Ana María shouldn’t be where she is. Anita, as she is affectionately known, is dead. And yet she is sitting on a metal chair in the shed of her old house. Humming and swaying, she awaits her son’s arrival, and with each movement the mantle of earth that envelops her spills over her sides. “The old woman came out of her grave and crawled here,” the protagonist of Lengua dormida (Sexto piso, 2022), the latest novel by Mexican writer Franco Félix (Hermosillo, Sonora, 1981), is heard thinking. The woman is her own mother, the character her alter ego, and she’s not hallucinating: she’s just dreaming.
The Nordic author, professor of humanities at the University of Sonora and honored for several of his earlier works, such as Kafka in a Bathing Suit (Nitro Press, 2015) and Schrödinger’s Cats (Tierra adentro, 2015), abandons the absurdity that has characterized his latest Books to begin an intimate journey into the abyss: to find out why his mother abandoned a previous family when he was young and, most importantly, why he always refused to talk about it while he was alive. Félix’s obsession with giving voice to that silence “that lurks at night and kills and dismembers and tears you to pieces”, in the words of its protagonist, has led him to write a story full of confusion and humor that gradually unfurls . Sometimes it appears as a seemingly disorderly chronicle, sometimes as notes in a diary, sometimes simply as a love letter; always interspersed with small digressions on language and time.
“More than what you have, what you lack is what defines your personality, because if there’s one thing that defines us as human beings, it’s desire,” says the novelist, who loves slow times and flees from social networks. In a previous interview he has admitted that he considered becoming a painter, but his color blindness dashed the idea and books eventually channeled his artistic vocation. The writer receives EL PAÍS on a warm morning in a bookstore-café in Mexico City, where he reflects on grief and his relationship with his mother, whom he compares to La Llorona.
Questions. When did you realize that you needed to investigate and tell your mother’s story?
Answer. I noticed it as a child. My mother seemed like an enigma to me because my sister had a different last name. When you’re a kid, you have those doubts, don’t you? When you get older you say, “Oh, my mother was married to someone else.” But when my mother wanted to ask about it, she put her tongue to sleep: “I don’t speak. There is no such thing as my first 33 years.” I think this hollowness in history fascinated me. In 2010 I wrote a text about it and published it in a Spanish magazine because I thought: He won’t come here, he won’t read it. I would never have done it in Mexico because I might have read it, but this text had repercussions on a very special, psychotic level, with the other family that wrote to me. It was becoming more and more mysterious. That’s when I realized that it was necessary to write.
Q Did your mother ever read the article?
R I don’t think so, I don’t think so… Or I don’t know. The truth is that I hardly know my mother who is writing her book. I don’t know his attitude, his way of thinking. No matter how hard I try to get inside his head, I can’t. Now society is more modern and we accept it a little more. There are very interesting authors who talk about dissident motherhood, about this right to allow yourself to feel or stop feeling or experiencing sensations that are archetypally frowned upon. But 45 years ago you didn’t question it. She was just a woman who had left her family.
Q What does the literary process look like when the protagonist is her own story, when she eliminates this distance when it comes to telling what is happening?
R It was very difficult because it is very testimony and I feel very exposed. And I think the way to distance myself a little is with humor. He has a great sense of humor I think, doesn’t he? It’s absurd when someone says, “Ah, I’m funny”. But yes, I try to hide my world view a bit with humor. Like that nervous laugh, that veil of laughter.
Q Does humor protect us from pain?
R Yes, it’s a form of crying. It’s a crying laugh. It was complicated, but I also wanted to confirm my mother’s account, and if I had done it with a third person, it would have felt more like fiction. And here it seems to be me, Franco Félix, speaking about my story, and that’s the way it is, right? I wanted it to be some kind of confession. The whole origin of my failures… The big crack I have comes from there.
Q Even in the novel, he claims that the only way to talk about a hole is to name the wound it leaves on the surface. What is the wound that left you?
R There’s a chapter where I say that it’s like all mothers eventually leave you. Maybe not in the same way as leaving a family, but hey, his death is a form of abandonment. That big wound. Oh, this thing is killing me, it’s killing me. And I had to work on that for a long, long time. All my faults are in this feeling. Almost as if he’d inherited that pain she’d brought with him when he left a family. My mother would cry at night when she was drunk, she would lose consciousness and start screaming: “Ah, my children!” The truth is that he almost lived at La Llorona. Why am I writing like this? Well, because my life has always been very strange in that regard. I go out on the street and I don’t understand anything, for me life is a question mark.
Q He begins the book with one dream and ends it with another. They are a transversal element that drives the story forward. What role have they played in your life, in your grief?
R Dreaming helped me enormously to have this conversation with my mother. His last words in the hospital were spoken to me. He said to me: “Take me home”. And I didn’t take her, and then she died, and I was really a little upset about that. Dreams have helped me resolve those pending conversations. The: “Mom, I didn’t take you home, I took you with me after you died.”
Q Do you think they can really be a neutral place where the living and the dead meet like your character claims?
R In fact, the dream was over before his death, but to me it seems like a farewell because I’ve had great satisfaction on this neutral ground we’re talking about. How to Believe You can’t really be a disbeliever. If there’s something mystical about my life, it’s allowing myself to dream, allowing myself to converse with her in my dreams.
Q Do you believe in life after death?
R Notice I didn’t believe, but now I’d like to, right? And not for me, it’s a wave that I wanted my mother to be in this place that she wanted her whole life. I question a lot about it. I can be reborn as a fly, but because of her. It would be frustrating, wouldn’t it, for someone who believes in something too much and realizes it’s the end. Death is not the end.
Mexican writer Franco Félix, at the Cafeteria El Pendulo de Condesa, on February 15, 2023. Aggi Garduño
Q So is the book a way to say goodbye and let go or, on the contrary, to hold back time so that you never have to say goodbye?
R Well, it’s a bit of both. On the one hand I say goodbye, but when writing and fixing in the text I also try to make it permanent. I say, “Well, you and I will be here, mother. We will survive here.”
Q Now that you know what your hidden past was like, do you regret looking for it?
R [Ríe] No, I don’t regret it. I wish I had more time. I feel like all this speed… even editorially. Yes, I have a little problem letting this story go. But I know there will be things I will include in the next book, save parts.
Q What is this book about?
R It’s a bit about my father, about his background. I have a few books finished, but my previous books are absurd, totally bizarre. And that’s a different writing. I no longer know how to go back to the others, although I don’t want them to remain in a box.
Q In other words, he will continue to explore the father-child path.
R Yes I think so. If my mother’s death has taught me anything, it’s that you have to be careful. Pay attention to the things you ignore, right? And I’d like to talk about my father’s story, but that’s more of an excuse to continue talking about my mother.
Q Now that you’ve finished writing the novel about her, can you say that you already know who she was?
R Yes, I can say that I have allowed myself to know some things, but many others I am not aware of. If in life it was a question mark, now it’s a bigger question mark. And that is essential. I defend this invisible story. You never have to explain jokes. If not, they become a very boring thing.
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