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December 26, 2013

“Leaving The Atocha Station”

by Anne Paddock

No writer is free to renounce his political moment but literature reflects politics more than it affects it, an important distinction.

Ben Lerner was 24 years old when he traveled to Madrid, Spain on a Fulbright Scholarship in 2003. A recent graduate of Brown University with a B.A. in Political Theory and an M.F.A. in Poetry, Lerner may have chosen Spain because of its troubled past – many poets writers, and artists were murdered, jailed, or forced into exile during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)  – or because the country offers a unique perspective on politics, fascism, and terror – all of which make Spain a rich playground for those in the arts.

51-DGMw3UNLDuring Lerner’s stay in Madrid, he wrote his second poetry book, Angle of Yaw which was published in 2006 and named a finalist for the National Book Award. But, it is Lerner’s fourth book and first novel, Leaving The Atocha Station published in 2011 that warrants more discussion. Claimed to be fiction, Leaving The Atocha Station is Adam Gordon’s recollection of the year he spent in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship. A brilliant young American poet, not unlike Lerner, who recently graduated from Brown University, Gordon becomes known as “El Poeta” by his Spanish friends, many of whom think he is in Madrid to write a “long, research-driven poem exploring the war’s (Spanish Civil War’s)  literary legacy.”

Gordon is in fact in Madrid to write poetry but he is also there to improve his Spanish and experience the culture,which ranges from participating in forums sponsored by the foundation funding his stay to scoring hash in Retiro Park from the African drug dealers. Set in 2003-2004 during Lerner’s actual stay, Gordon is at times conflicted by the expectations of others and his own need to escape, write, hide, and self-medicate. Contemptuous of other Americans, the rich, the good-looking, and anyone who tries to impose requirements on him, Gordon vacillates between extreme neediness and remoteness all while depending on alcohol, hash, pot, and tranquilizers to ease him through the stresses of living up to being the brilliant American poet he is. Self-doubt permeates his daily thoughts and yet, he continues on because poetry has meaning to him.

Leaving The Atocha Station greatly interested me because I lived in Madrid from 2002-2006 although my perspective as a wife and young mother was completely different from that of a single, young student: Gordon went to Chueca (a neighborhood in Madrid) for the nightlife while I went to Chueca to patronize Biblioketa – the best children’s bookstore in Madrid, or to  have the thickest most delicious hot chocolate at Sampaka. Extremely accurate in terms of geography, political events, and cultural affairs (when Lerner wrote about seeing the mobile art show at the Reina Sofia Museum, I recalled taking my daughter to see the same exhibit), the book also gives the reader a glimpse into the writing talents of a troubled, insecure but gifted poet.

While reading the book, I realized I would be one of the people who Gordon despises as he “reserved his most intense antipathy for those Americans who attempted to blend in, who made Spanish friends and eschewed the company of their countrymen” and yet, that is exactly what Gordon did by choosing to live in a small piso in the old part of Madrid. Although the area attracts a lot of tourists, it is unabashedly Spanish. When we moved to Madrid, we made a conscious decision to live in the center of the city and avoid an area 8 miles outside of Madrid called “Pozuelo” which is where most expat Americans live. We wanted to experience the Spanish culture and meet Spanish people  so in a a way, we did eschew other Americans simply because we never saw them.  When asked, I still recommend to anyone moving to another country, to live in the heart of the city and not in an isolated single culture community with your fellow countrymen. Send your kids to a local school or a French, Spanish, or German school…their lives will be that much richer for the experience.

Lerner knows how to write a sentence and use a comma to convey a train of thought and although some sentences need be read slowly to fully understand what the author is trying to say, Lerner somehow manages to quickly introduce a person or event to keep the momentum of the story going. No event looms larger than the Atocha train bombings which occurred on March 11, 2004, four months before Gordon is scheduled to leave Spain; and no one in Madrid that day and the subsequent days will ever forget the devastation, the sadness, and the two million Madrileños who walked the streets in defiance in the rain (Madrid was indeed crying) mourning those who died in the train bombings.

The Atocha train bombings carry a significance greater than terrorism in that the bombing occurred three days before the national election. The conservatives were in power but polls indicated a tight race with the Socialists gaining. Seeing an opportunity, the conservatives attempted to place the blame on ETA (who were more closely linked to the Socialist party) which backfired as the truth emerged: The ETA had nothing to do with the bombings. Demonstrations ensured – mostly by the young – and the Socialists swept into power which was a potent political statement that didn’t go unnoticed by Lerner. Although swept up in his own personal issues, Gordon used the political events of the day in his poetry. Politics, poetry: two very different genres that are somehow linked together in time.

When are you going to stop pretending that you’re only pretending to be a poet?

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