Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 5, 2017

Spanish Literature, a Very Short Introduction (2010), by Jo Labanyi

Spain is in the news for all the wrong reasons at the moment, so I thought it was time to get on with my reading of my latest in the VSI series: Spanish Literature, A Very Short Introduction.  It turned to be even more interesting than I expected it to be because it began by challenging my idea of what Spanish literature is.

Labanyi explains in the introduction why she has organised the material by themes focussing on current critical debates and why, although she gives the historical context its rightful place, she has linked it to issues of interest to contemporary readers.  It’s also a reader-friendly text because she assumes no prior knowledge but rather that readers will be intellectually curious. 

First of all she debunks the common view of Don Quixote and Don Juan as tragic idealists. bent on realising an impossible dream.  Cervantes, she says, unequivocally depicts Don Quixote as mad and a butt of humour.  [Well, at least I got that part right when I read it myself.]  Don Juan, OTOH,

is an example of how not to behave, whose sacrilege in defying God is stressed throughout.  He is also guilty of flouting patriarchal authority, killing the father of one of his female victims – a high ranking nobleman – whose statue drags him to hell.  The Trickster of Seville is a play about blasphemy and disrespect for authority.  (p.2)

These characters were reinvented as tragic idealists in the Romantic period via German theorists and Mozart’s opera.  But for political purposes in the C20th, they were reinvented again, as emblems of a tragically defeated Spain, the characters having the heroic idealism Spain needed but didn’t have in real life in the 1898 war with the USA (when Spain lost Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.)  In the C20th, Don Quixote and Don Juan were held responsible for the crisis of humanism:

[For the critic Ramiro de Maeztu (1874-1936)] Don Juan represented the destructive egoism into which liberal modernity had degenerated, while Don Quixote embodied a hopelessly unpragmatic altruism.  (p.4)

Other C20th critics interpreted Don Juan as an allegory of aggressive Western individualism; an a symbol of European imperialist expansion, or the fascist superman who forces the (feminised) masses into submission.  [Which just goes to show, IMO, that the book ultimately belongs to its readers, who can and do make of it whatever suits them at the time!]

Labanyi , however, notes that that there is a foreign tendency to idealise – literally ‘romanticise’ – Spanish culture, and another example of this is the notion that Spanish culture is the expression of a tragic, primitive folkloric Spain.  Lorca’s poetry is often read abroad in this way, failing to recognise his modernist tendencies and his homosexuality (which is often associated with the modern city, not the rural tragedies for which he is often known outside Spain).  Labanyi says that Lorca wasn’t writing popular poetry but complex avant-garde works dense with highly sophisticated imagery.  The ideas we might have about a stereotypical backward, rural Spain come both from Franco wanting to use folklore as an expression of the national soul and from Republicans using the ballad tradition for propaganda purposes.  Chapter 2 is not about bullfights, blood and death; instead its focus is the relationship of Spanish literature to modernity. 

In this VSI, Labanyi is avoiding the nationalism frame of reference which so often omits literature that is widely read at the expense of texts that could be used for nation-building. So one of the first things I did was to check the index against the Spanish authors I’ve reviewed, and was pleased to find that yes, I’ve read some of those that get a mention in this VSI.   Apart from Cervantes, there’s Mercè Rodoreda, Javier Cercas, Ildefonso Falcones, and Bernardo Atxaga.

Chapter I is called ‘Multilingualism and porous borders’ and it reframes Spanish literature to include the literature of medieval Iberia, the parts of the peninsula which became Spain in the late 15th century. [Labanyi is very careful about the terminology she uses, to avoid playing into nationalist agendas, perhaps foreseeing the trouble which has been so much in the news lately].  Her point about acknowledging Arabic and Hebrew texts is not to appropriate them but rather

given the possibility, if not desirability, of double cultural allegiance, surely [these writers] should be seen as ‘Spanish’ as well as Arabic or Hebrew, giving full recognition to the border crossings – between languages, between Andalusi city-states, between Muslim and Christian Iberia, between Iberia and North Africa or the Middle East – that mark most of their careers. (p.16)

In other words, it seems to me that she is saying that in a multicultural world, literature can’t be defined by contemporary national borders. Because, after all, in the era before the nation-state, there was no concept of a political unit based on one race, one language and one culture.  That notion did not arise until the beginnings of national unification in the C15th and was clinched politically in the early 18th century and culturally in the late 19th century. The religious homogenisation that went with it was enforced by the Inquisition, and it brought linguistic homogenisation too, offset by cultural contact with Europe and the introduction of Italian humanist ideas into Spain.  But it’s only from the late 19th century

that one can talk of ‘Spanish literature’ as part of an established corpus – one that remains largely intact today, apart from the recent addition of some women writers and the development of separate canons for Spain’s ‘historic’ nationalities’: Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque Country.  (p. 27)

An issue that arises is, of course, the inclusion or exclusion from those separate canons, of writers who write in Castilian Spanish (the Standard Spanish that we hear on radio and TV, and spoken throughout northern and central Spain).  Some wrote in Castilian Spanish because there was no choice under Franco; some prefer to use it now because writing in Catalan, Galician or Euskara (Basque) limits the readership.  Bestselling Catalan authors like Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Shadow of the Wind) and Ildefonso Falcones (Cathedral of the Sea and The Hand of Fatima) write in Castilian Spanish, and have an international readership in translations. Apparently there are only about a million speakers of Euskara  [which makes Bernard Atxaga’s decision to write his novel Seven Houses in France in Euskara and then have it translated into Castilian Spanish under his supervision an interesting one, presumably because the translation facilitated its translation into English and other languages].

These decisions seem to have implications that we don’t tend to consider in Australia.  And while we might wrestle with whether we want to count Peter Carey as Australian after he’s been abroad for so long, we don’t have to struggle with the political implications of decisions about whether to include as Spanish literature, the works of those who fled Spain (amongst whom I recognise the name of Mercè Rodoreda) and went into exile under Franco.  These decisions have implications for what Labanyi calls the recuperation process, not least because most of the exiles were intellectuals who wrote significant works.  Reading Labanyi’s summary of how language, publication and performance were suppressed during the 20th century dictatorships goes some way towards understanding the hostilities that we see playing out on our screens at the moment.  It also hints at difficulties that must arise in the process of designing curriculum and university courses…

From this summary of the Introduction and Chapter 1, you can see that it’s well worth getting your own copy of this VSI.  The other chapters are titled:

  • Spanish literature and modernity
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Cultural patrimony, and
  • suggestions for further reading.

I found the chapter on modernity fascinating, with implications for my understanding of modernity in other literatures as well as Spanish.  Labanyi makes the point that varying perceptions of what modernity means and when Spain embraced it, has created a sort of anxiety about being perceived as ‘backward.’  This in turn has created anxiety about whether Spanish authors are imitating foreign models or can be said to be innovative (to the extent that one scholar was accused of manipulating dates so that a foundational Spanish text (Poem of the Cid) could be said to be free of foreign influence. In this chapter I learned about the realist writer Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) whose Fortunata and Jacinta and That Bringas Woman sound interesting but hard to get in English.  (But there is a NYRB translation of Tristana, so I might try that).  I also like the sound of Gold Fever by Narcís Oller (1846-1930) but that’s equally hard to get though I was able to buy The September Revolution for the absurd Kindle price of $1.05.

The chapter also covers two types of fiction in the democratic, ‘normalising’ period.  One is the historical novel, Labanyi mentioning two books I’ve read: The Shadow of the Wind which uses post Civil War Barcelona as an exotic backdrop and The Hand of Fatima) as an example of a well-researched recreation of ethnic, class and gender tensions in medieval Barcelona.  The other type is the novel which takes seriously the ethical duty to remember the Civil War and its atrocities, Labanyi citing Antonio Muñoz Molina’s books which include In the Night of Timeone of the most powerful books I’ve ever read.  There were many recognisable recommendations including (on my wishlist) Alberto Méndez and Dulce Chacón, Javier Marías (on my TBR) and Javier Cercas (1962-)whose Soldiers of Salamis I have read too.  Labanyi however cautions against overdoing it:

That Spanish writers today, to prove their modern democratic credentials, should feel obliged to return to the past is understandable, since politicians and public debate have not done so until very recently.  There is a risk, however, of the current literary obsession with the Civil War creating a culture of victimhood, rather than examining the very modern political lessons of the Spanish Republic.  (p.74)

I was a bit disappointed by the chapter on gender, because its focus on bawdiness and melodrama – no matter how it’s dressed up in feminist interpretations – didn’t interest me at all.  I would have liked to read about the Spanish women authors writing beaut novels comparable with women authors in other cultures.  (I loved Cristina Sanchez-Andrade’s The Winterlings and there must be plenty of others like that.

More interesting was the chapter called ‘Cultural Patrimony’ which was all about the remarkable experiment in delivering mass literacy during the brief Spanish Republic.  (Do watch the video, if you have time, it’s brilliant). I know nothing about this, and the only comparable example I know of was the extraordinary improvement in literacy in post-Independence Indonesia where illiteracy declined from 95% in the 1940s to 40% in 1961, and is now in just over half a century less than 5% despite widespread poverty.  In the VSI, there is a great photo of Lorca wearing his Republican activist overalls with a poster for his travelling theatre company (I found it online here too), and also a captivating photo of a little peasant girl reading a book with such joy on her face, it’s beautiful.  I wonder where she is now…

Film: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)This VSI on Spanish Lit is one of the best ones I’ve read, and I think it’s because of the way Labanyi has organised it around themes.  Next up, (because of my adventures with Tarantino) I’m going to read Film: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Wood!

Author: Jo Labanyi
Title: Spanish Literature, A Very Short Introduction
Series: Oxford Very Short Introductions
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2010
ISBN: 9780199208050
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Available from Fishpond: Spanish Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)


  1. As you say, Lisa, this seems a thoughtful introduction, a timely reminder to consider multiculturalism as a given and something to celebrate. I studied Spanish pre-university many years ago, and the standard text then was Gerald Brenan’s ‘Spanish Labyrinth’ – which now seems rather dated. Still informative though. Maybe I’ll dig out the Spanish picaresques I read on holiday in the summer for a Hispanic post of my own: you’ve inspired me. Btw, I loved the Atxaga novels I read way back (seemed appropriate after working a year in the Basque Country). Now my son has moved to Barcelona’s suburbs I must dip into some more Catalan literature, too: Tirant lo Blanc, which I skimmed briefly at university, is but a distant memory…


    • Ah, the picaresque novel: that’s interesting too. She talks about how during the Inquisition Spanish citizens had to keep proving that they had lineage untainted by heretical ancestors i.e. Jews or Moors, and this created a new sense of identity generated by the ideology of the state. (Not quite the same as the Australian obsession with proving lineage with either a convict ancestor or an Anzac, but likewise a sense of identity promoted by the state to appeal to nationalism: it differentiates Anglo-Irish Australians from migrants who don’t have that ancestry).
      And so the ‘confession’ shaped by the Inquisitorial process, became part of the sense of self, and the ‘delinquent protagonists of the picaresque novel […] address their first-person-life-story to an unknown authority figure […] or to the reader cast as a judge.
      This (according to some) makes ‘the modern novel born in Spain with the picaresque genre […] a realist genre because of its relationship to the law, which probed everyday behaviour to determine religious orthodoxy’ (pp 47-48).
      She also mentions picaresque novels with female protagonists which aren’t usually part of the canon – ‘whores whose serving of multiple clients allows exposure of social hypocrisy’ and which also had an erotic function.
      *chuckle* So I’ll be interested to see your post when you write it!


      • Fascinating. I need to do some homework before posting on Lazarillo!


  2. I’ve just read my first VSI (review up tomorrow) and they certainly are little gems!


  3. A marvellous introduction to this book. And may I strongly suggest that you get your Javier Marias novels out of your TBR and do yourself a big favour.


  4. I’ve always been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War but I would read this VSI just for the lit. theory. As you point out, every culture has the same problems with who and what is in or out.


    • You will be pleased to hear that she talks about Foucault, and *almost* tempted me to read him…


  5. […] bought this short story by Narcís Oller (1846-1930) after reading about him in Spanish Literature, a Very Short Introduction by Jo Labanyi.  I actually wanted Gold Fever (La febra d’or) but couldn’t find it in […]


  6. […] Spanish Literature, a Very Short Introduction, by Jo Labanyi […]


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