Rupert Shortt. New spanish books bulletin

The main function of the New Spanish Books Bulletin is to supply news and reviews of recent titles to publishers, translators, booksellers, journalists and others in English-speaking countries. I was invited along with my fellow panellists - Nick Caistor, Christopher MacLehose, Carmelo Puglisi , Cecilia Rossi and Bill Swainson - to draw up a shortlist of titles from a longer list submitted by a cross-section of publishers and agents. Reports on the suitability for translation of the shortlisted books can be viewed online (

We hope that the project will plug a substantial hole. Though the situation is shifting, British publishing houses are still more likely to be staffed by French- or German-speakers than by editors with a strong command of Spanish; and since literary translation is an unsung enterprise at the best of times, Spanish books have not always received their due. Responsibility for this does not lie only in the anglophone sphere. Spanish and Latin American publishers have sometimes undersold themselves in the past, and not all of their finest wares have been marketed in other languages.

For the time being, at least, Spanish-language writers - especially, perhaps, in Latin America - are not as marked by the same pressure to dumb down that bedevils publishing in North America and the United Kingdom . Fiction is an especially important case in point. There seems to be more space proportionately for ambitious, grown-up works which make greater demands on readers, and raise questions lying beyond the scope of plot-driven entertainment. Sometimes, of course, one comes across writers with the ability to challenge and charm in equal measure. The works of Enrique Vila-Matas and Eduardo Lago enjoy both literary and commercial appeal: it's good to see their work featured on our shortlist.

An allied factor involves the importance of the Spanish language. The implications of this apparently obvious point are sometimes overlooked. Take Juan Gabriel Vásquez's World War Two-related novel Los informantes (The Informants). An anglophone reader may not think that a Hispanic writer will have much that is fresh to say about the conflict, but Latin America is where many German refugees, Jews as well as Gentiles, fetched up in the 1940s. Set in Colombia , Los informantes deals with a German who is falsely accused of Nazi sympathies. A personal narrative becomes the prism through which bigger themes are seen, and common assumptions subverted.

Good revisionist history can perform a similar function - Antony Beevor's magisterial Civil War book The Battle for Spain has recently punctured what he terms "the myth of the immaculate Republic" - but a good novel can perhaps penetrate even deeper into the soil of experience. Take Alberto Méndez's Los girasoles ciegos (The Blind Sunflowers). The work consists of four interlinked stories which chronicle the suffering of Republicans after their defeat, but give texture (via the experience of a Francoist bureaucrat who surrenders to the other side, even though his own is winning) to a complex situation. Some have found Méndez's prose a little too emphatic, but he cannot be accused of peddling simplistic answers. Los girasoles ciegos may remind some readers of Ignacio Martínez de Pisón's book Enterrar a los muertos (To Bury the Dead). It involves José Robles Pazos, Dos Passos's Spanish-language translator, who enlisted on the Republican side during the Civil War in part because he spoke Russian, but was later murdered by Stalinists in Barcelona who felt that he knew too much.

All the other novels on our shortlist received high praise from a majority of our panel. As well as Los informantes , my personal recommendations include Alvaro Pombo's Contra natura (Against Nature), a multi-layered portrait of gay life in Spain across the generations; Vila-Matas's París no se acaba nunca (Paris Never Ends), a playful and provocative Bildungsroman ; Elia Barceló's El secreto del orfebre (The Silversmith's Secret), a fable-like ghost story - perhaps influenced by the Argentinian master, Julio Cortázar - involving some virtuoso tricks of perspective; Lago's Llámame Brooklyn (Call Me Brooklyn), a pacy, New York-set drama, somewhat in the style of Pynchon. Several members of the panel were enthusiastic about José Luis Muñoz's Ultimo caso del inspector Rodríguez Pachón , and pointed out that detective fiction is a noted Spanish export these days.

Non-fiction in translation is probably a tougher nut to crack, especially from Spanish into English. Although we had no reason to doubt the quality of many of the works submitted to the panel on scientific subjects, for example, it struck us that they would nevertheless be unlikely to find a publisher in the extremely crowded markets of the United States and Britain . Similar reservations occurred to us when we considered the titles devoted to education. The exceptions to this rule - reflected on our shortlist - are fields such as design and gastronomy. The appetite for books about food and wine among the British public seems almost insatiable.

What of contemporary writers who do not appear either on our long- or shortlists, but deserve to be more widely noticed? The roll-call is potentially very long, and a brief overview such as this cannot do more than scratch the surface. One hopes that many deserving candidates will feature in future instalments of the Bulletin . In the meantime, here are a few suggestions. The El Salvadorean writer Horacio Castellanos Moya writes blisteringly, but with a rich vein of humour, about the chaotic societies of Central America . Insensatez (which roughly translates as "Folly", or "Craziness"), set in an unspecified society resembling Guatemala , displays both narrative stength and profound linguistic richness. It deals in part with a bid by indigenous people to find a new vocabulary (in Spanish, which is not their native language) to describe their almost unimaginable suffering at the hands of death squads. Castellanos takes the reader to a world where life has been grotesquely cheapened by a mixture of corrupt government, the drugs trade, and the deportation from the United States of gang members who resume their murderous lifestyles in their native countries.

The Guatemalan Rodrigo Rey Rosa has already been published in the US by New Directions, and merits further exposure. His latest novel, Caballeriza (Stable), a spare, elliptical tale, is strong on suspense and includes elements of crime fiction. Like Vila-Matas and Lago, the Catalan novelist Nuria Amat has drawn praise for straddling the literary and popular genres; her novel Reina de América has been translated as Queen Cocaine . The Chilean Carlos Franz has recently written a big dictatorship novel in the Vargas Llosa mould. Entitled El desierto (The Desert), it charts the experience of a judge returning to the village from which he was exiled, and deals with collective and individual guilt, both under the Pinochet regime and subsequently. Two novels were warmly praised by my sources outside the panel: Lucía Etxebarría's Amor, curiosidad, Prozac, y dudas (Love, Curiosity, Prozac and Doubts), already available in French, and Juan José Millás's Laura y Julio , a love story admired for straddling the naturalistic and experimental pitches.

Though highly impressive, the works of the Mexican Juan Villoro are not necessarily prime candidates for translation. His recent novel El testigo (The Witness) is saturated in references to the poetry of López Velarde, for example, which are hard to reproduce in other languages. Villoro is nevertheless a man to watch. So, too, is Marcelo Cohen. Described to me by a colleague as Argentina 's greatest living writer, he has blended social realism and experimentation in works such as El oído absoluto (Perfect Pitch) and El fin de lo mismo (The End of the Same). Cohen has been successfully translated into several languages, but not English. Maybe another opportunity beckons.