Only Survival Matters: An Interview with Jesús Carrasco and Margaret Jull Costa




I WORK IN a bookstore — I know how a recommendation sounds. “You’ll love it. It’s so smart/funny/suspenseful/well written. The ending will break your heart.” That’s not how anybody talks about Jesús Carrasco’s runaway hit, Out in the Open. When I first started to hear about this book, I felt like I was listening to descriptions of some transcendent experience, maybe talking to a friend who’d just returned from a commune or gotten interested in psychedelics. “You have to experience it. It’ll swallow you up. I had no idea where I was when I finished it. I can’t describe it, but you’ll see.”

Out in the Open is a novel about a boy who flees abuse in his drought-stricken hometown. He finds himself living on a scorching-hot plain, traveling with a deeply religious goatherd who teaches him survival skills both physical and spiritual. They are hunted, threatened, victimized over and over, but they have no way to turn back. There is no “back”; there’s just danger, drought, and God.

Contemporary novels rarely engage so plainly with faith and physical suffering. Its characters are observant because to be unobservant, even for a moment, would be fatal. The protagonist, referred to only as “the boy,” falls asleep once without meaning to, and the sunburn he gets during his nap almost kills him. In a another novel, this might somehow be a comment on evil and masculinity and power. In Out in the Open, it’s not a comment on anything — it’s an experience of pain so vivid that my eyes watered as I read. 

When I spoke to author Jesús Carrasco and translator Margaret Jull Costa, the question I wasn’t brave enough to ask was this: “How badly did working on this book hurt?” Because reading it hurts. It is blunt in a way that I, as a reader, am deeply unaccustomed to. It made me feel raw and threatened. And yes, I loved it, it is beautifully written, the ending will break your heart; but that’s not the point. This is a novel in which heartbreak doesn’t matter. Only survival does.

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LILY MEYER: Jesús, what was the initial spark of this book?

JESÚS CARRASCO: The initial spark that triggered the writing was something that I observed near me. The different way in which two siblings were treated by their parents, one receiving care and support and the other criticism and some kind of contempt. That made an impression on me and made me think about the family as the first circle of love and protection, the first and most important shelter in a person’s life. 

Margaret, how was this book first pitched to you? And how would you pitch it, if you had to?

MARGARET JULL COSTA: When the publisher first approached me, she simply said: I think you’ll love this book. If I had to pitch it to someone else, I would say it was written in a prose so physical that you can feel the soil on your skin and smell the goats and the blood and the pee, but that it is also a book of great humanity and one that deals full-on with two seemingly eternal topics: child abuse and the abuse of power in general.

Did translating Out in the Open change your understanding of it?

MARGARET JULL COSTA: My first impression was that this was a writer with an extraordinary sense of the physical, right from the very beginning. A translation is always an incredibly close reading of the text, and so as you translate, you inevitably get closer to the prose, but I don’t think the translation process changed my reading or understanding of the novel except to confirm that first impression of overwhelming physicality.

What is your translation process? And does it change book to book? 

MARGARET JULL COSTA: My translation process remains the same for all books. I do a first draft on-screen, then read that through again against the original. I then print out that second draft and read it through again about three times on paper, editing as I go and going back to the original when necessary. Then I put those changes in on-screen, read that draft through again, print it out again and do a couple more readthroughs on paper and again on-screen. Then I give it to my husband (who knows neither Spanish nor Portuguese) to read. And then read it all through again.

Jesús, how involved were you?

JESÚS CARRASCO: I like to be close to the translators when they need me. In the case of the English translation of Out in the Open, the process was very rich due to the extremely accurate and conscientious way in which Margaret Jull Costa works. I remember receiving emails every day for a couple of weeks, with a dozen questions each. She really helped me understand many of the images and ideas that lie in the deepest part of the text. For instance, I remember discussing the second sentence in the book, just four words in the Spanish original, an apparently meaningless verse. But working alongside her, I found out how rooted that sentence was in the book, in the landscape, and in me.

I remember, too, our conversations about all the words that appear in the book related to the different ways in which water can be moved to the fields, the villages, and so on. The Spanish language, since such a huge part of Spain is dry, has generated many of words for this, something that doesn’t happen in the English for obvious reasons. Before working with Margaret, I had never thought about how strongly the culture and the society is mirrored by the language.

Do you think someone outside Spain, or someone who’s not familiar with Spanish culture and society, can fully experience Out in the Open?

JESÚS CARRASCO: I’m positive that they can. The proof is the huge number of languages into which it has been translated. Of course not all of them have gathered the same number of readers. But, for example, the Dutch translation has been widely reprinted and read, despite the many differences between Spanish and Dutch culture. Apart from the place where the story unfolds, the Spanish countryside, the book is focused on human feelings such as hope, pain, loneliness, and violence, which anyone can recognize, no matter where they are from.

Out in the Open plays with several genres: road novel, dystopian novel, rural novel, picaresque. Which of those traditions, if any, is the most relevant to you? 

JESÚS CARRASCO: Curiously, none of them. I recognize as my main influence the North American literary tradition. By the time I started to write this novel, I had read a large number of great American authors such as Richard Ford, John Updike, John Cheever, Paul Auster, Carson McCullers, et cetera. Among all of them, Raymond Carver had the greatest influence on me. Especially in terms of point of view. The way that Carver looked at his surroundings was key for me.

Out in the Open takes place during a drought, and is filled with scenes of burning. It’s impossible not to ask: is this hell? 

JESÚS CARRASCO: It is hell for the main character in the book, indeed. But for me, that landscape was the place where I grew up, which in some ways could appear to be a hell on earth. When I was a child, I remember the scorching summers, followed by freezing winters. During the summer time, due to the drought, the water supply was usually cut off early in the morning and turned on again late in the evening. That meant that our lives were all absolutely conditioned by the lack of water. That was the framework of my childhood, and something that has been carved in the deepest part of me.

I received a religious education from my parents. My father, particularly, was a devout man, and I remember him in silence, reading the Bible. Apart from that, I perceived in both of them a strong ethical behavior. They always helped us to distinguish the most fair and appropriate path to take. And the source of that moral behavior that helped us to drive our lives was the strong religious beliefs of my parents. So I have an enormous respect for religion itself. The other thing is the role of the church, which in too many cases separates from their own doctrine. That happens in the novel. The boy receives his first moral rules from the goatherd, who is a devout man as well, but the church, in that atmosphere of violence and immorality, doesn’t provide him with protection.

How well do you feel like you know the boy? And now that the book has been out for a few years, what parts of him have remained with you?

JESÚS CARRASCO: I have been getting to know the boy little by little since the novel came out in Spain in 2013. Of course I knew him when the novel was completed, but less than I thought I did. I’ve learned many aspects and nuances of the personality of the boy by receiving the opinions of readers. His interior life was one of the pillars of the story because it was, precisely, inside him where the real battle took place. His moral decisions and ethical choices give meaning and shape to the novel and are what, to my mind, make him recognizable and credible, because all of us have to tackle these kinds of decisions. What I most admire about the boy is his silence, and the beauty that is in it.

Margaret, how close to the boy did you feel while you were translating him?

MARGARET JULL COSTA: I felt very close to the boy and to the goatherd, and still think about both characters. I think anyone with an ounce of empathy can understand the terrible vulnerability of their situation and feel outrage at the abuse to which both are submitted.

What was the most difficult part of this book to translate? 

MARGARET JULL COSTA: First, there was the title, which, in Spanish is Intemperie, a word that means “the elements,” as in, “at the mercy of the elements.” But “dejar alguien a la intemperie” means “to leave someone unprotected.” So “intemperie” encapsulates the entire novel in one word. I tried all kinds of alternatives: The Lost Boy, In the Wilderness, The Wilderness Boy, On the Run, The Escape, Exposed, Exposure, Out in the Wild, Lost. My final choice, Out in the Open, at least combines the idea of being out in the elements and of dark secrets being exposed to the public gaze.

Then there was the vocabulary. The book is full of detailed descriptions of everything from milking a goat to saddling a donkey. Jesús was extraordinarily helpful and patient with my questions and often sent me photos or drawings to illustrate what he meant. Having access to the internet was essential too. Just being able to see the object named was a huge help, for example, an “encendedor de mecha” turned out to be something called a rope lighter used by soldiers in the trenches in World War I and still apparently used by people heading off into the wild.

What are you translating now? And what other translations should English-language readers be hoping for or looking out for? 

MARGARET JULL COSTA: I’m currently translating (with Robin Patterson) the complete short stories of the wonderful 19th-century Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, and Robin and I would love to do new translations of Machado’s novels. In the past, I’ve translated novels by the Spanish writer Carmen Martín Gaite and I’d like to translate more of her stories, as well as those of the Portuguese writer and poet Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. And, as a lover of 19th-century writers, I’m keen to translate more by the “Spanish Dickens,” Benito Pérez Galdós. There’s also Julio Cortázar’s astonishing book about Keats. And if you’ll forgive this shameless self-advertisement, English-language readers should look out for Eça de Queirós (in my translations, of course!) — start with The City and the Mountains and work up to The Maias.

JESÚS CARRASCO: There is an interesting new generation of voices in Spain becoming heard. I’d like to recommend the books of Iván Repila. The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, for example, is a beautiful example of a new Spanish voice. Other thriving authors would be Jon Bilbao, Sara Mesa, or Pablo Martín Sánchez. On the other hand, one of the Spanish authors that I’m most excited about is our old master Cervantes who is as modern as the most experimental author in contemporary literature. And maybe funnier.

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Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, DC. She works at Politics and Prose Bookstore.


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