Capital Sur, 20 years later

The author of this article reads Capital Sur by Eduardo del Campo / ANTONIO PÉREZ

photo: The author of this article reads Capital Sur by Eduardo del Campo / ANTONIO PÉREZ

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ANTONIO AND HIS LITTLE BROTHER DIEGO press themselves to an outside wall of the prison and peer through the downpour at the newly freed prisoners who are walking out. Then Diego spots a disheveled, soaked human figure, with tangled hair and a face full of scars and pockmarks. At age 33 and fading away from AIDS, Salvador has been set free to return home to his family. This is the man whose profile Diego aims to write for El Diario de Noticias. To the young journalist, it’s as if “he has, aside from the name Salvador (Savior), the physique of one of Christ’s miserable apostles, or of Christ himself.” In fact, within a couple of days he will publish the tale of a tragic street hero—a heroin addict doomed to die within a year who just wants to say goodbye to his children.

THIS PARTICULAR SCENE never took place.

ACCORDING TO EDUARDO DEL CAMPO, editor of Andalucía’s branch for the newspaper El Mundo, Salvador O.S. is actually a mix of two real people whom Eduardo has interviewed on the street within the past twenty years. In his recent novel Capital Sur (roughly “South’s/Southern Capital”), the journalist elaborates on these and other such stories that he previously had to cut out of his published articles.

THE BOOK HUMS with the atmosphere of Seville in 1994. Two years after the World Expo’92, in which the city displayed its status as an urban metropolis, it is now submerged in the middle of an economic crisis reflected in a 24% unemployment rate. Diego and his university friends wander the city feeling stranded and suffocated, but at the same time becoming aware of the flood of human memories all around them.

BEYOND JOURNALiSTiC STYLE EDUARDO ARRIVES AT THE CORNER across from the Annex of Fine Arts Building an hour later, at almost 11:15pm, apologizing quickly. As a journalist, he must work well into the night in preparation for the morning newspaper’s printing. At 42 years-old, he speaks with a quick, light pace, now and then gesturing over the table top with his hands. His eyes shine with youthful emotion from behind the round lenses of his glasses.

“I HAD GATHERED ALL THIS MATERIAL while reporting, but in journalism you always have to leave out a lot from the article.” When writing fiction or poetry, “I feel freer. In a novel, you can elaborate more on the details—although you still have to compress and edit. There are no deadlines or limitations: you just keep writing until you decide that you’ve written enough.”

THAT’S WHY HE DECIDED to alternate narrative scenes in the novel with long, continuous pas- sages devoid of punctuation, which flood us with a series of poetic images. For example, the novel starts out:

Location: southern Europe northern Africa slightly accidental hemisphere in the occidental region of Andalucía with no center or ex-center bordering a river in the middle of a valley right there on an unflagging pinpoint of the global globe in this moment we are living running work- ing thinking in what world do we live is it flat or round does it spin or stay still is it a capital or the outskirts and some still cling to Galileo’s doctrine they believe that the center of the Earth is the easy chair of the room where they devour the Sunday afternoon matches while beyond the other side of the circuit in which they consume their lives the comfortable closed circle which like an infallible unshakable dogmatic theory encompasses the route from work to class to the neighborhood store and links it with the house the individual room the studio shared in happy marriage the bars the grocery store on the front corner…

ThE PROCESS CAPITAL SUR IS A 424-PAGE TOME that has a complicated relationship with time. Eduardo set the story in 1994, and worked on it from 1998 until 2011. But he began the most crucial part of the process in February of 1998, while taking doctorate courses at the City University of New York (CUNY) and teaching Spanish in Leiman College, in the Bronx.

HE HAD MARRIED CRISTINA ALCOBA in July of 1997, and the two moved to New York a month later. However, after four months Cristina returned to Seville to finish studying sculpture at the University of Seville’s School of Fine Arts. Around that time, Eduardo had the urge to start writing descriptive scenes while reflecting on the articles that he had published back in Spain for Diario 16 and El País.

HE SANK INTO THE PROJECT, and had completed a full rough draft by June of 1998. Occasionally he would mention details to his father, his wife, and his friends in New York; but his biggest editor at the time was his friend Guillermo Siminiani, a man from Zaragoza who was also in the CUNY doctorate program.

THE NOVELIST RETURNED TO SEVILLE IN 1999 to help found the Diario de Sevilla, after which point he worked on cutting and refining the draft when time allowed.

AS IT HAPPENS, Diego of Capital Sur studies at the School of Journalism and lives with his girlfriend, Tina, who is taking sculpture classes on human anatomy at the School of Fine Arts. They are the characters with the most obvious analogues; other characters are made of more complex mixtures.

SALVADOR IS TWO PEOPLE BLENDED INTO ONE. Antonia, who flees, while heavily pregnant, from her village in the dismal rice marshes and is forced to become a prostitute in the city to survive, is an amalgamation of many women, “with a new face.” Even another student, Federico, is only “real” in an abstract sense.

EDUARDO INCORPORATES HIS BROTHER-IN-LAW’S, José Manuel Campos’, frustrations, as well as those of very many other young workers of the time, into this character. Federico has just graduated college and, like a quarter of the city’s population, bounces de curro en curro (from job to job): selling pamphlets, painting houses under his uncle’s watchful eye, helping his friend Andrés sell pirated DVDs in the Alameda, spending several weeks in an asbestos factory as one of the hundreds of part-time contracted workers without secure employment, and even helping to build a Norwegian cargo ship at the local shipyard. He enjoys some of these jobs more than others, but what he hates most of all is the agonizingly uncertain state of unemployment.

DURING THE SHIPYARD JOB, one of the workers loses his grip on a heavy metal sheet, which falls and slices off two fingers from Federico’s right hand. Recovering from shock while surrounded by friends in the hospital, he can only think, shaken: “Now how am I supposed to find work?”

THE PASSAGE Of TiME TINA NERVOUSLY SIGNS UP FOR A PROJECT in which the Fine Arts students create anatomic models of corpses in the School of Medicine. (Cristina admits that she herself never took part in this course, although it does exist. She learned from friends about how much the corpses smelled and how fragile their muscles were.)

TINA RUNS HER EYES and hands over a stranger’s skin and entrails, wondering who this pudgy, middle-aged man might have been. She and her classmates are trying to conserve the memories of the dead by replicating their physical forms—while at the same time Diego is trying to preserve the memory of a dying man’s identity by recording his actions.

ACROSS THE CITY, a Hollywood director whose name we never learn is visiting Seville to scout locations for a historical fantasy film. He is following the tradition of dozens of directors who have filmed in this city over the years.

THE DIRECTOR TOURS THE PLAZA DE ESPAÑA, Puerta Jerez, and the Avenida de la Constitución, observing the Cathedral’s discolored statues and the uproar of a street robbery with equal attention. He is fascinated by the contrasts: young people among the jobless and homeless, hotels and restaurants among closed churches and scrawled graffiti. He visits the baroque-style Lope de Vega theater, imagining the ostentatious conferences that could be shot there.

CROSSING THE GUADALQUIVIR, the director walks among the remaining streets and pavilions created for the Expo’92, the global event Seville hosted from April to October 1992 to celebrate five hundred years since the discovery of the New World. Just two years later, the director looks around and sees no magic nor wonder remaining here: just abandoned, modern buildings in the area that the event organizers have called the Cartuja 93.

(“THE EXPO’92 WAS A WONDERFUL TIME FOR SEVILLE,” Eduardo says. “It was just afterward, when the crisis started and things went downhill.”)

We can’t let ourselves fall into traditionalisms or local customs that would erode the setting’s universal character… What interest me about this city aren’t the buildings that work efficiently, but rather those that are still abandoned. I can already see the people of a future metropolis walking down these same streets in the movie, going into the buildings, at the wheel of ecofriendly cars, all with a gaze of serious classicism and apocalyptic lethargy.

ALL RIGHT, MR. DIRECTOR, but glorifying them like this is not—cannot—be “universalism.”

REFLECTED REALiTiES NOW A FULL-TIME SCULPTOR living in Seville with Eduardo and their two kids, Claudia and Eduardo, Cristina remembers being 23 years-old and shifting back and forth from her home city to New York. She loved the latter’s ethic and metropolitan diversity, which “gave me the sensation of having a little bit of everything: like a self-sufficient city. Living there would have felt like being trapped. Since Seville didn’t have as much of everything, it left you with a greater desire to travel outside and see more.”

HOW ABOUT NOW? “Well, Seville still isn’t Barcelona or Madrid; it’s still a bit provincial. It’s improved and has more of everything, but luckily it still gives the sense of ‘wanting more.’ ” Cristina leans back in her chair and smiles.

IN 1994, she knew more or less that Eduardo was writing a book about the 90’s in Seville that had something or other to do with her, with him, and with their friends. She was a little concerned that the novel might replicate intimate or embarrassing events. But on reading the final, published version in 2011, she was fascinated. The novel described not just reality of her bohemian life, but those of the city’s ‘Salvadors’ and ‘Antonias,’ people whom she, unlike Eduardo, had never fully gotten to know.

ON TOP OF THIS, the sections that had to do with Tina and the other students didn’t embarrass her at all.

“I THINK THAT’S BECAUSE THE BOOK doesn’t really tell the whole truth,” she says. “Because it doesn’t tell things the way they actually happened. There is a girl studying at the School of Fine Arts at the same time I was, who almost shares my name— almost. But that girl is both me and not me.”

DIEGO ISN’T EXACTLY EDUARDO EITHER; he’s more of a mirror that reflects other people, not the author. “I don’t think Diego is really the protagonist,” Eduardo explains. “He’s a vehicle, an excuse to show all these peoples’ lives.” He identifies most with Diego in the contiguous passages, where he can let his poetic voice loose.

FOR EDUARDO, who also published a poem collection in 1999, poetry doesn’t demand that the author reflect objective reality. “You can tell a deeper truth without having to be a ‘mirror,’ by mixing things instead. But I try to reflect reality in both journalism and poetry. I think they can really work together.”