An October 18, the Spanish royal couple will open their nation’s appearance as guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair under the motto “Creatividad Desbordante” (“Sparkling Creativity”). But what about German-Spanish literary relations overall? Why is there so much mutual ignorance? Patricio Pron, born in 1975, was born in Argentina and has a critical knowledge of both cultures. The writer has been living in Madrid since 2008, before that he spent five years in Germany and did his doctorate in Göttingen. Pron is also a translator and literary critic for El País.
WELT: “Don Quijote” by Cervantes is perhaps the most famous novel in the world. Is it also your favorite work of Spanish literature?
Patrick Pron: Thank God no! If a book written as early as 1605-1615 were my favorite work of Spanish literature, I would have great difficulty in justifying the validity, diversity and relevance of that literature today. My favorite book from Spain? That changes from day to day, perhaps a testament to how diverse and attractive Spanish literature is. Currently I like Carmen Laforet’s “Nada”, a moving portrait of the situation of young women in Spain after the civil war. A debut work, written like a masterpiece.
WELT: There is a Spanish literary tradition that dates back to the 16th century: Pícaro, the picaresque novel, found many imitators and also influenced Günter Grass’ “Tin Drum”.
Pron: It’s correct. Contemporary Spanish authors such as Eduardo Mendoza, Santiago Lorenzo, Alba Carballal, Rafael Reig, Joaquín Reyes, Antonio Orejudo and many others continue this tradition but which is already universal. She’s probably especially appealing in times like these, when economic and political precariousness turns us all into ridiculous Pícaros, striving hard and everywhere for happiness.
WELT: 500 million people worldwide speak Spanish, of which around 350 million are native speakers. After English, Spanish is the second most popular foreign language in German schools. Nevertheless, books from Spanish are only seventh among the languages translated into German – behind English, Japanese, French, Italian, Swedish and Dutch. Why is that? Why do Spanish authors penetrate so poorly into the German-speaking world?
Pron: I don’t have the impression that there is a lack of good translators of Spanish-language literature in Germany. But on the contrary. Germany is characterized by the quality and commitment of its translators, academics and publishers, especially when it comes to the dissemination of Spanish-language literature.
If Spanish literature is not as present in the German book trade as it would be, is that perhaps because too much good German literature is attracting attention? Incidentally, the number of German-speaking authors who are translated into Spanish is even lower than the number of German translations from Spanish. A series of prejudices and misunderstandings have led to the fact that German and Spanish literature, with a few honorable exceptions, live with their backs to each other.
WELT: When you say prejudice, do you mean clichés that Germans have towards Spanish-language literature?
Pron: Residents of Spanish speaking countries are more passionate than residents of other language areas, they live in brightly colored houses, are poor but soulful, romantic and extremely happy, of course very good dancers. These clichés don’t come out of nowhere, they come from films and books that are unfortunately very successful, including in Germany.
WELT: As a literary critic for “El País”, you also write about German books and keep a close eye on both literary markets. What stereotypes about German literature are circulating in Spain?
Pron: Spanish-speaking readers expect from German literature that the works are always extensive, of course also formally complex, and that they only deal with German guilt and the past. The fact is, here again, that numerous films and some books from Germany confirm this opinion. Unfortunately, many Spaniards lack the tools, the time or the interest to leave such clichés behind.
WELT: Which contemporary German authors are popular in Spanish-speaking countries? Is there Juli Zeh in Spanish, Daniel Kehlmann, Christian Kracht?
Pron: The popularity of German writers in Spain is limited. Easy to find in bookstores are works by Nele Neuhaus, Charlotte Link, Patrick Süskind and Juli Zeh, the classics of the Romantic era and those of the 20th century, i.e. Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Günter Grass, Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Hannah Arendt , Anna Seghers, Bertolt Brecht.
To a lesser extent, one also finds Herta Müller, Elfriede Jelinek, Uwe Timm, Julia Franck or Daniel Kehlmann, although all of these authors tend to come from the happy few to be read. Winners of the Georg Büchner and German Book Prizes are usually translated into Spanish and published with varying degrees of success. And as for Christian Kracht: The translation of his novel “Imperium” was published in 2013, and since then no other work has been translated into Spanish.
WELT: If you ask which Spanish writer German readers know, you often hear Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Modern classics, on the other hand, are largely unknown, such as Benito Pérez Galdós, whom some consider to be the Spanish Balzac. Why is that?
Pron: Well, probably the years of the Franco dictatorship, when Spanish literature was heavily censored and isolated from the rest of the world, gave the impression that Spanish literature had nothing to offer that could compete with big names and trends in European literature. Since 1976, the dictatorship has been history, and fortunately Spain has become a “completely normal country in Europe”, confronted with the typical problems of many southern countries. There is a lack of jobs and there are difficulties in designing an effective migration policy. Right-wing extremism is gaining weight fake news and denial of facts are pervasive. In addition, themes prevail that correspond to the territorial politics of this historically and demographically very diverse country.
WELT: Borges, Cortázar or Neruda are names that everyone knows. Do you have an explanation why Latin American authors seem better known in Germany than Spanish ones?
Pron: One possible answer to your question is that the writers you mention are of undeniable quality and among the finest writers of the 20th century, anywhere in the world. Another reason for their presence in Germany may be that German society has followed the political events in Latin America for decades with great interest and at times with solidarity.
The Cuban Revolution, the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico, the coup against the democratic government of Salvador Allende in Chile, the disappearance and murder of 30,000 people in Argentina in the 1970s, Sandinistaism in Nicaragua, and the advances and setbacks of Latin American societies in terms of democracy and human rights as well as the economic crises in the region, the Germans were enormously interested. And the literature of the region has accompanied and perhaps stimulated this interest.
WELT: Spain has been the most popular holiday destination for Germans for decades. Why doesn’t this affect interest in literature?
Pron: Choosing a holiday destination is not always motivated by an interest in the culture of the destination. I purposely avoid holiday destinations like Mallorca, but friends from the island have told me that German tourists tend to show little interest in books there.
WELT: Is Spanish literature better received in England, France or Italy than in Germany?
Pron: In my experience, Italy is particularly interested in literature from Spain and Latin America. Interest in the United States is also growing by the day. France is France. And the UK is in too much trouble right now to pay much attention to literature from outside its territory.
WELT: Which young Spanish authors who are now being published in Germany would you recommend reading?
Pron: For me, literature represents a place without hierarchies, comparable to a forest: it can be walked in all directions, and every path of discovery is the right one. The idea of offering a recommendation list strikes me as less interesting than allowing readers to get lost between books. And I have the impression that the offer from authors who come to Frankfurt as part of the fair is perfectly suited to setting off into the forest of Spanish literature. I like to leave hierarchies and lists to the responsible authorities.
WELT: Are there certain trends that you observe in recent Spanish and German literature?
Pron: Yes. Dissatisfaction with the unfulfilled promises of Western societies, the economic and emotional instability of our day, a certain nostalgia for a past that seems to have been more understandable and orderly than the present, the migratory experiences of parents compared to those of today’s generations, the Identity and its heteronomy, motherhood(ies) and fatherhood(ies) and the thinning of the future horizon – all these are themes that are present in both literatures, albeit in different ways. Luckily we all still have a lot to read, Germans and Spaniards alike.
Patricio Pron, born in Rosario (Argentina) in 1975, received his doctorate in Göttingen. The writer, translator and literary critic has lived in Madrid since 2008. So far, three of his novels have been translated into German and are available from Rowohlt: Most recently, “Tomorrow we have other names” (2021) was published. Of particular interest in literary history is “Do not shed your tears for anyone who lives on these streets” (2019). The novel tells of a fictional congress of fascist writers in Mussolini’s Italy.