The trail of the pandemic at the Madrid Book Fair

With close to 85% of the Spanish population over 12 years of age vaccinated, the new waves of infections today do not entail capacity restrictions or the mandatory use of masks, except on public transport, so it is conceivable that at the Book Fair of Madrid the covid-19 remains mainly in the editorial catalogues. A quick search in the ISBN registry, the official publication database in Spain, reveals several hundred books published in the last two years with the word covid or pandemic in their title. The crisis that has shaken the world since the beginning of 2020 has been approached from almost every possible angle (medical, financial, commercial, philosophical, media, political, literary, poetic, anthropological, testimonial and even philatelic), by publishers large and small, specialized and general.

However, the trail of all that is by no means in the front line of exhibition in the booths of the Madrid Book Fair, which will occupy the Retiro Park until next Sunday. “We have become a bit saturated on the subject. In September, in the special edition of the fair, we brought many titles related to the pandemic, but not this time, ”explained him in his booth Rocío, a bookseller at Enclave de Libros this week. A few meters further on, Nuria, from the Lé bookstore, stated that these pandemic titles “are not people’s favorites”, an opinion shared by the booksellers of Tipos Infames who could not find a single copy on this subject in their stand.

At the booth of the Captain Swing non-fiction Seal Retreat was the ghost map by Steven Johnson on the cholera epidemic in London in the 19th century, but no other titles they published on pandemic matters. “Johnson’s is a book that continues to work, but others like The rules of contagion by Adam Kucharski or the big flu by John M. Barry no. Now people do not want to know anything about viruses or pandemics. We contracted those titles before 2020 and then they sold out; now they remain in our fund”, explained the editor Daniel Moreno. “At the fair there is zero interest in the subject itself, people are not thinking about the pandemic, although other issues derived from covid, such as the impact on mental health, arouse interest. Books that touch on the present have little lasting impact. It happened in 2009 and 2010 with essays on economics that worked very well and then disappeared, or with motherhood, another issue that is burned.

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From children’s stories to comics, the pandemic has not excluded any genre. The Planeta group catalog adds more than 14 essays on covid-19, with titles such as A pandemic of bugs of Francisco Mercado; The first thing is life Gregorio Marañón doctor David Callejo, who became famous for some videos in which he recounted his ordeal; either First line (Deusto), by Gabriel Heras, which, according to the editors, “came out just after the running of the bulls when the subject was very hot and very emotional”. From Penguin Random House they highlight the good sales they had Viral (Editions B) by Juan Fueyo and we nurses (Ediciones B, appeared under the pseudonym Enfermera saturated), in an extensive list of essays that includes, among others Crown (Debate) by Pablo Simón, From the ruins of the future (Taurus) by Manuel Arias Maldonado or In times of contagion (Salamander) by Paolo Giordano. The most recent novelty, is present in the stands of the fair, is How to avoid the next pandemic (Plaza and Janes) by Bill Gates.

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The short time that has elapsed and the distance that is beginning to be gained with respect to the covid times are changing the focus of ideas and discussion, now more focused on what is to come. “Perhaps the present cannot be analyzed from the present and that is why proposals are now arriving that move towards the future”, reflected César Solís, from the Adriana Hidalgo label, the Argentine publishing house that brought together in The epidemic as politics 11 essays by Giorgio Agamben written in the midst of a crisis and not without controversy. But more than in the future, Luis Jorge Boone’s essay, secret chambers (Siruela), reflects on the past understood as a narrative tradition around the disease. “It took me 10 years of preparation and the great chance caused me to finish it in the middle of the pandemic,” he explains on the phone. “There has been a flurry of narrative covid diaries, written very hot, trying to discover what was happening to us. But as Juan Villoro says, a writer is always someone who is late, and distance is needed. Perhaps some of the books have come out a bit crude, and what I have tried to study is just the opposite: narratives that were slowly cooking. We cannot think that we are inventing pain.”

In the field of fiction and literary texts, the pandemic has also been mutating and multiplying. “Back to where It meant reviewing what happened to us in real time, because Antonio Muñoz Molina has the wisdom to leave testimony. The book has connected with thousands of readers because it is a sentimental memory of that moment”, Elena Ramírez, editorial director of Seix Barral and international fiction director of Grupo Planeta, explains by mail. “More recently, Donna Leon focuses her new installment of Brunetti on a pandemic Venice, where she uncovers a corruption case related to the tragedy. Others like Don Delillo in The silence or the Goncourt prize the anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier touch the subject in a more tangential way”, he clarifies.

Hervé Le Tellier in Paris in March 2021.
Hervé Le Tellier in Paris in March 2021. Manuel Braun

Not everything is metaphorical. The one that has been described by British critics as the great novel of the pandemic, the paper lantern (Random House Literature) by Will Burns, takes as its protagonist the employee of a pub who suffers from the forced closure of the establishment. And from a nursing home in the middle of a pandemic, —not of covid, but of a new form of imaginary plague—, the protagonist of the river of ashes (Tusquets), by Rafael Reig. “How to avoid the subject? Everything I read seemed pretentious, bellicose and boring to me, and since I am a writer and free I decided to take it as a joke, because nothing we can laugh at scares us and I am not interested in bombast, ”he clarifies on the phone. The news about the military troops entering residences to remove corpses pushed him to write. “The effect of the pandemic is something that we cannot escape, neither writers nor society. But the digestion of these things is slow, there is more to see what is written about the War of Secession in the US or the Civil War here. Life, in the end, is a little separated from history, the small events are our fiber and texture, and that fiction of a large group, that we are all together, does not hold.

The writer Cristian Alarcón, winner of the Alfaguara prize with 'The Third Paradise'.
The writer Cristian Alarcón, winner of the Alfaguara prize with ‘The Third Paradise’. ALEJANDRA LOPEZ

The pandemic and its strange time continue to slip between the lines of unexpected books. Not only in the Alfaguara award-winning novel the third paradise, of Cristián Alarcón, in that of Fernanda Melchor, pink grimein the stories that Petros Márkaris gathers in Quarantineor in The kisses by Manuel Vilas. It appears unexpectedly in the guide of NYpeanuta (Lunwerg), written by Elisabetta Girillo, whose first panel shows a woman wearing a mask. And it also finds its place in the review of the great Madrid art gallery The unseen meadow (Anagram) of Estrella de Diego. In the presentation this week a few meters from the Retiro, the professor and art critic warned: “It is not a pandemic book, nobody should be scared, but his writing caught me with the museum and the country closed. And what do you do when you get caught up in a book job in the middle of a pandemic?” You do not hide it, although few already want to refocus fully on the matter. Perhaps it will take a few decades for today’s adolescents to revisit all that in writing.

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