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Monday, May 28, 2007

Marcial Lafuente Estefania

There was a time, not very long ago, when a little book stuck out from the porter’s lodge of a building, the glove compartment of a taxi or the pocket of a worker’s overalls, not a music player or a portable console …

From 'El mejor escritor del Oeste era español' in El Mundo

The other day I walked into a secondhand bookstore in the center and asked the owner if he had any copies of M.L. Estefania books, and he snorted in what only can be described as disgust. My request was so unworthy of his highbrow bookshop that he didn’t even answer me with a monosyllabic “yes” or “no”. Shelves upon shelves of fusty, crease-marked books, stretching to the back and up beyond my reach, and not one copy of M.L. Estefania! Second hand copies of tawdry romance novels, manifestos, historical tomes, garish Franco-era magazines, and not one copy M.L. Estefania, the man singularly responsible for 3,000 western novels, who continues to produce even after his death (with his son now writing under his name). 3,000 novels and counting after a 64-year legacy, and where was his work, in this tomb of resurrected books?

The Last Tequila

Marcial Lafuente Estefania was the son of a Spanish journalist and writer. In his youth he studied industrial engineering, and in the 1920s he visited the United States for work-related reasons. In the 1930s his work was interrupted by the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, in which he fought as a republican general. With the defeat of the republic he had the opportunity to escape, but he chose to stay in Spain, and it was the during his time in prison that he began to write on pieces of scrap paper. When he was released from prison he began publishing crime and romance fiction for a small editorial, but it wasn’t until 1943 that he published his first western, La Mascota de la Pradera, or The Pet of the Prairie. With this publication he became known for the “Estefania style” and as a skilled writer of the western genre, and this brought him a modest but important following. He dedicated the rest of his life to writing western novels.

Human Reptiles

He began publishing with the Bruguera Editorial (alongside writers like Francisco Ibáñez, of Mortadelo and Filemón fame). At a breakneck pace of one novel per week he continued turning out westerns – based partly on his experiences in the United States and on re-formulated plots taken from classic Spanish literature – until 1958, when his sons also began writing under the M.L. Estefania pseudonym. But, first they had to master Estefania’s style, which consisted of, “sentences full of challenges … of easy triggers, Colts and Winchesters shot at point blank, women of easy virtue and quarrelsome people that provoke the sheriff”. When they first started writing with their father they tried using more description – in contrast to Estefania’s trademark spare style – and people noticed. “That’s not Estefania,” they said, and his sons quickly had to adapt their style: less fluffiness, less elaborate descriptions and more action! 64 years later, with over 3,000 titles published, the Estefania legend continues.

The Madness of Betty

Almost all the books I’ve seen by Estefania are exactly 96 pages long, with barebones, action-packed and dialog-driven stories. One thing I’ve noticed is you can’t read them and look for deep meaning (if you do that, you will be extremely frustrated). Some of the stories are totally ridiculous, and lots of the time the plot will be shoehorned into a classic storyline and things will happen without any sort of explanation. What I look for when I read his stories are archetypes and style. The classic characters are all here, the fringe element, the frontiersmen, men of fortune and adventure, the noble and the wicked, the women of easy virtue, the conmen, gamblers and the righteous … It’s the romantic vision of the American wild west, through a European’s eyes. Interestingly enough, during Estefania’s publishing heyday in the 1960s, the best Spaghetti Westerns were being made in Spain, probably giving some of the most enduring – and attractive - impressions of that period of the United States. M.L. Estefania was easily part of this romanticizing movement.

"Pistol" Joe

The author of the article in El Mundo laments Spain’s inability to appreciate Estefania, citing American culture’s lionizing of authors like Hammett and Philip K. Dick. I wouldn’t put Estefania on that level, because both Hammett and Dick injected serious social commentary into popular fiction. Estefania has absolutely no social commentary that I can think of. His characters are cartoonish, and the situations he puts them in are arbitrary and conventional. For example, in El Rancho del Gringo, or The Gringo’s Ranch, the protagonist single-handedly fights a gang of quarrelsome roughnecks terrorizing a frontier town. In Rambo-like fashion he builds a bow and arrow and picks them off one by one. Of course, he’s tall, ruggedly handsome and irresistible to women. He’s also a man with principles and a bastion of macho iberico ethos:

She looked at him, astonished.

“Have you guys finished with Bonanza and his team?”

“Yes.”

“On the frontier, when they get news of this, they will raise a statue as proof of gratitude.”

“This nightmare is over. And it will be necessary to do the same with Clark and those that are like him.”

“Leave them alone.”

“Look, Sussie. The most hateful thing in a woman, is that she asks the man she loves to be a coward.”

Sussie’s mind went ‘white like the snow’.

She didn’t dare say anything.

From The Gringo’s Ranch

A friend of mine used to use the “Johnny Cash litmus test” on people, where he’d off-handedly ask whether someone liked Johnny Cash. “Yes” or “no” would decide that person’s friendship status. Take Estefania with you to a café, read his fictions of daring men and loose women, and observe people walking by. You can almost certainly tell what kinds of people you’re with by watching their reactions. Invite people to your house and watch their reactions to your strategically placed copy of Estefania on the coffee table. A snort of disproval or a word of appreciation will tell you much more about that person than a lengthy discussion of, say, Cortazar, where people usually dare not to disagree. To openly appreciate Estefania is un desafio, a challenge to the bookish elite. So, I pose the question: Hey guiri, hey artista, do you dig Estefania?

I Had to Kill Him

You’ll see his pulp fiction classics in flea markets, in discount trays in front of secondhand bookstores for 50 cents a copy, every so often in the grimy hands of an old man sitting on a bench, but you’ll never see them in bookstores which hold a pretense to “high art”, or on bookshelves next to Calderón, García Márquez, or, for that matter, Cervantes. One day that’ll probably change when someone discovers him. Quentin? If you read this, it’s all you.