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Martín Carbajal: "Differences are not a point of separation, but a desire to understand the other"

The writer presented his fifth novel "El latido de Al-Magreb", published by M.A.R. Ediciones, at the Burma bookshop in Madrid, a work that talks about diversity, differences and the importance of putting ourselves in the other person's place
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PHOTO/ATALAYAR/GUILLERMO LÓPEZ  -   Pablo Martín Carbajal

Pablo Martín Carbajal takes us once again to the African continent, this time to Mauritania and Morocco. Through his protagonists, two brothers from the Canary Islands who work in the family business, and who do not have very good relations, the author takes us into these countries to show us the "heartbeat" of their people, their history, their culture, their religion, their diversity... Moments before the presentation of his fifth novel, "El latido de Al-Magreb", Martín Carbajal talked to Atalayar about the importance of being able to put ourselves in the other's place in order to respect and understand each other; about his love for the African continent, where he has been going for more than 20 years; the Sahara conflict, about which he has a pessimistic view; the poetics of the titles of his novels; chance and destiny; and his writing and his projects, such as the publication of the second part of his first work: "Tú eres azul cobalto".

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You are in Madrid presenting your latest novel, "El latido de Al-Magreb". What is this heartbeat?

I would like to convey the reality of the region, but an integral reality, talking about history, politics, religion, culture, society... There is an attempt to get to know the other, how those who are different think, to see the differences between us and them in order to be able to put ourselves in their place and them in ours in order to respect and understand each other. The novel breathes all this I have just said and I hope that this is the heartbeat, a heartbeat that leads us to know the region and to love it as I love it. 

Mauritania, Morocco, also goes into the Sahara... What is the author's opinion, not the characters', of this conflict that has been going on for 40 years?

The novel does not show the author's opinion, but that of the characters, but it is true that there are people who assimilate the main character with the author.  There is a moment in the conversation in which the two points of view are seen: the more pro-Saharawi and the more pro-Moroccan. The Sahrawi characters ask him what he thinks about the conflict, and he gives his opinion. The author does not answer, but it is true that I wondered whether it was mine or not.

So, your opinion is...

The way the issue is set out, my opinion is that it seems to be a conflict without a solution, no matter how many attempts there are from both sides, it seems that there is no possibility of reaching an agreement. The novel is set in 2015 and 2016, so the latest events in Spain related to the Sahara do not appear.

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Let's go back to your writing. As a great connoisseur of Africa, what is the view that is perceived in the street, not by politicians or journalists, but by ordinary people, like the brothers in your novel?

Well, the view that I have encountered, and I have been going to both Morocco and Mauritania for more than twenty years, and the feeling I get when I meet my friends in Casablanca, Rabat... and we have dinner or lunch and talk about more personal matters, is that there are not so many differences. It's a fact that there are, because they are different cultures, but what you see is normality. I perceive people who are aware of this diversity, but with the eagerness to get to know the other, respect and understanding. And that is the view I want to offer in " El latido del Magreb " and also in my previous novel, " Tal vez Dakar ", where black cultures appear. The differences are not a point of separation, but a point of curiosity, a desire to understand the other.

Your main characters, with their existential crises, will take us to other cultures, customs, religions, ways of seeing life... Do you think that readings like yours help us to understand diversity?

Yes, yes, I think that's the aim: to understand the other.  I think that even in the last chapter there is a key conversation that deals with the ability of people of different religions to put themselves in the place of the other and to be able to understand each other. The novel makes an effort to understand even the diversity of Islam in a country like Morocco, which is mostly Sunni, more moderate, but where there are many other interpretations of Islam, even the most radical. There is great diversity and what some people think does not represent all Muslims, far from it. That needs to be emphasised.

You quoted from your previous novel "Tal vez Dakar". Let's go back to the African continent, is it true that you are hooked by it, that you fall in love with it?

Yes, well... Some people are hooked by it and others are not. In the novel, one of the brothers is attracted to Africa; the other person, in principle, is repulsed by it. I think it hooks, it hooked me... and it has to do with the Africans' capacity to overcome, despite the difficulties in which they live, despite the poverty, because it highlights that feeling of overcoming, that joy that they apparently show, although afterwards there are many things behind it. In Africa, there are many realities. The feeling is that they go all out, that they are not afraid of losing things, because they don't have much either. You are hooked by the social cohesion, the African solidarity networks, which also work at the family level. There are many arguments that make you fall in love with the continent, such as the search for identity. They were colonised, they didn't exist as such, and suddenly in the 50s and 60s they had to become new countries. I think it's a very interesting process, for example, the emergence of Moroccan nationalism; the doubts that Mauritania had about becoming a country when they were just nomadic tribes without any kind of political organisation; the case of Senegal, all the negritude movements, the defence of black rights and culture; or the Sahrawi revolution. There are four struggles to find a place in the world. I find it exciting. The normal traveller doesn't see this, I discovered it when I started reading about Africa. Then, you leave that first more exotic or superficial look behind and you begin to understand.

pablo-martin-carbajal-latido-magreb-marruecos-sahara-mauritaniaThe fact that you have been Director General for Relations with Africa in the Canary Islands Government and that you have observed from the islands, has this made you feel a reality that others do not?

The truth is that I was already aware of this because I had worked, travelled a lot and lived in other countries. I had travelled around the world with a backpack... I was sensitised, I had the need to get to know other countries and other cultures. Although it is true that being general manager helped me to intensify this feeling even more.

Did your experience in the NGO have more weight?

The view of cooperation has enriched me. The NGO experience in Armenia was enormous. Because in cooperation, you go with the idea of helping in whatever way you can, and this view of cooperation is not something that any person, a businessman or a politician, can have if they haven't lived it. The time I spent in Armenia and Brussels was key.

And there is also an important reading: Robert Kaplan, who is a great geopolitical analyst. When I read Kaplan, I wanted to do the same thing he did, to try to analyse countries from a geopolitical point of view, from the point of view of understanding society. Kaplan and Africa, Armenia, Georgia, the former Yugoslavia... These readings resonated with me. All this is also the basis of my novels.

Well, let's go to the first one: "Tú eres azul cobalto", where the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is essential, and to its author, how has Pablo Martín Carbajal changed?

I have written five novels which I divide into two distinct periods. One, more intimate, of personal relationships, where the character is also analysed and which would include my first three works. And another, more of travel and adventure, of geopolitical history. Two completely different series of novels. What is true is that the intimacy of the characters in the first phase does not disappear in the second. How has the writer changed? Perhaps in that he is now more experienced in the craft of writing, but he hasn't changed his outlook. Now I'm going back to that first intimate phase, because I think there are many things to tell. 

"Tú eres azul cobalto", "La ciudad de las miradas", "La felicidad amarga", "Tal vez Dakar", "El latido de Al-Magreb". These are very poetic titles...

Yes, that's what they tell me. I'm very happy with my titles. The first one came from a book by Marta Zamora, a Frida Kahlo scholar, who described the feelings of colours for Frida. That title marked me a bit because I liked it a lot. I look for that inspiration in the titles, for them to suggest something. The most difficult one was the last one, "El latido de Al-Magreb" , the others came out more or less. 

Why was the last one the most difficult?

Because I wanted a geographical word in the title and at first I couldn't think of Maghreb. There was Mauritania, Sahara and Morocco, which for me are different things. I was looking for a word that would encompass all three. I thought of many possible titles, but I couldn't think of Maghreb, because it also encompasses others such as Algeria and Tunisia. Until I discovered the history of Al-Maghreb al-Aqsa, which is the westernmost part of the Maghreb, the Atlantic part. I thought about using the whole name, but in the end I opted for "El latido de Al-Magreb".

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In your blog you tell us that it was born on the Day of the Book and you wonder whether it was a coincidence or not. I'm going to Mexico again. The writer Andrés Henestrosa said that nothing is by chance, that everything is written. Do you believe that?

Yes, (laughs). I believe it, or I want to believe it, that I wasn't born on the day of the book by chance and that it was written in some way. I have never dared to state it with such forcefulness, but yes, I like it, I love being born on that day. I celebrate it with great enthusiasm, for the birthday and for literature. It must be something to do with destiny, in some novels I wonder if it really exists.

Finally, you have expressed the hope that your sixth novel will come out in a year or two. Is it the second part of "Tú eres azul cobalto" or does it close the trilogy on Africa? 

The second part of "Tú eres azul cobalto" is practically finished, I still have two chapters to go. In my first novel I used the technique of hidden facts, which I learnt in the book "Cartas a un joven novelista" by Vargas Llosa. You mention a fact, but you don't discover it. I decided to use it as a literary exercise, I was just starting out, and it worked very well for me, because in reading groups, the readers, mainly the women readers, would ask me what was going on with Tía Mila and they would ask what I was writing down. They've been asking me that for more than ten years. It was very curious. During the pandemic and the confinement I reflected on this character and I found her story.

And of the third book of this Africa trilogy, can you tell us anything about it? 

I want it to be a trilogy closely linked to the geographical situation of the Canary Islands. The channel with Africa has Morocco, Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal and Cape Verde. And Cape Verde I haven't touched on, but it implies something else: the islands of Macaronesia... It could go that way. Although there are also American cities that were founded by Canarians such as San Antonio de Texas, Montevideo... and I like all this. There's the idea, but there's nothing else yet, what I do want is for the Canaries to understand their geographical context. I don't even know if I'll ever write it. Now, Tía Mila and another one from the intimate part.

Another one? Tell me about it.

No, no (laughs), I can't, it would be too much.