España, aparte de mi estos premios (Spain, Besides Me These Prizes) by Fernando Iwasaki is a very Spanish novel, one whose humor and satire is directed at the literary prizes that fill Spain’s literary scene and Spanish customs as if they were carried out by the Japanese. The affect is often humorous for one who knows Spanish culture and he manages to create a parody that is often insightful, although a little repetitive.
The book is structured around 7 literary contests. Each chapter, which is a self contained story, is prefaced by the rules of the contest, followed by the story, and then the results of the judging panel. It is helpful to know before going any farther that Spain has more literary prizes per capita than any other country, so many that it seems as if everyone has one a prize, even if they are from the most obscure organizations. The contests are meant to celebrate whatever body is sponsoring the award, some are nationalist such as the prize for the best story that celebrates Basque food, others are completely ridiculous, such as the Seville soccer team that sponsors a prize for a story that must include something about the team.
The stories all feature at least one Japanese person who has some sort of link with Spain. In the first story, a Japanese soldier in the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War hides in a cave in Murcia for 70 years until he makes a sudden appearance on a Survivor like reality show that takes place in a cave, killing several of the contestants with his samurai sword. At first he is treated as a criminal, but when he is found to be a veteran the parties of the left celebrate him as a heroic veteran and he becomes a national phenomenon. Books about him become best sellers and the media follow him 24 hours a day, showing him when he falls into a coma, on TV on a live feed. He is given awards by the local government for his service. When he wakes from the coma and learns about the last 60 years of history he commits suicide. On finding that he has written hundreds of haikus in the cave, the local government is quite happy because they can now build an amusement park of Japaneses tourists.
The story then ends with the judging. As with all the stories, the story wins, but the judges note that the story has not really celebrated the group’s interests and has only set the story in Spain. For next years contest, they would like the ability to not have a winner, something that is specifically outlawed in the rules of the contest. In latter stories, the judges will complain that the story had almost nothing to do with the sponsoring organization. In the story about the soccer team in Seville, the story actually celebrates the team rival.
Iwasaki uses these frame stories to make fun of contemporary society and its obsessions. Whether skewering reality TV shows, molecular gastronomy, soccer fanatics, governments only interested in looking good, or the vanity of literary prizes Iwasaki is able to paint a telling portrait of modern Spain. Mixing in the Japanese characters allows him to both show the history of the Japanese in Spain, and to offer the outsider’s view of Spain. While the Japanese act in the same extremes of national character that his Spaniards do, the ludicrous things that become nationally celebrated, such as frying sushi leftovers in oil and serving that only, raise the question, why is this Spanish thing we do so celebrated? If someone use shrimp shells, as one character does, to create flan, is that breaking some sacred culinary tradition and is the opposite, fried sushi leftovers, actually more pure because of its simplicity?
Iwasaki, like a good parodist, doesn’t give any answers, but it is obvious he thinks that the culture of literary prizes has gone to far. At the end of the book, he gives several commandments for creating stories:
The stories that you send to the contest will never be important to the history of literature. In reality, not even for literature.
Los cuentos que envíes a los concursos nunca serán importantes para la historia de la literatura. En realidad, ni siuiera para la literatura.
Write a story that can be like a literary mother cell that you can clone for every contest. Don’t worry. Clones always are better than the original.
Escribe un cuento que sea como una <<célula madre>> literaria que puedas clonar para cada concurso. No te preocupes. Los clones siempre salen mejores que le orininal.
If you characters are going to be divorced, make the divorce happen before the story starts. People don’t like it when you only write about problems. In addition, four out of five literary judges are divorce or soon will be.
Si tus personajes van a estar divorciados, procura que el divorcio se haya producido antes de que comience el cuento. La gente ya lo está pasando muy mal para que encima tú sólo escribas sobre problemas. Además, cuatro de cada cinco miembros de jurados literarios están divorciados o les falta poco.
My only complaint in an other wise fun book is the repetitiveness of some of the stories. Every story includes a passage about the Japanese soldier that was found on a Pacific island in he 1970s who didn’t know the war ended. While that statement fits within his overall parody and his notion of the mother cell, it practice it is a little tiresome. If he could have found a different way to approach the idea it would have been better.
Over all, España, aparte de mi estos premios is a fun read by one of Spain’s newer generation of writers. I’m sure the book will never make it into translation because it is not universal enough, it would good to see one of the chapters in a collection some day.