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The City and the Writer: In El Salvador with Jorge Galán

By Nathalie Handal

Image: Jorge Galán

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.                              
 —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of El Salvador as you feel/see it?

Tension. There are so many safety problems that the mood is almost always tense, constantly alert to what could happen.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

One of the memories that impacted me the most happened during the war in the 1980s. I was seven or eight years old and it was very early in the morning. I found myself on a sidewalk waiting for a bus that would take me to school. On the corner, about fifty meters away, a truck full of soldiers ran a red light and crossed the street, and a bus hit the back of the truck. Many soldiers were thrown onto the street. Those who remained in the truck opened fire on the bus full of people. Tragically, that image is unforgettable for me.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

When one walks through the center of the city, it is never a stroll. One walks quickly, aware of what is happening behind him and up ahead. One day, I gazed beyond the vendors who fill the sidewalks and the bustling businesses, and found something unexpected: the old city. The buildings and houses of the old city. Of San Salvador in 1920s or 1930s. Its facades were still there, in the inevitable obscurity that indifference produces. I had no idea. I never imagined. And lifting my eyes was all it took. I don’t know if it is the most significant detail of this city, but what I know is that this old beauty, a testament to what we once were, goes unperceived.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Of the older ones, the most significant is Salarrué. His stories, his magical universe, is tremendous. I enthusiastically recommend him. From the current ones, I would say: Horacio Castellanos Moya, a novelist who I love and who has set an example to follow; Claribel Alegría, who is a magnificent poet and a teacher and one of our classics; and the young Roxana Méndez, who has already won international prizes.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Los Planes de Renderos—an area that still conserves, in some way, a little of what was. That is, it’s a woodsy area, a region of mists.  

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I like the House of Salarrué, now a museum that conserves something of this author’s legacy.

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The exterior of the National Palace in the city center. I don’t know how secretive it is these days, but when I visited it for the first time, in the mid-90s, it was a solitary place that almost nobody visited. To enter that building was to go back a century. That captivated me.

Where does passion live here?

Not in literature, but in confrontation, in survival . . . and in football.

What is the title of one of your works about El Salvador and what inspired it exactly?

“The Witness.” It was inspired by a real incident. The buses regularly have to pay extortion fees, and when they refuse to pay, they suffer attacks. Almost always, the recipients of these attacks are the drivers, but it happened that on one occasion they kidnapped a bus full of people, brought it to the outskirts, closed the doors, and lit it on fire with all the passengers inside. I don’t remember the number of dead. Twenty, thirty. There was only one survivor. A witness to the horror. My poem speaks about this man and what he suffered.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Roxbury does an outside exist?”

Yes . . . in some place I don’t yet know.

Translated from the Spanish by Eileen O’Connor

Jorge Galán’s books include La ciudad, El estanque colmado, Los otros mundos, El premio inesperado, Breve historia del Alba, Tarde de Martes, and El día interminable. He has won many literary awards, namely the Jaime Sabines Prize from Mexico, the Villa de Cox International Poetry Prize from Spain, the Antonio Machado International Prize, the Adonáis Prize, and the Hispano-American Prize for Poetry from Guatemala. On the national level, he won the National Poetry Prize three times, the Short Novel Prize three times, and the Children’s Theater Prize two times.

Galán was recently forced into exile.

Published Jun 15, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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