Miguel Ángel Hernández is a contemporary art critic and the acclaimed author of several novels. El don de la siesta, an essay-memoir, focuses on something inherently Spanish: the siesta. Usually associated with laziness and leisure, this ‘bad habit’ from the south goes against one of the fundamental principles of the modern world: the pressure to be productive. Yet over the last few years, it has, surprisingly, been integrated into the perverse logic of late capitalism and has even become a key tool for productivity. Confronting this capitalisation of sleep and dreams, this essay-memoir defends the siesta as a gift, as an unproductive event, a way to put the brakes on the rapid pace of our present, and bring the individual back into the shadows.
On the ninth of March each year the United States celebrates National Napping Day. It’s a recent tradition, established in 1999 by a couple, William and Camille Anthony – authors of a popular book on the art of napping at work – that seeks to put to rest the disdain of their compatriots for the idea of taking siestas, and to highlight the health benefits of these brief periods of sleep.
On the ninth of March 2020, as was only fitting, I observed this day as best I knew how, with a long siesta. The world had begun to fall apart, but I hadn’t realised it yet. The constant flow of news on the cases of Covid-19 in China and in Italy still felt like a distant problem, a disaster that could never happen in Spain. I was living in a bubble of naïvety. Just five days later, the numbers of infections and deaths began to shoot up, and on Friday the thirteenth the president held a press conference to announce that a state of emergency would be imposed at midnight on Sunday the fifthteenth.
Over the first weeks of the lockdown I found it very hard to concentrate. To concentrate on anything at all – but above all on reading and writing. The situation was so overwhelming and urgent that my attention refused to be held by matters beyond the horizon of the present moment. I’ve since discussed it with many friends, and we all experienced the same thing. We were hemmed in by the immediacy of things, as if the world had turned dense and murky.
When that period began, I was trying to organise a series of notes I’d begun writing on the siesta. I’d completed an essay about time in contemporary art, and before embarking upon my new novel, I’d had the idea of writing a short essay on this custom, one that I practise with great pleasure. I had it all sketched out, and I would have finished it within a few short weeks. However, everything came to a standstill. I couldn’t focus. But above all, I felt that what I’d written no longer made sense. Or at least, it made no sense to publish it. An essay on the siesta, amid this catastrophe? It was too trivial for what was going on around us.
I also believed that this period of lockdown would serve to reformulate our priorities, to pay attention to what really mattered, to write about what was truly important. The siesta? My notes? That could happily go in the bin.
Nevertheless, for days I tried to rescue it. My writing felt artificial and muddled. The paragraphs were mountains and I was unable to grasp the words I needed.
What did come in their place were siestas. Siestas several hours in duration, from which I would awake with little idea of where I was or the time of day. Siestas in pyjamas – some days I never got changed at all – that reminded me of the long siestas of my teenage years. In this midday slumber I took refuge, as if it were an island amid the disaster.
Over those weeks, time sped up and also became heavier. For those of us who had to stay at home, every day was the same. No one knew when the nightmare would be over. There was no end in sight – not that the end is clear at the moment of writing this, either. In part, I would lie down to sleep with a secret hope that time would move faster, that things would happen more quickly, and that the world would be back to normal when I awoke. At the same time, sleeping was a way of putting the brakes on time. The siesta interrupted the frenetic daily rhythm that had filled our homes. This time of information overload, of remote working, of constant connection with the outside world, the frenetic pace of the factory and the city that had fully penetrated domestic space.
A mad rush that left no space for boredom. That was one of the obsessions from the outset: doing stuff. Not stopping for a moment. And the flood of ever-changing news items that overwhelmed our capacities for understanding and assimilation was supplemented by a crazy number of digital leisure activities that threw our routines out of joint. Social networks were filled with live videos, recommendations, concerts, recipes, exercises, virtual museum tours: it was impossible to keep up. On top of that, the home office and the ever-increasing use of video calls and messages to keep in touch with family and friends, some of whom we hadn’t conversed with properly for years. It was necessary to stay constantly active. Communicate. Create. Produce. Move the system forwards. ‘I’m rebelling against this demand for productivity, when all I feel is bewilderment,’ wrote Mariana Enríquez in her contribution to the ‘Pandemic Diaries’ published by the Revista de la Universidad de México. She articulated the sense of anxiety that had spread like a virus of a different kind.
The home – or to be more precise, the screen – became the workplace, the bar, the TV, concert hall, bookshop, gym. It was the same everywhere. The public and private spheres even more tightly interwoven than they already were. Our domestic spaces were revealed to all, and the last lingering shadows of privacy went out the window.
By Miguel Ángel Hernández
Translated by Fionn Petch
From El Don de la Siesta – Notas sobre el arte de la interrupción(‘Siesta – On the Art of Interruption’)
by Miguel Ángel Hernández
Translated by Fionn Petch
Published by Anagrama (2020)
Miguel Ángel Hernández is a Spanish writer best known for his fictional works, among them the novels Intento de escapade, which won the Premio Ciudad Alcalá de Narrativa and was translated in five languages, and El instante de peligro, which was a finalist for the Premio Herralde de Novela.
Fionn Petch is a Scottish translator. He has translated fiction, poetry, drama and children’s books including A Straggly Smile by Vanessa Saint Cyr, The Distance Between Us by Renato Cisneros and Fireflies by Luis Sagasti.
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