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Literary memories, Frankfurt’s tributes to the Spanish-language book world

It is enough, said Javier Marías, “with the faculty of memory for someone to remain the same in different times and spaces”. He passed away on 11 September, and in his case, each book is also enough to remind us of him. Like Carlos Ruiz Zafón or Almudena Grandes, who left as a legacy the last novel, Todo va a mejorar, recently published. For them, the memory stopped at every word, from the first sentence to the last title. They were and will be the writers who filled our lives with other worlds, asked questions and gave us answers, filling our evenings and days and becoming an unbeatable companion during long sleepless nights. 

At a time when Spanish literature is sadly bidding farewell, and all too soon, to several of its most famous and talented authors, their names could not be missing from the Frankfurt Book Fair, in an edition such as this one in which Spain is Guest of Honour. This a tribute that does not leave out the literary agent Carmen Balcells, who made it possible for many works to be published and built bridges between one side of the Atlantic and the other. Along with them, in 2022, full of anniversaries, we could not fail to remember Miguel Hernández, Gabriel Ferrater, Antonio de Nebrija, Joan Fuster, José Hierro and Alfonso X the Wise.

Almudena Grandes, the voice of the forgotten

On the first anniversary of that sad 27 November when Almudena Grandes’ death was announced, journalist and writer Jesús Marchamalo remembers her as “one of the essential voices” of contemporary narrative in Spanish, and one of the “most admired, read and loved” writers. Author of titles such as: Las edades de Lulú, Te llamaré Viernes and Castillos de cartón, as well as her great narrative project Episodios de una guerra interminable, a tribute to her, admired Galdós. Her death “shocked the world of culture and provoked an irreparable sensation of orphanhood among her thousands of readers”.  

Grandes had a “highly personal oeuvre, very close to the times in which she lived,” says the journalist, “dotted with unforgettable titles for those of us who read her. Malena es un nombre de tango, Atlas de geografía humana, Los aires difíciles, El corazón helado – and that acclaimed series, Episodios de una guerra interminable, where she gives voice and prominence to the voiceless, those who are invisible, forgotten by the triumphant wind of history.” We all remember her on the balcony of Madrid’s City Hall during the Fiestas de San Isidro in 2018, of which she was proud to be the town crier. Nervous, excited – she confessed – she read a few pages she had written beginning with: “No one in my family had come this far since 1932 when my great aunt Camila Rodríguez was elected Miss Chamberí at the Verbena del Carmen”.   

A regular at literary events, Grandes would have liked to attend Frankfurt, where on the 20th, she will receive a tribute from friends and colleagues such as Fernando Aramburu, Juan Cerezo, Michi Strausfeld and Piero Salabè. They will recall some aspects of her life and work. “Funny, provocative, committed, she was often spotted at book fairs”, shares Marchamalo, who will be in charge of moderating this event. It was common to see her gather “huge lines of people who asked her for a dedication, a signature, a minute’s conversation, which she, laughing, always attended with generosity”.

Carmen Balcells, publishing heroine

On the same day as the tribute to Almudena Grandes, another prominent literary personality will be remembered by writers Rosa Montero and Carme Riera in an event moderated by the journalist Juan Cruz. Less known outside the world of literature, the figure of the “super-agent” Carmen Balcells was of great importance in the Spanish-American narrative. Considered the driving force behind the Latin American Boom, she also managed to eliminate lifetime contracts and impose time-limited assignment clauses for a book, which greatly improved the conditions of authors’ rights.   

“There will never be another Carmen Balcells,” Cruz recalls today when asked about her figure. ” She called me to her house when Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, her soul author and friend, died and prepared a lunch that seemed like a feast for the afterlife. She placed an enormous portrait of Manolo on a ladder next to it, and from time to time, when it occurred to her, she would turn to him, greeting him. It was the particular emotion of a woman who shunned solemnities, who acted in the face of life with enormous simplicity and courage. She was capable of travelling to Brazil to bring some delicate flowers to her friend Nélida Piñon. The lunches and dinners she organised were part of her genius, she never did anything, but anything, that did not also have consequences for the publishing business to which she was dedicated”.

Balcells represented six Nobel laureates in literature during her lifetime – García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Aleixandre, Neruda, Cela and Miguel Ángel Asturias – and devoted more than 40 years to the profession. He died in September 2015. “In the last months of her life, there were sighs, of course, sadness, but she only called when she felt like being with others. I loved her like a sister, a mother, and a schoolteacher because she was all of those things. She was even more: she was a person who kept secrets as if they were made of gold because they were secrets that had to do with other people’s lives, essential to her”, confesses Cruz, who will talk with Montero and Riera about the life and legacy of this emblematic agent of Spanish letters.

Javier Marías, a unique and stimulating voice

The 21st, meanwhile, will feature tributes to two indisputable men, each in his way, of our literature: Javier Marías and Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Marías was the writer of around fifty books, by which he cultivated narrative, essays and short stories. Additionally, he was a successful columnist and an exceptional translator of authors such as Laurence Sterne, William Faulkner and John Ashbery. He was 70 years old when he died last September, leaving an impossible-to-fill void. With a unique and stimulating voice, he was a crucial figure in the generation of writers to which he belonged. He created a kingdom to write and edit, the Kingdom of Redonda, in which the two aspects of his literature and his persona, elegance and generosity, ruled.

An eternal candidate for the Nobel Prize, his pen produced titles such as Corazón tan blanco, Todas las almas, Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí and the recent and fascinating diptych composed by Berta Isla and Tomás Nevinson. His works have been translated into 40 languages. Also, he was part of the Modern Classics collection of the Penguin publishing house, along with other Spanish-language authors such as Borges, Lorca, Octavio Paz and García Márquez. 

His publisher in Latin America, Pilar Reyes (Alfaguara), his publishers in German and French, Roland Spahr (Fischer) and Gustavo Guerrero (Gallimard), and his German translator, Susanne Lange, will hold a conversation with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung journalist Paul Ingendaay in the tribute that will be paid to him on the 21st on the Cereza stage of the Spanish Pavilion at the Frankfurt Book Fair. They will discuss the importance of Marías’ work outside Spain and the singularities of his narrative universe.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, the bestseller who swept Germany by storm

The other tribute of the day will feature an author who is loved in Germany. In 2003, the publication of the first novel in his tetralogy, The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, The Shadow of the Wind, aroused great interest, even more than the interest generated until then in Spain. “Joschka Fischer, the then charismatic German Foreign Minister, declared on a television programme that he could not put down the book,” recalls Sergio Vila-Sanjuán, for whom “his presence at the German book fair contributed to its consecration”. Since then, says the journalist, “he has been one of the best received and appreciated Spanish writers in this country in the 21st century”.

When Ruiz Zafón died in June 2020, he was only 55 years old, and his first novel had sold 15 million copies. “He had become one of the most widely read Spanish writers globally with his tetralogy of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Set in Barcelona from the early 20th century to the 1960s, the book recreates, with a gothic tone, a series of family stories and intrigue, many of which revolve around books,” adds Vila-Sanjuán.

The journalist, a personal friend of the writer for almost twenty years and one of the first to write about his work, will be in charge of moderating the tribute. Emili Rosales, his trusted editor, will screen an audiovisual about the author’s life and work at an event. Also, his literary agent Antonia Kerrigan, his German editor Hans Jürgen Balmes (S. Fischer), and the Spanish thriller writer Dolores Redondo, a declared admirer of his work, will take part.

Author of juvenile novels such as the Trilogía de la niebla and Marina, along with La sombra del viento, Ruiz Zafón also published El juego del ángel and El prisionero del cielo. As a curiosity and as proof of their close relationship with the author of those who will take part in the tribute, Rosales, Kerrigan and Vila-Sanjuán themselves appear as “cameo” characters in the last of his novels, El laberinto de los espíritus (The Labyrinth of the Spirits), which closes the cycle.

Other tributes: from Ferrater to Nebrija

Alongside Grandes, Balcells, Marías and Ruiz Zafón, other great personalities celebrating their anniversaries this year will be present directly or indirectly at the German Book Fair. Thus, under the title Vientos del pueblo (Winds of the People), on 19 October, the guitarist and singer Fraskito will pay tribute to the poet Miguel Hernández, whose death was 80 years ago. Moreover, another poet, Gabriel Ferrater, considered the first modern poet of the Catalan post-war period, will be honoured. This will happen 100 years after his birth and 50 years after his death, in the RNE programme of the Spanish Pavilion, which will also remember the poet, essayist and critic Joan Fuster, born in 1922.

With a pavilion designed down to the last detail, some of the installations created for the occasion will, in turn, evoke three great figures of Spanish literature. Thus La vida (Life), an interactive station with an illuminated poem, will bring back the verses of José Hierro (1922-2002). While Alfonso X El Sabio, who celebrated the thousandth anniversary of his birth in 2021, will be remembered in the intervention of the sound stations La poeta.

Finally, one of our most celebrated intellectuals will be honoured. He was a grammarian, philologist, polymath, astronomer, historian, pedagogue, humanist, lexicographer, poet. 500 years after the death of Elio Antonio de Nebrija (1444-1522), the author of the first Castilian grammar, will be honoured with the projection on the walls of the Cereza and Turquesa stages of this complete work, so important for the Spanish language.