Monday, September 22, 2008

An interview with Andromeda Romano-Lax

Andromeda Romano-Lax's The Spanish Bow depicts, through the personal stories of two musicians, the complex, fraught relationship between politics and the arts over half a century of Spanish history. In 1898, when five-year-old Feliu Delargo chooses a cello bow from among the belongings of his late father, his life's path is set. His musical talent propels him from the small Catalan village of Campo Seco to Barcelona, where anarchist sentiments are in full swing, and later to the royal court in Madrid, where he becomes a favored musician of the queen.

Feliu forms a professional partnership with Justo Al-Cerraz, a flamboyant Spanish pianist who becomes his good friend and occasional rival. As they go on tour throughout Europe, their brilliant performances and associated fame bring them into the company of numerous famous names, from Pablo Picasso, Kurt Weill, and Manuel de Falla to Francisco Franco and Adolf Hitler. Their lives also become intertwined with that of Aviva, an Italian-Jewish violinist with a heartbreaking personal history.

A travel writer and serious amateur cellist, Andromeda writes in her Author's Note that she conceptualized this novel in the wake of 9/11, partly as a way of addressing the question on the value of art during difficult times. In this time of political strife, as artists of all types are motivated to make their political stances known (and weigh whether to do so at all), the themes of The Spanish Bow resonated strongly with me, and I expect others will feel the same. I enjoyed this absorbing, thought-provoking novel immensely and highly recommend it.

The Spanish Bow is newly out in paperback (Harcourt, $15.00, 560pp, ISBN 978-0156034098). The author's website is http://www.romano-lax.com/, and her blog touches on the topics of writing, reading, publishing, and politics from the viewpoint of an Alaska-based writer.

What made you decide to write a large-scale epic, one spanning over fifty years of Spanish history, as opposed to focusing on a single historical event?

Naivete, what else? But seriously, I always knew it would cover the lifespan of the main character, Feliu, beginning in 1898, when the Spanish Empire was crumbling, until at least the 1930s. The first image that came to mind was the image of an innocent boy running through the streets of his Catalan village, and the first voice was the melancholic voice of the elder narrator; I knew the story would bridge the two and contain the story of a musician’s life as well as a country’s passage through sometimes beautiful, often difficult times.

There's a theme running through the novel about the myth vs. the truth about Spanish history and culture (or cultures, I should say). For example, critics abroad ironically complain that Al-Cerraz's music and performances aren't "Spanish enough." Also, during his and Feliu's visit to Granada, he's disappointed to learn from Manuel de Falla that his Andalucian-influenced "Nights in the Gardens of Spain" was inspired by a brochure he read while in Paris. Was this one of your own goals in writing, to bring the real Spain and its history alive for those who don't know it, or who might have the wrong impression about it?

Thank you for pointing out what many reviewers missed, this thread about the stereotyping of Spanish culture and the impossibility of defining a single Spain. I wanted to help the reader unravel the images of “sunny Spain,” the Carmen-opera stereotypes (Carmen being written by a Frenchman, Bizet) and many other ironies and absurdities.

The cellist, Feliu (who is Catalan), is a small, somber man from a proud region that had a long history before a unified Spain existed. His friend and rival, the pianist Al-Cerraz, may be closer to what Americans expect of a Spaniard, being passionate and loud and funny. But he is also cursed by Spanish typecasting, and burdened by a commission to write an opera based on Don Quixote. In the end, Al-Cerraz succeeds as a composer by embracing the diversity of sounds and themes he has absorbed in his travels.

There is a lot more that could be said here, including the fact that the Spanish Queen in the novel, Queen Ena, is actually British-born, which doesn’t help her in winning the hearts of her people. Most of the characters in my novel aren’t “Spanish enough,” in one way or another. Among the Spanish Civil War’s many causes was the confusion Spaniards felt in their search for a strong national identity after their empire crumpled.

What were some interesting or surprising things you discovered during the research process?

Queen Ena’s story was one. She was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and she married King Alfonso XIII, an immature, playboy king who did little to stop Spain’s slide into chaos. The Queen Ena portrayed in the book (based on what I learned about her) is a sympathetic, stoic figure. I compare her to the sounding post (a wooden rod you find in a cello or violin): “Everything else could move, could vibrate, because she stayed in place.” In the novel, Feliu becomes her private musician, the one person who is allowed to glimpse her passions and her vulnerabilities.

Out of all the historical characters who make appearances - Queen Ena, Picasso, Kurt Weill, Franco, and others - who did you enjoy writing about the most?

I’ve mentioned Ena already, so let me say that I also had fun with some episodes involving Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, who in the novel (as in life) put on a strange little German opera called “Der Jasager,” or “The Yea-Sayer.” It was a “teaching play” that toured German schools in the 1930s, with a story that was meant to make a very particular and somewhat confusing political point. When that point was misunderstood, there was talk of putting on a parallel production, “The Nay-Sayer,” to make the point more clear.

In the novel, I poke gentle fun at this idea of using music or art for such direct propagandistic ends, even though Weill and Brecht had the best of intentions. I think many readers probably thought I made up this minor storyline, but it was based strongly in fact and says quite a bit, I think, about how musicians and artists scrambled to come up with ways to fight Nazi ideology.

Although I'm not a musician, one of the aspects I appreciated most about The Spanish Bow was the vivid imagery with which you describe both listening to music and playing an instrument. The exuberance of the characters' performances come through; I especially enjoyed the scene in which Justo/El Nene and his trio perform at the young Feliu's school. Did you find it to be a challenge to write a novel about classical musicians that could appeal to all types of readers, regardless of their musical training?

There was always the danger of explaining too much or too little, of course. Throughout the novel, I describe music through Feliu’s sensibilities, so when he is a young boy, he can only compare the sound of the cello to things he knows, like tart lemons or bitter chocolate. Later, he can talk more knowledgably about techniques, composers, and so on.

But of course, all writers worry about whether they get things “right.” One happy moment for me was when a pianist who had just finished reading my book said, “How did you know?” She was referring not to how I described music in a technical sense, but how I captured the anxieties that professional musicians feel. Those emotions interested me the most.

In one scene, after observing American tourists' reaction to Picasso's Guernica, followed by his playing of Bach, Feliu concludes that visual art and music both have the power to influence public opinion, but in different ways. Do you feel that, at the time, musicians bore a different type of burden than other artists?

No, I think they all had the same burden. Artists had to decide whether their visual art would have political imagery that might send a particular message. (Picasso resisted this at first, then embraced it with his painting, Guernica.) Musicians, even if they played politically neutral music (if there is such a thing – actually, most music has a national character of some kind), still had to decide whom they played for. It just so happens that many dictators of the 1930s really loved the arts (can we imagine this now?) and wanted specific composers and musicians to play for them personally.

You've written that the character of Feliu was loosely based on Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, and Justo Al-Cerraz on pianist/composer Isaac Albéniz. Was there a similar historical inspiration for Aviva?

Aviva is a completely imaginary character, though one thing about her is based on fact: the idea that she did not want to leave Germany in the 1930s because, for a time, it was a very competitive and rewarding place for Jewish musicians to be, and if you left your German job you might not get it back. Even as the Nazis were gaining power, Jewish musicians were moving to Germany to take advantage of the opportunities there, and Nazi propagandists were delighting in showing them off, as proof of their own tolerance (a temporary tolerance, of course). It’s a frightening thought.

Spanish settings are seeing a renaissance in historical fiction now, but when The Spanish Bow was first published last year, they weren't quite so common. When you were trying to get published, how did agents and editors initially react to the setting and scope of your novel? Do you have a feel for why other writers might be turning to Spain for inspiration at this point in time, and why publishers are following suit?

I’ll make a few guesses. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón was published before The Spanish Bow, and that may have helped. But more significantly, I think this is just the right time to take a look at Spanish history, which was veiled until recently by a national desire to forgive and forget the bloody, fascist past. Franco outlived all the other European dictators, and cast a long shadow. I don’t think Spaniards have had the same national reckoning that countries like Germany had, post-Hitler.

Having said all that, I think my publisher was less interested in the specific setting than in the book’s emotional arc, and its celebration of music and art during difficult times. I personally hope that readers interpret it as a story with modern relevance, almost eerily so. Struggling, confused countries – especially ones losing international power or embroiled in unpopular wars – often resemble each other, regardless of the time period. And people everywhere face the difficult choice of whether to face or hide from the turmoil around them.

3 comments:

  1. A wonderful and insightful interview, Sarah. I loved this book when I reviewed it for HNR in hardcover; your interview with the author sheds further light on the book's scope and vision. Thank you for introducing us to Andromeda! I wish her all the best with the paperback; she's definitely on my list for writers to watch.

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  2. Hi,I also love the book. There is but a mistake in that a Catalan village cannot have the name Campo Seco. All Catalan villages have their names in Catalan not in Spanish. The author should have used Camp Sec to be accurate. The same regarding Pablo Casals. His actual name was Pau Casals. It might seem not relevant but it's a pitty that Mainstream assumptions hide a lovely unkonwn reality instead of showing it proudly to the public. Somehow I think the title of the book should read The Catalan Boy. Why did the author omitted this differential reality?

    Kathy

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  3. Very interesting interview, thank you. And what a marvellous name she has!

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