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What would our lives be like if we knew at birth when we were going to die? Fernando Aramburu on his new novel 'Counting the days'

With his previous novel Homeland Spanish author Fernando Aramburu captured the hearts of readers across Europe. The bestseller about the consequences of violence by the Basque separatist movement ETA, won three awards and HBO adapted the book into a television series. His new, Counting the days, is a more intimate story, about a man who decides to end his life in a year's time. 'To lift a character, you must first have thrown him to the ground.'

Deeply disappointed

What would our lives be like if we knew at the beginning of it when we were going to die? That question formed the starting point for the voluminous novel Counting the days, a sometimes biting and cynical but at times witty book.

First-person narrator Toni is a fifty-something who is deeply disappointed in basically everything. His marriage is on the rocks, he hates his ex-wife Amalia (and she him) and their now-grown son, whom he rarely sees, has a very low IQ and lives in a squat. Toni's father died young; his mother is in a nursing home with a faltering brain. And with his brother Raúl, things never budged at all.

Apart from his dog Pepa, there is not much from which Toni derives joy. In fact, he hardly likes his job as a philosophy teacher, he hates the headmistress of the school and the only colleague he liked is dead. Actually, Toni has only one friend, whom he secretly calls Kunstpoot (we don't find out his real name) since he lost a foot in the 2004 attack on Atocha Madrid station.

Toni thinks life is about to end and decides to get out in exactly one year, on the night of 31 July. When Kunstpoot hears this, he also decides to end it then and rustles them both a bag of cyanide for the moment suprême. Meanwhile, using a diary, Toni reconstructs how his life has turned out and tries to unravel why he has no desire to go on living.

International breakthrough

Counting the days is not the first book Fernando Aramburu wrote after his bestselling Homeland, though the first novel. In the meantime, a collection of prose poems, a collection of essays and a collection of articles were published in Spain. Aramburu deliberately chose books for a smaller audience.

Homeland meant your international breakthrough. Did that turn your existence upside down?

'There is indeed a watershed in my life: there is a time before Patria, as the book is called in Spanish, and a time after. That the book would have so much success worldwide, I could not have dreamed. The novel has opened doors for me, given me readers in countries that are not mine.

But I didn't want the success and media circus surrounding Homeland would affect my writing. I couldn't live without writing. Apart from activities with my family, writing is what my whole life revolves around. Therefore, I could never allow one novel to get in the way of working on the next. After Homeland I first released a couple of books for a smaller audience, because I didn't want that constant pressure of performances and interviews again. I deliberately wrote against success.'

The protagonist of your new novel is a pretty bitter person. What was it like putting yourself in the shoes of such a man for such a time?

'It seems like a hard book, because it is about the experiences of a man who decides to end his life in exactly one year's time, though he does not know why. But the writing gave me a lot of joy, I laughed a lot at what happens or is said. It may start out pessimistic, but to lift a character, you have to have thrown him to the ground first. Besides, for me, it doesn't feel like I am living with my characters. Characters are not persons, but literary constructs made up of words.'

Different life strategy

Why did you choose a protagonist like Toni?

'I used it to seek answers regarding two issues. The first is a question that has preoccupied me since childhood or adolescence: what would our lives be like if you knew from birth what day and time you would die? I'm pretty sure your life strategy would be very different then. How exactly, the reader must figure out for himself. In any case, from the moment Toni gives a deadline to his life, his life changes enormously. For instance, he gets rid of all his possessions and his books.

Not only do we not know when we are going to die, but - and this brings me to the second point - we will never be able to know the other person deeply. No matter how well you know your friends, family and colleagues, you never know what they are thinking or feeling at the deepest level. Literature can, however, give us that possibility. Through Toni, I wanted to show the representation of a human being in his most intimate, deepest self. Because we get to know everything about Toni; not only the beautiful things, but also his darkest and less beautiful sides.

Don't touch me

Toni uses the Latin proverb 'Noli me tangere' - 'don't touch me' - for the nasty, strange wounds Art Paw suffers from. But you could also see the proverb as an articulation of his own attitude to life.

'Toni grew up under the dictatorship. As a grown man, he tries hard to adapt to the new times: he studies, he reads and puts a lot of energy and hope into marriage and fatherhood. Later, when he is alone, he feels like a loser. He is dissatisfied and bitter, and regards the world, the other and society with a cynical view, but also with humour and reason. He uses irony and sarcasm, drawing on philosophy and literature. In that way, he also uses Latin proverbs like this one.'

Your book bears striking similarities to another recent Spanish novel, Joy by Manuel Vilas. Both are about divorced fiftysomethings, disappointed in life, in marriage and fatherhood, in work and friendships. Is that a coincidence or do your novels express the feelings of a generation?

'I hadn't actually thought about that, but it could be. Maybe there is a generational component to it. Manuel Vilas is a friend of mine and I read all his work. He writes a lot about love, and is a more autobiographical author than I am. But we both do write about people from our time and our country, European citizens on whom the history of our time has an impact. It could be that our diagnosis largely coincides for that reason.'

As the hour U approaches, Toni does seem to soften, as if he dares to allow more love and light.

'I agree with that. I think it's an automatism is that when a deadline for your life comes, you get more focus on what you love and what you enjoy. Life is starting to suit Toni better and better and he is also starting to enjoy writing. The reviews said that this book is an ode to life and I am very happy with that. I hope that people who have taken the trouble to read this book will feel afterwards that they have been present at the exposure of an intense and deeply human experience.'

Fernando Aramburu, Counting the days (638 p.). Translated from the Spanish by Hendrik Hutter. Wereldbibliotheek, € 29.99

About Fernando Aramburu

Spanish writer Fernando Aramaburu (b. 1959) was born in the Basque town of San Sebastián. Besides novels, he also writes poetry, short stories and essays. With his German wife, he moved to Germany 38 years ago, where he works as a Spanish teacher. Although he already has several books to his name, in the Netherlands we know him mainly for his novel Homeland (2016), which was translated into Dutch in 2018. His new novel, Counting the days, was recently published.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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