The bicycle is a literary machine. No sooner was it invented than it began to show up in novels. In Valle-Inclan's Misericordia, which was published in 1887, one character rents a bicycle to ride around Madrid. It is interesting to think of the Madrid of those days — the brutal poverty, the crude injustice and the gritty personalities that Valle-Inclán learned to see thanks to Galdós — with a bicycle in the picture. Imagine a democratic, futuristic machine, moving among the slow donkey carts and the arrogant carriages of the aristocracy.
Marcel Proust had a weak spot for the bicycle, and liked to place his "young girls in flower" on them, dressed in the white sporting costume that dispensed with so many fussy adornments and corsetry, and heralded a new age for women. H. G. Wells said that every time he saw an adult on a bicycle, he felt more confidence in the possibility of a better world.
What adult could be harder to imagine on a bicycle than Henry James, who was so stiff and formal in his portraits? Yet one day he went out to learn to ride one, until he lost control on a country lane, and knocked over a small girl, fortunately producing only minor bruises. Odd that she should grow up to be Agatha Christie.
The bicycle is a silent, perfect machine, like the sailing boat, so practical that you are amazed it can also be poetic. "Bicycles are for the summer," says a father to his teenage son in the melancholy comedy of that title, set in Madrid in the Civil War, into which Fernando Fernán-Gómez put all his talent and memory and imagination. In those days you could still ride a bicycle in Madrid without worrying about the drivers (though you might, of course, be hit by a bomb).
In our country the laws and the judicial system protect the powerful against the weak, the corrupt against the honest, the violent against the peaceful
The traffic lull of summer is a respite for the bicycle rider in Madrid, who lives in fear the rest of the time. All Spanish cities, with two or three exceptions, are hostile, not only to those rash enough to ride a bicycle, but even to anyone who aspires to the simple, sovereign right to go from one place to another on foot.
Hostile, indeed, to anyone slow, or weak, or distracted. When you return from places where the traffic is civilized, it is hard to adapt to the aggressiveness of Spanish drivers. New York is far from being Amsterdam or Copenhagen, but when I return from New York to Madrid and go out on a bicycle I notice how Madrid enforces a change in attitude. You have to be far more alert, always on the defensive, on the lookout for sudden jackrabbit starts. In Madrid the bicycle rider's obvious fragility inspires no sort of deference. There are even those who turn more aggressive in the face of visible weakness. Drivers accelerate and boom through the pedestrian crossing on an amber light; or, if they do deign to stop and let some miserable, contemptible cripple hobble across, they do so with gritted teeth, a lead foot gunning the engine with the clutch out, to let you know the impatience, the rage they feel at having to stop for their inferiors.
Early one morning a few days ago in Madrid, a waiter, Óscar Fernández Pérez, 37, was going to his job on a bicycle, when he was struck by a hit-and-run driver who left him dying on the asphalt. Óscar Fernández Pérez is dead, and the pig who killed him was arrested shortly afterward — but he has little to worry about. In 2012 he was arrested for drunk and dangerous driving and lost his license. In February of this year he was again arrested, and his only punishment was an extension of the useless withdrawal of his license. With this background, and a fatality to his account, the full weight of the law might be expected to fall on him. But in our country the laws and the judicial system, as a rule, protect the powerful against the weak, the corrupt against the honest, the violent against the peaceful, and the driver against the cyclist or pedestrian.
In this case the judge considered that the driver could walk out the courtroom door, under a charge of "imprudent manslaughter," which carries a sentence of two to four years. José Javier Fernández Pérez, Óscar's brother, summed up the situation better than anyone, in a few true words: "The justice system is fucked up. Killing is very cheap in this country."