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'The past has a strong influence on the present and the future'. Juan Gómez Bárcena wrote a novel about world history in an insignificant Spanish village

Even in a tiny hamlet with seemingly nothing to do, world history is at - or rather under - your feet. In his extraordinary novel The village of memories Juan Gómez Bárcena (39) weaves together centuries of stories. 'I love to challenge myself considerably when writing.'

More cows than inhabitants

A village of thirty-two houses, a church, more cows than inhabitants. No café. That is Toñanes, the hamlet in north-west Spain where writer Juan Gómez Bárcena (b. 1984) spent weekends and holidays as a child and still has a cottage. One of those villages where time seems to have stood still and, apart from the changing of the seasons, little happens. What is there to say about that?

Much, very much so, makes the 430-page novel The village of memories of Gómez Bárcena is clear. With his debut novel, he threw The sky over Lima already high profile, with his new book Bárcena convincingly shows what he has to offer.

Cleverly composed

The village of memories is a particularly cleverly composed novel, consisting of the events in Toñanes and life stories of inhabitants from past centuries, which are woven together (with year numbers in the margin) and thereby enter into a conversation that transcends time.

This introduces the reader to a pastor interested in millions of years-old ammonites found in the village, and a little boy searching for dinosaur tracks. With Juan and Juliana who have just lost their third child. A boy and a girl dancing together at a party, falling in love and not finding each other again.

In between all this, the death registers are read out, as it were. The common thread is the story of Emilio and Mercedes, who want a cottage near the sea for their two daughters and third child on the way to escape their hometown of Santander. Born is the little boy of dinosaurs, the author himself, who will later chart the history of Toñanes as a historian and writer.

All the time at once

Your novel has an unusual and complex structure. It must have been a challenge to pull it off like that.

'Indeed. I wanted to write a book about the history of my village, but not in the form of a saga that follows the normal evolution of time. Instead, I wanted to show all time simultaneously, i.e. simultaneously. Indeed, to my mind, time is circular rather than linear, with constantly repeating events, ideas and feelings. After a long search, this structure emerged, making it possible to experience that.'

Weren't you worried that this ambitious plan would be overdone?

'Definitely, but love to challenge myself considerably when writing. That's why my five books are so different: I try to do something new each time. Something I don't know if I can pull off, but something I'm willing to try anyway.

I like to experiment with the passage of time and try to break through the boundaries of language and narrative. For example, in my previous novel, which has not yet been translated into Dutch, a man takes a journey from Mexico in the 16th century to the United States in the 21st century. A demonstration of the relationship between time and space.

In this book, I wanted to do just the opposite: stay in one small place where you can still witness the entire history of the world. I started it in 2017, but had to put the book away for two years in between because I didn't quite know how to knit all these different stories together. And I wanted to move quickly through time, but doubted that the plan of years in the margin would work.

Only when I came up with the idea of a storyline about myself and my mother's pregnancy as a connecting factor between all these other chapters was I able to move on.'

Challenging editing

So you all had separate building blocks?

'Yes. I had interviews with the current residents of Toñanes, and the list of all the people who died. I had longer stories, like about Juan and Juliana and my family. And then I had dozens of short chapters, for example on a particular topic like rain or fire. All that had to be forged together.

I watched a lot of films to learn about editing. And I used cards, on which I wrote down keywords about a chapter and indicated with a colour what kind of piece it was, e.g. yellow for a short life story and red for an interview. I spread them out on the floor and could shift the order: oh, now there are too many yellow cards together, there should be a red one in between. This way, I could see which cards formed a complete whole and where I still had to make a bridge from one piece to the other'.

Microhistory

When did it occur to you that there was a novel school in this insignificant village and its handful of inhabitants?

'That was a slow discovery. I had been researching the history of my village since I was a teenager, just for fun. I started studying history and published two articles in an archaeological journal, one on the village mill and the other on means of communication in the Middle Ages. But for years, my work as a historian and my work as a writer remained two separate domains.

Years ago, I read books on micro-history, where from a small, personal story the larger world history is highlighted, such as The cheese and the worms by Carlo Ginzburg, a book about a miller in sixteenth-century Friuli. Hey, I thought, I could use my village as a vehicle to write about man, about Europe, about every small, insignificant village on this earth.

History is almost always about the big events, important people, battles and wars. But ninety-nine per cent of humanity has a life more like that of the people of Toñanes than that of Philip IV.'

Your book also shows that the past is actually never really over. 

'We tend to forget the past, but should realise that the past has a strong influence on the present and future. Every conflict going on in this world now has roots in the past. If you know nothing about it, you cannot understand the present and you misjudge situations. Moreover, you then don't draw lessons from what has happened. So that's what my book is also about: memory and oblivion.'

Freedom

What influence has Toñanes had on you?

'In Santander, as a boy, I couldn't go out on the streets alone; it was too dangerous in the city. In Toñanes, I was free. Wandering around the village and its surroundings, I started wondering things, about the origin of the mill or the forest. When I was seven, my parents took me to the cemetery. Wow, I thought, I'm standing on something a thousand years old! Partly because of that, I became a historian and writer.'

What does novel writing add to your work as a historian?

'Total freedom. As a historian I have to stick to facts and logic, in fiction I can do whatever I want. For me, imagination is not only a way to escape reality, but also to understand it. If I want to understand something about the life of a Roman soldier two thousand years ago, I can research and dig up facts, but presumably I understand more if I read a good novel that lets me see through his eyes and feel what he felt. I find imagination an incredibly valuable tool. Discoveries and inventions are made because people have imagination and can imagine something that does not yet exist or is not yet known. We also need that to be able to imagine a different, better world for ourselves instead of endlessly repeating the same patterns.'

Juan Gómez Bárcena, The village of memories (431 p.)
Translated from the Spanish by Nadia Ramer
Wereldbibliotheek, €24.99

About the author

Spanish author Juan Gómez Bárcena (1984) made his debut in 2012 with the short story collection Los que duermen ('They Who Sleep'), which was awarded the Premio Tormenta for Best New Author. His second book, the novel The sky over Lima, is based on the true story of Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, who for years thought he was corresponding with a Peruvian admirer, behind whom were in reality two male students. The book was shortlisted for the 2020 European Literature Prize. Successor Kanada is a novel about a Hungarian survivor of concentration camp Auschwitz. The Village of Memories is Gómez Bárcena's fifth book.

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A Quattro Mani

Photographer Marc Brester and journalist Vivian de Gier can read and write with each other - literally. As partners in crime, they travel the world for various media, for reviews of the finest literature and personal interviews with the writers who matter. Ahead of the troops and beyond the delusion of the day.View Author posts

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