La Zona Fantasma: Literary Life and Death

I have been writing this column [for El Pais] for thirty-three months now, and on occasion I find myself obliged to ask my readers (the ones with the sharp memories, at least) to forgive me for revisiting certain topics that I have discussed before. But reality can be insistent, things have a way of staying the same, and sometimes, when history repeats itself over and over again, I feel I have no choice but to acknowledge the persistence of things.

About two years ago, I wrote about a literary prize, the Ciudad de Torrevieja award, which was news to me at the time but which the newspapers and television stations in Spain were buzzing about at length for one reason and one reason alone: because it was, at €360,000, the second-most-generous literary award in Spain, surpassed only by the Planeta Prize. According to the mayor of Torrevieja, the city that sponsored the award and in whose name it was offered, the prize was established “in an effort to improve the image of the city, which has always been associated with the tourist trade of the middle class” (and more recently, it seems, of mafias). I titled that particular article “Literature as Soap and Whitewash.”

This year in Spain, the announcements of both the Ciudad de Torrevieja and the Planeta prizewinners were mired in controversy. In the first case, the head of the jury that awarded the prize, Caballero Bonald, made no bones about the vote he cast against the winning novel, which he called “ideologically detestable.” From my very literary perspective, such a reason is not necessarily enough to compromise the quality of a piece of literature.The Spanish newspaper El Mundo, however, ideologically somewhat aligned with the award winner in question, who appears on the church-owned radio station, stated that “according to the official register of published books, [the author in question] has published the highly unusual number of twenty-seven books (some of considerable length) between 2004 and 2005.”Twenty seven. More than one a month, as you can see. Now, I have been writing and publishing books since the age of nineteen, and I know the kind of effort that is required to write even one book that I would consider acceptable (I being my most favorable critic, that is). I also know, from experience, the time it takes to type out pages, even if only in the interest of rendering a legible, clean version of what one has written. With this in mind, then, I can think of only three explanations for the case in question: that the desk drawers of the most recent winner of the Torrevieja prize were literally overflowing with old books written during the course of a very long life, and the editors of Spain uniformly decided to publish his work after decades of rejecting it; that we have on our hands a truly extraordinary case of lightning-fast fingers which should be placed under immediate scientific study, and the books of said fingers should be donated to the Museum of Science; or else, the prizewinner is not the sole author of all those books, the sheer volume of which is enough to kill someone. Whatever the case may be, all I know is that I would never waste my time reading a novel that was written simultaneously with twenty-six others, no matter how much money it won in from the jury of some literary prize. As far as that other prize, the Planeta prize, which is the most generous of all (600,000, I believe), one member of the jury, Juan Marsé—without a doubt one of our greatest novelists and a man who is known for speaking his mind without worrying about being “diplomatic”—expressed his disappointment at the poor quality of the candidates and complained that they had had to award the prize to the “least awful” book of the lot.We should be grateful to Marsé for saying this, in the middle of such a trivial spectacle.What I can’t understand, however, is why he and other respectable writers willingly participate in such foolish endeavors, because [in Spain] it is the rare literary award, or contest, that is not a small or giant farce—and I’m talking only about the literary awards that writers are actually invited to apply for.This is nothing new; it has been going on for some time.The 1993 winner of the Planeta prize, for example, competed under a pseudonym with a novel that took place in the Andes, the main character of which was named Lituma, which happens to be the name of a character that appeared, years before, in a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, entitled Who Killed Palomino Molero?The jury, however, did not seem to catch the coincidence, and when they opened the little envelope that revealed the author’s true identity, surprise surprise, it was none other than Mario Vargas Llosa for Death in the Andes. Who would have guessed it? This is more or less tantamount to suddenly discovering Arthur Conan Doyle hiding behind an anonymous novel about a couple of guys named Holmes and Watson. Now,Vargas Llosa fancies himself a truthful man, and he probably is. So are Juan Benet and Fernando Savater, both of whom are friends of mine, and who were named finalists of that same award. But I don’t know: there is something about this whole enterprise that smacks of decadence, especially when you think of the five hundred or so authors who enter this contest every year, in good faith and innocence, for the most part.

If, in addition to all this, we consider those prizes for which authors do not compete directly (in general, prizes whose candidates are any and all works published in the year at hand), we will notice the recent and quite persistent trend of bestowing these awards upon writers who have recently and conveniently died. Now, I’m sure that all these winners more than deserved these posthumous honors, but I find it hard to believe that this excessive reiteration is the result of mere coincidence, and I can only imagine what goes on in the minds of the judges: “Oh, well, if we have to give this award to someone, we might as well give it to someone who can’t ever enjoy it.” Marsé had a public confrontation with the Planeta prizewinner and told her to be careful not to confuse literature with the literary life. Quite an apt observation, I think, as the former has become increasingly overshadowed by the latter. But I think Marsé left.

Translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero


Megan Milks is the author of Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body (Feminist Press, 2021), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender fiction, as well as Slug and Other Stories and Remember the Internet: Tori Amos Bootleg Webring.

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