Books we never made with Miguel Calatayud

Before we began publishing books —thirteen years ago—, I bought a small notebook in a stationary shop to write down all the titles that would form part of our future catalogue. This was probably the publishing house’s first purchase. It was a landscape notebook with lined paper like those used for accounting, and I still have it. Once in a while I like to look through it to check whether we are sticking to the plan or whether we have gone off track, and also to check if there are any good ideas scribbled on the pages that would be worth recovering.

This notebook, as it could not be otherwise, is a collection of lists: interesting subjects, favourite authors, possible titles; as well as lists of tales by the Grimm Brothers, greguerías, lullabies… One of the lists could include the books we never made with Miguel Calatayud.

The name ‘Miguel Calatayud’ already appears on the second page, written between question marks. The title of the project was ‘Aesop (set in the present day)’. Further on, his name appears again (also in question marks) as the possible author of a ‘Life of Aesop’. Supposedly, the publication of this ‘Life of Aesop’ was to happen at some point in 1999.

Bernardo Atxaga has written about fables in his Children’s Literature from A to Z, a book that, since reading it, and long before editing it, we considered a kind of programme of what we would like to do as publishers of children’s books. I wanted to make a book of fables and immediately thought of Miguel as the ideal illustrator. Among many reasons was our shared interest in popular prints, aucas, school engravings, cordel literature. This book, as I imagined it, encompassed all this. After reviewing the creations of many fabulists, I landed on Aesop, who is considered a precursor of almost all of them. His existence, like Homer’s, is a great mystery, but if he was not a real person, the creator of some of the most famous fables that have passed down to us is himself a great invention. Life of Aesop is of interest for another reason, namely that it is at the origin of picaresque literature, which in Spain has produced fundamental works such as Lazarillo de Tormes or Quevedo’s El Buscón (The Swindler). At a flea market in Buenos Aires I found a 1929 edition (‘facsimile of the first 1489 edition’) with the title La vida del ysopet (Life of Little Aesop), containing historiated fables and numerous wood engravings as illustrations. This tale about a swindler’s life —always a relevant topic: just open a newspaper—, seasoned with many fables to make us think, in an updated (we would see how) and very illustrated edition by Miguel Calatayud, was not at all a bad idea.

I later found in the notebook a list of scenes related to The World Turned Upside Down, a book we did make with Miguel therefore not suitable to discuss right now. However, I would like to refer to two illustrations Miguel created for this project and which, in my opinion, showcase how rare this book is (another book related to aucas) and the rigorousness with which the artist approaches his work. One of the illustrations (A Slot-Machine Man) features one of those gambling machines commonly seen in bars inserting several coins into the slot a man has at ear level; at the same time, the man is spitting a waterfall of coins out of his mouth. To draw a credible and graphically interesting slot machine, Miguel told us he spent several days taking pictures of a real machine. The regulars of the bar where he was taking pictures must have thought he was an exceptional gambler, one of those banned from every casino. A rascal who was trying to figure out, by means of a complex photographic investigation, the mechanisms that would allow him to defeat the machine and drain it of coins.

The other illustration from The World Turned Upside Down I would like to mention proved to be a real challenge for the artist, due to the representation difficulties it entailed. I think this is one of the ones which caused him the most headaches. Said drawing is the river that passes over the bridge and that accompanies this short text, sparing me the need for a description.

The next time I wrote down Miguel Calatayud’ name in my notebook of possible books was as a possible illustrator for Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. However, the name is crossed out (I must have crossed it out when we offered him The World Turned Upside Down in 2001), so he most likely never heard about it; on the other hand, we also did not revisit the idea.

After that, Miguel Calatayud appears as the author of a series of texts on the craft of illustrating and reading images. Another book we have not been able to carry forward. It was going to be part of a collection that would feature writings by Saul Steinberg (an old project that will soon see the light of day) and other graphic artists who for some time abandoned their paintbrushes to write with quills. I remember I scribbled down the idea after listening to Miguel at the Salón del Libro Ilustrado in Alicante in 2005. On that occasion, he spoke about the influence of cinema on his illustrations and explained, with examples, how he had resolved certain obstacles related to perspective, and with what level of fidelity should an illustrator observe a literary text. His comments made me think that often the most difficult thing for illustrators is not to find the correct or effective solution to a problem, but to identify the problem and come up with a solution.

The last book we have not (yet) made with Miguel Calatayud is described in my accounting book as a ‘contemporary Beatus’. I have discussed this project with Miguel on many occasions, but our schedules have prevented us from settling on it. Miguel is a great admirer of medieval miniaturists’ work, who possessed an extraordinary imagination and were authors of delicate illustrated books. In particular, Beatus of Liébana. The work of these artists, or commentators, is related to the craft of illustrators, a profession that has certainly developed since the 8th century, although I imagine Miguel looks with some envy at the meticulousness and serenity with which these monks carried out their work, with no set deadlines, with time to research, and a greater freedom of speech than what many enjoy today (Beatus of Liébana painted a beautiful apocalypse). A ‘contemporary Beatus’ would be a very beautiful painting and, at the same time, heart-wrenching. A portrait full of details. Men, women, animals, microbes, flowers, trees, cities, clouds, seas, mountains, stars, gods, ghosts, demons; all acting and interacting with each other in the world of 2011. I cannot wait to see it!

Vicente Ferrer

Article published in the issue 183 of the magazine Educación y Biblioteca (May / June 2011).
Illustration by Miguel Calatayud for the book
The World Upside Down (Media Vaca, 2001).