La Zona Fantasma: Run, Everyone, Run!

Last year, amid the somewhat premature flurry leading up to the insufferable celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote (the first part, at least), I wrote an article entitled “Run, Cervantes, Run!” which annoyed a number of people who were anxiously waiting to take advantage of the festivities, most especially one novelist with a particularly pathetic destiny: so determined to be more like Cervantes than any other writer, the poor man was blissfully unaware that everything that flows from his pen is about as fresh-smelling as a pair of old plaid bedroom slippers or the casino of a derelict city lost somewhere in the provinces. In any event, the year of Don Quixote has come and gone, and many people have ended up feeling more or less as I predicted: fed up with that splendid novel, to say nothing of its extraordinary characters, the region of La Mancha, and poor Miguel de Cervantes himself, who lived a difficult life and who is undoubtedly not resting in peace. In the end, though, there was at least some level of justification—a nice, even number—for organizing all those trivial events that only trivialized the book, bewildering and manhandling the author who, being dead, had nowhere to run. Dead people, as we all know, are so defenseless, the most defenseless among us.

When I think about it, though, the title for that article was all wrong, because in fact, we were the ones who needed to run, not Cervantes, and the most exasperating thing of all about it is that, given the current state of the art and history markets, it looks as if we’re going to have to run for the hills every year from now on. It all started with the centenaries, bicentennaries and other “aries” of historical events: kings and their reigns, unforgettable wars, significant battles. Then came the centenaries and other “aries” of writers and artists in general, at which point the whole thing was instantly doubled: one hundred years after the birth, and then one hundred years after the death of the person in question, even though I don’t know that anyone has figured out which is more important. As Francisco Rico recently pointed out, the Spanish writer Juan Benet protested that the newspapers dedicated many more pages to the death, and precious few to the birth, of a great writer. But anyway, after this came the celebrations in honor of the hundred-year anniversary of the publication of a given work, and since certain authors left behind several worthy works, the list runs from Madame Bovary to A Sentimental Education and down to Bouvard and Pécuchet—and this is the case of a writer who wrote relatively few books.

In a similar vein the historical commemorations have doubled, tripled, and quadrupled as people find even more trivial and ludicrous numbers to justify a celebration: all right, fifty years after something happened, that’s fine, reasonable, but now the most preposterous spectacles are organized to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of some singular historic event: the start of World War II, the end of World War II, the invasion of Normandy, the day the allies entered Paris, the fall of Berlin, the death of Hitler, or Goebbels, or Göring, or Montgomery, or Rommel, or Eisenhower, or St. John Chrysostum, to mention only a few of history’s notable names. In Spain, the year 2006 will go down in red ink for having endured the commemoration not of a fiftyor seventy-five-year celebration but of the seventy years that have gone by since the start of the Spanish Civil War, as if we hadn’t already gotten sick and tired of the topic seven years ago, when we celebrated the sixty-year anniversary of the end of the same war, or five years ago when we commemorated the seventy years since the advent of the Spanish Republic.

As far as artistic figures go, I have already read that in 2006, all sorts of abusive events are getting underway to make sure that we learn to despise a wide variety of semiforgotten geniuses, under the most bizarre pretexts: this year Mozart turns not two hundred nor three hundred but two hundred fifty years old, which means that we will be seeing and hearing Mozart at all hours of the day and night, as if he were the only composer worth listening to, so that we will be dead sick of his incomparable music by the end of the year.

Even more grotesque, however, are the justifications for the tributes to Picasso: if I understand correctly, this year marks the 125th anniversary of his birth, the seventieth anniversary of his appointment as the Director of the Prado Museum—I’d love to know what is so unusual and marvelous about that—and then finally the twenty-fifth anniversary of Guernica’s transfer back to Spain, scarcely nine years after we celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of its creation.And I’m sure that he is not the only one, that there are plenty of other artists, military figures, politicians, or kings who did something of note thirty, or forty-six, or sixty-two years ago. I don’t know about you, but in the last twenty years I have found myself in the uncomfortable position of coming to despise certain figures that have been my idols, like Lorca, Aleixandre, or Cernuda, out of pure saturation, to say nothing of the figures I normally don’t care for, like Dalí or Alberti, whom I can hardly stand to contemplate anymore. This year, in addition, I find myself forced to abhor one of my favorite painters, Rembrandt, because he was, unfortunately, born four hundred years ago. Sometimes I just don’t know what to think of the treatment and exploitation that history and art are subjected to these days. All these historical figures who, under normal circumstances, might make our lives a bit brighter, are now regarded either with the most abject ignorance or the most arbitrary and annual overexposure, to the point that they are finally rendered useless, exhausted, wrung out, and strung out for at least ten years. I doubt, for example, that anyone will venture to crack the cover of Don Quixote before 2015—a year that, I now realize, is the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the Second Part, which, in any year but 2015, is in fact even better than the first.

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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