A Spanish Celebration: Semana Negra
In the small town of Gijón, in northern Spain, Scott Spencer discovers a literary festival devoted to crime novels, comics, and science fiction—a celebration of pulp and darkness
It's eight in the morning in Madrid and the sun is barely visible—but who needs the sun when the cobblestones are still radiating heat from the day before?Paco Ignacio Taibo is on the march, a handsome, sturdy source of nonstop enthusiasm who has been writing thrillers for the past 20 years, best sellers in Mexico and Russia and embraced by readers around the world who appreciate his particular mix of leftist social criticism and sixties surrealism. Behind him is a scraggly procession of a hundred or so mystery, thriller, science fiction, and comic book writers—literary outsiders from Spain, Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, Italy, Canada, England, Poland, and the United States. Taibo leads them into Chamartín station, where a chartered train will slowly make the nine-hour journey from scalding Madrid to breezy Gijón, tucked up in northern Asturias.
It's Black Week—Semana Negra—a celebration of noirish, outsider literature that has taken place in Gijón every summer for the past 18 years and now is one of the largest cultural festivals in all of Europe. Taibo, the impressario of the event, is making his annual trip back to Spain from his adopted home in Mexico. He's traveling with his wife and daughter and his elderly parents, all of whom are intimately involved in the administration of Semana Negra festivities, which will include food for a million people, concerts, carnival rides, poetry readings, art exhibitions, book sales, book signings, interviews, press conferences, the running of the festival's radio station, and the publication of a daily broadsheet, all of it centered around Taibo's lifelong enthusiasm for crime literature, science fiction, and, basically, anything else that thumbs its nose at elitism.
As the train chugs north and the air inside it fills with cigarette smoke, Taibo convenes a series of discussions, in which writers such as Jim and Carolyn Hougan, Anselm Audley, Peter Berling, and Denise Richards introduce themselves and talk briefly about their current projects. Here are novelists who may not be given much space in the standard book-reviewing venues, but whose works are read avidly by hundreds of thousands, not only for entertainment but for their critique of society. As Mexico's Elmer Mendoza, author of The Lover of Janis Joplin and Lone Assassin, puts it, "The crime novel confronts society with its negative aspects, including politics, guerrilla war, police repression, and people who are threatened by the mere functioning of the state." We're a long way from Agatha Christie—or even Raymond Chandler.
Outside, the mute landscape is ocher and sienna, with well-worn, somehow melancholy mountains in the distance, looking like an old man's dentures. Somewhere past the midpoint of the ride, we pull into the mountain town of Mieres for one of those famously late Spanish lunches. To my considerable surprise, the writers are met at the train station by a band of drummers and bagpipers. (Asturias, the northernmost province of Spain, is part of the so-called Celtic fringe, and the bagpipe is ubiquitous here.) With the musicians leading the way, 100 blinking, coughing, tentatively smiling tellers of dark tales march through the streets of Mieres for four or five blocks, past shops closed for the afternoon meal, past curious onlookers, some of whom shyly wave, to the courtyard of the local high school, where we are met and graciously welcomed by the mayor. There are eight large tables laden with tuna, smoked ham, potatoes, eggs, and sausage sandwiches, along with a dazzling display of pastries. To drink, there is beer, wine, icy bottles of water, and the region's native booze, a bitter hard cider that we are urged to drink in one swallow, reserving a little at the glass's bottom to pour back into the earth. (Upon tasting it, I decide to reverse the customary process, swallowing 5 percent and returning to Mother Earth the remaining 95.)
When we finally arrive in Gijón, we are met by a full orchestra of about 40 musicians, young and old, playing, for some reason, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." Standing next to me is Jim Hougan, whose imagination has conceived thrillers about the cloning of Christ; murderous, government-funded mind control; and the unleashing of worldwide epidemics. He slowly shakes his head and says to me, "This, mi amigo, blows my mind." After a few more tunes—including "Night and Day"—Taibo and a couple of the other Semana Negra representatives make a formal show of profusely thanking the town's concertmaster, a large, middle-aged man of imposing dignity who is dressed like a toy soldier from The Nutcracker.
A couple of hours later, the writers are taken to the Gijón fairgrounds, with yet another marching band leading the way. It is about a two-mile journey from the Hotel Don Manuel, the writers' accommodations for the week, a clean, basic, perfectly pleasant place in the center of town—and, I will later discover, the preferred destination for trillions of Spanish teenagers and twentysomethings who, after the discos close, only want to find out where Scott Spencer is sleeping so they can sing, laugh maniacally, and rev their motorbikes beneath his window—and the authors are given friendly waves and holas from thousands of people along the way. As anyone who is a writer or knows a writer can imagine, this mass welcome is a startling, practically head-swelling experience for Taibo's current crop of necromancers, most of whom live simply and obscurely and are used to going unrecognized, often by their own publishers. But here, for this week, the creators of noir fiction are heroes.
Semana Negra is very much an outgrowth of the Vesuvian energies of Paco Taibo. Though he lives in Mexico, he is still deeply rooted in Spanish politics, and when Vicente Álvarez Areces, then the left-leaning mayor of Gijón, asked Taibo how his city could become better known, Taibo, then a vice president of the International Association of Crime Writers, came up with the idea of an annual fair celebrating the kind of fiction he enjoys most.
"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?"
For information about this year's Semana Negra festival in Gijón (July 7–16), visit www.semananegra.org.