Salvador CompÁn. Andalucia on Paper
Salvador Compán is from Úbeda in Jaen, a city recognised as a World Heritage Site and home to many outstanding monuments. The author now lives in the regional capital of Seville where he works as a secondary school teacher, imparting the wonders of Spanish language and literature to future generations.
Compán also worked as a professor of language and literature across Spain and beyond national borders after completing his degree in Romanic Languages and Literature at the University of Granada.
This prolific, deeply thoughtful and, at times, poetic writer has produced numerous award winning essays, stories and novels. In 2000 he was the finalist for the Planeta Prize, one of Spain’s most prestigious, offered by one of the country’s leading multinational publishers.
Recently Andalucia.com had the good fortune to catch up with Salvador Compán, an Andalusian author whose work has been widely distributed throughout Spain and the Spanish speaking world. We took advantage of this opportunity to find out more about the man, his work and his views on this region’s interest and roles in Spanish language and literature both historically and today.
AC- You teach Literature and Lanugage to secondary school students in their last two years of education. What kind of interest do Andalusian young people show in literature these days?
SC- I think my students, and Spanish secondary students in general, are in a hurry to become independent. They’re in a big hurry to be independent, to find their place under the sun, so they tend to see secondary school as a corridor that leads to the adult world.
Language, and especially Literature, demand reflection, time to sit and rest, slow digestion of ideas and sensations. On the other hand, in order to create young people capable of understanding and expressing themselves with the kind of complete confidence one can only obtain from good literature, it would be necessary to create a course dedicated soley to reading.
AC- Tell us about your journey towards becoming a published author? Is this journey more difficult to make from Andalucia than from, say, Madrid or Barcelona?
SC- My way of publishing has been relatively easy, if it’s easy to win literary prizes. My first four novels were published thanks to prizes I won, which included publication. I guess I’m a player with luck, the prizes are part of a kind of exclusive area in which a novel only enters if its lucky – it’s like finding a needle in a haystack, so to speak.
Regarding whether or not it’s more or less difficult to publish in Andalucia, I think that yes, it is, if we compare Andalucia to Spain’s Autonomous regions that have their own languages – Cataluña, Euskadi, Galicia – being that an author that writes in his vernacular language (in those areas) holds an extra card when it comes to publishing in his regional language. Otherwise, nowadays we can talk about Andalucia in terms of publishers willing to take risks and able to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. I believe that, if what we write here is good quality, it will be published, even though that might happen later and might be less widely distributed than in places where large publishing houses have a greater presence.
AC- Your book “Cuaderno de Viaje” (Travel Notebook) was a finalist for the 2000 Planeta Prize. How did you feel about this prestigious recognition?
SC- Both the Planeta prize winning book and the Finalist are sold massively across all of Spain. It’s a sort of Christmas ritual, a traditional gift in many families. This means that two Planeta books – both finalist and winner – enter many Spanish families’ living rooms. The truth is that many times they come in all wrapped up in wrapping paper and, at times, as mere decorations for the Christmas tree or as a surprise next to the nativity scene. But a book that comes into a house is like a virus, that ends up infecting everyone in the house. Winning the Planeta, in principle, means the happiness of coming into contact with many readers. This is what every author wants, even if it means living through weeks of continual travelling, press conferences, book signings. I owe it all to Planeta for putting a loudspeaker inside my prizewinning novel. And it means a lot for a publisher to make it possible for your voice to reach so far.
AC- “Cuaderno de Viaje” is set in Jaen’s Cazorla Mountain Range, where a writer from Madrid travels to carry out a rather interesting work project. What was the inspiration for the book?
SC- “Cuaderno de Viaje” is set in the beautiful and craggy Segura y Cazorla Mountain Range, in the north of Jaen province. I needed an isolated landscape like that – as well as one that I knew well – as a setting for out of control characters, made of strong will and violence. But the mountain range was the necessary space and not the inspiration. The inspiration came to me from a Spanish writer from the 14th century, Don Juan Manuel, who wanted to go down in history, through his books, as something much superior to what he was in life. “Cuaderno de Viaje” starts with the idea of a rather despicable judge who, when it comes time to die, hires a writer to write him a false biography, in which the judge appears to be honorable and pacific. In this way, my mercenary writer arrives to Jaén to sell his pen, but once there, he finds himself in a moral dunghill that he doesn’t know if he can get out of alive.
AC- You are from Úbeda, Jaen. Does your birthplace have any special influence over the stories your write?
SC- Úbeda appears in “Cuaderno de Viaje” as a city of civilisation and reason – a rennaissance city – in contrast with the violent world of the Sierra (mountains). In my book “Jaén, la frontera insomne” (Jaén, the sleepless frontier), a novel essay about a land that is fundamentally important for understanding Spain, Úbeda finds its place as the city of my personal memories. It’s a beautiful city that represents the opposite of what the romantic travellers who came to Andalucia in the 19th century expected to find. They were looking for passion and Jaén was a city built by the measuring stick of reason. That’s what “Jaén la frontera insomne” is basically about, the other Andalucia that isn’t in “fería” posters, an Andalucia that escaped fads and created itself out of the greatness of its own history, the efforts of illustrated men like Pablo de Olavide, or the voices of poets like Antonio Machado or San Juan de la Cruz.
AC- And what would be the role of Seville, your adopted city, in your work?
SC- Seville is the opposite of Jaén. Both represent the two sides of Andalucia. If Seville is superficial light and joy, Jaen is a morose reality that sticks to the ground and makes progress in safety, but as slowly as the centuries. In Seville everything seems easy and portable; in Jaén, everything is secure and fixed in place. The two Andalucias are inside me too as Sevilla also inspired one of my novels, “Madrugada. Crónica de espejos” (Break of day. Mirrored chronicle), in which the Seville Holy Week celebrations are at the heart of the obsessions of a man who comes to the capital of Andalucia to kill.
AC- I’m reading “Cuídate de los Poemas de Amor” (Watch out for the Love Poems), a book that centres on the theme of desire and its many outcomes. The book has 14 stories: Which is your favourite? Which was the hardest to perfect and which is the most autobiographical?
SC- I wouldn’t be able to say which story in “Cuídate de los Poemas de Amor” is my favourite. In fact, that’s exactly what happens with the readers I’ve spoken with. Each one tells me they have a different favourite, and they always differ from other readers. Since the book was published in December 2007, I have the satisfaction that the love – or passion, that the book talks about is quite well rounded. I think it’s a good sign, one that I participate in. I should mention that these stories are like the fourteen apples of my eyes, fourteen short stories that I feel like I carry in my pocketbook like fourteen calling cards with fourteen different addresses, all mine.
But, if I had to choose just one, I would pick the last in the book. It’s called “El día que matamos a Salman Rushdie” (The day we killed Salman Rushdie) and tells the story of the lives of two peaceful old English ladies who are living a golden retirement on the Costa del Sol until one day greed crosses their path and they decide that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to commit an abominable act that would, in exchange, improve their lives. And what it comes down to is that any atrocious act, even the murder of Salman Rushdie, could be justified by someone filled with desire.
It is precisely this story, with its two protagonists who don’t have any other apparent desire than to find peace under the sun, by the sea and through their nostalgia, that was the hardest to shape. It was a challenge to convert two little old ladies, civilised by English rationalism, into two “one off” assasins.
One of the most autobiographical stories in “Cuídate de los poemas de amor” is the one titles “Cena de Reyes” (The Kings’ Dinner). This story came about thanks to a drunken man who was crying all by himself in a bar in Seville. It was the eve of the Three Kings (the Epiphany) a few years ago and, hours after seeing him at the bar, I ran into him again lurching down Sierpes street. He was bald and wore a huge red sweater and staggered back and forth among the pedestrians. Right then I knew that that man would be the protagonise in a story in which love would turn him into a victim.
In the prologue of “Cuídate de los poemas de amor” I explain the how each of the stories came to be and how much autobiography there is in each one.
AC- Tell us something about the projects you have in front of you right now.
SC- My current projects, time permitting, can be summed up in one single verb: write.
AC- : In your opinion, what has Andalucia contribued historically to Spanish language and literature?
SC- Andalucia is the poetic heart of Spain. This is the Spanish territory that has always produced the most poets per square kilometer. But above and beyond quantity – the average Andalusian farmer posesses intense emotional intelligence – but quality. We only have to remember the history of Spanish literature. However, since the end of the 20th century, Andalucia has also produced a good number of narrators. This could be due to the fact that, since that time, Andalucia has developed a solid middle class, an urban bourgeous that is connected with the best traditions in European novels, a genre which, since the 19th century, has served as the best means of expressing the concerns of the more comfortable classes.
What Andalucia can provide for the 21st century is a vision of man that is similar to what Gales or Toscana could provide, for example. However, on a secondary level, there exists and there will exist writings that take place in our land: characters, places and ways of life here, remains of an agrarian society very into myths and miracles, filled with life and the crossing of cultures, all of this can embrace any literary theme. But, in the end, literature is always about us, the people, these constants – love, time, power, death – that make us great or miserable in whatever country in the world we find ourselves in.
AC- And finally, what does “literary Andalucia” have to offer to the world of Spanish literature in general?
SC- Difficult question. I love Andalucia. That’s why its limitations upset me, even those that stem from the Andalusians themselves. But, I can’t resist betting on a land where for many of my countrymen living with dignity has been a challenge, never a gift. What I most love about my homeland is its sense of outdoing itself, of putting muscle and effort to work on the adversities of History. It’s always been with this feeling of ironic sarcasm and non-tragedy of existence. Everything is lively with colours that are never pale in Andalucia. Maybe because, over the centuries, we’ve learned that there are no great words and that there are very few, hardly two or three, causes worth fighting for. Nothing is definitive except the present; for example, pleasure and the tasks for the day or even just this moment in which you are I are talking and bringing this interview to an end so that, right away we can enjoy another full, perfect moment that is much more important in itself than any other moment of a past or future that are so changeable.
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