the Catalan —and therefore the Mallorcan— with the peninsular and the European, in a vindication of the insular as well as the Mediterranean: “In the Mediterranean it is all one: you stand to gain and you never lose by it. And fatalism forms part of our culture, of any Mediterranean culture: the mother of philosophy, of religion, of commerce, of Europe, of war, of literature as memory…”
Memory as literary material
He recalls with some nostalgia the respect that his grandfather had for literature, as well as his mother’s oral tales, many of which have shaped certian pages of his novels, all built around personal and collective memory, a memory in which personal experience is intermixed, sometimes indistinguishably, with the stories one was read or told, stories that were internalized to the point of forming who he is. Hand in hand with his grandfather and his father, he undertook his first reading, starting with the Bible, which, together with Homer, is the beginning of it all. But above all else, there came the recognition that he had been born to write: “Writing is a destiny just as character is, and in that destiny there is all that one is bound to tell and the form in which one is bound to do it. That is to say, an impossible task. That’s why one book will never be enough”. Nor is one genre enough if you wish to make memory your chief literary material; that is why Llop has not only moved back and forth between poetry and narrative but has also taken up the genre of the diary, very much present, as Capó and Suau recall, in the work of an entire generation: Trapiello, García Martín, and Juan Manuel Bonet. Llop confesses that his interest in journal-writing owes a great deal to the influence exerted on him by Cristóbal Serra, a great lover of the genre and the author of Diario de signos. For Llop, “optimistically”, a diary at present ought to be “the memory of a time off to the side, which becomes, thanks to the genre and its introspection, the centre of time. At least”, he adds,” it’s what we are to believe when faced with the abuse of the I in blogs, conversation, tertulias [radio talk shows], social media…everywhere you look, the poor and repetitive, protuberant pronoun I”.
To a large extent the same can be said of his fiction and not only of the most autobiographical of it such as El informe Stein (translated as The Stein Report), which reflects his experience with the Jesuits as well as his childhood in Mallorca (even though the novel’s action is never concretely located), but also in Háblame del tercer hombre (Tell Me About the Third Man), on French collaborationism; in El mensajero de Argel (The Messenger from Algiers), a novel that has as its point of departure a Europe that is being torn apart; Oriente, an essay-novel about eroticism, featuring figures like De Beauvoir, Jünger, or Dionisio Ridruejo, or En la ciudad sumergida (In the Submerged City), a text devoted to Mallorca in which we hear echoes of Brodsky, Modiano and Pamuk, three great portraitists of cities and their history. “We are our deceased, they are our tutelary gods and they protect us”. But we must also protect them by keeping them in mind in our own lives, not forgetting them”, Llop points out. For him it is only in this way that we establish “a permanent unión with the past, past being understood as the origin and development of the civilization to which we belong”. And in the case of the Mallorcan, this past is etched into the cities, the protagonists of his life as well as his literature: there is Barcelona, the city where he was educated, there is Mallorca, the city of his childhood and his life; and there is Paris, the great capital so dear to the writer and the symbol of his literary success, at least in international terms. “My love for the city”, Llop confesses, “is born of the city itself,” as well as of books, since his knowledge of many cities comes above all through literature and, specifically, through the novel, the urban genre par excellence. However, the writer notes, “the city also tends toward the essay because that’s what it is in itself”. And “it’s there that many genres meet, because essays in which the city —abstractly or concretely, either one— is the protagonist have something very novelesque about them”. It is precisely at this intersection that La ciudad sumergida arises, offering a different way of looking at Palma de Mallorca — Llop’s admiration for Brodsky and his portrait of Venice is not surprising—, which broaches it essayistically, evokes it, reconstructs it and creates it. In other words, it is a way of seeing that encapsulates something truthful in a “ novelesque-ness” which pervades all writing, beginning with that emerging from memory and recollection.
Poetry and truth
“I’ve always written what I felt the need to write, not what was expected of me or not expected of me”, comments Llop to Daniel Capó and Nadal Suau throughout their conversation. In this writing of what needs to be written and what one wishes to write, without heeding either expectations or supposed market trends, the Mallorcan writer picks up some of the reflections Goethe made late in life in his autobiography and essay From My Life: Poetry and Truth. And above all, he makes these two concepts his own, not only because they describe his commitment to the written word but also because today, the vindication of the truth as opposed to so-called fake news, media noise and the empty chatter of social networks has become especially necessary. “Poetry and truth. They are things that are bound to one another or they should be”, claims Llop, who is especially critical of journalism, which he considers “the great accomplice of post-truth”, together with “mediocre politics” and the “decay of institutions”. And this is precisely why he positions himself to the side: he never felt the temptation to enter or do politics, to become an intellectual affiliated with any party and, although he has been writing for the papers for years, he considers himself an “interloper, a fifth-columnist, a writer but not a loud-voiced journalist or a sharp and sagacious columnist”. The fact is that his articles form part of his literary oeuvre; they do not lapse into the political opinionism that many authors have so enthusiastically embraced. Llop’s personal and intellectual commitment is to and for literature and its truth. As Andrés Ibáñez said some months ago, truth lies in literature that does not lapse into clichés, in literature that arises from the experience of the writer — personal, intellectual, or imaginative.
And it is from this experience that José Carlos Llop’s work arises; he is a writer for whom the periphery or island limits are not only the physical space from which he writes, but rather and above all a space of absolute liberty and independence, from which to participate in the world and its memory, remaining all the while, as Thomas Hardy would say, far from the madding crowd.
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“Cuanto me alegra escapar, para venir a mi página libre” escribía Virginia Woolf el 9 de noviembre de 1939 en su diario, que había comenzado en 1915 y que redactaría hasta el final de sus días, hasta que el 28 de marzo de 1941 decidiera quitarse la vida en las aguas del río Ouse. Escrito […]