In 2010, a novel by Eduardo Mendoza called Riña de gatos: Madrid 1936 won Spain’s prestigious Premio Planeta and in January 2011, I reviewed it on this blog. It’s quite a fun novel, and I rather enjoyed it, mostly thanks to Mendoza’s imaginative recreation of a slightly daffy Englishman’s perspective on the all-too-familiar events of the titular time and place. Ever since, one of the most popular web searches landing people on this blog has been mendoza + rina de gatos + english translation. In fact, the title of the novel itself is the third most popular search of all time (after ‘Books on Spain’ and ‘Julia Navarro’, in case you were wondering). Evidently, Mendoza has lots of frustrated potential readers out there, and I have always felt a bit sad for them. But the frustration is over! The independent publisher Maclehose Press, which specialises in translated fiction, has just released An Englishman in Madrid, in a new translation by the wonderful Nick Caistor. I haven’t read it yet, but Rod Younger has, and you can read his review over at Books4Spain (and maybe be in time to win a free copy…). You can also sample substantial chunks of the book online, including at both Amazon and Google Books.
This was going to be a review of Tiempo de arena [Time of Sand], by Inma Chacón (above), which I picked up in Tenerife airport a couple of weeks ago and have been gripped by ever since. And then I finished the novel and did a bit of googling and discovered that it’s a sequel! A secret sequel! And so now I have to read the secret prequel…
Tiempo de arena, as I reported back in October, was the runner-up in the Premio Planeta 2011, Spain’s most prestigious prize for fiction. But what none of the publicity, or indeed the book itself, admits is that the story of Tiempo de arena - a family melodrama set against the turbulent geopolitics of the dying days of the Spanish Empire and first faltering steps of the modern 20th century – follows on from Chacón’s 2007 novel Las filipinianas.
This past weekend saw the award of Spain’s most prestigious prize for fiction, the Premio Planeta. This year’s winner – the Spanish novelist Javier Moro, for El imperio eres tu (The Empire is You), about the first Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro I (1798-1834). This, the 60th Planeta Prize, received nearly 500 entries, which is hardly surprising, given that it comes with prize money of 600,000 euros. Authors generally compete under a pseudonym (so avoiding the intense scrutiny that comes with the British Booker Prize, also to be awarded this week), and a shortlist of ten is drawn up before the event, from which the finalist is announced at a flashy gala in Barcelona, where Planeta are based. There’s also a runner-up, who this year is Inma Chacon, twin sister of the lamented Dulce Chacon, with Tiempo de arena (Time of Sand), about three sisters in turn-of-the-20th-century Spain.
Now, I have to be honest. I’ve never heard of Javier Moro, but since he is often described as a ‘superventas’ (bestseller), the fault is probably mine. He has a snazzy multilingual website in Spanish, English, and Italian where you can read all about his published works and see some press coverage of the uproar his most recent book, El sari rojo (The Red Sari) – about Sonia Gandhi – caused in India. In all the excitement about the Planeta, it looks as if he hasn’t had time to update it with the news of his win (but then, at time of writing, neither have Planeta…). El imperio… is Moro’s seventh book - his first, Senderos de libertad (Pathways of Freedom) was about Brazil, but the rest, which alternate between reportage and fiction, have all been about the Indian subcontinent. I’m particularly intrigued by Pasión India (2007), about a turn-of-the-20th-century Spanish flamenco dancer who married the Maharajah of Kapurthala. El imperio… is a detailed, closely-researched fictionalization of the life of Dom Pedro (above, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons), who was a figurehead of Brazilian independence from Portugal and died of tuberculosis at the age of 35.
So, will I read El imperio…? Probably. Eventually. I’m certainly going to read Chacon’s novel, since it’s about my favourite historical period, the turn of the 20th century, which has been horribly neglected by Spanish historical novelists since pretty much forever. I’ll certainly be intrigued to see if Moro’s novel makes as much of a splash in my site stats as last year’s winner, Eduardo Mendoza’s Rina de gatos, which has been the single most searched-for topic on this blog since the prize was announced in October 2010.
Read more: The Private Library on the Planeta’s low profile in the US; the Latin American Herald Tribune on Moro’s win; the Literary Saloon at the Complete Review, on the contrast between the Planeta and the Booker; Bibliotecas Redondela on the prize (in Galician); Spanish newspaper ABC on the award and the pseudonym question …
And so, to follow up on the previous post and take up Vida’s challenge to do something about the fact that ‘the numbers of articles and reviews simply don’t reflect how many women are actually writing‘, here are my suggestions for 10 contemporary Spanish women fiction writers to watch. I’m not claiming they’re the ‘best’ or ‘most important’ (cf: Stothard, quoted in the Guardian), but they’re writers I enjoy, and I think have something to say. Some are younger, some are older, some are well known and others not, and one or two of them are even sometimes translated into English. So … in alphabetical order by first name, here goes (links are to official homepages where available):
Today, for your delectation and delight, we have a guest blog from Mr Books-on-Spain, who normally writes over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel. I haven’t read this one yet myself, but when I do, I’ll post an update from my decidedly non-mystery-fan perspective. Over to you, Mr Books-on-Spain:
I promised myself when I started writing my blog to always start with the positive things about a book. Well, Water-blue Eyes is short. Um… can’t think of much else at the moment.
This book is from 2006 originally having won the Brigada 21 Prize for best first crime novel. Due to being unfortunately monolingual, I read the English translation. I generally shy away from translated works, as most of them in the genre tend to be bleak Scandinavian thrillers that have never really clicked with me (well, the first chapters didn’t anyway), but as, thanks to my good lady wife, I’ve spent some amazing times in Galicia, I felt that I couldn’t pass up a book set in Vigo.
The plot concerns Inspector Leo Caldas and his investigation into the murder of a saxophonist, found tied to a bed with (brace yourself) his genitals burned and shrivelled by the injection of concentrated formaldehyde. Caldas investigates and I wish I could summon up the enthusiasm to recount the plot basics in any more detail.
So what’s the problem here? It’s hard to say, given it could be the source material or the translation of it, but I didn’t find the book engaging. It took me four days to read 160 pages. That’s very slow for me. On the translation side of things, there are parts that annoy me, in particular the complete lack of any Spanish phrases in the dialogue. I understand this choice, but the use of particularly English words like “boss” and certain naughty words seemed jarring to me. There seemed to me to be a lack of atmosphere – Galicia is a beautiful part of the country, but I found the descriptions quite cold. Apart from the descriptions of the goose barnacles though – that just made me hungry.
I can’t blame the translator for the plot and characters though. Caldas’ sergeant, Estévez, is as repellent a good guy as you’ll ever meet and gets absolutely no come-uppance for his violent and homophobic actions, let alone kicking a cute dog at one point. His presence had me reading faster just to find a section of the book that he wasn’t in. And, of course, for me it all comes down to the plot.
The cover blurb carries a (translated) statement from El País, which rather strangely focuses on, of all things, the novel’s brevity: “Villar’s prose is brilliantly concise”. This is a problem when what could have been an intelligent plot to frame someone for the murder is raced through, both in execution and explanation. A particular cheat is used when Caldas mentions that he missed something when examining the scene of the crime – mystery speak for the reader has missed something – but going back to it, the detail in question isn’t there, and you won’t spot what passes for a clue unless you’re an expert in German philosophy.
I usually like to summarise the good points and not dwell on the bad, so I would recommend anyone who still wants to read this to learn Spanish and read the original – that would cut out some of the problems. But if the reader out there is looking for a great crime novel, browse through the rest of my blog. There are much better things out there.
The folks over at Three Percent, the fabulous resource for international literature based at the University of Rochester in the US, have just released the longlist for the 2011 Best Translated Book Awards. There are 25 books, from 19 countries, written in 12 languages, and I’me excited to see several Spanish-language authors included (translator name in brackets): César Aira’s The Literary Conference (Katherine Silver), Mario Benedetti’s The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories (Harry Morales), Javier Marías’s Bad Nature, or, with Elvis in Mexico (Esther Allen), Martín Solares’s The Black Minutes (Aura Estrada / John Pluecker), and Emilio Lascano Tegui’s On Elegance While Sleeping (Idra Novey). You can find links to all of the books in the original announcement at Three Percent.
It’s an interesting longlist, with lots of novels and novelists I don’t know at all, and I’m looking forward to seeing which ones make the shortlist of ten, which is due to be announced on March 24th. BUT (there is always a but, isn’t there? I will hide it beneath the lines for those of you whose parades could do without the rain today…)
The events and intrigues of the months leading up to Spain’s devastating Civil War of 1936-1939 have been chewed over, thoroughly digested and well … you know the rest … by historians of all hues during the last three quarters of a century. Nonetheless, Eduardo Mendoza (official webpage), one of Spain’s most established novelists, has managed in his new, prizewinning novel Riña de gatos. Madrid 1936 (Catfight. Madrid 1936) to cast the familiar narrative in an entirely new light. The title of Mendoza’s novel may or may not have been inspired by Goya’s painting of the same name, but since this is a literary blog and I’ve thus far resisted all catblogging urges, it’s a great excuse to reproduce an image of the painting which, let’s just say, isn’t entirely unfamiliar to those living in close proximity to chez Books on Spain …
Riña de gatos was awarded Spain’s prestigious Premio Planeta in October, a decision that El País considered consonant with the prize’s balancing act in recent years between the political and commercial dimensions of contemporary Spanish narrative. The Premio Planeta, founded in 1952, is Spain’s most financially distinguished literary prize, with a total value of over 600,000 euros, and previous winners have included this year’s Premio Cervantes Ana Maria Matute (1954), Jorge Semprún (1977), Juan Marsé (1978), Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1979), the two Nobel Laureates Torrente Ballester (1988) and Vargas Llosa (1993), and more recently, Lucía Etxevarria (2004), Alvaro Pombo (2006) and Fernando Savater (2008). Reading around the newspaper reports and bloggers, the response to Mendoza’s win seems to run the spectrum from ‘about time too, he’s one of the best’ to ‘typical Planeta, it’s just populist drivel dressed up with politics.’
It’s amazing what you can achieve on an 8-hour train journey – in this case, reading almost the whole of the first Mario Vargas Llosa novel I have ever read of my own free will. Oh, it’s not the first one I’ve read – that honour goes to La ciudad y los perros (English trans: The Time of the Hero), one of our first-year university set texts and clearly *so appropriate* for a bunch of innocent 18-year-olds. Didn’t understand it, loathed it, swore never to read Vargas Llosa again. But then in 2003 I had to teach La fiesta del chivo (English trans: The Feast of the Goat) and that actually wasn’t so bad; at least this time I understood it and could see what some of the fuss was about. So when Vargas Llosa got the Nobel this year, and I was in Spain when his new novel was published, I thought – what the hell?! Let’s give it a try. And you know what? Loved it. Of course, it helps that the subject of the novel is close to my own area of interest, being set in the the early 20th-century Atlantic triangle of Britain (Liverpool!), the Congo and the Amazon.
So, El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt) is about the Anglo-Irish diplomat, anti-slavery campaigner and Irish nationalist Roger Casement (right), whose story, moving between London, the Belgian Congo, Amazonian Peru, and Ireland, allows Vargas Llosa to explore the faultlines, currents and ‘cartographies of structures of power’ running through the Atlantic world during the early 20th century and, at the same time, to reflect on the fragility of the historical record. Casement’s is a true story, hence the absence of links in this paragraph – don’t want to spoil the narrative thread for those like me, who vaguely know about Casement, but aren’t really familiar with the details of his life and work. A central part of the novel is the question of Casement’s diaries and their authenticity, a question that remains largely unanswered today, and Vargas Llosa’s solution to it seems to me a perfect solution not only to the Casement question, but also to the question of how knowledge of this kind circulates and is recorded. I believe the English translation is underway and will be out in the next year or so, probably with Vargas Llosa’s usual British publisher, Faber & Faber.
PS:- far be it from me to correct a Nobel Laureate [ahem], but I believe the Booth Line ship on which Roger travelled to the Amazon would have been the Hildebrand rather than the Hilda [/pedantry corner].
Which creative forms best allow us to capture the complex tapestries that bind together the stories of individuals, families, locations, and their relations with the world? This is the question that drives Kirmen Uribe’s debut novel Bilbao-New York-Bilbao, which as long-time readers might remember, has been on my ‘to read’ list since before the summer. Uribe, now 40, is best known to readers of Basque writing as a poet – he won Spain’s Premio de la Critica de Poesia en Euskera in 2001 for his first published collection - but in fact, he’s hard to pin down into any one genre. He’s worked with textual, graphic, musical, dramatic, performative and visual creative forms, and excitingly for me, is also an active translator of poetry.
Bilbao-New York-Bilbao was first published in Euskera in 2008, when it won the Premio de la Critica de Narrativa en Euskera, and appeared in a Spanish translation by Ana Arregi in 2009 – although according to El Pais (in Spanish), it was a while before the Spanish translation found its editorial home with Seix Barral. Also in 2009, Edicions 62 put out Pau Joan Hernández’s Catalan version, while Edicións Xerais published the Galician version by Isaac Xubin earlier this year.
The novel interweaves various threads, but the one that holds the text together is the narrator’s journey by plane, from Bilbao to New York , which is represented both textually in the story of the flight and his conversations with his seatmate and visually, through recreations of the seatback information screens with information about the plane’s progress across a series of landmarks familiar to all of us who regularly travel that route (Chicoutimi, anyone?!). This thread functions as a way for Uribe to tear back the ’4th wall’ of fiction and show us the nuts and bolts holding together his text, as he moves easily between emails, notes, conversations and other documents; as a novel, this – well, it isn’t really a novel, more a reflection on the art of writing somewhere between life and fiction.
The mystery at the heart of the novel, or at least the question that drives ‘Kirmen’s’ quest to find out about his grandfather Liborio, is why Liborio called his fishing boat ‘dos amigos’ or ‘two friends’ – and the answer, when it comes, is the perfect key to a book I just haven’t been able to get out of my mind since I finished it. But I’m not going to tell you what it is – you’ll have to read it for yourselves! (I think the English version is in progress …) Instead, here’s a video, made by Uribe, that gives a flavour of parts of the novel:
EDITED TO ADD: I’ve just found the reference I was looking for to the English translation by Elizabeth Macklin, who has translated others of Uribe’s works, and even appears briefly in this one! Here it is with a wonderful excerpt from Chapters 5 and 6. Congratulations, Elizabeth, this is just beautiful!
It’s been a good week for Spanish women writers of a certain generation (or two)! First of all, last Sunday the novelist Soledad Puértolas was inducted into the Real Academia Española (Spanish Royal Academy), only the 5th woman member out of a current total of 46. I have to confess I haven’t read any of her novels, so I guess she’ll be making her way onto my teetering tower of books before too long … Here’s a brief roundup of reports on the event:
As if this wasn’t exciting enough, on Wednesday, the last woman to be inducted into the RAE before Puértolas (12 years ago!), Ana Maria Matute (official homepage), was awarded the Premio Cervantes, which is Spain’s literary lifetime achievement award. Matute, a Catalan-born novelist writing in Spanish, is only the third female writers to be awarded the prize since its inception in 1976, after Spain’s Maria Zambrano (1988) and Cuba’s Dulce Maria Loynaz (1992). Zambrano only survived 3 years after getting the prize and Loynaz 5 years, so here’s hoping Matute bucks that trend! And here’s a brief roundup of reports – interestingly, we in the English-speaking world seem to have been far more interested in the Cervantes Prize than the Real Academia!:
Everybody loves a winner! Javier Cercas, best known for the civil war docufiction Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis, 2001)*, has just been announced as this year’s recipient of Spain’s prestigious national prize for fiction, the Premio Nacional de Narrativa. The book for which he won, Anatomía de un instante (Anatomy of a Moment, 2009) is another history-fiction hybrid, this time about the attempted coup on the Spanish Parliament in 1981, which is known as 23-F after the day (23rd) and month (February) when it occurred.
When the news was announced, Cercas said: “Hoy la Transición tiene una leyenda rosa y otra negra. Las dos son inciertas” “Today we have two versions of the story of the Transition [to democracy], one light and the other dark. Both are false.”
Want to find out more? Try these links: ELPAÍS.com (Spanish); La Vanguardia (Spanish); El Debat (Catalan); By the Firelight (English); The Literary Saloon (English); The Latin American Herald Tribune (English)
* The excellent English translation by Anne McLean was published as Soldiers of Salamis by Bloomsbury in 2003. Here are links to the Observer review and the Independent on Sunday review. It was filmed (in Spanish) by David Trueba in 2003.