Earlier this year forensic anthropologists and archaeologists searching beneath a convent in Madrid believed they might have finally located the remains of Miguel de Cervantes, author of one of world literature’s most beloved masterworks, Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605; 1615). The first part of this marvellous satirical romance featuring the likeable eponymous hero, a poor gentleman of La Mancha, who has become overwhelmed by his reading of chivalric tales, was published on January 16th, 1605.
Inspired and/or possibly deranged by his extensive reading and clad in rusty armour, the kindly gentleman sets off on his elderly horse, Rocinante, in the company of a servant, Sancho Panza. Along with the armour, he conforms to the traditional knightly requirements and selects a mistress of his heart. The chosen woman is unaware of this devotion. The various adventures described make this a hugely entertaining and timeless picaresque. Cervantes was born in 1547 in Alcala de Henares, about 35km northeast of Madrid to a lowly and deaf barber-surgeon father and a mother from an impoverished noble family. The poor woman had been sold off to the man who would in time become the father of Cervantes.
The future writer initially became a soldier, joining the Spanish navy infantry and when he was 24 fought at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 where he was wounded at least twice in the chest and also lost the use of his left hand – significant details for the team of researchers shifting through the bone fragments found under the Convento de las Trinitarias Descalzas, the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians.
During building work undertaken at the convent near the end of the 17th century, the many graves already there, including that of Cervantes, his wife and other family members, were disturbed and stored elsewhere. Decaying coffins would have collapsed on being moved, causing the remains to be become mingled. But one thing is certain, when Cervantes was imprisoned by Turkish pirates and kept in Algiers for five years, his ransom was eventually paid by the convent. In gratitude he asked to be buried there. To date the Spanish forensic team, shifting through a mass of bone fragments and other material, including fabric and wood, has confirmed locating the writer’s jawbone. Cervantes had only six remaining teeth when he died in April 1616, about 10 days before the death of William Shakespeare.
The second volume of Don Quixote was published on October 31st, 1615. Cervantes was still working on it when a false sequel appeared, allegedly from the pen of Alfonso Fernandez de Avellaneda – the volume is known as the Quixote de Avellaneda. Cervantes responded quickly, and included disparaging comments about the rogue version. This second volume from Cervantes was first translated into English in early 1616, evidence of its appeal – a speed which makes present-day Spanish publishers, eager to alert international readers to the wonders of contemporary Spanish writing, sigh with envy.
In Don Quixote, Cervantes – who wrote in Castilian Spanish – has his delusional hero express his ideas in a medieval form of Castilian; the other characters speak in a more modern Spanish. The publication of Don Quixote marked the emergence of modern Spanish, just as the novel is recognised as world literature’s first novel and Cervantes is celebrated as the father of Spanish literature. He always maintained that writing, the work of the pen, conveyed the feelings of the soul. Spanish writers are very good at that; the selection below conveys some idea of their artistry and stylistic panache as well as their flair for very human stories with Everyman narrators – Miguel de Cervantes would have approved.
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Repila, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Pushkin Press, London)
High art most accurately describes Repila’s magnificent, stark and beautiful allegory about two brothers, Big and Small, who are trapped in a well. One of the most amazing stories I have ever read.
All is Silence by Manuel Rivas, translated from the Galician by Jonathan Dunne (Vintage, London)
Bold, funny and profound; this is a gangster story with a difference, several differences, and a most intriguing villain, a man with a flair for telling one-liners.
Life Embitters by Josep Pla, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (Archipelago Books, New York)
Selected writing from the author of The Gray Notebook, begun in 1919 and the first of the 45-volume journal which he kept. Pla has often been compared with the great Joseph Roth – they were both astute witnesses of their respective worlds.
Uncertain Glory by Joan Sales, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (MacLehose Press, London)
A most unusual account of the Spanish Civil War from the losing side, it gives a vivid sense of the war as the backdrop to the chaotic daily life of the time. Reads as if it were written yesterday – it is fresh, alive and populated by an interesting and bewildered cast of characters.
Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Pushkin Press, London)
Stories from a master of black comedy. Fraile (1925-2013) lived in Madrid throughout the Spanish Civil War. He left Spain in the 1950s and settled in Scotland. He has a light touch and a razor wit as well as a highly original way of looking at the world.
The Stein Report by Jose Carlos Llop, translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis (Hispabooks, Madrid)
With echoes of Alain- Fournier’s classic Le Grand Meaulnes (1913) this is a beautiful book, evocative of a young boy’s dawning awareness of the many secrets controlling the adult world.
The Birthday Buyer by Adolfo Garcia Ortega, translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush (Hispabooks, Madrid)
While on his way to visit Auschwitz, the narrator, an admirer of Primo Levi’s work, is involved in a motor accident which lands him in a Frankfurt hospital. It is a very unusual and disturbing novel; one of the few Spanish books about the Holocaust.
Uppsala Woods by Alvaro Colomer, translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Dunne (Hispabooks, Madrid)
His wife is depressed, apparently suicidal and his world may be falling apart. The increasingly exasperated Everyman narrator does not seem all that stable himself, yet he does think he has found a rare mosquito and has even begun to suspect that mental illness caused by stressful modern life may be a far more common condition than he had realised. Few books as serious as this one are quite as hysterically funny.
The Faint-Hearted Bolshevik by Lorenzo Silva, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Isabelle Kaufeler (Hispabooks, Madrid)
The influence of Dostoyevsky’s poignant early work, the short story, White Nights (1848), will be noted in this delicate, sophisticated narrative about a fatalistic man’s disastrous fondness for a young girl.
Two things strike me: what an impressive range Spanish fiction possesses. Spain is a country with four languages: Basque, Catalan, Galician and Spanish, all used by wonderful writers. Repila’s eloquent tale, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, is beyond brilliance and may well in time emerge as one of the most widely celebrated books of the decade. But also, considering the geographic scale of the Spanish-speaking and writing world, this is a list of books written entirely by writers from Spain. None of the selected titles are from South America, another major bastion of Spanish-language writing.
The other interesting observation is that of a random list of eight outstanding titles, no less than four have been published by the exciting new publishing house, Hispabooks, which is based in Madrid and is commissioning its own English-language translations from several of the most outstanding literary translators currently at work.
According to Ana Perez Galvan and her partner, writer Gregorio Doval – both are experienced literary editors – they set up Hispabooks with the aim of presenting Spanish books from Spain to readers across the world. Aware that the Latin American writers do have an established international audience, these books tend to be more closely reflective of the South American countries from which the writers hail. Previously there was also a powerful political dimension involved and many of the classic works of Latin American fiction were critical of the respective dictatorships.
In the case of the current writing from Spain though, Ana Perez Galvan feels that there is too large an emphasis on the more stereotypical image of Spain, one with which many Spanish writers are not engaged. A far stronger element of universality is at work in several of these novels. The writers are looking to human experience in general, not only as related to Spain. Obviously this is not true of all of them: Uncertain Glory by the great Catalan writer Joan Sales was first published in 1956 (and in English by Maclehose in 2014, with a concluding volume due out later this year) and is about the Spanish Civil War. The Stein Report, which is published by Hispabooks, does refer to historical events as well but the magic of the book rests in its inspired tone and the evocation of a boy remembering.
Hispabooks wishes to present novels which are global, not merely local. By commissioning the English translations, they are not only making these titles available to English-language readers, they are alerting us to books which we may otherwise miss – and have been missing because the international publishers have been reluctant to consider them. Why? “Because they are not obviously Spanish and this makes publishers nervous,” says Perez Galvan. Readers are far more adventurous – publishers should stop underestimating us.
One of the many problems facing writers and readers in a world in which publishing is increasingly an industry dictated to by hype, is that the louder a book happens to be, the bigger the gimmick, perceived topicality or the personality of the author, the more attention it receives. Reviewers are being bombarded with details about massive advances and the sale of film rights before they even read the latest offerings.
Hispabooks is determined to showcase the best of contemporary Spanish writing from writers working in Spain’s four languages – and although English-languages publishers remain slow to take chances on literary fiction in translation unless it has already won several prizes, Hispabooks is proving that this no longer matters. Why wait on London or New York? Madrid is identifying quality literary fiction and making it available to a wider readership.
So, Spanish-language fiction in English translation published in Madrid? And why not? The 13th title, JA Gonzalez Sainz’s None So Blind is due out in June.