Our dark age and a writer who confronts it
In Songs of Preventive Wars, Costa Rican writer Fernando Contreras Castro takes up the possibility that the United States might once again strike out against its neighbors to the south. I talked with Sr. Contreras about his fiction and the dark times it explores one peaceful morning at the University of Costa Rica, where he teaches literature. Here is my translation of our conversation in Spanish. – Carol Polsgrove, April 2012
Your book Cantos de las guerras preventivas (Songs of Preventive Wars) is a story of the future – very dark, very somber. Did you write it in direct response to the war against Iraq?
Yes, it has much of that. The policies of the last administrations of the United States, are policies of war. And that stirs in me a great sorrow, and I believe that sorrow is universal. So yes, the book is like a response. It is a futuristic book, but it is not science fiction. It is a nearby future, of an eventual preventive war against Latin America. And, yes, certainly it is dark, sad, and painful. I also find it so, but it is a reaction very visceral to the criminal policy of George Bush.
The book made me realize a little of what life is like for people who live to the south of the United States – to know that any time the United States could bomb them, because in the past –
It has already done it. And we have the history of Latin American dictators supported by the governments of the United States, or for example the invasion of Panama.
Or Chile, and also Nicaragua, the war against Nicaragua, which used Costa Rica as –
As a base, yes.
There are many parts of this book that my friends would like, for example the concept of agro-traffic.
The agro-traffickers are only people who want to uphold the right to sow the ground with original seeds, not seeds from Monsanto.
There are comic moments, half satiric, like that in this book, but in truth it is a nightmare of a book.
It is a nightmare image, but it has already occurred, it can occur again. We do not know exactly for what reason the invasion may occur. We think for example of [U.S.] tensions with Cuba or Venezuela, or with Bolivia.
The great wall in the book is literally the wall between Mexico and the United States.
And much in the book has roots in the history of the region. It appears to me that pre-Columbian history was an inspiration.
Yes, the capital in which the people settle in the mountain and find a pre-Hispanic temple.
There is a part when an organist plays Bach in the temple with the ruins of this world all around.
Yes, I believe that Bach is universal. Bach and Miles Davis.
And the Beatles.
And the Beatles, yes.
I do not know how you had the courage to write this book. How much time did you spend writing it and how did you maintain your state of mind? Because it is very dark.
It is a book that took me a lot of work to write, this book took me twelveyears to write. I wrote it in different ways without feeling satisfied. It was a lot of work.
But it had no bad effects on your spirits?
It was a liberation, because finally I could say what I wanted to say.
It appears to me that your most recent book, Cierto azul, offers more hope for life. It has a quality that in English we call “playful.” The central idea is very imaginative – cats that play jazz adopt a human child who needs their help. How did this idea come to you?
The book is presented as a story for children. There are many similar stories. What I wanted was to take that theme and give it a political connotation. There are many stories of cats, but I wanted to construct a story with a Latin American connotation, also permeated – influenced – by jazz, the history of jazz, the blues and their history, which give me great pleasure.
Do you play jazz?
No, lamentably no. Jazz is very difficult for me. I would like to, but it is difficult. What I play is the lute, I play early music.
The title plays with a title of a composition by Miles Davis – Kind of Blue. Is Cierto azul a translation of Kind of Blue?
But a free translation, different. It is not a literal translation.
You wrote the book for young people. In some sense, it is a guide for life, promoting the idea that we need to live like jazzistas play their music. Jazz appears to be a metaphor for a way of life, a life not limited by the idea of the “normal,” a life of improvisation. Do you have any idea how young people have responded to your message?
Many young people are reading it now, because it is assigned as reading in secondary schools. I believe there are different levels of reading. Maybe those who are very young do not know the history of jazz and the songs, but they can read it from another perspective. They can read the main story as a story of liberty, of emancipation, of friendship.
Do young readers write you about their thoughts?
Not directly, but I have contact with them when I visit schools and colleges, when they invite me to talk with students. So I have an opportunity there to listen to them.
I believe that this book appears on the list of books recommended by the Ministry of Education.
Yes, it appears there this year.
Your other books – are there others that appear on the list, too?
Yes, my first novel, Única mirando el mar, and my second novel, Los peor.
I believe as a writer you yourself have been an improviser, not limited by genres or by conventional ideas of what fiction ought to be. A big question: why do you write in this way?
My themes are always the same – I always treat marginality, forms of alternative life, against the system. In general those are my themes. I believe that your question goes more in the direction of form – how to treat that same theme with different forms or from different perspectives. I have another novel, a very different novel – El tibio recinto de la oscuridad (The Warm Enclosure of Darkness). It is a novel written in free verse. It is a theme on another type of marginality – of the elderly. I have others – Sonambulario (Tales Told by a Sleepwalker).
About “birds that eat dreams.” Is it fiction or essays or both together?
Both together. It is a book that contains many of my pleasures, my favorite composers – Bach, Debussy – or places. The music of India. There are many different themes. It is a very personal book. I always try to look for a new form to say these things. My themes are always very apparent. I always treat themes of marginality.
And the evils of the system.
Yes, the evils of the system and society. So my characters are always marginal. There is a phrase from Charles Chaplin that impressed me. It is always a guide for me. Chaplin said once, “The problems of the rich do not worry me.”
What happened to turn you toward preoccupation with marginality?
The history of my people, the history of Latin Americans, the history of poverty has always touched me deeply. Also my readings in general. I have always read a lot. I believe that I am a writer basically because I am a reader.
Do you want people outside of Costa Rica and outside of Latin America to read your books?
Yes. I am interested in communicating in general. For example, my second novel was translated into Germany, and it has circulated in German for at least ten years.
And also in French?
Yes, Única mirando mar (Única Watching the Sea).
Do you believe that many people in other Latin American countries are reading your books?
The circulation of books by Latin American writers is difficult. I worked for a long time with a large [international] publishing company – with Editorial Norma. Two years ago I encountered problems with them. Now I work with a smaller publisher, a Costa Rican publisher, which does not have many opportunities of distributing outside the country.
Yes. So we are beginning to publish e-books through Amazon. There are three: Única mirando el mar, Los peor, Cierto azul.
Was Cierto azul for you a way of finding your road to the future as a person and writer after the nightmare –
After Los cantos. Yes, in a way. I believe so. I needed to leave behind the darkness of Los cantos and look for something more full of life, more hope.
Does it seem to you that in the end your books have an effect of nourishing your vision of life?
Yes, clearly, because they always signify deep work with some theme, something that I have to work hard on, concentrate on a lot.
Can you imagine life without writing?
No, no, I don’t want that. No.
You can read an excerpt from Sonambulario here.
WRITE TO FERNANDO CONTRERAS CASTRO OR CAROL POLSGROVE