Fairgrounds, Franco, and the future of Spain
An author challenges her nation’s collective and individual self-deceptions
“I’m envious of my parents’ lives at my age”. The opening line of thirty-year old Ana Iris’s debut novel was recited to me by the sales assistant in the book section of the Corte Inglés department store in the provincial town of Leon as evidence of the publication’s resonance to her and many working Spaniards. An autobiographical family history, Feria is set in La Mancha, the rural backwater put on the map by arguably the first European novel: the location of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote feeds into the disparity between the protagonist’s aspirations and reality, his name and title akin in the British context to Don Darren from Walsall.
Simón’s grandparents travelled with itinerant fairs (the “feria” of the title), and the novel is overflowing with folkloric regional turns of phrase, whilst she writes that “Pedro had been the only one of my uncles and aunts to have reached the university. That’s what I always heard being said: ‘reached the university’, as if the university were the moon, and in fact for a long time it was for people like us”.
The close-knit community of family and friends are painted in a more positive light than the endogamous cosmopolitan elites the author encounters on gaining access to higher-education. In Madrid, she casts an anthropological eye on those “children of the middle and upper classes who, having spent their summers in Ireland, gain two Masters and a doctorate by the age of thirty-three” and encounter “a gypsy at close quarters for the first time aged twenty-six on going to the Casa Patas flamenco bar”. This privileged demographic — disproportionately well-represented in the upper echelons of the anti-establishment political start-up Podemos — are caricatured as self-righteous arbiters of taste: “little rich kids offering definitions of ‘the people’ to ‘the people’”.
I first met Ana Iris in October 2018, at the end of a night out with Tamara — “the hardest worker in her class and the pupil with the biggest hoop earrings and winged eyeliner” — part of the chorus of schoolmates from Feria. I befriended Tamara when she was one of only a handful of non-Chinese students in a Masters course I taught on Spanish popular culture at the Carlos III University in Madrid. As our rendition of a Julio Iglesias classic at a karaoke bar in an underground carpark proved (she sang, I stood), Tamara is better versed in the subject that I will ever be.
At 5am, I accompanied her back to the flat Ana Iris shared with a classmate in the hipster neighbourhood of Malasaña. Not yet a household name, Simón wrote for Vice Spain, and had a growing roster of political contacts. Courted as a sounding board by Podemos campaign manager Íñigo Errejón, she later put me in contact with the social media team for Vox, Spain’s first major-post-Franco party of the far right.
In a post-dictatorship society in which culture, education and European normalisation have been fetishized as fast-track gateways to social mobility and democratisation, Feria questions the collective and individual self-deception required to believe that life in the metropolis working in the gig economy for 1000 Euros a month constitutes self-betterment. Might music festivals, taking drugs, chasing cool-sounding job titles in the creative industries or Instagram posts about exotic trips to Thailand constitute the opium of the masses of millennial Spanish graduates?
Spain has ceased to see itself as a country in perpetually forward motion
Spain has ceased to see itself as a country in perpetually forward motion. Nostalgia is ubiquitous. Catalan secessionists tilt at windmills for the lost Arcadia when their stateless nation was not psychologically and politically dependent on Madrid. Podemos romanticise the short-lived Second Republic (1931-1936) prior to the Civil War alongside the late-1970s when more radical options than a return to monarchical parliamentary democracy were on the table. Vox is defined by opposition to the reputed ills of 21st-century Spain: immigration, feminism, Catalan nationalism, and animal rights.
The prospects for Feria, appearing in a small publishing house, were modest but it became a surprise best-seller, now in its thirteenth edition. In May 2021, the by-then heavily pregnant author used an invitation to address Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on the challenges facing young people and rural Spain as an opportunity to rally against European integration which, she claimed, had sacrificed the real for the global village.
Between the 1960s and 1990s, Spain went from having amongst the highest to the lowest birth rates in Europe. This was once attributed to young women having witnessed the psychic and physical costs of their mothers’ self-abnegation. In the present-day, Spain’s dysfunctional economy places serious obstacles in the way of its citizens having children. Romanticising traditional rural family life has unfortunate echoes of authoritarian Francoist rhetoric. Simón’s argument that Spain’s reliance on immigrant labour is symptomatic of an inability to nurture a sustainable national demographic model was a gift to her many detractors on social media.
The iconoclastic nature of her proclamations do little to dispel her reactionary reputation
The iconoclastic nature of her proclamations (a chapter in Feria is non-ironically titled “All women love a fascist”) do little to dispel her reactionary reputation, but were no obstacle for the professional devil’s advocate being hired as a columnist for El País, Spain’s left-of-centre newspaper of record. Her latest column described Tamara’s wedding to Julio, the long-term boyfriend she met aged fourteen to the sounds of breakthrough reggaeton hit “Gasolina” at the annual village fair. Days after giving birth, Ana Iris (back living near her family on the border of Greater Madrid and La Mancha in Aranjuez) was a bridesmaid at this non-denominational ceremony. Israel Fernández, a leading young gypsy flamenco singer, entertained guests including myself and many of Feria’s youthful protagonists who, like the characters from the second self-referential part of Don Quixote, play up to their roles.
Much of the backlash against Ana Iris can be attributed to old-fashioned envy (what Spaniards themselves often refer to as the national sin) alongside the sexism and classism that continues to blight progressive circles in Spain as elsewhere. In literary terms, Feria may be no match for Cervantes’s masterpiece (but, then again, what contemporary novel is?), but this portrait made in La Mancha has few rivals for capturing the zeitgeist of 21st-century Spain.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe