Literary Representations of Madrid (1900-1938)

14 02 2010

Llanos Gómez Menéndez

Much has been said about the unmanageability of the modern metropolis. There is, in fact, an entire academic discipline dealing exclusively with urban problems. But the topic of the city in modern literature has been receiving increased attention from critics as well.  Cristián Ricci’s well-written and documented study, El espacio urbano en la narrativa del Madrid de la Edad de Plata (1900-1938), fills an important lacuna: the analysis the literary cycle about Madrid.

This book examines the various literary representations of Madrid as a physical, political, and social entity, as well as the ways in which it influenced both the lives and the writing of authors in the first four decades of the twentieth century. What emerges is a multifarious and organic image of the city as a space that allows for the rise of bohemian subcultures that challenge the status quo. Most books dealing with the city in literature address either the city itself or literature, but seldom with both of them. In his study, Ricci draws on ideas and models from a variety of theorists ranging from Marxists and New Historicists to theorists of Narratology and urban studies, including Mikhail Bakhtin, Lewis Mumford, Raymond Williams, Walter Benjamin, Burton Pike, Blanche Gelfant, and Richard Lehan.

The representation of Madrid in the Modernista novels of Pío Baroja (Silvestre Paradox and Aurora Roja), Azorín (La voluntad), Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (La horda), Alejandro Sawa (Iluminaciones en la sombra), and Ramón Pérez de Ayala (Troteras y danzaderas) preceded and contributed to the creation of Ramón del Valle Inclán’s esperpento, Luces de Bohemia. Ricci links these Modernista authors’ attempt to gain literary prestige with the social novelists’ tendency to manipulate urban literature along ideological lines. In their works, characters who represent proletariat artists and workers attempt to acquire territorial and cultural dominion over the capital city. One of the key elements of Ricci’s chapters on Modernismo is his underscoring of the ability that characters of different social strata have to move throughout diverse Madrilenian chronotopes: while artists and intellectuals interact in proletariat spaces swamped by crime and prostitution, lower-class characters usurp spaces usually occupied by the high bourgeoisie and the nobility.

The representation of the proletariat in Modernista texts continues with the avant-garde all the way to the Civil War. The advent of ruthless capitalism and the disappearance of the literary patron who sponsors the writers lead to an important division in the field of cultural production between professional writers and bohemians. Perhaps, the best chapters in Ricci’s book are the ones that look at Spanish Posmodernismo (the literary movement that followed Modernismo, as opposed to the concept of Postmodernism in the Anglophone world). As the author explains, ideology permeates the “extrafictional voice” in the narratives of both Ramón Gómez de la Serna (El Rastro) and Rafael Cansinos Asséns (El Movimiento VP). In his analysis of José Díaz Fernández’s La Venus mecánica, Ricci concentrates on the representation of the city from the points of view of the middle-class flâneur and of the lower-class men and women moving throughout the city. Ricci also opposes the hegemonic maleness of the flâneur to the figure of the female walker, who is not just a female version of the male figure (a flâneuse), as she irrevocably ends up being objectified and sexually marked. As Benjamin posited, opposing the controlling gaze of the male flâneur, we find in the female streetwalker or prostitute, the sign of the uncontrollable. At the same time, in his analysis of La Venus mecánica, Ricci moves on to the development of the incoherent, amorphous, and unstable city where the individual, alienated and isolated (as is evident in Benjamín Jarnés’s novel Locura y muerte de nadie), collides with an undifferentiated urban crowd, showing an anti-social ethos.

In the last two chapters of the book (the Second Republic and Civil War), we see how the third decade of Spain’s twentieth century had so badly neglected the art of literature that a fresh revision of that era through New Criticism was needed in order to restore craftsmanship–even though it was done at the expense of historical vision. Through the use of Marxist analytical tools, Ricci provides a new reading of the artistic and sociological merits of Andrés Carranque de Ríos’s Uno, Ramón J. Sender’s Siete domingos rojos and Contraataque, Manuel Benavides’s Un hombre de treinta años, and Arturo Barea’s Valor y miedo. Regarding the ideological background of the novels, it is worth noting that Ricci also studies fascist (falangista) texts, such as Agustín de Foxá’s Madrid, de corte a checa in connection with Futurism. In fact, in his view, the vociferous politics of the Spanish avant-garde is strangely ambivalent and easily reconcilable to both fascism and Stalinist communism.

In sum, not only does Ricci succeed in elevating Madrid to an icon of social and artistic significance, but he also creates a new-found appreciation for the importance of socio-historical criticism that had somehow been neglected by Hispanists in the last years. Ricci’s analysis of the so-called Silver Age Madrilenian literature considers various aspects, from the leisure life of the bourgeoisie to the upheaval of labor organizations; from centralist anxieties about peripheral nationalisms to the Castilian hegemony over the national ethos; from republican political philosophies to the sowing of the seeds that would later grow into fascist essentialism. Through the linking of Spain’s Silver Age literary texts and cultural history, Ricci offers a fuller and richer understanding of urban texts and contexts. Of particular timeliness, this book serves as a preamble to the cultural transition of Madrid from Franco’s regime into the twenty-first century, with its stories of classless denizens, junkies, and immigrants. As Ricci states in the last sentence of the Introduction, he hopes that his book will become a call “para que futuros investigadores puedan no sólo completar el análisis de las novelas urbanas publicadas por escritores españoles […], sino también para analizar un campo definitivamente abierto como es el de los escritores hispanoamericanos, magrebíes y subsaharianos que residen y escriben en y sobre Madrid como en/sobre las grandes capitales autonómicas.” Therefore, it is time to move from Marxist approaches in order to incorporate feminist, post-structuralist, and postcolonialist modes of understanding Spain’s capital city.

Llanos Gómez Menéndez. Universidad de Valladolid


Ricci, Cristián H. El espacio urbano en la narrativa del Madrid de la Edad de Plata (1900-1938). Madrid: CSIC, 2009. 324 pgs.