Here’s the final part of the unedited version of Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles’s introduction to the special issue of Granta dedicated to “Young Spanish Novelists.” Part I is available here, Part II, here, and you can download a Word doc of the entire piece by clicking here.
If a good part of contemporary Spanish literature seems eccentric to Europe, Latin America has always been the literary Far West, offering another way of being European, if you wish, since the traditions there incorporate all sources, not only their own. No other language shares the same territorial expanse (nor population) in contiguous “nations”. Its modernity seemed peripheral until its literature became contemporary of all men in the sixties: it brought about a renovation in the metropolises of various languages, thus moving the periphery into the center. The intellectual meridian has not passed through Madrid for over a century, although the publishing meridian cuts across both Madrid and Barcelona, where writers can be found building their reputations, which then furthers their regional prestige. The controversy over whether there are national literatures in Latin America has long become the stuff of historians, and we prefer to sustain, without excessive romanticisms, that the literary homeland is the language itself. Although in reality all literature is a magma of forces and traditions or trends in opposition, fluctuation and influence; of the living and the dead, of all languages—as is proven by reading the authors selected for this issue—and put in circulation by other hidden legislators: the translators, the editors and the critics (since without criticism there is no literature, either). In order to discover this, though, one needs to know the works, and this can only be done by reading, obviously, in translation. This issue, for example. Need we be reminded that a literary culture in which there is no translation is doomed to repeating the same things to itself over and over again?
This issue is being published almost simultaneously in English and Spanish, as witnessed by the cover. Fifteen years ago, a selection of the best young writers in Spanish would not have encountered such favorable circumstances for translation. Until recently, above all in the U.S. and given the rule of English as lingua franca and the relevance of its publishing industry (although we must not forget that the lion’s share of corporations are owned by the Germans or the French, which is to say Europeans, and London and New York are not the only hubs of power in the literary world), the lack of interest in Spanish language writers has been notable. Perhaps such cultural customs as using the labels of “Latino” or “Hispanic” to things written in Spanish, which seems more to suggest the idea of quotas, confusing literary values with those of integration, could be a culprit in the U.S. A sort of mental isolationism. Perhaps the Latin American authors who were consecrated in the 60s satisfied the scarce curiosity of the wider readership and so there was no more room. Some writers, in search of an audience, went so far as to write directly in English. There are many prestigious examples. But the city with the third largest Spanish-speaking population is in the U.S. and Spanish is the country’s second language. Latin American and Spanish writers have been somewhat perplexed by this lack of interest in translation, given the fact that the foundation for the English literary tradition is itself a translation (the Bible). The center is more provincial than the periphery. In Latin America and Spain literary translation from many languages is the norm, evidenced by the authors admired by the writers chosen for this issue: still Faulkner, Nabokov, Joyce, Bernhard, Cheever, Salinger, among others (Borges and Onetti). Obviously then, although it should be repeated, the intermediation of translation guarantees the exchange between the centers of literary power.
The situation in the U.S. is changing more quickly than in the UK, thanks to a new generation of small independent initiatives in the wake of others like New Directions, which has been publishing translations since 1936. Eliot Weinberger has keenly pointed out that the recent disposition and aperture to translated literature is a consequence of the attacks on September 11th almost a decade ago. The influence of Cien años de soledad on American and world literature and the wide readerships gained by genre novelists, or the recent popularity of authors like Carlos Ruíz Zafón on one hand and the work of Roberto Bolaño among the young writers on the other, or the universal critical acclaim for the work of Javier Marías, have all served to up the ante and renew the narrative credit of Spanish language literature in its diverse strata. The collection of young writers selected by this conspiracy of readers in Granta aims to seal a pact, a secret handshake of sorts, which we hope in ten years will prove the value of this arsenal of shared references, as has been the case in prior Granta selections; in ten years we will see if our choices were correct, how many of these writers will still be read, how many of them will endure.
Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles
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Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .