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The literature that inhabits an emptied Spain

Given the ever-increasing exodus from the village to the city, the city is turning its back on the rural. However, not literature. There is one step from deep Spain to an empty or emptied Spain. Between these two terms, there are many currents. As well as a generation or two such as Benito Pérez Galdós, Miguel Delibes, Camilo José Cela or, more recently, Julio Llamazares with La lluvia amarilla. In recent years, many Spanish writers turned their pens away from the big cities and have focused on the problems of the countryside and its depopulation.

Sergio del Molino called it La España vacía (Empty Spain). A mix between essay and travel book, memoir and novel, in this work published by Turner in 2016, the writer of La hora violeta proposed a historical, biographical, and sentimental journey through an uninhabited “country” within Spain. He based it on one fact: in just twenty years, between 1950 and 1970, the Spanish countryside emptied to the point that only in Scandinavia did we find population densities as low as those of our villages. “There are two Spains, but they are not Machado’s Spains. There is an urban and European Spain and another inland and depopulated Spain, which I have called Empty Spain. Communication between the two has been and is difficult. Often, they seem like foreign countries to each other. And yet, we cannot understand urban Spain without empty Spain. The ghosts of the latter are in the houses of the former”, wrote the journalist, who, in 2021, published a sort of continuation of this idea in Contra la España vacía (Alfaguara).

For María Sánchez, from Córdoba, empty Spain is not empty. What remains there are the marks, the abandoned lands, and the lines that make up the orchards and fields. There remain, too, the people and their trades. That is why she prefers to coin the term emptied while advocating breaking stereotypes – neither black Spain nor the idyllic natural environment for urban holidaymakers – and writing about the countryside from the countryside. A vet by profession, specialising in dairy goats, she travels alone in her van through rural Spain by day, and at night she takes the opportunity to write. Author of titles such as Tierra de mujeres (Seix Barral, 2019), where she vindicated the role of women in the culture and life of our villages. She became known in 2017 with the poetry collection Cuaderno de campo (La Bella Varsovia), where she wrote among her verses: “Something like this has to be home:/ To hear fandangos while the sheep go/ after their lambs./ To search with the fingers for roots./ To offer the ankles to the tubers”. 

With titles like these, a new wave began to germinate. The rural began to emerge as a literary theme and also as a point of interest among readers. In 2018, it was a surprise when Santiago Lorenzo became a bestseller with his novel Los asquerosos, published by Blackie Books. The novel was adapted later for the theatre. This story narrates how the main character, Manuel, flees to an abandoned village and his tale of survival thanks to Austral books, vegetables from the surrounding area, and the occasional small purchase. The editorial backed it with the suggestive description of being a rendition of Robinson Crusoe set in empty Spain and soon went viral.

Living in the countryside and telling the story

With the focus also on the countryside, Gabi Martínez slipped into another fact: in Spain, 84% of native livestock breeds are now in danger of extinction. In the time before 2020, the writer decided to try his luck in the countryside and move away from the image of the urbanite who visits the village and writes from those antipodes. In the middle of winter, the writer settled as a shepherd’s apprentice in the so-called Siberia of Extremadura, without heating or running water, to experience the way of life that his mother had known as a child. When I arrived in Extremadura as a shepherd’s apprentice, the nights were freezing, and the drought was distressing farmers and peasants after three years with practically no rain,” he writes in Un cambio de verdad, published by Seix Barral in 2020. I had the mission of supervising a flock of over four hundred sheep on the farm that the friend of a friend of a friend of a distant relative had put at my disposal”.

Like him, another writer who decided to give up everything to return to the countryside was Rafael Navarro de Castro. A veteran scriptwriter in the audiovisual sector, where he worked for 15 years in Madrid, one day he decided to sell the 30-square-metre attic he had in Tribunal and buy a one-hectare plot of land in a village in Granada with the money. In 2019, he published his first and only book to date, La tierra desnuda (Alfaguara), in which he narrated the life of a farmer from birth to death in a journey that allowed him to trace the history of rural Spain over the last century. 

From the audiovisual sector to the countryside, like Navarro de Castro, Beatriz Montañez decided to change the TV set of a prime-time programme for an abandoned stone hut, with no one within 25 kilometres around. Isolated, with only a debit card and a telephone, she dedicated herself to writing and reading while trying to reconnect with herself. When she told the story in Niadela (Errata Naturae) in 2021, she had already been a hermit for five years. “In my lair, I protect myself from the web of humanity. I resist the shelter of permanence, where the hypnotic effect of the repetition of each day automates life; in the silence of my lair, I learn to speak, and in solitude, to value a company”, she cooed between her pages.

From reality to rural fiction

With humour and from fiction, Daniel Gascón took on the subject in the story of Un hipster en la España vacía (A Hipster in Empty Spain) (Literatura Random House, 2020), which he continued a year later with La muerte del hipster (The Death of the Hipster). His character, like Montañez or Navarro de Castro, decides to retire to a village in Teruel to slow down the pace of the city and ends up becoming its mayor in this ironic and caricatural portrait of the clash between the distorted urbanist vision of everything rural.

Meanwhile, in a more literary way, Lara Moreno moved ahead of all these currents in 2013 with Por si se va la luz (Lumen). Like an intimate portrait and an inward flight, in these pages, the poet tells the story of Martín and Nadia, a couple who decides to break away from everything and settle in a remote village inhabited by only three people. Her novel was also a tale of dispossession: “We brought fifty books, all to be read. Barely a quarter of the clothes we had counting in that quarter, the winter, summer, and mid-season clothes. The only drugs we have with us are Nadia’s contraceptive patches. We have enough for six months. After that, there will be no more”, the characters narrate the story in the first person. 

Like Moreno, Jesús Carrasco also narrated in 2013, in his overwhelming debut Intemperie (Seix Barral), the flight of a boy through a country punished by drought and violence, in which the environment and inhospitable nature took on an important role. Continuing to explore this vein, in 2021, he published Llévame a casa (Seix Barral), the story of a man, Juan, forced to abandon his life in Edinburgh and return to his small hometown after the death of his father.

In this suggestive literary puzzle, Manuel Astur imposes himself with a powerful lyricism in San, el libro de los milagros (Acantilado, 2020). He writes: “There is an instant in the serene summer sunsets when anyone would say that objects shine, as if they were returning part of the generous light they received throughout the day. It was then when Marcellin would stop what he was doing, sit up, run the back of his hand across his forehead and gaze at the valley at his feet. Everything glittered and rang like a bell of golden light. That July sunset, too, Marcellin stopped and contemplated. The house, the granary, the cart, everything shone against the deep blue sky where the first star began to announce the new era. With a touch of magical or folkloric realism, Astur recreated here the rural drama of a broken family.

We travel from Asturias to the Catalan region with Irene Solà, who used this setting for her second novel, Canto yo y la montaña baila (Anagrama, 2019). The choral story of a family living in a small village called Matavaques, located in a high mountain and border area. In this title, which won the Literature European Union Prize for Spain, the voices of men, women, and ghosts are present, and it also brings together the words of the clouds and mushrooms, dogs, and roe deer that inhabit this area of the Pyrenees.