It was impossible to walk around certain parts of Madrid last Thursday without bumping into a former prime minister discussing his new book. In the morning, it was the ex-Socialist chief Felipe González expounding on leadership in times of crisis before a group of journalists gathered at Círculo de Bellas Artes, who really just wanted to ask him about the weekend party conference.
Then, in the afternoon, it was former conservative Prime Minister José María Aznar waxing nostalgic about his glory days of absolute majorities before a crowd of followers inside a hotel on the Castellana boulevard... and the same journalists from the morning launch were now here to press Aznar about his disagreements with Spain's current leader, Mariano Rajoy, of the Popular Party like himself.
Meanwhile, their respective publishers — Miguel Aguilar of Debate and Carlos Revés of Planeta — could barely conceal their satisfaction. Few things are left to chance in this industry, and book presentation dates are calculated down to the last detail. The more agitated the public agenda, the greater coverage the event is likely to get. And regardless of how good or bad the book is, the press will sit through the talk in order to take a headline back to the newsroom. Meanwhile, the politicians get their exposure. And the book folks get their free publicity for their product. Everyone's happy.
We are at a difficult crossroads and we want to know where we come from"
González's En busca de respuestas (or, In search of answers) and Aznar's El compromiso del poder (or, The obligations of power) are just the latest additions to a long list of political memoirs to come out this fall, such as former Socialist leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's El dilema, 600 días de vértigo (or, The dilemma: 600 days of vertigo, due out on November 26), which takes a look back at the economic crisis that swept him out of office.
New books in the pipeline include Recuerdos, 40 años de servicio público (or, Memoirs, 40 years of public service), by former Economy Minister Pedro Solbes; La España que soñé (or, The Spain of my dreams), by former Congress speaker Fernando Álvarez de Miranda; and Contra la ceguera, 40 años de lucha por la utopía (or, Against blindness: 40 years of utopian struggle), by former Communist Party leader Julio Anguita. And that is without forgetting the fairly recently published memoirs of former high-ranking Socialists Alfonso Guerra and José Bono, which are still on bookstore shelves.
Aznar takes note of snub
"The absentees know why they were absent," said former conservative Prime Minister José María Aznar in a radio interview following his book presentation at a Madrid hotel Friday. "Note is duly taken." Neither Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy nor any minister or high-ranking Popular Party (PP) official was there to listen to Aznar discuss volume two of his memoirs, El compromiso del poder.
Asked whether the absence might be due to Aznar's stated concern over Rajoy's handling of certain current affairs, such as the release of ETA convicts on the back of a European court decision, Aznar told Cope radio station that his own words were "the expression of what millions of PP voters think, and what hundreds of thousands of PP party members think."
While party officials on Friday sought to play down their absence, political analysts are talking about a visible rift within the conservative party. A year ago, when Aznar introduced volume one of his memoirs, there was a PP delegation on hand to hear his presentation.
Together, all of these books make up an astonishing fall collection of reminiscences by political patriarchs. The question is whether there will be a market for them, considering the deep crisis in non-fiction and the opinion polls that show people's disaffection, bordering on outright contempt, for their political leaders.
"This is what I call competitive programming," joked Felipe González wryly about the coincidence of his and Aznar's launches. The comment drew laughter from an audience whose members were teenagers, children or had not even been born yet when González first took office in 1982. But Isabel Burdiel, winner of the 2011 National History Award, believes that despite the widespread disaffection for today's politicians, there is a growing interest for the main characters of the Transition, the period between Franco's death in 1975 and the consolidation of democracy.
"All this is making a comeback because we are at a very difficult crossroads and we want to know where we come from, and how people addressed the challenges of the era, to see whether their solutions might be useful today. Time has brought stature to those characters. At a time of political gridlock, we long for those days of national consensus," Burdiel argues.
But Julián Casanova, a professor of contemporary history, is certainly in no rush to read Aznar or Zapatero's memoirs, although he will, eventually. "The genre lacks great figures in Spain. They tend to be flat, trite, lacking substance, and what's worse, boring. They're a combination of 'I was there,' 'I did what I had to do' and 'This is what should be done' in order to cleanse their own image and settle their scores with the past," he says, before adding. "Even so, they are valuable to a historian. Better to have bad memoirs than none at all."