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A Spanish Celebration: Semana Negra

David Cicconi Comic book artists discussing their work en route to the Semana Negra festival.

Photo: David Cicconi

"We believe culture can change the world," he says. "Many people in Spain are poor and we may not be able to change that—not now—but we can at least change the quality of day-to-day life. Economic impoverishment doesn't have to mean cultural impoverishment."

You can see why the politicians wanted to put Gijón on the tourist radar. Despite the nearby coal mines and the visible presence of a working port, Gijón is trim and stylish, with well-kept 19th-century houses, a few large churches that seem positively cheerful compared with the rococo oppressiveness of Madrid's great cathedrals, and a pristine beach nestled along the shore of the San Lorenzo Bay. The harbor is filled with pleasure boats, bobbing like contented pigeons. Gijón has museums, beautiful parks, Roman ruins, fine restaurants, and plenty of hotels. It is one of those few and disappearing special places in Europe that have not yet made it onto the standard tourist itinerary, that are large enough to hold a few surprises, small enough to get to know.

In honor of Semana Negra, the entrance to Gijón's fairgrounds is marked by an immense statue of a redhead in a sexy dress climbing up a tottering stack of books. Visitors from all over Asturias have been arriving since the late afternoon, and by nightfall—which comes slowly in this town; the light lingers in the sky until nearly 10—there are crowds reminiscent of those you would see at a county fair in America. Here, winding their way through a carnival landscape laced with book stands and makeshift monuments commemorating great mystery and science fiction writers of the past, are working people in search of an evening's entertainment, kids eager to test their courage on one of the carnival rides, teenagers cruising each other. It's a bracingly un-touristy experience to blend into this cheerful throng.

We walk past Che bookstores, Trotsky bookstores, bookstores built around a perpetually moving conveyor belt, on which the merchandise is displayed; past brilliantly costumed Peruvian girls selling belts, Senegalese men in their twenties selling eyeglass cases; past hundreds of food concessions, some grilling chorizo, some cooking pork loin, lamb chops, and steaks, and quite a few with immense vats of boiling octopus on full display. At last, we come to the intellectual center of Semana Negra, the place where the lectures, readings, and signings take place—many of these events, in true Spanish fashion, beginning near midnight. It's a huge tent, guarded by a 12-foot-high statue of a giant—a naked giant, actually, a naked giant with a priapic penis—holding a book in one hand and a bottle of Pepsi in the other.

Next to the tent are a couple of smaller ones that function as gallery space for the art Taibo has chosen to feature, particularly the photographs of Juan Medina, large, full-color presentations of the suffering endured by Africans risking—and often losing—their lives in order to emigrate to Europe. Taibo first saw the photos on display in the Barjola Museum in Gijón. "I left the exhibition in tears, the pictures were so great," he says. "Then I looked at the guest book, and you know how many names there were, how many people had come to see them?One hundred and seventy-four. To me, this is a crime. So what do we do?We bring the exhibition to Semana Negra, put it in a tent, and now maybe a million people will see those pictures."

From the entrance to that gallery tent, you can see one of Semana Negra's popular attractions: a giant Ferris wheel, one of the largest in Europe. Its lights turn gaily in the Gijónian pastel twilight. Near the wheel is the local equivalent of the Wild Mouse, here called Ratone Vascilla. There is also a great view of the rows of bookstalls, many of them spookily enshrouded in chorizo smoke. As I take this in with all the proper wonderment, Taibo comes up behind me and places his hand on my shoulder. This is all pretty strange, I tell him, it's sort of a book fair for the masses. He nods emphatically—but, then, he does everything emphatically. (He even yawns emphatically.) "To me," he says, "there is no contradiction between great fun, great food, and great books. Why does culture have to be locked away, where ordinary people cannot reach it?"

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