David Lea

When I think of the amount of time I’ve spent in Spain over the last 25 years – as tourist, walker, bird-watcher and, inevitably, as reader – it embarrasses me to admit that I speak, and read, very little Spanish. Still, it’s a blessing to have a cause for gratitude, and I have many reasons to be grateful for the often under acknowledged work of translators.

My first encounters with Spain and Spanish were entirely literary, and entirely in English. The love affair with Spanish literature started with poetry, and pre-eminently with Lorca, whose strangely harsh and beautiful poems and dramas would seem to be impossible in any other language, but also seem to be universally, and continuously, relevant. Other encounters were equally important. I remember coming across Borges’s Fictions (in an old John Calder edition) almost entirely by accident in an Exeter bookshop in the early 1980’s. I read, and re-read, and continue to re-read it to the extent that I don’t quite believe that people who can’t quote from memory, for instance, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius or The Babylonian Lottery are entirely serious about literature, life, or anything at all. The love affair continued at university, where I was allowed, despite the fact that I was ostensibly studying English literature, to read (in halting Spanish, and with a dictionary always present), the extraordinary plays of Calderón de la Barca and Lope de Vega. Followed, inevitably, by Don Quixote, in Smollett’s translation (it slightly pains me to admit that I think Edith Grossman’s recent version is far more successful.) Antonio Machado was next, who introduced me to the scorched beauty of the meseta long before I saw it, and without whom it now seems inconceivable. And then, from the diaspora, Octavio Paz (dictionary), Pablo Neruda (also dictionary) and César Vallejo (dictionary present, but not always helpful). García Marquez and Carlos Fuentes (who I was lucky enough to hear lecture in Cambridge) soon also found permanent and treasured places (in translation) on my bookshelves. If that all sounds a little too worthy, perhaps I should also admit my soft spot for the detective thrillers of Manuel Vasquez Montalban, and my even bigger and more recently acquired soft spot for the swashbuckling Captain Alatriste novels of Arturo Perez Reverte.

Books soon became my preferred way of making a living, at first on Charing Cross Road and then, for the last decade, as Deputy Manager of the London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury Translated literature, including Spanish, has continued to be important to me, both as a reader and as a bookseller. The bookshop’s World Literature Series of events with writers from around the world has led to many memorable encounters – with Manuel Rivas, for instance, one of the very first authors to appear at the shop, who gave us a terrific reading of his poetry (in Galician), and who made a return visit in 2010 for Books Burn Badly; with Javier Cercas, whose The Soldiers of Salamis was one of our early bestsellers, and who took part in our World Literature Festival at the British Museum in 2011 to mark the publication of his ‘non-fiction novel’ The Anatomy of a Moment; and with the Mexican author Juan Pablo Villalobos, whose short but powerfully strange Down the Rabbit Hole was published last year by the excellent small press And Other Stories ('That rarest of animals, a book that is, to all intents and purposes, perfect' according to Sarah Churchwell in the New Statesman).

For all of these reasons, and for many others, I feel enormously grateful (again), and privileged to have been a member of the panel for New Spanish Books 2014. It’s a delight for me to see Spanish literature given a greater prominence in the Anglophone world. And not just Castilian; I think our selection demonstrates the (to me very welcome) resurgence of Catalan as a literary language.

 Solitud  (Solitude) by Víctor Català (the pseudonym of Caterina Albert) seemed to the panel to be particularly strong, an early work of modernist fiction from the beginning of the 20th century, and ripe for rediscovery in the wake of the success of Mercè Rodoreda’s In Diamond Square, recently republished as a Virago Modern Classic. Other Catalan highlights were Quan en dèiem “xampany” (When We Called it ‘Champagne’) by Rafel Nadal, a family saga of high society and the world of wine and Pep Coll’s Dos taüts negres i dos de blancs (Two Black Coffins, and Two of White), a fictional recreation of a horrific murder which took place in the Catalan Pyrenees in 1943. From Spanish, Isaac Rosa’s La habitación oscura (The Dark Room), an intriguing sounding story of friendship, sexual liberation and political activism, is set within the context of the financial crisis and the Indignado and 15M movements. Leila Guerrero’s Una historia sencilla (A Simple Story) was our only work of non-fiction, a piece of detailed, passionate reportage that introduces the reader to the little-known world of malambo, the traditional dance-form of the Argentine Gaucho. And finally, Rosa Regas’s Música de cámara (Chamber Music), a tale of love across political and class boundaries that takes us from the 1940s, with the Franco dictatorship at its height, to the 1980s and the restoration of democracy, is a mature work of fiction from an author who has won many prizes and accolades in her native country, but who is very little known in Britain.

The process of whittling down the submissions to a manageable handful was an enjoyable but by no means easy one, and would have been just about impossible without the excellent readers’ reports provided by a starry constellation of eminent translators – there I go with the gratitude again!

The British market has often been seen as a difficult one for books in translation, but the hard work of authors, translators, publishers, booksellers and reviewers is beginning to change that. There is, I believe, an increasing openness on the part of British readers to translated fiction, and a new book by Marías, Cercas or Ruiz Zafón is as much a literary event as a new book by Byatt, McEwan or Ishiguro.

Spanish literature has a long and distinctive cultural tradition, a definite advantage in our market – on the whole, we like our foreign books to feel, at least a little bit, foreign. The geographical proximity of Spain, and its unique physical and cultural landscapes has made the country to many Britons, as to me, something like a second home (and indeed to many others an actual first or second home). But perhaps we think we know Spain better than in fact we do. What the submissions to the panel, and, I hope, our selection from them, makes abundantly clear is that there is an entire galaxy of Spanish writers who are celebrated, and widely read, in Spain, Latin America, France, Italy and elsewhere who are completely unknown in Britain and North America. This is a literature of staggering depth and diversity, as serious and urgent as any in the world. And the more I discover of it, the more I realise that I have barely begun to scratch its surface. Which is, of course, another reason for gratitude. An old book hound like me is never going to complain about having too many books to read!

David Lea