Granta’s latest quest — to locate the Next Big Writer to happen to literature in Spanish — seems almost like a treasure hunt.
The rules are simple: apart from writing in Spanish, one has to be born on or after 1975, the year that marked the end of Franco’s brutal dictatorship in Spain. To that end, we get to sample the works of 22 young writers, some previously not published in English.
The excitement is palpable at two levels: this is the first time that Granta is putting out such a selection in a language other than English. Will it be able to replicate its 1983 wizardry of identifying and presenting Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan in one combo pack? Second, what new avenues of literary excellence will the present day bearers of the formidable literary tradition of Marquez and Llosa open up? What will be their points of conformity and points of departure?
Writers from Argentina and Spain dominate (eight and six respectively) the collection, the rest representing Peru, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Uruguay and Bolivia. Language is the uniting force, spoken over such a vast territorial expanse, bringing together an array of disparate political and cultural experiences. As editors Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles point out in the introduction, “the literary homeland, as this collection shows, is the language itself”.
The introduction, however, also deflates any expectation one might have of locating the political animal in the writer. They have not “suffered in their own skin the social and moral circumstances that haunted their predecessors”. When asked, they express their scepticism about a writer taking an active role in public life.
Alberto Olmos’s Eva (in ‘Eva and Diego’) wonders why she abuses her position as a senior newspaper editor to grab free samples of CDs and concert tickets sent to her office, when she can jolly well afford them. When a bomb blast rips apart a shopping centre, she is among the few who rushes there to buy an iPod. In ‘The Coming Flood’, Andres Barba tells the story of Monica, a porn star-turned-prostitute, who feverishly seeks out customers only to finance a last and much-fancied plastic surgery. In ‘Stars and Stripes’, Santiago Roncagliolo’s protagonist runs into his childhood buddy Carlitos munching on a cheeseburger in a diner, only to discover the latter as steadfast in obsessing about the ‘yanqui’ as ever. This is the abomination we live, this is the raw material the artist is left with.
In as much as they profess to depart from the tradition of magic realism, some of the writings still employ lingering elements of the absurd. The blogging, networking, downloading generation is not likely to display epic characteristics. Even their sexual adventures are sterile, a temptress ending up raped and dead on a highway, a voyeur watching a porn shoot.
Disturbing as the worldview is, skilful translation makes for a pleasant reading experience. In the end, one wonders at the ambition of a motley collection, and whether the Next Big Writer is still somewhere out there, untapped, undiscovered.