Màrius Serra obtained the Sant Jordi Award on December with his book Plans de futur (Future Plans), his first venture into novels since the publishing, in 2008, of Quiet (Still), a non-fiction story that was up to that moment, I have no doubt about it, his best work. The most committed, also. Where would his narrator instinct take him after that? The challenge was not easy, but Plans de futur meets it with no complexes, simply and with exemplary coherence. With a good novel. We talked about it with the author in his study while the third edition is being prepared.
The apparent driving force of Plans de futur is the life of a prominent mathematician born in our country who develops his activity under Franco’s regime. Would you say the novel is the biography of a mathematician?
No, I would say the novel sprouts from the biography of a mathematician. The soul of the novel and what time-frames it is the life of Ferran Sunyer, who was born in 1912 and died in 1967. But I clearly started from the premise that there was already a canonical biography, the one by Antoni Malet, and it is very well documented. It took special care of Ferran Sunyer’s academic life. That is why I wanted to focus more on his environment than strictly himself.
There is at least one moment in the novel where you want it to be clear that you are talking about a mathematician. It is the chapter where you reproduce some correspondence between Ferran Sunyer and his cousin, and especially a letter from mathematician Szolem Mandelbrojt. I will admit I did not understand a thing about what that letter explained. Do you know what it is about?
I could pretend I know what I’m talking about… One of the key questions in the process of writing the novel was to decide whether or not Ferran Sunyer would be one of the voices. I’ve had really good mathematical advisors, especially Toni Guillamon and Manuel Castellet, and I certainly understood that my conceptual level in mathematics would not be enough for me to understand or speak naturally from Ferran Sunyer’s brain. And that, among others, was one of the reasons why I focused –the same way you fall in love with a girl but she doesn’t notice you, so you end up paying attention to her friend– on his two cousins, particularly, and also on his mother. Among other things, because I found their role fascinating to the point of identifying with it. They were transcribers of a series of mathematical concepts they failed to understand. So I dropped him as a narrator and stopped trying to get into his brain, because I knew I would be just pretending.
The way you introduced the novel, I think no reader will feel disappointed when they find a mathematics initiation or communication book. I would be on the wrong path, among other things because Ferran Sunyer was a mathematics researcher: he studies and explores. He is not a communicator. I found people who got private algebra lessons from him, as any maths teacher can do, but if we speak about Sunyer today as mathematician it is because of an ultra-specialization in the field. The most interesting things in terms of popularizing are his works for the US Navy about the spread of sonar waves between submarines and land, and the fact that he helped them with calculations. Those are easy to see: we see the submarine and the sonar.
«I certainly understood that my conceptual level in mathematics would not be enough for me to understand or speak naturally from Ferran Sunyer’s brain»
«If we speak about Sunyer today as mathematician it is because of an ultra-specialization in the field»
It is clear that you did not want to make a biopic nor an exaltation of the character, but to go back, from Sunyer’s singular experience, to your literary universe.
It was a present for me to find a biographical environment such as Sunyer’s, in which there was a man of science, which is something I have always been interested in; a disabled person, close to me for biological reasons; Dalí, with whom I was obsessed when I started writing up to the point of having a literary project of tales based on his pictures, and his relation with science was also important… This confrontation between the image of the affected, fabricated genius of Dalí, making wild gesticulations of great genius and another one, on the other hand, who is the antithesis of that, a secret genius, humble, hidden and almost involuntary. And so, after the defence of language and the cultural continuity, with someone who uses a different language, the one of algebra, but is still stubborn and maintains his “catalanship” against every setback, in times when it was not just difficult, but impossible. So I tried to relate to those characters as if I had invented them, as if they were made up characters, but with the added value of having biographical data available and the fact that they were quite powerful as novel characters.
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