Moisés Naím discovers Sant Jordi (2016)

In 2016, a lot of foreign visitors discovered the Sant Jordi books-and-roses activities during a weekend stay in Barcelona, among them the Venezuelan foreign affairs commentator Moisés Naím. His impressions are reproduced here as an exercise in translation, as International Book Day (April 23) is around the corner again.

A miracle in Barcelona

Despite the upswing in new technologies, the Saint George’s feast still remains massive. This year there were sold 1.6 million books.

“A rare, extraordinary, and wonderful event or thing.” This is how the word “miracle” is defined by the Royal Spanish Academy [“milagro”].

Last week I was present at an event that was all together rare, extraordinary and wonderful. For the first time, I attended the feast of Sant Jordi in Barcelona.

As it happens, every year on April 23, the Ramblas boulevard of the Catalan capital fills up with roses, books and people.

The celebration of Saint George’s, the region’s patron saint, is naturally very old. Linked to the legend of the saint, in the 15th century there was popularized the custom as to which on this day the men give their loved one a red rose. From the 1930s onward, the festivity coincided with the celebration of Book Day. And so there was begun the practice that in exchange for the rose, the women gave a book to their man.
To affirm that these customs are well rooted doesn’t do justice to describe what happens on this day in Barcelona. In the Catalan capital, on Saturday, April 23, there were sold 1.6 M books and nearly 6 M roses. Nearly 1,000 booksellers put up their stalls on the Ramblas, where it is estimated that more than 1 M people passed by. Hundreds of authors, of which many had come from other countries, sat down to sign books for their readers. On that Saturday alone, bookstores took in nearly 21 M EUR, which is equivalent to 10% of their annual sales.
The masses of people, of young and old couples, complete families, mothers with their babies, and people of all varieties and ages interested in books, in talking to their favorite authors –or to new authors of which they had never heard before– or simply interested in walking through the streets full of roses and books created a wonderful atmosphere. In other parts of the world, open air events that attract millions of people tend to be accompanied by both a high alcohol consumption and a certain insecurity. Not so with Sant Jordi. I didn’t see anybody who had taken a glass too much or who acted in a menacing or aggressive manner. Even though, as the rest of Europe, Spain is on heightened alert in front of the threat of new terrorist attacks, this danger seemed to be very far away from the minds of those who took to the streets. On this day, street crime, violence and terrorism didn’t exist. This was a feast of coexistence and culture which is hard to find in other places.
So much so that Markus Dohle, one of the foreign participants, commented to me that his dream would be having an event like Sant Jordi in Manhattan, where he lives. “Imagine Broadway full of stalls selling books,” he told me. That is not a disinterested desire. Dohle is the CEO of Penguin Random House, one of the biggest publishing empires in the world, and their headquarters is on Broadway. Dohle wasn’t the only foreign visitor who felt envy while experiencing Sant Jordi. A lot of us who came from other countries thought about the possibility of promoting something equally ambitious in our cities. There are a lot of book fairs and festivals. Some of them are even bigger. But nowhere one breathes the atmosphere of joy and civilization produced by Sant Jordi. For this reason it is surprising how relatively little known this event is outside of Spain. The opportunity to convert it into an international destination has to be used.
Another of the reasons why I felt that in Barcelona one experienced a miracle is that, in theory, the passion for books, and specifically for paper books, should not exist any longer –or at least not with the force that I perceived on Sant Jordi. Today we are told that books printed on paper are on their way to extinction. That as to cost and convenience they cannot compete with e-books, and that in the future they will only be decorative objetcs or museum pieces. The experts also tell us that social networks and other revolutions in information technology will bring with them that our attention will become more and more fragmented and that we will be constantly distracted, all of which doesn’t lead to reading. In this age there dominate the 140 characters of a tweet on Twitter, not the 500 pages of a good book. Who has got nowadays time to read books?
But it seems that none of this has reached the passionate readers who assembled on Sant Jordi. They continue to read. And on paper. And thus, every year, they create a “rare, extraordinary, and wonderful thing.”
This week don’t follow me on Twitter. Read a book.


Due to the fears of terrorist attacks, the Barcelona city government will try to somewhat deconcentrate the 2017 festivities. Let’s hope that despite this they will be as joyful as described by Naím.

You can read more on the Sant Jordi [Saint George’s] festivities in this older post, that links to other still older ones…

SOURCE: El País, April 30, 2016

Snippet: “The lost children” (not Iberian)

Niños Perdidos Los Portada ALTA

Valeria Luiselli, Los niños perdidos. Un ensayo en cuarenta preguntas [The lost children: an essay in fourty questions], 2016, 112 p.


“Why did you come to the United States? That’s the first question on the intake questionnaire for unaccompanied child migrants.” Through her work as an interpreter in defense of child migrants in the federal immigration court in New York City, Valeria Luiselli could get to know first hand the tangled legal process on which depends literally the future of thousands of children from Central America who risk their lives to cross the borders of Mexico and the United States to escape the daily inferno in their respective countries of origin.

Los niños perdidos is a brutal, intimate testimony, written in a frank, brilliant and lucid prose that observes the child migrants’ reality from a distance situated between the desire to remedy the existential helplessness in which they find themselves and the impotence caused by the incapacity to do so. And there is the question put honestly by Luiselli herself: “How does one explain it that it is never inspiration that drives people to tell a story, but rather a combination of rage and clarity?”.

Using as the conductive thread the fourty questions of the questionnaire that serves as the base for the legal process that will determine their situation, Luiselli has entered the migrant children’s reality in order to show us both their past, present and future lives and the labyrinthine and ruthless immigration system of the United States.

There is a very informative recent article by Luiselli on Literary hub (in English); and an author interview on the New York Times (in Spanish).

Other books by Luiselli are:

Papeles falsos (2010; Fake papers)

Los ingrávidos (2011; English: Faces in the Crowd)

La historia de mis dientes (2014; English: The Story of My Teeth)

The Wikipedia has got this article on Valeria Luiselli.

Though this book hasn’t been written by a Spanish author and doesn’t talk about Spain or Portugal, this blogger considers it important enough to mention it here.

SOURCE: Sexto Piso [publisher]; Weekly literary chronicle by Llucia Ramis, La Vanguardia, March 25, 2017, p. 42 [printed edition]


Snippet: Martínez de Pisón’s “Natural law”

Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, Derecho natural [Natural law], 2017, 448 p.

Publisher’s summary:

At the time when he passes from childhood to adult age in a Spain that is in the middle of the opening process after the “Transition” to democracy, in the interior of Ángel, the protagonist of Derecho natural, throbs the imperious necessity to give meaning to things, to find an order, given that his family has been a model of instability and disorder. The father, an erratic actor of B-movies and Demis Roussos imitator, has got an irrepressible tendency to flight. His stellar appearances and disappearances leave unvisible but indelible marks in every one of his four children. The mother, for her part, is a woman in love who, fed up with believing in him, will have to make superhuman efforts to take life in her own hands in a Spain that hasn’t yet totally woken up from the Franco system. Through Ángel’s conciliatory voice, who will study Law and look for reconciliation with the father, the readers lean into 1970s Barcelona and 1980s Madrid.

Derecho natural gathers in its title those years in which there began the building of a full legislative development, in open contradiction to the long time during which law and justice didn’t coincide.

“How does one sum up a life?”, the narrator asks himself in a given moment. Depending on where one puts the final point, the summary adopts the form of a drama or of a comedy. In the reconstruction that he does, comedy and drama live toghether in an inextricable intimacy that again and again carries us from emotion to laughter.

Ignacio Martínez de Pisón was born in Zaragoza in 1960, where he studied Spanish Philology. Since 1982, he lives in Barcelona, where he studied Italian Philology. He is the author of a dozen books, among them stand out the short story collection El fin de los buenos tiempos [The end of the good times; 1994], the novels Carreteras secundarias [Secondary roads, 1996], María bonita [Beautiful Mary; 2001] and El tiempo de las mujeres [The women’s time; 2003], and the essay Enterrar a los muertos [Burying the dead; 2005] that received the Rodolfo Walsh and Dulce Chacón awards and was unanimously praised by the critics in various European countries.

Antón Castro, in his biographical sketch on Martínez de Pisón, adds other works by the author, not mentioned by his publisher:

Dientes de leche [Milk teeth; 2008; novel]

Aeropuerto de Funchal [Funchal airport; 2009; a short story anthology]

El día de mañana [The day of tomorrow; 2011; novel]

Spanish state TV’s Página 2 book show offers this extended interview with the author on Derecho Natural (in Spanish with Spanish subtitles).

In 2012, Martínez de Pisón won the National Fiction prize for La buena reputación (cf. post).

SOURCE: Seix Barral (Planeta, publisher); Antón Castro, ‘El narrador invisible…’, “Cultura/s”, La Vanguardia, March 18, 2017, p. 4-6 [printed edition]

Snippet: Spanish booktubers

In a country where reading is not among the favourite pasttimes of the local population, every initiative that could incite people to grab a book and start, is to be welcomed. A special group of influencers are booktubers (described by Antònia Justícia as follows):

They are between 15 and 25 years old, lovers of both, reading and social media. They use youtube, the world’s #1 online video platform, to diffuse their passion for books. They do it before the camera, in a refreshing but critical manner, and a lot of them already sum thousands of followers.

They have got enough with a webcam, a computer and ease, a lot of ease. … they share with their followers habits, manias, games and other philias related to books. … “Video reviews provide a lot of dynamism. I am very expressive, and in this format I can express myself as I am, a thing that you cannot transmit with a blog, where there are only the words.” (May R. Ayamonte (Huelva, 1997; youtube channel) … All booktubers tend to overact. … More elaborate in his presentations is Sebas G. Mouret (Oviedo, 1996; El coleccionista de mundos). … The interaction -converse with the followers-, maintain a regularity and be original, are three of the keys to success of these online critics… there are some who begin to recognize the booktubers’ merit in the renaissance of the pleasure of reading in a generation famous for reading very little. … Two of the famost followed booktubers, Esma Verdú and May R. Ayamonte, have published a juvenile novel on a booktuber called Besos entre líneas [Kisses between the lines; English summary] that enabled them to see for themselves how hard it can be to be the object of online critique…

Spanish state TV had this piece of news on booktubers [video, 01:13 min, in Spanish].

You can find Spain’s most popular ones and their youtube channels conveniently summarized in this blogpost. Among the Catalan ones are Marta Botet (Barcelona, 2000; a TED talker; Recomanacions de llibres) and Bernat (Perduts entre llibres).

As to their real appeal, in a recent El País article on youtubers in general, Carles Geli referred the numbers of a specialized website, according to which “with their supposed beatific naturality [youtubers] hook a 66% of those aged between 18 and 55, with a medium weekly consumption of 3.5 hours…” According to this article, to be successful one needs to upload one or two videos every week. And “one needs to create a brand and diversify with books, records… One can make more money outside of youtube than inside. … From 10,000 followers upwards one begins to feel something.”

Fortunately, money-making doesn’t seem to be the first priority of booktubers. Keep on vlogging!

SOURCE: Antònia Justícia, “Cultura/s”, La Vanguardia, July 9, 2016, p. 4-5 [printed edition]

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

A Little Blog of Books

Fever Dream Samanta SchweblinTranslated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, ‘Fever Dream’ by Samanta Schweblin tells the story of Amanda, a woman who is critically ill in a rural Argentinian hospital, where David is trying to get her to remember the events which led her there. She recalls encounters with her daughter Nina and David’s mother Carla who once told her how David’s soul was split in two in order to save him after he was poisoned. However, David is not quite the same afterwards, and neither are Amanda and Nina.

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Snippet: Flavia Álvarez, illustrator

flavita banana spain reading

(c) Flavia Álvarez, published on Instagram, Jan. 23, 2017



In life you have to do three things:

plant a tree,

have a child

and write read a book.


Flavia Álvarez (Oviedo, 1987) studied Art and Design. She publishes under the name of Flavita Banana, mainly on Instagram, facebook, and in El País‘ female fashion supplement “S Moda“. In February 2017 she published Las cosas del querer [The issues of loving]. This blogger got to hear her name on Spanish TV’s Página 2 book show (the link to the short film in Spanish is on her Instagram page).

megustaleer - Las cosas del querer - Flavita Banana

SOURCE: Lumen (Penguin Random House)