A slightly different version of this first part of Michael Guillén's conversation
with Guillermo Arriaga appeared at The Evening Class this summer.
Look for a second part when Babel opens wide in two weeks.
During his recent Bay Area promotion of the Simon and Schuster publication of The Night Buffalo, I met up Guillermo Arriaga to discuss the novel and his screenplays. After introducing myself, he asked about my family name, where my family was from and queried whether I knew that I shared the name Guillén with the Subcomandante Marcos. Of course, I smiled, my friends always wonder where I go when I'm missing for weeks at a time. He laughed. Our brief conversation was engaging and a bit unnerving as Guillermo never once averted his gaze. He has a shaman's piercing stare.
Before we focus on The Night Buffalo, I want to congratulate you on your wins at Cannes, last year for the screenplay for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and then this year for Babel; I understand it did very well.
Thank you very much.
The Night Buffalo. This is your first novel published in the United States?
Yes, it's my first novel.
But it's actually the third novel you've written?
Yes, it's my third novel and I wrote all of my books before writing screenplays.
The first two novels will also eventually be published?
Yes. One of them's published in English but in England and all the English territories, well, former English territories.
Can you synopsize The Night Buffalo?
This is the story of a man who has a very good friend who's called Gregorio. Gregorio is a schizophrenic young man and he has a great love for his girlfriend, Tania, and a great trust and love for his best friend, Manuel. These are the people he trusts the most. But while he's going in and out of the mental asylums, his girl friend and his best friend begin having a relationship until they fall in love. Obviously, the relationship between Gregorio and his girlfriend is broken and the friendship is broken. When these friends seem to reconcile, Gregorio kills himself, and he leaves Manuel a box with secret messages after being dead, with letters, photographs, tapes, and slowly Manuel begins to get into the spiral of madness that his friend has been living. So this is a story of madness, of love, of a sense of being lost, of guilt, and how in the end you have to realize and assume the consequences of your acts and the valued importance of love.
"Consequences" is a term I see applied to your writing a lot. Mainly I know your writing through your screenplays and it strikes me as a blend between quantum physics and eastern metaphysics. [Guillermo chuckles.] In physics they say every action has a reaction, but with you it seems more like it's a richocheted reaction, more of an indirect reaction. Why the interest so much in consequences? Or culpability?
Because we have been very superficial in many [ways]. Even in the news, no one cares about human life. In the movies right now, the hero kills, everyone has accidents and no one cares... it's not about moral consequences. It's like having some gravity on human acts. Having some substance with what's going on with the human condition. Assuming that your decisions have consequences is part of the human condition. The existentialistas - the existential philosophers - were always very aware of these things. Your life is defined by the decisions you [make] and you are your decisions. I am obsessed with this way of thinking.
I commend you for wanting to add that depth to human understanding because I agree with you - there is a lack of understanding. Another aspect of that blend between Eastern metaphysics and quantum physics is the term tat tvam asi - thou are that - which means that we are not separated at all. Separation is an illusion that physics and metaphysics discount. What I see in your writing is a lot of that quality, that you strive to profile the connections between people even if they're not aware that there are connections, but moreso to show that the separations are false, the politics are false, the obvious is false, and you make a viewer strive to understand what's deeper in human interaction.
My basic themes and concerns are the human substances. Other people are more into style, or more into the structures, but I'm trying always to write everything into the service of trying to understand humanity, especially contradictions in human conditions. My teachers told me in literature and cinema that I must create loveable characters and I am against that. I must create interesting characters. And the way for me to create interesting characters is to portray the contradictions of humanity.
Your narrative style - speaking of style - is what poet Gary Snyder might call a riprap style, a backtracking narrative overlap style. How did that develop? Why did that become a narrative tool for you?
First of all, I have ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder, so I jump from one place to another. Second, I am very influenced by Juan Rulfo and William Faulkner who say each story has a way to be told. And third, I'm influenced by the way we tell stories. In our daily basis we never go linear.
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