GUILLERMO ARRIAGA at Border Kitchen in The Hague

‘Writing is a fight against death’

Mexican writer and director, Guillermo Arriaga describes himself as a hunter who works as a writer yet his presence is one of a quiet, modest man. He thanks us more than once for coming to hear him speak and admits that he is always afraid there will be no more than four people in the audience.  Winner of numerous international awards for films and screen plays, including ‘Babel’ and ‘21 Grams’,  Arriaga describes himself as a novelist – ‘I began as a novelist at the age of twenty-two.’    

In Arriaga’s most recent novel, Savage, four deaths are described within the first page. Yet, he insists that it is, ‘A book about life, a love story.’ The Mexican author has a reputation for his  non-linear approach to narrative on both page and screen and this novel is no different. Charting the story of orphaned, Mexican teenager, Juan Guillermo whose brother is killed by a group of Catholic fundamentalists, the writer admits that the character of Amaruq, an Innuit living in the Yukon, ‘came out of the blue’ and simply demanded to have his story told too. So begins a complex, interwoven narrative about the lives of two apparently unrelated protagonists. However both seek revenge, and this, Arriaga, explains to us, is what the book is really about. ‘This novel is about not choosing revenge but choosing love instead.’

The theme of revenge is prevalent in much of Arriaga’s work. He admits that this is perhaps because of his country and the high levels of corruption and lack of justice that precipitate a culture of vengeance. ‘We in Mexico are tired of corruption,’ he says flatly. ‘Corruption is a way of betraying your country.’  97% of crimes go untried in Mexico, so revenge is the other option. Yet, in this novel he attempts to show how destructive such a solution can be. His decision to focus on a small but powerful group of Catholic fundamentalists that did indeed exist in 1960s and 70s Mexico, encourages comparison with the activities of the Muslim fundamentalists of today.  Arriaga finds answers to perennial questions about power and violence in the natural world. ‘There are deep contradictions in the natural world – there is a lot of violence and some cruelty.’

‘Nature is always bringing me stories constantly.’

He explains that, as a hunter, the close relationship he has enjoyed with nature for many years, helps him understand the paradoxes of the human condition and the distance and closeness at which the animal kingdom and the human world stand from one another. ‘Nature is always bringing me stories constantly.’  For him, hunting and storytelling are closely related. He shares with us an anecdote of a Mexican politician who had each office in his department measured to establish who had the most space, the greatest territory, in the animal kingdom. Sometimes we are really not so different – the writer shrugs. In spite of such comments, Arriaga is a self-proclaimed humanist. As the evening progresses, it becomes clear that this is a man with a deep sense of empathy for the human race in spite of its imperfections and contradictions. He tells us of a letter he received from a group of prison inmates who wrote to him of the popularity of his novel, Night Buffalo. They explained to him how fights had erupted because only one copy of  the book was available at the prison library. Arriaga had 50 copies of the book sent to the prison.

Although Arriaga views himself as a writer, first and foremost, it was his initial collaboration on the film, Amores Perros (2000), with his now estranged collaborator, Alejandro González Iñárritu,  that lead to international recognition as a screen writer. He went on to direct Oscar winning actress, Charlize Theron as well as Jennifer Lawrence and Kim Bassinger in Burning Plain (2008). He tells us that directing is an easier job than writing because one has the support of those around one. ‘Even with practise,’ he maintains with quiet confidence, ‘nothing prepares you for the blank page.’  Hs love of storytelling is reinforced by a love of humanity and this has helped him in his work as a director. He shares with us his tendency to leave things up to the actors, when directing. Recalling how Charlize Theron once asked him how to approach a scene, he replied, ‘You are the Oscar winner, not me. Surprise me!’ His approach to directing then, is focused on the actors, ‘I’m obsessed with actors, they are at the core of my work.’ His approach to storytelling is refreshingly honest, ‘I never do any kind of research, I always write from my own experience.’

Guillermo Arriaga describes himself as an optimist, a happy man and bluntly dismisses the myth of the tortured artist as ‘all bullshit’.  Perhaps what strikes one most about him, is his lack of pretension and the sense of quiet confidence that stems there from.     Souwie Buis    3rd February 2019

Photo by and © Bernardo Flores