I would like to start with two images offering some promising leads. One of a gathering of literary scholars, translators, writers, film directors and actors, political party leaders, journalists, and gourmet cooks (and some additional suspects) from Europe, the United States, and Latin America. All are seated together at an auditorium in the Casa de America in Madrid making a perfect setting for a locked door murder mystery, and all are congregated for the sole purpose of celebrating the 25th anniversary of a Spanish fictional detective. It might sound almost as absurd as a Star Trek fan reunion, but it does give an idea of the scale of the cultural phenomenon started 25 years ago by Catalan writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban with the creation of Pepe Carvalho.
The second image: a virtual urban jungle created for just ten days and ten nights and visited by over a million people, dedicated to explore the infinite connections between the world of detective fiction and other manifestations of everyday culture: photojournalism, comic books, film, food, song, performance, games, and political action. The explanation for this truly multicultural outdoor festival called Semana Negra, is the annual gathering in Gijon, Spain, of detective fiction writers and aficionados from around the world, organized by Mexican detective fiction writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Semana Negra is an alternative virtual model of a city with its own daily newspaper, A Quemarropa ("Point Blank"), its own radio station, art galleries, bookstores, bazaars, bars, and even a train system. . . . This alternative city, resembling a hardboiled mix of a "noir" Disney theme park and Woodstock, offers further proof that invisible cities and imagined communities can sometimes come true when a real visionary comes along.
This essay will try to explore some of the connections suggested by these two images, between popular culture and high culture, between detective fiction in the English-speaking world and in the Spanish-speaking world, between Mexican and Spanish culture, between literature, politics, and historical memory (as chronicle and investigation of reality, and testimony of the times). At the same time, it will try to expose some missing links related to the successes and failures of detective fiction in Spanish, its continuities and discontinuities.
1997 was a year of celebration and stock-taking in the growing field of detective fiction in Spanish. On the one hand, it marked the 25th anniversary of the creation of Pepe Carvalho, the most successful fictional detective in Spanish literature. It also marked the 10th anniversary of the Semana Negra, literally "Noir Week," the gathering of the International Association of Crime Writers. As witness and participant in these two events just a few weeks apart, I could not help but make a mental connection between these separate celebrations. For in both cases, these events demonstrated the solid establishment of what had begun as risky and improbable experiments in the margins of the mainstream, the legitimate incorporation of detective fiction to Hispanic literature, but also of other connections linking cultural production in Spanish on both sides of the Atlantic.
The conference celebrating 25 years of Pepe Carvalho was an international encounter that showed the magnitude of the literary phenomenon that Carvalho has achieved, capable of starring in a media event orchestrated by the most powerful publishing house in the Spanish-speaking world, appropriately named Editorial Planeta. A best-seller in several European languages, the Pepe Carvalho series has sold nearly two million copies, making Carvalho one the most widely read fictional characters in contemporary Spanish literature, and turning him into an obligatory cultural reference and a household name in post-Franco Spain, a rare feat indeed for a literary character. An additional connection is that one of the invited participants in the "Jornadas Carvalho" conference, a friend and admirer of Montalban's saga, was none other than Paco Ignacio Taibo II.
As stated before, Paco Ignacio Taibo II is the creator and director of the Semana Negra, which in its tenth season gathered Canadian, American, French, Italian, Russian, as well as Spanish and Latin American guest writers, lecturers, performers, and hundreds of thousands of anonymous participants (Montalban, in turn, also participated in the celebration of the 10th Semana Negra). The 1997 festival was marked by very special circumstances. The day I arrived in Gijon on July 7, several news events developed with very intimate connections to the Semana Negra: the results of the Mexican elections had just been released in the media with the historic and extremely symbolic defeat of the PRI party in power and the victory of leftist candidate Cuathemoc Cardenas in Mexico City. As it turns out, his electoral program in cultural issues had been written by Taibo. Also the same day, news had broken around the world of the discovery of Che Guevara's remains thirty years after his assassination by the Bolivian Army. The week before, Taibo had presented in Madrid's Book Fair his passionate new biography of El Che, El mito vive ("Che, the myth lives"). Now press agencies from all over the world were frenziedly asking Taibo for interviews and special writing assignments. The headquarters of the Semana Negra, in the press offices of Gijon's Soccer Stadium, seemed like a reenactment of the Marx Brothers' cabin in A Day at the Opera. In the course of three days, PIT gave some 90 radio, television, and press interviews. An improvised Mexican fiesta took over Gijon that night, the whole town feverishly dancing in the street!
These events showed clearly the interconnection of writing, history, politics, and popular culture which makes the Semana Negra a unique manifestation of Hispanic culture of global dimensions. The Semana Negra represents a celebration of the power of literature, of political activism, of historical memory, and of multiculturalism--exchanging different languages, cultural traditions, and artistic expressions ranging from the one-woman show of protest song to the in-your-face avantgarde theater of La Fura dels Baus. All these elements, popular culture, historical memory, and politics are deeply interwoven in Taibo's detective novels, as well as in the works of Vazquez Montalban. One area that I would like to highlight here is the common space created by writers of detective fiction in Spanish, as perhaps another type of "imagined community" (Anderson) where detective fiction can form a …