High school history teacher and one of the national references of the novel set in times past, Emilio Lara closed last Thursday the cycle of conferences ‘Santiago, stories of a prodigious Way’ with a presentation on the importance of the pilgrim route in the development of the Europe we know today.
I have a very great attraction with Galicia. Maybe because I’m from the south, I like the north so much. Many of my favorite writers are Galician, not to mention my favorite, Álvaro Cunqueiro. I also like Galician folklore more than Andalusian folklore, for example.
Before, the main reason for pilgrimage was religious, but now it is no longer. Was there also in the
past other reasons?
In the past the weight of religion was tremendous. The Camino always had a religious background, but also adventurous, commercial, knowledge transmission … Like today. There were also troubadours from the south of France who brought the chants of deed, origin of the Cantar de Mío Cid, the largest in history. But evidently, the religious ferment was fundamental.
As a writer, he has written about many historical periods. The further back the novel is set, the more difficult it is to document and narrate?
Not necessarily. As I am a historian, I am qualified to document myself specifically on a certain stage to write fiction. It must be taken into account that in the historical novel the literary element must prevail over the historical documentation, and an excess of documentation stifles the narrative element in the work. When one wants to tackle a certain historical event, sometimes not having too much documentation is not a problem for the novelist: it is a challenge. With his creativity he has to fill in those documentary gaps.
In his latest novel, ‘Sentinel of Dreams’, he recounts how just before World War II, the English killed their pets en masse. Was it something specific or were there more episodes like this in history?
It was something very punctual, and it attracts more attention for being in England. If there is any town characterized by loving their pets, it is English. That happened because of the recent memory that the English had of World War I, and they were absolutely convinced that the Germans were going to bomb London or invade it. They thought that if their houses were destroyed or the owners died, who would take care of their pets? The sacrifice of the animals, although it seems paradoxical, was an act of love. Then they realized that it was outrageous, and they did something very typical of the English: draw a thick veil. It was such a convulsive story from an emotional point of view that when I read it in XL Semanal I said: “This has to be a novel.”
As a teacher, do you think history is poorly taught in schools?
As with any subject: it depends on the teacher. The subjects are well or badly transmitted depending on the teacher. History has to excite and entertain the student and teach him to think in historical terms. He has to understand the events and that history is like a matryoshka doll: the past lives on in the present, one inside the other. Students are hooked if they, when reconstructing the past, relive it with empathy and emotion. And this has to do with the continued boom for more than 35 years of the historical novel, that when they read, in addition to learning, they are getting excited.
Could that success be explained because we are subjected to so much information about the present that we want to recapitulate a bit?
For me, the good historical novel speaks of the present through the past. A good narrative has to make us travel to the past with a ticket back to the present. Yes, one of the causes is the saturation of information, we live an absolutely accelerated life, we need to take a break entertaining ourselves and looking in the past for some explanation of the present.
To understand the present you need to know the past, believe then.
Yes, because, if not, the understanding of now would be very fragmented and superficial. And I do not think that knowing the history entails not repeating the mistakes of the past, it is a very beautiful phrase, but it is not reality. Knowing history makes us more free before our own criteria and we become less manipulable.
If you lived 150 more years, what would you write about our time?
About anything but the pandemic and the coronavirus. When it was the Spanish flu between 1918 and 1919, there were no novels written in subsequent years about the epidemic. People wanted to forget that, they wanted to live.
On the other hand, some authors do create their works with the pandemic as their theme, despite the fact that they receive considerable criticism.
It is logical, in a troubled river, fishermen gain. It can be a very attractive topic for authors who lack creativity, but there is still a margin to leave. For now, we are still in the time of journalism.
In her talk, her colleague Isabel San Sebastián said that tradition is as valid a source as the documented facts. Does it match her?
Definitely. Tradition is very valid, and one of the general principles of law is precisely custom.