Project Bestseller #2: Matilde Asensi and the mystical geography of Spain

Matilde Asensi, la autora española más leidaDamn! I wrote this whole post and poof! it was gone … so [Round Two] … I promised a couple of months back to talk a bit more about Matilde Asensi, who has been one of Spain’s bestselling authors for around 10 years now, but who I’d never come across until I began looking at Spain’s bestseller lists for an article I was researching earlier this year.

Asensi is described on her website as ‘la autora española más leída’ (the most-read [female] Spanish author), although it’s slightly unclear whether that’s a gender-inflected claim or not. Certainly Asensi usually appears below Carlos Ruiz Zafón and Ildefonso Falcones on the annual lists of Spain’s bestselling authors, but then both Falcones and Ruiz Zafón made their names largely from a single, doorstopping novel, while Asensi has published eight novels since 1999 at a rate of more or less one a year, so maybe there’s a cumulative effect? In any case, hers is an interesting case study for considering the whole question of how a national bestselling author becomes a global bestselling author, especially given the complexities of Spain’s cultural geopolitics.

Is it the case now that an author hasn’t really made it until national success turns into global recognition? If so, I would argue that Asensi is still some way behind her two male peers, particularly with regard to their relationship with the Anglophone world. If you clicked on the Ruiz Zafón link above, you’ll have noticed that not only is it a fully English-language website, but it even has a British domain (.co.uk); similarly, while Falcones himself doesn’t seem to have an author website, the Catedral del mar website is available in English, Castilian and Catalan. Meanwhile, Asensi’s webpage is entirely in Spanish, although there is an ‘internacional’ page, where you can see a map with the countries where her books have been published. Interestingly, other than South Korea, these are primarily in Europe, although the few English-language versions have come via the US rather than Britain, and there are both Portuguese and Brazilian editions of O último Catão. One thing I noticed from the map is the absence of Catalonia, although half of Asensi’s novels are also available in Catalan versions.* Perhaps unsurprisingly, Catalonia doesn’t appear to count as ‘internacional,’ but then again, nor do the Catalan versions appear under ‘Spanish editions’ – so as far as Editorial Planeta, who sponsor the website, are concerned, it seems they are largely invisible… 

Asensi’s claim to an international profile rests primarily on three novels: Iacobus (2000), El último Catón (2001) and Todo bajo el cielo (2006); Iacobus, her second novel, is described on her website as ‘La novela que abrió las puertas del mercado internacional a Matilde Asensi’ (the novel that opened the doors of the international market to Matilde Asensi). It has been published in Portuguese, Polish, French, German and Italian, but not (as far as I can see) English. El último Catón, Asensi’s third novel, appeared in all of these languages, as well as Greek, Romanian, Slovak and also English, as The Last Cato: A Novel, which has its very own English-language website (warning – sound!).** In an unmistakeable play for an established audience, the blurb on the website and the front cover claims that ‘it will do for Dante what Dan Brown did for Da Vinci’. Indeed.

Asensi’s work is typified by this kind of connection with the mega-popular Brownesque mystical-cryptographical-historical genre. The novels fall into two categories; those in which a contemporary researcher must uncover an historical mystery (usually through stories attached to material artefacts), and those set entirely in the past. Over the summer, I acquired Asensi’s first two novels, both from the surprisingly well-stocked bookshop inside the Eroski supermarket in Ponteareas, Galicia (!), and read the first, El Salón de Ámbar (1999) over a couple of days sitting by the pool in our (rented!) Galician villa. It’s a first-person narrative in which we follow our narrator, the thirtysomething antique dealer Ana Galdeano, from her native Ávila to Porto and Weimar on the trail of a mysterious painting that is somehow connected with a fifty-year-old intrigue involving Nazi prisoners, Russian criminals and the real-life mystery of the disappearance of Russia’s opulent Amber Room.

It’s a very readable novel, and Ana is a very personable narrator. Her eccentric but stylish lifestyle as an antique dealer living in her ancestral home in the ancient walled city of Ávila, and working with the international criminal consortium known as the Grupo de Ajedrez (Chess Group) is vividly portrayed. An unmarried, professional thirtysomething, she is neither man mad (although she does develop a touching and entirely adult relationship over the course of the novel) nor fashion crazy. This is no chick lit fantasy, and Ana is convincingly female without being daffily feminine. Ávila is a beautiful and historical city, which is ripe for a certain kind of cultural tourism – this, together with the strong female narrator and the Nazi connection, makes it inexplicable to me that the novel hasn’t yet been translated into English.*** I was hoping to find that Asensi had returned to Ana in future novels, since Salón reads very much as the first instalment in a longer series, but so far this isn’t the case. I have some hope, however, as Asensi revisits former protagonists in both Peregrinatio (2004), which revisits the protagonists of Iacobus, and her most recent novel Venganza en Sevilla, which returns to Catalina Solis, from Tierra firme. I am crossing my fingers to be able to catch up with Ana at some point in the future too…

I’m going to continue working my way through Asensi’s novels over the next few months, and I’m especially interested in how she binds Spain into global cartographies of international mystery and intrigue, while also sketching out a mystical geography of Spain that ranges widely across Spanish territory, but as far as I can see, rarely visits the same site twice. I’m intrigued by the mystical-historical geography of Spain that emerges in this kind of fiction, and the roles ascribed to different sites, whether these be cities (the Barcelona of both Falcones and Ruiz Zafón; Asensi’s Ávila), buildings (Falcones’ Cathedral) or fantastic spaces (Ruiz Zafón’s Cemetery of Lost Books). The central role played by Barcelona in these fictions and in the alternative historical geopoetics of Spain they appear to be mapping, is especially interesting given the invisibility of the Catalan versions of Asensi’s works on her institutional (publisher-managed) website. I’ll be intrigued to see Galicia’s place in all of this, and I haven’t got long to wait – next up is Iacobus, which is set in the Middle Ages along the Camino de Santiago, although I have to get through a Cathedral first of all … Watch this space!

  

* La sala d’Ambre; Iacobus; L’origen perdut; Tot sota el cel; in no case does the website give information about the translator.

** It took some digging to find the name of the translator, Pamela Carmell, which doesn’t appear on the publisher’s website, the front cover, or the book’s English-language website. Unsurprising, perhaps, but nonetheless shows a blatant lack of respect for what is a substantial amount of work, and if I sound tetchy about that, it’s because I am. So there.

*** Some websites seem to suggest that there is an English-language translation of El Salón de Ámbar, but they are confused, and referring to the 2003 novel The Amber Room by Steve Berry, which has a very similar plot, but was translated into Spanish by Carlos Lacasa and published in 2007 as La habitación de Ámbar.  

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3 comments

  1. Nice blog you have here, Kirsty! I read at least two Asensi novels (Iacobus and El último Catón</em) about five years or so ago after hearing her referred to as the female Pérez-Reverte or something like that, and I enjoyed the books for their adventure/escapist elements. Not sure I'd want to make the time to read something else by her today, but you could do a whole lot worse than the two books I mentioned if all you were looking for was vacation reading. ¡Saludos!

  2. Thanks, Richard, and welcome! I’ve just started Iacobus, and I’ll let you all know how I get on … after that I think it’ll be time to switch to something else for a while!

  3. […] know I’ve written here before about how historical fiction, especially with a crypto-mystico-gothic or spiritual dimension, is […]

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