With just over 400 pages, Not Even the Dead (Sixth Floor), a novel by the Spanish writer Juan Gómez Bárcena (Santander, 1984), takes the reader on a journey of five centuries through the history of Mexico.
We follow Juan de Toñanes, a soldier of the conquest who has come to wait bored in a dusty tavern for the authorities to recognize his service to the Crown, when the viceroy of Mexico entrusts him with a last adventure: to hunt down a rebellious indigenous, too called Juan, who goes through the conquered lands preaching heresies among his own.
On the pages – with a narrative reminiscent of Don Quixote , the Chronicles of the Indiesor Rulfo’s stories – full of cadence and humor, the epidemic of 1545 that wiped out millions of indigenous people, the cruelties of the Spanish conquest, the insurrection against the conqueror, the Mexican revolution, migration, the violence of Ciudad Juárez and his missing women, until the days of Trump, with his hate speech against those who try to reach their country in search of better horizons.
It is a narrative feat with which Gómez Bárcena affirms that he wants to show that history is cyclical and that human beings seem condemned to repeat the same mistakes. “I am interested in analyzing the past as a way to understand the human being,” says the writer in this interview conducted by zoom between Mexico City and Madrid.
Question. His novel has suffered, like many other projects this year, the blow of the pandemic . It came out just in March, when Europe and America were closing tight. How have you handled those months of confinement with a project that cried out to be known and recognized?
Reply. We did not know the extent of this. I, and some people around me, had a fiction that it would last a few weeks. It was annoying that it coincided exactly with the release of the book. Then, when you see the seriousness of the situation, you start to think less about literature and more about life.
Of course it was very hard, because it is the work of three years. This reveals what we live in the publishing world, because if a book does not take off during the first two months it is almost condemned to absolute ignorance.
Luckily, and I don’t know how it was in Mexico, here the books have enjoyed a different journey, because the March books, mine among them, continue to appear in shop windows. There has been an understanding on the part of bookstores and the market that these books should have a different life.
One of the hardest chapters tells precisely the epidemic that wiped out millions of indigenous people in Mexico during the conquest. There is the first nod to the news in a critical work with what happens in our times.
That wink was absolutely random, because when I wrote the last line of the novel back in November  I didn’t even know about the existence of this virus.
If I chose to treat the 1545 epidemic it is because I find it very surprising how catastrophic it was, because it is among the most serious epidemics in the world, with the addition that it almost completely exterminates an entire culture.
And yet this is hardly dealt with in books, there are hardly any sources, there is hardly a historiographical approach to the issue. Today we are not even entirely sure what killed so many indigenous people in 1545.
Some have talked about salmonella, but it is not proven. And that was a very flagrant ignorance to me, which in the end has to do with the racist bias of the story, because to the extent that it did not affect Europeans it seems to me that there was not much interest in treating it.
And then I was very interested in treating the epidemic and at the same time using it as a symbol of the destruction of the indigenous world.
The novel is a trip to that past that Mexico lived with the conquest. How should we approach that story? Simplify it? See it under the magnifying glass of good and bad, conquered and conquerors, looted or looted?
In the end we are all simplifying the issue a bit and what I like when approaching history, which is something to which my literary work is closely linked, is to be as deep and rigorous as possible, because to treat with simplicity the past leads us to treat our present with simplicity.
Many times we choose to look at the past in a way to justify today’s policies. I have always found a somewhat difficult position within the readings of the conquest, because there are those who see the conquest as a systematic genocide, as a Spanish project to destroy indigenous cultures.
I think the sources prove that this is not true at all, that at the same time there were humanist projects within the conquest, what happens is that we cannot expect a contemporary sensibility from them.
On the other hand, What I observe from Spain, at least in certain sectors, is an attempt to see the conquest as the arrival of light in America, as almost a gift of civilization that Europe grants to primitive peoples.
That vision seems terrifying to me, because we cannot ignore the immense massacres, the disregard for the epidemics, the de facto slavery that millions of indigenous people lived through.
With this novel, I wanted to demonstrate a somewhat intermediate position, not because of the equidistance, but because the analysis of the sources leads us to a more nuanced position.
Because we cannot ignore the immense massacres, the lack of concern for epidemics, the de facto slavery that millions of indigenous people lived through. With this novel, I wanted to demonstrate a somewhat intermediate position, not because of the equidistance, but because the analysis of the sources leads us to a more nuanced position.
Because we cannot ignore the immense massacres, the lack of concern for the epidemics, the de facto slavery that millions of indigenous people lived through. With this novel, I wanted to demonstrate a somewhat intermediate position, not because of the equidistance, but because the analysis of the sources leads us to a more nuanced position.
How do you personally see it now? The problem is that I believe that we are using it for political purposes in a very clear way and I believe that sometimes it is a way, from Mexico, to divert the focus of contemporary problems that the indigenous population may have, for example, something that I would like to hear more about.
And from Spain, of course, it is a very indulgent way of looking at one’s past and also a way of awakening a certain Spanish nationalism that I at least thought was more mitigated, but that the rise of far-right parties like Vox clearly shows me that I was wrong
Your novel is a journey through five centuries: Conquest, revolution, the Beast , migration, Ciudad Juárez and its disappeared, pimps, violence … It is a work that takes the reader –between horror and humor– through the history of Mexico , but also that it gives the idea that history repeats itself in its same mistakes.
Yes. It corresponds exactly to my vision of the world. I have the feeling that there are permanently certain ideas and certain discourses that adopt different masks and forms, but that in reality they collide between eras in such a way that many times the analysis of the past, when it is profound, gives us keys to understand the present.
I am very interested in this process of repetition insofar as we are still the same human beings, having similar emotions, with equal power struggles. I am interested in this analysis of the past as a way to understand the human being.
One of the highlights of the novel is the one that recounts Trump’s rally and the parable of the snake that bites those who help him, the opposition between a good United States and bad migrants. Does Trump present himself as the umpteenth Mexican tragedy?
Without a doubt. That serpent speech is authentic. What Trump surely ignores is that it is a fable that comes from Aesop.
I think that what Trump is doing, surely without knowing it, is a new seasoning based on certain simplistic, hateful, racist speeches that have been running for centuries and establishing a new hierarchy of denomination and oppression based on a supposed idea of freedom, related with economic liberalism and with the rampant capitalism in which we live.
I was very interested in demonstrating how through all that tradition Trump finally, in certain elements, is a return to the origin. With this I was playing not only what we said before the past repeats itself, but history has a certain fondness for being circular.