There is a charming little sector of central Madrid where towering figures of Spanish literature lived, loved, wrote ... and mocked each other.
MADRID — Many people think that in contrast with politics (where it's all daggers drawn, spite and calumny), the denizens of the Republic of Letters — novelists, intellectuals and poets — get on very well. If they were ever to quarrel, they would do it with elegance and arguments devoid of envy or calculations.
In fact, 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, hate, backbiting and rivalries are commonplace in the Republic of Letters. It is, literally, a republic of missives, as its luminaries exchanged letters wherein they condemned certain peers and praised others. Alliances were made in those letters, and groups and currents founded in opposition to other schools or literary cliques.
There is a pretty neighborhood in Madrid made of narrow, sloping streets dubbed the Barrio de las Letras. It is the "literary district" with theaters, flamenco bars, old bookshops, and historic taverns and cafés that hosted important people. Several streets bear the names of writers who strolled, were born in and lived and died here. I love walking here, alone with a notebook. I usually take my first aperitif in a tiny little street, Calle de la Berenjena. Why there? In honor of Sancho Panza, who dubs Don Quixote's fictitious author, Cide Hamete Benengeli, "Mr Aubergine" or señor Berenjena.
Cervantes and his detractor
Sitting outside for a drink is a way of taking sides between two writers I admire, Felix Lope de Vega and Miguel de Cervantes, who were friends for a time before falling out. Lope de Vega, a successful playwright, cynically became a priest of the Inquisition to protect himself, and may have used that position to attack Cervantes, Quixote's real author, in the novel's prologue (which, it is often said, Lope may have written). Lope mocks him for being old, poor and missing his left arm. Elsewhere, he declared (and publicly) that "I'll say nothing of poets, though none is bad as Cervantes nor so foolish as to praise Don Quixote."
It is a kind of poetic justice
The first part of Don Quixote was a hit with readers, which the celebrated Lope could not forgive. Such stories repeat themselves in time. When Javier Cercas became acclaimed with his novel Soldiers of Salamis, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, until that moment Cercas's good friend, began to despise and attack him.
The nameplates in the literary district seem ironic. Walking 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 on Quevedo Street, at the next corner, the corner of Lope de Vega, a plaque tells you that the "the most eminent poet" Francisco de Quevedo, an old and lame Catholic, had his house there. Quevedo is a short street, and you wonder if it is because Quevedo could not 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 Jewish convert, Luis de Góngora, the only contemporary who might have rivalled his talent. Góngora did not shy away, using insults and mischievous rhymes. Sadly, Góngora has no street in the Barrio de las Letras, though a plaque states he was a tenant in the corner I cited — meaning he paid rent to his nemesis, Quevedo.
More paradoxes pop up as you keep walking and drinking. What do you find walking down Lope de Vega, toward the Costanilla de las Trinitarias? The tomb of Cervantes. It is a kind of poetic justice: Lope de Vega's house is in Cervantes Street, Góngora was a tenant in Quevedo street, and Cervantes is buried at Lope de Vega. Even death couldn't keep them apart.
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