by François Monti
Ever since the publication in 2001 of Otro, his first novel, Robert Juan-Cantavella has seemed to position his work as a continuation of a certain Spanish literary tradition as much as a cheeky raid on its vaults and a blithe taunt to anyone wishing to hold him accountable for his hijacking of or attacks on sacred cows. In Proust Fiction (2005), a story collection, Juan-Cantavella introduces into several of the pieces a character called Escargot—not really an alter-ego or a pseudonym, probably a heteronym . . .—and we learn that, were it not for him killing them all beforehand, a bunch of giants really would have been waiting for Don Quixote on that fateful day at the windmills. This is no mere comic gesture, not any more than an attempt by a bold young man to pretend that Spanish literature owes him something; it’s also, and more importantly, a way to insist that all creation is also recreation (in more than one sense of the word).
No surprise then that the core idea of the collection’s eponymous story is that Proust actually plagiarized filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. What could be thought of as an innocuous pop game is actually a rather deep reflection on the anxiety of influence and on the way one’s fictions come to be; a literary construction were Borges and David Foster Wallace collide. El dorado (2008), Juan-Cantavella’s breakthrough novel, turns its attention to the conflicts and issues of Spain today. Juan-Cantavella brings back Escargot and begins in Marina D’Or, one of the huge, bunker-like mass tourist traps built on the Spanish coast over the last decades. Escargot is sent there to write an article, but things turn nasty as he gets mixed-up in a full-blown generational war between retired vacationers and young tourists. Halfway between A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (things are not helped by Escargot’s deviant ways . . .), the book’s blistering opening sets the tone for what follows. Fearing for his life, our hero flees to Valencia, where the Pope is about to celebrate the World Families Meeting. There, with the help of Brona, his faithful sidekick, he intends to find the mythical Eldorado. Obviously, things are about to go awry . . .
El dorado makes no bones about its status as a satirical novel where nothing is what it seems. Here, Juan-Cantavella comes up with his own Iberian take on the gonzo style: Quevedo reread through Hunter S. Thompson-tinted glasses. But once again, he is not just having fun (although there is undoubtedly a lot of fun to be had here): he is more importantly delivering a very tough assessment of what it means to be Spanish today.
A year before the crisis really hit the peninsula’s shore, El dorado already puts forward the main ills of Spanish economy, completely under the yoke of promoters and builders, convinced, as it was in 2008, that architectural and environmental catastrophes like Marina D’Or were keys for prosperity. As it turned out, this vision of “prosperity” only lined the pockets of a chosen few, namely, politicians, business people, and the like. Now that 20 percent of Spain’s working population is jobless—with the construction sector, so essential to places like Marina D’Or and formerly the nation’s number one employer, now bust—El dorado has become even more significant a work. It is a book written out of his very personal knowledge of Spain’s darker sides: Juan-Cantavella himself was born in Castellón, one of the epicenters of Spanish malaise, a city located in one of the most corrupt regions of the country, where business and politics are so closely linked that it’s often difficult to make out who has been elected and who has not. Decisions follow the money more than the votes, a fact that, alongside the demise of Spain’s construction sector, will seem all-too-relevant to American readers.
The second big theme in El dorado is arguably even more familiar to an American readership. A good thirty years after the end of Franco’s dictatorship, Spain remains in many ways a country divided on many fronts: the right and the left, those who want to forget and those who want justice, and the religious and the non-religious. The Spanish Church remains very conservative and its positions on public demonstrations of faith, abortion, gay marriage, gay adoption, and even divorce are still very much influenced by the radically conservative, transnational Catholic organization Opus Dei. Its very active political role is only made more present through its ownership of the popular Cope Spanish radio station and its close affiliations with press entities like the conservative magazine ABC, one of Spain’s best selling.
It is this aspect of the Spanish psyche that Escargot gets to offend while in Valencia. His various attacks and tricks are sometimes very schoolboy-like, but it only serves to show that Juan-Cantavella’s project is not that of a full-blown perversion. Rather, it is a firmly tongue-in-cheek look at the gulf between the image Spain wishes to give of itself and the reality of some of its traditions and attitudes towards life and personal faith.
Manuel Vilas, another Spanish writer, published España the same year as El Dorado. Both projects, while different in their execution, were quite similar in their ambition: to give some sort of answer to what it means to be Spanish today. These projects build on the work in the ’60s of Juan Goytisolo, who similarly questioned the “marks of identity” of his native land. Goytisolo’s investigation was a much more serious affair, but Spain was then in the hands of a ferocious dictatorship. Forty years later, Vilas’ and Juan-Cantavella’s books serve to show that the question is still relevant, albeit is being answered in new and novel ways. That El dorado is a comic novel highlights a very sad fact: hopes were high for the future of a free Spain after the dictatorship, but in many ways one must grimly laugh at what has become of Spain’s democracy. No wonder Goytisolo has lavished such high praises on Robert Juan-Cantavella’s fictions.
From El Dorado by Robert Juan-Cantavella
Translated by Mara Faye Lethem
PART THREE. CHAPTER 6. THURSDAY, JULY 6TH, 2006.
THE PAPAL VISIT TO THE CITY OF VALENCIA.
The fact is I prefer this Pope to the lay one, I’m more comfortable with his ideology, he seems much more trustworthy, I don’t know, he makes me feel at ease, and I’m not just referring to all the stylistic paraphernalia or the candles, nor to those white vestments with their lovely embroidering or his comical miters, the pallium, the hand-kissing, the old-fashioned word choice, the divine lineage, the acknowledged decadence, the mythology of the most powerful business on the planet, the speeches under the hot sun, the sacrophilic fetishism, the submission of his fans, the long processions… that elegant poise in the midst of a farce, his para-democratic power . . . I’m not talking about the gold or the incense and myrrh, or the cannibalistic rite, or those illuminated settings decorated by the greatest painters. Although sometimes I have my doubts. Bono isn’t bad either, he doesn’t wear a miter but he does sport those last-century sunglasses, and his poignant posturing as the apostle of rock ‘n’ roll with that leather jacket and his meetings with Condoleeza Rice, if you really look at them, are no less pathetic than a good Te Deum mass. No one can say that he is less concerned about the poor of this world, or war or social injustice. They are even steven there. And although I don’t know if his father was a carpenter too, it’s clear that his conscience has to fight the evils of this world just as Ratzinger’s does. All those kids in his music videos that don’t have enough to eat and whose air-filled bellies grow at the same pace as the number of flies that hover around them, the oppressed peoples of the world, the subjugated nations, the violated rights all over the world, etc. Poor Bono agonizes like a saint in the tradition of other great sufferers of the pop system like Sting, who in his moment was so affected by the great injustices inflicted throughout time on the people of the Amazon that, well, just look at him, poor guy… But I can’t help it, I find his homilies les appealing, more boring. And I even share his, Bono’s, deep dialectical quandary. With or without yooooou? . . . that touchstone of contemporary thought. What must the solution be? What in the heck came first, the egg or the chicken?
But, what do you want me to say? I prefer the Pope in Rome. The one from Belfast, Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, has longer hair, it’s true, but I find Ratzinger’s gray mop much more exclusive. And I don’t think the boots of the holy leader of U2 can compete with the Roman Pope’s Prada loafers, or his exquisite Geox. The truth is I made my choice a while back, and I don’t think it’s due solely to the fact that, before becoming a journalist, I was an altar boy. Not in the least. I’m more inclined toward an aesthetic explanation, that I prefer the hallelujah sung by Ratzinger’s nuns to the one sung by Bono’s backup singers, and while I can’t say which one of them will end up saving the world, you’ve got to make your choice, and mine is made. That’s why I’ve come here.
(Robert Juan-Cantavella, El dorado, Mondadori, Barcelona, 2008, pages 219-220.)
Robert Juan-Cantavella is a Spanish writer born in Almassora in 1976. His books include the novel El Dorado (2008) and Proust Fiction (2005), a short story collection in thich the title story tells how Quentin Tarantino was plagiarized by Marcel Proust. Mara Faye Lethem is a translator of Spanish and Catalan authors such as Albert Sánchez Piñol (Pandora in the Congo) and Javier Calvo (Wonderful World). François Monti lives in Madrid and is a founding member of the Fric-Frac Club.
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