Three Views of Madrid

I’ve been reading some somewhat depressing Spanish-language literature lately. It seems they all agree on the subject of Madrid.


The city is so stunted, so lacking in historical substance, treated in such an offhand way by arbitrary rulers, capriciously built in a desert, inhabited by so few families rooted in its past, far from the sea or any river, ostentatious in the display of its shabby poverty, favored by a splendid sky which almost makes one forget its defects, ingenuously self-satisfied like a fifteen-year-old girl, created merely for the prestige of a dynasty, endowed with hidden immaterial treasures which cause one to forget its material deficiencies, lustfully thrusting toward the future, bereft of an authentic nobility, people by its slum-dwellers who can be so heroic on occasion in an elemental and physical way, like a young peasant who jumps across a river in one leap, enraptured with itself though in fact the liquor which intoxicates it is not in the least intoxicating, surprisingly superior in times past to foreign cities which could boast two cathedrals, several collegiate churches and haunted palaces (one haunted palace for every century), incapable of speaking its own language with the correct intonation as it is spoken in villages a hundred miles to the north, overwhelmed by the influx of gold which could have been converted to stone, but which become instead carriages and teams of horses with gold and black trappings, having no authentic Jewry, but filled with men who are grave when important and friendly when unimportant, oblivious to everything (at least until the electric train and funicular chair-life were invented elsewhere), torn by ecclesiastical tribunals which burn their victims over to the secular arm, seldom visited by persons of authentic Nordic rave, rich in dull theologians and poor in splendid mystics, teeming with cabaret singers and writers of comedies of manners, cape-and-sword plays, café plays, point-of-honor plays, plays about sequestered beauties, plays of the lower depths and French drawing-room comedies, filled with snorting two-decker buses spouting clouds of black smoke over the pavements where people walk with raincoats on days of cold sun in this city with no cathedral.

Luis Martín-Santos, Time of Silence (1962) trans. George Leeson

 

A grandson of Spaniards who hailed from somewhere between Colmenar de Oreja and Villamanrique del Tajo and for that reasons spoke glowingly of the land they left behind, the master had pictured Madrid otherwise. To him, raised amidst the opulence of Mexican silver and red lava stone, the city appeared drab, gloomy, and mean. Except for the main square, all was narrow, dirty and squalid when one considered how broad and richly ornamented the streets at home were, with their tiled façades, balconies aloft on the wings of cherubs between cornucopias pouring forth fruits carved out of stone, and signboards the very models of fine painting whose lettering entwined with vine leaves and ivy proclaimed the attractions of jewelry shops. The inns here were poor, with a smell of rancid oil that seeped into the rooms, and it was impossible in many of those hostelries to sleep as one would like because of the din set up by street players—bawling the verses of loas or bellowing at Roman emperors, changing from togas fashioned of bed sheets and curtains to costumes of buffoons and Basques—whose entremeses had musical accompaniments which, although enormously entertaining to the young black for their novelty, quit irritated the master because they were so out of tune. As for the cuisine, the less said the better. The sight of the meatballs they were served and the monotonous hakes called up remembrance in the Mexican of the subtlety of red snapper and the pomp of turkey swathed in dark-hued sauces rich with the aroma of chocolate and the fires of a thousand spices; the quotidian cabbage, insipid beans, chick-peas, and broccoli moved the black to sing the praises of the full-throated, tender avocado, of malanga tubers which, sprinkled with vinegar, parsley, and garlic, appeared on the tables of his country in the company of crabs, the tawny meat of whose claws was more substantial than the beefsteaks of this land.

Alejo Carpentier, Concierto Barroco (1974) trans. Asa Zatz

 

By now it was two o’clock and we had to be on our way, so we left Madrid. I said good-bye to him much against my will and made my way towards the city gate. So that I shouldn’t think of things I ought not to, God had me meet a soldier. We started up a conversation straight away. He asked me if I had come from Madrid. I said I had passed through the town on my way.

‘That’s the best thing you could have done, pass through it,’ he said; ‘it’s a lousy place. By God, I’d rather be somewhere in snow up to my waist, doing a manly job and chewing wood, than put up with the way they fleece an honest man.’

Francisco de Quevedo, The Swindler (1626) trans. Michael Alpert

 

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