José Carlos Llop

“We Mallorcans have a sense of the ridiculous that prevents us from doing certain stupid things”

José Carlos Llop (Palma, 1956) is the author of En la ciudad sumergida (RBA Libros, lit. ‘In the submerged city’), a sentimental tale written in first person about the Palma he knew as a child and a teenager, a city that no longer exists but which Llop rescues from his memory to offer it to us in a masterly, essential story.

José Carlos Llop en su juventud

You say that “Mallorcans have woven a subtle culture of co-existence that consists of never quite getting to know each other completely: this is the only way we feel protected” What does you attribute this to?

Well, people’s personality and behaviour is extremely complex and is associated to psychological implications and other, social ones, and also to upbringing. This complexity is too exhaustive to deal with in any one person, Mallorcan or continental. In this book, as a Mallorcan myself, I have related a series of things, but always keeping in mind something that exists in all my autobiographic literature, that is a certain sense of modesty and reserve. Fuss annoys me, and by this I mean public fuss, and in my books I try and ensure there is none. Stripteases are great fun between 4 walls and 2 people, but not with an audience of strangers. And I think this is a good definition of the Mallorcan temperament.

So it is true then, as people say, that we Mallorcans are reserved?

Yes, if we understand being reserved as a form of elegance on the one hand, and as ethical on the other. As a way of relating to others, to respect other people’s space, and ensure they respect yours. Modesty and reserve is very important in this way. And then there is another factor, and that is that as Mallorcans we have a very acute sense of the ridiculous, and I say we have although I should really say we had, given everything that has happened. But that sense of the ridiculous prevents us from doing certain stupid things, or rather it used to prevent us from doing certain stupid things.

Another quote from the book says that “we Mallorcans are too accustomed to beauty” What exactly does this mean?

I am referring to the landscape here, of course. I am not referring to philosophical beauty, because unfortunately Mallorcans don’t read the works of Ramón Llull. But we do have a sense of aesthetics that is created, educated and nurtured by the landscape. We live on an island with diverse micro-climates in a few square kilometres, different landscapes where there are mountains, agriculture and sea, very different things that influence us absolutely from a very young age.

And Palma, as a city, also forms part of that beauty...

Palma is a beautiful Mediterranean city, a city beneath a splendid light, facing the sea, with a sea port, which implies a different conception of the world to that of inland cities. But in my book I don’t speak of the Palma any visitor can see and experience nowadays, but of the Palma of the second half of the 20th century, that is a city which, aside from its natural beauty, had a hybrid, Mediterranean life that no longer exists. I speak of it as it was, as life, and within that life as joy and pain but not from a nostalgic perspective. People who have not read the book may think it is a book written with nostalgia, but this is not the case. It is a book written from a perspective of life. And of will, which is a very important part of life.

So in a way we could say that the Palma you describe in your book is neither better nor worse than today’s Palma, just different.

The Palma I describe in my book is less contrived than the one of today.

Perhaps that is something to do with the age we live in...

We are not oblivious to the age, it has to do with the age, with the social changes that have taken place and the forgetfulness that exists in the age of post-modernism and relativism, that is to say, people don’t know what soil they are treading on or what has happened before they arrived, it is as though you started from scratch. As a literary possibility this may be entertaining, it prevents a recognition of who one is. I believe it is extremely important to know the city and know of the city where one lives or where one is from. It is like knowing the family you belong to.

You write, “Being from a place because one can’t be from a different one.” Many people from Palma and Mallorca have always had a constant love-hate relationship with the city, because when you’re in it you want to leave, and when you’re away from it, you want to come back.

That is the result of insularity. I believe that the love-hate relationship with one’s native town is a relationship that has inseminated a large part of western culture, for example, in Cavafy there is a love-hate relationship with Alexandria, a city he loves a great deal but which simultaneously there are times he hates. Leaving one’s native town to achieve what one wants in life in a larger city is an endemic episode in all of our culture, it is not just typical of here, in spite of the fact that here there is the added factor, I repeat, of insularity.

In the chapter dedicated to the writer and journalist Andrés Ferret you say, “I don’t know if Palma is a city capable of loving anyone”. Are we really that antisocial?

I’m not saying that the people of Palma are incapable of loving anyone; I am describing Palma as an abstract entity, like a topical sketch, in spite of the fact that Palma is also the sum of all its citizens, but it is an abstract entity, all cities are abstract entities. Look, when you start to pay homage to people – from what I have seen and experienced in my life – this is bad news, because either those people are sick or there is something wrong with them, that is very typical of our culture. The thing is that we shouldn’t be shocked by this, either, that’s the way we are and we grow from that basis and defence mechanisms are created for that kind of personality. But you can’t want things to be different to how they are. There is something eternal called fatality and destiny, and every city is the way it is.

In the book, several times you say precisely that the destiny of being from Palma is a fatality.

I speak of the fatality of the destiny of being from Palma because I have written a book about Palma, and I have written a book about the people of Palma. You said just now that we feel the need to leave, to return when we aren’t here, and that is a fatality. Even when they leave, islanders are always on the other end of the telephone asking what’s going on whilst they away. That is the fatality I refer to.

What do you feel when you are young and dream of being a poet and at the same time live in the same city, and the same age, as two artists as important as Joan Miró and Robert Graves?

I have always said it was a luxury. The thing with Graves and Miró is that they were “poetry”, the sensation that when you saw Graves you were seeing a poet in a celebration of poetry. Or when you looked at a painting by Miró, you were looking at a part of the mystery of poetry. These people co-existed in my own region and this conferred on me the privilege of knowing I was not alone on my chosen path. It was a luxury, just as it was a luxury to see Villalonga walking around the city with his wife, Teresa Gelabert. Llorenç Villalonga is probably the most intelligent Mallorcan writer of the 20th century, and the coldest one too, because he had a cold personality, but the vast culture and intelligence in his books will live on forever.

Speaking of Llorenç Villalonga, one of the most interesting chapters of En la ciudad sumergida is the one that refers to “the two Palmas”, that of Villalonga and the Cathedral district, and that of El Terreno and Camilo José Cela. What were those two Palmas like, and indeed what was your experience of them like?

My experience of them was very good (laughter) and I liked both of them very much. One was the past (Villalonga’s Palma) and in the past there was a city on which history had left its mark. Historically, El Terreno represented the ‘30s and ‘50s and the cosmopolitanism that existed before the war and then again ten or twelve years after the war. El Terreno was Ava Gardner, Paul Morand, Errol Flynn. Until in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s mass tourism and the Swedish girls interrupted it, and Plaza Gomila meant nightlife and also fun, connecting to what one could experience at the time in London, Rome or in a way in Paris, something that didn’t occur anywhere else in Spain.

Would your youth have been different if that hadn’t happened?

Well, I entered the scene at the end of all that, I entered in the early 1970s, and by then the culture of my generation was more pop-rock; we saw and enjoyed the end of all that but we were more the kind that frequented the Chotis and Polilla bars, and our music was Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, or the Stones, and that was our culture, mostly Anglo-Saxon culture as regards music, and you could say that our appearance was too. We were lucky to experience that era of the city, afterwards everything was more contrived.

You say “a writer lives permanently surrounded by phantoms” What are your phantoms?

My phantoms are in this book, they inhabit [...]


Read this article in full in IN PALMA 23. And if you like, subscribe to IN PALMA for 1 year and get the next 4 issues of the magazine delivered to your home.

José Carlos Llop en su juventud
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