Of Working Women in Madrid, and the Lives of Artists
Elvira Navarro in Conversation with Carlos Labbé
Elvira Navarro and Carlos Labbé—both named by Granta as among the “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists”—have come together to discuss the release of Navarro’s book A Working Woman. The novel follows Elisa and her roommate Susana, and reveals the strange, unreliable accounts they give of each other’s lives, their sexual obsessions, and their increasing economic desperation in a small apartment on the margins of Madrid.
The globally acclaimed Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas has called Navarro “the subtle, almost hidden, true avant-gardist of her generation,” saying that “this author’s literary talent is a natural gift,” and indeed, A Working Woman is a mind-bending work that also draws the reader in with its two incredible female leads. It is a book that captures Spain’s economic crisis while also making statements about artist creation, friendship, and madness that anybody can relate to.
Carlos Labbé: Hello Elvira, I’m writing to you from a publishing house in Westchester, New York. It’s not exactly the Grupo Editorial Término, where the main narrator of your novel is apparently employed, but it does preserve those same structures of managing editors, contracted workers and external employees you describe in La trajabadora. Here in the United States, your novel is now called A Working Woman, and the world of its readers seems even more radical in terms of difference—such as, for example, the increasing visibility of immigrants who in the past were limited to silently cleaning an office like the one I sit in. How do you feel about this second life—now in a foreign country—of your novel?
Elvira Navarro: Hi Carlos. It’s a pleasure to have this conversation. The truth is that this second life of the novel is exciting, but also it’s as if it were happening to someone else, or just something happening in my mind. As if I was fictionalizing it. I guess it would be different if I lived in the United States. What’s more, in addition to the sense of distancing one feels when a book is published and takes on an independent life, there is now a language that isn’t mine, so the book feels doubly remote. And that’s absolutely fine, because the one thing you can be certain about with books is that they follow their own path. They have their own lives. It’s a cliché, but a true one.
CL: But, as it would be the norm in a publishing company like this and the one in your novel, let’s begin at the beginning. Let’s introduce Susana and Elisa, the two female workers, and Fabio and Germán, who are their associates. Susana, who apparently is an artist, earns a living working in a call center; Elisa Nuñez, who to all intents and purposes is a writer, makes hers in a less than stable area of publishing. Fabio, although an immigrant, and Germán both have steady jobs. And everything occurs before the falsely inhabited city that is Madrid. Considering that Elisa Nuñez and Elvira Navarro are rather similar names—you must have already answered this question a number of times—but now that the similarity has reappeared in English, how important do you think it is that we read the word “woman” in A Working Woman, when this is only implicit in the Spanish feminine noun?
EN: For my part, it’s not important. If the characters were men, you most probably wouldn’t have asked me that question. It’s still unusual for the main characters of a novel to be women. We’re a deviation from the norm, from the neutral or universal (as a masculine noun would be in Spanish), and so there is always a search for the underlying intention, even when there isn’t one. The novel is written from the perspective of a woman simply because I’m a woman and so it’s natural to adopt that voice, which of course isn’t neutral, is conditioned by my gender, just as it would be if I were a man. That voice is also affected by her precarious employment status and her mental instability, the city in which she lives, her apartment, what she can see from the window. But in this book I wasn’t specifically interested in women as much as the precariousness of working life and also the psyche and, at a deeper level, identity as a profoundly unstable construction that gives us a false sense of calm.
There’s a play of mirrors between the two women. Elisa aspires to a particular status and measures her worth from that point. She’s done everything that in theory should allow her to attain a good social position through her work: an undergraduate degree, a master’s, periods spent abroad and, of course, she’s been a very efficient worker. And not only does she fail to attain that status, she also slips back in terms of class. And then Susana appears when Elisa is forced to rent out a room in her apartment in order to make it through to the end of the month. Susana is constructed as her opposite: she is a person who doesn’t seem to want to talk about her past—we only ever know that her father was in prison and she’s had a psychotic episode. She’s an unreliable narrator who is continually inventing things, who plays with her own identity because she doesn’t take herself seriously. The only thing that is certain is that she works in a call center and makes strange collages. She’s older than Elisa, and although Elisa is derisive of her, deep down she’s afraid she might end up that way: sharing an apartment at 44, and with a shitty job. She doesn’t realize that, seen in another way, the mirror that is Susana could be an escape route. For Susana, everything is a game. She’s freed herself from expectations.
CL: I get it. Despite what being here in this office might suggest, I want to follow the thread of that freedom from material expectations you mention, and its consequences in the creative act. In that sense, is Susana’s solution an expression of a certain change in the literary economies of Spain, considering the serious unemployment crisis? Could the “Working Woman” be the “Writing Woman” today?
EN: In Spain, the writer has always been poverty-stricken. Writers have rarely been able to live by their trade, so historically there have never been any material expectations. A few authors have managed to live by their work, but they are the exception to the rule. It’s true, however, that during the 1980s and 90s a kind of mirage occurred. There was money from Europe: during the transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy the socialist government injected money into creative activities, and you began to see authors who could make a living from publicly funded lectures and conferences, which paid well. And in the 90s, something very strange and ephemeral was added to this: the writer as rock star, or as a star, period. Those were the years of Ray Loriga, José Ángel Mañas, and Lucía Etxebarría, extraordinary media figures. It was a kind of literary equivalent of a pelotazo, or “boom-bust,” culture. But it was very short-lived.
CL: I believe that you are locating yourself in a Hispanic tradition that is very different from the deeply cultured melancholy of Vila-Matas (despite your reference to him at the end of the novel)—I say this because of so many things, from your emphasis on precariousness in your novel and the way you introduce the voices of Fabio, Germán, Jenssen, the psychoanalyst, and Elisa’s publishing colleagues only when they are involved in dialogue, to your attempt to compose a landscape from the squats in the outlying neighborhoods and your efforts to tenuously evoke the voices of Romanians, Ecuadorians, and the Roma who live there. (And of course there are also the ephemeral writers of the pelotazo and perhaps the painters you mention during the descriptions Elisa gives of her walks.) In what tradition would you like A Working Woman to be read? Next to what books would you see readers placing the novel now?
EN: There were Spanish people living in those squats too. They are intentionally faceless, so that it wouldn’t be something that only affects those of us who have always thought of ourselves as marginal. What was in my mind when I was writing was that the logic of the city (Madrid) was in fact different from the way we usually imagine it, as if its laws originated from a sort of subterranean, uncontrollable world that can be seen as either liberating or threatening. We’re afraid of what it might unleash. Departing from the established order is frightening. And that unknown logic is what led Elisa to walk around the city; she had an irresistible urge, one that she also feared. That’s also why when she looks out the window of the library where she sometimes works the city presents itself to her as an unreal, empty entity. But of course, what I have in my mind while I’m writing is one thing, the text that finally emerges from it is quite another. I once read something by Andrés Neuman that seems to me very true, and also unsettling: we do not resemble the writers we want to resemble, and sometimes we even resemble the ones we dislike. As I understand Neuman, the idea is that influences are not always voluntary.
I frequently think about the concept of the shadow when I write: writing what is evident by trying to avoid something. The more you flee from resembling someone you detest, the more evidence there is of that flight in your writing. I’m telling you this because however much I would like to locate A Working Woman in one tradition or another, it’s a waste of effort. The fundamental thing is that readers assimilate the book in their own ways. But whatever the case, and although years have gone by since I wrote the novel, I remember that Ignacio Aldecoa was at the forefront of my mind, with his stories of a postwar Madrid that in theory no longer exists, but to me seems to be still present. And also the Madrid of Camilo José Cela was there, and the wanderings of the characters in Ana Blandiana’s short stories. Oh, and although this something quite different, I was also thinking about Edgar Neville’s The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks, a movie made in 1944 set in an underground fortress in Madrid.
CL: Perhaps that subterranean fortress also connects us to your two previous works, La ciudad en invierno (“The City in Winter”) and La ciudad feliz (The Happy City). It seems to me that some of the most stimulating passages of A Working Woman are those dealing with Elisa’s walks through the city’s outlying neighborhoods. The Madrid in the novel is struggling under gentrification, housing speculation, neglect, and another logic that, as you suggest, we know nothing of, just as New York, Santiago de Chile, or San Francisco are faced with that state of unpredictability that contingency has become. Is there a criticism of a certain rigidity in the urban habits of the cultural establishment when, in the third part of the book, the narrative seems to suggest that the novel wouldn’t have been written if Elisa hadn’t returned to live in the historic center of Madrid with the boyfriend who is then supporting her financially? What other possibilities for imagining the possibilities of your city can you identify in A Working Woman?
EN: That’s a very complex subject. There’s a really lovely documentary film by Juan Vicente Córdoba called Flores de luna (“Moon Flowers”) about the Pozo del Tío Raimundo, in Entrevías, which is one of the poorest neighborhoods of Madrid. It’s a shantytown erected overnight by rural migrants, and at the end of the Franco era and the beginning of the Transition the residents of that neighborhood, and many others like it, were involved in a serious struggle for decent housing and better living conditions. In the case of the Pozo, the support of the Comisiones Obreras—a union affiliated with the Communist Party—and a Jesuit priest named José María de Llanos were fundamental in ensuring the residents’ demands were heard. Yet the documentary leaves a bitter aftertaste because once the new housing was approved the struggle died down. And it also tells how today the children of those poor migrants who fought for better living conditions have scorned the education that their parents fought for and are even racist. They don’t want immigrants from other countries in their neighborhood. I’m telling you this because the dynamics of the city don’t, at heart, originate from any cultural establishment. If the establishment were responsible, this would at least be desirable! The city, or at least the city of Madrid, is determined exclusively by the interests of construction companies and the dynamics resulting from tourism, and in the face of this there’s a generalized “every-man-for-himself” attitude, and a minimum of political struggle that is occasionally effective, but never enough. What’s more, Madrid has no money because the city council is continually in debt, so good intentions get no further than just that. What you can see in A Working Woman are really the basic necessities, and also a ghost city that harks back to what existed before the city grew in such an unplanned, anarchic way, as if Elisa wanted to look beneath the cinder blocks.
CL: Talking of the basic necessities, this novel and the popular demonstrations hit the street together. The publication of the Spanish edition and the birth of Podemos both occurred in 2014. Was this synchronic? Could you tell me about that?
EN: There is indeed a synchrony in the date, although A Working Woman has been in gestation since 2002 or 2003. At that time I wrote a short text titled “La trajabadora” that I knew would evolve into something I didn’t then feel ready to write, because it was very closely linked to what was happening in my own life, and continuing would have meant converting it into almost a personal chronicle. And I wasn’t interested in that. I need distance to write fiction. Between 2002 and 2003 there was a paradoxical situation in Spain. I’m talking about the property boom. The president at that time was José María Aznar, whose slogan “España va bien” (“Spain is doing fine”) became famous. And in fact things were fine, but only for those with the money to invest in housing. That is to say: a good proportion of the middle class, who also began buying apartments to resell at a profit. For those of us who had recently emerged into the labor market, especially if we’d studied literature, there was nothing fine about the situation. Rents had risen spectacularly, steady jobs were becoming more difficult to find, except in the construction sector. The breach began there, and that’s the origin of the novel. There were absolutely no signs of the crisis at that time, so if things weren’t going well for you, it seemed like a matter of bad luck, or that you hadn’t tried hard enough.
And that is the root of Elisa’s sense of being alone, apart . . . In relation to Podemos, I’d say it was a result of the outbreak of the crisis, and particularly the May 2012 anti-austerity demonstrations, where the protest was not just confined to the left. A lovely mirage appeared: it seemed like we were going to be capable of coming to an agreement on the basics. People from the whole ideological spectrum agreed on a number of essential things. That was the source of Podemos, and the party was powerful for as long as it cut across the political spectrum. All that has gone to hell now, and Podemos is on a downward slope.
CL: That whole context of the crisis seems to be at the core of the illness that adds so many possibilities to the narratives of both Susana and Elisa/Elvira. A Working Woman appears to find another route to knowledge in the complete destabilization of the body. You even make references to mysticism, the creative delirium as the ultimate possibility for sanity. What is the role of literary creation when the crisis is acute?
EN: It doesn’t have a fixed role. Its function depends on the person writing, and above all on the text itself, which very often detaches itself from the authorial intention. And if we consider reading to be a creative act, then it is the reader who is in charge and assigns roles. And in relation to the body as a route to knowledge, it is indeed just that for Elisa. Illness reinforces her identity, her victimhood, but at the same time obliges her to look at things in a different way. And this can become perverse, like putting the mule before the carrot, since taking your illness seriously as an escape route from it can only end in reinforcement. Alternatively, for Susana, her mental swings allow her to play with her identity. That’s perhaps the craziest thing about the novel. And it was the most fun to write, because I didn’t have to concern myself with realism.
And, well, yes, the novel does have a degree of mysticism too, the pleasurable experience of dispossession, of shredding the ego and not caring about it. We are so attached to our identities, to our view of the world and what we believe ourselves to be or think we ought to be, attached to our qualifications and achievements and . . . well, all that trash, that I can’t imagine anything more liberating than it all becoming unimportant. There’s an opening of a book by Marguerite Duras that I love and that expresses the idea really well. The book is The Vice-Consul, and this is what it says: “How to avoid going back? Get lost. I don’t know how. You’ll learn. I need some signpost to lead me astray. Make your mind a blank. Refuse to recognize familiar landmarks. Turn your steps toward the most hostile point on the horizon . . .”
CL: I don’t want to finish this interview without expressing my enthusiasm for certain images in your novel. So I’ve used them to write a poem. I’m going completely off-script as regarding the norms for author interviews.
DISAPPROPRIATION OF ELVIRA NAVARRO
by Carlos Labbé
Mouth wide open
Whole fist inside
The words had a color
Almond trees and araucarias
The echo of an earthen pot
All the voices, registered
They were ghosts
With which to write poetry
Her apartness from the parks
The solitariness of trees
Telepathic powers, one-way street
The solitariness of trees on one side
Of gates on the other
Exhaust pipes, ephemeral strip at ground level
A conversion to atheism
You believe in death, in masks, columns
Packages with sheets of paper
A beautiful image, without mystery
There had been no protest until a short time ago.
I wrote that poem following the method of disappropriation and the voluntary increment of a debt—pleasurable and anti-capitalist relation of literary practice—Cristina Rivera Garza sets out as the practice of productive reading. As a person who works in workshops, how would you suggest I could improve the poem?
EN: Ha, ha. I love it! Thank you so much. I’d leave the poem just as it is, it’s perfect. But it could well act as a footnote in A Working Woman. We could enlarge it so that there was a single-verse footnote per page throughout the whole text, like a parallel reading that shuffles crucial words from the main text, and constructs multiple discourses, some of the antithetical to A Working Woman, or simply as far removed as possible from its semantic field, but always using those words. That wouldn’t make the poem any better. In fact I’m incapable of giving advice on how to improve poetry because I’m not a poet, but it would be an interesting game.
–Translated by Christina MacSweeney
Elvira Navarro was named by Granta magazine one of the “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” in 2010, and she was declared one of the major Spanish voices of the future by the magazine El Cultural in 2013. The author of five novels and short story collections, she has received numerous awards and honors for her work. Translated into French, Swiss, Italian, Turkish, and Arabic, Navarro lives in Barcelona.
Carlos Labbé was born in Chile and is the author of multiple novels—including Navidad & Matanza and Loquela. In addition to his writings, he is a musician and has released four albums. He is a co-editor at Sangría, a publishing house based in Santiago and Brooklyn. He also writes literary essays, the most notable ones on Juan Carlos Onetti, Diamela Eltit, and Roberto Bolaño.