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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?”


“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.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Mincemeat swallowed whole

In 1943 the body of Major Martin, a British serviceman, washed up on the shores of southern Spain. A local fisherman found the body, noticed the military attire, and the fact that a briefcase was chained to it. He decided to report it to the authorities.

Because Franco's government was in collusion with the Nazis, the body was turned over to the Abwehr, the Nazi's intelligence organization. The Abwehr examined the belongings found on the corpse, and what they discovered were documents too sensitive to send via regular courier, documents detailing plans for an allied invasion of
Italy. The man had been wearing a life preserver and all clues pointed to an airplane accident at sea. Weary of a ruse, they examined and considered every last detail – things like love letters, theater tickets and overdue bills were enough to convince them that the corpse, and the documents it was carrying, were real.

It wasn't until well into the second week of the Allied invasion of southern Italy that they realized they had been duped. Major Martin was a fictitious character, and the documents he was carrying were part of an elaborate plan to divert the Axis powers' forces away from Sicily, where the Allies intended to land. "Operation Mincemeat" was a success.

That’s my quick summary of this fantastic article from Damn Interesting, one of my favorite websites. It's well worth the read.

More info on Wikipedia. And, for added trivia, here’s a link to a web page about Ian Fleming, of “shaken, not stirred" fame. According to this article Fleming himself directed “Operation Mincemeat”. This, however, contradicts both the Damn Interesting article and the Wikipedia article.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Aerofagia Verbal

I love this quote from Jorge Moragas, the international relations representative of the Partido Popular:

La aerofagia verbal del caudillo venezolano apesta a totalitarismo.

The Cervantiesque elegance of the sentence could not possibly be translated into a non-romance language without mangling it, but I will try:

The verbal aerophagia of the Venezuelan caudillo [leader] stinks of totalitarianism.

Aerophagia is a term which literally means "to eat air". Aero for air, and phagy for eat, coming from the Greek language. If you were ever a kid you've played the belching game with your friends, where you drink soda and at the same time gulp down as much air as you can. The results of this are phenomenally scandalous burps which are great for disrupting classes. An unpleasant side effect of aerophagia is flatulence, because the air you don't belch has to come out somehow, and that means out of your ass.

So, the incredibly awesome term - I bet you Castro is pissed he didn't come up with it first - means something akin to verbal flatulence. My preferred term is verbal diarrhea, but aerofagia verbal is far more eloquent. In fact, I'm going to use it as much as possible from now on.

Like some cool guy who's talking about something he doesn't know anything about. I'll just say, hey asshole, you've got aerofagia verbal! I mean, there is no cool comeback to that. Like, oh yeah? You have aerofagia verbal! No you have aerofagia verbal!

The proclamation of aerofagia verbal is final. It's beautiful.

I also like how he ties up the metaphor with "stinks of totalitarianism". I wonder if this guy made this up himself? He definitely has talent.


Warning, the following can be considered blogorrhea, a close cousin of aerofagia verbal.

I'll admit, as much as I can't stand certain elements of the P.P., I totally agree with him. Chavez and his amigos are dangerous clowns masquerading as do-gooders. It's incredible, but the age-old comparison between real life and theater is increasingly obvious to me. I mean, look around you. Chavez. He looks and sounds like my 7th grade physical education teacher who sadistically made us run laps and do "cherry pickers" for hours on end. He was also pretty funny, but he was an asshole. His buddy Castro. Shrouded in a classic totalitarian cloak of mystery. We have no idea if he is even alive. Everything, in his mysterious missives, is the fault of Bush. I don't know about you, but I find it pretty convenient to blame everything on Bush. Your job sucks? Because of Bush. Your ass too big? Because of Bush. Aerofagia verbal? Because of Bush. Aznar. Giving classes at Georgetown for christ's sake, when his level of English hardly surpasses that of the average New York cab driver. Saying Muslims should be apologizing to the Spaniards for the conquest of Al Andaluz!* For that matter, the entire Iberian peninsula should apologize to the Greeks and the Romans for usurping their colonies! Karl Rove. A doughy, effeminate slime bag you would never leave alone with your children. Reminds me of Newman from Seinfeld. Bush. A natural comedian. A cheerleading frat boy. You can go on with Cheney and Ahmadinejad, and on and on ...

The strange thing is that all these freaks are highly entertaining. I find them all hilarious, actually, but it is really freakin scary that assholes like these have such sway with the masses. It's just my humble opinion, but we're doomed when the people leading world politics start to resemble the cast of a TV sitcom.


* This reminds me of a guy I used to work with, Paco. Paco was this hilarious frustrated middle aged white guy. His favorite phrase was, "El sexo es ... temendo!" He always talked about mujeres and swinger clubs and all that. He once told me he pardoned an American president. I said, what? He said, yeah, when Clinton apologized to the public and asked for forgiveness for his hand in the Lewinsky affair, he pardoned him. I thought it was pretty funny at the time, but then again, I was probably pretty drunk.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Catalans and Jews

Here's a joke that someone sent to me, and here's my quick translation:

A Jew says to his Catalan friend:

- I have a trick to eat free.

- Great, tell me how you do it.

- I go to the restaurant, pretty late, ask for a starter, main dish, cheeses, dessert and I take my time to drink a coffee, a coñac and [smoke] a good cigar and I wait until they close. Since I don’t move, when all the tables are turned up, all the seats are placed on the tables to sweep, the busboy comes to ask me if I can pay because they are leaving, I then answer him: “But I already paid your colleague who left earlier”. It’s that easy.

The Catalan then says to him:

- That’s terrific. Should we try it together tomorrow?

- Ok, the Jew answers.

The next night the two buddies go to the restaurant: starter, main dish, cheeses, dessert, etc. It’s closing time, the busboy asks them if he can charge them and the Jew says:

- I’m sorry, but we already paid your colleague who already left.

And the Catalan adds:

- We have been waiting for a while for the change.

Un judio le dice a su amigo catalán:

- Tengo un truco para comer gratis

- Super, cuéntame como haces.

- Voy al restaurante, bastante tarde, pido un entrante, plato principal, quesos, postre y me tomo todo mi tiempo para tomarme un café,un coñac y un buen puro y espero a que cierren. Como ni me muevo, cuando ya levantaron todas las mesas, dieron vuelta las sillas sobre las mesas para barrer, viene el mozo a preguntarme si le puedo ir pagando porque ya se van, entonces le respondo: "Pero si ya le pagué a su colega que se fue antes". Es así de simple.

El catalán entonces le dice:

- Qué genial, ¿probamos juntos mañana?

- Ok, le contesta el judío.

La noche siguiente los dos compadres van al restaurant: entrada, plato principal, quesos, postre, etc. Llega el momento de cerrar, se acerca el mozo, les pregunta si les puede cobrar y el judio le dice:

- Lo siento, pero ya le pagamos a tu colega que ya se fue.

Y el catalán agrega:

- Estamos desde hace rato esperando el cambio.


Catalans are often called the “Jews of Spain”. I’ve heard this from people outside of Catalanya as well as inside of Catalunya. Since being a Jew in Spain is, unlike the United States, somewhat exotic, it doesn’t seem that offensive to call anyone a Jew here, as if being a Jew had certain indelible characteristics.

But why are Catalans called the Jews of Spain? What does Jew mean to a Spaniard? I mean, what is the tacitly accepted definition of the Jew “type”?

To figure this out I first asked a Catalan friend why Catalans are called the Jews of Spain. She said it is probably because they are “thrifty”, they are “investors”, and “tight with money”. Stereotypically, of course. But as with any stereotype, that is projected. Because to a Spaniard, another Spaniard who is thrifty and tight-fisted is merely thrifty and tight-fisted, but as soon that person is Catalan, they become the typical Catalan.

So then I asked a Jewish friend. He said it was probably because they were “clannish and proud”, were “tight/crafty with money”, had “long noses”, and shared a sense of “victimhood”. Since the exception always seems to prove the rule when you look for it, I would say that this does fit certain Catalans that I know, as well as Jews. But, then again, I know people that have all these characteristics (except perhaps for the clannish characteristic) and they are not Catalan or Jewish. My friend also pointed out that many were probably conversos, or Jews who converted to escape persecution from the Spanish Inquisition. Conversos are also known as marranos, which comes from swine. I wonder if more conversos stayed in Catalunya than in other parts of Spain? Or if Catalans are called the Jews of Spain because they apparently adhere to the Jewish stereotypes of being tight-fisted and clannish?

Although many people have no clue where their ideas of Jews and Catalans come from, they bandy about the concepts of “Jew” and “Catalan” on a daily basis, and it ends up meaning what I wrote about above. A group apart, exclusive, shrewd.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Groucho Marx, a post modernist?

You figure it out:

Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, uh... now you tell me what you know.

Groucho Marx