Borja Ortiz de Gondra
SPAIN | 2022
Borja Ortiz de Gondra was born in Bilbao, Spain, in 1965.
After training as a theatre director in Madrid, he moved to Paris and worked as an assistant director in the major public theatres of France. Years later he returned to Spain and became a renowned playwright, winning several awards, including Best Playwright at the Max Awards (Spain’s annual national theatre industry awards) in 2018.
His first play was produced by the Centro Dramático Nacional (the National Theatre of Spain) in 1999. Since then, his work has continually been produced in the major theatres of Spain and Latin America. Many of his works have been translated into German, Czech, Finnish, French, Italian or Portuguese, among them Trilogía de los Gondra, Duda razonable, Memento mori, El barbero de Picasso and Dedos (vodevil negro).
In 2021 he published his first novel, Nunca serás un verdadero Gondra (Random House) to immense critical acclaim.
He currently divides his time between Madrid and New York and has also become a well-known translator of major English-language authors such as Eugene O’Neill, Joe Orton and Martin Crimp.
Accepting Beatrice’s invitation to a three-week residency at the Santa Maddalena Foundation was an act of faith. Thanks to some mutual friends, I had some idea of what the literary residencies there had to offer, and of how fascinating the place, and Beatrice herself, could be. But I had also heard how lonely and isolating it could feel to live in the tower where so many great authors had stayed. It would mean dedicating myself completely, monastically, to writing. I had no literary projects ongoing at the time, although I did have some hazy, embryonic ideas for something that might possibly become a novel. I set out on this voyage into the unknown, hoping that the flame of literature might be lit, but without any certainty that it would be.
My most recent books were works of autofiction, and I had begun to wonder if this inward-looking genre was turning into too tight a straight-jacket. In the navel-gazing world we live in today, ruled by the tyrannous selfie and over-shared personal experience, what sense does it make to unveil our wounds in the first person? Can writing go beyond individual pain and offer the world something other than yet more self-absorption and the over-sharing of our private lives? For whom do we write? Why write at all? As I made my first attempts to write at Santa Maddalena, these were the questions that hounded me.
As the days passed, my doubts grew. In search of a light to guide me in my uncertainty, I followed my writing sessions with trips to the Foundation’s library, gleaning what I could from the books of the authors who had been there before me. There, I came across the booklets of the lectio magistralis, the speeches given by great writers at the ceremony for the Premio Gregor von Rezzori. I began to see how Carlos Fuentes, Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood or Michael Ondaatje had attempted to answer these questions. Finally, with her typically guileless laugh, Beatrice gifted me the very book where all the speeches were compiled. That day, the book travelled to my bedside table in the tower and, as if it were a charm, I turned to it every night before going to sleep. The answers were as varied as the authors, and although none could really answer the question with any certainty, all of them tried, with the same passion, futile perhaps, to keep on weaving words that might light up a world that wanted to hear them less and less.
In the days when being unable to write the novel I had dreamed of drove me to despair, Beatrice told me the one-thousand-and-one fascinating tales of her nomadic life, wayfaring between countries and languages. I listened, feeling like a child awaiting his daily story. This 20th-Century Scheherazade had seen it all, knew how to describe it with flair and drama, and succeeded in doing what we all want literature to do: keeping me wanting more. Without my noticing, Beatrice was reawakening in me the reason why we need fiction: because our own lives are not enough for us, and knowing about the world that lies beyond the confines of our own opens up our senses to our shared humanity.
As we dined together alone one night, both our memories failing us as we tried to recall names, Beatrice settled things with her characteristic, wry aplomb: ‘C’est l’heure de l’oubli’. She said this in French, the language that seemed most appropriate, and from then on it became a talismanic phrase that we would use when trying to remember things that eluded us. Back at home now, and wondering how to go on writing the book that began to take shape in Santa Maddalena, those words still resound in my head as a possible answer: some day, the ‘time of forgetting’ will arrive and, faced with it, perhaps the house of words that I am building now will offer a fragile memory of times passed. If, on the path towards it, I have found a glimmer of light, it is thanks to those three weeks I spent in Tuscany, feeling my way in the darkness.
Translated by William Gregory