How a nostalgic novel about the heartland of Spain joined the political fray

CAMPO DE CRIPTANA, Spain — In her first novel, “Feria,” Ana Iris Simón begins with a poignant admission: “I am jealous of the life my parents had at my age.

“Feria” is based on his childhood in the arid center of Spain, with parents postmen and grandparents farmers on one side, itinerant showmen on the other. Not much happens, but it’s intentional — she wants readers to appreciate her rural upbringing in Castilla-La Mancha, the region made famous by Cervantes’ classic “Don Quixote.”

Ms. Simón, 30, also intends, through her portrait of her family’s life, to express an ambivalence about what her generation has acquired — university studies, travel, consumer goods — as well as her feelings of anxiety, in particular in terms of employment. and the economy. Ms. Simón herself lost her job as a journalist working for Vice magazine while writing “Feria”.

The book struck a chord with readers, but it also became a lightning rod in the emotional political debate in Spain fueled by party fragmentation and polarization. Ms. Simón said her book had been interpreted as “challenging the dogmas of liberalism”, to an extent she had not anticipated.

Her parents had a home and were raising a 7-year-old daughter at the age when she was still trying to become a writer, Ms. Simón writes. “We, however, have no house, no children, no car. Our belongings are an iPhone and an Ikea bookcase. … But we convince ourselves that freedom means avoiding having children, a house and a car because who knows where we will live tomorrow.

Originally published at the end of 2020 by a small Spanish press, Circulo de Tiza, “Feria” has since been reprinted 13 times and sold nearly 50,000 hard copies. It is distributed this month in Latin America by another publisher, Alfaguara, as well as translated into German. (There are no plans for an English translation yet.)

In the book, Mrs. Simón describes her grandfather, José Vicente Simón, planting an almond tree on the outskirts of town, just to tend to it and watch it grow. On a visit to the area, the tree was thriving and Mr. Simón and other characters in the novel were as she described them.

When Mr. Simón, 85, learned that he would be photographed for this article, he asked for time to get a makeover and change of clothes. He soon returned with an identical-looking cardigan, except it was blue rather than brown. He had also changed his cap, for a thicker felt version.

“That’s how he is,” laughs her granddaughter. “He cares about little things that no one else really notices.”

One of his uncles, Pablo Rubio-Quintanilla, is a proud carpenter of his harmonigraph, an instrument that uses a pendulum to draw geometric shapes. Echoing his grandfather’s relationship with his tree, Mr. Rubio-Quintanilla explained that he built his harmony recorder just for the pleasure of watching it draw.

“I don’t believe things should have a value or a use, but they should be enjoyed,” he said during a visit to his studio. “The Harmonograph works by the law of gravity, and it seems magical that the designs never come out exactly the same.”

As a student, Ms Simón was an activist who joined a far-left protest movement in 2011 that occupied Puerta del Sol, a famous square in Madrid, to condemn political corruption and economic inequality, a few months only before the Occupy Wall Street movement followed suit. At New York.

Building on the success of her novel, Ms Simón took on a bigger role and she was recently invited by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, a socialist, to give a speech on how to revive the Spanish countryside. She also became a columnist for El País, the Spanish newspaper.

Ms Simón stressed that she remains very much to the left of Mr Sánchez’s policies and unhappy with his management of Spain, as well as opposed to a European Union which she accuses of having made Spain “the resort hotel of Europe”. She said she was stunned not only by the success of her book, but also by how ultra-nationalist and conservative audiences had embraced “Feria” as an ode to Spain’s traditional family values, even though it speaks separation from his parents and his gay brother. . Last June, the leader of Spain’s far-right Vox party, Santiago Abascal, grabbed a copy of “Feria” while addressing Congress.

“Some people have read my book as if it were the new ‘Mein Kampf’, and then write to me to say that they are disappointed to find that it neither has the strong political message that they were hoping for, nor the content they had heard about,” she said.

According to Pablo Simón, professor of politics at Carlos III University in Madrid (who is not related to the writer), “Feria” fueled the Spanish political debate because “even if it is about a novel and not a political treatise, the book finds that the current generation is worse off than previous ones, which is an easy claim for politicians to use, even if it is not necessarily based on facts.

He added: “Our parents may have had fewer ambitions and fewer uncertainties, but that doesn’t mean they were better off, and nostalgia also makes us forget the difficult and sordid aspects of Spain. of the 1970s and 1980s, including high drug consumption and unemployment in a very complicated industrial reconversion.

Having recently become a mother, Ms. Simón now lives with her son and partner, Hasel-Paris Álvarez, in Aranjuez, a town outside Madrid where her parents also live. While raising her child and writing for El País, Ms. Simón said, she had tried to shield her family from the toxic comments her book had sparked on social media, both right and left.

“We unfortunately live in a time where some people offend just for fun, even if it gets absurd, to the point where I was attacked as a red fascist,” she said.

Ms. Simón said she wrote “Feria” with limited ambitions, hearing it as a testament to a way of life she fears she will soon lose. She recalls her father warning her that “although no one else is reading this, at least we have plenty of cousins ​​who will buy the book”. Her grandparents met at a fair (“feria” in Spanish, which inspired the title of the book), after which, she writes, “they did only two things: have children and travel in Spain in the Sava minivan they bought”.

But her book covers many other topics, from feminism to the importance of the Catholic Church in rural Spain. She also talks about the economic decline of Castilla-La Mancha, a region she describes as “a lot of sun and a lot of wind and the sky and the orange plain that are endless”.

And despite her nostalgia, Ms Simón also shares bittersweet memories of how “I was ashamed that Campo de Criptana appeared on my ID card”, so that she falsely claimed Madrid as her birthplace. As for Spain’s identity as a nation, she wrote that “there is nothing more Spanish than wondering what Spain is.”

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