The Spanish Mien

By Stavans, Ilan | The Nation, March 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Spanish Mien


Stavans, Ilan, The Nation


V.S. Pritchett, whose essays are an invaluable companion, a sort of Dante's Virgil in the navigation of modern literature, once described Don Quixote as "the novel that killed a country by knocking the heart out of it and extinguishing its belief in itself forever." This is no doubt an incisive statement, and perhaps truthful too. If so, it should be expanded to say that Don Quixote also artfully extirpated Spain from Europe's intellectual conscience. For beyond Cervantes, where are its influential figures to be found in the international sphere? This is not to say that Spain has given up on literature. On the contrary, many thousands of books--nonfiction, poetry and as much fiction as there are mushrooms that spring up in a forest after a rainstorm--are published annually at home. The number of Spanish literary awards has multiplied dramatically in the last couple of decades: Every major publisher has its prize and parades its winners with unrestrained flair. But does anybody abroad really pay attention?

If this diagnosis--that the Spanish novel is in a centuries-old hiatus--sounds improbable, even a bit offensive, I suggest an exercise in improvised criticism. Stop for a moment at your local bookstore and look for, say, a dozen Iberian novels--classics and commercial--on the shelf. I bet the task defeats you. You might stumble upon a title by Camilo Jose Cela, whose Nobel Prize, like that of his fellow Spaniard, Jacinto Benavente, only accentuated his obscurity; and you will surely come across the "brainy" thrillers of Arturo Perez-Reverte, probably the most popular espanol of our time. But beyond these, what? It would be easy to blame the publishing industry for this void, yet most editors, especially at university presses, are far from parochial, and censorship is not a principle they endorse. Furthermore, even in such an atmosphere as ours, fastidiously allergic to foreign cultures, far more literature from France and Germany, even from Italy--not to mention the quick westbound trip of scores of Britons--is released in the United States. Spain simply isn't trendy; its intellectual life is of no global consequence.

The problem, in part, is internal. It is symptomatic that whenever an Iberian's letters are discussed at home, critics recur to similes: "Benito Perez Galdos was our Dickens," it is said, "and Juan Benet our Faulkner." In all fairness, these comparisons are often to an author's advantage. A handful of essayists, and chiefly poets, fare better: Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset, still not fully translated into English, are the owners of pungent, incisive voices unstilted by time that are delightful to read; and Federico Garcia Lorca, along with poets of the Civil War (Machado, Cernuda et al.), are true giants. But a quick survey of the landscape in fiction evidences a kind of wasteland: Miguel Delibes, Carmen Martin Gaite, Rafael Sanchez Ferlosio, Alvaro Pombo and younger figures like Almudena Grandes, Juan Luis Cebrian, Antonio Munoz Molina. Are these recognizable names? Even if he isn't taken at face value, Pritchett, I think, is on to something of significance: The country's literary flame might not have been extinguished altogether with Don Quixote, but it surely burns at a low intensity. Spain appears in a permanent state of eclipse.

Beyond national borders, one of the very few heralded talents of the last decade is Javier Marias. His work has been timidly appearing in US bookstores, praised in literary supplements and review pages. But it remains, not surprisingly, largely ignored by readers. Still, Marias has much to offer; even if his work isn't consistently breathtaking, a push should be made to bring him to the attention of a wider audience. From his 1971 debut novel Los dominios del lobo to collections of essays like Literatura y fantasma, his books have sold in excess of 3.2 million copies, mainly in Europe and Hispanic America. (Sales and quality don't always match, but they do in his case. …

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