From Inquisition to Tortuga – Interview with Valerio Evangelisti


When we wrote to ask him for an interview, Valerio Evangelisti not only was exquisitely available, but he even invited us to lunch with him. During the meal we talked and discussed, among other things, the online magazine Carmilla, mentioning his friendship with Giuseppe Genna. Therefore, when we started the interview, it seemed obvious to begin right from there.

Note: to distinguish between the two interviewers, Caimi’s contributions are in bold, while Gregori’s are in bold italics.

I would begin with a comparison between you and Giuseppe Genna. Your way of writing is rich in content, though it is very readable; therefore, it gets through to anyone. On the other hand, Genna, after Tar (Catrame), has begun an involution process, until Dies Irae or works like De Profundis, which I personally liked and became very fond of, but I doubt that the average reader, after a few lines, would understand what he is reading. And so I ask you: how important is readability in a literary work, especially in a literary work with political content?
Genna and I are following slightly different paths. In the sense that, coming from poetry, he gives a lot of importance to the language; indeed, in some way, he creates a language of his own. He devotes himself to the thriller genre not by vocation, but he is using it as a vehicle for other things: talks on the current events, philosophical or even metaphysical talks.

Sometimes he even makes lists of adjectives and plays on them…
I am struck by his invention of certain words, or by his frequent use of uncommon words. For example the luccicanza (the Shining), which is in some of his novels. But he can also change his tone: his Hitler, for instance, is not written like the others, he is almost educational, from his point of view. My concept is different: I have some things to tell and I adopt a style which is as functional as possible to make those things intelligible. If I have to express movement situations, which are frequent, I want to do it visually. On the other hand, if I write literary essays (let’s call them that), though not often, I adopt a more noble style. To understand my kind of work, take as an example the Eymerich cycle novels: since I was not and I am not going to reproduce a medieval language – which, by the way, no one knows well enough to make a whole book – I have used longer and more elaborated sentences. Whereas, if I write something quick and easy, then I give free rein to my phrases and try to expand the visual elements. I am definitely not a stylist and, after all, as a writer I do not consider myself among the classics of literature; however, I certainly  do some work on the way of writing, though this is not always perceived. But I prefer Hitchcock cinema, where you don’t notice the tricks, rather than Brian De Palma cinema, which is evident virtuosity. This is my basic concept.

In some way, like certain works by the Coen Brothers, which are exciting from a visual point of view: Barton Fink is visually extraordinary.
Both ways are admitted. What I hate, what is just out of my way of feeling or appreciating literature, are those books which are almost stylistically perfect, but have no contents. In some way, I’m looking for contents.

In fact, this can be noticed. And Genna as well. But he expresses himself in a deliberately more complex way.
Reading Genna is like reading Plotinus, like reading a philosopher. This is the key to understanding Genna. As a matter of fact, he writes thrillers simply because he wants his books to be read by many people. Actually, his education is completely different from that of a thriller writer.

Indeed, Eymerich is also thrilling: there is a lot of suspense… It is a different kind of narrative genre, but it is just as captivating, it makes you live the moments of pathos, of suspension in which you say: “now what?”
Sure. In one way or another, it is a synthesis of various popular genres. In Eymerich’s novels there is a bit of everything. There is also something else, but they are a synthesis of horror, science fiction, thriller, etc., bearing in mind that it was born on the columns of Urania. So, that is its origin. Therefore, suspense becomes a necessary ingredient. Now, suspense can be achieved through various systems: the one I trust the most is telling the story from the protagonist’s point of view. Like in some horror films, you are most focused and you jump not at a long shot, but at a knee shot: where the protagonist is framed from the waist up and you can see just few things around him and then, perhaps, a very quick figure passes behind him and he does not notice it. In fact, identification is facilitated by this type of shot. In my novels it is like this, since for instance you can say “Eymerich thought”, but instead you have to say: “maybe Father Corona thought”. Actually, you follow the protagonist’s stream of thoughts, and so what surrounds him is what he sees. This drives the readers, almost unintentionally, to identify and therefore to experience the story from the inside.

This happens despite Eymerich being an inquisitor, a character with whom, theoretically, it would not be easy to empathize…
Here is my game: he might be a very unpleasant character, but actually he is not. Somebody, exaggerating, even considers him positive. He is not unpleasant because he is always smarter and more educated than those around him anyway, despite being more wicked than all of them. At any rate, his lucidity is not common to anyone else; no one is at his level. Secondly, his kind of perverse mentality belongs a little to all of us and is unfortunately more active than ever in our society. It is a schizoid type of mentality, i.e. an asocial background, a number of difficulties in getting into relationships with the neighbor that then result into aggression. Therefore, even the most benevolent reader, let’s say, ends up recognizing something of himself in the character, who is horrific but still fascinating. Moreover, he is a metaphor of the forms of power, which are ugly and fascinating at the same time.

Metaphor that is also present in Tortuga, I think.
Yes, in a way, yes.

Personally, I read Tortuga in a political way. In a sense, the pirate society of Tortuga seems to contain a hypothesis on the foundation of our present society.
Yes. My question, that continues in the two subsequent novels, is the foundation of a society having to have and not to be as its center, we can say. It is not just the American society being developed, it is a new kind of society which is not driven by any actual ideal. The protagonists admit it since the outset: “in the end, we are not here in order to fight for a cause”. In a way, I face head-on all that literature presenting the pirate experience as libertarian. No, they simply stole, killed and enjoyed as long as it lasted. I notice this kind of hedonism now as then, it’s fairly widespread, especially in our country. And I somehow wanted to represent it in an unusual setting.

To me, it seems a good answer to hits like the Caribbean Pirates film series, and also the old pirate movies, which represented them as romantic and fascinating characters.
Nothing to do with it. And even novels that I loved very much, such as the Black Corsair or all of Salgari series, are a far cry from mine. Somehow, my pirates are lost, if you will. I tried to be realistic, to document the context, to show what the behavior of people not believing in anything could be.

Including the protagonist, who tries to give himself a semblance of nobility, but ultimately has to yield to his instincts.
And then he turns out to be worse than all the others.

It’s quite a good reversal, I think. Moreover, in the last years I’ve noticed you’ve abandoned the Eymerich series to enter other kinds of novel, different types of stories with more political issues.
Sure. But I had ended up becoming Eymerich myself, that is I was Eymerich’s writer.

By the way, the special issue of Lazarus Ledd, as Eymerich, has also been published.
Well, many comic versions exist. A videogame is about to be issued, too. I’m always fine with this kind of things because I believe that, nowadays, literature cannot remain closed in on itself, but must somehow expand. Whether the results are good or not depends on who puts their hands on it, but it is not for me to say “No, don’t do it,”; indeed, I usually fight for them to do it without paying me any royalties, because they are doing me a favour, actually. But I get back to Eymerich periodically, as a matter of fact, because, frankly, it’s partially a commercial issue: Eymerich novels outsell all the others.

Also abroad…
Yes, depending on the country. They are translated almost everywhere, in some places they work, elsewhere they don’t. Surely after Italy comes France. However, I also wanted to prove to be able to do something different: I made some attempts, successfully I think, with experimental novels such as Black Flag and Metallo urlante (Métal Hurlant), but then this one was not a novel, but an anthology.

Yes. Both with Einaudi…
Not surprisingly with Einaudi, because they were more favourable to experimenting. After that Mondadori said, “No, we want him,” and suggested that Einaudi should mind their own business. Note that before I had proposed them to Mondadori, and they had told me “no, they doesn’t suit us.”

Then Mondadori published Antracite and…
Yes, because in the meantime my position inside Mondadori had changed. Before I was “the Urania guy who writes cute and successful novels.” That’s who I was. After Metallo urlante and Black Flag consideration for me increased a lot. Then there was a move to another location, due mainly to a Mondadori executive who evaluated my work differently from others, and who later became the editorial director, Massimo Turchetta. He was among the first to pay attention to me and I was moved to the Strade Blu (Blue Highways) series, which is almost independent from the rest of Mondadori and carries on its own narrative line between pop and avant-garde, let’s say. In that position, I was free to write anything I wanted and even move away from Eymerich. But I will never dump Eymerich because I’m quite similar to him temperamentally, but in a better way… He is the worst of me; I’m like that, but also different, I am more sociable, for sure! So I do not intend to abandon him: I want to bring his story near the end. But in the meantime I also write something else. Then there was the unexpected success of Tortuga. I wondered, “Who now reads a story about pirates?” I felt like writing it, and I offered it, but I was sure it would have been rejected. Instead it seems that a part of the public –it has to be partly due to the movies with Johnny Depp- appreciated, and so…

Maybe someone has learned something about pirates…
Some pirates fans were upset with me, even if in a friendly manner, but I am too strong on this level. Nobody can beat my documentation, so…

This is important. Documentation is an essential support.
Yes, I do not write anything until I am absolutely certain that I have created a credible scenario.

And recognizable, possible to find…
The reader, in my opinion, is well aware of when a scenario is bogus. For example, when you stage a fake English: perhaps the reader knows nothing about English, but he understands that it is working badly. I try to stage, even with all the possible poetic license, a credible Middle Ages, as well as a credible Caribbean. This means that, for what I tell, I need a thousand details, then I’ll use only a hundred of them, sometimes even less, but those details will be … serious.

However they affect the trend of the story, because each story has its own internal credibility, may the reader know it or not.

Instead, many authors treat the story with a certain ease, perhaps too much.
I do not like this kind of attitude, as I do not like a poorly written story. Take the story that I wrote for the book made with Moresco, Controinsurrezioni (Counter-insurrections). To write my story, which more or less I had been designing for a long time, I had to document myself with the history books of the period. In that case it was the Roman Republic, and I found myself in front of rhetorical texts, written by young authors, perhaps inspired by the books of the last century or the fascist era, so full of rhetoric: ” Garibaldi the hero” , “the shining Garibaldi hero “, and so on. I did not want to do those things, but fortunately I had bought years before – and never read to the end -, a collection of partisans diaries, and one in particular was starkly realistic. For example, it speaks of the shootings of priests in Rome, which the country’s history did not used to consider; it speaks of a series of attitudes and, especially, there is an air of strong defeat, from someone who has lost his battle. I made my story similar to that book.
If we take as example others who were inspired by the Garibaldi era, which are very few apart from the classics, such as Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), contemporary authors either exaggerated in tone, or the Risorgimento remains in the background when in fact it was, good or bad, a revolution. A certainly unfinished and certainly regrettable revolution, but still a revolution. In the end even Dumas, who claimed to use history as a wall to hang a picture, did not keep the premises, because his novels are too sharp and rich in fine detail, much more perhaps than he himself realized. After all he was helped by collaborators in charge of doing research.

As it happens now, especially in the U.S. publishing.
Sure. Then the book work, the author’s work, is becoming more and more a collective thing, almost industrial. I don’t agree with this much, because I like to entertain myself and live the stories I’m writing. If I had to share it with others, I would not be able to live them. Others may succeed.

Nevertheless, you can be prolific.
Relatively prolific. Normally I write one page a day, no more, maybe one and a half, but every day and methodically. Then it must be said that I lead a pretty lonely life. I am divorced, no children, still in a relationship with my ex-wife, but I live my days largely alone, except when I decide to go visit someone. This means that I can keep my commitment, that is to write constantly. Then I write a novel a year for a reason: it allows me to maintain my standard of living. So, as long as they keep accepting my books, I will continue to write one a year. No more, though, because it is already quite tiring. Then I see that over time it’s becoming more difficult, although it is always exciting. Frustrating and exciting. Frustrating because you never know if you will reach the result, exciting because you live a thousand lives. So I’ve been on pirate ships, in the Middle Ages, I have been around time and space.

In Mexico…
In Mexico, I will actually go there, did you know?

Yes. It was a question that I wanted to ask. How come, Mexico? Where did you get this interest?
My interest stems from a general interest for Central America, basically. I mean that, in the eighties, I went to Nicaragua, where the woman who then became my wife moved. So, as many times as I could, I would go there and, if one sees the sky as it is there, or the sea, or nature, it is difficult to resist.

Or smells…
Indeed. Some fall in love with Africa. To me Latin America, Central America above all, has the same features, but perhaps their way of life is much the same as ours. At that time I had the chance to buy a cottage in Puerto Escondido, South Mexico, and I got it at once. A friend of mine who had lived there sent me some pictures so that I could find an Italian client to buy that house. I saw the pictures, then I read the price and I said: “I’ll buy it”. So I go there, not as a tourist, even though I often tour the inland areas of Mexico. I go there just to work, with the difference that at my place just one car passes every hour, there are little birds, there is the sound of the sea…

The smell of roasted coffee in the streets…
Sure, sure. And there is also the extraordinary Mexican television, which is probably the most sentimental in the world, and is great fun to me.

I went to Guatemala and fell in love with those places…
Beautiful. The last time they didn’t let me cross the border, though…

Didn’t they?
No. I entered Guatemala for just a couple of meters because of unnecessary bureaucracy. I was coming from Mexico by car, and they asked me to prove that the car I was driving was really mine. But I had no way to prove it. I should have had to go back to the car rental agency. So I entered Guatemala for just a couple of meters, and then I went back.

I have never heard anybody talk about the America bug. They talk about the India bug, or the Africa bug. Anyway, those places have something that captures you…
Yes, they are rough places, so to speak. But my place is not involved in this situation. If in North Mexico the people are of a certain kind, in my village they are almost all of Indian descent. Therefore, also their habits are different. They have a dark complexion, but also their temper is different. They are quiet people, let me put it this way.

There are also so many different ethnic groups, that can be distinguished by the colours they wear. In Guatemala, it’s the clothing style that marks the typology, the social identity.
Yes, in Mexico and also in Guatemala you can find so many tribes, let me call them this way. The Mayas, for instance, are divided into many groups. Sometimes, even their religion is different, it may well take inspiration from the Catholicism, but with… crucial variations.

Once, when I was in Guatemala, I attended a Mass. It was an extraordinary fusion of influences, what we would call a pagan fusion. All the statues, for instance, which were terrifying and reminded me of the medieval art, were garlanded with flowers. Moreover, while the priest was saying Mass, for instance, the people played some Beatles’ songs, which had been changed into religious hymns. While the Mass was performed the congregation celebrated a pagan rite throwing flowers and rose water, and still there was a religious feeling around, a spiritual feeling which is really distant from ours.
Yes. It’s because in those places some missionaries, perhaps more clever than the others – this caused their own ruin – tried to conceal the Christian cult behind residues of pre-Christian rituals, and the chaos resulted from this situation. Once I went to a church in Chiapas, which is not far from my place, and I realized that their prayers amounted to giving belches. They drank Coke, which was also offered to the saints, and then they discharged themselves. They are strange people. Rather recently the Mexican government has decided to create some sovereign, self-governing communities, because they are almost impossible to be ruled, actually.

It’s a vast country, with a completely different sense of belonging to the earth and of identity.
Yes, and besides their racial prejudice is horrible. If we look at the negative side of the matter, even today, after fifty years of revolutions, the white Creoles are dominating, and all the others are dominated. Moreover, in the area where I live there are something like thirteen guerrilla groups in action. However, nobody knows whether they really exist, or if it’s a fake reason alleged by the army. The EPR (Popular Revolutionary Army) is divided into thirteen fractions, though. They don’t fight one another. Sometimes some small groups go out of the forest, attack a military base, and then go back into the forest.

I almost fell in love with your novels Il collare di fuoco (The fire collar) and Il collare spezzato (The broken collar)
These are the novels that were sold the least, in Italy.

In Italy?
Not in Mexico, for instance.

Your research for documentary sources was extremely deep for these novels, I guess.
Not less than one hundred books or so.

Can you describe your transformation from a historian to a writer?
I think that as a historian I was tolerably good. I wrote four books and a number of essays. But, apart from the fact that my academic career was not advancing, I was more and more uncomfortable with the otherwise well-founded request to keep myself cool, to use quantitative more than qualitative methods. I found myself describing facts and events loaded with human passion, which I couldn’t express without being criticized for this. Besides, I had been struck by a sentence of Adorno, who told that who’s writing, for instance, a merely quantitative history of the concentration camps is not writing the real history of the concentration camps, because there is a human substance inside it, a tragedy. I felt the burden of this sentence and realized that I was just reducing human stories to abstract elements. I began to rebel against this situation publishing an essay that had a remarkable reception, as I received the praise of Eric Hobsbawm, a great English historian. The essay was a story of the punk movement, not a story of old times, as punks were still alive. I wrote this story for a magazine that dealt more with culture in general than with history. The essay received a strange reaction, because everybody reviewed it except for the academics I was connected the most to.
I couldn’t go any further being there with them. As, in the meantime, I had passed an open competitive exam for a public position, I decided to break free from the academic history and to resume it in another form. So I did. That change was not unlinked to my previous history studies. On the contrary, it was strictly connected to them.

The protagonists of your two Mexican novels are minor historical characters. Did they really exist?
They all existed. All except for two of them. I knew their names and the places where they lived, and nothing more. All the rest, even the most insignificant characters, did really exist. I didn’t try to follow their lives in detail. After all it’s a novel with no protagonists, it just spans across time. You might well lose a character, and then find him later. It’s a collective story. Of all these characters I didn’t tell the real lives, but the possible ones, sticking to the information I had, but also adding something else. A strategy I had already used when I was writing Magus, the most commercial of my novels, about Nostradamus. Being many of the facts of his life rather uncertain, I put all that was sure inside the book, and then I added the things I had made up. Anyway, these two novels are intended to give an account of far more extensive facts. This has made them very hard for the public. In fact, if the Mexican reader is used to certain names, or he even went to a school named after “Flores Magon” or after some other characters of my book, the Italian public didn’t. That’s why they got lost, they couldn’t find my standard style.

It’s a pity.
Well, you also get lost reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, unless you draw a family tree!
It’s true. But the purposes of that book are different. Anyway, while the common people’s reception of the two “collars” was arguable, it was really enthusiastic from the public engaged in politics, so to speak. For instance, it was one of the most sacked books by the left-winged community centre members when they invaded some bookshop. They paid a reduced price for that book, but they highly appreciated it, much more than the common public, who was used to Eymerich, did. In spite of this, the two novels had two or three editions each, only two or three if compared to the more than fifty editions of Nicolas Eymerich inquisitore (Nicolas Eymerich, the Inquisitor) and of all the other novels.

(To be continued and concluded in the next issue)

Translation by Silvia Accorrà, Anna Anzani and Michele Curatolo (edited by Chiara Canova)