Friday, April 13, 2007

Boyd Tonkin writes about Spanish literature at the London Book Fair.

In literary terms, the British market may well rank as the terrain of hard-headed Sancho Panzas rather than high-minded Don Quixotes. All the same, it has hosted plenty of leading Spanish writers over recent years. Whatever one feels about the artistic merits (or otherwise) of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind, that labyrinthine Barcelona potboiler managed to sell a Richard-and-Judy-assisted seven-figure total in English - almost unprecedented for a translation.

Mid-market blockbusters and mysteries from novelists such as Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Almudena Grandes, Enrique de Hériz and José Carlos Somoza (the latter pair both Earl's Court visitors) appear at regular intervals. Elsewhere, we can enjoy such outstanding talents as Manuel Rivas, Juan Marsé, Juan Goytisolo, Javier Cercas (winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with Soldiers of Salamis) and the absurdly gifted Javier Marías, who is shortlisted for this year's Independent prize for the middle volume in his "Your Face Tomorrow" trilogy, Dance and Dream.

And this is not to mention that crucial cohort of Spanish-domiciled writers who have Latin American origins. The posthumous leader of this pack remains Roberto Bolaño, raised in Chile but based in Catalonia for many years until his death in 2003. His stock across the Hispanic world now stands Andes-high. This spring, a collection of stories from Harvill Secker (Last Evenings on Earth) and an epoch-making novel from Picador (The Savage Detectives) should make this ever-rising star shine a little more brightly over here.

So, in the perennially thin soil of British translation, Spanish fiction achieves a breadth - if not depth - of coverage with few counterparts in other European cultures. In general, this is a healthy trend. Broad-appeal romps, epics and sagas have a part to play in cultural exchange, just as towering literary landmarks do. However, publishers can take this welcome naturalisation of the foreign text just a shade too far.

Fans of bravado with brains will relish the latest volume to appear here in Arturo Pérez-Reverte's "Captain Alatriste" series of Dumas-style swashbuckling adventures. The Sun over Breda (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99) sends Alatriste and his daredevil comrades to Flanders in 1625. There they face down the Calvinist rebels - and their cocky English allies - and reveal the chaotic reality behind Velázquez's suspiciously serene painting, "The Surrender at Breda". It would, no doubt, be in poor taste to say that the rip-roaring finale reminded me of the aftermath of a make-or-break Champions League tie.

Pérez-Reverte in this mode is always more than just a doublet-and-dagger yarn-spinner. The Sun over Breda deftly touches on the fabrication of history out of memory, myth and propaganda as it delivers its pleasantly reeking cartload of genre shocks and spectacles. That makes it even more of a puzzle that I can find no mention of his trusty translator, Margaret Sayers Peden, in the British edition of this book. Does the publisher really think that Anglophone readers ready to enjoy the English team getting thrillingly minced by a last-minute Spanish comeback will take fright at the sight of a translator's name? Pardiez - shame on the lily-livered house of Weidenfeld!

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