Julia Navarro, a Conversation on the Banks of the Canal

By Juan Abelardo Carles R.
Photos:: Carlos Eduardo Gómez

Julia Navarro is a creator of thick, rich prose. In her stories, multiple threads become intertwined as the reader progresses. Complex human profiles, descriptions of environments and settings, and rigorously researched historical sequences come together to form a durable fabric supporting the sagas presented by this Spanish journalist and writer. Panorama of the Americas had an opportunity to talk with her about her style, the subjects she explores, and her opinions about the historical events that her characters attempt to live through, all against the backdrop of the Panama Canal.

Your novels create a vast canvas of current and recent events that touch us all and that, one way or another, illustrate the best, the worst, and the in-between nuances of individuals, communities, and entire nations. In your novel Dispara, yo ya estoy muerto the structure holding this canvas in place is the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This is a novel of characters, of short stories within a greater story. I don’t write historical novels: I set up a large stage with no anachronisms in the way events unfold, but I’m more interested in the problems of humanity than in the greater historical framework. We are children of our time and can only understand what we do within the political, economic, social, and global context in which we live. I chose a very controversial subject because everyone has some information and an opinion about what is happening in the Middle East. In any case, this novel advocates for hope and dialogue, because I think that the Israelis and Palestinians are condemned to reach an understanding. They have no choice; they share the same land, although at this point poorly, and while treating each other violently. The hope is that one day they’ll have leaders worthy of the people they represent.

In both Dispara, yo ya estoy muerto and your previous novel, Dime quién soy, the narratives unfold along rather broad axes of space and time. Don’t the characters and circumstances risk becoming blurred?

It’s not really that complicated, because I’m speaking about the twentieth century. Many of us are from the last century. It is a history I’m familiar with and have studied; by that, I mean it’s in books, but also in our memories. The research work I do to construct the settings in my novels isn’t that complicated, because it’s all from my century. Writing a novel set in the fifteenth century is different from writing one set in the twentieth century.

Dispara, yo ya estoy muerto addresses the issue of fanaticism, and this topic is one that appears in all your work. A clear example of this is La sangre de los inocentes, your third novel. What do you think about the concept of fanaticism? Is it something that exists only in the East, or is it also prevalent in the West?

It’s hard to find fanatics in the West that resemble those in other countries and, of course, they aren’t religious fanatics. Europe is the daughter of the French Revolution, which brought about the separation of church and state. I am concerned that in the last four or five years, as a result of the terrible economic crisis we are experiencing, political extremist groups have begun to surface. It seemed that Europe had been cured of its right-wing extremism, but unfortunately, in some countries these groups have begun to emerge and, worse still, find support among certain segments of voters.

But don’t you think that, by taking war into other countries to impose a political view, the West is also being fanatical?

If you’re referring to the war in Iraq, I’ll just say that I protested against it. There were demonstrations in several European capitals. It was a war that responded to the economic and political interests of the United States and it was unrelated to the interests of the people. But it wasn’t a war of fanaticism. To me, fanatics are people like those who blew up the Twin Towers in New York, or who blew up the Atocha train station in Madrid, my city, and killed two hundred people. That’s fanaticism: in the name of religion and in the name of imposing my worldview, I will kill you.

Speaking of religion, in La Biblia de barro and La hermandad de la Sábana Santa, you touch on the subject of the power that religions have to act as paradigms for unification, but also to manipulate and repress. What do you think is the role of organized religion in modern societies?

Religion must remain in the private domain. People have a right to believe whatever they want, to pray to whomever they want, and to worship according to their tradition or conviction. Religious freedom for every human being must be defended and neither the State nor any individual has a right to meddle. When religion invades the public domain, it’s really very dangerous. A person or group has no right to impose their beliefs on others, nor can the State rule on behalf of a religious group, regardless of how big it is. In this regard, I think the French Revolution put things in place, at least in the West, by separating church and state. Two religions have been particularly belligerent when it comes to repressing religious freedom and forcing conversion: Catholicism and Islam. I don’t see the Jews, or the Hindus, Buddhists and other religious groups in the Far East trying to convert anyone. As I said, Catholics experienced their own revolution, which separated church and state. The Muslims have yet to do this, and it’s a problem that must be resolved. It is important for cultural and secular elites in these countries to want to change things so they can move forward.

Something that Spain and Latin America seem to have agreed on lately is joining hands to fight corruption in public officials. Have you had an opportunity to learn anything about the corruption in Latin America? Based on the Spanish experience, would you dare to make any comparisons or suggestions?

The only way to fight corruption is through courts, and judges and prosecutors who do their jobs, together with strong public opinion that won’t tolerate the stench of corruption and that is willing to take to the streets to fight for justice. Moreover, the role of a free and fearless press, that fulfills its social function of denouncing what doesn’t work, is absolutely essential. That goes for Spain, America, or Australia. It’s the same everywhere. The tools of democracy should work. In my country, justice is guaranteed. Justice, albeit slow, works: people end up in jail.

A decade ago, another Spanish writer predicted that self-publishing would do away with publishers and that the advent of tablets would bring about the end of the printed book. In your opinion, where is the publishing business headed?

I think digital technologies will coexist with paper. I think it’s a matter of choice and freedom. It’s absurd to deny that the future is already here, that new technologies are changing the world, and that children are becoming accustomed to communicating via electronic gadgets. It’s a fact that the e-book has a future, but so does the paper book. I can’t stand any kind of fundamentalism. I hate them all and fight them. I disagree with people who say that in the future everyone will have to read on a screen. A book is almost alive in the way you relate to it, touch it, smell, feel, and underline it. I feel that there will still be those who will read on paper and others who will read e-books. In the end, it’s a way of exercising freedom: let me read whatever I want, however I want.