‘La Superba’, which is appointed as his masterpiece, not only won the Libris Prize in 2014 but also recently got published in the US. Filled with curiosity about his thoughts, we sat down to ask Ilja all about this Genoan love story.
It started in 2008, when Ilja had the idea of cycling to Rome. With some stops along the way, he eventually ended up in Genua. He fell in love with this labyrinth city, and with the Genoese locals, who practice the art of complaining. Ilja explained this as expressing a greater love for the city, by acknowledging its negative sides. He got so impressed by Genua, he started writing it down. After all, he’s a writer. It took him five years to write ‘La Superba’, which started with capturing materials, writing out situations he encountered or certain places he went, without even knowing how he would indulge this into the story. ‘It took a while to really understand what kind of book the city demanded of me. I was enchanted by the city, while the story, and themes in particular, came afterwards.’
Because he named the main character after himself, Ilja is often asked if ‘La Superba’ is an autobiographical novel. ‘I created the illusion that the main character was some sort of part of me, which also challenged my writing. It’s easier to make a reader feel disgusted about an unappealing scene, than sympathetic. I aim for people to understand the main character, even with the somewhat weird actions he has. That’s the beauty of involving the readers with a character like that, when the boundaries of fantasy and reality aren’t so clear anymore. You always leave the reader questioning: Was this real? Or is he just fantasizing? I like to play with this ambiguous feeling. The well-known leg scene is also an introduction to this. When he makes love to a woman’s leg he actually fantasizes the other part of the woman, what welcomes you into his fantasy. It’s in contrast with him chasing the most beautiful girl in Genua, what turns out to be a tragic love story.’
Talking about a love story. Is Genua your city of love?
‘It is, but this grew overtime. Genua isn’t beautiful in a normal way, she has her own raw edges. She is beautiful, but certainly not polished. I described the city as a main character in the book, so the reader would get carried away in the mystics of it, and I would be able to point out my goal along the journey through it. The diversity of characters in the book was a way to shed light on the migration issue. For example, the contrast between the main character and the African people. And of course Don, the English alcoholic guy. He achieved his success, paradoxically, by not adjusting to Genua at all. The longer he stayed there, the more English he became. Up until the point he actually became a caricature of himself. These stories connect very well with the fantasy – reality part, as migrants are actually all in search for a fantasized, better life. And without any political agenda, it shows several migration issues.’
Ilja is not only a brilliant novel writer, but a poet as well. We were curious to what extend this had any effect on the writing of his novels. ‘I find rhythm very important, and making things alive on paper. You can have the most beautiful ideas in your head, but if you can’t seem to get this exact feeling on paper, it’s worthless. Sound is also very important in that aspect. It should tickle the imagination, but not distract the reader. Which is a tough job actually.’
Although ‘La Superba’ gained a huge success, Ilja, who wrote the first drafts with just pen and paper, wasn’t so sure about this during the process. ‘Writing is exactly as easy as it seems, and as difficult as it is. I could be euphoric on one day, thinking this would be the next Nobel Prize winning book, while the other day it would just leave me negative and filled with insecurity of its results. It wasn’t until the final end when I was convinced I wrote my best novel so far.’ However, his masterpiece is still in the making, or so he says. ‘The people who describe ‘La Superba’ as my masterpiece don’t know what I still have upon my sleeve. When I’m at the start of writing a new book, I always hope it’ll be my master piece. I think that’s a positive way of working. If I manage to hold on to that feeling, I think it will all turn out well.’