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The City and the Writer: In Málaga with José Sarria

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


How would you describe Málaga’s atmosphere?

Málaga is an open and cosmopolitan Mediterranean city. Having historically been a great crossroads, it is a melting pot of cultures—it has a Mediterranean and Andalusian essence, a heartbeat that palpitates within the contours of the Hellenic world, but it is also full of the Latin tonalities of the Hispalis and of the more prosperous al-Andalus.

Málaga has gone from being a provincial locality during the dark era of Spain under Franco to an active, prosperous, vital, and dynamic city that has come to value itself through rediscovering its passion for culture. Today the city is experiencing a true cultural emergence, having become the most important museum destination in Spain. There are a total of thirty-six museums, among them the Picasso Museum, the Carmen Thyssen Museum, and the Malaga Pompidou Center, one of the only centers of Parisian art located outside of France. This has fostered the reurbanization of the historic center and the modern design of the city, which has transformed it radically, updating and revitalizing all its public spaces.


What memory of the city has impacted you most?

When I was eighteen years old, I had to leave the city. I had never left my city before and I had to leave in an old dilapidated train to work in the north, in the austere Castilian city of León. It was far from my city and its streets, and especially from the sea. I understood the love I felt for the beauty of the waters of the Mediterranean, for the sunlight that bathes her shores, for the gorgeous evenings that one can appreciate while drinking a beer or a cup of tea at a beautiful maritime sanctuary that we call “Carmen’s Baths.” A decadent but magical place from which one can observe the most captivating twilights, tinted with mauve, indigo, and orange.


What is the most significant detail of the city that goes unperceived by the majority of people?

On Comandante Benítez Avenue, there is a miniscule plaque that states that Manuel José García Caparrós, an eighteen-year-old “Malagueño,” was shot there on December 4, 1977, during a protest for autonomy for Andalusia. It is a small symbol that does not do justice to the life of a young man who was cut down defending and fighting for the liberty of our people. This is a place through which thousands of people pass every day, without realizing that a person died there so that we could all enjoy now ourselves in a free country.

Actor Antonio Banderas, who is also from Málaga, said this about García Caparrós: “Manuel José, today I know that the shot that killed you could have lodged in anyone near you . . . that bullet was a wake-up call in the hearts of all Andalusians.” 


What local writers should we read?

One has to read our principal thinker and philosopher, María Zambrano, winner of the Cervantes Prize. Her work assumes a civic commitment every creator should claim. Also, Salvador Rueda, precursor of modernism, and Manuel Altolaguirre and Emilio Prados, members of the Generation of ’27. Among the contemporary writers, I am very interested in Rafael Pérez Estrada, for his untiring lyric imagination; the serene and balanced poetry of María Victoria Atencia, winner of the National Critics Prize; and Rafael Ballesteros, Rosa Romojaro, José Infante, Antonio Soler, Francisco Morales Lomas, Albert Torés, and Álvaro García. All of them are magnificent poets and novelists who confer upon this city a distinguished place among in national literature.


Is there a place here to which you often return?

The sea. That open space is where I partake in the word liberty. The spectacle of the sea implies thought in its constant changing; its immenseness and unknowability are a challenge. The sight of the sea has always given me peace, calm, and distinct analogies for different aspects of existence and human emotions.

As the romantic poet José de Espronceda wrote in his poem “La canción del pirate” (“Pirate Song”):

Que es mi barco mi tesoro,
que es mi dios la libertad,
mi ley, la fuerza y el viento,
mi única patria, la mar.

(My boat is my treasure,
my god is liberty,
my law, the power and wind,
my one country, the sea.)

I don’t know of a place that offers me greater liberty than the sea, so I return to it frequently.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know about?

Well, Málaga possesses various iconic places from a literary point of view. On one hand, there is the Jewish quarter, where there are still beautiful narrow streets, where I was born and where Ibn Fabirol, our Sephardic poet and philosopher (better known as Avicebrón) lived.

Very close to the Jewish quarter is Plaza de la Merced, an isolated plaza from the nineteenth century, where you can find the house where Pablo Picasso, the father of pictorial cubism, was born. Great figures from the city have lived in this plaza: architects, soldiers, and journalists. Among those who stand out are the bohemian poets and writers Pedro Luis de Gálvez and Alejandro Sawa Martínez, the lyric and narrative poet Arturo Reyes Aguilar, and the writer and journalist Juan José Relosillas. The center of the plaza is embellished with an obelisk in honor of General Torrijos, defender of Spain’s liberty. It is a symbol of the fight against the despotism and absolutist tyranny of King Fernando VII. Beneath the obelisk is a crypt that holds the remains of the general and his forty-eight companions, who were shot on the beaches of Málaga for rising up against totalitarian power.

Lastly, although it is a little known place, at number 6 Cordoba Street, we have the childhood home of Vicente Aleixandre, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. 


Are there secret or hidden places in the city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There are two places in Málaga that have always attracted me. They are little known and rarely crowded. The first is the Jewish quarter, a labyrinth of no more than five or six narrow stone streets, with a small isolated plaza that recalls the Andalusian and Sephardic past of this district of the city. It is a particularly beautiful and peaceful place where the serene poems of Avicebrón echo. Then there are the gardens of Puerta Oscura, which owe their name to the old Arab gate that was located in the district. Designed by the architect Fernando Guerreo Strachan and opened in 1937, the gardens are situated on the side of Gibralfaro Hill, at the foot of La Alcazaba. They are a succession of terraces, pathways, and small arbors that resemble the immense galley ship that rowed into this crook of the world because of its distance from the hubbub of the city. Only the bird songs that rest in the treetops challenge the silence of this sanctuary; their sonorous trilling transforms the isolation of the estate into the door of paradise.


Where does passion live here?

Every year between the months of March and April, Málaga celebrates a magnificent weeklong religious ceremony in the streets—Holy Week—commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After more than 500 years of history, it was declared an International Festival of Touristic Interest in 1965.

Although I’m not a believer, I recognize that the imagery of this festival—the iconography, the baroque quality of the giant religious statues seated on their “thrones” (in some cases weighing more than 11,000 pounds) and carried on the shoulders of men from religious brotherhoods as they parades through the streets, accompanied by sacred music, or “saetas” (improvised flamenco-style religious songs)—creates a visual and emotional miscellany that transmits a combination of sensations, and intense feelings of unequaled character, to the believers who escort the religious “pasos” (floats), as well as to the spectators and the visitors.

This religious passion produces a stamp of sober beauty that reaches and impacts the attendees in such a way that it is impossible not to be seized by the religious commotion to which the city succumbs during this time of the year.


What is the title of one of your works about Málaga, and what inspired it?

More than about the city itself, I have written about the places in which I enjoyed my childhood. There are two places in this city that have marked me profoundly. One is the neighborhood of my adolescence, Carranque—a working-class neighborhood, a kind of community or settlement on the outskirts of the city that impregnated my pupils with the geraniums that adorned the windows of the houses. This image has always accompanied me and I owe the poem “Red Geraniums” in the collection Sepharad to it. The second place is my mother’s house, which I identify as an idyllic place that the angels visit to smell my mother’s warm bread and which appears in the poem “Kitchen Garden of Heaven” (“Huerta del cielo”) in the collection The Book of Water.


Inspired by Levi, “Does an outside exist outside of Málaga?”

I have always lived on the outskirts, in the common and inclusive places, because I have never believed in borders, countries, or flags. I believe in what the great Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish taught us in his poem “A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies”: “Homeland for him, he tells me, is to drink my mother’s coffee.”

After turning twenty-five, I traveled throughout Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa. It was then that I understood the verses of the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran and made them mine: “Earth is my homeland. Humanity is my family.”

Nevertheless, there exists a place to which I have always wanted to return to sleep: it’s my mother’s house, the “Vegetable Garden,” the place where the butterflies that are found in this city, curiously, go to die.


Translated from the Spanish by Eileen O’Connor.


José Sarria (Málaga, Spain, 1960) is a writer, essayist, and literary critic. He has published fourteen books of poetry and fiction and his works have appeared in more than forty anthologies and journals in Spain, Italy, Tunisia, Morocco, Israel, Mexico, Argentina, and Romania. His books of literary criticism include Al-Ándalus, el Paraíso (Granada, 2008), Linguake (Córdoba, 2015), Calle del Agua: Antología contemporánea de literatura hispano-magrebí (Madrid, 2008), and the anthology Hijos de la travesía, Poetas árabes actuales en España (Madrid, 2013). He has participated in many national and international literary conferences and organizations, and is the recipient of numerous national prizes.


Eileen O’Connor’s writing has appeared in The Recorder: Journal of Irish American History, Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, The Women’s Review of Books, and Hippocampus, among other publications. She has translated essays, stories, and poetry from the Spanish, including Pez/Fish by Peruvian poet Mariela Dreyfus; the young adult novel I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín, winner of the 2015 Pura Belpré Award and finalist for the 2014 National Jewish Book Award; and, most recently, a volume of poetry by Marjorie Agosín, Harbors of Light, which World Literature Today chose as one of their 75 Notable Translations of 2016. A graduate of Harvard College and New York University, Eileen currently teaches writing and Spanish at Wellesley College.

Published Nov 20, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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