Ricardo Blanco's Blog

Fiction Fiesta 2015

Preview | Fiction Fiesta 2015


Fiction Fiesta started out three years ago as a conversation in a pub between myself and Nick Davidson, landlord of the now defunct Promised Land in Windsor Place, Cardiff. I was expecting a visit from two Argentinian writers, Andrés Neuman and Jorge Fondebrider, and Nick and I decided to hold a small celebration to welcome them to Wales. However, we got a little excited and ended up inviting all kinds of people, including the publishers Christopher MacLehose and Charles Boyle, and the literary editor of The Independent, Boyd Tonkin, and then a load of people from closer to home got involved. Nick got some money from the San Miguel brewery and I managed to secure some from Cardiff University and the thing was on. We followed up in 2013, with an Arts Council of Wales small festivals grant, inviting Eduardo Halfon from Guatemala and Inés Garland from Argentina to join several writers from Wales and elsewhere, and The Independent again covered the event, which attracted some attention.
My idea for Fiction Fiesta was simple: to team up writers in both the languages of Wales with writers from Latin America, and initiate a discourse between us and them, with the aim – among other things – of dismantling such notions as ‘us’ and ‘them’. The way we set out to approach this was to pay particular attention to literature in translation, and explore the whole idea of translation as a concept that to some degree governs our lives. After all, we are translating from the moment we are born: early childhood is the acute phase of translation, and of being translated. Those moments in which every gaze, every enraged instinct on the part of the infant meets with either incomprehension or else with a tentative, and then a more assured translation. As parents we are constantly engaged in acts of translation, as are friends and lovers and enemies and strangers of all variety. In literature, even without being translated into other languages, we are translating emotions and thoughts into words. ‘Reading poetry is itself a kind of translation,’ commented Andrés Neuman during a discussion at Fiction Fiesta in 2013. We are all translators, just as we are all, to some degree, writers. ff-e-flyer 2015
The novelist and essayist Ali Smith, in her preface to English PEN’s report on literary translation, Taking Flight, wrote:  ‘If we value literature at all, we know the worth of literary translation. If we want language to be as subtle and supple and layered and resonant as language can be, we know the worth and the work and the subtlety of literary translation. If we care at all about looking beyond our back yard and our own dominant narratives, we know the worth, the work, the open border, open mind, open eyes and ears of literary translation. If we belong to a culture which rates the word literary, we know the value, the scope, the touchstone, the creativity, the generosity that exist in this fusion of literary and translation.’
Engaging with the literature of another country, another culture, enables us to understand not only the world as it is now, but also the shared history that brought us here, which will be our legacy.
As Edith Grossman, the modern translator of Cervantes’ Don Quixote puts it: ‘[Translation] permits us to savor the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time to live outside our own skins, our own preconceptions and misconceptions. It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless, indescribable ways.’
It was never our intention to put on a big festival. We always wanted Fiction Fiesta to retain a sense of intimacy that came from holding the first edition of the fiesta in the upstairs room of a local pub. And we wanted to keep a sense of celebration, of literature as something to be savoured and enjoyed, like food and drink, which the large-scale corporate festivals cannot provide. Above all, we wanted Fiction Fiesta to help develop contacts and friendships between Welsh writers and writers from Latin America, which is where a lot of my own literary interests happen to have sprung from.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Mexico last year on an Arts Council of Wales project, and part of my task was to familiarise myself with the wide expanse of literary culture there as well as trying – within a month – to gauge as much as I could of the wider cultural climate within that country. I came away with my head filled to bursting, but enthusiastic about the task of developing closer relationships with individual Mexican writers, of translating the poems of some, and of reading the work of many others.
This year Mexico and the UK are teaming up for two big events: the London Book Fair, running this week from Tuesday to Thursday, where Mexico is the guest nation, and at the Guadalajara Book Fair, in November, where the UK is the invited country. We thought that Cardiff should see a slice of the action, so together with the newly formed Wales PEN Cymru, and with the support of the British Council, we decided to hold a small event here with two of the Mexican writers whose work I discovered last year, and who are visiting for the Book Fair. As is the usual pattern with FF, we teamed them up with local writers – or in this instance a Welsh writer and a Scottish Poet – to see what happens.
The event takes place on a Friday night, at the Wales Millennium Centre. In the first session, which begins at 5 pm, Owen Sheers will be in conversation with Juan Villoro, a contemporary and friend of Roberto Bolaño, and an extraordinary writer of short stories in the broad lineage of Borges, alongside Francesca Rhydderch, who achieved widespread recognition last November with her shortlisting for the BBC Short Story Award. In the second half, following a wine reception, I will be talking with Pedro Serrano along with the Scottish poet WN Herbert, and they will be reading from their work. The event takes place in the Preseli Room at WMC and entry is free of charge, with donations to Wales PEN Cymru welcome.
This year Fiction Fiesta is supported by the British Council and Cardiff University School of English, Communication and Philosophy.

This post also appears on the website of WALES ARTS REVIEW today. The new re-vamped Wales Arts Review serves as a media platform where a new generation of critics and arts lovers can meet to engage in a robust and inclusive discussion about books, theatre, film, music, the visual arts, politics, and the media.

Day of the Dead in Santiago de Chile


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The Creative Ambassador of Wales is made welcome by the Mexican Dead

At the kind invitation of the Mexican Embassy in Chile we attend a Halloween celebration in the municipal cemetery of Santiago. Having arrived in the Chilean capital only a couple of hours earlier, it is as if I have been suddenly and unexpectedly returned to Mexico. There are speeches by ambassadors, civil dignitaries and other big cheeses, and displays of cultural artefacts relating to the Day of the Dead, the usual paraphernalia of skulls and trinkets and macabre dolls, some of them edible.  Gradually the dead appear among us, filtering through the crowd: a young married couple, a family group, and a very elegant group of dancers from Guadalajara. After music and dances, we are led on a candlelit tour of the cemetery, which holds the earthly remains of the most illustrious figures in Chilean history, including Salvador Allende, whose leftist government was crushed by the military of General Pinochet in the coup of 1973, and who died in circumstances which still remain unclear – and so will remain until the end of time. Time which, as the Mexicans know so well, passes too rapidly for us, until we too join the great silent hordes of the deceased, who once a year mingle with us, are permitted to sit at table and witness earthly pleasures, to sing and dance and drink tequila, and to envy the living; while we look on with a mix of terror and fascination at these spectral figures, so elegant in their finery, yet so devoid of substance, knowing that we will one day be them; that in a certain sense, we already are.


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Let the Great Hullaballoo begin

Let the Great Hullaballoo begin!

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The Lady Macbeth Stain Remover

The Guadalajara Book Fair closes today and Blanco is back in Wales. A friend emails from Mexico that they (meaning the assassins referred to in Friday’s post) ‘have still not shot any writers yet, even the bad ones.’ I am relieved, as I would certainly like to go back to the feria del libro, if I am invited. Now that The Vagabond’s Breakfast has been accepted by Argentinian publisher Bajo la Luna, there is a possibility that I might be. For those who read Spanish, an account of Blanco’s performance (and a suitably haggard representation of the author) entitled ‘La mirada del vagabundo/The gaze of the vagabond’, which was hosted quite delightfully by Jorge F. Hernández last Tuesday can be found here.

Although I claimed last during the week that I would not be reading any novels for a year, I cheated, since I was already reading David Enrique Spellman’s Far South when I started the immense The Kindly Ones, and finished it off in Atlanta airport while waiting for my change of plane. Far South is an intriguing experiment in genre writing by a novelist (Spellman is a nom de plume and it is not for me to reveal his identity) who has changed style and theme with each of his four novels. This latest offering is pacey and political, with a fairly representative hard-boiled private dick narrator, subverting the detective novel genre at the same time as subscribing (mostly) to its format. This subversion of a particular mode of telling (or of reading) extends far beyond the book itself: it presumes an invented world – like all fiction – but one which leads into labyrinthine tunnels of consequence, if one takes up the challenge. Spellman is, essentially, questioning the way we invent and receive stories, and his several narrators are all dependent on each other to secure a sequential unreliability. And there is more: as I mentioned in my post from Montevideo, ‘Far South’ is itself a larger project – or collective – consisting of videos and audio clips and installations, to which punters can subscribe and add comments. It might well be a direction that narrative fiction will follow in the near future, particularly well-adapted to e-readers/online reading, as one can switch from written text to videoclip to audio as and when one wishes. I am fascinated to see what ‘Spellman’ comes up with next.

As I still had the onward flight to London to look forward to, I read 24 for 3 by Jennie Walker (another alias, this time for poet and publisher Charles Boyle), which doesn’t really break my commitment as, at 138 sparsely populated pages, it is a short novella or long story, therefore not falling within the prohibited zone. I thoroughly enjoyed 24 for 3, which I finished on the train from Gatwick to Cardiff. It is a delicious story, told with classical economy and a real delight in its subject matter – cricket, sex, parenthood, love – which teases the pleasure points and inspires the reader to drift into secondary or tertiary digression. Surely one of the more neglected benefits of reading, this, the capacity of a piece of writing to inspire creative daydreaming. A gorgeous, elevating read.

I heard the Mexican poet Luis Felipe Fabre read the poem below at an open-air reading in Rosario, Argentina at the end of September. Later that night I went out with him and a few other poets from the festival to a rather poor transvestite show. I never quite got the idea of men dressing up as women. I mean, I don’t get what’s supposed to be funny about it. It seems to particularly affect Latin cultures, which traditionally have a strong macho streak. Perhaps I’m missing something, but if so cannot imagine what it might be. Luis didn’t seem particularly interested either, and we went along because our friends – Los Gays  – were going and we were a part of their gang so went along too.

Luis’ poetry engages with social and political issues of the everyday while drawing back from the more overt banalities of social realism. His poetry collections are Vida quieta (2000), Una temporada en el Mictlán (2003) and Cabaret Provenza (2007). Anyway, here is my translation of the poem he read that midday in Rosario, which gives a flavour of the quotidian presence of violence in Mexico, in which a TV commercial is imagined that reflects the irrepressible logic of consumer culture, flogging a cosmetic product that can wipe away even the most corrosive traces of everyday murder.


Infommercial                                                                  Luis Felipe Fabre


Señora Housewife: are you sick and tired

of scrubbing night and day

clots of impossible-to-remove blood

from the clothes of all your family?


Do the entrails spattered on the walls of your house

prevent you from sleeping?

Have you found yourself exclaiming like a sleepwalker:

“Out, damned spot, out I say!”?


Now you can buy

Lady Macbeth Stain Remover

and put an end to those viscous nightmares!


Lady Macbeth Stain Remover

is made up from a base of scavenger micro-organisms

that will do your dirty work for you


cadaverous remains

without damaging the surfaces to which they are stuck:

scientifically proven!


Señora, you know it: killing

is easy. The difficult part comes later.


But now

Lady Macbeth Stain Remover offers you

an incredible solution that will revolutionize domestic hygiene:


Say goodbye to the trace of brains from your favourite armchair!

Say goodbye to those bloodied rugs!

Take a note now of the number that appears on your screen

or call 01800 666

and receive along with your purchase

a multifunctional applicator and a packet of body bags

absolutely free!


With the Lady Macbeth Stain Remover

you will be able to sleep

like a true queen.





Books and guns in Guadalajara

One of the great pleasures of the Guadalajara Feria del Libro is the spirit of festivity and celebration. Being a Latin affair, the partying is intense and persistent. Fortunately for his readers, Blanco is a restrained sort of chap these days, and since time is limited, would prefer to have a quiet meal with friends rather than to go off on reckless jaunts into the rosy-fingered dawn. However on Tuesday night there was a big do at the house of the Book Fair President, Raúl Padilla, and I went along, easing past the ranks of some very frightening bodyguards into the fabulously well-furnished salón, to enjoy a buffet of epic proportions, and to eavesdrop on the spirited banter of the guests. There is a bit of a bun fight as to who will be invited to be the host country (this year it is Germany’s turn, and next year Chile). There has never been an English-speaking nation, but Ireland are working on a bid for 2013, which might be fun.


Blanco with Wendy Guerra and Andrés Neuman


Blanco was also able to meet up, quite fortuitously, with two of his favourite Spanish-language writers, both of whom he recently translated for Poetry Wales, the enchanting Cuban Wendy Guerra (who has just brought out a fictionalised account of Anaïs Nin’s time in Cuba called Posar desnuda en La Habana) and the no less gorgeous – and brilliant – Andrés Neuman, whose prize-winning novel Traveller of the Century will be available in English translation in February (published simultaneously by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA and Pushkin Press in the UK).

While talking of favourite writers, I must confess to having met two of my literary heroes, neither of them well enough known in the Anglo-Saxon world, but giants in Latin America. I was introduced to Juan Gelman, the finest Argentinian poet of his generation and a strong contender for the Nobel Prize. Gelman’s is a complicated and tragic story, the essentials of which can be read here, but if you have not read him, please try the excellent translations by Katherine Hedeen and Victor Rodríguez Nuñez in The Poems of Sidney West, published by Salt.

The novelist Sergio Ramírez – who was vice-president of Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution of 1979, but has since seriously fallen out with the corrupt regime of his onetime-comrade, Daniel Ortega – is perhaps best known for his own powerful and moving account of the revolution, Adiós muchachos but his short stories and a couple of his novels are available in English also. The two of them were enjoying a few tequilas, so I didn’t hang around, but Gelman was very genial, and seemed genuinely pleased when my friend told him I was working on a selected poems of Joaquín Giannuzzi into English (forthcoming with CB Editions).

Strangely enough, I didn’t find out Wednesday night, but the week before the Book Fair there was a mass execution carried out in the city, and the bodies of 26 men, bound and gagged, were found in three trucks only a mile from the Expo Centre where the Book Fair was held (read more here).

Since the Book Fair was celebrating its 25th anniversary the joke was going around that they had chosen to murder 25 and one for luck. Or something. Just to give a signal. It illustrates perfectly the precarious balance of daily life in Mexico today; the contrast between the genuine warmth and hospitality of the Mexican people and the horrific and appalling violence that erupts with such regularity, and which so profoundly colours the outside world’s perception of this fascinating, dangerous and beautiful country.