Colombia at the Madrid Book Fair

Tertulia, vol. 17

Hola. This is Barbara, your curator of cultural news from the Spanish-speaking world. This week, I’d like to share some impressions about this year’s guest country at the famous Madrid Book Fair, Colombia.

The Feria del Libro de Madrid or Madrid Book Fair at the Retiro Park is one of the most important book fairs in the Spanish-speaking world. It started in 1933 and is being held this year for the 80th time. The Fair usually takes place in May, but got postponed to September 10 to 26 due to COVID-19. Book lovers were eager to get in during the first weekend of the Fair.

Poet, essayist and critic Marcos-Ricardo Barnatán, who is mostly recognised as a specialist in the work of Jorge Luis Borges, put the atmosphere in a nutshell. I like his nonchalant, optimistic interpretation of the crowd: «They tell me that the queues for access to the Madrid Book Fair are unbearable. There is still hope.»

Invited country Colombia

As mentioned before, Colombia received the invitation as guest of honour of this year’s book fair. It is one of its aims of the fair to become more international. And which strategy would be more natural than reaching out to strengthen the cultural ties with Latin American countries?

For that reason, most Spanish newspapers gave an overview of Colombian literature with García Márquez’s fictional Macondo from One hundred years of solitude still being the literary benchmark for today’s literary trends. Even though, for example, Babelia’s overview tries to convey the message that Colombia’s current literature is more than Macondo, the reference to García Márquez remains ubiquitous because it is simply denominated as «pos-Gabo». I am also very grateful that this article makes a special mention to the almost forgotten department of Chocó with its abundance of African heritage. Here you can read the whole article with quotes from famous writers, librarians, editors and cultural journalists from Colombia.

Fernando Vallejo

The same edition of Babelia has an extensive article about Colombian writer Fernando Vallejo. After the death of his partner, Vallejo returned to his native Medellín after having spent many decades of his life in Mexico City grumbling about Colombia. He is one of the most prominent and renowned figures of Colombia’s literature of the 20th century, but I have always found it very difficult to read his books. I liked La virgen de los sicarios (Our Lady of the Assassins) for its sociological relevance and fresh tone, but have never finished another one of his books. And I have tried several. First, I liked his unhinged aggressiveness and intellectual superiority, but I got tired of it. Even though the style of his writing is impeccable and his humour original, I got bored by Vallejo’s repetitive tirades about Colombian society (all true, but tedious if you read the same thoughts again and again).

People from Medellín who know him well and grew up in his neighbourhood tell me what a lovely person he is, but in his writings his anger prevails. Unlike the writer of the Babelia article, I don’t find kindness in his books. What do you think about Vallejo as a writer? Which work would you recommend so I can give it another try?

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Anyway, Vallejo is back with a new novel, Escombros.

Political polemic about “neutral literature”

Fernando Vallejo did not go to the Book Fair in Madrid. He is not the only writer who did not present and promote his books. Héctor Abad Faciolince, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Laura Restrepo, Tomás González, Piedad Bonnett, Santiago Gamboa, Pilar Quintana, Melba Escobar and Pablo Montoya are also among those that did not to go. The reason is a statement by Colombian ambassador Luis Guillermo Plata during the presentation of the Book Fair program. He said:

One would not want a literary fair to become a political fair. Neither for one side or the other. We have tried to bring very neutral ideas, where the literary side of the work prevails.

The ambassador’s statement implied that only authors close to the conservative government had been chosen, but the Duque administration rejected the allegations.

Plata tried to correct his statement, because Colombian authors were enraged about being labelled as neutral or one-sided. The ambassador confirmed that he had meant to say «fair» and not «neutral» to describe the selection of authors the Colombian government had wanted to send to the Book Fair. However, the damage had already been done, very much to the indignation of the public interested in Colombian literature. To give one example, below is Melba Escobar’s comment about the situation. She had been invited by the government to represent Colombia at the book fair, but rejected the invitation after she heard about the statement.

It wonders little that Iván Duque was not welcomed to the Book Fair with open arms by his government-critical compatriots who live in Madrid. The demonstrations of the Colombian community were originally meant to protest Duque’s visit to Spain because of the harsh state-violence exercised during the social protests of the last months, but also turned quickly against the choice of authors by the Colombian government. As Daniel Mendoza, organiser of the demonstration, put it: «The invited literature is part of the gear of the state’s death machine.»

Well, that statement sounds rather demagogic, but it is dangerous for a government to interfere so awkwardly in the promotion of its diverse culture. After all, the ambassador’s Freudian slip of the tongue does indicate the desire to interfere in the choice of authors and reveals the authoritarian tendency of the Duque administration. To me, it is completely okay that the Colombian government financially promotes its own literature. That’s okay, that’s what governments do. Swiss authors travel around with government scholarships as well. Without their financial help, authors could not travel freely to promote their writings even though they have contracts with well-established and well-earning capitalist, international publishing houses.

The book fair in Madrid was a big opportunity for a country like Colombia to demonstrate its diversity, also in terms of political opinions. Unfortunately, the Duque government - as in many other cases - has again clumsily dealt with this opportunity. Apparently, Duque does not have the stature of a statesman. The people he chose to represent his government abroad look pretty much the same. Weak leaders choose people who are just like them. Luckily, good writing will outlast the current administration. The rest is noise.

One last thing: 10 tips for writing about the Feria del Libro de Madrid in Spanish

The non-profit FundéuRAE (Fundación del Español Urgente, Foundation of Emerging Spanish) has issued some recommendations in their daily newsletter of September 9th, which contains some useful advice if you write about books and the publishing market in Spanish. It ranges from the orthography of the Feria del Libro (always capitalised) to avoiding unnecessary anglicisms like paperback (tapa blanda), copyright (derechos de autor, derechos de edición) or royalty (regalía).

I always find their newsletter very useful and suggest subscribing.

This is all for this week. I’ll be back in about two weeks, probably with a retrospective of other important events at the Book Fair in Madrid.