Pedro Mairal’s novel The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra was published in July 2013 by New Vessel Press. The novel tells the story of Juan Salvatierra, a man who became mute after a horse-riding accident and began painting a series of long rolls of canvas detailing life in his village along Argentina’s river border with Uruguay. After Salvatierra’s death, his sons return to make sense of the pictures their father left behind—and to find one roll of canvas that has mysteriously gone missing. A little while ago I interviewed Pedro Mairal and asked him a few questions about inspiration, style, beaming books into outer space, and his next project.
Ross Ufberg: What sparked the idea for The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra? You seem to have a knack for coming up with fabulous plots: your first novel, A Night with Sabrina Love, was about a teenager who wins an evening with the porn star of his dreams. I’m curious as to how everything came together in this novel: did you get the idea for a painting first, or did everything start with the idea of a man who loses the power of speech? In other words, was it the chicken or the egg?
Pedro Mairal: The first idea for The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra appeared whenI was watching a documentary on Jackson Pollock, and they said after he was placedon a pedestal as the best artist in America, with his photo on the cover of Life magazine, he couldn’t paint anymore. I thought about the opposite, a painter who paints every single day, unknown, and who goes forward no matter what, and paints an endless canvas. With that I started drawing up the character. I thought: he is an amateur painter, it’s better if he does not live in a big city but in a small town because he doesn’t participate of the modern art world, he is mute because of an accident, he is a freak and doesn’t care about theorizing about his own art, he is naive in a way, and free, he doesn’t care about critics because he just paints because of some strange urge he has, but doesn’t show his work. Only to a group of smuggler friends who use his barn to hide stuff and get drunk there once in a while.
I realized all this had to be told through the painting. It’s his son, years after his father’s death, who tells the story in the end, while he rediscovers the rolls of canvas and unfolds the images, the novel, the story or his family, of his town, this kind of illustrated autobiography Salvatierra left behind.
Ross Ufberg: How long did it take you to write? It’s a slim novel but every word is carefully weighed. As one reviewer wrote, “There is never an idea or even a single word too many or too few.”
Pedro Mairal: I had the first unfinished draft in a couple of months, but I abandoned my characters in the middle of the river, when they are crossing to Uruguay looking for the missing roll of canvas. I remember feeling bad about them, abandoned by me in that frozen frame, in the dark. In that same year I finished the book and then it went through several rewritings, and smoothing the edges. It was clear for me from the beginning that it wasn’t going to be a baroque novel, overloaded with words and verbal fireworks. It had to flow like the river beside the town where Salvatierra lives and paints (to him, living and painting are the same).
Ross Ufberg: At its heart, one could say that The Missing Year is a novel about learning too late what it is we’ve lost: Salvatierra’s son comes back for his father’s canvases and discovers they’re much more interesting than he remembered, and he begins to wonder just how much of his father’s life he never knew about. What for you is the core of this book? Because there’s also an element of gaining something – in that remarkable scene at the end of the novel, when the son, with a son of his own, watches Salvatierra’s artwork float across the wall.
Pedro Mairal: Maybe the core is just there, in the unavoidable gap between generations. Even if you speak face to face with your father or your son, you are 30 years apart, away. The novel is about finding a bridge over that gap. Finding your father and starting to know who you are, finding your son too. Artists leave behind their whole life in images or words. Of course in finding that there is a delay, but it’s a reunion anyway. The good thing about art is that when you find it it’s never too late. When art happens it’s as if it was just finished for you.
Ross Ufberg: One critic called your novel a “quiet farce of the international art market,” where art fetches obscene prices and too much attention is paid to the artist, perhaps, and not enough to the art itself. Was this on your mind when you were writing it?
Pedro Mairal: Yes, “quiet farce” is good. Though I didn’t really want to mock or criticize the art market directly but just show how art sometimes (many times) flows in a completely different way, far from that radar, far from the styles that the market expects. Salvatierra knows what he is doing, and just takes whatever he needs from each art style he lays his eyes upon. He even uses the style he finds in a drawing his son does. You can only live that freedom if you don’t let the market guide your work. Of course this has consequences. Silence is one, and making a living in some other way is the other.
Ross Ufberg: Who were the authors most important to you growing up? Who did you read in your teenage years? In your twenties? Thirties? Have you seen a shift in who and what you like to read in each decade of your life?
Pedro Mairal: I remember reading for the first time in a different way when I was 19, I started reading short stories like when a kid opens a toy to see how it is made. I read Cortázar, Borges, Salinger, trying to find the hidden tricks. Before that I was more of a poetry reader. So my other influence comes from poets like Neruda, Vallejo, Dylan Thomas. When I later studied literature I started reading the classics. Five years after I was teaching English literature and writing my own stuff.
Ross Ufberg: If you had to send one piece of fiction and one piece of nonfiction to a being from another planet, what would it be and why?
Pedro Mairal: Maybe Ulysses is a good novel to show an alien all the things that happen to a person on earth in a single day.
And non-fiction … Darwin? Or a 19th century botany book with pictures of strange plants.
Ross Ufberg: Have you read the English translation by Nick Caistor? How involved were you with the process?
Pedro Mairal: Nick only asked me a few very precise questions about strange words only used in a particular place of the Argentinean countryside. When I read his translation I was amazed by how the Spanish original is not standing in the way making that heavy syntax you sometimes find in translations. It sounds as if it was written in English in the first place. There is a lot of intelligence and talent in this translation. I was lucky to have him take care of my work.
Ross Ufberg: What are you working on now?
Pedro Mairal: I am slowly starting to take notes for a long novel, drafting the first sketches. I’m not very sure what is going to come out from it but Ill try to enjoy the ride.