Top Stories from the Editorial/Opinion pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Tuesday, July 22, 1997

A Black Week in Spain, A Festival of Mystery

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
GIJON, Spain - Beforehand, it seemed no matter whom I told that I was going to Paco's party, the person had the same response. An American writer in England, a French book editor and another American writer, this one in France, all said, ''Say hello to Paco for me.''

Paco Ignacio Taibo 2d was born 48 years ago in the seaside resort city of Gijon, in northern Spain. As a boy he moved to Mexico, where he still lives and where his internationally acclaimed mystery novels are set. For 10 years, Paco has invited many of the world's top mystery writers to his hometown for a week in July to celebrate the crime novel. Each year an estimated one million visitors attend the event, called Semana Negra, or Black Week.

They come not only to celebrate the novela negra but also for the festival's fairgrounds. Paco, with the help of the local leftist mayor, created the festival to offer people a chance to amuse themselves and, perhaps, to pick up a book and read. ''If you don't read,'' said Paco, ''you're blind.''

As an invited writer, I arrived in Gijon after a circuslike seven-hour ride from Madrid aboard a privately hired train, along with 100 other official guests. We were greeted at the station by a crowd of curious locals, some disgruntled factory workers and a brass band.

The protesting workers were welcomed by Paco and most of the other writers. Many European and Latin American crime writers use their genre - mostly considered just entertainment in the United States - as a political platform. Their views are usually left-wing. Talk on the train had been about how Paco, a teetotaler, would drink 10 bottles of the region's alcoholic apple cider if the leftist party won the Mexico City elections that weekend.

When we arrived at the fairgrounds, a black ribbon was cut by Paco, barely visible in the crowd. He is pudgy, with thick glasses and a mustache, but his explosive personality is visible everywhere.

Jugglers, clowns, mimes, musicians and other street performers crowded the fairgrounds, along with go-karts and statues of Batman, Sherlock Holmes and Humphrey Bogart. Tents filled with books for sale lined one side of the alleys, bandstands and public address systems the other. Above everything was a gigantic Ferris wheel and a fountain pen two stories high.

Authors' signings and roundtable discussions were followed by midnight meals, which were followed by partying. No sooner had the Mexican leftist party won the election and Paco had begun a nightlong series of cider toasts - perhaps not 10 bottles worth - than celebrations began over the discovery of Che Guevara's body in Bolivia.

It all made sense, this chaos, because Paco's message is that reading should be as much fun as going to the carnival. ''Reading should not be an obligation,'' he said. ''It should not be imposed. The government should ban books; that will make more people want to read them.''

Toward the end of the week, this celebration of the dark side of humanity became even more surreal. But it was not a work of the imagination that occupied everyone's mind. When Basque separatists kidnapped a 29-year-old Spanish politician and put a deadline on his life, the entire country was horrified and helpless.

On the last Saturday, as I was talking to Paco, his wife, Paloma, interrupted, speaking in Spanish. ''They shot the guy,'' he told me.

He then worked his way through the crowds to the Semana Negra radio station tent, where he made a speech denouncing the act of terrorism. A little later, the thousands of visitors, the carnival rides, the music, the entire black week fairgrounds came to a halt for a minute of silence for Miguel Angel Blanco Garrido, the victim, who died on Sunday, July 13.

Paco's party ended on a day when Spain's television screens were filled with images of protests across the country denouncing violence. But a work of fiction, a work of the imagination, be it about crime, terrorism or daily family life, is a statement of optimism. Everyone says hello to Paco because his party, too, is a statement of optimism.

Back to Samples Index