Our Man in Madrid: A New Series from Words without Borders

“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.  And that has not been his fate alone, judging from the diverse accents that buzz about the streets and reverberate among the literary gatherings held throughout town.  A hybrid chorus conjures distant locales and distinct histories that 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.  To begin with, 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.  What makes PRISA such a commanding presence, though, is not merely its size and reach, however considerable.  It’s something more like the culture of prestige cultivated in the pages of its publications—this, of course, being the fruit of a careful editorial labor begun in the mid 1970s and carried forward today. 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.  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 single 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 has come to feel 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. Barcelona, its capital, is no exception.  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 500 kilometers southwest.            

To recount all this is—to be sure—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 and even older 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 (esperpénto) 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, Madrid, Granada, the Canary Islands.  Each month we will feature a different face and voice: an interview and a story. 

I hope you enjoy.

You can read the first dispatch in the series, Juan Carlos Chirinos's "Ride of the Valkyries" over here.