Observations on the Recent Spanish Novel
JUAN ÁNGEL JURISTO
To offer an overview of recent literary production in Spain entails in part a journey through the political and economic events that have shaped the country during the last few decades. Understanding these influences is critical because of the insight they offer us. In a relatively short period of time, Spain has advanced from being a developing country to becoming one firmly committed to the path of neoliberal economics as a member of the European Union. Spain has seen the greater part of its traditional social structure disappear or transform itself to the point where it has become something previously unknown here. This phenomenon does not mean that today’s Spanish narrative boasts a collection of works more groundbreaking and profound than those of the 1950s or 1960s. In fact, many actually believe quite the opposite: that literary trends have gone hand in hand with the needs of the publishing industry and that various aspects of the plot of any novel cannot be understood without a thorough look at the demands upon literature imposed by society at large.
For example, when the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (psoe) won national elections in 1982 and four short years later Spain secured full membership in the European Union, a search began for a new generation of authors that would break with the conformity of the past and reflect the new cultural reality of a consumerist society that had shed the chains of the era of General Francisco Franco (1936–75). This sensibility guided many of those writers who first gained notoriety in the 1980s—such names as Luis Mateo Díez, José María Merino, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Juan José Millás, and Javier Marías, among others. Cultural trends also found an echo in the large number of women writers whose works appeared in the 1990s, a phenomenon that coincided with the growing and decisive role of women in the political and economic life of Spain. This was the ideal time for such writers as Almudena Grandes, Lucía Etxebarría, Paula Izquierdo, and many more who will be examined later on in this essay. Finally, one must not forget the upsurge in works published in Galician, Basque, and Catalan or that the number of writers who could make a living by publishing in their native, minority language skyrocketed. This current would nurture the careers of Alfredo Conde, Manuel Rivas, Bernardo Atxaga, Suso de Toro, Carme Riera, and many, many others.
There are still further parallels between literature and social developments. The 1980s coincided with a search for a new generation of uniquely Spanish writers so that the reading public would not be tempted to turn to foreign authors (up to that point Latin American writers had been all the rage) to satisfy the demand for groundbreaking and compelling modern works. It is essential to remember that literature written in Spanish acquired its first taste of fashionable modernity during the 1960s (an era now generally labeled “the Boom”), when Latin American authors gained European acclaim, thanks to Spanish publishing houses. This influence was one of several currents that helped literature in Spain gain more significance in the “cultural economy,” whereas authors since the nineteenth century had traditionally conformed to the outlook of a marginal, incipient, and all but artisanal trade that had scarcely taken the first steps toward modernization. Ironically, this hunger for new readers in Spain itself had much to do with the lack of sales in Latin America that left many publishers in Spain teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, or—as in the case of the publishing house Bruguera—out of business. These publishers had no choice but to rely on Latin American markets, especially in such countries as Mexico and Argentina, since Spain itself historically had lacked a large, dynamic market for new fiction. After Latin American indebtedness took on alarming dimensions, publishers in Spain looked for new strategies to increase their sales. The Spanish state made a pivotal contribution to increase purchases of new titles through campaigns designed to encourage interest in the concept of reading as such, and also by creating a network of public libraries that, while still unable to live up to some expectations, at least was not the crumbling anachronism that had endured more or less unreformed right up to the early 1980s. These factors encouraged the publishing houses to update their own procedures and standards.
Contributing to all these policy and business considerations was a new type of reader in Spain, in many circumstances characterized as a woman between thirty and fifty years of age belonging to the urban middle class who was not ashamed to admit a preference for the new wave of uniquely Spanish writers and who, moreover, considered the novel the most compelling genre of literary expression. This sociological aspect of readership in the 1980s makes it easier to understand several other phenomena, including the striking decline in enthusiasm for Latin American authors that came after the Boom to the point that, nowadays, Spanish readers appear blissfully ignorant of the state of literature in Latin America. Spanish publishing houses that have headquarters in Latin America even fashion marketing strategies for Spain that are completely divorced from those targeted at Latin America, with different titles published and separate literary awards. One must also take into account the spectacular rise of works written by women that took place within the span of only a few years; the emphasis on profitability when searching for new material; and, to give a perfect example of the times, the torrent of novels about generations of the same family that erupted after the publication of Historias del Kronen (1994; Stories from the Kronen), by José Angel Mañas; and, finally, the pervasiveness of works of historical fiction that threatens to sweep away into anonymity any and all writers who dare publish their works without giving a literary offering to this genre.
The authors and titles I have mentioned can only take note of the very subjective criteria imposed by the literary critic. In my case, I consider these works in large part the most interesting examples of what literature in Spain currently has to offer, either due to their aesthetic quality or their sociological importance. It is fitting that we begin with three authors usually associated with the period following the Spanish civil war: namely, Camilo José Cela, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, and Miguel Delibes. These are really the only representatives of their generation, along with Juan Marsé (whose misfortune was to achieve recognition as a writer during the years of the Boom), who have managed to publish anything new in the past two decades. Of course, their offerings in old age can scarcely be regarded as their best work. Many were satisfied with simply living off of what they had written years before. A quintessential example would be the renewed popularity of Torrente Ballester when his trilogy Los gozos y las sombras (1955–60, screenplay 1978; Pleasures and shadows) became the inspiration for a television series. However, his main contribution to the spirit of contemporary literature was to publish in the 1970s his excellent work La saga / fuga de J.B. (1972; The saga / flight of J.B.), which played a fundamental role in making the Spanish novel more receptive to the experimental techniques and cutting-edge wordplay already presaged by Latin American novelists during the Boom. The final novel by Miguel Delibes, El hereje (1998; Eng. The Heretic, 2006), surprisingly turned out to be on a par with La hoja roja (1959; The red leaf) and Los santos inocentes (1982; Innocent saints) and is considered among his finest work and, in my opinion, the most fitting epitaph for his generation of writers. Torrente Ballester, perhaps the most talented of them all, tarnished his spectacular legacy when he wrote nothing but trendy short novels of no enduring literary value. Nobel laureate Camilo José Cela simply managed to sustain his career on the back of his own legend, which faded away with astonishing speed following his death in 2002.
Regarding the authors who first gained notoriety in the 1980s (the group from León province, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Juan José Millas, and others immediately come to mind), one must say that they reached their maturity as writers, as one could well have expected, during the last decade, but in some cases this resulted in stagnation. Several of them (e.g., Muñoz Molina) became respected academics, but oftentimes veneration from their peers had a stifling effect on their own creativity. A notable exception was Luis Mateo Díez, who has published a trilogy of novels that have been collected in a single volume titled El reino de Celama (2003; The kingdom of Celama), a true contemporary masterpiece. Its lively, mythical setting has more in common with the essence of the imaginary county of Faulkner or Comala, the rural backwater of Juan Rulfo, than that of the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez or the expressionistic nightmare of Juan Carlos Onetti’s Santa María. Díez has evolved into a mature writer, just like José María Merino, both of whom began their careers at about the same time. Merino has published several short-story collections—some very short, not unlike those of Augusto Monterroso—a type of literature that has not enjoyed anywhere near the success in Spain that it has had in Latin America. From the beginning, his work has focused on delving into a wide range of literary genres, from novels of broad sagas and sweeping images of a fantastic world replete with mythical overtones to the short story. Two of his most innovative works, Cuentos de los días raros (2004; Stories of strange days) and Días imaginarios (2002; Imaginary days), manage to touch on themes so diverse that one can say that they summarize in many ways the core ambitions of his extensive production and those aspects of the human condition that drive his obsession.
One also feels compelled to mention Julio Llamazares. Like Díez and Merino, he comes from León, but is younger and dwells on completely different themes. His career began in the 1980s with a collection of poems, La lentitud de los bueyes (1979; The slowness of the oxen), and grew with three novels, including the acclaimed Luna de Lobos (1985; Wolf moon). After a ten-year hiatus, in which he dedicated his talent to travel guides and movie scripts, he recently published another novel, El cielo de Madrid (2005; Madrid sky), a memoir of that city during the height of the movida from the perspective of a young man from the provinces who arrives in Spain’s capital, determined to take the world by storm and make his fortune. Although rooted in the author’s own experiences, the novel has received scant praise from the critics, unlike his earlier work. This indifference serves as an example of how literature confounds the hopeful expectations of an accomplished writer. The surging tide that, since his first novel, had carried Julio Llamazares to success appeared to evaporate overnight. This paradox is a case study in what I have been saying here about the direction of Spanish literature today. During Llamazares’s decade-long absence from the literary scene, several major changes occurred in the industry, the most striking being the emergence of “literary factories” that produce fiction inspired by the intended market rather than the author’s unique imagination. His popularity has faded as a result, and Llamazares must fight to regain the audience that at one time sang his praises but has now all but forgotten him. The market for fiction has changed dramatically and has different priorities, to the point that readers will greet his future work as if it were by an unknown.
A similar fate has befallen such novelists as Antonio Muñoz Molina and Juan José Millás, but in a different way. For example, Millás, after providing a forum for the plethora of desires and frustrations confronted by middle-class women in the 1980s and 1990s (El desorden de tu nombre [1986; Eng. The Disorder of Your Name, 2000] endures as his quintessential work in this regard), has become a prestigious columnist whose latest writing has more to do with the generalizations of newspaper reporting—the articles of which are later collected into an anthology—than with the meticulous structuring of a novel or short story. The case of Millás is symptomatic of what happens to those writers who find themselves pigeonholed into a certain style and are afraid to break with it in their later work. One is accustomed to observing this repetitive stagnation in the visual arts, but until recently it was rare in Spanish literature. Millás today constructs the true stories in his newspaper articles around women protagonists with the exact same contours of those whom he brought to life in his novels ten or twenty years ago. Muñoz Molina, for his part, has failed to develop the narrative potential that was to be expected in the wake of his novel El jinete polaco (1991; The Polish horseman), which represents the climax of his most productive period as a writer. Such unrealized successes were found in his novels Carlota Feinberg (1999) and Sefarad (2001; Eng. Sepharad, 2003). His latest book, Ventanas de Manhattan (2004; Windows of Manhattan), is the uninspired description of a city, halfway between diary and travel guide. It seems to be nothing more than a marketing ploy by the publisher to keep the author’s name on bookstore displays in the expectation that Muñoz Molina will offer his readers a story that might be well received.
Literature by women in the last few years has assumed the overtones of a world-shattering event and reflects, in a purely mechanical way, the ever-increasing role that Spanish women have acquired in the politics, economy, and social dynamics of Spain. This does not mean that female readers—who by the way consume more fiction than their male counterparts—have clamored for works by women. Rather, as a logical outcome of contemporary social change, more women are writing, and publishers are simply taking advantage of another reservoir of talent (or, more cynically, another source of people who can supply the mounds of fiction that, regardless of literary merit, provide the building blocks for a profitable marketing strategy based on volume sales). However, one must recognize that Spain boasts a tradition of writing by women that goes back centuries, although it has often been ignored. Many readers already know about Saint Teresa of Ávila or María de Zayas, but even in the darkest days of Franco’s dictatorship, there were women writers like Ana María Matute, Carmen Laforet, or Elena Quiroga who came to be seen as among the best that Spanish literature had to offer in the 1940s and 1950s. Adelaida García Morales was another female author who at one time seemed on the verge of becoming a symbol for her generation, like the writers from León already mentioned. Two of her works, El Sur (1985; Eng. The South, 1999) and Bene (1985; Eng. Bene, 1999), received critical acclaim and expressed in an original way the inner thoughts of characters who felt obliged to come to terms with the past, but without the need for revenge, since their generation had not been old enough to participate directly in the Spanish civil war. Her later work never managed to equal these two masterpieces, which are now seen as an exception in an otherwise unremarkable body of fiction. Since she has not published anything for a long time, García Morales has had to share her status as a literary symbol for Spanish women with such writers as Almudena Grandes, younger and noted for her captivating personality. Likewise, today Grandes confronts a new wave of young female writers whose style and themes are radically different from her own and, in the case of some, like Menchu Gutiérrez, exhibit more raw talent. Nevertheless, just like Ana María Matute in another era, Gutiérrez remains an indispensable champion of women’s literature in Spain. Grandes, who publishes new material with almost mathematical consistency, has not varied from the elements that made her famous in the first place. Her prose continues to touch on the emotional conflicts of her fellow generation of forty-somethings as they feel compelled to create a new legend of their own youth. It is no coincidence that her recent book, Castillos de cartón (2004; Cardboard castles)—which is relatively short if one keeps in mind that her previous work never failed to take up at least four hundred pages—describes the years of the movida that artists in other fields have also begun to claim as their own, from the films of Pedro Almodóvar to rock groups, photographers, and visual artists. It is as if all of them felt an urgent need to justify and reclaim the spirit of the movida, just as their predecessors had an obsession with the lessons of 1968. One can safely state that the sociological boundaries of women’s writing in Spain are broad enough to include the concerns of women in their fifties and sixties who belong to the educated middle class, as one can see in the works of Carme Riera, Mercedes Salisachs (whose novels have a certain journalistic bent), or Enriqueta Antolín; the somewhat outlandish descriptions of a group of writers that wants to sell itself as a lost generation of sorts. Such are the works of Lucía Etxebarría or the more literarily refined themes of Menchu Gutiérrez; and, of course, the almost folkloric narratives of daily routine disguised as a critical analysis of contemporary Spanish society that one finds in the writings of Rosa Montero or Belén Gopegui.
This apparent hodgepodge always seems to perplex the critics, and they fear becoming enmeshed in a mass of readings that initially lack anything in common because they cannot discern a single, uniform movement that gives consistency to the whole, and most of the time this is their preferred way of interpreting literature. This is not unique to writing by women, and this diversity and lack of comprehensive interpretations manifests itself in all aspects of Spanish fiction, whether it be in works by authors from different age groups or those who write in regional languages. For example, one would suppose that writing in Catalan, Basque, or Galician would exhibit by the very nature of its nationalism a strident tone demanding respect for the subaltern culture. What really happens is that what is said often sounds more or less the same, notwithstanding the intent of the authors to distinguish themselves by writing in a specific language. Thus, one should not be surprised that a recent novel by Bernardo Atxaga, El hijo del acordeonista (2004; The accordion player’s son), has failed to live up to the expectations of most readers, due to its being a meditation based in exile. The protagonist spends several years in California, and clearly the historical overview of Basque history from the 1930s, beginning shortly before the outbreak of the Spanish civil war to the present, strikes one as inadequate when filtered through the experiences of an exile whose point of view is rooted in a foreign environment. Whatever the intent, the result is to force-feed a nineteenth-century theme to a society that is oriented toward the future. Herein lies the essential contradiction between a well-worn nationalist type of writing and actual modernity that, I believe, is not at all bridged in those novelists whose native language is not Castilian Spanish. One sees this disconnect in Manuel Rivas, whose themes are based on a defense of diversity within limits set by an ever increasingly uniform society; in Alfredo Conde, whose latest novels are replete with the conflicts between traditional Galician society and modernity, as one sees in the plots of Azul cobalto (2001; Cobalt blue) or Romasanta (2004), which revolve around the life of the Marqués de Sargadelos and the werewolf Allariz, the first recorded case of a serial killer in Spanish history, who was pardoned by Queen Isabella II (1833–68); in Suso de Toro, the Galician writer who perhaps most exemplified a tendency toward a refined modern aesthetic in the spirit of the avant-garde but whose most recent work has opted for a simple championing of Galician identity and its uniqueness in the mosaic of social dynamics in modern Spain; and finally, to finish this brief overview of literature in the minority languages of Spain, we see the enigma of Catalan authors, who have ignored the trends I have just described in their Basque and Galician counterparts and express themes in Catalan that are similar to those found in works written in Castilian Spanish. Ironically, due to Barcelona’s role as a center of publishing in the Spanish-speaking world, the best work of Catalan authors tends to be offered in Castilian Spanish rather than their native language. Juan Marsé embodies this tendency, although one must add that his recent novel, Canciones de amor en Lolita’s Club (2005; Love songs in Lolita’s Club), completely failed to live up to his reputation as an outstanding writer and pales in comparison to his earlier work.
I must not end this overview without examining a group of authors who cannot be grouped into the categories cited above but who have left an indelible mark on modern Spanish literature and who deserve attention. Arturo Pérez Reverte has written some of the most successful best-sellers of the last decade and helped fuel the current popularity of the historical novel. His good fortune has continued with the popular saga of Captain Alatriste, a fictional memoir of imperial Spain, the soldier’s life, and the picaresque in the era of Cervantes and Quevedo. Nor can we forget Miguel Sánchez Ostiz, whose novels Las pirañas (1992; The piranhas) and La flecha del miedo (2000; The arrow of fear) in my opinion represent two landmarks in recent Spanish fiction. His recently published critical essays on Pío Baroja, in many ways a major influence on his own writing, underscore the excellent craftsmanship that has characterized all his work. One should also give a nod to those young writers who labor in obscurity and have not sold well but whose talent is indisputable. Two names readily come to mind: Francisco J. Satué and, especially, Javier Marías. The latter has been writing for thirty years, maintaining his own unique style free from the amorphous debates about the quickest way to huge sales and the generational and social themes that have dominated the book market for the past twenty years. Especially in the wake of his success in Germany, he has become one of those authors who has a huge reputation but whom few people have actually read. The latest installment of Tu rostro mañana (vol. 1, 2002; vol. 2, 2004; Eng. Your Face Tomorrow, 2005), just recently released, appears to be exceptional if the critics are to be believed.
Although I have just touched the tip of the iceberg, I cannot resist the urge to mention also the names Juan Eduardo Zúñiga and José Jiménez Lozano. These two outstanding writers, whom the arbiters of literary fame in Spain have apparently overlooked, retain an almost cultlike status for a few diehard fans. Still, I believe that I have managed to provide a broad overview of the most important trends in contemporary Spanish fiction. The fact that hundreds of fashionable writers and novels have, sometimes in just a matter of months, gone from commercial success to the silence of the bargain bin in a matter of months—but continue to publish their latest books like clockwork and maintain their notoriety up to the present—augurs well for a style of fiction that, all in all, is holding its own, neither having known its greatest moments nor its worst. One cannot dispute the fact that because of the unique development of the Spanish economy in recent years, the socioeconomic impact on Spanish fiction has assured that our nation’s literary output remains neither sporadic nor isolated. Our writers and their work are fully integrated into the cultural industry of publishing that, now more than ever, is among the most important in today’s Spain.
Translation from the Spanish
By John J. Winters, David Draper Clark, and César Ferreira
Born in 1951 in Madrid, Spain, Juan Ángel Juristo studied Hispanic philology at the University of Madrid. In the early 1970s Juristo served as both editor of and contributor to Pueblo and Información in Alicante, Spain. He has also collaborated in different media outlets, including the national Spanish daily newspaper El País and the program Autorretrato, produced by Radio Televisión Española (RTVE). He was the cultural manager at El Independiente and, from 1989 to 1990, directed the cultural magazine El Urogallo, becoming the chief editor of the culture, society, and events sections at the daily El Sol. For nearly a decade, Juristo was a regular contributor to El Mundo. His other activities have included serving as a juror for various national prizes, lecturing at conferences in Venezuela and Mexico, and teaching summer courses in Spain. In 2000 Juristo placed second in the Premio Julio Camba competition, which rewards excellence in journalism. He has published Para que duela menos (1995), a study of the works of Peruvian fiction writer Alfredo Bryce Echenique, and Ni mirto ni laurel (1997), a compilation of Juristo’s essays on the new Spanish narrative that first appeared in El Mundo. Currently, he writes critical commentary for the Spanish national newspaper El ABC, based in Madrid.
John J. Winters currently teaches Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics at the University of Oklahoma. Among his previous English translations from the Spanish are several pieces that have appeared in the pages of World Literature Today, including, most recently, “In the Past, One Wrote to Gain Immortality; Today Nobody Believes in Eternity: An Interview with Mario Vargas Llosa” (see WLT 76:1, Winter 2002, 64–69). David Draper Clark is editor in chief of World Literature Today, where he has worked for the past twenty-two years. Among the Spanish-language authors he has translated into English are Rafael Alberti, Álvaro Mutis, Nancy Morejón, and Enrique Lihn. César Ferreira is Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Oklahoma. A Fulbright scholar, his publications include edited books on Peruvian authors Edgardo Rivera Martínez and Alfredo Bryce Echenique. Ferreira has been a contributing editor to World Literature Today since 2001.
The term movida madrileña, roughly translatable as “the Madrid scene,” had its origin in the marginal drug culture but was coined as a generic term for the explosion in subcultures from about 1977 to 1985 in response to Spanish elite culture and politics. The movida encompassed anyone wishing to participate, perform, or produce things in other media, including designers, painters, and photographers as well as the emblematic movida figure Pedro Almodóvar. (Source: Spanish Culture and Society: The Essential Glossary, ed. Barry Jordan [London: Arnold, 2002], 149)
“From the May-June 2006 issue of World Literature Today (80:3), pages 31-37. Copyright 2006 World Literature Today.”