Xesús Fraga (London, 1971) is dedicated to journalism since 1996, and is one of the most recognized cultural journalists in Spain from the pages of ‘La Voz de Galicia’. As a writer, he cultivates the story, the youth narrative, the novel and, in addition, he is a renowned translator into Galician and Spanish of Julian Barnes, Vladimir Nabokov, Roald Dahl and Sylvia Plath. With a cover by Alberto Gamón, he publishes in Xordica ‘Virtudes (y misterios)’, a family novel that won, in its original version in Galician, the Eduardo Blanco Amor novel award. The translation is yours. It is an inquiry into your own family.
What bothered or bothered you about your family history?
As a child I loved listening to the stories told by the elders in family meals. I think that these stories, added to the many books I read, left a residue in my imagination and have been fermenting until they ended up in my own story. Even then there were issues that fascinated me, such as the disappearance of my maternal grandfather or that one of my paternal great-grandparents had not baptized his children. Later I found out that he had been an anarchist, a good example of how to return to the lives of those closest to us, we find adventure, emotion and, to a large extent, clues about who we are.
Did you decide from the first moment that it would also be a novel about your identity, knowing who you are, where you come from, your links with English?
Yes, despite the fact that the leading role is assumed by the history of my grandparents, along with that of my parents, in the end a kind of indirect portrait of the circumstances that lead to me emerges. After all, I was born in London because my parents were emigrated there, and they in turn followed my grandmother, who had settled in a few years before, and all because my grandfather had gone to Venezuela without showing any more signs of life. . That chain of decisions and omissions marked at least three generations of our family.
Is it clearly a novel about emigration? What does that mean, especially in Galicia, to be an emigrant?
Emigration is essential in the book: he lost my grandfather, while he allowed his wife to support the family. It made it easier for my mother to fulfill her vocation for teaching and it placed me in a no-man’s-land between various cultures. In Galicia there are hardly any families that have not lived, in a more direct or indirect way, the migratory experience. Who else who least has relatives in Buenos Aires, Caracas, London or Zurich, to name a few cities. Now, there are also many who see how their children or their nephews, graduates, researchers, good professionals, have also been forced to seek other more propitious horizons outside the country.
Why this name by ‘zones’, so rare? Did you also think about what is called the ‘shadow zone’?
During the phase of ‘thinking’ the book and looking for the tools to tell it, I had the crazy idea of using the London Underground map as a support for the structure: each station would be a chapter, each line a plot line, with its intersections … something impossible, come on. But from all that, the division of the book into zones remained, since the London underground is organized in concentric zones, although it does not exclude other readings of a symbolic nature, such as that zone or line of shadow so conradian.
Everything starts with his grandmother Virtues: with her biography, but above all with her stay in London. What was a woman like her doing in that city, how did she get there, what hazards are there?
In my grandmother’s emigration there is a lot of chance and a lot of determination of character. Her husband left for Venezuela in 1955. He was no longer an idealistic young man: he was in his late thirties, married, and had three daughters. During the first years he did not send any of the money that was supposedly the ultimate goal of his trip. My grandmother tried family reunification by all means: she asked him to come back, she offered to go… without him agreeing to any option. In the end, the most plausible hypothesis was that he had formed another family there and did not want to know anything about those he had left behind. That is where chance intervenes: my grandmother chained all kinds of jobs without having enough money and, in the end, she was so desperate that when a neighbor’s friend came from London to spend Christmas, she did everything possible to fix the papers and emigrating to the same city: he didn’t know the country, or what society was like, much less the language, but at least he had someone close to him there.
“In Galicia there are hardly any families that have not lived, in a more direct or indirect way, the migratory experience”
The second area, deep down, perhaps could have been the first: it is the story of the courtship of his grandmother Virtudes with Marcelino, the wedding, and his departure to Venezuela. Why was he really emigrating, running away from family, being a self-absorbed dreamer?
The reasons that led him to emigrate belong to that zone of mysteries to which the title alludes and to unravel them, not to judge them, was part of the book’s mission. I suppose that, like everything in life, it was a mixture of factors: a bit of naivety, a bit of innocence, desire for independence, a dreamy character, claiming to be a possible winner …
What do they tell you, what have the photos in the scattered family album told you?
The photos have allowed me to study the contexts, but, above all, the gestures and the looks of the past and try to interpret those who are no longer here, although I was also aware of the risk involved in raising to a fundamental truth what could be a random and fortuitous event and, as such, temporary, by the camera.
To what extent is this novel indebted to journalism and, above all, to family oral narrative?
Journalism provided me with tools to find and interpret what was relevant and differentiate the anecdote from the events with significance. At the same time, I aspired to create a sober story, because in a story like this, my own story, it was easy to get carried away by emotions and what I needed was containment: that was also provided by journalism. And narrating as if speaking was an aspiration to which one is aware that it never comes but that does not mean that one should stop trying.
“I aspired to create a sober story, because in a story like this, my own story, it was easy to get carried away by emotions and what I needed was restraint: that was also provided by journalism”
Another decisive area is the history of his parents: Isabel and Antonio. Did you know it with this thoroughness or is it also full of discoveries?
That meticulousness is indebted to my father’s prodigious memory, capable of remembering how much he earned in his first job or apparently trivial domestic stories that strongly illuminated the story: they seemed to me to be discoveries, epiphanies. We talked frequently for a few months about her vital memories, until she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and the disease deteriorated her memories with equally astonishing rapidity.
The pedagogical vocation of his mother and the fondness for languages are moved. What are those diaries that he wrote in England like?
My mother always wanted to be a teacher, but for a poor family like hers it was an impossible vocation, because they did not have the necessary means and she had to go to work very young to help support the home. But emigration gave him that key that represented a language, English, to which he would end up dedicating himself, even if it was giving internships at home, and the culture to which it gave him access, from literature to the great London museums, for example.
What have you discovered about yourself that you didn’t know? What use is this trip to the journalist and writer?
I began to write about my grandparents and my parents as an attempt to understand them and also to understand myself, although each question that I tried to answer asked two or three more for which there was no answer. I suppose that deep down we cannot aspire to more than to draw up a record of those events, being aware that it will always be a partial vision, and to record lives that precisely because they are humble are worth telling. Many readers tell me, as a result of reading the book, how it has reminded them of a relative or how similar situations were experienced in their family and it comforts me to know that memories are stimulated through the adventures of people very close to me and feelings of others that are sometimes complete strangers.
We cannot advance anything…, but it would be said again that reality offers the most unexpected outcome. No?
Before starting to write I doubted a lot about how to face the story, whether to write a novel that somehow disguises the real characters under a veil of fiction or whether to narrate from the facts themselves, without concealment. In the end I opted for this second route because there were elements in history so powerful that I felt that they did not require literary devices beyond those imposed by memory and style. The way in which the story of my grandparents concludes is an example of this, a gift that life gives to the writer, and that he could not miss.