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 “My book arose, like much literature, from friendship”



Munir Hachemi’s breakthrough novel Cosas vivas has met with widespread critical acclaim, a book that offers a thrilling narrative while scathingly criticizing the powerful agri-food industry, environmental degradation and the corporate quest for profits at any cost.


Four young Spaniards – one of them, the narrator, like Hachemi himself, of Algerian origin – go to the south of France for the harvesting season to earn some money. But the trip turns into a nightmare as they are moved to work in brutal poultry plants where they pump vaccines into squawking ducks, and later work in baking hot fields injecting strange substances into mushrooms and corn. The four young friends start to lose their humanity and watch their summer in the beautiful south of France slide into the abyss, as the narrative underscores the ravages of intensive agriculture and animal husbandry.


The book was based on a real working trip Hachemi and his friends once took, he said.


Cosas vivas arises, like much literature, from friendship, Hachemi said, speaking ahead of his appearance at the 7th EU-China International Literary Festival.


“It was a shared project between three of the protagonists. The idea was that each of us would write a text, of whatever genre, about the trip we had made together, and then publish a volume with the three texts. G began a story several times that he finally destroyed. Alex ended up writing a science fiction novel about delivery men in China, and I did Cosas vivas. I have always thought that this story perfectly defines the three of us. Even for the one who didn’t write anything.”


The working experience had a direct impact on Hachemi’s consumption practices, where he first stopped eating chicken, then any factory-produced meat. Then gradually, over a period of about five years, he switched to a vegetarian and finally a vegan diet.


The book was written in diary form, with occasional autobiographical references peppered throughout, which Hachemi said was a literary device that engenders intimacy.


“The diary is, like the detective genre, a literary device that served the purposes of the novel. And one of those purposes was to illuminate, rather than the different forms of oppression that we experienced or that we exercised on that trip, the network of relationships that made them up. In that sense, the diary, which is a false diary, of course, fulfills the purpose of creating an effect of reality, as well as an intimacy and an identity between the reader and the narrator,” he said.


One of Hachemi’s earlier novels carried the title 废墟 (feixu, or ruins in English), a book he wrote in 2016 and self-published.


“At that time I didn’t sign my novels and I gave them titles like that, so they were unpublishable, as you can imagine. More or less that year China entered my life with force through my friend the translator Xuan Le (轩乐). Soon after I would start, with her help, to study Mandarin. As for the novel, it is a science fiction text in which I wonder about the identity of a human being who lost his memory every time he slept but who had a series of tools at his disposal to capture the experience, such as paper, pen, recorder, camera, etc.,” he said.


When Hachemi first started writing he self-published and sold his work on the streets and in the bars and restaurants of cities like Madrid and Granada. It is an inspiring rise for someone who is now an established author and listed by Granta magazine as one of the 25 best Spanish-speaking fiction writers in the world. Hachemi said he never really set out to become a professional writer, but just enjoyed the process and only felt the time was right to consider finding a publisher when he had finished Cosas vivas.


“I never intended to publish before writing Cosas vivas. When I finished it, I felt that the novel, as a political artifact, could only be activated with a publisher involved, and Periferica was the first and last one I offered it to. It is true that, now that I have found that house, I want to continue publishing there,” he said. “But it is also true that it was a matter of luck, so I cannot recommend anything to anyone – I can only recommend that they have luck.”


As an academic Hachemi has a deep knowledge of Borges in particular and Latin American literature in general, and in his early days almost all the literature he read – and that interested him – was from Latin American, especially South America.


“I would never have started writing if it were not for this, and the codes I use to think about literature come from there. It was not until I wrote Cosas vivas that I started reading Spanish authors, because I was ashamed to be part of a generation whose texts I did not know. It was only at that point I discovered that there actually is a very interesting young literature coming from the Spanish state,” he said.


Hachemi is currently living in Beijing and is lecturing in Peking University, which he said has been a stimulating and rewarding experience.


“First of all, it has given me something I’ve never had: financial stability. At the same time, it has given me a certain distance from what we call ‘the scene’, and that distance has allowed me to dedicate myself to writing what I feel like,” he said.


“In the professional sense, having to face some extremely intelligent students is an intellectual stimulus. In addition, I have started reading – and translating, in collaboration with Xuan Le – Chinese literature, which I believe has changed my reading in ways that I have yet to unravel.”


Hachemi has also written poetry for several years, but would be reluctant to identify himself as a poet, he said.


“I don’t know if I would call myself a poet. I started writing poetry and I’ve never stopped, but I don’t read a lot of poetry and I don’t feel in dialogue with a poetic tradition. Perhaps for me it is precisely that, an instance that continues to function outside the codes of the literary market.”


When looking for creative inspiration for himself or for other writers seeking guidance, Hachemi said that he often finds himself citing two authors in particular.


“An Argentine, who said ‘first publish, then write.’ And the other is from Beijing, and I recently interviewed him with my friend Guillermo Bravo. In that interview, he told us ‘not failing is a problem’.”


At the 7th EU-China International Literary Festival, Munir Hachemi will join Wang Weilian, in conversation with Zhang Fan, to discuss their writing lives and how they engage with the creative process to bring their best work out on the page.