2020 has come to an end. To sum it all up with one word, I would call it ‘esperpento’, meaning something grotesque. ¿Who could have guessed? It turns out 2020 is the 100th birthday of an early 20th century avant-garde literary genre called Esperpento due to its odd distortion of reality.
The Esperpento was pioneered by Galician dramaturge Ramón María del Valle-Inclán in ‘Bohemia Lights’ (1920). The play is still stands as an icon, employing strong mockery to reflect Spain’s socio-political crisis during the Bourbon Restoration (1874-1923). Its characters – the blind writer MAX ESTRELLA and his opportunist friend DON LATINO DE HISPALIS – wander through Madrid, an absurd and starving city. We can almost see Valle-Inclán’s notion of a deformed reality by looking at our own reflection on the concave mirrors that are still hung today in Madrid’s Callejón del Gato to be taken a century back in time… ¿or perhaps looking at our current crises would do?
2020’s Madrid, devastated by COVID-19, might not be that far from that decaying urban landscape drawn by Valle-Inclán a whole century back. ¿Can we find that same sense of decay today? ¿Has literature taught us anything, or have we got pending lessons to take from our ancestors? With this in mind, I ventured into the streets of Madrid to look for a deformed reality,. In fact, as I found out, it only takes a short walk or watching some television to digitally witness utterly grotesque scenes reminiscent of ‘Esperpento’: our very own elected politicians wasting every second on their ‘party politics’ game.
Not far from our current reality, the dialogues between Valle-Inclán’s hipocritical characters echo today like they were meant for 2020: “¡Está España buena!” stated ironically ZARATUSTRA (pg. 55), the catholic scammer and bookshop owner; “En España el trabajo y la inteligencia siempre se han visto menospreciados. Aquí todo lo manda el dinero”, denounces THE CATALAN PRISIONER (pg. 100); and “los ricos y los pobres, la barbarie ibérica es unánime”, cries MAX ESTRELLA. According to Joaquín del Valle-Inclán, the dramaturge’s grandson, ‘Bohemian Lights’ consists of a unforgiving protest against an immoral society.
2020 has gathered countless grotesque scenes, most of which we have only witnessed through screen and social media. Earlier this year, videos of teenagers spitting and insulting South American citizens in Madrid’s underground went viral. Nevertheless, these were relatively smooth compared to the image of Madrid’s iconic Ice Palace repurposed as an improvised morgue to store thousands of corpses during the pandemic’s high peak. Even then, a wide majority of our political leaders (from all parties) demonstrated with actions their lack of responsibility, respect and empathy by continuing to play their power games during the twenty-first century’s most critical moments to this date.
From all the grotesque images I have gathered this year, I find the most revealing that of the Cibeles statue metaforically staring at the COVID-19 victims memorial; a circular table of black steel on top of which a flame burns. A warping visual effect takes places by looking at it from an angle: a perfect metaphor of both 2020 and ‘Esperpento’. Cibeles – Goddess of the Earth, Fertility and Rebirth – seems lost in her thoughts while looking at the fire. She has witnessed Spain collapse and rise from its ashes many times… ¿perhaps too many? During the spanish civil war (1936-1939), Cibeles’ head peaked out impotently from tons of rubble placed strategically around it to avoid its destruction due to recurrent bombing. Later, Cibeles stood still watching Franco’s victory promenade and, with a hopeful glaze in her eyes, she lived through the instability and uncertainty that characterised the Spanish Transition into democracy. Just like Valle-Inclán, she might have some good advice towards 2021. ¿Who could have guessed?
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