A Writer’s Transformation

When I was an undergrad in Hispanic Studies, I read Esther Tusquets’s novel The Same Sea as Every Summer in Spanish. The novel was incredibly hard for me to read. I suffered so much with this book that I never read anything by this author again.

Recently, I discovered that, after a long silence, Tusquets has published a new novel. I started reading it and realized that the text was very accessible and not hard at all.

“She started writing much better,” I concluded.

Then, for the purposes of my research I started rereading The Same Sea as Every Summer that had been so hard for me to read 10 years ago. Surprisingly, there was nothing at all complicated or confusing about this text.

It turns out that Tusquets did not become a better writer. Rather, I have become a better reader of Spanish.

>I Don’t Like Reading Spanish Literature

>

It is a very paradoxical state of affairs where I like reading Spanish literature so much that it gets to the point where I don’t like reading it. Most of the other literature in the world (including Latin American), I can at least try simply to enjoy. However, the moment I open a book from Spain, my brain immediately goes into overdrive.
How does this work of literature inscribe itself into my critical understanding of the time period? Do I need to modify my perception of era, of the writer, of the genre? What will be my own reading of this book? How can I connect it to the entire oeuvre of this author? What type of narrator do I see in this work? What does this tell me? Have I seen this writer move towards this type of narrator in a previous novel? What was it that critic A said about the XYZ subject and can it be related to this work of literature? Who is this politician / writer / painter that is mentioned on page 17? How come I don’t know them? When will I order books about them? Where have I seen this metaphor already? What does it mean that I’m encountering it in this text? Why are the chapters named this way (not named, numbered, etc.)?
And it goes on and on forever. Of course, after reading a single 300-page novel, I feel like I’ve been lugging sacks of flour around. 
Just as I cannot turn off the feminist in me, I cannot turn off the literary critic. How do people turn off their professional identities and just relax?

>Eduardo Mendoza’s Riña de gatos. Madrid 1936: A Review

>

There has been a veritable flurry of very long novels about the Civil War published by the leading Spanish writers in the past couple of years. Almudena Grandes is even planning an entire series of such novels. She has already published two, El corazón helado (very good) and Inés y la alegría (a review will appear on this blog shortly). Also of note is Antonio Muñoz Molina’s La noche de los tiempos, which is as long as it is enjoyable. 

The reason why so many authors in Spain still write about the Civil War at great length is that the trauma of the war was never fully healed. Decades of a fascist dictatorship followed the defeat of the Republicans in the war. After Franco’s death, one of the characteristics of Spain’s transition to democracy was (as usually happens with countries that emerge from long and repressive authoritarian regimes) to try to forget the war. No persecution and punishment of war criminals took place. People who fought against each other, the victims and the executioners were expected to start living peacefully side by side pretending that no Civil War and no dictatorship had ever taken place. This approach was obviously doomed to failure. Spanish writers today are trying to heal the trauma of the Civil War by talking about all of its aspects at length. This is something that Spanish society definitely needs. Great novels come out as a result, which is an added bonus.

Eduardo Mendoza decided to participate in this trend with his recent novel Riña de gatos. Madrid 1936. Mendoza’s approach to exorcising the ghosts of the Civil War is different from that of many other writers. Riña de gatos turns the tragic months preceding the beginning of the war in the summer of 1936 into a burlesque. Laughter has the power to heal trauma and bridge even the most profound differences. Mendoza brings to the pages of his new novel José Antonio Primo de Rivera (the leader of the Spanish fascists), generals Francisco Franco and Queipo de Llano  (who are plotting a  military uprising against the Republic, an uprising we all know will be successful and cause untold horrors to the country), Niceto Alcalá Zamora (the first president of the Second Spanish Republic) and Manuel Azaña (who will become the last president of the Republic.) All of these historic figures are placed in situations that make them look homey, non-threatening and slightly ridiculous.

The plot of the novel revolves around Anthony Whitelands, a British art critic, who comes to Spain to authenticate a painting that was supposedly created by Velázquez. As the hapless Brit boozes and whores his way through the Madrid of the spring of 1936, his activities attract the attention of competing political factions that would like to get their hands on the painting. A genuine Velázquez could pay for a lot of weapons and help the group that manages to lay its hands on the painting win the approaching war. Soon, Anthony Whitelands finds himself being torn between offers of friendship from the charming fascist José Antonio Primo de Rivera, sexual advances of sex-crazed countesses, demands of an underage prostitute, manipulations of British and German spies and threats from a Soviet conspirator named Kolia.

When I first started reading the novel, I opened it in a suitably somber mood that I believed was appropriate when reading about events as painful as those of the pre-war months in Spain. By the end of the novel, however, I was beating my head against the desk in laughter. I’ve read several reviews of Riña de gatos. Madrid 1936 and realized that many of the readers didn’t manage to escape from the weight of gravitas that usually accompanies the discussions of the Spanish Civil War. If one were to let go completely of the doom and gloom attitude to the war, one would realize that Mendoza’s novel is extremely funny. This writer is known for subverting the readers’ expectations and this is exactly what he does in his new novel.

>Contemporary Spanish Literature: What To Read?, Part II

>

– If you are into trashy literature (which it is your God-given right to be), then historical mystery novels by Arturo Pérez-Reverte and adventure novels by Carlos Ruiz Zafón should be of interest to you. Their books are bestsellers in most European countries (including mine, which is very surprising.) In my opinion, they are as bad as they are popular. Pérez-Reverte’s most popular novel is said to be La reina del Sur (The Queen of the South in English). The writer recently announced that there will now be a soap opera based on this book. As for Zafón, his most famous novel is La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind). Very convoluted, silly, but so easy to read that you can get through it in a couple of days even if your Spanish isn’t really good.

Care Santos writes very well about teenagers and people in their early twenties. She is about to release a collection of short stories about ghosts, so if you are into the supernatural, stay on the look out for her Los que rugen

Eduardo Mendoza has been writing great novels since 1975 when he published his La Verdad Sobre El Caso Savolta. Last year he won Premio Planeta with his Rina de Gatos, Madrid 1936 (Spanish Edition) which I’m planning to read as soon as I get it.

– A colleague recently introduced me to a writer I somehow managed to miss but who is really good.  Eduardo Mendicutti‘s Una mala noche la tiene cualquiera (Fabula / Fables) (Spanish Edition) is the only novel by this writer I have read so far but if it’s any indication of his talent, then he is definitely worth following. This novel is funny, touching, and very well-written.

– Juan José Millás is a writer whose books I read because I have to, not because I love them. His El desorden de tu nombre and La soledad era esto have long become classics. I, however, find that if you’ve read one of them, you’ve read them all. This writer doesn’t strike me as being extremely original.

Rafael Chirbes also has a tendency to employ the same formula in his novels but that formula and the resulting novels are so good that he can be forgiven for giving us too much of a good thing. His La caida de Madrid is the best novel on the events of November 19, 1975 that I have ever read. And if you don’t know why that date is important, then you should really find out before you proceed to read contemporary Spanish literature.

I know that I’m missing somebody important but I can’t think of who that might be right now. Feel free to offer comments and suggestions.

>Contemporary Spanish Literature: What To Read?, Part I

>

People often come to this blog looking for advice on which contemporary writers from Spain are worth reading and following. It’s getting a little too time-consuming to respond to each email asking this question individually, so I’ll just dedicate a separate series of posts to it. Of course, these will be just my own personal preferences. If there are other writers from Spain writing today whose work you enjoy, do share their names in the comments.


Before you begin your journey towards a better understanding of contemporary Spanish literature, make sure that you read at least something by the two greatest Spanish writers of the twentieth century*: Juan Goytisolo and Juan Marsé. These writers are obviously past their prime right now, having created their greatest works in the seventies and early eighties. Still, Goytisolo’s Reivindicacion Del Conde Don Julian (or Count Julian in the English translation) is, I believe, the best novel of the twentieth century. And not just in Spain. It’s the best novel of the century in the entire Western Civilization. If you know of a better one that I might have missed, do tell me but be forewarned that on this subject “Hier stehe ich und kannst nicht anders.”** Juan Marsé has written a lot but it’s his early novel Últimas tardes con Teresa (Spanish Edition) that I love the most. Whatever you do, though, don’t watch any movies based on Marsé’s work. They are horrible.


Now, as for the writers who are doing some of their best work today, I’d recommend (in no particular order):


– Antonio Muñoz Molina and especially his novel Sefarad (or Sepharad in the English translation.) We all know that the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Over five hundred years later, Muñoz Molina wrote this tribute to every exile – Jewish or not – which offers a profound insight into the nature of otherness. 


Espido Freire wrote a really curious novel titled Irlanda a while ago. This was her first novel and even though her later work Melocotones helados (Spanish Edition) received Premio Planeta, Freire hasn’t been able to create anything better than Irlanda. I’m still waiting, though.


– People often ask me about the fantasy genre in Spanish literature. I don’t normally read fantasy so my only suggestion is Rosa Montero‘s Temblor (Spanish Edition). I read it because it’s a female Bildungsroman but it’s a fantasy novel as well.


Almudena Grandes keeps growing as a writer. Her recent El corazón helado is vastly better than anything she wrote before. If, however, you are not into extremely long novels (this one has over 1,000 pages), check out her “pornographic masterpiece” The Ages of Lulu or her novel about female insecurity that devour the protagonist’s life Malena es un nombre de tango (Andanzas) (Spanish Edition).


– Many people really enjoy the work of Javier Marías. I find him way too sentimental and cheesy but there are people who see him as a serious writer. Corazón tan blanco (A Heart So White in the English translation) is considered to be his most important novel.



Lucia Etxebarria writes the kind of novels that make everybody in Women’s Studies extremely happy. I find them too theoretical, formulaic and repetitive but if you are writing a doctoral dissertation and your thesis advisor came of age as a 70ies feminist, Etxebarria might be just the writer for you.


* If it’s OK, I will not repeat “in my opinion” every time I make a similar claim in this post. Obviously these are my opinions that I’m offering here.


** Here I stand and can do nothing other.