Daniel Saldaña Paris rehearses a minimal choreography when he writes. The Mexican novelist and poet writes more by hand since he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic disease that affects the joints, and observes: how he bends over the notebook, the pressure with which he squeezes the pen, how much it hurts. Dance and pain, he says, have in common the loss of control over the body. In his last book, The dance and the firewhich was a finalist for the Herralde Novel Prize, the writer recounts the reunion of three friends in a city besieged by fire and threatened by a dance epidemic: “I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable to imagine an end of the world where people dance” .
The fires that surround the city of Cuernavaca turn the air brown in The dance and the fire (Anagram, 2021). Three friends, a scalene trio, meet there again after years apart. They are around 35 years old and trying to recognize each other. “There is a lament for a lost community,” explains Saldaña Paris (Mexico City, 37 years old), “the feeling of having belonged to something and of not finding links as significant as the friendships of youth.” The question of nostalgia. “I was interested in reflecting on whether it is possible to return somewhere,” adds the author.
-I do not think so. There is a fiction of the return, but it is not a circle but a kind of spiral. You arrive at a similar place but everything is different. You changed, the place changed, the people who are there changed. There is no match anywhere.
Saldaña Paris settled during the covid-19 pandemic in Cuernavaca, the city of his childhood, an hour from Mexico City by car. She returns to her apartment in the capital less and less. This February afternoon, from the room on that 7th floor, she can see Santa Fe, an area of skyscrapers to the west of the city that only appears when the pollution does not settle thick on the horizon.
In this house he has a library with volumes of Freud underlined by his mother, before by his grandmother and now by him; the complete works of Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti; a collection edited by the Mexican Sergio Pitol that he tracked down in its entirety through second-hand bookstores. In a metal breadbox he protects three books that he found this summer in a Geneva cellar, and that he saved from the bonfire: three first editions by the chemist Robert Boyle.
The writer started working on The dance and the fire after finishing his first novel, In the midst of strange victims (Sixth Floor, 2013). Thanks to the Eccles Center Prize for Literature, she was able to dedicate herself to researching at the British Library the reasons that explain the dance epidemics medieval: “A very plausible one is that [en Europa] there were extreme weather conditions, a series of significant food shortages, and the usurious rapacity of the church that led to a very tense situation at the social level.” “It seemed to me that suddenly similar things were happening today,” adds the author of main nerve (Sixth Floor, 2018) and Planes flying over a monster (Anagram, 2021), “particularly in Latin America.”
“I knew that I wanted to write a book that spoke about a climate moment that later became clear to me,” he continues. Saldaña Paris is referring to a very long drought and a series of fires that affected especially central Mexico a few years ago. In 2019, only in Morelos, the state where Cuernavaca is located, more than 3,600 hectares were burned, according to the local government. On some occasions, the smoke covered the city, as it happens in the novel while a group of people jumps, contorts on the floor, shakes, spreads. Even before the covid-19 emergency began, history was already “infected with an apocalyptic mood,” says the writer.
Cuernavaca is a literary obsession to which Saldaña Paris returns. “I like it as an example of a lot of things that can go wrong,” she says. “Cuernavaca was for a long time a kind of paradise, a place of retirement, even before the conquest. And now it’s horrible. It is devastated by hypermarkets, but it was an area where there were many oilcloths, ficus, centenarian ahuehuetes”, says the writer. It also attracts him, he says, as a literary space where he flies over under the volcanothe 1947 novel by the English Malcolm Lowry: “I am interested in how cities coexist with the fictions that have been written about them.”
The most important technical challenge in writing the novel was the construction of the three narrative voices that structure it. Natalia is a choreographer who obsessively grows bromeliads – flowers of monstrous beauty – and lives with an old artist. She is preparing a choreography inspired by The Witch’s Dance that made the dancer Mary Wigman famous at the beginning of the 20th century. He erre suffers from chronic pains that run through him. He has just returned to Cuernavaca after a divorce and wanders through the city that no longer exists. Rabbit, conspiracy theorist and homosexual, he lives with his blind father, to whom he provides children’s books in braille.
Mexican novelist Juan Pablo Villalobos, part of the jury that selected The dance and the fire finalist for the 2021 Herralde Novel Award – won by Javier Pérez Andújar with the year of the buffalo–, highlighted that “the discovery” of Saldaña Paris in the work is “the creation of those voices”. “We listen to the melancholy story of their lives – we read it, but we think we hear it – their attempt to recover, rescue or save something from the fire,” says Villalobos. in award decision delivered by the Anagrama publishing house and in which Saldaña Paris competed under the pseudonym of Petra Barreto.
While everything burns, the fires that surround the apocalyptic Cuernavaca that Saldaña Paris builds and also those that burn within each of the three friends, the atmosphere becomes increasingly dark and suffocating. “Only tenderness can put an end to fires,” says Erre’s character. Through this character and that of Rabbit, the author tries to “modulate a form of intimacy and masculinity that is not so devastating,” he explains. “But I don’t have a very clear conviction that there is something that is going to save the world, or the fires,” warns the writer, “at times it may be tenderness, but it is not a conviction or a theory.”
‘The dance and the fire’, by Daniel Saldaña Paris
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Daniel Saldaña: “I am not convinced that something is going to save the world. It could be tenderness