Maya Jaggi. A cultural journalist on world literature via Spain

In the Andalucian city of Granada, by the Plaza de Isabel la Catolica, a turbaned philosopher-poet stands on a pedestal, holding a scroll aloft. The noble medic is Yehuda Ibn Tibon, the 12th-century “patriarch of translators”. When I chanced upon his statue on a visit to Spain some years ago, I was impressed to find a monument to the translator’s often invisible arts. But it’s also a reminder of Spain’s pivotal role in world literature. Even before Columbus sailed, Spanish books had intricate ties beyond Spain’s borders.

               Ibn Tibon, who translated from Arabic into Hebrew, was a Jewish contemporary of Ibn Rushd from Cordoba - also known as Averroes – the Arab philosopher-medic famed for his commentaries on Aristotle. The legacy of ancient Greece, lost in much of medieval Europe, was preserved in Spain, as part of the Arab world. It was Arabic texts translated into Latin, notably in Spanish centres such as Toledo, that helped spur Europe’s Renaissance.

              As a cultural journalist and critic in London for more than 20 years, my interests have always been international. I travel and report on literary culture – and other arts - from five continents. Whether writing for national newspapers in Britain, for the Economist, Newsweek or other publications, I prefer to find the connections between cultures than to pretend that they flower in isolation - or competition.

               In my first job, in the late 1980s, I created a literature section that embraced Latin America as part of the global South, as Literary Editor of the current-affairs journal Third World Quarterly, based in London’s Haymarket. Mario Vargas Llosa’s fine lecture on The Fictions of Borges, and a profile of Carlos Fuentes, were among pieces I ran in the 60-page section, while commissioning essays and reviews on Spanish-language writing, from Argentina’s dirty-war novels to Arab poets’ homage to Federico Garcia Lorca. Contributors included Gerald Martin – later Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s biographer – and Jason Wilson.

              I began to interview writers from many parts of the world, and to review their books, while on staff at the Guardian’s foreign news desk in the 1990s, writing for its cultural pages, the TLS and other newspapers, contributing to BBC radio, and presenting live events. Certainly then, foreign-language authors needed more of a push to win space. Yet readers felt no such barriers. When I was in conversation with the bestselling Chilean novelist Isabel Allende at the South Bank on one of her rare visits to London, extra chairs on stage took the overflow from the 900-capacity Queen Elizabeth Hall. The queue for book signing snaked out towards the Thames.

             So when I chose a freelance career in 2000 as one of the Guardian’s main arts profile writers and lead reviewers for the Saturday Review and Weekend magazine, the discoveries of my earlier career informed my choice of subjects. Contracted to research and write 4,000-word profiles of authors, artists, filmmakers and musicians – a luxurious and now largely bygone length in the newspaper world – I was fortunate in having editors receptive to my ideas, time to read and scope to travel. Many of the profiles I have written over more than a decade (some of which were shortlisted for the Orwell prize) have been drawn from the Spanish-speaking world.

            One of Spain’s greatest living writers, Juan Goytisolo, lives in Marrakech, where I met him in 2000 in the Cafe de France. He led me to a beautiful old house in the medina, where we spoke (he in highly literate English) in a courtyard shaded by orange trees. An avid explorer of the Arab and Islamic worlds, he was as passionate about Spanish culture’s Jewish and Moorish roots. If the modern European novel begins with Don Quixote, he said, then its origins are steeped in the Thousand and One Nights, since Miguel de Cervantes imbibed an Arabic tradition in north Africa. Goytisolo, from Barcelona, was a child of the Spanish civil war. His Catalan mother was killed in an air raid by General Franco’s forces, and his Basque-descended father, a Franco loyalist, was imprisoned by the Republicans - his family “caught in the crossfire of both sides”. Lamenting Spain’s destruction of its plural culture, through Inquisition and expulsions, he was convinced that the “vitality of a culture is in its capacity to assimilate foreign influences.” When he was a child in the 1940s, “the Catalan language was forbidden. I realised that to have two languages and cultures is better than one; three better than two. You should always add, not subtract.”

              Before settling in Morocco, Goytisolo had moved to Paris in 1956, where his mentor was Jean Genet. As a reader for Gallimard publishers, he was a conduit into French for writers of the Latin American “boom”. The Canadian author Alberto Manguel once ridiculed the term to me as “an illiterate critical movement in the Anglo-Saxon world when everyone was read through the filter of Garcia Marquez”. Yet Barcelona in the 1960s was the engine that allowed Latin American writers – thanks to publication and re-export from Spain – to be read at last in neighbouring countries, even as they became better known in Europe and the US.

             I first met a key figure of El Boom, the recent Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, in 2002, in his London flat near Harrods. It was a dozen years since his failed bid for the Peruvian presidency. Suave and charmingly voluble, he seemed bruised but unembittered. He laughed copiously at the mention of his candidacy, which he saw as a “terrible mistake” that he did not regret: it had taught him that he was “not a politician but a writer.” A catalyst of the boom, Carlos Fuentes, came of age with that self-knowledge. As a 21-year-old student of international law, dining on the lake in Zurich, he spotted Thomas Mann at the next table, and knew he wanted to become a writer. When we met in Santa Monica, California, in 2001, he paid homage to the “gold of the Spanish language”, adding, with his signature rhetorical flourish, that “I, for one, will not suffer the false Atlantic division. Neruda and Lorca [from Chile and Spain] are poets of the Spanish language; they belong to all.”

            If Spanish straddles the Atlantic, it increasingly threads together “El Norte” and the south. Fuentes has charted the “crystal frontier” between the US and Mexico, and revels in a “silent reconquest” of the Mexican territories lost to the US in 1848. I understood this cultural shift when I heard him speak in Los Angeles public library. The reading was in English, but Spanish inexorably took over during questions, though the ex-diplomat gamely interpreted for the outnumbered anglophones. In the US, he told me later, “35 million people speak Spanish. Los Angeles is the second Spanish-speaking city in the world after Mexico City – and before Madrid or Buenos Aires. These people are bearers of culture.”

              As writer-presenter of a BBC television documentary, Isabel Allende: The Art of Reinvention, I later used the influence on San Francisco of the 1930s Mexican muralists to illustrate the enduring cultural ties between the US and Latin America. Visiting Allende’s home in California with a film crew in 2003, I also heard her relive the horror of September 11 2001, falling as it did on the anniversary of the Chilean military coup of 1973 against her uncle and godfather, President Salvador Allende. Yet her fiction is concerned not just with US political intervention in its so-called backyard, but with deeper historical links between California and Chile.

               I first visited Colombia to write a cover story for Daily Telegraph books about the first Hay festival in Cartagena de Indias, in 2006, over which Garcia Marquez presided silently, with a view to passing the baton to younger writers. My return visits to Bogota and Medellin, partly to meet filmmakers and artists, have coincided with the advent in English translation of a new generation stepping out from Gabo’s shadow – rather as the self-styled “crack generation” has done in Mexico. In downtown Bogota I asked Evelio Rosero about his powerful novel of Colombia’s enduring civil war, The Armies, which I savoured in proof. The interview was published in the Independent in 2009, when Anne McLean’s rendering of The Armies won Britain’s premier award for fiction in translation, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP). I later profiled another Colombian on that year’s shortlist, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, about his ingenious novel linking Joseph Conrad and 19th-century Panama, The Secret History of Costaguana.

               Vasquez lives in Barcelona. As I found when I met Javier Cercas in the bohemian quarter of Gracia earlier this year, the city still draws writers from far afield, from the late Roberto Bolaño of Chile, to Santiago Roncagliolo of Peru - whose novel Red April (which I praised in the Guardian) won this year’s IFFP, in Edith Grossman's translation. New Spanish Books highlights authors published in Spain (or represented by Spanish literary agents) who may write in Castilian, Basque, Catalan or Galician. Among our autumn 2011 recommendations is new writing – and some recovered classics - from Catalonia, Colombia, Argentina and Guatemala.

             Ibn Tibon, the translator with whom I began, died in 1190 in Marseilles, having fled persecution in Spain 40 years earlier. He left his library, which he likened to the “most exquisite pleasure gardens”, to his son with this advice: “Cover thy bookshelves with beautiful curtains, protect them from water from the roof, from mice, and from all harm, because they are thy best treasure.” For me, the best libraries contain many worlds.

copyright: Maya Jaggi