Book Review – Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare

By Silvia Rothlisberger

12 authors and translators come together to create this anthology of short stories inspired by Cervantes and Shakespeare.

2016 is the year of the 400th Anniversary of the death of the two most influential authors in the Spanish and English speaking languages: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and William Shakespeare. The anthology is a celebration of this coincidence: 12 short stories, six of them written by English-speaking authors on the subject of Miguel de Cervantes and the other six about Shakespeare by Spanish-speaking authors.

I discovered this books while checking the line-up of this year’s Hay Festival at Wales. Usually, the line-up of literary festivals in the UK leave me disappointed with the lack of Latin American authors invited. So, I was quite surprised when I saw three authors in this year’s programme: Valeria Luiselli and Yuri Herrera, both from Mexico, and Juan Gabriel Vázquez from Colombia. Their presence in the line-up is precisely due to Lunatics, Lovers and Poets which was commissioned by Hay Festival itself in partnership with the publisher And Other Stories.

This book is a celebration of the two authors’ legacy and of collaborations among contemporary authors and translators. The six stories from Spanish-speaking authors were originally written in Spanish and translated into English by six different literary translators. In a similar process, all twelve stories are published in Spanish by the publisher Galaxia Gutenberg.

Don Quixote dominated four of the six Anglophone authors: Ben Okri, Kamila Shamsie, Hisham Matar, and Rhidian Brook used The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha as their inspiration. It was great to see Don Quixote become a Nigerian legend in Ben Okri’s Don Quixote and the Ambiguity of Reading and a storyteller from Pakistan in Kamila Shamsie’s Mir Aslam of Kolachi. Deborah Levy and Nell Leyshon, on the other hand, drew upon Cervantes’ short story The Lawyer of Glass (El Licenciado Vidriera) – both of them great stories that encouraged me to look for the original short story by Cervantes, which I hadn’t read before.

The Spanish-speaking authors, having so much material to choose from, each used different angles and plays of The Bard’s. Juan Gabriel Vásquez in his usual historical-fiction genre makes a parallel between the killing of Julius Caesar and the killing of a Colombian politician under drug-lord Pablo Escobar’s orders.  Yuri Herrera brings  Coriolanus to modern-time Mexico where corruption reigns among politicians and corporations. Valeria Luiselli’s witty short story about a family of actors working in a historical re-enactment company of western cowboys is located in Shakespeare, New Mexico.  Soledad Puértolas’s story evokes a longing for youth triggered by a chance encounter between two  old friends who were united in the first place by their love for Shakespeare.

The introduction is written by Salman Rushdie who calls Shakespeare and Cervantes the two fathers of modern literature. The stories in this book are filled with possibilities and imagination. Reading it was also an opportunity to read authors who I’d heard of before but had never got around to reading any of their work.

And Other Stories is an independent not-for-profit publisher that works with translators to bring international books to the English language. It is partly funded by subscribers who pay a subscription fee in exchange for books that will be printed throughout the year.

Another reason to keep an eye on this small publishing house: Earlier this year author Kamila Shamsie, whose short story Mir Aslam of Kolachi is featured in this anthology, challenged publishers to only publish female authors for a full year, to raise awareness of the gender imbalance in the publishing sector. And Other Stories accepted the challenge and in 2018 they will only publish books written by women.

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