The Latest News from Our World

An Interview with Novelist Alejandro Gándara

(versión en espańol)

Alejandro Gándara was born in Santander in 1957. He has worked as a professor of Political Science at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, as a researcher at the British Museum in London, and as editor of the book section of the newspaper, El Pais. Until recently he was the director of the Escuela de Letras in Madrid.

Gándara published his first novel, La media distancia (The Middle Distance) in 1984. Afterwards, he released Punto de fuga (Point of Departure) and La sombra del arquero (The Archer’s Shadow). In 1992, he won the Nadal Prize with Ciegas esperanzas (Blind Hopes). Among his other works are Falso movimiento (False Movement), El final del cielo (The End of the Sky) and Nunca seré como te quiero (I Will Never Be the Way I Love You).

In 2001, he won the Herralde Prize with Últimas noticias de nuestro mundo (The Latest News from Our World), a spy novel whose protagonists are former East German agents. The group of spies is given the task of organizing a meeting on the eve of the 21st century, several years after the Berlin Wall has come down, with other agents who are still active and working for other countries or international groups. The group in charge, installed in Spain during the German unification, discovers that the person sent by Moscow to coordinate the preparations and make the contacts has died in strange circumstances. This sparks an investigation that takes place in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Berlin and Jerusalem.

Esther Bendahan: The title of the novel – Últimas noticias de nuestro mundo (The Latest News from our World) – seems to be more than just a captivating title. Right from the start, you refer to the ephemeral nature of the news, while “our world” refers to one of many possible worlds. It’s almost prophetic. There’s the world of spies from the Stasi; besides that, what aspects of our world and our culture do you set out to explore in this book?

Alejandro Gándara: I think that, in relation to the novel, “our world” is more than the world of the spies from the Stasi. It is a world perceived through their eyes, which, in fact, are the eyes of those who no longer have a country, a home, or a place of one’s own for thought. Between these spies and the average citizen in the West there is a difference of degree but not of type. What this is actually about is finding the adequate prism from which to look at the serious and important changes that have taken place in our culture and civilization.

Esther Bendahan: What transgresses this spy novel where your discourse prevails over the action?

Alejandro Gándara: I’m not sure what it means for the discourse to prevail over the action, given that the only discourse in the novel is the action of the characters. As far as I know, there is no thesis in the novel, and I haven’t included any homilies. On the other hand, the term transgression reminds me of puberty, and I am happy to say I have left behind all of its major and minor manifestations. A novel, the creative process or one’s own life, in order to exist, are constantly remade and contradicted; it is just a matter of seeing a new face in the succession of the incessant faces of reality. My aim was to write a spy novel in line with the genre of the spy novel as conceived of by Graham Greene or Le Carré, though I have not remained solely in that genre, as I have had to create what was necessary to give meaning to the world I was referring to.

Esther Bendahan: A spy is a person who observes something or someone with a certain interest-- continuously and with dissimulation. In spite of their professions, your characters appear approachable and unsettling, though human. Your book seems to be a reflection about the nearness and distance of the other. Are we all, somehow, spies of each other? Is our current way of approaching the other similar to the interest of a spy?

Alejandro Gándara: A spy basically hides his life, and he hides his life because he hides his identity. Often times this process of hiding permits him to hide another basic thing—that he doesn’t have a life or an identity. I think this is a model of human behavior much closer to what we would be willing to even imagine. In this sense, the spy is neither far nor near: he is a part of ourselves, part of our possibilities.

Esther Bendahan: You have chosen a narrator, several points of view and a dialogue format. The dialogues are brilliant and metaphorical in that the characters suggest more than what they actually say. The dialogue also gives support to the espionage plot and is full of silences. Why the use of dialogue?

Alejandro Gándara: The narrator employed is one commonly referred to as “complex” or “limited omniscient” and follows in a parallel line the lives of the two protagonists. As far as the dialogue is concerned, all novels ought to be doing what you say occurs in my novel: remain silent, suggest, find support in the reader and make it so that the reader be the one who writes the ending, or even rewrites what was prior to it.

Esther Bendahan: Your books include The Middle Distance, Point of Departure, The Archer’s Shadow, Crystals, several young adult novels, and the non-fiction work, The First Words of Creation. What does this new novel add to your creative trajectory?

Alejandro Gándara: I have not the slightest idea, but I do hope that it provides me with the optimism and energy that I need to continue writing.

Esther Bendahan: It seems surprising how in your book The First Words of Creation you search deeply (even from the title itself) for the origin, the starting point, while in this new novel you write about “the latest” and “news.” What are the concepts and realizations that appear inside these books? Do you think they somehow form part of a common project?

Alejandro Gándara: I hadn’t thought about the relationship between the titles, though undoubtedly there has got to be something behind those alternating coincidences or set of opposites. I think what is fundamental in both books is to find out how we create our world, how we create those images that later allow us to be able to move in the world – either to come to an agreement with it, or to simply flee from it.

Esther Bendahan: As part of the School of the Humanities, you have set out to reflect on our current situation. Walter Benjamin said that things have an “aura” when they are capable of raising vision and returning it to the one who does the viewing. However, it seems that today things are incapable of returning vision to us; instead, we are the ones incapable of viewing things. In a world where news and information prevail, it seems impossible for anybody to say, “I didn’t know.” But are we more conscious today? Do you think we have the capacity to comprehend our world?

Alejandro Gándara: News does not necessarily suggest knowledge, and much less transparency, for that matter. The world can turn opaque because of the news or because of information that is not classified. Information is a subsidiary process of knowledge, but it does not necessary suggest it. In this regard, a kind of humanities that are different from the traditional and regrettably conventional ones (though they might be sustained by them) would at least permit us put our mind in place.

Esther Bendahan: Albert Mengel needs literature to understand the world; Kundera believes it is an exploration of existence. Given that for many years you have directed new writers along the path of a literary education, why do you need, or why do you think we need—if, in fact, we need it at all—literature?

Alejandro Gándara: There is nothing that is absolutely necessary for anything. It frightens me to think that literature is necessary for society, or even that it is necessary for me. It is just one road to knowledge among other possible ones. I happen to like this one more than the others, and that’s it.

Esther Bendahan: Your words always contain a weight, an echo of the absolute. Do you think there is any similarity between your idea of literature and what Steiner has referred to as “the search for the grammar of creation?”

Alejandro Gándara: None at all, and I am all the better off for that.

Esther Bendahan: As a professor at the school where you are the director, your discourse enables you to encounter the other; you are able to transmit and question, to break and unsettle; in sum, you do what seems almost impossible—make one think. That is the way the interlocutor approaches the author; however, in your texts you maintain a kind of tension with a reader who is highly qualified, an interlocutor that is too smart. Do you think that is the reason why your books are not on the best-seller lists?

Alejandro Gándara: I am only interested in a reader with whom I can share something, or with whom I could have a drink without sensing a presence next to me that is bothersome or distant. In the same way as in one’s life, we want to have near us somebody that stimulates us and makes us grow. I have no interest in reaching out to the masses, given that they have never been presented to me personally.

Translated by David Kersh


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