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Marta Sanz, Isaac Rosa and Javier de Isusi’s travelogue through German universities

Together they travelled more than 4,500 kilometres in six days. Isaac Rosa, Marta Sanz, and Javier de Isusi travelled this summer to the universities of Cologne, Bremen, and Jena which are among the most prestigious in Germany and among the oldest in Europe. “It has been very nice, and I would almost say that having the feeling of doing an Interrail at 54 has rejuvenated me a lot,” says Marta Sanz, who has become a kind of literary backpacker. “I also want to emphasise that the harmony with my fellow travellers has been absolute. Our hosts in Cologne, Bremen, and Jena have made everything very easy for us. I am very grateful to have been part of this experience”.

The initiative for this adventure came about thanks to this group of Spanish teacher-hosts who work at the aforementioned universities. “The aim was to ensure that the presence of Spanish literature in Germany would not be limited exclusively to the days when we are the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, on 19 and 23 October”. María José Gálvez, Director General of Books and Reading Promotion states: “We also wanted to be in the universities and generate quality Hispanists and people who are interested in our language and literature. A privileged way of creating this link is through those who write”, explains Gálvez, who highlights the work being carried out before the fair to make our literature more visible.

Whether at the universities themselves, in libraries, or at one of the Cervantes Institute’s headquarters, each of the three travellers took part in various events that brought them into direct contact with university audiences and readers. Elvira Marco, the curator of Spain Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, points out, that the German universities involved have “gone all out”. Rosa, Sanz, and De Isusi hardly knew each other personally. However, they did know each other literarily work, when they were selected to open the doors to other views of Spanish culture.

Translated works

They have shared many of the encounters, but each has lived the experience differently. Isaac Rosa has several novels translated into German: Feliz final (Glückliches Ende), El vano ayer (Das Leben in Rot), El país del miedo (Im Reich der Angst) and others about to be published such as La habitación oscura (Im dunklen Zimmer) and Lugar seguro, his latest novel which has been awarded the Biblioteca Breve Prize. “My participation in this tour benefited from this circumstance, as my books were within reach of non-Spanish-speaking readers at each meeting,” he acknowledges.

However, only one of Javier de Isusi’s books is translated into German.  He visto Ballenas (Ich habe Wale gesehen) – also published in Basque and French – for which he was nominated for awards at the most important comic festivals in Spain and France. He is confident that this is only the beginning and that other works, such as Oscar Wilde’s The Divine Comedy, which took him almost five years of work and has been awarded the National Comic Prize 2020 and the AACE (Spanish Association of Comic Authors), will follow in its footsteps. “The Frankfurt Fair is the most important in the world. We will see if this helps us”, says the author. In spite of this shortcoming, De Isusi found a very satisfactory response from the public: “One detail that particularly touched me was that of a boy who was travelling through Cologne and who happened to be passing by the Machado centre when I gave my talk. He liked it so much that the next day he came to the talk I gave at the Faculty of Hispanic Studies”.

Marta Sanz, Ph.D. in Philology, author of several award-winning novels, as well as essays and five collections of poetry, believes that the German university professors who selected them were looking for “profiles that were not the most publicised in Germany to open doors to other views of Spanish culture”. In his case, they were right. Despite his extensive and successful career and the fact that part of his work has been translated into Italian, English, Turkish, etc he has never seen his work published in the language of Goethe. However, he hopes that this trip will serve to do so. “People asked me about German translations of my books and were surprised that they didn’t exist. I hope it wasn’t just a polite question”.

To solve this problem, fragments of some of his works and those of his colleagues were translated, analysed, and commented on by the students and readers. “Listening attentively to a fragment of Daniela Astor y la caja negra, translated into German and interpreted by a fabulous actress, was very, very exciting,” admits Sanz. “On the one hand, I didn’t understand a word, but on the other hand I understood absolutely everything. As if I was able to internally superimpose my Spanish words over the German sounds”.

The pleasure of reading aloud

“The German public likes readings aloud”, says Javier de Isusi. Marta Sanz adds that people enjoy “not only listening to translations of a Spanish text into German but also to Spanish writers speaking in Spanish”. As Rosa points out, there is a big difference between German and Spanish readers when they go to a presentation: “In Germany, there is a tradition of public readings. In Spain, the presentation of new books turns into a more or less witty dialogue and an exchange of praise between the presenter and the presented. In Germany the book’s pages are always read out loud. When it’s a foreign author, the German reader likes to listen to the reading of the translation and the original. Even if he doesn’t understand it they like to hear ‘what it sounds like in the author’s voice. He adds, “It’s a beautiful experience to read for minutes a text that hardly anyone understands, but to which everyone listens with curiosity and interest”.

De Isusi believes that the origin of this fascination lies in the fact that listening to reading aloud “actually awakens something very profound in literature, which is seeing how words sound. That is the origin of literature, the spoken word, although it seems that the Spanish public in general has forgotten this. In Germany, on the other hand, this is still the case”, he concludes.

The three authors agree that both the students and the readers they met during the tour were curious about Spain beyond the literary aspect. “I suppose that this was favoured by the fact that the three participants share a literary view of contemporary reality,” says Isaac Rosa. “I was pleased to see the interest of the general public in matters, in principle, local and historical, which, in reality, speak of shared problems. Human. I think,” admits Marta Sanz, “that my reading in Spanish of different passages from Clavícula aroused a lot of curiosity and many conflicting emotions, which I found marvellous. Because, after all, the masks of fiction and autobiographies help us to explore a common space, to extend a thread of conversation between texts from different cultures and sensibilities: I think that in Germany, people are willing to pick up, pull, and knot that thread. 

Outstanding students

The students with whom they met were more focused on literary aspects, but “with an important knowledge of current Spanish culture”, Rosa explains. In these meetings, “everything” was discussed: literature, culture, where inspiration comes from, journalism, and changes in the new journalism in all parts of the world, the authors explain. Their knowledge was put to the test during their stop at the University of Bremen, where they spent seven hours in a room at the Instituto Cervantes with a dozen students. “Our university hostesses were enormously generous, they had worked on our works in depth in class. We were surprised by the quality of the student’s questions,” admits Isaac Rosa.

In the academic circles in which they have worked, they are familiar with Spanish literature, especially that written in different Latin American countries. For this reason,” says Sanz, “it would be very fruitful to work on the links and interaction between the different kinds of literature written in Spanish. How we enrich ourselves with our readings, how we work with a language that is the same, but different in Mexico, Colombia, Spain, Ecuador…”. The writer from Madrid also sees the need to expand the list of Spanish literature to include a plurality of styles, different points of view on the literary phenomenon, and literature written in Catalan, Galician and Basque.

Back in Spain, once again engaged in the solitary task of creation, Isaac, Marta, and Javier have only good memories of the trip. Although it seems that initially, things didn’t go as well as expected due to logistical problems. “Isaac’s flight was cancelled, and he arrived very late at night. Marta got a hotel room occupied by a couple (who were already using it lovingly), and they announced that we weren’t going to take the train transfers because they had too many delays. The train on the last day that was supposed to take us to Frankfurt suddenly didn’t appear on any website. It didn’t seem to exist”, Isusi recalls with amusement. Circumstances that made Marta Sanz say sarcastically at one point: “I’ve discovered that I’m more Germanic than the Germans themselves”.

Transport in Germany, as in the rest of Europe, has been very complicated this summer due to the lack of personnel, and increased demand. This kept them on their toes during the numerous journeys and transfers and in constant communication with the staff of the Ministry of Culture, “who was always there and made everything easier for us”, Rosa acknowledges. At the end of the tour “, we discovered that everything was better organised than it seemed and problems were solved easily. We were amazed (those of us who didn’t know it) at the enormous versatility of destinations and timetables of the German rail network. I, who live in Extremadura, was very envious…”, De Isusi says with a laugh.

For Marta, who found the experience physically very demanding, she recognises that “the effort was certainly worth it because in each place we met with great interest from university students and teaching staff, as well as from the general public: intelligent questions about our books, attentive listening, brilliant presentations, and smiles that showed not only pleasure but a sense of humour and an understanding of literature that is often shared”.

Understanding and a sense of humour were evident in the reading they did at the Cervantes Institute in Bremen. After a first round in which all three agreed on the choice of serious texts, Isaac Rosa wanted to read something funnier. “I chose a story in which a clown monologues in front of an audience and demands their participation. To my surprise,” he recalls fondly, “the German audience, who until then had listened in silence and concentration, stood up and, without my asking, followed the instructions of the clown-narrator: they laughed out loud, imitated baby talk, answered questions by shouting, and were generally amused and in the mood for laughter. It was a good finale.