LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. May: Contemporary Fiction

The end of April was a very exciting time for Spanish-language literature, with Granta naming their ‘best of young Spanish-language novelists’, each published in English translation in their latest issue: Granta 155: Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists 2. This issue – the second of its kind – brings together twenty-five of the best young voices from thirteen different Spanish speaking countries. I’m keen to get my hands on a copy and see whether Granta has discovered any new literary gems! This announcement got me thinking: who would be on my current ‘best-of’ list? Who are the contemporary Spanish writers that I’m reading and enjoying at the moment?

Anyone who asked me for a reading recommendation in the last few months would have been told that they must read Irene Solà’s Canto yo y la montaña baila, (‘I sing and the mountain dances’) translated from Catalan (Canto jo i la muntanya balla) into Spanish by Concha Cardeñso. This mystical novel is set in a secluded mountainside village in the Catalan Pyrenees. Through Solà’s beautiful prose, we encounter the voices of men, women, ghosts, nymphs, clouds, mushrooms and deer. Canto yo y la montaña baila is a ghostly, magical, breath-taking novel, and it’s no wonder that it won Solà the European Union Prize for Literature. For those who can read Spanish or Catalan, I urge you to pick up this book. For those who read English, a translation is rumoured to be on its way … watch this space. 

Another current favourite is Alia Trabucco Zerán, a Chilean author to whom I was introduced through Sophie Hughes’ fantastic translation, The Remainder. Set in Chile, this novel brings together three characters, all linked by their parents’ elusive militant past during Chile’s former dictatorship. The shadowy and simplistic prose burns slowly, not giving too much away: hidden behind the descriptions of persistent heat and overbearing dust, lie ideas about collective memory, trauma and forgotten bodies. This striking read led me to explore more of Zerán’s work, most recently, Las Homicidas, a non-fiction book that offers a disturbing account of the murders committed by four Chilean women. Zerán questions the double standards that appear in all gendered conversations, and whilst this is not something I would normally pick up, it was a fascinating read.

A new discovery is Manuel Astur, an Asturian writer whose beautiful novel San, el libro de los milagros blew me away. This melancholic and somewhat unnerving book is set in a village perched on the edge of the Cantabrian mountain range. Astur’s clean and precise prose details the day-to-day life of this small Asturian village, and its traditional and religious values. These accounts of a mundane and bizarre village life are interspersed with vivid descriptions of landscapes, nature, and mythical, fable-like extracts. San, el libro de los milagros is a beautiful book, and those who read Spanish should pick this up straight away. For those of you who read English, you won’t have to wait long, as the book will be out in English translation with Peirene Press next year.

Another writer on my list is Argentine, Selva Almada. I first encountered Almada’s writing thanks to the fantastic Charco Press, and at the end of last year I read The Wind That Lays Waste, in Chris Andrews’ translation. This novella takes place within the space of one day, and brings together four unlikely characters: a priest and his daughter, and a mechanic and his apprentice. The book offers reflections on parent-child relationships, belief, and what ‘could have been’, with a storm the characters encounter – along with its aftermath – acting as a metaphor for much larger issues, all handled in a precise and reflective prose. I’m yet to read Dead Girls, also by Almada, translated by Annie McDermott and published by Charco Press, however, it is on my ever-growing ‘to be read’ pile!

As you can see, the themes of magic are common amongst my current favourites. Today’s Spanish-language literature has its roots firmly planted in mysticality, magic and nature, and whilst this is certainly not a new phenomenon, it’s interesting to see how writers such as Solà and Astur are developing and forging a contemporary magical realism. In the last few years, the Spanish-speaking world has also seen a generation of writers dealing with the themes of war and memory – The Remainder being an example. This is not to say that until now writers have never produced works that reflect on the past, but there’s something different in this kind of literature being produced now, with these writers seeming to have enough distance from their country’s fraught past to be able to write about it in a way that previous generations were never able to.  

In fact, for this month’s ‘La Española’, I want to introduce you to two novels that take war and memory as central – yet very subtle – themes. This month, I introduce a new translation from Spanish: The Things We’ve Seen by Agustín Fernández Mallo, translated by Thomas Bunstead, published last month by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and a Spanish novel yet to appear in English: Las Maravillas, by Elena Medel. Las Maravillas is a book that I became truly engrossed in this month, one that I immediately picked up after talking to Jorge Garriz from Romancero Books, an online London-based bookshop selling Spanish language literature. You can find out more about the brilliant Romancero in my interview with Jorge at the end of this column … 


SPANISH LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION: NEW RELEASE

The Things We’ve Seen, Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead (Fitzcarraldo, 2021)

The Things We’ve Seen is Mallo’s latest novel to appear in English translation and follows his tour-de-force Nocilla Trilogy (also published with Fitzcarraldo). A novel in three parts, The Things We’ve Seen does something quite different, but equally exquisite. This is a story of endless, delicate threads that Mallo subtly and expertly weaves – it’s certainly no surprise that this feat of a novel took six years to complete. He explores the effects of war on humanity, and the links (however loose) it creates. These ideas of connection are the threads that slowly begin to tie the novel together, allowing the reader to piece together the beautiful fragments that Mallo offers. 

A full review of the book appears in May’s #RivetingReviews here on the European Literature Network.


SPANISH LITERATURE YET TO BE TRANSLATED

Las Maravillas, Elena Medel, (Anagrama, 2020)

Elena Medel’s debut novel, Las Maravillas, begins and ends on the 8th of March 2018: International Women’s Day. Between these first and last pages, however, we revisit the difficult pasts of each of our protagonists, María and Alicia. Whilst they share roots in Córdoba – roots they tore up to move to Madrid – their characters could not be more different. However, the more we begin to learn of each woman’s individual story, the more we begin to see that they are closer than we think. Medel immerses us into the minds of María and Alicia, and their unspoken thoughts, and explores fraught themes such as feminism, money, family, class, and politics. 


BOOKSELLER FOCUS: TALK WITH JORGE GARRIZ, ROMANCERO BOOKS

Romancero Books is an online bookstore based in London, and sells Spanish language literature, and literature translated from Spanish. Their catalogue spans many important themes including overlooked female writers from Generación del 27 and LGBTQ+ voices. I spoke to founder Jorge about the shop… 

Alice Banks: Can you tell us about Romancero Books? How does it work, and what inspired you to start selling Spanish-language books to people living in the UK?

Jorge Garriz: Romancero Books is an online bookshop selling Spanish and Latin American literature, and in the last few months we’ve also been selling books translated into English from Spanish and Latin American writers. The online shop opened in June 2020, but the project has been ‘cooking’ for the last two years. I was unsure about how to start, so spent a lot of time getting information. However, in last year’s lockdown, I was on furlough, so had time to focus on the project. Eventually, I decided that instead of opening a physical bookshop, in the current situation it was easier to start online. 

I started Romancero for bit of a selfish reason. I like to read, and after living in London for ten years, I was suffering because I couldn’t find Spanish-language books easily here; after talking to friends, I realised I wasn’t alone. I also thought that it would be a nice project to put together, because I’d always wanted a space in which I could organise cultural events, talks, and workshops. So, this idea of having a bookshop was fitting. 

I set up the online shop in June 2020 and started selling my first books. Of course, I want to make a living with Romancero, but really, it’s more of a cultural project than a business, I want people to read contemporary Spanish literature that you can’t find in the UK. 

AB: So, you started out selling Spanish language books, what made you also begin selling translations into English?

JG: The bookshop has different sections, each is unique and has been curated with a lot of love and care. One of the newest sections is books in English. I wanted to have one because it’s a way to open the door to more readers. Of course, this is a cultural project to promote reading in Spanish, but I also want to support translation and introduce writers in English. This is quite a particular project for Romancero; of course, people buying books in English can easily find them elsewhere. But it is nice to have this section and give people this option. And I really think it is important to promote translation; in the last few years, I’ve seen a hunger for voices from other parts of the world, and you can see brilliant independent publishers doing great things with this. For example, there’s Charco Press, who publish English translations of Latin American literature, also And Other Stories, who have a lot of Spanish and Latin American writers, so there’s an itch, For this reason, I wanted to have translations available at Romancero. 

AB: What do you feel is special about Spanish language literature? What stands out to you about it?

JG: Well, of course, I’m Spanish. After living in the UK for ten years, I felt I was missing something that was happening in Spain, in the Spanish language, and I wanted to keep in the loop. So, I guess for me, what is special about Spanish literature is that it is my way of keeping in touch with Spain and what’s happening there. There is now a new generation of Spanish writers that I’m not that familiar with: I don’t know how they write, I don’t know how they talk, so reading in Spanish means I become aware of this. A lot has been changing drastically in the last few years in Spain, so, for me, Spanish literature allows me to keep in touch with this. 

AB: I can certainly empathise with this as an English reader living in Spain! You’ve mentioned that Romancero is not just a bookshop, but also a cultural project. As part of this, you host ‘Romancero Talks’. Can you talk a little more about this?

JG: Yes, ‘Romancero Talks’ started last year and was appointed by the Spanish Embassy in London. We recorded three talks on contemporary Spanish literature. The first focused on new independent publishers and writers, the second on women writers from Generación del 27, and the third on new LGBTQ+ voices – all of these being categories that the bookshop covers. 

This year, the Cervantes Institute in the UK also approached me to ask if I wanted to host a series of talks across the whole year. We are currently working on two projects: short stories and women writers from the Generación del 27. I love reading short stories – or relatos – and I also have a section in the bookshop dedicated to them. I think short stories have always been seen as the younger sister of ‘big’ literature – cuentos – and I don’t think that’s right, because there are amazing writers producing short stories. So, I wanted to give a space to that kind of literature. Being supported by the Cervantes Institute is great because it allows writers to get involved. The Cervantes Institute, and many Spanish organisations in the UK, have been incredibly supportive of Romancero Books. 

I also host book launches and have a programme of thirty-minute talks called Frente a Frente, on books published by small Spanish independent publishers. This is another way to support and give more space to those books that don’t get the level of attention that they should. One day, I would love to be able to do a talk or book launch in the Cervantes Institute theatre space – but I guess that’s going to have to wait. 

On Sant Jordi’s day a few weeks ago, I held a pop-up event in the front garden of my house. I had a stall selling books, and when someone bought a book, they got a rose, so I recreated this feeling of Sant Jordi in London. It was also a way to meet my customers, and to finally see who the ‘Romanceros’ were. During Sant Jordi in my hometown, the local librarian would set up a stall in the street with the local bookshop. Last year, when I told her I was starting Romancero Books, she sent a picture of me from when I was about twelve, selling books with her at the Sant Jordi festival. I remember this day as a very special day, so wanted to do something.

AB: I would love one day to be able to be in Barcelona on Sant Jordi. So, before you leave, are there any recent, or up and coming titles that you are excited about that we could keep an eye out for?

JG: Definitely. Something that came in a few weeks ago is A Perfect Cemetery, by Federico Falco, translated by Jennifer Croft and published by Charco Press. He is an Argentinean writer, and this is his first book translated into English. It’s a collection of short stories. I haven’t read it yet, but I am really looking forward to doing so. 

Last week I got a delivery of poetry books, including some from a publisher called La Bella Varsovia, who are dedicated exclusively to poetry. Their bestseller is Cuaderno de campo by María Sánchez. She’s a veterinarian and also a writer, and her work focuses on women working in the Spanish countryside. She also wrote another book called Tierra de mujeres, it’s a beautiful book about rural Spain and women – it’s fantastic. 

A few weeks ago, a London-based publisher, Francis Boutle, approached me. They translate books into English from ‘lesser used’ European languages. One book from them is Home Is Like a Different Time, by Eva Moreda; it’s translated from Galician by Craig Patterson and was the winner of an English PEN Award – I’m really excited to read this. 

A final recommendation is Las Maravillas, by Elena Medel. Elena is a publisher from La Bella Varsovia, and she is a poet herself, but this is her first work of fiction and it won the Francisco Umbral award. It’s the story of two women who both move from Córdoba to Madrid. One storyline goes back to the 80s when the Labour Party won the elections for the very first time in the new Spanish democracy, and also to before this, and explores how María felt as a woman coming from an Andalusian town to Madrid. The other storyline is about a younger woman, Alicia. The book starts and ends on International Women’s Day in 2018 – a day that saw huge protests in Spain. It’s a really beautiful book and I hope to see it translated into English soon!

AB: These all sound like fantastic books, I think I’ll definitely be picking up Cuaderno de campo and Las Maravillas next time I am in a bookshop. Thanks so much for chatting with me Jorge, it was great to hear about Romancero Books.

JG: Thank you!

By Alice Banks (aka ‘La Española’)

Romancero Books Store

Romancero Talks


Alice Banks is a copy editor and literary translator from French and Spanish based in Ciudad Real, Spain. After graduating with a French degree from Bangor University, Alice went on to study for an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. She currently volunteers for both The European Literature Network and Asymptote Journal.


Jorge Garriz moved from Spain to London a little over ten years ago. Garriz studied Fine Arts in Valencia and Bilbao, and since living in London he has been a part of the team of programmers for the queer film festival Fringe! and the queer book fair at the South London Gallery.

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