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Iván Repila: An Interview with Sophie Hughes

By Sophie Hughes

Iván Repila (Bilbao, 1978) is a writer, editor and cultural events manager. He is the co-founder of the press Masmédula Ediciones, which specializes in poetry. Iván has worked for various national and international organizations and institutions, producing, coordinating and directing conferences, assemblies and cultural festivals (of theatre, dance and music). He has also edited and collaborated in various publications from the field of performing arts, literature and human rights.

Iván is the author of the novels Una comedia canalla (Libros del Silencio, 2012) y El niño que robó el caballo de Atila (Libros del Silencio, 2013 / The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, Pushkin Press, 2015), whose translation rights have sold in a dozen countries.


Your English translation debut, The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse has been described as a “Grimm-like fable,” a “fairytale,” a “brutal, Beckett-like tale,” “a stark allegory about the experience of being arbitrarily imprisoned in abysmal conditions,” and more specifically an allegory of the Spanish economic crisis (part of a Spanish wave of “new fiction of disenchantment”). This very short novel is a lot of different things to different readers; what is it to you, or what was when you were writing it? 

During a conference last year, a woman told me that a while ago she had been through a really tough time, related to a health problem that she didn’t care to specify, and that for her the book undoubtedly spoke of sickness, of curing oneself through sheer determination, and of the sacrifice and the help of loved ones in that process. More recently, in France, a reader approached me and told me that he’d spent months thinking about the novel, and that, although he’d found various keys to unlock it, he didn’t altogether understand them. In short, the book has a different impact on readers depending on their own personal experiences, and that seems right to me; it seems rational. It’s a purposefully ambiguous book, because I, too, exist in the uncertain circumstances of living in a world where our moral compass—the values we’ve inherited—is inadequate. You’re right to point out the difference between what the book is and what it was for me during the writing process. As for as what it was—and acknowledging the risk that remembering always implies—I can say that the original idea came from a nightmare: I sleep badly, I have nightmares every week, and like Breton, since I was a boy, I have been able to remember them easily, which is why I sleep with a notepad and pen by my side. When I dreamed of two men trapped in a well and the unbelievable solution that they propose in order to escape, I started to ask myself: Why did I dream that? Do I feel trapped somehow by my family, work or society? As these and more questions formulated in my mind, the story began to take shape, and in the face of my incapacity to answer those questions, the text found its way. As for what the book is, perhaps I’m not in the best position to answer, but in any case I would like to point out that, as far as the most political interpretations go, to point to the Spanish crisis is reductive: I think the crisis is global, or European—narrowing the spectrum—, and not economic but rather moral. I’ve often felt ashamed of Europe. To me it’s hypocritical and ruthless, and I think we will first have to wash away our shameful legacy of hatred (the twentieth century is a good example) if we are to propose a new culture of understanding and equality. And I think this is an exercise we all have a part to play in.


In one French review of the book, a critic suggested that "It is when [storytelling] is too simple that it becomes risky. The art of the fable demands naïveté, but also cunning." Simplicity—fabular or otherwise—is an unmistakable quality of The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse. Were you aware of any risks as you pared down your story to the confines of a well with two nameless brothers in it? Or, rather, was this simplicity part of a planned and personal writing exercise? 

I can’t speak for other authors, but honestly I think that when one shuts himself up for months with his imagination and decides to tell a story he’s not thinking about the risks. He simply goes with his heart, goes with what the book asks, with the work in its purest form. Through technique one can fine-tune, complete, perfect, but the initial push is a mystery, at least for me. Having said that, I had a pretty clear picture of the story I wanted to tell, and I went along deleting everything that seemed superfluous or unnecessary to that story. Some people have commented that the book is too short, too stripped back, but I’ve always maintained that it is the right length, and that every chapter obeys one seminal idea, one fixed episode. I don’t think of fiction as an exercise, just as I don’t think of living as a simulacrum. Everything we do, including writing, is inextricably linked to our experience of the world and as such to the world’s experience of us.


Even “going with your heart”, and “going with what the book asks”, you wrote a very deliberate book in the sense that it has two wildly different registers that are also seamlessly woven. When Small’s senses start to desert him, his logical and laconic speech unravels into delirium, even nonsense. But it’s also very hard to distinguish between his nonsense and incisive wisdom. Is there a philosophy behind this nonsense/wisdom? Or is it simply poetic symbolism?

I wouldn’t dare get into philosophy, but perhaps we could talk of a seed. Speaking about the social interpretations of the book, a French professor and translator asked me if I thought that literature could change the world. I answered that I thought it could, of course, but in an indirect way. Literature, like art in general, like curiosity, like so many other things, can plant ideas in our heads. New ideas, new doubts, new boldnesses. The same ideas that can change the world. Through Small, I wanted to transmit this message, but I couldn’t do it in a literal way, because it would have come across as false (certainly out of character). And from there the contradiction you point out: Small swings between wisdom and delirium because he’s not capable of keeping his feet firmly on the ground, and because he wouldn’t even know how to recognize “delirium” or “wisdom.” He expresses himself like someone who sees a series of shapes but can’t name or touch them. That’s why sometimes he seems strangely lucid (lucid to us, watching him from outside of the well), and at other times horribly demented. Imagine him as a poet, maybe. There is lots of complex poetry that is hard to wrestle with unless you have a whole store of other readings to help you untangle the poets’ knots. That’s how Small works: as a visionary and a madman. And it’s precisely there, along that fine line that separates one thing from another, where his discourse makes sense.


Small’s aphasia is a wonderful, cathartic moment (his brother, despite the graveness of the situation, cannot stop laughing), but it also ties into this question of language being stretched to its limit (to any conventionally meaningful limit). Can you explain a little about the idea behind this moment? As your English translator, I’m also intrigued to know how other translators tackled this scene, in which Small wants to be heard, but his speech fails him. I think the first thing I did was write to you asking what Small wants to say. If I remember correctly, you couldn’t remember, so you threw me a line with some abstract emotions: “desperation here”, “growing anger now. Did any of the translators stick to the Spanish nonsense?

It’s certainly a fundamental chapter in the book. One of the ideas sustained throughout is the need—as I mentioned in your first questions—to eradicate negative legacies before laying the foundations for a more humane future. I’m writing these lines as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are locked up, beaten and insulted in a number of European countries. Meanwhile, the leaders of those countries, gathered together in Brussels along with the other leaders on the continent, are incapable of coming up with a fast, effective, and global solution to the problem. Why? Because Europe wants to maintain its old ways, its comfortable privileges, and if it allows in—at a moment like our current one, in which the whole of Europe has crawled out from under their stones after years of crisis—such a large number of penniless and helpless people, the welfare society would most likely topple. So many years spent with our backs to the rest of the world makes it very difficult to turn around now and look the others in the eye: because we’re not accustomed to doing this, but also because we’re ashamed. The chapter with the aphasia is a metaphor for this: Small loses the only thing he has (given that we don’t know his past, the only thing I could take from him was his capacity to communicate) and he has to learn to speak again. Destroy the old to make way for the new. And it’s precisely from this chapter onwards that his transformation becomes more marked.

As for the other translations, it’s been a mixed bag. Some translators intervened, like you did, and I gave them the same explanations I gave to you. Others didn’t ask me anything. Given the particularity of this chapter, I think whatever they did must have been interesting, but nor can I be certain about that, given that I don’t speak those other languages, and I don’t know the effect on the reader. What I can tell you is that your work, and the interest you put into each one of Small’s lines convinced me that the English readers have been able, let’s say, to “grasp” the essence of his words exactly as they were conceived in their original language. I imagine it was a very difficult job: I am sorry [in English].


You’re forgiven. Why don’t Big and Small have names?

Because they’re archetypes. I’ve always thought the world keeps spinning thanks to two types of people: the dreamers and the people who are awake. Or: the people with their feet on the ground and the people soaring above it. Or: the poets and the mathematicians. Or something like that. That’s how we humans are, and I really believe that both models are necessary for us to keep moving forward as a society. In real life, these two models merge. In my book, they don’t: they are very clear-cut and distinguished from one another. One is Big and the other is Small. It wasn’t necessary to give them a name, and I think the text would have lost part of its magic if the two brothers had had names. A name implies questions: Who named him? When? I needed the book’s narrator to draw a line under the characters’ past, because I needed them in the now, in the well. Given that the brothers don’t ever refer to each other by name, the reader doesn’t ever find out what they’re called. Looking back on it now, two years later, I think it works. 


Your first novel, Una comedia canalla (A Despicable Comedy) is starkly different in style to Attila. I’ve heard it described as a gory Tarantino-esque comedy. Can you tell us more about it? Attila is grim, but it is also laugh-out-loud funny. Is comedy and lightness important to you in fiction in general?

I would say that Una comedia canalla is more akin to Guy Richie’s early movies. It’s rough and wild, cruel, but also fun, ironic, with a sort of spontaneous black humor. It’s got some really violent scenes merrily recounted, as if the violence were a private joke. There are lots of characters, all of which are extreme, absolutely implausible, and completely indecent. It’s a huge satire on the hypocrisy of our times in many ways, but dressed up with drugs, gangs, alcohol, crimes, serial murders . . . I have to say I laughed a lot writing it, and that a good number of readers laughed too: I know because they tell me on Twitter (and plenty of them have recommended it as the perfect post-op gangster novel).

And no, I don’t lend comedy vital importance in literature. Sometimes it just happens. I think there are books that invite it, others that need it, and others that don’t allow for it at all. Not all texts can be woven with the same thread, I guess.


What are you writing now?

I’ve just finished my third novel, after two years and a summer dedicated to writing full-time. The hope is to publish it some time during the first half of next year. 


What was the seed for this one?

A dream I had many, many years ago (my notebooks . . .). The moment finally came to write it.


Who are you reading now? Do you read contemporary authors, friends, classics? And if so, why? And if not, why not?

All of the above. I read my contemporaries (both Spanish and foreign), a few of whom are also my friends. I read them because they interest me, because I’m curious, because I want to know what ideas are in circulation today. I’m a passionate reader. I lose hours of sleep reading, and happily so. I think when people stop reading their contemporaries it can be a sign they’re running out of steam, or, in the worst cases, that they’re arrogant. I think to assume that our era won’t give rise to great works, great authors, great poetry is quite pretentious, absurd even. I read classics, too, because you never stop hitting on gems; or rather, because the Spanish publishers have the ability to keep surprising us with works that weren’t previously translated but are now considered indispensible. As a teacher in various reading workshops, I also re-read books, and in this way, the current me—with a few more years under my belt—confronts a text that a younger me read, and which to my surprise is no longer the same. I enjoy sharing that experience with the students. And I try to read a bit of everything: from bestsellers to noir, science fiction to poetry, literature of ideas to comics, thrillers to historical novels. Haven’t you noticed? There’s never any end to reading. 

Published Nov 19, 2015   Copyright 2015 Sophie Hughes

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