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The City and the Writer: In Madrid with Patricio Pron

By Nathalie Handal

Special Country Series / Spain 2013

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                    —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Madrid as you feel/see it?

Madrid is a singularly ugly city. Its most representative buildings are grotesque, its river is negligible and rotten, its parks are dusty and full of petty criminals and its squares are tiny and uncomfortable. In addition, the city is terribly cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer, and its people are the most ignorant and stupid I’ve met in my life (a good example of this, is their belief that speaking in English consists of shouting and making gestures, as any unfortunate person knows if he or she has ever had the unpleasant experience of coming to Madrid without speaking Spanish). It is not unusual for discussions in bars to escalate into exchanges of insults and that women and children are verbally abused by screaming men and alcoholics. In fact, only the dogs seem to have a good time in this city, as they can shit wherever they want (mostly in front of my house) and are very spoiled by their masters. None of these reasons explain why I still live here, though: sometimes I wonder, but the answer is so difficult to find as it is difficult to leave or forget this city once you’ve had the opportunity to live in it, which is great I think.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Shortly after arriving in Madrid from Germany, where I was studying, a young local writer said to me: “Don’t feel embarrassed by your difficulties trying to be like us. The fact is, you can never be like us because unfortunately, you have a degree.”

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The health hazards of a diet composed almost entirely of flour, fat, potatoes, and pork. (The local cuisine makes the Irish in the nineteenth century look like foodies.)

What writer(s) from here should we read?

A handful of them. My favorite authors living in Madrid are Marcos Giralt Torrente, Juan Cárdenas, Carlos Pardo, Andrés Barba, and Félix de Azúa. Despite them, there is no literary scene in Madrid, which is great for anyone who (like me) wants to be a writer and not just look like one.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Two of them: the police station where I usually report the armed robberies in my neighborhood and a hospital emergency room where I go very often after eating at a local restaurant. Doctors and policemen are great in both places and I heartily recommend them.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Not that I know of (and I’ve lived here for five years!).

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Absolutely. In fact, almost everything that is not part of the “official” city (which is dirty, ugly, noisy, etc.) is hidden and is part of the best that the city has to offer to visitors.

Where does passion live here?

I like to think that mine lives in the marvelous bookstore Tipos Infames, in the center of the city.

What is the title of one of your works about Madrid and what inspired it exactly?

So far, I haven’t written about Madrid—it could be related to the fact that, as a writer, I’m more interested in creating beauty than in reproducing the horrible things that already exist in this world. In fact, this is my first piece about the city, so I have to thank “The City and the Writer,” and Words Without Borders for giving me the opportunity to express my enthusiasm for the beautiful Spanish capital and its inhabitants (ironically speaking).

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Madrid does an outside exist?”

I often think that there is nothing outside of Madrid, that Madrid is all there is and that there is no escape except for literature (which is what makes Madrid such a great place to live in). And when I think that, I wake up screaming, even if I wasn’t asleep.

Patricio Pron was born in 1975. A novelist, translator, and critic, he is the author of three short story collections and five novels—My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain (June 2013) was just published in English. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Zoetrope, and the Paris Review. Pron is the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Juan Rulfo Short Story Prize, the Jaén Novel Award, and the 2008 José Manuel Lara Foundation Award for one of the five best works published in Spain that year. He was one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists of 2010. 

NH’s Discovery: I’ve had a long relationship with Madrid—and it’s only gotten better (apart for the 11p.m. dinners, which I still haven’t gotten used to). This city started as a Moorish one called Magerit. It was rather provincial until 1561 when King Philip II made it his national capital. Today, apart from its endless museums (Museo del Prado, Muso Thyssen, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Museo Lázaro Galdiano), its lively plazas (Plaza Colón, Plaza de Cibeles, Plaza Mayor, Plaza de Neptuno), its bridges (Puente de Segovia, Puente de Toledo) and the Real Jardín Botánico in the center, Madrid is an exciting, vibrant, artsy and hip city.

Some of my favorite spots: Mercado San Miguel ( and Mercado De San Antón (you can shop for food, stop and eat at kiosks, or have a drink or meal on the rooftops—very cool—it’s in Chueca, a small and animated neighborhood  between Paseo de Recoletos and Calle de Fuencarral, known as Madrid's gay neighborhood. It has a New York City vibe with trendy restaurants, bars, and stores; The bar literario, Diablos Azules (; Librería Antonio Machado (—buy any book the legendary Spanish publisher Chus Visor of Visor Libros publishes. I am presently translating one of the authors he publishes, Luis García Montero, and I’m under his spell.

Published Jul 17, 2013   Copyright 2013 Nathalie Handal

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