Samantha Schnee. A Redonda Magazine

At the beginning of this year, around the same time that I joined the New Spanish Books committee for Spring 2012, I received a request for proposals from the Spain-USA Foundation, for an anthology of Spanish literature to be published in 2013.  Unfortunately, at that time Words Without Borders (WWB—the monthly magazine of international literature which I edit) was in the thick of compiling an issue on the Mexican Drug War (launched March 1st this year); since WWB publishes writing from around the world—in the past nine years we have presented work from 110 countries in 90 different languages—it seemed difficult to justify two Spanish language issues in the space of one year.  Nevertheless, when I sat down to review the 200 summaries of titles submitted to the New Spanish Books (NSB) committee, I couldn’t resist compiling in my mind a fantasy issue of WWB.

Samantha Schnee         Among the dossiers on all the candidates I was immediately pleased to find titles from several authors I have long admired, especially Ray Loriga.  In 2004 I read his novel Tokyo Doesn’t Love Us Anymore, which Sam Lipsyte described in the New York Times Book Review as “part crime novel, part political allegory, part love story” about a drug-dealer who travels the world with a suitcase full of a mind-altering substance called The Chemical. The following year Loriga published a delightful picaresque novel, Trifero, which we excerpted on WWB but, sadly, remains unpublished in English.  I had seen Loriga’s latest novel, published in Spain last year, at airport kiosks in Madrid, and thought with excitement this had been his breakthrough book, so I volunteered to report on the novel, Bebedor de Lágrimas (Drinker of Tears), for the NSB panel.  I was surprised to find that it was set on a US college campus and featured a pair of characters—former lovers—who never die.  It was a page turner and quite filmic, even if it reminded me ever so slightly of the Robert Pattinson vampire movie I once saw on a plane, and for good reason.  Loriga, who has authored six novels and as many screenplays, has collaborated with Pedro Almodovar, who describes Loriga as “a fascinating cross between Marguerite Duras and Jim Thompson.”  He’s a talented writer with great imagination, and a wicked sense of humor: in one interview Loriga made a wry comment on cigarette packaging being required to carry the label Smoking Kills: “I want to make one with the slogan People Who Don't Smoke Die Too,” Loriga said.

         I wondered how Bebedor de Lágrimas compared to the blockbuster Twilight series, so I consulted with a colleague who has read more young people’s literature than anyone I know: “I tried to read the first book in that series,” he said, “but it was so terrible I had to stop after 75 pages.”  If Stephenie Meyer can sell 100 million books (3 millon of which were sold in Spain in the past two years) of mediocre writing, Loriga’s deft take on the “dark fantasy” genre—while it is not high literature--may well be on to something.  Meyer is Mormon, and unlike the relatively tame Twilight series, drink, drugs, and sex feature prominently in the plot, and Bebedor de Lagrimas is the first book in a planned trilogy.

         Both Juan Villoro and Fernando Aramburu, the other two authors I had my eye on going into the NSB meeting, would have been in my fantasy issue of WWB as well.  Villoro’s latest novel, in particular, is promising; at half the length of El Testigo, Villoro’s penultimate novel and winner of the Herralde prize in 2004, El Arrecife (The Reef) is a thriller spiked with withering social criticism of the Mexican drug trade and international politics; for my fantasy issue of WWB I’d translate the chapter in which an American hotel owner rants about how much Mexican drug money is laundered in London banks.  It’s important, I think, to note that Villoro’s novel is not narco-literature; he does not glamourize the violence of the drug trade and he resists the cynicism implicit in accepting the current state of affairs in his country as fait accompli and writing about them as such.

         Fernando Aramburu, who lives in Germany, is author of five novels and three story collections, the most recent of which won the Mario Vargas Llosa Prize.  His new book is a collection of eight stories, all exploring the anxieties of modern life, but for my fantasy WWB issue I would commission translation of the lightest one, about two elderly people who are set up on a blind date via an online dating site by their well-meaning adult children.  I also enjoyed the novel-in-stories of a young Basque woman, Irati Elorrieta, who captures the hyper-mobility and the wired-ness of young, twenty-first century Europeans in Burbujas (Bubbles), and I would commission translation of a story in which the main character of the book (who is Spanish) has a long distance romance and falls in love with a German man in Berlin.

         Over a quarter of the titles submitted to NSB are literary, offering a rich diversity, but the chidrens’ titles on the NSB submissions list were equally varied and inspiring. Daniel Montero’s Zooilógico is an encyclopedia of fanciful creatures, whose playful language presents an Olympic-level challenge for a translator, but one that can surely be met; perhaps the most impressive translation I ever read, in terms of sheer linguistic gymnastics, is the translation into Spanish of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, a Nadia Comaneci-style perfect 10 in terms of both faithfulness and creativity.  Las Aves (The Birds), by Ana Gerhard, is a child’s introduction to classical music that comes with a CD sampler of the composers covered in the book; if it gets picked up for translation I’ll be first in line to buy a copy for my boys.  And Rey Huevo (King Egg) by Miguel Nunez is a playful graphic novel full of nonsense characters to delight both children and adults.

         In fact, the graphic novel issue WWB publishes each year is always one of our most popular. In my dream issue of WWB I would definitely include an excerpt from La Ruta Joyce, a graphic travelogue by Alfonso Zapico that records his travels to research Joyce’s life for his graphic novel Dublines, featured in NSB last year.  At Words Without Borders we also have a special affection for writing strongly rooted in place, and I might have included a passage from Ernesto Schoo’s Mi Buenos Aires Querido (My Beloved Buenos Aires).

         The task of whittling down 200 candidates to twenty in less than three hours is fast and furious, and in retrospect there were a few titles I regretted not asking for reports on.  After hearing Robert MacFarlane and Adam Foulds discuss nature writing and the resurgence of pilgrimages in Europe, I wish we had requested a report on El Códice del Peregrino (The Pilgrim’s Code), a bestselling novel about last summer’s robbery of the Codex Calixtinus, a twelfth century manuscript considered to be Europe’s first travel guide, from the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.  And to round out the issue I would commission translation of “The Circular Voyager,” a prize-winning story from a collection called Crónicas de lo Imposible (Chronicles of the Impossible) by Lur Sotuela with illustrations by Julio Silva, the octogenarian artist who collaborated with Julio Cortazar on several books.

         Of course, no WWB issue on Spanish literature would be complete without something from Javier Marias, whose work I discovered when I was working for Francis Ford Coppola’s All-Story magazine in the 1990’s.  Marias’ latest novel, Los enamoramientos (Falling in Love), was winner of El Pais’ 2011 “Book of the Year”, awarded by a jury of 57 Spanish critics; other authors voted into the top ten include Roth, Franzen, Houllebecq, and Transtromer. Los enamoramientos was equally a popular success in Spain, where it was in the top twenty bestsellers in 2011, along with titles by Isabel Allende, Ken Follet, and Pierre Dukan (of Dukan diet fame).

         Eduardo Mendoza (who won the 2010 Planeta Prize for Rina de Gatos, Madrid 1936) wrote an essay for El Pais about why Los enamoramientos had been such a great critical and commercial success, in which he refers to the fact that Marias’ novel can be read on many different levels: “Javier Marías’ novels, like his characters, have several faces and allow for several readings, in every sense of that word.  What exactly has happened?  What truth is there in what the characters have just revealed? What do they know when they say they know, and what do they not know when they appear not to know?”

         Marias’ work has a deeply philosophical element, and the multiplicity of interpretations that his work allows makes for a deeply rich and satisfying reading experience. That’s why an excerpt from Los enamoramientos would be the crown jewel of my fantasy Spanish issue (which I might title "Words Without Borders Reports from the Kingdom of Redonda"), much as Marias is king of the imaginary realm of writers, artists, and filmmakers who make up the Kingdom of Redonda.

         Samantha Schnee