Chris Moss . Spanish lessons (or Travels in Hispanic literature)

I took a long and circuitous route to get to Spain.

When I moved to Argentina in 1991– I wanted to be a literature teacher but not in Tory Britain - I’d had all of 10 Spanish language classes at a technical college in the north of England. Unlike French, which I studied – and detested – at school, I always liked the sound and feel of Spanish, but I had only a handful of words and only the main Tarzan tenses (present, future, random preterites) when I landed at Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires.

Fortunately I didn’t have to learn castellano argentino. It just happened. Porteños are hyper-social and more than willing to test their (often poor) English on anyone. I felt I had the same right to expose them to my basic and heavily accented Spanish. But I knew from day one I would never fit into the Anglo-Argentinian or expat worlds – both are real burbujas in Buenos Aires – so I needed to master the local language to escape.

Books were everywhere in Buenos Aires – Gabriel García Márquez novels on sale at pavement kiosks, students struggling with Cortázar’s Rayuela on the underground, the unapologetically intellectual bookstores along Avenida Corrientes – but they weren’t my first priority. I indulged, as any visitor must, in the more immediate sensory pleasures of the country: sunshine, steaks, wine, the pampas, café-bar culture, love, tango music. I wandered round the margins of the city. First the obvious inner-city fringes of La Boca, Belgrano, Chacarita. Then further afield: Pompeya, Saavedra, Parque Patricios, and
other tourist-free, down-at-heel barrios, where there was a scent of old Buenos Aires, and also the memory of loss, corruption, nostalgia.

If my own memory serves me I turned to books to help me decode the city. The longer I stayed the more confusing Buenos Aires became. I was dissatisfied with the stereotypes. The mass media seemed wilfully unreflective. Every porteño had his or her own pet theory, claiming the national character was a legacy of the dirty war, economic gloom, los Ingleses
or Rosas, and many people relied on a few key words to articulate, or disguise, their anxieties (bronca, histeria, boludo, desastre). But I still didn’t have sufficient Spanish to explore serious literature so began to get my linguistic neurones working by tackling self-help and journalistic texts, hopping between books translated from English to Spanish to ‘Relato de un Naufrago’ to simple poetic works.

The obvious psychogeographical aide for a newly arrived foreigner and lowlevel Spanish speaker was Borges. His poetry is limpid and direct, and yet profoundly evocative. A blind man remembering a city he’d not actually lived in was the ideal companion for someone seeking to create some sense of being rooted. Borges’s books became the equivalent of a past for me and his ‘Mythical Founding of Buenos Aires’ became my own treasured illusion.

‘Una cigarrería sahumó como una rosa
el desierto. La tarde se había ahondado en ayeres,
los hombres compartieron un pasado ilusorio.
Sólo faltó una cosa: la vereda de enfrente.’

I’m still trying to work out why but Buenos Aires evolved, through Borges’ impressionistic, mythopoeic verse, into a city more real for me than London or any other place where I have lived. Part of the reason must be down to my foreignness, and to my experiencing the city through a foreign language. Is it that we more consciously and more artfully construct our world when working through a second language?

But Buenos Aires was a city of rivalries and dichotomies – River/Boca. Stones/Beatles, Pergolini/Tinelli - and I knew anglophile, asexual, anti-Peronist Borges had his detractors (later on I would review a book called ‘Anti-Borges’ edited by Martín Lafforgue) so I talked to Argentinians who considered themselves ‘progre’ or ‘leftish’ to get recommendations. Cortázar, Sábato, Walsh, Aarlt and Puig were the first division, they told me, and from here I went on to read Marechal, Martínez Estada and Abelardo Castillo. Then I discovered, after imbibing musically as much lunfardo as I could, that the
tango lyricists were at least as observant and lyrically gifted as any of these great poets. Soon my Buenos Aires was peopled by books and authors and poems and songs.

Years passed. I travelled around. I dipped into Chilean, Paraguayan, Mexican literature. I realised I was more a Mario Vargas Llosa reader than a Márquez one. The old dichotomies again. I read Cuban thrillers, Peruvian fantasies, Colombian pulp fiction, studies of mestizaje, in fact and fiction, by authors from Miami, Santo Domingo, Jujuy.

Of course at some stage I had to come home – that is, to Britain, specifically to London, to work, see loved ones, re-located to a culture where my vote, my work, and my daily life seemed to matter more, to me and to the state.

Crashing down in 2001 from a decade in Buenos Aires to land back in London (where I’d studied, had lots of friends and lots of ghosts) could have been problematic. Of course I had links with Buenos Aires, emotional and professional, but I also had the refuge of the Spanish language. This past eight years I have been introduced to – or accidentally come upon – authors as diverse as Carmen Martin Gaite, Almudena Grandes, Javier Cercas and Manuel Vázquez Montalban. These authors have opened up Spain for me, and also created – directly or indirectly – new bridges with Latin America. Because my main job is as a travel writer and editor, I also read the ships logs of Spanish vessels while researching a book about Patagonia. It’s a long voyage from that first Spanish class in the north to scanning the soundings taken by a long-forgotten captain while navigating the submerged pinnacles and williwaws of the southern ocean. But it’s a round trip of sorts. On assignment in Spain I have filled out the narrative: the landscapes of Asturias and Galicia have countless ties to those marginal barrios of Buenos Aires and to the steppes of Patagonia. My work has taken me with almost bizarre frequency to Extremadura, where I have wondered just how much the vista of arid plains has changed since the days when the non-mythical founders of Buenos Aires and all those other great cities in the Americas decided to saddle up and leave home.

Books and travel are almost the same thing to me. I also spend time ‘in Spain’ through works in other languages. I enjoyed C.J. Samson’s ‘Winter in Madrid’ so much that I continued to explore the theme of the Civil War. I devoured Bruno Arpaia’s ‘ The Angel of History’ and Andromeda Romano-Lax’s ‘The Spanish Bow’. At the time of writing, I am reading – and reviewing – Dave Boling’s ‘Guernica’.

Until now, I’ve never sat down to reflect how deep and involved my life in Spanish language and literature has been. It’s actually quite strange and remarkable how a journey taken in your mid-twenties can lead to you not only discovering that your own culture isn’t the centre of the world, but that there are many centres, and margins too, and that you suddenly belong to two whole worlds.

This year’s New Spanish Books shortlist brings together all the stages of my ongoing Spanish lesson. There’s a major linguistic resource in La gramática española por niveles by Manuel Martí and Inmaculada Penedés, three great children’s books – just the sort of works I would have hidden inside my copy of Clarín while struggling to grasp the basics of idiom and tense, the witty and insightful La Sonrisa de Voltaire by Pedro González Calero, and, of course, the novels – this year, five hugely promising works of original fiction. As a tenstep introductory lesson I can think of no better source and it might have been useful to have had just such a shortlist when I climbed onto that Aerolineas Argentinas 747 in March 1991. Enjoy the books, enjoy your travels.