The Ferris wheel looming over the book stalls at the ongoing Semana Negra, the bustle of merry-go-rounds and the aroma of local delicacies like stewed octopus, all tell the world that this is a book festival like no other.
Another big difference is that entry is absolutely free, so the Semana Negra (Noir Week) draws all-comers, whereas the only working people to be seen in other prestigious festivals will be those sweeping up after the well-heeled visitors have gone.
The biggest difference of all is that in inviting holidaymakers to rub shoulders with world-famous authors while they munch candy floss, the Semana typically hosts a million visitors every year, or about four times as many as the Hay Festival in the UK.
“The overall aim of this great big circus is to promote reading. It is part and parcel of our surroundings,” says Ángel de la Calle, the festival’s activities director, who is also a comic book writer. “It doesn’t matter where, how or in what way you do it, just that you do it.”
Photo: Martin Roberts
Other crowd-pleasers include free rock concerts, films, and exhibitions of photojournalism and forensic scientists. So much goes on that the festival publishes a free daily newspaper, A Quemarropa (At Point-Blank Range), as a guide, although it also includes a host of poems and short stories to read.
Another of the festival’s highly successful missions has been to knock down what organizers see as puritanical walls between “high-” and “low-brow” fiction by welcoming writers of detective fiction, sci-fi and comic books as well as winners of top literary garlands.
“There’s nothing wrong with reading something you enjoy, it’s not a sin,” says Paco Ignacio Taibo II, a Hispano-Mexican crime writer and New York Times best-seller who founded the festival in 1988.
The Semana organizers appear to have convinced the judges of the hallowed Princess of Asturias Literature Prize (Spain’s equivalent of the Booker) to do away with such distinctions because the latter gave this year’s award to Leonardo Padura, a Cuban writer of crime novels.
“The jury is getting brave. Padura’s the same writer he’s always been. He was already a prince amongst writers when he first came here in 1993 and sold just two books,” de la Calle recalled.
The Semana has a long tradition of giving visitors a sneak preview of writers who may be little known today but will be famous tomorrow. This especially applies to successful writers in Spanish who are not-yet-well known to English speakers.
A prime example is Dolores Redondo, who was not even well known in Spain when she published what became the first in a trilogy of psychological thrillers in January 2013. Since then she has sold 400,000 at home, while the first instalment has just been published in English as The Invisible Guardian and to which Millennium producer Peter Nadermann has bought the film rights.
Spanish crime writer Dolores Redondo. Photo: Martin Roberts.
Other names to look out for here are Rosa Ribas, who has now published the third in a series of atmospheric novels looking at the grim years of the Franco dictatorship, and Rosa Montero who has the rare distinction of being both one of Spain’s most renowned journalists and a prize-winning novelist.
The Semana has also striven to draw attention to the less fortunate, for example by exhibiting a replica border fence replete with razor wire to protest the plight of African migrants to southern Europe, which they did years before the EU finally woke up and took grudging notice a couple of months ago.
As well as drawing readers, crime novels have pride of place at the Semana because of such social implications, de la Calle says.
“Crime novels are a mirror into which the Establishment looks and sees its dark side, which it doesn’t like and it tends to destroy that mirror. That struggle is a starting point for this festival.”
The Semana Negra runs from July 10th to the 19th.
Martin Roberts is a freelance journalist and translator based in Madrid.