Wandering Through the Many Spains

(Oct.12-21, 2000) by Adán Griego


*** Oct. 12th

The last time I was in Barcelona I received an unusual welcome from an Andalucian taxi driver who noted that this was “la ciudad más guapa de España.”  It should be no surprise that he refers to the city with an adjective that would normally be used in a “piropo” to compliment a woman; after all, Andalucians offer similar compliments to the Virgin Mary during a religious procession.

This time I arrive during a national holiday, “el día de la hispanidad.”  A friend who has lived in Madrid and Barcelona teaching English for about 10 years meets me at the airport.  He wants us to take the metro into the City but I insist on taking a taxi.  I find taxi drivers to be a thermometer for local events and even the weather. I ask our driver about the weather and he confirms what I feared: rain for the next few days.

The hotel is a modest two star accommodation, which my friend struggled to find.  It seems that the long weekend brought lots of visitors into the City, with just as many leaving.  Thus, I am unable to see several friends of friends who were supposed to show me around Barcelona. 

Right after dropping off the luggage we walk toward the Plaza de Catalonia, one of the most important landmarks of the City. I have been away from my email for only a day but my friend leads me to one of the many “cibercafes” now in existence.  It’s a brightly lit locale with about 50 computers and for less than US $2, I can log on for 15 minutes.  There are only a few open spaces, most of them populated by a younger crowd in their electronic wanderings.  I don’t get to see the other floor but my friend tells me it’s much bigger and just as crowded.  Actually, only a few days ago the network went down and there was a long line of net surfers deeply preoccupied, smoking incessantly while eagerly awaiting the reopening.  We don’t stay too long and head over to the Corte Inglés department store, about the only thing open on a holiday.

I find out later that just a few hours earlier a demonstration had taken place not too far from where we were. A group of about 400 skinhead “falangistas” was met by a much larger counterdemonstration of 4,000.  The following day there are still residues of the event with a few flyers on light poles noting “hispanismo = fascismo.”

Since it has started to rain we decide to go see a film that has been recommended by an Argentine friend.  It is Plata Quemada (a co-production of Spain, Argentina and Uruguay), a film based on a novel by Ricardo Piglia, which in turn is based on a real robbery of the 1960s in Buenos Aires. The film will most likely make the circuit of Lesbian & Gay film festivals in the United States given its  homoerotic content.


*** Oct. 13th

Yesterday the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, and there are no Spanish translations of Gao Xingjian’s work. Barcelona’s daily, La Vanguardia, carries a fragment of the author’s work from the English version of Soul Mountain.  Even if Spain does not know his work, he does seem to be familiar with Spain, a few days later, in an interview he says he has read Lorca.

It’s Friday the 13th, but I can claim that in Spanish bad luck hits on Tuesday the 13th. This calms my superstition as the taxi makes its way over to LIBER 2000 in the middle of a midmorning downpour.  There are banners all along the streets announcing the book fair, which is held in a new locale this year.  I get nervous when the taxi heads toward the airport, but reassuringly he tells me that we are not too far.  This year Mexico is the featured country and the activities (films, readings, lectures) ended the previous day.  But presence from the other side of the Atlantic is still very real at the entrance of the main lobby, where there is a photo exhibition documenting 20th century intellectual life from Mexico.  This almost did not happen since custom authorities in Madrid held much of the material brought especially for the event.

Once inside, I cannot escape the Planeta booth, it’s one of the largest and most visible, suited to its place as one of the largest Spanish publishing conglomerates.  There, a book calls my attention: Cuando Dios aprieta, ahoga pero bien: Candida, memorias de una asistenta.   Already on its 18th printing, it tells the testimony of a house cleaner whose life struggles are a type of “what have I done to deserve this.”  The title is actually a play on words on the Spanish saying, “Dios aprieta pero no ahoga,” which in English would be something like: "God grips but does not choke."

With the rain and the long weekend people seem to have stayed away so it’s not too hard to make conversations with the sales representatives.  I try my luck at the Ministry of Culture and ask for a catalog, but I am told politely, “se nos agotaron,” yet I can see a few copies right behind the stand.

Not too far is the Sociedad General de Autores y Editores (SGAE) where I find a recently published report, Informe sobre los hábitos del consumo cultural, which seems like a companion to a similar 1998 publication: La industria de la cultura y el ocio en España.   I am surprised when the representative tells me I can buy it there, but I don’t have enough cash on hand.  They also have on display Calle 54, a companion book to the documentary on Latin Jazz, which is currently being shown in movie theaters. At another stand just around the corner I see a Spanish translation of the companion book to the documentary Buena Vista Social Club.

A collective stand from Madrid publishers has a few sample publications from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). I have seen some of them listed in a publication that a friend from Madrid sent me (1). I recognize Comrade, an immigrant rights NGO I visited in Madrid earlier this year. Of the items on display I look over a Manual de lengua y cultura para inmigrantes, a very timely publication as Spain tries to address the issue of immigration (2). It appears to be published by the NGO Caritas.

The regional publishers are all present.  Being in Barcelona, the Catalans are very well represented.  In passing by the Galician stand, I pick up a catalog Books from Galicia: rights 1999 (3). At one of the stands from Valencia I see what looks like a new journal: La i, published by the Association of Professional Illustrators.  The two young women working at the stand are quite friendly and I end up buying the first 2 issues.  They also want to sell me the catalog of an exhibition of Spanish film posters: Cine de Papel. Since I don’t have enough "pesetas," I say I will order it when I get back to California.  I am quite surprised that I have been offered items for sale this time since last year at Madrid’s LIBER I was not able to buy anything at the exhibit hall.

It’s almost lunchtime and although I said I would avoid book related excursions (after all I am on vacation) I have already spent more than half-day at the book fair.   On the way out I pick up a copy of the pamphlet that is being used in the Ministry of Culture’s campaign Libros a la calle. Already in its 4th year in Madrid, it is a way of promoting books and reading through public advertisement.  At the stand of the Spanish Cultural Publications (ARCE) I find the 2nd issue of the association’s bulletin.  It mentions the forthcoming new edition of one of their CD-ROMs but it is not the Revistas Culturales de España: sumarios y referencias 1993-1996, which in its current edition has a less than user friendly software, yet it contains much useful information.  Just before leaving, I stop by the stand of que leer, a Publishers Weekly-like publication for Spanish publishing, and pick up a few of the most recent issues.

It continues to rain and I find little incentive to go out and explore the city.  But it is time for lunch and I brave the weather and the traffic back to the hotel.  Since there is no television in the room, and I am still not yet tired, I decide to catch another movie La Virgen de los Sicarios. The film is based on the novel of Colombian author Fernando Vallejo and deals with drug trafficking and violence in his native Medellín.   The film has already earned a prize at the Venice Film Festival earlier in the year and will probably be released in the United States since it is a European-Latin American co-production (Spain-France-Colombia).

Leaving the movie theater, I find a bookstore and I cannot resist going in.  It carries both new and used books, with a wide selection of original Catalan works.  I wonder how much of it is represented in our collections.  It also includes a variety of film studies materials.  I buy special issues of a film journal devoted to Spanish Cinema (4).  As I am ready to pay, I see a music CD collection, Melodias populares del cine español de los años 40  (not in RLIN/OCLC).  Right next to the box are a few books on tape and I ask the sales clerk if they are new. She turns to an older fellow who appears to be the owner. “They are about 2-3 years old,” he adds from the recent arrivals section (5).  On the way out, I pick a peculiar bookmark, which is written on both Spanish and Catalan. The "client's decalogue" is both serious and humorous, "if you know what you want and can't find it, ask us," "marked prices are final... we only offer discounts to friends, and friends don't ask for a discount."


*** Oct. 16th

I arrived in Madrid the day after a holiday and traffic at both the airport and into the city is quite heavy.  It’s Fall and Madrid’s rentrée (movies, plays, concerts) is in full swing, so I am lucky to have found a hotel, specially one in the Gran Via, right in the middle of entertainment activity, and by coincidence, one block away from La Casa del Libro, the legendary bookstore of Espasa-Calpe, once an independent publisher now part of the multinational Planeta.

Planeta has been on the news lately. Its prestigious 49th Premio Planeta was awarded the night before in Barcelona to Maruja Torres, whose weekly column in El País, “Perdonen que no me levante” is legendary for its witty language. “I am Miss Planeta 2000,” she joked during an interview.  But the literary award has almost been overshadowed by plagiarism allegations of one of its best-selling authors, Ana Rosa Quintana.  Her Sabor a hiel has already sold more than 100,000 copies and fragments from a Danielle Steel  (published by Plaza y Janes) novel have been found in the book.  A few days later other fragments from Mexican author Angeles Mastretta  (published by Seix Barral) were also discovered in the novel.  The latter is a subsidiary of Planeta and the former is part the Bertelsman Group, (which owns a large stock in Planeta) so litigation is unlikely, except for expressions of concern from each of the publishers.  Quintana, a popular TV talk show host, has said it was a computer mistake, but the scandal has brought to the surface the issue of ghost writers, which in Spanish are called “negros.”  All of this seems to have given new meaning to the lyrics of a popular tropical song, “El negro está furioso…¿qué será lo que quiere el negro?…” Although the publisher says it has withdrawn the book, I see it conspicuously displayed the day I walk into the Casa del Libro to check the “revistas culturales” section, where I find the second issue of a new gay-lesbian studies scholarly journal (6) and a special issue of a film journal devoted to the Spanish Civil War (7).

During a lunch with Spanish book dealer and fellow WESS member Alain Couartou we talk about publishing issues in Spain.  I asked about the polemic on the “precio fijo” or fixed price on books.  Just a few weeks before the book fair, a consortium of several publishing entities like the Asociación de Revistas Culturales and the Federación de Gremios de Editores de España had published a 150 page booklet.  Entitled “in defense of the reader…,” its subtitle could have been  “a favor del precio fijo” (8).

Later that afternoon, I come back to the hotel to rest.  This is a good time to look over the 3 or 4 daily newspapers I have been buying since my arrival.  I notice that the El País and El Mundo editions I bought in Barcelona include a regional supplement.  Although at first glance they look very similar, the latter carries Business and Sports news before the Cultural section.  Even the same story receives different coverage as in the case of a survey on Spain’s youth.  El País notes the fact that there is still a high percentage of anti-immigrant sentiment while the competing daily highlights the strong attachment of children to the family nest.  In another story, El País gives a full-page coverage to a study, which finds that 75% of characters in secondary textbooks are male images while El Mundo does not mention anything. Both publications compete for high tech readers with their technology supplements:  Ariadn@ on Wednesdays and Cyberp@is on Thursdays.  El Mundo has also changed publication of its literary supplement (El Cultural) from Sundays to Wednesdays. It will also be starting its own publishing division: La Esfera de los Libros. This was the name of its previous literary supplement.  Although no longer being published, the archives are available in the online edition.

Following a brief rest, I walk a few blocks on the Gran Via towards the Paseo del Prado.  I go into Crisol (a bookstore chain owned by the conglomerate Grupo Santillana) and I write down the titles of several books (9).  The book shop is in the same building as the Círculo de Bellas Artes, where Nobel laureate José Saramago will be speaking later that evening as part of a series of cultural activities that will highlight Portugal’s culture, “So close, yet so far” was the caption of an newspaper article detailing the events.

I wake up in the middle of the night unable to sleep. I have caught a cold and after enduring the last of the presidential debates on CNN, I start looking through some of the publications I have purchased.  At a French bookstore right around the corner from Berkana (the gay bookshop) I found the last 3 (out of 5) issues of a creative writing journal (10). I start browsing through the last 3 issues of que leer that I picked up at the LIBER stand. The summer issue announces the release of the video series Esta es mi tierra, where several writers talk about the geographical landscapes that have influenced their work (Lisbon with José Saramago, Barcelona with Ana María Matute, etc).  There are also new videos of the series Videoteca de la memoria literaria, which carries interviews with important Spanish and Latin American literary figures.  The October issue also has an ad for the “2nd edition” of Anuario Fotogramas: Un año de cine en España  (11).


*** Oct. 18th

After a brief two-day visit to Madrid, I leave for Bilbao to participate in the 7th bi-annual meeting of FESABID, the umbrella organization of Spanish Librarians, Archivists and Information Technology Professionals.

When I arrive at the hotel there is a message from a friend who studied in California and now teaches Basque at the local Universidad de Deusto. We agree to meet later in the afternoon.

We walk from the hotel towards the Old Quarter of "Casco Viejo." During the mile walk he points out the City Hall, the Teatro Arriaga, and from afar we can see the famous Guggenheim Museum.

Once in the "Casco Viejo," we go into the Municipal Library that also houses Bilbao's Historical Archives. The "Biblioteca de Bidebarrieta," as it is also known, is hosting a series of cultural events as part of the "Semana de la Poesia." The bilingual (Spanish and Basque) pamphlet announcing the events notes that, "poetry needs, more than any other cultural production, forums through which it can connect with the people." The hope is "to bring poetry to the daily life of Bilbao's residents: to the streets, to their bussinesses, and to their cultural centers."


*** Oct. 19th

The conference is hosted by ALDEE, the Basque association of library professionals and is being held at the Palacio Euskalduna Performing Arts/Convention Center, which opened around the time of the Guggenheim Museum. At the end of the first day, I join a colleague from Argentina for a visit and we are both very impressed by such a magnificent structure.  We don’t get to spend too much time since one of the galleries is closed and we have to get ready for one of the cultural excursions still to come. It is a concert by a famous Basque songwriter.  The songs are in Basque, briefly prefaced in Spanish.  Although we do not understand the lyrics, the music is very soothing, almost nostalgic and reminiscent of Celtic melodies.

It’s late and we have yet to eat dinner. We will enjoy Basque cuisine, the most varied and the best in Spain, we are told by colleagues from Madrid and Seville.  Dinner discussion at my table centers on the recent IFLA conference in Jerusalem, which was boycotted by several Arab participants.  There is also concern expressed at how IFLA has allowed its name to be used against Cuba.  Those who have been to the island feel that this story of the “independent libraries” has another side.


*** Oct. 20th

On the second day of the conference, whose theme is “Knowledge Management: Challenges and Solutions for Professionals,” one of the panelists of the morning session laments the fact that so far there has been no mention of libraries as a common social good, and just like any other social good, they ought to be protected as such.  He also notes the fact that the organization has not expressed its support against the government’s proposed end of fixed price for books.    “It is, after all, books that still fill the shelves of our libraries,” he reminds the audience.  The panelist’s comments are accurate in the sense that throughout the conference the word “book” is only mentioned in the digital context.  Even the exhibit has hardly any “book” vendors, except for the Biblioteca Nacional, the British Library and El Corte Inglés. The latter has ventured into bookselling and it has a building just for books in the Madrid store by the Puerta del Sol.

One of the attendees is a representative from the Fundación Histórica Tavera, which has funded several digital projects related to Latin America, Spain and Portugal.  They have worked with Digibis to make available in CD-ROM the full text of several books, most of them now out of print.  Titles range from Textos Clásicos sobre la presencia del Islam en la Historia de España to Afroamérica: Textos Históricos. During a conversation with him I mention the possibility of the Foundation undertaking some digitizing projects that may be of great interest to libraries.

Bilbao is very unlike the image I have of Spain.  There are no flamenco dancers and no windmills.  Even the weather is different, more like the Pacific Northwest.  I realize this is the first time I have experienced Spain in its varied linguistic manifestations.

In Barcelona I heard Catalan spoken all over the place but since I could understand most of it, I did not feel like and outsider.  In fact, while I was waiting in line at the movies, I was addressed in Catalan but when I replied in Spanish, there was the unspoken understanding that I was not from Catalonia and any subsequent comments were in Spanish, or “Castellano” as it is often referred to by Catalans and Basques.

However, in Basque, which is linguistically unique, I could only understand isolated words in Spanish. Basque is all we heard in the streets as my friend and I walked towards the old section of the city.  As we entered a café, we ran into several of his friends and they exchanged greetings in Basque.  When they realized I did not speak their language, they politely switched to Spanish.

In fact during my three-day stay in Bilbao, only once did I hear people in the street speak Spanish.  With such a linguistic plurality Spain can certainly make claim to e pluribus unum, which we so closely associate with these side of the Atlantic. It was interesting to see that in an interview the new leader of the former Yugoslavia noted that Spain, with its regional (and linguistic) autonomies could very well be the model to be followed in the Balkan region.


*** Oct. 21st.

Immediately following the closing of the conference, I join a busload of librarians from throughout Spain for an excursion to Vitoria, 40 minutes outside of Bilbao and the original capital of the Basque region.  Our first stop is a visit to the library of the Fundación Sancho el Sabio.  The collection is housed in a 19th century mansion built by an “indiano,” who as an immigrant made his fortune in the Cuba of the 1890s.  It is the closest to a Basque National Library, we are told.  Its mission is to document Basque culture from all over the world in all of its manifestations.  Digitizing eleven dailies from the region is only one of its activities.  It also has an extensive collection of flyers and political posters.  To catalog them, staff relies on the 4-volume set Euskal Herriko kartelak: askatasunaren irudiak, which covers 1973-1990 (available at very few RLIN/OCLC holding libraries).

Our group braves the cold rain in touring the old part of the city, including the Cathedral, which is undergoing major repair work while at the same time it’s the site of archaeological excavations.  We return to Bilbao just as a demonstration is ending.  The event was polemical since the national ruling conservative party has refused to attend, arguing that the event was not specifically against ETA, the Basque terrorist organization.  Instead, it has been convened “against violence.” In spite of the controversy and the weather, it has been attended by 150,000 people who have withstood the rain to show their support for the most recent ETA victim killed in Seville the week before. Just a few days earlier, at a similar event in the Andalucian capital, an equally large crowd had battled the intense heat to show their opposition to ETA’s terrorist activities. 

Violence on the part of ETA has also taken its toll in the Basque region itself.  Earlier in the week, a history professor from the Universidad del Pais Vasco announced he would be leaving for the United States.  As part of a moderate group of intellectuals opposing violence, he has been under intense criticism from pro-ETA circles. He is only one of the three recent artists and intellectuals who have decided to leave the Basque region.

My flight leaves quite early in the morning and I retreat to the hotel to re-arrange luggage. Taking advantage of the high value of the dollar, I have bought several books and even a backpack made in the United States.  I need it, and I convince myself that it will end up costing less here.  I set aside reading material in preparation for the 12 hour non-stop flight back to California.

Notes & References

(1) ONG: las letras de la solidaridad. [issn 1575 1929] Issue #21, October 2000
Paseo de la Castellana, 122, 9 Dcha.  28046 Madrid. Price: 325 pesetas per issue.
Tel: 91 564 67 19   Fax: 91 561 41 34   E-mail:  oenege@oenege.org

Contains information about NGO activities, both inside and outside of Spain.  The last page includes a listing of associations cited in articles as well as general listings of NGOs.

(2) Immigrants are very much in the collective mind of Spain.  For a country that as recent as 1965 exported cheap labor, Spain has now become the recipient of the majority of illegal immigrants from North Africa. Earlier in the year, the country had witnessed anti-immigrant riots in Almeria. A friend told me: “This southern province is familiar to most of us even if we don’t realize it; since it was here that many of the Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns were filmed.”  Thanks to an abundant supply of cheap labor from immigrants, this once arid terrain has been turned into the winter breadbasket of Europe.

(3) Xunta de Galicia.  Books from Galicia: rights 1999, Vigo: Asociacion Galega de Editores, 1999
[isbn: 84-89123-04-7]. It’s a listing of some 270 titles with English summaries of each work.

(4) Nosferatu  revista de cine [issn 1131 9372]  Issue No.33, abril del 2000. Price: 9,500 pesetas per year.
Donostia Kultura, República Argentina, 2   20004 DONOSTIA, San Sebastián.
Tel: (34) 943 48 11 57     Fax:  (34) 943 43 0621   E-mail:  cinema_cinema@donostia.org

Quarterly film magazine published by the Basque Municipal Culture Board of San Sebastian. Although focused on film in general, there have been several monographic issues specific to Spanish/Latin American Cinema. It is profusely illustrated in color and black/white and includes article and interviews as well as a filmography.  There is an abstract section in English in the most recent issues.

(5) A few weeks later, while at the Guadalajara Book Fair in Mexico, I asked one of the Planeta executives if they had any “audio libros.” He said no, apparently there have been a few released in Spain but there has not been much of a market for them. I mentioned to him how often I am asked by public librarians in the U. S. about Spanish books on tape.

(6) Reverso: revista de estudios lesbianos, gays, bisexuales, transexuales, transgénero… [issn: 1576-1304]. Precio: 6,000 pesetas per year. Higueras Arte S.L., Aguila Real 24, Molino de la Hoz, 28230 Madrid. 
Tel/Fax: 34 916 302 870E-mail:  jaimedelval@higuerasarte.com  www.higuerasarte.com
The purpose of the journal, as noted in the first issue, is to “provide a collective space to debate and…articulate matters related to queer studies in Spanish.”  There is a Spanish translation of a Judith Buttler essay, a piece from author Eduardo Mendicutti as well as a book review section.  The second issue is called “(de)construyendo identidades.”

(7) Nickel odeon: revista trimestral de cine   [issn: 1135 7681]  Issue #19, verano 2000
Nickel odeon Dos, S. A., Barbara de Braganza, 12, 5E.  28004 Madrid
Tel: 91 308 52 38   Fax: 91 308 58 85   E-mail: cine@nickel-odeon.com  www.nickel-odeon.com
It is part of ARCE, and much like Nosferatu, it is about film in general but it has published several special issues devoted to Spanish Cinema (3, 5, 7, 9, 13 and 19 are still in print).  Profusely illustrated with detailed articles and interviews. It also publishes a series of monographs.

(8) En defensa del lector, precio fijo del libro ¿por qué?  Madrid [?], 2000.
In June of 2000 the conservative government proposed ending the fixed price on books, which would grant large booksellers the opportunity to offer substantial discounts on books.  This publication includes articles from a who’s who of writers and literary critics openly opposing such measure.

(9) Of the 10 titles of recent books I wrote down, I only found one in the Crisol website. Interestingly enough, I was actually able to find most of them in RLIN and OCLC.

(10) Prima littera: revista de creación literaria [issn: 1136-9442].
Asociación Cultural Prima Littera. Apdo. de correos 15, 28529 Rivas, Madrid. Price: 6,200 pesetas per year.
In addition to literary essays and creative writing, this quarterly journal includes interviews with poets and literary critics.  There is a book review section as well as a review of other literary journals (Revistero).

(11) Anuario Fotogramas: Un año de cine en España,  Comunicación y Publicaciones S. A.,  Gran Via de las Corts Catalanes, 133  3a. planta, 080914 Barcelona.  Price: 1,400 pesetas.
I purchased the first edition at a newspaper kiosk.  It provides a detailed account of cinematic activity within Spain.  Each month it has the movies (domestic and foreign) that were shown in Spain.  Each film has a 2-3 line summary with the original title for foreign movies.  Although not of the same caliber as the two film journals described above, it can serve as a Spanish Film Annual and can compliment the end of the year issued by Academia, which provides a summary of Spanish films. It is published by the Hachette Filipacchi Presse media conglomerate.