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Interview with ROBERT WILSON

Written by Georgina Burns

The Blind Man of Seville is an epic tale of human experience. It’s Easter week in Seville and a leading local restaurateur is found bound, gagged and dead in front of a television screen. The victim has struggled to the point of death to avoid these unendurable images, but what could be so terrifying? The journey to find the killer takes the detective in charge, Javier Falcón, on a painful journey of his own.

Robert Wilson

We asked Robert Wilson what had led him to choose Seville as his location for Javier’s turbulent awakening. ‘My love affair with Seville started when I arrived there on a bicycle in 1984 and I’ve been going back there ever since.’ He goes on to explain how much of the city’s characteristics are reflected in Javier’s experiences, even down to the basic geography of the city. ‘They all formed part of the texture of Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón’s collapsing inner world. The narrow, winding, cobbled streets of Seville became indistinguishable from his anguished mental alleyways.’

Paul Preston, the author of Franco, and a huge fan of The Blind Man of Seville said, ‘The sights, sounds and smells of Seville in Holy Week zoom off the page’. How did you manage to create the spirit and people of Seville so authentically?
Before a word is written of a book I have to have a very strong feeling about the setting. If I have that inside me then the characters and story will emerge. This does not necessarily mean I have to know the place deeply but I will have had a powerful reaction to it, normally in the form of great swings of emotion. To feel the richness of a place you have to see its poverty too. 
    My love affair with Seville started when I arrived there on a bicycle in 1984 and I’ve been going back there ever since. The streets still retain the maze of the medina, the sun blasts down on the palm trees and jacarandas, the bars are always open and full and the locals like to stay up until six o’clock every morning, especially during the Feria de Abril drinking fino and dancing Sevillanas. This is my kind of town but this is the Seville that everybody else sees too. 
    I used two techniques to make it feel fresh. I only wrote what I saw with my own eyes so that I could bring a unique vision to every description. I also used all the classic associations of Seville but not just as backdrop. They all formed part of the texture of Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón’s collapsing inner world. The narrow, winding, cobbled streets of Seville became indistinguishable from his anguished mental alleyways. The Holy Week processions with the Virgin on her float had a devastating impact on him because of associations in the detective’s mind. The bullfight, in its stages, mirrored the intricacies of the interplay between killer and investigator with an unexpected outcome. Sevillanas were danced at the Feria amongst glasses of fino but it was like some form of redemption rather than hedonistic celebration. In short all the clichés were there but transformed to return their meaning to them and to bring greater power to the story.

For me, the genius of The Blind Man of Seville is the way you so convincingly put your finger on the pulse of the human condition and the slippery slope to what many would term ‘evil’ acts. In many ways your orchestrators of bad deeds are more frightening than the usual literary psychopaths, because they are so believable and immersed in everyday life. Without giving too much of the plot away, where do you think the violence and hatred that is at the heart of your protagonists comes from?
An American journalist interviewing me about The Company of Strangers asked as his opening gambit: ‘Why do homosexuals make great spies?’ I told him that it was probably because back in the 1950s/60s/70s with society/the law intolerant of homosexuality they already had something to hide. Take that thinking a step further and ask the question: ‘What could make you betray your country?’ I would suggest that it has to be something visceral to make you hate your country and your colleagues sufficiently to betray them every day. To be denied a full and happy life because your sexuality is not acceptable to society, I think, would prove visceral enough. In almost all my books the villains are rarely motivated by their intellect but rather by some damage sustained at the hands of other human beings, which has broken the link of trust. Love withheld, innocence defiled or vulnerability abused are more likely to motivate violence and hatred than, say, money or politics. 
    The journals of Javier Falcón’s famous father, Francisco, were for me the cornerstone of this book. I was riveted by the candidness of this artist’s tormented and twisted words. I know that you took three months out to work solely on the journals. That must have been a bizarre period - did you ever feel like you were being taken over by the hand of Francisco Falcon? 
    It was a mesmerising patch of creativity. I wrote the journals in the towering heat of the summer of 2001, which somehow suited the demanding nature of the character. Every day I would sit down for four or five hours to become this half-mad, demonic, charismatic, crafty, weak, vulnerable, brutal, sensual, chilling, amusing maniac. The journals burgeoned to such an extent that my wife began to worry that the main story would never be resumed and I would say: ‘Yes, yes, just a few more entries to go.’ and plunge back into the maelstrom in this man’s head. Where that intense period of imagination came from I don’t know. I had an idea and just got into it. The voice was always separate from me even though I was creating the words. Nothing really scary happened like stuff I didn’t know about art, for instance, suddenly coming unbidden into my head. The interesting thing for me was that what started out as a bit of technical virtuosity actually gave the whole book wings.

Most of the characters in Blind Man are blind and closed in some way, whether to a painful past they want to bury or to their own potential for happiness. Which do you think applies to Javier? Do you see him as sleepwalking through life, or burying painful memories and associations so deep that he doesn’t even know they’re there?
I think both apply to Javier. He felt responsible for the terrible incidents of his childhood. He had no way of processing the tremendous sense of guilt and he was not helped with it either. He dealt with this by burying these powerful feelings so deep he no longer knew they were there. Their long-term effect on his psyche was to diminish him as a human being. By the time we meet him he is an enclosed individual, right down to his suits and ties and lace up shoes. He is literally holding himself in, applying his own strait jacket, and it is having a devastating effect on all his human relationships, and not just those with women. 
    Fear is a dominant emotion of the characters in this book. There is a fascinating exchange between Javier Falcón and his bullfighting friend, Pepe, which seems to draw a distinction between the tangible fear of a matador and the intangible fear felt by Javier; a man who doesn’t know why he’s frightened, or what of. Both of these men seem in the grip of a terror, but do you see one as being more real or more difficult to deal with? 
    I’m not afraid of flying, I’m afraid of crashing. The imagination is a much more potent force for fear than reality. The reality offers you a course of action whereas the imagination erodes your will. Pepe has a tangible fear. He is going into a ring with an unpredictable wild animal. All his fear comes from the imagination that this afternoon he may meet the bull that will be the one that gets him and either puts him in a wheelchair or kills him. But he does have the release of the eventual act. 
    Javier’s fear is more appalling. He is in the grip of a terrible fear but doesn’t know what he is scared of. He only knows that it is something inside him. What could be so terrible, he asks himself. In his case there is no release. There is nothing he can ‘do’. Fear is not supplied by his imagination because he doesn’t ‘know’ what he can imagine. It is unimaginable. I think his paralysis is the worst form of fear - a constant, unremitting state.

The Blind Man has a strong theme of ‘art’ running through it - your characters create art, but also worship it, buy it, steal it, and inspire it. What does art mean to you? Do any artists move you in the way that the famous Falcón nudes moved their admirers?
I’m glad you left the easy question to No. 6 so that I’m well warmed up. 
    Art is genius whether it’s words, paint, stone, music or performance. Genius is an original capacity to transform and transport. It can help you to ‘see’ things in a way that you’ve never seen them before and move you to a state where you no longer feel the same. I went to the Tate Modern when it first opened and was amazed to see the crowds. Art has become something that we can all be fascinated by. It does not demand profound knowledge only the ability to see and react. 
    I particularly remember two things. The first was a rough table, which looked as if it had seen much chopping, like a butcher’s board. From a distance I had a strong feeling of dread about this table. As I came closer I could see that stretched out in lines over the surface were strands of human hair. I can’t remember the exact title of the piece but I think the word ‘torture’ appeared in it. It was pure horror and I’d felt it. The other exhibit was an abstract painting, speckled, red and grey. The woman in front of me turned to her friend and said: ‘That looks exactly like those non-slip tiles you get in a disabled person’s lift’. The sublime and the absurd - art has no control over the viewers’ perception. 
    The Blind Man of Seville is a book about our ability to distinguish between appearance and reality, the extent to which we can believe what our own eyes tell us. The experience in not just confined to the characters in the book but is extended to the reader as well. There are sight lessons for everybody. I think if you’re writing a book with appearance/reality as the central theme then art offers a multiplicity of dimensions, as Francisco Falcón shows us. 
    I have been moved by Gauguin’s South Sea Islanders. They inspire a great melancholy in me because these primitive people seem to hold some mystery within themselves that gives them a powerful connection with their world and this is something which we, in our civilised state, have lost. This is not, however, what the Falcón nudes are particularly about but they do have a mysterious, indefinable quality.

It’s interesting that you are an English writer who writes largely about Africa and the Mediterranean. You live in Portugal and obviously have a great interest and love of the Mediterranean way of life, so how do you feel about England when you return? Do you still feel British, or have you become naturalised to life abroad?
I certainly don’t feel Portuguese or Spanish because of the time I have spent there. I am still British, but sometimes I feel like a tourist who’s revisiting. I find myself saying things like: ‘What the hell happened to pubs?’ I have always been something of an outsider because I have never belonged anywhere. My father was an RAF officer and we moved from base to base. I was sent to boarding school around about my eighth birthday. I used to envy people who had lived in the same place all their lives and had a developed social life away from school. I am someone who has always had to adapt to my surroundings, who has always had to get on with people to survive. Children from Forces’ families recognise each other. It’s the odd mixture of vulnerability and adaptability, the outsider always trying to fit in, the observer in the midst. It gives me plenty of material to work out in my books, believe me.

Javier Falcón’s epiphany is at the heart of The Blind Man of Seville, yet you are taking him on to another book. Will his own psychological journey continue to be at the heart of this next novel, or will you let him float more to the sidelines? Do you intend developing a series around Falcón?
I haven’t gone to all this trouble putting Javier through these phenomenal crises to have him drift away to the sidelines. We are continuing with his journey but the next book is not a direct follow-on. There has been a gap. There have been developments through his rapport with the psychologist but as you can probably realise there’s still a lot of work to be done. Falcón is a damaged man. If anybody should be allowed an identity crisis it’s him. An interesting relationship developed between himself and the prime suspect, Consuelo, in The Blind Man of Seville and that will be something that’s taken up in the next book. We haven’t seen the last of Calderón and Inés. There’s plenty of unresolved stuff to look at in the next book, which will also take place in Seville. 
    I do envisage a series of at least four books with Javier. I think I will move him to a different city perhaps Madrid or back to Barcelona, where he did most of his training for the two books that follow the one I’m working on at present.

Robert Wilson
The Blind Man of Saville
2 February 2003, Harper Collins

© 2003 Harper Collins reprinted with their permission http://www.fireandwater.com

See exclusive photos taken at the launch of The Blind Man of Seville


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