Eduardo Lago - Through an ingenious structure that jumps from narrator to narrator and spans decades, Call Me Brooklyn follows the life of Gal Ackerman, a Spanish orphan adopted during the Spanish Civil War and raised in Brooklyn
Eduardo Lago, Call Me Brooklyn, Trans. by Ernesto Mestre-Reed, Dalkey Archive, 2013.
Eduardo was Junot's translator on DROWN, from English to Spanish. He is an affable, charming, intelligent and compassionate man who has been running around Cartagena enjoying himself in the balmy Caribbean breeze with us. I look forward to reading his book. He is 51 and this is his first published novel. Needless to say, I find that infinitely inspiring....
Eduardo Lago (Madrid, 1954) surprised Spain’s literary world when he won the prestigious Premio Nadal 2006 with his first novel, Llámame Brooklyn (Call Me Brooklyn). In an atmosphere of distrust towards literary prizes, particularly the Premio Planeta, critics and the public have embraced, with enthusiasm, a literary work that makes no commercial concessions.
Through an ingenious structure that jumps from narrator to narrator and spans several decades, Llámame Brooklyn follows the life of Gal Ackerman, a Spanish orphan adopted by a brigadier during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) and raised in Brooklyn, NY. When Ackerman dies, his close friend, Néstor Oliver-Chapman, rescues the manuscript of a novel Ackerman was working on and finishes it with the help of Frank Otero, a Galician who owns the Oakland bar in Brooklyn.
A series of unusual and unforgettable characters parade through the pages, from the clients of the Oakland who are trapped in a rather fatal destiny to Russian music student Nadia Orlov, the object of Ackerman’s obsession and the only reader he wants for his novel. Llámame Brooklyn also pays homage to real-life artists like painter Mark Rothko and writers Felipe Alfau and Thomas Pynchon.
Lago talked to Críticas about the art of writing, being a foreigner in New York, and his nostalgia for a long-gone Brooklyn.
How does it feel to be back from a successful book tour in Spain, where critics have been raving over your novel?
It’s great to be back. I conducted up to 20 or 25 interviews a day because we did the equivalent of six months of promotion in only three weeks. I feel changed. From being a relatively unknown person, I’ve suddenly become a writer from whom people expect a lot. During my tour, I was telling the director of the literary blog Boomerang that I didn’t know what to do next. “What do you mean you don’t know?” he exclaimed. “Everyone is waiting for your second novel!” Now I realize that that’s my biggest challenge.
In Llámame Brooklyn, Gal Ackerman writes a novel, not with the intention of getting it published, but so that the woman he loves reads it. He suggests that art is not a way of making a living but a way of living. Do you agree?
Yes, absolutely. There is a constant clash of perspectives in the novel but a common factor is irony, a very Cervantine irony. If I agree with the protagonist in that one should never paint, write, or produce anything driven by commercial motivations, but rather responding to an inner necessity, then isn’t it ironic that my novel has been well received, that it is selling well, and that it will be translated into six languages and possibly into English?
There are many ways to define this novel. One can read it as the biography of Gal Ackerman or as the biography of those who frequent the Oakland. What do you think?
A very intelligent Spanish critic, Ricardo Senabre, said that the relation between the two writers in my novel, [Gal and his friend Néstor], is that of a philologist and a text. So, yes, this is Gal’s biography. But, as you hint in your question, it is also a novel about a philologist’s task of recuperating a text. There is a very interesting moment in Chapter 12 when Néstor can’t find enough information in Gal’s writings and needs to ask Frank and his clients at the Oakland what Gal was up to at certain points in his life. So the novel is about Gal’s life as seen through texts and oral testimonies. The Oakland exists; I’ve been there many times and I used some of its clients in the novel.
Did they ever read Llámame Brooklyn?
Nobody at the Oakland knows about it. I don’t know whether I should stop by and tell them I have this book based on some of them. Maybe they will like being in an award-winning novel; maybe they won’t even recognize themselves in it.
Throughout the book, we learn details about the lives of many characters, even secondary ones, but almost nothing about the one who narrates it all, Néstor. Is there a hidden second novel?
Yes. It took me 15 years to write this book. For a long time, I thought the novel would have two parts. I even told my agent, Antonia Kerrigan, the shrewdest reader I know, that I had the crazy idea of publishing one novel first and then its sequel a few years later. She encouraged me to do it. So for a while, I worked on the second novel, a very long one. I have folios and folios where I talk about the schools Néstor went to, where he lived, where his parents lived in Madrid, the titles of the books he published, etc. In the end, however, I had to get rid of them even though I suffered tremendously. I had to sacrifice my work because I realized that Néstor wanted to remain in the shadows. He didn’t like to go out, and I respected that. So your intuition is right: there is a second novel buried deep under this book, but I’ll never return to it.
You’ve described Llámame Brooklyn as a “difficult” work. The reader must remain focused at all times to identify the dialog (there are no quotes or dashes) and sometimes even who the narrator is or when the action is taking place. One could say that you seek an active reader, the kind Julio Cortázar would compensate at the end of his books for investing so much attention.
The owner of my publishing house, Editorial Destino, called me one day while I was touring in Spain and said: “Eduardo, please, don’t say in public that you don’t care about the reader!” But the fact is I do care; I’m just more interested in the active kind. I’m terribly disgusted with how the publishing world works in Spain and elsewhere, particularly the fact that sales have so much influence when it comes to deciding what gets published. I can’t shape my writing so it is easy for readers and sells better. I want my novel to wink at intelligent readers; to tell them “you are my accomplices, my friends, lets dive into this together.” The best comment I’ve received from people is that, as they read the book, they have to suddenly “readjust” themselves; they start reading it in one go but then realize that they can’t continue reading it like that. That is what I was looking for.
Brooklyn is an important character in the novel. You describe its geography and history and pay homage to its working class, its longshoremen, boxers, and passing sailors. Curiously, many of the areas you describe have changed dramatically. Is there nostalgia in your recreation of Brooklyn?
Yes. This novel is full of nostalgia for lost paradises, not just all those places in Brooklyn that have changed. First, there is the almost Cervantine “paradise” of giving more importance to love than to success. Then, there is the romanticized version of a kind of love that doesn’t exist anymore. There is also nostalgia for the Spanish language of our native countries and a chant to “la literatura de siempre,” the literature of always. Someone has said that this book challenges the common belief that it’s impossible to write novels in the old-fashioned way. I agree; this is a novelón (epic novel) regardless of how much I experiment in it.
When Ackerman travels to Madrid, he sees the city with the eyes of a native (he was born in Spain) but also of a foreigner (he always lived in Brooklyn). Having lived for almost two decades in New York, do you feel like Ackerman when you return to Spain?
Yes. When I go to Spain, my accent seems distorted, nobody knows where I’m from. They’ve asked me if I’m Chilean, and the other day someone thought I was Mexican because I said centavos (cents) instead of céntimos. I do see Madrid and Spain with different eyes now because, after all these years in New York, I’m more from here than from there. This is why I want to move to Spain for a year [to write my second novel].
Mexican writer Jorge Volpi placed you next to Paul Auster in the tradition of Brooklyn chroniclers. Do you feel closer to American literature than to Spanish literature?
Well, in this book tour, a couple of times I defined myself as an American without realizing it. Come on! I’m a Spaniard through and through; nobody can deny that. But I realize now that I’m also one of those Americans with the hyphen; a Spanish-American, or as writer Felipe Alfau would jokingly put it, an Americaniard. I don’t think I can choose what I am, but in this novel I am clearly an American. Or in other words, the novel is more American than Spanish. Now that it is getting translated into Korean, Polish, and a few other languages, I’m hoping it’s published in English as well. Otherwise, I would feel rejected. It would be as if someone told me that my testimony wasn’t worth it. Part of me would be demoralized because the novel was born here and it deals with this place and its people.
You have described your approximation to literature as Pan-Hispanic. What does this mean?
I would define my approximation to literature as universalist. My literature is an attempt to fuse the American narrative tradition with its Spanish-language equivalent, which is in turn divided into Latin American and Cervantine literature. What is Pan-Hispanic is my political attitude towards Latin culture in this country. I don’t distinguish Latin Americans from U.S. Latinos or from Spaniards because I think that we all share a Latin vision of reality. I want all Colombians, Argentines, Catalans, and Brazilians to know that we are one entity, that we share one vision of the world and one language. So when it comes to literature I place myself next to the Anglos, and when it comes to politics I want to promote the idea that we are all the same regardless of what others tell us.
Below are a few quotes from characters in the book. Do you agree with them?
Felipe Alfau: “Writing is a very arduous task” and “The last thing one can do is bore the reader.”
I took many liberties with Alfau’s character. He was an interesting vanguard author, at times limited, but he was like a father to me in that tradition.In the novel, I use him to express my own ideas about literature. This is related to what I said before about structural complications and the complicity with the reader, but only to a certain extent: you can’t bore readers, like many postmodernists do with their impossible mental structures. As for the first quote, I always remember Ezra Pound’s statement that “writing is more difficult than digging.” The truth is that now that I have to write the next novel I think “God, not again!” It is very hard, it’s terrible, and you never know if it’s going to come out good or bad.
Marc Capaldi, on what a writer must do: “(you have to search) through the filth, stain your soul…with blood, shit, and semen.”
Sometimes my editor would tell me “This is too strong, it will scare people off,” but I would reply, “This has to stay here.” The novel aspires to look into all aspects of existence, because it is about one whole life; this is why it goes into the sewers and the filth. One must descend to all hells, explore that absolutely negative part of existence, and do it with a brave gaze. Curiously, only one critic mentioned the story of the prostitute, which is very crude…. It’s something people prefer to ignore.
Mark Rothko: “The living seize words seeking hidden meanings. There’s nothing clearer and more eloquent than silence.”
[With Rothko] I did a very bold move that I borrowed from Don Delillo, and that is to use fiction as a means to get to the truth when there are no facts to prove it. So, in cursive type, I invented Rothko’s voice. I had the audacity to thread his thoughts and intersperse them with reality. This is one of his thoughts.
Néstor: “I decided to break lose, to detach myself from everything, to reinvent myself—a very American concept that ironically helped me cut ties with that country.”
Well, I’ve always said that I was totally reborn in this country. As a professor of Latin American Studies I have a theory that even the Spanish language is reincarnating and being reformulated in America. I do think it is possible to reinvent oneself in the States and that many of us who come here, not necessarily Latinos, start a second life.
Néstor: “I have nothing left to add. Everything is in the book.”
(Smiles) Well, yes. This is an explicit remark that doesn’t need to be commented on. It’s a good way to end this interview.
by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell
Eduardo Lago: Brooklyn Trilogy: homage to enrique vila-matas, by way of j.d. salinger and paul auster
A resident of New York City for the last twenty-two years, Eduardo Lago has translated works by Henry James, Hamlin Garland, John Barth, Sylvia Plath, William Dean Howells, Christopher Isherwood, and Junot Díaz, among many other authors. He is a tenured member of the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, where he has taught since 1993. In 2001 he was awarded the prestigious Bartolomé March Award for Excellence in Literary Criticism for a comparative study of the three existing Spanish versions of James Joyce's Ulysses. A regular contributor for El País and the Madrid Review of Books, among other publications, he has authored numerous interviews with important North American authors, including Philip Roth, John Barth, David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, Salman Rushdie, Richard Ford, Paul Auster, Toni Morrison, Harold Bloom, Edward Said, and Norman Mailer, among many others. His books include Cuaderno de México, (Mexican Notebook), a personal memoir of a trip to Chiapas, and Cuentos Dispersos, (Scattered Tales), both published in 2000. In January 2006 Eduardo Lago was awarded the Nadal Prize, Spain's oldest and most prestigious literary award for his first novel Llámame Brooklyn (Call Me Brooklyn). Subsequently, the novel won the 2007 City of Barcelona Literary Prize for Literature, the 2007 National Critics Award, and the 2007 Lara Foundation Award for Best Critical Reception. Llámame Brooklyn has been translated into twelve languages, including French, Italian and Hebrew, but not into English. Last October he published Ladrón de mapas (Map Thief), a collection of short stories. Eduardo Lago has been the Executive Director of Instituto Cervantes New York since September 2006, and is the cofounder, together with Enrique Vila-Matas, and other Spanish writers, of the Order of Finnegans.