Crime literary fest draws crowds to northern Spain

Many English-speakers may not have heard of the Semana Negra book festival held every year in Gijón, on the northern Spanish coast, but it draws writers like Ian Rankin and dwarfs many a prestigious litfest.

Crime literary fest draws crowds to northern Spain
A ferris wheel looms over book stalls at Semana Negra book festival. Photo: David Busto Méndez/Flickr
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.

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OPINION: ‘These are the things that make Madrid a celebration of daily life’

Did you know that a gin and tonic tastes better in Madrid than anywhere else in the world? This is just one of things that makes Spain's capital a place to love, according to author Soledad Fox Maura.

OPINION: 'These are the things that make Madrid a celebration of daily life'
Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash

Sometimes Madrid feels like a huge, sprawling city (i.e. if you’re on the M-40 highway), but if you manage to stay within the central part, and walk or use public transport, it can feel like a collection of charming, connected villages or small towns. I love the latter incarnation of the city because of its human scale, and the way it reflects organic urban growth.

When I was little my mother and grandfather would often point out a newly developed area, and tell me “There used to be nothing there. La Castellana was a dirt road where children went roller skating”or “The bus route that now goes to Pavones used to end right here at the Retiro Park. That was the end of that part of the city.”

Where there was nothing, new apartment blocks were built so that people could move out of crowded neighborhoods like Chueca. Flash forward a generation later and many of the people who grew up in those contemporary utopian developments with grassy areas and swimming pools would do anything for an apartment in Chueca and other central neighborhoods that came into their own and became the height of trendiness.

There were many empty building plots or solares in my childhood. These made the city seem even sunnier and brighter than it nearly always is. Over the years I have come to love new small neighborhoods that I have lived in, and discovered others along the way. Some of my favorite places are lifelong standards. My Madrid is a mix of a primal blueprint and constantly adapting to novelty and my changing tastes.

For many years, I studied flamenco at the Amor de Dios dance studios on the Calle Santa Isabel, just across from the Filmoteca de Madrid.The studios are on the second floor of the Mercado de San Antón. I always looked forward to walking through the market, seeing the varied stands, and enjoying the aroma of one of the best olive vendors in Madrid. Once upstairs, there was nothing but flamenco. Small and large studios, showing their wear and tear, but fully functioning and packed all day with students, mainly local, but some international, learning bulerías, or guitar, or cante jondo, or how to play the flamenco percussión instrument, el cajón.

The windows of one of the small classrooms looked onto the inner courtyard of a convent. I always wondered what the nuns thought of the racket we made. For an hour a day I could feel like a true bailaora and I always left the market with a delicious purchase, or some flowers, and a feeling of exhilaration. I hope that Amor de Dios—temporarily closed–survives the pandemic. It is such a magical madrileño institution, thanks to the hard work, passion, and arte of generations of teachers and students.

A perfect afternoon-evening for me would be a dance class with sevillano Juan Fernández, a movie at the filmoteca, and a quiet dinner at Vinoteca Moratín. Another favorite is the Renoir Retiro cinema (great selection of V.O. films) and then a bite (or two) at the bar of Catapa.

Photo: AFP


Of course I love the Prado, Thyssen, Reina Sofía, Caixa Forum—all so spectacular and so conveniently located in the same part of the city–and many other smaller museums. I have spent many hours at the Prado preparing to teach Spanish painting, and I don’t think there could be a nicer place to work. The museum’s library is also beautiful. 

I have a special weakness for Casa-Museos, like the Lazaro Galdiano and the Sorolla museums. It’s always wonderful to imagine how artists and collectors lived, and these beautiful properties with their gardens are like time machines that take us back to a luxurious version of Madrid where people lived in palacetes much like the hotels particuliers of Paris.

The Biblioteca Nacional is also one of my favorite places to study Spain’s past or find books and documents unavailable elsewhere. Just having access to the building and its collections is a privilege. The Residencia de Estudiantes is a semi-hidden cultural center with rosemary and lavender-lined walkways off of the Calle Serrano. It’s where Federico García Lorca, Buñuel, Dali (and many other notables) lived as students. Tip: not only does it have an intense program of evening events, it also has a wonderful, peaceful, sleek restaurant.

Madrid is a celebration of daily life. Basically, give me almost any madrileño barrio, and this could be defined as simply as a city block with a panadería, a farmacia, news agent, a couple of bars, a butcher, and a frutería, where my morning errands and breakfast (and sometimes even a second breakfast) can be taken care of, and I’m off to the races.

But nothing beats a mercado. After San Antón (which I have renamed the Flamenco market) my favorite is El Mercado de la Paz, built in 1882. It is not in my barrio, but it is close enough to walk to and once a week I go to have lunch at Casa Dani and buy a few special things.

Casa Dani, reknowned for its pincho de tortilla, is a small restaurant in the middle of the market and has no windows to the outside, but this doesn’t stop it from having the best menú del día in Madrid. The options change every day, but I can go for months with a salmorejo, lubina, and fresas con naranja. The affordable menú (which is not just menu with an accent on the “u”, but “prix-fixe”) changes daily and once in a while I will go for the sopa de cocido or the extravagant arroz con bogavante. One must arrive early or be prepared to wait in a long line. The construction workers and local office people who are regulars know exactly when to show up and accompany their meals with tinto con casera or cañas.

Photo: AFP


After all this eating and/or research at a library, I need to clear my mind, and get some fresh air. Many of my favorite destinations are just across the Retiro Park, so whenever I can I walk under the horse chestnut trees that line the wide promenades. The Retiro is large enough for me to take different routes every day. In May the book fair, Feria del Libro takes over and I like to go early in the morning before it gets mobbed to make my way through the infinite maze of vendors that set up shop. In other seasons, the international bookshop Desperate Literature on the Calle Campomames is a must.  Books, a park, and a pincho de tortilla just about cover the basics of an ideal life for me.

Look up at the city’s sky and it is an ever-changing series of blues that become lavender-tinged at sunset. The evening is the perfect time to wander around the Madrid de los Austrías—the gardens of the Príncipe de Anglona, the tabernas on the Cava Baja, and the lovely artisanal jewelry workshop that Helena Rohner has on the Calle del Almendro. Just the name of the street makes me happy. 

On another note, Madrid is a very easy city to love and leave. There are many nearby escapadas to be taken. Especially by AVE. The high speed train has revolutionized life in Spain, and in under 3 hours you can leave from the Atocha train station and be in the center of Barcelona, or in Sevilla or Córdoba. In 20 minutes you can be in Segovia (from Chamartín Station) and in the heat of summer I like to go to La Granja, just minutes from Segovia and home to an eigtheenth century former royal summer palace. The palace’s gardens are at an elevation of close to 1200 meters, and the temperature is notably cooler and clean. Even in August.

I often remember Langston Hughes’ description of Madrid during the Civil War. Bombs were falling, but people were out on the streets, and in bars drinking a beer if they could get their hands on one. After the 2008 economic crisis, a foreign journalist friend came to Madrid and was indeed skeptical about the financial woes of Spain, “All the bars and terrazas are full. Doesn’t look like a recession to me,”she said.

Madrid has survived difficult and tragic times—the Civil War, a decades-long dictatorship, financial and political crises, and most recently, the pandemic and the lockdown. It is mourning and witnessing ongoing Covid-19 deaths. And yet, madrileños are out on the street every day getting to work, looking after their families, and still enjoying the daily, simple pleasures the city offers. El mundo sigue.

On a final note, a gin and tonic tastes better in Madrid than anywhere else. Visitors have pointed this out to me over the years, and I agree. The tonic is always served in a little bottle (and not from one of those sad soda guns) and the lemons are fragrant. Is there more to the secret? Some people say the water in Madrid is especially delicious, so the ice also has a geographical advantage. Salud.

Soledad Fox Maura is a Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Williams College. She has recently published articles in El País and Lit Hub, and her first novel, Madrid Again, was released in November 2020 by Arcade. The  MAdrid bookstore Desperate Literature will be hosting a virtual book launch on December 19th. More details HERE