Sara Mesa’s Novels of Ambiguous, Twisted Power
Katie Whittemore Interviews the Author of Four by Four
Sara Mesa is the author of nine works of fiction, including Scar (winner of Spain’s Ojo Crítico Prize and published in English by Dalkey Archive Press, translated by Adriana Nodal-Tarafa), Four by Four (a finalist for the Herralde Prize, out now from Open Letter Books, translated by Katie Whittemore), Cara de Pan and Mala letra (both forthcoming from Open Letter Books). Mesa has been hailed by the likes of Rafael Chirbes, Enrique Vila-Matas, Marta Sanz, and Jorge Herralde as one of the most interesting and personal voices writing in Spain today.
As a translator, I appreciate the precision of Mesa’s language, the challenge of using simple tools to great effect. I found myself revising more than usual in an effort to pare down and sharpen every sentence. With language like that, there is nowhere for the translator to hide. Mesa is similarly unflinching with her readers: her work is tense, intimate, and unsettling. There isn’t much reprieve in her cool examination of human relationships, of the ways we internalize pain and inflict it on others. By focusing on the small-scale systems of our daily existence—family, school, work, neighborhood—she reveals the matrices of power in those places many consider safe. And we can’t look away.
Sara and I talked about her work upon the publication of my translation of Four by Four, Mesa’s 2012 novel, an account of the sinister relationships of power and submission at a Spanish boarding school, an almost allegorical exploration of the ways in which fear corrupts and monsters breed inside the walls of the places we build to keep ourselves safe. Timely? Perhaps . . .
Katie Whittemore: Your early novels—Un incendio invisble (An Invisible Fire) and Four by Four—explore human relationships and society on a symbolic, almost allegorical level. In both these novels, there is also a sense of an alternate reality, or a speculative element, in how you describe a present world in decline. In contrast, Scar, Cara de pan, and your new novel, Un amor, all center on close, ambiguous relationships.
The experience of reading those novels is almost claustrophobic in the intensity of your focus on the characters’ interiority and how they relate to others. How do you describe the evolution of your work? Over time, have you moved from thinking more broadly about dynamics in society to thinking about the individual, the nuances in how we relate to and understand—or don’t understand—one another?
Sara Mesa: I think the evolution you point out has a lot to do with my own self-confidence as a writer. Some of the themes I have always wanted to approach, like the abuse of power and lack of freedom, were difficult for me to bring into the realm of the recognizable at first—I didn’t feel capable of describing them precisely in a more realistic setting. As a first step, I thought I could do it through symbolism and allegory. Later, I wanted to delve into more realistic scenarios that would still include strangeness, the presence of “weird” people and unconventional situations. But the themes are the same.
I would say that in the beginning, I highlighted this strangeness with external elements (setting, physical traits), while now I try to do it by looking inside the characters, giving more depth to their psychological development. Right now, during this period of quarantine in Spain, I’m writing a lot about one family and the people around them. It might not seem like a big deal, but it represents a change for me in the sense that I’m tackling wider social dynamics (it’s no longer the duo of Scar or Cara de pan). I should make clear, as well, that although I do perceive this evolution in my writing, I don’t see it as advancement, as improvement, either in terms of quality or interest. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.“There is subversion in … compassion, starting from the moment compassion is directed at people who don’t normally receive it.”
I like my first phase (especially Four by Four) and I feel like it’s all part of the same road. As a writer, I have a responsibility to explore new paths, to not repeat myself or get too comfortable. In Spain, Scar was so successful that many of my readers expected a kind of Scar 2, so when I published Mala letra, a collection of stories—intimate and to a large extent autobiographical—they felt disappointed.
That said, those stories brought me new readers, different readers. And there are other readers that have been loyal from the beginning because they sense the common thread that runs through my work. Those readers save me!
KW: One of those common threads that comes to mind is found in both Scar and Cara de pan, novels in which you explore close relationships that, on the surface, would seem distasteful, even wrong, in the majority view. In Scar, this is takes the form of an obsessive relationship with roots in an online forum. In Cara de pan, you explore the secret friendship between a man in his 50s and an “almost” 14-year-old girl.
And yet, you treat your characters with some level of compassion and nuance. You subvert the norm and subvert morality simply by depicting interpersonal relationships that aren’t “normal,” without casting judgment from an authorial point of view. Is this a fair assessment? Do you see value in writing and reading about relationships that might be deemed unhealthy by society’s standards?
SM: I have my doubts with respect to tenderness and lack of judgment in Scar. I think that I was tough on those characters, even if it was indirect. I didn’t have a lot of compassion for them. Tenderness and compassion are nuances that appear later, especially in Cara de pan, and in what I’m writing now, as well.
Curiously, they aren’t present in my forthcoming novel, Un amor, although I should point out that the idea for Un amor precedes Cara de pan, but the book was so hard for me to finish that we changed the order of publication. In any case, yes, there is subversion in that compassion, starting from the moment compassion is directed at people who don’t normally receive it.
The emergence of compassion in my writing must be related to age: I’m getting older. My anger is softening, or maybe it’s more apt to say that I have a better idea of where to direct it. And my understanding of the world has grown, I think. I learn a lot from writers like Alice Munro, for example, in her way of approaching human nature: she doesn’t avoid writing about its harshness, but she is clear-eyed about it, free of fury.
KW: That jibes with your style, as well, I think. The clarity, the coolness. I read an interview in which you said that—increasingly—you like using “ordinary words.” And yet, with “ordinary” language, you manage to build such tension, such a nuanced, ambiguous atmosphere. I’m thinking of Four by Four specifically, but I can point to your other novels, and indeed the stories in Mala letra.
But this is tricky at the same time, because that uncomplicated language ultimately conjures up a very complicated, murky world, a sense of discomfort and unease. In your mind, is there a relationship between the clarity in your narrative style, and the ambiguousness of the characters, situations, and relationships you write about?
SM: I should first say that with regard to this type of language or style, there is no conscious planning behind my choice; it’s intuitive, something I feel the text demands internally. It’s really interesting to think about these questions, but it’s something I always do after the fact, like a kind of investigation into my own writing. Deep down, I feel that I’m moving in the realm of hypothesis. So, it’s a hypothesis to say that the relationship between simple, precise language and ambiguity and murkiness in the text is related to narrative coldness.
In texts where there are more details, explanations, and developments, there’s a kind of comfortable warmth. Unadorned language is cold, hard, dry. It doesn’t offer much comfort. There are writers who have taken this to the extreme, like Ágota Kristóf or J.M. Coetzee. In my case, the simplicity is mostly in the vocabulary I use. Language that is almost flat or, as I always say, “normal” words, words everyone understands. Even so, the underlying structures in my stories are complex, the narrative focal points resist a straightforward reading and look for different angles. This is another way to generate ambiguity.
KW: I personally read your work as political, in the way that “the personal is political” and our individual experience is subject to larger structures. Your work provides an opening to consider—and criticize—the ordinary systems (school, home, neighborhood, family, etc.) that, to some extent, define your characters’ behaviors, desires, and limitations. There also seems to be a tendency in your fiction to return to characters who are marginalized or vulnerable in some way—adolescents and children in particular, but also women, the disabled, and the elderly. Even if your fiction isn’t explicitly political, are you comfortable with your work being read as social commentary? Is it something you are intentional about as an author?
SM: I’m not bothered by the label political literature in the sense that we’re using it here. I don’t identify with directly political writing, or with writing that seeks to provoke an immediate reaction from the reader. The political for me, as you point out, isn’t something intentional or planned. That said, I believe in literature about conflict—I’m not interested in writing contemplative or descriptive literature, or novels of manners, which is often mistaken for social literature—and given that today’s biggest conflict lies in the distribution of power, and the ways in which power is exercised, it’s inevitable that the political finds its way in my fiction.
This abstract vision of the political isn’t anchored to concrete facts or events. I strive to study the mechanisms of oppression and inequality common among different systems and structures, even the smallest ones, like the family or couple.
KW: Thinking about power and how it is expressed, where it resides, let’s turn to Four by Four. I first read the book in 2018, and at the time, there was a great deal of attention in the US media on the situation of undocumented children being separated from their parents at the border and housed in cage-like facilities. That resonated really sharply for me, as I wrote you in one of our first email exchanges. The novel felt so timely—power and subjugation, language as wielded by the powerful to shape reality, disregard for the humanity of someone weaker.
More recently, as I was translating the novel, I followed the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, with its horror stories of sex trafficking of underage girls, and I thought, wow, okay, Four by Four is really timely in this way, as well. Now—as we write—two-thirds of the world is confined at home and normal life has been suspended, all in an effort to protect ourselves and others from an outside danger—a virus, in this case—and this seems so timely as well: the idea that we can somehow remove ourselves from danger, safeguard ourselves against the threat “outside,” as well as the anxiety about whether something even more destructive is produced when we retreat and build walls to protect the places we deem safe.
What is it about the themes present in Four by Four that seem so continually resonant with “current affairs”?
SM: Honestly, this is the best praise someone could give one of my books: its adaptability, flexibility, the capacity to open itself up to the outside and take in distinct moments and societies. I think this happens to the extent that when I write, I don’t think about anything in particular, or at least not about anything that’s happening outside. I don’t write with regard to the present moment, to what’s topical. That would be really hard for me to do (I actually have to confess that I don’t really pay close attention to current affairs).
If my work is political (and I believe it is), it’s political in that other way we’ve discussed. And I’m not really worried about whether or not readers find my books wanting on the level of composition, style, etc. I’m not worried about whether or not they think my books are beautiful or sublime. The worst thing that can happen to a book is for it to sound obsolete, to be read only with archeological curiosity. Kafka always sounds contemporary, even though his books were written a century ago. For me, this is the grand goal, but I’m happy with the fact that my books manage to survive a decade.
Sara Mesa’s novel, Four By Four (translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore), is available from Open Letter Books.