I’m at the Instituto Cervantes of Manchester to hear Uberto Stabile talk at Manchester Literature Festival. I’ve heard his name before but know little about him. The translator sits in the transparent corner booth. You can hear her smack her lips in anticipation, gulping water anxiously. I feel important with my wireless headset on, writing notes on the little pop-out desk. From him to her to me to paper.
Uberto’s talk charts his life as a writer, poet and literary promoter. His poems, he says, are related to his environment and reality; it’s his way of revealing truth in the world he sees. So his talk is as much about Spain as it is about him. The tale of its transition from democracy to emancipated creative hub to debt-ridden capitalist state, is told by a man who is affected by the big picture, who cares deeply for people, and is compelled to make voices heard.
Born in Valencia in 1959 he was a teenager when Franco was overthrown. This is his generation’s great symbol; to be born under a dictator and be emancipated at the moment they needed it most. And yet they entered a world without the institutions we take for granted. State censorship had throttled Spanish literary culture to near death, banning books and preventing translations of foreign work. They entered a cultural void, with no one to look up to, with no precedent.
Spain’s economic decline in the mid-seventies after the death of Franco and the petrol crisis of 1975 made the transition from dictatorship to democracy a turbulent one. The first poem he reads us, Too Early, references the instability of the time:
‘It is raining / and the rain wet the washing we hung out yesterday / and it is pointless to bring it in / as pointless as to go to work / or to go out to buy some bread without money.’
Despite massive unemployment and a decade-long recession, the ‘80s was a productive time for Spanish writers as they organised themselves to publish their work. Photocopied and stapled they found a DIY solution that grew slowly in strength and numbers. Networks slowly became established across Spain, publications printing each other’s contact details at the back.
He compares Spain’s 80s with our 60s, a time of social and cultural experimentation and diversification, best illustrated by Madrid’s hedonistic ‘La Movida’ (Groove) scene. The cartoon gained greater credibility as a dynamic and socially critical art form. The debate over the Spanish identity opened up as suppressed regional accents and languages pushed for their place in mainstream society.
‘La Movida’ does little change gender relationships and imbalances however. He reads us And Then Tell Me That You Love Me, a poem he wrote after the 59th death from domestic violence in the year he wrote it:
‘You will have the right to vote / You will rent video / You will sleep alone / You will wonder about me / You will know how to cry when I forgive you… / …and then, tell me that you love me’
After finishing his degree in Art History in Valencia, Uberto ran a bookshop and continued his work publishing and promoting young and talented writers. But the ‘90s sees a political shift as the push for social freedom is replaced by the pursuit of wealth. Credit is easily available and debt builds as people pursue lifestyles they cannot afford.
I miss the political reference in the next poem, Spain is doing well, but I gather it refers to a statement by a prominent Spanish politician in the ‘90s. It mocks the superficial evaluation of Spain’s success despite a deep deficit, massive unemployment and record private debt:
‘”Spain is doing well...” / its economy, its bigot / its two million people out of work / and its lack of memory / even my watch’s well stopped / ...doing well / The press, the Banks, /mobile phones, / the deficit, Iberia, football, / the blank and yellow waves / the great public holiday / it goes well like this... on its own and without ice.’
Keeping up with the translator is hard as she stops mid-sentence adjusting her words, slowing and catching up. This is quite different from Uberto, who speaks in a constant expert tone with his soft Spanish drawl.
But the message is clear: Uberto believes in the written word and the need for voices, many voices, speaking about what they see and hear. At the heart of it is the essential need for reflexivity in a society, though the voices needn’t speak loudly. He speaks excitedly about the opportunities the internet presents in establishing new literary magazines and journals across the latin world. Diversity is essential and small publishers like him are essential to real democracy. They keep niche intellectual discussions running for when they’re needed; for when a society lapses into premature self-congratulation or stagnates into monoculture. You need the people at the fringes to remind us of what the complex truths are at the heart of identities led astray.
Or at least that’s what I reckon he means. I’d taken my headphones off a few minutes ago to rest my ears from the translator. Uberto reads his last poem, Gillespie Says. I miss the context but the end reads well:
‘Gillespie says that / it is not a finished man / the man that is finishing / that the ending never replaces then end, / because actually / Gillespie says that / Parker says to him / that Cortazar told him / that instead of making love / It’s about time for love to make us.
by Peter Stanners