“I believe Toscana has written one of the most beautiful novels in our language.”
Those were the words of Peruvian writer – and 2010 Nobel laureate in literature – Mario Vargas Llosa just a few weeks ago, as he presented Mexican novelist David Toscana with the Vargas Llosa literature award in the city of Guadalajara, for his recently published Spanish novel The Burden of Living on Earth.
Today, Toscana is one of the most prominent and acclaimed Latin American novelists in the world. His books have been translated into countless languages – including Arabic.
Felicidades, David Toscana, ganador del V Premio Bienal de Novela Mario Vargas LLosa. pic.twitter.com/Cd9mro8ctL— Álvaro Vargas Llosa (@AlvaroVargasLl) May 29, 2023
(Tula Station was translated by Syrian translator Rifaat Atefeh and published by Dar Attakwin in Damascus, while Olegaroy was published by Dar Alhiwar. The Enlightened Army and The Last Reader have also been translated in Kuwait by Mohammed Salem and published by Dar Al Khan.)
But Toscana wasn’t always a writer. Born in 1961 in the Mexican city of Monterrey, he decided to pursue a university degree in industrial and systems engineering. It was only after he turned 30 that he began writing – and he still wonders what compelled him to pick up a pen. More than three decades later, he has fully dedicated his life to his craft, eliminating cultural boundaries in the process.
Al Majalla caught up with the award-winning author – who now resides in Madrid – to get a glimpse into the insights and inspirations that shaped his latest novel, which revolves around a husband and wife who embody a host of characters from famous Russian novels.
You recently won the Vargas Llosa literature award for The Burden of Living on Earth, presented to you by Mario Vargas Llosa himself. What did that award mean to you?
It definitely means a lot to me. When I started writing this novel, I saw it as a deeply personal project and hadn't even considered publishing it. When I eventually did submit it for publication, it was rejected by two publishing houses. Readers and critics had conflicting reactions to it, too.
But this award – and the article that Vargas Llosa wrote, where he praised the novel – has brought me immense joy.
Your novel sheds light on Russian authors who have been persecuted, exiled, and jailed for their writings. What made you want to focus on this theme?
Essentially, my novel defends the freedom of writing, reading, and imagination. Russia has consistently lacked these freedoms throughout history, including the times of the Czars, the Communist era, and even under the current presidency of Vladimir Putin.
Despite this, Russia has produced some of the most remarkable novelists and writers on the global stage. In my novel, I express gratitude to all those who were either killed, exiled, jailed, sent to the gulags, shunned, expelled, assaulted, banned, or censored simply because they created literature that wanted to elevate humanity.
The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam once said that only in Russia is poetry so respected that it gets people killed: “Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” Sadly, Mandelstam himself was exiled to Siberia, where he died of starvation.
At its core, your novel’s message is that cultural boundaries don’t exist and that each writer’s work is intended for all of humanity.
You depicted Russian literary icons like Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Boris Pasternak as living proof of literature's universal nature and its power to liberate humanity. How do you perceive the role of the novel in our contemporary era?
Not every popular novel can achieve universality. That’s why we have to recognise the few writers who’ve been able to pull it off. These days, universality is mostly overlooked in books, ever since Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad.
But there have been a few stand-out authors who have successfully rooted their novels in shared human experiences, like concern or yearning.
The ancient Greeks used to say, “Write for the generations to come.” Sadly, this sentiment seems to be lost among modern authors. We can’t predict the future, but we have to consider future generations when we write. Nowadays, most Spanish novels are written for entertainment, by writers who are barely in touch with culture, literature, or creativity.
When I read reviews of their novels, there’s a common sentiment – “This book was easy to grasp.” It seems like a lot of today’s readers are averse to intellectual books.