The neighborhood of Madrid where the giants of Spanish literature live


MADRID – Many think that, unlike politics (where everything is dagger, wickedness and slander), the inhabitants of the Republic of Letters – novelists, intellectuals and poets – get along very well. If they were ever to quarrel, they would do so with elegance and arguments devoid of envy or calculation.

Opposite, the opposite has long been the case, at least since the Greek playwright Aristophanes mocked Socrates, possibly contributing to his execution by the city of Athens. Envy, hatred, backbiting and rivalry are commonplace in the Republic of Letters. It is, literally, a republic of missives, for its luminaries exchanged letters in which they condemned certain peers and praised others. Alliances were made in these letters, and groups and currents were founded in opposition to other literary schools or cliques.

There is a nice neighborhood in Madrid made of narrow, sloping streets known as the Barrio de las Letras. It is the “literary quarter” with theaters, flamenco bars, old bookstores, taverns and historic cafes which have hosted important figures. Several streets bear the names of writers who strolled there, were born there, lived there and died there. I love walking here, alone with a notebook. I usually have my first aperitif in a very small street, Calle de la Berenjena. Why there? In honor of Sancho Panza, who nicknames the fictional author of Don Quixote, Cide Hamete Benengeli, “Mr Aubergine” or señor Berenjena.

Cervantes and his detractor

To sit outside for a drink is to take sides between two writers that I admire, Felix Lope de Vega and Miguel de Cervantes, who were friends for a while before falling out. Lope de Vega, a successful playwright, cynically became a priest of the Inquisition to protect himself, and may have used this position to attack Cervantes, the real author of Quixote, in the novel’s prologue (that it is said often Lope may have written). Lope laughs at him for being old, poor and missing his left arm. Elsewhere he has stated (and publicly) that “I won’t say anything about poets, though none are bad like Cervantes or stupid enough to praise. Don Quixote. “

It’s a kind of poetic justice

The first part of Don Quixote was a hit with readers, which the famous Lope could not forgive. Such stories repeat themselves over time. When Javier Cercas was acclaimed with his novel Soldiers of Salamis, Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, until then Cercas’ good friend, began to despise and attack him.

The nameplates in the Literary Quarter seem ironic. Going up Cervantes Street, what do you find at number 11 near the corner of Quevedo Street? Well, the very house where Lope de Vega “lived and died”. Turning left onto Quevedo Street, at the next corner, the corner of Lope de Vega, a plaque tells you that the “most eminent poet” Francisco de Quevedo, an old and lame Catholic, had his home there. Quevedo is a short street, and you wonder if it’s because Quevedo couldn’t walk far.

A quote from Don Quixote


Poetic justice even in death

Perhaps Quevedo’s Christian faith prompted him to denigrate his fellow poet and converted Jew, Luis de Góngora, the only contemporary who could have rivaled his talent. Góngora did not hesitate, using insults and mischievous rhymes. Unfortunately, Góngora does not have a street in the Barrio de las Letras, although a plaque says he was a tenant in the area I cited, meaning he paid rent to his nemesis, Quevedo.

Other paradoxes arise as you continue to walk and drink. What do you find going down the Lope de Vega, towards the Costanilla de las Trinitarias? The tomb of Cervantes. It’s a kind of poetic justice: Lope de Vega’s house is on Cervantes Street, Góngora was a tenant on Quevedo Street and Cervantes is buried in Lope de Vega. Even death couldn’t separate them.

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