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Si estás en Madrid: A Bilingual Anthology (Musa a las 9 & Words Without Borders)

From a recently published book of stories and interviews I’ve selected, translated, and introduced (below):

IF YOU’RE IN MADRID…

Madrid es un pueblo, people here are fond of saying, their tone of paternalism matched only by pride. It’s small, but it’s ours, is more or less the idea. And yet being here you’re also just as likely to hear another homegrown aphorism that suggests something different: si estás en Madrid, eres de Madrid (if you’re in Madrid, you’re from Madrid). Finding an actual Madrileño, someone born here, is no easy thing. More common is to find a Latin American, or a Spaniard from elsewhere in the country, who has moved to Madrid and now calls it her home. The diminutive pueblo of one saying, Madrid is also the cosmopolitan hub implied by the other. The two shades of its identity help make for its singular charm, which easily wins over the affections of its literary residents. The Catalan writer Luis Carandell once wrote that he was born in Barcelona, but reborn in Madrid. That has not been his fate alone, judging from the diverse accents that buzz about the streets and reverberate throughout the literary gatherings held across town. A hybrid chorus sounds distant locales and distinct histories that all converge here, where publishing houses, cultural institutes, universities, and magazines absorb the polyphony.

Along with its inhabitants, the city has also changed over the years. Over the last few decades it has emerged, if gingerly at first, from under the shadow of its Catalonian counterpart. The storied literary city of Spain has always been Barcelona, its credentials burnished in the 1950s and ‘60s when writers and editors in Spanish took up residence in what was then the great, bustling city of the counterculture. In the still air of the centralized Francoist state, Madrid seemed barren and asphyxiating by comparison. Even the novels set in Madrid, say, in the 1950s—like Camilo José Cela’s The Hive—feel claustrophobic, almost arid, and reflect the place and times. If Barcelona was the city of literary experimentalism and outward-looking cosmopolitanism, Madrid was the seat of that grim national reality, depicted in the somber hues of social realism.

But for some of the same reasons that Madrid was prohibitive to many writers in the ‘50s and ‘60s, from the 1970s forward it began to regain a certain appeal. With the Movimiento stumbling into senility, each year closer to obsolescence, Spain’s capital grew into that more inviting capital of a country in transition and in flux. For one, it played host to the burgeoning culture of a free press after Franco’s death in 1975. Increasingly (although by no means exclusively) this meant the rise of the media conglomerate PRISA, which began as an idea for a newspaper to usher in democracy (and rejuvenate democratic culture) and has since become a towering media empire. In addition to El País, Spain’s widest circulating daily, it also owns a handful of publishing houses, among them the distinguished Alfaguara, which is distributed throughout the whole of the Spanish-speaking world. Along with PRISA, which is the most visible on the international scale, independent presses, both in print and online, have cropped up in response to an expanding demand. One especially felicitous example is Musa a las 9, publisher of this volume. Together they have helped create a distinct milieu in Madrid that consistently draws writers from Latin America and the rest of Spain into the orbit of the city.

Another draw—and perhaps the most significant these days—is the language. As so many Latin American writers have pointed out—from Mario Vargas Llosa to Juan Carlos Onetti—the patrimony of Cervantes has turned Spain into a new homeland of sorts for writers from America. A free flow of ideas and a tradition of trans-Atlantic residencies have sprung from a shared language and a cosmopolitan spirit. For Latin Americans especially, though, there is a budding caveat in the famed literary city of the boom years. Barcelona feels somewhat less inviting than it once did. The Catalonian identity has always been strong, in fact strong enough to support a flowering resistance culture during the Franco years. But against the backdrop of its fairly recently realized autonomy, Catalonia is partial to a language of its own. University and editorial posts open fastest (and stay open longest) for speakers of Catalan. And for writers coming from Latin America, with little reason to have studied the language in their home countries, this has closed some doors. There is a certain refrain among Madrileños from the Americas: inspired by the literary history, many first set their sights on moving to Barcelona, but later changed course on getting wind of the lively opportunities some 500 kilometers southwest.

To recount all this is merely to summarize recent history. Madrid’s barrio de las letras, running along Huertas Street just off the Puerta del Sol, testifies to an august past, from the Golden Age to the early 20th century. Lines of poetry—citations and all—are engraved into the sidewalk. On one tiny side street, called Calle de Álvarez Gato and just a block or so off of Huertas, is a plaque commemorating the inimitable Ramón del Valle-Inclán, whose theory of the grotesque (esperpento) grew out of two distorting mirrors that have been lovingly restored next to a popular bar. This is a city in which old gives naturally onto new. Book presentations are a nearly daily affair, hosted at museums like the Reina Sofia or cultural institutions like the Círculo de Bellas Artes or the Casa de Ámerica, dedicated specifically to art and literature from the Americas.

This series is meant to provide a glimpse into contemporary literary life in Madrid—and in particular the life that pulsates and courses through the city but has yet, until now, to make its way into English. As such, it is devoted to the writers who are making Madrid what it is, who enliven it with their books, partake of its history, and fashion from it that unique cosmopolitan blend. They hail from Venezuela, Peru, Chile, Galicia, and Granada.

I’ve chosen these stories as much for their individual charms as for the shared conversations their authors let us listen in on. Taken together they are an essay on how the individual negotiates her sense of place; the diverse locales of these stories, which span three continents, thus create a mosaic Madrid: polyphonic and multiform, variegated and unpredictable.

“Ride of the Valkyries,” by Juan Carlos Chirinos, is a comic snapshot of an old and rumpled couple, two ordinary and unremarkable aristocrats who happen also to be an outgoing president and first lady. This is the story of a coup d’etat that never once lifts its gaze from the deposed. There’s even a touch of Goya about the images in the story. The fumbling pair brings to mind the irreverence of Goya’s portrait of Charles IV and his family; characters gaze off distractedly and are at a comic remove from one another, all while being captured as though in a hastily snapped photo. In a parody of the bombast and lumbering baroque self-satisfactions of power and privilege, language is meant to outdo (then undo) itself and drift into pastiche in this story, which is at once mischievous and deadly serious.

Jorge Eduardo Benavides, in a careful “meld of the fantastical and political,” hones a language that is agonizingly specific and transparent, but which bows to an encroaching abstraction: “That Presence,” an allegory of the destructive forces of totalitarianism in his native Peru. Both Chirinos and Benavides seek a liberation from and through words; they come teeming down from on high in “Ride of the Valkyries,” whereas they pile up in a descriptive heap in “The Reckoning.” Benavides articulates everything into view: emotions, thoughts and fears, painstaking images of a beleaguered Lima, plodding dialogues. All receive explicit, almost expository, treatment as though to create a sense of claustrophobia in words, leaving nothing to the imagination. And yet miniscule crevices cracked with foreboding plunge us into seemingly bottomless gloom.

If “Spaniards Lost in America,” by Carlos Franz, seems sunnier and more playful it is only because his ironies mask biting satire behind a winsome virtuoso smile. This is the story of a corpse and a casket: of an unknown Spaniard forsaken by his paisanos in the faraway land of Pampa Hundida, a fictional reprise of a Chilean town. It is a “comic drama about emigration” and the “solitude of the uprooted,” says Franz, and it moves our collection into the realm of immigrant space, that limbo-haze of two worlds coming together while their denizens scramble to reconstitute a sense of purpose and of place. Chirinos and Benavides tell of a world buckling under its own weight; in their stories there is a soft-voiced longing for a pristine space to start anew. Franz reminds us that even the open expanses of the new world—whatever refuge they promise—reek all the same with the pungency of the past. The past isn’t even past, Faulkner once said, and indeed “Spaniards Lost in America” has something of “A Rose for Emily” in it: a first person plural narrator, a tragic-comic community as its protagonist, and a knowing voice that suggests, at once, complicity in the recounted events and the studied distance of retrospect.

Blanca Riestra’s contribution, “La noche sucks,” keeps us a while longer amidst these frontier haunts. Where Franz toyed with the collective sensibility of a community enmeshed in pueblo drama, Riestra explores the splintering perceptions and isolatto-feelings of young residents of Albuquerque. The town’s bard and summoner is the bedraggled Clemente; he makes a belated cameo, arriving at the story’s close as though to turn out the lights. For a moment, when a flickering doubt illuminates him, we catch a glimpse of a city in its mesmerizing half-light. “I have to keep writing so that Albuquerque exists,” Clemente imagines. But his sense of purpose mostly feels quaint. The story of this border city will go on without him; its energy feels centrifugal, and the characters populating the landscape may cross paths, but ultimately they seem to be tunneling away from one another as the story picks up speed. “I would like to write as if I were in a passing car … which is one of the most delectable sensations I know,” Riestra remarks—and it shows.

In her story two breathless kids—pubescent and wide-eyed—chance upon a gun that glimmers and tantalizes with its unused allure. Back in Madrid, where Ernesto Pérez Zúñiga brings us by way of Morocco, the shots of another gun ring out. Two hard-scrabble immigrant brothers from Tangiers are briefly united in Madrid; they take a bite at the fraternal apple in “Dos Manzanas.” There’s something more luridly cinematic in this story. The narrator’s edgy commentary seems to channel, and intensify, the voices we’ve heard from Venezuela to Peru, Chile, and the US. It’s as though one voice that can distill the general mood has been pulled out of the chorus for a solo, while we realize as readers that we too are implicated in the city’s grime and sinister thrills.

We end in Madrid with Doménico Chiappe’s “Writer of Memories,” an elegant reflection on immigrant life in a new city: its exigencies and challenges, a trial as much of the urbs as of the self. This is a semi-autobiographical story of a writer and deracinated immigrant traveler arriving in Madrid with the aim of starting a literary life there. A scourge of an editor, relentless in his judgment, keeps rejecting the work our protagonist sends to him; it’s unoriginal, the editor quips. And this seems a literary case of confounded integration. Every attempt our narrator makes to forge his own literary identity is met with the skepticism of conventional wisdom and prejudgment. He is crowded out by what’s come before him, which maps ‘the anxiety of influence’ onto that more literal dilemma of finding one’s place in a new city. A solution of sorts ultimately lies in pluralism and polyphony; the protagonist makes a living writing other people’s memoirs, which themselves are skeins fashioned from diverse threads. The individual voice is, finally, most believable when it intones a chorus. Which is what this book hopes to do too.

—Jonathan Blitzer     Madrid, June, 2012

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