Carmen Balcells, literary agent to some of the greatest Spanish-language writers of our time, died this past weekend in Barcelona. One of the novelists she discovered, Isabel Allende, pays tribute.
BUENOS AIRES — The queen of the literary world has died. The magnificent, powerful, abundant and sentimental Carmen Balcells is no longer here to look after the hundreds of writers she represented. She was the force behind Latin America's literary boom, the woman who managed to change forever the draconian contracts imposed on writers. She was no less than the soul of Spanish-language literature.
Thirty-four years ago, Balcells took me under her wing. I was a nobody from the other side of the world, who'd come with a wad of pages tied under my arms. I owe her my career. She was the godmother of each and every word I have written. One day, in 1981, she received by post the manuscript of the House of the Spirits, which nobody had wanted to read. With a stroke of her magic wand, she had it published.
The first time I saw her was in her house in Barcelona, where she organized an over-sumptuous dinner to present me to critics, intellectuals and friends. It is the only time in my life I have seen caviar served up by the spoonful — which was perfectly symbolic of Carmen, a larger-than-life character who was as generous as she was refined.
When she spoke to propose a toast, the lights went out and we were left in the dark. She immediately attributed the blackout to the spirits of my book who had arrived to celebrate with us. I am sure she meant it. For while she was eminently practical and implacable as a negotiator, Carmen believed in spirits, in karma, zodiac signs, mysteries. She was at home with magic realism, which may be why we got on so well.
I would call her my doting mother, but she would reply, "I am neither your mother nor your friend, but your agent." She said it in Catalan to make it sound less harsh, all the while spoiling me with orange-filled chocolates and extravagant gifts.
In the world of publishing she had a reputation as a tough operator. But in private, she had a big soft heart and wept at the slightest pretext. "Carmen bathed in tears," is how Gabriel García Márquez described her.
She was my counsellor and confidante, with whom I shared great moments of sadness and joy, unrequited loves, divorces, triumphs and fears. "Poor, poor little thing," she would tell me in tears, when my daughter Paula was dying.
She would arrive at the Madrid hospital like a hurricane with her neck scarf flying behind, bearing her nourishing raise-the-dead broth of sausage and chickpeas in a plastic container. That is how I remember her, as an unconditional friend and not as a shrewd agent that fought tooth and nail for her writers' contracts.
The death of Carmen Balcells brings a period to a close. Nobody could take the place she leaves in the literary universe or in the hearts of those of us who knew and loved her. Hundreds of her authors now send their affection to her son Luis Miguel and all those working at her agency. She will be greatly missed, and especially by me. Without her, I feel lost.