Back in 2010, Granta released a special edition of their quarterly magazine, one with a focus on the best emerging Spanish-language writers. It was a rather influential release, introducing the Anglosphere to writers like Andrés Neuman, Andrés Barba, Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin and Elvira Navarro, with many going on to become established names in fiction in translation. Given the success of the first edition, there was always going to be a sequel, and a decade on it’s time to take a look at the next generation of Spanish-language authors. Whether you’ve heard of any of these names or not, I suspect that several of these writers will be providing you with reading material in the coming years 😉
The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists 2 does exactly what it says on the cover. Editor Valerie Miles and her team endeavoured to narrow down a list of over 200 writers, all born in or after 1985 (an interesting note: the writer I covered in my previous post, Daniel Saldaña París, was specifically mentioned in the introduction as someone who missed out by a matter of months!). As Miles says, they certainly had a lot to choose from:
Any preconceptions we may have had regarding the slim pickings of a digital generation with addled brains and non-existent attention spans turned out to be dead wrong: twenty was not enough. We found our ideal number at twenty-five, each member of the jury sacrificing favorite writers to the pyre of consensus.
p.10 (Granta, 2021)
In the end, then, the collection contains contributions from twenty-five writers, eleven women and fourteen men, with six from Spain and four from Mexico, and thirteen countries and territories represented in all.
Of course, a creation like this isn’t just down to the writers. There’s also a need for translators, and the book’s contributors are almost like a Who’s Who of English-Spanish literary translation. Big names here include Jennifer Croft, Daniel Hahn, Margaret Jull Costa and Frank Wynne, but a special mention must go to Megan McDowell. You see, where no other translator features more than once, she’s responsible for no less than three pieces…
Two of these are from the only writers whose work I’d previously tried. Paulina Flores’ ‘Buda Flaite’ is a short, engaging piece about a young woman on the streets, one that may become the first part of a novel, while Carlos Fonseca’s ‘Ruins in Reverse’, one of my favourite stories here, is a Sebaldian piece set in the aftermath of the storms that battered Puerto Rico. As the writer sets about picking up the pieces, he distracts himself by searching for information about an architect who once lived on the island. It’s a fascinating piece, complete with sketches by the architect; I could have looked to see if he was real or not, but in the end I felt it was better not to know 😉
Several stories are far easier to identify as fictional, with a few taking an interesting look at the future. Andrea Chapela’s ‘Borromean Rings’ (tr. Kelsi Vanada) is a dystopian piece set in a world of climate change and disease. In a frame narrative, a woman living in an isolated community looks back to a memorable summer before the collapse of civilisation, wondering whether those she spent it with are still alive.
Meanwhile, Mateo García Elizondo takes a very different look at the future in his story ‘Capsule’ (tr. Robin Myers), a wonderful piece on a convicted murderer and a new form of punishment (please don’t tell any actual politicians about this idea):
Even so, I was found guilty on all three counts, and I became one of the world’s first prisoners to be sentenced to the capsule: a new correctional method recently approved by the regulatory agencies of the United Nations and internationally lauded as the most humane means ever designed for dealing with lifers like me. The cheapest, too. Instead of having to house us, feed us and keep us entertained for the rest of our lives, some genius on the Penitentiary Commission had the bright idea of sealing us up in lead-and-titanium spheres measuring two and a half metres around and shooting us into outer space.
But what exactly happens when you’re strung out in heaven’s high? An all-time low, or something far more spectacular?
Of course, most of the contributions are far more down to earth, focusing on the reality of life. José Adiak Montoya’s ‘Levert’s Appearance’ (tr. Samantha Schnee) is an intriguing allegorical tale of a beautiful child born into poverty, and the effect his angelic face has on those who come to see him, including those who intend to do away with him. Another story of struggles is Miluska Benavides ‘Kingdoms’ (tr. Katherine Silva), which consists of excerpts from a multi-generational Peruvian novel of mining disasters, flooding rivers and family secrets.
But not all the pieces are epics, with some being short, finely honed gems. Take, for example, Irene Reyes-Noguerol’s ‘Lost Children’ (tr. Lucy Greaves), a slightly claustrophobic piece about a family:
At first, the Girl tries to entertain her by being silly, regales her with improvised gifts, paper aeroplanes that she folds and folds so they’re perfect, not a pleat out of place, not a wrinkle. Nothing works. The Other takes over everything, supplants the face, which the Girl scrutinises from afar. And the Girl rocks the Brother and sings nursery rhymes to him softly but stays alert, her senses are upright while she observes those still, glassy eyes.
‘Lost Children’, p.298
This Other is how the child understands the effect of mental illness on her mother, and the heart-rending story shows how the young girl does her best to stop the inevitable.
In truth, it’s impossible to do justice to the collection here. With twenty-five stories written in a variety of styles and genres, by writers from different backgrounds, it’s hard to generalise, and I suspect each reader will have their own views as to the best pieces. There were several I didn’t really think much of, including slangy, modern pieces, such as Dainerys Machado Vento’s ‘The Color of Balloons’ (tr. Will Vanderhyden) and Andrea Abreu’s ‘The New Me’ (tr. Julia Sanches), and even if they didn’t really do it for me, I suspect they might a hit a chord with other readers.
The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists 2 is an intriguing glimpse of the future, then, and well worth checking out, but it’s a collection that may well prove even more fascinating in years to come. Ten years from now, which of these writers will be the next big thing, lauded and awarded, spoken of as a future Nobel Laureate? Perhaps one day we’ll look back and remember the humble start in English translation of a star of world literature. If so, remember where you heard it first… 😉