Author Spotlight > José Ovejero: Memories of Madrid
My grandmother worked as a maid for a prostitute from Asturias who I hardly ever saw as I only used to go to her flat when she had gone out. I remember seeing her once or twice, but I couldn’t give you even a vague description of what she looked like. I can’t remember what the flat was like either (I must have been only about 14 or 15 years old the last time I was there) and all I can remember is that I found some Lui and Playboy magazines in one of the bedrooms. Another great thing about that woman’s flat (I think her name was Marisa) was her record collection. They were all a bit romantic for me, but there were a couple of good ones. With our grandmother acting as our accomplice (she thought her employer had so many things that she wouldn’t miss anything in particular), my brother and I pinched two of them: ‘Stax Super Soul’, a compilation of songs on the Stax record label and ‘To Be Continued’ by Isaac Hayes. I think my brother has still got that one.
The flat was on the corner of Torrecilla del Leal and calle Zurita, the street where my grandmother lived, just a short walk away from her place of work. I can’t remember much about her flat either. Actually, I can’t remember much about my childhood at all. All I have are false memories triggered by photographs which have become so familiar they have supplanted my own. What I do remember is that my grandmother’s flat was tiny. There was only one bedroom and a living room with just enough space for the essentials. There was also a narrow kitchen with an old-fashioned stove. Although I can barely remember anything, I can still visualise the way she would lift the metal hot plate off the stove with an iron poker with a hook at the end which was also used to stoke the coal. There was a shared toilet on one of the landings of a corrala, a group of flats (or rather slums) arranged around a small internal courtyard. After some years, my grandmother managed to save up enough money to move a few metres higher up (I say ‘higher up’ because calle Zurita is on a steep hill) to a flat in the same building as her employer. It had all the amenities someone like my grandmother could hope for and there was even the unusual luxury of two bathrooms. I used to spend the night there after going out with my friends, especially once I started at university, so that I didn’t have to traipse back to my parents’ house which was in a village on the outskirts of Madrid.
Back then, there wasn’t anything particularly interesting about the district. Migration from the countryside to the cities meant there was a whole mix of people from the rural area around Madrid, Andalusia, Toledo and lots from Extremadura, just like my grandmother. Everyone seemed to rub along without too many arguments. When I stayed at my grandmother’s new flat towards the end of the 1970s the talk was all about rising crime and drugs and muggings: a paranoid fear that the arrival of democracy would bring with it all manner of vices and evil. A group of teenagers used to hang out in the doorway to my grandmother’s building. We’d say hello and exchange a few words or a cigarette or a light. They kept their knives on top of a stone architrave around the main doorway. My grandmother would pour the occasional bucket of water over them and was called a slut and a cow and any name under the sun that might occur to a group of soaking wet and powerless teenagers.
After almost 30 years living abroad, I came back to Spain two years ago. I bought a flat in my grandmother’s district. When I walk around the streets I can’t believe I can remember a time when there were still serenos (night watchmen who held the keys to the front doors of every building, which were locked at 11.00 pm) and the churreros who’d hand out bundles of churros tied up with rushes. I walk around a district that belongs to my childhood and teenage years and yet at the same time it doesn’t. It is both distant and close at hand. Today, the immigrants come from much further afield and mix with the older inhabitants, squatters, students and artists. Everything has changed and everything is still there. I recognize all the streets and yet they are all new. And like a flash, I suddenly realize that it’s impossible to return. It’s also impossible to leave.
Originally published in Vanity Fair 21 May 2015 in Spanish as El Regreso © 2015 José Ovejero
Translation into English © 2017 Kathryn Phillips-Miles & Simon Deefholts
JOSÉ OVEJERO (b. 1958) is a renowned contemporary Spanish novelist. He has published seven novels as well as several collections of short stories and essays. In 2013 he won the Alfaguara prize for his novel La invención del amor (Inventing Love).
Peter Owen is an independent British publisher founded in 1951 continuing the tradition of producing new and interesting writing.
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