Antonio Muñoz Molina: “Our legacy will be a pile of garbage”

The award-winning Spanish novelist talks to EL PAÍS about the pitfalls of modernity

Antonio Muñoz Molina in Madrid.
Antonio Muñoz Molina in Madrid.Carlos Rosillo
Javier Rodríguez Marcos

The award-winning Spanish author Antonio Muñoz Molina is a modern-day flâneur. In his new novel Un andar solitario entre la gente (or, A solitary walk among people), Muñoz Molina followed the path of writers such as Thomas De Quincey, Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, and aimlessly roamed the cities of Madrid, Paris and New York, recorder, notebook and pencil in hand. With these tools he captured life’s peculiar mix of the lowly and  the sublime. 

Collage by Antonio Muñoz Molina.
Collage by Antonio Muñoz Molina.

“The great poem of this century can only be written with waste materials,” reads a line from the book. “I was looking,” it continues, “for a transparent music that can be breathed in like air.”

EL PAÍS spoke with Muñoz Molina about his writing experiences and beliefs about modern-day society.

Question. Since you published the novel In The Night of Time in 2009, you have written two essays. Are you tired of fiction?

Answer. My relationship with fiction is very powerful. I continue reading novels and re-reading those that I have already read. But fiction has to give me a lot. If it doesn’t, then I prefer non-fiction.

Depression is about not seeing what surrounds you, about wanting to disappear

Q. In your book, when you leave New York you say you will never try to settle in another city like it again. Why is that?

A. Because it left me feeling faceless. Walter Benjamin said that to live is to leave traces, and I was not going to leave any. The end sensation was very powerful.

Q. You also allude to depression.

A. Yes. In the end the book is, in a shy way, the story of transition from depression to the end of the tunnel. Depression is about not seeing what surrounds you, about wanting to disappear.

Q. Was it difficult to overcome this shyness?

A. It was important for it to be there. You can’t depict the world without showing who you are. The book combines the story of the world’s noise and the escape from that noise.

Q. You have said that now you feel younger than in the 80s.

A. That comes from a quote by David Hockney who says, “When I paint, I feel I’m 30.” It has made me freer, less attached to social life.

Q. And also less attached to literature?

A. My idea of literature is very enthusiastic, radical, visceral. I am more skeptical about everything that surrounds literature and more melancholic about the value of what I myself can do.

Q. In the end, you say that literature is vital yet has no importance.

A. What is the place of art in a fiercely capitalist world? In the midst of all the consumption and advertising, this thing that we do… that’s why in my book Baudelaire sits up at night counting the money he has earned.

Q. Thinking of Baudelaire, Benjamin said that Paris was the capital of the 19th century. Is New York the capital of the 20th or 21st century?

Before, the threat was insecurity and dereliction, now it is gentrification and privatization

A. New York is what Venice once was: the capital of a commercial world that is becoming obsolete. Perhaps the new capital is Hangzhou, a city of six million people that the Chinese government emptied out to guarantee the success of the G20 summit two years ago. The capitals of the future are in another world.

Q. In the book, you ask what future archaeologists will think about us. What do you think they will find?

A. Garbage. Our legacy will be a pile of rubbish, of plastic. We make things that are going to last a thousand years just to use them for five minutes. In the most remote islands of the Pacific, albatrosses are starving to death because they are eating lighters. The book recounts the story of a whale that turned up on the coast with 18 kilograms of plastic in its stomach.

Q. Does the market logic occupy every space? You were very critical when Madrid’s central subway station Sol was temporarily renamed Vodafone Sol after a corporate sponsor.

A. You walk down the street and everywhere you look, there is a screen with an ad on it. They are privatizing our gaze. Will there be nothing public left?

We make things that are going to last a thousand years, just to use them for five minutes

Q. What is something positive that modernity, that the city, has achieved?

A. Something that I don’t think Europeans are fully aware of: the mix of freedom and security. A great many cities in Latin America have been privatized. That’s why gated communities make me so uncomfortable. Compare a public square to an air-conditioned shopping center with security guards, where you need a car to get there. We don’t realize how marvelous it is to simply walk down the street. Just try that in Caracas or Los Angeles. A city in which anybody, man or woman, can go anyplace at any time of the day or night is a prodigious invention.

Q. Is this model endangered?

A. Property speculation and job precariousness have pushed working people out of city centers. In New York, there are entire neighborhoods that have turned into ghettos for millionaires. Before, the threat came from insecurity and dereliction, now it is gentrification and privatization.

Q. Europe is also in crisis: Brexit, the Catalan independence push...

A. Poland, Hungary… That’s another lesson: nothing is ever guaranteed. We have many valuable things that are very precarious.

Q. Has there been a revival of nationalism?

A. Nationalism never fully goes away, it is simply appeased. What is incredible is that the European Union was created at all after World War II. It has achieved a lot, given the monsters that are out there. But the monsters continue to be there.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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