It's UN Spanish language day this week!

Tertulia, vol. 7

Hola. This is Barbara. This Tertulia brings three cultural topics to you: an exciting conversation between writer Sergio Ramírez and musician Rubén Blades, a review of Leonardo Padura’s novel La transparencia del tiempo. Plus, we follow a word on its travels through time and space.

Music and books to feel less lonely

Claudia Morales is a Colombian journalist and bookshop owner in Armenia/Quindío. A couple of weeks ago, she interviewed two stellar figures of Latin America’s culture scene - Sergio Rámirez, a former vicepresident and writer from Nicaragua, also the winner of the Premio Cervantes in 2017, and Rubén Blades, former minister, musician and storyteller from Panama. She brought those two together and, needless to say, both had a very lively and enthusiastic conversation about the links between music and literature and common literary traditions in Latin America. They also talked about common issues of insecurity and violence in the region, and the situation of the arts in the current pandemic. Blades neatly summed up his motivation to work as an artist: “que la gente se sienta menos sola” (so that people feel less lonely).
I guess both are happy that they have left their political careers behind, but have probably more political influence with their outreach as artists than they had as ministers.

A fun fact that I learned thanks to this conversation: As stated in his New York Times obituary, Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012) wrote “in just about every genre”, but I hadn’t known that he even wrote the libretto for an opera about the Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna (composer: José María Vitier). I’ll have to look into this and will come back to you.

You can watch the entertaining conversation on YouTube - and don’t miss the accompanying live chat; it’s very funny.

As I learned on Twitter, Claudia Morales has been suffering severely from Covid-19. Let’s hope she will recover soon.

Leonardo Padura, La transparencia del tiempo

During the conversation I mention above, both writers were asked what they were currently reading. Blades mentions that he is reading Padura’s latest novel Como polvo en el viento (2020, Like dust in the wind). I haven’t had a chance to read that one yet, but Blades’s remark reminded me of another Padura novel on my staple of unread books: La transparencia del tiempo (2018, The transparency of time). Publishing house Unionsverlag in Zurich had sent me a copy of the German translation to write a review. Here, it goes;

It’s Padura’s ninth book that features Mario Conde as crime investigator in La Habana. Mario Conde is getting freed from his melancholic thoughts about him turning 60 soon when a former schoolmate asks him for help. This guy wants him to find a black madonna that was stolen from him. As always Conde involves his friends and former police colleagues to find the clues that will finally lead him to the madonna. This quest is not only limited to space, namely Havanna, but spans the exciting history of the madonna and her alleged miracles. In this respect, his research goes back in time and space to find out where the madonna originally came from and how she got to Cuba. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but it is this historic research that creates more suspense for me than the actual investigation of the theft. I especially like how the written excursions into history interrupt the chronological process of the narration in the form of vignettes and, thus, help us understand the value (in both its material and immaterial meaning) of the statue.

The actions following the theft take place in 2014 and depict a Cuban society of huge inequality. Padura’s merit once again lies in his accurate and blunt representation of Havanna as disenchanted city, no more different from many other Latin American cities. Havanna suffers from a segregation between the affluent and those that are forced to leave their homes in the Eastern part of the island. BTW, these internal refugees or displaced persons from Santiago and surroundings are called “palestinos”. The rich people often owe their wealth to their semi- or illegal businesses (in our case dealing with art) and to the convertible peso as transaction currency while others barely have water or electricity and don’t know when they’ll have their next meal. Over-consumption and scarcity live close together on an island where investigator Mario Conde despite his aches and vices has aged better than the island’s 62-year-old socialist revolution. The book is witty and entertaining at the same time - so worth the read. I particularly appreciate that the narrator never lapses into cynicism despite the adverse circumstances described in the novel.

¡Qué chévere!

When I learned Spanish in Salamanca and Madrid I never came across the expression chévere” to say “great". If I remember correctly, Spaniards would prefer to say “guay”. I only learned the expression “chévere” when I travelled through Venezuela back in 1993. Whatever I said there, the response was “chévere” (except for that one stubborn receptionist in Maracaibo, but that would be a story of its own). The story of the word is very interesting and is a nice example of how words may travel back and forth in the Hispanic world: The story goes that the word derives from the Lord of Chièvres, a diplomat from Gaunt who came to Spain with his boss, king and emperor Carlos V. Chièvres dressed in many pretty colours while black was the preferred dress colour at the Spanish court at the time. “Chièvres” was tranformed into Spanish as “chévere” and passed to America, where it took on the meaning of something stupendous, elegant. Apparently, it got out of use in Spain but has seen a comeback rather recently because Venezuelan soap operas on Spanish TV popularized it. You can read this story and many more about travelling words and their meanings in the book Lo uno y lo diverso. La riqueza del idioma español, edited by Instituto Cervantes and Espasa. ¡Qué chévere!, isn’t it?

The three culture bits of today’s tertulia acknowledge both the unity and diversity of the Spanish language. This reminds me, we are celebrating the UN Spanish language day on April 23rd, el día del idioma español. The UN created this day to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity within the UN (Spanish is one of the six working languages of the organization). The date was chosen with care: It is Miguel de Cervantes’s death anniversary. He died on April 23rd, 1616.

Plus, it’s Sant Jordi. 🥰

This has been all for today. Let me know what you think and what you would like to know more about.

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