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From books to Madrid’s sky

“Madrid, Madrid, how well your name sounds, / The earth is torn apart, the sky thunders, / You smile with lead in your guts”. Nothing better than to evoke these verses by Antonio Machado to remember the capital of Spain on a day like today, 15 May. Feast of San Isidro Labrador, patron saint of the city since his canonisation in 1622, the town will celebrate its traditional pilgrimage of the saint, culminating in the meadow that bears his name, with music, dancing, and food. But beyond its carnations, chotis, and doughnuts, literature has also been bewitched by the charm of this town of which Lope de Vega wrote: “There is no town, as far as the sun gilds and the sea bathes, more pleasant, beautiful and opportune, whose grandeur adorns and accompanies the Court of the Caesars of Spain”. 

The scene of the quarrels between Góngora and Quevedo, from the Madrid of Calderón de la Barca or Lope himself to Tirso de Molina, who immortalised Vallecas in La Villana, the capital has aroused the curiosity and stimulated the imagination of locals and strangers alike. So much so that Matthew G. Lewis set the action of The Monk, a Gothic novel written at the end of the 18th century, in the streets of this Spanish town in which he had never set foot before. 

Coffee literature

Madrid was an emblematic character in the work of Pérez Benito Galdós, it was undoubtedly the author of the National Episodes who gave the city the greatest prominence. From La desheredada to Misericordia, many of Galdós’ novels take place in the capital. Perhaps the most representative, however, is Fortunata y Jacinta, one of the masterpieces of Spanish literature. With the fall of the Republic and the Bourbon Restoration as a backdrop, based on the story of two women from different social classes united by a tragic destiny, Galdós portrays Madrid in the second half of the 19th century, a city that was rapidly modernising. 

After the writer of Miau, other novels set in the town such as La maja desnuda by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, El Rastro by Gómez de la Serna and El árbol de la ciencia by Pío Baroja evoked the exciting beginning of the 20th century in Madrid. Meanwhile, with Ramón María del Valle-Inclán and the protagonist of Luces de bohemia, Max Estrella, we walked through its streets through places that are still recognisable today, such as the legendary San Ginés chocolate shop. And the importance of cafés and gatherings, so evident in Galdós’ life, did not go unnoticed by the rest of the writers of that fertile period. 

A reflection of a pre-war Madrid, set in the pre-war 1930s and engrossed in literary gatherings, Max Aub recreated those days in the capital in La calle de Valverde. A city that Camilo José Cela revives in the post-war period. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989 for works such as La colmena (The Beehive), the writer evokes the melancholic days in the cafés of the time.

From the Golden Age to Madrid today

From the Madrid of the wars, historical changes, and the passage of time to the Madrid of today, there have been several works that, faithful to its spirit, have allowed themselves to be dragged along by the frenzy of its rhythms, its people and its customs. It is also a more carefree place, capable of taking itself less seriously, where life crises have been changing in favour of generational demands. This gave rise to novels such as Historias del Kronen, by José Ángel Mañas, or Beatriz y los cuerpos celestes, by Lucía Etxebarría, a chronicle and portrait of a generation living wildly in the 1990s.

And if Madrid is a place favoured “by a splendid sky that makes us forget almost all its defects“, as Luis Martín Santos wrote in that novel in which he evoked the desolate Madrid of early Francoism, Tiempo de silencio, back in 2005 Julio Llamazares delved into that universe governed by the sun in El cielo de Madrid (The Sky of Madrid). In it, based on the structure of the Divine Comedy, the writer from León ascended from hell to paradise in a journey through the Movida madrileña, the countercultural movement that developed during the early years of the Spanish Transition.

Nor should we forget Las edades de Lulú, set in the 1970s, with whom we met Almudena Grandes, born in Madrid in the late 1980s, whose idyll with her native city gave rise to works such as El corazón helado (The Frozen Heart) and Malena es un nombre de tango (Malena is a tango name). From Elvira Lindo and her Manolito Gafotas in the neighbourhood of Carabanchel, to the Golden Century of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste, in recent years Madrid has continued to be a recent literary theme for many authors, such as Carmen Mola in La Bestia or Elvira Sastre in Madrid me mata, an intimate portrait of the writer’s experience of the city’s streets.

“Madrid does not scrape the sky like New York” nor “does it have the majesty of Paris”, writes Sergio C. Fanjul in La ciudad infinita, an essay on urbanism and gentrification in the Spanish capital. Quite a declaration of love, as is the one composed by the writer Andrés Trapiello in his book, Madrid, a biography and a portrait of the great city that dissects the water journeys, the old neighbourhoods, the suburbs, the passing of kings, republics and dictatorships, the misery and the days of splendour, the wars, the Movida and even the coronavirus.  

There is as much literature in the city as its streets are infinite. Continuous inspiration, perhaps it was Miguel de Cervantes who expressed it best when he wrote, on bidding farewell to the town: “Farewell”, I said to my humble hut; “farewell, Madrid; farewell your Prado and fountains, flowing nectar, raining ambrosia”.

*Images: Turismo de Madrid

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