Miranda France . New Spanish Writing

One of the great attractions of learning a foreign language - especially one your parents don’t speak - is that feeling of a door opening onto secret territory. Suddenly the hours spent poring over grammar books and verb tables yield their reward: here is a new world of landscapes, characters, sights and sounds one need not share with immediate family and friends. I have a bad memory for fiction, but the first Spanish novels I read, at about fifteen, have stayed with me better than English novels read at the same time. Thanks to those books, I travelled to Spain long before actually setting foot on Spanish soil.

One of the first books I read was Juan García Hortelano’s Tormenta de Verano, published in Britain as Summer Storm. This is a novel of the post-war, in which the discovery of a dead body, naked and washed up on the beach of a smart resort, forces a group of pampered young people to contemplate the reality of life beyond their privileged enclave. Hortelano’s great achievement here is to convey almost all the action with dialogue. Throughout the novel there is a building sense of claustrophobia and heat, as the characters swelter through a Spanish summer. And I sweltered with them - albeit only imaginatively - during a damp English summer at home in the chilly vicarage where I lived with my parents.

The Civil War also looms large in Ana María Matute’s Primera Memoria, another novel in which adolescents are jolted out of the innocence of childhood by the violent circumstances of their lives. As a teenager I devoured that, along with novels by Camino José Cela, Miguel Delibes and Latin American writers including Ernesto Sábato and Gabriel García Márquez. No One Writes to the Colonel, with its excruciating portrait of a man enduring constipation, is still one of my favourite novels.

By the age of twenty I was so absorbed by all things Hispanic, even my boyfriend sensed defeat: he took back tickets to a weird gothic band he had bought for my birthday, and got me The Oxford Companion to Spanish Literature instead. I’ve still got the book (though not the boyfriend).

What a joy, then, to spend a year at the Universidad Complutense and come closer to some of the writers I admired. Carmen Martin Gaite gave a reading there on one occasion, cutting a dash in her bohemian clothes and floppy hat. She described how the domestic confinement forced on women of her generation had honed her descriptive powers, and how she employed these in novels such as Fragmentos de Interior, about a family living in very confined quarters in Madrid.

I have reading memories associated with many corners of Madrid, especially the wonderful Calle de los Libreros, where I bought most of the books required for my studies. What could be better than a street devoted to bookshops? London comes close to it with Charing Cross Road, but there is nothing to match the intense literary experience of shopping in a street that is even named after its book-dealers. I was very sad to read recently that some of those businesses are closing, under threat from larger chain stores.

In the Retiro Park I read Jose Maria Guelbenzu’s La Noche en Casa, a sensual blending of illicit love and illegal politics. The heroine of Galdós’ nineteenth century masterpiece, Fortunata y Jacinta turned out to have lived in a house only one street away from the flat I shared with other students in Chueca. At that time the area was full of transvestites, and characterised by many colourful characters and incidents. It was a good place to read magical realism, and I finished the last page of One Hundred Years of Solitude in a bar on that street. The barman bought me a gin and tonic because he had read the book three times himself, and knew how bereft I must feel.

At that time Spanish writers were not stars on the international stage. Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Marquez, Isabel Allende and other Latin American writers seemed entirely to satisfy the global appetite for literature in Spanish. Beside these dynamic figures, it has to be said, Spanish authors looked rather parochial, still taken up with what it meant to be Spanish, to be ‘different’ from other Europeans. It is striking, in retrospect, to see how many twentieth century Spanish novels take place in confined and claustrophobic settings.

How times have changed. Recent years have seen huge successes from Spanish writers including Javier Cercas, Manuel Vazquez Montalban and Almudena Grandes. Javier Sierra’s The Secret Supper, an historical mystery to rival The Da Vinci Code, became the first Spanish novel to feature among the top ten New York Times bestsellers. Carlos Ruiz Zafón has achieved similar success with The Shadow of the Wind, which has sold millions of copies and been translated into more than thirty languages. In fact Spanish writers are now in such demand that editors working in US publishing houses have started taking Spanish lessons, so that they can read potential manuscripts in the original.

In April 2007, at an event organised by the Instituto Cervantes in London, a panel of Spanish authors tried to explain the changes in their country’s literary fortunes. Javier Sierra identified a desire -on the part of readers and writers- to move beyond the niche of ‘un libro español’ (‘a Spanish book’).

‘Previous generations of Spanish novelists were all too conscious of being Spanish, for the new generation it is increasingly less relevant. We used to think of ourselves as coming from a very different country, now readers are fed up with seeing markers of “Spanishness” everywhere.’

Fellow writer Andrés Ibañez suggested that Spanish writers are allowing themselves to discover a sense of humour. ‘There used to be an idea that a funny book could not be a good book. Borges ended the idea that erudition and humour cannot go together.’

The books selected by our panel this autumn bear witness to the ever-increasing range and verve of writers from Spain, and indeed Latin America. There are funny books, mysteries, romances, works of scholarship and history. There is an exciting new rival for Dan Brown, an important contribution to Holocaust literature, a history of Tango and an exquisite guide to the new Spanish tapa.

It almost pains me to say it, but to enjoy Spanish literature is no longer to feel like a member of a select club. The doors to this secret world have now been thrown wide open.