Feature Article

  • Jacques Testard

    On reflection it seems my first encounters with Spanish-language literature happened at school, where I took Spanish GCSE and A-Level. One of my Spanish teachers – let’s call him GJB – was a former missionary who used to smuggle Bibles into Bulgaria during the Cold War.

    For our first ever Spanish lesson, he screened a video of the serial killer Ted Bundy’s last interview before his execution in 1989. ‘What does this have to do with Spanish, sir?’ we asked, fairly alarmed at the direction things were moving in. ‘Pornography is the root of all evil,’ he replied in a thick Stockport accent, index finger raised high above his head, eyes magnified by a pair of thick 1970s-style spectacles. ‘Stay away from it and you won’t end up like our man Bundy here, frazzled on the electric chair.’ That’s one way to make a classroom pay attention, and for their unpredictable nature GJB’s classes became a highlight of my last four years at school.

    I can’t say I remember too much of the books we read in Spanish at the time – mainly the titles. There was Ramón J. Sender’s Spanish Civil War novella, Réquiem por un campesino español, and Antonio Buero Vallejo’s 1962 play El concierto de San Ovidio, an allegory about Franco’s Spain starring an orchestra of blind beggars, which GJB made us read out loud class by tedious class. (I always ‘played’ Donato, for some reason – that much I do remember.) With another teacher we called Elefante for reasons too puerile to recount, we read excerpts from Calderón de la Barca and Lope de Vega, though what exactly I’d be hard pressed to recall, and Federico García Llorca’s Bodas de Sangre.

    Another teacher semi-surreptitiously showed us films GJB would certainly have disapproved of had he known we were watching them, like Cuarón’s coming-of-age ménage-à-trois road movie Y Tu Mamá También, Iñarritu’s gritty Amores Perros, and Bigas Luna’s titillating Jamón Jamón, starring Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and a whole lot of innuendo. A lot of those films have stayed with me – the golden shower scene in Almodóvar’s Pepi, Luci, Bom! – but it was in GJB’s class that I encountered the work that I can say retrospectively had the biggest influence on me: Gabriel Gárcia Márquez’s Crónica de una muerta anunciada, translated into English by the late, great Gregory Rabassa.

    ‘On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.’ This opening line sets up the whole book, revealing that the death of Santiago Nasar was foreseen, yet no one tried to prevent it. It is a novel about honour and its opposite: dishonour, shame. Two hours after her wedding to Bayardo de San Roman, Angela Vicario is dragged back to her mother’s home by Bayardo because she is not a virgin and names the young Arab, Santiago Nasar, as the man who deflowered her.

    Her twin brothers, Pedro and Pablo Vicario, are required to do away with Nasar to salvage their family’s good name. And yet the twins’ reluctance to do what must be done is one of the key tropes of the novella: they constantly brag of their intention, so that it is a sort of miracle that Nasar never hears of it, and the village’s silence in the face of their boasts eventually forces them to murder him, a scene gruesomely recounted at the end of the book. The narrator, an anonymous witness to the events he recounts, explores the circumstances surrounding Nasar’s death by painstakingly collecting the testimonies of the villagers who were present during his gruesome murder and exploring the seeming contradiction of a murder that was predicted in advance.

    My 16-year-old self probably didn’t understand the novel’s subtleties and brilliance, especially as we were reading it slowly, in Spanish, and in preparation for an exam, but Crónica de una muerta anunciada opened up a hereto unforeseen universe to me, and prompted me to jump into the rabbit hole of Spanish-language literature.

    From there I went on to read more Gárcia Márquez (in English this time). I was enthralled by his magical realist masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, also translated by Gregory Rabassa, set in the fictional town of Macondo and telling the story of the Buendía family over several generations. I was enchanted and genuinely moved – though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time – by Love in the Time of Cholera, translated by Edith Grossman.

    Quite taken by magical realism, and still a teenager, from Gárcia Márquez I made the short leap to Isabel Allende, whose House of Spirits (tr. Magda Bogin) seemed to mirror Gabo’s masterpiece and yet offer a very distinctive take on the magical realist tradition. Which then lead me to Juan Rulfo’s 1955 novella Pedro Páramo, about a man who travels to his recently deceased mother’s hometown, Comala, to find his father, only to come across a town populated solely by ghosts, Gárcia Márquez claimed he could recite the entire novel from back to front and back again, and named it as the central inspiration for One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read it, this time, in Roger Lescot’s French translation, published by Gallimard.

    Travelling in Mexico and Central America after leaving school, I took Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude (tr. Lysander Kemp); borrowed a friend’s copy of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (tr. Helen R. Lane); and devoured Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy (tr. Natasha Wimmer). I almost went on to study Spanish at university, but opted to read History instead. Nonetheless I continued to read Spanishlanguage authors, working my way through Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions (tr. Andrew Hurley), and from there discovering Witold Gombrowicz, Carlos Fuentes, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar.

    It wasn’t until after I graduated that I began to take an interest in contemporary Spanish-language literature. I remember reading a review of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 in the Financial Times, which piqued my interest (and proves that reviews sell books?). Slightly daunted by the size of that particular novel, I picked up The Savage Detectives instead, in Natasha Wimmer’s translation, and went on to read everything by Bolaño I could get my hands on (including Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce, which he co-wrote with A. G. Porta, and which I own in the Acantilado edition). When I eventually came round to reading 2666 (tr. Natasha Wimmer), I experienced something close to what Ben Lerner’s narrator in Leaving the Atocha Station might call ‘an authentic experience of art’. I was working as an intern at the Paris Review in New York at the time, and remember staying up through the night to finish the final section of the novel, ‘The Part about Archimboldi’, an incredible climax to an astonishing body of work. (It pains me to think Bolaño would only be 65 today had he lived – imagine all the great books he never got to write.)

    In the last decade I have been fortunate enough to become an editor, first as a co-founder of literary magazine The White Review, and subsequently as publisher of Fitzcarraldo Editions, and have been able to publish a number of brilliant Spanish and Latin American authors in English. From Enrique Vila-Matas, Àlvaro Enrigue, Samanta Schweblin, Gabriela Weiner and Vera Giaconi at The White Review to Alejandro Zambra, Agustín Fernández Mallo and Fernanda Melchor at Fitzcarraldo Editions, I have encountered a whole new constellation of writers pushing the boundaries of the form, much like their predecessors of the Latin American Boom, and have been fortunate enough to have a hand in bringing their work to English-language audiences. There is such a wealth of talent out there that it would be possible to run a publishing exclusively publishing Spanish-language authors, something that the new independent publishing house Charco Press are almost doing – they also publish Lusophones.

    Judging this year’s New Books in Spanish was a real pleasure, and gave me an even deeper insight into the trends in contemporary Spanish-language publishing. I sincerely hope that many of the books my fellow judges and I chose to highlight will make it into English. And who knows? Perhaps one of them will even act as a gateway drug for someone in the same way that Crónica de una muerta anunciada once did for me.

    Jacques Testard