Hola, this is Barbara. I have some culture picks from the Spanish-speaking world for you. First, I’d like to follow up with you on the Hay Festival in Cartagena de las Indias, then I will present a new book that reminded me of my early days as a student of Hispanic literatures. Finally, I will give you a preview of a terrific new documentary from El Salvador. It is the first Salvadoran film qualified to compete for an Oscar nomination. What holds these stories together? Love. More about that in my music pick at the end of the newsletter.
El amor por las palabras / The love for words
In my last newsletter, I encouraged you all to watch some of the talks and presentations at the Hay Festival in Colombia. Usually, there are local events in three locations: Cartagena de las Indias, Medellín and Jericó. This year, we could all join these events via Zoom. I had the pleasure to attend a conversation between Colombian writer Héctor Abad Fariolince from his hotel in Madrid with essayist and classical philologist Irene Vallejo who spoke from her home in Zaragoza. Unsurprisingly, they mostly talked about Irene’s popular book El infinito en un junco (2019, Infinity in a reed), in which she candidly writes about the history of books mashing-up these 3000 years of history with many personal anecdotes and historical details. When I listened to the talk I understood why Vallejo has been hyped so much. In 2020, El infinito en un junco was the most sold book in Spain, which is remarkable because it is not a thriller or a big love story, but it is a very erudite essay written by a classical philologist. Her calm enthusiasm is the perfect contrast to today’s polarized media world. She radiates knowledge, levity, and you realise quickly how much she loves to work with words. Phenomenal! Until February 14th you can watch the conversation between the two.
If you are no longer able to see the conversation, a quote from her new book El futuro recordado (2020, The future remembered) gives you a flavor of her way of thinking and how she creates affective presence through writing:
Me gustan las palabras que evocan lejanos ecos del mar, del viento o del bullicio del mundo (…). En nuestros tiempos nerviosos, el desasosiego parece haber ganado la partida. Colonizados por pantallas e imágenes que estallan como fogonazos, dejamos caer en desuso el sosiego. Antítesis de la prisa, el sosiego es la condición previa del pensamiento y también la puerta de acceso a las aventuras espirituales o carnales. En un mundo atenazado por el vértigo y las noches oscuras, necesitamos volver a refugiarnos en la “casa sosegada” de san Juan de la Cruz. Ha llegado el momento de convertir la serenidad en rebeldía” (as quoted in Ricardo Lladosa’s review of her new book)
This is, más o menos, how I’d translate this passage: “I like words that evoke distant echoes of the sea, the wind or the hustle of the world (...). In our nervous times, restlessness seems to have won the game. Colonized by screens and images that explode like flashes of lightning, we forget the benefits of quietude. The antithesis of being in a rush, quietude is the precondition of thinking and also the gateway to spiritual or carnal adventures. In a world, gripped by vertigo and dark nights, we need to take refuge once again in the "quiet house" of St. John of the Cross. The time has come to turn serenity into rebellion."
Have you already read one of her books? The English version of El infinito en un yunco is expected to be published in fall 2021.
Yellow butterflies and the dictator gentlemen
It doesn’t happen very often that a book by a German hispanist and promoter of Spanish American literature gets a Spanish translation. Michi Strausfeld’s history of Spanish America was recently published in Spain. The German original is from 2019. As much as it is a history of Spanish America and its literatures told through its stories and authors, it is also her personal memoir. Journalist and writer Juan Cruz Ruiz presents the book of her life-long promotion of Latin-American literature in Germany in this great interview with her. Her fascination with Spanish-American literature started right away with Gabriel García Márquez (she wrote her ph.d thesis about him and the new Latin American novel) and has never stopped. She chooses two emblematic ingredients of Latin American literature for her title: 1. Dictators who according to García Márquez are the only mythological character that Latin America has produced. 2. The yellow butterflies from Gabo’s One hundred years of solitude, which follow the novel’s character Mauricio Babilonia wherever he goes and have become kind of a trademark of the realismo mágico.
Strausfeld got to know all the famous authors, all the big names from Gabo to Vargas Llosa. Thanks to her Spanish American literature of the 20th century turned into a commercial boom in the German-speaking countries when she worked as a literary lector for the Suhrkamp publishing house. It was always her intention to add more women writers to the boys’ club, beginning with Isabel Allende, Elena Garro and Rosario Castellanos.
I have always admired her work. She was a role model for me as a student. Only few of us have been able to live from our love of language and culture. So, if you get a chance, read her book in either German or Spanish. If you find hints at an English translation, please, let me know:
Imperdonable - a rough and tender documentary from El Salvador
Michi Strausfeld is still a keen observer of Latin America’s literary scene. She notes in an interview that besides the fiction genres, the crónica offers a genuine way to tell good stories based on rigorous research. The Salvadoran newspaper El Faro has now used traits of a crónica to produce a short movie. Marlén Viñayo directed the documentary Imperdonable (2021, Unforgivable). It has already been recognized in multiple international film festivals and has won some of the most important awards in the documentary film industry.
I watched a preview of the film on Vimeo and liked it very much, but if a film requires some kind of trigger warnings, please, be advised, this is one that needs them. Some scenes are very rough and cruel. However, there are also moments of tenderness. It is exactly this big contrast between the daily lives of sicarios and their love relationships under the most difficult conditions, which makes the movie so awesome.
The documentary narrates the story of the young gang member Geovany, who serves his prison sentence in an Evangelical prison. He, his partner Steven, and some others are put into a separate sector of the prison because they are gay. The Evangelical management treats the gay inmates like animals. This is why Geovany finally applies for a transfer to another non-religious prison: “You can free somebody from the gang, but not from his sexual orientation.”
I can recommend the short film (35 minutes). So, watch out, if it finds an international distributor or El Faro decides to continue renting it through Vimeo. It is very well executed, especially the camera work in the narrow prison cells.
Tertulia’s music pick
To end the newsletter on a musical note, I’d like to share a very popular song that has been playing in my head since Mexican musician Armando Manzanero died on December 28th 2020. Manzanero died at the age of 85 from Covid-19. The New York Times called him “one of Mexico's greatest romantic composers” with international hits like “Contigo aprendí”, “Esta tarde vi llover” and “Adoro”. His songs have been covered many times. After having listened to some of his playlists on Spotify, the music platform smartly deviated me to a very special cover version of “Amor de mis amores”. This song is actually not one of Manzanero’s compositions, but belongs to the romantic genre and was composed by Agustín Lara and his sister María Teresa. I’m referring to Natalia Lafourcade’s duet version of “Amor de mis amores” with Ximena Sariñana. The song is part of Lafourcade’s album dedicated to Agustín Lara. Spotify’s recommender system does work pretty well for me.
Isn’t Lafourcade’s giggle after announcing the duet with Sariñana wonderful?
That’s all for this week. The next newsletter ist about to be published on February 25th 2021. If you like the type of news I curate, please, share freely and widely.