On March 25, 42, several years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Santiago de Zebedeo landed in Carthago Nova –now known as Cartagena–. His mission was to reach the end of the world, the Cape of Finisterre, evangelizing and spreading the word of the Nazarene throughout Spain. And so he did, at least, as the Church has told us.
Under the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela lie the bones of this apostle who sat at the table during the Last Supper and shared bread and wine with Christ. Thousands of faithful and non-believing walkers make a pilgrimage there, walking in the footsteps of the apostle.
But what happened during that first trip from Santiago? What did you see, who did you meet? How did the Spanish receive a Jew born in Galilee? Why, if he died in Jerusalem, does his remains rest in our country? All these questions find answers in Santiago at the end of the world (The sphere of books, 2021), the new novel by Jesús Bastante. A fictional text that fables with religious history to build a fantastic story, epic at times, about faith, friendship and the transforming capacity to narrate.
How did the story of Santiago at the end of the world?
In January 2009 I was presenting my first novel, Schism (Ediciones B, 2008) in A Coruña. The next day I had a meeting with the Archbishop of Santiago Compostela and I arrived earlier for the appointment. It was a dog day so I went to take refuge in the cathedral, and there was no one. A marvel. I was absolutely alone for an hour inside the cathedral and after walking around I went down to the crypt, where according to tradition the remains of Santiago are. I was down there thinking and in the end I ended up asking the bones who they were. If they really were the bones of Santiago, why was he buried there, what exactly was he doing in Spain.
Those questions led me to buy books and start researching. There was very little about its history in our country, really, but I was finding quotes and data in the Acts of the Apostles, in Flavio Josefo, in Didymus the blind, in a facsimile that in the seventeenth century recovered many myths about the passage of Santiago through different Spanish and Portuguese cities …
In the book he notes that Herod Agrippa had his head cut off and his body buried in the desert, but that some faithful found him and brought him to Spain, where his disciples and friends Athanasius and Theodore would bury him. However, martyrdom is not the fundamental story of his novel. Did you want to consciously flee from the best known of the Santiago figure?
I wanted to trace the story of a trip that would be credible. A road that started from Cartagena to Granada and then from Cádiz to Seville, where it takes the La Plata route … well, I wanted to tell you about your trip. That is to say, in his martyrdom the myth begins and about that there is a lot of documentation, a lot written since the Middle Ages, but my story is the story of a Santiago who could exist and could travel through Spain. The idea is to speak of the living, human Santiago, with its fears and its values, who was able to walk through our lands and meet the people who inhabited them in the 1st century.
You write, in the mouth of Santiago: “Our mission is to go from road to road, from skin to skin, as He did in life” [refiriéndose a Jesús]. The mission, the trip, the different cities and stops… ¿¿Santiago at the end of the world could it be read like a classic adventure novel?
It is true that since I was little I have read, and I have loved it, because what we have all read, right? Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, Mark Twain … What I was clear about was that I was not going to do a historical essay because the documentary bases do not provide for that and, furthermore, I am not a historian. This was going to be a fiction novel and I understand that it can be seen as an adventure novel because the road allows it. I am not referring to the Camino de Santiago solely and exclusively, but to the fact that the structure of the novel was going to be the journey of a path, which allows you to meet many characters, experience unexpected things that you do not control. Also in a strange world for a Jew of the time, as the Hispania of the first century must have been for Santiago, who was a fisherman born in Galilee who decided to go to Cape Finisterre.
We cannot ask that Jesus have answers for abortion or stem cell research, because he could not have answers for questions that did not arise in his time.
On this path, as he says, Santiago meets a multitude of characters. I am struck by the two female characters, Samara and María, who fulfill the cliché of the wicked witch and the immaculate saint. Is it difficult to narrate religious matters without falling into that macho cliché?
A critical reading of the Gospels offers us these two visions of women: the one obsessed with sex and power, which puts man in sin –that is, the original Eve who forces Adam to take the apple–, and then the Virgin , which is the paradigm of beauty, purity and obedience and submission. I believe that neither of them does justice to the role of women in the world that Jesus tried to generate. But it’s not like Jesus was any great feminist either. I mean that just as we cannot ask Jesus – as some rigorists say – to have answers for abortion or for stem cell research, because we cannot ask the elm for pears on the matter of feminism. He could not have answers for questions that did not arise in his time.
I did not want, voluntarily, to break with the dichotomy of the good woman and the bad woman. That is why the first thing that is read in the book is a clear request for apologies on behalf of my gender. I wanted the reader to know about this dialectic, precisely to denounce it. And yet it is true that Samara seems to me a character with many edges, whom you come to understand perfectly. And that also served me well to break the schemes of how we define saints. Because the saints are not perfect: they sinned and made many mistakes. The Pope said that very recently, speaking of Saint Peter and Saint Paul: they are saints precisely because of their miseries. And if we do not recognize the misery of the people, in the end we end up on altars, which is the great problem that the Church is having today.
People made a pilgrimage to the place where Santiago’s tomb is now since long before Santiago existed.
Samara conveys in the novel the entrance of a fantastic without complexes. Goblins appear in this book, meigas and giants. In a way Santiago at the end of the world It is also a tribute to the pagan folklore of Spanish culture?
In a way yes. Keep in mind that people made pilgrimages to the place where Santiago’s tomb is now long before Santiago existed. There is in certain places a spiritual and cultural weight that has attracted the population for millennia. Also the pilgrimage to Finisterre: in the book I relate what it meant, for many, the fact of going to the end of the known world and bathing in the last sea. It was a way to die and rise again as a new person. These rites, which are ancient, appear constantly in Galician and Celtic culture.
The message of Jesus is fantastic, but it is within a cultural tradition that not only comes from the Jewish roots. The history of humanity is full of very similar myths: myths of the man born of clay or of the universal flood are present in Mesopotamia, in Babylon, in India, in many cultures before the Jewish civilization existed.
There is a time when Samara doubts that the earth is flat, although it was assumed that it was so at the time. She is the depositary of a knowledge superior to that of her contemporaries, but being a woman nobody pays attention to her. Is yours a reinterpretation of the Cassandra myth?
Yes, in a way, yes, because being a woman is limited to being taken for a witch or a madwoman. But it knows much more. In addition, she assumes that role and does not care that people are afraid of her. Characters like Samara’s or Cecilio’s are an invention that allowed me to investigate an attractive concept: people who had contact with Jesus of Nazareth, who cured them, but instead of saving them, he was actually screwing their lives a bit.
Like the Monty Python “penny for an ex-leper” joke in Brian’s Life.
Exactly! Yes i saw myself Brian’s life while typing and the Monty Pythons use it very well. In my story we have a blind man and a deaf-mute who, after being healed by Jesus, have to flee from their land because they no longer fit in and are persecuted. The miracle has not brought them anything good, deep down.
The image of Santiago Matamoros is an ultra-nationalist image that does not match at all with the figure of the apostle
Another element to highlight are the dreams of Santiago, some of them premonitory and others not, as in the case of Santiago riding a white horse.
Obviously it is a nod to the false myths of a Santiago Matamoros, which I think must be left behind. It is a representation of Santiago that says that the apostle appeared to kill Muslims, an ultra-nationalist image that does not match at all with the figure of the apostle. Why? Because he was a man who came from Palestine in the first century to evangelize the whole world, regardless of race, gender, ancestry or origin. His message was universal. In this novel I consciously wanted to fight against the use that the extreme right is making of the image of Santiago. It is absurd to think of a Santiago that would defend a ‘Spain for the Spanish’.
The book includes a “historical denial” by Nieves Concostrina, in which a journalist calls Santiago “the most profitable character-fake of Christian times” and says of the way that it is a “shameless financial emporium.” Why include a vision so radically different from that of the novel in your book?
It is an effort that I had. I wanted a popularizer of the stature of Nieves, who knows much more about history than I, who also tells it much better than I do, to throw some ideas from the novel to the ground. Somehow that made the reader much more owner of it. First, because the text is delicious and the Nieves thing is tremendously generous. And second, because I believe that it contributes a plus in line with what Quintiliano’s character says at a certain point: “History is written with the purpose of narrating, not of being true.”
There are stories that deserve to be told, but maybe they should not be told only from one point of view, maybe it is necessary for someone to read the story of Santiago and then someone says ‘hey, this is all a lie’. I do not agree with all the affirmations of Nieves, and I include an attempt of bibliographical approximation that comes to answer some of his theses. But it seemed wonderful to me that the book could serve as a celebration of fiction and fiction, at the same time as an object to discuss certain topics and do so from creativity.