I recently sat down for a chat with the Spanish playwright and filmmaker Fernando Arrabal, who was in town to give an October 31 lecture at St. John’s University and introduce his 1992 film Goodbye, Babylon! at a downtown arts foundation on November 2. A diminutive, bubbly 75-year-old, Arrabal is prone to sudden enthusiasms, whether for mathematicians like Alexander Grothendieck and Benoît Mandelbrot; chess-players like Gata Kamsky; or toreadors like Diego Bardon. He is currently reading Saint Isidore of Seville, a 7th century etymologist whose Etymologiae, Arrabal announces with delight, recently has appeared in English from Cambridge University Press.
A confirmed bookworm, Arrabal has lived with his wife and children in Paris since 1955, but is defiantly unfashionable among French intellectuals for his staunch opposition to Communism and support for Israel. In 1999 his play Love Letter had its world premiere at Israel’s Habimah Theatre, performed by the acclaimed actress Orna Porat. Love Letter, so far unperformed in New York (although Liv Ullmann has been rumored to be considering the play for Broadway), is a monologue by a mother who may have denounced her husband to tyrannical authorities. Arrabal’s own father disappeared in 1941, after being jailed by Franco’s regime in Spain. Arrabal himself was imprisoned during a 1967 visit to Spain (he was born in Spanish Morocco in 1932), allegedly for “blasphemy.” After protests by famous writers including Samuel Beckett, François Mauriac, and Eugène Ionesco, Arrabal soon was freed.
For decades the Spanish playwright has been admirably industrious, creating seven full-length films, five books on his obsessive pastime of chess, and numerous polemics. These include his admonitory Letters to Franco (1972); Castro (1984); and Stalin (2003). This lively anti-Communist invective has not been translated into English, nor have Arrabal’s amusing biographical fantasias of El Greco and Cervantes. Of course, most American publishers are appalling slaves to fashion, and Arrabal may be seen as a 1960’s figure, since he first won fame in that decade, especially by those who have not bothered to read anything he has published since.
Beyond new books, which continue to appear in France, Spain, and elsewhere, Arrabal has shown rare courage in speaking his mind publicly. In 2002 he testified in Paris on behalf of the novelist Michel Houellebecq, who told an interviewer the previous year that Islam is the “most stupid religion. When you read the Koran, it’s appalling, appalling!” France’s Human Rights League, the Mecca-based World Islamic League, and others accused Houellebecq of hate speech, a crime in France that is punishable by a fine and jail time. Houellebecq was acquitted, at least in part due to Arrabal’s remarkable court appearance; the elderly Spaniard replied to a judge who asked his profession: “I am a pedestrian.” Then Arrabal pulled out a miniature bottle of cognac from his pocket and offered it to the same judge, who declined politely. This was one of the most drolly convincing theatrical moments of an author who has published over one hundred plays.